Review: God, Freedom, and Evil

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Alvin C. Plantinga is an American analytic philosopher.

Genre: Analytic philosophy.


God, Freedom, and Evil (1974) focuses on two important theological problems:

  1. The problem of evil, which Plantinga classifies as “natural atheology” (p. 5-64);
  2. The ontological argument for God’s existence, which Plantinga classifies as “natural theology” (p. 85-112).

In passing, Plantinga discusses verificationism (p. 65-66), and arguments about the incompatibility of divine omniscience and human freedom (p. 66-73). He also covers the cosmological argument for God’s existence, popularized by Aquinas (p. 77-80); and the teleological argument for God’s existence, (p. 81-84).

This book often summarizes from Plantinga’s earlier and longer work in God and Other Minds (1967); it appears that this book was written with a more popular audience.

Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense”

Plantinga’s Free Will Defense is the most important part of this book. Some philosophers believe that this defense has effectively rebutted the problem of evil in philosophy.

The problem of evil (as stated by Hume and others) regards moral evil as incompatible with the existence of an utterly benevolent and omnipotent God. Plantinga points out that these propositions—God’s existence, God’s omnipotence, God’s benevolence and the existence of moral evil—are not explicitly contradictory. Some explanation is required to see that there even is a “problem” of evil, and certain presuppositions may be questioned. Plantinga uses the rules of logic to show that free will provides a plausible explanation for moral evil, even in a world created by an omnibenevolent God.

The gist of his argument is that it is possible that God, though omnipotent, cannot create a world in which all free actors always and necessarily choose to do good. For some Protestants, this may be a firm stance (i.e. a theodicy), but Plantinga points out that he does not need to prove this position. He only needs to prove that it is logically possible, and thus he uses the term ‘defense’ rather than ‘theodicy’.

Plantinga’s defense is thorough and grows in complexity. The lynchpin in his argument is what he calls “transworld depravity”: the idea that, if certain conditions are always met, a free moral agent may choose to do wrong in every possible world. “What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers from it, then it wasn’t within God’s power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong.” (p. 48)

It should not be surprising that our own guilt frees us from laying an accusation against God. A way of restating the argument in simplistic terms is this: the problem of evil relies on the unproven premise that, if we were God, we could do better than God did (that is, by creating a world with either less moral evil, or no moral evil).

A Note on Omniscience and Freedom

Plantinga argues (against an article by Nelson Pike) that divine omniscience and human freedom are compatible. This is, of course, the classical Arminian position. Pike used an example similar to the following:

  1. Suppose that at a certain time (let’s say, Tuesday), God believed that Charlie Brown would kick Lucy’s football on Wednesday.
  2. Charlie Brown has true freedom to either kick or not kick the football.
  3. Charlie Brown’s choice on Wednesday cannot cause God to change his belief on Tuesday.
  4. Therefore, if Charlie Brown chooses not to kick the football on Wednesday, then God was incorrect on Tuesday—God forbid!

In a nutshell, Plantinga uses the idea of “possible worlds” to argue that God has infallible foreknowledge in every possible state of affairs. I noticed a disconnect here. Plantinga apparently denies the premise #3 above because he and Pike are viewing time differently.

Pike seems to be assuming a linear view of time, in which a past mistake cannot be corrected.

Plantinga seems to be assuming a non-linear view of time, in which the future is somehow visible to God, perhaps from some stance “outside of time”.

Oscar Cullmann’s book Christ and Time (1964) famously asserts that the Jews of Christ’s day had a linear view of time in which any kind of supertemporal abstraction was inconceivable. If Cullmann is correct, then the view asserted by Plantinga is not the traditional or biblical view, and we are left to amend either our view of God’s essential omniscience (i.e., by denying absolute foreknowledge) or our view of human freedom (i.e., by admitting Calvinistic determinism).

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