In This Article God and Possible Worlds

  • Introduction
  • God and Bad Worlds (The Modal Problem of Evil)
  • God’s Choice and Incomparable Worlds
  • What Difference Would—or Does—God’s Existence Make?

Philosophy God and Possible Worlds
Klaas J. Kraay, Aylish Chantler, Kirk Lougheed
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0249


This article surveys some contemporary literature in analytic philosophy of religion bearing on the relationship between God and possible worlds. Most of these authors take “God” to denote an essentially omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, who is the creator and sustainer of all that contingently exists. Since the 1960s, philosophers have employed the conceptual apparatus of worlds to discuss topics pertaining to God. Very roughly, the actual world is the way things are, whereas each possible world is a way things might have been. Many philosophers believe that if God exists, he could not have failed to exist. In other words, God exists in all possible worlds; God is a necessary being. The first section of this article, God and Necessity, discusses several accounts of what this means, and of the relationship between God and worlds. Worlds are widely assumed to bear axiological properties: some are good, others are bad; some are better, others are worse. Some authors have judged that God could not exist in bad worlds. Whether this counts against theism is discussed under God and Bad Worlds (The Modal Problem of Evil). If all worlds bear axiological properties, and can be compared, it is natural to wonder whether the hierarchy has an upper bound. The literature concerning this topic is surveyed under Is there a Best Possible World?. It is widely assumed that if God exists, he chooses a world to make actual. The next three sections of this article consider this choice: God’s Choice if there is One Best Possible World, God’s Choice if there are Multiple Best Worlds, and God’s Choice if there are No Best Worlds. Some authors hold that certain pairs of worlds simply cannot be compared. The literature surrounding God’s choice between such pairs is discussed under God’s Choice and Incomparable Worlds. Some philosophers have recently argued that if theism is true, the actual world is a multiverse made up of many worthy universes. Their proposals are discussed under God and the Multiverse. Finally, this article surveys some literature that attempts to answer the following question, with respect to the value of worlds: What Difference Would—or Does—God’s Existence Make? Given space constraints, this article does not discuss arguments for God’s existence that invoke possible worlds, such as “ontological” arguments. Nor does it discuss arguments for atheism that appeal to evil, except insofar as theistic multiverse theories constitute responses.

God and Necessity

Many philosophically inclined theists believe not only that God exists, but also that God exists necessarily. The latter is often taken to mean that God exists in every possible world, and it is motivated by the idea that a being who could have failed to exist is surpassable. As there are many different views about what sort of being God is, so too there are many different views about what possible worlds are, and, indeed, about how exactly to understand necessary existence. Swinburne 1993 and Swinburne 1994 distinguish several forms of necessity, as does Leftow 2010. The latter also sets out the historically important motivations for, and contemporary accounts of, divine necessity. In contemporary analytic philosophy of religion, the most influential account of possible worlds is due to Plantinga 1974. On Plantinga’s view, possible worlds are a particular species of abstract object: they are maximally compossible states of affairs. There is an important puzzle about the relationship between God and abstract objects, since there seem to be powerful reasons for holding that the latter do not depend upon anything for their existence, but of course many theists want to hold that God is sovereign even over the abstracta. Gould 2014 brings together eight thinkers who carefully consider the various positions on this issue; this is a good entry point to this debate. One very important rival to Plantinga’s view is found in Lewis 1986 (cited under God and Modal Realism): on this view, possible worlds are concrete spatiotemporal objects. A small debate concerns whether this view is compatible with theism, and this is surveyed under the subsection God and Modal Realism. Pruss 2011 critically examines several accounts of possible worlds and ultimately defends the claim that they are ideas in God’s mind. Leftow 2012 grounds modal truths in God’s nature, preferences, and causal power. Leslie 2001 defends a unique pantheistic position: Leslie argues that reality just is a cosmos consisting of infinitely many divine minds. Theistic accounts of possible worlds and necessity bear crucially on various arguments for and against God’s existence. Most importantly, “ontological” arguments for theism depend upon claims concerning the possibility and necessity of God’s existence. Such arguments are not, however, discussed in this article.

  • Gould, Paul. Beyond the Control of God? Six Views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

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    Eight co-authors consider various positions on the relationship between God and abstract objects (including, but not limited to, possible worlds so conceived). The co-authors respond to each other’s views. A good entry point into the wider debate concerning this issue.

  • Leftow, Brian. “Divine Necessity.” In The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology. Edited by Charles Taliaferro and Chad Meister, 15–30. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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    Discusses the historically important motivations for, and contemporary accounts of, absolute metaphysical divine necessity. Distinguishes between Platonic views, on which possible worlds are independent of God, and Leibnizian views, on which they depend upon God. Considers and rejects several objections to divine necessity.

  • Leftow, Brian. God and Necessity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199263356.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Possible worlds are mere (but useful) fictions. God is the ontological foundation of modality. Some modal facts, including the necessary truths of logic and mathematics, are grounded in God’s nature. Others are grounded in God’s preferences and causal power.

  • Leslie, John. Infinite Minds: A Philosophical Cosmology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    Defends a pantheist account of ultimate reality, according to which all that really exists is a cosmos consisting of infinitely many divine minds. The reality we experience consists in the thoughts of these minds. The existence of this collection of minds is due to ethical necessity.

  • Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.

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    Enormously influential account of possible worlds as abstract objects (and, in particular, as maximal states of affairs). Uses this account of possible worlds to defend an ontological argument for God’s existence and to criticize several arguments from evil against God’s existence.

  • Pruss, Alexander. Actuality, Possibility, and Worlds. New York: Continuum, 2011.

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    Critically surveys several accounts of modality. Defends an “Aristotelian-Leibnizian” model, according to which modal truths are grounded in God’s abilities and on which possible worlds are ideas in God’s mind.

  • Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Rev. ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198240708.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    In Part 3, Swinburne distinguishes six kinds of necessity. Theists should hold that “God exists” is necessary on three of these, the most important of which holds that this statement does not depend for its truth on anything that is not entailed by it.

  • Swinburne, Richard. The Christian God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198235127.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Chapter 5 carefully distinguishes several different kinds of necessity: logical, ontological, and metaphysical. Chapters 6 and 7 argue that God is not logically necessary but is metaphysically necessary.

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