God and Evil: An Inquiry
Over the centuries, theist and atheist philosophers alike have converged upon a common point of belief that the fundamental characteristics of God, whether God exists or not, are omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence. For one to describe some being that is omniscient and omnipotent but not omnibenevolent, or omnipotent and omnibenevolent but not omniscient, or any such combination that fails to reconcile the coexistence of these three traits, would be for one to describe something other than God. And if it be the case that God is not simultaneously all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, we have good reason to believe that God does not, in that God cannot, exist. If we can, however, then perhaps we have one more reason to believe that such a God does.
Alongside this conception of God, theists and atheists converge at a common point of belief in the experienced reality of evil. However, it is at this same point of convergence where their commitments to the notion of God also diverge, for it is the very undeniable reality of evil in the world that shakes one’s confidence in the co-reality of a God Who is truly all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. If God is indeed omniscient and omnipotent, would it not then be within God’s power to properly eliminate every evil state of affairs? And if He doesn’t, would it not then be a complete contradiction against His omnibenevolence? That is, if God has foreknowledge of some evil that will occur, why would He not eliminate it unless He were not capable of doing so? And yet, if He were capable, why hasn’t He eliminated that evil? Given all of the evils in this world, what does this suggest about God?
In response to these pressing worries that have challenged the theistic worldview, 2017 Templeton Prize winner, Christian, and analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga provides an argument that attempts to reconcile the coexistence of God and evil, beginning with the claim that perhaps God simply cannot properly eliminate every evil state of affairs. In other words, it may be possible that there are things God is incapable of performing in spite of His omnipotence, yet, as it accords with His omnibenevolence. Take, for instance, the possibility that Jack suffers from a minor cut on his finger, while Jill takes great pleasure in Jack’s pain. If we conjoin Jack’s pain with Jill’s pleasure, we may consider the resulting conjunctive state of affairs to be good, rather than evil, since we would be amiss to take Jack’s subtle annoyance toward the cut as outweighing the great pleasure Jill receives from it. For God to eliminate Jack’s pain is, effectively, to eliminate an outweighing good that results from it; and while this may seem trivial or even slippery, Plantinga asserts that the mere possibility that there be an outweighing good state of affairs that necessarily results from some evil, which thus makes the conjunctive state of affairs good, suggests that God cannot eliminate every evil state of affairs—namely, those from which outweighing goods come about. For, as Plantinga recognizes, it wouldn’t be a complete subversion against the goodness of God for Him to not eliminate every evil but, rather, for Him to prevent outweighing goods from occurring by eliminating those necessary, concomitant evils. Despite how evil it is to strip someone naked and whip them to a pulp and hammer nails into their hands and through their feet on a Roman cross, mocking, “Hail, King of the Jews!” it would be contradictory to the very nature of God for God to eliminate that deep suffering if it meant that doing so would prevent some promised, infinite, and eternal good that would have otherwise come about. Outweighing goods that are necessarily attached to evils, then, seem utterly permissible—and for good reason.
But what about those evils that seem to have no good ending, or no comprehensible reason for their permittance? What is God’s purpose for allowing a black man to be shot in his own home or for a community of Jews to be ruthlessly murdered in their own sanctuary? What possible outweighing good might result from such devastating, absolute evils? Is God not good for not preventing those evils that aren’t accompanied by good—evils that in God’s omniscience He knew would come about and, in His omnipotence, had the power to prevent? In the face of these worries, should we even believe that such an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God even exists?
As agonizing as it is to ponder over these issues, Plantinga responds by providing a defense that shifts our origin of judgement from the most apparent evil phenomena to the place where they all begin. In the same way that God permits the evil of an innocent man dying on a cross and the accompanying, outweighing infinite good of eternal life in him for the very fact that such a good accompanies the evil, perhaps there is something necessarily attached to these absolute evils, also, which explains their existence and God’s permitting them. We might ask, whence do these evils come; and why is there evil in the first place? Is it not from the willingness of a corrupt and deceived mind that one is moved to enact injustice? Is it not by one’s own decision, however constraining the circumstances may be, that one is moved to perform some wicked act? If all of this is so, is it not then reasonable to conclude that human willingness—or our capacity to choose—marks the beginning of every evil and the agent by which it comes about? But if this is so, and if, indeed, God gave us this capacity of willingness upon His creating us, knowing full well that through such free will evil would come about, is not God, then, the original agent of evil? And in His knowing full well that evil would about through it, why would God grant us this capacity in the first place, lest He Himself be evil and everything but all-good?
It’s tempting—almost rational, even—to deduce that the origin of evil is, itself, evil; and that every cause in between that place of origin and the ultimate consequence of evil is evil, as well. However, if Jack’s small cut—a tremendous evil he may claim—be the cause of some far greater, necessarily attached good—that is, Jill’s hysterical joy—we come to conclude not only that the conjunctive state of affairs is good, but also that even before we judged Jack’s minor annoyance as evil and Jill’s outbursting pleasure as good, we find that Jack’s cut is actually neither evil nor good. To Jack, the small cut is evil, and to Jill it is good; and to a third-person party who weighs the total moral value of the phenomenon, the overall state of affairs is good. By this larger judgement, we define Jack’s small cut as, itself, a good, since it has the property of bringing out some greater good than the possible resulting evil.
When we examine the original cause of human evil as pointing to free will, we are left with the conclusion that free will, and the Creator and Bestower of that capacity, is, Himself, evil. But when we examine the original cause of human evil as pointing to God, we are left with the conclusion that free will, and what it enables for a human being, is, itself, a good. For, when we allow God to become the third-person party Who weighs the total moral value of every possible absolute evil that comes from free will, as well as every possible absolute good that comes from it, our perspectives shift focus; for while we see absolute evil, God sees absolute good. While we ask, whence does evil come?, God considers, whence does good come? Is it not from the willingness of a noble and sober mind that one is moved to fight for justice? Is it not by one’s decision, however constraining the circumstances may be, that one is moved to perform some good deed? And, is it not one’s genuine and free acceptance of the free gift of salvation that, in Christ, not only outweighs but eternally cancels every possible evil? If all of this is so, is it not then reasonable to conclude that our God-given human willingness—or our capacity to choose this infinite good—marks the beginning of every good and the agent by which this ultimate outweighing good comes about?
For, while we see absolute evil, God sees a redemption that negates it. While we see pain, God sees a healing that triumphs over it. And while we see hopelessness and despair, God sees hearts that might receive an eternal hope, but only if they are willing. And that they might be willing, God gave them the capacity to choose; and this, itself, be the greatest good of all.
Josiah Jordan ’18 is a first year Master’s student at the Yale Divinity School.Tags: Alvin Plantinga, evil, free will, suffering, theodicy