Divine Omnipotence: Plantinga vs. Griffin

by David and Randall Basinger

David Basinger is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, New York. Randall Basinger is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 11, Vol. 11, Number 1, Spring, 1981. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The classical theist indicts the process theist for "solving" the problem of evil by forfeiting a meaningful notion of divine omnipotence while the process theist indicts the classical theist for proposing a view of divine omnipotence that makes the problem of evil unsolvable. The authors attempt to show that neither indictment holds.

The God of classical theism is a being who is, in principle, ontologically independent from the world. In contrast, the God of process theism exists in an ontologically interdependent, reciprocal relationship with the world. The classical God creates ex nihilo; within process theism creation ex nihilo is denied. It should not be surprising, accordingly, that one of the chief areas of contention between these rival theisms centers on divine omnipotence. The process theist indicts the classical theist for proposing a view of divine omnipotence that makes the problem of evil unsolvable -- i.e., renders the notion of divine goodness incoherent. On the other hand, the classical theist indicts the process theist for "solving" the problem of evil by forfeiting a meaningful notion of divine omnipotence -- i.e., advocating a finite, imperfect deity who is not worthy of worship.

Our purpose in this paper will not be to defend either of the above indictments and thereby establish the conceptual superiority of either theistic option. We will attempt to show that neither indictment holds. In other words, we shall attempt to show that if one desires to pick between process theism and a coherent form of classical theism, one must do so on grounds other than the alleged adequacy or inadequacy of their respective views on divine omnipotence.

This will be accomplished by comparing two prominent advocates of these respective theisms: classical theist Alvin Plantinga and process theist David Griffin. We shall first set forth Plantinga’s classical defense for the problem of evil. Secondly, we shall critically examine Griffin’s critique of Plantinga. Finally, we shall critically analyze the relationship between a Plantingan theodicy and that affirmed by most other prominent classical theists.


Atheologians have long argued that theists cannot consistently affirm both of the following propositions:

(1) God is omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good, and

(2) There is evil.

One standard theistic response is to argue that the atheologian has to date not been able to produce a proposition (set of propositions) that is at least plausibly thought to be necessary and whose conjunction with (1) and (2) formally yields a contradiction (NN 165). But Plantinga has gone even further, arguing that it can in fact be shown that (1) and (2) are not inconsistent. To establish the latter, Plantinga informs us, the theist need only find a set of propositions consistent with (1) which, when conjoined with (1), entails (2) (NN 167). It is his contention that

(3) It was not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil, and

(4) God created a world containing moral good

are just such propositions -- i.e., it is his contention that (3) and (4) are consistent with (1) and together with (1) entail (2) (GFE 54).

The debatable issue, of course, is whether (1) is in fact consistent with (3). As Plantinga himself acknowledges, both theists -- e.g., Leibniz -- and nontheists -- e.g., Mackie -- maintain that

(5) It is within God’s power to create (actualize) any self-consistent (possible) state of affairs S such that the actualization of S is consistent with God’s goodness (NN 168).

But if (5) is true, then it appears that God could have created a world inhabited by free creatures who perform moral good but no moral evil. For there is certainly nothing inconsistent in the idea of a given set of free creatures always freely choosing to do what is right -- i.e., it is surely possible that there exist a world containing perfectly virtuous, free persons. Moreover, the actualization of such a world certainly appears consistent with God’s goodness. In short, it appears that if (5) is true, (1) is inconsistent with (3).

Plantinga, of course, believes that he can demonstrate that (5) is false and (3) is consistent (possible). The essence of his argument against (5) can be summarized as follows:

(6) God cannot make a person (P) significantly free with respect to an action (A) and yet causally determine or bring it about that P go right with respect to A -- i.e., to create creatures capable of moral good, God must create creatures capable of moral evil.

(7) An omniscient God knows with respect to any P exactly what P would do if P were made free with respect to any A.

(8) But since God cannot bring it about that P go right with respect to A if P is significantly free with respect to A, if God knows that P will go wrong with respect to A if actualized and made free with respect to A, then God cannot actualize a world in which P is made free with respect to A and performs the right action although this latter state of affairs is itself consistent (possible).

