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Does the Free-Will Defense Constitute a Sound Theodicy?

Niclas Berggren

1. Proem

A strong argument against the existence of the Christian god (henceforth referred to as God) is contained in the theodicy problem, which can be stated in the following manner:

  1. If God exists, he is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good.[1]
  2. The existence of suffering is incompatible with the existence of God.
  3. Suffering exists.
  4. God does not exist.[2]

To make the argument clearer, consider the following clarifications. An all-knowing being will be aware of suffering; an all-powerful being will be able to prevent suffering; and a perfectly good being will desire to prevent suffering. If suffering exists, then God - who is characterized by the three attributes stated in point 1 - does not exist. It is possible for some other, non-Biblical god to exist, but he cannot be all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, though he may be one or two of these.

This essay will take a look at the most common, and perhaps the only possible, counter-argument, the free-will defense [henceforth the FWD]. In brief, it says that point 2 above is incorrect because suffering is a result of the free actions of human beings, created by God with a capacity to choose either good or evil. Hence, it is the fault of humans that suffering exists and not of God. Below, I will present this counter-argument in more detail and, as the main contribution, show that it is unsound and that, as a result, the theodicy problem remains intact. In this venture, I will present an argument of my own along with extensive quotes.

2. The FWD

In considering the problem of evil, the theist must explain how it is that he holds the existence of God to be true while admitting that suffering, or evil, exists. In doing so, he may question point 2 above.[3] We will take a closer look at the strongest and the ostensibly most plausible of such possible questionings, the FWD.

For a flavor of the argument, Swinburne (1991, p. 200) asserts that "[a] good God would have reason to create a world in which there were men with a choice of destiny and responsibility for each other, despite the evils which would inevitably or almost inevitably be presented in it, for the sake of the good which it contained." In other words, God chose to create a world with evil in it because he valued the moral autonomy of humans - which he knew would lead to evil - higher than pure goodness.[4]

Let us try to spell out the basic idea in some detail, and let us do so under the assumption (to be abandoned in Section 3) that Christianity is true. First, God has existed for ever, and he has always been all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. At some point in time t1, he decided to create the universe.

In the Garden of Eden, the two humans, Adam and Eve, who lived in a perfectly good state of affairs, were tempted by the Devil to rebel against God and chose to do so. By eating of the forbidden fruit, they committed a sin which separated them from God. As a result of this fall, their harmony was lost and death made its entrance into the world. All humans are implicated in the sin of Adam and Eve (cf. Romans 5:12, 18, 19) in that this sin affected the human nature, which was transmitted to coming generations. Hence, we can trace moral evil to the voluntary decision of our ancestors, who did not act in accordance with God's will. This doctrine is regularly referred to as the doctrine of original sin. As a result, no one can avoid committing sin.

Let us furthermore quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994, §§403-404) at some length: "Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam's sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the 'death of the soul.' /…/ How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam 'as one body of one man.' By this 'unity of the human race' all men are implicated in Adam's sin, as all are implicated in Christ's justice. /…/ By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called 'sin' only in an analogical sense: it is a sin 'contracted' and not 'committed' - a state and not an act."

This general view was supported by the Protestant reformers, who taught that original sin had radically perverted man and destroyed his freedom: they identified the sin inherited by each man with the tendency to evil (concupiscentia), which would be insurmountable. For instance, the commentary to Martin Luther's Small Catechism (1898, p. 45) states that original sin is the in-born corruption of our nature, which makes us prone to evil and incapable of good (in support of this thesis, Ps. 51:5, John 3:6, and Rom. 7:14 are quoted).[5]

Some modern Protestants, although acknowledging the overall doctrine of original sin, have a slightly different version which says that children up to an "age of accountability", albeit sinful, are guilt-free (see Robertson, 1987, pp. 57-58).[6] One remark is in order, namely, that this version of the doctrine in effect entails the same qualitative view with respect to human action as the Catholic and the more traditional Protestant view, viz., that no human can avoid sinning as a result of the corruption brought upon all men as a result of the fall in the Garden of Eden.[7]

To summarize, then, the Christian reply to the theodicy problem may take the following form: God valued moral autonomy so highly that he created Adam and Eve in spite of knowing that they would choose evil. But the central thing to note is that it was Adam and Eve who voluntarily choose to sin, and God would have desired that they freely would have chosen good. Hence, God is not to blame for the emergence of evil in the human race.

