Does the Free-Will Defense Constitute a Sound Theodicy?
A strong argument against the existence of the Christian god (henceforth referred to as God) is contained in the theodicy problem, which can be stated in the following manner:
To make the argument clearer, consider the following clarifications. An all-knowing being will be aware of suffering; an all-powerful being will be able to prevent suffering; and a perfectly good being will desire to prevent suffering. If suffering exists, then God - who is characterized by the three attributes stated in point 1 - does not exist. It is possible for some other, non-Biblical god to exist, but he cannot be all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, though he may be one or two of these.
This essay will take a look at the most common, and perhaps the only possible, counter-argument, the free-will defense [henceforth the FWD]. In brief, it says that point 2 above is incorrect because suffering is a result of the free actions of human beings, created by God with a capacity to choose either good or evil. Hence, it is the fault of humans that suffering exists and not of God. Below, I will present this counter-argument in more detail and, as the main contribution, show that it is unsound and that, as a result, the theodicy problem remains intact. In this venture, I will present an argument of my own along with extensive quotes.
2. The FWD
In considering the problem of evil, the theist must explain how it is that he holds the existence of God to be true while admitting that suffering, or evil, exists. In doing so, he may question point 2 above. We will take a closer look at the strongest and the ostensibly most plausible of such possible questionings, the FWD.
For a flavor of the argument, Swinburne (1991, p. 200) asserts that "[a] good God would have reason to create a world in which there were men with a choice of destiny and responsibility for each other, despite the evils which would inevitably or almost inevitably be presented in it, for the sake of the good which it contained." In other words, God chose to create a world with evil in it because he valued the moral autonomy of humans - which he knew would lead to evil - higher than pure goodness.
Let us try to spell out the basic idea in some detail, and let us do so under the assumption (to be abandoned in Section 3) that Christianity is true. First, God has existed for ever, and he has always been all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. At some point in time t1, he decided to create the universe.
In the Garden of Eden, the two humans, Adam and Eve, who lived in a perfectly good state of affairs, were tempted by the Devil to rebel against God and chose to do so. By eating of the forbidden fruit, they committed a sin which separated them from God. As a result of this fall, their harmony was lost and death made its entrance into the world. All humans are implicated in the sin of Adam and Eve (cf. Romans 5:12, 18, 19) in that this sin affected the human nature, which was transmitted to coming generations. Hence, we can trace moral evil to the voluntary decision of our ancestors, who did not act in accordance with God's will. This doctrine is regularly referred to as the doctrine of original sin. As a result, no one can avoid committing sin.
Let us furthermore quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994, §§403-404) at some length: "Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam's sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the 'death of the soul.' /…/ How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam 'as one body of one man.' By this 'unity of the human race' all men are implicated in Adam's sin, as all are implicated in Christ's justice. /…/ By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called 'sin' only in an analogical sense: it is a sin 'contracted' and not 'committed' - a state and not an act."
This general view was supported by the Protestant reformers, who taught that original sin had radically perverted man and destroyed his freedom: they identified the sin inherited by each man with the tendency to evil (concupiscentia), which would be insurmountable. For instance, the commentary to Martin Luther's Small Catechism (1898, p. 45) states that original sin is the in-born corruption of our nature, which makes us prone to evil and incapable of good (in support of this thesis, Ps. 51:5, John 3:6, and Rom. 7:14 are quoted).
Some modern Protestants, although acknowledging the overall doctrine of original sin, have a slightly different version which says that children up to an "age of accountability", albeit sinful, are guilt-free (see Robertson, 1987, pp. 57-58). One remark is in order, namely, that this version of the doctrine in effect entails the same qualitative view with respect to human action as the Catholic and the more traditional Protestant view, viz., that no human can avoid sinning as a result of the corruption brought upon all men as a result of the fall in the Garden of Eden.
To summarize, then, the Christian reply to the theodicy problem may take the following form: God valued moral autonomy so highly that he created Adam and Eve in spite of knowing that they would choose evil. But the central thing to note is that it was Adam and Eve who voluntarily choose to sin, and God would have desired that they freely would have chosen good. Hence, God is not to blame for the emergence of evil in the human race.
