Last time, I wrote about how I have come to believe that while God possesses within Himself infinite potentiality, His attributes are not actually infinite. (It’s all very nuanced and smarty-pants, so if it sounds crazy just go read that article.)
Now, some of you are probably thinking, “Gee, Rocky. That’s a really well articulated and compelling argument you’ve made there. But… so what? Aside from subtle intellectual coherence (which is probably overrated anyhow), what do we stand to gain by accepting that God is not actually infinite?”
That’s a really good question, and one that deserves a really good answer. The reason that it is important to abandon the incoherent notion that God is infinite is because, I think, it allows us to take a huge step forward in addressing the philosophical problem of evil. In short, the notion of God being actually infinite gets in the way of a good theodicy.
Here’s what I mean…
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
This framing of the problem of evil has had many variations, but they all sort of argue the same thing. The presence of evil is fundamentally incompatible with the existence of an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God.
For you visual learners, here’s a simple infographic to dwell on:
This is a compelling argument, and one that even the best and brightest of philosophers struggle to reckon with. I had the chance to discuss this very thing with an atheist friend of mine. To hear him argue the point, in order for this triangle to give way to a reasonable solution, you would have to diminish one or more of the three attributes. After all, if God is omnipotent, then He should be powerful enough to eradicate evil, regardless of any physical or logical barriers. And the same goes for His omniscience and omnibenevolence.
And this is all very true… that is, if we buy into the notion that true omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence entail the ability to do the logically impossible. But, why accept such an idea?
I would like to suggest that this philosophical problem of evil, formidable as it may be, is an obstacle that western philosophy has created for itself. And it’s only a problem because it begins with false premises.
Quick point of logic – an argument is only as strong as each of its supporting premises, as well as the logic between them. If one or more of the premises are weak or false, then the argument as a whole is compromised. One of the underlying assumptions of the philosophical problem of evil is that God must be able to do the logically impossible.
One of the best arguments put forth against the problem of evil in recent times is Alvin Plantinga‘s freewill theodicy. In simple terms, Plantinga argues that in order for God to have a creation with creatures that genuinely reciprocate love toward Him, He must grant these creatures free agency (freewill). Because of the nature of freewill, God cannot guarantee that His creatures will always choose good. Thus, evil exists because God couldn’t have a loving creation without the possibility of evil. In this sense, God makes evil possible. Mankind makes evil actual.
Wait a minute! Right there, you said, “God couldn’t.” Your God must not be omnipotent, since there is something that He cannot do. You have to diminish God’s power in order to solve the problem.
Cool your jets there, Maverick. It is true that the freewill defense does say that God cannot have both free creatures and a guarantee of no evil. However, this is simply because it would be logically impossible to do such a thing. And, as I argued in my last post, it is perfectly okay (even preferable) to say that God cannot do the logically impossible.
Herein lays one of the biggest underlying assumptions in this whole tangled mess. People often assume that if God cannot do something, even that which is logically impossible, then He must be less than we thought He was. But is that necessarily so?
Rather, I would contend that God’s inability to do the logically impossible is actually indicative of His greatness.
Think of this – if God can do the logically impossible, then not only can He do the goofy, fun stuff, like make a four-sided triangle or create a rock too big for Him to lift, but that would also mean that He could do some rather not-fun stuff. God could intentionally make the Holocaust happen and make it an objectively good thing. God could torture small children into an agonizing death and do it because He loves them. God could force innocent people into an eternity of nightmarish torment in hell and be all the more loving for having done so. Essentially, granting God the ability to do anything, even the logically impossible, leaves us with a God that is entirely inconsistent, since (after all) He could make His inconsistency into consistency. (I know that doesn’t make logical sense, but that’s the rabbit hole we’re going down here.)
Rather than a God of order, reason, and integrity, we are then moving toward a God of randomness, capriciousness, and chaos. Is that sort of God really greater? It seems to me that God is actually greater precisely because He cannot devolve into incoherent havoc.
In summation, I have come to believe that God’s greatness (whether in His omnipotence, omniscience, or omnibenevolence) is upheld, if not magnified, precisely because He cannot do the logically impossible. Moreover, this allows us to explain the philosophical problem of evil without losing anything. God is still all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful, evil still exists, and (to answer the Epicurean question) we can still call Him “God” because He’s still the supreme Being.
Thanks for reading!
1: As popular as it might be to attribute this argument to Epicurus, it actually comes from the 18th century philosopher, David Hume, who attributed this argument to Epicurus based on the writings of the early Christian author, Lactantius, who was writing in refutation of Epicurus. However, it's a bit of a straw man, since it's not actually consistent with what Epicurus believed about the gods. Anyhow, if you're really interested, here's a post from someone who explains it.