The Ontological Argument Against The Existence Of God — Rejoinder

Recently, Oscar Rivera, author of presented his version of an Ontological Argument Against the Existence of God as a counter example to the classical Ontological Argument for the existence of God. As a practice, I do not use the Ontological Argument for the existence of God because of its complicated philosophical rhetoric, though I think some presentations are sound.  As I first read over Rivera’s argument, I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Oscar is one of the more cordial Atheists I have encountered on the internet, and so I would recommend anyone looking for an honest charitable discussion on religion, you should give his blog some attention.

Here is the syllogism Rivera presents:

  • God exists if and only if God is the maximally greatest being.
  • If God is all-just, then God is not omni-benevolent.
  • If God is not omni-benevolent, then God is not the maximally greatest being.
  • If God is not the maximally greatest being, then God does not exist.
  • God is all-just.
  • Therefore, God does not exist.

Rivera’s justifications for his premises:

1. God exists if and only if He is the maximally greatest being.

Even if one does not adhere to this definition of God, I will take some time now to explain why it is only proper for this to be your conception of God (so long as you want your God to be a personal one). For God to be the maximally greatest being, it follows that God have characteristics that are maximally great – at least, those characteristics which are good. To say that God is not maximally great in any respect is to imply the possibility that we humans have the capacity to become greater than God in some respect. For example, if God were not maximally great with respect to, say, benevolence, then it is feasible – in fact, probable – that man can surpass God in terms of benevolence. While this may not trouble some, this will certainly ruffle the feathers of many theists who think that God is benevolence. We can apply this same concept to any principle: power, justice, etc.

There are some terminology problems I see with the comparisons between God and man as it relates to potentials if God fails to be “maximally great”, I believe Rivera’s overall point is simply to emphasize the fact that for God to be God, He must be unimpeachably great, and in principle I agree.

2. If God is all-just, then God is not omni-benevolent.

This premise should be rather intuitive. Nevertheless, I will justify it so there are no qualms. Omni-benevolence connotes very specific implications definitionally – namely, unbridled forgiveness. For one to be omni-benevolent, by definition, one cannot punish. To punish, even if said punishment is merited, would simply negate the existence of omni-benevolence. Perhaps the best example to illustrate this would be the conception of Hell. Presumably, every Christian would agree that for someone to be castigated to Hell would be warranted act – it would be justified. The mere fact that there are, according to traditional Christian orthodoxy, people suffering in Hell negates God’s omnibenevolence. For God to be omni-benevolent, God must, by definition, forgive all irrespective of any crime or sin committed. God must forgive even if we do not believe. God must forgive even if we deny Him. In fact, this premise needn’t have God be “all-just”, merely just.

There are two fatal flaws which permeate this premise, and the same goes for 1, 3, and 4, also.  It begins in 1, and because the argument is built upon the flaws throughout, the argument fails at its conclusion.

First, the concepts of omnibenevolence and all-just, conflate exactly what those terms describe about God’s character.  They are descriptors of relationships between people or God and man, they are not properties.  They cannot be weighed or measured.  There is no scale to measure justice, or benevolence.  Sure, we could look at a particular act and conclude it is just, or benevolent, but how could one decide between two acts of justice, which is more just, or benevolent?  So in this respect, Rivera’s concepts of benevolence and justice would require the qualities to somehow be measured, and determined that they are at their maximum capacity, like a jar of jelly beans filled to the top.

3. If God is not omni-benevolent, then God is not the maximally greatest being.

However, omnibenevolence (applying Rivera’s usage) is logically and philosophically impossible.  This especially obvious when dealing with more than one person.  An example from Al Serrato of illuminates this: a police officer happens upon an alley way where a man is raping an elderly woman. Omnibenevolence would require the officer to refuse to intervene and stop the rapist, and in fact would obligate the officer to bestow some beneficial act toward the rapist.  But in so refusing to stop the rape–and rewarding the rapist–the omnibenevolent officer would not be acting benevolently toward the victim.  In no way, in a situation such as this can omnibenevolence be achieved.  I do not think Rivera expects that God–in order to be God–must have the ability to do the logically impossible.

4. If God is not the maximally greatest being, then God does not exist.

5. God is all-just.

And the second flaw is a hidden false premise that maximally = the most possible.  At this point Rivera would need to justify that for God to be maximally great, that all-just and omnibenevolence require the greatest quantity of justice and the greatest quantity of benevolence (this flaw builds on the first in equating qualities to properties which can be measured).  The maxim “too much of a good thing–is a bad thing” comes to mind.  For instance, drinking water is good and essential for our health.  But drinking too much water can lead to health problems.

