How Can an All-powerful Loving God Allow Evil?

Religions, Cults & Worldviews: Valuable Answers for Valid Questions.

The Problem of Evil: How can an all-loving all-powerful God allow pain and suffering?

This question is one that philosophers and theologians alike have termed:

The Problem of Evil

Some say that the existence of evil is contradictory to the existence of an all-powerful (omnipotent), all-loving (all good) God.

The assertion goes: If God were all-powerful, he could destroy evil, and if that same God were all-loving/all-good, he would destroy evil. Evil exists.

Therefore, God does not exist.

It may appear that a strawman fallacy has been committed with this representation. However, this is exactly the position held by many atheists and agnostics today. This is an odd argument in that even if the premises were valid, still this would, hypothetically, only serve as an argument against a God with the above attributes, but would still not prove or disprove the existence of a different deity with other attributes.

But is there really a God who is both all loving and all-good in a world where we are seemingly surrounded by evil, pain, & suffering?

One of the mistakes made in the presumptions by either atheists or agnostics is that they fail to take into account the possible (even probable) existence of ‘levels’ of good as universally defined by human beings. For instance, a starving man may ask for food, one person gives him a sandwich, the other buys him a restaurant, and the third person takes him home, cleans him up, trains him to be a productive member of society, provides a reference for the starving man to achieve gainful employment, ultimately resulting in the starving man receiving a new start in a new career. Whereas the first man provided a sandwich which was good, the third man would be considered the one who provided the greatest good for the starving man. Secondarily, proponents of the argument against an omnipotent, all loving being and the existence of evil have also missed the possibility of that Deity using evil to accomplish a “greater good”.

There is a distinct difference between ‘good’ and ‘personal happiness’. Sometimes we view the violation of the latter as a violation of the former when often times, this is simply not the case. For instance, I may be stuck in traffic and late for a dinner appointment. I may rail against all things considered ‘God’ and cry out, “WHY ME!? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME!?” while ahead of me, on the road to my home is a drunk driver weaving in and out of his lane. I clear the traffic jam and then as I approach my neighborhood I see a terrible fatality accident with the drunk driver and a telephone pole. Although my personal happiness was violated by the delays and perceived victimization at the hands of an angry Deity, in reality, it was a good thing for me to have been trapped in traffic in that the delay prevented me from the distinct possibility of being involved in the fatality car accident in my neighborhood. My personal happiness and ‘good’ were not synonymous in this case.

A deeper philosophical explanation for this position can be derived from the “Moral Argument” for the existence of God. What we find is that the standard of good by which we condemn an “all loving all powerful” God and the source of that standard of good are one and the same: We know that good exists from a source of good, yet we use that knowledge of good to condemn the source of good.

Ultimately, presuming the existence of a Creator, the creation does not hold the final say when it comes to defining what is “good”, “better”, and “best”. We may be utterly gutted over the loss of a loved one, but as the creation, we can rest assured that the unfortunate circumstance that we face is not the end of the story, we can know this because we are not the authors of the book.

The Philosophical and Logical Problem of Evil

by Contributing Author, Dr. Kenneth Hochstetter

The logical problem of evil is ancient. The problem, suggested by defenders, is that there is a logical contradiction between the existence of an omnipotent, perfectly good being and the existence of evil. From here the problem can be taken in two directions. First, one could take it as true that there is evil, and then use this to show that there is no perfectly good, omnipotent being. Or, one could simply point out that the theist holds to three claims which cannot all be true (at least most theists hold to each, including Christians). Which direction one goes, I take it, matters very little, as either way, if successful, this shows that most theistic religions are false. So, I’ll take it the latter way.

Fairly recently, the logical problem of evil was defended by atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie

(See his 1995 article below). As Mackie puts it, the theist (or at least the major monotheistic religions, including Judaism and Christianity) embraces an inconsistent set of claims. They are:

1.    God is omnipotent,
2.    God is perfectly good,
3.    Evil exists.

Mackie claims that this is an inconsistent set because if any two of these are true, then the third must be false. As they are stated here, Mackie notes, they do not appear to contradict each other. (By contradiction, just to be clear, we mean any proposition of the form: ‘p & not-p’, where ‘p’ stands for any claim.) (1) and (2), for example, do not obviously contradict (3). Mackie notes this, but claims that they contradict nonetheless. To draw out the contradiction, he says, we need to make clear the meaning of omnipotence and perfect goodness. So, (4) and (5) below to the set. We now have in our set:

1.    God is omnipotent,
2.    God is perfectly good,
3.    Evil exists.
4.    There is no limit to what a perfectly good being can do,
5.    A perfectly good being always eliminates/prevents evil if it can.

