Focusing on Free Will

Free WillOne of the most common responses to the ‘problem of evil’ is the notion of free will. Very briefly, the problem of evil is this: If there exists an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God, why is there so much evil in the world? Although various attempts to answer this question have been made throughout the centuries, free will remains the one of the most prevalent. Free will, in this context, is the ability of human beings to make choices free from the constraints of prior causes.1 As the response goes, free will is important, or a great good, or necessary, such that the creation of beings with free will outweighs the evil in the world that necessarily follows as a result of the existence of these beings. We can’t take the good without the bad, but in this case, the good far outweighs the bad.

However, for orthodox Christians who believe the Bible, this response poses some strange dilemmas. I’d like to point out a few of these and explain why they are so problematic.

The Convenience of Compulsion

Moses and Pharaoh

Actual photograph of Moses and Pharaoh

First, God doesn’t seem to think that free will is all that important. At various times throughout the Bible, God violates the free will of individuals. For example, when Moses asked Pharaoh to release the Israelites from Egypt, God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart so that he could have a reason to send the ten plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7:3-5ff; Romans 9:17-18). God also made Balaam (yes, the guy with the talking donkey) speak blessings on Israel when his orders were to curse them (Numbers 23-24; see especially Numbers 24:13). Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” Jesus himself said to his disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven'” (Mark 4:11-12). In other words, even for those who choose to try to understand Jesus’ parables, God will make sure they don’t understand. This pattern continues into the end times, where God will deceive the people who are destined to perish so that they won’t change their minds and be saved: “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned” (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12). Similarly, to make sure that God’s plans for the end of the world come to pass, he will make people follow ‘the beast’: “For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled” (Revelation 17:17).

All these passages seem to indicate that God is not all that concerned with free will. When it doesn’t suit his purposes, he is perfectly okay with discarding it. Keep in mind that this is the same God who offers eternal bliss to those who follow him and threatens unbelievers with eternal torture. Such coercion is not consistent with a God who thinks that free will is one of the highest goods in the world, such that it is worth the vast amount of evil it can bring about. He seems to honour free will only as long as people act consistently with his will (which, of course, isn’t always a matter of having everyone do good things all the time, since he is compelling people to follow ‘the beast’ just so he can kill them off later). So it is difficult to use free will as the ultimate wild card that justifies any amount of evil, when God himself takes it away when he wishes to bring about good or evil. An all-loving God of this sort who consistently wished for the greatest amount of good in the world would simply take away free will when people were about to choose evil, and only allow free will when they were about to choose good.

The Necessity of Negativity

Chocolate VanillaBut let’s set God’s purported actions aside for a little bit and move onto a second dilemma. When I have discussed this issue with Christians, they commonly state that free will requires a choice between good and evil. In other words, the ability to do evil is a necessary part of free will; if we can’t choose to do evil, we don’t truly have free will at all. But is this really the case? First, it is clear that there are some things we are not able to choose. For example, we cannot choose the parents to which we are born, or the country in which we are born, or the abilities we have. Second, there are a multitude of non-moral choices that do not involve a ‘good’ or ‘evil’ choice. For example, when I am buying ice cream, I have the choice between chocolate and vanilla (among others). Neither one of these is inherently right or wrong, and my choice does not involve the ability to do evil. Yet, it is a free choice. Clearly, then, the ability to choose evil is not an inherent part of free will itself. It is perfectly consistent to say that one has free will and yet cannot choose an evil action.

So, why couldn’t God have set up the world so that we were only able to choose actions that were not evil? If he already puts us in situations where we have no choice, and he already provides us with numerous situations that involve no good or evil choice, why not create a world where humans must choose good when morality is involved, yet allow totally free choice for non-moral actions? Some might say this type of free will would be trivial. But considering the number of actions we choose every day that are not inherently right or wrong, it seems that the largest percentage of our free will would still remain intact. And while some non-moral choices might be trivial, let’s not forget that there are moral choices that involve multiple good options. For example, I can consider which charity to donate a certain sum of money. This is certainly not a trivial choice! Yet in a case where all the charities would do some good, my choice does not involve an option to do evil, and yet I could freely choose which one to give my money. God could easily have set up a world where evil options were “off the table”, so to speak, but still allowed us to freely choose between a multiplicity of neutral or good options. Thus, it seems free will is not an adequate answer to why so much evil exists in the world.

The Personality of Purity

Hypostatic Union

Hypostatic union. See also "contradiction."

