God is no libertarian

So the world was made by a perfectly benevolent, compassionate, loving God. Yet suffering exists.

Why would a nice guy like God make a world filled with so much nastiness? All these wars, diseases, ichneumon wasps—what possible good purpose could they all serve?

We want God to make our lives meaningful, purpose-driven. Yet we don’t want that purpose to be super depressing. ‘God is a nice guy from his own perspective, but a total asshole by all human standards’ would be a pretty unsatisfying theodicy, and a terrible way to fill the pews. So how do we square a good God with a wicked world?

The standard response is that being truly good requires that one love freedom. God is so good that he won’t interfere with human freedom by preventing suffering. That certainly sounds nice; we don’t want to make autocracy the highest good. But how can this work in practice?

The idea seems to be that we are somehow to blame for our suffering. God, then, is off the hook. We’re free to blame ourselves (rather than God) for whatever evil things befall us. What’s more, we’re free to credit God (rather than ourselves) for whatever good things we accomplish. In this way we can, if we wish, preserve the pure wretchedness of man and the pure excellence of God. We are free to translate the complexity of human experience into a crisp conflict between total sin and total virtue. But there are deep problems with this approach: The shape of our world seems profoundly unlike the shape we’d expect from a libertarian architect.


First Problem: Natural evil limits freedom.

It’s clear that not all suffering stems from human action. If God had protected the 230,000+ victims of the 2004 tsunami, how would this have interfered with human freedom? Would it not, if anything, it have increased our freedom, by giving the tsunami’s victims a chance to live out their lives?

One might respond that the tsunami’s destruction could have been greatly reduced by human actions. Perhaps God gave us just enough power to save ourselves, and we simply did not employ it.

But blaming the victims simply does not work here. No matter what we had done, we could not have saved every life. And if some people were to blame for the level of devastation, surely those people should have been punished, not innocent bystanders. Which brings us to…

Second Problem: Human evil limits freedom.

If God loves freedom, why does he let people obstruct and enslave one another? Why does he allow oppressors more freedoms than the oppressed? Why not give us just enough freedom to control our own lives, so long as it does not infringe upon the freedom of others?

The problem of evil raises special concerns for individual freedom. You might claim, for example, that humans (and not God) are responsible even for natural disasters, because Adam and Eve introduced suffering and death into the world when they disobeyed God. But that is not a crime committed by every human being, such that every human deserves punishment for it. It is a crime committed by two particular humans. How can we justify punishing someone else for a perfect stranger’s crime? Certainly it is not my fault if I was born to a sinful father. We can’t choose our parents.

(To my knowledge, Origen is the only theologian to have ever resolved this problem. Unfortunately, later thinkers generally consider Origen’s views heretical, and even Origen falls victim to religion’s standard “blame the victim” mentality.)

Third Problem: Our freedom is physically limited.

It’s easy to say that God loves freedom by counting the hits (look at all the things he lets us do!) and ignoring the misses (the things we can’t do). But of course we aren’t free to do whatever we want. God created us in a very specific way, strictly limiting what we can will ourselves to do. We can’t fly merely by flapping our arms. We can’t will aches and pains to go away. We can’t even go directly to Heaven merely by willing it.

So what? What’s the problem? Well, we’ve granted that freedom isn’t absolute, that a good God would make beings free in some respects, but not in others. But now we are forced to explain why God limits our freedom in the particular way that he does. Why give us the freedom to make sandwiches and fire guns, but not the freedom to cure all diseases or teleport away from natural disasters?

If we can’t even begin to explain this, then ‘God loves freedom’ ceases to be a viable justification for suffering. The question is now why God loves this particular freedom (the ‘freedom’ to suffer even when we’d prefer not to) more than he loves rival freedoms (the freedom not to suffer!). A generic appeal to ‘freedom’ can’t even begin to address this question.

Fourth Problem: Our freedom is epistemically limited.

This is the problem of ignorance, a far deeper and thornier issue than the standard problem of evil. What can it mean to say that God respects freedom, when he obviously doesn’t respect informed freedom?

