J.L. Mackie

Evil and Omnipotence


(1) God is omnipotent; (2) God is wholly good; and yet (3) evil exists. According to Mackie, the problem of evil arises from the fact that there seems to be a contradiction between these three propositions. The contradiction emerges if we add two additional premises: (4) Good is opposed to evil (i.e. a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can), and (5) there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. A satisfactory solution to the problem can be gotten by abandoning one of premises (1)-(5). Yet according to Mackie, most of those who try to solve the problem of evil are likely to try to solve it without abandoning any of these premises. In this paper, Mackie wants to assess a variety of such solutions to the problem of evil, in which one of (1)-(5) is temporarily rejected, then “covertly re-asserted or assumed elsewhere in the system.”

Mackie first considers two similar solutions: one that asserts that good cannot exist without evil – versions of which assert that evil is a logically necessary counterpart to good, so that God, by logical necessity, must allow evil to exist in order for anything to exist at all – and one that asserts that evil is necessary as a means to good. These solutions, Mackie suggests, are likely to be problematic for many theists, because they imply that God is constrained by logical necessity, which seems to contradict (5) above.

A third solution considered by Mackie is one that asserts that “the universe is better with some evil in it than it could be if there were no evil.” On this solution, certain kinds of evil, e.g. pain, allow the universe to be made better than it otherwise would have been by certain kinds of good, e.g. benevolence. Mackie criticizes this solution by noting that it seems inconsistent with (2), since a good God would (if omnipotent) be able and willing to create good without evil. Further, the existence of pain presents opportunities not just for benevolence, but for certain kinds of evil such as cruelty; a good God would be as interested to prevent such evils as he would to promote goods such as benevolence. A fourth solution Mackie considers is one that asserts that evil is due to human freewill. On this solution, freewill is such a good thing that it is worth having even if it is necessarily accompanied by evil. However, Mackie argues that this solution is unsatisfactory because it is logically possible for God to ensure that human beings always do the right thing, and therefore this solution is incompatible with God’s omnipotence.

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