Free Will 1: The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is this:

1. God is all-good.
2. An all-good being would do everything in his/her power to eliminate evil.
3. God is all-powerful.
4. Therefore, evil should not exist.
5. We know that evil does exist.
6. Therefore, if God exists, he is either not all-good, or not all-powerful.

For the atheist, this is case closed: there is no God. Or if there is, he is either not all-good or not all-powerful, and what sort of God is that! Certainly not the God of Christianity, at any rate. On the other hand, for the theist, this is a challenge to come up with a theodicy - an explanation of why, if God were all-good and all-powerful, he would choose to let evil remain. In order to be an adequate response, this explanation must be consistent with itself and with the belief system of which it is a part, and also with the world as we know it.

The most obvious route for the theist is to qualify statement 2 above thus:

2. An all-good being would do everything in his/her power to eliminate any particular evil, unless doing so would result in a greater evil, or the loss of a good greater than the mere absence of the first evil.

This qualification would then therefore imply that the evil that we see in the world is in fact unavoidable, in order to achieve a greater good or to prevent a greater evil. The rejoinder to this is to ask: what is this greater good that evil must be tolerated in order to achieve; or what evil could be worse than that which we see around us every day?

One widely accepted argument in theistic circles is that there is a greater good: that of free will. In this view, God values one thing above all others, and that is man's ability to freely choose between good and evil. To put it starkly: a Hitler's ability to choose his own actions is of more value to God than the prevention of the suffering of concentration-camp-fuls of innocent people.

How the free-will argument explains the existence of evil is to say that for an agent to be morally free requires there to be the possibility of doing good, and the possibility of doing evil. We can put it this way: if an agent A is presented with a choice C between a good action a1 and an evil action a2, then if it is impossible for A to choose a1 or a2, then A is not morally free with regard to C. Thus for humans to be morally free agents, there must be the possibility of doing evil actions. Therefore there must be evil in the world.

The argument makes perfect sense right until that last sentence. For humans to be morally free requires the possiblity of committing evil; agreed. But that doesn't mean that the possibility need ever be realised. If the morally good choice is always the best choice, for the agent or for the population, then surely a fully-informed, totally free, intelligent, conscious agent will always choose the moral good; to do otherwise would make no sense whatsoever.

The trouble is, that's not the human race that you and I know. So what went wrong?

"Aha," says the theodicist, warming to the argument, "this is where the Fall comes in. You see, God created Adam and Eve perfect and morally free. They had a moral choice between a evil action (eating the fruit) and a good action (not eating it), but they chose the evil. So that's when sin entered the world. And now we're all sinners because we have a bias towards choosing evil."

Ah, it all makes sense ... hang on, I thought they were perfect and morally free. And I just argued that for someone in that position to do anything other than the moral good would be nonsense. So why did they choose the evil?

Answer #1: They were tempted
So? Before the Fall, humans had no bias towards evil. So there would be no irresistable urge to choose the wrong action. So temptation would have no power, because however attractive an option might seem in the short term, the perfect, morally free human would always choose the good, no matter what the temptation, simply because it's the better choice.

Answer #2: The Devil deceived them
Hmm. OK, we can't see any way perfect beings could choose evil, so let's postulate an essentially evil entity which temporarily assumes power over them and convinces them to do something which they would never choose to do otherwise... Leaving aside the question of where this guy came from, and how he became evil, where was God at this time? What was God doing letting this smooth talking, evil being wander about in his paradise? This being with the power to completely deceive innocent humans into doing something completely irrational and with such disastrous consequences? Because it stands to reason, given that perfect, morally free agents would always choose the best course of action, the Devil must have interfered with their reasoning processes. Which means that it was not their fault. Which means it was the Devil's. Which means, ultimately, it was God's, for letting him in in the first place.


  1. Interesting blog Stu... and all the comments are v...

    by ANDREW on 06 OCTOBER 2007 at 9:29AM
    Interesting blog Stu... and all the comments are valid. But one thing you are missing is that the bible regards the creation of Earth... not the creation of anything prior. To understand the discussion on the how evil and the devil entered the lives of man we have to understand the origins of evil and the devil.