  1. In short, given (6) and (7), it is not within God’s power to create just any self-consistent (possible) state of affairs which is consistent with his goodness -- i.e., (5) is false. The nature of significant freedom dictates that God’s creative choices are limited by the decisions which he knows free creatures would make if created (NN 169-84).

Moreover, Plantinga continues,

(10) It is possible that all creatures (creaturely essences) are such that they would go wrong with respect to at least one action in any world in which they were free with respect to morally significant actions (NN 184-89).

(11) Accordingly, it is possible that it was not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil -- i.e., (3) is possible (NN 184-89).

But if (5) is false and (3) is possible, then (1) and (3) are in fact consistent. And since they jointly entail (2), his argument concludes, the atheologian’s claim has been successfully countered. Or, stated in other terms, Plantinga’s claim is that unless the atheologian can refute his "free-will defense" by establishing the truthfulness of (5) and thus the impossibility of (3), he can demonstrate no inconsistency between (1) and (2).


In his critique of "traditional" Christian theodicies in his book God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy David Griffin distinguishes between what he calls "I" omnipotence and "C" omnipotence. The proponent of "I" omnipotence, we are told, maintains that an omnipotent being can unilaterally affect any state of affairs, if that state of affairs is intrinsically possible," and, accordingly, must maintain that all evil is only apparent (nongenuine) (GPE 270). On the other hand, the proponent of "C" omnipotence maintains that it is not logically possible for God to unilaterally control the activities of self determining beings, even if such activities are intrinsically possible, and, accordingly, can acknowledge that genuine evil is possible (GPE 269f). It is Griffin’s contention that only a theism that entails "C" omnipotence is able to reconcile divine power and goodness with the genuineness of evil. On this basis Griffin argues for the superiority of process theism over traditional theism.

With this basic distinction between "I" and "C" omnipotence in mind, let us analyze what Griffin has to say about Plantinga’s position. In the context of talking about the exact nature of the logical problem of evil, Griffin states the following:

J. L. Mackie . . . recognizes that the inconsistency can be overcome by saying that all prima facie evil is only apparently evil. Plantinga, Pike and Ahern do not really rebut Mackie’s view that genuine evil is incompatible with benevolent omnipotence, but simply affirm a modern version of Pope’s view, saying that it is possible that all prima facie evils . . . are only apparently evil, so that there is no genuine evil." (GPE 253)

But to claim that Plantinga’s position does not recognize the existence of genuine evil is misleading.

Genuine evil, as defined by both Mackie and Griffin, is that evil which is not necessary for bringing about some greater good or avoiding some greater evil -- i.e., is an event "without which the universe would have been a better place, all things considered" (GPE 253). Now if God can create any possible world -- i.e., if one affirms "I" omnipotence -- then it seems clearly to follow that no evil state of affairs in the actual world is genuine. For, if God can actualize any intrinsically possible world and is wholly good, the actual world must be considered the best of all possible worlds. And since all parties agree that there are intrinsically possible worlds containing no evil at all, every instance of evil in the actual world must be seen as a necessary, desired aspect of God’s perfect plan.

But Plantinga, of course, does not affirm "I" omnipotence. He clearly argues that God’s creative options are limited by human freedom and, accordingly, that the actual world may not be the best of all possible worlds. It is simply false, therefore, to claim that Plantinga must view all evils in the actual world as necessary for bringing about some greater good or avoiding some greater evil. He need not, for example, acknowledge that all of Hitler’s actions are necessary conditions for greater goods. Such evils, for Plantinga, can be viewed as events which God did not desire but could not have prohibited without violating Hitler’s freedom. Plantinga need only acknowledge that the possible world containing Hitler’s actions -- i.e., the actual world -- contains the greatest net amount of good over evil of any possible world containing free moral agents which God was free to actualize.

In short, Plantinga’s response to Mackie is clearly not that evil is compatible with benevolent omnipotence because all evil is nongenuine. He clearly argues that it is genuine evil (as defined by Mackie and Griffin) which need not be seen as incompatible with a wholly good, omnipotent God.

Surprisingly, at a later point in the text, Griffin himself acknowledges this fact.