3. The Shortcomings of the FWD
The FWD to many seems quite convincing, especially to Christians, as a result of what it supposedly does: rescue their faith from a strong challenge. However, in this section I will make clear why the FWD is not a sound argument and why the problem of evil still indicates that God does not exist.
3.1 Non-moral evil
First of all, it is important to note that the FWD fails entirely as a way to free God of responsibility for non-moral, often called physical or natural, evil, since this type of evil is independent of any actions of men. Some usual examples are famines, floods, disease, and earthquakes. Plantinga (1974, p. 192) argues that neither God nor humans are responsible for these things, but that fallen angels cause them.
Mackie (1982, pp. 162-163) notes: "Formally, no doubt, this is possible; but it is another of what Cleanthes called arbitrary suppositions. While we have a direct acquaintance with some wrong human choices - our own - and our everyday understanding extends to the recognition of the like choices of other human beings, we have no such knowledge of the activities of angels, fallen or otherwise: these are at best part of the religious hypothesis which is still in dispute, and cannot be relied upon to give it any positive support."
And Gale (1991, p. 111) remarks: "[T]he atheological argument based on natural evil is an impure atheological one, due to the proposition that there is natural evil being taken to be only contingent by the theist. In denying that there is in fact any natural evil, it is not shown that the initial set of this argument does not entail a contradiction. And, if it does, so does the proposition that the conjunction of the propositions in its initial set is possibly true. Thus, to neutralize the deductive argument based on natural evil, Plantinga must show not just that every alleged natural evil really is or could be a moral evil but that it is logically impossible that there be a natural evil. And that he has not done. Nor do I think it can be done. And if so, we must recognize that the FWD can work as a defense of God only for moral evil."
And so, we can already establish that there is evil which must be attributed to God, and consequently, the argument in Section 1 holds. In order to make this an even firmer conclusion, let us also see why moral evil cannot be explained away as not being God's responsibility by means of the FWD.
3.2 My argument
The primary argument is quite simple. The FWD holds that humans have free will to do either good or evil. My argument states - on the basis of the Bible - that humans do not have free will, and hence, that God is responsible and blameworthy also for what is referred to as moral evil. But then we are back at the insight that this situation is incompatible with God's being in possession of the three characteristics listed in point 1 of Section 1 - and hence, he does not exist.
Let me elaborate on why this argument is correct. Let us, for the sake of argument, grant the Christian that Adam and Eve did have a genuine free choice and that they chose to sin. As a result, the evil which directly came about was a result of a choice which was made by morally autonomous beings. From the argument that God valued moral autonomy highly enough for him to accept its evil consequences, it follows that the evils which directly emerged as a result of what Adam and Eve did were justified. That is, God set up a wager for the two humans: either obey me and live in perfect harmony or disobey me and bring about disharmony. Whatever one may think about such an ultimatum, it is possible to hold that the circumstances in which it was put forth were such as to pose a real and neutral opportunity for choice.
However, the reason why God is responsible and blameworthy for much of the moral evil which has emerged after Adam and Eve is found in the doctrine of original sin. As we have seen, this doctrine holds that all subsequent human beings did not face a neutral choice, like Adam and Eve, but that they instead were born with a sinful nature which forced them to commit sin. This is what the Bible  says on the matter:
Clearly and without doubt, the Bible states that no human being can avoid committing sin. But if each human had been born with a neutral nature, such that his nature did not, per se, entail any tendency towards either good or evil (as in the case of Adam and Eve), it could not necessarily hold in a setting with agents with a free will that everyone of them would commit sin. (One could argue that it is highly probable that all humans would sin even with a neutral nature, but this does not affect the argument of this section: the introduction by God of a sinful nature must in any case increase the amount of sin committed by humans.) Consequently, the Bible implicitly teaches that genuine free will is not present in the human race after Adam and Eve. And from that we can infer that if people commit at least some evil acts out of necessity, they cannot be held accountable for them - which implies that God is responsible and blameworthy for a substantial portion of evil acts carried out by humans.
