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Mailbag: Doubts about the Privation Theory of Evil

Berat Writes:


Is there a post on the “ontological foundation of evil”? It seems to me that theistic metaethical theories have a strange implication like this: If God exists, he is the substantial ontological foundation of goodness. However, evil can’t have a substantial ethical foundation like goodness since God doesn’t have anything substantially evil in his nature. Therefore, evil is somehow derivative, it supervenes on God’s attitudes and/or commands. It seems to be that something like privation theory of evil has to be true for a theistic metaethical theory to be able to completely explain the realm of moral values.

I’m highly skeptical of privation theories. So, my question is this: Can theism provide a substantial ontological foundation for evil as well? Like something analogous to Goodness=God’s Essential Moral Nature.

Reply by Jonathan Pruitt

Hi Berat,

Thanks for this great question. Before attempting an answer, I think it will help to say what makes this such an important issue. If we think of God as identical to the good, as Baggett, Walls, Adams, and many other Christian thinkers propose, then we think that goodness has an essence and that it exists in a substantive way. God is the Good, that is, the ontological grounding for how we can meaningfully talk about goodness in daily life. In other words, we think that our moral judgments about moral goodness are meaningful only because there is some substantive, stable good which grounds them. Something is morally good when it bears a resemblance to God, who is the Good.

If then we ask, “What does it mean to say something is evil?” one obvious suggestion would be that there is some substantive evil which functions the same way that God as the good functions. When we say something is evil, we would mean it bears some resemblance to this object or person. This, however, would be a kind of dualism, according to which there are two fundamental and opposing forces in the world. Goodness would be grounded by reference to one and evil by reference to the other.  This is contradictory to theism and, therefore, not a live option for theists.

A second option would be that evil does exist, but that it was made by God or it is sustained by him. We might think that evil is some abstract object in the mind of God which does the kind of work that the Platonic forms do.[1] God would be the ground of evil in the same way he is the ground of the number 7 or the color red. However, it seems problematic to think of evil as ontologically grounded in God in this way. If God is wholly and perfectly good, we might expect that this entails that he could not be the ground of evil. This, then, is not option for the theist either.

The skeptic might pose one more possibility: if we can meaningfully speak of evil without it having the analogous ontological grounding of goodness, then why think goodness either needs or has God as its foundation? We seem to use the term “evil” with just as much confidence as we use the term “goodness,” but theists insist one needs ontological grounding and the other does not. Either both need grounds or neither does. Either way, the notion that God is identical to the good turns out to be false. Thus, the theist is faced with this “trilemma of evil”: Either (1) dualism is true, (2) God is not wholly good, or (3) God is not necessary for morality.[2]

It seems that the best way to overcome these objections and sustain our commitment to the idea that God is the good is to show how it is that evil is a meaningful concept, yet has its meaning in some way disanalogous from goodness. This is why a privation theory of evil might appear at least initially appealing. It is the threat of dualism that likely motivated Augustine, the former Manichean dualist, to think of evil as a privation of the good. He says, “All things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good.”[3] By this, Augustine meant that evil is not some entity which can have substance. Rather, evil is just some lack of goodness. Selfishness, for example, might be identical to a lack of love. The advantage of a theory like this is that it avoids a metaphysically substantive evil while also offering an explanation of the essence of evil. When we say something is evil, we are really saying that it lacks goodness.

However, it is not clear that mere privation can successfully ground our concept of evil. Adams suggests that God is the essential nature of the good similarly to the way that H20 is the essential nature of water. If water is essentially H20, then this would explain all the features that water has. Water is wet and quenches thirst exactly because it is H20 and our concept of water as having these features is best explained by its essential nature.[4] If evil is a unified concept like goodness, it ought to have an essence that makes sense of our usage of the term, assuming we have some understanding of evil. But it seems there is some difficulty with the idea that evil is merely privation. An example from Tolkien might help us see why this is the case.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which contains the deep mythology behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he explains that God or Eru creates the world through music. Eru intends that his creatures sing a song that corresponds to the main theme that Eru has begun in creation. When all his creatures play together harmoniously, goodness and beauty fill the world. However, some of Eru’s creatures refused to play in harmony with Eru’s theme and this is the origin of evil in Tolkien’s mythology. If we thought of evil as merely privation, then we might expect Tolkien to explain that some creatures simply refused to play the part he was given by Eru and were silent. But instead Tolkien imagines that evil begins when Melkor interwove “matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of [Eru]; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”[5]

