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The Logical Argument is not Bankrupt
Evil, Freedom, and Divine Foreknowledge
Abstract. The Logical Argument from Evil argues that the existence of evil is logically incompatible
with the existence of God, assuming that by ‘God’ we mean a being that is necessarily omnipotent,
omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Any being with these three attributes would eliminate evil in its
entirety, and given that evil exists it therefore follows that no being endowed with these attributes
exists; that is, God does not exist. With his Free-Will Defence, Alvin Plantinga is commonly held to
have refuted the Logical Argument. In this paper I argue that his alleged refutation fails: the sort of
free-will which figures centrally in his argument is itself incompatible with another divine attribute,
namely divine foreknowledge. If this is correct then the Logical Argument has not been successfully
KEYWORDS: evil, God, free-will, foreknowledge, omniscience
Introduction: Setting the Stage
“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 willing and able? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
The above riddle, attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, is a pithy outline of
an argument which is simple, intuitively appealing, and according to almost all contemporary
philosophers of religion, incorrect.1 In his 1974 God, Freedom, and Evil, Alvin Plantinga is
thought to have refuted Epicurus’ riddle, which nowadays is known as the Logical Argument
from Evil, or simply, the Logical Argument. As a result of his refutation, more atheologicallyinclined philosophers of religion have increasingly turned to evidential and probabilistic
formulations of the Problem of Evil, with the existence of evil merely making the existence
of God improbable and not impossible outright. My goal in this essay is to go some way
towards disabusing the reader of this notion – the Logical Argument still presents a problem
for the theist. In the first section I outline J.L Mackie’s modern formulation of the Logical
Argument. This sets the stage for Section II where I examine Alvin Plantinga’s formidable
“It is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides that the logical problem is bankrupt.” (Alston, 1996: 97)
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rejoinder to Mackie. Lastly, drawing on the work of Nelson Pike, I argue that Plantinga’s
sophisticated rebuttal does not succeed. The sort of free-will which he needs in order to make
the existence of evil compatible with the existence of God is itself incompatible with divine
foreknowledge, and so the Logical Argument presents itself anew.
Before getting to the meat of the matter, however, some preliminary remarks are in order.
The Logical Argument attempts to show that, if evil exists, God could not possibly exist.2 But
this may sound strange – surely it’s possible that God exists? And who or what do I mean by
‘God’ here anyway? Answering this latter question will make it clear why our argument
answers the former question in the negative, thus explaining why the existence of evil
logically precludes the existence of God. By ‘God’, I mean a being with the following three
attributes: (i) omnipotence, (ii) omniscience, and (iii) omnibenevolence. In other words, God
is all-powerful, all-knowing, and wholly good. For the purposes of this essay, these three
attributes are non-negotiable: “God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent” is seen
as a priori true. If some being has (i) and (ii) but lacks (iii) then, by definition, it’s not God.
Some may see this as my way of stipulating the terms of the Logical Argument’s victory, as
mere semantic skulduggery that serves to constrain and tighten the logical space within which
the theist can move to defend her belief in God. Let me be clear: you are of course free to call
any being lacking one or more of these three attributes ‘God’, if so inclined. You’re also free
to call your favourite footballer or your next-door neighbour or your pet hamster ‘God’.
Defining ‘God’ as ‘all that exists’ is one way to successfully counter the Logical Argument,
as is defining ‘omniscient’ as ‘knowing the truth-value of every proposition except for those
propositions that make reference to or imply the existence of evil.’ I ask that the reader
forgive my definitional inflexibility. We can always split hairs another time. In my defence,
the particular conception of God I attack here is both the subject of widespread contemporary
belief as well as being historically motivated – and so it is not a mere fiction which the
Logical Argument seeks to call into question.3
Now, the Logical Argument works by claiming that the existence of any being endowed with
attributes (i) – (iii) is not logically consistent with the existence of evil in the world. Being
A more precise way of putting this might be to say that there are no possible worlds where both God and evil
exist. Of course, there could still be possible worlds where God exists.
