Rebutting Reasonable Faith: Free Will and Evil

A correspondent to William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith column writes in with a very good question, one that atheists have often raised:

An acquaintance of mine recently asked me why it is necessary that we be able to choose evil for us to have free will, while it is not necessary that God be able to choose evil for Him to have free will….

I cannot explain why, if God could create us free without the capacity to choose evil, He did not do so (especially given the fact that we are created in His image, and He is unable to choose evil). Is it because we are finite?

Craig’s first response is to suggest that possible worlds such as this exist, but are somehow worse than worlds with moral evil, in some unspecified way:

It’s consistent with the Free Will Defense that although there are possible worlds such as you describe, they have other overriding deficiencies that make them less preferable to worlds in which humans can choose both evil and good.

Again, Craig is tripped up by the most common problem that plagues Christians who argue for the necessity of evil: what about Heaven? That is a type of existence in which, presumably, we retain our free will but no longer choose evil. Craig seems to concede that it is possible for God to create such a world. All we’re asking is why, if this is going to be the end state anyway, God didn’t simply start out with that and not create a world of suffering in which billions of people end up condemned. Is Craig arguing that Heaven has “overriding deficiencies” that make it inferior to Earth?

The atheist has to prove that, necessarily, God would prefer a world without evil (for whatever reason) over any world with evil if he’s to prove that God and evil are logically incompatible.

This is a bizarre point for Craig to deny. Is he really claiming that God does not prefer worlds without evil over worlds with evil? That would fly in the face of two thousand years of Christian theology by implying a God who was either malevolent himself or, at best, morally indifferent. The usual Christian apologetic response is that God values free will highly enough that he considers it worth the cost, but Craig has already foreclosed that argument: he agrees that there are possible worlds with free will and no evil, but claims that they have unspecified “overriding deficiencies” that make them even less desirable. Left unexplained is why God’s omnipotent power is incapable of correcting those deficiencies as well.

Craig’s second response, which seems to contradict his first, is that it’s actually not possible for God to create beings who only choose the good:

A free being which possesses a nature which is characterized by less than complete moral perfection… lacks the power to choose infallibly the Good. For God to create a being which has the ability to choose infallibly the Good would be, in effect, to create another God, which is logically impossible, since God is essentially uncaused; and, of course, omnipotence does not entail the ability to bring about the logically impossible.

This entire chain of inferences is built on a starting premise that is obviously nonsensical. A being possessing moral perfection, but not omnipotence or omniscience or omnipresence or atemporality or other attributes usually identified with God, would not be another God; it would simply be a free-willed being possessing moral perfection. Again, Christianity itself supplies an example of this: angels are traditionally believed to have free will – they must have, else how could any of them have fallen? – and yet, they are said to infallibly carry out the will of God.

Indeed, if God is uncaused by definition, then there ought to be no problem here. He could create a being possessing all of his other attributes – omnipotence, omniscience and so on – and yet, since this being was caused and not eternal, it would not be God.

There’s a larger issue which neither William Lane Craig nor this week’s questioner explores in detail. Namely, an abiding puzzle for Christian theology is why, if God hates evil and sin so much, he created a world that would guarantee the production of massive quantities of it. As I’ve written in the past, free will is not a mathematical point, nor is it a simple binary choice between good and evil. Free will is a complex bundle of desires, habits and predispositions, any of which can be altered or taken away. Even if we grant the premise that free will is necessary for a world of meaningful choice, why wouldn’t God create human beings with inclinations toward virtue, so that few people exercise the evil options that are theoretically open to them? The reality of our world seems rather to be the opposite.

Other posts in this series:

Repost: So Wrong For So Long: On Liberal Biblical Reinterpretation
I Get Religious Mail: That's Not What "Miracle" Means
Repost: The Mystical Dogma of Human Equality
Atlas Shrugged: The Ideological Event Horizon
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.