Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Limiting God to solve the problem of evil

Long ago, I remember reading with great curiosity Rabbi Kushner's Why Bad Things Happen to Good People? How disappointing that Kushner's intellectual answer seemed to be that God isn't omnipotent. (His practical answer not to worry about the question but just to do good is much better.) The idea of limiting divine attributes in part to answer the problem of evil has recently had some defense (e.g., here and in the work of open theists), so I guess it's time to blog the objection to Kushner—which applies to the others as well—that I had when I read him, with some elaboration.

Basically, the objection is that as long as God remains pretty good, pretty smart (he was smart enough to create us!) and powerful enough to communicate with us (Kushner at least accepts this), then serious cases of the Problem of Evil remain. Moreover, these cases do not seem significantly easier to solve than the cases of the Problem of Evil that were removed. Consequently, the intellectual benefit with regard to the Problem of Evil is small. And the intellectual loss with regard to the simplicity of the theory is great—the theory that God has all perfections is far simpler.

Start by considering a deity whose goodness is unlimited but whose knowledge and power are fairly limited.

Consider, first, the problem of polio. This is certainly a horrendous evil. And the limited deity could have alleviated a significant portion of the problem hundreds of years earlier simply by whispering into some people's ears how to make a vaccine—surely any deity smart enough to create this world would be smart enough to figure out how to make vaccines. Maybe the limited deity couldn't have prevented all cases, in the way that an unlimited God could. But given that neither did the wholesale prevention happen nor did the partial prevention by vaccines happen as early as it could have.

Consider, second, the many cases where innocent people suffered horrendously at the hands of attackers, where the attack could have been prevented if the people had been warned. Even a deity of limited power and knowledge should be able to see, for instance, that the Gestapo are talking about heading for such-and-such a house, and could then warn the occupants. (I am not saying that such warnings were never given—for all I know, they were in a number of cases. But I am saying that there are many cases where apparently they were not.)

Moreover, even if one limits the goodness of the deity, and only claims that he is pretty good, the problem remains. For unless the deity had a very serious reason not to tell people about vaccines and not to warn the innocent victims of horrendous attacks, it seems plausible that the deity did something quite bad in refraining from helping, so bad as to be incompatible with being pretty good. (If the deity had a reason that fell a little short of justifying the refraining, then that might be compatible with being pretty good; but a reason would have to be pretty serious for it to fall only a little short of justifying the refraining when the evils are so horrendous.) So even if one thinks that the deity has limited power and knowledge and is only pretty good, the problem of finding very serious reasons for the deity's non-interference remains.

Granted, the problem is diminished, especially if one has decreased the belief in divine goodness. But notice that the decrease in belief in divine goodness is the most religiously troubling aspect of a limited God doctrine. And even that does not make the problem go away.

Moreover, the sorts of things one can then plausibly say about the remaining problems of evil are things that, I suspect, the traditional theist can say as well about this and many other cases. Perhaps God does not prevent all attacks on innocent people (for all we know, he prevents many) because he wants humans to have effective freedom of will. Perhaps he wants to give victims opportunities for forgiveness of their aggressors in an afterlife. Perhaps God does not prevent disease because he wants us to help our neighbor and to develop medical science to this purpose. Or to give us an opportunity to join him on the cross in redeeming humankind. Or perhaps God prevents many evils, but his purposes do not allow him to prevent all, and some arbitrary line-drawing is needed. I am not saying that these answers are sufficient (though I think some contain a kernel of something right), but only that they can be equally used in the case of a limited and unlimited God, and in the case of an unlimited God such answers may well have rather general applicability.


Heath White said...

These are quite helpful arguments vs. the idea of a deity who is all-good but not all-powerful.

In teaching the problem of evil, I am finding that more and more of my students think a sub-3-O God is a viable solution. Interestingly, however, they tend to give up divine goodness first. Sometimes this is because they are not realists about goodness in the first place.

The result, however, is a quasi-deist view. And if the history of deism the first time around is any guide, then I am instructing a generation which is about to be followed by a much more explicitly atheist one.

Alexander R Pruss said...


