God and Evil Series: The Free Will Defence

God and Evil

In this segment we continue dealing with the problem of God and Evil. Before we begin a quick reminder that we are still working with the logical argument. Since some questioners consider God’s existence in the face of evil to be a logical problem, we serve them best to offer a response at the level of logic. We must never forget, however, that nobody lives at the level of logic alone, (with the possible exception of Mr. Spock). We may reason about the problems of evil at the level of logic, but we live with them at the level of experience. That said we must always treat our questioner with compassion and gentleness because though they may present a logical objection, the issue is always personal. Even Jesus reasoned with people’s minds, but always in consideration of their hearts.

In our last segment we looked at the logical argument against God from the problem of evil, formally stated as follows:

  1. If God is perfectly good, then he would stop as much evil as he could.
  2. If God is all-powerful, then he can stop all evil.
  3. There is evil.                                                                

Conclusion: Either God does not exist, or he is not perfectly good, or he is not all-powerful.

This argument only stands if all of its premises stand true, but as we discussed it actually fails because premise 1 and 2 do not stand.

  • Premise 1 fails because a ‘good’ God may indeed have ‘good’ reasons for allowing as much evil in the world as he has.
  • Premise 2 fails because there are some ‘goods’ that a good God may desire that could not exist without allowing for the existence of evil.

What possible ‘good’ can be suggested that would prove true as defeaters for Premise 1 and 2?

The Free Will Defence:

One such ‘reason’ that we will briefly discuss in this segment is man’s free will, commonly referred to as the Free Will Defence. The Free Will Defence is a part of what we earlier called ‘theodicy’, which is man’s attempt to explain God’s actions. It finds its origin with Saint Augustine who first stated it this way:

“If man is a good, and cannot act rightly unless he wills to do so, then he must have free will, without which he can not act rightly.”1

– Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will

In other words, Augustine is stating that the goodness of man, and man’s ability to do good is contingent upon his capacity to freely choose good. Freely choosing good means that in any given moral choice, man must have the ability to likewise freely choose evil. But man could not have or exercise this freedom unless God allowed evil to exist. So, we may suggest that one reason God allowed evil in the world flows from his desire to create a world containing real moral ‘goodness’. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has summarized it this way:

“The heart of the Free Will Defence is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing more good (or as much moral good as this world contains) without creating one that also contained moral evil. And if so, then it is possible that God has good reason for creating a world containing evil.”2

I underline Plantinga’s use of the word “possible” to remind us that we should never presume to be actually explaining why God permits evil to exist.  Doing so would be presumptuous to say the least, for as Paul says: “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Romans 11:34)

What we are humbly suggesting however is that God’s existence as the Bible presents him and evils’ existence are not logically incompatible or unreasonable given God’s act in creating man as a ‘moral’ creature. In fact, given our experience and knowledge of moral ‘goodness’, it seems that evil’s existence is a necessary ‘evil’. One other way of putting it would be to say that it would be logically impossible for God to create a truly free moral being who could never freely choose evil.

An Important Point To Clarify:

We must be very clear at this point to avoid falling into error. What this argument suggests is NOT that in order for good to exist we must have evil also.  This is clearly false and contrary to Scripture because God is wholly good, (cf. Luke 18:19) and has existed from eternity without evil. God does not need evil in order to have good. Rather God himself is the standard for goodness, and so goodness exists not as the antithesis to evil, but as that which corresponds to God’s character. God can never be or choose evil because God can never be or choose anything in contradiction to himself.

What we are suggesting however is that in order for God to create other moral beings, who like him can possess the quality of ‘moral goodness’, it was necessary that he grant them a real capacity to choose (or not choose) what is good. For this to be possible, there must be a real potential to choose what does not correspond to God’s character, or in other words to choose evil. In a created world of truly moral beings therefore, the real potential to choose evil and consequently for evil to be actualized must exist.

Responding in Gentleness and Respect: (Things you might say)

  • In responding to a questioner, begin by asking them this: “What does it mean to be morally good?” Their response might include something about doing or choosing the “right thing”, or some such. Of course any answer to this question must include the concept of ‘goodness’ itself.

Follow then with this question: “Would you say it is possible to make ‘morally good’ decisions if we cannot choose otherwise?” If their response is “Yes”, ask them to explain how we can make any decision if we have no choice in the matter. If their response is “No” then suggest to them the possibility that God’s decision to allow evil in the world would actually be necessary if he desired to create truly free beings who could make meaningfully real moral choices. It would actually be logically impossible for him to do otherwise.