Freedom, in fact, seems quite meaningless when it is not informed. Imagine a child told to pick between two closed doors. Behind one door is a fierce tiger, and behind the other door is chocolate. If the child chooses the door that happens to have a tiger, can we blame the child for his messy death? Surely not.

Yet we, too, live in a world we scarcely understand. It is often claimed that God hides himself from us in order to give us the freedom to doubt him, to choose our beliefs for ourselves. But in fact God’s hiddenness has the opposite effect; it takes away from us our freedom—our freedom to make an informed choice. Since we do not know which religion, if any, is the correct one, we can hardly be blamed if we err. Yet theists assert that those who fail to find God will suffer (e.g., in Hell or merely ‘the absence of God’), and that they deserve to suffer.

Being forced to play Russian roulette, and then losing, is not the same as committing suicide. The freedom to guess is not freedom. It’s just a slavery to chance. Only the freedom to choose between options whose consequences we fully comprehend is genuine freedom, because only then do we really know what option we’re choosing. Yet clearly God did not create beings who fully understand their actions’ consequences. Least of all in the realm of religion.


The notion of ‘freedom’ favored by our allegedly well-meaning deity, then, ends up looking extremely peculiar. God evidently only loves freedom when it can infringe upon (and be infringed upon by) others’ freedom, and when it is severely limited in seemingly arbitrary ways, such that we are not free to escape suffering in this life or to make informed choices. After qualifying what God prizes in so many strange ways, what evidence remains for the supposition that these preferences even slightly resemble what we call “morality” or “compassion” in the case of humans?

I can think of four possible responses.

  • To Problem 1: Perhaps God created a perfectly orderly world, and in such a world it was inevitable that some disasters would arise.

This doesn’t explain why God created the particular world he did, or why he created at all. It also doesn’t explain why God prizes abstract “order” more than human welfare. Couldn’t he create a world that naturally has typhoons, yet still intervene to save the people victimized by his natural order? The fact that buildings inevitably fall down sometimes doesn’t make it any less immoral to choose not to save people from falling buildings if you’re able.

  • To Problem 2: It’s not God’s fault that humans hurt one another.

The issue isn’t that God’s to blame for everything humans do. It’s that God chose to limit human freedom in one way, but not in another. He made us free to harm one another, but not free to be safe from others’ harm. What makes the former freedom more important than the latter? Why is the villain’s freedom prized above the victim’s? Even if God doesn’t directly cause every human action, he still chose which possibilities to leave open. That calls for explanation.

  • To Problem 3: If we could do anything, we’d be God.

This relies on a false dilemma. It’s not that case that God needs to either make humans omnipotent, or deny them the ability to escape suffering. He could easily give them that one ability, while continuing to deny them other abilities. This on its own would radically decrease the suffering in the world, and radically increase people’s freedom.

And, as an aside: What’s wrong with being God? God sure seems to like it!

  • To Problem 4: If we knew everything, we’d be God.

Again, we don’t need to be omniscient merely to know the consequences of our actions. God chose to create beings that are ignorant of almost everything. If such beings sin without fully understanding the consequences, they cannot ethically be held more responsible than God for what ensues.


8 thoughts on “God is no libertarian

  1. I like the intro. I’ve always thought Mackie saying that God could have created free beings that always choose the good was the proverbial nail in the coffin for the debate.

    Although, I have to say, the Second Problem doesn’t carry as much weight as I suspect people think it does. I couldn’t tell you what the New Testament says about a child being punished for their parents’ sins, because I’ve never read it, but large portions of the Old Testament deal with nothing but children and people at large being punished brutally for things their parents and grandparents did. It’s emphasized time and time again that actions you take will affect future generations. Perhaps this is because there’s not necessarily any after-life, per se, yet, so this is a rudimentary replacement? In any case, viewed as such it’s more of a Problem of Commons type issue than a robust Theological problem.

    1. The fact that something’s commonplace doesn’t help justify it, though. Some explanation is demanded for why God punishes children for things their ancestors did, or why he chose to so constitute the universe that child-punishing inevitably occurs. I’ve just subsumed a small problem (genealogical punishments) under a larger one (humans’ lack of freedom to avoid other humans’ evil).

