November 01, 2015
Omnipotence and the Ability to Do Evil
Dear Dr. Craig,
I would first of all like to tell you how much I have enjoyed watching your debates and lectures over the years; you are one person who has definitely contributed to me becoming deeply interested in philosophy, and I wanted to thank you for that. Although I would call myself an agnostic, I actually agree with many things you say.
Anyhow, my question is regarding an argument against the existence of God that you have certainly heard before, however I have not seen the argument articulated in a way that I find satisfactory.
The argument is essentially about the problem of whether or not God can commit evil acts (or whether or not it even is a problem).
If God is all-powerful, and the ability to do that which is objectively morally wrong is contained within the concept of an all-powerful being, then there must be some possible worlds in which God does in fact commit evil acts.
However, this seems to undermine God's perfect moral goodness, since a being who only does that which is morally good in every possible world is conceivable, and thus for there to be some possible worlds in which God commits evil acts would imply that God is not the greatest conceivable being.
The typical answer to this by Christians seems to be that God cannot do anything evil because God has a perfectly good nature, and therefore it would be logically incoherent for God to do anything evil.
In light of this type of answer, I think that the question must be whether the ability to do evil is contained within the concept of an all-powerful being, or not. If it is, then clearly to say that God cannot commit evil acts because of His intrinsic good nature is just to admit that God is a logically incoherent concept; His absolute power would imply the possibility of evil, and His perfectly good nature would imply the impossibility of evil.
But it seems to me to be incoherent to claim that we should conceive of omnipotence as not containing at least the possibility of evil, since obviously we know from experience that it is logically possible for beings in general to perform evil actions. Why then, given that mere humans can do evil, would it be impossible for an all-powerful God to perform evil actions as well? The only reason seems to be His supposed intrinsic, perfectly good nature. This just concedes that, because of another property which He is supposed to have, He cannot be truly all-powerful; two of His properties would be in conflict.
Suppose there were a being who had the property of omnipotence, but did not have the property of perfect goodness. This being would clearly have the ability to commit immoral actions, for immoral acts are logically possible acts for beings to take. Therefore, the concept of omnipotence in itself must contain at least the possibility of evil. It is only when you add the further proposition that God is also intrinsically good that evil becomes an impossibility. This seems to create a blatant contradiction.
Omnipotence without intrinsic perfect goodness implies the possibility of evil, but intrinsic perfect goodness implies the impossibility of evil.
I would be very interested in what you have to say about this; especially the part about the idea of a being who is omnipotence, but lacks perfect goodness. It seems obvious that this being would have the ability to commit evil actions, and this would mean that the ability to commit evil acts is a necessary condition for omnipotence, and therefore a God who does not have the ability to commit evil acts because of the property of intrinsic perfect goodness could not rightly be said to have the property of omnipotence, for there cannot logically be more than one possible concept of omnipotence, and the concept which includes more logically possible actions, it seems, ought to be accepted as the more accurate concept.
Thank you for your kind words, LB! Your question is addressed in Thomas Flint and Alfred Freddoso’s impressive treatment of omnipotence, “Maximal Power,” which you may find reprinted in my anthology Philosophy of Religion: a Reader and Guide (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002). I’d really encourage you to read their article for yourself, as I’m sure you’d find it helpful and interesting.
What Flint and Freddoso point out is that omnipotence should not be defined in terms of ability to do certain tasks. This is the presupposition of your question. Rather omnipotence should be defined in terms of ability to actualize states of affairs. Under this conception, your question then becomes whether omnipotence entails the ability to actualize the state of affairs God’s doing an evil act.
Obviously, because of God’s essential goodness such a state of affairs is broadly logically impossible. Therefore, inability to bring about such a state of affairs is no infringement of omnipotence.
Notice that Flint and Freddoso are not offering an account of divine omnipotence or of what it is for God to be omnipotent, but rather a general account of the property of omnipotence as such. An omnipotent being, no matter who he is, cannot be expected to be able to actualize the state of affairs God’s doing an evil act. So an omnipotent being who lacks perfect goodness, such as you ask about, while able to do evil acts himself, cannot be expected to be able to bring about a logically impossible state of affairs such as God’s doing an evil act. Therefore, his inability to actualize said state of affairs does not tell against his omnipotence.