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Countless philosophers have attempted to untie the knot of the problem of evil. The problem often arises, but the proposed solution often tangles the very threads it sought to separate. Continuing from the previous blog, J.L. Mackie says that in addition to the so-called “adequate” solutions, there are numerous “fallacious solutions.” These solutions “explicitly maintain all the constituent propositions, but implicitly reject at least one of them in the course of the argument that explains away the problem of evil.”[i] The fallacious solutions either equivocate on the terms good and evil or redefine omnipotence in a significant way—thus Mackie’s title “Evil and Omnipotence.” There are four fallacious solutions.
4 False Solutions to the Problem of Evil
Mackie says that the first fallacious solution is the claim either that “Good cannot exist without evil” or that “Evil is necessary as a counterpart to good.”[ii] This solution suggests that there could not be good without evil and that the problem of evil therefore is not terribly problematic. Mackie thinks that this suggestion “sets a limit to what God can do, saying that God cannot create good without simultaneously creating evil, and this means either that God is not omnipotent or that there are some limits to what an omnipotent thing can do.”[iii] Some theologians might argue that God can only do what is logically possible, such that not being able to create good without also creating evil is not a redefinition of omnipotence but only a careful definition of omnipotence. Mackie is willing to grant this definition of omnipotence, but he says that one cannot at the same time think that God has arbitrarily created a system of logic; as Mackie puts it, “This solution of the problem of evil cannot, therefore, be consistently adopted along with the view that logic is itself created by God.”[iv] This solution also “denies that evil is opposed to good in our original sense. If good and evil are counterparts, a good thing will not ‘eliminate evil as far as it can.’”[v] In other words, if one says that good is a counterpart to evil, it seems that good is related to evil in the same way that the words “great” and “small” are related. Moreover, even if good and evil are logical counterparts, it would seem that only minimal evil would be required to exist alongside of the existing good; however, lots of evil exists in the world.
The second fallacious solution says that “Evil is necessary as a means to good.”[vi] On this response, evil is not a counterpart of but rather a means to good. According to Mackie, “In its simple form this has little plausibility as a solution of the problem of evil, since it obviously implies a severe restriction of God’s power.”[vii] If good cannot exist causally without evil, then it would seem that God is subject to a causal law, which entails a redefining of the concept of omnipotence. Mackie admits that “This conflict would…be resolved if it were possible for an omnipotent being to bind himself,” and he will examine this option in greater detail later in the essay. Most simply, the second fallacious solution either denies or redefines omnipotence.
The third fallacious solution argues that “The universe is better with some evil in it than it could be if there were no evil.”[viii] This view is developed either by the suggestion that evil makes people appreciate good all the more or that in order for good to win out in the end the universe needs to go through a progressive overcoming of evil. The commonality between these two solutions is that the universe is better with evil in it than it would have been with no evil present. These solutions assume that God has created the best of all logically possible worlds, but it does not seem to hold to the definition of evil originally set out at the beginning of the essay, namely, that good and evil are opposed.
The fourth and final fallacious solution is the suggestion that “Evil is due to human freewill.”[ix] Mackie calls this the “most important proposed solution of the problem of evil,” which says that “evil is not to be ascribed to God at all, but to the independent actions of human beings, supposed to have been endowed by God with freedom of the will.”[x] On this solution, “To explain why a wholly good God gave men freewill although it would lead to some important evils, it must be argued that it is better on the whole that men should act freely, and sometimes err, than that they should be innocent automata, acting rightly in a wholly determined way.”[xi] Mackie says that he rejects this solution because he thinks the notion of free will is incoherent; however, because such a claim is beyond the scope of his essay, he focuses instead on several other issues he has with the appeal to free will. First, Mackie asks, “if God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good?”[xii] That is, if God is truly omnipotent, then it seems he should be able to create free creatures who will never choose evil. Since it is at least logically possible for a person to choose good on one occasion, why is it impossible for God to guarantee that a person will choose good in every possible situation? As Mackie explains, God’s “failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.”[xiii]
Some might reply that freedom requires the possibility for wrong choices, but if this is the case then it appears that “God cannot control them,” which means that, according to Mackie, “God is no longer omnipotent.”[xiv] Further, Mackie suggests that “It may be objected that God’s gift of freedom to men does not mean that he cannot control their wills, but that he always refrains from controlling their wills. But why, we may ask, should God refrain from controlling evil wills? Why should he not leave men free to will rightly, but intervene when he sees them beginning to will wrongly? If God could do this, but does not, and if he is wholly good, the only explanation could be that even a wrong free act of will is not really evil, that its freedom is a value which outweighs its wrongness, so that there would be a loss of value if God took away the wrongness and the freedom together. This is utterly opposed to what theists say about sin in other contexts. The present solution of the problem of evil, then, can be maintained only in the form that God has made men so free that he cannot control their wills.”[xv]
Mackie calls this the “Paradox of Omnipotence: can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control?”[xvi] If one answers “Yes,” then it follows that God is not omnipotent once he binds himself to certain rules or laws. But, if one answers “No,” then it seems that God was not omnipotent in the first place. According to Mackie,
The paradox of omnipotence can be avoided by putting God outside of time, but the
freewill solution of the problem of evil cannot be saved in this way, and equally it
remains impossible to hold that an omnipotent God binds himself by causal or logical
With this in mind, Mackie concludes by saying that none of the proposed solutions to the problem of evil has stood up to critical examination.
