C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and the Free-Will Defense

1igavethemfreewillCOLCP.jpg~original.jpegWhy did God create a world filled with evil and horrific violence? In the midst of World War II, C. S. Lewis offered what has become a classic Christian response:

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free. (Mere Christianity, pp. 47-48; also see “The Problem of Evil“)

Lewis’s presentation does not explain hurricanes, earthquakes, and other forms of natural evil, but it does provide a relatively satisfying resolution to the problem of moral evil. The freedom of human beings is a great good that makes possible the greatest good—eternal union with God. God, of course, knew the risks in creating genuinely free rational beings, but clearly he thought it was well worth taking—and, suggests Lewis, so should we.

Decades later philosopher Alvin Plantinga would elaborate upon the free-will defense in his book God, Freedom, and Evil. He summarizes his argument thusly:

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. (p. 30; cf. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

We might dispute whether the horrific costs of freedom in fact justify God’s creational wager, but it seems commonsensically obvious that human freedom and divine determination are mutually exclusive (compatibilist arguments, notwithstanding). Many philosophers and theologians agree. But what kind of freedom is Plantinga presupposing? He offers this definition: “If a person is free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain from performing it; no antecedent conditions and/or causal laws determine that he will per­form the action, or that he won’t” (p. 29). Nowadays this is called libertarian freedom.

The strength—and weakness—of the free-will defense is its asserted relinquishment by God of his sovereignty over the actions of created rational beings. Humanity enjoys genuine freedom, outside the control and determination of its Creator. As Hugh J. McCann puts it: “Some of what goes on in the world is not under God’s control but under that of his creatures—who are created neither willing nor failing to will the things they do, and have to fill in the blank themselves” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 79). The human being alone is responsible for his freely chosen actions. We, not God, are responsible for our inquity. We turn our wills against God’s commandments and good ways. We choose disobedience and sin. We inflict violence upon our fellow creatures. We exploit the natural resources of our planet. We oppress our neighbors. “The price of freedom,” writes McCann, “is moral evil. But moral evil is to be laid first at our doorstep, for it is we who choose it; God merely permits our choices and, as far as he sees fit, enables them to be efficacious” (pp. 77-78).

The free-will defense, however, comes at significant theological cost, namely, the possible failure of God’s creative project. If God has given humanity libertarian freedom for the purpose of friendship and genuine communion, then the fulfillment of this goal is beyond his control. His “fate” as Creator and Savior

lies almost completely in the hands of his creatures. No matter how concerned and loving he may be, no matter how powerfully he may attempt to win us over, we are on this view out of God’s control. Thus there is always the chance, however remote, that his plans for us will be utterly dashed, that his overtures to us will be rejected—even to the point, one supposes, of our all being lost—that as technology advances we will use our freedom to wreak ever greater horror, and that when it comes to finding friends, creation will for God turn out to be a complete disaster. Willingness to take chances may be laudable in some cases, but to entrust an enterprise of this importance to the beneficence of our tribe must surely be deemed irresponsible. (p. 83)

Orthodox Christians know that the divine project has in fact not failed, at least not completely. Every day we venerate the blessed Theotokos and pray with the saints in heaven. Some at least have been saved. But if the libertarian is correct, matters might have turned out very differently and still might not turn out very well. Just ask the damned.

5237d321eff227a3a269b4fa8c3312fa.jpg~original.jpegNor does an appeal to divine omniscience and God’s eternal apprehension of past, present, and future help the situation, depending on how we understand this apprehension. Boethius resolved the problem of divine omniscience and creaturely freedom by positing God’s timeless observation of history. All that has happened and will happen is available to his gaze. His knowledge of temporal reality is given to him in direct experience. He does not see events before they happen; he sees them as they are happening. In this way the freedom of human beings is secured. If the divine foreknowledge were quite literally foreknowledge, then we would be fated to do whatever God foresaw us doing. Our destinies would be as determined as were the destinies of the ancient pagans living under the dominion of the Moirai. Prevision implies necessity and fate. But because God’s vantage point is outside of time, he sees our doings at the moment they are accomplished, and thus our freedom is preserved. Whatever we have done, whatever we are doing, whatever we will do, we might have done otherwise.