3. The Shortcomings of the FWD

The FWD to many seems quite convincing, especially to Christians, as a result of what it supposedly does: rescue their faith from a strong challenge. However, in this section I will make clear why the FWD is not a sound argument and why the problem of evil still indicates that God does not exist.

3.1 Non-moral evil

First of all, it is important to note that the FWD fails entirely as a way to free God of responsibility for non-moral, often called physical or natural, evil, since this type of evil is independent of any actions of men. Some usual examples are famines, floods, disease, and earthquakes. Plantinga (1974, p. 192) argues that neither God nor humans are responsible for these things, but that fallen angels cause them.

Mackie (1982, pp. 162-163) notes: "Formally, no doubt, this is possible; but it is another of what Cleanthes called arbitrary suppositions. While we have a direct acquaintance with some wrong human choices - our own - and our everyday understanding extends to the recognition of the like choices of other human beings, we have no such knowledge of the activities of angels, fallen or otherwise: these are at best part of the religious hypothesis which is still in dispute, and cannot be relied upon to give it any positive support."

And Gale (1991, p. 111) remarks: "[T]he atheological argument based on natural evil is an impure atheological one, due to the proposition that there is natural evil being taken to be only contingent by the theist. In denying that there is in fact any natural evil, it is not shown that the initial set of this argument does not entail a contradiction. And, if it does, so does the proposition that the conjunction of the propositions in its initial set is possibly true. Thus, to neutralize the deductive argument based on natural evil, Plantinga must show not just that every alleged natural evil really is or could be a moral evil but that it is logically impossible that there be a natural evil. And that he has not done. Nor do I think it can be done. And if so, we must recognize that the FWD can work as a defense of God only for moral evil."[8]

And so, we can already establish that there is evil which must be attributed to God, and consequently, the argument in Section 1 holds. In order to make this an even firmer conclusion, let us also see why moral evil cannot be explained away as not being God's responsibility by means of the FWD.

3.2 My argument

The primary argument is quite simple. The FWD holds that humans have free will to do either good or evil. My argument states - on the basis of the Bible - that humans do not have free will, and hence, that God is responsible and blameworthy also for what is referred to as moral evil. But then we are back at the insight that this situation is incompatible with God's being in possession of the three characteristics listed in point 1 of Section 1 - and hence, he does not exist.[9]

Let me elaborate on why this argument is correct. Let us, for the sake of argument, grant the Christian that Adam and Eve did have a genuine free choice and that they chose to sin. As a result, the evil which directly came about was a result of a choice which was made by morally autonomous beings. From the argument that God valued moral autonomy highly enough for him to accept its evil consequences, it follows that the evils which directly emerged as a result of what Adam and Eve did were justified. That is, God set up a wager for the two humans: either obey me and live in perfect harmony or disobey me and bring about disharmony. Whatever one may think about such an ultimatum, it is possible to hold that the circumstances in which it was put forth were such as to pose a real and neutral opportunity for choice.

However, the reason why God is responsible and blameworthy for much of the moral evil which has emerged after Adam and Eve is found in the doctrine of original sin. As we have seen, this doctrine holds that all subsequent human beings did not face a neutral choice, like Adam and Eve, but that they instead were born with a sinful nature which forced them to commit sin. This is what the Bible [10] says on the matter:

  • 2 Chron. 6:36: "If they sin against thee--for there is no man who does not sin--and thou art angry with them…"
  • Ps. 51:5: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."
  • Prov. 20:9: "Who can say, 'I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin'?"
  • Ecc. 7:20: "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins."
  • John 3:6: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
  • Rom. 3:10-12: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one."
  • Rom. 3:23: "since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"
  • Rom. 5:12: "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned"
  • Rom. 5:18: "Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men,"
  • Rom. 7:14: "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin."
  • 1 John 1:8-10: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."

Clearly and without doubt, the Bible states that no human being can avoid committing sin. But if each human had been born with a neutral nature, such that his nature did not, per se, entail any tendency towards either good or evil (as in the case of Adam and Eve), it could not necessarily hold in a setting with agents with a free will that everyone of them would commit sin. (One could argue that it is highly probable that all humans would sin even with a neutral nature, but this does not affect the argument of this section: the introduction by God of a sinful nature must in any case increase the amount of sin committed by humans.) Consequently, the Bible implicitly teaches that genuine free will is not present in the human race after Adam and Eve. And from that we can infer that if people commit at least some evil acts out of necessity, they cannot be held accountable for them - which implies that God is responsible and blameworthy for a substantial portion of evil acts carried out by humans.