Tolkien’s mythology helps us see that evil can be understood in at least two different ways. Certainly, we can imagine some creature who simply fails to play anything at all and this would a kind of evil. But it also seems that, when some creature opposes Eru’s theme, this is a different kind of evil altogether. We might be able to say that Melkor’s song is a privation in the sense that it lacks the order intended by Eru, but it also seems that is only one narrow feature of his act and that opposition to the good would be a better and fuller description. Opposition is something active and not merely negative, like privation. As Adams says, “No doubt privation of goodness often does constitute badness, but that is not an apt explanation of the nature of all badness.”[6]

It also seems that in our everyday usage of the term evil, we often mean more than merely privation of the good. If we say that Hitler was evil, it would be surprising to find out that all we really are saying is that Hitler lacked goodness. “He lacked goodness” might equally as well describe a couch potato as it does Hitler. It may be that our moral judgment of Hitler as evil would be better explained if it turned out that evil was essentially opposition to good, perhaps opposition so strong that it amounts to hatred of the good. This concept of “opposition,” I think, makes more sense of how we often see evil portrayed in mythology and culture.

Evil characters have a visceral, active quality about them that cannot be explained in terms of mere privation. Darth Vader is not merely the negation of the good or “light side” of the Force. He opposes it; he rivals it. Perhaps the greatest archetype of all evil characters is the biblical Satan, whose name literally means “the adversary.” Barth argues that the demons, of whom Satan is chief, “are not divine but non-divine and anti-divine. . . . They can only hate God and His creation. They can only exist in the attempt to rage against God and to spoil His creation.”[7] Here again we see the intuitive move to think of evil as opposition to the good. If privation were the essence of evil, then the archetype of evil might be better named “Nothingness” rather than “Adversary.”  But what we see in our best representations of evil is that their primary, salient feature seems to be opposition rather than privation. We would more naturally describe Melkor, Vader, Hitler, and Satan as hating the good rather than merely lacking it; a recalcitrant fact for the privation theory.[8]

Even if this opposition theory of evil is correct, we have not yet said how this synthesizes with theism or solves the trilemma I put in the mouth of the skeptic. Here is how an answer might go. First, this theory easily harmonizes with the idea that God is the good without entailing or implying dualism because evil understood as opposition clearly requires that evil supervene on the good. After all, evil is not merely opposition, but opposition in a definite direction. Martin Luther King Jr. actively opposed racism and inequality and we call him good precisely for that reason. Thus, if we have a definite concept of evil, it will likely be best explained by relation to some stable, ultimate good to which it is opposed.

Second, evil may depend on God in the same way that the notion of privation depends on existence or being, but this does not seem to pose a challenge to God’s goodness. We can think of the origin of evil as following from the reality of genuine freedom. God makes creatures with a will to choose between real alternatives, even to choose opposition to himself. God creates the possibility for opposition, but there is not a morally meaningful sense in which God is the ground of evil. If this is so, then we as theists have a way of thinking about evil that does not commit us to dualism, preserves God’s status as the best explanation of the good, and does justice to our best intuitions about the concept of evil.

[1] I have in mind the sort of metaphysics Plantinga describes in “How to be an Anti-Realist,” though Plantinga does not suggest that evil is one of the objects in the mind of God. See Alvin Plantinga, “How to Be an Anti-Realist,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 56, no. 1 (1982): 47–70.

[2] Of course, there is more to say about each of these possibilities, but my aim here is just to show some initial problems that this puzzle about evil might create.

[3] Saint Augustine, The Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 124.

[4] Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999), 15.

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 18.

[6] Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 103.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of Creation, Volume 3, Part 3: The Creator and His Creature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 523.

[8] However, this view would not entail that privation is not evil at least in some cases. It would only mean that evil cannot essentially be privation.

Mailbag: The Science of Morality?


Hello professor, I hope you are doing well. I have been looking at some of your work and I think you could answer a question I have in regards to ethics. If you have time that is. If you don’t have the time you can just ignore my email. My question has to do with an article I have been reading recently that is titled the science of morality. In the article the author states that morally good is identical with flourishing well being and the morally bad is identical with misery. I read some reviews of the articles and other scholars state that the author was just redefining moral goodness with well being and argument was circular. But why believe that objective goodness cannot be identical with flourishing of human well being? What makes the argument invalid?

Thank you for your time,



Hi Bill,

This is a deceptively hard question! The topic of goodness is quite complicated. Usually when we say that someone is morally good, we’re talking about traits of character and various virtues the person shows. Somehow the goodness inheres in the person. We speak secondarily of various states of affairs being good, but it’s almost a misnomer to call a state of affairs morally good. This is why Kant was of the view that the only truly good thing is a good will–an attribute of a person.

