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Arts & Humanities Philosophy & Theology

The Problem of Evil: A Challenge to God’s Existence?

This article, questioning whether the problem of evil is a conclusive argument against the existence of God, was written by sixth-former Sam Cherry. It won him a place on the St. Andrew’s Logos Institute Summer School.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes

This article, questioning whether the problem of evil is a conclusive argument against the existence of God, was written by sixth-former Sam Cherry. It won him a place on the St. Andrew’s Logos Institute Summer School.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes

The problem of evil (PoE) posits that it is a logical contradiction for the omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God of theism to exist in a world that contains evil. The argument is summarised by Mackie thus: ‘God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions: the theologian, it seems, at once must and cannot consistently adhere to all three’. In other words: no possible world exists in which both God and evil coexist. If this argument is sound, it is therefore a logical impossibility that the God of theism exists.

Implicitly, the argument assumes that a benevolent God could not permit the existence of moral evil. In my opinion most worthwhile counter-arguments to the PoE seek to attack this assumption. Mackie recognises this when he states that the free will defence is the only somewhat plausible reconciliation, despite him ultimately rejecting it.

It is important to note here, before further discussion, two fundamental limits to Mackie’s argument. First, it defends for only moral, but not natural evils. While Mackie admits that this line is not always clear cut, causes of suffering arguably exist that are not attributable to human actions, such as the deaths resulting from natural disasters or diseases. The free will argument does not inherently address natural evils. This question must be left to the theodicies, such as Irenaeus’, which argues that the suffering arising from natural evils might be instrumentally good in helping develop moral goodness in humans.

Second, the argument requires a libertarian or compatibilist view of free will, and if we reject this, the argument becomes nonsensical in either direction, as without free will the concepts of moral good and evil don’t make sense.

The theologian Plantinga argues that evil is the product of human free will, endowed to us by God. He argues that freedom is a ‘higher-order’ good, i.e. one that is necessary for the meaningful existence of other goods. It is more good, according to Plantinga, for there to be a world in which people freely choose to do good things (which necessitates them also being able to do evil) than one in which people cannot do evil, as if it was impossible for humans to do evil, then there would be no virtue in our not doing evil. At least superficially, I think this argument successfully reconciles benevolence with evil.  

Plantinga’s argument leads to two questions. First, why is it the case that God, if He is omnipotent, cannot create a world in which people always freely choose to do good? Second, to what extent does the existence of human free will effect God’s omnipotence?

Mackie argues that God’s omnipotence permits Him to create a world in which people could always freely choose the good, and God’s benevolence inherently predisposes him to create the least evil of all possible worlds, i.e. the one without moral evil. Mackie’s argument is as follows: when we say that a person (P) had free will when undertaking an act (X), we mean that before the act was undertaken (at t1) there were no ‘external antecedent sufficient causes’ to effect P to do X or ¬X at a later time (t2) when P actually acts. If it is the case that in any given individual act at t1, P can do X (where X is the morally ‘good’ act), it follows that it is logically possible for every P at every t2 to have always performed X without this changing the fact that at t1 P always had the possibility of performing ¬X. In this way could God create humans such that they always freely chose the good?

No. Plantinga responds by saying that a world with freedom but without the possibility of moral evil is impossible – that the notion of God being able to create humans such that they ‘always freely chose the good’ is incoherent. This is because of what he calls ‘trans-world depravity’: the concept that in every possible world where moral good exists, the possibility of for P to choose to the evil act must also exists. In all possible worlds with free will the potential to do evil exists, therefore God cannot create a possible world in which He predestines P to do one or another, as such a predestination would eliminate the free will at t1.

God could have created a world in which there was only moral good, but this would be the product of the near infinitesimally small chance that free agents always choose the good, and hence this result would still not be the product of God’s volition. If God could foresee that P would always choose good acts over evil then P’s acts would be predestined, not free. If the possibility that P could commit evil exists, it follows that this possibility might be actualised. That a world with God and no moral evil is possible is irrelevant to the question of whether there is a possible world in which both God and evil coexist. From this it follows that though in this world evil exists, this is not in conflict with the Nature of God.

Even if we accept that God couldn’t create such a world as Mackie envisions, and we agree that free will necessitates some moral evil, it may still be argued that this is only possible by radically limiting our notion of God’s omnipotence to solve the ‘inconsistent triad’. First, if humans truly have free will then God would not be all powerful, as he couldn’t interfere with P’s actions without violating P’s freedom. But moreover, Plantinga’s argument requires an all-powerful God to create something which is then outside of His control, which is a contradiction. This is analogous to the problem of whether God could create a rock so heavy He could not lift it.

These problems arise from considering God to be omnipotent in the sense that He is ‘all-powerful’ i.e. able to bring about any state of affairs. This is an incoherent notion as it leads to all sorts of paradoxes, such as making it possible for God to do the impossible -a direct contradiction. Therefore an actualised God cannot have this impossible (un-actualisable) property. In my opinion, it makes more sense to talk of God as ‘maximally-powerful’, i.e. able to bring about any possible state of affairs. A maximally powerful being cannot be overpowered, as if it could be it would not be maximally powerful, but it is still the most powerful being that can possibly exist. Because, as I have argued, it is a logical impossibility for a world to exist in which free agents always necessarily choose the good, it follows that a maximally powerful being cannot create such a state of affairs.

Similarly, if we define omniscience as knowing all that it is possible to know, this is not inconsistent with God not knowing at t1 whether P will do good or evil at t2, as God having this knowledge is inconsistent with P having free will. God can still have knowledge of all that has happened and all that could happen (which is all that can possibly be known in a world with free will), so it is not improper to describe him as ‘maximally-knowledgeable’.

Therefore, I believe that the PoE is not a conclusive argument against the existence of God. God’s omnipotence allows him to create a state of affairs such that people have free will, but does not allow him to create the impossible state of affairs whereby everyone has free will yet is predestined to always choose the moral act. God’s benevolence requires him to maximise moral good, and as moral good cannot meaningfully exist without the higher order good of freedom, he creates a world in which there exists freedom. As a product of this freedom, people are able to commit evil. God is not able to interfere with this evil or know about it prior to it being committed, as doing so would remove their freedom. Therefore a world containing moral evil and a benevolent, maximally-knowing and maximally-powerful God is possible. The PoE is not a conclusive argument against the existence of God because it fails to conclusively disprove the possibility of this state of affairs.

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