God and Evil Series: A Key Objection to the Free Will Defence

God and Evil

The heart of the Free Will Defence is in denying any logical contradiction between the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent God and the existence of evil in the world. Simply put the argument goes that a ‘good’ God would create a world containing evil if he had ‘good’ reasons for doing so. The Free Will Defence suggest that creating meaningfully free moral creatures can logically be defended as a possible ‘good’ that defeats any logical contradiction.

A key objection however comes from Anthony Flew and J. L. Mackie, both of whom object on the grounds that it is logically possible that God could create a world where meaningfully free beings always choose to do good. Mackie states it this way:

“If God 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? If their is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or on several occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion.”1

A quick response is to affirm the logical possibility of what Mackie proposes, but to point out that in order to defeat the Free Will Defence it is not enough to establish this as a logical possibility, but a logical necessity. In other words it could be possible, but it doesn’t have to be.

In support of this response Alvin Plantinga proposes the possibility of “transworld deprativity”, which essentially suggests that human freedom being what it is, it is possible that in any world that God could actually create people would make at least one evil choice. As James Dew Jr. points out: “we need not worry about whether transworld depravity is actually true. All that needs to be noted is that it is at least possibly true. And if…possibly true, then it is not necessarily true that God could eliminate evil without eliminating human freedom.”2  At the level of logic then, the Free Will Defence stands.

Now unless you are a philosophy student talking to like minded peers, dissecting this objection at the level of technical logic and name dropping prominent philosophers may leave you cold. At the street level the person you are talking too may not even know the “official” arguments, but if they are an honest thinking person they may be grappling with the issues non-the-less. And so, though they might not present the formal argument, they may raise the objection in thoughtful layman’s terms, saying something like this:

“But if God controls and knows everything, including every decision we make and what causes us to make them, isn’t it possible that he could have made people who are meaningfully free and yet would alway choose good?”

Responding in Gentleness and Respect: (Things You Might Say)

Since our goal is to offer a reasonable response as a part of open minded and honest dialogue rather than trying to win philosophical debates, I would suggest respectfully offering the following two responses for their consideration:

  • You know, it does seem logically possible that God could do that, but I think we have to admit that things that are logically possible are not always actually possible. Take my own existence for example. I clearly exist. Now we can agree that my non-existence is a logical possibility since it is possible that my parents may have never met, resulting in my never having been born. But given that I really do exist my non-existence is actually not possible. Another example is infinite numbers. An infinite number set is logically possible, but an actual infinite cannot exist.3  So, when we say that something is possible even for God, we have to recognize that there is a difference between what is logically possible for God to do and what is actually possible.

Now, when we think about the world and how human nature and decision making is a unimaginably complex web of contingent cause and effect; and given the degree of freedom that God has apparently given us, while we may say that it’s possible (logically) that he could have made meaningfully free people who always chose good, it may not have been actually possible for him to do so while still ensuring the level of freedom that we indeed have.

  • It seems that your question depends upon the term “meaningfully free”. Philosophers have lots of views on what human “freedom” means, but whatever your view doesn’t common sense seem to tell us that if God works to ensure that we always choose good, then our freedom is somehow diminished?  Doesn’t it seem that a world populated by free people of this diminished kind of freedom would be less good than a world populated by people whose greater freedom entailed the actual ability to choose evil?

Flew and Mackie’s objections notwithstanding, the general consensus even among atheist critics is that evil presents no logical problem for God’s existence. Even atheist philosopher of religion William Rowe admits that no one has succeeded in establishing a logical contradiction; rather “there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of God.”4

Most critics of God’s existence therefore tend to focus not on the logical problem, but on the existential problem of evil, (that is our experience of evil) in particular pointing to what they see as examples of gratuitous evil in the world. Hence questions like: “Where was the God of the Bible during the holocaust, or Rwanda genocide or Tsunami of 2004?” These are examples of what philosophers of religion refer to as ‘evidential’ arguments from evil against the existence of God that have been made popular in recent days by pundits such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or the late Christopher Hitchens. In our next segment we will begin looking at such evidential concerns and how we might offer a reasoned and respectful response to the questioner.