As Rand (1961, pp. 136-137) colorfully states it: "A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as man's sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold man's nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Yet that is the root of your code. Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a 'tendency' to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free."

How, more precisely, can God be held guilty of acts of evil committed by man? The answer is found in focusing on the transmission mechanism of the effects of the choice of Adam and Eve. The quote from the Catholic Church (1994) above mentions this and clarifies that the sinful nature incurred by Adam and Eve was propagated to all coming humans. But, and here is the crux of the argument, who determined the particular transmission mechanism by which all humans contracted a sinful nature which led to their not being able to avoid committing evil acts? God did. God, who is omnipotent, chose to construct the world such that whatever Adam and Eve did would directly influence the choices of all humans.

Is this particular transmission mechanism necessary or contingent? Surely it is contingent, since God's omnipotence means that he can do anything which is logically possible; and hence, God could have let the consequences of Adam's and Eve's sin last with them and not predispose every other human being to sin and evil.[11] For instance, he could have made the world such that each new individual started afresh, like Adam and Eve, with a perfectly neutral nature, on the basis of which truly free choices could then be made. It bears noting that if he had done this, there would have been less evil and a freer human will![12] This he did not do, and he is therefore at least partly responsible and blameworthy, not only for non-moral evil, but also for what is normally referred to as moral evil. And this inductive insight renders the deductive argument of Section 1 valid, i.e., God does not exist.

Gale (1991, p. 157 ff.) argues, on a more abstract level, a similar point, and he claims that "God's way of causing created persons to act /…/ is freedom canceling." That is to say, humans are not free agents and hence not ultimately blameworthy for their acts of evil. He lists certain freedom-canceling sufficient conditions:

  • The case of the sinister cyberneticist: "C1. If M1's actions and choices result from psychological conditions that are intentionally determined by another man M2, then these actions and choices are not free."
  • The case of the evil puppeteer: "C2. M2 has a freedom-canceling control over M1 if M2 causes most of M1's behavior."

"Is God's relation to created persons in the FWD such that it satisfies C1 and/or C2? If it satisfies either, no less both, the FWD is in trouble, as would be the soul-building defense as well. I submit that it satisfies both, and thus it is time for the nervous smile to replace the smirk."

"It is clear that it satisfies C1, since according to the FWD, God intentionally causes a created free person to have all of her freedom-neutral properties, which include her psychological makeup. The Free Will Defender will make the Libertarian claim that these inner traits only 'incline,' but do not causally determine, the person to perform various actions or act in a certain regular manner, but this does not make the God-man case significantly disanalogous to the type-1 man-man cases; for even if we imagine that our intentional psychological-trait inducers could render it only probably according to various statistical laws that their victims would behave in certain characteristic ways, they still would exercise a global freedom-canceling control in which the person is rendered nonfree due to her not having a mind of her own."

"The God-man relation in the FWD also satisfies C2; for, when God instantiates diminished possible persons or sets of freedom-neutral properties, he does have middle knowledge of what choices and actions will result, and thereby sufficiently causes them. And he does so quite independently of whether or not he is blameless for the untoward ones among them."

We see that my argument fits nicely with Gale's exposition, especially C1. (Subsection 3.4 below presents an argument which primarily fits with C2.) The interesting thing in what I show is that there is a strong Biblical basis for why C1 holds and for why humans are not in possession of a free will.

3.3 Mackie's argument

There is another, rather different argument which also undermines the FWD, and it is that of Mackie (1982, pp. 150-176). Both the argument above and this one are, in themselves, sufficient to show that the FWD is unsound, but if this point can be supported by two independent rationales, all the better. It is to be noted that Mackie assumes throughout that the Biblical doctrine of free will indeed says that there is such a thing, whereas I have showed that this assumption is erroneous. In any case, the FWD does not hold.[13]

Here is the argument: "If God has 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? Since there seems to be no reason why an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good god would not have preferred this alternative, the theist who maintains that there is such a god, and yet that he did not opt for this - since by his own account human beings make bad free choices - seems to be committed to an inconsistent set of assertions."

