If God is Good, Why Is There Evil? Honest to God: Part 3

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John Feinberg helpfully notes that “there is no such thing as the problem of evil…There is initially a distinction between…the religious problem of evil and the theological/philosophical problem of evil.”[i] It is important to distinguish between the philosophical/theological problem of evil and the religious problem of evil, because the former demands an intellectual response while the latter a pastoral one. Alvin Plantinga describes the so-called “religious problem of evil,”

The theist may find a religious problem in evil; in the presence of his own suffering or

that of someone near to him he may find it difficult to maintain what he takes to be the

proper attitude towards God. Faced with great personal suffering or misfortune, he may

be tempted to rebel against God, to shake his fist in God’s face, or even to give up belief

in God altogether… Such a problem calls, not for philosophical enlightenment, but for

pastoral care.[ii]

In the face of great suffering and personal tragedy, a person does not need just a logical syllogism outlining how God’s existence is logically compatible with the suffering he or she is facing; rather, the person needs a hug and comfort from Scripture and someone who brings the love of God to them.

Philosophers debating the problem of evil typically divide the philosophical/theological problem of evil into two main categories: the logical and evidential problems of evil. The logical problem of evil can be stated as follows:

  1. God is all-powerful (omnipotent).
  2. God is all-knowing (omniscient).
  3. God is good (omni-benevolent)
  4. Evil exists

Holding to the first four premises seems to lead to a formal logical contradiction. Either

  1. God is not able to stop evil (not all-powerful),
  2. God does not know evil is happening (not all-knowing), or
  3. God does not want to stop evil (not all good).

In contrast to the logical problem of evil, the evidential problem of evil inductively attempts to prove that evil counts as evidence against theism, such that God probably does not exist. Evil, that is, pushes the probability of God’s existence significantly downward. The evidential problem of evil can be stated as follows:

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. Therefore, there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

The most famous formulations of the evidential problem of evil come from William Rowe,[iii] who states that Mackie’s logical problem of evil (discussed more below) does not succeed.

The Logical Problem of Evil               

The most famous discussion of the logical problem of evil is found in J. L. Mackie’s “Evil and Omnipotence.”[iv] Mackie studied at Oxford where he later taught as a fellow in the area of philosophy. He attempts to show “not that religious beliefs lack rational support, but that they are positively irrational.”[v] More specifically, Mackie argues that “several parts of the essential theological doctrine are inconsistent with one another.”[vi]

The logical problem of evil, for Mackie, is when “someone who believes that there is a God who is both omnipotent and wholly good. And it is a logical problem, the problem of clarifying and reconciling a number of beliefs.”[vii] The problem of evil can be stated simply:

“God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some

contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true

the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most

theological positions: the theologian, it seems, at once must adhere and cannot

consistently adhere to all three.”[viii]

That is, if God is truly omnipotent and wholly good, it would seem that he is both able to and desires to eliminate evil from the world; yet, evil exists. Therefore, it seems that the theologian cannot consistently affirm the traditional doctrine of God in the face of evil—such an affirmation entails a logical inconsistency.

Mackie does admit that “the contradiction does not arise immediately.”[ix] One needs to add additional premises, such as “good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.”[x]

Mackie says names a few “adequate solutions” to the logical problem of evil. For instance, “the problem will not arise if one gives up at least one of the propositions that constitute it.”[xi] In other words, one could either 1) claim that God is not omnipotent, 2) say that God is not wholly good, or 3) argue that evil does not exist. Mackie notes that some have redefined omnipotence by restricting its meaning and “recording quite a number of things that an omnipotent being cannot do.”[xii] Others have argued either that evil does not exist or that it is merely a privation of good. The problem with these adequate solutions is that they present other problems. However, Mackie argues that most often thinkers only almost adopt the adequate solutions; “[i]n these [solutions], one of the constituent propositions is explicitly rejected, but it is covertly re-asserted or assumed elsewhere in the system.”[xiii]

We will discuss further implications of this contradiction in the next and final blog in our nerd marathon on the problem of evil.

[i] John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 21.

[ii] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 63–4.

[iii] See, for instance, William Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979), 335–41; idem, “Evil and the Theistic Hypothesis: A Response to S. J. Wykstra,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16, 95–11; idem, “The Empirical Argument from Evil,” in Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment, eds. Robert Audi and William Wainwright (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986); idem, “Evil and Theodicy,” Philosophical Topics 16 (1988), 119–32; idem, “Ruminations about Evil,” Philosophical Perspectives 5 (1991), 69–88; idem, “William Alston on the Problem of Evil,” in The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faiths, ed. Thomas Senor (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994); idem, “The Evidential Argument from Evil: A Second Look,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996); and idem, “Reply to Plantinga,” Noûs 32 (1998), 545–52.

[iv] J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind 64, n. 254 (April 1955), 200–12.

[v] Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 200.

[vi] Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 200.

[vii] Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 200.

[viii] Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 200.

[ix] Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 200.

[x] Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 201.

[xi] Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 201.

[xii] Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 201.

[xiii] Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 202.

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