Of course, it would be an open question as to whether some being with one or two of our attributes exists. I
merely deny that this being is God. God 2.0 perhaps, or God Lite – but not God.
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omnibenevolent, it has the desire to eliminate all evil, and being omniscient, it has the power
to satisfy its desires. Add omniscience to the mix and it has sufficient knowledge to take
unbounded action towards the satisfaction of its benevolent will. So why is there is still evil?
Given some plausible initial assumptions regarding our three attributes, the Logical
Argument readily suggests itself, and the existence of evil becomes a big problem for anyone
wishing to defend their belief in God. Our argument enjoys considerable prima facie
credence, and it will take some work to refute it.
One last question remains before getting to the fun stuff: What is evil? ‘Evil’ can be anything
from disease, famine, or natural disasters, to decidedly human evils like war, murder, or
undergraduate philosophy students loudly insisting that God doesn’t exist. We typically speak
of evil persons, places, events, and so on, but in this essay we are always dealing with evil
simpliciter.4 Now that we’re clear on what exactly we’re discussing, let us move on to
Mackie’s modern re-casting of an argument so elegantly captured by Epicurus and his riddle.
Section I: Mackie and the Problem of Evil
We now move on to Mackie’s formulation, found in his 1955 article ‘Evil and
Omnipotence’.5 As noted above, there is an apparent inconsistency between the existence of a
omnibenevolence on the one hand, and the existence of evil on the other. We can say that the
set S containing the propositions “God exists”, “God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and
omniscient”, and “Evil exists” as members is inconsistent, where a set is inconsistent just in
case all of its members cannot simultaneously be true.6 However, the non-theist may wish to
cover her bases here, so Mackie adds the further propositions p (“A good thing always
eliminates evil as far as it can”) and q. (“There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can
do”.) (Mackie, 300) These additional propositions merely make explicit uncontroversial
assumptions about the concepts of ‘goodness’ and ‘omnipotence’. Proposition p isn’t
Note that it is common to formulate the Logical Argument using highly specific examples of evil. Cf. Tooley
His essay, as well as Plantinga’s and Pike’s, are re-printed in Pojman and Rea’s Philosophy of Religion: An
Anthology. (2012)
Note that Plantinga takes inconsistency to be equivalent to formally contradictory, where a formally
contradictory set is one “from whose members an explicit contradiction can be deduced by the laws of logic”.
(Plantinga, 330) Our less refined understanding of inconsistency will suffice for our purposes. Nothing in the
argument presented turns on the use of one over the other.
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necessarily true: there are plenty of good people who, for whatever reason, choose not to
eliminate evil even though they could. Perhaps they are uncertain about the correctness of
their actions, or perhaps they are afraid to act, or some other reason. Unfortunately for the
theist, though, p seems likely to be true in God’s case. God isn’t just good, he’s wholly good;
and we usually don’t think of God as labouring under the weight of moral uncertainty or fear
with respect to his actions. Furthermore, when we’re asking to what extent God can eliminate
evil, we should expect that he could eliminate it completely! After all, he is omnipotent and,
being omniscient, he certainly knows about its existence. So Mackie seems to be on firm
ground with respect to p. What about q? Well, that will depend on what we mean by
“omnipotent”? Presumably he does not think that an omnipotent being can do what is
logically impossible. I think we can quite reasonably take that possibility to be incoherent,
although there are some philosophers willing to endorse it.7 So we shall assume that an
omnipotent being is one who can do anything but the logically impossible. Like p, q appears
to be such that a theist could easily accept it. With the addition of p and q, S becomes an
inconsistent set, or so Mackie will argue. A wholly good and omnipotent being will eliminate
evil as far as it can. God could eliminate evil entirely. So the existence of evil means that God
does not exist. (Ibid, 300)
Mackie considers and rejects four theistic solutions to the Logical Argument. Ignoring the
first two, (Ibid, 301-302) we can look at his treatment of (3) and (4). (3) states that the
Universe is better with some evil in it than it would be if there were none at all. (4) appeals to
