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? Continue reading