Let me end off with one final dilemma. It is related to the previous one, but it branches off in a different direction. First, however, we must answer this question: Did Jesus have free will? I’d suspect most Christians that believe in free will would say that he did. Now, let me ask a second question: Could Jesus have chosen to do evil? I would suspect that in this case, most Christians would say that he could not (or would not). It would contradict his nature as an all-loving divine being. If your answers are the same, then, then you must acknowledge that it is possible for a being to have free will, yet also have a nature or character that precludes him/her from ever choosing evil. If such a being is possible, why did God not create humans like that? I’m not saying that he would need to make us divine like Jesus, but he could create us with a character or disposition that vastly propels us toward good actions. Or alternately, he could make the act of doing evil so distasteful to us that we would simply never choose to do it. Either way, we would be beings with free will, yet we would not choose to do evil.

If that doesn’t convince you, let’s take another example. Do people have free will in heaven? I would suspect so, given the idea that free will is apparently a good thing, and given that a God who has to force his own followers to worship him for eternity seems pretty pathetic. But heaven is also apparently a place where evil does not occur. So, in order to be consistent with these two statements, it seems that it is possible for God to create beings that simultaneously have free will and yet do not choose evil. This means that some explanation must be offered for why God would create us the way we are (where many of us choose to do evil and some even quite enjoy doing it) instead of in this other possible way. Both possibilities retain free will, yet one would have vastly reduced the amount of evil in the world—which would be more consistent with an all-loving God who wishes for good things for his children.

Conclusion

Free will comicIn summary, then, free will doesn’t necessitate the existence of evil, and so God could have either created us without the ability to choose evil, or with no desire to do evil. But he didn’t, and apparently he doesn’t even seem to think free will is all that important anyway. All three of these dilemmas challenge the notion that free will is an adequate response to the problem of evil. An all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God would have created a world with the most possible good and least possible evil. The fact that there seem to be plausible alternatives that would have decreased the amount of evil without taking away the ‘good’ of free will is inconsistent with this. Thus, free will does not justify the existence of such evil, and cannot be used to solve the problem of evil. Christians must look for other ways to resolve the issue.

Notes:

  1. This is, of course, a very simplified definition of free will, and it should be noted that there are numerous different explanations of just what free will is and whether we have it or not. I am essentially using a definition that is consistent with metaphysical libertarianism, but I think my arguments hold even for weaker forms of free will. []

12 responses to “Focusing on Free Will”

OvertOddity

It still baffles me how believers can still claim that both human agency and divine omniscience are real. Even my cat could tell them the two things are logically incompatible. To date I am yet to receive an answer from a believer to the question of whether we are free to act in a way that will surprise god, diverging from the divine master plan of which the alleged deity is supposed to have perfect a priori knowledge.

Jeff

Hi OvertOddity,

That’s a good point, and one that I didn’t bring up here. But I think you’re right…how God’s omniscience is reconciled with our apparent ability to make absolutely free choices is beyond me. I don’t think the average Christian has really thought about it at all. I do enjoy the approach of the “open theists”, though, who say that God knows all that can be known, but that the future choices of free agents cannot be known. I think that’s probably the most coherent answer I’ve ever heard, although it means giving up one of the primary divine attributes. So I doubt it will become very popular…

Anyway, thanks for the comment!

kaj

Jeff,

I stumbled upon your blog. First impressions are that you are definately one to look at the glass half empty. But nonetheless, I appreciate your willingness to express our views to the internet world leaving yourself open for ridicule.

Your argument, is basically “why would an all knowing, all loving, and all loving God allow bad things to happen.”

I don’t know. But I do no that God suffered. You in your “Personality of Purity” section highlighted an argument about the divinity and humanity of Christ. But you neglected to highlight the argument that Christ, was God. That is what is beautiful and amazing about the Christian narrative and story, Christ, the human form of God, entered humanity, became fully man, fully human, and took on the greatest suffering.

A great Christian writer of our time, Tim Keller, writes this,

“The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death. The physical pain was nothing compared to the spiritual experiences of cosmic abandonment. Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment. On the cross he went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power excels ours. In his death, God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and godforsaken. Why did he do it? The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us. … If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself. … So, if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the Cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth.”

God is not above our suffering, God took on suffering and endured suffering.

Why did God choose to allow us the choice to choose evil? Maybe because if he didn’t give us a choice, we would never know the love that God has for humanity. If evil was never part of this world, never part of our vocabulary, never part of our choices, then we could never experience goodness and love.

We reject God but the greatest mystery is that God looks past our rejection, enters humanity, and becomes one of us and endures evil and suffering.

