Benevolent and All-Powerful: A logical incompatibility?

By | July 26, 2014

In my last post, I talked about Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Living with a Wild God.”

The part of the book that most bothered me was this logic:

“If there was one thing I understood about God, it was that he was not good, and if he was good, he was too powerless to deserve our attention. In fact, the idea of a God who is both all-powerful and all good is a logical impossibility.” (emphasis mine)

I put the book down and said aloud to an empty room, “It’s only a logical impossibility with the right underlying assumptions.”

Let’s break this down. I’d like to highlight two major underlying assumptions. The first is that the state of our planet, and our universe, is not good.

Stay with me. I agree with this underlying premise. I’m just bringing attention to it, because some people may not agree. There are those who say that everything that happens is in the will of God, and therefore everything is good because God is good. This is not only circular, it’s self-justification for “God” to do whatever he wants and get a stamp of approval. That’s not a philosophy I can believe.

The second underlying assumption is that power ought to be used.

I say these are the two major assumptions because this type of argumentation is nearly limitless. We’re also assuming that we agree upon the general definitions for every word in the quotation. It’s helpful to recognize that there are assumptions behind every logical syllogism, but it’s exhaustive and unnecessary to find and address all of them.

So we have a syllogism that looks like this:

-The state of life in our universe is not good.
-Power ought to demonstrate itself.
-Therefore, it’s impossible for something to exist in this universe that is both all-powerful and all good.

I know people who would agree with the second premise. These are the same people who think government can fix everything. They agree with the line, “those who know what’s best for us must rise and save us from ourselves.”

So if you agree that a powerful being must exercise that power to its fullest extent, then yes, it’s impossible for God to be benevolent and all-powerful.

I want to ask, though: do you really believe that power should demonstrate itself?

Some might say, “If the thing with power is good, then it’s not a problem to enforce good.”

Are you okay with some Ultimate Being deciding what is right and wrong, and forcing you to behave in a way that is “good,” giving you no choice in the matter? Hey, it’s for your own good and the good of the universe. Hopefully it means there won’t be any more war or disease or misdistribution of resources.

Oddly enough, that’s the problem most nonreligious people have with the concept of God in the first place: arbitrary division and enforcement of good and evil.

I don’t think power ought to be exercised. The people who disagree with me can continue trusting governmental force, and believing that God is evil, absent, apathetic, or doesn’t exist. At least they’re consistent. The people who don’t make logical sense are libertarians who believe in extreme predestination. (With Gods like these, who needs corrupt governments?)

Of course, this logical breakdown doesn’t really address the problem of evil itself. It just acknowledges that life in our universe is, for one reason or another, not good. I don’t believe that humans are inherently awful and the world is a mess solely because a couple of people broke a rule about eating fruit once, but that’s another subject.

I’m not saying you have to agree that the powerful shouldn’t wield their power. I’m just laying this out plainly, and asking whether you agree with it, and if you’re consistent.

  • lilaf

    Well, actually, I do believe in a God who establishes right and wrong and commands me to obey. But I’ve always been a fairly spiritual/religious person, even before becoming Christian. I’ve never felt this was arbitrary. It’s never really been an issue for me. Does this mean something is wrong with me? Because a lot of other people seem to have this problem. And I don’t ask this in a snarky way, it’s just not a struggle I’ve ever had.
    When I look back over my life, I just see God’s protective hand over me.

    • cynthiajeub

      It’s not uncommon to see right and wrong as consistent and definite. I think it’s safe to say that people often look at what certain deities apparently do, and call it arbitrary, or nonsensical. Have you ever heard someone call something “good,” when it seemed like a frivolous thing to say? It may not be a source of dissonance or struggle within your own belief system, and it doesn’t mean something is necessarily wrong with you. I’m just talking about the confusion over what can be called “good” in this post.

      • lilaf

        Ok, thanks for the clarification. I shouldn’t say I’ve never struggled with God’s authority, that’s kind of a lie. It’s just that the struggle never ultimately led me to reject God. But many do, which is something I can’t relate to. I’m sure there have been times where something is called ‘good’ that I sort of didn’t agree with, and it makes you question your own definition of ‘good’.

        • cynthiajeub

          I’m with you in never having rejected God over the issue, but I can still understand the reasoning behind why someone else might have. Happy to help clear it up!

  • Vanessa

    The argument as I understand it isn’t that power should demonstrate itself, but rather that a God that was all good would not allow his creatures to suffer, or, if you buy the argument that some suffering is necessary for greater goods, would at least not allow gratuitous suffering. I remember reading this article and being struck by the argument that it is logically possible for god to have created a world where we always freely choose the good:

    This probably doesn’t work for pure indeterminists but it is definitely interesting to think about. For me I always wondered about what happens when we get to heaven, it supposedly has no sin or pain, yet we are still ourselves, and so supposedly free? If we can sin, then it is not heaven, if we can’t then we aren’t free and free will must not have been such a great thing after all. Or, if we have additional knowledge in heaven that makes us freely choose the good, why not give it to us now? An all powerful god could do that, I certainly don’t have to kill someone in order to know its wrong, why should I have to win at all if I had the knowledge some say we obtain in heaven?