We might come across an awful state of affairs, but what’s morally bad is, most likely, the person or persons (if there is such a person or are such persons) culpably responsible for bringing it about. To say a hurricane is bad is not to say it’s morally bad. It just is what it is. Calling it morally bad is anthropomorphism. Of course it’s nonmorally bad, in that it produces, potentially, a range of undesirable consequences, but you asked about moral goodness in particular. Often when goodness gets contrasted with bad, the focus is on nonmoral considerations that pertain to things like pleasure and pain; but when good gets contrasted with evil, the distinctively moral features come into view.

So flourishing is a perfect example of something that’s nonmorally good. But it doesn’t get us to the heart of moral goodness. The effort to define moral goodness by appeal to human flourishing is a rookie mistake. It’s a deflationary attempt by folks who want to domesticate the concept to reduce moral goodness to something other than itself. It’s thus an attempt to define moral goodness in terms that aren’t moral at all. But moral goodness can’t be reduced or explained away in such a manner. The effort falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy, for one thing. For another, it just leaves too much out.

Suppose you are asked a question and risk being shot to tell the right answer. The morally good thing to do, you’re convinced, is to tell the truth. But still, you tell the truth and immediately get shot. How on earth can an appeal to human flourishing be adequate to account for the moral goodness of your choice in such a situation? Rather than conducing to survival and flourishing, it ensured your immediate death.

Now, just because there’s not an analytic reduction of “moral goodness” into “human flourishing” doesn’t mean there’s no connection between them. To the contrary, I think there’s an airtight (synthetic) connection between the two, but that’s quite different from saying moral goodness just is human flourishing. Ultimately, on a Christian worldview, moral goodness comes about by way of right relation with and transformation by God entirely into the image of Christ–a righteous and holy life–and with such a life will come complete fulfillment and satisfaction. But that doesn’t mean morality and happiness are the same thing; they’re not. But a good God can and will ensure their ultimate correspondence.



Mailbag: A Moral Argument from Evil?


Hi, MA team:

I’ve been working through an argument for God’s existence which takes as its starting point a conception of evil as wrongdoing or injustice. In other words, when we think about great evils, whether moral or natural, we tend to think of certain states of affairs that *ought not* obtain, or which depart from the way things should be, or which are simply not owed to us. All of these different conceptions, it seems to me, essentially boil down to two elements: 1) we treat the existence of evil as being ‘out of step’ with the character of the world, that is, as having a certain normative pull; and 2) such normative character points to an understanding of evil as in relation to some end or perfection, some maximum.

The argument I have in mind, then, proceeds thus:

1. To the extent that we understand evil as a wrongdoing or injustice — that is, as a departure from the way things should be, or as something not owed — we understand evil in relation to some end or perfection, some maximum.
2. But, given atheism, no such perfection or maximum exists.
3. Therefore, plausibly, theism is true.

I would be very interested in your thoughts, please. One possible objection that has been marshalled against my argument is the following (and I wonder how you would address it, provided that you think the argument works):

“I think most moral philosophers think premise 2 is false. Aristotle argued there is a highest human end (without God), so injustices are departures from that. Similarly, Kant argued that his “categorical imperative” is objectively true, not dependent upon God. Finally, I argue…that (1) is false: that evil is not a departure from some objective “maximum,” but rather deviations from a conception of fairness that is rational for human beings to adopt given human psychology.”

Thank you very much for your time,
Paulo Juarez


Reply: This is all very interesting stuff! Thanks for the query, and sorry for the delay getting back to you. This approach, to my thinking, has tremendous potential. The notion that the world is, in some very strong sense, not as it ought to be seems profoundly right, but also rather difficult to reconcile with naturalism. After all, in something like a fully determined world, why should anything be different from what it is? Evil in any robust sense makes more sense in a theistic world inhabited with creatures with meaningful agency who have used their agency wrongly. In God and Cosmos, Walls and I make the case that what’s worse even than the problem of evil is the inability of naturalism to account for the category of evil at all. When the problem of evil ceases being a problem for one’s worldview, so much the worse for one’s worldview.

You’re characterizing as an essential feature of evil a relation to some end or perfection or maximum. First a word on that. Personally I might disambiguate between these three notions. The second and third of them—perfection and maximum—seem to go well together in Anselmian theology. If the God of classical theism is construed along the lines of the greatest possible being, then his perfection is constituted by instantiating all the great-making properties to the maximally compossible degree. So, regarding goodness, God has as much goodness as is possible in light of his maximal power, knowledge, etc. Tom Morris and I did an article on this in the recent issue of the Christian Research Journal. I think that makes great sense.

