A “God Problem” in The New York Times



(The FreeThinking Theist)


April 15, 2019

Recently, Peter Atterton, a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, published an article in The New York Times entitled “A God Problem: Perfect. All-powerful. All-knowing. The idea of the deity most Westerners accept is actually not coherent.” Given the title, I was excited to read what this philosopher was sharing with the masses since this issue is one of the main foci in my PhD dissertation. After reading it, however, my excitement transformed into severe disappointment.

Although my response will probably not garner the same amount of attention as an article in the NYT, hopefully it will help many to think correctly when it comes to the coherence of theism.

I will quote Atterton directly and then respond appropriately:

“If you look up “God” in a dictionary, the first entry you will find will be something along the lines of “a being believed to be the infinitely perfect, wise and powerful creator and ruler of the universe.” Certainly, if applied to non-Western contexts, the definition would be puzzling, but in a Western context this is how philosophers have traditionally understood “God.” In fact, this conception of God is sometimes known as the “God of the Philosophers.””

Atterton did note that this was a “something along the lines of” definition. While he could have tightened this up a bit, his definition, I suppose, is good enough for a working definition. With that said, however, I think Anselm nailed it centuries ago. Consider his definition of God (in Latin):

“Aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit.” Translation: “God is something which nothing greater can be conceived.” Or rather, in more idiomatic English:

“God is the greatest conceivable being.”

Elsewhere, I have written that a maximally great being must possess at least three properties. I refer to these as “The BIG 3 of Omni Attributes”:

1- Omnipotence
2- Omniscience
3- Omnibenevolence

These are also the same three attributes Atterton discusses. Although he uses the term “morally perfect” in favor of the word, “omnibenevolence,” we are basically on the same page. I contend that these three properties make sense and are not problematic, especially with Molinism (a specific view of God’s sovereignty) in mind. Atterton seems to disagree:

“As a philosopher myself, I’d like to focus on a specific question: Does the idea of a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God make sense? Does it hold together when we examine it logically?

Let’s first consider the attribute of omnipotence.

You’ve probably heard the paradox of the stone before: Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it. On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone. Either way, God is not all powerful.”

As Atterton notes, the answer to this problem is to offer a logically coherent definition (after all, we are all after logical coherence). With this in mind, a coherent definition of divine omniptence is the following:

“God can do all things that are logically possible.”

Please consider some clarifying questions: Can God create a married bachelor? Can God draw a triangle with four corners? Can God create something that is not contingent upon Him?

What about this: Can God force someone to freely choose to love Him? Of course not — that is logically impossible! So, if there are clearly things that God cannot do, then why do we say He is all-powerful or omnipotent?

The Bible is clear that “nothing is too hard for God.” But when you contemplate “triangles with four corners” and “married bachelors,” they are not really things at all. As William Lane Craig states, “they are nothing but an inconsistent combination of words.” So, when thinking about it that way, then, God can do ALL things, but if it helps, just remember that an omnipotent God can do all things logically possible.

Can God create a world without evil? 

Atterton continues with an idea he believes problematic for Christian theists:

“But even if we accept, for the sake of argument, [this] explanation, there are other problems to contend with. For example, can God create a world in which evil does not exist?”

Of course He can! Like clockwork, this raises other questions that Atterton inevitability asks:

“Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why he wouldn’t have created such a world. So why didn’t He?

The standard defense is that evil is necessary for free will.”

Close but no cigar! Atterton makes at least two mistakes. His first error is that it is incorrect to assert that evil is necessary for free will. Just because one has the freedom to be evil or not to be evil, it does not mean that just because one possesses freedom, that they must be evil. After all, they would have the freedom not to be evil.  It is more accurate to say that free will is necessary for evil (Dr. Atterton has it backwards)!

Richard Brian Davis recently contributed a chapter in a book titled Explaining Evil: Four Views. He argues that evil can only exist in a universe that has agent-causal freedom (libertarian free will), which includes the ability to think otherwise and freely come to conclusions. Based on this consideration, he argues (roughly) that both Calvinistic determinism and Naturalistic determinism rule out the existence of evil, which I contend is best defined: “when things are not the the way they ought to be.” Davis correctly concludes:

The thing to see is that if this is even approximately what evil comes to, the only worldviews capable of accommodating the reality of evil will be those that can make room for conscious agents with the power to think, desire, decide, and act freely (p. 13).

