Why Human Freedom Does, and Divine Freedom Does Not
Require the Ability to Choose Evil
Why does God allow evil in the world? Theists typically appeal to the free will defense, arguing that a genuine relationship with God requires freedom of the will, and a will that is genuinely free cannot be prevented from choosing evil. The cost of granting humans freedom, then, is the possibility that humans will use that freedom for evil ends. God cannot eliminate the possibility of evil without eliminating free will. So here is my question: Why must humans be able to choose evil in order for us to enjoy free will, and yet God--who is unable to choose evil--enjoys free will. It seems to me that the ability to choose evil is either necessary for free will or it is not. This is a glaring inconsistency in the theistic worldview.
Your question is really a rational argument against Christian theism in the form of a question. You think this argument identifies a logical inconsistency within Christian theism, and thus presents evidence against the veracity of Christian theism. Before I attempt to answer to your question, let me restate it in the form of an argument to more easily identify the logical steps necessary for the anticipated conclusion to follow:
(1) For the will to be free, of necessity one must be able to choose either good or evil
(2) Man is able to choose either good or evil
(3) Therefore, man has free will
(4) God is not able to choose evil
(5) Therefore, God does not have free will
(6) But according to Christian theism God does have free will
(7) Therefore, Christian theism is false
The argument could be answered simply by focusing on the word "able" in premises 1, 2, and 4. To be able to do something only requires that one have the capacity to do it, not that they utilize that capacity to actualize a particular instance of it. One could argue that while both God and man have the capacity to choose evil, as a matter of fact, only man has utilized that capacity to actually choose evil. On this view, we should understand "able" in a volitional sense to mean "able but not willing;" not in an ontological sense of "not willing or able."
This response accepts premise 1 as a logical necessity, while affirming the factual reality that God does not, but we do choose evil. As such, premises 4 and 5 are rebutted, and the conclusion fails. The free will defense in particular, and Christian theism in general are not inconsistent after all.
While this rebuttal is logically valid, it would not be theologically satisfying to most Christian theists, including myself. We would object to the notion that God possesses the capacity to choose evil.1 God is understood to be a maximally perfect being, whose essence is, by nature, good. As such, He lacks the capacity to choose evil in an ontological sense, not just a volitional sense. He is not only "able not to sin," but "not able to sin." If this is true (and I think it is), then my initial response is theologically inadequate, even if it is rationally adequate to rebut your objection to Christian theism and the free will defense.2
How can the Christian theist answer your argument if God does not have the capacity to choose evil? I admit that given the premises of your argument, the Christian doctrines of God, man, and free will are open to the criticism of inconsistency. The problem is with the premises. Premises 4 and 5, as well as the conclusion of premises 1-6, are only true if premise 1 is true: The capacity to choose evil is a necessary requisite for freedom of the will. This premise is foundational to your argument. In my first response I accepted the truth of that premise for the sake of argument, but I think there are two good reasons to reject it: (1) It fails to recognize a distinction between the freedom to do everything and the freedom to do something; (2) It assumes an inadequate definition of freedom.3
Limited Freedom is Still Freedom
While it is factually true that freedom of our will includes the capacity to choose evil, it is not necessarily true of free will qua free will. For the will to be free only requires that one's choices not be determined by causal factors outside his own volitional powers. While humans possess the capacity to choose evil, and God lacks the capacity, both are free because neither God's nor man's choices are being determined by causal powers outside their own volitional powers. God's will is free because His choice to act in accordance with His good nature is not determined by causal factors outside his own volition. Our will is free because our choice of the good or evil is not determined by causal factors outside our own volition. William Lane Craig offers an insightful thought experiment demonstrating that one need not be able to choose B in order to make their choice of A free and meaningful:
Imagine a man with electrodes secretly implanted in his brain who is presented with a choice of doing either A or B [for our purposes, we'll let A stand for good and B stand for evil]. The electrodes are inactive so long as the man chooses A; but if he were going to choose B, then the electrodes would switch on and force him to choose A. If the electrodes fire, causing him to choose A, his choice of A is clearly not a free choice. But supposed that the man really wants to do A and chooses it of his own volition. In that case his choosing A is entirely free, even though the man is literally unable to choose B, since the electrodes do not function at all and have no effect on his choice of A. What makes his choice free is the absence of any causally determining factors of his choosing A. This conception of libertarian freedom has the advantage of explaining how it is that God's choosing to do good is free, even though it is impossible for God to choose sin, namely, His choosing is undetermined by causal constraints. Thus, libertarian freedom of the will does not require the ability to choose other than as one chooses.4
A limitation in the range of choices is not tantamount to having no choice at all. If A, B, and C are good choices, and D, E, and F are evil choices, one's inability to choose D, E, or F does not negate the fact that he can choose A, B, or C. When I go to the grocery store to buy ice-cream, they may only have 15 out of 100 flavors ice-cream comes in. The fact that I cannot choose 85 of those flavors does not negate the fact that I can choose any one of the 15 options before me. Likewise, God's lack of ability to choose evil does not mean God lacks freedom of will. At best it means His range of free choices is more restrictive than ours. Just because God is not free to choose everything does not mean He is not free to choose anything at all. He is free to choose anything consistent with His nature, and as such He possesses free will. His freedom differs form ours only in the range of choices He has the capacity to make.
