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Philosophy of Religion Revision notes The Concept of God God as omniscient Omnipotent supremely good timeless (eternal) within time (everlasting) meaning(s) of these divine attributes. Issues with claiming that God has these attributes, either singly or in combination, the paradox of the stone the Euthyphro dilemma. The compatibility, or otherwise, of the existence of an omniscient God and free human beings. Arguments relating to the existence of God Ontological arguments: • Anselm • Descartes • Leibniz • Malcolm • Plantinga. Issues, including those raised by: Gaunilo Hume Kant. The cosmological argument: causal and contingency arguments: Aquinas’ Five Ways (first three) • Descartes (the Kalam argument.) Issues, including those raised by: Hume Russell. The argument from design: arguments from purpose and regularity, including those formulated by: • Paley • Swinburne.
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Aug 14, 2019



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Philosophy of Religion Revision notes

The Concept of God

God as omniscient


supremely good

timeless (eternal)

within time (everlasting)

meaning(s) of these divine attributes.

Issues with claiming that God has these attributes, either singly or in combination,

•the paradox of the stone

•the Euthyphro dilemma.

The compatibility, or otherwise, of the existence of an omniscient God and free human beings.

Arguments relating to the existence of God

Ontological arguments:






Issues, including those raised by:




The cosmological argument: causal and contingency arguments:

•Aquinas’ Five Ways (first three)


•(the Kalam argument.)

Issues, including those raised by:



The argument from design: arguments from purpose and regularity, including those formulated by:

• Paley

• Swinburne.

Issues, including those raised by:

• Paley (himself)

• Hume

• Kant.

The Concept of God

God’s Attributes


The word Omnipotent comes from the Latin omni, ‘all’ and potens, ‘power’

In religious philosophy being “all-powerful” doesn’t just mean that God has power over everything else and cannot be overpowered (this is being “Almighty”). It is literally the ability “to do everything”

This means that either:

God can do anything (‘You name it, God can do it’) OR

God can do anything logically possible

(‘If it can be done, God can do it’) OR

God can do anything logically possible and compatible with God’s Nature

(‘If it can be done, and if it can be done by God, God can do it’)

God can do Anything (Absolute Omnipotence)

Descartes supports the idea of absolute omnipotence:

“In general we can assert that God can do everything that we can comprehend but not that he cannot do what we cannot comprehend.”

If there were laws of logic which restricted God these laws would have to pre-exist God but because everything was created by God it follows that the laws of logic were created as well, so God could have chosen them to be otherwise

Criticism of Absolute Omnipotence

Maths and Logic are thought to consist of necessary truths that are true by definition

These could not have been otherwise

But if God’s free choice means that they could have been otherwise they are not really necessary after all

“Descartes's statement that God could have made contradictions true seems to entail, the logical possibility of the logically impossible.”

“we cannot say how a non-logical world would look [or] how a supra-logical God would act”

If God can do absolutely anything,

God can do things that are incompatible with His own nature

(e.g. cause Himself not to exist or to both exist and not exist simultaneously!)

Thomas Aquinas

“All confess that God is omnipotent; but it seems difficult to explain in what His omnipotence precisely consists”

In Summa Theologica Aquinas considers objections to God’s omnipotence

Objection 1:

Human beings can be moved and acted upon but God is immovable (cannot change)

Reply to Objection 1: God is said to be omnipotent in respect to His active power, not to passive power

Objection 2:

Humans can sin (turn from God) but God cannot sin or deny His own existence

Objections to God’s omnipotence often involve scenarios that are logically possible but that contradict an aspect of God’s nature e.g. God doing evil. This involves an apparent dilemma:

either God (because he is supremely good) cannot do evil and so is not omnipotent

or God (because he is omnipotent) can do evil, in which case he is not supremely good

Reply to Objection 2:

Aquinas’ answer is that it follows from God’s omnipotence that God cannot sin

This is because to sin would be to “fall short of a perfect action

…Therefore it is that God cannot sin, because of His omnipotence”

Nevertheless, it is still true to say that “God can do evil things, if he will”. This is because a conditional sentence can still be true even if its ‘antecedent’ (if-clause) describes an impossibility. So when Aristotle said that God could do the logically impossible it should be understood hypothetically.

Objection 3:

God “manifests His omnipotence especially by sparing and having mercy“

However there are other things that show greater power than this so God is not Omnipotent

Reply to Objection 3:

“God's omnipotence is particularly shown in sparing and having mercy, because in this is it made manifest that God has supreme power, that He freely forgives sins. ...For nothing is due to anyone, except on account of something already given him gratuitously by God.”

Objection 4:

“If we were to say that God is omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible to His power, there would be a vicious circle in explaining the nature of His power (tautology) .. this would be saying …. that God is omnipotent, because He can do all that He is able to do.”

"God hath made the wisdom of this world foolish by showing those things to be possible which it judges to be impossible” Being able to ‘make the impossible possible’ is a contradiction in terms

If God can do this (i.e. create a round square), He can also make what is logically necessary, impossible!

Reply to Objection 4

Aquinas goes on to examine ways in which something can be possible:

 “First in relation to some power i.e. human power” (relatively and practically)

Secondly absolutely, on account of the relation in which the terms stand to each other.” (logically)

“The absolute possible is not so called in reference either to higher causes, or to inferior causes, but in reference to itself. …Thus is it that the wisdom of the world is deemed foolish, because what is impossible to nature, it judges to be impossible to God.”

Something is possible absolutely if the predicate is compatible with the subject and absolutely impossible when the predicate is incompatible with the subject (e.g. that a man is a donkey)

A logically impossible state is not meaningful because it does not describe anything at all

even if God can’t do the logically impossible there still isn’t anything that God can’t do 

Everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence ….it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.

Paradoxes of Omnipotence

‘The paradox of the Stone: Can God create a stone that He can’t lift?’

‘The paradox of free-will : Can God create a being that He can’t control?’

The Paradox of the Stone

Can God create a stone that He can’t move?

An early version is found in writing of the medieval Islamic philosopher Averroes

Sceptics have used it to suggest that the concept of Omnipotence is incoherent

Mavrodes claims that the “paradox of the stone” only succeeds if it shows “that the assumption of the omnipotence of God leads to a reductio”

If God is omnipotent, He can do everything that is logically possible

“Creating a stone that you cannot lift” sounds logically possible

If God is omnipotent He is able to create a stone that he cannot lift

This means that there is something that God cannot do (lift the stone)

from which it follows that God is not omnipotent which is a reductio

In Some Puzzles Concerning Omnipotence Mavrodes re-states the dilemma:

Either God can’t create a stone that He can’t lift

OR God can create it but can’t lift it

Either way God’s Omnipotence is compromised

The doctrine of God’s omnipotence appears to claim that God can do anything.

There have been attempts to refute the doctrine by giving examples of things which God cannot do; for example, He cannot draw a square circle.

St. Thomas pointed out that “anything” should be construed to refer only to objects, actions, or states of affairs whose descriptions are not self-contradictory.

However while “x is able to draw a square circle” seems plainly to involve a contradiction, “x is able to make a thing too heavy for x to lift” does not.

If we say that God can create such a stone, then it seems that there might be such a stone.

And if there might be a stone too heavy for Him to lift, then He is evidently not omnipotent.

But if we deny that God can create such a stone, we seem to have given up His omnipotence already.

Mavrodes’ defence explores two possibilities for dealing with the dilemma:

Assuming that God is not Omnipotent (assumption 1)

In that case the phrase “a stone too heavy for God to lift” may not be self-contradictory.

If as God is not omnipotent then He cannot create or lift certain stones

This makes logical sense but is no more than the assumption with which we began

That God is Omnipotent (assumption 2)

On this assumption the phrase “a stone too heavy for God to lift” becomes self-contradictory

For it becomes “a stone which cannot be lifted by Him whose power is sufficient for lifting anything.”

