By Dr. Niclas Berggren
A strong argument against the existence
of the Christian god (henceforth referred to as God) is contained
in the theodicy problem, which can be stated in the following
- If God exists, he is all-knowing,
all-powerful, and perfectly good.
- The existence of suffering is
incompatible with the existence of God.
- Suffering exists.
- God does not exist.
To make the argument clearer, consider
the following clarifications. An all-knowing being will be aware
of suffering; an all-powerful being will be able to prevent suffering;
and a perfectly good being will desire to prevent suffering. If
suffering exists, then God - who is characterized by the three
attributes stated in point 1 - does not exist. It is possible
for some other god to exist, but he cannot be all-knowing, all-powerful,
and perfectly good, though he may be one or two of these.
This essay will take a look at the
most common, and perhaps the only possible, counter-argument,
the free-will defense [henceforth the FWD]. In brief, it
says that point 2 above is incorrect because suffering is a result
of the free actions of human beings, created by God with a capacity
to choose either good or evil. Hence, it is the fault of humans
that suffering exists and not of God. Below, I will present this
counter-argument in more detail and, as the main contribution,
show that it is unsound and that, as a result, the theodicy problem
remains intact. In this venture, I will present an argument of
my own along with extensive quotes.
2. The FWD
In considering the problem of evil,
the theist must explain how it is that he holds the existence
of God to be true while admitting that suffering, or evil, exists.
In doing so, he may question point 2 above.
We will take a closer look at the strongest and the ostensibly
most plausible of such possible questionings, the FWD.
For a flavor of the argument, Swinburne (1991, p. 200)
asserts that "[a] good God would have reason to create a
world in which there were men with a choice of destiny and responsibility
for each other, despite the evils which would inevitably or almost
inevitably be presented in it, for the sake of the good which
it contained." In other words, God chose to create a world
with evil in it because he valued the moral autonomy of humans
- which he knew would lead to evil - higher than pure goodness.
Let us try to spell out the basic
idea in some detail, and let us do so under the assumption (to
be abandoned in Section 3) that Christianity is true. First, God
has existed for ever, and he has always been all-knowing, all-powerful,
and perfectly good. Furthermore, he is the creator of the universe.
In the Garden of Eden, the two humans,
Adam and Eve, who lived in a perfectly good state of affairs,
were tempted by the Devil to rebel against God and chose to do
so. By eating of the forbidden fruit, they committed a sin which
separated them from God. As a result of this fall, their harmony
was lost and death made its entrance into the world. All humans
are implicated in the sin of Adam and Eve (cf. Romans 5:12, 18,
19) in that this sin affected the human nature, which was transmitted
to coming generations. Hence, we can trace moral evil to the voluntary
decision of our ancestors, who did not act in accordance with
God's will. This doctrine is regularly referred to as the doctrine
of original sin. As a result, no one can avoid committing
Let us furthermore quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994, §§403-404)
at some length: "Following St. Paul, the Church has always
taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their
inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart
from their connection with Adam's sin and the fact that he has
transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted,
a sin which is the 'death of the soul.' /
/ How did the sin
of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human
race is in Adam 'as one body of one man.' By this 'unity of the
human race' all men are implicated in Adam's sin, as all are implicated
in Christ's justice. /
/ By yielding to the tempter, Adam
and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected
the human nature that they would then transmit in a
fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation
to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature
deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original
sin is called 'sin' only in an analogical sense: it is a sin 'contracted'
and not 'committed' - a state and not an act."
This general view was supported by
the Protestant reformers, who taught that original sin had radically
perverted man and destroyed his freedom: they identified the sin
inherited by each man with the tendency to evil (concupiscentia),
which would be insurmountable. For instance, the commentary to
Martin Luther's Small Catechism (1898, p. 45)
states that original sin is the in-born corruption of our nature,
which makes us prone to evil and incapable of good (in support
of this thesis, Ps. 51:5, John 3:6, and Rom. 7:14 are quoted).
Some modern Protestants, although
acknowledging the overall doctrine of original sin, have a slightly
different version which says that children up to an "age
of accountability", albeit sinful, are guilt-free (see Robertson, 1987, pp. 57-58).
One remark is in order, namely, that this version of the doctrine
in effect entails the same qualitative view with respect to human
action as the Catholic and the more traditional Protestant view,
viz., that no human can avoid sinning as a result of the corruption
brought upon all men as a result of the fall in the Garden of
To summarize, then, the Christian
reply to the theodicy problem may take the following form: God
valued moral autonomy so highly that he created Adam and Eve in
spite of knowing that they would choose evil. But the central
thing to note is that it was Adam and Eve who voluntarily
choose to sin, and God would have desired that they freely would
have chosen good. Hence, God is not to blame for the emergence
of evil in the human race.
