Why would a loving God allow such horrific evil and suffering? Couldn’t an all-powerful God stop it, if He existed? Doesn’t this show that such a God cannot exist?

For many people, the existence of evil and suffering is their number one objection to the existence of God. Sometimes it is communicated in terms of a refutation of God’s existence. Many other times it is stated as an emotional rejection of a God who would allow such evil and suffering.

In order to deal with this issue it will be helpful to draw a distinction between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. The intellectual problem concerns how to give a rational explanation for how God and evil can coexist. The emotional problem concerns how to dissolve people’s emotional dislike for a God who would permit suffering.

The Intellectual Problem

There are two versions of the intellectual problem – the logical problem and the probabilistic problem. I will address both in turn.

The logical problem

According to the logical problem it is impossible for God and evil to co-exist. If God exists, then evil cannot exist. If evil exists then God cannot exist. Since evil exists, it follows that God does not exist. The theist does not have to answer why God allows evil; they need only to show that God and evil are not incompatible.

The problem with this argument is that there is no inconsistency between God’s existence and evil’s existence. There is no explicit contradiction, logically. In order to get an implicit contradiction one needs a hidden assumption or assumptions that are necessarily true to produce the contradiction, and no philosopher has been able to come up with such premises. Possibly the best premise that has been tried would go as follows:

“An all-loving God would eliminate every evil and an all-powerful God could eliminate every evil.” This assumption is essential to the atheistic argument and must be necessarily true. Would an all-loving God eliminate every evil? Not necessarily. There are times when eliminating an evil would bring about a greater evil or eliminate a greater good that outweighs the evil. In such cases even an all-good being would not eliminate the evil.

eg. 1 – amputate a scraped knee

eg. 2 – sterilize people to eliminate the pain of childbirth

Could an all-powerful God eliminate every evil? Not necessarily. Even an all-powerful God cannot do the logically impossible like create a square circle. It is logically impossible to make someone freely do good. If He makes them do something, they are not free. If they are free, He can’t make them. So God cannot guarantee that a world of free persons will not commit evil.

Second, and more to the point, it is just not the case that an omnipotent God can create all logically possible worlds. In a world of truly free agents, God’s power to actualize depends, in part, on what in fact a free agent would freely choose to do. If a free agent (P) would choose to do X in a given situation, God cannot actualize the possible world where, given the same conditions, P would choose "not X." This latter world may be theoretically possible but not actually achievable.

As the atheist philosopher Evan Fales admits, “Alvin Plantinga has convinced most of us – if indeed, we were not already convinced – that the free will defense exonerates God from the imputation of a certain kind of incapacity. Not even an omnipotent being can guarantee the best of all possible worlds, for if such a world must contain created free beings, it will be partly up to them what transpires.”

Consider whether God could actualize the possible world where Adolf Hitler never started the Second World War. We know what Adolph Hitler’s free decision was, given the exact conditions leading up to his decision. God cannot actualize the world where given those same conditions, Hitler would choose not start the war. Even though it is a logically possible world, God’s power to actualize is limited by what in fact Hitler would choose to do. Thus, God cannot actualize any other world where Hitler would not start the war unless He did not allow Hitler his free will with respect to that decision or did not create Hitler at all.

Some might suggest those latter two options would be preferred. Possibly, but that misses the point of the example. I could just as easily have used a more innocuous example, say whether God could actualize the possible world where Michael Horner eats an apple at 3 p.m. on March 29, 2014. What Michael Horner would freely chose to do in that situation determines what is in God’s power to actualize. If Michael would choose to eat the apple God cannot actualize the world where given the same situation Michael would not eat the apple. It is up to God whether to give Michael freedom or whether to create him at all, but it is not within the power of even an omnipotent God to actualize the possible world where Michael does not eat the apple.

Therefore, it is just not true that an omnipotent God can do anything, like create any possible world. It is entirely possible that it is not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good without that world also containing moral evil. When free moral agents are involved it is entirely possible that a good end could not be achieved in any other way.

Thus the assumption “A” that was needed to produce a contradiction between God and evil, that an all-good, all-powerful God could and would eliminate every evil is not necessarily true. Therefore, there is no inconsistency between God and evil.

Do you have questions about God or want to talk about your doubts? Talk to a confidential and free mentor.

Read Do Evil and Suffering Disprove the Existence of God (Part 2)

Copyright © 2002 Michael Horner. Used with permission.

Photo Credit: Nathan Dumlao