The “thing” described by a self-contradictory phrase is absolutely impossible and hence has nothing to do with the doctrine of omnipotence. Not being an object of power at all, its failure to exist cannot possibly be due to some lack in the power of God

Even supposing that God cannot create the stone in question; this does not restrict His omnipotence

because God still has infinite power to create stones and infinite power to lift stones

Mavrodes concludes that “the supposed limitation is no limitation at all” and that “Such pseudo-tasks, not falling within the realm of possibility, are not objects of power at all”

Wade Savage re-states the dilemma:

A. (i) Either God can create a stone which He cannot lift, or He cannot create a stone which He cannot lift.

(2) If God can create a stone which He cannot lift, then He is not omnipotent (since He cannot lift the stone in question).

(3) If God cannot create a stone which He cannot lift, then He is not omnipotent (since He cannot create the stone in question).

(4) Therefore, God is not omnipotent.

He then makes four objections to Mavrodes’ solution:

1. He implies that the paradoxical argument must either assume that God is omnipotent or assume that He is not omnipotent, but neither assumption is made.

2. He assumes that “a stone which God cannot lift” is self-contradictory on the grounds that ‘God is omnipotent’ is necessarily true (true by definition). However “Russell can lift any stone” is a contingent statement (it doesn’t have to be so and could be otherwise).

3. If “God is omnipotent” is necessarily true this ‘begs the question’ of the paradoxical argument. For what it really tries to establish is that the existence of an omnipotent being is logically impossible

4.The claim that inability to perform a self-contradictory task is no limitation on the agent is controversial. Descartes suggested that an omnipotent God must be able to perform self-contradictory tasks.

However the paradoxical task doesn’t have to be described using the word God

Wade Savage re-writes the argument using x

In this version ‘no critic can maintain that it assumes that x is omnipotent’

Also the point that “a stone which God cannot lift” is self-contradictory is irrelevant

B. (i) Either x can create a stone which x cannot lift, or x cannot create a stone which x cannot lift.

(2) If x can create a stone which x cannot lift, then, necessarily, there is at least one task which x cannot perform (namely, lift the stone in question).

(3) If x cannot create a stone which x cannot lift, then, necessarily, there is at least one task which x cannot perform (namely, create the stone in question).

(4) Hence, there is at least one task which x cannot perform.

(5) If x is an omnipotent being, then x can perform any task.

(6) Therefore, x is not omnipotent.

 However Wade Savage agrees with Mavrodes that the fact that God cannot create a stone which He cannot lift “does not entail a limitation on His power”

The fallacy in the paradox of the stone lies in the second horn of its dilemma (line B(3):

“x can create a stone which x cannot lift”

This entails that there is a task which x cannot perform and, consequently, that x is not omnipotent

However although “x cannot create a stone which x cannot lift” seems to imply that there is a task which x cannot do, it can also mean “If x can create a stone, then x can lift it.” This statement does not entail that x is limited in power.

If x’s power in lifting was finite then ‘x’s inability to create a stone which He cannot lift would be a limitation on x’s power. However if x’s power to lift is infinite, then x’s inability to create a stone he cannot lift is not a limitation, it is a “necessary consequence” of its omnipotence.

If God is omnipotent, then He can create stones of any poundage and lift stones of any poundage. And this entails “God cannot create a stone which He cannot lift.”

The Euthyphro dilemma

For Christians God is all loving but there are a number of issues with this claim: the question of whether Omni-benevolence is compatible with so much evil and suffering in the world (see design argument) and

whether God is free to do evil and if He can’t, whether he is Omnipotent.

Also what makes good actions good in the first place: are they good simply because God approves of them, or does God approve of them because they are good? This question is known as the Euthyphro dilemma because it was first raised in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, written c380 BCE

In the book Socrates (Plato’s teacher) meets Euthyphro at the court house where Euthyphro has gone to prosecute his own father for the murder of a slave because he believes it is the right thing to do.

Since he is so sure of this, Socrates asks Euthyphro to tell him what piety (goodness) is. The Euthyphro is a philosophical dialogue about piety and its relationship to the gods.

Euthyphro’s first answer to the question ‘What is piety’? is to give an example

His next answer is that it is ‘what is pleasing to the gods’

Socrates points out that the gods are divided about what pleases them, so actions could be both pious and impious

Euthyphro then proposes that piety is something that all the gods love

Socrates then asks whether it is pious because it is loved by the gods, or whether the gods love it because it is pious (the dilemma)

He is saying that it must be one or the other because if it were both it would be tautological i.e. ‘The Gods love what is good and what is good is loved by the gods’

Euthyphro and Socrates then agree that the gods love it because it is pious

Socrates then asks Euthyphro what piety is if it is independent of what the gods love

Euthyphro suggests it is justice in relation to the gods (through prayers and sacrifices)

Socrates objects that piety once more becomes whatever pleases the gods

Euthyphro finds it impossible to say what piety is, independent of what the gods love

Plato implies that both answers are unsatisfactory:

1) Good (or pious) actions are good because the gods (or God) approve of them

2) Because some actions are good (or pious), the gods (or God) approve of them

Horn 1

In the Euthyphro, Socrates asks why we should worship a god who commands us to do ‘bad’ acts

This horn forces us to conclude that whatever the gods (or God) commands is good

If there is no independent goodness (morality) God arbitrarily invents morality

God could have chosen to approve of anything (including what we now view as bad) and make it good

If God is good, he is good only because He approves of Himself, just like everything else is good only because God approves of it!

In this case ‘God is good’ doesn’t say anything new about God

It is a tautology

Descartes defended the first option

Reply: ‘God is good’ means ‘God is good to us’, i.e. God loves us and wants what is best for us

Objection: But then, there is some standard of what is good, viz. what is best for us, which is independent of God

Reply: ‘God is good’ should be understood metaphysically, not morally

‘God is good’ just means that God has all perfections

Objection: Either God being perfect entails that God is morally good in which case ‘God is (morally) good’ is a tautology or morality is independent of metaphysical perfection

Reply: although God does not apply to any independent standard of goodness, his goodness is not arbitrary, it relies on God’s other attributes, such as love

Objection: we are judging God’s goodness by the independent standard of love

Reply: the basis of morality is not love per se but God’s love

Objection: we can still ask why God loves what He loves. If God loved something else, then morality would be different

Another solution to the dilemma is to say that if what God wills is good by definition, morality is the same thing as what God wills. It only makes sense to say “A because B” or “B because A” if A and B are different things. So Socrates’ question presents a false dilemma

‘God is good’ is not a tautology because ‘God’ and ‘morally good’ are different concepts and people can understand one without the other, so ‘God is good’ is not an analytic truth

However, what is good is not something separate which provides a standard for God’s will

Morality is dependent on God

This is a metaphysical truth (about what exists) but not a conceptual truth

We can object that unless we have an independent standard of goodness, we cannot claim that God’s will and what is good are the same thing. This only applies to how we know what is good, not what goodness turns out to be; once we come to believe that what is good is what God wills, we may use what we believe God’s will to be to start judging what is good.

Second horn

If God approves of right actions because they are good, then the morality of actions is something that exists independent of God’s decisions

In this case objective moral standards define God’s goodness, rather than vice versa

This means that it is the moral standards that are supremely good, not God

This makes God’s morally redundant as we do not need to find out what God approves of to discern what is right, also God cannot change what is morally right – so God is not omnipotent

Reply: since God is omnipotent, morality is not a restriction on God’s will, but is dependent on it

If God exists and is good, then everything that is morally good must relate back to God as the ultimate reality

Aquinas says that because God is supremely good by definition – it is logically impossible for what God does or wills to be anything other than good, it is not a limitation on God’s omnipotence that God cannot do the logically impossible.

Like Aristotle, Aquinas takes a teleological view of morality. God created the world according to Divine Natural Law in which everything is good when it fulfils its purpose or function. God cannot then decide what is good or bad arbitrarily. Natural Law is objective, but it flows from God’s omni-benevolence. Human actions can be good in themselves if they are “in harmony with right reason” they then become obligatory for humans because God commands them. This is compatible with Biblical teaching


An omniscient being is one that ‘knows everything’

If God lacked knowledge it was possible to have God would not be supremely perfect

Omniscience is not just a matter of what God knows, but also of how God knows: We can define God’s omnipotence as ‘knowing all true propositions’ (and not believing any false propositions)

If God is incorporeal (no body) or transcendent (over and above) it does not make sense to say that God knows how to engage in physical activity

Although Theologians may say that God knows ‘the full set of truths about every activity’

Thomas Aquinas

God knows all the truths that it is possible to know, consistent with God’s perfection

God knows everything ‘directly’, rather than through propositional thinking or understanding a system of representation or language

“God sees all things together and not successively” this means that God does not think first of one thing, then of another, but has an immediate awareness of all truths at once

Other philosophers disagree; if God doesn’t know all true propositions then there is something that God doesn’t know, so God has propositional knowledge as well as direct knowledge

Omnipotence and Immutability

Norman Kretzmann

If it were possible for God to change from one state to another, God would either be getting better or getting worse in that change, neither is compatible with God’s perfection, so God cannot change.