Mackie claims that once we draw out the implications of (1) – (5), we will see the contradiction; that it is an inconsistent set. Here are the details. From (1) and (4), we get:

6.    There is no limit to what God can do.

And, from (2) and (5) we get:

7.    God always eliminates/prevents evil if he can.

Then, if we put together (6) and (7), we get:

8.    God always eliminates/prevents evil.

But (8) logically implies (9):

9.    There is no evil

But, our original set contained (3):
3.    There is evil.
If we conjoin (3) and (9), we get:

10. There is evil and there is no evil.
But, (10) is clearly a contradiction.

Since (10) is a contradiction, it must be rejected. But, since it validly follows from (3) and (9), we need to look back at those claims. (9) is also a conclusion following validly from other claims, and thus we must look back to its premises. In short, if there is a problem, it lies with (1) – (5), as (6) – (10) are all conclusions following from these. But, says Mackie, (4) and (5) are true by definition, and thus that leaves us rejecting at least one of (1) – (3). But, these are each claims that are central and essential to most monotheistic religions. Thus, any monotheistic religion, including Christianity, which embraces these must be false.

Mackie’s argument hinges on his claim that the theist (here I mean most monotheists, including Christians) is committed to each of (1) – (5). At this point I will take up the defense from a Christian perspective, as I cannot confidently speak from other religious perspectives. Whether Mackie’s argument is successful hinges on (4) and (5), as Mackie is correct in his assertion that the Christian is committed to (1) – (3).

Let’s start with (4) – the idea that there is no limit to what an omnipotent being can do. There are two options. The theist can accept or reject (4). Historically, the vast majority of Christian thinkers have rejected (4). The only famous thinker who has embraced it is Descartes. Let’s start with this option and see how the Cartesian would reply to Mackie. To be clear, the Cartesian Christian thinks that there is literally no limit to what an omnipotent being can do. This implies that he can do such things as make contradictions true. Thus he can make 2+2 = 27, or create a round-square. And, he can make it such that evil both exists and does not exist at the same time! Thus, Mackie, in taking omnipotence to be defined as literally NO limit to what an omnipotent being can do, has undermined the very point he was trying to make – namely that God cannot be omnipotent, perfectly good and allow evil. But given his omnipotence (defined as being unlimited in every way), he most certainly can be both perfectly good and allow evil.

The other option, which most theists embrace, is that there is a limit to what God can do. Most theists hold that God can do all and only what is logically possible. Thus, there is a logical limit to what God can do. On this view, God cannot do what is logically possible (e.g., he cannot make 2+2=27, or make a round-square). So, omnipotence is defined as: There is no logical limit to what an omnipotent being can do. So, (4) will be replaced with:

              4*. There is no logical limit to what an omnipotent being can do.

The theist who embraces this will go on to point out that Mackie’s (5) – a perfectly good being always prevents/eliminates evil – needs adjustment as well. The theist will point out that a good being not only wants the absence of evil, but also wants the presence of good. Moreover, the theist will point out that some goods and evils logically go hand in hand in the following way. Some evils are such that they are not preventable without thereby limiting some good logically associated with it, and vice versa. For example, suppose you have a severe pain in your foot that cannot be eliminated except by amputating the foot or killing you. Suppose you go to a doctor and he informs you of this. He says that he doesn’t want to kill you or amputate, as these would be much worse than the pain. Furthermore, he tells you that the pain will go away in about a week. Thus, the doctor cannot eliminate the pain (the elimination of which is a good) without thereby bringing about a greater evil (your lacking a foot or your death). Thus, the theist will want to amend (5) in the following way.

              5*. A perfectly good being brings about as much good as possible, and eliminates/prevents any evil, so long as the elimination of that evil does not thereby  prevent a greater good or cause a greater evil. 

Now when we put together (1) – (5*), which includes (4*), it is not so clear that we derive a contradiction. Indeed, it is provable that we do not. Here are the details. For any two claims (a) and (b) which appear to be contradictory, if there is some third claim (c) that can be added to (a) and (b) and result in a consistent set of claims, then (a) and (b) alone are not contradictory. For example, it may appear that the following claims are contradictory:

11. It is raining all day everywhere in Las Vegas on 11/29/2009 and:

12. It is not raining all day everywhere in Las Vegas on 11/29/2009

However, while (11) and (12) appear to contradict each other, a claim can be added so that we end up with a consistent set of claims, including (11) and (12). The claim is:

13. Claim (11) is about Las Vegas, NV and claim (12) is about Las Vegas, NM.

Clearly, (11) – (13) is a consistent set of claims. Given this, it follows that (11) and (12) are consistent, as it is impossible to make contradictory claims consistent by adding some further claim.

              The next thing is to show that (1) – (5*) are consistent. Again, they are:

1.    God is omnipotent,
2.    God is perfectly good,
3.    Evil exists.
4*. There is no logical limit to what an omnipotent being can do.
5*. A perfectly good being brings about as much good as possible, and eliminates/prevents any evil, so long as the elimination of that evil does not thereby  prevent a greater good or cause a greater evil. 

