One 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
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
But 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
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.
In 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.
- 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. [↩]