By Preston Grippin, Texas A&M University
When talking about the Nature of God, several assumptions are usually made. The first and most important assumption is that God is infinite. This is the most important assumption because, just as Pride is the root of the other Cardinal Sins, the infinity of God is the genesis of all other claims about His nature. God’s infinity leads one to the ultimate conclusions that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. But there is another, more controversial assumption that some scholars claim to have reasoned from God’s infinity: His omnibenevolence. This claim of omnibenevolence has caused centuries of dispute and debate among the world’s most well read philosophers, and the Problem of Evil has been the summit of this debate. The problem is this: Can God be both entirely good and entirely powerful?
It seems, from a first glance, that the answer to this is no. Omnipotence, as described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is the characteristic of having “Maximal Power,” or, in simpler terms, having the ability to do all things logically possible (Omnipotence). Omnibenevolence is likewise described as the characteristic of being “infinitely Good,” which includes desiring the good of all things and does not include the possibility of evil (Cline). So if God is omnipotent, with the ability to do all things, and omnibenevolent, having the desire for the good of all things, why does evil seem to exist in the world around us? It appears that from these definitions, God is incompatible with the reality of evil. Most anti-theistic philosophers draw this conclusion: If God is all powerful, but does not stop evil, then he is not all good. And if God is all good, but still does not stop evil, then he is not all powerful.
Another argument against the omnibenevolence of God is the argument of the different types of evil. This argument forms from the seemingly various types of evil that surround our world. There is moral evil, or created evil, which finds its source in the choices of humanity against itself or nature. Then there is Natural evil, which is all evil that occurs naturally as a result of natural laws and forces. Examples of these natural evils include natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, or cataclysmic events such as the different extinction events that have occurred throughout history. This argument was made to counter the theistic view of human free will being the answer to evil existing in the same reality as an all powerful, all good God. It says that while free will may account for moral or created, natural evils cannot be accounted for by this answer and must have been created by God if there is such a being. And thus it comes to the same conclusion as the last argument, that an all good, all powerful God cannot exist.
In answering these arguments and this question in general, it is important to define several things. In chapter four of Divine Names by Pseudo-Dionysius, he makes an argument that good, or goodness, is actually the substance of divinity itself (Pearse). So for this definition, and this argument, for something to be good, it has to be of God. This definition is important because of our first assumption that God is infinite. Since God is infinite, and God is good, then it reasons that Good is also infinite. This is the reason that God is good, because God lacks nothing, and to be all good, and good is infinite, you must be infinite. So, using this definition of goodness, we can also come to the definition of evil as well. Since good is infinite and encompasses all things, we can reasonably conclude that evil is not actually anything, since if it were of substance it would logically be included under the definition of goodness. So, in this philosophical argument, evil is simply the absence of good.
From a thesistic point of view, it is obvious, when tackling the first objection, to point to the free will argument. Since the first objection cites the flaw as being God’s unwillingness to stop evil, or His inability to, making a counter argument based on Human Free Will satisfies this problem. Since humanity was given free will as an act of love by God, and this act is good, then God cannot defy that free will. If he defies free will, then he contradicts his own ordination and therefore isn’t all good. Now anti-theists might jump to say that this is a violation of omnipotence, but this is not to say that he physically cannot defy free will, but that he logically will not, as to do so would violate his omnibenevolence. So humans have free will, which is intrinsically good, then they use that free will to commit evil, which is to say that humans commit acts that separate them from God, and God allows this, because to do otherwise would violate his very nature of Goodness. This argument seems to very elegantly satisfy the first objection, but what about the second? How does free will account for the natural evils of the world?
To answer this question, an important reminder is in order. The first is that God is infinite, therefore he is good. The second is that anything ordained by God must therefore be good, as God is incapable of committing evil. The second objection states that, while free will may answer for moral evil, it does not however provide an answer for natural evils. This objection is flawed in this way: it assumes that any suffering is automatically evil, therefore anything that causes suffering is intrinsically evil. I would point out this distinction, not all suffering is evil. It is sometimes necessary that suffering is experienced for the ultimate good of a person or a group. Suffering is oftentimes how humanity grows physically, mentally, emotionally, and in this case spiritually as well. We can see this idea in Christian thought since the first century even from the time of Christ.
Christ’s suffering on the cross was actually the ultimate act of goodness according to Christian theology. St. Paul writes in Romans 5:3 that “we rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces endurance” (The KJV Bible) Why would St. Paul rejoice in evil? It is simple, because suffering is not evil, only suffering without transformation is evil. All suffering in the world, whether caused by natural forces or an act of will, can be used to transform the character of the person, and therefore is not always evil. This is the root of the flaw in their assumption that natural evils are in fact evil. The proof of this comes from the description of God as being good, and everything natural must come from God, or at least have been created in some way by Him. Therefore everything natural must be good unless it is somehow altered by humanity. This means that natural evils are not evil at all. Is the natural process of starvation from a lack of sustenance considered a natural evil? No, of course not! Is the lion considered evil for pouncing on the unsuspecting human crossing its path? Again the answer is no. Natural law, including that of animals, weather, and geology cannot and should not be considered evil. Of course, natural disasters can have been caused by evil through humanity and its alteration of the planet. This possibility still works under this proof as any alteration would therefore make this natural event fall under the category of moral evil, and must be caused by the free will of humanity.
So what does the Nature of Goodness reveal about the Nature of God? That they are one in the same. God is Goodness, and Goodness is God. These names are interchangeable as shown to us by Pseudo-Dionysius in Divine Names, and not only that, but that God, by his mere existence, is pouring Goodness into the world (Pearse). In other terms, God, by his mere existence, is pouring Himself into the world. This all culminates in chapter 4 of Divine Names with a fitting analogy. Just as the Sun gives us light, heat, and energy, even though it is so far away, so does God give us breath, motion, and the very life we live, even though he transcends all being (Pearse). The Sun is the reason for all warmth we receive, so is God the reason for the being we receive. This being is ultimately good, and is a testament to both the infinity of God, as he transcends all being, and the omnipotence of God, as he is the source of all being. The nature of Goodness and the nature of God ultimately show us that it is not only possible for an all powerful, all good God to exist even with the reality of evil, but that it is necessary for it to be this way. If you take away our free will, then God is not all good, and if God is not all good, then He is neither infinite nor is He omnipotent. The very nature of being relies on His omnibenevolence, because it is out of this character that our very existence arises. God is infinite, and therefore he is all good.
Cline, Austin. “God is Omnibenevolent?”. Learn Religions, 25 June 2019, https://www.learnreligions.com/god-is-omnibenevolent-251057. Accessed 22 Oct. 2021.
“Omnipotence”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 21 May 2002, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/omnipotence/. Accessed 22 Oct. 2021.
Pearse, Roger. “The Divine Names”. Tertullian, 2004, https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/areopagite_03_divine_names.htm#c4. Accessed 22 Oct. 2021.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.