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[1]J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind 64 (1955): 209.

[2]James. K. Dew Jr., “The Logical Problem of Evil”, in God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain, ed. Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr., (Intervarsity Press, 2012) 36.

[3]See William Lane Craig, Wallace Matson and the Crude Cosmological Argument, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/wallace-matson-and-the-crude-cosmological-argument, accessed May 30, 2013. Craig supplies a brief treatment between logical and real possibilities.

[4]William L. Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”, American Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 16, No. 4, October 1979, p. 335.

2 thoughts on “God and Evil Series: A Key Objection to the Free Will Defence

  1. “Isn’t it possible that a world populated by free people of this diminished kind of freedom would be less good than a world populated by people whose greater freedom entailed the actual ability to choose evil?”

    I’m not sure that this is a biblical question, for a couple of reasons.

    The first one, is that, by definition whatever God decides to do is best. So we can’t conclude logically whether or not it is better to have a world in which people are absolutely free and evil is possible, or a world where people are less free and evil is impossible. What we need to focus on is what we are told in Scripture about the relative freedom of man.

    Second, and related, is the simple reality that there can only be one fully free being in the universe, all other beings necessarily submitting (willingly or otherwise) to that one being when conflict between the two arises.

    Third, while we like to stress the free will of man, the Bible never does. The responsibility of man, yes, but freedom, not so much. In fact, Paul, in Romans, tells us that we are either a slave to sin or a slave to Christ, but we are a slave.

    I think the only way to answer the question of evil in the world is to begin and end with the purposes of God, and to not speculate about what kind of world would be best. As R.C. Sproul has said, the Bible doesn’t tell us how exactly evil came to be, but we do know that the fact that evil does exist in the world is good because God works all things according to the counsel of His will, and no one can stay His hand or say “what have you done?”. Since God can only do good, and since He has decided to allow evil to remain in the world, then the presence of evil is a good thing (not arguing that evil itself is a good thing you understand.)

    I think the most difficult thing for us people to get our heads around is that God has a purpose for all things, and that He doesn’t ask for our input into that purpose and that, He accomplishes perfectly, whatever He sets out to do.

    It’s a difficult question for a child (or an adult) but I think I’d stay within what we know for sure. That is, Scripture doesn’t tell us how or why evil was permitted (except that, like all things, it is for the Glory of God), but it does tell us that the day is coming where, for the believer, sin will not be even a possibility. As a kid, when I wondered about such things, my core concern was “If Satan mucked it up back then, what’s to say I won’t muck it up in heaven?”.

    All that to say, I think we err by getting too concerned about how to answer the question without interfering with the free will of man rather than sticking close to Scripture even if it means (and in this case I think it must mean) saying “I don’t know honey, God never told us that.”

    • Hi Daryl

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

      The point of that question was not to show by logic that God has made the “best” world. Our affirmation of that is indeed, as you say, rooted in what we believe from Scripture to be true about God, namely his perfect goodness.

      The purpose of the question as I put it was simply to point out the logical flaw in the objection given by my questioner.
      The objection essentially states that since it is not logically impossible that a morally free being could always choose good then God could have made free people who always did choose good, and if God is truly good then he would have done so. This in essence tries to re-establish the basic objection of the Logical Argument from Evil: that God’s ‘goodness’ (as biblically affirmed) and the existence of evil (as evidentially proven) form a logical contradiction.

      The particular point of my question was simply to argue from common sense (and so maybe I should have said “Doesn’t it seem that…” rather than “Isn’t it possible…” ) that freedom of the kind that actually allows a person to choose evil, and freedom of the kind that prevents them from ever doing so are not equal. The freedom of the second kind seems inferior to the freedom of the first. (i.e. more restrictive because God would be continually intervening to stop a person just before they chose/did evil) So, even from our limited and common sense perspective, that a ‘good’ God would make a world that contains evil still does not form a logical contradiction given that a truly good God would make the best possible world, which would imply that the moral creatures he created to inhabit that world would likewise possess moral freedom of the “best possible” kind.

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