Plantinga . . . (points) out the ambiguity in Mackie’s statement that "God can create free men such that they always do what is right." This is consistent, Plantinga says, if it means, "God created men and these free men always do what is right." But if it means, "God creates free men and brings it about that they always freely do what is right," it is inconsistent; for if God brings about their right actions, they do not do the actions freely. Hence, only the first interpretation is meaningful, and it cannot be used to deduce from the existence of (genuine) moral evil the nonexistence of benevolent omnipotence, since "whether the free men created by God would always do what is right would presumably be up to them" (GPE 271).

What then is Griffin’s real problem with Plantinga? The real complaint, we finally learn, is that "Plantinga evidently affirms the logic of I omnipotence in general, and applies the doctrine of C omnipotence only in relation to human beings" (GPE 271). That is, while Griffin acknowledges that Plantinga affirms limitations on God’s power in relation to possible worlds containing free human beings, he believes Plantinga to hold "that an actual world devoid of beings with some power of self-determination would be possible" and thus that God could have created a world containing no evil simply by creating a world containing no self-determined beings (GPE 271). It is Griffin’s contention, on the other hand, that "any actual world would contain self-determining entities" and that "extending the doctrine of C omnipotence to any world has important advantages" (GPE 271).

Griffin’s own contention is an interesting one, but before discussing it, it is important that we clarify his criticism of Plantinga’s position. It is exceedingly confusing to say that "Plantinga holds to I omnipotence in general" while applying "C" omnipotence in a selective manner. For "I" omnipotence, as it is first defined by Griffin, is a universal statement, and universal statements obviously admit of no exception. It seems, accordingly, that Griffin may be fluctuating between two readings of "I" omnipotence in his discussion.

I1: There exists no intrinsically possible state of affairs devoid of evil which an omnipotent God cannot unilaterally bring about.

12: There exist intrinsically possible states of affairs devoid of evil which an omnipotent God can unilaterally bring about.

I1 is the more obvious reading of "I" omnipotence. It is the one which is affirmed by classical theists such as Leibniz and is the reading upon which both Mackie and Griffin predicate their criticisms of traditional theodicies. But, as Griffin himself acknowledges, I1 is explicitly denied by Plantinga. Plantinga, however does affirm I2, in that he does believe that God could have unilaterally "brought about" a world containing no evil if he had chosen not to create at all or to actualize a possible world containing no self-determining individuals other than himself. This distinction is crucial, for if it is not seen, it can appear that Plantinga can be lumped together with most other classical theists with respect to his views on God’s omnipotence. It should now be clear that such is not the case. Plantinga’s view of omnipotence in fact is much more compatible with Griffin’s than it is with Leibniz’s. For Plantinga, in agreement with Griffin, strongly differs with Leibniz (and most other classical theists) on the fundamental question of whether freedom necessarily limits God’s power -- i.e., Plantinga, like Griffin, denies D1. They differ only on the question of which entities ought to be considered "self-determined."

This clarification also allows us to analyze more clearly Griffin’s claim that Plantinga commits the "omnipotence fallacy." The omnipotence fallacy, Griffin tells us, is committed by those people who believe that since

(12) An omnipotent being can unilaterally bring about any logically possible state of affairs, and

(13) An actual world -- i.e., a world with a multiplicity of actual beings -- devoid of genuine evil is a logically possible state of affairs, then

(14) An omnipotent being could unilaterally bring about an actual world devoid of genuine evil (GPE 2631).

The argument is fallacious, we are told, because it is based upon the implicit, but false, assumption that

(15) It is possible for one actual, self-determining being’s condition to be completely determined by a being or beings other than itself (GPE 264).

Plantinga does affirm (14). But he just as clearly rejects (15), and thus (12), and hence he cannot be justly accused of committing the omnipotence fallacy. His affirmation of (14), as we have seen, is based on his belief that

(16) Not all possible worlds contain self-determining beings other than God.

This brings us then to the real point of disagreement between Plantinga and Griffin: the question of whether every actual world must necessarily contain self-determining entities and hence whether an omnipotent being can unilaterally bring about any world devoid of genuine evil. In short, the real distinction between Griffin and Plantinga comes down to a disagreement over (16). Plantinga affirms it while Griffin does not.

