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God and Evil

If God is such a nice guy, why is there so much misery and suffering in the world? Kola Abimbola examines an ancient problem.

One of the principal challenges to the belief in God is the problem of evil. J.L. Mackie stated the problem as follows:

…God is omnipotent: God is wholly good, and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true, the third would be false.1

The problem of evil, when stated like this, arises for believers if and only if they affirm that God is wholly good and all powerful at the same time.

The problem can, however, be differently formulated. For if one believes in the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God, the question can be asked; why didn’t God create man wholly good? After all, if God is both omnipotent and benevolent, He must be both willing and able to create man wholly good. Since there is evil in the world, can we infer either that God does not exist, or that He exists without being both omnipotent and benevolent?

The problem of evil poses a question of rationality. If it can be shown that the alleged contradiction is real, or that God might have created man wholly good, would it not follow that there is no rational basis for the belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God? Would it not follow that the belief in such God is, indeed, positively irrational? These questions at once make it important to address the problem.

Various attempts have been made to solve this problem. Some have maintained that there is no evil in the world; that evil is illusory. Others like St. Augustine have argued that what we call evil is merely a negative phenomena; it is a privation of good; nothing positive. Since a commitment to reason implies subjecting our beliefs and ideas to continued critical scrutiny, I will offer some hypothetical responses and challenges to the proponent of the argument from evil. These challenges and responses are drawn from popular attitudes to God and evil.

First of all, a distinction must be made between natural evil such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc., on the one hand, and moral evil like murder, theft, etc., on the other hand. The first formulation of the problem of evil takes both moral and natural evil as the facts on the basis of which its argument is constructed. The second formulation, however, is concerned with moral evil only.

A theist could argue that to claim that God could have created man wholly good is to assert that human actions ought to have a causal antecedent – God’s creative act – given which humans cannot but act for the good.

But if God had created man wholly good, man would be completely helpless in controlling or bringing about his good actions. This would amount to determinism because human behaviour would never be up to them. It would also imply that humans can never genuinely deliberate on their moral actions.

But – the theist would argue – God did not create man wholly good because He wanted human actions to be up to them. God wanted a world in which the idea of punishment, reward and accountability made sense. Simply put, a theist could invoke freewill as the cause of moral evil. The fact of moral evil, therefore, (the theist argument would continue), is a sign of moral decadence; it does not show that it is irrational to believe in the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God. The existence of moral evil shows that although God did create man with the ability to distinguish and choose between good and evil, some still choose to perpetuate evil. These evil doers, therefore, should be held responsible for their deeds.

But it is by no means clear that an invocation of free will gets around the problem of evil. This is so because it could be argued that to attribute moral evil to human free will overlooks the thrust of the problem. For even in a world of free willing individuals, an omnipotent God, by virtue of being omnipotent, knows all the consequences of all human actions in advance. And being benevolent, he should have altered the circumstances so that only good deeds would occur.

After all, if I know well in advance that Mr. X is going to murder Mrs. Y, and although it was within my control to stop the murder, I didn’t; then even if Mr. X committed the murder of his own free will, my own inaction is still not morally justified. Indeed,the situation of an omnipotent and benevolent deity is probably more morally unjust. After all God must know all evil actions which will occur well before the individuals who commit them are brought into existence. Being all-good, God’s willingness to deter these evil actions ought to have been so immense that He would have created the circumstances such that free willing human beings can only will to do the good.

Indeed, a further question can be raised; how free can the human will be in a world where an omnipotent and benevolent God exists? God’s fore-knowledge of human future choices is, more or less, a decisive external force which acts on human actions in such a way as to allow them to happen. Isn’t this a form of determinism? Put differently, an omnipotent and benevolent God’s fore-knowledge of actions is more than mere fore-knowledge. God’s fore-knowledge is a knowledge of the occurrences of all actions in their most minute detail. Not acting to deter evil under these circumstances is almost indistinguishable from bringing about these actions as a result of God’s own free will. Hence, it is doubtful whether the notion of human free will makes any real sense in a world where such a God exists.

