“Logical” Problem of Evil: Alvin Plantinga’s Decisive Refutation

“Logical” Problem of Evil: Alvin Plantinga’s Decisive Refutation June 16, 2018

The Problem of Evil is NOT a Disproof of God’s Existence, Goodness, or Omnipotence

Alvin Plantinga (who was born in 1932 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and started his teaching career at my alma mater, Wayne State University) is considered — by his Christian or theist admirers and atheists alike — to be the greatest living Christian philosopher and philosopher of religion.

He wrote a very influential book in 1974, called God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans / New York: Harper & Row), which is now widely regarded as the best (and indeed, a decisive) refutation of the atheist use of the classic Problem of Evil in order to disprove God’s existence, or His character as all-good and all-powerful, or to claim that Christian belief involves an inherent contradiction therein. John G. Stackhouse Jr., in an article from the 11 June 2001 issue of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today [link now defunct] noted his influence:

Alvin Plantinga is arguably the greatest philosopher of the last century.The Dutch-American Calvinist raised in the Midwest and now the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame is not just the best Christian philosopher of his time. No, Plantinga is the most important philosopher of any stripe.

Plantinga deserves this accolade for three reasons.

First, he has taken up the two most important questions of our day: the problem of evil (arguably the most important philosophical question of any era) and the problem of knowledge (undoubtedly the key philosophical question of our era).

Second, he has made fundamental contributions to these two questions. On the problem of evil, Plantinga’s vaunted “Free Will Defense” (to which we’ll return in a moment) responded to the most trenchant form of this problem with a success rarely found in philosophy: for almost 20 years now, the discussion of the problem has shifted to other grounds because of the widespread acknowledgment of Plantinga’s argument.

. . . Plantinga has dealt with these two crucial issues on behalf of orthodox Christian faith. Because of the excellence of his labors, the Christian view of things simply has to be taken seriously by any questioner with the integrity to appreciate sound philosophy.

. . . In the so-called Free Will Defense, Plantinga answered the logical problem of evil, an apparently lethal argument that boldly claims theists cannot simultaneously affirm three propositions: that God is good, that God is all-powerful, and that evil exists. Therefore, says the argument, theism is incoherent, and one can thus dispense with it.

Plantinga’s response is complicated—the shortest published version (God, Freedom, and Evil, Eerdmans, 1974) ran to more than 60 pages—but it essentially was this: God desired to love and be loved by other beings. God created human beings with this end in view. To make us capable of such fellowship, God had to give us the freedom to choose, since love cannot be either automatic or coerced. This sort of free will, however, entailed the danger that we would use it to go our own way in defiance of both God and our own best interests.

For God to grant human beings free will was to grant us the awful dignity of making real choices with real consequences. If God prevents us from sinning, he is preventing us from truly free action. And if God constantly and instantly repairs our mischief, then it is likely that we would never face our sin and need for redemption. (Then again, God could have looked ahead and seen which human beings would sin and which would choose well, and then actualized only the latter human beings; God thus would not have compromised human freedom but would also have allowed no evil to result from it.)

In any event, Plantinga suggests that perhaps we human beings suffer from what he calls “transworld depravity,” a condition in which, no matter what the circumstances, each of us will commit at least one sin, and maybe many. We do so, that is, because it is somehow in each of our individual essences to do so. If God, for some reason (perhaps known only to God), wants to enjoy the fellowship of these particular beings (each with particular flaws), then God must let us be who we are, sin and all.

Why then does God put up with all the evil wrought by generations of human beings through the ages? God does so, Plantinga argues, because on the whole it is for the best—or, at least, for the better. God deems the cost of evil to be worth the benefit of loving and enjoying the love of these human beings. So, the Free Will Defense concludes, theists can simultaneously affirm that God is good, that God is all-powerful, and that evil yet exists.

It is important to remember that the original charge of inconsistency is an absolute one: there is no way for the theist consistently to hold belief in God’s power, goodness, and the existence of evil. All Plantinga had to do in response was to show at least one way to hold all three together—regardless of whether each detail of the defense is true or even plausible. The consensus among philosophers of religion (and consensus doesn’t emerge easily among this crowd) is that Plantinga has done this successfully.

Indeed, the argument for the last decade or so has shifted to so-called probabilistic arguments: that it is highly improbable that there is a God who is good and all-powerful, given the existence and extent of evil. Plantinga has joined in this discussion alongside many other doughty Christian thinkers. It remains to be underscored that this is where the battle is now joined, since Plantinga removed from the skeptic’s arsenal the knockout punch of the sheerly logical objection.

. . . Plantinga, then, has established the intellectual grounds for Christians to continue to believe in God, and particularly the God of historic orthodoxy, in the face of the two most daunting philosophical challenges of this century. He has done so, however, in distinctly 20th-century fashion. He has not, that is, offered a theodicy, an explanation for how God does, in fact, run the world. All Plantinga has done is show that it is not contradictory to believe that God is good, that God is all-powerful, and that evil yet exists. Whether one should go on to believe the gospel—well, that is not for him, as a philosopher, to say.

