Ever since someone decided that the Christian God was omniscient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent, other people have been trying to explain how – in the face of apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that this could possibly be so.
Personally, I always thought that it was over-egging the pudding somewhat, kind of like “And also does windows”. I mean, isn’t omnipresent and omniscient enough?
But hey, nobody asked me.
Even so, I do wonder how they had the sheer brass to claim omnibenevolence for a God who was quite willing to destroy whole cities, including, presumably, newborn children, or who decided to drown the world and start again.
Even if you argue that these direct interventions of God were justified by the lack of respect he was being shown by the people concerned, one can hardly say the same about the inhabitants of Lisbon in 1755, when it was destroyed by an earthquake.
For centuries, the omnipotence-omniscience-omnibenevolence triad has posed a problem for philosophers and theologians. It’s easy enough to reconcile two out of three – it’s the addition of the third that makes it hard. This brings us to the Problem of Evil.
If God knows all and can do anything, then why does he allow evil to exist?
Some have argued that omnibenevolence is not the same as being sugary-nice all the time; that humanity needs adversity in order to grow and develop. Also, when it comes to human evil, this is allowed by free will – free will is not free if God prevents you choosing to be evil. Or that a certain amount of adversity/evil is necessary in order for us to know what ‘good’ is.
You can go along with this, but what about the disasters that seem to happen with no rhyme or reason, and which do not appear to produce any good consequences? A modern example being Hurricane Katrina: although you could say that it provided an opportunity for people to be charitable and help others, this probably does not satisfy the residents (alive and dead) of New Orleans.
John Polkinghorne (physicist and Anglican priest – way to go!) had a good think about this, and came up with an explanation that I find interesting.
Polkinghorne makes use of the ‘free will’ argument with reference to natural disasters; he doesn’t imply that earthquakes have free will and can decide where and when to strike, but he does say that God has to allow the natural world to act according to its nature. So if you are going to have a planet filled with liquid rock, you have to have a crust made out of plates, and that means that earthquakes are part of the deal. The fact that the exigencies of plate tectonics meant that in 1755 Lisbon was flattened by an earthquake was not evil – it was a natural consequence of the necessary working of the world. So Lisbon’s inhabitants were quite simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Or I suppose you could say that on average the workings of the world are pretty benevolent, and earthquakes are just the price you have to pay for what is mostly a pretty nice planet.
Against this view, you could say that this is all logic-chopping, and the inhabitants of Lisbon (and New Orleans) are still dead. Surely a really, really omnipotent god could arrange a planet that didn’t have earthquakes if he wanted to? (Just because our limited minds can’t conceive how this might be done doesn’t mean that an omnipotent being couldn’t do it.)
I have to say, though, my personal opinion is that – like Meatloaf – Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. Omnibenevolence is not necessarily a quality essential in a god; in a parent, possibly, but I’m an adult now. Do I still need to believe in a being that is always good, or am I now capable of coping with the concept that my parents (and God) are mostly benevolent, and thus rather more complex than I would have liked to believe when I was a child?