Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 4) – The Logical Problem of Evil

In dealing with the problem of evil, it is best to approach the logical problem of evil first. After all, if it’s not even logically possible for God and an evil world to co-exist then there is no point in exploring the evidential problem of evil or the existential problem of evil. We don’t attempt to find evidence for things that both exist and don’t exist in the same space and dimensions because such things are logically impossible. Likewise, if God and evil are completely opposite, that is, an all-good, all-knowing God is mutually exclusive to a world that contains even a small amount of evil, then the theist is left with nothing and there can be no evidential or existential defense; God, by logical necessity, would not exist.

One of the more famous attempts to explain how God and evil are logically incompatible with each other comes from the philosopher David Hume. As previously noted, he wrote, “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

What Hume pointed out was that logically God cannot co-exist with an evil world, thus no explanation the theist gives will be satisfactory because it is ultimately illogical. The way Hume’s argument is structured it prevents the Christian from taking away from God’s omnipotence or benevolence in order to skirt around the problem of evil, both of which are essential to a ‘definition’ of God.

Hume’s attack against theodicy actually plagued Christian philosophers more than it should have, but for some time Christians and theists were left without an adequate explanation to the problem of evil. Around the 1970s, however, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga began to formulate a response to the logical problem of evil.

Plantinga began to take a “greater good” approach to the problem of evil, arguing that it was better that God create some creatures who are free than to create robots who has no choice in following God or to create nothing at all. Yet, in order to create beings that are truly free, He had to allow for the possibility of evil, indicating that both God and evil can co-exist. As Plantinga explains:

“A world containing creatures who are significantly free…is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but he can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so…The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good…The heart of the Free Will Defense is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good…without creating one that also contained moral evil. And if so, then it is possible that God has good reason for creating a world containing evil.”[1]

In a possible world where God wants freedom to exist for His creatures He must allow free will to also exist, but in doing so He must allow for the possibility of evil. If the theory of best possible worlds is correct and that the actualized world is the best of all possible worlds, then creatures who are free to choose evil, but do not, cannot actually exist. In fact, Plantinga expounds more upon his free will defense when he writes,

“Being perfectly good, He must have chosen to create the best world He could; being omnipotent, He was able to create any possible world He pleased. He must, therefore, have chosen the best of all possible worlds; and hence this world, the one He did create, must be the best possible.”[2]

If we remember that God can do all things that are logically possible, we must ask if there is a possible world that could exist where free-will agents always chose to do the right thing. Since free-will agents must have the option to choose to go against what is good, it is simply improbable that free-will agents who, though free from immorality are still not perfectly good, would continue to pick what is good.

Yet, how does all of this counter-act Hume’s argument? Plantinga begins to offer a syllogistic explanation and defense of his Free Will Defense. We can ultimately boil Hume’s objection down to a basic syllogism:

(1) God is omnipotent

(2) God is wholly good

(3) Evil exists (why?)

Plantinga points out that the syllogism ultimately problematic. If taken prima facie, the syllogism fails to prove how God (as defined by theists) is contradictory to the existence of evil. 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 this 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.

We must remember that to say there are not limits to what God can do, this means there are no non-logical limits to what God can do. God cannot do something that is non-logical or irrational. He can’t, for instance, create a world where He both exists and doesn’t exist. 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. It is this approach that some Open Theists like Swinburne take, stating that while God is willing to end evil and capable to prevent evil, He doesn’t always know it will occur. Of course, such an explanation is highly unsatisfactory for those who hold to an orthodox view of God. Therefore, we must change the proposition and say:

(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. Even if God knows that an evil will occur and doesn’t prevent it, would this necessarily mean that He isn’t all-good?

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.[3]

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 that will result from 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.[4]

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. Such a counter-example would seemingly disprove the original syllogism, thus showing that it is possible for God to co-exist with an evil world.

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 non-logical limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

The problem – for Hume – 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 or how the existence of evil shows it’s not logically possible for God to exist.

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.

Plantinga contends that (6) isn’t warranted or true. 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.

Plantinga does attempt to provide empirical examples, or at least an idea of an empirical example, for his argument. He 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.[5]

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. What else can we learn from this proposition? 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.

What Plantinga demonstrates is that the existence of evil isn’t necessarily contradictory to a wholly good God. 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 Problem with Plantinga’s Free Will Defense

While Plantinga does a masterful job of showing how God can logically co-exist with an evil world, there are a few problems with his theory. The biggest problem is that while it explains the logical problem of evil, it is inadequate in dealing with the evidential problem of evil, or evil on a case-by-case basis.

We can’t apply Plantinga’s argument to every specific case of evil even if it works as an overall explanation for the existence of evil. For instance, while we can say that God allowed evil overall because it helps display His love in a more perfect manner or allows His creation to have free will, we can’t use Plantinga’s defense to explain why innocent children die of AIDS in Africa or why terrorists are allowed to kill thousands. In such instances it’s impossible to say that the greater good would obtain.

If the greater good obtained in all cases of evil, then free will wouldn’t really exist; every good thing would be contingent upon an evil thing, meaning we would have to act in an evil manner in order to obtain the good. Likewise, even if we accept that every specific case of evil is allowed because it will cause a greater good, it doesn’t mean that the specific evil had to be allowed in order to achieve the same good. All of this, however, will be covered more in the evidential problem of evil.

Ultimately, Plantinga’s Free Will Defense only shows that it’s logically possible for some kind of evil to exist, but it says nothing to the evidential problem of gratuitous evil. While we explain how God and evil can logically co-exist, Plantinga’s defense is limited in explaining why so much evil exists. To summarize the problem, I would point to Little who writes,

“It seems that the Free-Will argument seems satisfactory to explain why there is evil in God’s creation in the first place, namely, evil is the consequent (not necessary consequent) of God giving man libertarian freedom. The more pressing problem, however, is why evil seems so pervasive and destructive to humanity if a loving and omnipotent God is in control. That is, why does God continue to allow such evil when He clearly has the power to stop it?”[6]

[1] Plantinga, 30-31

[2] Ibid, 13

[3] Ibid, 19

[4] Ibid, 20

[5] Ibid, 23

[6] Little, 60


One thought on “Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 4) – The Logical Problem of Evil

  1. “If we remember that God can do all things that are logically possible, we must ask if there is a possible world that could exist where free-will agents always chose to do the right thing. Since free-will agents must have the option to choose to go against what is good, it is simply improbable that free-will agents who, though free from immorality are still not perfectly good, would continue to pick what is good.”

    Something that is “simply improbable” is not thereby logically impossible. It has not been shown that there is no logically possible world in which creatures with free will (I note in passing that no coherent account of this concept has been given, so the claim that free will is a good has not been established) always choose right. Plantinga’s defence thus collapses.

    (Note: I’m not claiming that Hume or anyone else has given a water-tight proof that a good and omnipotent god is logically incompatible with the existence of evil, because the logical possibility of free beings always choosing right has not been established either. But supposedly God is free, but always chooses right, and no reason has been given why all other beings should not resemble God in this respect has been given.)

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