Omniscience and Immutability are “incompatible characteristics” of a perfect God.

An Omniscient Being would have to know what time it is, and this changes.

His argument is a reductio:

1. A perfect being is not subject to change

1. A perfect being knows everything

1. A being that knows everything always knows what time it is

1. A being that always knows what time it is, is subject to change

1. Therefore, a perfect being is subject to change

1. Therefore, a perfect being is not a perfect being

1. Therefore, there is no perfect being

Objections to Premise 4: Just because the time changes doesn’t mean that knowing what time it is counts as a change in knowledge

Reply: Yes it does. If you know that it is 1.30 and then you know that it is not, you know one thing, then another, so what you know changes

Objection: A change in my belief about what time it is doesn’t count as a change in me

 Reply: It’s true that you haven’t decided that you were wrong and the change in your beliefs isn’t very significant. However your beliefs have changed and so your mind has changed

Objections to premises 3 and 4: God knows everything about the universe ‘simultaneously’, not ‘successively’. As God knows everything ‘all at once’; his knowledge doesn’t change as the universe changes

Reply: Perhaps God knows the time at which each thing happens – past, present or future, but if God doesn’t change, then God doesn’t know where we are in time, as this changes. This still means that God cannot know what time it is now, and so is not omniscient

Objections to Premise 2: Omniscience should be seen as knowing ‘what it is logically possible for a perfect being to know’. A perfect being transcends time; therefore, it is logically impossible for a perfect being to know what time it is. Not knowing what it is logically impossible for a perfect being to know is no limitation.

God is transcendent, outside time; so cannot change

Reply: God’s transcendence is usually understood as there being no time for God. That would mean that time is an illusion. If time doesn’t exist, then nothing changes. This is implausible

This form of argument is unsatisfactory. For instance, ‘I am a mortal being, and so it is logically impossible that I should not die, therefore, dying is no limitation on me’. Obviously, dying is a limitation!

Objection: Omniscience is knowing everything that it is possible for a perfect being to know without ceasing to be perfect. Knowing what time it is, is only possible if one changes, and to change is to be imperfect. Therefore, a perfect being is omniscient without knowing what time it is

Reply: This is highly counter-intuitive. Knowing what time it is, is knowing what is happening now. To not know that is to lack significant knowledge. It won’t work to say that God chooses not to know everything: omniscience isn’t just the power to know everything; it is actually knowing everything

Objection to Premise 1: Knowing what time it is from one moment to the next is not a change that affects God’s perfection. So God’s knowledge does change in this respect

Reply: Being perfect means being ‘complete’ rather than in a state of potential. If God knows what time it is now, God’s knowledge is not complete as God is yet to know what time it will be next

What makes omniscience and immutability incompatible is the contingent fact that things change. In a world where nothing changed, including time, God could know everything

In this world God can’t be absolutely perfect because He must either change or He can’t be omniscient. So God isn’t the most perfect possible being but the most perfect actual being

Omniscience and Free Will

God is ‘the most perfect possible being’ (Aquinas etc.)

But it is impossible to know everything. If human beings have free will, it is not possible to know what they will do in the future

Divine foreknowledge and human freedom

Fatalism is the view that human acts occur by necessity and so are not free

Theological fatalism claims that there is a Being who infallibly knows everything that will happen in the future. This creates a dilemma because many religious people have thought it important to maintain

(1) there is a deity who infallibly knows the entire future, and

(2) human beings have free will in the strong sense usually called libertarian

But the theological fatalist argument seems to show that (1) and (2) are incompatible

Philosophers who think there is a way to maintain both (1) and (2) are called compatibilists

Compatibilists must either identify a false premise or show that the conclusion does not follow from the premises

Suppose that your phone will ring at 9 am tomorrow

It is either true that you will answer the phone at 9 am tomorrow (T)

or it is true that you will not answer the phone at 9 am tomorrow (not T)

(The Law of Excluded Middle rules out any other alternative)

1. Yesterday God infallibly believed T

1. If yesterday God believed T, it is now-necessary that T

1. If it is now-necessary that T, then you cannot do otherwise than T

1. If you cannot do otherwise than T, you do not act freely

1. Therefore, when you do T, you will not do it freely

This argument is valid, that is, if the premises are all true, the conclusion follows

The compatibilist must therefore find a false premise

The incompatibilist could conclude that God is omniscient and we are not free

However, this raises a conflict with God’s benevolence

Freedom allows us to do good or evil and to willingly enter into a relationship with God

In the Bible we are also told that God judges us according to our deeds

Without free will, we are not morally responsible for our actions


In de Interpretalione 9 Aristotle asked:

If it is now true that a sea battle will take place tomorrow, must the battle take place?

In other words, if future tense propositions possess truth-value (are either true or false) is the future fixed and fated?

Aristotle denies that any proposition about the contingent future or its negation has a truth value now

Propositions about the contingent future become true when and only when the event occurs

If the event does not occur at that time, then the proposition becomes false

According to Aristotle, necessity applies only to true past and present propositions, not to future propositions of contingent fact

Some philosophers have used this as a counter-argument to both logical and theological fatalism

The argument could mean that God has no beliefs about the contingent future because he does not infallibly know how it will turn out, even though this restricts God’s knowledge

This is compatible with God's being infallible in everything he does believe

It is also compatible with God's omniscience if omniscience means knowing the truth value of every proposition that has a truth value

Consider the sentence ‘Paul will marry Alison on the 26th June 2020’

This is either true or untrue

But it’s contingent truth at the time does not mean that it is necessarily true today

In the sentence, ‘Because God foresees that Paul will marry Alison, Paul shall marry her,’ although the word ‘because’ serves as a logical connective, there is no causal link

God’s knowledge does not cause Paul to marry Alison

But the fact that Paul actually marries Alison causes God’s knowledge

However, the theological fatalist argument doesn’t just rely on God's precognition causing what it foresees

The restriction of freedom arises from God's infallibility and the irrevocability of the past

If God's infallible knowledge of our doings exists in advance, then we are too late to act freely

This is because if we had acted differently God would have known differently

According to the definition of infallibility used in the basic argument, if God is infallible in all his beliefs, then it is not possible that God believes T if T is or if it will become false

So the argument still holds but becomes:

(4) Necessarily, if yesterday God believed T, then T will become true.

(6) It is necessary that T will become true

If the past is irrevocable, future events connected to the past are entailed in God’s foreknowledge

If it can therefore be demonstrated that God necessarily knows the future Fatalism follows

Boethius denied premise (1) on the grounds that God and his beliefs are not in time

God no longer possesses foreknowledge although he is timelessly cognizant of our future

If God is not in time and has no temporal properties, God does not have beliefs at a time

It does not make sense to think of the whole of temporal reality as being before God's mind in a single temporal present

It is an atemporal present, a single complete grasp of all events in the entire span of time

Aquinas agreed with Boethius’ solution. Although an hour is part of a day, both can exist simultaneously. In the same way time is part of eternity, except that eternity both exceeds and contains time


Not compatible with Biblical God who is personal, immanent and interventionist, makes the Bible false, or at best a long series of metaphors

Most philosophical objections focus on the idea of timelessness, arguing either that it does not make sense or that it is incompatible with other properties of God

In any case timelessness does not avoid the problem: if there is nothing I can do about God’s timeless knowledge, there is nothing I can do about my future

The first three steps of the argument would be reformulated as follows:

God timelessly knows T

(If E is in the timeless realm, then it is now-necessary that E)

It is necessary that T

For me to do an action freely, I must be able to do it or not do it

It cannot be true that God knows what I will do (T)and be true that I don’t do that action

Therefore, if God knows what I will do, then that action is not free

(Conversely, if my actions are free, God does not know what I will do)

The only way not to have knowledge of my future events is for God to be everlasting in time

However it there is something God does not know, God is not now omniscient

And if God can gain new knowledge, He wasn’t previously omniscient

Anthony Kenny

Kenny claimed that God is eternal and outside time

Kenny was also a compatibilist who believed that Human actions are free but at the same time God sees what actions we will choose

In ‘Divine foreknowledge and human freedom’ Kenny re-states Aquinas’ dilemma:

“… it cannot be the case both that God knows that I shall do such and such an action (x) and that I shall not do it. For what God knows must be true: and indeed what anyone knows must be true, since it is impossible to know what is false.”

