Free Will and the Problem of Evil

"Theodicy, n. A vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil."
The American Heritage Dictionary

"[God] destroys the blameless and the guilty.
When suddenly a scourge brings death,
He mocks as the innocent fail.
The earth is handed over to the wicked one;
He covers the eyes of its judges.
If it is not He, then who?"
Job 9:22-24

It is one of the oldest paradoxes of the Abrahamic religions: God is all-powerful; God is loving and just; and yet, evil exists in the world. Innocent people often suffer; the wicked frequently prosper. How can this be? Is God unable to stop it?... but if so, how can God be all-powerful? Does God permit it?... but if so, how can God be loving and just? Does God actively will that evil exist?... and if so, what can humanity do against God?

The ancient Hebrews were not as troubled by this question as we are. To them, and to many other peoples, "sin" — whatever that was considered to be — was seen to carry a curse with it by natural law. It wasn't that God would punish sinners; sin by its nature would eventually redound upon the sinner... or, if not the sinner, then his or her family, or neighbors, or descendants. Sin thus became a matter of communal import; if an individual sinned, and that sin was not somehow cancelled out, then the community was in danger. Hence, customs such as the scapegoat; once a year, a priest could lay the sins of the entire people upon a goat, which would be driven out into the wilderness to, presumably, suffer the consequences of all the sins laid upon it.

This view was flexible enough to account for the fact that sinners quite often do not suffer for their crimes; as often as not they go on to live long, comfortable, and happy lives. But sooner or later, something bad was bound to happen to the sinner's family, or at least to someone in the general vicinity; and that was understood to be the sin coming home to roost.

This model began to break down around the time of the prophets, some of whom promised that God was no longer going to visit the sins of the parents upon the children; everyone would suffer the penalty for their own sins, and nobody else's. "The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by quoting this proverb upon the soil of Israel, 'Parents eat sour grapes and their children's teeth are blunted'? As I live — declares the Lord God — this proverb shall no longer be current among you in Israel. Consider, all lives are Mine; the life of the parent and the life of the child are both Mine. The person who sins, only he shall die." Ezekiel 18:1-4.

While undoubtedly more fair, this unfortunately also exposed the fatal flaw in the idea that evil is always punished: often, it isn't; at least not in any apparent way. And often the seemingly innocent suffer.

Various solutions were explored; the classic text is the Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures. The resolution in that book — that God is ineffable and beyond our comprehension, and it is not ours to question the way God chooses to run the universe — is not likely to be satisfying to modern thinkers.

Others began tentatively to invent the notion of an afterlife, a post-death existence in which, finally, sinners would be punished and the virtuous rewarded. This vision has been adopted by much of the Christian world; most famously by Dante, but even today one can easily find Christian publications that are disturbingly obsessed with the horrors that the unbelievers and sinners will suffer for all eternity in the pits of Hell.

It was Aquinas, naturally, who nailed firmly down the classical Christian answer to this question: God gave humanity free will, and therefore humanity can and sometimes does choose to do evil. God does not wish that evil exist, but God allows it because free will is more important.

I believe that this answer is substantially correct; but I also believe that it needs some nuancing. Furthermore, over the centuries a number of disputants have raised objections which need answering.

First, a matter of definitions. It is common to divide "evil" into two categories: natural evil, which would include earthquakes, floods, disease, and so on; and moral or human evil, which results from the decisions of a moral agent... murder, rape, and the like. Some people, including myself, would prefer to restrict the term "evil" to the second category, and consider the first to be "misfortune;" but that's essentially semantics. For now, we will accept both senses of the term evil, as matters requiring justification for God's actions or lack thereof.

Perhaps the most common objection to the "free will" theodicy is that God is supposedly omnipotent; and by definition an omnipotent being could make a world in which people had free will, and in which the innocent never suffered.

To that, I would make two replies. Firstly, "omnipotent" can reasonably be defined in two ways: what we might call "strong omnipotence," in which the omnipotent being can do absolutely anything whatsoever; and "weak omnipotence," in which the omnipotent being can do anything which can be done.

Strong omnipotence leads directly to logical paradoxes of the "Can God make a rock so heavy that God cannot lift it?" type; or to absurdities of the "Can God make a four-sided triangle?" order. Sometimes proponents of strong omnipotence assert that God is "stronger" than logic and can therefore do the logically impossible; which I find a peculiar, to say the least, way of visualizing what logic is.