    Ezekiel and Isaiah talk about the devils origins. He was created as the highest ranking of all angels, a guardian cherub of god's holiness. As such God bestowed on him his greatest gift of all - that of free will.

    It was this gift of free will that allowed the devil to decide
    - I will ascend into heaven,
    - I will exalt my throne above the stars of God:
    - I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:
    - I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
    - I will be like the most High.

    All of these actions because he was proud of his creator. As god is all powerful he had the choice to keep free will or abolish free will. As he is all good, it would have been wrong to abolish free will.

    It was this free will that gave Satan the freedom to choose his fate. By choosing to be like the most high, he desired to be greater than his creator.

    So because of free will - evil was created? Not exactly. In creating free will God did not create evil, it was a choice that the devil made.

    When God created Earth the devil took further actions in his desire to be greater than his creator through the deception of Eve. This has since created the battle on earth between good and evil.

    God is good and all powerful, because unlike a dictator, he allows us to make the same decision that he allowed Satan to take - a path of good or a path of evil.
  2. also, (sorry!) we should be careful not to allow t...

    by GARETH on 29 AUGUST 2006 at 7:22PM
    also, (sorry!) we should be careful not to allow the creation debate to distract from the clear argument stu has laid out in his initial blog. lets wait for him to start one on that!

  3. I agree with two of the comments already made, tha...

    by GARETH on 29 AUGUST 2006 at 7:21PM
    I agree with two of the comments already made, that when we start using logic to analyse God, we must be careful to start with scripture, and kep our argument in line with it, as it is how God has revealed Himself and His ways to us.

    The other comment I am fully in favour of is that your argument is logically sound, save for the assumption around the "fully-informed, totally free, intelligent, conscious agent will always choose the moral good".

    If this refers to adam, he was clearly not fully-informed. Had he foreseen the consequences of merely eating an apple, (which lets not forget was disobeying an almighty God) I am sure the free, intelligent and conscious agent would not have taken a bite.

    God has not chosen that billions of people perish in hell. He is holy, and as creator of the universe has every right to lay down rules as to how we should live and relate to Him. Where anybody chooses not to conform, He would no longer be a perfect, just and righteous God if the consequences of that choice were able to be waived. Those who perish, scripture teaches, and logic confirms, choose to do so in the face of an alternative made freely available to all.
  4. Firstly, it is important in discussions like this ...

    by TIM on 17 AUGUST 2006 at 1:45PM
    Firstly, it is important in discussions like this that we start from what the scriptures say. Why is it not valid to assert that God is good and all-powerful and pure when we are told this (see Titus 1 v 2; James 1)? Logic cannot tell us what God is like and we are wholly reliant on God to tell us about Himself otherwise we will remain in ignorance.

    Secondly, regarding your comment on Adam, scripture confirms that Adam was not deceived. His sin was entirely deliberate. But think of his dilemma. Sin has now entered the world and he has a choice not so much of good and evil, but of love for God on the one hand and love for his wife on the other. I think it a harsh injustice on Adam to think that this was just a simple choice. How subtle satan is! If Adam will not respond to a good or evil choice, he puts him in an agonising position of choosing between God and his wife.

    Thirdly, God is omniscient and knowing about the sin problem had made provision for it before it happened. We must be clear on this point that it is not His desire that any one should perish (2 Peter 3) and He never consigns any one to hell. If a person finds himself in hell it will not be of God’s doing but the result of a conscious choice on the part of that person to reject God’s way of salvation. As regards the praise of the redeemed, I did not intend to convey the idea that this was the sole reason of God’s apparent inaction, but merely a result in which I for one am happy to participate.

    In respect to your final point, why do you assert that “God actively deceives His creatures”? God has told us what He has done in Genesis. If scientists do not consult this record there can surely be no complaints when they come up with the wrong answers.

    God created a fully functioning mature creation as evidenced by the fact that Adam was created as a man and not an embryo. On this basis, trees would have rings to evidence maturity and stars would be shining. It seems inconceivable to me that Genesis 1 v 16 would say “He made the stars also”, but Adam would not have been able to see them as another few light years would be needed for their light to arrive. If God can create a star by speaking, there can surely be no question about His ability to make it appear as mature as whatever was His design.
  5. Hi Tim<br><br>Your comments really intrigue me. <...

    by STU SHERWIN on 06 AUGUST 2006 at 4:43PM
    Hi Tim

    Your comments really intrigue me.