Most theists claim that God has given man free will. They hold that the nature of free will is such that one acts freely if and only if one brings about one’s own action without being caused to do so.  Furthermore, most theists think that God has given humans free will because it is a very great good. For with it humans are able to generate good acts from themselves. Of course, they are also able to do evil with such acts. But, theists claim, the good of having free will outweighs the evil humans sometimes do with their free will. Now consider the following claim:

14. Humans have free will.

God cannot make (14) true, and also bring it about that humans always do good. For in that case humans would be free (act without being caused from without to act), and also not free (caused to always do good). But, this is a logical impossibility, and God is limited by what is logically possible. Thus, if God brings about (14), he must also allow for evil, and cannot prevent it without preventing free will. But, says the theist, having free will is a greater good than the evil produced by it is bad. Thus, God being good would not want to prevent it. Thus, he must allow for evil. Thus, (1) – (5*) are compatible and not logically inconsistent.

One may reply that this only explains evils produced by humans. What about natural disasters that cause great human suffering, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti. Well, many theists hold that there are fallen angels, demons, that also have free will, and that they have causal powers over the Earth. The theist could claim that it is they that caused such earthquakes.

Note that the theist need not actually think that demons do cause earthquakes. They only need the possibility of this. For given its possibility, then there is no contradiction in God allowing evil, all the while being both omnipotent and perfectly good.

The point here has not been to actually point out the real cause of evil. The point is to show that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of an omnipotent, perfectly good being, and the existence of evil.[1]

As a side note, most atheist philosophers now agree that (1) – (3) above are consistent, and thus no longer press the logical problem of evil. Instead they now offer a different sort of objection. They claim not that evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, perfectly good God, but that the existence of evil, at least certain types of evil (such as the earthquake in Haiti) is evidence that there is no omnipotent, perfectly good God.
Let’s now turn to the evidential problem of evil. One way of presenting the argument is as follows.

15. If there is a perfectly good, omnipotent God, then there would not be gratuitous evil.

16. There is gratuitous evil.

17. Therefore, there is no perfectly good, omnipotent God.

Gratuitous evils are pointless evils from which no greater good seems to result; they are evils that are preventable without thereby bringing about a worse evil or preventing a greater good. One defender of this argument is William Rowe. Rowe takes a simple example such that this. A forest fire breaks out from lightning strike. Bambi gets trapped in the fire and suffers terrible burns. After a few days of suffering, he dies. Surely God could have prevented Bambi’s suffering without bringing about a worse evil or preventing a greater good. It seems to be a pointless evil. Or, suppose a father abuses his child for years, without getting caught. One day the father dies, and the son becomes homeless, eventually to die on the streets. Surely God could have arranged for the son to get out of the relationship without violating anyone’s freedom, or preventing some other good, or bringing about a greater evil. One could multiply examples. We thus have, says Rowe, good reason to deny that there is a perfectly good, omnipotent God.

While the theist could reply to this in a number of ways, the best way seems to be this. The atheist here is assuming too much. The atheist is assuming that if there were a reason that God has for allowing certain evils, that we (or specifically the atheist) would know what that reason is. But, why should we think this?

Note that I am not appealing to mystery here. We certainly can speculate a great deal about why God may allow certain evils – e.g., to build character, to bring people to himself, being just, letting evil have its just consequences, etc. For other evils, however, we simply do not know why they occur. It does not follow from the fact that we don’t know the reason that they occur that God does not have a just reason for allowing such evils. However, as we saw above, there is no logical conflict between an omnipotent, perfectly good God and evil. Since this is so, and since we can speculate about why many evils occur, the fact that there are some evils that seem to us senseless matters very little with respect to evidence against the existence of God. Thus, the evidential problem fairs no better.

              This is all for now. Below is a bibliography of articles I recommend. Please feel free to write back with further questions, comments, objections, etc. I welcome our friendly exchange!

  • Bibliography
  • Mackie, J. L. (1955). “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind. Vol. 64, No. 254, pp. 200-212.
  •               (In this article, atheist Mackie presents and defends the logical problem of evil)
  • Plantinga, Alvin (1967). God and Other Minds, Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (See Chs. 5, 6)
  • ––– (1974). The Nature of Necessity, Oxford: Clarendon Press.Cross, R.  (See Ch. 9)
  •                     (In these chapters of these books, theist Plantinga give a theistic reply, as I did, to the logical problem)
  • ––– (1979). “The Probabilistic Argument from Evil,” Philosophical Studies. 35, pp. 1-35.
  •                     (In this article, Plantinga give a theistic reply to the evidential problem of evil)
  • Rowe, William L. (1979). “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical
  • Quarterly, 16: 335-41.
  • (In this article, atheist Rowe presents and defends the evidential problem of evil)

[1] For more on this, see Plantinga’s article.

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