Southgate’s “only way” the Wrong Way: God’s Omnipotence and Benevolence in the Problem of Natural Evil

The Problem of Evil

Christopher Southgate, author of The Groaning of Creation, denies a cosmic fall on the grounds that suffering, pain, predation, extinction, etc., (P) is instrumental in the Darwinian process for producing values, such as consciousness, rationality and the “range, beauty, complexity, and diversity of creatures the Earth has produced.”[1] Here is where the major plank in his compound evolutionary theodicy enters the picture: his “only way” argument–really just an assertion.[2] It is that for God, the P intrinsic to the Darwinian process was the only way in which God could bring about the many good values that have arisen in nature. In the Problem of Evil: Part Two, I offered three reasons why this major plank in Southgate’s argument is rotten. First, it presupposes natural evil is morally evil.[3] Second, a world without P may indeed be unimaginable, but that does not make P untenable. Third, his solution is successful in protecting God’s benevolence, but unfortunately at the expense of divine omnipotence.

On this third criticism Southgate does note Michael Lloyd’s unwillingness to accept such a solution specifically because it limits the power of God. All he offers is an assertion that fails to address the point. He states,

“I fully accept that we can never be sure that this was God’s only way to give rise to creatures such as stem from the 3.8-billion-year-long evolution of the Earth’s biosphere. We can only say that given what we know about creatures, especially what we know about the role of evolution in refining their characteristics, and the sheer length of time the process has required to give rise to sophisticated sentience, it is eminently plausible and coherent to suppose that this was the only way open to God.”[4]

But if God is omnipotent (can do anything that is logically possible), it is incoherent to suggest he could not have achieved the same values that have arisen by acting in such a way as to avoid the disvalues of P.  Hence Southgate’s solution to the problem of evil then is to favour a benevolent God to an omnipotent one.

To preserve God’s omnipotence a preferable argument would be that the actual world was the only feasible world for God to actualize given specific purposes, such as to bring a maximal amount of free creatures into relationship with him. Such a world may be filled with all types of natural and moral evil, even in the animal world. Since it is logically impossible to make someone freely do something, this does not subvert the traditional understanding of divine omnipotence. Southgate acknowledges creaturely freedom may be one of God’s purposes that could explain all the natural evil in the world, but shies away from saying this purpose is the reason why P characterizes the actual world.

Different divine purposes could apply in other specific situations. For instance, the spread of the gospel is in large part dependant on the fossil fuels that resulted from mass extinction events.


[1] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 29.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] I have argued in The Problem of Evil: Part Two that this is dubious with three reasons that could assume animal suffering is similar in type and intensity to human suffering, and with one reason that argues animal suffering is not similar.

[4] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 30.

Why there can’t be two gods

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?