What has been shown thus far is that Plantinga, working within the premises of classical theism, is able to develop a notion of "C" omnipotence and hence affirm the genuineness of evil. If the ability to do this is necessary for a viable theodicy as Griffin implies, it would seem to follow that it is in fact possible to answer the problem of evil within classical limits -- i.e., without having to resort to Griffin’s process conceptuality.

However, Griffin is not willing to settle for this conclusion.

In Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition Griffin and John Cobb explain why they believe a ‘free-will defense’ which does not include the denial of (16), and thus the denial of (14), is less adequate than their own.

Many theologians and philosophers of religion have proposed a ‘free-will defense’ of God’s goodness. The central claim is made that moral evil . . . occurs because God -- even though he is all-good and all-powerful -- out of goodness decided to give freedom to human beings. The rationale is that, since freedom is such a great good, God voluntarily gave up all-controlling power, in order to allow us to have genuine freedom and the other values that presuppose it. But there is a serious objection to this theodicy. It takes the form of doubt that freedom is really such an inherently great thing that it is worth running the risk of having creatures such as Hitler. If it were possible to have creatures who could enjoy all the same values which we human beings enjoy, except that they would not really be free, should not God have brought into existence such creatures instead? In other words, if God could have created beings who were like us in every way, except that (a) they always did the best thing, and (b) they thought they were only doing this freely, should God not have created these beings instead? (PTE 74)

Process theology, we are told, circumvents this problem because the relationship between freedom and value is necessary and not contingent.

Traditional theism denied that there are any necessary because uncreated principles governing the interrelations among worldly actualities, and hence God’s relations with them, other than strictly logical principles. This rejection of uncreated and hence necessary principles fits with the doctrine that the existence of finite actualities is strictly contingent, and that they were created out of absolute nothingness. If it is not necessary that there be finite actualities, and if in fact they have not always existed, it makes no sense to talk about necessary principles governing their mutual relations and therefore limiting what God can do with them. But if there has always been a realm of finite actualities, and if the existence of such a realm (though not with any particular order) is as eternal and necessary as is the existence of God, then it also makes sense to think of eternally necessary principles descriptive of their possible relationships . . . [T]his correlation between freedom and intrinsic value is a necessary one, rather than a result of divine arbitrariness (PTE 711).

Such argumentation, however, is not totally convincing. First the claim that "if it is not necessary that there be finite actualities . . . it makes no sense to talk about necessary principles governing their mutual relations and therefore limiting what God can do with them" is questionable in relation to Plantinga’s position. Plantinga does believe that God has the power to create or not create finite, self-determining entities, but he strongly denies that the relationship between finite, self-determining entities and God’s control over them is, therefore, not a necessary one. In fact, such a denial -- premise (6) in our discussion of his views -- is the basis for his free-will defense. And there seems no reason to deny that the concept of such hypothetical necessity is intelligible.

Second, and more importantly, the Plantingan might well question the claim that "if it were possible to have creatures who could enjoy all the same values which we human beings enjoy, except that they would not really be free, should not God have brought into existence such creatures instead?" To say that a state of affairs (5) is valuable for a person (P) generally means one of two things:

(17) S is valuable (is of some worth) and P is experiencing it, or

(18) S is valuable because P is experiencing it and believes it to be of some worth.

Moreover, the claim that robots and humans can enjoy the same values in relation to freedom is, of course, only meaningful if ‘value’ is read in terms of (18), for since in a world of robots there would be no actual freedom, there would in terms of (17) be no real value for the robot to experience.

But it is surely questionable whether the Plantingan need accept this concept of ‘value’. First, it is by no means obvious that process theists themselves normally discuss the value of freedom in terms of (18). More importantly, however, the claim that (18) is superior to (17) in the context of human freedom raises the serious question of divine deception. Could a wholly good God totally and continually deceive individuals with respect to the true nature of their supposed self-determination, even if it were for their own good? It might well be that God could not -- that the creation of truly free entities was the only way God could create the potential for the positive values related to freedom without negating God’s own integrity and destroying the dignity and true worth of the moral agents in question (RS 500-02).