3. The Shortcomings of the FWD
The FWD to many seems quite convincing,
especially to Christians, as a result of what it supposedly does:
rescue their faith from a strong challenge. However, in this section
I will make clear why the FWD is not a sound argument and why
the problem of evil still indicates that God does not exist.
3.1 Non-moral evil
First of all, it is important to
note that the FWD fails as a way to free God of responsibility
for non-moral, often called physical or natural, evil, since this
type of evil is independent of any (conscious) actions of men.
Some usual examples are famines, floods, disease, and earthquakes,
along with deeds by humans which are not intended to have evil
consequences. Plantinga (1974, p. 192)
argues that neither God nor humans are necessarily responsible
for these things, but that it is not improbable that fallen angels
cause them. This version of the FWD is similar to that which applies
to humans: God gave Satan and his demons the freedom to act in
an evil way because such a freedom is a higher good than the resulting
Mackie (1982, pp. 162-163)
notes: "Formally, no doubt, this is possible; but it is another
of what Cleanthes called arbitrary suppositions. While we have
a direct acquaintance with some wrong human choices - our own
- and our everyday understanding extends to the recognition of
the like choices of other human beings, we have no such knowledge
of the activities of angels, fallen or otherwise: these are at
best part of the religious hypothesis which is still in dispute,
and cannot be relied upon to give it any positive support."
In agreement with Mackie, Martin (1990, ch. 16)
lists several arguments demonstrating that Plantinga's suggestion
is highly implausible:
- Normal experience informs us
that consciousness is causally dependent on physical organisms,
which is an inductive argument against the hypothesis that non-physical
beings like Satan exist.
- As Satan can sometimes adopt
bodily form, and as there are no reliable witness reports of demonic
creatures, the hypothesis is not probable.
- The thesis of Plantinga that
Satan may act via natural laws instead of directly has several
problems, including there being no evidence for it.
- The Satan hypothesis does not
explain why good people are not afflicted with more evil than
- There is no evidence for miracles
performed by Satan, which would be expected if the hypothesis
- There is no reason to assume
that some non-identified party is responsible for certain actions:
this is a principle of evidence in jurisprudence which appears
to hold here as well.
- There are certain natural evils
which we have every reason to think do not come about because
of Satan, namely, evils which come about as a result of free human
actions based on nonculpable ignorance.
And so, we can already establish
that there is evil which plausibly can be attributed to God, and
consequently, the argument in Section 1 holds. In order to make
this an even firmer conclusion, let us also see why moral evil
cannot be explained away as not being God's responsibility by
means of the FWD.
3.2 My argument
The primary argument is quite simple.
The FWD holds that humans have free will to do either good or
evil. My argument states - on the basis of the Bible - that humans
do not have free will, and hence, that God is responsible
and blameworthy also for what is referred to as moral evil. But
then we are back at the insight that this situation is incompatible
with God's being in possession of the three characteristics listed
in point 1 of Section 1 - and hence, he does not exist.
Let me elaborate on why this argument
is correct. Let us, for the sake of argument, grant the Christian
that Adam and Eve did have a genuine free choice and that they
chose to sin. As a result, the evil which directly came about
was a result of a choice which was made by morally autonomous
beings. From the argument that God valued moral autonomy highly
enough for him to accept its evil consequences, it follows that
the evils which directly emerged as a result of what Adam and
Eve did were justified. That is, God set up a wager for the two
humans: either obey me and live in perfect harmony or disobey
me and bring about disharmony. Whatever one may think about such
an ultimatum, it is possible to hold that the circumstances in
which it was put forth were such as to pose a real and neutral
opportunity for choice.
However, the reason why God is responsible
and blameworthy for much of the moral evil which has emerged
after Adam and Eve is found in the doctrine of original sin. As
we have seen, this doctrine holds that all subsequent human
beings did not face a neutral choice, like Adam and Eve, but that
they instead were born with a sinful nature which forced them
to commit sin. This is what the Bible 
says on the matter:
- 2 Chron. 6:36: "If they
sin against thee--for there is no man who does not sin--and
thou art angry with them
- Ps. 51:5: "Behold, I was
brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."
- Prov. 20:9: "Who can say,
'I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin'?"
- Ecc. 7:20: "Surely there
is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins."
- John 3:6: "That which is
born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit
- Rom. 3:10-12: "None is righteous,
no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have
turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good,
not even one."
- Rom. 3:23: "since all
have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"
- Rom. 5:12: "Therefore as
sin came into the world through one man and death through sin,
and so death spread to all men because all men sinned"
- Rom. 5:18: "Then as one
man's trespass led to condemnation for all men,"
- Rom. 7:14: "We know that
the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin."