    Firstly, it's not a valid response to the problem of evil simply to assert that God is good and God is all-powerful, therefore there must be a valid reason we don't know about for the evil we see around us! This begs the question, as it's this very fact of evil that challenges those two assertions.

    Secondly, although you posit as I do that if man was created perfect, doing evil would be unthinkable, you do not make it clear how we get from here to him actually sinning! As you say, it was only Eve who was deceived, so Adam is still in his perfect state when he eats the fruit. How can this be, if as you say, evil is simply not an option to him?

    Thirdly, you say that God knew sin would occur and allowed it to happen (despite knowing that billions of souls would be in agony for eternity as a result) simply because this would result in Heaven being enriched by the praise of the redeemed! I'm sorry to say this leaves me cold. If you want to worship a God who will happily consign billions of people to everlasting torment in order to improve the quality of the singing in Heaven, then feel free. If that's what God is really like then he's not getting any worship from me.

    Finally, you seem to think it's acceptable to believe in a God who actively decieves his creatures! Your idea that God would create a tree with growth rings is incomprehensible to me. Any scientist examining the recently created tree would justifiably come to the conclusion that it was many years old, as this is a universal property of all trees. What of the light from stars a million light years away? Has God decieved the scientists here too? Scientists have built up a consistent and reliable body of knowledge of the nature of light and the distance of stars, verified by countless experiments and observations. Using this knowledge, if they see light from a star a million light years away, they are justified in saying that the light has taken a million years to get here. If I was a scientist and had to choose between a deduction from two facts we know pretty much incontrovertably about the universe, or or a very small group of crackpots who claim that God has done some jiggery-pokery to make the star appear a thousand times older than it actually is, I wonder which one I would choose?
  6. Firstly, we must not let logic run away with us. L...

    by TIM on 28 JULY 2006 at 3:34PM
    Firstly, we must not let logic run away with us. Logic is a great tool and man has a tremendous faculty for reasoning, but if we start from the wrong point or use the wrong premises, we may well result in error. Take creation for example: if we looked at a tree’s rings on day two following creation, then our reason would quite rightly indicate that we were looking at an old creation – but we would be very wrong!

    God is all powerful and all good. These are just two of His intrinsic qualities of which there are many ( Jer 32v27; Matt 19v 17).

    God Who is also holy will eliminate evil and put it away permanently in hell (see blogg 1), but in His own good time. He has all the answers and also the power and the ability to make them happen. He is using this interim period for His own purpose.

    Anyway, are we really ready for evil to be eliminated? The lives of many today indicate that they are quite happy to cohabit with sin.

    Again, we make the assumption/assertion that God should act immediately in many situations. This is particularly true in the matter of prayer where we expect instant results. I guess this just shows our humanity and how out of touch we really are with God’s purposes when we question His delay.

    Now we need some clarification here as to terms: -
    1) Perfect – this is derived and is therefore not the same as God’s intrinsic quality. Man was created free from flaw in every way, as was all creation (very good –
    Gen 1 v 31); sinless – but not impeccable. He did not have to sin and there was no bias to sin. We are not told that Adam ever had to choose before the fall. Doing evil was just not an option to him, it was unthinkable. The indication is that Adam would not have sinned but for the woman who was conned (thoroughly deceived – 1 Tim 2 v 14). The problem is that once he had sinned, he did not possess the ability to stop himself sinning again and again. (Rom 7 v 14-25)

    2) Morally Free Agent – the term assumes that for choice a1 or a2 to be made there must be an absolute impartiality, a level field. But sin is a tyrant which binds. Sin is not just an option (a2), it is a bias which Adam did not have prior to the fall. Paul felt the bias only too keenly (Rom 7 – the good that I would I do not and the evil which I would not, that I do). Are these the words of a “morally free agent” with free choice? However, according to Rom 8v3, the Lord Jesus in His life is shown to have condemned sin in the flesh, as a principle. He proved humanity did not have to sin to be human.

