A couple of weeks ago I got an email with an extended question on the problem of evil. The sender and I worked it through some over email, and then I asked if I could move it here to the blog, to which he said yes.
The conversation so far is presented here with the sender’s question in black font, and my answers interspersed among his words in a brown font, beginning here:
[E-mailer] Hello, Tom. I am a non-believer and have been for some time. I used to discuss religion with my teachers at the Catholic high school I attended, but since graduation several years ago I have found that I’ve been largely surrounded by like-minded people. While this situation is certainly a happy one in some ways, one thing I have missed is having people to provide intelligent alternatives to my own views, and a foil against which to test my thinking.
Recently I stumbled upon your website and after reading a few of your pieces was pleased to find that you seem like an intelligent person, dedicated to the rigorous treatment of topics of theology. Very shortly, I decided to ask you something. About a year ago I constructed an argument which seemed to disprove the existence of an all-powerful, perfectly good deity. It’s essentially a rephrasing of Epicurus’s argument in the form of a logical proof. I thought it unlikely, however, that it actually applies to the belief of a thinking religious person, as it seemed too simple. The deduction itself is trivial and I think correct; I suspect that any problem must lie either in the premises, or in the actual meaning of the conclusions.
I have discussed the so-called problem of evil with others, including my former teachers and various semi-anonymous denizens of the Internet, and have read a few theologians’ attempts to address it, but I have not yet heard a satisfactory rebuttal. So I have decided to ask you. You’ve probably seen this argument before in some form or another, and since you’re a Christian presumably you do not accept it as valid. Why is this? Specifically, which of the premises do you disagree with, or which of the conclusions do you think is/are irrelevant to your beliefs?
I understand that there is a risk that this could be interpreted as an attack, but I assure you that that is not the case. I’m not trying to convince you of anything. I’m trying to understand your beliefs, and through that, perhaps those of other theists as well. Below I have presented the argument as I constructed it, as well as rebuttals to two of the most common counter-arguments I’ve seen. I look forward to hearing back from you.
Let x be any element in the set of all possible beings.
Let the following statements be defined:
B: If something has power over a being, that being is not all-powerful. Therefore, an all-powerful being is influenced only by its own will, it does whatever it wants since it cannot be coerced or externally influenced.
E: A perfectly good being is one that will maximize good and minimize evil to the best of its ability.
G: From the definition of omnipotence, an all-powerful being can eradicate evil and create infinite good. These first three are evident from the definitions.
I hold these [THE ABOVE] to be true.
[Tom] Omnipotence does not imply the ability to create infinite good as creation, for that would mean creating an infinite creation. Infinite goodness exists already in God’s character. Goodness is a communicable attribute of God, meaning that his creation has the ability to share in, to participate in goodness. But there is no associated entailment that creation’s goodness be infinite. It would be possible to take a converse view of it, and to say that God could have created a finite creation with zero evil, but on that see below.
X: x exists.
A: x is all-powerful.
D: x is perfectly good.
These three are not necessarily true or false. I hold that these are to be determined.
(A and B) implies C: x does whatever it wants.
(D and E) implies F: x will maximize good and minimize evil to the best of its ability.
(G and A) implies H: x can eradicate evil and create infinite good.
(H and F) implies I: x will eradicate evil and create infinite good.
(I and X) implies J: evil is eradicated. Evil does not exist.
I think these implication statements are fairly clear. Just in case, though: The first three simply go from general statements about a class of things to particular statements about a member of that class. “If all p’s are q’s, and x is a p, then x is a q.” The fourth follows from the fact that ability and intention lead to action. The fifth is essentially the same thing, if a being will take a certain action, and that being exists, then that action will be taken.
So we’ve established that the following statements are true:
B and E and G (A and B) implies C
(D and E) implies F
(G and A) implies H
(H and F) implies I
(I and X) implies J
If evil exists, J is false.
Therefore, (I and X) is false, in other words, “not (I and X)” is true.
Therefore, not I or not X.
Not I implies not H or not F.
Not H implies not G or not A.
G is true, therefore, not H implies not A => x is not all-powerful.
Not F implies not D or not E.
E is true, therefore, not F implies not D => x is not perfectly good.
Therefore, not I implies not A or not D, and conversely, (A and D) implies I.
I and not J implies not X => x does not exist.
Therefore, if J is false (ie. if evil exists) then the statement “not X or (not A or not D)” = “not X or not A or not D” is true.
In other words, evil’s existence implies one of three things – for any being x, either x is not all-powerful, x is not perfectly good, or x does not exist.
One counter-argument is that it may be impossible to maximize good while eradicating evil, on the claim that some evil is required to give rise to the greatest possible good. This implies, however, that the being in which they believe is not, in fact, all-powerful, because by definition an all-powerful being can do anything, and has power over reason itself. If there is an all-powerful being, and some evil is necessary for maximum good, this is only because the all-powerful being has made this the case. Such a being, then, chooses a greater amount of evil over a lesser amount, and so is not perfectly good.
[Tom] There is a problem with your definition of “all-powerful” here, at least as it applies in biblical theism. God’s omnipotence is defined as his being able to do anything that is consistent with his own character. One implication of that is that he cannot contradict himself, and as a corollary, he cannot defy the logical law of non-contradiction. In other words, if by “power over reason itself” you mean he can make anything whatever to be true, that is not the case of the biblical God. He cannot, for example, make 2+2=5, and he cannot make himself to be faithless. Omnipotence does not mean God can do just anything that can be stated in a grammatically correct sentence.
