Exploring the problem of evil (Part 1) – Can God and Evil Exist?

I was recently presented with Hume’s famous argument against God concerning evil. The following is my reply. I offer great apologies to Alvin Plantinga as the thought process, the exact wording of the syllogisms, and the argument come from his book God, Freedom, and Evil (though, to be fair, his arguments are really the analytical renderings of Augustine’s City of God). Here was my response to the person:

If God is willing to prevent evil, but not able, then he is not omnipotent.

If he is able, but not willing, then he is malevolent.

If he is both willing and able, then whence cometh evil?

If he is neither willing nor able, then why call him God?

If we grant the first and second premise, then we must deal with the third premise, which is:

(1) God is omnipotent

(2) God is wholly good

(3) Evil exists (why?)

The problem with your syllogism is that, taken prima facie, it’s not contradictory. There is no reason to assume that just because God is willing to stop evil that He will actualize His capability to stop evil. Rather, there are two other implied syllogisms in your argument:

(4) A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can


(5) There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

What do we mean when we say that God is omnipotent though? Does God’s omnipotence mean that He can create square holes, married bachelors, or worlds both do and do not exist? Or does it simply mean that He has unlimited power on all things that are within reason (given that reason is part of His nature)? That is, does it merely mean that He has all power within things that could actually exist? Most theologians would go with the latter understanding of omnipotence. If God wanted to create a unicorn or make it to where a rainbow turned into a pot of gold, then He certainly could because, though these things do not exist, it is not illogical for them to exist. He could not, however, create a world in which He doesn’t exist, or negate His own nature, due to the rationality present within His nature. In short, God follows His own nature, meaning He cannot contradict Himself. Thus, omnipotence merely means that there are no nonlogical limits to what God can do. Thus, our new proposition is:

(5) There are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

Now, is it necessarily true that if a being is both willing and able to end an evil act that the being will always do so? In short, no. Assume that your friend John has capsized his boat in the Atlantic and doesn’t have a life preserver. He’ll probably only be able to stay afloat for thirty minutes. You have a boat that is fully fueled and you can have it out to John in less than 20 minutes. His plight is certainly an evil one, one that you are capable of eliminating and, if you knew about it, certainly willing to eliminate. But you don’t eliminate it. Does this make you evil?

Of course it doesn’t make you evil. You don’t give up the capability of being good. This shows that the present syllogism doesn’t show a contradiction or render it impossible to believe that God is evil. Here we see a counter-example that demonstrates how the syllogism doesn’t work. Now, we can turn around and say, “Not only is God all powerful, but He is likewise all knowing,” but this is a modification to our current syllogism. Thus, the modified syllogism is:

(4a) Every good thing always eliminates every evil that it knows about and can eliminate

Even with this grouping {(1), (2), (3), (4a), (5)} we do not see a formal or even implicit contradiction. Instead, we must assume that God is omniscient, or all-knowing.

Certainly, this must finally provide the contradiction we are looking for. But is (4a) necessarily true?

Using the previous example, let us add another contingency. Your friend John has radioed you, letting you know that his boat is capsizing. Your friend Mack, however, radios you at the same time and tells you that his boat is capsizing as well. Both John and Mack are too far apart for you to rescue them both. You rescue one, but evil still befalls the other. Does this negate your goodness? It’s not within your logical power to rescue both, but you’re still good. Again, when applied to God this changes, however, it shows that (4a) isn’t necessarily true as there is a counter-example to negate it. There is a situation that the group can be applied to where the group (specifically (4a) isn’t necessarily true).

To use Plantinga’s example:

You’ve been rock climbing. Still something of a novice, you’ve acquired a few cuts and bruises by inelegantly using your knees rather than your feet. One of these bruises is fairly painful. You mention it to a physician friend, who predicts the pain will leave of its own accord in a day or two. Meanwhile, he says, there’s nothing he can do, short of amputating your leg above the knee, to remove the pain. Now the pain in your knee is an evil state of affairs. All else being equal, it would be better if you had no such pain. And it is within the power of your friend to eliminate this evil state of affairs. Does his failure to do so mean that he is not a good person? Of course not; for he could eliminate this evil state of affairs only by bringing about another, much worse evil…It is entirely possible that a good person fail to eliminate an evil state of affairs that he knows about and can eliminate. This would take place, if, as in the present example, he couldn’t eliminate the evil without bringing about a greater evil. (pg. 19).

Thus, (4a) isn’t necessarily true if, by preventing one evil, a greater evil comes about. Put otherwise, if E< will lead to E>, then allowing E< to continue doesn’t disallow for S to be cease being good.

The other problem with (4a) is that oftentimes there is a greater good within the evil. A good state of affairs G can outweigh a trivial evil E; the state of affairs of the conjunction of G and E is still a good state of affairs. In short, (4a) is not necessarily true – our present group has yet to produce a contradiction or even shown the co-existence of God and evil to be an illogical statement.

