God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Eight

God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Eight

 The Problem of Evil:

The problem of Evil and suffering is the most celebrated of all the objections to theism presented by atheists. Debates about evolution and the like notwithstanding, most reflective theists would likely agree that objections to belief in God posed by the occurrence of Evil and suffering present a much more severe challenge than making objections from science.

One of the most popular objections to theistic evolution is a version of the problem of Evil; that asks: How could a perfectly loving God employ a means of creation that proceeds through the systematic destruction of the weakest and most vulnerable creatures? However, a distinction must be drawn between the problem of Evil as a philosophical objection to religious belief and the problem as a concerned question. Many believers and non-believers alike are bothered by Evil. When they are faced with suffering, on their part or the part of others, they ask why? At such times the problems of Evil call more for pastoral care than for philosophical debate. The philosophical problem of Evil appears to many people that an excellent, all-knowing, and all-powerful being, were he to exist, would not allow the kinds or quantity of Evil and suffering that exists in the world.

The underlying assumption of this argument is the intuition – familiar to many atheists and theists alike that a good being eliminates Evil as far as it is able. God, being omniscient, should be aware of every instance of Evil and suffering; being perfectly good, he would presumably want to eliminate all Evil; being omnipotent, he should be able to do just that. Therefore, if there were a God, one would expect not to find any evil in the world. Since one does find Evil – and quite a bit of it – God must not exist. In this way, the existence of Evil and suffering is thought to undermine the rationality of belief in God.

Evil Makes a Strong Case against God’s Existence – David Hume:

David Hume (1711-1776) is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is applauded as the most sophisticated and elegant philosophical dialogue written in English. The three principal (fictional) speakers in the Dialogues are Demea, Cleanthes, and Philo. Demea, something of a dogmatist, defends God’s existence on a priori grounds and, in that regard, reflects a Leibnizian approach. Cleanthes believes that experience provides evidence for the existence of an immensely powerful and benevolent deity, perhaps reflecting the approach of William Paley. Philo, probably Hume’s protagonist, is a skeptic who attempts to refute arguments for God from reason and experience.

The following discussion from the Dialogues contains two renditions of the problem of Evil. The first argument is quite direct: the claim that “God exists” and “evil exists” is logically incompatible, and since we can be sure that Evil exists, we know God does not exist. We see this type of logical argument advanced by J. L. Mackie and other contemporary philosophers. The second argument is less direct: even if “God exists” and “evil exists” are logically compatible claims, the latter’s truth provides strong, although not conclusive, grounds or evidence for rejecting the former. Among contemporary critics, William Rowe advances this type of argument.

Evil and Omnipotence – J. L. Mackie:

L. Mackie (1917-1981) offers a contemporary statement of what professional philosophers call the “logical problem of evil.” He argues that theism is logically incoherent and, therefore, irrational. He claims that God’s theistic belief is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good, and the belief that it is evil in the world is logically inconsistent. Since the alleged inconsistency in theism is implicit rather than explicit, Mackie offers various supplementary statements to highlight the inconsistency, mostly in definitions of key terms, such as omnipotence.

According to Mackie, Omnipotence is the power to bring about any logically possible state of affairs, including preventing or eliminating Evil. Mackie then shows why various theistic attempts to eliminate the inconsistency are weak and unsuccessful, concluding that any adequate theistic answer would have to modify at least one critical theistic concept. For example, theists unwittingly modify the omnipotence concept by saying that God limits himself to allow the creature’s freedom to commit Evil because this results from the freedom to do good. For Mackie, this move implicitly surrenders the core theistic position by denying a strong omnipotence definition. The Paradox of Omnipotence, he explains, is the problem of whether an omnipotent Deity can create finite creatures that it cannot subsequently control. He argues that it is not possible both that God is genuinely omnipotent and that he was unable to create a universe containing moral good but no moral evil.

Types of Evil, Versions of the Problem, and Types of Responses:

 Types of Evil

There are two major types of Evil, “Moral and Natural Evil.” Moral Evil is Evil due to the actions of free, morally responsible beings: murders, rapes, and the hunger caused by social injustice are examples of moral Evil. Natural Evil (or non-moral Evil) is the Evil that is not (or does not appear to be) due to non-morally responsible beings’ actions, such as the pain and suffering caused by natural disasters and many diseases.

 Versions of the Problem and Types of Responses

Evil’s problem thus extends to pain and suffering, including that resulting from “natural” causes. A distinction must also be made between two types of arguments about Evil. Some philosophers believe that the existence of Evil constitutes proof that God does not exist. In their view, the occurrence of Evil and God’s existence are logically incompatible: it contradicts the claim that a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful being exists and that Evil exists.