human free-will as the source of evil. A conjunction of these two looks something like
Plantinga’s eventual response. The world is better with some measure of evil in it because
that evil is the result of some greater good. That greater good is human free-will. A world
free of evil would be good, but a world where men and women receive the divine gift of freewill is better. But because we can act freely, we sometimes err on the side of evil. (Ibid, 304)
There are two problems here. One is that although some evils could be the result of our freewill, there are others – so-called natural evils such as natural disasters, diseases, and so on that can’t be connected to our actions in any plausible way, at least not outside of the
Cf. Frankfurt. (1964) For what it’s worth, I think this notion of omnipotence would do nothing for the theist
looking to refute the Logical Argument. Suppose the theist wants to argue that God, though omnipotent, could
not create a world that was absolutely free of evil because evil is a necessary consequence of allowing some
greater good to exist. It was not possible that this good exist without also bringing evil about. Well, this notion
of omnipotence would undercut that line of thought: God can do anything, even what is impossible. Even
though it is impossible to create the greatest possible world without thereby also creating evil, God could do it.
So, in addition to being near-unintelligible, this conception of omnipotence actually makes the Problem of Evil
even harder for the theist to answer.
Page |5
Westboro Baptist Church. Another problem is that the theist would need to demonstrate just
how a world with humans endowed with free-will is better than a world without any evil
whatsoever. Why should it not be the case that an unfree world with no evil in it is better than
a free world with some evil in it? The theist simply begs the question here. However, let’s
suppose that the theist has some convincing responses ready for us. Mackie has an objection
which seems more problematic for any theist looking to respond to the Logical Argument. He
thinks that the theist sets up a false dichotomy in supposing that “free agents who sometimes
commit evil acts” and “people as automata determined to do what is good” are the only two
options. If it’s not logically impossible for a man or woman to freely choose the good on one
or several occasions, then it’s not logically impossible that a man or woman freely choose the
good on every occasion. (Ibid, 304) God could have created the universe so that we can act
freely and yet always perform good acts; and in failing to realize this possibility, if God exists
at all, then the existence of evil becomes inconsistent with God’s alleged omnipotence and
omnibenevolence. Either God allows evil to exist even though he could have easily made it
so that none exists, in which case God is not omnibenevolent, or else God wants to eliminate
evil but couldn’t have realized Mackie’ possibility, in which case God is not omnipotent. But
a being which lacks either or both of these attributes is not God. So can we conclude that God
does not exist? Let us now turn to Plantinga’s response.
Section II: Plantinga’s Free-Will Defence
Before examining Plantinga’s argument8, I would first like to make a few brief points. Firstly,
his argument is called the ‘Free Will Defence’, and the use of ‘defence’ here is not merely
incidental. We can group responses to the Problem of Evil into two broad categories: (i) we
could opt for a theodicy, wherein we provide a possible explanation of the presence of evil in
a world created by God and try to show that, not only is it possibly true, but it is plausibly or
even actually true; or (ii) we could provide a defence, where we simply try to show that the
existence of evil is logically compatible with the existence of God. Plantinga restricts his
argument to trying to show that it is logically possible that evil and God co-exist – but no
more! The argument’s humble aim is its strength. Secondly, Plantinga makes heavy use of
possible-world semantics in responding to the Logical Argument, and although his writing is
admirably clear, the argumentation can appear quite daunting to those unfamiliar with the
Found in God, Freedom, and Evil (1974)
Page |6
technical vocabulary taken for granted by those more conversant with modal logic and indeed
analytic philosophy more broadly. As such, my treatment of his argument will sacrifice some
attention to detail in exchange for ease of access. Luckily, the argument in the final section in
which I argue that Plantinga fails to refute the Logical Argument works regardless of the
level of complexity found in the Free-Will Defence. Where his defence derives strength from
its humility, I hope that my response derives some from its simplicity; or so we shall see.
