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The free-will defense is an argument commonly attributed to Alvin Plantinga, who developed it as a response to the logical problem of evil. However, in developing this argument Plantinga unwittingly ended up reinventing/rediscovering the Molinist doctrine of middle knowledge, so the key ideas of the argument are not entirely novel, and people have certainly come up with similar defenses independently more than once.

The Wikipedia article includes a summary of the argument:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can't cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren't significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can't give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God's omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.

I have the following objection to this argument:

  • If human beings were created in the image of God and have free will, then it follows that God also has free will.
  • Likewise, if human beings, in virtue of having free will, are capable of moral evil, then God, in virtue of having free will, must also be capable of moral evil.
  • However, if God is omnibenevolent, He is not capable of moral evil.
  • So it looks like we have a contradiction between the last two points.

Said in another way, if God can have free will and be incapable of moral evil at the same time, then why would God create human beings that have free will and yet are not incapable of moral evil at the same time?

In other words, God is a counterexample to the claim that free will necessarily entails being vulnerable to moral evil, since God has free will and yet is not vulnerable to it, and so one wonders why God would create free creatures that are not immune to moral evil, just like He is.

How do proponents of the free will defense against the problem of evil resolve this conundrum?



Based on some of the comments received, I will try to write a more formal and rigorous version of the objection:

Premises

  • P1: God is omnibenevolent
  • P2: God is omnibenevolent => God is not capable of moral evil
  • P3: God has free will
  • P4: God has free will => God is capable of moral evil

Deductions

  • D1: God is not capable of moral evil (from P1 & P2)
  • D2: God is capable of moral evil (from P3 & P4)
  • Contradiction between D1 & D2 (=><=)

Defense of the premises

  • P1 (God is omnibenevolent) is probably uncontested. Pretty much everyone concedes this as an axiom in the definition of God.
  • P2 (God is omnibenevolent => God is not capable of moral evil) should be uncontroversial as well. God cannot do evil. It's impossible/unfeasible for Him. It just won't happen.
  • P3 (God has free will) is based on the intuition that if humans (and angels) have free will, it would be very strange for God not to have free will as well. One could reject this premise and claim that, perhaps, God is a deterministic being who created free creatures. Sure, one could hold such a view, but it would be a very novel (and strange) one, wouldn't it?
  • P4 (God has free will => God is capable of moral evil) is based on the same intuition used by the free-will defense against the problem of evil. If evil is explained as an undesired price of having creatures with free will (which God was willing to pay because of how valuable free will is), then what the defense is basically saying is that free will => capable of moral evil. So P4 is just a particular application of that rule to God, if we concede that God has free will.

If anyone is interested in further objections to the free-will defense against the problem of evil, feel free (no pun intended) to pay a visit to this question on Philosophy Stack Exchange.

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  • I offered an answer that builds upon the question you asked of Mason Wheeler's answer. I think he pretty effectively responded to the proposed contradiction between bullets 2 & 3, so my focus was on the follow up question. Jun 13, 2023 at 5:31
  • 2
    The argument breaks apart as soon as we realize that "created in the image of God" is not the same as "created to be an exact replica of God".
    – vsz
    Jun 13, 2023 at 5:40
  • Are you interested in a very denomination-specific answer to the question "why did God not create human beings which are free and have perfect character?" (My faith's view on that question will be rather different from other denominations) Jun 13, 2023 at 5:52
  • 1
    @IsaacMiddlemiss: Without evidence, there is no reason to believe that you're capable of maiming yourself. More pointedly: suppose I have $5 in my pocket and I want to buy something which is $3 and also something which is $4. I am capable of buying both of them by your setup, but there aren't any possible futures which include both purchases. (This is a common problem in these syllogisms: omnipotence interacts poorly with conjunctions.)
    – Corbin
    Jun 13, 2023 at 15:25
  • 2
    I don't see why infinite power does not include infinite willpower.
    – Joshua
    Jun 13, 2023 at 17:40

9 Answers 9

8

This question is answered directly in the text of the Bible.

14 Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.

15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.

-- Hebrews chapter 4

The "missing link" here is character. God has free will, and is fully capable of being tempted and enticed to do evil, but consistently chooses to use that free will in benevolent and righteous ways. In this, and particularly through the example of the life of his son, Jesus Christ, he teaches us how to use our free will in benevolent and righteous ways as well.