When we speak of an “end” of something, however, I’m not as confident that we need speak of a perfection or maximum. Regarding human artifacts, for example, like a pencil, its end is to write well, or something like that. Or a car’s purpose or function is likely to transport us around. Aristotle thought teleology was shot through everything, but if it is, in lots of cases the telos in question has little to do with perfection or a maximum.

Now, if human beings in particular have a telos, and if Christianity is true, then you could more effectively argue that the goal, the purpose, the telos of human beings does involve perfection—at the culmination of the sanctification process when we’re entirely conformed to the image of Christ. That classical theism and orthodox Christianity feature the realistic hope of total moral transformation in this way enables the “performative” variant of moral apologetics that’s one of the four variants of the moral argument this website often discusses.

But you wish to characterize even natural evils as falling short of a perfection, which likely seems predicated on the idea that worlds admit of intrinsic maxima, and I rather doubt they do. Unlike the case of God, who does admit of intrinsic maxima, worlds likely don’t, which is related to why one of Guanilo’s criticisms of the ontological argument fails, since the criticism assumed that, say, islands admitted of intrinsic maxima when, in fact, they just don’t. How many palm trees are on the perfect island, for example? There’s no principled, nonarbitrary way to say.

So I’m of two minds about your argument. On the one hand, I think there’s something profoundly right about theism providing the best explanation of the category of evil—along with hope for its ultimate defeat (by relation with God, the ultimate Good, a good so incommensurably good that relation to him can make the sufferings of this world, however horrific, pale by comparison). On the other hand, characterization of evil as intrinsically connected to a maximum or perfection strains credulity a bit.

More plausible, I think, is the claim that evil, as an instance of the way the world shouldn’t be, reflects a missing of the mark (even if the mark isn’t best cast as a perfection). Not every imperfection is an instance of evil, but every evil does seem to be a radical missing of some normative state of affairs. So I’d likely be inclined to recast your argument more like this:

  1. To the extent that we understand evil as a wrongdoing or injustice — that is, as a departure from the way things should be, or as something not owed — we understand evil in relation to some end or standard.
  2. Theism provides the best explanation for such normatively binding ends.
  3. Therefore, plausibly, theism is true.

This still remains too brief and needs more fleshing out, but it’s the direction I’d encourage. And maybe I’m wrong! Perhaps you can still convince me of the need and plausibility of those categories I excised. But for now, my suggestion, for whatever it’s worth, is this: Leave behind the ontologically heavy notions of perfections and maxima and just refer to the intuitively strong idea that evil reflects something that is not the way the world ought to be. Then make the case that classical theism and orthodox Christianity can provide the better explanation of such normatively binding ends that make sense of how the world, people, etc. “ought to be.” On naturalism, assuming determinism at the macro level, it’s awfully difficult to distinguish between the way the world is and how it ought to be. That’s a very high price to pay for the committed naturalist, involving an eschewal of deep moral intuitions.

As for the Kantian and Thomistic concerns, I don’t think you have as much to worry with there as some might say you do. In various places in Kant’s works, he gives a variant of a moral argument for God’s existence. It tends to be a version of either the performative or rational argument (as discussed on this site and in God and Cosmos), but it’s undoubtedly there. Just recently I’ve been reading his Lectures on Ethics (which students of his put together based on his lectures). Here’s a telling passage (one among many!): “The ideal of the Gospels is complete in every respect. Here we have the greatest purity and the greatest happiness. It sets out the principles of morality in all their holiness. It commands man to be holy, but as he is imperfect it gives him a prop, namely, divine aid.” Even the categorical imperative is, to Kant’s thinking, connected in various and powerful ways to God, not least in Kant’s insistence we should think of all moral duties as duties to God for the sake of grounding their rational stability.

Regarding Aristotle, you might wish to read John Hare’s chapter on him in God and Morality. Our highest telos, for Aristotle, is contemplating the divine. So it’s actually not the case that the highest human good, for Aristotle, was independent of God. Naturalists who try to adopt him to their cause are misguided, for a number of reasons. Here’s one: Aristotle’s focus on what’s natural was by way of contrast with the artificial, not the supernatural. At any rate, much more could be said there (and has been said elsewhere), but take a look at Hare if you get a chance.