"For at least some theists, this difficulty is made even more acute by some of their further beliefs: I mean those who envisage a happier or more perfect state of affairs than now exists, whether they look forward to the kingdom of God on earth, or confine their optimism to the expectation of heaven. In either case they are explicitly recognizing the possibility of a state of affairs in which created beings always freely choose the good. If such a state of affairs is coherent enough to be the object of a reasonable hope or faith, it is hard to explain why it does not obtain already."

"Nevertheless, it is often thought that this suggestion, that God could have made men such that they would always freely choose the good, is not coherent. Sometimes this objection rests merely on a confusion. It would, no doubt, be incoherent to say that God makes men freely choose the good: if God had made men choose, that is, forced them to choose one way rather than the other, they would not have been choosing freely. But that is not what was suggested, which was rather that God might have made - that is, created - beings, human or not, such that they would always freely choose the good; and there is at least no immediate incoherence or self-contradiction in that."

Mackie goes on to show that it is not logically impossible that men should be such that they always freely choose the good and that it is logically possible that God should create them so. And he concludes: "In short, all forms of the FWD fail, and since this defence alone had any chance of success there is no plausible theodicy on offer." To recapitulate: since God could have made men such they would always freely choose the good, and since he did not do this, he is responsible for so-called moral evil.

Likewise, in Smart & Haldane (1996, pp.68-73), this view is forcefully defended: "Even in a world such as ours where bad consequences may occur through lack of knowledge, free but wicked choices might be impossible. God could have created beings with purely moral desires, from which they would always act. Even on a libertarian theory of free will it is logically possible that everyone would always in fact act rightly. God, who surveys all time and space, could have created such a world."

"Because free will is compatible with determinism God could have set up the universe so that we always acted rightly, and so for this reason alone the FWD does not work. I do have some sympathy with the view that the compatibilist account of free will does not quite capture the ordinary person's concept of free will. This, however, is because the ordinary person's concept of free will, if one gets him or her arguing in a pub, say, is inconsistent. The ordinary person wants the action to be determined, not merely random, but undetermined too. The compatibilist can say that if this is the concept of free will we clearly do not have free will, just as I don't have a round square table in my study. Once again the FWD fails."

On a similar note, Smith (1979, p. 83) remarks that any goal which God wants to achieve, he can achieve in any logically possible way he wants. That is, if we say that evil (or a capacity for God's created beings to use evil) is a method used by God to obtain goal x, then God is blameworthy for evil, since he could have used some other method which does not include evil.

3.4 Russell's argument

There is a similar argument which states that God is responsible for whatever happens, since he created everything contingently, since he knew, a priori, exactly what would happen, and since he sustains everything at any point in time. A Christian would probably say that this is true but that God is not blameworthy for the evil which arises from the acts of free humans. Above, we argued that humans are not free with regard to performing good and evil acts, and that even if they are, God could have made humans such that they would always freely choose the good, which makes him ultimately blameworthy for all evil. Now we add a clarifying argument, namely, that all forms of evil are, in essence, non-moral and hence attributable to God. Russell puts it thus:

"[I]t is clear that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity demand a great deal of ethical perversion before they can be accepted. The world, we are told, was created by a God who is both good and omnipotent. Before He created the world He foresaw all the pain and misery that it would contain; He is therefore responsible for all of it. It is useless to argue that the pain in the world is due to sin. In the first place, this is not true; it is not sin that causes rivers to overflow their banks or volcanoes to erupt. But even if it were true, it would make no difference. If I were going to beget a child knowing that the child was going to be a homicidal maniac, I should be responsible for his crimes. If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man."

"The usual Christian argument is that the suffering in the world is a purification for sin and is therefore a good thing. This argument is, of course, only a rationalization of sadism; but in any case it is a very poor argument. I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children's ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering. In order to bring himself to say this, a man must destroy in himself all feelings of mercy and compassion. He must, in short, make himself as cruel as the God in whom he believes. No man who believes that all is for the best in this suffering world can keep his ethical values unimpaired, since he is always having to find excuses for pain and misery."[14]

Russell thus proffers the view that God is not justified in allowing evil, irrespective of whether there is free will or not: if there is a god, then he must be evil. This assertion modifies point 1 in Section 1 in that god is no longer assumed to be all-good; but he may exist.[15]

3.5 Other possibilities

Here, I will consider three other possibilities for the Christian to escape the theodicy problem as stated in Section 1. However, it will turn out that none of them are successful.