- 1 John 1:8-10: "If we say
we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in
us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will
forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we
say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not
Clearly and without doubt, the Bible
states that no human being can avoid committing sin. But if each
human had been born with a neutral nature, such that his nature
did not, per se, entail any tendency towards either good
or evil (as in the case of Adam and Eve), it could not necessarily
hold in a setting with agents with a free will that everyone of
them would commit sin. (One could argue that it is highly probable
that all humans would sin even with a neutral nature, but this
does not affect the argument of this section: the introduction
by God of a sinful nature must in any case increase the amount
of sin committed by humans.) Consequently, the Bible implicitly
teaches that genuine free will is not present in the human race
after Adam and Eve. And from that we can infer that if people
commit at least some evil acts out of necessity, they cannot be
held accountable for them - which implies that God is responsible
and blameworthy for a substantial portion of evil acts carried
out by humans.
As Rand (1961, pp. 136-137)
colorfully states it: "A sin without volition is a slap at
morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is
outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality.
If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it;
if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is
amoral. To hold, as man's sin, a fact not open to his choice is
a mockery of morality. To hold man's nature as his sin is a mockery
of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was
born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where
no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality,
nature, justice and reason by means of a single concept is a feat
of evil hardly to be matched. Yet that is the root of your code.
Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with
free will, but with a 'tendency' to evil. A free will saddled
with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man
to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility
and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of
a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is
of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of
his choice, his will is not free."
How, more precisely, can God be held
guilty of acts of evil committed by man? The answer is found in
focusing on the transmission mechanism of the effects of
the choice of Adam and Eve. The quote from the Catholic Church (1994)
above mentions this and clarifies that the sinful nature incurred
by Adam and Eve was propagated to all coming humans. But,
and here is the crux of the argument, who determined the
particular transmission mechanism by which all humans contracted
a sinful nature which led to their not being able to avoid committing
evil acts? God did. God, who is omnipotent, chose to construct
the world such that whatever Adam and Eve did would directly influence
the choices of all humans.
Is this particular transmission mechanism
necessary or contingent? Surely it is contingent, since God's
omnipotence means that he can do anything which is logically possible;
and hence, God could have let the consequences of Adam's and Eve's
sin last with them and not predispose every other human being
to sin and evil. For
instance, he could have made the world such that each new individual
started afresh, like Adam and Eve, with a perfectly neutral nature,
on the basis of which truly free choices could then be made. It
bears noting that if he had done this, there would have been less
evil and a freer human will!
This he did not do, and he is therefore at least partly responsible
and blameworthy, not only for non-moral evil, but also for what
is normally referred to as moral evil.
But what about the possibility that
every human being was present in Adam and that every human being
participated with Adam in his sin? If so, there is no transmission
of a sinful nature from Adam to us; rather, we all, just like
Adam, or in the form of Adam, initially faced a neutral choice
and elected to sin. And, as a result, we - and not God - are responsible
for our sinful natures. However, this argument - clearly not advanced
by many Christians - is not convincing. First of all, it merely
states that all humans once chose to rebel against God, and it
does not free God of his decision to impose a sinful nature on
all humans. That is, God did not have to offer the following choice:
"follow my will or be inflicted with a permanent disposition
to keep sinning." He could instead have kept everyone's nature
neutral, which he did not do. Hence, even on this reading of the
Fall, God is responsible and blameworthy for at least the moral
evil which stems from human beings having a sinful nature. Furthermore,
this idea is at odds with most people's sense of justice, in that
we are all said to be implicated in an offense which no one really
So the argument of Section 1 does
remain valid, i.e., God does not exist.
Gale (1991, p. 157 ff.)
argues, on a more abstract level, a similar point, and he claims
that "God's way of causing created persons to act /
is freedom canceling." That is to say, humans are not free
agents and hence not ultimately blameworthy for their acts of
evil. He lists certain freedom-canceling sufficient conditions:
- he case of the sinister cyberneticist:
"C1. If M1's actions and choices result from psychological
conditions that are intentionally determined by another man M2,
then these actions and choices are not free."
- The case of the evil puppeteer:
"C2. M2 has a freedom-canceling control over M1
if M2 causes most of M1's behavior."
"Is God's relation to created
persons in the FWD such that it satisfies C1 and/or C2? If it
satisfies either, no less both, the FWD is in trouble, as would
be the soul-building defense as well. I submit that it satisfies
both, and thus it is time for the nervous smile to replace the
"It is clear that it satisfies
C1, since according to the FWD, God intentionally causes a created
free person to have all of her freedom-neutral properties, which
include her psychological makeup. The Free Will Defender will
make the Libertarian claim that these inner traits only 'incline,'
but do not causally determine, the person to perform various actions
or act in a certain regular manner, but this does not make the
God-man case significantly disanalogous to the type-1 man-man
cases; for even if we imagine that our intentional psychological-trait
inducers could render it only probably according to various statistical
laws that their victims would behave in certain characteristic
ways, they still would exercise a global freedom-canceling control
in which the person is rendered nonfree due to her not having
a mind of her own."