If an evil befell me that a human friend could easily have prevented, I wouldn't wonder if the friend exists--I would wonder if he is really my friend.

So maybe wondering about whether God loves one or whether God is good is psychologically to be expected as a response to the problem of evil in people (like many in our culture) for whom it is obvious that God exists.

And this would also explain why faith can be a virtue in cases where one is faced with the problem of evil. For believing that a human friend exists isn't an instance of faith in her. But believing that she is good and that she is a friend, that is an instance of faith in her, a faith that can be virtuous (given the right conditions).

Alexander R Pruss said...

In a comment to another post, a reader notes that I got Rabbi Kushner's title wrong. It's "When Bad Things..." Oops.

uair01 said...

I have not yet read the modern theology book by Marc de Kesel but his central theme is:

"The ancient central axiom of monotheistic religion is:
Not what you think God is, is God,
but only God is God."

According to him a recursive self-deconstructing critique is built into ancient monotheistic religion. I like this idea. I find solace in the idea that God might be totally different than how I would want him/her to be.

Crude said...

The result, however, is a quasi-deist view. And if the history of deism the first time around is any guide, then I am instructing a generation which is about to be followed by a much more explicitly atheist one.

I actually suspect the opposite is the case. If sub-O3 Gods are considered gods, I think - given the sort of speculations about multiverses, technological advancement, etc we see nowadays - then what follows isn't atheism, but polytheism.

On the flipside, I notice that some people try to play the card that if, say... God does not prevent evil for some purpose (soul building, free will, etc), then that itself is a strike against God's omnipotence. Which I think is silly, and ranks with the objections that holding God to not be able to violate logic itself somehow shows God isn't omnipotent.

Heath White said...


That is a pretty sharp comment.


If sub-O3 Gods are considered gods … what follows isn't atheism, but polytheism.

I think that, in a certain sense, there is something right about this too. Not polytheism exactly, but a form of paganism. Rodney Stark has suggested that what separates ‘Great World Religions’ from paganism is that the former are full-service, one-stop religious shopping, while the latter mentality is much more one-off and transactional. E.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc. are supposed to affect all of life, while if you are offering sacrifices to this god for rain and that god for health, seeing this fortune teller for your business transactions and that priest for political affairs, you do not have an integrated, comprehensive set of religious commitments.

I see a lot of behavior that I would interpret as a waning of the full-service religious model and a waxing of the transactional model (not just among my students). To the extent that one believes (i) God exists but (ii) God is not reliably interested, in any focused and detailed way, in my good, the switch makes sense.

Alexander R Pruss said...


The move to a transactional approach might also seem like it makes sense even if one thinks that God does care about us, but one doesn't know exactly what God wants from us. For then one might hedge one's bets in various ways, or just decide it's not worth the cost.

I suspect that this attitude, insofar as it is a pragmatic one, either requires implausible "nothing is more likely than anything else about what God wants" claims, or else a definitive doctrinal commitment to the denial of non-universalist afterlife accounts (i.e., to the disjunction of universalism with no-afterlife). Otherwise Pascal's Wager comes up and requires something like total commitment to the most probable among the exclusivist religions.

And of course one needs to consider parallels with things like marriage where many people don't want absolute commitment or don't want it soon.

Heath White said...


I think it is a not-too-sophisticated version of “commitment to the denial of non-universalist afterlife accounts,” along the lines of “maybe some people will go to hell, but not regular nice people like me.” As far as the moral component of religion goes, you can think of it as Pelagianism with a low bar.

Maybe also God has idiosyncratic desires, like wanting you to go to church on a semi-regular basis, and these desires need to be appeased.

The other piece of it is that God is like Santa Claus – you ask for something you want, maybe you have to be nice rather than naughty but not in a strenuous way, and you might get it.

If you think of ancient pagan religious rites – either focused on propitiation for large sins, appeasement of a god who may have somewhat idiosyncratic cultic desires, or “do ut des” sacrifices for this-worldly benefits - you have a pretty good picture of the current drift, in my opinion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, "universalism" should be replaced in my comment with "near universalism", the conjunction of the views that only "people like Hitler" go to hell and that ordinary middle class folk aren't like Hitler in the relevant way.