He then challenges the premise that ‘If God knows that p, p must be true’

This can be understood in two ways: 

Falsely: ‘If God knows that p, it is necessarily true that p’

Correctly: ‘whatever God knows is true’ is necessarily true’

There is no reason to think that whatever God knows is a necessary truth

God can know all sorts of contingent truths

Knowing that something will happen doesn’t mean that it has to happen

it only needs to be the case that I don’t do something else, not that I can’t

But we may object that this doesn’t solve the problem. To do something different from what God knows I will do would mean changing God’s knowledge – either changing what God knows (I will do) or making it that God doesn’t know what I will do, because I do something else

Kenny responds that we don’t change the future

The future is what will happen

The past is what has happened

There are truths about both

“Whatever changes of plan we may make, the future is whatever takes place after all the changes are made; what we alter is not the future but our plans; the real future can no more be altered than the past”

By acting, I don’t change the future, but I can change a truth about the future into a truth about the past: ‘I will write this book’ (future tense) turns into ‘I have written this book’ (past tense)

I can also change a truth about the past: ‘I have not written this book’ (past tense) becomes ‘I have written this book’ (past tense)

Compatibilists like Kenny claim that if I were to have chosen differently, God would have known differently

God’s actual knowledge guarantees that I will choose a specific act but not that I must of necessity so choose

When I do what God believes I will do, that makes His belief true, it doesn’t show that I cannot act freely


As soon as we ask how God knows what I will do, the puzzle arises again, as you saw in Sleigh’s paradox, simply having a true belief that someone will do something doesn’t mean that they are not free.

But because God is omniscient, his beliefs are complete and infallible.

The problem of evil: how to reconcile God's omnipotence, omniscience and supreme goodness with the existence of physical/ moral evil.

Responses to the issue and issues arising from those responses, including:

• the Free Will Defence (Plantinga)

• soul-making (Hick).

Two problems of evil

Logical: ‘The mere existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful God.’

Evidential: ‘The amount of evil that exists is incompatible with the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful God.’

The Logical Problem of Evil

An a priori deductive argument that seeks to prove that the existence of God and the existence of evil are logically incompatible

This emerges from three core propositions:

1. An all-powerful (omnipotent) God could prevent evil from existing in the world

2. An all-good (omnibenevolent) God would wish to prevent evil from existing in the world

3. There is evil in the world

Given that the fourth proposition would appear to be undeniable, it can be inferred that one of the other three must be false

If God does exist, He must be either "impotent, ignorant or wicked"

J.L. Mackie

Mackie says that the contradiction between the premises is not obvious until we connect God’s attributes to the existence of evil with ‘additional principles’ 4 and 5

Mackie’s Logical Problem of Evil

1 God is omnipotent

2 God is wholly good

3. Evil exists

4. A good being eliminates evil as far as possible

5. There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do

6. Necessarily, if a being is omnipotent and supremely good, then it eliminates all evil

7. Therefore, God does not exist

In this formulation, (1) and (2) are definition premises: they claim that nothing can be God unless it has these attributes

(3) is an empirical or a posteriori premise, which adds the fact (known through experience) that evil exists

Mackie thinks he can show that all believers agree with premises 1-6 but that they cannot be held simultaneously

In Evil and Omnipotence, Mackie says that there are some ‘adequate’ solutions to the problem e.g. to reject the claim that God is omnipotent or to deny that evil exists, but no theist accepts these ideas in more than a ‘half-hearted’ way.

The most frequently adopted responses to the problem are fallacious – i.e. they involve logical mistakes due to ‘vagueness‘ in the use of words, or ‘equivocation‘ over the terms ‘good’ and evil’ or incorrect accounts of what is meant by omnipotence

He discusses four possible responses to the logical problem of evil and concludes that none of them are successful:

“Good cannot exist without evil”

This sets a limit to what God can do (i.e. create good without evil)

It denies that evil is opposed to good

It suggests that what God supports is not ‘the good’ but ‘the better’

If good really could not exist without evil, God would ensure that the evil ‘that exists is only just enough to serve as the counterpart of good’

“Evil is necessary as a means to good”

If God has to introduce evil as a means to good, he must be subject to causal laws; this conflicts with the view that causal laws are made by God.

This suggestion solves the problem of evil by denying that God is omnipotent or that 'omnipotent' means what theists normally believe it to mean.

“The universe is better with some evil in it”

This may be developed in two ways:

“an aesthetic analogy, by the fact that contrasts heighten beauty”

“in connection with the notion of progress ….that the gradual overcoming of evil by good is really a finer thing than would be the eternal unchallenged supremacy of good”

(Challenges to the ‘evidential problem of evil’ apply here)

Mackie calls pain and misery 'first order evil' or evil (1)

Pleasure and happiness, he calls 'first order good' or good (1)

'Second order good' or good (2) emerges in a situation in which evil (1) is a logically necessary component.

Free-will defenders argue that God might allow ‘first order evil’ to bring about ‘second order good’

Mackie claims that this is not successful because:

Firstly, ‘qualities such as benevolence …are not higher sorts of good, but merely means to good (1), that is, to happiness’

‘It would be absurd for God to keep misery in existence in order to make possible the virtues of benevolence, heroism, etc.’

Secondly, ‘it follows that God is not in our sense benevolent or sympathetic: he is not concerned to minimise evil (1), but only to promote good (2)’

Thirdly, ‘just as good (2) is held to be the important kind of good that God is concerned to promote, so evil (2) will, by analogy, be the important kind of evil, which God, if he were wholly good and omnipotent, would eliminate’

"Evil is due to human freewill"

In this case ‘first order evil (e.g. pain) may be justified as a logically necessary component in second order good (e.g. sympathy), second order evil (e.g. cruelty) is not justified, but ascribed to human beings’

This evades the previous criticism

“Freedom, is now treated as a third order good, and as being more valuable than second order goods (such as sympathy and heroism) would be if they were deterministically produced

…it is being assumed that second order evils, such as cruelty, are logically necessary accompaniments of freedom, just as pain is a logically necessary pre-condition of sympathy.”

Mackie claims that “There is a fundamental difficulty in the notion of an omnipotent God creating men with free will, for if men's wills are really free this must mean that even God cannot control them, that is, that God is no longer omnipotent.”

The Paradox of Omnipotence

In the ‘Paradox of Omnipotence‘ (parallel to the Paradox of the Stone) Mackie asks whether God can create a creature that He cannot subsequently control.

Or, what is practically equivalent to this, can an omnipotent being make rules that then bind him?’ (parallel to the Euthyphro dilemma)

in either answer to this question God‘s omnipotence is limited

Mackie makes a distinction between “first order omnipotence (omnipotence (1),that is unlimited power to act, and second order omnipotence (omnipotence (2), that is unlimited power to determine what powers to act things shall have.”

We could say God always has omnipotence (1), but if so no beings at any time have powers to act independently of God. Or we could say that God at one time had omnipotence (2), and used it to assign independent powers to act to angels and human beings, so that after this God did not have omnipotence (1).

The Paradox of Omnipotence can be answered by saying that God exists outside space and time, but in this case, it makes no sense to describe God as being able to control our decisions as they happen

“It may be objected that God's gift of freedom to men does not mean that he cannot control their wills, but that he always refrains from controlling them. But why, should he not leave men free to will rightly, but intervene when he sees them beginning to will wrongly?”

Flew and Mackie argue that an omnipotent God could create a world where human beings always freely choose to do what is good. Anyone who says that it is a logically necessary condition of freedom that people sometimes make the wrong decision, would have confused genuine Free Will with ‘complete randomness or indeterminacy‘.Flew gives the example of Murdo who decides to marry Marie. Murdo does not choose at random whom to marry. His free choice is determined by the person he is.