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  • 4
    Then one could ask the follow-up question "then why did God not create human beings which are free and have perfect character?"
    – Mark
    Jun 12, 2023 at 19:13
  • @Mark The One he begat (the only begotten) was perfect. Those he created are only creatures, not divine. Redemption was ever a necessity in order to 'bring many sons to glory'.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 12, 2023 at 20:20
  • @NigelJ Interesting perspective. Would you like to post an answer?
    – Mark
    Jun 12, 2023 at 20:30
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    @Mark I would not be suitable to answer the OP question as I am not a 'proponent' as described nor do I support that view. The question is, in my view, erroneous in suggesting that humanity has free will in the first place (which time has proven to be false) and then draws the false conclusion that the Creator therefore must be as his creation (a doubly false assertion). What is revealed is the righteousness of God. And what is revealed is that humanity believes . . . . unto righteousness (but not possessing it as such). Justification by faith is the gospel - not man's 'free will'.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 13, 2023 at 8:29
  • 3
    "God has free will, and is fully capable of being tempted and enticed to do evil" Scripture says the exact opposite: James 1:13. Jun 27, 2023 at 13:00
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You're switching your morality definitions between your premises.

One counter to your premises that shows this comes from divine command theory which, essentially, states that God's will is the definition of moral good. This is then also the definition of good which defines the omni-benevolence of God.

This means that premise 4 doesn't necessarily follow. Yes God has free will and could choose to do many things that non-christian morality would deem evil but not by the definition of good we're using for omni-benevolence.

There is no restriction in action, only in definition. Boiling your question down you're asking "Could God wish to do a thing that is against God's will." which is a logical discrepancy. In this framework God is not good in some external sense that you or I may be considered good, God is good in a definitive sense. Goodness is God (by the definitions of divine command theory).

Hope this helps clear things up.

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  • 2
    Interesting take, but this assumes that DCT is true. If God randomly starts feeling like rape is great, would that mean that rape is great? Now, if you claim that rape goes against God's character, then you are introducing a new variable, and then I would object that why didn't God create us with that same character to begin with?
    – Mark
    Jun 13, 2023 at 9:36
  • 1
    Moreover, DCT is not the only view of divine ethics. One possible alternative is Divine Motivation Theory (DMT)
    – Mark
    Jun 13, 2023 at 14:15
  • 2
    @Mark It isn't that DCT is the only possibility - more that I'm using DCT as a way to highlight the way in which your premises may not be the closed loop you might imagine them to be. Jun 13, 2023 at 16:20
  • 1
    @Mark If 1 were equal to 2, would that mean that 1 is even?
    – user76284
    Jun 14, 2023 at 0:35
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5

To paraphrase an idea from Dale Renlund, God does not simply want us to be well-behaved pets in the celestial living room, but to be full heirs of His glory (see Romans 8:17).

This life, then, is a preparation for that future state described in 1 John 3:

2 Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.

3 And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.

God's plan offers a means for fallen people like us to be transformed into the kind of people described by John. The fallen world we live in is a refiner's fire which, if properly applied, serves to develop and refine us. The refiner's fire wasn't plan B because things went south in Eden -- it was the original plan. The future state described by John is a place we haven't reached yet.

God is already there--He is pure. He has no guile. He doesn't get tricked or succumb to temptation. That which He intends, He does. My faith teaches that the first principal of the Gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Holy writ & personal inspiration give us reason to place our faith in Him. As already noted by Mason Wheeler, Jesus was tempted and yet did no sin. There's no incompatibility in a Being having free will, and consistently using it to do good. That's a skill God is teaching us.

God doesn't create human beings which are free and have perfect character [at the outset] for the same reason He doesn't create square circles--a spiritually immature recipient of eternal life is a contradiction in terms. Like a good father training up a son before giving him great responsibility (see Matthew 25:14-30), God is preparing us for what He wants to give us. Character is something that is being painstakingly developed in us (refiners fire) at great cost (the blood of God) so that we can inherit eternal life.