As Rand (1961, pp. 136-137) colorfully states it: "A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as man's sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold man's nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Yet that is the root of your code. Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a 'tendency' to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free."
How, more precisely, can God be held guilty of acts of evil committed by man? The answer is found in focusing on the transmission mechanism of the effects of the choice of Adam and Eve. The quote from the Catholic Church (1994) above mentions this and clarifies that the sinful nature incurred by Adam and Eve was propagated to all coming humans. But, and here is the crux of the argument, who determined the particular transmission mechanism by which all humans contracted a sinful nature which led to their not being able to avoid committing evil acts? God did. God, who is omnipotent, chose to construct the world such that whatever Adam and Eve did would directly influence the choices of all humans.
Is this particular transmission mechanism necessary or contingent? Surely it is contingent, since God's omnipotence means that he can do anything which is logically possible; and hence, God could have let the consequences of Adam's and Eve's sin last with them and not predispose every other human being to sin and evil. For instance, he could have made the world such that each new individual started afresh, like Adam and Eve, with a perfectly neutral nature, on the basis of which truly free choices could then be made. It bears noting that if he had done this, there would have been less evil and a freer human will! This he did not do, and he is therefore at least partly responsible and blameworthy, not only for non-moral evil, but also for what is normally referred to as moral evil. And this inductive insight renders the deductive argument of Section 1 valid, i.e., God does not exist.
Gale (1991, p. 157 ff.) argues, on a more abstract level, a similar point, and he claims that "God's way of causing created persons to act /…/ is freedom canceling." That is to say, humans are not free agents and hence not ultimately blameworthy for their acts of evil. He lists certain freedom-canceling sufficient conditions:
"Is God's relation to created persons in the FWD such that it satisfies C1 and/or C2? If it satisfies either, no less both, the FWD is in trouble, as would be the soul-building defense as well. I submit that it satisfies both, and thus it is time for the nervous smile to replace the smirk."
"It is clear that it satisfies C1, since according to the FWD, God intentionally causes a created free person to have all of her freedom-neutral properties, which include her psychological makeup. The Free Will Defender will make the Libertarian claim that these inner traits only 'incline,' but do not causally determine, the person to perform various actions or act in a certain regular manner, but this does not make the God-man case significantly disanalogous to the type-1 man-man cases; for even if we imagine that our intentional psychological-trait inducers could render it only probably according to various statistical laws that their victims would behave in certain characteristic ways, they still would exercise a global freedom-canceling control in which the person is rendered nonfree due to her not having a mind of her own."
"The God-man relation in the FWD also satisfies C2; for, when God instantiates diminished possible persons or sets of freedom-neutral properties, he does have middle knowledge of what choices and actions will result, and thereby sufficiently causes them. And he does so quite independently of whether or not he is blameless for the untoward ones among them."
We see that my argument fits nicely with Gale's exposition, especially C1. (Subsection 3.4 below presents an argument which primarily fits with C2.) The interesting thing in what I show is that there is a strong Biblical basis for why C1 holds and for why humans are not in possession of a free will.
3.3 Mackie's argument
There is another, rather different argument which also undermines the FWD, and it is that of Mackie (1982, pp. 150-176). Both the argument above and this one are, in themselves, sufficient to show that the FWD is unsound, but if this point can be supported by two independent rationales, all the better. It is to be noted that Mackie assumes throughout that the Biblical doctrine of free will indeed says that there is such a thing, whereas I have showed that this assumption is erroneous. In any case, the FWD does not hold.
Here is the argument: "If God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good? Since there seems to be no reason why an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good god would not have preferred this alternative, the theist who maintains that there is such a god, and yet that he did not opt for this - since by his own account human beings make bad free choices - seems to be committed to an inconsistent set of assertions."
"For at least some theists, this difficulty is made even more acute by some of their further beliefs: I mean those who envisage a happier or more perfect state of affairs than now exists, whether they look forward to the kingdom of God on earth, or confine their optimism to the expectation of heaven. In either case they are explicitly recognizing the possibility of a state of affairs in which created beings always freely choose the good. If such a state of affairs is coherent enough to be the object of a reasonable hope or faith, it is hard to explain why it does not obtain already."