There may be other solutions which require examination, but this study strongly
suggests that there is no valid solution of the problem which does not modify at least
one of the constituent propositions in a way which would seriously affect the essential
core of the theistic position. Quite apart from the problem of evil, the paradox of
omnipotence has shown that God’s omnipotence must in any case be restricted in one
way or another, that unqualified omnipotence cannot be ascribed to any being that
continues through time. And if God and his actions are not in time, can omnipotence, or
power of any sort, be meaningfully ascribed to him?[xviii]
Now that we’ve dealt with the lengthy, complex, and deep discussion of the philosophical/theological problem of evil, I want to re-address the religious problem of evil. These sections from my Daily Devotionals on Habakkuk should add a bit of pastoral perspective along with the technical.
We know little to nothing about Habakkuk; his family and history are a mystery. If Hebrew, his name means “embrace,” which is fitting since he embraced God’s will. Faced with incredible suffering and crisis, Habakkuk cries out to God in His journal. Rather than getting frustrated with God, the prophet Habakkuk takes his frustrations to God.
Why is Habakkuk so upset? Because he is a godly person who knows the character of God and Kingdom of God. Subsequently, all of the sin and suffering that he sees in the world enrages him. Evil marches over good while brutal bullies are laughing and their victims are languishing. To make matters worse, the cultural corruption has overtaken the government, court system, and lawmen who were supposed to serve as the dike holding back the flood of evil. Only by trusting in God’s character does Habakkuk have hope for the future. He begins the book bearing his name with a bit of a rant, saying in 1:2-4,
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.
Habakkuk’s two questions are the same one’s we are asking more than 2,500 years later.
How long? How long will God watch the world devolve from people made to act like Him to people who act like animals? When do we get to quit our jobs, put on our party hats, and blow our kazoos because Jesus came back? This question is asked dozens of times throughout the Bible, most often in Psalms when someone in great suffering cries out to God asking when they get to be Home.
Why? Why does a good and all-powerful God put up with so much rebellion? Why does God not fix the things that only he can fix when we are at the end of our resources and rope? Why do godly grandmas die in poverty of cancer while drug dealers and immoral celebrities live long lives in big mansions to be worshipped like gods?
God answers Habakkuk’s cries, but his response is unexpected. There would be more suffering before relief, which we see in Habakkuk 1:5-11:
Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!
Sometimes, we just wish God that would tell us what He was doing. In this case, God’s plan was to use the most ungodly, powerful, ruthless, cruel, and unjust military power to correct His people. Hearing God’s plan plunges Habakkuk into something that counselors call “complex grief.” Complex grief is what happens when difficult experiences pile on top of one another, becoming an overwhelming deluge so quickly that you do not have time to process anything.
Overcoming this situation will require tremendous faith that God is good, omnipotent, and omniscient. This is precisely what faith is: moving forward in the dark trusting that God is ahead somewhere. Upon hearing that God would use really bad people to discipline His people, Habakkuk could have easily stopped trusting God. The only life raft that Habakkuk can hold on to is faith, which is the theme of the entire book: “…the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).
In closing, when it comes to the problem of evil crashing into our own lives, we want a resolution. At the same time, God wants a relationship in which we grow to trust Him more and more until our Redeemer comes and brings resolution with him. This is living by faith. Just as we grow intellectually to understand God more deeply, we also must seek to trust God more relationally. Often, we want a resolution that removes our problems, and God wants a relationship to walk with us through our problems. This is the message of Habakkuk and the Bible’s answer to 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.
XIV. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 202.
XV. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 203.
XVI. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 203.
XVII. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 203–4.
XVIII. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 204.
XIX. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 205.
XX. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 205.
XXI. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 206.
XXII. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 208.
XXIII. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 208.
XXIV. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 208.
XXV. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 209.
XXVI. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 209.
XXVII. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 210.
XXVIII. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 210.
XXIX. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 210.
XXX. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 212.
XXXI. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 212.