The problem of evil has been debated over the long centuries, and the debate still rages on today. Many philosophers and theologians have pondered the subject, many ending their pursuit with skepticism and even atheism. Others have found confirmation and solace that God exists, and that the essential character traits of this being are consistent with the way in which God is portrayed in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. I am in complete agreement with the latter rather than the former.
That being said, I have found what I believe to be a consistent error in writings related to the problem of evil. This error is related to the doctrine of God, and particularly, the doctrines of omnipotence and omniscience. It is this topic which I intend to address in this article.
Before I delve into specific issues with specific authors, I will outline what I mean by the doctrines of omnipotence and omniscience. When discussing the problem of evil, we examine the problem from a theoretical standpoint. We state the matter in this fashion: “If God, then X.” Before we can determine whether ‘X’ is plausible, ‘X’ being evil in this discussion, we must first determine the definition of ‘God’.
It is the Christian who is claiming that God exists, despite the existence of evil. Therefore, it is appropriate for the Christian to clarify the definition of God. This definition is framed within the revelational control of Scripture. The discussion about God and the problem of evil, however, is theoretical. “If God, then X.” Again, God is spoken of in a theoretical fashion. Theoretical definitions should be clarified. If the meaning of the word ‘God’ is not agreed upon, then the scholars debating the problem of evil are comparing apples to oranges.
I will begin with the doctrine of omnipotence. Ronald Nash will help us set the scene:
Some thinkers apparently believe that any limitations (logical or otherwise) upon the power of God seriously undermine the classical claim that God is omnipotent. This explains why many people suggest that divine omnipotence means God can do anything. But if there is anything to be learned from the classical Christian discussions of omnipotence, it is that omnipotence was always understood to be compatible with certain limitations on God’s power. There are certain things that even an omnipotent God cannot do.1
The classical definition of the doctrine of omnipotence provides limitations on God’s power. God cannot sin. God cannot lie. God can place self-imposed limitations on himself as it relates to finite creatures (making promises, for example). God cannot perform acts that are logically impossible, for He is perfectly logical in his character. “A being’s inability to perform a pseudo-task (for example, creating a square circle) cannot count against its power.”2
Now, defining omnipotence is important, as it is directly related to the doctrine of omniscience, and both these doctrines must be properly understood in discussing the problem of evil. Omnipotence necessitates that God is perfectly capable of stopping the evil events that occur in the world. Clearly, this type power does not violate the definition of the doctrine of omnipotence. Stated simply, God can prevent all evil from occurring, but does not.3
Many scholars who have authored books regarding the problem of evil have understood this doctrine. In fact, it is the omnipotent characteristic of God that causes many of them to reject God! They fail, however, in linking omnipotence together with omniscience. Omnipotence cannot be compartmentalized from omniscience. Omniscience is central in developing an argument for God as it relates to the problem of evil. It is this doctrine which I shall discuss next.
Omniscience, stated simply, is the doctrine that God knows everything there is to know about everything. And, God knows everything there is to know about everything perfectly, comprehensively and efficaciously. It is this doctrine which many authors fail to consider as an integral part of Christian theism and its relation to the problem of evil. They fail to consider the element of mystery in the philosophical discussion about the problem of evil. An omniscient being would know infinitely more than limited, finite, flawed human beings. As we discuss the problem of evil and God, the omniscience of God necessitates that there will be unanswered questions about evil. In fact, analyzing the problem from a purely logical viewpoint, finite human beings will possess very little knowledge in relation to the amount of knowledge that the God of Christian theism possesses.
Therefore, mystery is an integral and necessary element in any discussion regarding the philosophical problem of evil. In fact, when human beings ignore this fact, and conclude that God does not exist because evil exists, they are in fact saying that they know more than an infinite God would know. They know what is best for the totality of the universe. They judge God by doing this, and I find this quite a dangerous position to place oneself.
The most glaring example of this is found in the book, Encountering Evil. John K. Roth writes an article entitled, “A Theodicy of Protest”. In this article, Roth uses the horrors of the Holocaust to argue against the existence of God. First, I must say that I am as sympathetic as humanly possible regarding what many consider to be the worst injustice in human history. Unfortunately, Mr. Roth is raptured by his emotions regarding the issue. I am not dismissing the emotions that one experiences through suffering. People who survived the Holocaust were maimed for life. In a counseling environment or a personal conversation with such a victim, extreme empathy and kindness is necessary. We should be clear and fair-minded, however, by pointing out that this is not a counseling or human empathy analysis, it is a philosophical analysis, and our logical faculties need to supercede our emotions in determining the compatibility of God and evil. Mr. Roth’s heart of compassion seems very genuine to me, but this analysis is not the place for such emotions.