"The God-man relation in the
FWD also satisfies C2; for, when God instantiates diminished possible
persons or sets of freedom-neutral properties, he does have middle
knowledge of what choices and actions will result, and thereby
sufficiently causes them. And he does so quite independently of
whether or not he is blameless for the untoward ones among them."
We see that my argument fits nicely
with Gale's exposition, especially C1. (Subsection 3.4 below presents
an argument which primarily fits with C2.) The interesting thing
in what I show is that there is a strong Biblical basis
for why C1 holds and for why humans are not in possession of a
3.3 Mackie's argument
There is another, rather different
argument which also undermines the FWD, and it is that of Mackie (1982, pp. 150-176).
Both the argument above and this one are, in themselves, sufficient
to show that the FWD is unsound, but if this point can be supported
by two independent rationales, all the better. It is to be noted
that Mackie assumes throughout that the Biblical doctrine of free
will indeed says that there is such a thing, whereas I have showed
that this assumption is erroneous. In any case, the FWD does not
Here is the argument: "If God
has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer
what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have
made men such that they always freely choose the good? Since there
seems to be no reason why an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly
good god would not have preferred this alternative, the theist
who maintains that there is such a god, and yet that he did not
opt for this - since by his own account human beings make bad
free choices - seems to be committed to an inconsistent set of
"For at least some theists,
this difficulty is made even more acute by some of their further
beliefs: I mean those who envisage a happier or more perfect state
of affairs than now exists, whether they look forward to the kingdom
of God on earth, or confine their optimism to the expectation
of heaven. In either case they are explicitly recognizing the
possibility of a state of affairs in which created beings always
freely choose the good. If such a state of affairs is coherent
enough to be the object of a reasonable hope or faith, it is hard
to explain why it does not obtain already."
"Nevertheless, it is often thought
that this suggestion, that God could have made men such that they
would always freely choose the good, is not coherent. Sometimes
this objection rests merely on a confusion. It would, no doubt,
be incoherent to say that God makes men freely choose the good:
if God had made men choose, that is, forced them to choose one
way rather than the other, they would not have been choosing freely.
But that is not what was suggested, which was rather that God
might have made - that is, created - beings, human or not, such
that they would always freely choose the good; and there is
at least no immediate incoherence or self-contradiction in that."
Mackie goes on to show that it is
not logically impossible that men should be such that they always
freely choose the good and that it is logically possible that
God should create them so. And he concludes: "In short, all
forms of the FWD fail, and since this defence alone had any chance
of success there is no plausible theodicy on offer." To recapitulate:
since God could have made men such they would always freely choose
the good, and since he did not do this, he is responsible for
so-called moral evil.
Likewise, in Smart & Haldane (1996, pp.68-73),
this view is forcefully defended: "Even in a world such as
ours where bad consequences may occur through lack of knowledge,
free but wicked choices might be impossible. God could have created
beings with purely moral desires, from which they would always
act. Even on a libertarian theory of free will it is logically
possible that everyone would always in fact act rightly.
God, who surveys all time and space, could have created such a
"Because free will is compatible
with determinism God could have set up the universe so that we
always acted rightly, and so for this reason alone the FWD does
not work. I do have some sympathy with the view that the compatibilist
account of free will does not quite capture the ordinary person's
concept of free will. This, however, is because the ordinary person's
concept of free will, if one gets him or her arguing in a pub,
say, is inconsistent. The ordinary person wants the action to
be determined, not merely random, but undetermined too. The compatibilist
can say that if this is the concept of free will we clearly do
not have free will, just as I don't have a round square table
in my study. Once again the FWD fails."
On a similar note, Smith (1979, p. 83)
remarks that any goal which God wants to achieve, he can achieve
in any logically possible way he wants. That is, if we say that
evil (or a capacity for God's created beings to use evil) is a
method used by God to obtain goal x, then God is blameworthy for
evil, since he could have used some other method which does not
3.4 Russell's argument
There is a similar argument which
states that God is responsible for whatever happens, since he
created everything contingently, since he knew, a priori,
exactly what would happen, and since he sustains everything at
any point in time. A Christian would probably say that this is
true but that God is not blameworthy for the evil which arises
from the acts of free humans. Above, we argued that humans are
not free with regard to performing good and evil acts, and that
even if they are, God could have made humans such that they would
always freely choose the good, which makes him ultimately
blameworthy for all evil. Now we add a clarifying argument, namely,
that all forms of evil are, in essence, non-moral and hence attributable
to God. Russell puts it thus:
"[I]t is clear that the fundamental
doctrines of Christianity demand a great deal of ethical perversion
before they can be accepted. The world, we are told, was created
by a God who is both good and omnipotent. Before He created the
world He foresaw all the pain and misery that it would contain;
He is therefore responsible for all of it. It is useless to argue
that the pain in the world is due to sin. In the first place,
this is not true; it is not sin that causes rivers to overflow
their banks or volcanoes to erupt. But even if it were true, it
would make no difference. If I were going to beget a child knowing
that the child was going to be a homicidal maniac, I should be
responsible for his crimes. If God knew in advance the sins of
which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all
the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man."
