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God is perfectly good, and so never does any evil. God is also all-powerful, so God can do anything that is logically possible.

But, it's logically possible for there to be a bad world (a world with lots of pointless evil and suffering, for example). Could God have created such a world filled with pointless evil and suffering?

If yes, then it seems that God is not essentially good, because God can do evil (even though we might be lucky enough that he chooses not to do evil in the actual world).

If no, then it seems that God is not all powerful because there is a logically possible world (one with lots of pointless suffering) that God cannot create. (At the very least, I find it counter intuitive that a theist (and I am one) is committed to the view that a bad world is logically impossible.)

To what extent does God's goodness impinge on God's omnipotence? Can it really be said to be within God's power to do evil, even if he never does any evil in any possible world?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 28 at 19:10
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    It would depend on whether there is such a thing as 'evil'. – user20253 Mar 6 at 11:23
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Your puzzle turns on an ambiguity in the words 'can' and 'could'. In "God can do anything that is logically possible", we have the 'can' of ability. This is the same sense in which I can ride a bicycle or lift a heavy bag. But in asking "Could God have created such a world" you are using the 'could' (or 'can') not of ability but of possibility. In the same sense we might say that I could fly (if I had wings) or lift a car (if I had sufficient strength).

The error comes into play when you say this:

If no, then it seems that God is not all powerful because there is a logically possible world (one with lots of pointless suffering) that God cannot create.

The "cannot create" here is the 'cannot' of possibility, not ability. However, if impossibility entailed inability then it would follow that "God is not all powerful". But it doesn't follow. If God is necessarily good (as I think is assumed here) then he does good in all possible worlds. So there is no possible world filled with pointless evil and suffering, not because of inability, but because of necessary goodness.

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  • +1 Very interesting, thank you! Using your terminology, I think I can rephrase my trouble like this: can one have an ability that one does not exercise in any possible world? If not, then there is a possible world where God exercises his ability to do evil. OTOH, if one can have an ability that one does not exercise in any possible world, then in what sense is it really an ability? (For example, libertarians say that to freely choose x (an ability) means that it's possible that one could choose not-x. And, I think, most monotheists think that God has something like libertarian free will.) – Adam Sharpe Feb 28 at 1:34
  • @AdamSharpe Yes, that seems like a good way to pose the problem. – Eliran Feb 28 at 1:42
  • @AdamSharpe One way to resolve your query (in the possible worlds semantics) is to distinguish logical and metaphysical possibility. The world where God does evil is logically but not metaphysically possible. Then it turns on the ambiguity of "essentially": God is essentially good metaphysically, but not logically. Theists can probably live with that. But the root problem is that omnipotence-but-for-logical-impossibility is itself ambiguous. Do we first list God's other attributes and admit only what is consistent with them, or do we admit only those consistent with unrestricted omnipotence? – Conifold Feb 28 at 10:15
  • @Conifold I think you are right. Some distinction between logical/epistemic/nominal possibility on the one hand, and metaphysical/real possibility on the other seems like one good solution. (BTW I saw and liked your original comment above, but I don't think my question is specific to possible worlds semantics; In my question, I could probably just say "possibly P" everywhere I mention a possible world where P, without losing much. I've just picked up a habit of talking about possible worlds from analytic philosophers. But I think possible worlds talk can be metaphysically neutral.) – Adam Sharpe Feb 28 at 16:24
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    @AdamSharpe At least some theologians argue that possible world talk as applied to God is fundamentally misleading. You may find Felt's Impossible Worlds interesting in this regard. He specifically criticizes Molina's PWS-style theology, and his alternative of interpreting possibility via Aristotelian potentiality is closer to the classical Thomist theology. – Conifold Feb 28 at 16:48
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tl;dr Since there's no meaningful distinction between an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God who can do evil vs. one who can't, either framing can be applied without contradiction.


This is a question of frame selection.

By analogy, is the glass half empty or half full? Is a fully transparent object more red or blue? If your glass is fully empty, then is it an empty glass of water or an empty glass of tea?

