The Problem

If a religion teaches that there is an overall meaning and purpose to the world and that everything that happens is known to and under the absolute control of God, then the implication is that God must be responsible for natural suffering and human cruelty. In it's simplest form, the problem can be stated like this:
The philosopher David Hume can generally be relied upon to state a problem directly. Here is what he says in Book XI of his Dialogues. It is the point at which he turns the argument from design on its head, and presents a world that is far from a comfortable, reassuringly designed machine:
"Look round this universe. What an immense profusion of beings animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children!"
The conclusions to be drawn from this problem would seem to be:
It could be argued that all suffering and moral evil is caused entirely by natural processes and that therefore there is no need to implicate God. But that will not do, for the fact is that God did not intervene to prevent evil from happening (whatever its immediate cause) which (if omnipotent) He might reasonably be expected to do. Also, a God who creates ex nihilo is presumed to be absolutely responsible for creating and sustaining the laws of nature, and with them the limitations that give rise to suffering.

Natural and Moral Evil

Natural Evil

Moral Evil

But we need to keep in mind that these two forms of evil are not equally balanced, for the following reasons:

Therefore "natural" or "metaphysical" evil is the greater problem for theism. If suffering results from an act of deliberate wickedness by a human individual, it is logical to blame that individual for the suffering, but there is a more fundamental question to be asked: Why is the world such that people can choose to perform deliberate acts of wickedness?

The Augustinian Approach

The Augustinian approach is named after St. Augustine of Hippo, Africa (354-430) and reflects the influence of Plato on his thought. For Plato, particular things are imperfect copies of their natural "Forms". Imperfection is a natural feature of the world in everyday things.

Augustine argued that evil is not a separate force opposing the good, but is a lack of goodness, a deprivation. Human fallibility and human free will can lead to suffering and evil, for the world as we experience it is full of imperfect copies, and suffering and evil are bound up with that imperfection.

For Augustine, evil first came into the world through the "fall" of the angels. In books XI and XII of his City of God, he argues that all angels were created perfect, but that some received less grace than others, and were able to "fall". This fall is then repeated in human terms in the Garden of Eden, following the temptations of Satan (himself the chief of angels) which meant that humankind would, from that point on, be imperfect.

Notice that this theory does not imply that evil is a separate reality, it is merely an indication that the world has fallen short of its intended perfection.

The Augustinian view has been particularly influential because it was taken up by Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274), and through him has dominated Catholic thinking on this topic.

In other words
Even if evil and suffering are simply a lack of perfection, that does not excuse God from choosing to create a world that is less than perfect.
Aquinas (in Summa Theologiae) presents the issue in another rather stark way. His argument starts with the fact that God and evil are incompatible:

Clearly, for Augustine and then Aquinas, the way out of this dilemma is to say that evil exists only as a limitation of good. But does this Augustinian approach actually solve that problem?

Can for example, the torture of an innocent child be regarded simply as a lack of goodness in the torturer? Is there not a very definite act of evil in such situations?

If evil is defined as a lack of goodness, is it not equally the case that goodness is simply a lack of evil? You could argue that, in a world created by a psychopath, where nature forces its way forward only by means of suffering and death, there is a 'problem of goodness'. The clue to unknot this particular problem is that 'good' and 'evil' are not entities (things) but qualitative judgements. There is no such 'thing' as evil, only things which are judged to be evil. Describing the world as fundamentally good or fundamentally evil is a choice that reflects personal values - it doesn't change the facts.

Extreme cases of goodness or evil are almost universally acknowledged. The problem is with the middle ground of ambiguous actions, and with the overall balance between good and evil. It is here that the most obvious element of interpretation and choice come in. We are all familiar with the attempt to change one's perception of the facts in the marketing of products: my 'small' carton of fries or drink is now termed 'regular', my medium becomes 'large' and my large is now 'giant', or some other superlative. The cartons remain the same size, only the marketing image has changed! In the case of the world, there is only one carton - we choose to call it what we will, but the choice we make will influence how we habitually interpret what happens within it.

