Free Will and the Problem of Evil

by Thomas Rauchenstein

Theists often try to explain why there is evil in the world by arguing that God highly values relationships characterized by moral responsibility for one’s actions and for the well-being of others. God values these things because moral responsibility is an integral part of love. Love implies the ability to seek the good of others and to intentionally benefit them. Love makes certain actions within a relationship valuable or harmful depending on what is done, and so those actions take on certain properties, such as being wrong, indifferent, obligatory, and praiseworthy. If love is of utmost value to God, then He would likely make creatures that are capable of loving and thereby give them moral responsibilities.

However, not just any creature can be morally responsible. They must have free will. But not just any free will, like the kind that chooses between apples and oranges. No. God is interested in morally significant freedom, the ability to pursue virtues and make choices that impact each others lives in profound ways.

Creatures have free will in this sense only if some of their actions are not totally determined by prior causes. A robot or a puppet is not free in this sense because all of its actions are determined by internal or external events which are pre-programmed (so to speak) by sequences of causes and effects over which its has no control. There is a lot more to free will that indeterminism since events can be undetermined but not result from free actions (e.g. quantum phenomena). Freedom involves the ability to make genuine choices that are to some extent up to me – choices which I can have reasons for making (i.e. they aren’t arbitrary) and which are not fully explained by the chain of cause and effect relationships leading up to my action (i.e. they are undetermined). Of course, freedom exists within constraints. My free actions are conditioned by my biological makeup, genetic potential, personality, habits, and upbringing, but none of these factors completely explains the choices I make.

Free will is necessary for love and moral responsibility because obligations make no sense in the absence of real choices. Only if I can refrain from doing wrong am I responsible for doing it. We don’t hold people responsible for actions if it is impossible for them to do otherwise. It’s not enough that they could have done otherwise in different circumstances. Rather, responsibility requires that they be able to act differently in the very same circumstances. The capacity to chose between different alternatives in the very same circumstance is essential to free will, and therefore, to moral responsibility.[1]

Moral Evil

Advocates of the free will theodicy argue that the misuse of that freedom explains why moral evil exists in a world that God created. Freedom comes at a cost to God because in giving creatures the ability to love and seek each others’ well-being, they can choose to abuse their freedom to exploit and harm each other as well. For example…


Free Will and the Problem of Evil | Hope Beyond Reason