Thanks so much for the chance to reflect on this, and feel free to stick to your guns and defend your approach. Keep up the great work! Blessings!

Dave Baggett



Mailbag: Why Do You Think Christianity is True?


Hello professor, I was just wanting to reach out to you and ask you for some guidance. I recently came across a post of the computer that stated this. Do you identife with a specific religion? If you do, ask yourself these questions: 1. Why did so many Gods and beliefs predate your own?   2. Why didn’t your God choose a global revelation instead of a culture specific one? 3. Why were you born in the “right religion”? Now I am kind of stumped by these questions. Do you think, if you have time, could you give me your thoughts on them? Thanks, Billy

Response by Jonathan Pruitt 

Hi Billy,

Thanks for writing to us at Moral Apologetics! Dr. Baggett has just left on vacation and so I’ll be responding to your letter. Let’s take these one at a time. The first question is “Why did so many Gods and beliefs predate your own?” The question as stated is imprecise, but I think the heart of the question is something like this: “As a Christian, what do you say about the fact that there are religions older than yours?” That’s a fair question and one we can offer several responses to.

First, we might ask what the problem is supposed to be. If there are religions older than Christianity, does that suggest Christianity is not true? I am not sure how an argument for that position might go. The age of the religion has little to do with the likelihood of it being true; what’s more important is the sort of evidence that gives credibility to the claims of the religion. Say, for example, that tomorrow all the stars moved in space so that from earth they spelled out, “Scientology is true.” That would make Scientology much more plausible than, say, Baal worship, even though the Baal religions are much older.

Second, if what the Bible teaches about God’s interactions with mankind is true, then the Christian God has been revealing himself to mankind since the beginning. Worship of the Christian God was the original religion, according to the Bible.  So the first question presumes a certain view of the development of religion and of world history in general that Christians deny. Worship of the Christian God is as old as mankind itself and so, in a sense, Christianity is the oldest religion.

The second question concerns the kind of revelation that the Christian God provides. The questioner seems to think that if a religion were true, then it ought to have “global revelation” pointing to its truth. I take it that this is a critique of the resurrection of Jesus, which happened at a specific time and place in history. This sort of revelation is what I suspect the questioner means by “local” revelation—sometimes this goes by the name “the scandal of particularity.”

In response, I will first say that I share the questioner’s concern. If God exists and he is good, then we should expect that he provides everyone with adequate reasons for believing in him. Of course, what the skeptic thinks are adequate reasons and what actually are adequate reasons are not always the same. As Paul Moser points out, we are often presumptuous when considering the evidence for God. We ask, “What evidence would satisfy me?” And we expect God to personally tailor the evidence to fit our expectations. We do not usually ask, “If God exists, how would he like me to know him?”

That said, I think God has given universally accessible reasons to believe in him. Let me give some examples. First, even if we take the resurrection which is supposed to be an example of a “local” revelation, the fact of the matter is that most people in the world are aware of the Christian claim to the resurrection of Jesus. Most people in the Western world even have the resources to conduct serious investigation into the veracity of these claims. So even though the resurrection is a localized event, it is open to investigation by a very large number of people.

The Bible also teaches that God does reveal himself universally. For example, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, God’s righteousness, and the coming judgment (John 16:8). Paul says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). In his speech in Athens, Paul proclaims,

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:24-28).

So the Bible clearly teaches that God reveals himself on a global scale and that he specifically arranged the world so that people would have the best chance at knowing him. The Bible teaches that God is intimately concerned with the salvation of the whole world and that he has actually revealed himself to every human being.

We also have highly intuitive theistic arguments which are universally accessible. If there is a moral law, there must be a moral law giver. If there is a universe, there must be a cause to the universe. If the universe appears intelligently designed, then likely there is a designer. Those are just very brief and rough summaries of only three of the theistic arguments, but the point is that they rely on common sense and basic empirical observations; they are open to investigation by any human person. In that way, they provide a kind of universal (or global) revelation of God.

The third and final question is “How do you know you were born in the right religion?” Clearly, if a person inherits their beliefs from their parents, this does not make them true. But the fact that I learned Christianity from my parents does not make it not true, either. If the questioner intends to say that, he would be committing the genetic fallacy. But if we answer the question as asked, we can provide two kinds of responses. The first answer is that I know that Christianity is true on the basis of my encounters with the Christian God. The Holy Spirit has provided the conviction of the truth of the gospel to me. And I have direct awareness and relationship with the Jesus of the Bible. These provide good reasons for me to believe in Jesus. But I also know that Christianity is true on the basis of critical thinking and the use of evidence. I mentioned some of the theistic arguments earlier, but there are also good arguments that Christianity in particular is true. There are philosophical arguments, like the one provided by Moral Apologetics contributor Brian Scalise that says a Trinitarian (and therefore Christian) conception of God makes the most rational sense. And there are empirical and historical arguments, like the minimal facts case for the resurrection employed by scholars like Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. So I know that I was born in the right religion because I have encountered the living Jesus myself and because careful and fair analysis of the evidence leads me to that conclusion.

