A good long time ago now, a fellow named Albert emailed me asking some questions. I promised to respond to these questions on Thinking Matters…but got very busy with work and haven’t had a chance until now. Albert, for that I apologize. Let me dive right in and quote the original email:
Hey, since you are a philosophy student, please prove to me why there almost certainly must be only one god if god must exist. Why cant there be two eternal gods? Both with free choice who are all good or all evil.
That seems to explain away the problem of evil since the birth of handicapped people, natural disasters, near destruction of the entire human race in the ice ages, extinction of dinosaurs etc cannot be the work of an all good god.
Also, prove to me why god must be omnipotent? Couldn’t both gods have an equal amount of power? Or maybe one has more power over the other but not enough for destruction of the other
If god was eternal, without a beginning cant we say that these gods needed no cause and that they just were?
These are just the first of several questions Albert asks, but I’ll deal with the others in later posts. Today I’ll just look at why there “almost certainly” must be only one God if God exists.
I like that Albert uses the term “almost certainly”. I think that’s wise. There’s very little we can prove with complete certainty. But I think we can show to a high degree of certainty that, if God exists, then he must be one. There can’t be more than one god. To show this, we just need to have a bit of a think about the nature of good and evil…
How the nature of good and evil makes an evil second god impossible
The idea of two gods, one good and one evil, is very old. It’s called dualism. But it suffers from a profound problem:
Just as a shadow is not something in the way a lamp is, evil is not something in the way good is
Lemme explain. We have a sense that certain things are good, and certain other things are bad. But when we think about the bad things, we see that they’re bad because they contradict how things should be. For example, we know that murder is bad because people should be allowed to live. Put another way, we see that things are bad because they negate something of value. For example, we know that murder is bad because life is valuable.
When we think of good things, though, we don’t see any similar kind of explanations for their goodness. Rather, they seem to “just be good”. We find that goodness isn’t defined by anything except itself. Words like “valuable” and “should” really can’t be further explained. We can’t define them in terms of anything else. Their meaning is very basic. In fact, if you try to explain them further, you end up robbing them of their original meaning.
So while bad or evil can be explained in terms of good things, and in fact demand such explanations, good things can’t be equally explained in terms of bad. We can’t say that not murdering is good because murdering is bad, for example—because that in turn raises the question of why murdering is bad to begin with. We find that ultimately all explanations about badness reduce down to explanations about goodness.
This is why theologians have traditionally defined evil as a “privation” of good. That is, evil only exists in the sense that volitional creatures, like humans and demons, are able to choose to not be good. They can choose to defy what ought to be done, and thus do what ought not to be done.
Evil is defined by what is good
Simply put, evil only exists because good exists. It’s like a shadow cast by a lamp. Without the lamp, there’d be no shadow. So if a second, evil god did exist, he would only be ‘shadow’ of the good God. And just as a shadow can’t exist without a lamp, the existence of an evil god would be dependent on the prior existence of a good God.
And because his existence would rely on God, he’d have to be created by God in the first place. Which is exactly what Christianity says about Satan. This also answers your question about why God must be omnipotent in such a situation, and why a second god could not be eternal.
The problem of evil
As to your statement that evil “cannot be the work of an all good god”, let me quickly address this. I’ll do so by simply asking: if an all good God wanted to achieve something outstandingly good, but the only way to do that was by causing the existence of evil, would he not be good to do so? If evil were a means to a good end, then why would it be wrong for God to use it as such?