1. The first possibility is an epistemological one and focuses on the concept of goodness in relation to God. It states that God's goodness is not our goodness, i.e., that it is impossible for us to meaningfully apply terms such as good or evil to God. In reply, Smith (1979, p. 81) argues: "The Christian, by proclaiming that God is good, commits himself to the position that man is capable of distinguishing good from evil - for, if he is not, how did the Christian arrive at his judgment of 'good' as applied to God? Therefore, any attempt to resolve the problem of evil by arguing that man cannot correctly distinguish good from evil destroys the original premise which it purports to defend and thus collapses from the weight of an internal inconsistency." See also Mackie (1982, p. 156).

If we acknowledge that we can, indeed, use these terms in a discussion of God's character, might the Christian escape the problem of evil by simply conceding that god is evil (as suggested by Russell)? While this would undermine point 4 in the argument in Section 1, it is hardly an attractive path to take for the Christian. While he can account for the existence of moral and non-moral evil, he runs into two substantial problems: first, he departs from the classical Christian concept of God, e.g., as expressed by Jesus in Lk. 18:19: "And Jesus said to him, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.'" and by the Catholic Church (1994, §385): "God is infinitely good and all his works are good."; and second, he must explain why he worships an evil being (instead of, say, solely submitting to this being).

2. The second possibility is about arguing that god is not really omnipotent. The main problem here is that this assertion is inconsistent with Biblical teachings, e.g., Jer. 32:17 ("Ah Lord GOD! It is thou who hast made the heavens and the earth by thy great power and by thy outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for thee,"), Mk. 10:27 ("Jesus looked at them and said, 'With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.'"), and Lk. 1:37 ("For with God nothing will be impossible").

The view that God is not omnipotent is also at odds with the classical conception of God in the Christian Church, e.g., as expressed in both the Apostles' Creed ("I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.") and the Nicene Creed ("We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.") As the Catholic Church (1994, §268) affirms: "Of all the divine attributes, only God's omnipotence is named in the Creed: to confess this power has great bearing on our lives. We believe that his might is universal, for God who created everything also rules everything and can do anything."

3. The third possibility deals with God's being omniscient and says that god is limited in what he knows about the future. In essence, one may envisage god's being in possession of different degrees of information, and it is possible that when god created the universe, he was not able to foresee the evil which would encompass it (i.e., he was without middle knowledge).[16] Again, however, the theist arguing thus faces at least two problems. First, it seems as if the Bible describes its god as being at least spatially omniscient:

  • Job 34:21: "For his eyes are upon the ways of a man, and he sees all his steps"
  • Prov. 15:3: "The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good."
  • Jer. 16:17: "For my eyes are upon all their ways; they are not hid from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes."
  • Jer. 23:24: "Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD."
  • Matt. 10:30: "But even the hairs of your head are all numbered."
  • Heb. 4:13: "And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do."

In addition, the god of the Bible also seems to know the future, as the often-mentioned phenomenon of prophecy indicates; hence, he is also temporally omniscient. As stated by the Catholic Church (1994, §2115): "God can reveal the future to his prophets and to other saints."- and how could he do that without knowing, himself, what will happen? In fact, the following Bible passages confirm that God knows the future and that he knows it with regard to human choices:

  • Is. 39:5-7: "Then Isaiah said to Hezeki'ah, 'Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.'"
  • Is. 44:28-45:4: "who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfil all my purpose'; saying of Jerusalem, 'She shall be built,' and of the temple, 'Your foundation shall be laid.' Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and ungird the loins of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: 'I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.'"
  • Jer. 25:11: "This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years."
  • Zech. 11:12,13 and Matt. 27:3-5: "Then I said to them, 'If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.' And they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver. Then the LORD said to me, 'Cast it into the treasury' --the lordly price at which I was paid off by them. So I took the thirty shekels of silver and cast them into the treasury in the house of the LORD." and "When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, 'I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.' They said, 'What is that to us? See to it yourself.' And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself."
  • Acts 21:11: "And coming to us he took Paul's girdle and bound his own feet and hands, and said, 'Thus says the Holy Spirit, "So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this girdle and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles."'"