"The usual Christian argument
is that the suffering in the world is a purification for sin and
is therefore a good thing. This argument is, of course, only a
rationalization of sadism; but in any case it is a very poor argument.
I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children's
ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being
endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children
are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering.
In order to bring himself to say this, a man must destroy in himself
all feelings of mercy and compassion. He must, in short, make
himself as cruel as the God in whom he believes. No man who believes
that all is for the best in this suffering world can keep his
ethical values unimpaired, since he is always having to find excuses
for pain and misery."
Russell thus proffers the view that
God is not justified in allowing evil, irrespective of whether
there is free will or not: if there is a god, then he must be
evil. This assertion modifies point 1 in Section 1 in that god
is no longer assumed to be all-good; but he may exist.
3.5 Other possibilities
Here, I will consider three other
possibilities for the Christian to escape the theodicy problem
as stated in Section 1. However, it will turn out that none of
them are successful.
1. The first possibility is an epistemological
one and focuses on the concept of goodness in relation to God.
It states that God's goodness is not our goodness, i.e., that
it is impossible for us to meaningfully apply terms such as good
or evil to God. In reply, Smith (1979, p. 81)
argues: "The Christian, by proclaiming that God is good,
commits himself to the position that man is capable of distinguishing
good from evil - for, if he is not, how did the Christian arrive
at his judgment of 'good' as applied to God? Therefore, any attempt
to resolve the problem of evil by arguing that man cannot correctly
distinguish good from evil destroys the original premise which
it purports to defend and thus collapses from the weight of an
internal inconsistency." See also Mackie (1982, p. 156).
If we acknowledge that we can, indeed,
use these terms in a discussion of God's character, might the
Christian escape the problem of evil by simply conceding that
god is evil (as suggested by Russell)? While this would undermine
point 4 in the argument in Section 1, it is hardly an attractive
path to take for the Christian. While he can account for the existence
of moral and non-moral evil, he runs into two substantial problems:
first, he departs from the classical Christian concept of God,
e.g., as expressed by Jesus in Lk. 18:19: "And Jesus said
to him, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.'"
and by the Catholic Church (1994, §385):
"God is infinitely good and all his works are good.";
and second, he must explain why he worships an evil being (instead
of, say, solely submitting to this being).
2. The second possibility is about
arguing that god is not really omnipotent. The main problem here
is that this assertion is inconsistent with Biblical teachings,
e.g., Jer. 32:17 ("Ah Lord GOD! It is thou who hast made
the heavens and the earth by thy great power and by thy outstretched
arm! Nothing is too hard for thee,"), Mk. 10:27 ("Jesus
looked at them and said, 'With men it is impossible, but not with
God; for all things are possible with God.'"), and Lk. 1:37
("For with God nothing will be impossible").
The view that God is not omnipotent
is also at odds with the classical conception of God in the Christian
Church, e.g., as expressed in both the Apostles' Creed ("I
believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.")
and the Nicene Creed ("We believe in one God, the Father,
the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen
and unseen.") As the Catholic Church (1994, §268)
affirms: "Of all the divine attributes, only God's omnipotence
is named in the Creed: to confess this power has great bearing
on our lives. We believe that his might is universal, for
God who created everything also rules everything and can do anything."
3. The third possibility deals with
God's being omniscient and says that god is limited in what he
knows about the future. In essence, one may envisage god's being
in possession of different degrees of information, and it is possible
that when god created the universe, he was not able to foresee
the evil which would encompass it (i.e., he was without middle
knowledge). Again, however,
the theist arguing thus faces at least two problems. First, it
seems as if the Bible describes its god as being at least spatially
- Job 34:21: "For his eyes
are upon the ways of a man, and he sees all his steps"
- Prov. 15:3: "The eyes of
the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the
- Jer. 16:17: "For my eyes
are upon all their ways; they are not hid from me, nor is their
iniquity concealed from my eyes."
- Jer. 23:24: "Can a man hide
himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the LORD.
Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD."
- Matt. 10:30: "But even the
hairs of your head are all numbered."
- Heb. 4:13: "And before him
no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes
of him with whom we have to do."
In addition, the god of the Bible
also seems to know the future, as the often-mentioned phenomenon
of prophecy indicates; hence, he is also temporally omniscient.
As stated by the Catholic Church (1994, §2115):
"God can reveal the future to his prophets and to other saints."-
and how could he do that without knowing, himself, what will happen?
In fact, the following Bible passages confirm that God knows the
future and that he knows it with regard to human choices:
- Is. 39:5-7: "Then Isaiah
said to Hezeki'ah, 'Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Behold,
the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that
which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried
to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. And some of
your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they
shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.'"