Nor has Plantinga offered an argument for the truth of Christianity. Again, all he has done is show that it is not improper for Christians to believe their religion is epistemologically well-grounded. Whether Christianity is actually true—well, that is not for him, as a philosopher, to say.

What Plantinga has done is to prevent the world’s main philosophical challenges from pressing Christianity out of the realm of reasonable options. He has helped preserve a space for intellectually respectable Christian belief. Whether anyone should go on, then, to believe in the Christian faith—well, that is for theologians and apologists and evangelists, and for every individual Christian and every Christian congregation, to show through faithful witness. That is for the Holy Spirit, ultimately, to say. Alvin Plantinga has masterfully done his part as a philosopher, and circumspectly steps aside for the rest of us to do ours.

Now, one might reasonably maintain that this is a biased account from a partisan evangelical Protestant source. Very well, then, let’s look at some secular philosophical estimations of Plantinga’s philosophical success and influence, regarding the question before us in particular. James R. Beebe, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “The Logical Problem of Evil” [possibly revised since I first cited this article in 2006], writes:

What might God’s reason be for allowing evil and suffering to occur? Alvin Plantinga (1974, 1977) has offered the most famous contemporary philosophical response to this question.

. . . How would you go about finding a logically possible x? Philosophers claim that you only need to use your imagination. If you can conceive of a state of affairs without there being anything contradictory about what you’re imagining, then that state of affairs must be possible. In a word, conceivability is your guide to possibility.


Since the logical problem of evil claims that it is logically impossible for God and evil to co-exist, all that Plantinga (or any other theist) needs to do to combat this claim is to describe a possible situation in which God and evil co-exist. That situation doesn’t need to be actual or even realistic. Plantinga doesn’t need to have a single shred of evidence supporting the truth of his suggestion. All he needs to do is give a logically consistent description of a way that God and evil can co-exist. Plantinga claims God and evil could co-exist if God had a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil. He suggests that God’s morally sufficient reason might have something to do with humans being granted morally significant free will and with the greater goods this freedom makes possible. All that Plantinga needs to claim on behalf of (MSR1) and (MSR2) is that they are logically possible (that is, not contradictory).

[MSR1: God’s creation of persons with morally significant free will is something of tremendous value. God could not eliminate much of the evil and suffering in this world without thereby eliminating the greater good of having created persons with free will with whom he could have relationships and who are able to love one another and do good deeds.]

[MSR2: God allowed natural evil to enter the world as part of Adam and Eve’s punishment for their sin in the Garden of Eden.]

Since (MSR1) and (MSR2) together seem to show contra the claims of the logical problem of evil how it is possible for God and (moral and natural) evil to co-exist, it seems that the Free Will Defense successfully defeats the logical problem of evil.

. . . J. L. Mackie[:] one of the most prominent atheist philosophers of the mid-twentieth-century and a key exponent of the logical problem of evil has this to say about Plantinga’s Free Will Defense:

Since this defense is formally [that is, logically] possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another. But whether this offers a real solution of the problem is another question. (Mackie 1982, p. 154)

Mackie admits that Plantinga’s defense shows how God and evil can co-exist, that is, it shows that “the central doctrines of theism” are logically consistent after all. However, Mackie is reluctant to attribute much significance to Plantinga’s accomplishment. He expresses doubt about whether Plantinga has adequately dealt with the problem of evil.


Part of Mackie’s dissatisfaction probably stems from the fact that Plantinga only gives a possible reason for why God might have for allowing evil and suffering and does not provide any evidence for his claims or in any way try to make them plausible. Although sketching out mere possibilities without giving them any evidential support is typically an unsatisfactory thing to do in philosophy, it is not clear that Mackie’s unhappiness with Plantinga is completely warranted. It was, after all, Mackie himself who characterized the problem of evil as one of logical inconsistency:

Here it can be shown, not that religious beliefs lack rational support, but that they are positively irrational, that several parts of the essential theological doctrine are inconsistent with one another. (Mackie 1955, p. 200)

In response to this formulation of the problem of evil, Plantinga showed that this charge of inconsistency was mistaken. Even Mackie admits that Plantinga solved the problem of evil, if that problem is understood as one of inconsistency. It is, therefore, difficult to see why Plantinga’s Free Will Defense should be found wanting if that defense is seen as a response to the logical problem of evil. As an attempt to rebut the logical problem of evil, it is strikingly successful.


. . . all parties admit that Plantinga’s Free Will Defense successfully rebuts the logical problem of evil as it was formulated by atheists during the mid-twentieth-century.

. . . Plantinga’s Free Will Defense has been the most famous theistic response to the logical problem of evil because he did more to clarify the issues surrounding the logical problem than anyone else.


Mackie, J. L. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mackie, J. L. 1955. “Evil and Omnipotence.” Mind 64: 200-212.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1974. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1977. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, Micghigan: Eerdmans.

