evil, free will, defense

Does Free Will Lead To Evil?

One of my favorite lines from the film, “As Good As It Gets,” is when Jack Nicholson turns to the other people in the waiting room at his psychiatrist’s office as says, “What if this is as good as it gets?” (the sound is a little out of sync)

This captures a frustration many of us feel: the universe shouldn’t be this messed up. A world with no cancer and no abuse would be better. So if there’s a God, why does he allow disease, violence, and suffering? For many, especially those who have personally experienced terrible suffering, this problem overshadows faith. Is there any way to make sense of this? What should we think of a God who creates such a world? I’m going to tackle this question here, but this isn’t meant to comfort those who suffer. It is only an attempt to preserve the intellectual integrity of Christian belief.

A caveat: this topic is hard and few people give it its due. For many, a simple answer satisfies and they continue along the path of faith or skepticism. Others commit themselves to a tribe and accept whatever view is offered. But there comes a point where your train of thought takes you beyond the point of no return to simple answers. Those who love truth more than they love their tribe want more than cliches. If that’s you, read on.

What Is A Defense?

free will, defense

Historically, theologians have tried to work out a theodicy–a clear, definite answer to the “why” question. Others have sought to formulate a defense–a possible solution to the problem. Thoughtful skeptics (atheologians, perhaps), on the other hand, have developed the problem into a daunting and powerful argument against the Judeo-Christian God.

We could put the argument this way:

  1. If the Judeo-Christian God (all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good) exists, then evil would not exist.
  2. Evil exists.
  3. So, the Judeo-Christian God does not exist.

A plausible assumption lurks under premise (1), namely, that such a God would eliminate evil. This version articulates the “logical problem” of evil. It merely contends that God and evil cannot coexist.

Alvin To the Rescue: Free Will

plantinga, free will, defense

The most famous and successful defense comes from philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who retired from Notre Dame a few years ago. In the manner of a defense, Plantinga does not claim that he knows why God allows evil. He merely offers one possible solution, which refutes the claim that God cannot coexist with evil. (Successful arguments for possibility can refute impossibility claims.)

Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense, in sum, says this: by giving his creatures something of immeasurable value–true freedom of choice–he had to allow the possibility of moral evil. And sure enough, his creatures have sometimes chosen to do evil to one another. If this scenario is possible, then there is a way that God and evil can coexist. (Note: I’m only dealing with moral evil–evil perpetrated by persons–here.)

Here is a more detailed summary (more or less) of Plantinga’s Defense:

defense, world

Some worlds (a ‘world’ is the totality of everything there is) are not logically possible for God to create. E.g., a world in which creatures have morally significant free will AND God causes them to always choose good actions. This would be akin to creating square circles.

So, God has three possible options remaining. A) a world without morally significant freedom where God causally determines that no creature chooses evil, and no evil occurs; B) a world with morally significant freedom where God does not causally determine that none of them choose evil, and evil occurs; and C) a world with morally significant freedom where God does not causally determine that none of them choose evil, and no evil occurs.

A Question Remains

Question: If A, B, and C are all possible, then why, oh why, didn’t God choose to create world C?
Answer: Possibly, because every feasible world contains evil. As long as this is possible (which it surely is), then we have a way to reconcile the Judeo-Christian God with the existence of evil.

evil, defense, free will

So, (possibly) when God looks at all the worlds with free creatures that are logically possible to create, every one of them contains evil. Take note: I am NOT claiming that this is actually how things are, nor am I trying to prove that it must be this way. It only needs to be possible for the defense to work.

This preserves God’s goodness, because he does not desire evil to exist, per se. It is merely a side-effect of creating free creatures. It preserves God’s omniscience because he is fully aware of the evil that results. And it preserves God’s power because in the possible world I’ve sketched, it is logically impossible for God to eliminate evil while also endowing creatures with real, morally significant free will. Failure to do what is logically impossible is not a “power” issue, any more than creating a square circle is a power issue.

Conclusions About God

So what should we conclude about God’s nature when we see the evil in our world? Here’s an analogy. You and a friend go golfing. You run out of balls, and your friend offers to give you one of hers. She bought a paper sack of used balls at the pro-shop, which has not yet been opened. She walks around to the back of the cart, rustles around in the bag and brings you a ball, which is green. Now, you both know that you always lose green golf balls, but that you never lose white ones. So why on earth would she give you a green ball?

golf, evil

You consider the possibilities. It may be that your friend secretly despises you and intentionally selects a green ball so that you will lose it. It may also be that your friend is color blind and doesn’t know she’s selected green. A third possibility is that the bag she bought contains only green balls. As long as this third scenario is possible, you cannot rightly conclude that the act was due to avarice or incompetence. As far as you know, she simply could not provide you with a green ball because there are none in the sack.

What can we take away from this? Merely that the existence of evil in the world does not rule out the Judeo-Christian God. Whether it makes such a God less likely is another matter. But for all we know, evil is inevitable, given the gift of morally significant free will. If you would rather live in a world with merely the illusion of free choice, where God pre-programs us to always do good, then you can certainly register a complaint. But there is no use arguing that evil precludes a good and powerful God.

8 thoughts on “Does Free Will Lead To Evil?