The Boethian construal of divine omniscience, however, does nothing to secure God’s providential direction of history. As a passive observer, the Creator remains helpless before the freedom he has granted humanity. He stands on the mountain top and watches us live out our murder and treachery, but his location in eternity does not give him any advantage in effecting his providential ends. Consider the case of the nefarious Professor Smith. While visiting his disabled mother, he notices her handicapped parking hangtag lying on her dresser table. While she’s not looking, he slips it into his pocket. God sees this happen as it happens, but constrained both by his timeless perspective and the creaturely freedom he is self-sworn to preserve, he is unable to incorporate his knowledge of Smith’s misdeed into his plans.

In order to wield effective control over the course of history, God has to know as creator how the decisions and actions of creatures with libertarian freedom will go. Only then can he arrange the progression of events in such a way to take full account of our behavior in achieving his ends. God may intend, for example, that Smith’s mother not be greatly inconvenienced by her disability, and so may be disposed to do something to compensate for Smith’s misdeed. If he is timeless, however, he cannot wait to see what Smith does and then react. Only a temporal God can do that. A timeless one must provide for this contingency “from eternity”: he must undo the damage as part of the one act in which he creates the entire universe—or perhaps we should say, as much of the universe as Smith’s freedom allows him to create. And it is hard to see how God can do this effectively if, as creator, he is in the dark as to what Smith will do. He could, of course, set up some insurance—say, by arranging for Mrs. Smith to have a spare parking permit. But he cannot, at least with any semblance of economy, insure against any and every rotten trick her son might come up with, not to mention the potential misdeeds of the thousands of other villains who could do her harm. Indeed, the countless opportunities free creatures have to exercise their freedom, the complexities of their possible interaction, and the immensely varied consequences of their actions might have would seem to offer next to no hope of successful prediction, thus leaving the Boethian God in a hopeless position from which to exercise meaningful providence over the world. Still less can we see how such a God would be able to do things like answer prayer, or empower his spokespersons to make accurate prophecies of any future event on which human agency might impinge. While the Boethian position does well with the problem of omniscience, then, its implications concerning God’s power and sovereignty are completely disappointing. (pp. 81-82)

But is God as impotent before the freedom of humanity as the free-will defense requires?

(Go to “The Impossible Worlds of Molinism”)

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20 Responses to C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and the Free-Will Defense

  1. Julian says:

    Maybe this analogy might work. They say that supercomputers have now reached the computing level where they can beat any chess grandmaster easily. So what if we think of our lives as a chess game against God. He makes the first move and awaits our move. God already knows all the possible outcomes, and knows that he will win, no matter what moves we make. Thus, he can allow us to have free will, knowing that in the end he will win. A win for him is our eternal life with him.

    We are also free not to try to play chess against God, but instead to learn to dance with him, letting him lead us where he will.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Julian. Merry Christmas.

      Thank you for raising the metaphor of God as chess master. Somewhat surprisingly, McCann does not address the metaphor directly. I suspect, though, that he would not find convincing. It does not improve the situation of the Boethian Deity, who possesses simple foreknowledge via the passivity of eternal observation. Where it comes into play, I think, are with theologies that posit the temporality of the Creator, combined with an open theistic understanding. God comprehends his creation so well that he can anticipate and plan for all eventual outcomes, like a great super-super-super computer. But while God may enjoy great predictive power, of a probabilistic kind, he still does not possess the omniscience of future contingents that McCann, at any rate, believes the Deity must have if he is to exercise genuine sovereignty over history. Why assume that in the game of the cosmos, the divine chess master must always win? Is the game rigged? Molinists like Plantinga believe that God avails himself of his middle knowledge. He knows all possible scenarios and has selected the particular scenario, the one in which we live, in which knows that he does in fact win the game. Presumably, therefore, God’s permission of destruction and evil in his world is justified, because in this scenario God does redeem every evil act and does bring his good creation to glorious consummation. But the open theist cannot appeal to this option. If rational creatures are truly free, God cannot guarantee that they will choose the good or do the good.