Your position presumes that the greatest possible good is equivalent to the least possible evil, and that a condition of maximum good obtains where zero evil exists. But this is far from obvious, for there are goods involved in things like courage, love, sacrifice, giving, resistance of temptation, and so on; and it is hard to see how those goods could exist without something against which they are tested. Courage in a world with no difficulties or conflict would mean nothing whatever; and I think you can see how it would be similar for the other virtues mentioned. Further, without the existence of evil in the world it would be impossible for God to have demonstrated his own character of love, forbearance, patience, sacrifice, caring, forgiveness, etc., as he did through Jesus Christ on the cross; and this demonstration of his own character is in fact a great good in itself.
[E-mailer] Some counter by saying that evil is the result of human imperfection, which is a necessary consequence of free will, which itself is necessary for maximum good. Ignoring that this argument is just a special case of the previous one, if free will and ethical perfection are incompatible, then, necessarily from B, no being that is perfectly good can be all-powerful, and vice versa. To affirm the existence of an all-powerful, perfectly good being is to assent that free will and perfection can exist in the same being.
[Tom] B states that x can do whatever x wishes; but from what I have written above, B’s scope is limited by x’s (God’s) inability to wish that which would be contrary to his own character, and by God’s inability to create a self-contradictory reality. God cannot create a reality in which creatures having free will and moral responsibility are unable to make morally significant choices by their free will. Therefore free will coupled with moral responsibility entails that creatures have the ability to make evil choices.
Free will coupled with moral responsibility is also necessary for love. God’s omnipotence does not imply his ability to create creatures who freely love and freely do good to others without actually possessing freedom to choose good. The freedom to choose good entails the freedom not to choose good. Thus if God had reason to create a universe where creatures genuinely loved one another and himself, then God had reason to create creatures with free will.
God has free will and ethical perfection, but his freedom is such that every choice he makes is entirely consistent with his ethically perfect nature. Humans were created morally innocent, but not morally perfect in the sense that they had no capacity to choose evil. Your claim that free will and perfection can exist in the same being is certainly true. They co-exist in the one necessary Being, God, who chooses according to his nature in every choice.
Humans are created beings. Let us imagine a world of created beings with no capacity to choose the evil, and no ability to do harm. Let’s take a non-ethical case to begin. Suppose Adam had invented a saw and was cutting a tree branch, not knowing Eve was walking underneath. The branch falls, and whoosh, it magically takes a 60-degree turn to miss her. Adam cannot harm her. The tree cannot harm her. Nothing can create harm.
Now, suppose Adam’s cutting the tree branch was a mistake in the first place. He may have intended to prune the tree for its own good, but by a lack of perfect technical (botanical) knowledge he chose to cut the limb two inches too far from the trunk. But he cannot do harm. Does his hand automatically move two inches closer to the trunk? Does the saw refuse to cut? Does God shout “NO!” and frighten him into doing right? Where is the freedom there? It’s perfect freedom to do that which cannot affect anything in the real world; it is the freedom a computer program has to do that which is programmed into it (less the quantum uncertainties and the bugs). It’s no freedom at all.
Or is Adam omniscient, so that what he chooses could never be technically mistaken? But what if Adam were omniscient but lacked the physical abilities required to work to perfect tolerances? He would have to be perfect in that sense, too. Adam’s freedom would be perfectly constrained in that case, constrained, paradoxically, by perfection.
How is this different from God being constrained by his own perfection? For God, his perfection is necessary. For humans, this kind of perfection is puppetry; for humans, unlike God, are created beings. If God wanted a relationship with humans other than that of puppetry, he had to allow humans freedom to make morally significant choices. Even his omnipotence could not overcome that constraint, and it is no contradiction to biblical theology to acknowledge that constraint.
[E-mailer] Finally, one argument is made from the biblical story of the fall of Adam and Eve, stating that humans were perfect but introduced evil into the world by disobeying God, bringing about their own imperfection. This does not actually address any of the points of the proof, so it is not surprising that it does not survive close scrutiny. The fact that they erred in the first place, in disobeying God, proves that they were already imperfect, since by definition a perfect being is incapable of error. They were therefore created by God to be imperfect, which means either he could not make them fully perfect (and therefore is not all-powerful) or chose to make them imperfect, knowing that this might introduce evil into the world (and therefore is not perfectly good).
[Tom] They were created morally innocent but not morally perfect, because only God is perfect in the sense of being free, yet always freely choosing that which is good. This is acknowledged, and it is not a contradiction of his omnipotence rightly understood. I think I have explained already why moral perfection in humans would have amounted to being created as puppets, lacking the capacity for morally significant choices, and lacking the ability to love.
The question comes down to this: is it possible that a world where creatures have freedom to make morally significant choices could be the world that expresses maximum (not infinite) good? This is at least conceivable, if the possibility be admitted that virtues already named like love, sacrifice, courage, patience, justice and so on have positive qualities that outweigh the negative circumstances in which they must exist. And really, would a world without morally significant human love be the perfect world? Is a dollhouse or a puppet show the perfect world?
If the circumstance so described is possible, then it is possible that an omnipotent and all-good God would have made such a world.
Finally, you speak of God eradicating evil. He is in the process of doing that, and the process will be completed in the final state toward which history is heading. At that time, those who have chosen to follow him, whose hearts have been set toward the desire to be complete in their moral goodness, will be granted their chosen desire, and they will live eternally with the good fruit of the choice they have made. Justice will be accomplished with respect to all human and natural hurts and ills, and good will prevail completely. To view the current world’s circumstances without that end in view is incorrect and misleading.
I hope this addresses your questions. Thanks for asking!