The Traditional Argument
J.L. Mackie was an Australian philosopher of the 20th Century, who most famously wrote of the logical contradiction between the existence of God and evil, which has now become one of the de facto arguments against Christianity and theism in general. In my own time in university, I’ve heard many a student say, “how can a loving, all powerful, all knowing God possibly allow so much evil to exist?” Another variation is for the student to replace the word “evil” with “suffering”. Though I’ve edited this article, much of it is based on an essay, which I wrote during my time in a Presbyterian seminary so forgive any language that may be hard to understand. Not all of the arguments here are mine, but footnotes have been deleted due to formatting issues. If you would like to have a look at them, please contact me for the full pdf. This article was written to address the so-called logical contradiction of evil and God, not the necessarily existential or emotional aspect of one’s struggle with this belief, which would necessitate a whole other article by itself. Without further ado, Mackie in Evil shows that there is no God argues that traditional theistic beliefs are ultimately irrational.
The question is a philosophical rather than existential struggle to belief by trying to find a logical contradiction in the existence of God and evil. Mackie attempts this by means of a valid deductive argument with true premises for God’s non-existence. If valid, the statement “God and evil exists” is contradictory and hence false. Mackie’s argument is this:
1. God is omnipotent
2. God is wholly good
3. Evil exists
4. Good is opposed to evil by eliminating it as far as it can
5. There is no limit to what omnipotent beings can do
6. A good omnipotent being eliminates all evil
7. Evil exists, therefore a good omnipotent God does not
In Mackie’s view, traditional theism affirms the existence of God and evil, and therefore what is contradictory. To make a contradictory, false statement “true”, theism must deny the logicality of its affirmation. Mackie demonstrates that the only alternative solution is to deny at least one of the premises or modify it while undermining theism’s core position. Four examples of solutions that implicitly deny these premises are that good cannot exist without evil, evil is a necessary means to good, the universe is better with some evil than without, and evil is due to free will. Either way, belief in God is irrational. If rational, then either God or evil cannot exist.
Mackie’s Philosophical Contribution by this Argument
In retrospect, Mackie’s deduction is logically valid. If the premises are true, he concludes a significant philosophical question that has been debated for millenniums. After all, thousands of years before, the Greek philosopher Epicurus once said the exact same, “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?” Moreover, it is proof that the traditional theistic God does not exist. If we assert he does despite this proof, then our theistic belief is irrational and ultimately cannot be known to be true or false. Theism appears to be in a bind and this argument will be examined later on.
Does Free Will Necessitate that Evil Exist?
Mackie also gives a sound refutation of evil as necessary for free will and undermines the concept of libertarian freedom. First, he questions why freedom is a “good” and more valuable than any other good that it necessitates co-existence with evil. If a wrong act is done freely, does it then become good? Secondly, it is evident that humans sometimes choose good over evil freely, whether it is due to circumstance or desire. If men can freely choose good sometimes, why can God not make us choose good every time? Therefore, free will is reduced to randomness so that God cannot be held responsible for the “sometimes wrong”.
Ganssle’s libertarian argument that it is possible for evil to exist so that free will can have the possibility of actualizing different realities subtly undermines an omnipotent God. If God is not sovereign over everything including the intrinsic world, then he is not sovereign at all. This is exacerbated when understanding that Christian theism constitutes an omniscient God because foreseeing an event that may lead to evil, Mackie’s premises necessitates that God omnipotently act to prevent it in his foreknowledge.
Lastly, in order to know if we have free will, we must be able to know that it is in our power to choose otherwise. Yet we cannot know all that affects our desires both internally and externally so that we can do so freely. We would have to know every cause, factor and relationship of the world and ourselves to determine if our next decision was free. Moreover, would we really know if other alternative realities would actualize depending on our choice? They remain a speculative possibility and possibilities are merely a synonym for uncertainty. To know if we have free will, we would have to be omniscient. We are clearly not, and so must resort to a better definition of free will in this traditional libertarian defense of theism.
A Christian Response to Mackie
Since evil self-evidentially exists, Mackie’s argument on appearance draws logical proof for God’s non-existence and furthermore the irrationality of objecting belief. On closer examination, I hope to show that Mackie’s argument is intrinsically flawed from its definitions and premises while his conclusion itself assumes and proves the Christian God’s existence. Consequently, the belief that God and evil cannot co-exist is not just irrational but false, and the belief that God and evil does is not merely rational but true.
