The Problem of Evil and Free Will in Christianity

The problem of evil is an idea seemingly at odds with Biblical Christianity; if there is an omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly moral being that exists, why is there evil in the world? Does such a being not have an obligation to prevent any and all suffering and evil that might occur? The problem of evil is classically stated as follows:

“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Whence then is evil?”

This has long been thought to be an irreconcilable problem for the theist and specifically the Christian theist, and at first glance it is a seemingly formidable problem. If it is possible for a maximally good being (henceforth referred to as God) to eliminate evil, it follows that if he doesn’t he is cruel, because no perfectly moral being could permit evil to exist. This becomes a problem, because there is obviously a good deal of evil in the world. Why is this? Why does God not simply prevent it?

There are a couple of thoughts to note here before we delve into such a theodicy. Firstly, it is clear that God desires the best possible world to be the actual world. The best possible world is one where the maximum amount of good can be brought into being, and the maximum amount of good can only be brought into being if it is real good. For it to be genuine, real good, it must be freely chosen, and for it to be freely chosen mankind must have the ability to also choose evil. Actual good must be freely chosen and not dictated; otherwise it simply becomes robotic morality which is of no real value, since a genuine choice cannot exist if there is only one kind of action to choose.

The first and most obvious reply to the problem of evil is that God may have overriding moral reason for creating a world that contains evil. Perhaps we would not even know what good was unless there was evil. But such a model seems limited, and seems to be more of a cop-out than an actual explanation. For a more thorough examination of the problem, the free will of man must be taken into account.

Free will here does not refer to spiritual free will, since in Christian thought mankind’s will is held in bondage by sin. Free will here refers to the ability to make morally significant choices; the ability to choose to perform a moral or immoral act is the definition of free will used in this argument.

St. Augustine put forth one of the earliest attempts to reconcile the problem of evil with man’s free will:

“Such is the generosity of God’s goodness that he has not refrained from creating even that creature which He foreknew would not only sin but remain in the will to sin. As a runaway horse is better than a stone which does not run away because it lacks self-movement and sense perception, so the creature is more excellent which sins by free will than that which does not sin because it has no free will.” (“The Problem of Free Choice)

This statement forms the core of most theodicys; for there to be genuine value in moral actions, there has to exist the possibility of choosing both good and evil, otherwise humankind is reduced to automatons with no ability to do other than what they were programmed to do. This reduces the value of moral action and removes the possibility for genuine moral good, which is more valuable than robotic actions.

It can be see that on this view, the problem of evil is not a fault of God, but a fault of mankind using free will to make real moral decisions, good ones as often as good ones. Simply put, there has to be the possibility of genuine evil for there to be the possibility of genuine good and for this purpose God has given man a moral free will with which bad and even tragic moral decisions can be made.  Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame makes this observation in his Free Will Defense:

“A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to only do what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; thy do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must make them capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of these creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for he could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.” (“God, Freedom and Evil.”)

This is the crux of the argument; evil is not caused by God, it is caused by creatures using free will wrongly.  The problem of evil all but evaporates with the above arguments in mind. To allow the maximum amount of actual good in this world there must also be the possibility for actual evil.

To create a world in which only good was chosen by its inhabitants would require a world bereft of genuine free will, and since a world containing free creatures is a world in which the maximum amount of good can be brought forth, the only logical option is to create an actual world of free creatures, despite the obvious possibilities for misuse of said freedom.

C.S. Lewis offered a similar argument to Plantingas Free Will Defense above:

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata — of creatures that worked like machines — would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

“Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on. If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will — that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings — then we may take it is worth paying.

“When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as somebody once asked me: ‘Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?’ The better stuff a creature is made of — the cleverer and stronger and freer it is — then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong. A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best — or worst — of all.”  (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

This echoes the aforementioned theories; it truly is only a valuable world if it is a free world, and it is only a free world if there exists the possibility of genuine good and genuine evil, and since both good and evil exist in this world, this is ultimately the most valuable world, or the best of all possible worlds.

