God of the Possible

I know that there a few fellow theology nerds who read this blog. For them, and for anyone else who cares, here’s some more of my wonderings…

The Free Will Defense is a solution to the Problem of Evil.  According to this defense, the existence of evil is not inconsistent with the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.  Such a God, the argument goes, may  have so valued free will that he gave it to his creatures, even at the expense of a world without evil.  Having the ability to make incorrect moral decisions introduces evil into creation, which could only have been prevented at the expense of free will.  Put differently, if free will is to exist, evil must also exist.  But is that necessarily so?  In this post I will argue that by including free will in his creation, God did not necessarily create a world containing moral evil.  Instead, God created a world with a virtually infinite series of possibilities, one of which was a world in which free creatures always make the correct decisions.  Ultimately, incorrect moral choices, though not inevitable, were very highly probable.  Once an incorrect moral choice occurred (perhaps what Christians call “the Fall”) then the consequences of that incorrect choice multiplied into more and more incorrect choices, resulting in a world in constant need of redemption.  This state of affairs, ultimately to be corrected by God’s salvation, was anticipated by God, but was not inevitable.  I will argue that Alvin Plantinga’s argument in opposition to what he calls “Liebniz’ Lapse” and his description of what he calls “Transworld Depravity” may proceed from a mistaken assumption about God’s omnipotence and omniscience.  My understanding of the contingent nature of creation will also be considered in response to John Hick’s objections to the Free Will Defense.

In his famous description of the Free Will Defense to the Problem of Evil, Alvin Plantinga devotes a substantial portion of his argument to supporting the proposition that it is possible that “God is omnipotent, and it was not within His power to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil.”  He does so in order to meet the challenge of J.L. Mackie and others, who accept the conclusion of Liebniz that an omnipotent all-good God would necessarily create the best possible world.  Liebniz concluded that this world is therefore the best of all possible worlds.  Mackie and other atheists contend that because this world contains evil, it could not have been created by an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.

Plantinga meets the challenge of Mackie by arguing that Liebniz erred in supposing that God could have created any possible world he chose. Plantinga notes that there are some potential worlds, such as those in which God does not exist, which could not be created.  With respect to free will, Plantinga concludes that it possible that God cannot actualize a world in which significantly free creatures never make incorrect moral choices and that therefore the basic predicate upon which Mackie’s objection rests—that God would have necessarily created a world without any moral evil—is invalid.

But I suggest that Plantinga need not go as far as he does.  The Free Will Defense, it seems to me, need not insist “upon the possibility that God is omnipotent but unable to create a world containing moral good without permitting moral evil.”  It seems to me that Plantinga arrives at this possibility by relying on a possibly incorrect view of God’s omniscience.  For example, I suggest that Plantinga is incorrect when he argues that “God no doubt knows what Maurice will do at time t, if S obtains; He knows which action Maurice would freely perform if S were to be actual….We may not know which of these (conditionals) is true, and Maurice himself may not know; but presumably God does.”   In making his point, Plantinga contends that God necessarily knows which of several conditionals with respect to potential actions by Maurice in a possible, but unactualized, world are true.

Suppose instead that in creating a world inhabited by significantly free creatures, God necessarily surrendered some control over how the future would unfold.  Suppose further that God cannot know with certainty what free creatures will do, before they act.  Finally, let us suppose that creatures with true free will are capable of always making correct moral choices.

I submit that in such a world,  while free to err and while presented with almost innumerable opportunities to err, it is possible that creatures with true libertarian free will would make the correct moral decision every time, and thus sin and evil would never enter the world.  In other words, free will did not necessarily make evil inevitable.

Of course I acknowledge that in a world inhabited by billions of free actors, each of whom will be faced with billions of decisions over the course of a lifetime, it is highly improbable that no such creature would ever err.  Yet while this is highly improbable mathematically, it is not definitionally impossible.  Even if each of the nearly countless number of free decisions were purely arbitrary (that is, one was no more likely than the other), it would still be possible that only correct decisions would occur.  Thus if we imagine every free decision ever made as a coin toss, with “heads” being the correct moral choice and “tails” being the incorrect choice, it is theoretically possible that “heads” would be the result of every toss.  Put differently, however mathematically improbable it may be, it is nevertheless possible that a coin toss could result in “heads” billions of times in a row.

So perhaps God actualized a world in which he gave creatures true free will and the ability to know right from wrong.  It is possible that those creatures might have never erred, and sin and evil would have never entered the world.  It is of no consequence that God might be unable to actualize potential worlds inconsistent with a true state of affairs, because only one world was created and its history proceeds as free actors make free choices.  Once incorrect moral choices are made, then God in his benevolent grace gives opportunities for redemption.  That is, there are always correct moral choices that can be made following any incorrect choice.  Such a God could even provide a universal plan of redemption, through which all the incorrect choices of all time could be overcome.  To Christians this would be the redeeming salvation of Christ.

Returning then to Plantinga’s essay, I would suggest that the sentence:  “According to the Free Will Defense, it is possible both that God is omnipotent and that He was unable to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing moral evil,” should be modified to read, “…He was unable to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing the potential of moral evil.”

Assuming that God created a world in which free actors had the ability to always make correct choices, in which God could not perfectly foreknow what those specific choices would be, and in which God acts to provide for redemption from every bad choice, then one can easily reconcile the existence of evil and the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.  What then of John Hick’s objection that even if such a world is possible, it is not plausible?  Leaving aside his contention that “educated inhabitants of the modern world” will not accept the mythical details of the Biblical description of the Fall, there seems to me nothing “implausible” about the creation of a world in which free creatures had the ability to lead a morally perfect existence, but lost that opportunity by misuse of free will, the consequences of which have infected the earth, multiplying the effect of those consequences.  It is simply not necessary to imagine, as Hick does, that this view requires belief that free beings were “created finitely perfect.”  Instead, free creatures were created free.  Whether they exercised that freedom to be perfect or imperfect was their choice, not God’s.

Likewise Hick’s objection that responsible free beings would never have sinned seems to me to be without merit.  Hick argues that “a free being whose nature is wholly and unqualifiedly good will accordingly never in fact sin.”  But there is no reason to assume that free beings were by nature “wholly and unqualifiedly good.”  Instead free creatures were free.  Good is an option that they may choose, but they are not compelled to that choice, by nature of otherwise.  If they were “by nature” compelled to goodness, then there would be no virtue in it.

By allowing free will, arguably God created a world of possibilities.  It was possible for humans and angels to always choose to exercise their free will correctly, however unlikely that may have been.   It is not necessary to suppose a possible world in which free will could never exist without moral evil.  Nor is there any inherent implausibility in God having initiated a sinless creation, containing only the possibility of moral error.

Love Wins