All of these quotes refer to prophecies which crucially depend on future human behavior. For instance, in the last quote, the precise actions of certain Jews in Jerusalem are predicted through the Holy Spirit. Hence, it is absolutely clear, to anyone who considers the Bible a reliable source of information about God, that it is not logically impossible for God to know what choices human beings will make in the future. It may be argued that God only knows parts of the future; but how can it be explained that God is thus limited? By what? By whom? For what reason?

Consider the type of god who does not know what will happen in the future. Mackie (1982, pp. 175-176) writes: "When God created free agents - free in this sense - he had to do so without knowing how they would use their freedom. This development of the defence succeeds better than any other in detaching moral evils, the wrong choices of free agents, from God. But it does so at the price of a very serious invasion of what has commonly been meant by the omniscience ascribed to God. If he does not know future contingents, and, in particular, does not know what free choices human agents will make, it follows that in 1935, for example, he knew little more than we did about the catastrophic events of the twenty years to 1955, and equally he knows little more than we do about the next twenty years. And such a limitation of his knowledge carries with it a serious effective limitation of his power. Also, this account forces the theologian to put God very firmly inside time. It could only be before God created Adam and Eve that he could not know what they would do if he created them, and the theologian cannot, without contradiction, give God also an extra-temporal existence and extra-temporal knowledge."

"But even this is not the end of the matter. Although, on this account, God could not have known what Adam and Eve, or Satan, would do if he created them, he could surely know what they mightdo: that is compatible even with this extreme libertarianism. If so, he was taking, literally, a hell of a risk when he created Adam and Eve, no less than when he created Satan. Was the freedom to make unforeseeable choices so great a good that it outweighed this risk? This question must be answered not only with reference to the degree of human wickedness that has actually occurred: men might (strange as it may seem) have been much worse than they are, and God (on this account) was accepting that risk too. He would not then be the author of sin in the sense of having knowingly produced it; he could not be accused of malice aforethought; but he would be open to a charge of gross negligence or recklessness."

Second, even if god was unaware of what would ensue after his having created the universe, he is still admitted by the theist to know what happens spatially, i.e., at any point in time, as happenings are, indeed, realized. If so, god would have known, a posteriori, what his creation had given rise to, and hence could have rectified anything with which he was discontent (due to his omnipotence). This he has not done and thus is blameworthy for evil.

4. Conclusions

Possibly the strongest argument against the existence of the Christian god is contained in the theodicy problem, i.e., the problem of defending God in the presence of evil. The Christian may try to escape from this problem by claiming that God is not responsible and blameworthy for (moral) evil, since it follows from the free actions of human beings, who are morally autonomous. What this essay has demonstrated is that this attempt to escape from the problem of evil - known as the free-will defense - is a failure. Why is that so? For at least three reasons, each of them sufficient to enable the theodicy problem, as stated in Section 1, to hold against the FWD.

1. The FWD does not cover non-moral evils, which are not the result of the actions of men.

2. The Bible informs us that man does not, in fact, have free will, since he is born with a sinful nature (the doctrine of original sin) such that he cannot avoid sinning. Hence, God - who decided that two persons' wrong choice would cause every human being to be born sinful - is blameworthy for this evil-prone nature of man - and, ultimately, then, for all evil.[17]

3. Even if man is believed to have free will, God could have created humans such that they would always freely choose the good. This he did not do and is therefore ultimately responsible and blameworthy for any evil act which humans perform.

We can now conclude that the theodicy problem remains intact: a god who is responsible and blameworthy for evil is, himself, evil, and hence, God (who is defined as being all-good) does not exist. The FWD can do nothing to alter this conclusion.

However, the Christian might offer a final reply to this, namely, that the existence of evil is a mystery which finite human minds cannot properly comprehend; and if we just put our (blind) faith in God, we can maintain the conviction, that he actually does exist. To state this incorporates admitting that religious belief has nothing to do with reason: it is a whim which is sustained irrespective of rational arguments. This amounts to adhering to religious belief, not because one is interested in the truthfulness of it all, but because it fulfills some particular need (such as providing comfort and friendship). But this misology constitutes slippery ground.