- Is. 44:28-45:4: "who says
of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfil all my purpose';
saying of Jerusalem, 'She shall be built,' and of the temple,
'Your foundation shall be laid.' Thus says the LORD to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before
him and ungird the loins of kings, to open doors before him that
gates may not be closed: 'I will go before you and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the
bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and the
hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name. For the sake of
my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.'"
- Jer. 25:11: "This whole
land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall
serve the king of Babylon seventy years."
- Zech. 11:12,13 and Matt. 27:3-5:
"Then I said to them, 'If it seems right to you, give me
my wages; but if not, keep them.' And they weighed out as my wages
thirty shekels of silver. Then the LORD said to me, 'Cast it into
the treasury' --the lordly price at which I was paid off by them.
So I took the thirty shekels of silver and cast them into the
treasury in the house of the LORD." and "When Judas,
his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought
back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the
elders, saying, 'I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.' They
said, 'What is that to us? See to it yourself.' And throwing down
the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and
- Acts 21:11: "And coming
to us he took Paul's girdle and bound his own feet and hands,
and said, 'Thus says the Holy Spirit, "So shall the Jews
at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this girdle and deliver him
into the hands of the Gentiles."'"
All of these quotes refer to prophecies
which crucially depend on future human behavior. For instance,
in the last quote, the precise actions of certain Jews in Jerusalem
are predicted through the Holy Spirit. Hence, it is absolutely
clear, to anyone who considers the Bible a reliable source of
information about God, that it is not logically impossible for
God to know what choices human beings will make in the future.
It may be argued that God only knows parts of the future;
but how can it be explained that God is thus limited? By what?
By whom? For what reason?
Consider the type of god who does not know what will happen in
the future. Mackie (1982, pp. 175-176)
writes: "When God created free agents - free in this sense
- he had to do so without knowing how they would use their freedom.
This development of the defence succeeds better than any other
in detaching moral evils, the wrong choices of free agents, from
God. But it does so at the price of a very serious invasion of
what has commonly been meant by the omniscience ascribed to God.
If he does not know future contingents, and, in particular, does
not know what free choices human agents will make, it follows
that in 1935, for example, he knew little more than we did about
the catastrophic events of the twenty years to 1955, and equally
he knows little more than we do about the next twenty years. And
such a limitation of his knowledge carries with it a serious effective
limitation of his power. Also, this account forces the theologian
to put God very firmly inside time. It could only be before
God created Adam and Eve that he could not know what they would
do if he created them, and the theologian cannot, without contradiction,
give God also an extra-temporal existence and extra-temporal knowledge."
"But even this is not the end of the matter. Although, on
this account, God could not have known what Adam and Eve, or Satan,
would do if he created them, he could surely know what they might
do: that is compatible even with this extreme libertarianism.
If so, he was taking, literally, a hell of a risk when he created
Adam and Eve, no less than when he created Satan. Was the freedom
to make unforeseeable choices so great a good that it outweighed
this risk? This question must be answered not only with reference
to the degree of human wickedness that has actually occurred:
men might (strange as it may seem) have been much worse than they
are, and God (on this account) was accepting that risk too. He
would not then be the author of sin in the sense of having knowingly
produced it; he could not be accused of malice aforethought; but
he would be open to a charge of gross negligence or recklessness."
Second, even if god was unaware of what would ensue after his
having created the universe, he is still admitted by the theist
to know what happens spatially, i.e., at any point in time, as
happenings are, indeed, realized. If so, god would have known,
a posteriori, what his creation had given rise to, and
hence could have rectified anything with which he was discontent
(due to his omnipotence). This he has not done and thus is blameworthy
Possibly the strongest
argument against the existence of the Christian god is contained
in the theodicy problem, i.e., the problem of defending God in
the presence of evil. The Christian may try to escape from this
problem by claiming that God is not responsible and blameworthy
for (moral) evil, since it follows from the free actions of human
beings, who are morally autonomous. What this essay has demonstrated
is that this attempt to escape from the problem of evil - known
as the free-will defense - is a failure. Why is that so? For at
least three reasons, each of them sufficient to enable the theodicy
problem, as stated in Section 1, to hold against the FWD.
1. The FWD does not successfully cover non-moral evils, which
are not the result of the actions of men.
2. The Bible informs us that man does not, in fact, have free
will, since he is born with a sinful nature (the doctrine of original
sin) such that he cannot avoid sinning. Hence, God - who decided
that two persons' wrong choice would cause every human being to
be born sinful - is blameworthy for this evil-prone nature of
man - and, ultimately, then, for all evil.
3. Even if man is believed to have free will, God could have created
humans such that they would always freely choose the good. This
he did not do and is therefore ultimately responsible and blameworthy
for any evil act which humans perform.
