Some believe God exists, but he can’t do anything about pain and suffering. He is just not powerful enough. Others believe God exists, but he doesn’t want to do anything about pain and suffering. He is just not good enough. Both attempts to explain the existence of God given the reality of Evil are common. I also think they are both wrong.
Before saying why, notice how far in this conversation we have already come. The objection is no longer “Does God exist?”* The objection is now, “OK, maybe God exists, but he is not what you think he is like. He cannot be both all-loving and all-powerful, given the reality of evil.” It is now a question of theology—what is God like?
The Argument Against God’s Existence From Evil
Recall the formal argument against God’s existence I outlined in my first post in this series:
If God is all-good, he would will all good and no evil. (He would desire to produce only good and prevent all evil.)
If God is all-powerful, he would accomplish everything he wills. (He would be able to do anything in His will.)
Therefore, if God exists he would want to and could create a world with no evil (and therefore would create such a world).
Yet there is Evil.
Therefore God (an all-powerful, all-good Being) does not exist
Is this conclusion correct? Only if the argument passes two tests—being valid and sound. First, the conclusion must follow logically from the premises (the argument must be valid). In this case, I believe the argument is valid. This conclusion follows from these premises.
However, an argument’s conclusion can follow from the premises, and the conclusion can still be false. For instance, suppose I am on trial for robbery, and I say to the jury:
If I say I am innocent, you must believe I am.
I say I am innocent.
Therefore, you must believe I am.
This is a logically valid argument. It is a case of modus ponens: If P, then Q, and P, therefore Q. The conclusion follows logically from the premises. But the conclusion is still wrong (the jury doesn’t have to believe I’m innocent, and in fact should not just because I say I am).
So what is wrong with this argument? It fails to meet the second test: all the premises of the argument must be true. Only then is an argument “sound” (valid and containing true premises). In this case, premise one is false (it is not the case that if I say I am innocent, you must believe I am). Therefore the argument is unsound, and the conclusion should be rejected.
What about the argument we are considering? Though it is logically valid, many have argued it is not sound. In other words, one (or more) of the premises are false.
Is Premise One False? (Muslims Say So)
Embedded in the first premise is the assumption that what is good is objective, fixed, eternal, and ultimate. As such, God would want to see this reflected throughout his creation.
However, Muslims reject this underlying assumption. For the Muslim, Allah is “above” what is “good.” Good (and evil—the lack of good) are not objective, fixed, eternal, and ultimate. Rather, they are whatever Allah decrees.
Therefore, by definition, what Allah wills is good (even if we think it is Evil). We are not to question what he decrees. If he desires to produce what we take to be “evil” (what produces pain and suffering), we must change our definitions and no longer consider those things evil. Evil is only what is contrary to Allah’s will.
For example, if Allah decrees rape is wrong (evil), it is. But if he had chosen to say rape is good (or at some point in the future changes his mind and decrees rape is good), it would be so. By definition, whatever Allah wills is by definition good.
In light of this, it makes no sense to say Allah desires (wills) to produce only good. It implies there is some objective “good” outside his will, which he wishes to promote. It assumes some standard of good and evil that even God must follow. For the Muslim this is impossible, even blasphemous. Therefore, Muslims would argue this first premise is false.
Rejecting premise one for this reason is not an option for the Christian. The Christian worldview maintains there are objective, absolute Goods and Evils. Anyone who says otherwise (even God) would be in error. This is part of why the Problem of Evil is a real problem for the Christian. True Evil exists, and must be reconciled with an all-Good God.
The “Euthyphro” Dilemma
The Muslim may object, as others have, that this makes the Christian God less than all-powerful. He, like everyone else, is “ruled” by moral absolutes that determine what is Good, and so he has no freedom to define this himself. Therefore moral absolutes (moral goods) become the ultimate, sovereign reality, not God, for even God himself is subject to them.
Muslims argue this can’t be right. But the only alternative seems to be taking the approach they take, saying God determines what is Good and Evil by divine fiat—simply by an exercise of His divine will.
This is a dilemma for the Christian. On the one hand, God is sovereign, all-powerful, and nothing exists which is greater than him, that he should be “subject” to it (including moral absolutes). On the other hand, we cannot accept the Muslim solution and grant that God arbitrarily decrees what is “good” and “evil” on a divine whim. No, justice is good and rape is wrong, period. So what to do?
Socrates had this very discussion with Euthyphro, a “prophet” of the Athenian gods. Socrates was awaiting trial for not believing in the Athenian gods (impiety—atheism), leading to his moral corruption, and leading the city’s youth down the same path. In this setting he and Euthyphro discussed what true faith in God is and what it is to live a moral life (a life in accord with God’s wishes).
Their discussion** is recorded in Plato’s dialogue titled, appropriately enough, “Euthyphro.” As Socrates puts it,
Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? (Euthyphro 10a).
In other words, is something “good” and on this basis God loves (affirms) it? This is the idea that God himself is subject to moral values. Or is something “good” simply because God says so (is what he chooses to love)? This is the idea that God decrees what is good by sheer will (the Muslim solution). It has come to be known as “The Euthyphro Dilemma.”
This dilemma has been discussed throughout the centuries since Socrates and Euthyphro first talked it over in 399 BC. The solution is found by identifying the logical fallacy embedded in the Euthyphro dilemma. The dilemma suggests there are only two solutions to the problem. However, there is a third. Therefore this is a case of the informal fallacy known as a “False dilemma.” This third option solves the dilemma and shows the way forward.
The Solution to the Dilemma
The third option is that moral values are objective, absolute, and morally binding on all (including God). However, they do not exist “outside” of God as some external reality—to which he, too, is subject. Rather, they exist “in” God—they are part of his very nature. Justice, goodness, mercy, love, peace, and other moral goods are part of God’s very constitution. The opposite (injustice, wickedness, cruelty, hatred, conflict, etc.) are the lack of these moral goods. There is no lack of these in God—he is fully just, good, merciful, loving, peaceful, and so on. But in his creation these are not always present, and their lack is the reality of injustice, wickedness, cruelty, hatred, conflict, etc.
While this solves the Euthyphro dilemma, it does so by affirming what Premise One states: that God wills what is objectively good (not just what he arbitrarily determines is good as an act of sheer will). So the Christian cannot agree with the Muslim’s critique of premise one in order to show the argument’s conclusion is false. We must continue our search.
Others argue premise two is false. Still others argue premise four is false. Next week I’ll consider what they have to say. Until then, grace and peace.
*I am following the normal flow of discussion—a person at this point is often willing to grant God’s existence, but not his goodness or sovereignty. Yet others may object that God, if existing, would necessarily by all-good and all-powerful. Therefore, the argument shows that it is logically impossible for God to exist, period. This is known as the “Logical Problem of Evil.” I will say more about this later in the series.
**There is an ongoing debate as to how much of Plato’s works are the actual words of Socrates, and how much is Plato’s thought put in the mouth of Socrates. This debate is not important here, for whoever framed the issue, it is an important issue to consider.
For further reading I suggest Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft, Thinking About God: First Steps in Philosophy by Gregory Ganssle, and Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith by C. Stephen Evans & R. Zachary Manis.