But suppose we set aside the whole class of moral evil, how can the believer in an omnipotent and benevolent God explain away the occurrence of natural evil?

Since natural evil cannot be attributed to human free will, perhaps we can legitimately attribute it to God’s free will. If this is so, the theist would have to offer a different kind of response to the problem of natural evil.

One possible response is the argument that the concept of goodness makes sense only if it is discussed in a world where good and evil co-exist; the concept of good cannot be understood unless there is also evil for it to contrast with.

This response to the problem of evil is a logical one. For it could be argued that the statements “man is wholly good”, “x is good”, would have no real meaning in a world that was ‘wholly good’. This is because the meaning of evil (or ‘badness’) is implied in the concept of ‘good’. Put in a logical sense, to assert that “x is good” is equivalent to asserting that “it is not the case that ‘x is not good’”; which is to say that “x is not evil” (or ‘bad’), and, consequently, that “x is good”. Thus, to say that “x is good” presupposes a distinction between two classes of things: the good and the evil. This implies that our conception of ‘evil’ is covertly contained in that of ‘the good’.

The believer in an omnipotent and benevolent God could use this logical manoeuvre to argue that God did not create the world wholly good simply because the concept of ‘good’ makes sense only if it is distinguishable from ‘evil’. Indeed, if it is logically impossible to make use of the concept of ‘the good’ without the use of the concept of ‘evil’, it might be irrational to ask why God did not create the world wholly good.

Before we accept this response, however, let us make a distinction between concepts and instantiations. A concept is an idea; it is essentially a mental construct. An instantiation is a representation of a concept; it is an occurrence of the idea a concept connotes. Although it might be logically impossible to have the concept of ‘the good’ without that of ‘the evil’, the associative concept of evil need not have instantiations. Indeed there are many concepts that have no instantiations. The concepts, ‘unicorns’ and ‘even numbers not expressible as the sum of two primes’ are good examples. We use and understand these concepts even though they do not have instantiations. Why, then, must the concept of evil have instantiations before it can function significantly in our use of the concept ‘the good’? Why didn’t God create a world in which, although we make use of the concept of evil, there are no instantiations of evil; a world in which we only have instantiations of ‘the good’?

In short, the believer in an omnipotent and benevolent God cannot parry the thrust of the problem of evil by maintaining the logical impossibility of a concept of ‘the good’ without its associate ‘the evil’.

What conclusion can we draw from these? Are we now in a position to conclude that the belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God is positively irrational? Perhaps not. For there are still some rational options open. The theist could simply modify his claims by saying that although God is both omnipotent and benevolent, He is only predominantly so. For instance, one could rationally maintain that God is omnipotent and benevolent in issues of love, marriage and the family; but malevolent in issues of adultery, robbery and theft. Note however that a theist who adopts this move would simply be defining ‘omnipotence’ and ‘benevolence’ in a way that suits him. The theist would thereby be providing a solution to a problem of evil which is quite different from ours. Indeed, a theist could parry the problem by distinguishing between knowledge and belief, and, thus, claim that his belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God need not be known to have an instantiation. If the belief in such a God functions significantly in his way of life, perhaps, that is enough legitimacy for the belief.

In scrutinizing and evaluating the various aspects of the belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God, it is probably impossible to produce a set of ultimate answers; what is most important is to continue the dialogue.

© Dr. K.O.Abimbola 1993

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the ‘Assembly of The World’s Religions’, held in San Francisco on 15-21 September 1990.

1. J.L. Mackie, ‘Evil and Omnipotence’, in God and Evil ed. Nelson Pike (Prentice Hall, 1964), pp. 46-60

Kola Abimbola has just competed a PhD on scientific rationality at the London School of Economics. He teaches logic and philosophy of science

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