Free Will and the Problem of Evil


Theists often try to explain why there is evil in the world by arguing that God highly values relationships characterized by moral responsibility for one’s actions and for the well-being of others. God values these things because moral responsibility is an integral part of love. Love implies the ability to seek the good of others and to intentionally benefit them. Love makes certain actions within a relationship valuable or harmful depending on what is done, and so those actions take on certain properties, such as being wrong, indifferent, obligatory, and praiseworthy. If love is of utmost value to God, then He would likely make creatures that are capable of loving and thereby give them moral responsibilities.

However, not just any creature can be morally responsible. They must have free will. But not just any free will, like the kind that chooses between apples and oranges. No. God is interested in morally significant freedom, the ability to pursue virtues and make choices that impact each others lives in profound ways.

Creatures have free will in this sense only if some of their actions are not totally determined by prior causes. A robot or a puppet is not free in this sense because all of its actions are determined by internal or external events which are pre-programmed (so to speak) by sequences of causes and effects over which its has no control. There is a lot more to free will that indeterminism since events can be undetermined but not result from free actions (e.g. quantum phenomena). Freedom involves the ability to make genuine choices that are to some extent up to me – choices which I can have reasons for making (i.e. they aren’t arbitrary) and which are not fully explained by the chain of cause and effect relationships leading up to my action (i.e. they are undetermined). Of course, freedom exists within constraints. My free actions are conditioned by my biological makeup, genetic potential, personality, habits, and upbringing, but none of these factors completely explains the choices I make.

Free will is necessary for love and moral responsibility because obligations make no sense in the absence of real choices. Only if I can refrain from doing wrong am I responsible for doing it. We don’t hold people responsible for actions if it is impossible for them to do otherwise. It’s not enough that they could have done otherwise in different circumstances. Rather, responsibility requires that they be able to act differently in the very same circumstances. The capacity to chose between different alternatives in the very same circumstance is essential to free will, and therefore, to moral responsibility.[1]

Moral Evil

Advocates of the free will theodicy argue that the misuse of that freedom explains why moral evil exists in a world that God created. Freedom comes at a cost to God because in giving creatures the ability to love and seek each others’ well-being, they can choose to abuse their freedom to exploit and harm each other as well. For example, the unjust distribution of food reserves, wealth, and medical care on planet earth is largely the result of human greed, pride, and the lust for money. The freedom we have to love is the same freedom we use to lie, cheat, steal, murder, rape, and destroy.

By implication, a God who highly values loving relationships would create a world of free creatures even if it meant tolerating evils arising from the misuse of that freedom. To rob us of that freedom is to rob us of the capacity to love.

Does this mean God is not all-powerful? Not at all. It only means that a God who creates free creatures cannot make them love. If he makes them, then they aren’t free. If they are free, then he cannot make them. It is a logical contradiction to claim that God can make free agents love others because force destroys love. Since love (and the freedom that makes it possible) is so valuable to God, He would want to preserve it even if we used it to commit moral evils. On this view, the goods made possible by morally significant freedom outweigh the evils that often flow from it. [2]

Natural Evil

Promoters of the free will theodicy believe their explanation can account for why there would likely be natural evil in a world created by God. In order for free creatures to be morally responsible for their actions, they must live in an orderly environment in which they can predict the immediate consequences of their actions with a high degree of accuracy. Such an environment would have to be a system of predictable cause-and-effect relationships which allow me observe and infer the outcomes of my choices in a regular way. Unless I can know (with a high degree of confidence) that certain kinds of effects follow from certain kinds of causes, then I have no reason to believe my choices will result in one outcome rather than another. An environment without natural regularities would be a chaotic world where almost nothing would be under my control.

Imagine a world in which my intentions to act result in unpredictable outcomes whenever I try to carry out those intentions. Suppose my intention to shake your hand results in my punching you in the face. The next day I try to shake your hand and bullets shoot out of my fingers. This scenario appears silly, but it proves a point. I can’t build intentions to act in a world when the immediate outcomes of my actions are unpredictable. And even if I could, there would be no correlation between what I intend to do and what actually happens. Clearly, I cannot be held morally responsible for my actions in this scenario.

Similarly, free creatures can be morally responsible only if they live in a world where natural regularities ensure ordered and predictable relationships between causes and effects. If so, then evils resulting from those natural laws are almost inevitable. The law of gravity that enables me to caress my wife is the same law that causes mud slides and avalanches. The laws of motion that enable me to move my body to help others are the same laws that cause fatal accidents. We cannot have it both ways. Moral responsibility cannot exist in a world without natural laws that cause suffering as an inevitable byproduct.[3]


Advocates of the “Free Will” theodicy argue that the existence of moral and natural evil is unsurprising or even expected on the view that God exists. God has good reason to make creatures like us who are capable of sharing love and entering into significant relationships. But this means we should not be surprised to find moral and natural evil in a world created by God.[4]

In my next post, I plan to evaluate the free will theodicy to see how well it fairs under scrutiny. So stay tuned!


[1] The idea that a necessary condition of free will is the ability to choose between alternatives is often called “the principle of alternative possibilities” in the philosophical literature. It has recently come to my attention that the principle is not necessary for libertarian free will, as Frankfurt cases suggest. But I will not concern myself with these cases here. For the sake of simplicity, I wish to focus this discussion on one specific position within the libertarian camp – agent causation. For a helpful article on the nature of agent causation, see William L. Rowe, “Two concepts of Freedom,” in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association Supplement to Volume 61 (Sept. 1987), pp. 43-64.

[2] Some theists overstate their case by claiming that a world containing free creatures (which, supposedly, must also contain moral and natural evil) is better than a world without them. But how can we reasonably know this? Perhaps free will is a good of sufficient value to outweigh the evils which result from it; perhaps, all things being equal, a world containing free creatures is better than one without; but that’s as far is our knowledge goes. We have no idea how the overall balance of goods on a cosmic scale would be positively or negatively affected if free creatures had not been created, because we do not know enough about our world, its contents, and its interrelatedness to make that judgment. We lack sufficient epistemic resources to trust our modal intuitions in this case. As Peter Van Inwagen writes, human judgments of value about matters of cosmic proportions are suspect: “…for all we know, our inclinations to make value judgments are not veridical when they are applied to cosmic matters unrelated to the concerns of everyday life.” See “The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence.” The Evidential Argument from Evil Ed. Daniel Howard Snyder (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), p.162.

[3] This theodicy is (what Michael J. Murray calls) an “antecedent free-will theodicy.”

[4] I wonder if philosophical arguments for human free will (in the libertarian sense) would increase the likelihood of moral and natural evil on the theistic hypothesis.

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