Omnipotence and Human Freedom

Prayson Daniel writes about Christian author C. S. Lewis’s attempt to deal with the problem of evil here and here.  Lewis, who suffered tragic loss at an early age, became an atheist when young, but later converted to Christianity.  Lewis directly addressed the challenge of the atheists’ argument — why would an omnipotent and benevolent God allow evil to exist? — in his books The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity.

Central to Lewis’s argument is the notion that the freedom to do good or evil is essential to being human.  If human beings were always compelled to do good, they would not be free, and thus would be unable to attain genuine happiness.

One way to illustrate the necessity of freedom is to imagine a world in which human beings were unable to commit evil — no violence, no stealing, no lying, no cheating, no betrayal.  At first, such a world might appear to be a paradise.  But the price would be this: essentially we would all be nothing but robots.  Without the ability to commit evil, doing good would have no meaning.  We would do good simply because we were programmed or compelled to do nothing but good.  There would be no choices because there would be no alternatives.  Love and altruism would have no meaning because it wouldn’t be freely chosen.

Let us imagine a slightly different world, a world in which freedom is allowed, but God always intervenes to reward the good and punish the guilty.  No good people ever suffer.  Earthquakes, fires, disease, and other natural disasters injure and kill only those who are guilty of evil.  Those who do good are rewarded with good health, riches, and happiness.  This world seems only slightly better than the world in which we are robots.  In this second world, we are mere zoo animals or pets.  We would be trained by our master to expect treats when we behave and punishment when we misbehave.  Again, doing good would have no meaning in this world — we would simply be advancing our self-interest, under constant, inescapable surveillance and threat of punishment.  In some ways, life in this world would be almost as regimented and monotonous as in the world in which we are compelled to do good.

For these reasons, I find the “free will” argument for the existence of evil largely persuasive when it comes to explaining the existence of evil committed by human beings.  I can even see God as having so much respect for our freedom that he would stand aside even in the face of an enormous crime such as genocide.

However, I think that the free will argument is less persuasive when it comes to accounting for evils committed against human beings by natural forces — earthquakes, fires, floods, disease, etc.  Natural forces don’t have free will in the same sense that human beings do, so why doesn’t God intervene when natural forces threaten life?  Granted, it would be asking too much to expect that natural disasters happen only to the guilty.  But the evils resulting from natural forces seem to be too frequent, too immense, and too random to be attributed to the necessity of freedom.  Why does freedom require the occasional suffering and death of even small children?  It’s hard to believe that small children have even had enough time to live in order to exercise their free will in a meaningful way.

Overall, the scale of divine indifference in cases of natural disaster is too great for me to think that it is part of a larger gift of free will.  For this reason, I am inclined to think that there are limits on God’s power to make a perfect world, even if the freedom accorded to human beings is indeed a gift of God.

4 thoughts on “Omnipotence and Human Freedom

  1. I don’t think FWD is persuasive in any way unless you mean it was impossible for omnipotence to create a world in which we have free will but our choices relate to degrees of good. I don’t see in what way this is a problem of omnipotence but is a problem of impotence.

    To say we need freewill to hurt others or chose to do good I think is only giving god -whatever that is- an excuse and getting him/it off the hook for divine negligence

  2. I see the point of the argument from freewill. But I find it extremely difficult to agree that doing good because we are compelled to is “meaningless”. That is a world where are experience is always protected.
    I equally find it difficult to perceive the difference between the world where we are immediately rewarded for our good deed and punished for our bad deeds when compared to a world that includes Heaven and Hell. The difference appears to be a time lag (and scale) or reward and punishment. But it is still a self-interest model.
    You and I have limits. We do not have freewill. I cannot kill the people in the next room. I physically can. But a part of my psychology simply won’t permit me. This is not a choice, because I cannot choose to kill them. Limits like this could be ubiquitous, and people would not see that as removing freewill.

    So it is not clear that the freewill argument even accounts for human-caused suffering.

  3. I agree that a god could give human beings free will, however, this still does not tell us why an all-benevolent, all-loving god would allow the extent of human suffering, such as genocides, merely to give humans free will. It also blames the existence of human evil and extreme human suffering on human beings and not the god who created

  4. Thank you for a powerful thought provoking article that stir thinking critically about important issues such as the struggle classical theists have with the compatibility or probability of existence of such pain and suffering we encounter in this world and the existence of omnicompetent God.

    Nonmoral evil(natural evil) is, I would say, not a problem for defenders of FWD such as C. S. Lewis. He argued that (N) the laws of nature are tuned to enable or maximize higher creatures freedom of will. Whether (N) is true or false is not necessary. All is needed is is (N) possibly true(in other words, is it true that (N) may be true?) If it possibly true then defenders of FWD have both explained moral and nonmoral evils.

    That being said I do not find Lewis’ and later Plantinga’s FWD persuasive because I think it is woven in libertarian freedom which I believe to be false view of freedom of will both theologically(from Christians worldview based on Scriptures) and philosophically. I would thus agree with Lewis and Plantinga’s defense at a lesser claim, viz., (D) God (if He exists) has morally sufficient reason to cause, or permit pain and suffering in the world God created.

    (D) does not have to be true.(D) only need to be possibly true (in other words ” (D) may be true for all we know(or don’t)) Defenders of (D) does not give God’s reasons for causing or permitting pain and suffering. The defender of (D) does not have to know what God’s reasons could be, it does not matter for their defense.

    If (D) is possibly true, it would explain both moral and nonmoral evils thus showing that existence of pain and suffering is compatible with classical idea of God.

    Is (D) persuasive? Are we letting God off the hook that easily? I think it does not matter whether it is persuasive or not, letting God off the hook that easily or not, what matter is is it possible. If it is, then the rest is just detail. The problem of evil ceases to be an intellectual problem but emotional problem.

    Let me know your thoughts. Again thank you for a brilliant post. I apologize for a lengthy response.

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