WHAT HAPPENED TO THE THE IMPOSSIBILITY ARGUMENT?
Up until the 1960s, critics of theism, like Epicurus and David Hume, said that the following two statements could NOT possibly both be true:
1. God is all-powerful and all-good.
2. Suffering exists.
Philosophers call this the “logical problem of evil,” but we will simply call it the “impossibility argument.” “How impossible is it for God and suffering to coexist?” you might ask. Atheists who believe this argument would say, “It will happen when pigs fly.”
If we examine both statements, there is no apparent contradiction between them. So there must be some additional assumptions that the atheists who believe in the “impossibility argument” are making.
Christians believe that both statements can be true simultaneously. Certain atheists who subscribe to this argument do not. “Theodicy” is a term that philosophers use to describe any attempt to explain why there is suffering in the world.
In our last blog, we made it clear that this is an assertion being made by atheism. Atheism carries the burden of proving to us that the fact of suffering somehow undermines the five arguments for God’s existence we’ve already presented in this Reasonologie blog.
To defeat the “impossibility argument,” a theist only has to provide one hypothetical illustration in which it might be possible for God and suffering to logically coexist. If this can be done, the entire argument crumbles.
So what are the hidden assumptions behind the atheists’ “impossibility argument”?
THE TWO “BETTER WORLD” ASSUMPTIONS
In Christianity, the concept of “God” includes the attributes of his being:
• all-powerful (omnipotent) and
• all-loving (an aspect of being all-good or omnibenevolent).
Atheists who propose the “impossibility argument” are making two hidden assumptions that are not explicitly stated in the argument itself:
1. If God is all-powerful, then he COULD create ANY world that he desired.
2. If God is all-loving, then he would PREFER or CHOOSE a world without suffering.
In order for the “impossibility argument” to be logically valid, both of these hidden assumptions MUST be correct.
Let’s unpack these two assumptions behind the “impossibility argument”:
Assumption 1: Atheists who propose the impossibility argument are saying that, “If God is omnipotent, then he could create ANY world, including a sinless world in which his creatures ALWAYS freely choose to do the right thing, a world free of all ‘moral evils’ (evils perpetrated by humans) and ‘natural evils’ (falling down stairs, cancer, tornadoes, floods, etc.), a world free of pain and suffering.”
Problem: Is it logically possible for God to MAKE someone always FREELY do the right thing?
Assumption 2: Atheists who propose the impossibility argument are also saying that, “If God is all-loving, he would PREFER a world in which there is no suffering. God and suffering can’t possibly coexist. Since there actually is suffering in the world, that all-loving God must not exist.”
Problem: Isn’t it possible that a loving God might have an overriding reason not readily apparent to us for allowing suffering?
If we examine these two assumptions closely, they are actually arguments against the attributes of God. If God is not all-powerful and all-loving, Epicurus asked the question, “Then why call him God?”
So the two “better world” assumptions say that God COULD create a better world and that he would PREFER a better world than this one.
THE “FREE WILL” DEFENSE
Alvin Plantinga is possibly the most brilliant Christian philosopher living today. He offers what is called the “free will defense” as a response to atheists’ two “better world” assumptions.
Plantinga says that God has determined that his human creatures must have the agency to freely choose or reject him. If this is true, it means that God willingly places certain limitations on his own omnipotence. He stands back in order to afford us the ability to freely choose.
Even if it is only POSSIBLE that this idea about human free will is true, then both of the assumptions behind the impossibility argument are NOT necessarily correct.
In earlier blogs we made the point that God’s omnipotence is always limited by that which is “logically possible.” He can’t make square circles or married bachelors. In trying to provide for man’s free will to choose, it might NOT be feasible for God to create ANY possible world. Along that same line, God can’t create the world that atheists suggested in which humans “always freely choose what is right.” Such a world is logically impossible because then humans would NOT actually be free.
So it’s NOT necessarily true that God could create ANY world. So the first assumption is not necessarily true. In any world containing free people, that has as much good as this world does, there could also be suffering. God cannot logically MAKE people FREELY choose to do the right thing. Assumption 1 is not true.
God could have created rabbits instead of humans. However, in creating humans he wanted us to FREELY choose him. A moral dimension requires us to make choices. For us to be truly free, it must be possible to choose good or bad, right or wrong. In providing for man’s agency, it’s entirely possible that God would NOT PREFER a world without suffering.
Perhaps granting free will is such a necessary good that it justifies allowing there to be some suffering in this existence. And in a world where there is free will, it’s entirely possible that people might not freely give their allegiance to God unless there were significant suffering. So it’s entirely possible that God might prefer a world with free will and some degree of suffering over one with no suffering at all. Assumption 2 is not true.
It’s entirely possible that God’s choices about what world to create are limited by his desire to grant us free will. It’s possible that he would prefer a world with free will and some degree of suffering over one with no suffering at all.
So both assumptions are not necessarily true. It’s therefore entirely possible for God and suffering to coexist!
For the past few decades, arguments like Plantinga’s free will defense have rocked the “God is dead” perspective and put it back on its heels.
Currently, among the great thinkers of our time, this idea that it’s IMPOSSIBLE for God and suffering to coexist has been logically defeated. The “logical problem of evil” or “impossibility argument” is rarely used by atheist philosophers anymore.
In the last few decades, philosophers and theologians have largely conceded the fact that it’s POSSIBLE for God and suffering to coexist. The assertion of “impossibility” has fallen into disfavor.