  1. While I agree with Plantinga if all we looked at is _this_ life, my trouble comes once we consider the _next_ one. The Christian God supposedly is going to reboot the universe and resurrect everyone that existed to a new life without tears, evil chaos, death, or pain (Revelations 21:1-4). So it seems God _can_ create a world with free-will creatures (I’m assuming all the arguments for why God would create entities with free will apply to the next life as well) that don’t do nor experience evil.
    We could say that this life is a necessary component for the existence of the next so that Platinga is still correct that there isn’t a feasible universe where evil doesn’t exist but that it can be collected into the first era of the universe which in turn allows a following eternal age of free-willed creatures that never choose evil.
    But this raises the question of why the first age is necessary. What is it about the first age that is required for the next? Why couldn’t whatever-it-is be instilled in the morally perfect free-willed people from the get-go and completely dispense with this age of evil?
    Just asking…

    1. A good question that I also think about. I don’t have an answer, yet there may be an answer! I’m still looking. Btw, I don’t think people are “morally perfect” in the new heavens and earth, its that we are so satisfied with God that sin is no longer desirable. Still, could that have happened in round 1? I don’t know. But remember that Plantinga’s aim is not to show that a freewill&no-sin world isn’t possible. He argues that if it is possible that there is no feasible world with freewill and no sin, then there is no logical problem with God creating a world with evil in it. (Did I say that right? It’s complicated.) But you’ve read Plantinga, right?

      1. Not in book form. Via blogs (like yours) and YouTube videos. Money and Time are always a factor but thank heaven’s I was born in the Internet age giving me access to knowledge and works I never would have had in any previous era! But I’ll admit I have trouble with this distinction between ‘possible’ and ‘feasible’ here.
        Like I said I agree with his argument and was already aware of similar thought from CSLewis. And even in my scenario where memory/experience/essence of this world is automatically “programmed” into the resurrected world you could say that the program just is the required evil/suffering that it would be infeasible for a world of free-will creatures to exist without and Plantinga’s argument will still hold. Several atheists believe we’re in a simulated world, perhaps the resurrected world is the reality and this just is the virtual experience, a shadow land, that allows the resurrected to operate properly but with free will in the Age to Come (assuming the possible scenario I previously laid out; this is not something I actually believe).
        And, further, there are goods and virtues that even atheists admire (such as overcoming, bravery, etc.) that can’t exist without the possibility of evil and pain. But they will complain that a good and loving God didn’t create a world that is deprived of these goods. We could say that some goods can exist without evil (like love) but not all _expressions_ of that good can exist without evil. So the question becomes is a world without _those_ kinds of goods better or worse than a world without evil?
        On your point about the resurrected not being ‘morally perfect’ I suppose that depends on if we’re using the phrase ontologically or pragmatically. I’m fine with the idea that ontologically the resurrected don’t sin because of their desire for God Who is independently Morally Perfect and they are dependent on Him. But if we’re asking in terms of practice and behavior I don’t see why people who don’t engage in the activity of sin (and Jesus stated that mental activity such as lust and hate can also be sinful so even their mental activity aren’t so engaged) couldn’t be called ‘morally perfect’ from a pragmatic standpoint. But that is off topic and you might not care to go down that separate rabbit hole right now. But I will say this also raises the question that if desire for Him is enough to not sin is there not a way to instill that desire in people without interfering with their free will? How much can we freely will our desires in the first place?

        1. So many great questions! I’m still trying to figure them out, too. I’ll respond to a couple. I think in heaven, we will feel like we do after a huge Thanksgiving dinner when the burger king ads come on tv. What would have looked delicious a few hours before now disgusts me, because I’m so full. I could go get a burger and eat it, but I have no desire to. Similarly, in heaven, I think we *could* sin, but don’t want to. God cannot sin. While living in this world, we cannot not sin! That view helps make sense of things. But still, couldn’t God “fill” us now so that we don’t sin? Perhaps, but not without violating free will, maybe. Once we’ve freely chosen him, then there’s nothing wrong with overwhelming us in that way. idk. I’ll write more later if you can narrow it down to one question. Thanks!

          1. I suppose it all boils down to the question I posed at the end of my third paragraph. Is the world with evil, but also with goods that don’t reach their fullest expression without evil, better or worse than a world without evil? And I’ll emphasize that I’m speaking pragmatically; a world with a potential for evil that is never actualized is indistinguishable from one without evil for all meaningful practical purposes. Any attempt to justify the allowance of evil in this world can be used in someway to cast aspersions on the next. If it is infeasible for humans to have free will without evil in this world why is it feasible for humans to have free will without evil in the next? If certain expressions of good should exist but require real potential evil/pain in this world then what does this say about the good without evil in the next? Any attempt to justify theodicy in this world brings up a potential logical inconsistency concerning the next. Any attempt to promote the goodness of the next world allows the present one to be used as an insurmountable problem of evil against theism.
            I’m thinking the problem arises due to a false dichotomy. While referring to the two as distinct worlds to be compared is legitimate and correct as far as it goes it ignores the fact that they are also supposed to be intimately connected to each other. A third choice is the fact that it is supposed to be a hybrid model. They are two different ages/worlds/sets but they are also just different aspects of the World/Universal Set (meaning the totality of reality past, present, and future). Maybe we can’t answer my question which of the two worlds (one with evil but free-will and other goods and one without evil) is better but perhaps an argument can be made that the World that is the combination of a world with a finite time of evil and an eternity without is the best possible World where the virtues of both somehow (this is what needs to be argued for) permeate throughout the World and the criticisms of each vanish as the limit approaches infinity and the two words are seen together in the World’s entirety.
            I hope that made sense and I apologize for the cumbersome mathematical analogies. I lacked the imagination to think of any other way to express my thoughts.

          2. I’ll confess that I’m a bit lost in your post. I barely understand the details of Plantinga’s argument myself, and that doesn’t even cover the theological questions you’re asking. Your questions may be a little beyond my ken at this point.

  2. It’s probably my lack of effective communication. English is my first and only language but I do not wield it well. I appreciate your giving your time to understanding my gibberish.
    I’m enjoying your blog. If I feel a need to comment hopefully I’ll write more clearly.

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