Atterton’s second mistake is that simply appealing to “free will” does not provide the whole picture. While the “standard defense” provided by philosophers might be an appeal to free will, it is more accurate to appeal to the purpose of love, and then note that true love requires libertarian freedom. Thus, if God desires to create a world in which true love is possible, He also has to endow the creatures in this world with libertarian freedom to love or not to love. If free will really means free will — and we are not playing word games — then if one is free to love, then one is free not to love. This same ability to love, when used in a backwards manner, is what is meant by “moral evil” (we ought to always choose to love all people). This is easy to remember because love spelled backwards is evol!

But what about natural evil?

While the “problem of moral evil” is alleviated, Atterton follows:

“However, this does not explain so-called physical evil (suffering) caused by nonhuman causes (famines, earthquakes, etc.). Nor does it explain, as Charles Darwin noticed, why there should be so much pain and suffering among the animal kingdom…?”

This is what philosophers and theologians see as a shift from moral evil to natural evil. Indeed, this shift is one that should not be ignored. Be that as it may, although “free will” defeats the problem of moral evil, many do not see why an all powerful and perfectly loving God would allow natural evil. I contend that the answer is still found in true love and libertarian freedom, but for different reasons.

As noted in an article 3 Circles & ALL the Problems of Evil, Molinism, combined with several theological truths, solves the problem. Consider the following:

a) Suffering, whether it be moral evil, natural evil, or seemingly gratuitous evil, points us to the way things ought to be (we learn from suffering and evil that it ought not be).
b) The “way things ought to be” is an eternal love relationship with God and all people in a perfect state of affairs. This is what we refer to as “Heaven.”
c) Libertarian freedom is necessarily required for true love.
d) Finite creatures who possess libertarian freedom learn over time.
e) Supernatural “zaps” of knowledge do not work. Most created beings must attain experiential knowledge (See Can God Create a Morally Perfect Creature?).
f) Adam, Eve, Satan, and a third of all the angels took suffering-free states of affairs for granted, and freely chose to “wreck” it.
g) You and I experience evil, suffering, and affliction — and we are aware of so much more. Because of our experiences with evil and suffering, you and I will not take suffering-free states of affairs for granted because we have genuinely learned from our experiences.
h) Because you and I have learned how stupid evil is, although we possess the same ability to “wreck” a perfect state of affairs, God created a world in which He knew that we we will always freely choose to love God and all people exactly as God intends us to for eternity. That is to say, although we could “wreck it” and sin as Adam did, God knows that we never would or will sin into the infinite future after experiencing limited amounts of evil on earth.
i) Some creatures have freely chosen not to learn from evil. They will be eternally separated from those of us who have.

With these theological truths in mind, certain mysteries become solved. Indeed, what was once assumed to be an unsolvable cold case, is now open for further investigation. Consider the words of Paul Draper (a well-known atheist philosopher):

“Logical arguments from evil are a dying (dead?) breed. . . . even an omnipotent and omniscient being might be forced to allow E[vil] for the sake of obtaining some important good.” (The Skeptical Theist” in The Evidential Argument from Evil:1996:176-77).

Molinism helps explain exactly what this “important good” is in which Draper refers. At least one of these “important goods” is that this temporary suffering-filled world allows humans the ability to freely love for eternity and teaches us not to take a perfect state of affairs for granted as Adam, Eve, Satan, and a third of all the angels seemed to do. Humans learn not to take a suffering-free world for granted and that we ought to always trust God and follow His commands. With this in mind, it is easy to answer the following question:

Why did God call this world, “very good” (Genesis 1:31)?

Because God knew it would (implies God’s middle knowledge if God possessed this knowledge logically prior to His creative decree) lead to an “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). God has eternity in mind; we ought to as well. With this in mind, consider a syllogism founded on a Molinistic framework which “destroys” (as the Apostle Paul proclaims in the tenth chapter of 2 Corinthians) the supposed problems of moral, natural, and even so-called gratuitous evils.