To quote Le Poidevin (1996, p. 102): "What I want to suggest is that theists who refuse to answer the problem of evil are guilty of internal irrationality, at least if they hold the following beliefs:"

  1. "Belief in a loving creator is intellectually defensible.
  2. We cannot solve the problem of evil; that is, we cannot explain how the existence and nature of suffering can be consistent with the existence of a loving creator."

"Now, if from the human perspective, belief in a loving creator cannot be squared with the presence of suffering, then it is simply not rational to continue to hold on to that belief. /…/ [I]f, from our perspective, there is no justification for suffering, then that is a reason to reject, as mistaken, any perspective (including God's) in which there is a justification for suffering. If it turned out that, from God's perspective, any amount of human suffering is perfectly acceptable, then that would be a horrible discovery to make. We simply could not go on believing that God was genuinely benevolent, at least as we conceive of benevolence."

"So, if we believe that theism can only be entertained if it is rational, and we believe that we cannot produce a satisfactory justification of suffering in terms of God's purposes, then we must reject theism. If the theist admits to (2), then (1) must be given up."


  1. Barrett, P. H. et al. (1987). Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836-1844. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
  2. Catholic Church (1994). Catechism of the Catholic Church. London: Geoffrey Chapman.
  3. Gale, R. M. (1991). On the Nature and Existence of God. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Kant, I. (1933). Critique of Pure Reason, Transcendental Dialectic. Book II, Ch. III, Sect. 4. London: Macmillan.
  5. Le Poidevin, R. (1996). Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. London: Routledge.
  6. Luther, M. (1898). D:r M. Luthers Lilla Katekes med Kort utveckling. [Small Catechism with a Minor Commentary]. Jönköping, Sweden: H. Halls Boktryckeri-Aktiebolag.
  7. Mackie, J. L. (1982). The Mircale of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  8. Martin, M. (1991). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.
  9. Plantinga, A. (1974). The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  10. Rand, A. (1961). For the New Intellectual. New York, New York: Random House.
  11. Robertson, P. (1987). Answers to 200 of Life's Most Probing Questions. New York, New York: Bantam Books.
  12. Russell, B. (1919). Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  13. Russell, B. (1961). Religion and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  14. Smart, J. J. C. & Haldane, J. J. (1996). Atheism and Theism. Oxford: Blackwell.
  15. Smith, G. H. (1979). Atheism: The Case Against God. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books.
  16. Strong, J. (n.a.). Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Lynchburg, Virginia: The Old-Time Gospel Hour.
  17. Swinburne, R. (1991). The Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  18. Tomberlin, J. & van Inwagen, P. (Eds.) (1985). Alvin Plantinga. Dordrecht: Reidel.
  19. Wright, R. (1994). The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life. London: Abacus.