Let's consider some scenarios in which something behaves predictably:

  1. If a rock is dropped, it'll tend to fall. Does the rock fall because:

    • the rock is powerless to do otherwise; or

    • the rock has the power to choose and simply chose to fall?

  2. If a green plant sees more sunlight in one direction, the plant will tend to orient itself in that direction. Does the plant reorient itself because:

    • the plant is powerless to do otherwise; or

    • the plant has the power to choose and simply chose to reorient itself?

  3. If food is placed near a hungry animal, the animal'll tend to eat. Does the animal eat because:

    • the animal is powerless to do otherwise; or

    • the animal has the power to choose and simply chose to eat?

  4. If a person is offered something that they want under terms that they find perfectly agreeable, the person'll tend to accept. Does the person accept because:

    • the person is powerless to do otherwise; or

    • the person has the power to choose and simply chose to accept?

  5. If an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God acts, they'll tend to act in a good way. Does the God act benevolently because:

    • the God is powerless to do otherwise; or

    • the God has the power to choose and simply chose to act benevolently?

Note: Don't want to make this list excessively long, so it has fewer entries than I'd otherwise put in it. My point was to slowly walk from controlled-by-determinism to controlled-by-free-will to demonstrate that there's no sharp dividing line between them. The final entry is as from the question statement, to tie the topic together.

Scientifically speaking, ordinary rocks could be god-like beings of great power who simply choose to act as they do. No scientific experiment has ever suggested otherwise; then again, science seems to suggest that we can also view rocks as inanimate objects controlled by Physics, and that explanation's a whole lot simpler. So why not go with the simple explanation if it seems just as valid?

The fact that we can see it either way is called compatibilism, as the two perspectives are compatible with each other.

Generally, we choose to see simpler things (like rocks) as inanimate while we choose to see more complex things (like humans) as having intelligence. There're grey areas; if you consider a spectrum of things from inanimate objects (like rocks) to arguably-alive things (like viruses) to simple organisms (like bacteria) to more complex organisms (like insects and plants) up through humans, presumably you'll find a point at which you, personally, would find the distinction between "intelligent agent" and "inanimate object" to be blurry.

Still, since both perspectives are correct, it's not a matter of which is right so much as which perspective is more practical.

Anyway, as for the omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, it's literally meaningless to debate if they

  1. are powerless to do evil; or

  2. could do evil but choose not to;

as these two framings are largely equivalent.


Note: Connotations can vary.

Well, the two framings are largely equivalent to a first-order approximation, so far as the question statement goes in a vacuum.

That said, when folks think of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, they typically imagine a God who is intentionally good rather than, say, a God who is frustrated with their own inability to do evil.

So while either framing is valid in a vacuum, it'd be more informative to describe typical notions of God as being able to do evil but choosing not to, as this framing of God as an intelligent agent with a powerful will is what we typically think of when thinking of such a God.


Note: Pantheism frames physics as God.

Pantheism is basically the choice to frame the universe itself as God:

Pantheism is the belief that reality is identical with divinity, or that all-things compose an all-encompassing, transcendent god.

"Pantheism", Wikipedia [references omitted]

This is little different from an atheist physicist's point-of-view.

Just, as with a glass being half empty or half full, it's a choice of frame rather than a concrete distinction.

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One common response to this kind of problem is to focus on the immutability or unchangeability of God. God only acts in ways that are true to who he is. Omnipotence in turn is the belief that God never faces any kind of resistance to acting out and shaping the universe to fit his own character. Just as omnipotence does not imply the power to do the logically impossible (such as make a four sided triangle) it does not imply the power to be a personal self-contradiction. If God is truth then his inability to lie does not stop him being omnipotent.

But this does then shift the problem to whether "goodness" is intrinsic or external to God: Are things "good" because God does them, or does God do them because they are good? However you resolve that issue, the immutability of God does mean he won't be capricious, declaring one act to be good in one moment and evil the next moment.