Roth indicts God as follows:
…any ways in which God could rationally justify God’s economy as purely cost-effective in pursuing goodness that we can appreciate…well, those ways are beyond imagining. This result testifies that such a wasteful God cannot be totally benevolent. History itself is God’s indictment.4
Has Roth considered that it is possible that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnigood being has the ability and will to use such horrors (horrors perpetrated by mankind by the way, not God), for a purpose that is good beyond our imagining? He has not reckoned this possibility at all. Instead, Roth places himself on the throne, and indicts God based on the infinitesimal amount of information and wisdom that he possesses. Roth actually admits the truth by stating: “those ways are beyond imagining”. He is right. They are beyond imagining! But they are plausible with an omniscient being, and that is the question that needs answering. Instead of submitting himself to this logical plausibility, Roth thumbs his nose at God and asserts that he knows that it is not possible for things to be so.
Steven Davis’ response to Roth supports my viewpoint.
The point is that an omnipotent being is not bound by the inability to understand that Roth and I share. I do not claim to understand how God can render the Holocaust acceptable, any more than I claim to understand how God raised Jesus from the dead. But my lack of wit does not limit God.5
In fairness to Roth, Davis notes that Mr. Roth believes that when we embrace these philosophical ideas, we dismiss the suffering of the victims and “fail to have solidarity with the victims and the sufferers.”6 The opposite is true. When we embrace the truth, we can be true comforters to those who have suffered. There is true hope that the omnigood, omniscient, omnipotent God of Scripture will vindicate all injustices, in His perfect way, at the perfect time. In fact, demonstrating that the omnigood, omnipotent, omniscient God of Scripture will vindicate a great injustice such as the Holocaust is the most compassionate thing that a person can do. If God does not exist, or cannot vindicate such things because He is limited in some way, He is not worthy of our hope or worship.
In the book, The Problem of Evil, J.L. Mackie authors and essay entitled, Evil and Omnipotence. Mackie’s purpose is to examine the apparent paradox of evil and omnipotence. Early in his work, Mackie asserts the following:
…good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do.7
This statement is not accurate. A good thing does not always eliminate evil as far as it can. Allow me to illustrate an example from the Second World War. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, the United States broke the Japanese secret communication code. The U.S. did not want to reveal to the Japanese in any way that they had done so, so there were certain instances of Japanese aggression that the U.S. allowed to happen, even though the U.S. had intercepted the transmissions and knew certain attacks were forthcoming. As a result, soldiers and civilians died. Why would the United States do such a thing? The United States did this for a greater moral good, one which many people could not have envisioned at the time, mainly because they lacked complete information. The leaders, however, possessed more information than anyone else, and made this difficult decision based on the fact that the secrecy would save lives in the overall picture in the Pacific campaign of the Second World War.
Now, if human beings can make these types of moral decisions in particular circumstances, how much more could an omnipotent, omniscient, omnigood God do so? The leaders of the U.S. military had a plan for the greater good, the defeat of Japan. In the same way, is it not plausible, therefore, that God may have a perfect plan for the conquest of evil? Humans cannot know all the facts as it relates to the totality of all creation. Humans would know very little compared to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnigood God. The element of mystery in evaluating the problem of evil is therefore a necessary component in evaluating the problem of evil and an integral part of Christian theism.
Mackie continues with an attitude similar to Mr. Roth’s. In discussing free will as it relates to mankind, Mackie states the following:
…there was open to him [God] the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.8
Again, it is difficult to comprehend how such honest and intelligent scholars can make such sweeping statements, replete with unprovable assumptions. How can Mackie make the judgment about what situation would be better as it relates to the totality of human decisions and the totality of events throughout history? How does he know that any state of affairs regarding human free will is obviously better? How can Mackie accurately identify the overall purpose in the universe? What if God has a purpose for the free willed creatures in the world, a purpose that is infinitely better than the totality of evil we currently observe? Has Mackie ever considered THIS possibility? Alston notes: “It would be exceedingly strange if an omniscient being did not immeasurably exceed our grasp in such matters.”9
Another illogical aspect of Mackie’s analysis is his understanding of free will. He insists that God should have made beings who are free but always go right. But, if we really examine Mackie’s demand upon God, we find it wanting. Is it possible for a free being to be free when he cannot choose between self and God? C.S. Lewis states the matter this way: “From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and of itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the centre is opened to it.”10
William Alston, whom I will discuss later on, states the case in more depth, but the force of the argument is as strong as Lewis’:
The issue of free will is often made out to be more complex than it actually is. Beings possessing free will are inherently limited by their physical dimensions and abilities, and other factors. But the central idea of free will as it relates to choosing God or choosing self is fundamental to the very essence of a being. Of course, the skeptic might say that limiting God in this regard undermines the doctrine of omnipotence, since God cannot make a being with a free will who cannot choose self over God. It must be reiterated, however, that the limitation is not inherent in God, the limitation is inherent in finite beings themselves. Limitations are an inherent part of finitude.