  • Help your friend to begin questioning his/her own assumptions concerning God and evil.  What do they mean when they say their is ‘evil’ in the world?  If they are suggesting that evil actually exists, then they are affirming some universal standard called ‘good’ and ‘evil’, or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  This very standard suggests a moral law by which the two are determined.  But where does such a moral law come from? It cannot come from man because this standard of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is something man is subject to.  It must therefore come from somewhere beyond us.  But morality is a quality of persons, not things.  For there to even be a universal standard of ‘good’ or ‘evil’, there must be someone who sets that standard.  There must be a moral ‘lawgiver’.  Doesn’t it seem as if our very ability to recognize evil’s existence actually affirms God’s existence rather than denies it?
  • Again, affirm your friends moral sensitivities. These are from God, whose image they still bear in part despite our sinfulness.  But use this God given moral sensitivity to help them begin asking themselves questions.  You might say something like: “It sure does seem as if there is so much wrong with the world doesn’t it?  But doesn’t the fact that we believe this point to the world not being as it should be?  How could that be unless ‘someone’ intended the world to be different?  If the world really should be different, that implies that someone intended it to be a certain way in the first place. Wouldn’t that make more sense given God than not?”

In our next segment we will take a look at a key objection to the Free Will Defence and how to offer a response.

– next ->


[1]Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, trns. Anna Benjamin and L. H. Hackstaff (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), bk. 2, chap. 1, p. 36., as sited in Michael L. Peterson, God and Evil: An Introduction to the Issues, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 34.

[2]Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 23.

4 thoughts on “God and Evil Series: The Free Will Defence

  1. Great website. Thanks for the opportunity to learn more about apolegtics. This site will be an insight for my family not only to learn, but also to properly combat the nature of our fallen world with the truth.

    May God Bless your Efforts

  2. Hey Scott, great series.

    I wonder if there isn’t a danger in offering a different theodicy to a believer as compared to an unbeliever. (Not saying you are, just that your focus as I understand these posts is addressing unbelievers in particular) The temptation I think might be to offer more logic to the unbeliever and more scripture to the believer.
    The reason I say this is that to my knowledge scripture is more plain about God’s glory and His purposes (that He has them, not necessarily what they are) than it is with regard to the free will of man.
    As I understand Romans, our options seem to be either being a slave to sin or a slave to Christ with a more complete freedom being relegated to Adam and Eve before the fall and, in a slightly different way, to the rest of us after we’ve been saved.
    I would tend, I think, to begin with the problem of evil within us. As my son used to say when asked about lying “I feel like I can’t help it, Dad”.
    I realize that he’s using that, in many ways, as a cop out, but not entirely. He really felt the controlling aspect of sin and it does seem to jive with the slavery motif as well as Romans 14:23 “Whatever is not from faith, is sin.” and Romans 3:12 (no one does good etc).
    This is a slightly different direction than where you’re headed (morally good actions which are of benefit to other people vs actions that are intrinsically good in the sight of God) but I wonder if it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter a little more directly.
    That is, the problem isn’t “out there”, it’s “in here.”

    Thanks for this website, I’ll be referencing it a lot, both for Pulse and for my own kids.

    • Hi Daryl,

      Thanks for your comment and thoughtfulness on the matter. You are absolutely right in pointing out that Scripture solidly anchors the origin of worldly evil and our ongoing experience of it to man’s sin. This is the Christian position on explaining evil, and should indeed be in our response when giving an answer for why evil occurs. You are also right that a person’s greatest need is to recognize that our problem with evil is its impact upon our own hearts and how it is sin in us that we need God to most deal with.

      The distinction I would want to make with respect to this post however is not that we would give a different theodicy to a believer as compared to an unbeliever, but that we may need to have a different starting point. Often times the believer, or even more generally the theist begins from the point of God’s existence, and the struggle then comes in trying to reconcile what is believed about God with the experience of evil. Such was Job’s plight. The logical argument that we’ve discussed here is really one step prior (one BIG step) in that the arguer assumes from the standpoint of logic that God and evil’s co-existence are contradictory. He/she is therefore not in a position to begin discussing possible ways to reconcile God’s existence with our experience of evil because the very presence of evil in their mind negates the possibility of God. The Free Will Defence is intended to help them see that this is not true.

      You are wise however to point out that Scripture talks about ‘sin’ as the cause of evil, not ‘free will’. This is why I made and will re-make the point that in giving these kinds of responses from logic that we hold our answers tentatively. I would never say that the reason God allowed evil was because he wanted man to have free will. Scripture doesn’t say that outright and so I dare not presume to know God’s reason or what he wanted. To do so would actually be breaking the 3rd commandment. (cf. Exod. 20:7) Rather what we are doing is offering a possible explanation that demonstrates that God and evil’s co-existence do not form a logical contradiction. Over all a fairly modest objective, but in answering some questioners a very important one.

  3. Scott,

    Thanks for your reply. Right after I sent mine, I realized that, as you say, we need to have a single theodicy and that the starting point is what will vary with the questioner.

    As you can see, my tendency is probably to want to say, or to look for, the whole thing all at once rather than patiently bringing someone to where the BIG answer can make sense.

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