    God does value when one with a natural bias to do evil makes a deliberate choice to do good – and does it! This of course cannot happen with our own ability because we have none – but by the enabling of His Spirit)

    Who then is the devil? He is the highest order of created being. We cannot even see him unless he wants it. (Isa 14 v 12 – Lucifer, son of the morning etc.). But we must be clear that God cannot create evil, otherwise He ceases to be a holy God and the whole of scripture then founders.

    Now, as regards the existence of evil, it did not take God by surprise – the wonder is that He had already provided for it before creation even took place (Rev 13 v 8: 1 Peter 1 v 20). When evil is present, God can now show us this and we are in a position to understand it! God’s glory is magnified all round in a way it never could have been if He had stopped evil from happening and humanity, co-operating with God experiences even greater blessing.

    Why then did God allow evil to enter and to spoil His work? There would have been no praise to God from redeemed hearts and heaven would have been the poorer
    (Rev 5 v 9).

    Sorry for the essay, but I hope this is useful.
  7. In that case how can any blame be attatched to the...

    by STU SHERWIN on 20 JULY 2006 at 12:49PM
    In that case how can any blame be attatched to them? If that's true, how can they be held morally responsible for their actions?
  8. Let's say they were not perfect. Their eyes had no...

    by JON on 14 JULY 2006 at 9:25AM
    Let's say they were not perfect. Their eyes had not been opened to he consequences of sin, they had no real concept of causality, implications and so could not be expected to think through all the effects of disobeying the commandment. That would mean that they were not "fully-informed" and their intelligence was not complete.
  9. Hi Jon, thanks for your response. I should have be...

    by STU SHERWIN on 13 JULY 2006 at 5:22PM
    Hi Jon, thanks for your response. I should have been more clear, when I'm talking about "perfect" humans I'm referring to Adam and Eve before the Fall - were they perfect? If so, what went wrong and how? If not, why not?
  10. If you look in Gen. 3, the Serpent says to Eve "yo...

    by JON on 13 JULY 2006 at 3:33PM
    If you look in Gen. 3, the Serpent says to Eve "your eyes will be opened". It could be argued that that means they had no concept of morality, right and wrong. They had "been good" because they were surrounded by a place that had no wrong choices. "The Fall" would therefore be the introduction of wrong into the system and the real question would be "where did the serpent come from?".

    Your argument hinges on the phrase "surely a fully-informed, totally free, intelligent, conscious agent will always choose the moral good". With this is is hard to disagree, though can you point me out someone who fits that description?

    No-one is "fully-informed", we can never fully comprehend the results of our actions. Our choices affect much more than just ourselves. How can anyone know in enough detail all the results of a single action to be sure that no bad will come of it? Or that a greater ballance of good than bad will occur? I also started to discuss above the statement "your eyes will be opened". This suggests to me that there was certainly not complete understanding of the implications for Eve, and that perhaps it is the same for us now too.

    Totally free implies the complete lack of peer pressure, of worries about family, the power of others (eg police, local gang leaders...) Totally free is a luxury only the rich imagine they have, but do they?

    Intelligence presumably means the ability to process the "full information" to its logical conclusion. It depends on the completeness of the previous two clauses as well as the sanity and reasoning ability of the person. We will assume that all humans have the ability to do this while concious.

    You say near the end "so temptation would have no power, because however attractive an option might seem in the short term, the perfect, morally free human would always choose the good, no matter what the temptation, simply because it's the better choice." For a perfect human as you described, yes, you are correct. There's just one flaw; as I said above, no-one is perfect like that. Except Jesus. No-one else can truly weight the implications of their decisions, keep entirely free from other people's persuasion, think things though fully.
  11. Interesting post Stu, although you've missed somet...

    by DANIEL on 07 JULY 2006 at 4:32PM
    Interesting post Stu, although you've missed something.

    The 'apple incident' must have happened on the Sabbath, so it was God's day off.

Contribute your words of wisdom

Don't just stand there ... say something!

Sorry, I couldn't add your comment just yet, please check the following things:

*denotes a required field