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NY Times: A God Problem? No Problem

by | Mar 31, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

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The NY Times recently published an article written by Professor of Philosophy, Peter Atterton, about God’s existence. Atterton begins his article with his conclusion: Perfect. All-powerful. All-knowing. The idea of the deity most Westerners accept is actually not coherent. Sye Ten Bruggencate has responded to this article here. It is a worthy read and makes some excellent points. I hope to make a contribution of my own in this article.

The objection that Atterton is making is not new. It is the same point that the argument against God from evil levels: There is a logical problem attached to belief in the Christian God. It is incoherent. God cannot be perfect and at the same time be all-powerful and at the same time be all-knowing. To possess one of these attributes, it is alleged, is to involve some logical contradiction with one or both of the other attributes. God could possess one or maybe two, but not all three the same time. Hence, Christian belief about who or what God is involves logical impossibilities and therefore, we should reject it. The purpose of this post is to address this objection.

To say that belief in God is incoherent is synonymous to the claim that God belief is inconsistent. Copi defines inconsistent as characterizing a set of propositions that cannot all be true together, or any argument having contradictory premises. It is this definition that I will take Allerton to mean when he says God belief is not coherent. The belief that God is perfect, all-powerful, and all-knowing is a basic belief in Christian theism. Christianity grounds this belief itself in a straightforward exegesis of the Christian Scriptures. It is the case that if this belief is false, then Christian theism as historically understood and taught in the Christian religion is also false. This means that we should take Allerton’s objection seriously. The consequences for both, Christians and Allerton, could not be soberer.

Allerton begins with the Christian claim that God is all-powerful, also known as divine omnipotence. Allerton uses the paradox of the stone to illustrate how the doctrine itself is incoherent. This is an old objection that asks the question, can God create a rock so heavy that even he cannot lift it. The first problem with Allerton’s challenge is that it trades on a very definition of omnipotence that Christian theism does not accept. When Christians have these conversations with those who are philosophically inclined, it is crucial to understand the nature of the objections. And this requires precision. Allerton’s point is that if God cannot make a rock so big that he cannot lift it then he is not all-powerful. And if God can make a rock so big that he cannot lift, then again, God is not all-powerful. But this means that Allerton is defining all-powerful as being capable of doing anything whatsoever. And this is not what Christian theism claims. Anthony Kenny says

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A being is omnipotent if it has every power which it is logically possible to possess.

Brody, Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach, 418

Christians do not claim that God can cease to be God. We do affirm that God cannot sin, in fact, that God cannot even be tempted to sin. This means Allerton’s as adopted a definition of omnipotence that is not Christian. Embarrassingly, this places the professor in danger of creating a straw man.

Allerton then asks if God could have created a world in which evil does not exist. After all, a world in which evil does not exist is a logically possible world. If it is true that God can do anything that is logically possible to do, then God could have created such a world. I have no objection to Allerton’s point. God could have created a world in which evil did not exist. And it is true that such a world would have looked remarkably different from the actual world.

This is a fair question. Why did God create a world in which evil exists? The Christian should be ready to answer this question. However, that does not mean that our answer must be consistent with Allerton’s philosophical presuppositions. Not at all. Instead, the Christian has a duty to answer Allerton’s question in a way that it is consistent with divine revelation, glorifies God, and that honors the name of Christ.

What is the best way to go at this problem? My approach may be a little different. To begin with, Allerton is assuming that a world without evil is morally superior to a world with evil. Given Christian belief about good and evil, there is no good reason to assume this to be the case. Moreover, Allerton proceeds to make the leap that a morally perfect God would be under some sort of obligation to create such a world without evil since it is both logically possible and morally superior. But as I already pointed out, why should we think that a world without evil is morally superior to a world with evil?

This is yet one more philosophically presupposition that we can add to Allerton’s list of presuppositions. Once again, Allerton fails to allow Christian theism to define its own terms. I run into this issue with atheists all the time. Is it logically impossible that God has a perfectly good and morally superior reason for the existence of evil in the world as it exists? In other words, isn’t it logically possible that a world with evil is morally superior to a world in which evil does not obtain? Speaking from a purely logically point of view, I cannot see any reason that cannot be the case. And Allerton does not seem to be inclined to offer one.

