Evil,  John Feinberg,  Logical Problem of Evil

The Logical Problem of Evil

The challenge for any theistic system, according to the logical problem of moral evil, is how one can account for the apparent contradiction produced by three propositions: God is omnipotent. God is benevolent. There is moral evil in the world. If we accept those propositions then we might be forced to say that if God could remove evil, but does not, then he cannot be good. Alternatively, we might conclude that if God is good, but does not remove evil, then he cannot be omnipotent. A logical contradiction is produced when we compare these two statements:

  1. God is either not omnipotent or not omnibenevolent. 
  2. God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent 
Christian theists, when challenged with incoherence, are charged to produce a possible way to solve the contradiction and dismiss the charge.

For the following discussion it is important to note what is meant by the above terms within the theological system that is being defended. God is a maximally great being who has the maximal properties of power and omnipotence. Omnipotence is the power to do anything logically possible (this precludes the ability to actualize a contradiction). By omnibenevolvence it is meant that God is morally perfect in all his attributes. By virtue of God’s moral perfection God’s omnipotence does not entail God being able to commit evil since that would contradict his moral perfection. All that has been said so far is not dependent on observation and can be arrived at through reflection on various concepts. However, moral evil in the world is different.

What is meant by moral evil is the apparent actions, observed in the world, of human beings that count in some way as intrinsically evil actions. They are actions that break a moral standard or a law. Perhaps the theist would quibble that the atheist, unlike the theist, would have no absolute goodness by which to recognize moral evil if there were no omnibenevolent being by which to measure an action good or evil, but even if this is so the theist can agree that such evil is recognizably present in the world. It is recognizable, to the theist at least, by virtue of those actions violating the moral standards that are derived from the standard of God’s moral character – his omnibenevolence. What makes those actions wrong is not what is produced by them, but by their being counter to the character of God revealed to human beings in human consciences, in nature and in scripture in the form of a moral law.

Given the agreement on what is meant by the premises, the theist should be able to show that the contradiction found in the three propositions is merely apparent and that the way this world is is consistent with the character of God including his omnipotence and his benevolence.

The first question that must be dealt with is: what is the ultimate reason for the world? For the theist, the answer is God. The world is the way it is because of who God is and how he decides the world should be. This implies that human history is what it is because of who God is and what he decides. History, then, is the result of the plan of God and what God determines to take place.

If history, complete with all moral evil, is what it is because of God having planned it that way, one might wonder if that makes God morally responsible for evil. If he is responsible for evil he could not be omnibenevolent. Furthermore, one might wonder if all the moral evil that human beings do is determined by God then what principle makes human beings accountable for evil?

The latter question is about the necessary condition for moral accountability or responsibility. An agent—God or human—must be responsible by virtue of some principle. Derek Pereboom writes: “To be blameworthy for an action, the agent must have been able to do something that would have precluded her from being blameworthy for what she does.”1 Many people believe that the necessary condition for moral responsibility (the “something”) is the freedom to do otherwise whereby it is possible to act without being determined by anything outside the one who acts. Consequently, what makes a person morally responsible for an act is that they could have done otherwise and are not determined by anything outside themselves. It is clear, however, that if God determines all that happens, then such a condition does not obtain.

What is it, then, that makes human beings morally responsible for their actions? The notion of freedom involved here is compatiblistic freedom whereby human free will is construed as compatible with divine determinism. The necessary condition for moral responsibility, in the compatiblist conception, is the desire of the person acting. If the human who performs the act wanted to do it, even if the act is determined by God, then it is an act chosen freely and the person is responsible.2

The Bible deems human beings responsible for what they know and for what they desire. Paul writes that human beings are accountable for suppressing truth (Rom 1:18). Furthermore, Paul implies that all people are responsible for this even if they could not do otherwise. Immoral actions spring from an immoral denial of the knowledge of God. In this condition human beings are given up by God to immoral passions and debased minds (Rom 1:26, 28). The Bible also says that human beings are responsible for that debased mind and for those dishonorable passions. James writes that sin is being moved by desire to the extent that sin has been conceived in the human heart (James 1:14). Human beings want something so much that they are prepared to ignore the knowledge of its sinfulness in order to get it. For that they are morally responsible.

If it is possible to provide a possible way for human beings to be morally responsible for moral evil even while they are determined to carry out those acts (which I think it is), then God is not morally accountable for evil and his goodness is maintained on this point. God is not morally accountable for originating moral evil even while he determines all of history including immoral acts. However, the question that remains is why God is not obligated to remove evil.