If there is a God, and if he chose to create a less than perfect world, then it is logical to seek a reason for his doing so. That brings us to the second of the traditional ways of answering the problem of evil that is set out by Irenaeus.

The Irenaean Approach

The Irenaean approach is named after Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, France (c.130-202). It does not deny that suffering and evil exist, or that they are permitted to exist by God. Rather, it seeks to show that God chose to allow these things to exist in the world in order to bring about a greater good - human freedom and the ability of human beings to have a relationship with God.

This approach admits that human life is imperfect but, having been made in the image of God, men and women should have the opportunity to grow and develop into what God intended them to be. As they encounter the sufferings of life, people have an opportunity to grow and to learn. Without the existence of both good and evil, that would be impossible.

"How, if we had no knowledge of the contrary, could we have had instruction in that which is good?

For just as the tongue receives experience of sweet and bitter by means of tasting, and the eye discriminates between black and white by means of vision, and the ear recognises the distinction of sound by hearing, so also does the mind, receiving through the experience of both the knowledge of what is good, become the more tenacious in its preservation, by acting in obedience to Godů But if any one shun the knowledge of both kinds of things, and the twofold perception of knowledge, he unaware divests himself of the character of a human being."

(Irenaeus Against Heresies iv. xxxix. 1 quoted in Hick p. 220; Fontana, 1968)

Hick's approach to the problem of evil follows from this. He sees evil as something to be tackled and overcome, but with the hope that, ultimately, it will be seen as part of an overall divine plan. In this sense, evil is a necessary evil, without which there can be no spiritual growth:

"A world without problems, difficulties, perils, and hardships would be morally static. For moral and spiritual growth comes through response to challenges; and in a paradise there would be no challenges,"

Hick describes the world as 'a vale of soul making' - an environment within which people can grow.

Is the world still developing, working towards a perfection that lies in the future? Is the structure of the world (along with everything in it, good and bad) the means by which growth can take place? The argument from design and the moral argument have a contribution to make to this point of view. Darwin's evolution through natural selection is based on the facts of suffering and death, which allow only the strongest members of a species to survive and breed. Without suffering and death, no evolution! In Marxist theory the class struggle, with all the suffering that it involves, is the means of bringing about a classless society in the future.

The Free Will Defence

Might it not have been possible for God to create a world in which there was no moral evil, because everyone freely chose to do what was right? If such a world were a logical possibility, then God stands accused of not having made a possible world in which there was no moral evil.

God's position is defended by what is generally called 'the free will defence'. It runs like this:
Swinburn has presented this argument very starkly. He points out that, for a moral choice to be real, you need depravity, in other words, you need to want what is wrong and then decide to reject it. But, he makes an important distinction between the possibility of evil and the fact of evil:

"This depravity is itself an evil which is a necessary condition of a greater good. It makes possible a choice made seriously and deliberately, because made in the face of a genuine alternative. I stress that, according to the free will defence, it is the natural possibility of moral evil, which is the necessary condition of the greater good, not the actual evil itself. Whether that occurs is (through God's choice) outside God's control and up to us."

One possible way of counteracting this claim that God, if he is all-powerful, should be able to make people freely choose what is good. Both alternatives are there, but the evil one will never be taken. But is that freedom?

A Greater Good

The implication of the 'free will defence' (and, indeed, the Irenaean approach that lies behind it) is that it is better to have a world in which people are free to choose evil, rather a world in which they are not free at all. Human freedom is the greater good, for the sake of which we have to cope with mass murder, abuse of children, torture and the like.

The implication is that an all-knowing God weighed the evil of all these horrendous things against the benefit of human freedom, and chose freedom. Can that be justified?

A classic example of the argument against such a choice is given in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (Book 5 Chapter 4).

There is a gruesome story of a child who, for a minor misdemeanour, is punished by being torn apart by hounds in front of his parents. Dostoyevsky presents the case for saying that no end can ever justify such means. Whatever benefits might come from it, nothing could ever justify the torture of an innocent child. Ivan Karamazov says to Alyosha:

"If the suffering of children go to swell the sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest the truth was not worth the price."