The attributes of benevolence and justice are that of quality, not quantity.  This is the concept that Rivera fails to take into account in his argument, and where it ultimately fails.  It is not that God must be maximally just and benevolent by degree or quantity in order to be maximally great.  God must be maximally great in quality.  For example, I love it when I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the perfect ratio of peanut butter to jelly.  The correct amounts of each make for the best sandwich.  The entire jar of peanut butter and the entire jar of jelly make for a terrible sandwich.  Likewise for God to be maximally great, He need be perfectly just and perfectly benevolent.  It is the perfect balance and application of benevolence and justice that makes God maximally great, and not the sheer volume of each.

Though Rivera’s argument is thought-provoking, and even initially got me thinking, its hidden premises and category errors prevents it from being a sound argument against the existence of God.  Like many traditional presentations of the Ontological Argument, Rivera’s argument suffers the same problems philosophical rhetoric brings.


  1. I usually refrain from being the first to comment, but your post got me thinking. You have tried to dissect Rivera’s argument and disprove it and it is a worthy attempt. There are faults in the argument, I agree but there are some in the rebuttal too,I feel. You say that benevolence and justice cannot be quantified. Maybe so, but they can be defined. I struggle with the idea of a loving god perfectly happy with condemning over half of humanity to eternal hell. Surely not an act of benevolence by any standard, so yes, I think we can say that god, by this definition is not all-benevolent.
    The analogy with drinking too much water is also wrong, it seems to imply that god can over-love humanity, and I thought that no believer could say something like that. :)
    I do appreciate that fact that you are the first theist in my experience to say that he doesn’t expect god to do the logically impossible. This is the underpinning of most believers’ faith in god.
    Even if the quality of god’s benevolence and justice are the issue at hand, don’t you think the idea of eternal hell argues against that too?

    • I think most people think love and punishment are mutually exclusive. But anyone with kids know that’s not true. But Biblically, God isnt “perfectly happy” sending people to hell. You also say that by that definition that God is not all benevolent. And I agree, I addressed the idea of omnibenevolence, and maximally great does not require the most amount of benevolence, rather the perfect amount. I think when we discuss things like God’s attributes we have a tendency to attempt to physicalize them. all-just, all-benevolent, all-love. But if God were all-love, He couldnt be anything else. Same with benevolence and justice.

      Maximally great is a quality, not a quantity. the OAAG (ontological argument against God) argues from quantity, and makes the false assumption that the most is the greatest (greatest being quality not quantity also). And it is here that the argument fails.

      Tangentially, I dont think hell is incompatable with love and justice. I have touched on hell previously, maybe not as it relates to a “loving God” but certainly as a just punishment, should be easy to find under the religion tab, in the Christianity category,

      Thanks for responding, make it a habit.

  2. rautakyy says:

    If a god does not need to be maximally benevolent or just, but it only requires to be such in perfect harmony as in your peanutbutter and jam sandwich, why is it not? If there was a god running this world, the ratio of peanutbutter and jam on the bread would be surprisingly small in comparrison to sulphur and brimstone on the same bread. For some have had bread that is unedible and very many have no bread at all. You might argue that all the evil in the world is a result of the free will of men, but that is not so. Are disiases or natural catastrophies a result of the free will of men? Are religious wars not the responsibility of omni-potent god in whose name they are fought?

    The existance of Hell as described and percieved by most christians does not represent a omni-benevolent god. It does not represent a semi-benevolent god. It represents an idea of a malicious god. There is nothing just about sending people to suffer eternally for not believing in old fairytales they may have not ever even heard of. Since god of the Israel, christians and muslims is a concept of human imagination, there is nothing wondrous about it being called both omni-benevolent and perfectly just at the same time. It is a cultural product from few thousand years back. It perfectly resembles the cultural values of those days and the load it has carried and accumulated since. What worries me, is that even today most people in the world are ready to believe in such an entity, though the moral and ethics it represents are obviously unhealthy and flawed.

    There are still cultures that define gods as much less than omni-anything. If the omni-benevolence, omni-potence or the perfectly just nature of a creator god does not represent in reality, does this make the pantheistic religions more reliable sources for spiritualism? Even if they could be defined more reliable by that degree, would it make them true? No. Religions are all just very human guesses on the nature of the unknown.

    • You are equivocating term “maximally”. It is true that God does not have to be maximally (quantity) benevolent, but He must be maximally (quality) benevolent. This seems to be quite a roadblock for the Atheists who have commented thus far.

      Second, I have already argued that “omnibenevolence” is a philosophical impossibility when more than one personal being exists, so your complaint that: “The existance of Hell as described and percieved by most christians does not represent a omni-benevolent god” is irrelevant, and continued imposition of the term “omnibenevolent” is a red hering. It is however, compatible with a God whose benevolence and justice are perfectly balanced.