Michael Tooley (atheist), in his article, “The Problem of Evil,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [article since revised, so what is below from the first version may have been revised as well], states:

One of the more striking illustrations of this phenomenon is provided by Alvin Plantinga’s discussions of the problem of evil. In God and Other Minds, in The Nature of Necessity, and in God, Freedom, and Evil, for example, Plantinga, starting out from an examination of John L. Mackie’s essay “Evil and Omnipotence”, in which Mackie had defended an incompatibility version of the argument from evil, focuses mainly on the question of whether the existence of God is compatible with the existence of evil, although there are also short discussions of whether the existence of God is compatible with the existence of a given quantity of evil, and of whether the existence of a certain amount of evil renders the existence of God unlikely. (The latter topic is then the total focus of attention in his long article, “The Probabilistic Argument from Evil”.)


Not only, however, does Plantinga concentrate exclusively on very abstract versions of the argument from evil: he also seems to believe that if it can be shown that the existence of God is neither incompatible with, nor rendered improbable by, either (1) the mere existence of evil, or (2) the existence of a specified amount of evil, then no philosophical problem remains. People may find, of course, that they are still troubled by the existence of specific evils, but this, Plantinga seems to be believe, is a religious problem, and what is called for, he suggests, is not philosophical argument, but “pastoral care”.

Tooley — as an atheist — finds this unsatisfactory (as we would suspect):

This view is very implausible. For not only can the argument from evil be formulated in terms of specific evils, but that is the natural way to do so, given that it is only certain types of evils that are generally viewed as raising a serious problem with respect to the rationality of belief in God. To concentrate exclusively on abstract versions of the argument from evil is therefore to ignore the most plausible and challenging versions of the argument.

But I think Plantinga is right in this respect also. If the classical formulation of the argument was indeed designed to make the charge of logical incompatibility and thus a decisive disproof of God, to disprove the accusation is to render at least the classical Problem of Evil argument null and void. Understandably atheists would want to then pursue the essentially different probabilistic argument from evil, lest they lose this favorite weapon in their arsenal altogether, but it is a far weaker version, and thus, much more difficult to make stick.

The Christian can simply poke holes in the more subjective premises over and over, and appeal to any number of possible Christian answers, now that God’s existence is safe, logically speaking, from the attacks of the classic argument, meant to hit God with a knockout punch. If God (even the Christian God) hasn’t been removed from the equation, then the Christian can quite logically propose any number of scenarios whereby the existence of evil however great, is not inconsistent with a good or omnipotent God. Tooley continues, later on:

What are the prospects for a complete, or nearly complete theodicy? Some philosophers, such as Swinburne, are optimistic, and believe that “the required theodicy can be provided.” (1988, 311). Others, including many theists, are much less hopeful. Plantinga, for example remarks:

… we cannot see why our world, with all its ills, would be better than others we think we can imagine, or what, in any detail, is God’s reason for permitting a given specific and appalling evil. Not only can we not see this, we can’t think of any very good possibilities. And here I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil — theodicies, as we may call them — strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous. (1985a, 35)

Sources:Plantinga, Alvin (1985a) “Self-Profile,” in Tomberlin, James E., and Peter van Inwagen, ed. (1985) Alvin Plantinga, (Dordrecht: D. Reidel), 3-97.

Swinburne, Richard (1988) “Does Theism Need A Theodicy?” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 18: 287-312.

Daniel Hill, a theist (presumably a Christian), wrote in Philosophy Now (Issue 21: 1998; link now defunct):

. . . Catholics and Calvinists


Most philosophers of religion also fall into one of two camps from the religious point of view too: the majority are either Roman Catholics or Reformed Calvinists. (There are a few important exceptions, such as William Alston and Peter van Inwagen, who are both Episcopalians, and Richard Swinburne of Oxford, a member of the Orthodox Church.) Notre Dame itself seems to have cornered the market in philosophy of religion by recruiting both Roman Catholics and Reformed Calvinists.

Big Alvin

Notre Dame’s brightest star is Alvin Plantinga, whom everyone agrees to be the current world-leader in the field. He is a product of the analytical school of philosophy and of the Dutch Reformed Church.

. . . The topics on which Plantinga has written have been the most important ones in the philosophy of religion over the past thirty years, important because he has written on them.

. . . It is very rare these days to see the problem of evil held up as a knock-down argument for atheism. This is due to the pioneering work of Alvin Plantinga (you guessed it), who has shown that it is impossibly difficult to establish any sound proof of God’s non-existence using this argument. Instead, it is usually now presented as showing just that God’s existence is improbable. Debate continues to rage fiercely about whether it succeeds in this. If God did exist, would we necessarily know God’s reasons for allowing suffering? People even disagree on whether the burden of proof here lies with the atheists or the believers. This brings up a distinction drawn by Plantinga between a theodicy and a defence. Plantinga only claims to offer a defence, that is a demonstration of why the atheist’s arguments do not succeed. He says that he is not able to offer a theodicy, that is, an explanation of why God allows suffering.