Flew can be challenged by rejecting his definition of freedom and saying that real freedom means having a genuine, open choice between all the alternatives open to us, including doing evil.

Mackie’s criticism of the FWD

It is logically possible for me to choose to do good on any one occasion

It is logically possible for me to choose to do good on every occasion

It is logically possible for any individual to choose to do good throughout their life

God is omnipotent and can create any logically possible world

Therefore God could have created a world in which we were all genuinely free yet we all chose to do good

God did not create such a world

Therefore either God is not omnipotent or he is not wholly good

The Evidential Problem of Evil

The evidential problem of evil is a posteriori and inductive

The conclusion is reasonable, rather than proven beyond all doubt

1.God, by definition, is omnipotent, omniscient, and supremely good.

2.A being who is omnipotent, omniscient and supremely good would not permit excessive evil.

3.The evil in the world is probably excessive.

4.Therefore,God probably does not exist.

In this form of the argument the mere existence of evil in the world cannot count against the existence of God as evil might be a necessary part of a ‘greater good’

Evil has to be shown to be excessive to the purpose of ‘maximising good’ to justify the claim that God does not exist

John Stuart Mill

In Three Essays on Religion (on Nature) Mill says that natural evil arises from a malfunctioning of the universe which was originally intended for the preservation of life

He gives examples of the harm done by nature and concludes that “the order of nature, in so far as unmodified by man, is such as no being, whose attributes are justice and benevolence, would have made”


In his novel 'The Brothers Karamazov' Ivan Karamazov discusses the problem with his brother Alyosha, a novice priest. Ivan says that nothing is worth the suffering of innocent children. Adults have 'eaten the apple', so they must take responsibility for their own lives but 'what have the children to do with it’?.

Ivan says that if God foresaw the outcome (even if he later planned to redeem humanity through Christ) it would have been better not to create the world because ‘the price’ is too high. Creation is hopelessly flawed. He therefore 'returns his ticket' and refuses to play God's game. In other words he rejects the free will defense.

In the case of the peasant boy, Dostoyevsky imagines a scene in heaven when the mother may possibly forgive the murderer:

"But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive .. even if the child were to forgive him."

One response to the problem of evil is to find a way in which God and evil can co-exist

If we can, then we no longer have to accept the incompatibility premise (premise 2)

The ‘free-will defense’ attempts to do this

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE)

Augustine adopted the distinction made by Aristotle that everything has its opposite

Good refers to the fulfilment or completion (habitus) of something’s natural purpose (telos)

Evil is not a ‘thing’ in itself but a lack of good (privatio bonni)

Augustine is not denying the reality of evil but saying that it is a defect

This clears God of direct blame for evil as he only made things that exist (positively)

(However God created the conditions in which sin and the resulting evil and suffering are possible, so must take at least some responsibility).


Everything in the universe was created by God

God could only create what was good

Everything that God has made is therefore ‘good in itself’, in proportion to its place in the hierarchy of creation, even ‘the fires of hell’.

Human beings and angels were created with free will, which shows God's Goodness

Adam and Eve’s ‘original sin’, when they used their freedom to turn away from God, altered the order of the universe, giving rise to natural as well as moral evil.

Augustine saw this biblical ‘myth’ as illustrative of the negative choices that cause disharmony and harm to the environment and within the human race.

The ‘fall’ from grace was caused by human and angelic choice, not God

In the book of Revelation there is an account of the rebellion of angels led by Lucifer (the Devil), and their expulsion from heaven. Lucifer and his followers (who became demons) were given charge of the world.

The Free-Will Defense

God foresaw humanity's misuse of free-will and therefore planned the redemption of humanity through Christ

Augustine believed that God, because he is supremely good and omnipotent, can bring good out of evil

He referred to original human sin as a ‘happy fault’ (felix culpa) because it allowed Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

Some people will still go to hell but this will be as a result of their abuse of their own free will. 

Thomas Aquinas

God (being timeless and spaceless and immutable) cannot fall short of perfection, so cannot do evil

God causes all that exists and therefore all that is good

Evil arises indirectly with God's permission:

 “…in so far as a bad action exists it is caused by God; but in so far as it is bad, it is caused not by God but comes from a defective agent”

God’s essence is goodness, but this does not mean that He is good in the way that we are good even though our goodness derives from God.

Therefore we should not judge God’s goodness from a human point of view.

Aquinas believed that it was possible to prove that God exists (through the 'Five Ways' that all start from facts in the world.)

Once God's existence is established, the problem of evil is looked at from a theocentric point of view

Seen from God's perspective everything is part of the hierarchy of creation, all of which is good


Modern Theologians have criticised Aquinas saying that we should start from human suffering, especially the suffering of Jesus Christ; the God who humans can identify with rather than the immutable, timeless God of Aquinas.

Even if evil is not caused directly by God it is difficult to explain what morally sufficient reason God has to allow evil to exist.

(Aquinas does not address this question directly since he and the Catholic tradition do not use the Free will defense in the way that Augustine does.)

Leibniz (1646-1716)

Leibniz’s theodicy starts from God’s omnipotence and benevolence

Since God is omnipotent, there are limitless possibilities for the kind of world God could make

Because God is Good he would make a good world

As God foresaw all possible future universes, this must be the ‘best of all possible worlds’

Some evil and suffering must therefore be necessary for the greater good

Leibniz attempted to address concerns over the extent and intensity of evil by talking about the difference between what God wants to happen (his antecedent will) and what God allows to happen (his consequent will)

This view fell out of favour after the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Plantinga’s Free Will Defense

The Logical problem of evil

In God, Freedom, and Evil, Plantinga addresses Mackie’s claim that belief in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God in a world where evil exists is "positively irrational".

As opposed to a theodicy, Plantinga puts forth a defense, to demonstrate that it is logically possible for God to create a world that contains moral evil. He does not need to assert that his new proposition is true, merely that it is valid ‘in the broadly logical sense’.

Plantinga says that as there are no explicit contradictions between the main premises of the Logical Problem of Evil, Mackie has added ‘additional principles’ that he claims are ‘necessary truths’ that show the implicit contradictions.

Plantinga suggested that Mackie‘s logical principles 4 and 5:

4. “a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can” and

5. “there are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do”

should be replaced by: “every good thing always eliminates every evil that it can eliminate”

This would mean God eliminating all the evil he can ‘properly‘ eliminate without ‘eliminating an outweighing good or bringing about a greater evil‘

Plantinga postulates a ‘state of affairs’ in which:

(i) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good and (ii) evil exists

Both could be true in a world in which God had good reason for creating evil (even if we don‘t know what that reason was):

· A world with free creatures is more valuable than a world containing no free creatures

· God can create free creatures but he cannot (without removing their freedom) cause them to do what is morally right

It is therefore not a ‘necessary truth’ that an omnipotent being can eliminate every evil and it is not irrational to believe in the simultaneous existence of evil and an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.

Plantinga then deals with Mackie’s suggestion that God would create a world in which everyone freely chooses the good.

This challenge rests on the mistaken premise that ‘God could have actualized any possible world he pleased‘

Plantinga rejects the idea that God could create an infinite number of ‘possible worlds’

(Plantinga says to presume he could was "Leibniz's lapse")

There are some possible worlds that God could not have (logically) actualized

A world in which morally free creatures produce only moral good is such a world

(since it contains a contradiction.)

The point of a human being‘s free choice is that it is not controlled by God. In contrast there is no logical inconsistency involved when God creates a world where free creatures choose to do evil. 

Transworld Depravity

Plantinga says that even within the possible worlds that God could create there are limitations.

It is possible that some person (Curly Smith) has ‘transworld depravity’, so that in every possible world that God could create he will always do at least one evil action.

In this case it is not possible for an omnipotent and wholly good God to ‘actualise’ a world where he is free yet always does good actions

It is possible that the ‘essence’ of every person includes ‘transworld depravity’:

The evidential problem of evil

Plantinga argues that the free will defense can also address the evidential problem of evil:

A world containing creatures that are significantly free is better than a world containing no free creatures.

God can create significantly free creatures.