We can now conclude that the theodicy problem remains intact:
a god who is responsible and blameworthy for evil is, himself,
evil, and hence, God (who is defined as being all-good) does not
exist. The FWD can do nothing to alter this conclusion.
However, the Christian might offer a final reply to this, namely,
that the existence of evil is a mystery which finite human minds
cannot properly comprehend; and if we just put our (blind) faith
in God, we can maintain the conviction, that he actually does
exist. To state this incorporates admitting that religious belief
has nothing to do with reason: it is a whim which is sustained
irrespective of rational arguments. This amounts to adhering to
religious belief, not because one is interested in the truthfulness
of it all, but because it fulfills some particular need (such
as providing comfort and friendship). But this misology constitutes
To quote Le Poidevin (1996, p. 102):
"What I want to suggest is that theists who refuse to answer
the problem of evil are guilty of internal irrationality, at least
if they hold the following beliefs:"
- "Belief in a loving creator
is intellectually defensible.
- We cannot solve the problem of
evil; that is, we cannot explain how the existence and nature
of suffering can be consistent with the existence of a loving
"Now, if from the human perspective,
belief in a loving creator cannot be squared with the presence
of suffering, then it is simply not rational to continue to hold
on to that belief. /
/ [I]f, from our perspective, there
is no justification for suffering, then that is a reason to reject,
as mistaken, any perspective (including God's) in which there
is a justification for suffering. If it turned out that, from
God's perspective, any amount of human suffering is perfectly
acceptable, then that would be a horrible discovery to make. We
simply could not go on believing that God was genuinely benevolent,
at least as we conceive of benevolence."
"So, if we believe that theism can only be entertained if
it is rational, and we believe that we cannot produce a satisfactory
justification of suffering in terms of God's purposes, then we
must reject theism. If the theist admits to (2), then (1) must
be given up."
P. H. et al.
(1987). Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836-1844. Ithaca,
New York: Cornell University Press.
Church (1994). Catechism
of the Catholic Church. London:
- Gale, R.
M. (1991). On the Nature
and Existence of God.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Kant, I.
(1933). Critique of
Pure Reason, Transcendental Dialectic. Book
II, Ch. III, Sect. 4. London: Macmillan.
- Le Poidevin,
R. (1996). Arguing
for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. London:
M. (1898). D:r M. Luthers
Lilla Katekes med Kort utveckling.
[Small Catechism with a Minor Commentary]. Jönköping,
Sweden: H. Halls Boktryckeri-Aktiebolag.
J. L. (1977). Ethics:
Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth:
J. L. (1982). The Mircale
of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. Oxford:
M. (1990). Atheism:
A Philosophical Justification.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.
A. (1974). The Nature
of Necessity. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
- Rand, A.
(1961). For the New
Intellectual. New York,
New York: Random House.
P. (1987). Answers
to 200 of Life's Most Probing Questions.
New York, New York: Bantam Books.
B. (1961). Religion
and Science. Oxford: Oxford
J. J. C. & Haldane, J. J. (1996). Atheism
and Theism. Oxford: Blackwell.
G. H. (1979). Atheism:
The Case Against God.
Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books.
R. (1991). The Existence
of God. Oxford: Clarendon
J. & van Inwagen, P. (Eds.) (1985).
Alvin Plantinga. Dordrecht:
R. (1994). The Moral
Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life.
The author wishes to thank Mark I. Vuletic
for valuable comments which have improved the argument.
- This proposition
is sometimes mistakenly
criticized by theists on grounds that it presupposes the actual
existence of God. It is part of the classical logical argument
modus tollens, which can be expressed on the following
form: 1. If p then ~q. 2. q. 3. ~p.
- To avoid the
criticism launched by Kant (1933)
against formulations such as "If God exists" and "God
does not exist", which he claimed were incoherent in that
the term God is a precise subject which necessarily entails existence,
we would have to write "If it is the case that a god such
as the Christian god exists" and "It is the case that
a god such as the Christian god does not exist". This is
somewhat tedious, which is why we stick to the more convenient
form - the meaning of which the reader now knows should be read
in light of Kant's remarks (see Mackie, 1982, pp. 41-49).
- At this point,
I do not allow for the questioning of point 1, as we would then
be discussing some other god than the Christian one, and I do
not allow for the questioning of point 3, as I consider it self-evident
from observation. With reference to point 3, it is sometimes argued
that the atheist cannot make such a statement, since he is unable
to refer to an objective ethics which, exclusively, could render
the concepts "good" and "evil" meaningful.
This argument suffers from at least three defects: first, the
only thing needed for the argument to hold is that the theist
admits that there is suffering or evil in the world, on the basis
of his ethics; second, it is possible to adhere to an objective
ethics as an atheist (see Martin, 1990
and "Objective Morality Based on Scientific and Rational Reasoning"by
Eugene Khutoryansky); and third, Russell (1961, p. 230)
shows that it is possible to use terms like this on the basis
of a subjective ethics. See the chapter "Science and Ethics"
from this book. For an influential argument for the subjectivity
of morality, see Mackie (1977, ch. 1).