A very broad structure of the argument can be summarized via deduction in the following manner:

1 – If God is omnibenevolent, then he desires genuine eternal love relations with humans.
2 – If God desires genuine eternal love relations with humans, then he creates humans with libertarian freedom.
3 – If God creates humans with libertarian freedom, then he allows humans to experience suffering.
4 – God is omnibenevolent.
5 – Therefore, God (since he is omnibenevolent) allows humans to experience suffering.

These premises may be supported by the further sub-premises or reasons, e.g.:

1 – If God is omnibenevolent, then he desires genuine eternal love relations with humans.

2 – If God desires genuine eternal love relations with humans, then he creates humans with libertarian freedom (because):

2.1 – A genuine eternal love relationship between God and humans necessarily requires that humans possess libertarian freedom.

3 – If God creates humans with libertarian freedom, then he allows humans to experience suffering (because):

3.1 – Suffering can result from libertarian free humans.

3.2 – God created a world in which he knew that unless he permitted natural evil, some would not freely choose to eternally preserve the suffering-free state of affairs in the new heavens and new earth (2 Cor. 4:17). 

4 – God is omnibenevolent.

5 – Therefore, God (since he is omnibenevolent) allows humans to experience suffering.

This argument makes use of all three of the essential ingredients of what I refer to as the strong view of Molinism (Mere Molinism applied to soteriology): 1- God is eternally omniscient (entails God’s middle knowledge if He is also omnipotent)2- Humans possess libertarian free will (the ability to choose between a range of options each compatible with human nature), 3- God is a maximally great being who loves and desires the best for all people. In fact, no competing views of God’s sovereignty have access to this argument.

With God’s eternal intent in mind, it is easy to see that God is not a “morally guilty mind.” That is to say, the concept of Mens rea does not apply to God if Molinism is true. This is a knockdown argument against the common atheist mantra that if God is all-powerful — and since evil and suffering of all kinds obviously exists — then God cannot be all-good or all loving (See, Lex Luthor’s Lousy Logic). In fact, when we keep eternity in mind, we see that this world suffused with all kinds of suffering is the most loving kind of world God could have created.

Molinism (with the help of the “3 Circles Model”) takes the teeth out of the bite of the atheist’s objection raised against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5).

But what about gratuitous animal suffering? 

Atterton continues:

//… for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time?//

Some philosophers and scientists have argued that animals might not experience suffering. At least not the same kind of suffering that humans are capable of enduring. For the sake of argument, however, let us suppose animals suffer just as humans do.

With my above explanation in mind, a question for Atterton arises: Would you prefer to live in a world free from any and all suffering — a world where even the “lower animals” never suffer? If you awoke tomorrow in that world, would you freely choose to “keep the rules” to make sure no being capable of suffering ever suffers again? If so, it seems as if Paul was onto something in 2 Corinthians 4:17. If not, then you simply will not be allowed to hang out with those of us who have learned to “keep the rules” for the rest of eternity so that suffering of any kind is never experienced again (at least by those who have learned).

Atterton continues:

“What about God’s infinite knowledge — His omniscience? Philosophically, this presents us with no less of a conundrum. Leaving aside the highly implausible idea that God knows all the facts in the universe, no matter how trivial or useless . . .  if God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know. But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection. Why?

There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God. As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.

What about malice? Could God know what malice is like and still retain His divine goodness?”

I am surprised that Atterton, a PhD philosopher, seems unaware of the standard definition of Omniscience discussed by philosophers and theologians. If he is not ignorant of the appropriate definition, but has chosen not to offer it, then he is either guilty of being uncharitable, at best, or deceptively attacking a straw man at worst. For the sake of charity, I will assume that he is simply unaware of better definitions of divine omniscience typically worded along the lines of the following:

“For every statement that could be uttered or thought of, God knows whether any and all statements are true or false and He is never wrong.”

This definition of omniscience simply refers to propositional knowledge. Any omniscient being will know the truth-value to any proposition. This does not mean that the omniscient being must possess experiential knowledge of what something “feels like.” Thus, Atterton’s ignorant objection has no teeth in its bite:

“But if God knows everything, then God must know at least as much as human beings do. And if human beings know what it is like to want to inflict pain on others for pleasure’s sake, without any other benefit, then so does God. But to say that God knows what it is like to want to inflict pain on others is to say that God is capable of malicious enjoyment.