Jason Thibodeau said...

This is a bit off topic, but your comment about effective freedom made me think of Steven Boer's argument about the irrelevance of free will to the problem of evil (briefly, since God is omnipotent, he can allow us freedom to choose but prevent our freely chosen evil actions from having their intended effects). So, I am curious whether you have thoughts about his argument. Please excuse my ignorance if you have written about this before.

Anonymous said...

Hello, this is something which is close to my heart for years now. I cannot write fully formally and rigorously as i wanted to because i had not the time to finish what i started. So bear with the natural language version of the arguments that follow. Allow me to share a testimony for jesus, i was a unbeliever after being a christian for 1-2 years because i accepted the arguments against christianity (paradoxes, evolution, etc). After 9+ years later today, after searching when i had lucidity for explanations for these problems in between those years, the spirit of god came to me by the bible. It was not by intellectual reasoning that i accepted the lord jesus at that precise moment, but a real powerful experience that expressed itself as a pull inwards and tears overflowing. This is the living power of jesus that truly has the power to convert others. The intellectual clarification before was not useless but an important step towards that reconversion. But god chose me that day, not me. So, i praise god!

Please refer to bottom when encountering the (letter) for clarification/expansion of what i mean by the word beside it

God doesn't exist because evil exists is the common form of the argument roughly. A solution i read before, and i would like to add into is the following:
1) We cannot prove totally rigorously(A) that any ethical system is true or false with the conditions of rigor described in (A)
2) So the step from whoever allows evil to exist to non-existence or evil of god is not established because we didn't prove the ethical system used to show his evil or non-existence

Clarification of 2
.1 Any being who doesn't stop evil from happening is evil
.2 But why is that evil? We are using an ethical system (or a set of statements of what is right or wrong) to derive/conclude/anaylze etc that .1 is an evil act

One of the fundamental rules is that a step in reasoning must be proven before it can be used as a lemma to prove/disprove another lemma. A.k.a an unproven step is an assumption, and an assumption cannot be used to derive a certain conclusion

(A) By rigorous i mean, assumptions that the following skeptical arguments cannot be applied to it.
Descrates (sense information free from the illusion argument)
M√ľnchhausen trilemma
Brain in vat arguments
Solipsism arguments
And other relevant unsolved skeptical argument (not every but relevant ones) that are implied or assumed by the steps used in proving the ethical system is true
Not to offend, but it is insufficient to claim that something is intuitively or plainly evil, ie murder of a parent, without the rigorous steps showing that it is proven by the previous lemmas that it is wrong, with the qualifications i made. This is the standard by which we must consider something true by human reasoning, otherwise it is a belief in the sense of it being accepted as true without proof (in the previous sense).

Anonymous said...

So after considering the above points, it is still possible to maintain there is an omnipotent god who create a world in which evil, after some time came, into existence, because of the uncertainty of the truth of the ethical system used to judge right and wrong.

As an interesting side scenario, assuming god is omnipotent, he could have created a world in which free will existed and evil did not ever appear. Ie if a free agent came across a decision to make, it was always freely done and always good. Again, by the assumption of omnipotence, this world is a possibility. Then its possible to synthesize the omnipotent paradox to the problem of evil.

Theres another interesting scenario (cant remember by who) the problem of good argument. Substitute evil for good, then a god who wants total evil would be non-existent/good because of the existence of good.

The skeptical arguments do apply to the step of perceiving evils E by senses. Then we should preferably use personal memory (which is susceptible to skeptical arguments) to establish an instance of evil. I should clarify that to the person trying to say Christianity isn't free from these arguments, it isn't. But that just means the argument purporting to establish christian as being indutible is uncertain as to its truth value and that christianity is not disproven or proven by the problem of evil.