…it is conceptually impossible for God to create free agents and also determine how they are to choose, within those areas in which they are free. If He were so to determine their choices they would, ipso facto, not be free. But this being the case, when God decided to endow some of his creatures, including us, with free choice, He thereby took the chance, ran the risk, of our sometimes or often making the wrong choice, a possibility that has been richly realized. It is conceptually impossible for God to create free agents and not subject himself to such a risk.11
Allow me to illustrate an example. Albert Einstein could attempt to teach his theory of relativity to a normal five-year child, and never have that child understand the mathematics involved. We would not expect Einstein to be able to do such a thing. But the fact that Einstein could not get a five year old to understand relativity is not a limitation on Einstein’s ability to teach, it is a limitation inherent in a normal five-year old child.
It is like this with created beings and God. When God created beings possessing free will, and these beings became self aware, the choice between God and self existed. No other avenue was possible. God is not limited in this situation, the finite, free willed being is limited. God obviously thought the ‘risk’ was worthwhile. Created beings are destined to choose self over God at some point in time or another. The choices for God came down to this: create nothing, or created finite beings with free will to choose God or self. No other choice was logically possible for God.12
William Alston authors the essay, The Inductive Argument from Evil and Human Cognitive Condition, found in the book edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder, The Evidential Argument from Evil. I must admit that Alston is a breath of fresh air! Alston demolishes the following premise:
There exist instances of suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.13
In regards to this premise, referred to by Alston as premise “1”, he states the following:
The criticism I shall be supporting attacks the claim that we are rationally justified in accepting 1 [the above premise], and does so on the grounds that our epistemic situation is such that we are unable to make a sufficiently well grounded determination that 1 is the case… The criticism claims that the magnitude or complexity of the question is such that our powers, access to data, and so on are radically insufficient to provide sufficient warrant for accepting 1.14
Alston’s summary argument gets to the heart of the matter, and relates directly to the doctrine of omniscience. The seemingly gratuitous sufferings of men and beasts are just that, seemingly gratuitous. We can only declare them to be gratuitous once we are able to determine every contingency related to the situation. While we may be able to trace out interconnected scenarios to some degree, it is simply impossible for human begins to declare that any particular incident of suffering cannot serve some purpose greater than the evil itself. We are in no position to make such an assertion. An omniscient being, however, would be in a perfect position to do so. This is a perfectly logical conclusion, though it may not be an acceptable conclusion for the emotions.
Alston summarizes his argument by pointing out that:
1) Human beings lack sufficient data to determine that any particular evil is wholly gratuitous.
2) The factual interrelated complexities are far beyond human capacity to evaluate.
3) Human beings lack the capacity to determine what is metaphysically possible or necessary for a universe and sentient moral beings to exist.
4) Human beings are ignorant of the full range of possibilities as it relates to why an omniscient being would allow evil to occur.
5) Human beings are ignorant in weighing the total value of any particular event in the context of all history.15
The point here is not to say we cannot know much of anything, for humanity has amassed vast knowledge. However, we know very little in the required scope of knowledge as it relates to this particular issue, the compatibility of the God of Christian theism and evil. We know very little in comparision to what an omniscient being would know. A fair analysis of the doctrine of God and evil leaves the skeptical arguments weak and wanting.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
Adams, Marilyn and Robert Adams, eds. The Problem of Evil. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Davis, Stephen, ed. Encountering Evil. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1940.
Nash, Ronald. The Concept of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983.
Snyder, Daniel Howard, ed. The Evidential Argument From Evil. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.
 Ronald Nash, The Concept of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1983), 37.
 Ibid., 38.
 I am proceeding with the assumption that God is also omnigood, the Christian God.
 Stephen Davis, ed. Encountering Evil (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2001), 7. The second ellipsis in this text is placed there by the author. All original text is repeated here.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 23.
 Marilyn Adams, ed., The Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 26.
 Ibid., 33.
 Daniel Howard-Snyder, ed., The Evidential Argument From Evil (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), 109.
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1940), 70.
 Snyder, eds., 112.
 I must note here that ‘logic’ is not a set of laws created by God, but instead a set of laws inherent in the eternal character and makeup of God’s essential being, much like moral laws are not finite concepts, but eternal standards rooted in the immutable character of God.
 Snyder, eds., 98.
 Snyder, eds., 120.