For Mackie’s argument to succeed, it must be the case that: (i) there is no logically possible
morally justifying reason for God to allow the existence of evil, and (ii) the set S given above
is in fact inconsistent; that is, not all of its members can be simultaneously true. Plantinga
needs to show that both (i) and (ii) are false, and displaying the falsity of (i) should suffice to
ensure the consistency of S, so let’s begin with (i). Predictably enough, free-will provides the
morally justifying reason for God allowing evil’s continued existence. We should begin by
noting that Plantinga rejects Mackie’s contention that God could have created free agents
who, while free with respect to every action they perform, nonetheless always choose good
over evil. (Plantinga, 339) A person is said to free with respect to an action if she is free to
perform or refrain from performing an action; there are no conditions or causal laws
determining her choice here. (Ibid, 338) Mackie is a compatibilist regarding free-will: he
thinks, perhaps counter-intuitively, that causal determinism and human freedom are
compatible. So we can always be determined to do what is right while still retaining our
freedom. Plantinga sees this position as “utterly implausible”, and although he barely argues
for this claim, we will pretend that he’s correct here. This opens the door for his denial of (i)
above: a world that contains beings who are significantly free - where significant freedom is
understood as being free with respect to a morally significant action – is better, ceteris
paribus, than a world where there are no free beings at all. (Ibid, 340) Of course, if a being is
significantly free with respect to morally significant actions then it is significantly free to
choose the wrong or evil course of action.
A more pressing concern for Plantinga is the logical possibility that the world could have
contained beings who only ever do what is right; and if it’s possible that such a world exist,
then an omnipotent God could have created it. So either God does not exist, or else it was
beyond his power to create such a world – in which case he’s not really God because he lacks
omnipotence. Plantinga’s next move is to show that God, though omnipotent, could not have
actualized such a world. To actualize a world – a possible world – is, roughly, to bring it
about so that it is the case. A possible world is just a way things could have been. Why would
Page |7
we think an omnipotent being could not actualize some possible worlds? Take the following
example. We have a situation S* where Smith is significantly free to either lie to his wife
about his speeding ticket or tell the truth about his ticket. Obviously, God would want Smith
to tell his wife the truth, but depending on which of the following counterfactuals is true, he
may not get to see Smith do the right thing:
(a) If S* were to be actualized, then Smith would tell the truth.
(b) If S* were to be actualized, then Smith would not tell the truth.
Now, either (a) or (b) must be true. If (a) is true and God actualizes S*, then Smith will tell
the truth; with (b)’s actualization, Smith will lie. Now: let W(a) be a possible world where
God actualizes S* and Smith tells the truth, and let W(b) be a possible world where God
actualizes S* and Smith lies. If (a) is true then God, though omnipotent, can’t actualize W(b);
and if (b) is true then God can’t actualize W(a). In either case, there is a possible world which
an omnipotent God can’t actualize. So, according to Plantinga, it is false to say that an
omnipotent God can actualize any possible world! (Ibid, 344-345) In general, we can say that
there is any number of possible worlds where it is partly up to the free agent performing the
action whether or not God actualizes them. (Ibid, 345) We could scrutinize this last claim
more closely, but let’s assume that this is correct. Plantinga still has a little bit more to do to
show that it is possible that (ii) above is false. To accomplish this, he introduces the notion of
Transworld Depravity. (TWD) For each possible person and for each situation in which that
person might exist and be significantly free with respect to some action, there is a set of true
propositions {A¹, A², ..., Aⁿ} concerning what that person would do in such situations: call