Consider the possibility that the question why god created evil, is possibly a statement which is true or false but cannot be proven. Or the other informal statement of godel's theorem, the system of axioms (ethical systems included) is incomplete. This applies to the question of the meaning of life (why did god create us, humans, at all, what is our purpose in life really etc). The possibility being, the axioms are not powerful enough to prove rigorously the correct solution. Ie it may require an infinite number of axioms, or its incomplete, etc.

Patrick said...

In my view the only of God’s properties that has to be limited is God’s omnipotence. But this is no problem, as an omnipotent being is a logical impossibility, which can be seen from the “Omnipotence paradox”.

In order to see to what extent the concept of omnipotence can be limited without putting theism into question it is important to point out that it can entail the following three propositions:

(1) There are no physical limits to God’s power.
(2) There are no logical limits to God’s power.
(3) There are no moral limits to God’s power.

In my view only (1) applies to the God of Christian theism. Those Biblical passages that in one way or another express the idea that God can do anything, such as Genesis 18,10-14 or Luke 1,26-28, clearly point to (1). But there are also passages that express the idea that there are things that God cannot do (see 2 Timothy 2,13, Hebrews 6,18), and they, contrary to (3), point to moral limits of God’s omnipotence. As for (2), the “Omnipotence paradox”, as mentioned above, shows that there is, as far as I can see, no Biblical support of it, and one can certainly reject it without doing any harm to Christian theism.

As for the other properties traditionally attributed to God, none of them has to be limited, but God’s perfect justice has to be added to them. The theodicy outlined below called “Theodicy from divine justice” takes this property into account:

(1) God’s perfect justice prevents Him from relieving people with unforgiven sins from their sufferings (see Isaiah 59,1-2).
(2) Unlike God Christians are not perfectly just. Therefore, unlike God, they are in a position to help people with unforgiven sins. By doing this they may make those among them who haven’t yet accepted God’s salvation receptive of it (Matthew 5,16, 1 Peter 2,11-12, and 3,1-2), which in turn frees these persons from suffering in the afterlife.
(3) The greater God’s beneficial power due to His love, the greater God’s destructive power due to His justice (see Matthew 13,27-29). Striving to prevent as much suffering as possible God can only interfere to such a degree that the beneficial effect of the interference is not neutralized by the destructive effect of it.
(4) Someone who dies before he or she reaches the age of accountability, i.e. before he or she can distinguish between good and evil (see Genesis 2,16-17, Deuteronomy 1,39, and Isaiah 7,16) faces no punishment in the afterlife, as he or she would not have been able to commit sins. So, God may not be inclined to prevent such a person’s death.
(5) A person’s suffering in this life may have a redeeming effect (Luke 16,25) and consequently contribute to a decrease of the respective person’s suffering in the afterlife; the amount of suffering in this life is so to speak subtracted from the amount of suffering in the afterlife. So, God may not be inclined to relieve this person’s suffering.
(6) A person’s suffering in this life may make the person receptive of God’s salvation (Luke 15,11-21), which in turn frees this person from suffering in the afterlife.
(7) There are degrees of punishment in the afterlife depending on one’s moral behaviour (Matthew 16,27, 2 Corinthians 5,10), one’s knowledge of God’s will (Matthew 11,20-24, Luke 12,47-48, John 15,22-25), and, as mentioned before, one’s amount of suffering in this life (Luke 16,25).
(8) Those people who suffer more in this life than they deserve due to their way of life are compensated for it by receiving rewards in Heaven.
(9) As for animal suffering, animals will be compensated for it on the “new earth” mentioned in Isaiah 65,17-25, 2 Peter 3,13 and Revelation 21,1.

Alexander R Pruss said...

On the Pearce-Pruss model of omnipotence, God's omnipotence is the conjunction of two attributes:
1. perfect efficacy of will
2. perfect freedom of will

Neither needs to be limited. God can, without limit, bring about what he wills (with consequent will). Nor does perfect freedom of will need to be limited. The inability to will a wrong or a contradiction is not a limit on the divine will.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It seems to me that unless we were a lot dumber than we are, or we were deceived, we'd quickly figure out that our evil will is inefficacious.

