God’s Omnipotence and Problem of Evil

Suffering

“A wholly good omnipotent being”, contended J. L. Mackie, “would eliminate evil completely; if there really are evils, then there cannot be any such being” (Mackie 1982: 150)

Is it necessarily true that a wholly good omnipotent being who is able eliminate evil, would eliminate evil? Is it necessarily true that a wholly good omnipotent being who cannot prevent pain and suffering, would be impotent?

Thomas V. Morris and Peter van Inwagen contended that the notions that if God exists, He would eliminate evil, and if He cannot eliminate evil, He is not omnipotent, are not necessarily true.

Following Morris, what we mean by a being B can do x, is either B’s ability, viz., B is “ able to do x” or B’s capability, viz., B is “capable of doing x”(Morris 1991). With this in mind, it become clear that God, a wholly good omnipotent, could be able to eliminate evil, but either God is morally incapable to eliminate evil without eliminating good, viz., God’s incapability to create a creature C who possesses true freedom of will and C only do good and never do evil, or God has sufficient moral reasons not to eliminate evil.

Inwagen expounded this idea:

Suppose, for example, that Alice’s mother is dying in great pain and that Alice yearns desperately for her mother to die—today and not next week or next month. And suppose it would be easy for Alice to arrange this—she is perhaps a doctor or a nurse and has easy access to pharmaceutical resources that would enable her to achieve this end. Does it follow that she will act on this ability that she has? It is obvious that it does not, for Alice might have reasons for not doing what she can do. Two obvious candidates for such reasons are: she thinks it would be morally wrong; she is afraid that her act would be discovered, and that she would be prosecuted for murder. And either of these reasons might be sufficient, in her mind, to outweigh her desire for an immediate end to her mother’s sufferings. So it may be that someone has a very strong desire for something and is able to obtain this thing, but does not act on this desire—because he has reasons for not doing so that seem to him to outweigh the desirability of the thing. The conclusion that evil does not exist does not, therefore, follow logically from the premises that the non-existence of evil is what God wants and that he is able to bring about the object of his desire — since, for all logic can tell us, God might have reasons for allowing evil to exist that, in his mind, outweigh the desirability of the non-existence of evil.(Inwagen 2006, 64-65)

Thus following Morris and Inwagen, even if God could eliminate evil, it does not follow that God would eliminate evil.

But what if a wholly good omnipotent being could not prevent evil, would it necessarily follow that He is impotent? No. It could be because of God’s moral incapability and not God’s inability to prevent evil that He could not prevent evil. God, following this view, cannot prevent evil not because God lacked possible power a being could have to prevent evil, but lack of moral reasons to prevent evil.

It is neither necessarily true, thus, that God being able to eliminate evil, He would eliminate evil, nor if God could not eliminate evil, would He be not omnipotent because it is possibly true that God could have good moral reasons not to prevent evil.

Bibliography:

Inwagen, Peter van (2006) The Problem of Evil. Oxford Press Inc., New York.

Mackie, J. L (1982) The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Morris, Thomas V. (1991) Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology. InterVarsity Press.

On Behalf of Cleanthes: Hume’s Problem of Evil

David Hume

“The whole earth” contended Philo, one of the three characters, together with Demea and Cleanthes in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, “is cursed and polluted. A perpetual war is kindle among all living creatures.”

In part 10, Philo and Demea contended against Cleanthes’ idea of God. They laid out the problem from undeniable pain and suffering. Philo listed fear, anxiety, terror, hunger, distress, agony and horror among other similar bad things that we face from the moment we enter into this world. He said,

Consider that innumerable race of insects, which either are bred on the body of each animal, or flying about infix their stings on him. These insects have others still less than themselves, which torment them. And thus on each hand, before and behind, above and below, every animal is surrounded by enemies, which incessantly seek his misery and destruction.(Hume 1991, 153)

On top of natural evils, the misery and destruction inflected by animals to man, Philo unceasingly pressed on to add moral evils; “Man is the greatest enemy of man. Oppression, injustice, contempt, contumely, violence, sedition, war, calumny, treachery, fraud; by these they mutually torment each other”(ibid 154) Demea joined Philo, as he too fired a list of horrors we face. He said,

Were a stranger to drop, on a sudden, into the world, I would show him a specimen of its ills, an hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field of battle strowed with carcasses, a fleet foundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence. To turn the gay side of life to him, and give him a notion of its pleasures; whither should I conduct him? to a ball, to an opera, to court? He might justly think, that I was only showing him a diversity of distress and sorrow. (ibid 155)

According to Philo and Demea, Cleanthes’ concept of God, namely a God resembling morally good human beings, seems very unlikely to be true, since good human beings would want to stop or prevent such amount of pain and suffering. Philo reminded Cleanthes what he judged to be unanswered Epicurus’(ca. 342- 270 BC.) old questions. He asked Cleanthes,

Is he[God] 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?(ibid 157)

According to Hume qua Philo, pain and suffering cast doubt that a wholly loving and maximal perfect being with respect to power exists.

How could Cleanthes have responded? He was probably familiar with Epicurus’ questions as quoted in Lactantius’ (ca. 260 – ca. 349) Patrologia Latina, 7, 121:

God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or he is able, and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and able, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with character of God; if he is able and unwilling he is malicious, which is equally at variance with God; if he is neither willing nor able, he is both malicious and feeble and therefore not God; if he is both willing and able, which is alone suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them? (Aherm 1971, 2)

Since Hume did not give him the last words, I pondered how, if I were Cleanthes, would I have began my answer to Demea’s and Philo’s objection. Unlike, Cleanthes, I hold to a revised Anselmian concept of God, viz., “a person who is aliquid quo nihil maius aut aequaliter magnum cogitari possit. ” (Inwagen 2006: 158)

God, if exists, is a morally perfect being with maximal excellence with respect to power, thus able and willing to remove pain and suffering. Why He does not remove them, I do not know. But what I know is that it is possible that God has morally good reason(s) not to remove them.

If it is possible, not necessarily true, that God have morally good reason(s) not to remove them, then pain and suffering do not necessarily cast doubts that a wholly loving and maximal perfect being with respect to power exists.

On behalf of Cleanthes, I would have asked Demea and Philo: Is it possible that God could have morally good reason(s) not to remove this copious amount of pain and suffering?

Bibliography:

Ahern,  M. B.(1971)  The, Problem of Evil. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.

Hume, David (1991) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, publish first in 1779. I used  Standely Tweyman’s ed.  Routledge: London and New York.

Inwagen, Peter van (2006) The Problem of Evil. Oxford Press Inc., New York.