this set her Counterfactuals of Freedom. We can now define someone suffering from TWD
as a person who, in any possible world in which she is actualized, has a corresponding set of
Counterfactuals of Freedom that always contains at least one morally wrong action. So it is
possible that Smith suffers from TWD, which means that it is possible that Smith, no matter
what situation he is placed in, will freely perform at least one wrong action. Moreover, if it is
possible that one person suffers from TWD, then it is possible that everyone suffers from
TWD; and if it is possible that everyone suffers from TWD, then it follows that it is logically
possible that God could not have actualized a world where people are significantly free with
respect to their actions and always choose the morally correct ones. (Ibid, 347-348) If
Plantinga is correct about this, then he is right to say that set S given above in Section I is not
Page |8
Section III: Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free-Will9
In the last section we saw Plantinga argue that to be free with respect to any action A, a
person must be free to either perform or refrain from performing A; no antecedent causal laws
or pre-conditions could determine that she perform or refrain from performing A, otherwise
she would not be significantly free, pace Mackie’s compatibilism. Further, we saw that it is
possible that every possible person suffers from TWD, thus providing an explanation of the
existence of evil that is logically compatible with God’s existence.10 A possible world
containing beings with significant freedom and its resultant evil is better, all things being
equal, than a world where beings lack free-will but always perform morally correct actions. It
is our alleged free-will that provides the morally justifying reason for God allowing evil to
exist. So, if we don’t really have free-will then God doesn’t really have a reason for allowing
evil to exist. In this section, I try to show that one of God’s attributes – omniscience – is
incompatible with human freedom. Either we’re not free and God allows evil to exist without
a morally justifying reason, in which case he is not omnibenevolent, or God lacks divine
foreknowledge, in which case he is not omniscient; whatever the case, once again, he’s not
really God then.
What is it to say a being is “omniscient”? A being is omniscient if, for every proposition p, it
either knows p or knows that it is false. (Zagzebski, 2007, 262) An omniscient being knows
every truth there is to be known, including such truths that are – whether temporarily or
permanently – beyond our limited ability to grasp them. For example, God knows why
Zinedine Zidane chose a World Cup final to unveil an interesting new way to head-butt
people, even when us mere mortals can never know such things. In addition to knowing every
truth there is to be known, God also holds no false beliefs. Further, we can add that God is
infallible; that is, if God believes p then p is true. If God is omniscient in the way just
outlined, then God knows absolutely everything, past, present, or future; from knowing what
the world was like right up until this exact moment, to knowing what it will be like. This
includes knowing what actions supposedly free agents will perform. This will become
important. At this stage, the reader may be apprehensive. “Why”, you may reasonably be
This argument was inspired by Nelson Pike’s 1965 article ‘Divine Omniscience and Voluntary Action’.
At this stage we could ask “what about natural evil?” Plantinga’s response here would be that the existence
of natural evil is down to the free agency of demonic beings of some sort. Remember: to succeed his response
only needs to be logically possible – plausibility here is an unnecessary extravagance.
Page |9
asking yourself, “would anyone’s knowledge of another’s actions be taken to constrain that
person’s freedom?” Let’s say Smith is my best friend. I’ve known him for twenty years and I
can predict his actions with perfect accuracy. We would not be inclined, I think, to say that
Smith is somehow not free because of my knowledge. So to say that God’s foreknowledge of
Smith’s future actions entails his non-freedom seems counter-intuitive at best. Let us press
further into the argument.
