Omnipotence and the problem of evil
Related posts: Opposition in all things ; Creation ex nihilo ; The Fall of Man Part I
Classical theism affirms that God is omnipotent. But the meaning of omnipotence varies from person to person. Can God do only what is logically possible? Are there only non-logical limits to God’s power? Is God’s power limited by human free will? If God has all the power, are we powerless? If we have some power to what extent is God limited? Most people don’t believe that God can make 1 + 1 + 1 = 1, but do believe God can cure the sick and prevent accidents. But understanding omnipotence to mean God can do only what is logically possible isn’t enough: It’s logically possible God doesn’t exist. Consequently, some Christians define omnipotence as having all possible power, or maximal power.
The various definitions of omnipotence stem from philosophical and theological questions. Can God make a rock so massive he cannot move it? Did God create evil? If not, did he create all things? Is there any way to reconcile foreknowledge with free will? And so forth. Obviously philosophers tinker with conceptions of God. Some of the most prominent theological questions arise from the problem of evil.
Australian philosopher J.L. Mackie argued that given the awful reality of evil, believing in God’s omnipotence and benevolence is logically inconsistent. Because evil exists, if God is benevolent he cannot be omnipotent; because evil exists, if God is omnipotent he cannot be benevolent; if God is benevolent and omnipotent then evil would not exist. An omnipotent God could eradicate evil. A benevolent God would want to eradicate evil. An omnipotent and benevolent God would eradicate evil. Yet evil exists. Omnipotence, benevolence, and evil he writes, “are essential parts of most theological positions: the theologian…at once must adhere and cannot consistently adhere to all three” (italics original).
Alvin Plantinga formulated a solution to the logical problem of evil as posed by Mackie, sometimes referred to as the Free Will Defense. Mackie contends the following propositions are logically inconsistent: (1) God is omnipotent and wholly good, and (2) evil exists. However, Plantinga points out if an idea can be found which intersects with (1) and entails (2) they are not exclusive; the idea need only include the existence of God and entail the existence of evil; if such an idea is possibly true then Mackie’s contention that the theologian cannot rationally adhere to (1) and (2) is false.
In The Nature of Necessity Plantinga argues that among all the possible worlds God could have created which contain free persons, that (quite possibly) if any one of them were actualized it could not contain moral good but no moral evil. What follows is a very simplified explanation of Plantinga’s arguments — which I sincerely hope I haven’t butchered. Consider the following question. What if it’s true that from among all the possible worlds containing free persons, if God actualized any one of them that everyone would commit at least one wrong act? Suppose for now that it is true, call it transworld depravity. If everyone suffers from transworld depravity it’s not possible to actualize a world containing free persons and which contains moral good but no moral evil. As an illustration consider a city official Curley. In the actual world W Curley is offered a $20,000 bribe and accepts. Now consider an alternate world W′ where Curley is offered $20,000 and refuses. If it’s true that “Curleyhood” (the essence of Curley) has the property he accepts all bribes greater than 19,000 dollars, then God cannot actualized a world where Curley doesn’t have this property; properties aren’t created. Consequently God cannot actualize any world that includes a Curley who freely rejects all bribes greater than $19,000, and consequently God cannot actualize W′. Now suppose every person has the property I will go wrong at least once if given the chance. The idea behind transworld depravity is that if God (strongly) actualizes any state of affairs where people are genuinely free to act, it would give them the opportunity to go wrong. So if everyone suffers from transworld depravity then God can not actualize only those persons who never go wrong. Moreover, a world having genuine moral agency is, in effect, like offering Curley a $20,000 bribe. Conclusion: If transworld depravity is true it’s not possible for God to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil. In Plantinga’s words,
What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers from it, then it was not within God’s power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong…it is possible that everybody suffers from transworld depravity. …the price for creating a world in which such persons produce moral good is creating one in which they also produce moral evil. (pp. 186-187)
If transworld depravity is possibly true then Mackie’s contention that belief in (1) and (2) is positively irrational is positively wrong.
Now, saying everyone possibly suffers from transworld depravity is kind of like throwing a million dice at once and saying it’s logically possible to get all sixes. The probability of getting all sixes is mind bogglingly small — (1/6)^(1,000,000). However, the probability is not zero so the outcome is certainly possible; and it’s the possibility that resolves the logical problem. It bars the claim that it is positively irrational to believe in getting all sixes. Getting all sixes is roughly analogous to the idea of everyone suffering from transworld depravity: “It is possible that everybody suffers from [it].” The possibility bars critics of theism from claiming that believing in (1) and (2) is positively irrational. The strictly logical problem has been solved.
