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God, Evil, and the Human Good (Part 1 of 2)


The aim of this series of posts is to give a theodicy. A theodicy is an explanation of how God and evil can co-exist in the world. In order to do this, we will first see why there is such a thing as “the problem of evil.” Then we will see how Plantinga’s response to this problem provides useful guideposts in constructing a theodicy. With these guideposts in place, I will argue that one reason for supposedly gratuitous evils is that they are required to realize the human good.


The Logical Problem of Evil

One powerful way to show that a worldview is false is to show that it contains internal contradictions. If, for example, we could show that Buddhism teaches that there are no such things as unified, human selves, but we can show that a real and unified human self is everywhere presupposed by Buddhist teaching, this counts as an internal contradiction. Buddhists are committed to two beliefs that cannot be reconciled together. This is the kind of challenge that the problem of evil poses to Christian theism.

Let us call the person pressing the objection to the Christian the “atheologian.” Now, the first the step the atheologian needs to take to show a contradiction within Christianity is say what two beliefs are supposed to contradict one another. The two beliefs in question are the orthodox view of God and the existence of evil. The next step is to spell out how exactly these beliefs contradict each other. The orthodox view of God is that he is maximally great. That is, he possesses all great-making properties to the greatest degree possible. Among these great making properties are omnipotence and omnibenevolence. By omnipotence, we mean that God has the power to do anything that is possible to be done. Being omnipotent does not mean that God can do what is logically impossible, like make a married bachelor.[1] By omnibenevolence, we mean that God’s nature is fundamentally characterized by love and goodness. As the Apostle John wrote, “God is love.”[2] Richard Swinburne says that God is “morally perfectly good… he always does the morally best action (when there is one), and no morally bad action.”[3] To say that God is omnibenevolent entails some important things about God. Atheist J. L. Mackie writes that “good is opposed to evil in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.”[4] God, being maximally good, will be necessarily committed to following this principle.  However, God is also omnipotent. This means that God, being willing and able, should eliminate all cases of evil. But our everyday experience makes it plain to us that evil exists. Therefore, the Christian is faced with a problem. The dilemma is well expressed by David Hume. Concerning God, Hume writes, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”[5] So the atheologian thinks he has shown that Christianity has an internal contradiction. God and evil cannot coexist, yet Christian teaching says they do. Therefore, Christianity must be wrong about their view of God.

Certainly, if we Christians were to tweak our view of God, we could easily make this problem of evil go away. We can get rid of either omnipotence or omnibenevolence and escape the atheologian’s argument. If God is not omnibenevolent, then he will not always remove evil every chance he gets. But this solution fails. First, it contradicts clear biblical teaching. Second, a God who is not omnibenevolent is not worthy of worship. So, perhaps, we can get rid of omnipotence. This has been a more popular option among theologians. For example, Rabbi Harold Kushner says, “I would rather worship a God who is completely good but not totally powerful than a God who is completely powerful but not completely good.”[6] Some Christians could also be accused of making a similar move. The Open Theist movement takes a view of God as less powerful. Specifically, they say God could know neither in advance nor for certain whether some particular evil would occur. Evil is out of his control in a way it is not on other views of God’s foreknowledge.[7] This solution fails, too. If God lacks omnipotence, then God is not maximally great. If not maximally great, then he could not properly be called “God.” So the Christian must find a way to preserve both God’s omnibenevolence and his omnipotence in the face of the existence of evil. Fortunately, Alvin Plantinga has provided a way out.


Plantinga’s Free Will Defense

Plantinga’s defense begins with this central insight: If an agent is free in the libertarian sense, then not even God could determine what she would do.[8] That is, it is logically impossible for God to determine what an agent does or for the agent’s actions to be self-determined.[9] This is not a threat to God’s omnipotence because, as mentioned earlier, being omnipotent just means being able to whatever is logically possible. Given that this is the case, perhaps the reason that God and evil exist together has to do with human freedom. At least some humans chose to use their freedom for evil instead of good. Add to this thought about free will the idea that humans having free agency is an intrinsically valuable state of affairs. It is better for humans to be free and not automatons. In fact, human freedom has the kind of value that God would consider worth the risk of realizing even if it means some humans might do evil. Thus, this is at least possibly the source of evil in the world. This insight, by itself, does not get the Christian completely out of trouble with the atheologian’s argument. For one, the atheologian might argue that God could have created both free will and a world without evil. But this might not be possible. Perhaps, as Plantinga suggests, all humans (including all non-actual humans) suffer from trans-world depravity.[10] If a being is trans-world depraved, it means there is no possible world in which he does not commit at least one act of evil. Thus, possibly, there is no possible world in which free creatures exist and there is no evil. If this is even possibly right, then the Christian has escaped the logical problem of evil.