Not All Freedom is Created Equally
One might respond to my argument by noting that it hinges on a nuanced definition of freedom (volition undetermined by external causal factors). What many people mean by freedom is the ability to do otherwise (libertarian freedom in the traditional, maximal sense). On this definition of freedom my argument seems to fall apart, because God cannot do otherwise when it comes to moral choices. He can only choose according to His nature, and His nature is thoroughly good. While I think there are good reasons to prefer the more nuanced definition of libertarian freedom over the traditional definition, your argument can be rebutted successfully even on this more traditional definition of freedom.
Your argument treats free will as a single, undifferentiated entity. It makes no distinction between different types of freedom. But not all freedom is "created" equally. One can be free in a causal, rational, or moral sense. Causal freedom is the ability to be a first-mover: "an agent that can act without sufficient causal conditions necessitating that the agent act--the agent is the absolute source of its own actions. Only first-movers are the sources of action, not instrumental movers that merely receive motion passively and pass that on to the next member in a causal chain."5 Rational freedom is the ability to engage in rational thought, wholly apart from external causal factors that determine the content and direction of those thoughts. Rational freedom is similar to causal freedom, differing only with respect to the object of freedom, not the kind of freedom. In the traditional libertarian sense, moral freedom is the ability to choose either good or evil. Understood in this way, God must lack moral freedom seeing that He cannot choose evil. Only humans and angels possess moral freedom of this sort.
Would God's lack of moral freedom mean God's will is not free? No. He would still be causally and rationally free; just not morally free. While both God and man have free will in the general sense, only man has moral freedom, because only man has the ability to choose evil.
The capacity to choose evil is necessary for moral freedom, but God does not need to possess this capacity because He is not morally free as you suppose. Your argument needs to be qualified, then, to specify the sort of freedom in view. The ability to choose evil is necessary with respect to moral freedom, but not with respect to freedom in general. Modifying premises 1, 3, and 5 in this way, your argument is answered, and your conclusion proven false.6
A False Notion of Freedom
Previously I said there are good reasons to prefer my nuanced definition of libertarian freedom over the traditional version. Those reasons will become clear as I discuss the second reason we should reject premise 1.
The ability to do otherwise--when the alternative option is evil--is a genuine, but deficient form of freedom. Ideally, freedom is not the ability to choose anything that can be chosen (including evil), but the ability to always and only choose the good.7 Indeed, if true freedom must include the ability to choose evil, then we are freer than God, since He cannot choose evil. This is counterintuitive, and makes me think the problem is with this understanding of freedom, not a lack of freedom on God's part.
The ability to choose evil is no freedom at all. It brings less freedom, not more. According to Scripture as well as experience, exercising our ability to choose evil makes us less free. We become slaves to evil, and our freedom to choose the good is diminished. Indeed, we no longer possess the freedom not to choose evil. In contrast, the inability to choose evil allows one to be maximally free. This is not a limitation, but a perfection of the will.
Genuine freedom of the will does not require the capacity to choose both good and evil. All that is required for the will to be free is the ability to choose between a set of viable options apart from any external determinative causal factors. One who only has the capacity to choose the good is still free to choose among all possible goods, and hence his will is free.
Even if we define freedom in the traditional libertarian sense of the ability to do otherwise, God's will would still be free with respect to amoral choices. But there are good reasons to prefer a more nuanced understanding of libertarian freedom, and affirm that God is morally free. Indeed, His inability to sin makes Him freer than those who have the ability to sin. While humans have the capacity to choose evil, we lack the freedom to not choose evil. This is hardly a robust form of freedom.
1. J.P. Moreland explains the reason why God cannot sin: "The power to do a sinful act accrues to an agent in at least two cases: the agent mistakenly seeks what it takes to be good when, in fact, it is evil; or the agent needs some good that he lacks, cannot obtain it in a morally permissible way, and so obtains it in an impermissible way. The former option is ruled out by God's omniscience and the latter by God's complete sufficiency, so the power to do a sinful act is inconsistent with a being possessing these attributes." As found in "Miracles, Agency, and Theistic Science: A Reply to Steven B. Cowan," Philosophia Christi 4:1 (2002): 139-160, p. 157.
2. I would like to make an observation about the cogency and applicability of your argument. I think have demonstrated that your argument will not work for a divine being who possesses the capacity for evil, even if He always and only chooses the good. For your argument to remain persuasive, then, you have to modify it so that the kind of deity in view is one who lacks even the capacity to choose evil. While qualifications add more force to an argument in that they make it more difficult to deny the premises, they also restrict the applicability of the conclusion if the argument. The modified version--if sound--would only demonstrate that one particular version of theism is inconsistent: a version in which God lacks the capacity to choose evil. It would speak nothing to a form of theism in which God possesses the capacity for choosing evil, or who is amoral. As such, the argument is no longer evidence against theism in general, but a specific form of theism. Thus, it cannot serve as a negative argument for atheism. For atheism to be convincing, one needs to find arguments that undermine the rationality of theism in general, not specific forms of theism, which are legion (as well as come up with positive evidence against God's existence, but that is a topic in its own right).
3. As an aside, I would also dispute (5) as being non-sequitar. Even if (1)-(6) were all true premises, it would not follow that Christian theism as a whole is necessarily false. Such a conclusion would be premature, not taking into account all of the positive evidence proffered in its favor. To demonstrate Christianity false, one must not only present evidence against Christian theism, but also demonstrate that the positive proofs proffered for Christianity do not count in its favor.
4. William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity: Exploring God's Relationship to Time (Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL, 2001), 261-2.
5. J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 125, 128.
6. Premise 6 cannot be modified in this way and remain true. Christian theism does not hold that God possesses moral free will.
7. I should clarify this to say logically chosen, since we cannot choose irrational things like drawing a square circle.
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