      “Religions are all just very human guesses on the nature of the unknown.”

      Could you please reference me a reliable citation from a Jewish or Christian reference which states “we dont know why X, therefore God must exist” This is a recurring unsubstantiated assertion by you and other skeptics.

      • rautakyy says:

        Do you really see that a god that would send a repenting mass murderer like Hitler to Heaven, but an ordinary everyday chinese familyman, who has never even heard of Jesus, to Hell is perfectly balanced in in benevolence and justice? How is it just, that we should suffer form the choise Adam and Eve made? It is more like the world was run by a god that is benevolent in the absolute degree you describe when you mention the rapist, not like there was a just god at all. To claim the ultimate creator is just or benevolent is representing hopes and wishfull thinking of humans, not the reality of life they may wittness around them in the real world.

        There is no need for such a citation you request. The fact that guesses are presented as truths does not turn them into truths. They are guesses and some of them are very poor ones, as science has come to prove. For example the Ark landing on mount Ararat after the flood. No such flood ever happened. Hence, no Ark. Hence, the Bible is not absolutely true. People have an innate need to explain their surroundings, even when they yet lack the knowledge of what lies beyond the horizon. That is why gods (all gods) were invented. They are guesses based on very limited information about the universe.

  3. I can already feel this is going to be a discussion mainly focused on definitions. I guess I should have expected this.

    There seems to be a disconnect revolving around what is meant by ‘omni-‘. So I think that, in order to help this conversation go smoothly, we should refrain from using the ‘omni-‘ prefix. You contend that it is not necessary for God to be ‘infinitely benevolent’. Rather, you assert that it is only necessary for Him to be ‘perfectly benevolent’. (I’m just repeating to make sure I understand correctly) To try and make the distinction more apparent, you assert that ‘perfect’ cannot mean ‘infinitely’ because a) to be infinitely-something would render most everything else an impossibility and b) “too much of a good thing is bad”. Do I have the gist?

    First, I think this idea of ‘perfectly’ is not equivalent to what ‘omni-‘ connotes. As I’m sure you know, ‘omni-‘ is Latin for “all” not “perfectly”. As such, there is this nuance of ‘omni-‘ connoting “infinitely”. So I think my argument still stands, definitionally at least.

    Second, I do want to address the Plantinga variation, as well. But before I do, I did want to ask you a question so I know what you think before I herbang on something that is N/A. If there is a “cap” do God’s benevolence, does this not mean that it is very well possible to surpass God’s benevolence? Granted this benevolence may prove detrimental as you pointed out with the cop analogy, but this is besides the point.

    • Remember, by perfect, I mean cannot be improved upon.

      Also, I have problems with the term “infinite” as it pertains to attributes of God. It carries the impression of volume, not quality, so I don’t use it. But to be all something implies that there is no room for anything else. If my body were all blood, I’d be a puddle. I agree that omni as you have used it denotes all.

      I am not suggesting omni means perfect, either. I am claiming that omni is an incorrect term (if by which all is meant) if it is being applied to attributes of God. I am also claiming that the correct term would be perfect.

      As a side note, I don’t really want to discuss Plantinga’s version. As I mentioned I don’t particularly care for Ontological arguments because they are so heavily bogged down with the details of defining terms.

      I wouldn’t use the idea of a “cap” on God’s benevolence. This again falsly defines benevolence as something which can be measured, like soda in a bottle. Man could never attain perfect benevolence, we have far too many limitations.

  4. As I said over at Oscar’s blog, the problem with the OAG is that it is specious to assume that we can “imagine a perfect being”. Perfection outside of mathematics (I’m thinking geometry specifically here) seems to me to be an unquantifiable and wholly impossible task even conceptually. How we can accept the premise that one can imagine a perfect being is fraught with difficulties. Unless God is a circle.

    I appreciate, John, you tackling Oscar’s objection and logic, but I think his recalculation (and your treatment of it) just highlights exactly what is wrong with the OAG.