- When stating
that God knew
there would be evil as a result of allowing human beings to sin,
I am saying - if God is temporally omniscient, which Christians
usually assert he is (on good Biblical grounds, as I show in section
3.5, point 3) - that he knew about all evil acts that would be
committed. Now, with a genuine free will, it would not be logically
necessary for there to be evil. But if we agree that there has
been at least one instance of moral evil in the history of mankind,
we can say that this demonstrates that evil has, indeed, occurred
- although it was logically possible, on the view that there is
genuine free will, that this could have been otherwise. And God
knew that moral evil would come, because it has come and because
he is omniscient.
Furthermore, Mackie (1982, pp. 154-155)
calls the sort of evil which is explained and justified by its
being necessary to obtain some greater good absorbed evil.
And he asks: "[C]an the theist maintain that the only evils
which occur in the world are absorbed evils? When this question
is squarely put, it is surely plain that he cannot." It is
primarily unabsorbed evil which is being discussed in this essay.
Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to inquire of the theist
why he and, supposedly, his god value moral autonomy so
highly as to make any type of evil acceptable. After all,
in normal life, no theist, to my knowledge, wants people to be
able to act in any evil way without others trying to stop them.
Why is it right for us to thwart the evil acts of fellow men but
wrong for God to do the same? Why is it legitimate for us to incarcerate
a murderer but illegitimate for God to stop such a person or Satan?
- It is sufficient
for the argument of this paper to hold that there is an intra-Christian
case for the non-existence of a free will - which there is, as
explicated in the Bible. However, there are strong reasons to
believe, on the basis of findings in psychobiology and irrespective
of any religious claims, that the idea of humans possessing a
free will is nothing but a delusion (see Wright, 1994, pp. 349-358).
"[O]ne doubts existence of free will," as Darwin remarked,
because "every action determined by heredetary [sic] constitution,
example of others or teaching of others." (Barrett et al., 1987, p. 526, p. 535)
- The reason why
this version of the doctrine of original sin has been adopted
is that these Protestants found it cruel to say that a child who
dies goes to hell because of his or her having been born sinful.
- Although the
careful Bible reader does find an interesting conundrum in 1 John
3:9: "No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides
in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God." This
verse (in conjunction with 1 John 5:1) contradicts 1 John 1:8-10,
which is discussed further in my note "A Bible Contradiction (2): 1 John vs. 1 John."
But this is not central to our discussion, so let us continue
under the assumption that all people do in fact sin.
- There is another
argument which attempts to render the existence of God compatible
with natural evil called the soul-building
defense. It does keep
God responsible for this sort of evil, but it claims to propose
a rationale for why God is justified in allowing it. On
why this particular defense fails, see Gale (1994, p. 110)
and "The Problem of Natural Evil",
an essay by Brian Marston (where he argues that moral evil is
sufficient for "soul-building," and for that reason,
natural evil cannot be thus justified, given the existence of
moral evil). In my view, it is bizarre to hold that a good God
would use such evil to build human character - not the least due
to the ostensible randomness with which it strikes (and the Bible
informs us, in Acts 10:34, that "God shows no partiality";
see also Rom. 2:11, Gal. 2:8, and Eph. 6:9). For more on why this
argument is incompatible with biblical Christianity, see the transcript
from the debate "Does God Exist?"
and Subsection 3.4 below.
- Remember that
God is defined
as the Christian god, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly
- All Bible quotations
in this essay are from the Revised Standard Version, and all italics
- Generally, a
transmission mechanism T:xt-1->xt,
where xt refers to human nature for generation t. It
is possible for God to choose a T which entails a direct
influence from one generation to the other, as the Biblical story
goes, although the particular content of the mechanism could vary
in great many ways. Also, God could choose an "empty"
mechanism, such that there is no inter-generational influence
on human nature.
- As Christians
argue that God does not value evil intrinsically and that he values
moral autonomy positively, it is a genuine enigma why God did
not choose this transmission mechanism instead of the one he actually
chose. To the atheist, this provides further support for his conviction
that God does not exist.
- To comprehend
Mackie's argument, it is essential to grasp the essentials of
the philosophical concepts of compatibilism and incompatibilism.
For an elucidating discussion, see Le Poidevin (1996, pp. 91-99).
- This is from
the essay "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?".
- In fact, Russell
did not believe that God exists but merely found the deity described
in Christian dogma evil. See his essay "Why I am not a Christian".
On this god being evil, also see Smith (1979, pp. 76-79).
- For an argument
along these lines, attributable to Plantinga, see Tomberlin & van Inwagen (1985, p. 52).
For a rejoinder, see Gale (1991, pp. 168-178).
- At least for
all non-moral evil and for the evil which would not have been
brought about by men, had they not had a sinful nature.