  2. Plus, as Stephen Maitzen has pointed out, the notion that God doesn’t interfere with free will is unbiblical:

    “If you look at Exodus 14 you find god interfering with the free will of Pharaoh, and if you read Romans 9 verse 18 you find St. Paul announcing a regular policy of interference on god’s part with free will. So for what it’s worth I think it’s an unbiblical assumption that god never interferes with libertarian free will. – See more at: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=7086#sthash.Lz2Lfbh1.dpuf

    1. I’m inclined to agree, though a theist could insist that God was only strongly influencing pharaoh, not completely controlling him. (I think this influence/control distinction is very problematic.)

      In addition to the positive Biblical evidence against free will, to my knowledge there is not a single verse of the Bible that affirms God’s deep concern for free will.

      1. There are various Jewish theodicies dealing with Pharaoh. None of them are particularly novel or interesting, and even Rambam’s answer is deeply unsatisfying (the taking away of Pharoah’s free will is punishment for his previous refusals.)

        Although I absolutely agree that the Bible is often deterministic in its outlook (and sometimes outright Fatalistic, eg Ecclesiastes) there are some limited gestures towards free will or choice, most notably that I can recall in Deuteronomy 30: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live “

  3. Simple solution: God does not share my terminal values.

    This also explains the direct murder and general asshattery of God in the OT; he’s wasn’t a nice person and his observed actions are inconsistent with valuing human life. In the NT, he’s simply absent.

    Skimming through all the gods in all the religions, I find only Odin who actually cared enough about people to do something. Broadening the search, we also find Prometheus, many animist entities, and Lucifer.

  4. A better way to understand the essence of the free will theodicy is that God wants everyone to personally reach their final end, so people must have freedom in order to do this. Suffering may help a person reach their final end, so God uses suffering to bring good out of it. In this understanding free will is essential but not the entire focus of the argument since it is not freedom that God acts towards but the fulfillment of His creatures.

    In response to comments made about the Bible’s view on free will. Christians traditionally understand passages about God hardening people’s hearts to mean that God deprives the person of grace. Of course this action manifests in the person person being more obstinate towards God, but God does not do it arbitrarily nor does hardening necessitate an action of the person, rather hardening is a description of God arranging the person’s spiritual disposition.

    In the NT the concept of people’s misfortune being a punishment for sins is rebuked by Chist who said “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:2-5).

    Here is a passage that clearly states that people have free will:

    Do not say, “It was the Lord’s doing that I fell away”;
    for he does not do what he hates.
    Do not say, “It was he who led me astray”;
    for he has no need of the sinful.
    The Lord hates all abominations;
    such things are not loved by those who fear him.
    It was he who created humankind in the beginning,
    and he left them in the power of their own free choice.
    If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
    and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. (Sirach 15:11-15)

    Two passages that imply it:

    For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
    For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is. 55: 8-9)

    Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

    Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Rom. 1:22-25)

  5. I do find this post fairly comprehensive when it comes to analysis of freedom and evil, but what I think it misses out on (as Caleb notes above) is a more holistic account of salvation history. In other words, the post accurately adumbrates some of the issues surrounding the “free will defense” but does not seem to recognize that the free will defense is only part of the picture of God’s plan. Again, as Caleb mentions, Christianity does not understand freedom to be absolute in the sense that people should be able to do all things or know all things; rather, Christianity understands freedom to be part of, but not all of, a developmental process toward fulfilling God’s will. Suffering is part of this process. I, for one, don’t see why we should demand from God a “perfect” world of rainbows and sunshine. This isn’t to dismiss the atrocities and evils that occur in the world, but it does seem worth noting that suffering is involved in a process of fulfillment, just as suffering is involved in the training regiment of a triathlete straining toward excellence.

    In brief, this post could benefit from additional posts exploring other aspects of theodicy. It’s certainly a thorny issue, but I don’t find myself feeling dystheistic about life because of it.

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