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John Hare’s God’s Command, 5.2, “Three Pictures of Freedom”

 Summary by Jonathan Pruitt 

Having discussed the theme of particularity and universality in God’s commands in the previous section, Hare now sets his sights on Barth’s account of human freedom. Barth emphasizes the sovereignty of God throughout his work and, in the case of human freedom, Barth does not make an exception. For Barth, God elects man and this means God determines what he will be. But Barth simultaneously affirms the reality of human freedom. This has led many readers of Barth to take him as affirming a paradox (or even a contradiction) at this point.

However, Hare does not understand Barth this way. Hare thinks that when we apply Barth’s own distinctions to his writing, we can see how the freedom of God and man harmonize in a logically consistent way. On some conceptions of freedom, the freedom of God and man are thought to antagonize one another. But Barth rejects this notion. The Barthian solution to this notorious issue is to make an ontological point. God is the creator of humanity. It is God who places within man all of his capacities and powers, and thus human freedom supervenes on God’s freedom. Man has genuine freedom so that grace is not irresistible, but that freedom is derivative. By electing us, God has determined what we will be in Christ, but “we have to acknowledge this, or determine ourselves in correspondence to this” (p. 158).

In sketching out Barth’s view of freedom, Hare offers three different pictures. First, he asks us to imagine a mediocre piano player playing along with a master. They play a piece that requires two people. The master’s rhythm and artistry provides a context in which the lesser player can extend his skills beyond what he would be able to do on his own. The master does not force cooperation; her partner could stop at any moment. Still, the partner’s execution of the piece depends on the master. Her playing empowers his, but he must correspond to her artistry for there to be harmony.

Hare thinks this picture helps illustrate two conceptions of freedom. There is mere freedom, which is the ability to choose between two alternatives. If we are offered the choice between the evil maxim and the good maxim, or the choice between self and duty, we will always choose the evil maxim, according to Kant. But true freedom is freedom to obey the good maxim. This feat can only be accomplished through divine grace, or when God empowers our abilities by inviting us to play along and correspond with him.

hare god's commandThe second picture comes from Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s concern is to say how it is that human beings can love as God loves. To answer, Kierkegaard offers a picture of a lake which is fed by a spring deep below the surface. Kierkegaard asks us to think of ourselves as the lake and the spring as God. In the same way the lake depends on the spring for its existence and status as “living water,” so we too depend on God. The dependence includes the moral dimension. If we are able to keep God’s commands, it is only because, beneath the surface, we are fed by God’s power and love, given to us as God condescends to us. Our will can cooperate with God’s because as the paradigm of love, God enters history and makes intimate, life-giving connections with human beings.

The final picture comes by way of Barth’s view of prayer, specifically invocation. In invocation, we ask God to help us correspond to his divine command. However, this prayer can only be made with God’s help because of the bending inward of our will. If we are going to pray as we ought, we need God’s help. Hare finds echoes of Paul’s teaching of the Spirit’s intercessory role in prayer in this Barthian view. Thus, prayer is a dynamic and real interaction between God and man, where God is both the agent (the one who prays in the person of the Spirit) and the one who hears the prayer. But a real condition of this sort of prayer is the cooperation of man.

In the final part of this section, Hare retells the story of the Canaanite woman. In this story, Hare sees Barth’s model of human and divine cooperation realized. The opportunity of the woman to interact with Jesus only occurs because of his deliberate act of seeking her out. When the woman requests that Jesus heal her daughter, Jesus does not immediately respond. And when he finally does, his answer is negative; he will not heal her daughter. In these tense moments, Hare sees Jesus as peering into the soul of the woman in order to help her see the truth about himself, herself, and their relationship to one another. Though it may not seem this way on the surface, each response from Jesus is intentional and for the woman’s good. Humility and repentance are required to experience healing and that is what Jesus wants the woman to see. Jesus does not simply want the woman to outwardly acknowledge him as Lord. Rather, he wants to transform and heal the woman and this can only be done if the woman cooperates with Jesus, if she conforms to his will for her. Jesus wants the woman to see that his blessing only comes by way of complete divine freedom and grace, but he also wants her to submit to what he is doing in her soul. Her cooperation with the will of Jesus can only occur when Jesus comes to her, sees the condition of her soul, and lovingly provides the opportunity for her to participate in what he is doing.


A. Thornhill’s The Chosen People: Chapter 2: “God Chose Whom?”

Summary by C. P. Davis

In this chapter, Thornhill, after drawing out the distinction between what he terms “individual” and “corporate” election, discusses individual election in Second Temple thought. He begins by first noting that there is a touch of artificiality to these two terms, inasmuch as neither of them is used within Second Temple literature. This, however, should not overshadow the fact that there is a distinction between these two concepts, whatever one might call them. The chapter is divided into four major sections and a summary. We will briefly overview each of the major sections.

The first section, “The Character of the Elect,” is devoted to showing that Jews from the Second Temple period did not necessarily think of election in terms of salvation. The evidence seems to indicate that salvation, though an important corollary, was still just a corollary to the main thrust of election. But if salvation is not the main point, what is? Thornhill argues that the character of the elect fills this spot. In regards to salvation as election, our author writes, “Jews did not necessarily think in those categories” (28). The first bit of evidence comes from Wisdom of Ben Sira, which is clearly not focused on “otherworldly” notions, but rather has an eye to the practical life here and now. Ben Sira is largely concerned with displaying the magnificent qualities of the elect before God. In a telling section of his work (Sir 44:1–50:29), Ben Sira highlights God’s choice of famous Israelites, all of whom have been selected because of some inherent quality each possessed. Moses, in particular, is said to be chosen because he was faithful and meek. Character clearly plays a role for Ben Sira, but what about others?