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Phrased simply: An omnipotent, omnibenevolent God can do as much evil as 'he' (for lack of a better word) chooses to do. Being omnibenevolent, God never chooses to do any evil.

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There has been a great deal of effort put forward over millennia to answer the Problem of Evil. the Problem of Evil, however, is still generally considered a "problem", and has been for most of those millennia. Given this, it is generally good practice to presume that a particular answer is likely not sufficient in one way or another.

In trying to articulate and answer the Problem of Evil, it is important to clarify some starting positions.

First, while Scholatics, notably Aquinas, attempted to show that a God must of necessity have some characteristics, these efforts have generally been considered unsuccessful. One can, for instance, seemingly quite reasonably postulate a non-omnipotent God, or one with moral imperfections. If these were necessary conditions, then the logical flaw in such postulations would be readily demonstrable.

Therefore when one proposes a God of X characteristics, THIS IS A POSTULATION, IE a hypothesis. And the Problem of Evil, is a TEST of the hypothesis that God is Omni-benevolent.

A further point is that reasoning and logic sometimes break down around infinities and zero. Examples are divide by zero and divide by infinity operations. 0/0 is particularly problematic. To avoid zero/infinity logic glitches, it is better to discuss Omni-properties in less absolutest terms. Omnipotence need not be infinite -- it need only be sufficient power to restructure anything there is in the universe. Omniscience need not be infinite, just an awareness of everything in the universe (and past, and maybe future). Omni-benevolence -- is harder to constrain by the universe -- one can instead go with -- recognizably more moral than anything we can imagine we humans coming up with on our own.

Now, when one starts with multiple postulates, it is in the nature of derived systems that they end up with contradictions. Omni-benevolence COULD impinge on Omnipotence -- that is why legal systems so often end up in tangled contradictory knots, and judicial systems are continually working to resolve these contradictions. Trying to define such contradictions away -- is generally doomed as each postulated non-contradiction principle ends up multiplying the postulates, and would therefore be likely to lead to yet more contradictions.

In pragmatic terms, contradictions are indeterminate cases -- where the system could arrive at two or more different states, based on the starting premises. Could an omnipotent God make some matter so robust even He cannot then destroy it? Maybe. By the initial definition of omnipotence, no, but then the ability to modify the base nature of matter is included, so yes, but then God could modify it back, so no, or God could forget how to re-modify, so yes, etc. One can simply accept that indeterminate cases are -- indeterminate.

Your approach to "logic" is also questionable, and brings up another issue. You refer to God as a creator. This needs to be specified explicitly, not just mentioned as an aside, and it is another major postulate. The term often used in early Christian writing is PantoKrator -- creator of everything. If you go with PantoKrator, then you will have to figure out how to deal with logic. Did God create logic? If not, then where did it come from? The answer could lead to the pasting in of more postulates ...

At any rate, you have correctly realized that a morally imperfect world is possible, hence a PantoKrator is not necessarily omni-benevolent. But no, this does not mean that your postulated God is not "essentially" good. I think you are confusing your hypothesis, with a necessity claim. PantoKrator is one postulate. Omnipotence is another. Omni-benevolence, IE that God is "essentially" good, is just a third postulate of your hypothesis.

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What would we call an all-powerful king that did evil? We would not call him a king, but rather call him a tyrant, and most likely an evil tyrant. We would focus not on his power, but on the degree of evil.

Similarly, in the divine realm, one ought to try to understand the theology behind the divine attributes of God/Allah/Jehovah as opposed to merely focusing on the attributes themselves as a form of language-chopping logic (or logic-chopping language). This is just the first step, and quite a low step, on the dialectic of understanding.

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    Thanks for the answer. Could you say more about what you mean by "understand the theology behind the divine attributes... as opposed to merely focusing on the attributes themselves as a form of language-chopping logic"? (Just to anticipate what you might mean and offer a response: Often we come to understand something first by some of its attributes. And in the case of the divine, except for a direct religious experience, analysis of attributes is the only way (or at least one way) I know how to understand it better.) – Adam Sharpe Feb 29 at 15:54

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