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  • 2
    "God doesn't create human beings which are free and have perfect character [at the outset] for the same reason He doesn't create square circles--a spiritually immature recipient of eternal life is a contradiction in terms." Two questions (or more actually): 1) Can you please show explicitly where the contradiction in terms exists? I'm not seeing it. 2) Wouldn't this apply to God as well? Wouldn't it follow from this that God Himself started out without a perfect character at the outset and that He had to go through a maturing process as well? But isn't God supposed to be timeless?
    – Mark
    Jun 13, 2023 at 8:19
  • 2
    I just edited the question to make the contradiction I'm arguing for more evident.
    – Mark
    Jun 13, 2023 at 9:10
  • 1
    @Mark re 1) I believe this is addressed in Matt 25:21. Re 2) if so, we might have to start asking questions about an infinite regress =). This doesn't bother me but it's theologically contentious territory. When I've got some time I can write a more theologically specific answer. Jun 13, 2023 at 16:11
4

Evil is defined as 'contrary to God's will' ergo it is impossible for God to be evil and his having free will has no effect on this.

The point often at issue is in fact this definition of evil. Satanists, atheists, self-is-God Marxists, self-is-God Humanists, self-is-God New Age hippies and those of many more religions will all happily tell you that some will or act of God is evil but they are using a different (subjective) definition of evil. Usually 'anything I disagree with strongly'.

2
  • 4
    @IsaacMiddlemiss Then this answer is no different than Lio's answer that espouses Divine Command Theory, which makes morality just an arbitrary decision of God's will.
    – Mark
    Jun 13, 2023 at 14:51
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Christianity Meta, or in Christianity Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 14, 2023 at 2:05
3

This is an old question which St. Thomas Aquinas deals with in the Summa Theologiae; more specifically, at I, q. 19, a. 10, ad 2 ("Whether God has free-will?):

Objection 2. Further, free-will is the faculty of the reason and will, by which good and evil are chosen. But God does not will evil, as has been said (Article 9). Therefore there is not free-will in God.

[...]

I answer that, We have free-will with respect to what we will not of necessity, nor be natural instinct. For our will to be happy does not appertain to free-will, but to natural instinct. Hence other animals, that are moved to act by natural instinct, are not said to be moved by free-will. Since then God necessarily wills His own goodness, but other things not necessarily, as shown above (Article 3), He has free will with respect to what He does not necessarily will.

[...]

Reply to Objection 2. Since the evil of sin consists in turning away from the divine goodness, by which God wills all things, as above shown (De Fide ii, 3), it is manifestly impossible for Him to will the evil of sin; yet He can make choice of one of two opposites, inasmuch as He can will a thing to be, or not to be. In the same way we ourselves, without sin, can will to sit down, and not will to sit down.

Free will only applies to what does not come out of necessity. God, by His very nature, is necessarily (and perfectly) good, and therefore God wills His own goodness not freely but out of necessity. However, there are things which God does not do out of necessity but voluntarily, such as creation, which He could have or have not done (as explained in the aforementioned Article 3). This is enough for God to have free will. Creatures can't be necessarily good, they can always fall away from perfection one way or another, therefore all creatures with free will (i.e. angels and humans) can freely fall away from good. Similarly, there also are things which rational creatures will out of necessity rather than voluntarily (cf. ST I, q. 83, a. 1, ad 5). In either case, free will isn't absolute in the sense that everything willed is free.

But, in sum, the free will of God and the free will of creatures are not exactly the same. What applies to one does not necessarily apply to the other, and this is very important to remember when analyzing God's attributes in general.

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  • Interesting distinction, but then one is left wondering why God would create creatures that don't do good out of necessity, if He Himself does good out of necessity. Why the asymmetry in this regard?
    – Mark
    Jun 13, 2023 at 15:30
  • 1
    @Mark to be perfectly and necessarily good is to be a purely actual being i.e. God, of which only one can exist. The reason why can hardly be explained satisfactorily in comments but check out ST I, q. 11, a. 3 and, if you're interested in a lengthier exposition, the book "Five Proofs for the Existence of God" by Edward Feser (Ch. 6 has specifically a section on perfect goodness being an attribute exclusive of God).
    – Mutoh
    Jun 13, 2023 at 15:37
2

Your issue, as you might expect, is with premise 4.

A being with free will does not necessarily need to be capable of moral evil. The free will defense doesn't require this premise, and you're right in raising this objection to a version of the free will argument that attempts to use it.

As Plantinga says in The Nature of Necessity, "A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all." This is the premise required to uphold the free will argument, and take care to note that the premise doesn't apply to God Himself. This degree of freedom, which includes the freedom to choose moral evil, is presented as a valuable quality for creatures to posses, but not as something which God must posses.