      Anyway, I have not given the matter much thought and will think more about it this afternoon as I enjoy my favorite Padron. 🙂 Thanks for bringing the chess master metaphor to our attention. Perhaps Tom Belt will have further illumination he can share with us. Let me also throw into the mix Alan Rhoda’s article “Getting Beyond the Chess Master analogy.”

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Julian says:

    I’m not sure that Plantinga is a universalist, so for him, even if most people end up in hell, God still wins. I think the universalist George MacDonald, on the other hand, did believe that the game was “rigged.” We are all created with the inherent desire for the good, and will not rest content until we eventually choose it. In such a situation, God will eventually win.

    Is there a scenario where God can not create all of us with such an inherent desire for the good, and still “win,” i.e., save all of us?


    • If I understand it correctly, the “5-point Calvinist” response might include the following:

      You are right that “God Wins” – if we are to consider ultimate the sovereignty of God, his will ultimately triumphs. That leads to two possibilities –

      1) One is that God will pursue each individual soul until every “lost coin” is found, every “lost sheep” is rescued. That no matter how many millennia it may take, God’s grace will ultimately win and all will be saved.

      2) The other is that some will not be saved. And since God wins, it must be that God did not intend to save all (“limited atonement”). As a potter is not unjust if he makes some vessels for exalted use, and others for lowly and abashed purposes. Some things as a chalice, others as a chamber-pot. As the potter is not unjust, so God is not unjust if he makes some to reveal his glory, and others to make real his justice. Nothing is “theoretical” with God; His justice and and judgement are real in that they are “realized” by the damned, those who bear the fruit of their own rejection of God.

      for myself, I would be very strongly drawn to the first view, except that Jesus does not seem to have shared it.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I don’t think I’ve run into a five-point Calvinist who ever affirmed #1. But I agree it’s a theoretical possibility.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I would agree with you – I haven’t either. that was more from me
          But once you assert God’s absolute sovereignty, and say that His will always absolutely prevails, then that becomes one of the possible positions, as a result of “limited atonement” and “irresistible grace.” If God did NOT save all, it can only be that He did not intend to. -which is a difficult thought.
          But if God gets his way, it must be either that God saves all, or that He does not wish to save all.

          I agree that I have not heard much from Calvinists about the universalist possibilities.


  3. malcolmsnotes says:

    Great to see someone finally appreciating the problem with Boethius’ model. God becomes merely an eternally passive receiver – his ability to be provident evaporates. I’ve written about the incoherence in supposing God gets his knowledge by “seeing” all past, present and future in the eternal now and ALSO that he uses this knowledge to affect what he sees. Anyone interested can check out my post here.



  4. malcolmsnotes says:

    As a comment on the actual puzzle though. It seems Molinism is a potential solution to the objection. At least, it avoids making God’s will the cause of free creaturely actions and also upholds an infallible providence. The real question is whether the grounding objection is fatal to it. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to find much by Molinists lately that directly refute the grounding objection. Anyone who knows of anything I’d be happy to read about it.


  5. Tom says:

    Fr Aidan: The free-will defense, however, comes at significant theological cost, namely, the possible failure of God’s creative project. If God has given humanity libertarian freedom for the purpose of friendship and genuine communion, then the fulfillment of this goal is beyond his control.

    Tom: Do you have any objections to the basic free-will defense other than this perceived cost? If it were false, for example, that the free-will defense cost us (and God) our belief that God’s loving purposes for all things are ultimately undefeatable, would you be OK with the free-will defense? I ask because it seems clear to me that the free-will defense does not in fact entail the possibility of the ultimate and final defeat of God’s loving destiny for all things. We’re talking *libertarian free will*, not the absolute, unconstrained *voluntarism* of the Enlightenment, right?



