Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world if the Judaeo-Christian God exists? This question presents us with the challenge known as the logical problem of evil. The solution to this problem, Scripturally and logically, is the high value placed on significantly free (ie libertarian free will (LFW)) people (see post).
A common challenge to the free will defense (FWD) is that God could create a world in which significantly free people never “go bad”. The FWD, as posited by philosopher Alvin Plantinga, however, rests on the idea that creating people with LFW makes such a world impossible (quotes).
God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all. … He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.
C.S. Lewis would agree with Plantinga, a world in which people are significantly free yet never do anything but good is not possible, even for an omnipotent God.
God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t.
This constraint on God does not deny His omnipotence. Being all-powerful does not mean that God can do the logically impossible. He can’t make a square circle or draw lines that are both parallel and perpendicular at the same time. Scripture also notes that God can’t act against His nature by breaking His promises or lying (Titus 1:2).
The debate on how God can coexist with evil is nothing new. The theologian Irenaeus writing in the second century dealt with the same questions. The answer that the early church gave to the problem of evil is the FWD just as it is today. There is evil because God created people that are significantly free.
Irenaeus, writing against the heretics of the day, asserts that people “have been created free agents, and possessed of power over themselves” (Against Heresies Book IV.39.3). On the basis of Matthew 23, he will further argue (IV.37) for the “ancient law of human liberty”.
God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. And therefore does He give good counsel to all. And in man, as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice (for angels are rational beings) …
… all men are of the same nature, able both to hold fast and to do what is good; and, on the other hand, having also the power to cast it from them and not to do it … And not merely in works, but also in faith, has God preserved the will of man free and under his own control
The next question that early Christian challengers offered, and Irenaeus deals with, is why did God create angels and people that “were capable of transgression”. He presents those arguing against his view of free will as asking God to create people that operate on an animal instinct (or nature), “which can do nothing of their own will, but are drawn by necessity and compulsion to what is good, in which things there is one mind and one usage, working mechanically in one groove, who are incapable of being anything else except just what they had been created.”
He goes on to write, as do Lewis and Plantinga, that if God had created such creatures there would be little of value in their actions for they would be nothing more than “implanted” choices.
But upon this supposition, neither would what is good be grateful to them, nor communion with God be precious, nor would the good be very much to be sought after, which would present itself without their own proper endeavour, care, or study, but would be implanted of its own accord and without their concern. Thus it would come to pass, that their being good would be of no consequence, because they were so by nature rather than by will, and are possessors of good spontaneously, not by choice
If they existed in the 2nd century, Irenaeus would be arguing that his proponents were advocating for God to create robots.
If this free will is so important, then, Irenaeus’ interlocutors argue, why didn’t God create a world with people, who are significantly free, yet never transgress? It is here that Irenaeus, contra Lewis and Plantinga, posits that God, being omnipotent, could have created such a world (IV.38).
If, however, any one say, “What then? Could not God have exhibited man as perfect from beginning?” let him know that, inasmuch as God is indeed always the same and unbegotten as respects Himself, all things are possible to Him. … it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first …
Although admitting the possibility of a world where people are both free and sinless (thus eliminating evil), Irenaeus seems to implicitly argue against this. He continues describing man, because he is a created being, as being unable to maintain a state of perfection.
But inasmuch as [people] are not uncreated, for this very reason do they come short of the perfect.
… God had power at the beginning to grant perfection to man; but as the latter was only recently created, he could not possibly have received it, or even if he had received it, could he have contained it, or containing it, could he have retained it.
He further writes that the Uncreated (God) is perfect but man could not “sustain the power of divinity”, but would ultimately choose to do wrong.
For after His great kindness He graciously conferred good [upon us], and made men like to Himself, [that is] in their own power; while at the same time by His prescience He knew the infirmity of human beings, and the consequences which would flow from it; but through [His] love and [His] power, He shall overcome the substance of created nature.
Irenaeus’ view of people as being unable to retain perfection sounds a lot like Plantinga’s trans-world depravity (TWD). TWD is the idea that no matter what world God chose to create, if He also chose to create significantly free creatures, they would at some point choose to do evil. God can’t prevent all evils without first removing the ability to choose evil, which would remove the freedom that is of value. While the possibility of a world without TWD is debated, it is important to note that there is no known actual world in which TWD did not exist. God created both angelic beings and people with significant freedom and in both cases they fell. Further, since we have LFW, it could be argued that our world was a world in which it was possible for no evil to exist. We, starting with Adam, just failed to make that a reality because we did in fact choose to do “what was right in our own eyes” and do evil.
Irenaeus does offer a theodicy or explanation as to why God might be able to create significantly free people who never go bad, yet chose not to do so. Man, offers Irenaeus, can’t humbly or fully appreciate being in an incorruptible state unless he first experiences being in a corruptible state (III.20).
[This was done] that man, receiving an unhoped-for salvation from God, might rise from the dead, and glorify God, … and that man should never adopt an opposite opinion with regard to God, supposing that the incorruptibility which belongs to him is his own naturally, and by thus not holding the truth, should boast with empty superciliousness, as if he were naturally like to God.
It is interesting (at least to me) that the questions raised by evil and suffering were essentially answered the same way by theologians 2000 years ago. The Judaeo-Christian God and suffering are logically compatible given the existence of people with libertarian free will. And while it could be argued that Irenaeus envisions the logical possibility of a world where free people are created who never go wrong, after all he does state this, his ensuing descriptions of man seem to imply otherwise. In either case, I don’t think he would find much fault in the arguments advanced by Lewis or Plantinga.