. . . To conclude, the prospects for philosophy of religion look brighter than they have done for many moons. The general standard of discussion in the analytical philosophy of religion is high – in my judgment, as high as in any other branch of philosophy. It is also provoking much interest both amongst professional philosophers in other fields (David Lewis and Martin Davies, for instance, have both written articles on the philosophy of religion) and amongst students taking philosophy at university (at Oxford, philosophy of religion is the second most popular optional subject, after philosophy of mind). In addition, it is a lively, interesting and accessible area, whose questions are surely relevant to all (don’t atheists need to consider the arguments for God, and perhaps provide some reasons for their rejection of theism?). If you would like to study it, there are many easy ways into the academic subject, and I feel sure that it will amply repay your time and attention.

Atheist philosopher Evan Fales conceded, “Alvin Plantinga has convinced most of us — if indeed, we were not already convinced — that the free will defense exonerates God from the imputation of a certain kind of incapacity. Not even an omnipotent being can guarantee the best of all possible worlds, for if such a world must contain created free beings, it will be partly up to them what transpires.” (“Should God Not Have Created Adam?”, Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 2, April, 1992).

Plantinga himself, in his lecture, “Christian Philosophy at the End of the 20th Century,” noted the important role of “negative apologetics”:

Roughly speaking, negative apologetics is the attempt to defend Christian belief against the various sorts of attacks that have been brought against it: the argument from evil, for example, or the claim that science has somehow shown Christian belief wanting. It is the part of Calvinism to hold that Christians are not complete; they are in process. John Calvin, himself no mean Calvinist, points out that believers are constantly beset by doubts, disquietude, spiritual difficulty and turmoil; “it never goes so well with us,” he says, “that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith” (Institutes III, ii, 18, p.564 ) . It never goes that well with us, and it often goes a good deal worse. There is an unbeliever within the breast of every Christian; in the believing mind, says Calvin, “certainty is mixed with doubt”. (No doubt the proportions differ for different people and for the same person at different times.)


But then objections brought by the atheologians–the Freud’s, Marx’s and Nietzsche’s, the Flew’s, Mackie’s and Nielsen’s–these objections can and do trouble the Christian community and need to be answered . And that is, in part, the function of negative apologetics: to refute such objections, thus removing one kind of obstacle to the spiritual peace and wholeness of the Christian community. Of course negative apologetics can also be useful for those who are not in the Christian community, but perhaps on its edges, perhaps thinking about joining it. And it is can also be useful for those who are not on the edges but adamantly opposed to the Christian truth; perhaps once they really see just how weak their arguments really are, they will be moved closer to it. Well, how has negative apologetics fared during our century? Reasonably well, I think, but not as well as one might hope.


. . . there has been a good deal of work on the argument from evil, and in fact it is now, as opposed to 40 years ago, rather rare for an athelogian to claim that there is a contradiction between the claim that there is a wholly good, all powerful, all knowing God, on the one hand, and the existence of evil on the other. This is due in large part to the efforts of Christian philosophers. Those atheologians who now press the argument from evil must turn instead to the probabilistic argument from evil: given all the evil the world contains, it is unlikely, improbable that there is a wholly good, all powerful and all knowing God. This argument is much messier, much more complicated, and much less satisfactory from the point of view of the objector. In other ways, however, this probabilistic argument is more realistic and perhaps more disturbing. Christian philosophers–William Alston and Peter van Inwagen, for example–have done good work here, but much remains to be done.

In his paper, “Advice to Christian Philosophers” (Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, vol. 1, October 1984), Plantinga takes on the lesser probabilistic Problem of Evil argument, now fashionable among atheists:

Many philosophers have claimed to find a serious problem for theism in the existence of evil, or of the amount and kinds of evil we do in fact find. Many who claim to find a problem here for theists have urged thedeductive argument from evil: they have claimed that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good God is logically incompatible with the presence of evil in the world-a presence conceded and indeed insisted upon by Christian theists. For their part, theists have argued that there is no inconsistency here. I think the present consensus, even among those who urge some form of the argument from evil, is that the deductive form of the argument from evil is unsuccessful.


More recently, philosophers have claimed that the existence of God, while perhaps not actually inconsistent with the existence of the amount and kinds of evil we do in fact find, is at any rate unlikely or improbable with respect to it; that is, the probability of the existence of God with respect to the evil we find, is less than the probability, with respect to that same evidence, that there is no God-no omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good Creator. Hence the existence of God is improbable with respect to what we know. But if theistic belief is improbable with respect to what we know, then, so goes the claim, it is irrational or in any event intellectually second rate to accept it.

Now suppose we briefly examine this claim. The objector holds that

1. God is the omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good creator of the world is improbable or unlikely with respect to2. There are 10E+13 turps of evil (where the turp is the basic unit of evil).

I’ve argued elsewhere that enormous difficulties beset the claim that (1) is unlikely or improbable given (2). Call that response “the low road reply.” Here I want to pursue what I shall call the high road reply. Suppose we stipulate, for purposes of argument, that (1) is, in fact, improbable on (2). Let’s agree that it is unlikely, given the existence of 10E+13 turps of evil, that the world has been created by a God who is perfect in power, knowledge and goodness. What is supposed to follow from that? How is that to be construed as an objection to theistic belief? How does the objector’s argument go from there? It doesn’t follow, of course, that theism is false.


