The Problem of Evil and Free Will


When God-fearing children reach a certain age, they tend to have a mild or severe crisis of faith. The crisis results from a question that becomes inescapable once a person has encountered the depths to which human cruelty can dive. If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and benevolent, as all of the monotheistic religions claim, then why is there evil in the world? When we learn of pure evil, whether on a large or small scale, whether from third parties or from personal experiences, we wonder about the Being that reigns over such depravity. Can God truly escape responsibility for the evil perpetrated by his creations?

The Problem of Evil

I am, of course, hardly the first person to talk about the problem of evil. Many theologians, atheists, and philosophers have confronted it in their own thinking and writing. The problem is that if an infinitely powerful, infinitely knowledgeable, and infinitely good being created the world, then why did He create people capable of inflicting mass murder, rape, torture, and mental and emotional cruelty on other people and animals?

We imagine ourselves with omniscience, allowing us to see what enormous evil particular kinds of creatures would do to their fellow beings, as well as omnipotence, allowing us to prevent the creation of such creatures. If we were good, then we would refrain from their creation or we would change their nature. Our knowledge and power, in other words, would lead us to protect the innocent creatures that we did create against the malevolent creatures and the evil that they would surely inflict if given the opportunity. God should not have created Adolph Hitler, because God knew exactly what Hitler would do if brought into existence. And it takes a lot less than Hitler to make the case that God has at best shown deliberate indifference to the utterly horrifying cruelty perpetrated by millions of His creations.

The Standard Answer: Free Will

When I was in religious school as a child and I (and many other children) asked about the problem of evil, the answer we received was straightforward. God granted humans the gift of free will, and with free will and the possibility of great good came the possibility of great evil as well. If God made me incapable of doing something bad, then in what sense could I really claim to have chosen good? I could not because choosing means that one has more than one option. If the only food I can access is carrots, then I cannot meaningfully speak of having “chosen” to eat carrots rather than something less healthy than carrots. Likewise for doing good.

This answer is satisfying. It takes a kind of rugged individualist position on God’s role in the evil that humans inflict on one another and on other animals. Even though people sometimes suffer tremendously because of the horrifying choices that other people make, it is still very important that we grant those other people the right to make a choice. It is a little bit like the free speech argument that says that people have to have the option of speaking their minds even if some people end up saying terribly offensive and even dangerous things. Individual freedom must prevail.

The core problem with this argument, however, is that it does not truly respond to the complaint about the problem of evil. What those who complain about God are seeking is the kind of God who creates people whose drives do not incline them to do evil unto others. As a result, when a person has the option of shooting up a supermarket or buying bananas at the same supermarket, the first option simply wouldn’t appeal to the person. Likewise, because I do not feel any drive to drink aloe juice, if I am faced with the choice of drinking orange juice, apple juice, or aloe juice, I will always choose either the apple or the orange. I am still choosing between the three based on my own tastes, but the aloe simply cannot compete with the others.

No one would argue, in the above example, that because I do not find aloe juice appealing, it follows that my Creator denied me free will. Other people might like aloe and orange but not apple. In each case, the category of things we like is going to narrow the set of options that we find acceptable. In fact, having a drive could be characterized as itself constraining our choices. If I am trying to wait until noon before I consume food, I will have a harder time sticking to my plan if I like the fruit juices laid out on the table than if I do not. My “free will,” in other words, runs into my own drives if the things that trigger those drives are right in front of me. Having no potato chips in the house could actually enable one’s exercise of free will by avoiding the effect of addicting food on the brain. Few of those who are sitting on the couch, watching television, elbow deep in potato chips, feel empowered by their own sense of agency. They are much more likely to feel like victims of their own unhealthy drives.

People are not all driven to do extremely evil things. A person of average morals might be tempted to steal a candy bar at a convenience store. If he resists the temptation, then he can feel good about his exercise of free will. If he fails to resist, then he can fairly be held accountable for his actions due in part to his possession (but failure to exercise) free will.

A profoundly evil person will be tempted to carry out far more destructive and cruel actions on a much grander scale. Hitler apparently felt little in the way of drives not to give in to the temptations he experienced. Still, even absent a drive to do the right thing, Hitler, most people believe, had free will and therefore was responsible for his actions. We regard people as capable of controlling their impulses even if they lack strong (or any) impulses going in the correct direction. If you are driven to make other people happy and feel no drive to make them suffer, you have as much free will as your neighbor who feels driven to make people suffer and no desire whatsoever to make them happy. And others who feel driven in both directions at once also have free will. The nature of our drives does not determine whether or not we have free will. It simply tells us about the nature and strength of the various forces pulling us in one or more directions, forces among which our free will must select. The more that our drives coincide with moral rectitude, the easier it will be for us to do the right thing. But we do not need a drive to do evil in order to experience free will. Our drives often interfere with, rather than facilitate, our exercise of free will.

God did not give humans the gift of free will by endowing them with the desire to kill, to beat, to rape, or otherwise to harm other humans or animals. Being driven toward evil is no gift at all. If there is a gift in all of this, it is the capacity to choose one’s course of conduct in light of considerations beyond the desire to satisfy one’s drives. Stated differently, my lack of any interest in harming other people or animals does nothing to undermine my freedom or “free will.” Not everyone wants to make others suffer, yet we understand that all but the severely ill have free will.

We could accordingly live in a world in which no one wants to commit genocide or murder or rape or any other atrocity, a world in which no one feels a surge of pleasure when he or she succeeds in sprinkling pain and misery into human relations. That world would be a better world than the one in which we currently live. And it would still be a world in which people have free will. Any given person could wake up in the morning and say, “shall I help poor people, sell boxes of copy paper, write an essay, or make lemonade today?” The choices would be nearly endless, and the person would get to select from among them with his or her free will. Yet nowhere on that list would appear “shall I disable the brakes on my neighbor’s car?” or “shall I kill my annoying cousin?” No one would miss the absence of these choices, and everyone would be as free as or freer than they were before, leaving God in our world still without a good answer to the problem of evil: Why, if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, has he knowingly created people who are driven to (and therefore do) bring so much suffering to their fellow earthlings?

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