Plus, efficacy of free will is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

The theodicies are possible explanations but to be honest i have been wary of theodicies that explain god's reasons for punishment or evil existing. In reading job, a lesson seems to be, humans have incomplete and little understanding as to how to reason precisely and rightly about the question of meaning and evil. Due to this incomplete understanding, our judgement over right or wrong is not certain either (in the sense of provable from indutible axioms). I dont want to be pushing my interpretation, but if i am wrong then please show me. Im not familiar with those models alex. But jason, may i say that logic as understood by humans is poorly understood. The nature of logic, or what makes the laws of classical logic something inherent in sense data and mental objects? You might have a theory, and there are many of how logic is to be understood. But to be honest, i never understood the simple law of non-contradiction. A few problems i face:
If i proved the law of non-contradiction, would i not use the law itself? Or is it a base axiom not needing proof? From the skeptic's POV our christian statements require proof before they can be accepted. So the rule becomes all statements require proof before they can be accepted as true or false. Then we can see Godel applying to this, since the skeptic really cant prove certain statements, even though they are true.
This bugs me, the basis for (insert branch) logic. What am i doing now, if not using logic to analyze logic? Isn't that circular reasoning, why not? I used to believe in the totality of classical logic, that it applies to all, and at all times, but now i recognize that logic is limited, as shown by strengthened liars, definition/regress arguments. (like what does equality mean? We have a set of statements defining it, then what defines those statements, you can see we become infinite, circular or non-rationally arbitrary), etc)

An assumption within the omnipotence paradox: that certain finite sets of logic laws apply to everything in the universe without limit in its applicability. If the preceding relevant skeptical arguments are not clearly and fully removed, then those laws are not unlimited.

By godel, some systems of logic and axioms are free from incompleteness and inconsistency, so is there any such system (that godel does not apply) that can be used to derive an omnipotence paradox? Even so, can we show they are free from the listed skeptical arguments?

Littlemas2 said...


This philosophical question is really personal to me recently. You see my 11 year old son Micah just died of kidney failure and complications 1 1/2 months ago.

One lady, who lost her husband several years ago, in an attempt to comfort us, wrote on our caringbridge page "God never meant for any of us to have to endure separation from him or each other when the world was set up." I was not exactly sure what she meant by this but it appears to me that she was implying that somehow sin and fall took God by surprise and he has had to kind of deal with it ever since. This seems to be denial of either God's omniscience or his omnipotence.

This is not a helpful in dealing with real loss. In fact, I believe that God does know the future and not only was the original fall of man known, but even the life and death of my son was known from the beginning of time.

Knowing that God's plan of salvation and restoration is not a patch or backup plan is helpful because I know that God had a good plan in place all along. His goodness, omniscience and omnipotence are not threatened by the hurt and loss in this world because He does allow them for the time being with the knowledge and power to make things right in the end.

Therefore, I can have confidence in the promises that God will make all things right and will bring about a good conclusion for those who are in his will (Romans 8:28). Furthermore, although I miss my son desperately, I have confidence in a God who is both good and able to fulfill His promises of eternal life for those who have trusted Him, which my son had done.

It may be a few years until I see my son Micah again, but I will see him again.

I cannot see how if I limited my view of God it would help me to handle this current loss easier or make the problem of evil go away.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thank you for sharing. May the Lord continue to comfort you.

"he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away."

This points to one further problem with limiting omnipotence. If one limits it too much, the deity won't be powerful enough to give heavenly joy for eternity. But any deity powerful enough to provide heavenly joy for eternity is very powerful indeed.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Has anyone ever heard or read that suffering is intended to conform us to the image of Christ? I have read that somewhere, but I can't recall where. I also have read that we are companions with Christ in suffering so that we might reign with Him. in a honily my confessor said that it is shared hardships that forge the tightest bonds than between persons who do not share hardships. So if we suffer it is something that forges our bond with Christ. That's perfectly goodd enough for me. Sorry I am a bit late responding, I've been working late and also out deer hunting again plus cooking up some Canadian geese I shot earlier. If anyone wants to know how to make a totally melt in your mouth sweet and sour goose let me know and I'll share my secrets.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

"in a honily my confessor said ..." oops I meant to say "In a homily my confessor said . . ."

