Friday, August 16, 2013


I was in a class
            and the teacher said
            I hear we hear we have
            a Jew pig in this class.
            I shook. He said
            I’m going to show
            this Jew pig
            how much pain
            a Jew can survive.
            He took a stick
            out of the desk
            and hit and hit.
            I don’t remember the pain,
            but only the kids
            who’d once been my friends
            laughing and laughing.

                                    Lyn Lifshin, “For Me The Holocaust
                                    Started In ‘33 In A Small Village” from Blue Tattoo[i]

. . . .
            Why, then do bad things happen to good people? One reason is that our being human leaves us free to hurt each other, and God’ can’t stop us without taking away the freedom that makes us human.
    Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People [i]

            The “free will defense” is easily the most widely held belief explaining why an omnipotent good God would choose to allow people to misbehave. The argument goes that freedom is essential to make life meaningful and valuable. We are given freedom so our relationship with God can be personal and authentic. God wants real lovers, not Stepford Wives. The price of freedom is the genuine possibility that freedom will be abused. Free persons will sometimes choose to do wrong.

            Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has made a cogent argument that evil is the price of freedom and that a free world is better than a world that is good only because it has no choice.[ii]  Freedom makes the whole event of human life meaningful as opposed to a puppet show. Spiritually, the value of freedom is even greater. One of the most compelling views of our world is as an arena for “soul making.” In such an arena, freedom to choose between good and evil is essential to the environment for spiritual growth.[iii] As a matter of philosophical logic, the “free will defense” is widely regarded as having carried the day against the atheist argument from the problem of human evil.[iv]

            While this “free will defense” does not help with natural evil, it is so persuasive in explaining human evil that we need to be careful not to swallow it whole before we have chewed on it a bit. Oddly enough this popular notion, in its current form, is fairly new. Augustine said that creation was given a primal freedom for the sake of making the whole project meaningful. However, that freedom was lost with the Fall of Adam. Since then, the creation has been decidedly unfree because it is enslaved to the power of sin.

            While “free will” resonates with the cultural assumptions of modern Westerners who vote for political candidates and routinely choose from among five different brands of laundry detergent, most Christians over history have not shared these assumptions.  Trumpeting even the existence of individual free will was called “the Arminean heresy” well into the 18th Century. Christians traditionally might have believed with Augustine in “free Fall,” that creation and humanity were free in the beginning, but that did not mean humanity was still free to choose between good and evil. Rather humanity was enslaved to evil, and awaiting liberation.

            St. Paul did not regard sin as a wrong moral choice. He regarded it as a power to which people are in bondage. He said of himself that he did not do the good he wanted to do, but compulsively did the evil he did not want to do.[v]  Just so, in our time, contemporary theologians have disputed the free will defense because we so often do not experience sin as a wrong choice made with the options held before us evenly like “two roads diverg[ing] in a yellow wood.” Rather, sin works as a compulsion, a force that does not feel like our own true will making the decision.[vi]

            Much modern psychology insists that human beings are subject to a panoply of controlling, or at least powerful, influences that drive our decisions, often unconsciously – ranging from internal influences including genetic dispositions to external forces such as social pressure and economic necessity. Paul might call these factors that dispose us toward sin “powers and principalities.” Remember, Brian Nichols (Atlanta man who killed several people in the course of a jail break) did not experience himself as exercising free will in his decision to kill. A few years ago, a pre-teen boy in an urban ghetto was invited by older boys to try crack. He refused, so they burned him alive.  What kind of free will does such a child have?

            The free will defense fits well in the world view of modern democratic capitalism where the myth of freedom undergirds the way we organize our government and economy. However, the notion of free will is challenged from antiquity by Holy Scripture and from modernity by depth psychology, systems psychology, and behaviorism. In short, it is not as strong an argument as it seems at first glance.

            As a response to the existential problem of evil, the one with the blood and tears, it does not work all that well. First, when people hurt us badly, we don’t value their freedom so highly. Second, we often do not experience our own misdeeds as freely chosen. Finally, neither the perpetrators nor the victims of human evil always grow spiritually from the experience. In fact, the growth rate isn’t very good.

            Granted some freedom is a good thing. But how much freedom do we really need? Freedom obviously is not absolute. We live lives of limitation. We cannot do whatever we choose. Since free will is not absolute, we may ask why it extends to allow the worst forms of evil. If the possibility that someone may steal my car is the price I pay for free and meaningful choice in human life, I’ll gladly pay it many times over. If the possibility of someone killing my child is the price, that’s another matter. Does free and meaningful human life really require the possibility of what the Spanish did to the indigenous people of Latin America or what the Nazis did to Jews? Just how much freedom do we need to make life meaningful and interesting? Freedom may be a sufficiently valuable to justify some level of evil, but it is not sufficient to justify the “horrendous evils” we encounter all too often.[vii]

            Finally, if free will is so absolute as to keep God always on the sidelines of life, then such a God is irrelevant to the things that really matter to us. This does not make for much of a God. As a line of graffiti in the restroom of the Hungarian Pastry Shop in New York City so aptly puts it, “God isn’t dead. He just doesn’t want to get involved.”

God Of Our Silent Tears is available for purchase at


[i] Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People (New York: Schockten Books, 1981) p. 81.

[ii] Alvin Pantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1974) pp. 29-34. Plantinga’s “free will defense” is less ambitious in his view than Augustine’s “free will theodicy.” Plantinga merely purports to defend belief against the problem of evil by arguing that God might reasonably be all powerful and all good and yet permit evil in order to preserve the greater good if allowing freedom. Plantinga’s argument differs from Augustine’s “free Fall defense.” For Plantinga, we have to remain free individuals in order for the good of freedom to outweigh the evil we endure for its sake.

[iii] John Hick, Evil And The God Of Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1978).

[iv] Michael Peterson, God And Evil, p. 41.

[v] Romans 7: 21 – 8: 6.

[vi] Shirley Guthrie, Chistian Theology, at 178.

[vii] Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils And The Goodness Of God (Ithaka: Cornell University Press, 1999).

[i] Lyn Lifshin, “For Me The Holocaust Started in ’33,” in The Blue Tattoo

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