Part of the difficulty in answering this question is the difference in comprehension between human beings and God. God, being omniscient might have a perfectly good reason for determining evil that he did not inform human beings of. Indeed, given God’s omni-benevolence and the infinite ability of God to know, it follows that God, if he exists, has such a reason and knows what it is. Furthermore, it is even conceivable that human beings do not even have to capacity to understand such a reason if we were told. Presumably to know in the way God knows is very different to how human beings know and so there is a distinct possibility that human noetic apparatus is vastly insufficient for a great deal of what God knows. What it is possible to know about God is known because God has equipped human beings with the capacity to know it and God revealed it to them. Consequently, all that the theist is charged with producing is a theological system in which a morally sufficient reason for God not removing evil is possible. The possible reason must be such that God cannot remove evil without effacing a certain good that outweighs or at least is equal to the evil that is present in the world.

Before a suggestion is made it should be noted that the argument can take a slight change in direction at this point. So far the discussion has focused on “rational” aspect of the problem – how certain concepts can be arrived at and fitted together. But since the problem contains a premise that relies on our observation of the world as we see it (the presence of moral evil in the world) it is quite permissible to include an argument from observation in order to solve the problem.

John Feinberg makes such a argument. Feinberg suggests that for God to remove evil he would have to change the way the world is as we know it. The appeal is made in the same way that the appeal to evil is made in the problem. How do we know that God wanted the world to be a certain way? Because we can observe the world and see what is in it. Specifically, we know that God intended human beings to be a certain kind of creature. In order to remove evil, Feinberg says, God would have to radically alter human beings. And since God clearly intended human beings to be a certain way, God cannot remove evil without going back on that intention.

Feinberg argues that God, in order to remove evil, would have to alter the known world to such an extent that God would also have to do one or more of three things: (1) “contradict his intentions to create man and the world as he has,” (2) “cause us to wonder if he has one or more of his attributes ascribed to him,” (3) “and/or do something that we wouldn’t expect nor desire him to do, because it would produce greater evil that there already is.”3 Feinberg argues that if the effect of removing evil is one or more of these conditions then God is not obligated to remove evil. If he is not obligated to remove evil, then he cannot be held responsible for not removing evil.

Feinberg offers some possibilities that might remove evil and argues that each one fails to meet the above objections. God might get rid of humankind, eliminate all objects of desire (which would probably need to include humankind) or eliminate human desires (and with them the desire to stay alive, eat or drink). All these options clearly fail (1). Alternatively God might quash human desires, intentions, willing or bodily movement before they give rise to evil. Feinberg argues that this would lead to human beings being so disrupted in their plans that human life would “come to a standstill.”4 Furthermore, Feinberg suggests, this option seems to entail making human beings superhuman since they would require the capacity to know when they are having a desire, intention, will or bodily movement that would lead to sin. This capacity would clearly thwart (1) and would lead us to question the wisdom of God (2).

A final suggestion is that God could miraculously intervene to prevent evil being carried out. Feinberg lists several problems with this idea. First, life as we know it would be drastically altered and human beings would eventually realize that there were certain things that, though physically possible to do, where nevertheless impossible to achieve. People about to perform an action might have to be physically paralyzed in mid motion. In order to prevent desires, wills and intentions, God would have to perform some miracle in the human mind whereby people would suddenly be unable to think, imagine or remember. This option fails to meet (1) since this appears to be a radically different kind of world and human than God intended to build, and (2) since God’s wisdom would be brought into question, and (3) since this sounds like a worse world than we have now.

Since God cannot remove evil without failing to meet (1-3) he is not, according to Feinberg, obliged to remove evil.

If it is possible to resolve the apparent contradiction in the deductive problem of evil, then the problem of evil is not so much about irrationality, but about belief. If the atheist can see that there is a way to explain how an all-powerful, all-good God might permit evil, then he might concede that such a God might exist. And if such a God exists, it is quite possible that the atheist should consider his own standing before God. For he can now see that, if the theist is correct, he is to be held responsible to God for all the immoral acts that he has done.

This is precisely the opposite posture than the deductive problem of evil first supposes. Whereas we begin our discussion hoping to find a way to justify God in the face of evil, we end by wondering what might justify us in the face of God. For the Christian, it is faith in Christ that provides the solution to this problem of evil.

For Christians, faith is the reception of the favor of God based on the work of Christ on the cross. Christians maintain that this kind of knowledge, faith, is predicated on God’s favor towards the Christian. To know God’s favor is to be in his goodwill, to be approved of, to be in his good graces. God’s favor is expressed over his creation of human beings in their yet unfallen state (Gen 1:31). Human beings know the disfavor of God in their fallen condition (Rom 1:18). Christ incarnate knew the favor of God (Matt 3:17). It is this favor that human beings find when they place their trust in Christ. We are deemed by God to be good as we are made new in Christ; we are considered as righteous (Gal 3:6) and enjoy God’s grace, his unmerited favor. The atheist might be provoked to consider the claim of the gospel and repent of his sin, believe and receive that unmerited favor of God.

1Derek Pereboom, “Free-Will Skepticism and Meaning in Life,” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, ed. Robert Kane (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 413.
2Lynn Rudder Baker, “Why Christians Should Not Be Libertarians: An Augustinian Challenge,” Faith and Philosophy (2003), 467.
3John Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), 172.
4Ibid., 175.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.