Free Will and Evil

As often happens during times of great tragedy of the sort we saw recently in Connecticut, there are a number of questions about how a good God could allow such events to occur. I personally think much is explained by the existence of free will and how if God did intend to create mankind as creatures with free will, inherent in that act was at least the possibility they would do acts that lead to the suffering of others. This video is a succinct presentation about the connection between free will and evil, and how it frames our view of the goodness of God.

I would further contend that we intuit this connection between free will and evil actions. For example when one considers much modern fiction, when the plot involves humans creating a self-aware artificial intelligence, more often than not the intelligence turns on its creator, i.e. man. From HAL of 2001 a Space Odyssey to Skynet in the Terminator movies or the intelligence that oversees The Matrix we see there is an inherent realization that whenever an intelligence can choose to operate outside the parameters for which it was designed there is the possibility it will use that power to destroy.

In fact, I would argue the notion of evil is much more problematic from the perspective of atheistic philosophies like naturalism and materialism than it is for the Christian. As no actions within those philosophies can be considered inherently evil, and as those beliefs render free will illusory, there is no ultimate explanation for why we categorize some human actions as evil and others as good. If there is neither intention for our behavior nor a plan for our existence then our actions merely are what they are, no different than the behavior of any other organism on the planet.

A Christian has no such dilemma; our belief is rationally superior to atheism because it can coherently acknowledge the horror of suffering and reality of evil, empathizing with the sufferers while gently and lovingly affirming the goodness of God.

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4 Responses to Free Will and Evil

  1. Jason says:

    I’m pretty sure that free will is irrelevant. An all-powerful being can allow people to freely make decisions and to act as they freely choose and yet still prevent any evil effects of those actions from occurring. For example, God can allow a deranged lunatic to freely exercise whatever semblance of free will he may possess, can also allow him to shoot at innocent people, and yet still save everyone’s lives by diverting the paths of the bullets.

    For an all-powerful person, there is no need to interfere with free choices in order to prevent a great deal of the most egregious evils in this world. All He need do is to prevent the evil effects after the decisions have been made.

    Thanks for posting this and allowing me to respond.

  2. jackhudson says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply Jason.

    I have to say I disagree though that diverting the consequences of evil actions would allow for meaningful free will. You considered the case of a deranged shooter, but think of the billions of smaller actions that cause pain and suffering. Imagine every time a person went to strike someone in anger their body were contorted into a hug? Or every time some went to say something hurtful they were either silenced or their words were changed into praise? Or consider acts of omission that hurt people, our greed and selfishness – could ‘charity’ be morally redeeming if it is simply a forced apportionment of our labor? When we consider those examples it quickly becomes obvious that any meaningful consideration of free will includes the possibility that harmful actions will result in harmful results – otherwise we end up with a world where everyone is bound in straightjackets with their mouths taped shut.

    To a certain degree Anthony Burgess considered this in his novel, A Clockwork Orange wherein an incredibly violent criminal is altered by the government in such a way that every time he considers a violent act he is made ill. This is contrasted with the possibility of eventual maturation and realization of the wrongs of his actions.

    For the Christian the realization of the reality of harmful consequences of our actions (both the immediate sort where we reap what we sow, and the ultimate sort of eternal punishment) lead to the need for forgiveness, redemption and transformation which ultimately fulfill both the goodness of God and the need for justice.

  3. Obviously I’m not a Calvinist … but I don’t believe there’s really a free “will” in the sense that we can determine our own drives and motivations. What I desire is what I desire … whatever that happens to be. That can be disturbing to some I suppose (since we have no control over our innermost “being” that is drawn to various things for some unknown necessity) … but I guess the question is whether our characters are defined by what we do or by what we are.

  4. jackhudson says:

    Obviously I’m not a Calvinist … but I don’t believe there’s really a free “will” in the sense that we can determine our own drives and motivations. What I desire is what I desire … whatever that happens to be. That can be disturbing to some I suppose (since we have no control over our innermost “being” that is drawn to various things for some unknown necessity) … but I guess the question is whether our characters are defined by what we do or by what we are.

    I don’t know anyone who defines free will as choosing one’s desires. We all have certain desires that we can either respond to or not; I want chocolate, but realize it might not be good for me and choose not to eat it. I want a car, but I choose not to steal one. Are you suggesting we can’t choose how we respond to our desires?

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