Problem of Evil

Problem of Evil

by Dr. Ron Nash

In the last installment of this series, I noted that the problem of evil is for most people the toughest question to deal with.  I also pointed out the importance of breaking the problem of evil down into several smaller components.  If we know how to break the problem of evil into several smaller difficulties, at least we are no longer facing an enormous issue, and we have a chance of explaining the smaller components.  In this issue, we’ll consider three of them.

Moral Evil and Natural Evil

A good place to begin our downsizing of the problem of evil is recognizing the difference between two kinds of evil: moral evil and natural evil.  Moral evil results from the choices and actions of human beings.  When the question why is asked about some moral evil, the answer will include a reference to something that humans did or did not do.  Moral evil sometimes results when a human acts, for example, by shooting a gun.  But moral evil may also occur as a result of human inaction, the failure to do something.  Perhaps someone could have prevented the person from getting the gun and didn’t.  So moral evil results from human choices and actions; any other kind of evil is what we call natural evil.  The class of natural evils includes such things as earthquakes, tornadoes, and diseases not resulting from human choices.  Many wise people believe questions about the two kinds of evil require different kinds of answers.  I hope to consider examples of these different answers in future columns.

The Theoretical versus the Personal Problems of Evil

It is one thing to deal with evil on a purely theoretical or philosophical level.  It is something quite different to encounter evil in a personal way.  Sitting in a philosophy classroom and thinking about the problem of evil is obviously different from struggling with the news that a loved one has just died in an automobile accident.  At the moment when one is being hammered existentially by some particular instance of evil or pain, it is easy to forget a philosophical argument that once seemed to suggest answers as to why evil exists.  Someone troubled by aspects of the theoretical or philosophical problem of evil may find help from a respected philosopher or apologist.  But when one confronts a personal problem of evil, that person may need a wise and caring friend, pastor, or counselor.

The distinction before us at this point reminds me of an important lesson we can learn from the life of C.S. Lewis.  One of Lewis’s more influential books, The Problem of Pain, offers his answers to the theoretical problem of evil.  Many believe there are some very good arguments in that book.  However, after Lewis met and then married Joy Gresham, he learned the painful truth about the difference between the theoretical and personal problems of evil.  His wife’s eventual death from cancer after a long period of painful suffering plunged Lewis into a time of doubt and depression.  At that time he was confronted by the personal problem of evil, and the philosophical arguments in his earlier book were of no help to him.  What he needed and obtained was help from one of Joy’s sons and from his pastor.

Evil in General versus Specific Instances of Evil

My last distinction notes the difference between evil in general and particular cases of evil.  Like most philosophers and apologists, I know a number of arguments that I believe help to explain why moral and natural evil exist.  I hope to look at some of those arguments in a future column.  But when I or someone else is confronted by a specific instance of evil such as a loved one diagnosed with terminal cancer or a person killed in a car crash, we’re dealing with an entirely different matter.


It should be clear that this short essay does not solve the problem of evil in any of its forms.  That was not my intention.  Rather, I have sought to show that our first efforts to deal with the problem of evil should attempt to cut it down to size, reduce it to smaller parts of the larger problem.  After we have done this, our next steps may be slightly easier.

Dr. Ronald Nash is Professor of Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida and also at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of 35 books including Life’s Ultimate Questions (Zondervan), The Meaning of History (Broadman & Holman) and The Word of God and the Mind of Man (Presbyterian and Reformed).  All are easily available from and