  1. This is a propositional function, the usage of which by atheists is sometimes mistakenly criticized by theists on grounds that it presupposes the actual existence of God. It is part of the classical logical argument modus ponens, which can be expressed on the following form: 1. If p then ~q. 2. q. 3. ~p. For more on this concept, see Russell (1919).
  2. To avoid the criticism launched by Kant (1933) against formulations such as "If God exists" and "God does not exist", which he claimed were incoherent in that the term God is a precise subject which necessarily entails existence, we would have to write "If it is the case that a god such as the Christian god exists" and "It is the case that a god such as the Christian god does not exist". This is somewhat tedious, which is why we stick to the more convenient form - the meaning of which the reader now knows should be read in light of Kant's remarks (see Mackie, 1982, pp. 41-49).
  3. At this point, I do not allow for the questioning of point 1, as we would then be discussing some other god than the Christian one, and I do not allow for the questioning of point 3, as I consider it self-evident from observation. With reference to point 3, it is sometimes argued that the atheist cannot make such a statement, since he is unable to refer to an objective ethics which, exclusively, could render the concepts "good" and "evil" meaningful. This argument suffers from at least three defects: first, the only thing needed for the argument to hold is that the theist admits that there is suffering or evil in the world, on the basis of his ethics; second, it is possible to adhere to an objective ethics as an atheist (see Martin, 1991); and third, Russell (1961, p. 230) shows that it is possible to use terms like this on the basis of a subjective ethics. See the chapter "Science and Ethics" from this book.
  4. Mackie (1982, pp. 154-155) calls the sort of evil which is explained and justified by its being necessary to obtain some greater good absorbed evil. And he asks: "[C]an the theist maintain that the only evils which occur in the world are absorbed evils? When this question is squarely put, it is surely plain that he cannot." It is primarily unabsorbed evil which is being discussed in this essay. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to inquire of the theist why he and, supposedly, his god value moral autonomy so highly as to make any type of evil acceptable. After all, in normal life, no theist, to my knowledge, wants people to be able to act in any evil way without others trying to stop them. Why is it right for us to thwart the evil acts of fellow men but wrong for God to do the same? Why is it legitimate for us to incarcerate a murderer but illegitimate for God to stop such a person or Satan?
  5. It is sufficient for the argument of this paper to hold that there is an intra-Christian case for the non-existence of a free will - which there is, as explicated in the Bible. However, there are strong reasons to believe, on the basis of findings in psychobiology and irrespective of any religious claims, that the idea of humans possessing a free will is nothing but a delusion (see Wright, 1994, pp. 349-358). "[O]ne doubts existence of free will," as Darwin remarked, because "every action determined by heredetary [sic] constitution, example of others or teaching of others." (Barrett et al., 1987, p. 526, p. 535)
  6. The reason why this version of the doctrine of original sin has been adopted is that these Protestants found it cruel to say that a child who dies goes to hell because of his or her having been born sinful.
  7. Although the careful Bible reader does find an interesting conundrum in 1 John 3:9: "No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God." This verse says (in conjunction with 1 John 5:1) that there is an exception to humans having to commit sin: this does not apply to people who have become Christians posterior to their having become saved. The conundrum emerges from the contradiction of this verse with 1 John 1:8-9. (As Strong, n.a., makes clear, 1 John 3:9 does refer to individual acts, not habits: the word "commits" is the Greek "poiei", which means "to make or do (in a very wide application, more or less direct). Comp. prasso." And "prasso" means "to 'practice,' i.e. perform repeatedly or habitaully (thus differing from poiei, which prop. refers to a single act.)") But this is not central to our discussion, so let us continue under the assumption that all people do in fact sin.
  8. There is another argument which attempts to render the existence of God compatible with natural evil called the soul-building defense. It does keep God responsible for this sort of evil, but it claims to propose a rationale for why God is justified in allowing it. On why this particular defense fails, see Gale (1994, p. 110) and "The Problem of Natural Evil", an essay by Brian Marston (where he argues that moral evil is sufficient for "soul-building," and for that reason, natural evil cannot be thus justified, given the existence of moral evil). In my view, it is bizarre to hold that a good God would use such evil to build human character - not the least due to the ostensible randomness with which it strikes (and the Bible informs us, in Acts 10:34, that "God shows no partiality"; see also Rom. 2:11, Gal. 2:8, and Eph. 6:9). For more on why this argument is incompatible with biblical Christianity, see the transcript from the debate "Does God Exist?" and Subsection 3.4 below.
  9. Remember that God is defined as the Christian god, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good.
  10. All Bible quotations in this essay are from the Revised Standard Version, and all italics are mine.
  11. Generally, a transmission mechanism T:xt-1->xt, where xt refers to human nature for generation t. It is possible for God to choose a T which entails a direct influence from one generation to the other, as the Biblical story goes, although the particular content of the mechanism could vary in great many ways. Also, God could choose an "empty" mechanism, such that there is no inter-generational influence on human nature.
  12. As Christians argue that God does not value evil intrinsically and that he values moral autonomy positively, it is a genuine enigma why God did not choose this transmission mechanism instead of the one he actually chose. To the atheist, this provides further support for his conviction that God does not exist.
  13. To comprehend Mackie's argument, it is essential to grasp the essentials of the philosophical concepts of compatibilism and incompatibilism. For an elucidating discussion, see Le Poidevin (1996, pp. 91-99).
  14. This is from the essay "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?".
  15. In fact, Russell did not believe that God exists but merely found the deity described in Christian dogma evil. See his essay "Why I am not a Christian". On this god being evil, also see Smith (1979, pp. 76-79).
  16. For an argument along these lines, attributable to Plantinga, see Tomberlin & van Inwagen (1985, p. 52). For a rejoinder, see Gale (1991, pp. 168-178).
  17. At least for all non-moral evil and for the evil which would not have been brought about by men, had they not had a sinful nature.

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