Benevolent and All-Powerful: A logical incompatibility?

In my last post, I talked about Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Living with a Wild God.”

The part of the book that most bothered me was this logic:

“If there was one thing I understood about God, it was that he was not good, and if he was good, he was too powerless to deserve our attention. In fact, the idea of a God who is both all-powerful and all good is a logical impossibility.” (emphasis mine)

I put the book down and said aloud to an empty room, “It’s only a logical impossibility with the right underlying assumptions.”

Let’s break this down. I’d like to highlight two major underlying assumptions. The first is that the state of our planet, and our universe, is not good.

Stay with me. I agree with this underlying premise. I’m just bringing attention to it, because some people may not agree. There are those who say that everything that happens is in the will of God, and therefore everything is good because God is good. This is not only circular, it’s self-justification for “God” to do whatever he wants and get a stamp of approval. That’s not a philosophy I can believe.

The second underlying assumption is that power ought to be used.

I say these are the two major assumptions because this type of argumentation is nearly limitless. We’re also assuming that we agree upon the general definitions for every word in the quotation. It’s helpful to recognize that there are assumptions behind every logical syllogism, but it’s exhaustive and unnecessary to find and address all of them.

So we have a syllogism that looks like this:

-The state of life in our universe is not good.
-Power ought to demonstrate itself.
-Therefore, it’s impossible for something to exist in this universe that is both all-powerful and all good.

I know people who would agree with the second premise. These are the same people who think government can fix everything. They agree with the line, “those who know what’s best for us must rise and save us from ourselves.”

So if you agree that a powerful being must exercise that power to its fullest extent, then yes, it’s impossible for God to be benevolent and all-powerful.

I want to ask, though: do you really believe that power should demonstrate itself?

Some might say, “If the thing with power is good, then it’s not a problem to enforce good.”

Are you okay with some Ultimate Being deciding what is right and wrong, and forcing you to behave in a way that is “good,” giving you no choice in the matter? Hey, it’s for your own good and the good of the universe. Hopefully it means there won’t be any more war or disease or misdistribution of resources.

Oddly enough, that’s the problem most nonreligious people have with the concept of God in the first place: arbitrary division and enforcement of good and evil.

I don’t think power ought to be exercised. The people who disagree with me can continue trusting governmental force, and believing that God is evil, absent, apathetic, or doesn’t exist. At least they’re consistent. The people who don’t make logical sense are libertarians who believe in extreme predestination. (With Gods like these, who needs corrupt governments?)

Of course, this logical breakdown doesn’t really address the problem of evil itself. It just acknowledges that life in our universe is, for one reason or another, not good. I don’t believe that humans are inherently awful and the world is a mess solely because a couple of people broke a rule about eating fruit once, but that’s another subject.

I’m not saying you have to agree that the powerful shouldn’t wield their power. I’m just laying this out plainly, and asking whether you agree with it, and if you’re consistent.

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  • lilaf

    Well, actually, I do believe in a God who establishes right and wrong and commands me to obey. But I’ve always been a fairly spiritual/religious person, even before becoming Christian. I’ve never felt this was arbitrary. It’s never really been an issue for me. Does this mean something is wrong with me? Because a lot of other people seem to have this problem. And I don’t ask this in a snarky way, it’s just not a struggle I’ve ever had.
    When I look back over my life, I just see God’s protective hand over me.

    • cynthiajeub

      It’s not uncommon to see right and wrong as consistent and definite. I think it’s safe to say that people often look at what certain deities apparently do, and call it arbitrary, or nonsensical. Have you ever heard someone call something “good,” when it seemed like a frivolous thing to say? It may not be a source of dissonance or struggle within your own belief system, and it doesn’t mean something is necessarily wrong with you. I’m just talking about the confusion over what can be called “good” in this post.

      • lilaf

        Ok, thanks for the clarification. I shouldn’t say I’ve never struggled with God’s authority, that’s kind of a lie. It’s just that the struggle never ultimately led me to reject God. But many do, which is something I can’t relate to. I’m sure there have been times where something is called ‘good’ that I sort of didn’t agree with, and it makes you question your own definition of ‘good’.

        • cynthiajeub

          I’m with you in never having rejected God over the issue, but I can still understand the reasoning behind why someone else might have. Happy to help clear it up!