The Problem of Evil

3. Free Will

  1. Theodicy 1: For God to have previously determined that our acts will never result in pain or suffering would have been to deny us freedom of choice, and to have denied us this would have been to deny us an incomparable good.[6]

The type of free will that theists appeal to with this theodicy is of the philosophical libertarian sort. What this means is that voluntary human acts have no sufficient physical cause; that they are contra-causal. In other words, acts resulting from the exercise of our free will cannot be explained completely on the basis of physical laws and forces acting in our brains. This theodicy makes a serious attempt at explaining the variety of moral evils humans commit.

Book cover: God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga
  1. Response 1: My first objection to this defence is that, in fact, human beings do not possess the kind of free will advocated by theists. After almost one century of scientific research, psychologists and neuroscientists have not found any place in the brain where the sequence of physical causes is broken. They have not found the 'ghost in the machine' firing the motor neurons that trigger our muscles into action.

    I do not even think we suffer the illusion of contra-causal free will. When we ordinarily speak of 'free will', we are not contrasting it with determinism; the notion that all of our actions, voluntary and otherwise, have a sufficient physical cause. Our idea of a 'free' choice is contrasted with a coerced choice. We say an act is not chosen freely if the agent is forced to choose that act because they believe that if they did not choose that way they would lose something of great value.

    If I am right on this—that we can choose freely in a deterministic world—then it was open to God to have created our world such that we always freely choose the good. Further, being omnibenevolent, God would have been morally obliged to have created such a world in deference to the one in which we in fact live.

  2. Response 2: Granting the libertarian theists' notion that humans possess free will in the contra-causal sense, the exercise of that type of free will is logically incompatible with God's omniscience. Consider the following scenario. Assume that at time t1 God has foreknowledge that at time t2 person A will choose x. Then, at time t2, for person A to have free will, it must be possible for him to either choose x or choose y. If at time t2, person A chooses y, then God is mistaken in his foreknowledge, which is logically impossible given God's omniscience. Therefore, if God does have foreknowledge, then it is impossible for person A to choose anything other x at time t2. Hence, person A cannot have free will if God is omniscient.

    To put this concretely, imagine God knows on Monday that John will choose to rob Mary of her purse the following Friday. If John can freely choose on Friday, it must be possible for him to choose to rob Mary or not to rob Mary on that day. If John chooses not to rob Mary, then God is mistaken in his foreknowledge, which is logically impossible given that 'God' is omniscient. Therefore, John cannot possess free will if God is omniscient.

    To avoid this logical incompatibility between God's omniscience and the exercise of our free will, some theists have argued that God exists outside of time. This manoeuvre leaves God unable to interact with the universe and to have a personal relationship with believers. He could not, for example, have created the universe, handed Moses the Decalogue, died on the cross, perform miracles and answer prayers.

  3. Response 3: Assuming that the contra-causal notion of free will is logically compatible with God's omniscience, the existence of evil then poses a quandary about the relationship between God's omnipotence and omnibenevolence. The problem is that the exercise of our free will is logically compatible with the total absence of pain and suffering in our world. It appears logically possible for God to have created a world in which all bad intentions are thwarted before they result in harmful actions. For example, an assassin's gun malfunctions at the critical moment of firing and a thief unknowingly steals an empty jeweller's case.

    God, being omniscient, could, without much effort, devise many and varied, and all seemingly natural, methods of frustrating such harmful intentions so that we would continue to think that harmful acts were physically possible. Even if it were not feasible for God to thwart every evil intention, there are some intentions that he could have thwarted that would have dramatically reduced the amount of suffering in this world. If one of the assassination attempts on Hitler's life, for example, had been successful, the number of deaths witnessed during World War 2 would have been greatly curtailed.

  4. Response 4: Assuming again that free will in the contra-causal sense is compatible with God's omniscience, then, in creating the world, God would know beforehand the outcome of each possible creation. Of all the possible worlds he could have created, God could have chosen to create a world in which everyone always freely chose the right action. God, being omnibenevolent, would have chosen such a world.

  5. Response 5: I think we also need to question the assumption that free will, in the theist's contra-causal sense, is an incomparable good. Does the good of freely choosing right or wrong really outweigh the evils of the Nazi gas ovens, Pol Pot's murderous genocide and ISIS's campaign of terror? If God had a choice between creating a world in which people could freely choose the barbaric acts we see in this world and a world in which people had the illusion of free will but had no or comparably much less pain and suffering, I argue that God would be morally obliged to choose the latter. To my mind, the good of contra-causal free will (if it has a value at all) has a finite value and that value is greatly outweighed by the suffering we see in this world.

    My response here also applies to the argument that God's omniscience logically precludes foreknowledge of the choices made by agents granted contra-causal free will. Let's grant that I am wrong in thinking that omniscience is compatible with foreknowledge and assume that God, if he existed, is left in the dark about the choices we will make in the future. In this case, I think God would not have granted us free will. Being omnibenevolent, God would have been morally culpable in creating a world of free agents that ran the significant risk of generating the vast amounts of human pain and misery witnessed over our entire human history. I submit that the kind of God who bets on his creation with tokens of human wretchedness is morally reckless and not deserving of our devotion.

  6. Response 6: A related concern of mine is that victims of cruelty and injustice are deprived of the goodness of their free will in submission to the goodness of the free will of the perpetrators. The future good of the free-will of a murdered child is sacrificed to the exercise of free-will of her murderer. The scope of the free-will of the person wrongly imprisoned is severely restricted so that his jailer can exercise his freedom to frame an innocent. If free will is so valuable, it is not at all clear why God allows some morally unblemished people to have theirs curtailed for the sake of the immoral exercising theirs.

In summary, the free will defence attempts to explain the type of evil we call 'moral evil' and accounts for the distribution of the effects of this evil in terms of the free choices of human agents. However, it fails to explain the amount of pain and suffering experienced in the world. The theodicy is based on the false premise that humans possess contra-causal free will, that this type of free will is consistent with God's omniscience and that the value of this good outweighs the pain and suffering in this world. In addition, God bestowing this good is consistent with a world containing substantially less pain and suffering than our own. As this theodicy makes no attempt to explain the natural evils, it needs to be supplemented with another defence.


  1. [6] For a much debated argument for the free will defence, see Plantinga [1975].

Copyright © 2015

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