Moreover, Christian theism answers that question in the affirmative. There is a morally superior reason for God creating a world in which evil exists and that reason is for his own glory. This is, in fact, the summom bonum in Christian theism: God’s glory. This means that Allerton’s objection turns on his own definition of what a morally superior world would look like and not how Christian theism defines such a world. Inevitably this is another straw man. In order to show incoherence in a worldview, you must retain the definitions and argumentation structure of that worldview and from there demonstrate just where those logical inconsistencies are. At this point, Allerton is not playing by the rules of the game. He is equivocating on omnipotence as well as morality.

Next, Allerton turns his guns on God’s omniscience. He says that if God knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from his perfection. But why does Allerton make such a claim? Allerton claims that in order for God to know things like lust and envy, he must experience them. Since lust and envy are sin, and if it is true that God knows them as Allerton has defined knowledge, then God is sinning and therefore, cannot be morally perfect. But because human beings know lust and envy by experiencing them, it does not follow that God’s knowledge must follow the same course. As Cornelius Van Til says, human knowledge is analogical to divine knowledge. There is certainly a point of contact but there is also a quantification difference as well as a qualitative difference between them. God can know what lust is without experiencing lust. This objection is again based on yet another philosophical presupposition of Allerton. At this point, the number of equivocations are stacking up to one big straw man.

Another objection to divine knowledge is this argument:

Humans beings know what it is like to want to inflict pain on others for pleasure’s sake and since God knows at least what humans know, then God knows what it is like to want to inflict pain on others for pleasure’s sake.

I know what it is like to want to inflict pain on others for pleasure’s sake but I have never experienced this desire myself. How do I know this? I know what it is like to want to inflict pain on others. And I know what brings me pleasure. Because of this, I can truthfully say that I know what it is like to want to inflict pain on others for pleasure’s sake even though I have never experienced these things in direct relation to one another. It does not follow that just because I have never experienced such a thing that I do not know what it is like. The same is true of God.

Another overlooked fact is that sin is lawlessness. It is to act apart from God’s law. God is not subject to any law. God does what is in his nature to do. This is why God cannot sin. Allerton’s inability to grasp infinite truths should not serve as plausible objections to those truths. God’s omniscience does not entail God in experientially knowing what it is like to experience sin or temptation even though Christ, as a human, knows full well what temptation is like. God’s knowledge is like and unlike human knowledge. Allerton’s argument is Michael Martin’s argument restated. The fact is that God can know that a man engages in sexual lust without experiencing that sexual lust himself. Let’s illustrate just how delusional this objection is: I know that I am Ed Dingess. If Allerton’s argument is right, then God must know that he is Ed Dingess in exactly the same way I know I am Ed Dingess. The objection, in the end, proves to be utterly ridiculous. Again, Allerton is equivocating on yet another definition.

In summary, Allerton says,

It is logical inconsistencies like these that led the 17th-century French theologian Blaise Pascal to reject reason as a basis for faith and return to the Bible and revelation.

The only thing a Christian should say in response to this statement is “Amen!” Allerton closes out his article with the following:

Evidently, Pascal considered there was more wisdom in biblical revelation than in any philosophical demonstration of God’s existence and nature – or plain lack therefore.

And again, the Christian shouts, “Amen!”

What Allerton does not seem to understand is that if God does not exist, the laws of logic are not necessary truths. And if there are no necessary truths, then there can be no logical objections raised against the Christian system of truth. You see, the laws of logic are properties of propositions which are properties of mind. And if the laws of logic are necessary truths, then they exist necessarily in a necessary mind. No human being has a necessary mind. There are possible worlds in which human minds do not exist. But because the laws of logic are necessary truths, there is no possible world in which they do not exist. The mind then that the laws of logic exist in must be a necessary mind, one that exists in all possible world. The mind is the mind of God.

The Apostle Paul said, “and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” (1 Cor. 2:4-5)

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