Nor does it follow that one who accepts both (1) and (2) (and let’s add, recognizes that (1) is improbable with respect to (2) has an irrational system of beliefs or is in any way guilty of noetic impropriety; obviously there might be pairs of propositions A and B, such that we know both A and B, despite the fact that A is improbable on B. I might know, for example, both that Feike is a Frisian and 9 out of 10 Frisians can’t swim, and also that Feike can swim; then I am obviously within my intellectual rights in accepting both these propositions, even though the latter is improbable with respect to the former. So even if it were a fact that (1) is improbable with respect to (2), that fact, so far, wouldn’t be of much consequence. How, therefore, can this objection be developed?


Presumably what the objector means to hold is that (1) is improbable, not just on (2) but on some appropriate body of total evidence– perhaps all the evidence the theist has, or perhaps the body of evidence he is rationally obliged to have. The objector must be supposing that the theist has a relevant body of total evidence here, a body of evidence that includes (2); and his claim is that (1) is improbable with respect to this relevant body of total evidence. Suppose we say that T is the relevant body of total evidence for a given theist T; and suppose we agree that a brief is rationally acceptable for him only if it is not improbable with respect to T. Now what sorts of propositions are to be found in T?


Perhaps the propositions he knows to be true, or perhaps the largest subset of his beliefs that he can rationally accept without evidence from other propositions, or perhaps the propositions he knows immediately-knows, but does not know on the basis of other propositions. However exactly we characterize this set T, the question I mean to press is this: why can’t belief in God be itself a member of T? Perhaps for the theist-for many theists, at any rate-belief in God is a member of T. Perhaps the theist has a right to start from belief in God, taking that proposition to be one of the ones probability with respect to which determines the rational propriety of other beliefs he holds. But if so, then the Christian philosopher is entirely within his rights in starting from belief in God to his philosophizing. He has a right to take the existence of God for granted and go on from there in his philosophical work-just as other philosophers take for granted the existence of the past, say, or of other persons, or the basic claims of contemporary physics.

Likewise, in “Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God” (Faith and Philosophy 3, 1986: 306-12) Plantinga argues:

So far as I can see, no atheologian has given a successful or cogent way of working out a probabilistic atheological argument from evil; and I believe there are good reasons for thinking it can’t be done.Footnote 9: See my paper “The Probabilistic Argument From Evil,”Philosophical Studies (1980): 1-53.

Some atheists, however, are behind the times, with regard to the now-defunct status of the classical logical Problem of Evil, courtesy of Dr. Plantinga. Misguided triumphalism can still be found. For example, S. Daniel Morgan, a former Christian, wrote on my own blog (10-6-06): “It is just that the arguments for atheism (or arguments against God’s existence, if you prefer) seem to be absolutely airtight.”

He linked to a page of his [link now defunct] containing many atheological arguments. On this page is included “The Problem of Evil.” Here is his entire section:

The problem of evil is the problem of reconciling the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God with the existence of a world full of evil and suffering. If God is omniscient then he knows how to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering. If God is omnipotent then he is able to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering. If God is benevolent then he wants to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering. But if God knows how to, is able to and wants to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering, then why does he not do so? The simplest answer is that God does not do so because he does not exist. This is by far the most popular argument for atheism.

Excellent. Therefore, the “by far the most popular argument for atheism” has now been demolished, insofar as it supposedly proves God’s nonexistence.

We shouldn’t conclude, however, that because Alvin Plantinga disposed of one variant of the Problem of Evil (albeit the one with the biggest punch) that he is, therefore, untroubled by the evils we see, and about how to reconcile particular instances with God’s lovingkindness. He is highly disturbed by that, as are most thoughtful Christians I know (very much including myself; I should make clear, given the nature of this paper). Hence he wrote:

. . . “why does God permit all this evil?” We don’t know. All we know is that it’s perfectly possible that He could achieve a better overall total state of affairs by creating free beings and permitting evil than by not dong so; and perhaps that’s why He permits it. What we do know is that He (God) has promised that all things work together for good, for those who love and follow Him. (in The Intellectuals Speak Out About God, edited by Roy Abraham Varghese, Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1984, 167)

Elsewhere, Plantinga commented that the existence and prevalence of evil was “a source of genuine perplexity” to him, “deeply baffling” and some manifestations of evil or suffering “particularly perplexing.” He continued, after presenting horrible examples of slow painful diseases or young people or children cut down:

[W]hat could be the point of these things? . . . What is supposed to be the good in that? Why does God permit these things? The sheer extent of suffering and evil in the world is appalling . . . Why does God permit so much evil in his world? . . . Why does God permit . . . evil of these horrifying kinds, in his world? How can it be seen as fitting in with his loving and providential care for his creatures?