**I mention Plantinga’s free will defense because I believe it is a good defense of theism against the logical problem of evil. Mackie has admitted that Plantinga’s Free Will Defense works. For theists, because transworld depravity need only be possibly true, those who are skeptical about it may still use it to defend theism. If Plantinga’s idea is possibly true then the door is open. Also, most people are probably not willing to go with the Mormon conception of God which altogether avoids the logical problem of evil.**
But do Plantinga’s arguments subtract from God’s omnipotence? Could a being exist that is free from the restriction of transworld depravity? “It does appear to be logically possible that there be a being which is freer from restrictions than God in fact is,” writes William J. Wainwright (“Freedom and Omnipotence,” Noûs, vol. 2, no. 3, 1968, pp. 293-301). But Wainwright asks, “Does omnipotence involve a freedom from this kind of restriction?” He concludes that it does not.
The concept of omnipotence is not an entirely clear one. Omnipotence is sometimes understood in a more restricted sense and sometimes in a less restricted sense. There is no agreed on definition which could be used to settle the question in a quick and universally acceptable way…The notion that God is somehow limited by human freedom, that He must respect free decisions, is as old as the notion that he is omnipotent…one might suppose that a restriction like those we are considering has always been (vaguely) built into the notion of omnipotence. (pp. 300-301)
Mormons and the logical problem of evil
Among all the possible definitions of omnipotence most include things like freedom from causal laws and antecedent conditions (God is pure act); absence of non-logical restrictions to power; omniscience; essential goodness; essential existence (God cannot not exist); creating the universe ex nihilo; and “than which none greater can be imagined.” The traditional Mormon concept of omnipotence diverges from several of these, many of which I have already mentioned in previous posts (Omniscience ; Immutable, Omnipresence ; Omniscience and divine Learning). Here is another one. The Book of Mormon prophet Alma teaches, “Do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay…If so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:25). That’s a very radical idea which is open to interpretation. It could be saying arguendo if God were to be other than what he is he wouldn’t be God; which is not so radical. But some have taken it to mean that if God were to attempt to ignore the laws of justice he would genuinely loose his power and cease to be God. Alma qualifies his statement with, “God ceaseth not to be God” (Alma 42:23). But it seems to imply that in some theoretical way God could be otherwise than God. God is theoretically contingent, which fits well with the idea that God has progressed from lower stages of existence to where he is now. But this doesn’t necessarily entail it is actually possible for God to be other than God. Even if God progresses he can possess unchangeable qualities such as mercy, love, and justice.
We also believe that good and evil must coexist for God to bring about his purposes (see Fall of Man: Part I; Opposition in All Things), and that matter and intelligence exist independent of God. Intelligences “have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are…eternal” (Abr. 3:18; D&C 93:33). We also deny creation ex nihilo. (See Creation ex nihilo.) We believe God organized the heavens and the earth (Abr. 3:22; 4:1; D&C 20:17). Consequently, for us there is no logical problem of evil. And Mackie concedes this: “If you are prepared to say that…there are limits to what an omnipotent thing can do, then the problem of evil will not arise for you.”
The amount of evil and natural evil
But even though our theology provides an easy response to the logical problem of evil the problem of the amount of evil in the world remains. So, in that spirit, consider the following question. Is it possible God could have created the world a little better than it actually is? Imagine a world similar to ours in nearly every respect, but with one small difference. There are one fewer murders. That’s a possible world and it’s better than what we got. It also seems easily within God’s power. So speaking generally, if God were good he would make the world a little better than it is. One could always say, “Perhaps God does and we just don’t know it.” But that’s hard to believe and I’m inclined to think it’s begging the question. I’m not going to pursue the debate here because it is not the purpose of this series. I simply point out that being able to avoid the logical problem of evil is not a huge advantage in itself. The non-logical problem of evil remains.
There are also natural evils, bad things that happen because of tornados, earthquakes, famine, disease; acts of nature that end up harming people. In Mormon beliefs God didn’t create natural laws, so it’s easy to say natural disasters aren’t his fault. But surely God can prevent them, or at least make them less frequent. Along this line P. J. McGrath argues,
Consider first what happens to the problem when God is conceived as infinitely good but not omnipotent…while God does not want evil to be present in the universe, he does not have sufficient power to prevent it. But the trouble with this is that some evils which formerly existed have been eliminated by human ingenuity. For example, smallpox has been wiped out through the use of vaccination. If man can get rid of an evil like smallpox, why could God have not done likewise? (“Evil and the existence of a finite God,” Analysis, vol. 46, no. 1, 1986, pp. 63-64).