"Nevertheless, it is often thought that this suggestion, that God could have made men such that they would always freely choose the good, is not coherent. Sometimes this objection rests merely on a confusion. It would, no doubt, be incoherent to say that God makes men freely choose the good: if God had made men choose, that is, forced them to choose one way rather than the other, they would not have been choosing freely. But that is not what was suggested, which was rather that God might have made - that is, created - beings, human or not, such that they would always freely choose the good; and there is at least no immediate incoherence or self-contradiction in that."
Mackie goes on to show that it is not logically impossible that men should be such that they always freely choose the good and that it is logically possible that God should create them so. And he concludes: "In short, all forms of the FWD fail, and since this defence alone had any chance of success there is no plausible theodicy on offer." To recapitulate: since God could have made men such they would always freely choose the good, and since he did not do this, he is responsible for so-called moral evil.
Likewise, in Smart & Haldane (1996, pp.68-73), this view is forcefully defended: "Even in a world such as ours where bad consequences may occur through lack of knowledge, free but wicked choices might be impossible. God could have created beings with purely moral desires, from which they would always act. Even on a libertarian theory of free will it is logically possible that everyone would always in fact act rightly. God, who surveys all time and space, could have created such a world."
"Because free will is compatible with determinism God could have set up the universe so that we always acted rightly, and so for this reason alone the FWD does not work. I do have some sympathy with the view that the compatibilist account of free will does not quite capture the ordinary person's concept of free will. This, however, is because the ordinary person's concept of free will, if one gets him or her arguing in a pub, say, is inconsistent. The ordinary person wants the action to be determined, not merely random, but undetermined too. The compatibilist can say that if this is the concept of free will we clearly do not have free will, just as I don't have a round square table in my study. Once again the FWD fails."
On a similar note, Smith (1979, p. 83) remarks that any goal which God wants to achieve, he can achieve in any logically possible way he wants. That is, if we say that evil (or a capacity for God's created beings to use evil) is a method used by God to obtain goal x, then God is blameworthy for evil, since he could have used some other method which does not include evil.
3.4 Russell's argument
There is a similar argument which states that God is responsible for whatever happens, since he created everything contingently, since he knew, a priori, exactly what would happen, and since he sustains everything at any point in time. A Christian would probably say that this is true but that God is not blameworthy for the evil which arises from the acts of free humans. Above, we argued that humans are not free with regard to performing good and evil acts, and that even if they are, God could have made humans such that they would always freely choose the good, which makes him ultimately blameworthy for all evil. Now we add a clarifying argument, namely, that all forms of evil are, in essence, non-moral and hence attributable to God. Russell puts it thus:
"[I]t is clear that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity demand a great deal of ethical perversion before they can be accepted. The world, we are told, was created by a God who is both good and omnipotent. Before He created the world He foresaw all the pain and misery that it would contain; He is therefore responsible for all of it. It is useless to argue that the pain in the world is due to sin. In the first place, this is not true; it is not sin that causes rivers to overflow their banks or volcanoes to erupt. But even if it were true, it would make no difference. If I were going to beget a child knowing that the child was going to be a homicidal maniac, I should be responsible for his crimes. If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man."
"The usual Christian argument is that the suffering in the world is a purification for sin and is therefore a good thing. This argument is, of course, only a rationalization of sadism; but in any case it is a very poor argument. I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children's ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering. In order to bring himself to say this, a man must destroy in himself all feelings of mercy and compassion. He must, in short, make himself as cruel as the God in whom he believes. No man who believes that all is for the best in this suffering world can keep his ethical values unimpaired, since he is always having to find excuses for pain and misery."
Russell thus proffers the view that God is not justified in allowing evil, irrespective of whether there is free will or not: if there is a god, then he must be evil. This assertion modifies point 1 in Section 1 in that god is no longer assumed to be all-good; but he may exist.
