Alvin Plantinga on the Problem of Evil
by Paul M. Gould, Associate Director of RC Prof
One complaint leveled against philosophy is that nothing ever gets done. The history of philosophy is viewed as one extended conversation, an endless back-and-forth, over the nature of knowledge, reality, and morality. Just about everything seems up for grabs. The normal objects of our everyday experience—tables, chairs, heaps of sand—are transformed by the metaphysician into space-time worms or fusions of atoms or the product of cultural and linguistic activities. Classic laws of logic—the law of non-contradiction, identity, and the excluded middle—are debated in the same manner that non-classical accounts of logic are articulated and defended. Knowledge is challenged by important (and endless) thought-experiments involving fake barns and speckled hens. Moral discourse is in a state of confusion (says the neo-Aristotelian) or, perhaps, finally liberated from the repressive and dogmatic fantasies of Platonism and Christianity (says the Nietzschean). And on and on the story goes.
There is one counter-example to this common complaint about philosophy. Most philosophers today would agree (of course, not all, as universal ascent on anything is not likely this side of heaven) that the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga solved, in the 1970s, the logical problem of evil. In this post I shall summarize Plantinga’s main body of thought on the problem of evil, including his famous Free Will Defense.
The Free Will Defense
Advanced by the atheologian, the logical problem of evil attempts to show the impossibility of the co-existence of God and evil. The argument can be informally stated as follows.
God is typically understood to be, among other attributes, omnipotent and perfectly good.
Given his perfect goodness, we would expect God to minimize the amount of evil in the world as far as possible.
Given his omnipotence, however, God is not limited by anything.
It follows then, that a perfectly good and omnipotent God would eliminate all evil.
Yet there is in evil in the world, quite a bit of it in fact.
It follows then that God does not exist.
Plantinga offers the following response to the logical problem of evil.
A world containing significantly free creatures is more valuable than a world containing no free creatures at all.
God can create free creatures.
But even an omnipotent God can’t cause free creatures to only do what is right. If he did, then they wouldn’t be significantly free.
Thus, in creating creatures capable of moral good, God must create creatures capable of moral evil.
When these creatures misuse their freedom, evil and suffering result. This fact does not count against God’s goodness or power, however, since God could prevent the occurrence of moral evil only by preventing the possibility of moral good.
As summarized by Plantinga, “The heart of the Free Will [Defense] is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good (or as much moral good as this one contains) without creating one containing moral evil.” Since the above story is possible, the logical problem of evil fails. Many philosophers—theist, atheists, and agnostic—agree. Plantinga has shown there is no incompatibility between God’s existence and evil. It’s time to move on, most would say. In the years since Plantinga’s development of the Free Will Defense, the debate over evil has shifted from the idea that the co-existence of God and evil are impossible to the idea that it is improbable. The challenge for the theist is to explain why a good and powerful God would allow evil and suffering.
The Felix Culpa Theodicy
Finding possible reasons—giving a defense—for evil is one thing. Specifying God’s actual reasons—giving a theodicy—is another. For years Plantinga refrained from offering a theodicy. God’s reasons are too mysterious for humans to understand, he claimed. Yet, in the early 2000s, Plantinga applied his considerable philosophical acumen to the task of providing a convincing theodicy, a theodicy he thinks is a legitimate theological option. The result is arguably the most philosophically sophisticated development of what is historically called the Felix Culpa theodicy.
The theodicy runs as follows. Prior to the divine decree to create, God aims to bring into being a really good possible world. Plantinga asks, what are good-making qualities among worlds? Some good-making properties are of finite value. Creaturely happiness, beauty, pleasure, and the like, are examples of finite good-making qualities. A world where the aggregate of good-making qualities outweighs the bad-making qualities (sin, evil, suffering) is a good world, and the more the overall good, the better the world.
The picture is a bit more complicated however, since there are also good-making qualities that are infinitely valuable. Plantinga has two infinitely valuable states of affairs in mind: God’s existence and “the unthinkably great good of divine incarnation and atonement.” God exists in every possible world, given his necessary existence. So, every possible world, including worlds where God refrains from creating, are already very good—infinitely valuable—worlds.
Possible world | To speak of a possible world is to identify what is necessarily true or logically impossible of any imaginable universe. Philosophers do not suggest that such possible worlds actually exist, but they describe a possible world as a thought experiment to demonstrate what is necessarily true, necessarily false, or at least possible.
Still, some very good worlds, worlds of infinite value, are better than others. Plantinga thinks that worlds containing incarnation and atonement are better than worlds without these towering good. In fact, worlds with incarnation and atonement are the best possible kinds of worlds; they cannot be matched by any aggregate of creaturely goods nor could any aggregate of creaturely badness outweigh the goodness of incarnation and atonement. With these assumptions about valuable states of affairs in place, we can now discern God’s reason for evil: God allows evil and suffering because they are a necessary condition of the best possible kind of world. Without sin and evil, there is no atonement. And without atonement, there is no incarnation. Thus, man’s fall into sin and evil is a “fortunate fall,” a necessary part of the best possible kind of world.
Plantinga’s Felix Culpa Theodicy, of course, is not without problems. Marilyn McCord Adams, for example, has argued that Plantinga’s approach treats humans as means to a cosmic end and thus fails to show how God is in fact loving and merciful to individuals. I tend to agree with Adams that suffering must benefit the individuals who suffer. If so, then perhaps Plantinga’s Felix Culpa can be seen as a kind of first-pass toward a full-blown theodicy, a theodicy that accommodates God’s interest in cosmic excellence (and what Adam’s calls “global goodness”) as well as particular excellence (what Adam’s calls “person-oriented goodness,” but I’d like to include other non-human conscious sufferers, such as animals, in a full theodicy). While his theodicy might not be without detractors, I think, ultimately, Plantinga points us in the right direction. For a full explanation for evil and suffering, we must turn to the narrative of Scripture. For there, we find a wholly good God and an ongoing story in which God is weaving together individual lives into a beautiful story of love and redemption.
Stepping back, what is the lesson we might learn from Plantinga? One lesson is this: Plantinga models for us how philosophy serves theology. Philosophy is the handmaiden to theology. Good theology needs philosophy. But philosophy needs theology too. Together they converge on the truth, and in finding truth, they help us to see, enjoy, and then praise God. What the Felix Culpa theodicy helps us see, even if it needs further development, is this. Christianity is not only the true story of the world, it is the best story. Even more, it is the best possible kind of story! This story—the gospel story—understands the human heart. And in this story, we find one who is alive—Jesus Christ—who invites us to enter in and take our place in God’s ongoing story of love, mercy, and grace. This displays the fullness of incarnation and atonement.
 I summarize from Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 166-167.
 Ibid., 167.
 Plantinga suggests that all evil—moral and so-called natural evil—can be traced to the misuse of creaturely freedom. In the case of natural evil, the creatures in view are Satan and his cohorts. See Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, 191–93.
 Alvin Plantinga, “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa,’ in Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil, ed. Peter van Inwagen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 1–25.
 Ibid., 7.
 Marilyn McCord Adams, “Plantinga on ‘Felix Culpa’: Analysis and Critique, Faith and Philosophy 25.2 (2008): 123–140.
Paul M. Gould teaches philosophy and apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University, serves as the associate director of RC Prof, and is the founder and president of the Two Tasks Institute. He is the author or editor of ten books including the forthcoming Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Zondervan, March 2019). He is married to Ethel and has four kids and lives in Fort Worth, Texas. You can find out more about Paul at www.paul-gould.com.
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