Christians must concede that we don’t know. That is, we don’t know in any detail. On a quite general level, we may know that God permits evil because he can achieve a world he sees as better by permitting evil than by preventing it; and what God sees as better is, of course, better. But we cannot see why our world with all its ills would be better than others we think we can conceive, or what, in any detail, is God’s reason for permitting a given specific and appalling evil. Not only can we not see this, we often can’t think of any very good possibilities. . . . This can be deeply perplexing and deeply disturbing . . . it can tempt us to be angry with God, to mistrust God, like Job, to accuse him of injustice, to adopt an attitude of bitterness and rebellion.


No doubt there isn’t any logical incompatibility between God’s power and knowledge and goodness, on the one hand, and the existence of the evils we see on the other; and no doubt the latter doesn’t provide a good probabilistic argument against the former. No doubt; but this is cold and abstract comfort when faced with the shocking concreteness of a particularly appalling exemplification of evil. What the believer in the grip of this sort of spiritual perplexity needs, of course, is not philosophy, but comfort and spiritual counsel. There is much to be said here, and it is neither my place nor within my competence to say it.

I should like, however, to mention two points that I believe are of special significance. First, as the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our sufferings. He endures the anguish of seeing his Son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross . . . He [Christ] was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin and death and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine.

. . . of all the antitheistic arguments, only the argument from evil deserves to be taken really seriously. (“A Christian Life Partly Lived,” in Philosophers Who Believe, edited by Kelly James Clark, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993, 69-72)

With this background, let us proceed to Plantinga’s classic Free Will Defense, which I have abridged; taken from God, Freedom, and Evil (1974 edition, published by Harper & Row), pp. 7-64. I will indicate short text breaks with ellipses (“. . .”), longer ones with ( “[ . . . ]” ). Page numbers will be indicated by brackets ( “{ x }” ). All subsequent words are his own, from that work:

{10} Or suppose that the theist admits that he just doesn’t know why God permits evil. What follows from that? Very little of interest. Why suppose that if God does have a good reason for permitting evil, the theist would be the first to know? Perhaps God has a good reason, but that reason is too complicated for us to understand. Or perhaps He has not revealed it for some other reason. The fact that the theist doesn’t know why God permits evil is, perhaps, an interesting fact about the theist, but by itself it shows little or nothing relevant to the rationality of belief in God. Much more is needed for the atheological argument even to get off the ground.


{11} . . . The theist believes that God has a reason for permitting evil; he doesn’t know what that reason is. But why should that mean that his belief is improper or irrational? . . . To make out his case, therefore, the atheologian cannot rest content with asking embarrassing questions to which the theist does not know the answer. He must do more — he might try, for example, to show that it is impossible or anyhow unlikely that God should have a reason for permitting evil.

[ . . . ]

{12} According to Mackie, then, the theist accepts a group or set of three propositions; this set is inconsistent. Its members, of course, are {13}

(1) God is omnipotent
(2) God is wholly good


(3) Evil exists.

Call this set A; the claim is that A is an inconsistent set.[ . . . ]

{14} . . . a formally contradictory set is one from whose members an explicit contradiction can be deduced by the laws of logic. Is Mackie claiming that set A is formally contradictory?

If he is, he’s wrong. No laws of logic permit us to deduce the denial of one of the propositions in A from the other members.

[ . . . ]

{16} And when Mackie says that set A is contradictory, we may properly take him, I think, as holding that it is implicitly contradictory in the explained sense. As he puts it:

However, the contradiction does not arise immediately; to show it we need some additional premises, or perhaps some quasi-logical rules connecting the terms “good” and “evil” and “omnipotent.” These additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.[“Evil and Omnipotence,” in The Philosophy of Religion, ed. Basil Mitchell (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 93]

{17) . . . What he means, I think, is that to get a formally contradictory set we must add some more propositions to set A; and if we aim to show that set A is implicitly contradictory, these propositions must be necessary truths — “quasi-logical rules” as Mackie calls them. The two additional principles he suggests are

(19) A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can


(20) There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

. . . he must hold that (19) and (20) are not merely true butnnecessarily true.

But, are they? What about (2) first? What does it mean to say that a being is omnipotent? That he is all-powerful, or almighty, presumably. But are there no limits at all to the power of such a being? Could he create square circles. for example, or married bachelors? Most theologians and theistic philosophers . . . concede that not even an omnipotent being can bring about logically impossible states of affairs or cause necessarily false propositions to be true.[ . . . ]

{21} . . . we don’t get a set that is formally contradictory by adding (20) and (19c) to set A. This set )call it A’) contains the following six members:

(1) God is omnipotent
(2) God is wholly good
(2′) God is omniscient
(3) Evil exists
(19c) An omnipotent and omniscient good being eliminates every evil that it can properly eliminate


(20) There are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

Now if A’ were formally contradictory, then from any five of its members we could deduce the denial of the sixth by the laws of ordinary logic. That is, any five would formally entail the denial of the sixth. So if A’ were formally inconsistent, the denial of (3) would be formally entailed by the remaining five. That is, (1), (2), (2′), (19c), and (20) would formally entail {22}

(3′) There is no evil.