3.5 Other possibilities
Here, I will consider three other possibilities for the Christian to escape the theodicy problem as stated in Section 1. However, it will turn out that none of them are successful.
1. The first possibility is an epistemological one and focuses on the concept of goodness in relation to God. It states that God's goodness is not our goodness, i.e., that it is impossible for us to meaningfully apply terms such as good or evil to God. In reply, Smith (1979, p. 81) argues: "The Christian, by proclaiming that God is good, commits himself to the position that man is capable of distinguishing good from evil - for, if he is not, how did the Christian arrive at his judgment of 'good' as applied to God? Therefore, any attempt to resolve the problem of evil by arguing that man cannot correctly distinguish good from evil destroys the original premise which it purports to defend and thus collapses from the weight of an internal inconsistency." See also Mackie (1982, p. 156).
If we acknowledge that we can, indeed, use these terms in a discussion of God's character, might the Christian escape the problem of evil by simply conceding that god is evil (as suggested by Russell)? While this would undermine point 4 in the argument in Section 1, it is hardly an attractive path to take for the Christian. While he can account for the existence of moral and non-moral evil, he runs into two substantial problems: first, he departs from the classical Christian concept of God, e.g., as expressed by Jesus in Lk. 18:19: "And Jesus said to him, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.'" and by the Catholic Church (1994, §385): "God is infinitely good and all his works are good."; and second, he must explain why he worships an evil being (instead of, say, solely submitting to this being).
2. The second possibility is about arguing that god is not really omnipotent. The main problem here is that this assertion is inconsistent with Biblical teachings, e.g., Jer. 32:17 ("Ah Lord GOD! It is thou who hast made the heavens and the earth by thy great power and by thy outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for thee,"), Mk. 10:27 ("Jesus looked at them and said, 'With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.'"), and Lk. 1:37 ("For with God nothing will be impossible").
The view that God is not omnipotent is also at odds with the classical conception of God in the Christian Church, e.g., as expressed in both the Apostles' Creed ("I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.") and the Nicene Creed ("We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.") As the Catholic Church (1994, §268) affirms: "Of all the divine attributes, only God's omnipotence is named in the Creed: to confess this power has great bearing on our lives. We believe that his might is universal, for God who created everything also rules everything and can do anything."
3. The third possibility deals with God's being omniscient and says that god is limited in what he knows about the future. In essence, one may envisage god's being in possession of different degrees of information, and it is possible that when god created the universe, he was not able to foresee the evil which would encompass it (i.e., he was without middle knowledge). Again, however, the theist arguing thus faces at least two problems. First, it seems as if the Bible describes its god as being at least spatially omniscient:
In addition, the god of the Bible also seems to know the future, as the often-mentioned phenomenon of prophecy indicates; hence, he is also temporally omniscient. As stated by the Catholic Church (1994, §2115): "God can reveal the future to his prophets and to other saints."- and how could he do that without knowing, himself, what will happen? In fact, the following Bible passages confirm that God knows the future and that he knows it with regard to human choices:
All of these quotes refer to prophecies which crucially depend on future human behavior. For instance, in the last quote, the precise actions of certain Jews in Jerusalem are predicted through the Holy Spirit. Hence, it is absolutely clear, to anyone who considers the Bible a reliable source of information about God, that it is not logically impossible for God to know what choices human beings will make in the future. It may be argued that God only knows parts of the future; but how can it be explained that God is thus limited? By what? By whom? For what reason?
"Now, if from the human perspective, belief in a loving creator cannot be squared with the presence of suffering, then it is simply not rational to continue to hold on to that belief. /…/ [I]f, from our perspective, there is no justification for suffering, then that is a reason to reject, as mistaken, any perspective (including God's) in which there is a justification for suffering. If it turned out that, from God's perspective, any amount of human suffering is perfectly acceptable, then that would be a horrible discovery to make. We simply could not go on believing that God was genuinely benevolent, at least as we conceive of benevolence."
|Top of Page|
Last updated: Tuesday, 30-Jul-2013 15:51:50 CDT