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Does a Single Hangover Disprove God’s Existence?

July 2, 2024

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The logical problem of evil holds that any evil whatsoever disproves God’s existence. If there is just one person with a painful hangover, this suffering is enough to know that God does not exist. No need for abstract speculation, too many wine coolers at a Prince concert is all you need to disprove the existence of the Almighty.

What is the argument for this view? The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus put the argument this way: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?” 

Now, one way to critique the logical problem of evil is to say that evil is an illusion. But this way out of the problem contradicts common sense, for if anything is hard to deny, it is pain and suffering. Moreover, a consistent Christian cannot deny evil, because the Christian faith recognizes both moral evil like vices and sins and nonmoral evil like illness and death.  

But a denial of evil is not needed to call into question the logical problem of evil. As Eleonore Stump points out, “The propositions (1) there is suffering in the world and (2) there is an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God are not by themselves logically incompatible.” To hold that God exists and that there is suffering is therefore not like holding that this man is both married and a bachelor. To be a bachelor is to be an unmarried man of marriageable age. But if you are married, then you cannot at the same time in the same respect also not be married. A married bachelor is a self-contradictory notion like a square circle. Jeremy Bentham provides other self-contradictory concepts: “a species of cold heat, a sort of dry moisture, a kind of resplendent darkness.” It would indeed be a logical contradiction to say, “There is suffering in the world,” and also say, “There is no suffering in the world.” It would be a logical contradiction to assert, “There is an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God,” and also to assert, “There is not an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God.” But there is no contraction in holding that (1) there is suffering in the world and that (2) there is an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God.

A good God may permit evil, including the evil that we choose, for a good purpose.

Another problem with the logical version of the problem of evil is that it misunderstands what it means to be “all-powerful.” To be omnipotent means to be able to do all things that are possible. So, omnipotence is just not about what is impossible. For example, even God cannot give human beings free will and also not give human beings free will at the same time and in the same respect. As C.S. Lewis noted in the Problem of Pain

His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say, ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can.’

Does logic rule over God? No, there is no celestial logic book governing what God can and cannot do. Rather, if God chooses to give an individual free will, then God would contradict his own will if he also chose not to give this individual free will. Moreover, it is unreasonable to contradict yourself, and God, the Eternal Wisdom, does not contradict himself. 

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Yet another problem with the logical version of the problem of evil is that it assumes that a good agent must always prevent all the suffering that he has the power to prevent. But this is not true. A good coach could prevent the suffering of the members of the team by having them avoid vigorous training. Yet even though the coach knows with certainty that practice will be arduous, the coach has a good reason for subjecting athletes to hard training. An experienced dentist can foresee that a root canal will cause some suffering for the patient, but they both judge rightly that the suffering brought about by the root canal is justified. Good parents bring children into the world knowing with 100 percent certainty that someday their children will die. But parents judge rightly that having children is good for them as a couple and good for their children themselves. A good agent does not always prevent all the suffering that he or she has the power to prevent. Thus, a good God may permit evil, including the evil that we choose, for a good purpose. As Shakespeare put it, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”  

So, the logical problem of evil, though popular in the mid-twentieth century, has been widely recognized by contemporary philosophers as a failure to disprove the existence of God. A hangover is no reason to think that God does not exist. But a hangover may make you feel like the man described by Cormac McCarthy: “His head was pounding and his vision skewed in some way and he was vaguely amazed at being alive and not sure that it was worth it.”