"(9) As for animal suffering, animals will be compensated for it on the “new earth” mentioned in Isaiah 65,17-25, 2 Peter 3,13 and Revelation 21,1." Now this is something that I firmly believe. I believe that my two horses Merlin and Baltic Storm will share this "new earth" and will be completely restored at the time when Christ comes to make all things new. So will my cats Lima and Buddy and so will our dogs. After Storm was put down after problems with his leg, I knew that eventually we will win at the end of time. I really don't know how to put this any other way other than take Christ's word for it that He will make ALL things new at the end of time. This to me is a great consolation, and I have to accept that we are not there yet so we must perservere and endure and hope in what we do not see yet. Isn't that what Advent is all about?

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

"For unless the deity had a very serious reason not to tell people about vaccines and not to warn the innocent victims of horrendous attacks, it seems plausible that the deity did something quite bad in refraining from helping, so bad as to be incompatible with being pretty good. (If the deity had a reason that fell a little short of justifying the refraining, then that might be compatible with being pretty good; but a reason would have to be pretty serious for it to fall only a little short of justifying the refraining when the evils are so horrendous.) So even if one thinks that the deity has limited power and knowledge and is only pretty good, the problem of finding very serious reasons for the deity's non-interference remains. Granted, the problem is diminished, especially if one has decreased the belief in divine goodness.":

This still crops up as a problem for me. I know that it is a problem for many people I've met. In my previous comments I said that suffering conforms us to Christ. Well saying that suffering conforms us to Christ is one thing when talking about adult believers, sometimes this whole thing breaks down for me where the victims are children. A case in point would be children trafficked into slavery especially for sexual exploitation or for use as child soldiers (I've read some pretty gruesome accounts of these child soldiers forced into to committing atrocities). Then there is the institutionalization of children who are unwanted for some reason whether it is being orphaned, delinquent, impaired in some way. More often than not instutional abuses are quite infamous as the Ryan Report will attest to whether or not the institution is run by a church (Protestant or Catholic) the state, or a private organization. What surprises me sometimes is that there are a few of the adults who were children in these dark places well sorry for those who made their lives a hell rather than hating them. What surprises me still more is the rare individual I read about who feels that Christ looked after him in that situation as bad as it was.

Jason Thibodeau said...

I'm late responding to your response. So, I'll forgive you if you miss this, but . . .

Undoubtedly we would discover that our evil will is inefficacious. But why would this be a bad thing?

And, yes, as a general rule efficacy of will is a good thing. But I take it that Boer's point is that efficacy of evil will is not a good thing. Would the world not be a better place if evil intentions (at least some of them) could not culminate in their intended effects?

Eddie the Elephant said...

Dr. Pruss,

I apologize for commenting on such an old post, but I've been studying process theism recently, and their discussions on the problem of evil conjured questions pertaining to this topic.

Process theism typically denies that God is omnipotent or truly omniscient. God is often conceived as being bound within the laws of physics and all the constraints that entails. God is present to all facets of the universe, and his love attempts to persuade and influence all of creation toward his will, but he is unable to e.g. work miracles or guarantee that his will ultimately obtains.

If I understand process theism correctly (and I may very well be wrong), process theists also typically reject the notion that God is able to communicate in a propositional manner with creatures. Rather, God's 'communication' is via an existential encounter with his loving presence/spirit between himself and the creature. Thus, a type of "whispering in our ears" is not a kind of communication God exhibits.

Given these types of limitations, would your objection still hold against process theism? Or does their position sufficiently deal with the problem of evil, and should rather be rejected on other grounds (assuming we wish to maintain an orthodox or classical theism)?

Thank you,


Alexander R Pruss said...

Do they think God can't communicate propositions or just doesn't like to?
If he can't, that's a really radical limitation on the kinds of relationships God can enter into with us.

Eddie the Elephant said...

If I properly understood their theology, they deny that God can communicate propositions to us. Rather, God's loving spirit uses a type of "influence" or "persuasion" through an existential encounter that is purely relational and not propositional.