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, at this point I’m just stating McCann’s views. I am sympathetic to his concern about divine sovereignty; but we’ll get to that when we discuss his views on noncompetitive double agency, probably not in the next post but in the one after. One step at a time. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      But directly to your question, I personally find the free will defense problematic, because it divorces human willing and acting from divine agency, as if God merely sets the stage upon which autonomous creaturely agents now act out their lives. This provides a neat solution to moral evil, but it’s too deistic for my tastes. It implies a dualistic understanding of divine transcendence, with the logical consequence that divine agency and creaturely agency are in competition. We’ve discussed this earlier with regards to my postings on Austin Farrer, Herbert McCabe, and Kathryn Tanner. McCann, as we shall see, brings the issue into even sharper focus.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Tom says:

        Fr Aidan: I personally find the free will defense problematic, because it divorces human willing and acting from divine agency, as if God merely sets the stage upon which autonomous creaturely agents now act out their lives. This provides a neat solution to moral evil, but it’s too deistic for my tastes. It implies a dualistic understanding of divine transcendence, with the logical consequence that divine agency and creaturely agency are in competition.

        Tom: I’m looking forward to future installments.

        On an important level, I think we have to admit that divine and human wills “compete” – i.e., we sometimes desire for ourselves and others what God does not desire for us. To not posit at least this much is to suggest that our willing falsely as we do, which is a privation in us of God’s desired ends for us, is itself God’s desired end for us – and nobody (but Calvinists) wants to say that.

        Even if we posit that God is transcendentally present in all our willing as ground and telos (which he surely must be), the fact that the world is not as God wishes or wills it to be (except for the fact that he wills THAT it be as it is under the conditions of created wills and causes he gives) simply means the divine will isn’t always collapsible to human choice. If the world is contrary to God’s desires for it, it’s because there are wills willing contrarily to God’s desires. But saying this much is far from deism.

        Whatever we may will contrary to God’s desired ends (and ‘contrary’ willing is all I mean by ‘competitive’ willing), those ends cannot be defeated. But to say God’s purposes are not defeatable in this sense is not to say that God ‘wills’ that we ‘will’ as we do when we will awry. It means God’s will for our good is always present as our destiny and ground when we will awry.

        Just my 2 cents. 😛


        Liked by 1 person

        • Tom says:

          Analogy (we like analogies, right?) – The Runaway Bunny.

          The bunny decides to run away.
          Mother: “If you run away, I’ll run after you.”
          Bunny: “If you run after me, I’ll become a fish, and I’ll swim away from you.”
          Mother: “If you become a fish, I’ll become a fisherman, and I’ll fish for you.”
          Bunny: “If you become a fisherman, I’ll become a rock on the mountain high above you.”
          Mother: “If you become a rock on the mountain above me, I’ll become a mountain climber, and…”

          …and so forth. No need to crudely push the analogy to include divine “becoming.” But in willing to flee, the bunny wills ‘other’ than and ‘contrary’ to the mother’s will. But the providence of love cannot be denied because wherever we flee from God, we flee in God. Providence is just our irresistible, transcendental grounding in God, and that’s perfectly consistent with ‘contrary/competitive’ willing on the part of creatures. I’m not sure why we need more of a doctrine of providence or sovereignty than that.

          And I can’t believe I just used The Runaway Bunny as an analogy.


          Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            ‘I’m not sure why we need more of a doctrine of providence or sovereignty than that.’

            Me neither, but certain curious individuals keep asking about ‘future divine epistemic openness of creaturely contingency’ and such. LOL, good questions all though!

            Liked by 1 person

  6. memytym says:

    The older I get the more I dislike dichotomies. Why should it be that libertarian free will and divine sovereignty must be at odds?

    Just as I don’t believe in existential inertia and thus God is not a passive observer in existence, likewise I don’t hold that God is a passive observer in free will. I have existence precisely because God just is Being Itself and sustains every moment of my existence. I put forth that Our Divinely Simple Deity Who Is And Is His Own Attributes just is Agency Itself. He is Deliberate Conscious Act not dependent on material parts such as a brain nor temporal parts as is required for the deliberation process. Just as God sustains my existence by actualizing it so He does with all of my choices. I have existence because He IS Existence and He allows me to share in that. I have agency because He IS Agency and He allows me to share in that. My free will choices are entirely my own (otherwise I would not be sharing in His Agency at all) but still completely dependent on Him. How is He not sovereign in this? How is my libertarian free will diminished from this? Libertarian free will is only possible because God actualizes it and because He just is Agency and He actualizes it in creatures libertarian free will exists in His imagers. And as He timelessly actualizes all that I freely choose across the timeline how can He fail to know my every choice? But because He does not make my choices for me but freely shares His Agency with me by actualizing my choices (as He freely chooses to do so) I have agency.