Jeff

Hi kaj! Thanks for commenting.

First impressions are that you are definately one to look at the glass half empty.

Haha, well…I’d tend to call myself a realist. Sometimes life sucks. But sometimes it is awesome. No sense in pretending it’s always awesome, but no sense in denying it when it is 🙂

Your argument, is basically “why would an all knowing, all loving, and all loving God allow bad things to happen.”

Well, that wasn’t really the point I was making. That argument is well-known as the “problem of evil.” My argument was that free will was not an adequate answer to this problem. But anyways, I’ll let you carry on.

To be honest, I’m not sure what’s so “beautiful” about a story where God sends his own son to be tortured and murdered. Especially when he was the one who made the rules in the first place! Why couldn’t he just have forgiven us without all that hassle? Or if the death was all that was needed, why not have Jesus die peacefully in his sleep? Christians love to talk voluminously about what a sacrifice Jesus made and how necessary it was. But frankly, I don’t buy it anymore. The story makes little sense, and it’s a wonder I believed it for so long. Tim Keller can talk all he likes about how painful “cosmic abandonment” must be, but it’s just speculation. And a God who sets things up so that people are continually causing pain to each other, and the world continually causes pain to them, and then to fix it all, he sends his son down so that more pain happens…such a God seems to have a sadistic bent. And masochistic too, I suppose, since Jesus was God as well.

The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us.

Again, God apparently made up the rules in the first place, so saying that he “had to” do anything is ridiculous. He could have set things up from the very beginning so that sin did not require a blood sacrifice. And of course, it’s all well and good to say he’ll “someday” end evil and suffering, but why the long wait? Why would he create the world, watch Adam and Eve sin, then wait several thousand years before doing anything about it, and then wait several thousand years more before actually resolving the problem completely? I know the whole “a thousand years are like a day to God” speech, but he clearly understands that we live in human time, and billions of us have been suffering for thousands of years while he waits for…….what? Saying “but he suffered with us!” really doesn’t make any difference.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we have a being who apparently loves us, apparently has the power to end suffering once and for all, and who apparently knows we are suffering. If any human parent let their child suffer needlessly while they stood back and watched, we’d call Child Services and take the children away from them! Sorry, but God doesn’t get a free pass on ethics. If he has the power to end something bad and doesn’t end it, then he is acting unethically. Regardless of whether he “suffered with us.”

Why did God choose to allow us the choice to choose evil? Maybe because if he didn’t give us a choice, we would never know the love that God has for humanity. If evil was never part of this world, never part of our vocabulary, never part of our choices, then we could never experience goodness and love.

I hope you realize just how messed up that answer really is. Again, if any human parent allowed their child to run out into the street and get hit by a car just so that they could “know the parent’s love for them”, we would take the children away. If God is really allowing us to suffer just so we make sure to acknowledge his love, then he is an abusive parent. I want nothing to do with a God like that.

Anyway, I know I’ve been fairly harsh, but at the same time, I do appreciate your comment. Thanks!

Jeff

Kaj

Jeff,

Thanks for the reply.

Jeff you have this idea that I think your Sunday school teacher failed to correct. God and Jesus are not like myself and my son. God and Jesus are one. (trinity). If there was a being “god” and a being “Jesus” I would get your point on how ridiculous the christian narrative is.

But the biblical truth is that God and Jesus are one. God became man. So it’s not God acting out child sacrifice, but God dying and suffering for the very beings he created and gave free will to, to choose him or not.

Sure God could have made us to always choose ‘good’ and never do bad things and to choose to have faith in him. But then you wouldn’t be an atheist. :).

It would be like me controlling my son and making him love and follow my rules. To him I become a dictator.

Why would you want God to not allow evil? You would never then be able to experience the God of love, grace, mercy and you would only know the God who is a dictator.

Jeff

Kaj,

I’m aware that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are apparently three persons yet one God. Unfortunately, introducing a paradox to explain a dilemma does nothing to help you. Whether it was God sending his son or God sending himself to suffer and die is really quite trivial. He is still the person who makes the rules, and why he would make the rules so that he then has to go kill himself/his Son is still bizarre.