But they don’t; what they formnally entail is not that there is no evil at all but only that

(3″) There is no evil that God can properly eliminate.

so (19c) doesn’t really help either — not because it is not necessarily true but because its addition [with (20) ] to set A does not yield a formally contradictory set.Obviously, what he atheologian must add to get a formally contradictory set is

(21) If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then he can properly eliminate every evil state of affairs.

. . . we must take a look at (21). Is this proposition necessarily true?


No. To see this let us ask the following question. Under what conditions would an omnipotent being be unable to eliminate a certain evil E without eliminating an outweighing good? Well, suppose that E is included in some good state of affairs that outweighs it. That is, suppose there is some good state of affairs G so related to E that it is impossible that G obtain or be actual and E fail to obtain . . . Now suppose that some good state of affairs G includes an evil state of affairs E that it outweighs. Then not even an omnipotent being could eliminate E without eliminating G. But are there any cases where a good state of affairs includes, in this sense, an evil that it outweighs? Indeed there are such states of affairs.

{23} . . . someone’s bearing pain magnificently, for example — may be good. If it is, then the good present must outweigh the evil; otherwise the total situation would not be good. But, of course, it is not possible that such a good state of affairs obtain unless some evil also obtain . . .

The conclusion to be drawn, therefore, is that (21) is not necessarily true . . . One wonders, therefore, why the many atheologians who confidently assert that this set is contradictory make no attempt whatever to show that it is. For the most part they are content just to assert that there is a contradiction here.

{24} . . . the atheologian must find some necessarily true proposition p (it could be a conjunction of several propositions) such that the addition of p to set A yields a set that is formally contradictory. No atheologian has produced even a plausible candidate for this role, and it certainly is not easy to see what such a proposition might be.

[ . . . ]

. . . all we can say at this point is that set A has not been shown to be implicitly inconsistent.

{25} . . . to show that a set S is consistent you think of a possible state of affairs (it needn’t actually obtain) which is such that if it were actual, then all of the members of S would be true.

{30} . . . we can make a preliminary statement of the Free Will Defense as follows. A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.

[ . . . ]

{33} . . . replies Mackie . . . surely it’s possible that there be a world containing perfectly virtuous persons — persons who are significantly free but always do what is right. Surely there are possible worlds that contain moral good but no moral evil. But God, if He is omnipotent, can create any possible world He chooses. So it is not possible, contrary to the Free will Defense, both that God is omnipotent and that He cold create a world containing moral good only by creating one containing moral evil. If He is omnipotent, the only limitations of His power are logical limitations; in which case there are no possible worlds He could not have created.

[ . . . ]

{38} . . . Could God have created just any world He chose? Before addressing this question, however, we must note that God does not, strictly speaking, create any possible worlds or states of affairs at all. What He creates are the heavens and the earth and all that they contain. But He has not created states of affairs . . .

{39} What He did was perform actions of a certain sort — creating the heavens and the earth, for example — which resulted in the actuality of certain states of affairs . . . He actualizes the possible world that does in fact obtain; He does not create it. . . .

Bearing this in mind . . . Is the atheologian right in holding that if God is omnipotent, then he could have actualized or created any possible world He pleased? Not obviously. . . . if God is not a necessary being (and many, perhaps most, theists think that He is not), then clearly enough there will be many possible worlds He could not have actualized — all those, for example, in which he does not exist . . .

{40} . . . perhaps the atheologian can maintain his case if he revises his claim to avoid this difficulty; perhaps he will say something like this: if God is omnipotent, then He could have actualized any of those possible worlds in which He exists . . . any of those possible worlds in which He exists and in which there exist free creatures who do no wrong. He could have actualized worlds containing moral good but no moral evil.

[ . . . ]

{45} . . . we must demonstrate the possibility that among the worlds God could not have actualized are all the worlds containing moral good but no moral evil . . . suppose we think about a morally significant action such as taking a bribe. Curley Smith, the mayor, is opposed to the proposed freeway route; it would require destruction of the Old North Church along with some other antiquated and structurally unsound buildings. L.B. Smedes, the director of highways, asks him whether he’d drop his opposition for $1 million. “Of course,” he replies. . . . Smedes then offers him a bribe of $35,000; . . . {46} . . . Curley accepts. Smedes then spends a sleepless night wondering whether he could have bought Curley for $20,000 . . . let us suppose that

(31) If Smedes had offered Curley a bribe of $20,000, he would have accepted it.