We’ve already assumed that if a being is omniscient, then any proposition p which that being
knows must be true.11 Indeed, if there exists a being that fits the above description then if it so
much as believes p then p must be true. 12So take any event E at time T2 at which it occurred;
for any prior time T1, God knew at T1 that E would obtain at T2. (Pike, 98) An omniscient
being has always known that E would obtain at T2: he knew it forty years ago, and he knew it
one second after the Big Bang. What happens if we extend this sort of foreknowledge to
human actions? Suppose, for example, that last Friday (T2) Smith was speeding along the
motorway, well over the speed-limit. (E) If God exists, and is omniscient in the sense
described above, then it follows that God knew, say, one hundred years ago (T1), that Smith
would be speeding along the motorway last Friday. But then it follows that at T2, Smith was
unable to refrain from speeding along the motorway, because if he could have refrained from
doing so then it would have been the case that God’s belief turn out false; that is, the belief
that “E will obtain at T2” would have been false. But if God is omniscient and infallible, then
this is actually impossible. God necessarily cannot form false beliefs and so Smith could not
have refrained from speeding at all; his freedom with respect to performing this action is
illusory. Given the existence of a God who is necessarily omniscient, then it seems to follow
that at the time of his actions, Smith did not have the power to refrain from speeding. Pike
provides a similar example. (Ibid, 99) After Plantinga’s Free-Will Defence this argument can
seem simplistic, but I think it is on to something. Free-will was supposed to be God’s morally
justifying reason for allowing the existence of evil in the world, but we can now see that one
of God’s attributes – the non-negotiable attribute of omniscience – raises severe problems for
any theist looking to claim that we are significantly free with respect to our actions, both
Strictly speaking, we might say that any proposition known by anybody is necessarily true. If it turns out to
be false then it was never really known in the first place – unless, that is, we subscribe to some non-factive
analysis of knowledge. Such a discussion goes beyond the scope of this essay.
This is where the analogy between God’s foreknowledge of Smith’s actions and my foreknowledge of
Smith’s actions falls apart. With an infallible and omniscient being, the wiggle-room between belief and truth
disappears. I may believe that Smith will do such-and-such at some time in the future, but I could always be
wrong. If God believes that Smith will do such-and-such, then that’s what Smith will do and that’s what Smith
must do.
P a g e | 10
morally significant actions and relatively trivial ones. God has always known exactly what
we will do at each and every moment of our lives, and it is not possible that we could have
done otherwise because to do so would entail God’s having held false beliefs – an
impossibility given God’s necessary omniscience and infallibility.
How could the theist respond to this argument? Let’s say that the theist insists that Smith can
freely choose to either speed or not speed at T2 even though he is in a sense determined to be
unable to refrain from speeding on pain of engendering a logically impossible state of affairs,
namely, bringing it about that an infallible being held a false belief. Well, this just sounds like
Mackie’s compatibilism again, and Plantinga has already rejected it. If determinism and freewill are not incompatible, then it is possible that we could be free with respect to every action
while being determined to perform it one way or the other. But if this is possible then, contra
Plantinga’s claims, it is possible after all that God could have actualized a possible world
where people always freely choose to perform morally correct actions; and this means that
God, in actualizing our world, is not omnibenevolent because he no longer has a morally
justifying reason for evil’s existence. If God could have actualized the possible world of
Mackie’s but didn’t, then he is not omnibenevolent. If we are to be free – free in Plantinga’s
required sense of having libertarian free-will and not Mackie’s compatibilist free-will – then
it can’t be the case that God is omniscient, because God’s foreknowledge of future events
prevents our being free with respect to our actions. So either way the theist and Plantinga
have to reject one of the three divine attributes (i) – (iii) outlined in the introduction; and as
we’ve already said, any being that lacks any of these attributes is not really God. Such a
being may exist, but it’s not God. If our argument is correct, then – contrary to received
views in the philosophy of religion – the Logical Argument is not yet bankrupt.
P a g e | 11
Alston, W.P. (1996) ‘The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive
Condition’, In Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.) The Evidential Argument from Evil. Indianapolis:
Indiana University Press, pp. 97-125
Frankfurt, H. (1964) ‘The Logic of Omnipotence’, The Philosophical Review, 73, 262-263
Mackie, J.L. (1955) ‘Evil and Omnipotence’, Mind, 64, 200-212
Pike, N. (1965) ‘Divine Omniscience and Voluntary Action’, The Philosophical Review, 74,
Plantinga, A. (1974) God, Freedom, and Evil. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
Pojman, L. & Rea, M. (2012) Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th ed. Wadsworth
Cengage Learning
Tooley, M. (2013) ‘The Problem of Evil’, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
Zagzebski, L. (2007) ‘Omniscience’, The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion, C.
Meister & P. Copans (eds.) NY: Routledge, 261-269