Guideposts for a Theodicy

One important aspect of Plantinga’s argument here is that it is a defense, not a theodicy. All he aims to do is show how, possibly, God and evil might co-exist.[11] Plantinga is not arguing that his view is true, only that it is possibly true. If what he said about free will and the kind of restrictions it places on the worlds God could actualize is even possibly true, this means that the Christian is not uttering a contradiction when she affirms that both God and evil exist. But what we are after here is not merely a defense, but a theodicy. We want a true explanation of why God allows evil. Despite the difference in my aim and Plantinga’s, his argument is still useful for a couple of reasons. First, he has turned back the atheologian’s first attempt at refuting the Christian position. The atheologian must now revise his argument and try again. Second, it is likely that something like Plantinga’s account is true. Or, at the very least, certain features of his account are likely true. In spelling out my theodicy, I intend to deal with both these points, but let us first look at the true (and not merely possibly true) features of Plantinga’s free will defense. These will provide the guideposts of my own theodicy.

The first true principle is this:

P1: God can justifiably allow some evil if it realizes some worthwhile good that would not otherwise be possible.

But should we think that P1 is true? To get at that, we first have to be specific about what P1 is committing us to. One idea that believing P1 commits us to is that there at least some goods that cannot be realized without allowing some evil. This is not a new idea. Virtues like courage, compassion, and empathy all require evil in order to be realized. How can one be courageous unless he has some menace to conquer? Or how can we be compassionate unless there is some wrong in need of righting?  Another plausible idea is that the presence of good free moral agents requires at least the possibility of evil. It may be that, given a world with more than a handful of people and with genuine opportunity to do evil, all worlds like this would have at least some evil in them. Still further, as Plantinga argues, there is the tremendous good of the Atonement of Jesus which requires human evil as a precondition.[12] I take all of these as sufficient for establishing that some goods require evil to be realized.

Another idea P1 commits us to is that God will allow evil if the good it realizes is worthwhile. In Plantinga’s free will defense, he assumes P1 when he says, “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.”[13] To this principle, someone might say that this makes God into a consequentialist of the worst kind. Anything God does is acceptable so long as it gets the right kind of results. Kirk MacGregor writes, “If God permits evils to bring about greater goods, then God operates according to the principle that the ends justify the means, despite that he explicitly denounces this principle as unethical in scripture and punishes humans who act in precisely the same way he presumably does.”[14] One way to respond to this objection is to point out that God’s status as creator gives him a wider range of morally good actions to choose from than his creatures. For example, it would be wrong for a mere human to decide another’s eternal fate. However, a human’s Creator would be within his rights to make such a weighty judgment. Similarly, there is nothing inconsistent in saying that God could act as a consequentialist while simultaneously commanding his creatures to be deontologists or virtue ethicists. The apparent contradiction regarding what counts as right action could be reconciled by an appeal to a deeper story about the nature of the good.[15] But another way to respond to MacGregor is to suggest that he has too narrow a view of the greater good.

MacGregor seems to think that a principle like P1 can only be understood in terms of cold, utilitarian calculation. The variables in the equation do not matter so long as in the end, the good outweighs the bad.[16] But there is another way to understand the “greater good.” For example, we could say that God follows a principle like this: It is always good to create worlds with free creatures. [17]  Now, it may be, as Plantinga suggests, also true that no world with free creatures will be devoid of evil. But the deontologist is not primarily concerned with the consequences of an action, but with whether the act is good to do regardless of the consequences. In this case, God is like the man who tells the truth about who is living in his attic when the Nazis knock on the door. Protecting those under his care is important, but the “greater good” is fulfilling one’s duty by telling the truth, despite the consequences. God creates a world of free creatures even though he knows they will commit evil acts because the greater good is to create a world with free creatures. The upshot is that the truth of P1 is compatible with a wide array of ethical accounts. The compatibility derives from the fact that even the supposedly consequence-neutral, normative ethical theorist, like the deontologist, is committed to pursuing the greater good of fulfilling one’s duty instead of settling for the lesser good of happy consequence.  The bottom line is that P1 is a likely true principle.

The second true principle is this:

P2: God cannot do the logically impossible.

Not much needs to be said in defense of P2. It is a widely accepted theological principle, even if there are a few Ockhamists who disagree. What is worth pointing out, though, is that there are real limitations on how God relates to evil. He cannot magically make evil go away and preserve the goods that necessitate it.