    Anyway, I enjoy reading your blog and learning about your journey :)

  • Luna

    I don’t know whether you ever went through the worldview curriculum published by Summit Ministries. They had modules with usually simplistic answers for such deep questions. Their response to the contradiction of a benevolent, omnipotent God coexisting with evil was that in the future it would be resolved when God would destroy all evil. That answer never really satisfied me (in general, the curriculum had rather the opposite of the intended effect on me).

    The idea that having power does not generate a moral responsibility is another of those problematic dilemmas. I ran across one, “The Poisonous Cup of Coffee”, which goes as follows: “Alfred, hating his wife and wanting her dead, puts poison in her coffee, thereby killing her. Burt also hates his wife and would like her dead. One day, Burt’s wife accidentally puts poison in her coffee, thinking it’s cream. Burt has the antidote, but he does not give it to her. Knowing that he is the only one who can save her, he lets her die. Is Burt’s failure to act as bad as Alfred’s action?”

    Not that there is a clear answer, really. I suppose one might fire back that our concepts of morality and not harming those in our groups is based in our humanity and our social nature; in contrast, an entity like God, one envisioned as the only one in existence, would have no such compunction. But no matter the response, the conversation would continue.

    (Sorry, just discovered your blog and recognized something similar to my own struggle with faith. That struggle lasted years. I tried to end it by identifying as a progressive Christian and set aside any nagging doubts. It worked about as long as I could avoid facing myself. Now, I’m a depressed agnostic. I still see the value in religious systems like Christianity, but somehow, I cannot get beyond the idea that the only reason to believe in something is because it is true. Not saying the same will happen to you of course; I know many whose journeys led to remaining Christian.)

    • Cynthia

      This is excellent analysis. I have seen some of Summit’s curricula though I never attended their camps, and I also found it simplistic and unhelpful.

      My view expressed in this post isn’t an attempt to sidestep dilemmas like the poisonous cup of coffee. I realize there isn’t a clear answer to that one, but I think it’s harmful to just answer with “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” or some other notion that we can’t trust our own reasoning as humans. I’m with Galileo in that if you believe in God as the creator, it would make sense that we ought to use our capabilities to reason and explore and discover.

      The struggle with my own faith right now is real – I like the ideas I’ve written about here, and you’ll see a clear progression from my earlier stuff even a few years ago to what I blog about now – and right now my most helpful, supportive, encouraging friends are pagan, agnostic, and atheist. I’m reading the memoir of Christopher Hitchens, and he told the story of a Muslim woman’s rights activist who eventually became an atheist, and told him it was to rid herself of cognitive dissonance. I get that. I’ve also had a few too many spiritual experiences to think that becoming an agnostic or an atheist would really solve the problem of cognitive dissonance. I love how Neil Gaiman puts it, though. To paraphrase a conversation from Sandman: “Do you believe in God?” “That’s not what you’re asking. You’re wondering if I believe in weird shit…and I’ve had a weird shit life.”

      I think “God” is the unspecific non-answer to the problem of weird shit, but I really, really like the idea of a sacrificial, hands-off, genuinely-at-war-with-evil God, which fits closely with certain forms of Christianity (though you’ll see in my other writings that I don’t include belief in the Bible as one of the tenets of Christianity).

      Oh, and feel free to email me – I love philosophical discussions.

  • WingedBeast

    I think this argument rather presumes that God lacks a non-enforcement option.

    But, let’s look at a few cases. In Uganda, there’s currently a law which gives the death penalty for repeated homosexuality. In Nigeria, there’s a societal trend of hunting witches and evicting children so accused from their homes and communities. I could go on, but the focus I want to make is of god-believing people committing the evils.

    Now, God need not remove their free will or enforce strict consequences upon these people in order to stop the evil from happening. In fact, I’m unwilling to take as likely that the vast majority of these cases are by people who have never asked God for guidance in their lives. All God need do to stop a great deal of cruelty done is provide that guidance. Yet, we still have people who, despite earnestly seeking guidance, believe that God is with them as they do evil.

    What are God’s specific limits that keep him from simply giving a bit of unambiguous information? That is not enforcement. That is very basic communication.

  • Dan

    Sorry to be getting in on this late but with the other items from this week I was perusing your other posts.

    This is a huge question that I would answer with some questions of my own. I think we have to step out of the box we put ourselves in to answer this question. So here is my first question:

    What is “power”? How do we define it? What if The Creator doesn’t see “power” the same way we tend to? Based on the Gospels, what alternative definitions or understandings of “power” might we come up with? What if force, our traditional understanding of power, is not the most powerful? What if love is ultimately the most powerful “force” in our existence? Then, what if our understanding of love is poor? Is it possible that love would allow someone to suffer? For what reasons could this be? Is suffering the worst of human experience? Is death? What could be worse than death?

    I know, lots of questions!