Why 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.
Nor 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?