In sum, it seems that the questioner is concerned about why we should think Christianity is true given the many religions in the world. The bottom line is that Christianity is better evidenced and more plausible than any other worldview.


Mailbag: What Can God Do?

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Dr. Michael Jones for answering this mailbag question. If you have a question that you would like answered, contact us on Facebook or at 


Hello! I’m desperately searching for an answer to a question that my Mormon friend posed to me earlier this week. He asked me if God has freedom given that He cannot choose evil. I replied by telling him that God could choose any number of good things, not just evil. The inability to choose A, B, & C doesn’t mean God can’t choose D, E, and F, but he stopped me there. “God can’t just choose all that is good, He must choose the most perfect choice since He is perfectly good Himself. Thus, God can only do one thing. He does not have free will.” I really have no idea how to answer this, do you? If not, could you direct me towards someone who would? Thanks!


Greetings. This is an interesting question. It’s also a familiar one, to me: one or another of my students raises this question almost every year. Perhaps it comes up so regularly because there’s some truth behind it. And that’s actually a good thing: if your goal is to win the confidence of your friend (I get the impression that it is) then I think it would be helpful for you to begin by acknowledging those points about which you agree.

For example, you’d probably grant that there are some things that God cannot choose to do, wouldn’t you? We’re often tempted to think that if God is omnipotent (all powerful) then he can do anything that we can imagine – and perhaps even things that are beyond our imagination. But that’s neither biblical nor very logical. The Bible indicates several things that God cannot do. For example, he cannot lie (Titus 1:2) and he cannot be tempted (James 1:13). God can’t do these things because they go against his own nature. Similarly he can’t cease being God, he can’t become finite in his knowledge, power, or goodness, and he cannot cease to exist, any more than you or I could do things that go against our nature, like sprout wings and fly or be in all places at once.

Likewise there are things that God cannot do because they are truly impossible, and therefore no one could do them. It’s impossible to make a square triangle, to make two plus two equal five, and things like that. Not being able to do these things is not a shortcoming on God’s part: no god, no matter how powerful, could do these things, for they are truly impossible.

There are choices that God cannot make because making them would go against his nature, and there are choices that God cannot make because they involve something that is simply impossible. These closely parallel what was said above. This is not a shortcoming on God’s part: it’s just the nature of things. Your friend may simply be pointing this out, and if that’s all he’s trying to say, then you may want to thank him and be done with it.

From what you wrote, however, it seems like your friend is saying that God isn’t free at all. I would disagree with that. Your friend seems to be making the argument that God’s perfect knowledge of all the options and their results combines with his perfect goodness to prevent him from choosing anything but one option in every situation. There’s a lot that could be discussed here, including Molinism, Open Theism, metaphysical views of time, history, God’s relationship to time, etc. Since I can’t address all of these, I’ll focus on just one: the presupposition that in any given situation there is always one option that is superior to all of the others.

It may be true that in some or perhaps in many situations there is one option that is decisively better than all of the others. I think that your friend is right that in those situations God’s nature constrains him to choose that option that is best. (I must add, though, that here we’re talking as if God experiences time and choosing just like we mortals do, which may be too anthropomorphic. We’ll leave that issue aside, though.) But that should not be viewed as a shortcoming, any more than God’s inability to sin, lie, or create square circles is a shortcoming (which it’s not, in my opinion). Furthermore, some theologians believe that there’s a sense in which this is still a form of free choice on God’s part, for in such a situation God’s choice is not constrained by anything outside of himself. God chooses in harmony with what God is and what he knows about reality. He can’t choose otherwise because doing so would contradict his nature and the nature of reality. Perhaps that’s not a problem at all, though. The alternative would seem to be to say that God can make choices that are not consistent with who he is, as an omniscient and omnibenevolent being. I’m not sure that you should want to affirm that.