A couple of footnotes about free will, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence

It's important to get these terms right, or otherwise we can start constructing arguments that don't work the way we think they do. Free will is not in itself the ability to choose anything at all. Clearly there are options which are either logically impossible or physically impossible for us to choose. Instead, we can only make choices within the bounds of our nature. The free will defense does not require or expect that all beings have the ability to choose moral evil, though in Christian thinking it's certainly the norm to believe that all created beings have free will that doesn't include an inherent omnibenevolence. (Interestingly, this suggests that there is a radical preference for created beings to be able to freely choose God, so much so that God hadn't even bothered to create beings which were themselves omnibenevolent in nature)

God's free will does not include the ability to choose evil because it is inherently incompatible with His own substance. This does not, properly understood, contradict with his omnipotence. God is no less free or less powerful by abstaining from exercising his power towards evil. Omnibenevolence is not a limit on God's power, but a direction towards which that power is aimed.

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The logical argument


The OP presents a logically valid argument to show a contradiction between God having free will and God being omnibenevolent. However, the argument is not sound because premise 2 is false.

Premise 2 (God is omnibenevolent => God is not capable of moral evil) is an untenable definition of omnibenevolent--it in fact begs the very question the argument is trying to evaluate. If God expressed love, provided aid, and sustained life simply because He couldn't not do those things, He would be no more benevolent than oxygen, which also sustains life...but is not benevolent.

Oxford languages defines benevolent as "well-meaning and kindly". Something which sustains life because it is compelled to do so by the laws of nature may be useful, but it fails to demonstrate any evidence of benevolence. For a more down-to-earth example, we might consider how we would feel if someone did a great service for us (oh, how benevolent!), only to learn that they were coerced into doing so (it no longer appears benevolent at all). Neither oxygen nor someone forced into a service project are well-meaning & kindly. It is a category error to assume Christians use "benevolent" to describe a God who is loving, merciful etc. because He is compelled to do so.

God is benevolent because He has free will and chooses to do things that are well-meaning and kindly.


Why not create humans with perfect character


The follow up question--why human beings are not created with a perfect character from the outset?--is heavily influenced by one's specific theology. This post will answer the question from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Pre-mortal Existence

My denomination teaches that we existed as spirits prior to physical birth. As taught in The Family - A Proclamation to the World:

In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshipped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize their divine destiny as heirs of eternal life.

We had not then developed to the point we are at now, and we are not now everything we can become.

--

Creation ex-nihilo

My denomination does not believe in creation ex-nihilo (the downvote button is above and to the left) with respect to the universe generally or humankind specifically (a brief discussion of creation ex-nihilo here, a longer discussion here).

I believe that God creates by organizing, separating, & transforming. In almost every context this is what is meant by the word "create". To create is to take something that already exists and transform it. In another post I wrote about the concept of an "eternal self" - that there is a fundamental part of us that has always existed and will never cease to exist. We are eternal beings: we grow and develop, but we do not begin or end.

Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. (Doctrine & Covenants 93:29)

The elements are eternal (Doctrine & Covenants 93:33)

--

Theosis

My faith is unique in its understanding of theosis. We believe that we are the spirit children of God and that we can become like Him. We believe very literally Paul's statement "And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ" (Romans 16:9, see also 1 John 3:2-3, Moroni 7:48).

Theologian and former Brigham Young University Dean of Religion Robert Millet has written:

Latter-day Saints do not believe that human beings will ever be independent of God, or that they will ever cease to be subordinate to God. They believe that to become as God means to overcome the world through the atonement of Jesus Christ (see 1 John 5:4—5; Revelation 2:7, 11). Thus the faithful become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ and will inherit all things just as Christ inherits all things...There are no limitations on these scriptural declarations; those who become as God shall inherit all things (see here p.15)

The Church's statement on the topic can be found in the essay: Becoming Like God.

--

Conclusion

God's plan is not one in which we were created out of nothing -- some essential part of who we are has always existed and God met us where we were. It is a merciful plan in which it is possible for someone to become more than they were in the past or are in the present. If the only things that could have perfect character were those which started with perfect character, we'd be talking about a much less hopeful plan and a much less powerful God.

Why didn't God create humans with perfect character? Because we already had character and it wasn't perfect. We are eternal beings. God has endowed our "eternal selves" with spiritual & physical faculties, but He has not and does not compel us to change our character. His plan provides us with the opportunity for the transformation of our character, if we are willing.

The great miracle of this plan is not that God creates something that does what He wants it to do, but that He can take someone that does not do what He wants them to do, and develop, teach, lead, and coach them to do as He does of their own volition, and that for those willing to walk that path, God has the power to make them as He is.