To be significantly free is to be capable of both moral good and moral evil.

If significantly free creatures were caused to do only what is right, they would not be free.

Therefore, God cannot cause significantly free creatures to do only what is right.

Therefore, God can only eliminate the moral evil done by significantly free creatures by eliminating the greater good of significantly free creatures.

Therefore, God can only eliminate natural evil by eliminating the greater good of significantly free creatures.

It is possible that most of the evil in this world is moral evil (because some natural evil can be the result of moral evil e.g. floods, fires)

It is also possible that there is no better balance of moral good and moral evil than the one that exists.

Even the scale and amount of evil (the surd) that exists does not count as evidence that God could have created a better world, because we have no way of knowing whether a better world is logically possible.


Plantinga’s defense only addresses moral evil

(He anticipates this problem, suggesting that it is possible that natural evil is due to the free actions of nonhuman persons such as ‘Satan and his cohorts‘)

Plantinga makes conflicting claims about the nature of Free Will

Plantinga makes conflicting claims about the nature of Free Will:

A genuinely free choice must not be ‘causally determined’

There are truths about how someone would have behaved or will behave in various ‘possible worlds’ that are fixed in advance.

Plantinga’s defense takes an incompatibilist libertarian view of free will

Mackie’s option is a compatibilist account of Free Will in which our decisions and actions are free if they follow from our character and desires.

Although it would contradict a creature's freedom if God were to strongly actualize a world where creatures only do good, an omniscient God would still know the circumstances under which creatures would go wrong. God could avoid creating such circumstances, thereby weakly actualizing a world with only moral good.

Plantinga presents a false dilemma

God did not have to create humans with the natures they do; so the fact that they misuse their freedom to cause suffering is evidence against (an omnipotent) God’s existence.

Another option that is consistent with God‘s supreme goodness would be to intervene selectively to prevent the most extreme evils (through miracles) even at the cost of some human freedom.

Mackie rejected Plantinga's notion of transworld depravity:

“ could there be logically contingent states of affairs, prior to the creation and existence of any created beings with free will, which an omnipotent God would have to accept and put up with? The suggestion is simply incoherent”

“If it was caused to be true by God, one may wonder why God actualized a world in which this person is transworld depraved when God could have actualized a world where this person, at least with respect to this action, would not suffer from such conditional depravity. If on the other hand, the fact is not up to God, we must accept that an omnipotent God has no power over contingent facts about the world.”

We could question whether ‘a world containing creatures who are significantly free is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all’

Dostoyevsky agrees

Also whether the moral good in the world actually does outweigh the moral evil since Plantinga‘s model is not consistent with the existence of more moral evil than moral good

One possible response is that freedom is a necessary condition for any kind of morally significant action

Plantinga’s argument is an appeal to ignorance

Plantinga’s argument is an appeal to ignorance

We don’t usually allow the appeal to ignorance on its own

We need good reasons to believe that God and evil are not only able to coexist but also that it is plausible that they actually do coexist

The evidential problem of evil

Plantinga underestimates the evidential problem of evil.

There is no good that we know of that could justify the evil that we are already familiar with.

Any good that we can think of (such as free will or second-order goods) could be obtained without God having to allow the evil that exists

Therefore, evil can only be justified by a good that we are not familiar with.

It is probable that we know most goods.

Therefore, it is probable that there is no such good.


(We often infer from what we know to what we don’t know in this way, inferring from ‘nothing we know of will justify evil’ to ‘nothing will justify evil’ is just the same)

Excessive evil

We do not know how much evil God prevents, because there could presumably be more evil in the world. This does not, however, make the evils that do exist more justifiable from our point of view. For Dostoyevsky and Roth the problem of evil and suffering remains because God cannot redeem the past and give back what is lost

Some believe like St. Teresa that seen from the perspective of eternity the worst human suffering ‘will seem like an uncomfortable night in a hotel’!

In The Great Divorce, C S Lewis describes how mortal human beings, without the benefit of God's perspective: " ... says of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it', not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even the agony into a glory."

Irenaeaus (130-202)

In his work Against Heresies, Irenaeus said that God created humans in his own image but that they needed to develop into his ‘likeness’ or perfection of character.

This could only be accomplished through experience and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit

Freedom required the possibility of choosing evil:

“How, if we had no knowledge of the contrary, could we have instruction in that which is good? If anyone do shun the knowledge of both kinds of things…he unaware divests himself of the character of a human being.”

Evil and suffering are also necessary for people to develop human virtues.

Christ was the paradigm of human existence as through suffering he showed Humans how to return to God.

Eventually, evil and suffering will be overcome and the human race will develop into God’s perfect likeness and will live in Heaven, where all suffering will end forever and God’s plan will be complete.

 “The basic Irenaean conception of human beings as creatures made initially in the image of God and gradually being brought though their own free responses into the divine likeness, this creative process being interrupted by the fall and sent right again by the incarnation, has continued to operate in the minds of the theologians of the Orthodox approach down to the present day.” John Hick

Richard Swinburne

Swinburne argues that there is no ‘best possible world’

However God would have reasons to make some worlds rather than others

An evolving physical world is better than a static spiritual world

For humans to be free there must be a genuinely open future and a necessary condition for this is an element of randomness

He says this is not a ‘toy world’ and as such it helps people to develop

A world with death means that the old do not always dominate the young and progress can occur.

It concentrates our minds by making us recognise that we have limited time available.

Also death is good in that it brings an end to suffering and marks the beginning of the afterlife when ‘God will wipe away the tears from every eye’


Both the Augustinian and Irenaean traditions agree that free-will is central to any explanation of why evil exists.

Both also agree that by creating the world as it is God has the ultimate responsibility for the existence of evil which is why a theodicy is needed.

The also agree that a ‘greater good’ emerges as a result of evil.

Both accept there are logical limits to God’s omnipotence i.e. God cannot create beings with genuine free will who are ‘ready-made’ to do good

Pain and disease makes possible the existence of ‘sympathy, benevolence, heroism, as well as the more spiritual goods which arise in the struggle against evil.

Most theists accept Plantinga’s response to the Logical problem of evil. John Hick adapts the Irenaean Theodicy as an attempt to deal with the evidential problem.

John Hick (1922-2012)

Hick rejects the traditional ‘Free Will defense’; instead he attempts a theodicy to show that the evil in the world does not count as evidence against God‘s existence ‘when considered in light of a correct account of God’s aims and purposes….it cannot profess to create faith, but only to preserve an already existing faith from being overcome by this dark mystery [of evil]’

Hick adapts the Irenaean Theodicy.

In Evil and the God of Love, Hick describes God’s ongoing process of creating human beings:

The first stage is evolutionary, to develop creatures who are capable of fellowship with God

The second and more difficult stage involves perfecting individuals in their relationship with God and others

Hick agrees with Swinburne that this is the kind of world that God would make.

It enables autonomous beings, made in the image of God (knowing right and wrong) to become perfected into the likeness of God.

There are two conditions necessary for human beings to attain moral perfection:

They must have real (libertarian) freedom includes the possibility of doing wrong.

Distance of knowledge from God (epistemic distance) to allow Human’s to make autonomous decisions.

This makes evil inevitable.

The ‘vale of soul-making’

The world is to be viewed: ‘not primarily by the quantity of pleasure and pain occurring in it at any particular moment, but by its fitness for its primary purpose, the purpose of soul-making’.

The phrase a ‘vale of soul-making’ is a quotation from the poet John Keats.

It describes how humans can use their free will to make choices that lead to moral growth and development.

The price that has to be paid is the possibility of human beings causing great suffering.

However they can also learn from the consequences of their actions.

In Hick’s theodicy evil has a ‘salvific quality’

Some virtues depend upon the existence of evil in order to develop, compassion depends upon suffering, forgiveness would never be needed in a perfect world etc.

The virtues achieved through ‘soul making’ are ‘good in a richer and more valuable sense’ than the qualities of someone simply created good.


The main problem is the amount and the intensity of evil (Surd).

Hick agrees that only a supremely good future in heaven can justify this magnitude of suffering.

Since not everyone has a fair opportunity to develop their souls in this life, it is more just if they have other existences to perfect themselves. Hick speculates that there may be another realm in which the process may be continued until complete (like purgatory)

He does not believe that God would create human beings only for them to be dammed.