The process theologian cannot respond by asking whether the creation of truly free individuals by the Plantingan God was worth the risk, given the potential for evil involved. For as Griffin and Cobb are forced to admit, the same basic question can be asked of the process God. "Hence, the question as to whether God is indictable for the world’s evils reduces to the question as to whether the positive values enjoyed by the higher forms of actuality are worth the risk of negative values, the sufferings" (PTE 75).

In God, Power and Evil, Griffin mentions two more criticisms of a free-will defense which affirms (16) and thus (14). He first argues that

God could, on this hypothesis, occasionally violate human freedom for the sake of an overriding good, or to prevent a particular horrible evil. Of course, in those moments, the apparent human beings would not really be humans, if ‘humans’ are by definition free. But this would be a small price to pay if some of the world’s worst evils could be averted. (GPE 271)

This criticism has an initial ring of plausibility, for it is easy, from our human perspective, to identify times when we believe God could have profitably violated human freedom for the sake of humankind-e.g., in relation to some of Hitler’s actions. But such plausibility may be deceiving. First, Griffin himself acknowledges that the Plantingan can only allow the occasional violation of human freedom, and there is no way for us to know to what extent God has profitably violated human freedom already. Secondly, although it is easy from our perspective to identify, in isolation, certain ‘free choices’ which we believe should have been vetoed by a Plantingan God, what must actually be demonstrated to make Griffin’s contention a strong one is that the entire world system (the different possible world) of which such a violation would be a part would in fact result in a significant increase in the net amount of good in comparison to the actual world. But it is difficult to see how this could be established in any objective sense. Then, finally, Griffin’s criticism has a questionable ‘utilitarian’ ring to it. It may well be the case that God so respects the ‘humanity’ of each particular individual that he will seldom, if ever, override those decisions which are significant in an individual’s own life history, even if the actualization of such decisions will negatively affect large numbers of people. Or, to generalize this point, it may well be that God’s respect for humanity severely limits the use of his power to violate the freedom of individuals.

In short, it appears that this criticism has more psychological appeal than logical or evidential support.

Griffin’s other criticism is related to natural evil: "making C omnipotence a contingent matter, and limiting its scope to human existence, means that the problem of evil in the subhuman world must be treated in terms of some other principle, and none of these has proved satisfactory" (GPE 272).

Griffin realizes that natural evil presents no consistency problem for Plantinga.

Of course, one can extend the free-will defense to the subhuman realm, without positing any inherent power of self determination to its entities, by pointing to the irrefutable possibility that all evils in this realm are due to Satan and his cohorts. But such a suggestion only returns to the previous point about the general illumination that theism needs to provide to render itself plausible in our day (GPE 272).

In other words, Griffin’s argument is that process theology presents a much more plausible explanation for natural evil than can classical theism.

It is true, of course, that by appealing to the freedom of Satan and his cohorts to explain natural evil, Plantinga himself, has adopted a defensive, seemingly ad hoc manner of preserving the consistency of his position. But it must be recognized that one who adopts a Plantingan free-will position need not necessarily respond in this manner.

It can be plausibly argued that while it might appear that Plantinga’s free-will defense is only relevant to moral evil, it actually has significant, necessary ramifications for how God’s power can be conceived in relation to nature. F. R. Tennant, has argued, for example that

It cannot be too strongly insisted that a world which is to be a moral order must be a physical order characterized by law or regularity . . . The theist is only concerned to invoke the fact that the law-abidingness . . . is an essential condition of the world being a theatre of moral life. Without such regularity in physical phenomena there could be no probability to guide us: no prediction, no prudence, no accumulation of ordered experience, no pursuit of premeditated ends, no formation of habit, no possibility of character or of culture. Our intellectual faculties could not have developed . . . And without rationality, morality is impossible. (PT 199f)

In other words, it can be argued that every possible world containing free moral agents must be a world characterized by regularity. If this is so, however, there is a definite sense in which God’s power even in nature must be seen as limited in such worlds. God cannot unilaterally bring it about that events in nature be perfectly correlated with the needs of specific humans. To achieve such a correlation would necessitate a myriad of special interventions by God in nature, and this would conflict with the necessity for regularity in nature which is in turn necessary, given God’s intention to create free, moral creatures. In other words, God’s activity in nature in a moral universe must be characterized by general providence (regular activity) as opposed to special providence (miracle).