I also don’t understand how making beings that freely choose (and note that “freely” is key) to do good is being a dictator. God has already restricted our choices in many areas: for instance, I am biologically incapable of choosing to flap my arms and fly into the sky. Yet nobody accuses God of being a dictator for restricting us in this area. There are also choices that we have that nevertheless we would never choose to do. I have the choice to purchase a gun, march into a crowded mall and start killing people. But such a choice is so abhorrent to me that I would never do so. Why couldn’t God create us with such a distaste for evil that we would simply never choose to do it? That’s not dictatorship, that’s just creating nice people. He would still be “allowing” evil, but the incidence of evil would still be greatly reduced.

So why would I want God not to allow evil? I’m not arguing for that at all. I’m arguing, by the Bible’s own account, it is logically possible for there to be a person who has free will yet freely chooses never to do evil. His name was Jesus. Thus we know it is possible for such people to exist. Yet God specifically did not create the rest of us the same way. Instead of free beings who choose good, he made free beings that do both good and bad. Thus, God made an intentional choice in favour of more evil in the world than is necessary. That conflicts with the idea that God is “all-loving”.

OvertOddity

“Why would you want God to not allow evil? You would never then be able to experience the God of love, grace, mercy and you would only know the God who is a dictator.”

Lack of evidence for any god aside, the argument is essentially a reformulation of the old, tired adage that you need to know evil to know good. It never made sense and that’s not going to change. In a world without evil, the requirements for human well-being would not change. They simply would need no explicit formulation because they would be the default condition. Goodness would not feel any less intense for lack of knowledge of a contrary state.

kaj

God has already restricted our choices in many areas: for instance, I am biologically incapable of choosing to flap my arms and fly into the sky. Yet nobody accuses God of being a dictator for restricting us in this area.

If you believe that argument you are an idiot. You can’t say “God controls my life, because he made me without wings.” You can’t say “God controls my life, because he made biologically incapable of not having to eat food and water.” If God created you with wings, you would argue, that God should have created me without wings. The argument you just made might be the dumbest thing I have ever heard an atheist, no wait, a person make.

I have the choice to purchase a gun, march into a crowded mall and start killing people. But such a choice is so abhorrent to me that I would never do so.

Once again, you prove to be a naive, wannabe “thinker”. To argue that you would never pick up a gun is absurd. I am pretty sure, some of the killers of our day, once made the same argument. You are very capable of being a mass murder. To make the argument that you would never choose evil is to put yourself in the place of “God.” I am confident that some point in your short life you have done evil, that you said you would never do, and if, well since, that is the case, you have already discredited your argument. And since that is the case who and what is to say that you would never commit murder or another such crime.

Why couldn’t God create us with such a distaste for evil that we would simply never choose to do it? That’s not dictatorship, that’s just creating nice people. He would still be “allowing” evil, but the incidence of evil would still be greatly reduced.

Ya but why would God create us for a distaste of evil, and make us all goodie goodies. The problem is that we would then have no need for God if we are all good. We would become our own God and not in need of having a relationship with God, which in return would become the “greatest evil.” – rejection of God.

God made an intentional choice in favour of more evil in the world than is necessary. That conflicts with the idea that God is “all-loving”.

So your argument is that love is the absense of evil? Prove to me that this is a correct definition of love. For good to be understood one must understand evil. For me to appreciate the element of light, I must also know what happens when light does not exist, that being darkness. Absense of evil is not an argument for the absense of love. Maybe you have a misunderstanding of love…or maybe you’ve never been in love…

Jeff

If you believe that argument you are an idiot. You can’t say “God controls my life, because he made me without wings.” You can’t say “God controls my life, because he made biologically incapable of not having to eat food and water.” If God created you with wings, you would argue, that God should have created me without wings. The argument you just made might be the dumbest thing I have ever heard an atheist, no wait, a person make.

Thank you for your knee-jerk response. But you completely missed the point of what I was trying to say. Free will is not the ability to do anything—which is why, like I said before, “nobody accuses God of being a dictator” for making us with certain constraints. So it’s up to you to demonstrate why free will must include the ability to do good and evil. There’s no logical necessity to it, so if you want to argue that if God didn’t let us do evil he would be a dictator, it’s up to you to present an argument for it. Or, you could continue to miss my point and call me stupid instead. I don’t really care.

To argue that you would never pick up a gun is absurd. … You are very capable of being a mass murder.

I was aware when I wrote it that I can’t predict with absolute certainty that there would never be a situation where I would go on a shooting spree. So sure. But I picked a situation where I was reasonably certain that my own personality would make me highly unlikely to do so. I’m not stating, like you say, that I have never “done evil, that you said you would never do”. I’m stating specifically that I would (most likely) never go on a shooting spree in a mall. And just because I may have done one type of evil, that in no way implies that I’m capable of doing any evil that one could ever dream up.