One solution proposed by an LDS philosopher uses the idea of an over-burdened doctor: “There are evils, which God could have averted but which occur at a time in which it is more important for God to attend to other matters” (“Finitism and the Problem of Evil,” Dialogue, vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 83-95). I strongly disagree, and I think most Mormons would too. Our beliefs hold that God is spiritually “in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things” (D&C 88:41; Immutable, Omnipresence).
There are several approaches a Mormon can take when dealing with the problem of the amount of evil, whether natural or manmade. We believe that without opposition, “righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Nephi 2:11). This passage seems to imply that the existence of evil is necessary for the very possibility a greater good to exist. How can a given act be morally good if the doer has no choice? How is not committing adultery good if adultery is impossible? It is even possible to love your neighbor without the possibility of hating him? If the presence of moral evil is necessary for our progression one can see how God might permit it. Because man’s intelligence is not created God cannot simply program us with genuine knowledge of good and evil. Consequently knowing the difference between good and evil, righteousness and wickedness, pleasure and pain, happiness and misery must be learned experientially.
How we view suffering
As to the suffering of the believers, perhaps we have a tendency to view their suffering selfishly. In their agony, like Job, they never loose faith. However, friends and family may question the existence of God because of their suffering. If the sufferer doesn’t loose faith, why should others? Sometimes the burden of comfort falls on the sufferer. In a scene from the movie The Bucket List, the two principle characters Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) and Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) are given six months to live. Edward proposes they travel the world doing all the things they wanted to do before they die—the things on their bucket list. Edward says to Carter,
What do ya think happens now? I go back and sit around listening to people talking about mezzanine financing and subordinated debt, predending that I care about dead money. You go home to some ceremonial procession into death with everyone standing around watching you die while you try to comfort them. It that what you want, to be smothered by pity and grief?
My own response to the problem of natural evil draws heavily on my own experience with pain. When I was fifteen I was attending a Boy Scout jamboree in Mexico. It was about midnight and I was in my tent trying to sleep. Nearby, two other scouts decided they wanted a late night snack and started up a gas stove. It exploded, burning them and myself—the accident was caused by a faulty seal. I received 2nd and 3rd degree burns over about eleven percent of my body—my right arm is still heavily scarred. Ask anyone who has been badly burned and they will tell you that the healing process is infinitely more painful than getting burned: Much of the skin is destroyed, along with nerve endings; it’s most painful when they begin to grow back as the raw nerve ends are exposed. Two or three times a day the nurses would change my bandages and clean my burns. And even though they used the softest cloth and pressed as gently as they could, and even though they doped me up with morphine, I swear, it felt like they were scrubbing me with steel wool as hard as they could. It’s difficult to describe the intensity of the pain. It went on like that for almost two weeks. But that was over twenty years ago and I don’t sense any emotional trauma from it. The pain ended.
All wounds can be healed
From an eternal perspective all wounds can be healed. Consequently natural evils are evil only in times of distress. Once the pain has been eliminated the question of its evil fades to the sufferer. So the answer to the question, “If God were good wouldn’t he eliminate natural evils?” is affirmative. I suppose this isn’t very satisfactory for people who have suffered a great deal more than I, and who are presently suffering. But it is my perspective on the problem of pain.
 Anthony Flew contends, “We cannot say that [God] would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent. We cannot say that he would help if he only knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God created those others. Indeed an omnipotent, omniscient God must be an accessory before (and during) the fact to every human misdeed; as well as being responsible for every non-moral defect in the universe” (“Theology and Falsification,” from New Essays in Philosophical Theology, 1955, p. 107).
Elder Neil A. Maxwell addressed Flew’s comments in “The Richness of the Restoration” ( Ensign, Mar 1998).
 “It is of course up to God whether or not to create Curley…But if he creates him, and creates him free with respect to this action, then whether or not he takes [the bribe] is up to Curley—not God…The atheologian is right in holding that there are many possible worlds containing moral good but no moral evil…[but] one of his central assumptions—that God, if omnipotent, could have actualized just any world he pleased—is false” (The Nature of Necessity, p. 184).
 Mackie concedes that Plantinga’s solution works. Mackie writes,
Since this defense is formally possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another. But whether this offers a real solution of the problem is another question. (The Miracle of Theism, p. 154)