    More than this though, I’d like to talk about the logic of your objections to Oscar and the other commenters.
    In order:
    1. First, when a “perfect being” is being assessed on the quality of His/Her benevolence or justice, we cannot confine our definition to quantifiable amounts or outcomes. God, if He is “perfect”, controls every variable. Therefor it is safe to assume that He could maximize quantity and quality. No feat must be too great for a “perfect” being.
    To illustrate the point, let’s use the example of your fictional omni-benevolent police officer. Does this imaginary officer have all the attributes of God? Is he capable of changing the laws of nature, for example. Could he have created a world in which there was no such thing as forced copulation? Could he make the laws of nature such that we still had free will, yet both parties to the act were ultimately and perfectly benefited by the act?
    Otherwise, you are projecting a single optimized trait onto an otherwise inferior being.
    2. Hell cannot be compared in any way, shape or form with parenting. It is certainly true that parents will tell you that omni-benevolence does not entail not punishing their children. But why do parents punish their children in the first place? I certainly do not do it as merely some sort of debt that needs to be repaid. I punish my children to correct behavior, to teach my children about actions and consequences. In what respect does Hell achieve this goal? Is there some sort of reincarnation where people are able to use hell as a lesson? Is there some way for people to use the knowledge gained from the consequence of hell? In the most commonly accepted concept of hell, it is unreasoned torture, it is punishment with no goal. It isn’t even balanced, just, or fair. There are no degrees of wrong here. Kill 6 million Jews? Hell. Kill one person drunk driving? Hell. Give 25 women AIDS through your promiscuity? Hell. Have feelings for someone of the same sex? Hell. Can’t in good conscience profess faith in a fairly absurd religious belief? Hell. Profess faith in the wrong absurd religion? Hell.
    For some Christians…..Die before you could have even known why you are being tortured for eternity? Hell.
    If this is justice, then should I not mete out the same severity punishment whether my child doesn’t eat his peas or gets angry and takes a baseball bat to his sister’s head? Whether he raises his voice indoors or steals a friend’s bike?
    That is hell. It is the worst imaginable punishment for any and all “unforgiven” transgressions.

    3. Pascal’s Wager (though a variation), the argument from “First Cause” (AKA Cosmological Argument), Argument from Morality, Presuppositionalism. Those are the “We don’t know (or you don’t know) why X….Therefore God.” that immediately come to mind.

    • George, I’m not really going to address much of your comment because like I said, I don’t particularly like the OAG due to the necessary complex nature of the definitions of terms and the need to really strain at the words and mix in all the qualifications, its more of a pain than its worth. And some of what you said I don’t necessarily disagree with.

      But, and I’m not trying to make this about hell, but there are degrees of punishment in hell. Granted even the lightest punishment in hell is still hell. But its not like hitler and the mother Theresa or ghandi are experiencing the same punishment, I don’t think. The Bible speaks of degrees of reward and punishment according to deeds.

  5. whatever the philosophical arguments, there’s no getting around the facts that every human culture has come up with it’s own religion and gods to codify their cultural norms and separate them from their neighbours

    no religion has occurred spontaneously in geographically or chronologically different eras – religion spreads through migration and conquest routes

    the plethora of religions that have been, are and will be practiced demonstrates that religion and deities are human inventions, with no substantial difference from any creature in folklore like the bogey man and Santa Clause that we use to control behavior with a punishment/reward promise

    • All cultures holding a religious belief in no way is evidence that God does not exist. It just doesn’t follow. By this reasoning, if every culture did not have any religious belief we would have to conclude that atheism is just an invention, and that theism is true.

      • If no cultures came up with a religion, there wouldn’t be a concept of atheism.

        But yes, that every culture has come up with their own religion and deities does demonstrate that gods are human inventions, no different than Santa Claus and the boogey man – fictional characters meant to stand as enforcement of behaviour by providing a reward/punishment that is beyond the scope of the parents – who can only reward and punish behaviors that they become aware of

        while santa, boogey man, god and all other supernatural creatures are constantly aware and vigilant

        that all cultures have invented gods and religion, speaks to how effective a means that religion is to control thought and behaviour

        as evidenced by yourself, who is an active participant in the control mechanism by embracing it and touting it as true – despite the utter lack of evidence

        religion is the ultimate conspiracy theory, in which the lack of evidence for is claimed as evidence of

        and the idea is against not only all evidence, but also logic, history and reason

        • I’m curious why you conclude that because every culture has held religious belief that God is a humam invention, rather than God’s existence is self-evident to people?

        • “as evidenced by yourself, who is an active participant in the control mechanism by embracing it and touting it as true – despite the utter lack of evidence religion is the ultimate conspiracy theory, in which the lack of evidence for is claimed as evidence of and the idea is against not only all evidence, but also logic, history and reason”

          This is nonsense, and unsubstantiated.

  6. That every culture has come up with a religion and god or set of gods is proof that god(s)/religion are a human invention – not that each culture has thought so – each culture thought their gods and religion were real

    and you are a beleiver of one religion and you are promoting it as true – much the same way that a conspiracy theorist insists that the lack of evidence for their pet theory is proof of the theory – you are a participant in the religious con job – you’ve been punked

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