All of that is predicated on the assumption that in any given situation there is always a single best option. However, that’s a pretty big assumption. In fact, there may be many situations wherein there are many very good options none of which is clearly better than the others. The other day my wife asked me what I wanted for breakfast and then proceeded to list a number of very tasty options. Each had its advantages, to be sure, but to me any of them would have been great. Something similar may happen to God quite often: he may know that choosing option A will have 10 beneficial consequences and 3 detrimental ones, that B would have 12 benefits but one hugely detrimental consequence, that option C would have 9 beneficial results but also 9 fairly minor negative results, etc. Knowing exactly how each option balances good and bad, he would know if and when there are options that, all things considered, are equally preferable. In those situations there is no one best option. That being the case, it makes sense that God would be free to choose between those options, don’t you think?

It’s great to think deeply about the nature of God. It can be inspiring! But let’s keep in mind that there are many ways in which the nature of the infinite, perfect God transcends finite human understanding. We should marvel at his greatness but not be discouraged if he’s hard for us to wrap our minds around.

May God bless you as you seek to follow him,


Image: “Mail” by Bogdan Suditu. CC License. 

Mailbag: On the Morality of God’s Judgments in Ezekiel

From the Mailbag:

Dr. Baggett, I’ve read your co-[written] book with Dr. Walls on the moral argument and have found it to be very helpful for solidifying my belief in God. I understand that by definition, we should trust our moral intuitions and due to that, we can rule out portraits of God that violate those baseline intuitions (e.g. God commanding rape). I see possible and probable interpretations of the genocide texts via Paul Copan that leave my moral intuitions intact, but I’m not sure how this would work for other texts. Consider Ezekiel 5:10 and 26:8. It seems there that God’s direct punishment leads to cannibalism of children and the killing of young daughters (ESV). As the parent of three young girls I can’t square this with my basic moral intuitions. How would you recommend proceeding?

By the way, thanks so much for your work. I understand if you’re not able to answer this due to time restrictions. If you don’t have time, do you mind pointing me in a fruitful direction?

Keith Brooks

Thanks for the question, Keith! For illumination on these matters I turned to my colleague, Old Testament professor Dr. Gary Yates. Here’s his reply:

These are direct punishments from God, but the OT prophets do distinguish between God using these enemy armies to carry out his judgments and the culpability these nations have for the moral atrocities they commit when carrying out these judgments. We can see this in Isaiah 10:5-15, where Assyria is the “rod of Yahweh’s anger,” but the intent of the Assyrians is not to carry out God’s intentions or to act in the kinds of humane ways that God demands. The intent of the Assyrians is to “destroy” (10:7) and to usurp God’s sovereignty (10:15). We see the same thing in Jeremiah’s oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51. The Lord uses Babylon as his “hammer” to strike the earth, but the Babylonians were actually only carrying out the evil intentions of their own hearts (Jer 50:11, 29, 33). The Lord uses the evil actions of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies to accomplish his purposes, but he does not compel them to perform their evil actions. They do them of their own accord and out of their own sinful and corrupt motivations. The prophets always make the case that the Lord will temporarily use these nations to judge Israel but then he would then hold them accountable for their crimes (see also Jer 25)—could he really do this if he had simply compelled them to kill, rape, and pillage? The atrocities of siege, starvation, cannibalism, and military defeat are highlighted in the prophets for two reasons—1) the Lord was motivating repentance by showing the people how terrible the judgment would be if they refused to repent; and 2) these were the specific covenant curses that the Lord had warned would come against Israel if they were not faithful to the covenant he had made with them as his chosen people (cf. Lev 26; Deut 28).

Two other points to consider that might help here. In Genesis 9, God establishes the Noahic covenant with all humanity which calls for severe punishment on those who shed blood (Gen 9:5-6). Isaiah 24:1-5 teaches that God will judge the world for violating the “everlasting covenant” (24:5). Since this covenant is with all nations, and since there is reference to bloodshed in Isaiah 26:21, the covenant in view here is the Noahic covenant. God will judge all nations for their violence and bloodshed in the final judgment. Passages like Amos 1-2; Habakkuk 2; and Nahum 3 also indicate that God’s judgment of nations (like Babylon and Assyria) is based on the fact that they have committed crimes that involved bloodshed against other nations and peoples. If God is directly responsible for the bloodshed and other acts of violence, then he is directly violating his own covenant.

