We often say God can do anything—this is what it means for him to be “omnipotent.” But last week I argued there is something God cannot do. He cannot create people who are free and then determine what they will choose. Some object this limits God and makes him less than all-powerful. If they are right, the response to the Problem of Evil from human freedom is derailed. Is this a good objection?
Recapping the Argument
So far we have looked at the first three premises of an argument showing that, even though there is significant pain and suffering in our world, it is still reasonable to believe God exists and has good reasons to allow these evils. The three premises discussed last week are:
Premise 1: God’s purpose in Creation is to create the most moral universe, which most reflects His character.
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.
Premise 3: It is logically impossible for a created being to be capable of personal moral goodness without moral freedom.
This third premise causes concern for some. It seems to assume there are some things even God cannot do. Is that right?
What Does “Omnipotent” Really Mean?
Let me first say the objector is correct to observe this is what is assumed. Premise 3 does commit one to saying there are things that even God—the all-powerful, sovereign, omnipotent Creator and Sustainer of all things—cannot do.
However, saying God cannot do something doesn’t mean God is not omnipotent (all-powerful), if the action in question is impossible. Being omnipotent only means God is able to do everything that is possible. God can do what we may say is “impossible,” such as raising people from the dead. But this is not really impossible—it is possible for God to do it, if he wills. This is what Matthew 19:26 is referring to (“With God all things are possible.”) It cannot mean God is able to do what is logically or metaphysically impossible, as a number of examples make clear.
For instance, God cannot sin. Given his nature, it is impossible for him to sin. However, this is not a limitation or reason to believe he is not omnipotent. If it were possible for God to sin, he would be able to do so.
Similarly, God cannot “kill himself” (he cannot cause himself to cease to exist). Given his nature, this is impossible (he is, by nature, a necessary being—he cannot not exist). But this is not a limitation of his power. If it were possible, he could do so, given his omnipotence.
As a third example, God cannot create a square circle. Yet this is simply because squares and circles are mutually exclusive, and thus logically impossible to exist together as one thing. If it were logically possible to create a square circle, God could do so, being omnipotent.
Note this misunderstanding of “omnipotence” is the fallacy under the often-heard “Is God able to create a rock so big he can’t lift it?” objection. These are mutually exclusive, and thus logically impossible. So no, God cannot create a rock so big he can’t lift it. But this does not mean he is not omnipotent, for if it were possible, he would be able to do this.
So, though God is omnipotent, it was still impossible for him to create truly free people and then determine what they choose. These two things are also mutually exclusive. The assumption of Premise 3 is correct. The argument is back on track. Now we must add two more premises before arriving at our conclusion.
The Rest of the Argument
Premise 4: Moral freedom is the ability to do either what is right or what is wrong.
Premise 4 makes explicit the nature of our moral freedom: the ability to choose one of two live options—the good or the bad. When God chose to create persons with the ability to choose good acts, this meant that he also created persons with the ability to choose bad acts. Only if these choices are truly free can the choice and their resulting actions be truly good or bad (moral or immoral).
We all intuitively know Premise 4 is true, and this knowledge determines how we live each day. For instance, it is the basis of how we parent. We praise or discipline our child based on whether he or she knew what was right and had the ability to choose to do it. This is why we parent a one-year-old much differently than a six-year-old, and a six-year-old much differently than a 16-year-old. If our one-year-old screams because he is hungry, we respond very differently than if our six-year-old or our 16-year-old does this.
On a larger scale, the truth of Premise 4 is also the basis of legal prosecution. When a defendant is charged with a crime, the prosecution must show that he chose to commit the crime, and therefore, is guilty. If it is clear he did commit the crime, but the defense can show that he had no choice in the matter, he is acquitted. This is because the defense has shown he did not meet the requirement for morally culpability: the freedom to choose.
Defense attorneys often use this strategy. For instance, in the infamous Patty Hearst trial the defense argued her captors forced her to participate in a bank robbery. In other cases it is argued that the defendant is mentally ill, and thus not in control of his faculties, including his choices.
Premise 4 summarizes this intuition: true choice assumes live options—choosing what is good or choosing what is bad. This can be stated formally via modus ponens (If P therefore Q, and P, therefore Q):
If God was to create a moral universe at all, he had to create persons with moral free will, able to choose to do good or evil.
He did want to create a moral universe.
Therefore, he created a universe with persons having moral free will—the ability to choose to do good or evil.
Notice this does not mean God created evil by creating persons as free moral agents. He created a good thing: persons with moral freedom, who are capable of creating moral goods. But this carried with it the possibility of them choosing the corruption of good—evil. Evil is not a real “thing-in-itself,” but a deprivation or corruption of what is real (the good that God created).
By analogy, think about darkness and light. Darkness is not an actual “thing” (a thing-in-itself). It only exists as a “parasite” on something that is real: light. It is simply what we call the absence of light. If we are in a dark room we turn on a light switch to fill the room with the reality of light. But we do not enter a room filled with light and turn on a “dark switch.” The same is true of rust and other such deprivations.
Thus God did not create evil. Rather, he created what is good (persons with true moral freedom, in order to make good choices), which carried with it the possibility of corruption—them making bad moral choices.
Premise 5. Human beings on some occasions have freely chosen to do what is wrong (and thus produced evil).
Whereas Premise 4 identifies it is possible that free persons can choose evil, Premise 5 states this has, in fact, happened. This premise needs little defense. We see its truth everywhere we look: hate, corruption, abuse, murder, cover-ups, and wars are all examples of people’s wrong choices that produce evil, pain, and suffering.
Conclusion: Therefore, evil is caused by human beings, not by God.
From these premises the conclusion follows. Creating free persons with the ability to choose good is a morally adequate reason for God to create a world with the possibility of evil, due to human freedom. This, in turn, resulted in our world actually containing evil, pain, and suffering, as some persons do make wrong choices.
As Dr. Plantinga summarizes:
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. (Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 30)
The existence of evil is entirely compatible with the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God. In fact, it is to be expected of a God who wanted to create the most moral universe, and therefore had to create free moral agents who could truly choose to do good things (yet therefore are also capable of choosing evil things).
This explains much of the evil in our world, but not all. What about earthquakes, diseases, birth defects, and other causes of pain and suffering that are not the results of people’s choices? This is often referred to as “physical evil” (as opposed to the “moral evil” discussed in this and last weeks’ posts). I’ll discuss the problem of physical evil next week.
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).