It is called the logical form of the Problem of Evil. Other atheistic philosophical make a more modest claim. They are willing to admit that God’s existence is logically compatible with the occurrence of Evil: they concede that it is possible that a perfectly good, all-knowing, all-powerful being might have reasons for allowing Evil. However, they allege that given the actual types and quantity of Evil we find globally, it is unlikely or improbable that this is so in every case. Hence, though Evil’s occurrence does not prove that God does not exist, it renders his existence unlikely or improbable. This line of argument is called the evidential form of the Problem of Evil. Theistic responses to the Problem of Evil can also be divided into two types. The more ambitious response is a theodicy, which attempts to explain why God allows evil. A theodicy tries to show that God is justified in allowing Evil; it lays out why God allows evil and tries to show that those reasons are good. A more modest response, called a defense, tries to argue that God may have a reason for allowing Evil that we do not or cannot know.

Defense does not explain why God has a good reason, even if we are not in a position to reason why God allows Evil, but without claiming that those reasons are necessary. God allows evil without claiming that those reasons are necessarily God’s actual ones. There are specific ways of resolving Evil’s problem that, while perhaps logically, are not genuine options for the orthodox theist; one way is to deny the reality of Evil, to view Evil as an illusion.

 Best of All Possible Worlds’ Theodicy – Gottfied Leibniz

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), a German philosopher who held rationalist and idealist positions, articulated a comprehensive theodicy. He argues that God, who possesses perfect power, knowledge, and goodness, would choose to bring about the best possible world. Many interpret this point to mean that this world contains the least possible amount of Evil. It is still better interpreted as meaning that this world contains the least amount of Evil commensurate with its being the best world possible.

As Leibniz points out, God knows which evils are necessarily connected to greater goods such that those goods could not otherwise be achieved –and it is the whole collection of goods and evils in the actual world that makes it the best one possible. Leibniz also argues that the presence of sin and Evil allowed for the Son of God’s incarnation and his redemptive work for humanity, which is an unsurpassable great good. Because of this fact, Leibniz reasons, the human fall into sin was a Felix culpa (a “fortunate flaw” or “happy fault”). Also, in Leibniz’s view, God’s foreknowledge of human acts does not prevent those acts from being free. Leibniz discusses from six angles:

  1. “God Would Choose The Best World.”
  2. “Foreknowledge Is compatible With Human Freedom.”
  3. “God Wills Perfection But Permits Sin.”
  4. “God Does Not Cause Sin.”
  5. “God Is Not Culpable For Not Preventing Sin.”
  6. “God Freely Chooses The Best World.”

 The Free Will Defense – Alvin Plantinga:

Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932) seeks to refute J. L. Mackie’s basic contention that it is not possible both that God is omnipotent and that he could not create a universe containing moral good but no moral evil. Plantinga’s famous argument has become known as the Free Will Defense. He develops a human freedom scenario concerning divine omnipotence using the language of “possible worlds” (related to modal logic). In his scenario, God actualizes a world that contains creatures with free will so that they have the power to do good, but they sometimes choose to do Evil.

That is the danger and risk of free choice. Given that God decided to initiate a world containing free creatures, God couldn’t ensure that the free creatures would always do good and never go wrong. Mackie’s compatibilist view of free will leads him to conclude that omnipotence can bring about any logically possible world, including worlds in which free creatures never commit Evil. And indeed, there are such possible worlds. However, working from an in-compatibilist view of free will, Plantinga shows that the essence of created freedom is that things can happen in the world that is decided by free creatures and is not under God’s control. So, it is not within the scope of omnipotence to determine the outcome of free creaturely choice. Plantinga, then, claims to have shown-contrary to Mackie-that it is logically possible for God to exist and for Evil to exist, thus defending against the charge of inconsistency.

 Soul-Making Theodicy – John Hick:

John Hick (b. 1922-2012) explains Evil in the world that contrasts with the well-known Augustinian type of theodicy. Whereas Augustinian theodicy sees present Evil as representing a fall from a pristine, original state of the world, Hick follows St. Irenaeus in arguing that an adequate answer lies not in seeking the causal genesis of Evil but in interpreting Evil as a stage in human progress and development. In other words, rather than view the present state of the world as fallen from a previous perfection, Hick views the world as a necessary stage in the evolution of a relatively immature creation into a more mature state. God seeks to bring forth mature moral and spiritual beings capable of freely exercising faith in him and loving toward their fellows. Hick discusses the main features of an environment that would be conducive to bringing about these results. Two such features are ambiguity about God’s existence and human vulnerability to one another, both providing opportunities for moral and spiritual growth. In the larger context of Hick’s writings, we find that the divine program of soul-making will culminate in the afterlife, which Hick believes must involve universal salvation.


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