In the case of the peasant boy, Hick says that Dostoyevsky is thinking of a meeting taking place when the general is still the same cruel, and possibly insane, person. His theodicy envisages a period of perfecting when the General:

 " ... will remember how he treated the serf boy, and will feel ashamed and sorry and in desperate need of forgiveness. But in another sense he will no longer be the same person; for he will have changed in character into someone who is now morally incapable of behaving in such a way."

Hick considers some ‘particularly difficult issues’:

Terrible and pointless evils

Because God is good, he wants us to become good through ‘soul making’. Mackie argues that God is not benevolent in this theodicy because rather than seeking to reduce suffering, the development of virtues actually requires (innocent) suffering.

D. Z. Phillips points out that the challenges of the world do not always result in human development, and often seem to produce nothing but suffering

In The Concept of Prayer he argued that love can never be expressed by allowing suffering to happen:

 ‘What are we to say of the child dying from cancer? If this has been “done” to anyone that is bad enough, but to be done for a purpose planned from eternity — that is the deepest evil. If God is this kind of agent, He cannot justify His actions and His evil nature is revealed.’

Terrible evils are terrible in contrast to more ‘ordinary’ evils. It is not possible to know how much more terrible evils there could have been, however it seems that when one disease is overcome another arrives HIVAids, Ebola etc.

We cannot rationalise such evils, they remain a challenge and a mystery

However, we can understand that their existence is part of the process of soul-making

If every time someone suffered we knew it was for the best, we might not feel moved to intervene to offer help or support and we would not need faith nor hope that things could be improved.

Animal suffering

Mill wrote eloquently about animal suffering

The Irenaean theodicy allows for the concept of evolution, however this process causes the death of billions of living creatures

Animals don’t grow spiritually, so we can ask how the natural evil that they suffer can be justified

Animal and environmental suffering becomes a means toward human salvation

This is a very anthropocentric (human-centered) view

It raises the question of why such a long drawn out process is necessary when God could have created free intelligent beings in the 'twinkling of an eye’

Human freedom requires that we inhabit a natural world

Physical pain provides all creatures with clues to danger and lessons about how to avoid risks

Since animals lack self-conscious awareness of future pain and death they do not suffer in the same way that humans do

Animals are made by God and are evolutionarily related to us

We have a responsibility that extends to animals as well

Why does God allow Natural Evil?

Natural evil occurs as a by-product of natural laws that govern the physical world

People are hurt because they are physical beings who are in the wrong place at the wrong time

If God intervened directly in nature to prevent suffering he would be breaking the laws set up at creation

If God intervened to prevent natural evil there would be no regularity or predictability in nature and no ‘laws of nature’ at all

"... natural evils (as most people nowadays rightly believe) are produced by impersonal natural laws governing every physical object and process which, therefore, once created, will mechanically strew goods and evils in the path of every sentient being quite regardless of expediency or desert." Paterson

Why does God allow Moral Evil?

It is a by-product of Human free will, if people are free they can choose to cause suffering and pain as well as to help each other (Plantinga)

The world is a ‘vale of soul making’ where people learn about good and evil through their actions (Hick)

What does God do to help suffering?

By becoming human (the incarnation) God shared human suffering and death and showed a way through to eternal life.

Jesus Christ took human suffering on himself and atoned for human sin, he reformed the relationship between God and Humans that was broken when Adam and Eve turned from God’s commands (sinned).

Arguments relating to the existence of God

Ontological ArgumentsOntology is the study of existence or ‘being’. Ontological arguments use premises that derive from reason alone (a priori). They deduce the existence of God from the concept of God.

St Anselm (1033-1109)

“I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand”

The Proslogion (Discourse) Chapter II: That God Really Exists

God is ‘something greater than which cannot be conceived’

“The fool said in his heart, there is no God” (Ps. 13:1, 52:1) but even the fool, understands what this means, even if he does not think it exists

However God cannot exist only in thought, for if he exists only in thought he could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater

Therefore God undoubtedly exists both in thought and reality

(Anselm goes on to deduce God's nature and attributes from the same definition.)

Gaunilo of Marmoutier ‘On behalf of the fool’

The ‘Lost Island’

The Lost Island is that than which no greater can be conceived.

It is greater to exist in reality than merely as an idea.

If the Lost Island does not exist, one can conceive of an even greater island; that is one that does exist

Therefore, the Lost Island exists in reality

Gaunilo’s challenge is a reductio. If the argument were sound we would also be able to prove the existence of many other supremely perfect things.

Suppose that the property of being supremely great is part of the concept of God and that the property of existing is part of the concept of God, it does not follow that any being actually has that property

We need to first demonstrate God’s actual existence as a ‘real and indubitable fact’

Issues with perfect Islands

The notion of a perfect island is not coherent as they have no ‘intrinsic maximum’

Perfect islands aren’t a different kind of thing from islands, but a type of island

So perfection is an ‘accidental’ not an ‘essential’ property of islands

It’s coherent to think of an island that isn’t perfect, if an island was not perfect it would not cease to be an island

Gaunilo’s perfect island doesn’t have to exist, however we ‘clearly and distinctly perceive’ that existence is an inseparable part of God’s nature, so God has to exist

‘a supremely perfect island’ is an ‘idea which has been put together by my intellect …where none of its properties necessarily belong to its nature’ Descartes

Gaunilo’s other challenges

The fool questions or simply denies that the greatest conceivable being must exist in reality

This being exists in his mind only in the sense that he understands what is said even though he has never experienced it in reality

‘All sorts of false and completely non-existent things exist in his mind’ since when someone speaks of them he understands what is said but through existence in the mind alone they cannot be said to attain existence in reality

Anselm seems to conflate God and the concept of God

From the fact that we have an idea of God, it does not follow that God ‘exists in thought’, what exists in our thought is the concept of God, not some inferior version of God!

His options should really be;

(i) only the concept of God exists or

(ii) both the concept of God and God exist

it seems a mistake to count the difference between existing in reality and existing in the intellect as a difference in the quality of the thing, God does not become better by existing in reality.

Anselm fails to distinguish between

(i) a property being part of the definition or concept of a being, and

(ii) the being really having that property

Anselm’s response

If that being can be even conceived to be, it must exist in reality.

For what can be conceived to exist, but does not exist, is not the being than which a greater cannot be conceived

Therefore, if such a being can be conceived to exist, necessarily it does exist”

Anselm introduces a new element into his argument:

The greatest conceivable being can’t be thought not to exist

Because it is better to exist than not, existence is therefore an essential property of God

Necessary existence is greater than contingent existence

Therefore God necessarily exists (unlike islands)

Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

Descartes' argument relies on God’s perfection alone

It starts from the definition of God as "a supremely perfect being" (un etre souverainement parfait)

Descartes - Meditation V

“It is certain that I ..find the idea of God, that is to say, the idea of a supremely perfect Being, in me, than that of any figure or number whatever it is”

“Whenever it happens that I think of a first and sovereign Being, and, so to speak, derive the idea of Him from the storehouse of my mind, it is necessary that I should attribute to Him every sort of perfection . . . .

And this necessity makes me conclude (after having recognized that existence is a perfection) that this first and sovereign Being really exists.”

“Existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than can its having three angles be separated from the essence of a triangle, or the idea of a mountain from the idea of a valley”

Descartes’ Argument:

I have the idea of God

God is supremely perfect

Therefore, God has all perfections

Descartes (and Anselm) conclude that God exists by definition

This is because the subject (God) is contained in the predicate (exists)

Existence is a ‘perfection’ or predicable attribute that a supremely perfect being must have

The ‘doctrine that existence is a predicate of God’ enables Descartes to meet the objection that the concept of God cannot guarantee that there is an actual being corresponding to it

Descartes claimed to know the nature of God a priori, like the analytic truths of Mathematics this knowledge is perceived ‘clearly and distinctly’

God’s perfections aren’t accidental features but are part of the ‘true and immutable nature’ of God, the necessary existence of God is not simply about the ‘concept’ of God; it is a claim about the essence of God

That is the point of the comparison with the triangle: just as it is part of the nature of a triangle that its internal angles add up to 180º, so existence is part of the nature of God

Descartes believes he has established that if we think about God it must be in terms of His necessary existence and that the idea of necessary existence entails actual existence since God must actually exist in order to be God

If the first premise presupposes that God exists the argument turns out to be question-begging or circular; it may be valid, but the non-theist has no reason to accept there is such a thing as the ‘true and immutable nature’ of God unless she is already convinced that God exists

Leibniz felt that Descartes version of the argument was incomplete and needed an extra premise to make it valid

“…the argument silently assumes that this idea of a wholly great or wholly perfect being is possible”

we cannot safely infer from definitions until we know that they are real or that they involve no contradiction.