I will start with the premises. Premise 3) is true but unjustified from an atheistic position. First, Mackie does not provide a definition of his most important problem, which he uses to conclude his argument. What is evil? What evil does he have in mind that cannot co-exist with God? The fact that he has not defined it but is assumed in what he says it is, reveals that it is a subjective “evil” he is asserting when saying “it” cannot exist with God. This is merely reduced to a personal preference that God’s existence is incompatible with. He has yet to justify its universality or nature, and he cannot, because to justify it one must be omniscient (to know all that is good and evil) and omnipotent (to be able to determine good from evil universally instead of being subject to it), which no human is. Yet Mackie assumes that evil exists. He does so by saying that a theist cannot deny it but the burden of proof lies on him to show it does as an atheist. Christian theism explains evil as an ethical rebellion with its beginning in the world as a result of the Fall. Raising the question of evil assumes that God exists because a universal, objective standard must be used which can only be determined by an omnipotent and omniscient being, else subjectivism ensues.
Moreover, new exhibitions of what humans universally know as evil is continually found each day in newspapers. The definition of evil is always changing and debated by philosophers. We are unable to question God’s compatibility with evil by its mere presence because we do not know evil exhaustively and so cannot define it. Without defining evil, we are unable even to know good and evil properly. The answer lies only in a Christian theistic idea of evil that is defined by God. When Mackie concludes that God and evil cannot exist he can only do so if he affirms that they do. Such a statement becomes rationally irrational.
In the conclusion, Mackie is right when saying that God cannot exist with evil as a deductive result from his premises, because this god is the god of his subjective ideal based on his premises and not the God of Christianity. In fact, the Christian theistic belief is assumed in order for him to prove that his conceptual god does not. How? There are two main premises that Christian theism disagrees with here, without undermining its core “theistic” position: 4) and 5).
First, 4) can be changed to – a good being eliminates evil as far as it can unless it has good reasons for not doing so. However, I am merely pointing out that Mackie’s deduction is false from Christian theistic premises and not saying this directlyproves God’s existence. Rather it helps to affirm it. This is because the debate would be shifted to what constituted “good reasons” depending on whether it was aligned with Mackie’s standard of evil (which is subjective) or my standard. A parent may sometimes allow a child to suffer evil for his own good, but we are precisely like the child. We cannot see it as a good. The distinction is not up to us. Secondly, Christian theism can modify 5) to be – there are no logical limits to what an omnipotent being can do. It is impossible for God to perform impossibility. Mackie actually assumes this Christian presupposition underlying his idea of omnipotence because if there were no illogical limits to what an omnipotent God could do, then it is no contradiction for God to coexist with evil because he could allow contradictions to occur. It is his burden to prove that God cannot do what is illogical and he cannot without assuming the Christian view of a logical God.
The Underlying Issue of Such a Question
The logical question is actually revealed to be one of psychological resistance because God’s choice to allow evil must be approved by our idea of what a “good, omnipotent being” must do or be for him to exist; which is by having no evil. Either God is subject to our moral judgment or else our logic. Therefore, we have changed the premises while seemingly undermining theistic belief. The problem is that it is not Christian theism. Rather it is Mackie’s conception of God.
Ultimately, the question of whether God and evil can coexist is not ours to ask. Why is it that a good being eliminates evil as far as it can or that it does unless it has good reasons for doing so? What allows us this definition to what a good being can or cannot do to be good besides our self? We cannot determine whether God and evil can coexist unless we first understand what a good being does. Christian theism answers this. God is good. It is his nature. Hence all that he does is good regardless of whether we call it evil. He is not a good being because he is subservient to some higher law. Rather, the law was created for his creation so if God were to “steal”, he would not be doing wrong because all that is created is his. God defines good and evil, by being the natural embodiment of good so that no matter what he does is determinatively good. There is no law higher than himself. There is no claim for God’s responsibility either because there is no superior being to which he can be held accountable; he transcends both.
In conclusion, Mackie must assume Christian theism to deny his wrong and illogical concept of God by the use of his unjustified definitions. Ultimately, such a belief against God and evil’s co-existence becomes irrational and false. Without God to define omnipotence, good, and evil, we have no foundation but our subjective selves to deny his existence. We cannot use our notions of reason or morality to prove or deny God’s existence because we are unable to interpret morality rightly by our standards or justify reason’s validity. We must use him to justify them. God and evil does exist, and exists rationally. However this relationship does not depend on our rationality because it is flawed, but rather our very nature and question presupposes that he does. Therefore, in order to know how and know clearly, we need direct revelation from God himself because in him, we live, move, and have our being.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think down in the comments!