The Problem of Evil is at the heart of the contemporary dispute between theists and atheists. It is often expressed in rational terms, but in truth we all must wrestle with it on a profound emotional level as well. Can we see God as a loving parent despite all the difficulties of life for us and for others, or do we see God as an abusive parent or at best deny the existence of God?
That said, let's deal with the rational formulation. The typical formulation of the Problem of Evil explicitly assumes a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Let's get to the heart of the matter. Assuming that an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient god exists, why is evil for this god to not fix all of our problems and end all of our suffering for us?
This is the way contemporary thinkers view the Problem of Evil.
The basic idea can be summed up in this way, "If God really loved me and
wanted everything good for me, he wouldn't allow me to experience
physical and emotional pain."
This is the heart of the matter because the Problem of Evil implicitly assumes a definition of evil wherein evil is either equivalent to suffering or equivalent to causing/allowing suffering.
Is Causing Suffering Evil?
As we've seen, the definition of evil this view assumes is that all
suffering is evil. The view that all suffering is evil is a view I find
to be completely understandable and yet quite incoherent outside of a
thoroughly egotistical or narcissistic worldview.
We can make a distinction and claim that suffering by itself is not evil, that it is causing or allowing suffering which is evil. But this changes nothing in the context of the Problem of Evil, of course. For an omnipotent God, any suffering could be stopped. And if God is omniscient, any suffering could be prevented entirely. Thus in the context of the Problem of Evil, the claim that preventable suffering is evil ultimately reduces to all suffering being evil. Even so, let's consider some examples of preventable suffering to see if the view makes sense.
I cause myself a certain degree of suffering when I work out, or when I remove a splinter from my hand, or when I do any number of things. Am I doing evil because I create suffering? Most people would be hesitant to say that I have done evil in those cases, but would be more likely to agree that I have done evil in other cases of causing suffering, such as torture. We could have a sensible account of evil based on some other distinction, but the notion that evil is the allowance of preventable suffering is pretty obviously incoherent with our moral intuitions.
Is Suffering Itself Evil?
To explain my view of suffering, I'll add that I see suffering itself as morally neutral in the same way that I see other physical or emotional processes within an individual's experience as morally neutral. Eating, sleeping, running, climbing, memory, adrenaline high, numbness, pain, sadness, elation, etc. These are not in my view examples of either good or evil, but rather mere processes which provide us with some information about our physical or emotional states.
And let's consider the absurd consequences of accepting the view that all suffering is evil. If all suffering is evil, I perform an evil act when I let myself go hungry so that I can learn to discipline myself to not eat my feelings. If all suffering is evil, I perform an evil act when I allow a student to experience frustration while trying to learn a skill so that they can learn to overcome their frustration in the future and empathize with other students who get frustrated. If all suffering is evil, I would be performing a profoundly evil act when I volunteer to take the place of a man (who has a very high pain tolerance) in the torture chamber because he has a wife and children to care for and I do not, particularly when I could make sure that his wife and children were cared for the rest of their lives and he was a poor father.
We could have a sensible account of evil based on some other
distinction, but the notion that evil is equivalent to
suffering is pretty obviously incoherent with our moral intuitions as well.
How Do We Investigate Evil?
To investigate evil impartially, we need to stop assuming a definition of evil that's really self-serving. Let's consider how we might go about investigating evil and what bearing the investigation would have on the Problem of Evil.
1. There are probably two ways in which we can attempt to discern what evil is: empirical methods (e.g. observing actions and their consequences) and rational methods (or some combination thereof).
2. Because we are assuming in the Problem of Evil that we have a god who is omniscient, we could fairly assume by extension that such a god has access to far more empirical data than we do and thus would be able to understand evil far better than we could.
3. Because we are assuming in the Problem of Evil that we have a god who is omnipotent, we could fairly assume by extension that such a god has far greater powers of reason than we do and thus would be able to understand evil far better than we could.
Obviously, the same conclusion would be reached if we combined empirical and rational methods (e.g. science).
What Can We Conclude?
In the end, if the assumptions of the Problem of Evil about god are correct and we acknowledge the extent of our own cognitive and perceptual limitations, we cannot fully know what evil is and it might make sense to remain agnostic on the matter if that were an option in practice for everyday life.
Unfortunately, that's not really a practical option, and so I see a couple of things we can do.
If we believe in some sort of revelation from this god about the nature of good and evil, it would make sense to defer to the god's judgement about what evil is.
If we don't believe in any sort of revelation from this god about morality, it would make sense to just make do (on an everyday practical level) with what we can figure out using our limited empirical and rational approaches while keeping in mind that we probably don't have it quite right.
The conclusions it's very difficult to draw from this set of assumptions are that this god doesn't exist and could not be omnibenevolent. The more natural conclusion would be that we are probably wrong about what constitutes good and evil to the extent that we differ from this omniscient and omnipotent god on the matter.
While on an emotional level, the Problem of Evil is often tough to wrestle with, on a rational level it has no solid basis and the conclusions which are commonly drawn from it are ad hoc rationalizations for an a priori rejection of the possibility of an omnibenevolent God.