The upshot of this is clear. The classical theist can (and must) develop a notion of "C" omnipotence in regard to divine power in nature.

The door is thus opened for the classical theist to affirm the genuineness of nonmoral evil as the evil clashes between nature and human aspirations need not be acknowledged as willed by God by the classical theist who consistently draws out the implications of the free-will defense for the natural order.

It can be argued, however, that to minimize the miraculous and thereby conclude that what occurs in nature in relation to particular persons cannot be controlled by God alleviates the problem of natural evil only up to a point. Another dimension of the problem remains unexplained. It is one thing to appeal to nature’s regularities to explain why God cannot control how nature will affect particular persons, but it is another thing to explain why God created the kind of regular system we experience. We can admit the need for a uniform system of natural laws, but why must this system contain horrifying, seemingly gratuitous evils -- e.g., tornadoes, earthquakes, cancer, etc.?

In response, the classical theist can argue that the recognition of the law-abiding, determinate character of nature also explains why our natural order, even though created by a wholly good and powerful God, might not represent the ideal state of affairs.

If nature is a determinate, law-abiding system, it follows that we cannot have the benefits of this determinate order without the unbeneficial by-products which logically follow from this very order. For example,

if water is to have the various properties in virtue of which it plays its beneficial part in the economy of the physical world and the life of mankind, it cannot at the same time lack its obnoxious capacity to drown us. The specific gravity of water is as much a necessary outcome of its ultimate constitution as its freezing-point, or its thirst-quenching and cleansing functions (PT 201).

In short, beneficial aspects of the very determinate natural order that make human life possible can be seen as implying, as unavoidable by-products, aspects not beneficial to human life. The good cannot be obtained without the bad because they both flow from the same natural order. Consequently, to do away with all natural evils implies doing away with the very aspects that make life as we know it possible.

Given the above analysis, nonmoral evils do not have to be seen as incompatible with the goodness of the classical God. If the very natural order that makes life possible logically implies evil, God cannot be blamed for the presence of these evils.

In other words, there is a meaningful sense in which the classical God does not directly will nonmoral evils. Nonmoral evils exist as unwanted, though unavoidable, by-products of an otherwise good natural order. They are, therefore, genuinely evil both from the human and divine perspectives. The only reason God does not prevent them is because preventing them would entail preventing the very determinate natural order that makes life possible.

We cannot have the advantages of a determinate order of things without its logically or its causally necessary disadvantages. . . The disadvantages, viz. particular ills, need not be regarded, however, as directly willed by God as ends in themselves. . . They are not desired, as such, or in themselves, but are only willed because the moral order, which is willed absolutely or antecedently by God, cannot be had without them. (PT 200)

The process theologian, however, may well remain unconvinced. It is one thing to grant that a moral world must contain natural regularities and that some nonmoral evil is an unavoidable by-product of such regularities, but quite another thing to grant that we must have the exact types and amount of natural evil which we in fact experience in the actual world. It seems possible to conceive of a natural order which, like ours, would make moral and rational life possible, but, unlike ours, would not contain features so alien and frustrating to the purposes of the very moral activity it supposedly makes possible. Moreover, if we can conceive of a natural order that would make moral activity possible without generating an excess of evil features, why did not the classical God create such a world? In other words, it appears that God, by actualizing another world containing a less hostile natural order could have increased the net amount of good in the actual world without damaging the integrity of human freedom.

The prima facie plausibility of this contention, however, is also deceiving. It is certainly possible to identify aspects of the present natural order which it seems could be profitably removed. It might appear, for example, that a world in which no tornadoes occurred or no cancerous cells developed would be superior to ours. But this is by no means a settled question. We are not simply dealing with isolated features within nature but with a whole determinate system. To make adjustments at one point will have effects elsewhere. Consequently, to dismiss verbally unwanted aspects of our present natural order will not do. One must rather conceive of another entire determinate natural order which would neither imply the present evils, nor imply any similar or new evils, but still imply the goods that make human life possible. But this is certainly no easy task, at least for a finite mind. Moreover, with each advance in our scientific knowledge, the difficulty of this task becomes more apparent. "The more we know about the structure and interconnectedness of the physical universe, the less easily can we imagine alternative universes which retain the good features, but lack the bad" (ESR 73, cf. PRT 187).