The reason for this is that from concepts which involve a contradiction, contradictory conclusions can be drawn simultaneously, and this is absurd” Leibniz

Gottfried von Leibniz 1646 -1716

The extra premise is needed to show that the definition of God as a supremely perfect being is coherent and does not contain any contradictions

Without this it would be impossible to get from the definition to the claim that God really does have all the perfections attributed to him

Leibniz says that the only way to show that God’s perfections A and B are incompatible would be to show that A implies not-B, or B implies not-A, but A and B, because they are perfections, are simple, positive, and absolute (without limit) can’t be analysed to reveal any hidden potential for contradiction

Descartes and Leibniz were rationalists, they believed that as in Mathematics and other things we know a priori, the necessary connection between God and existence is discovered through reason:

David Hume 1711-1776

As an Empiricist Hume was opposed to the idea that we can gain knowledge about what exists through reason alone

The ontological argument doesn’t rely on sense experience, but on pure reasoning

So the argument, and its conclusion that God exists, are a priori

The only claims that can be known a priori are what Hume called ‘relations of ideas’

The ontological argument doesn’t tell us anything about the world, only about the relations between the terms used

To be meaningful these must be ‘demonstrable’:

“Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary is a contradiction…Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction”

Hume believes that a claim (p) can be ‘demonstrated’ (proved) by showing that its contrary (not-p) implies a contradiction

However any claim about the existence of any being X will have a contrary ‘X does not exist’ which is ‘distinctly conceivable’ (and so does not imply a contradiction)

This also means that the idea of ‘necessary existence’ is meaningless

God does not possess existence essentially as it is possible to conceive of God not existing (and still be thinking of God)

Immanuel Kant

Kant's objections to the ontological argument are that:

1.No existential proposition is logically necessary

2. 'Existence' is not a genuine predicate

A claim is necessary only if a contradiction can be derived from its denial, while it is contradictory to posit a subject while denying one of the predicates that describes its essential features, there can be no contradiction in rejecting both the subject and its predicates

Kant’s response can be set out like this: 

If you have a triangle

Then it must have three angles

But if you do not have the triangle, you do not have its three angles or sides either

In the same way, if you accept God, it is logical to accept his necessary existence

But you do not have to accept God

Descartes maintained that ‘God exists’ is an analytic statement i.e. the concept ‘God’ contains the idea of existence

For Kant, although definitions are analytic, statements about existence are synthetic

Therefore, the angles and sides of a triangle are necessary because they are part of the definition of a triangle, but that says nothing about the actual existence of a triangle – necessity is not a feature of the world, but only of logic

Kant might agree with Descartes that necessary existence forms an essential part of the definition of God but it does not follow that there actually is a God, as we can deny that there are any necessary existing beings

Kant also says that in the proposition ‘God exists’ ... ‘exists’ is a grammatical or logical predicate but not a real predicate because it does not give new information about the subject of the sentence

You add nothing to a description of something by saying that ‘it has existence’, existence is not an extra quality - it is a way of saying that there is the thing itself

Norman Malcolm (1911-1990)

God is (by definition) the most perfect being

Necessary existence is a perfection

Therefore, necessary existence is contained within the concept of God

Therefore, God’s existence is either impossible or necessary

God’s existence is not impossible

Therefore, necessarily, God exists

Four possibilities concerning God’s existence:

a) God’s existence is necessarily false – it is logically impossible for a being that has God’s properties to exist

b) God’s existence is contingently false, a being that has God’s properties could exist - but doesn’t

c) God’s existence is contingently true, a being that has God’s properties could exist and does

d) God’s existence is necessarily true, it is logically necessary that a being that has God’s properties exists

Malcolm argues that possibilities b) and c) can’t apply to the greatest possible being

Contingent beings are dependent on other factors, whereas God is independent and eternal

This leaves either a) or d)

a) type statements are logically contradictory propositions (e.g. square circles)

There is nothing logically contradictory about d)

This is the only remaining possibility

Malcolm agrees with Anselm that the argument cannot produce ‘living faith’, but it can remove some ‘philosophical scruples’ about the existence of God

This is because he believes that religious belief arises from ‘a storm in the soul’ rather than an intellectual process

Alvin Plantinga (1932 - )

Plantinga’s version of the ontological argument makes use of modal logic:

A proposition p is possibly true if and only if it is true in some possible world

A proposition p is necessarily true if and only if it is true in all possible worlds

A proposition p is actually true if and only if it is true in this, the actual world

Plantinga starts with two definitions:

A being is maximally excellent if in a given possible world if it has omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection

A being is maximally great if it has maximal excellence in every possible world

Outline of the argument

God is a being with ‘maximal greatness’

Since there is no contradiction in the concept, there must be some possible world where such a being exists

If such a being exists it would have to exist in every possible world

A being that exists in all possible worlds necessarily must exist in this world

It is possible that there is a maximally great being

so there is a possible world in which maximally greatness is instantiated (has an instance)

but a maximally great being is one that has maximal excellence in every world – i.e. it is necessarily maximally excellent

If it is possible that something is true in all possible worlds

then it is true in at least one possible world

which means that it is true in all possible worlds

so from premise (1) it follows, by the definition of maximal greatness, that it is necessary that there is a maximally great being

Therefore necessarily, God exists.

‘actually p’ implies ‘possibly p’ because if something is true in this world then it is true in some possible world (i.e. this one)

‘necessarily p’ is equivalent to ‘not possibly not-p’ because a necessary truth is true in every world so there is no possible world in which that truth is not true

‘necessarily p’ implies ‘actually p’, because if something is true in every world then it is clearly true in this one

Plantinga claims that God ‘couldn‘t have been otherwise’ so he couldn‘t have failed to exemplify his properties, a possible world in which God doesn’t exist is one in which God fails to exemplify his properties, it follows that God is the same in every possible world and thus must exist in every possible world if he exists at all

Like Anselm, Plantinga aims to show that his argument shows the ‘rational acceptability’ of belief in the existence of God


We can construct other expressions of the form ‘maximally F’ whose possibility entails their necessity

Graham Tooley points out that, if we accept that a ‘maximally evil’ being is possible, then we can use the same reasoning to prove that such a possible being is necessary and therefore actually exists:

Lacewing says that this makes no sense, if God doesn’t exist he ‘doesn’t have zero degree of greatness ..we can’t talk of his degree of greatness at all’ He says that ‘ we should redefine a maximally great being as a being that is maximally excellent in every world in which it exists … but because the greatest possible being need not exist in every possible world, it is still possible that God does not exist.’

The cosmological argument: causal and contingency arguments:

Aquinas’ Five Ways (first three)

God's existence is an article of faith. What is a matter of faith cannot be (directly) demonstrable

‘God's (actual) existence, though not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated through his effects’

First way – the argument from motion

Second way –the argument from causation

Third way – the argument from contingency

Causal Cosmological Arguments

The argument from motion

it is... evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion”

(Aquinas gives the example of wood being made hot by fire as something that is “moved” by something else)

Whatever is in motion is put into motion by something else; nothing can move itself

If y is put into motion by x, and x is also in motion, then x must have been put into motion by something else again

If this goes on to infinity, then there is no first mover

If there is no first mover, then there is no other mover, and so nothing is in motion

Therefore, there must be an unmoved first mover

This eternal prime mover we call God

The argument from causation

We find, in the world, causes and effects

Nothing can be the cause of itself (if it were, it would have to exist before itself, which is impossible)

If you remove a cause, you remove its effect

Therefore, if there is no first cause, there will be no later causes

There cannot be an infinite regress of causes as there would be no first cause

There must be a first cause, which is not itself caused, this we cal