If God has good reasons to permit Evil, the argument against God due to the reality of pain and suffering evaporates. There seem to be two good reasons for God, being all-good, to nevertheless allow Evil to exist. This week I’ll offer the first reason, along with an explanation of why this makes sense.
Summary of the First Reason God Permits Evil
Simply stated, if God did not allow people freedom to make their own choices, the world would not be as good as it is. However, with freedom comes the possibility that people will make the wrong choices. Some have, leading to Evil. Yet this reality is still better than the alternative—God creating people with no true freedom. As J. B. Phillips summarizes, “Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will.” (God Our Contemporary, p. 88.)
When we look around us, this rings true. Much of the Evil we experience is due to the wrong choices people make, rather than the result of God’s activity. For instance, Hitler chose to engage in genocide, not God. In the old film Oh, God the main character asks God, “Why do you allow all the wars and destruction?” and God answers, “Why do you allow it?” Yet we resist taking the blame, wishing rather to blame God. In the words of Proverbs 19:3, “A man's own folly ruins his life, yet his heart rages against the LORD.”
If this is true, premise one of the argument against God is false. It states, “If God is all-good, he would will all good and no evil. (He would desire to produce only good and prevent all evil.) God would have a morally adequate reason to permit Evil—the desire to create a world with free people, giving them the ability to choose good or evil. To show this is the case requires more nuance. Let’s look at the argument to this conclusion in detail.
Enter Dr. Alvin Plantinga
Arguments offering morally adequate reasons for God to permit evil are known as “theodicies.” The “Free Will Theodicy” has been articulated in various ways. Dr. Alvin Plantinga, professor emeritus of philosophy at Notre Dame is one of the leading philosophers of our day. He went to work on this problem shortly after finishing his Ph.D. in philosophy at Yale in 1958.
When Dr. Plantinga was in college most professors assumed it was logically impossible for God to exist, given the reality of Evil (this is known as the “Logical Problem of Evil” which I have been focusing on in this series). In university classrooms this argument was repeated day in and day out, convincing countless young students to give up their belief in God. In the broader culture (news reports, TV shows, popular books and magazines) we heard, “Scholars who study this have proven God does not exist due to the reality of Evil.” As a result, atheism grew in popularity both in universities, and in the broader culture.
So the young Dr. Plantinga decided to take a fresh look at the argument. As a Christian he had experienced the reality of God. He wondered if there might be problems with the argument no one was noticing. He had the best academic training possible in philosophy and logic, and so as a good steward of these gifts and opportunities, he went to work on re-evaluating the logic of the argument.
The result was his book, God, Freedom, and Evil, published in 1974. Here he shows, with impeccable logic and reasoning, that God certainly may have morally-adequate reasons to permit Evil (namely, the creation and preservation of freedom).
This book sent seismic shock waves through higher education. Atheists could not respond to the rigorous logic of Plantinga’s argument. What resulted was astonishing: fewer and fewer atheists were willing to offer the Logical Problem of Evil as evidence against God’s existence! Their favorite argument was essentially “off the table.” As Dr. William Rowe, a leading atheist professor of Philosophy at Purdue University put it,
[Plantinga offers]…a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of the theistic God ("The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism," American Philosophical Quarterly, 1979, 16 (4): pages 335–341).
This was a decisive victory in the world of ideas at the university level. Several generations of students now have been exposed to Dr. Plantinga’s books. Due to their academic rigor, students in classes dealing with the existence and nature of God are often required to read his books on these topics.
As a result, students who have studied this issue are now less likely to be atheists due to this argument from Evil. Instead, they see how a person can believe in and love God by thinking hard about these issues. It is also a great example of how God can use those, like Dr. Plantinga, who follow God’s call to have a redemptive influence in higher education (the cause I’ve given my life to, currently through my work with Global Scholars).
Summarizing the Free Will Defense
Dr. Plantinga’s work is very technical. For the purposes of this blog I’ll try to do the argument justice, while at the same time summarizing his main points. For further reading on this see the books listed at the end of this post.
Premise 1: God’s purpose in Creation is to create the most moral universe, which most reflects His character.
First, we begin with the purpose an all-good God would have in creating a universe. An all-good God would desire to create the most moral universe. This would be a universe with the greatest amount of moral goodness. Anything less would be “out of character” for God. Part of moral perfection is creating a universe with the greatest moral virtue.
Premise 2: A Moral Universe is one in which there is (1) personal moral goodness, (2) personal moral agents, and (3) an environment existing in which personal moral goodness by the personal moral agents is possible.
Once deciding to create the most moral universe possible, he had several options. He could create a universe with beauty, harmony, and serenity, but without people. This would be a good universe. But it wouldn’t be the best. Better yet would be to create a universe with people who also choose to do good things. This results in the possibility of much more moral goodness in the universe (due to their morally good choices). So a universe with people (moral agents) is the most moral universe that he can create.
Premise 3: It is logically impossible for a created being to be capable of personal moral goodness without moral freedom.
However, for a choice to be good it has to be free. If it is not, we don’t say it is a moral act. For example, any computer programmer can write code that causes my computer to “say” words of encouragement to me when I turn it on. Yet this is not a moral act. The computer doesn’t choose to speak words of encouragement. They are programmed into its coding, requiring these words be “spoken.” The action is only morally good if a person freely chooses to say such words (perhaps my wife after I have a hard day at work).
So in creating humans as personal agents (premise 2), God had to create them with true moral freedom, in order that what they do or say is freely chosen, and therefore truly good. Said conversely, God could not make people who were moral agents without giving them moral freedom.
This assumes that God cannot do everything—at least this one thing is impossible for God. Some may object this limits God’s omnipotence (being all-powerful), for it assumes there is something God cannot do. Isn’t that a problem? Does this argument give up God’s omnipotence? Isn’t this too high a price to pay?
To address this objection requires a deeper dive into what it means to say God is omnipotent, and what it means for something to be “impossible.” I’ll drill into this next week, and then finish the Free-will Defense against the Problem of Evil. Until then, grace and peace.
For more, see my recent interview on this issue here.
For an introductory book discussing this topic, see Gregory Ganssle’s excellent Thinking About God (Part Three: “God and Evil”)
For a more in depth discussion see Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil. See also his The Nature of Necessity). Also see Nelson Pike’s God and Evil for a devastating critique of David Hume’s formulation of the Problem of Evil (“Hume on Evil,” pages 85-102).