In short, if those dissatisfied with the classical account of nonmoral evil currently under discussion are not able to present a better world, "the (classical) theist does not have to show that it was impossible for God to create a better set of world-constituents or natural laws, or even that this is the best of all possible worlds" (IPQ 179-98).

The critic, then, is left only with the claim that the nonmoral evils might not be justifiable in that there might be a better conceivable order. But unless some alternative system is presented, this remains only a possibility. Consequently, it is not clear that the classical approach in question is weak or less adequate than the process approach. Both present internally consistent and possible explanations which can, in principle, account for the presence of nonmoral evil and, most importantly, do not deny the reality of nonmoral evil or the goodness of God in the process.

The process theologian may, of course, think that this type of ‘explanation’ has little more plausibility than Plantinga’s reference to "Satan and his cohorts" in that it also only offers another unilluminating, defensive hypothesis. The differences are, however, quite significant. Plantinga, in positing "Satan and his cohorts" as the ‘explanation’ for nonmoral evil is admittedly only attempting to defend the consistency of belief both in God and nonmoral evil. He is in no way claiming that there exists any good reason to believe Satan is the cause for evil or even that Satan exists. The classical response to nonmoral evil we have been discussing begins by affirming "C" omnipotence in relation to humans and then argues that there do exist good reasons to believe that such a moral world would include instances of genuine nonmoral evil and plausible reasons for assuming that such a world would have the types and amount of genuine nonmoral evil we presently experience. In short, the classical theodicy we have been discussing is not simply defensive.


In the above we have shown that it is possible for the classical theist to develop the notion of "C" omnipotence in regard to God’s relationship to both humans and nature. Consequently, we have offered a defense for classical theism against the stock indictment posed by the process theist. Classical theism, we believe, can affirm the genuineness of evil and reconcile this with God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence. In this sense the above argument can be interpreted as an argument for the coherence of classical theism.

However, this is not the only conclusion to be drawn. The above defense of classical theism has undermined the stock indictment many classical theists direct against process theism: the belief that the classical theist affirms a more powerful, worshipful God. Process theism is seen as deficient inasmuch as it offers a God who is in comparison clearly not the greatest conceivable being. The basic reason for this feeling of superiority is the fact that most influential classical theists -- e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin -- have affirmed "I" omnipotence.

However, our discussion and defense of Plantinga has shown that, when worked out coherently, the classical theist must affirm a notion of omnipotence practically identical to that of the process theist -- i.e., our discussion demonstrates that the classical theist must, like the process theist, acknowledge that human freedom places necessary limits upon God’s power in both the moral and natural realms.

In other words, our discussion has shown that even when starting with classical premises one still ends up with process-like conclusions concerning divine power. The power of the process deity is thus not deficient, for there is not a coherent alternative to which the process deity falls short. Consequently, our argument can just as easily be seen as a defense of process theism.

Unfortunately, Plantinga, himself, has not explicitly acknowledged the fact that his analysis of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom is basically an attack upon, not a defense of, the view of omnipotence that most classical theists seem to hold; moreover, many such classical theists seem not yet to have perceived this tension for themselves. Hopefully, discussions such as ours will help rectify this problem.



ESR -- Brian Hebblethwaite. Evil, Suffering and Religion. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1976.

GFE -- Alvin Plantinga. God, Freedom and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977.

GPE -- David Griffin. God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976.

IPQ -- Bruce Reichenbach. "Natural Evils and Natural Laws: A Theodicy for Natural Evils," International Philosophical Quarterly 16 (June, 1976), 179-98.

NN -- Alvin Plantinga. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

PT -- F. R. Tennant. Philosophical Theology, vol. 2. Cambridge: The University Press, 1929.

PRT -- Ninian Smart. Philosophers and Religious Truth. London: SCM Press, 1964.

PTE -- David Griffin and John Cobb. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976.

RS -- David Basinger. "Human Freedom and Divine Providence: Some New Thoughts on an Old Problem," Religious Studies 15 (December, 1979), 491-510.