The other point is that OT law expressly forbade Israel from practicing the kinds of atrocities against non-combatants that we are talking about here. When waging war outside of the land, they were not to kill non-combatants (Deut 20). They were given explicit instructions as to what to do with female prisoners of war that they wished to take as wives, and observance of these guidelines would have protected against wanton rape and abuse of females (Deut 21:10-13). God’s concern for widows and orphans reflects his concern for the oppressed. When we see Israel taking female captives for sexual purposes at the end of Judges (from their own people), the point there is that the Israelites are acting more like Canaanites than the kind of people that God designed them to be. In sum, we have to look at passages like these from Ezekiel 5 and 10 that you have pointed out in light of the whole canon and in light of the explicit moral commands and structures that God has put in place. I hope this helps.

Dr. Gary Yates


Photo: “Mailbox” by J. Rozler.  CC License. 

Mailbag: A Question on Atheistic Moral Realism


Dear Dr. Baggett,

I’m a Christian from Malaysia that has been interested in philosophy for the past few years now, and I have a burning question about the moral argument that I hope you’d be able to help me with.

Why can’t the naturalist posit that moral laws are normative in nature just like the laws of logic are? I think J. S. Mill took this approach. Both the laws of logic and morality are prescriptive; the laws of logic prescribe how we ought to think if we want to be reasonable, while moral laws prescribe how we ought to behave if we want to be morally good.

The naturalist can claim that just as the law of noncontradiction can exist without having a logical lawgiver, moral laws can exist without the need for a moral lawgiver.

I think I got this from the moralapologetics website where Trent Dougherty interviewed Wielenberg on the issue. Was hoping you could help because something *feels* wrong about this response; it shouldn’t be that simple. Yet I can’t seem put my finger on what exactly is wrong with this response to the moral argument.







Hi Declan,

Thanks for the question. It’s a good one. Here are a few thoughts at least. Some do indeed argue that moral facts aren’t significantly different from other normative facts–be they logical or epistemic or even aesthetic. All of these normative standards do share some things in common alright. Both logic and morality, for example, as you note, are prescriptive–the former for theoretical rationality, the latter for practical rationality.

Philippa Foot once argued even the standards of etiquette are more than hypothetical imperatives because they too prescribe certain behaviors even for those indifferent to etiquette. But the contextual relativity of such standards, and their lesser gravity, still seem to distance etiquette from morality, at least until they start shading into one another.

Logic’s a bit of a tougher case than etiquette because it has greater gravity. But I think Wielenberg’s unwillingness to see a significant difference between logical and moral norms is a mistake. It may well be the case that all genuine norms have their locus in God–reflecting aspects of His nature–His rationality, His beauty, His goodness, etc. J. P. Moreland argues that to be so in his work. I’m quite open to this because it makes sense that, as Plantinga once put it, necessary truths may well best be thought of as reflections of God: thoughts God thinks, owing to who He is, in this and all possible worlds (modal realities).

Nevertheless, despite whatever all the various norms may hold in common, moral ones seem distinct in an important sense. Both logical (and epistemic) and moral norms may all be both authoritative and prescriptive and unavoidable, but moral norms are, additionally, the sort of standards whose violation should make us feel guilty. I don’t think of such guilt merely or primarily as a feeling (another way my view is a bit different from Wielenberg’s). I see it as an objective moral condition. It’s not that the violation of every moral norm results in guilt; not every moral norm is a duty; some are values. But the neglect of some values, anyway, violates a moral duty, and in such cases we are guilty. I don’t generally see violations of logical or epistemic norms in the same way.

“Oughtness” may apply to them all, but this shows an important way oughtness locutions can be variously construed. Usually it’s only the moral ought whose violation properly generates guilt. We often use ought language to point to prescriptions that don’t attain to the level of obligations. As in etiquette. In the case of logic, the normative standards do give us reasons to make some sorts of inferences and refrain from others. And sensitivity to such reasons is good–expansively construed. Robert Adams says sensitivity to good reasons is a form of excellence, and I agree. But the violation of constructive dilemma or modus tollens doesn’t, or shouldn’t, generate guilt, a need to be forgiven, or alienation from others that forgiveness can fix–features of shirking moral obligations all.

I think Wielenberg, Parfit, McGinn, Enoch, and others put the cart before the horse. It’s true that norms are connected with reasons, but moral obligations possess distinctive features. By my lights, we don’t find reasons to act and then presume we have explained moral obligations. Rather, moral obligations themselves give us compelling reasons to act. Inverting this has been one of the ways a number of secularists have watered moral obligations down, neglected one of their most important distinguishing features, and mistakenly acted as though moral obligations can be explained merely by adducing a certain set of normative reasons to act. Acting and thinking rationally does not constitute a full explanation of moral belief and practice. Morality carries extra clout and punch, which needs accounting for.

Hope that helps!



Photo: “Mail” by T. Johnston. CC License.