With these guideposts in mind, let us return to the atheologian’s argument. The logical problem has been turned aside, so the atheologian must regroup and try another tack. William Rowe presents just such an argument. His argument has two premises:

R1: 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.

R2: 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.[18]

From this it follows that “there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.”[19]This argument is logically valid. And R2 is a true principle. Therefore, the Christian must reject R1. However, Rowe has some evidence to present in favor of R1. First is the case of Bambi. The second is the case of Sue. The Bambi case is a hypothetical scenario in which a fawn (Bambi) is slowly burned alive in a forest fire.[20] Even though this is only an imagined scene, we know that cases as bad as or worse than Bambi’s must occur frequently. In the case of Sue, Rowe narrates the true story of a little girl (Sue) who was brutally raped and killed by her mother’s boyfriend.[21] Both cases are meant to show examples evil that are completely senseless, especially cruel, and that God could have easily prevented without “thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.”

Having now laid out the guideposts for a theodicy and the evidential version of the problem of evil, I can now give an argument that shows why God must allow some evils in order for the human good to be possible. This next piece of the argument will be posted later this week.


[1] Thomas Aquinas said something similar: “everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” ST I Q 25 A 3. Available here:

[2] 1 John 4:8.

[3] Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, Rev. ed., Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). 184.

[4] J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). 26.


[6] Sarah Price Brown, “Q & a with Rabbi Harold S. Kushner,” Jewish Journal 2006.

[7] It is important to add here that many, if not most, Open Theists would not see their position as weakening of God’s omnipotence. God still has the power to do whatever is possible. But, on their view, it is not possible to know the truth of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom in advance. Thus, God still is able to do whatever is logically possible to do. Further, Open Theism is often not a response to the problem of evil, but to problems created by human libertarian freedom and certain perceived problems with God’s knowing some agent’s action in advance and that agent being genuinely free with respect to that action. There is a good discussion of these issues in Jerry L. Walls’ Hell: The Logic of Damnation, Library of Religious Philosophy (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992). 33-56.

[8] Alvin Plantinga, “God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom,” in Oxford Readings in Philosophy, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). 85.

[9] This is similar to the definition of libertarian free will offered by Bruce R. Reichenbach, Evil and a Good God (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982). 57. Reichenbach takes his definition from Anthony Flew.

[10] Plantinga. 101.

[11] If this were all Christians could say about the existence of God, that possibly he exists, Christian apologetics would be in a sad state. However, Plantinga’s free will defense provides a way out of the logical problem of evil so that Christians can now present a positive and cumulative case for the truth of Christianity.

[12] Alvin Plantinga, “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa’,” in Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil, ed. Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).

[13] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977). Kindle location 337.

[14] Kirk R. MacGregor, “The Existence and Irrelevance of Gratuitous Evil,” Philosophia Christi 14, no. 1 (2012). 169.

[15] My own view would be that God is not really committed to a particular normative ethical theory. I think something like natural law theory is true. Whatever God does is good because God always acts in the appropriate way given the nature of the object he acts upon and his relation to that object.

[16] MacGregor, “The Existence and Irrelevance of Gratuitous Evil.” See especially his discussion on pages 170-171.

[17] MacGregor takes a similar view in the end. He wants to defend the idea that there are gratuitous evils (he wants to show that Rowe’s second premise is false), but that these pose no threat to the rationality of the theist’s position. The basic thought is that, following Augustine, evil is a privation. Because everything God creates is less than God, “it is logically impossible for God to create a world without evil,” says MacGregor. In this case, evils, even especially heinous ones, are not part of some very tight plan according to which, if a person refrained from a gratuitously evil act, some very great good would be lost. So some acts of evil happen just because an agent willed it to happen and no other reason. In some ways, I am inclined to agree with MacGregor on this point. However, I think it is a mistake to call these evils “gratuitous.” God does have some greater goods in view when he allows them. At least one would be the greater good of respecting human freedom. MacGregor may be right when he says that certain evil acts are not essential to God’s plan, but they might still be essential to the integrity of human autonomy. This does not need to be spelled out in terms of consequentialism. Perhaps God follows the maxim: It is good to respect human freedom without considering the consequences. In that case, the greater good is following the maxim instead of intervening.

[18] William Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington, ID.: Indiana University Press, 1996). 2.

[19] Ibid. 2.

[20] Ibid. 4.

[21] Rowe, William L. 1988. “Evil and Theodicy,” Philosophical Topics 16: 119-32.


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