God, Evil and Contradictions

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No BAND-AIDS for the Soul

I have a friend whose wife might be leaving him. Of late their home has been flooded with tension, tears and strife. His three-year-old daughter has been putting BAND-AIDS all over her body. She knows she hurts, but she can’t find the wound. It’s heartbreaking to find out at such a young age that there is no BAND-AID for the soul.

Isn’t it?

One picture; so simple, so poignant, and so problematic. Yet, this is nothing compared to what we find on the nightly news. Tragedy piled up upon tragedy. There are no easy answers. But here is one thing we can be sure of:  BAND-AIDS don’t mend broken bones, or stitch up shattered hearts. Logic doesn’t lessen the sting of loss. Answers don’t always sooth personal anguish. So whatever the pastor, parishioner, or apologists say about this difficult topic, we must provide hope beyond BAND-AID solutions because the dark underbelly of life has robbed us of their usefulness.


The Intellectual Problem

It is not uncommon for philosophers to make a distinction between the intellectual/logical problem of evil and the emotional/pastoral problem of evil. Within the intellectual problem of evil there is the logical argument and the evidential or probabilistic argument. The intellectual problem is in the realm of the philosopher. The emotional problem falls under the provinces of the counselor, pastor, or good friend. This post will respond to the logical problem that claims that the reality of evil makes belief in the traditional concept of God irrational.


The Logical Problem Defined

‘Does the existence of evil make belief in God irrational? The most familiar statement of this argument comes from the pen of David Hume (who was following Epicurus):

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is Malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” 1David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

So basically, in light of evil, God is either wicked or wimpy and the traditional God of theism cannot exist. Evil exists, so this God cannot.

Look at these four propositions:

  1. God exists
  2. God is all-good
  3. God is all-powerful
  4. Evil exists


An orthodox Christian is committed to holding to all four of the above propositions. In order to make belief in God irrational, the proponent of the logical argument from evil has to show that holding to all four of these propositions requires embracing a contradiction, thereby making Christian theism irrational. Here is the problem for the skeptic: there is no explicit contradiction contained in the above four statements.

Let me give you a few examples of explicit contradictions: God can’t exist and not exist at the same time and in the same sense. God can’t create humans and not create humans when the terms humans and create are used at the same time and in the same sense. These are examples of explicit contradictions and it is clear that the above four propositions don’t contain one. So is there, perhaps, an implicit contradiction buried within the above four propositions?

In order to show that this is the case, the advocate of this argument has to produce some additional premises to the four listed above. Philosopher J.L. Mackie is famous for his attempt to do so. He wrote:

The additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that good things always eliminate evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible. 2John Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence. P. 93

In the logical version of the problem, in order for Mackie’s thoughtful argument to succeed in proving the irrationality of theism in light of evil, his additional premises have to be necessarily true. But are they? Let us look at the concept of omnipotence first. Is it necessarily true that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing?



Most theists have not thought so. Rather, God’s omnipotence implies that God can do all things that are intrinsically possible and in accordance with God’s nature. For example, God cannot do evil, or cease to exist. God cannot produce logical contradictions, like creating a round triangle or creating humans with free will, while simultaneously not creating them with free will (apply the same time/same sense rule). As C.S. Lewis once pointed out 3Lewis wrote this in his chapter on Omnipotence in The Problem of Pain. , nonsense remains nonsense even when we prefix the words, ‘God can’ before the nonsensical statement. Therefore, it is not necessarily true that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. This qualified understanding of omnipotence alone causes Mackie’s argument to fail, as his additional premise ‘that that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do’ is false. 4Mackie later modified his argument in an attempt to strengthen it. Alvin Plantinga in, God, Freedom and Evil, responded convincingly to Mackie’s amended version of the argument.


Good Always Opposed to Evil?

How about the other additional premise: good is opposed to evil, in such a way that good things always eliminate evil as far as they can. This additional premise also does not seem to be necessarily true. For example, on a human level alone good parents, doctors and dentists at times intentionally impose pain and suffering, but they do so to make possible a greater good. Taking your baby to get his or her shots would be a good example, or taking your four year old to the doctor to have his arm intentionally re-broken because it wasn’t healing properly. From the perspective of the young child this would seem like an unnecessary pointless evil, but the parent knows there is a morally sufficient reason to permit it.

All this to say, God may have a morally sufficient reason to permit evil that justifies all that occurs, even if that reason is beyond our ken. A morally sufficient reason would include 1. The good produced must sufficiently outweigh the evil permitted. 2. The good brought about would not have occurred without allowing the possibility of the evil 3. It is within the right of the person to permit the evil.

Various reasons have been suggested for God permitting evil like the free will defense or the soul-making theodicy. We are not, in any of these responses, stating that God does evil, or that evil somehow becomes good, or that God is a utilitarian (God, after all, doesn’t have moral duties as we do) but, rather, that some good may not be achievable without the possibility of evil. For example, it seems that apart from free will we cannot speak meaningfully about love, moral responsibility and virtue etc. No free will, no moral evil. No possibility of moral evil, and no genuine possibility of moral good or soul making etc.

Regardless of how convincing we may find these responses, the fact still remains that it is possible that God has a morally sufficient reason to permit evil and, therefore, it is not necessarily true that a good thing always eliminates evil, if to do so would make impossible a greater good.

This is the logical version of the problem of evil. It must be noted that most skeptics have abandoned it because of the difficulty inherent in producing a genuine contradiction within the theistic set of necessary beliefs. There is, however, also the evidential version of evil advocated by philosophers like William Rowe and Paul Draper. In this approach evil is not incompatible with the existence of God, but evil constitutes strong evidence against the existence of a loving, all-powerful God. This approach has also sparked interesting debate amongst philosophers of religion, but that is for another post.


The Crux of The Matter

What is written above seems cold, aloof and strangely detached from the actual suffering in the world. That is true, and we feel that way because for many of us evil and suffering is an emotional, existential problem more than it is a logical riddle to be solved.

Theologian Douglas Hall once wrote, “Of answers to the ‘problem of suffering’ there is in fact no lack! Only, all of them flounder on the rocks of reality, at the cry of one starving or derelict child. The only satisfying answer is the answer given to Job – the answer that is no answer but is the presence of an Answerer.” 5


In the next post we will address the emotional problem, through the person and work of Jesus Christ; God’s own answer to our anguish.

For more on this topic see the forthcoming book, Suffering with God published by Apologetics Canada.

Notes   [ + ]

1. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.
2. John Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence. P. 93
3. Lewis wrote this in his chapter on Omnipotence in The Problem of Pain.
4. Mackie later modified his argument in an attempt to strengthen it. Alvin Plantinga in, God, Freedom and Evil, responded convincingly to Mackie’s amended version of the argument.


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