What if, however, we qualified proposition 4 even further to read:

(4b) A good being eliminates every evil E that it knows about and that it can eliminate without either bringing about a greater evil or eliminating a good state of affairs that outweighs E.

Does this mean that (4b) is necessarily true? Are there any counter-examples to it? Again, we turn back to the example of our two friends, Mack and John. Both of them are in the same situation. You can only rescue one – have you violated (4b) and given up your goodness? No, you haven’t. As Plantinga argues:

In this case you can eliminate one evil without causing more evil or eliminating a greater good; and you are also able to properly eliminate the other evil…here, then, each of the evils is such that you can properly eliminate it; but you can’t properly eliminate them both, and hence can’t be blamed for failing to eliminate one of them. (pg. 20)

Thus, neither (4a) or (4b) are necessarily true. Now, we can say that when applied to God these are different, but it’s a mute point – we have applied them to a situation and within the situation we saw how the person failed to be evil. A person can meet the propositions of the entire group and still fail to be evil.

If we desire to apply this directly to God, we can modify 4 even further to say:

(4c) An omnipotent and omniscient good being eliminates every evil that it can properly eliminate

Now, let’s concede this; let’s agree, for a moment, that (4c) is necessarily true. We are then faced with the following:

(1) God is omnipotent

(2) God is wholly good

(2′) God is omniscient

(3) Evil exists (why?)

(4c) An omnipotent and omniscient good being eliminates every evil that it can properly eliminate.

(5) There are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

The problem – for you – is that none of this necessarily entails that (3′) Evil does not exist, but instead would entail (3”) There is no evil that God can properly eliminate.

Thus, (3”) is the conclusion, or what we can draw, from the group proposition {(1), (2)(2′), (3), (4c), (5)}. It doesn’t show how evil cannot exist under the group proposition.

In order to get a contradiction out of this group, we must add the following proposition:

(6) If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then he can properly eliminate every evil state of affairs.

But is (6) warranted and/or necessarily true? No, it’s not. It goes back to what was already discussed – how could such a being eliminate evil E without likewise eliminating an outweighing good? Given that some evil E contains an outweighing good G it is not logically possible for God to eliminate E without likewise eliminating G, by proxy eliminating Himself.

Now, can we show where there are cases where the outweighing good is contingent upon the evil? As Plantinga argues:

Certain kinds of values, certain familiar kinds of good states of affairs, can’t exist apart from evil of some sort. For example, there are people who display a sort of creative moral heroism in the face of suffering and adversity – a heroism that inspires others and creates a good situation out of a bad one. In a situation like this the evil, of course, remains evil; but the total state of affairs – someone’s bearing pain magnificently, for example – may be good. If it is, then the good present must outweigh the evil; otherwise the total situation would not be good. But, of course, it is not possible that such a good state of affairs obtain unless some evil also obtain. (pg. 23)

Thus, what we’re left with doesn’t properly explain how the group propositions cannot exist. We do not see the contradiction nor the illogical aspect of it. Now, even though the propositions don’t prove a contradiction or how the argument is illogical, they likewise don’t allow us to see why God exists, and furthermore how it can be logical.

We can group propositions (1), (2), and (2′) together and call them finding (1).

(1) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good.

Our goal, then, is to see if (1) and (3) can work together through. If we add the following proposition:

(7) God creates a world containing evil and has a good reason for doing so.

If (7) is consistent with (1) (and the additional propositions (4c) and (5)), then we can know that finding (1) and proposition (3) are likewise consistent.

In conclusion, what we have seen is that the original syllogism doesn’t show how belief in the traditional God and a belief in evil are illogical. It doesn’t show how the belief is inconsistent or how (1) and (3) cancel each other out. Furthermore, if a Christian can supply sufficient cause for (7) and show that with the sufficient cause (7) is consistent with (1), it follows that (1) is logically consistent with (3).

The goal, then is to explain (7), which I believe many others have done so quite adequately (such as Plantinga, Augustine, and many others). Likewise, the essay I linked you to (the one I wrote) is my attempt to explain (7) as well. What this does is leave you ground to question our reasoning on (7), but it does take away your ground to explain how (1) is inconsistent or negated by (3).

Does this answer your original question?


2 thoughts on “Exploring the problem of evil (Part 1) – Can God and Evil Exist?

  1. I found it difficult to read this, as almost the entire thing is an argument by analogy. Could you rephrase it in a way that does not use so many analogies? I don’t have anything against metaphor, but it should not be used to make an entire case.

    1. It seemed pretty straight-forward to me. If nothing else, looking at the pure logic of what I wrote (the syllogism) should help clarify what I mean by the analogies.

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