However, this cannot be true if it really is the case that God is morally perfect. A morally perfect being would never get enjoyment from causing pain to others. Therefore, God doesn’t know what it is like to be human. In that case He doesn’t know what we know. But if God doesn’t know what we know, God is not all knowing, and the concept of God is contradictory. God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect. Hence, God could not exist.”

I hope the vast majority of Atterton’s fellow philosophers are shaking their heads in disappointment after reading those comments. As noted above, to be omniscient, God does not have to know what something “feels like,” He simply needs to know with perfect certainty if a proposition or statement is true or false.

Atterton makes a parenthetical side note and writes:

“Was Christ really and fully human? Did he have sinful desires that he was required to overcome when tempted by the devil? Can God die?”

To quickly answer his “drive by objections”: Yes, Jesus Christ was both fully God and fully man. Substance dualism provides the answer. Movies like Avatar can help clarify. For example, after viewing Avatar, how would one answer this question:

Can Jake Sulley run?

The correct response would be to get further clarification and ask “What do you mean by that?” After all, Jake is both fully human and fully alien. That it to say, the person known as Jake Sulley has both a human body and a giant blue smurf body. Jake’s human body is crippled and in a wheel chair. Jake’s giant blue alien body is quite athletic. So, the answer to the above questions is “It depends.”

As an alien, in his giant blue smurf body, Jake Sulley can run quite fast! However, Jake’s human body cannot run at all.

Just as Jake became the “incarnated savior of the aliens, Jesus became the savior of mankind. With the incarnation in mind — and with the help of Avatar — we can begin to answer Atterton’s questions (Side note: James Cameron basically ripped off the Bible, but he did provide an awesome analogy!):

  • Yes, Jesus was really and fully human, just as Jake Sulley was really and fully giant blue alien.
  • Jesus never sinned, but the Bible is clear that He was tempted to sin. Some theologians think that although Jesus felt like He really could sin (and thus felt the full weight of the temptation), that He could not have sinned. Others think that it was logically possible for Jesus to sin, but that He always resisted the temptation to sin (See Could Jesus Have Sinned?)
  • No, God cannot die (He exists necessarily), but the physical body of the incarnated Second Person of the Trinity can die and did die. The Second Person of the Trinity never stopped existing.

There is no incoherence found in that last statement. For example, if substance dualism (or something similar) is true, then if one asks me if I am immortal, I would answer: It depends (yes and no). My body is not immortal, it will eventually die. On the other hand, I (the soul in the image of God) will live forever (and eventually I will receive a new glorified body)!

With all of Atterton’s bad objections refuted, it is clear that there is absolutely nothing logically inconsistent with affirming the possibility of a maximally great being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent!

Sadly, Atterton concludes:

“It is logical inconsistencies like these that led the 17th-century French theologian Blaise Pascal to reject reason as a basis for faith and return to the Bible and revelation. It is said that when Pascal died his servant found sewn into his jacket the words: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob — not of the philosophers and scholars.” Evidently, Pascal considered there was more “wisdom” in biblical revelation than in any philosophical demonstration of God’s existence and nature — or plain lack thereof.”

Although Pascal got many things right, he is definitely not the “end all” when it comes to matters such as these. Indeed, where the Bible is silent or incomplete on certain matters, the study of Perfect Being Theology provides a logical connection between previously unconnected theological dots. Pascal was right that the God revealed in the Bible offers wisdom. Additionally, we can also learn much about a Maximally Great Being (God) simply by dwelling upon what logically follows from a being who possesses the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence.

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton

Notes of Thanks

  • Thank you Dre Rusavuk for recommending Explaining Evil: Four Views!
  • Thank you Matt Fig, Andrew Cabrera, Jordan Apodaca, and Jacobus Erasmus for offering insight regarding the argument regarding natural evil. The evolution of this syllogism is quite amazing. I am thankful to be surrounded by such a great cloud of smart friends.
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About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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