Is free will so vital that it can only be the best of all possible worlds if free will exists? Based on the arguments above, the only reasonable conclusion would be yes; any other option would simply be a world of moral robots, which would ultimately have little or no value, as a decision is not genuine if it is forced or the only option presented.

Therefore, the Christian worldview, in which a creator God endowed his creation with genuine moral free will, is the most coherent given our actual world. This does not make the problem of suffering go away or any less intense, nor is it expected to. The realities of evil, pain and suffering are still an evidential problem, but not one that can be used to argue against the existence of God. Indeed, most major philosophers reject the thought that the problem of evil in any way discredits God in a logical form and instead frame the problem around an evidential and not logical framework.

The evidential problem of evil become more tricky; instead of postulating that the idea of God is illogical given the state of the world, it is often stated that God is simply unlikely, which is admittedly a stronger proposition than simply declaring the idea of God incoherent. Given that there is a great deal of evil in the world, is it then unlikely that an all-good, all-powerful God exists? Despite the change in framing, the question still doesn’t pose a large challenge to the theist, and there are a variety of answers to such questions.

The first and most obvious reply would be to state that perhaps God has overriding moral reasons for allowing certain evils to befall. This is not utilitarianism, as God does not cause the evil, but rather through such evil brings out more good. This was Augustine’s view:

“God deemed it to be more befitting His power and goodness to bring good out of evil than to prevent the evil from coming into existence.” (City of God XXII.1)

It can be seen that this is not communist-style utilitarianism, a la ‘the best for the most’, but rather an all-good God bringing out of seemingly bleak situations good that would not have been realized had the evil not come into being. On first glance this may sound cruel and utilitarian, but that would only hold if God was the cause of the evil, which as we have seen with the arguments presented here, he is not, and therefore Augustine’s idea holds firm.

There are of course many other defenses along these lines, but Augustine’s is the most coherent given all the factors which have been shown and demonstrated here. The evidential problem of evil is therefore dealt with in a sufficient manner; out of the evil which comes as a result of our free will, God can bring into being more good than if there was simply no evil at all. We can thus see that even framing the problem in an evidential manner is not a sufficiently coherent case against God.

Given the Free Will Defense and what I will call Evidential Defense, it can be seen that the arguments from the problems of evil pose no significant problem to the logic or coherency of an all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing God.

The problems of evil at first glance appear to be formidable, and on an emotional level they certainly are convincing and convicting. But seen without the veil of emotion, a much different picture emerges, and once the problems are deconstructed in the light of logic it is shown that they are appeals to emotion, pure and simple.

With this in mind and to begin concluding, it has been shown that:

  1. Free will must exist for any possible world to be valuable
  2. Free will entails that good and evil are possibilities
  3. The existence of evil allows for maximum good.
  4. Maximum good being brought into being would make this the best possible world.
  5. There is both good and evil in this world which demonstrates we have free will.
  6. Therefore, since evil allows maximum good, and maximum good is what the best possible world requires, this is the best possible world.

Thus, the problem of evil is adequately answered in both its logical and evidential forms.

 

 

Sources——————————————————————————————————————————————

 

 

Augustine. The Problem of Free Choice. Barnes &Noble E-book.

 

Augustine. The City of God. Barnes & Noble E-book.

 

Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1974. Print.

 

Lewis, Clive Staples. Mere Christianity. Zondervan Publishing House. 1952. HarperCollins edition 2001. Print.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil and Free Will in Christianity

  1. Gerald December 2, 2011 / 3:35 am

    “Thus, the problem of evil is adequately answered in both its logical and evidential forms.”

    This is nothing more than apologetics, as it is clearly stated in scripture that god created evil. He also demonstrates that he is quite the harbinger and manipulator of such, as well.

    Like

  2. whitefrozen December 3, 2011 / 3:11 am

    It is indeed apologetics – but strictly to show that there is no logical contradiction between an all-good God and a world containing evil.

    Like

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