If (31) is true, then there is a state of affairs S’ that (1) includes Curley’s being offered a bribe of $20,000; (2) does not include either his accepting the bribe or his rejecting it; and (3) is otherwise as much as possible like the actual world. Just to make sure S’ includes every relevant circumstance, let us suppose that this is a maximal world segment. That is, add to S’ any state of affairs compatible with but not included in it, and the result will be an entire possible world. We could think of it roughly like this: S’ is included in at least one world W in which Curley takes the bribe and in at least one world W’ in which he rejects it. If S’ is a maximal world segment, then S’ is what remains of W when Curley’s taking the bribe is deleted; it is also what remains of W when Curley’s rejecting the bribe is deleted. More exactly, if S’ is a maximal world segment, then every possible state of affairs that includes S’, but isn’t included by S’, is a possible world. So if (31) is true, then there is a maximal world segment S’ that (1) includes Curley’s being offered a bribe of $20,000; (2) does not include either his accepting the bribe or his rejecting it; (3) is otherwise as much as possible like the actual world — in particular, it includes Curley’s being free with respect to the bribe; and (4) is such that if it were actual then Curley would have taken the bribe. That is,

(32) If S’ were actual, Curley would have accepted the bribe.

is true.


Now, of course, there is at least one possible world W’ in which S’ is actual and Curley does not take the bribe. But God could not have {47} created W’; to do so, He would have been obliged to actualize S’, leaving Curley free with respect to the action of taking the bribe. But under these conditions Curley, as (32) assures us, would have accepted the bribe, so that the world thus created would not have been S’.

. . . Of course, there are possible worlds in which he is significantly free (i.e., free with respect to a morally significant action) and never does what is wrong. . . . But at least one of these actions — call it A — has the following peculiar property. There is a maximal world segment S’ that obtains in W’ and is such that (1) S’ includes Curley’s being free re A but neither his performing A nor his refraining from A; (2) S’ is otherwise as much as possible like W’; and (3) if S’ had been actual, Curley would have gone wrong with respect to A. (Notice that this third condition holds, in fact, in the actual world; it does not hold in that world W’.)

This means, of course, that God could not have actualized W’. For to do so He’d have been obliged to bring it about that S’ is actual; but then Curley would go wrong with respect to A. Since in W’ he always does what is right, the world thus actualized would not be W’. On the other hand, if God causes Curley to go right with respect to A or beings it about that he does so, then Curley isn’t free with respect to A; and so once more it isn’t W’ that is actual. Accordingly God cannot create W’. But W’ was just any of the worlds in which Curley is significantly free but always does only what is right. It therefore follows that it was not within God’s power to create a world in which Curley produces moral good but no moral evil. Every world God can actualize is such that if Curley is significantly free in it, he takes at least one wrong action.

{48} Obviously Curley is in serious trouble. I shall call the malady from which he suffers transworld depravity . . . By way of explicit definition:

(33) A person P suffers from transworld depravity if and only if the following holds: for every world W such that P is significantly free in W and P does only what is right in W, there is an action A and a maximal world segment S’ such that
(1) S’ includes A’s being morally significant for P
(2) S’ includes P’s being free with respect to A
(3) S’ is included in W and includes neither P’s performing A nor P’s refraining from performing A


(4) If S’ were actual, P would go wrong with respect to A.

(In thinking about this definition, remember that (4) is to be true in fact, in the actual world — not in that world W.)


What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers form it, then it wasn’t within God’s power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong . . .

We have been considering a crucial contention of the Free Will Defender: the contention, namely, that

(30) God is omnipotent, and it was not within His power to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil.

How is transworld depravity relevant to this? As follows. Obviously it is possible that there be persons who suffer from transworld depravity. More generally, it is possible that everybody suffers from it. And if this possibility were actual, then God, though omnipotent, could not have created any of the possible worlds containing just the persons who do in fact exist, and containing moral good but no moral evil . . . Such persons go wrong with respect to at least one action in any world God {49} could have actualized and in which they are free with respect to morally significant actions; so the price for creating a world in which they produce moral good is creating one in which they also produce moral evil.


[ . . . ]

{54} The Free Will Defense Vindicated

Put formally, you remember, the Free Will Defender’s project was to show that

(1) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good

is consistent with

(3) There is evil.

What we have just seen is that

(35) It was not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing moral evil

is possible and consistent with God’s omnipotence and omniscience. But then it is clearly consistent with (1). So we can use it to show that (1) is consistent with (3). For consider

(1) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good
(35) It was not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing moral evil


(36) God created a world containing moral good.

These propositions are evidently consistent — i.e., their conjunction is a possible proposition. But taken together they entail

(3) There is evil.

For (36) says that God created a world containing moral good; this together with (35) entails that He created one containing moral evil. But if it contains moral evil, then it contains evil. So (1), (35), and (36) are jointly consistent and entail (3); hence (1) is consistent with (3); hence set A is consistent. Remember: to serve in this argument (35) and (36) need not be known to be true, or likely on our evidence, or anything of the sort; they need only be consistent with (1). Since they are, there {55} is no contradiction in set A; so the Free Will Defense appears to be successful.


[ . . . ]

{61} . . . How indeed, could one argue, from the existence of evil, that it is unlikely that God exists? I certainly don’t see how to do it.

[ . . . ]

{64} . . . The Free Will Defense, however, shows that the existence of God is compatible, both logically and probabilistically, with the existence of evil; thus it solves the main philosophical problem of evil.


(originally 10-12-06)

Photo credit: [Max PixelCC0 public domain license]


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