The Existential Problem of Evil

In today’s post, we will be talking about a third formulation of the problem of evil—the existential problem of evil. We will be discussing some of the nuances of this problem like the conceptual vs practical divides, Dostoevsky’s formulation, and the distinction between belief in and belief that. This blog post accompanies my recent YouTube video on the existential problem of evil which can be found on our YouTube channel so go check it out for a more in depth analysis. 

Conceptual vs Practical Discussion: 

The first nuance to bear in mind is the difference between the conceptual (logical and evidential) problems of evil and the practical (existential) problems of evil. A good example to illustrate this distinction is communism. Practically speaking, there were a lot of deaths during the communist countries of the 20th century. However, despite these practical flaws, the conceptual discussion can also be made independently of these downsides.However, conceptually, there is still a valuable, there’s still a lot of value in researching and understanding possible benefits of conceptual discussion surrounding the issue of communism. 

Applying this distinction to the existential problem of evil, one can say that while there is a conceptual nature to evil, the practical and existential implications of evil are even greater. For example, let’s consider William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice, in this novel, a character named Sophie is asked to choose between whether her son or her daughter would get killed by the Nazis. One aspect of looking at this evil is to challenge the evil as a conceptual variable against the existence of God, but there is also the very real challenge of how God could possibly allow for such evil to exist regardless of what philosophical justifications we have.  

Rejecting the Ticket

The second aspect of the existential problem of evil is best found in Ivan Karamazov’s presentation of the problem of evil in The Brothers Karamazov.  Here, Ivan says “it isn’t God I don’t accept… it’s just his ticket that I most respectfully return to him”. What is being said here is not that Ivan is an atheist. To Ivan, God may very much exist. However, when observing the evil in the world, Ivan argues that no such God who allows this evil is worthy of worship. As you can see this is a development on the conceptual discussions on the problem of evil which we have discussed on this series. By moving away from the question of whether God actually exists, one is able to appreciate different nuances of the discussion on evil and religious faith. Ivan Karamazov demonstrates that there are numerous reasons for not believing in God which go beyond God’s existence. 

Belief in vs Belief that:

To elaborate this distinction, one can turn to H.H. Price’s distinction between “belief in” and “belief that.” Here, Price demonstrates that “belief in” is an attitude whereas “belief that” is propositional. Applying this distinction to religious belief, believing in God is not merely the affirmation that God exists but acts of worship as well. This is illustrated by the Epistle of James where he writes that even the demons believe that there is one God and that true faith leads to a life of service for God (James 2:19-22).  When we are talking about the existential problem of evil, we are more concerned with “belief in” in comparison to the “belief that” of more propositional arguments.


I hope you enjoyed this short post, for more information, make sure you go check out our more in-depth video on our YouTube channel. Furthermore, this is one part of a longer series on the Problem of Evil, so make sure you go check that out!

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