Post-script

This post might naturally lead to follow-up questions about how & why the nature of God is what it is. This appears to be outside the scope of the original question, but may make for a useful follow up question.


Disclaimer: these thoughts are the product of my own study and do not constitute official statements by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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  • Thanks HTTR for your second answer. It's interesting that other answers concede premise 2 but reject premise 4. Looks like there is no consensus among Christians about how to solve these apparent contradictions.
    – Mark
    Jun 26, 2023 at 0:16
  • @Mark I have some qualms with the way premise 4 is presented, and I'm not convinced that premise 4 is true. But premise 2 was much easier to challenge =) Jun 27, 2023 at 2:18
1

Your argument is based on two misconceptions, first, God is incapable of committing evil, and second is the mis-definition of omnibenevolence.

First, may be resulted from a popular misconception among Christians themselves that God is logically incapable of doing evil or sinful works, such as acting as Satan, his arch-enemy. However, we don't see any good reasons for this. Anywhere the scripture describes his perfect infallible character, it is not due to a deductive inference of his handicap and disability to commit wrongdoings/mistakes, but rather for his holy and faithful character which is truly worthy of worship from our inductive experience. If God turns out to be incapable of failing, then there he hardly worthy of any praise. The same goes for the incarnate Son, Jesus who perfectly reveals the character of God. God should be understood as holy and perfect due to his wilful holy character. His moral character shouldn't be limited and locked in our logical paradigms of necessity, especially when it takes away his freewill.

In Matthew 4, the story of Jesus' temptation by Satan, we see his refusal to accept Satan's offer to rule the earthly world by turning evil. He does so, not due to his handicap or infallibility, but due to his perfect will and obedience like every other righteous man has done in history.

It is a common misconception among Christians who believe Jesus was incapable of sinning despite being a true human. (You, see your argument can be better formulated to find contradiction between Jesus' human nature with freewill or even with the quality of deserving praise and honour). The traditional or popular Christians such as Plantinga and William Lane Craig would rationalize their contradictory views by resorting to the Gnostic roots of their religion which reduces the humanity of Christ. He was not truly human as the Bible describes, Hebrews 2:14-18, 4:14-15 but was having a reduced superficial human nature, also see the unscriptural special pleading of original sin exemption for Jesus under the same Gnostic world-view:

Heb 2:14-18 ESV

14Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

[Hebrews 4:14-15 ESV] Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

The word omnibenevolent simply means all-loving, or the greatest in loving kindness. It doesn't mean incapable of doing wrong or evil. The traditional conception of Satan too is perceived as a rebellious angel of God, where angels are also associated with similar heavenly or divine like nature of Elohim as companions to God. I think associating a logical infallible quality to God takes away from his quality of perfection and worthiness, as a robot lacking freewill is hardly worthy of any praise. Thus, you seem to be reasonable in your objection.

All-loving, or infinitely good, usually in reference to a deity or supernatural being, for example, 'God'. Its use is often with regards to the divine triad, whereby a deity is described to be simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. This triad is used especially with the Christian god, Yahweh. The Century Dictionary.

Isa 45:7-9 RV

7I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things. 8Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, that they may bring forth salvation, and let her cause righteousness to spring up together; I the LORD have created it. 9Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! a potsherd among the potsherds of the earth! shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?

The word H7451 רַע ra` (rah) for evil has been translated "calamity" in the new Bible versions, whenever it applies to God (for apologetical reasons), for it doesn't mean evil in the same sense as we tend to perceive it to be, as wickedness, sinful, satanic. It only means calamities and destructions. God is not wicked, immoral, imperfect, even if he destroys mankind, as he will do eventually, for God he must have justifiable reasons for it.

When we can trust the wicked governments in their conspiracies to oppress us, we can surely trust God with all our faith and love, even if he destroys us, as this mortal life isn't the ultimate possession we have. This is the teaching of the whole scripture, starting from the most fundamental book of Job.

0

Revelation 22:13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.

God's will is perfect - His will is done (Isaiah 55:8-9)(Proverbs 19:21)(Jeremiah 29:11)(Proverbs 16:4)

Numbers 23:19 God is not human, so He does not lie. He is not a human being, so He does not change His mind. Has He said,and will He not do it? Or has He ever promised and not carried it through?

1
  • Likewise you need to edit this to explain how these verses answer the question, specifically from the perspective of those who promote the free will defense.
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 16, 2023 at 0:26

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