To make the argument that you would never choose evil is to put yourself in the place of “God.”

If you read what I actually wrote instead of making things up, you would see that I never claimed that I “would never choose evil.” Stop putting words in my mouth.

Ya but why would God create us for a distaste of evil, and make us all goodie goodies. The problem is that we would then have no need for God if we are all good. We would become our own God and not in need of having a relationship with God, which in return would become the “greatest evil.” – rejection of God.

Wow, so God intentionally makes us capable of evil so that we need God. Why the hell would I ever want to be in a relationship with such a person, who specifically makes sure I am not as good as I could be just so he can keep me weak and dependent on him? Most parents try to raise their children to grow up into well-adjusted adults that can reason for themselves. Apparently God wants to keep us perpetually in a state of infancy. What a terrible parent.

So your argument is that love is the absense of evil? Prove to me that this is a correct definition of love.

Again, that’s not what I said. Are you literate? I said nothing about the definition of love. Being an “all-loving” person means that every choice God makes must be the most loving option available. If you’d like to argue that God is being the most loving by ensuring that we suffer from more evil than necessary, go right ahead. But that seems to be inconsistent to me.

For good to be understood one must understand evil. For me to appreciate the element of light, I must also know what happens when light does not exist, that being darkness.

So answer me this then: Is it more important to be good, or to understand good in an abstract sense? Or to use an analogy, is it more important to be able to breathe air, or to understand what exact stuff air is composed of? You’re trying to tell me that God allows evil just so we can appreciate what good is. But that’s perverse. It’s like holding a gun to someone’s head just so they can appreciate it more when somebody is not holding a gun to their head.

OvertOddity

For good to be understood one must understand evil.

I hate re-posting my own posts, but hey, what the hell.

Lack of evidence for any god aside, the argument is essentially a reformulation of the old, tired adage that you need to know evil to know good. It never made sense and that’s not going to change. In a world without evil, the requirements for human well-being would not change. They simply would need no explicit formulation because they would be the default condition. Goodness would not feel any less intense for lack of knowledge of a contrary state.

Brian

As humans, we can’t know the full picture. We can only speculate. That is my view. No one can claim with certainty that they know the biblical God with the certainty that they know themselves.

The prelude to the discussion bears thinking about though. There is really no way to sugar-coat it, looking at it from our perspective (we really don’t have any other perspective with which to view it from). It seems that the evil in this world is directly attributed to the biblical God, whether be omission or commission (being that He is at least either omniscient or omnipotent or both). Like the writer notes, there can be a world in which we freely choose vanilla ice-cream over chocolate and really never need to know the horror of killing people. There was really no need, if the story was indeed factual, for the proverbial Tree of Knowledge for mankind to enjoy the goodness of the biblical God. Although I view it as highly suspicious, the Mormon belief closely mirrors what christians ought to be believing in order to sell the ‘we need to be like God’ idea of salvation.

The fact, as I see it, is that God, either by Himself or through His Son or through someone else who eventually became His Son, did not need to make any sacrifice if God got the creation perfectly. That a sacrifice was required means the system was created that way, period. Either God created the system that way, or He met it that way (in which case we may have to find who the original creator is/was). There is really no way to dodge this outcome. Either way, evil exists and there is no need crying over spilt milk.

The only people who can manage the evil is us. Feel free to say God is working through us, but as far as we don’t see a powerful indication of that, it remains exactly what it is – a belief. This belief may be true for all intents and purposes, we don’t know for sure. My view is that if it is, the sooner we get God actively and visibly (not through proxies) taking care of this annoying habit, the better for us as a species. Else, we are all we’ve got.

Jeff

Hi Brian,

Thanks for the interesting comment. I think you’re right about the salvation story: If God originally created the world as perfect, there would have been no need for a sacrifice unless that sacrifice somehow “enhanced” the perfection of the world. But seeing as the sacrifice was intended to atone for the millions of evil acts that have been performed, it is hard to make that argument. Either God wasn’t able to create a perfect world (perfect in the sense of “maximizing good”), or he didn’t want to, or there is no God to have created anything in the first place. The common response to this is the free will argument, but as mentioned in the article, I think that argument fails badly.

Of course, you mention that it’d be nice if God would deal with this evil directly. But given the thousands of years of recorded history which include gratuitous violence and evil of every imaginable variety, I’m not going to hold my breath for a divine intervention. So in the end, I think you’re right: “We are all we’ve got.”

Thanks again for the comment!

Jeff

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