    And why shouldn’t this be so? Are we not imagers of God and thus the form of man is to have the attributes that God Is? Humanity is His imagers by having the attributes existence, intellect, rationality, goodness, empathy, and agency precisely because He Is Existence, Intellect, Rationality, Goodness, Empathy, and Agency. Due to choice or defect we may not access all these attributes but it is what we are nonetheless. We are composed of parts so we are not the perfect Agency but are dependent on brain chemistry, neuronal activity, temporal and spatial processes and circumstances but have agency we do just the same. Is not the creation and duties of mankind not couched in Divine terms? Imaging God, dominion over all the Earth, etc.? Are we not meant to be His very representatives on Earth? Wasn’t the Fall Adam’s attempt at theosis on his own terms and the Life of Jesus a restitution of theosis back on God’s terms? Are we not meant to become like divine beings and replace and judge those divine beings that left their Heavenly estate? As long as we are on the creature side of the insurmountable Creator/creature divide how is God less sovereign by creating co-creators?

    Perhaps my rant falls short of addressing the finer philosophical points involved in which case so many wasted pixels. Much smarter minds than mine have labored over it without coming to any satisfactory conclusions. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel the libertarian free will/Divine Sovereignty debate is a false dichotomy, they are not opposed but complementary.

    Thank you for allowing this erratic, disjointed rabbit trail of an attempt at some kind of point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      The dichotomy raises important issues indeed, as you point out. Stepping back from this is to raise the question as to the definition of ‘freedom’ which is employed. Freedom as construed as a choice among a range of possibilities (i.e. libertarian freedom) is contested.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you, Fr. Kimel, for this glorious article, and thanks to all the great comments. Wish I could add something brilliant, but I have little knowledge of Molinism, have avoided Calvinism all my life, and simply sit here drinking my coffee, amazed at the winter landscape and the beauty outside my window. I pray each day that God will save us from WWIII, although I know mankind’s savagery will always plague us. There is peace in our future, but it won’t be on Earth.


  8. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Perhaps God winning is inevitable for the simplest of reasons: apokatastasis is the only possible “steady state” condition of the universe. That is, if the universe is in any other condition God can and will still, somehow, continue to act to fix it.

    If would follow from that, given an infinite time to work with, God will eventually win.

    Using the chess analogy, what you would have is a situation where the rules of the game were such that only one player was allowed to checkmate the other, and the game continues until that player wins. Victory for that player is inevitable, even though his opponent can make whatever move he likes, with genuine effects on the game, but effects which will only change the course of the game and prolong the game for as long as he likes or is able to, rather than affecting the outcome.

    As a separate thought on the “Professor Smith” problem, I think more easily in pictures: imagine the whole universe in all of time “before” its creation as a comic strip or graphic novel, as yet undrawn. For our yet undrawn story to be a rational construct its ultimate form must make sense logically left-to-right (I.e. in time) but God is not constrained to draw the panels in this fashion, fully completing one before moving chronologically to the next. For our universe to have a final product what is drawn, once drawn, stays there. For us to have free will, what appears on the page while God draws must be determined in part by us as we are drawn.
    Within these constraints, what can God do about our Professor Smith?

    He cannot “undraw” the misdeed, and whatever he does draw must still make logial sense with everything else. He can still, however, while drawing later (or indeed earlier) panels he is gradually filling in at the same time adjust what he draws to deal with the problem.

    What you perhaps can have is a God who is in his interactions with creation “temporal-ish” in the sense he can act sequentially in some sense, but not necessarily having to do so in linear chronological order as a being subject to rather than the creator of time would have to.

    Liked by 2 people

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