Weak omnipotence sets aside the logically contradictory as not being things which can be done. A weakly omnipotent being cannot do the logically impossible; but can do everything else. If God as taken to be weakly omnipotent, then one can defend the present order of the universe as a logically inescapable consequence of free will.

The second reply I would make to the omnipotence objection — and one which is not an orthodox Christian response — is simply this: there's no reason that we need to consider God to be omnipotent. That notion came originally from Greek philosophy, which logically required a perfect being to be the primal cause of the universe. Early Christianity married Hebrew spirituality with Greek philosophy; and while the synthesis was remarkable, it was not completed without great effort. Most of the philosophical absolutes associated with God — omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. — are ideas grafted on to the tradition of God that Christians inherited from the Jews. One can, if one wishes, discard them without being faithless to the original conception of God.

Another objection to the free will theodicy is that it doesn't account for natural evil. Certainly, an objector might say, a person might choose to do evil and an innocent may suffer if they happen to be the target of that evil; but on what grounds does God allow — or cause — earthquakes or tsunamis that kill thousands of people? Nobody's free will is at stake in plate tectonics or weather patterns.

It is this objection that leads me to formulate my particular variation of the free will theodicy. As I see it, in this discussion we can think of three desirable qualities in a universe:

  • We would like a universe in which we have, in a meaningful sense, free will; we can choose between one option and another.
  • We would like to live in a universe that can be understood by a rational mind; one in which I can reliably expect that something will fall if I drop it off my desk.
  • We would also like to live in a universe in which the innocent do not suffer; in which bad things happen only to those who deserve them.

My assertion is this: any two out of these three qualities may exist in the same universe; but it is logically impossible to have all three at once.

A universe that had free will, and in which there was no undeserved suffering, would be a fundamentally chaotic and unpredictable place, because it would require constant "miracles" to prevent the innocent from being harmed. If I exercised my free will and swung my fist at a child, then something would have to happen to prevent the child from being hit. Perhaps the muscles in my arm would suddenly stop receiving nerve impulses; perhaps the child would vanish and reappear ten feet away; perhaps any number of things that in our universe would constitute gross violation of the natural order... but in this universe, there could be no natural order; every physical law would be conditional on whether or not it would cause somebody to be hurt.

There would be no reason for intelligence to evolve in such a universe, since it would be useless; without being able to predict the results of your actions at even a basic level, there would be no point in trying to plan anything beyond the next moment. But then, there would be no reason for anything in that universe; so intelligence might exist anyway.

A universe that was rationally understandable, and in which there was no underserved suffering, would have to be very, very carefully scripted by a master plot-writer... but it is conceivable. In such a universe, if I did take an unprovoked swing at a child, then I would most likely be prevented by the culmination of some strictly deterministic series of events which began long ago; perhaps I'm suddenly run over by a driver who was distracted by a phone call which he received from his wife who... et cetera, et cetera. But even more likely, I simply wouldn't take that swing in the first place, because I would have no choice in the matter. Without free will, I would just be performing the part written for me.

A universe that was rationally understandable and in which people have free will... would be the universe that in fact we have. The innocent do suffer in this world, however. The predictability of natural law means that natural evil is bound to exist; if a rock falls and a person is underneath it, then the rock will fall on them because the physical laws of the universe don't make exceptions for who deserves what to happen to them. Free will means that moral evil is bound to exist, because some people are going to choose to do evil, and the innocent will often be the targets.

God, apparently, considers free will and rationality more important than a lack of suffering.

But here's the kicker: although the combination of free will and predictability means that evil will exist, they also mean that evil can be mitigated. Not eliminated, but reduced; made less deadly.

Natural evil can be mitigated by technology; consider what happens when earthquakes of comparable force strike in poor nations and in rich nations. The rich nations, which can afford to build earthquake-resistant buildings, suffer a relative handful of casualties; the poor nations have hundreds or thousands of dead.

Human evil can be mitigated by advances in social and moral order. This is controversial; but I seriously believe that the world as a whole is at a more advanced moral level now than it was two or three thousand years ago. We do not have a just society yet, nor anything close to it... but large parts of the world are a lot more just than has been the case historically. In fact, even the modern hand-wringing over the injustice of the world is an encouraging sign: we've advanced to the point where we expect that justice should exist everywhere.

To summarize my position. While God does not will or desire that evil exist, God allows it because it is the inescapable consequence of living in a universe that has predictable natural laws, and in which people are free to make choices about their actions. However, God has given us a desire to combat the evil that does occur; and has put it within our power to do so.

Clearly, I think, God expects that if we do not like the world as it is, then we should fix it.