The idea that character is relevant to election is also found in a number of additional psalms of David, some of which were discovered at Qumran. Psalm 152 and 153 portray David as one that is holy and elect, the two terms being linked. This seems to indicate that election has to do with David’s character before God. This is supported further by Psalm 155 where David is seen pleading with God to save Israel, on the basis of the faithful whom God has chosen. All of these psalms share the common theme of linking personal piety with God’s choice. But there is even more evidence for this concept in 1 Enoch. In fact, it is frequent that one finds election attached to personal disposition in this work. Like the psalms, 1 Enoch links the terms “elect,” “holy,” and “righteous,” in such a way that it is hard to separate the notion of election from an individual’s piety.

51djmwg4wpl-_sx331_bo1204203200_  “Chosen for a Purpose” is Thornhill’s second section, and here the focus shifts from character to function. That is, election deals not only with the piety of an individual, but with the role that person is to fulfill here and now. For Ben Sira, Moses was clearly chosen. Now, if one stops there the picture is not complete; one must ask what Ben Sira had in mind with this choosing. Moses was not simply chosen for salvation, but was chosen “so that he might teach Jacob the covenant, and Israel his decrees” (Sir 45:5). Again, the additional psalms of David tell the same story, only here David, not Moses, is the chosen. David is actually said to be chosen against the natural choice of man. God had a preferred choice, and this choice was for the purpose of leading the flock of Israel. As Thornhill points out, this passage is eminently “office-oriented” (37). The situation is no different in the Psalms of Solomon. Here the focus is once more on David and God’s choice of him to rule Israel. Interestingly, Israel is rebuked in this psalm because its sin had effectively cast off blessings that come through submitting to the Lord’s chosen. The only way to fix the problem is to look for one in the line of David to rule Israel.

In the third section, “Corporate Representation,” Thornhill unpacks one final aspect of individual election. Though coming close to corporate election, the concept of representation focuses on the individual as a reflection of the masses. Under this aspect of election God might treat a group in accordance with the stance of an individual. Jubilees offers a number of examples. This retelling of the book of Genesis casts God’s choice of Jacob in terms of obedience and righteousness. It might be noted that character is once again brought to the fore. However, a new development can be seen here: Jacob becomes the paradigm for the covenant community. A similar insight may also be gleaned from Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Specifically, the Testament of Simeon 5:1-6 indicates that Levi and Judah represent the remnant of God’s faithful, and both the Testament of Dan and the Testament of Naphtali, though not clearly making the same identification, elevate Levi and Judah in such a way that the same type of picture seems to be present. But perhaps the clearest instances of this corporate representation can be seen in 1 Enoch. Thornhill notes a number of locations that house this idea, among which 1 Enoch 39:6 makes clear that the “Righteous/Elect One ensures the salvation and blessing of the righteous/elect ones” (49).

The final section, “Paul and Chosen Individuals,” seeks to evaluate the writings of Paul in light of the preceding material. Again, the focus is upon Paul’s doctrine of individual election. In Galatians 1:15­–16, one finds Paul speaking of himself as one that was chosen for a specific task. Romans 16:13 portrays Rufus as one who had been chosen as a prominent member of the local church. Adam and Jesus are then presented as the paradigmatic individual representatives (in this case of the entire human race!) in 1 Corinthians 15:20–24. And in the case of Jesus, this issue becomes even more acute when thinking of the atonement (2 Cor 5:18–21). Needless to say, each aspect of individual election, as articulated above, can be found in numerous segments of Paul’s material.


Image: King David in Prayer By Pieter de Grebber (circa 1600–1652/1653) – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,


A. Thornhill’s The Chosen People: Chapter 1: “The Missing Link in Election”


Summary by C. P. Davis

No, this chapter is not discussing the problems with the political election cycle in the United States. Instead, A. Chadwick Thornhill focuses upon the doctrine of election, and how the Jewish mindset most certainly affected its formulation in the New Testament. Specifically, Thornhill narrows his topic to the way in which the apostle Paul’s concept of election was formed. Thornhill begins by discussing the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), and how certain elements of this theory should be retained. His main contention is that most scholars who deal with the NPP never deal directly with the concept of election. It is his goal to remedy this situation.

Thornhill begins by defining three theories of election: “national and unconditional,” “national and cooperative,” and “remnant-oriented and conditional.” The first theory develops election along the lines of a once-saved-always saved mentality. Specifically, it views the election of Israel as a holistic enterprise, whereby God chose this people for salvation. Anyone who is an Israelite is therefore saved by the nature of his covenantal relationship with Yahweh. Supporters of this theory (e.g., Sanders) often seek to adjust the common view that salvation in Israel was based upon works-righteousness. The second theory views Israel’s soteriological position as a tension between two poles: obedience and election. This is the least clearly defined category of the three. The third position argues that unconditional election of the nation Israel was never the point of the covenant. Instead, by studying Qumranic material and Pseudepigraphical works, it becomes clear that a conditional view of the covenant was the predominant Jewish view. Developing this third theory, then, is the major focus of the present book.

51djmwg4wpl-_sx331_bo1204203200_    The first major question addressed deals with how Second Temple Jews viewed their election. This is an important area of study because it leads to a second question: how might this understanding have affected the apostle Paul’s writings? He was, after all, a Jew of this time period. Thornhill believes that it is inappropriate to assume that Paul necessarily stood against the tide of all Jewish thought, just because he argued against some ideas. It is illogical to assume that due to a few instances of disagreement, Paul would have denied all of his Jewish background. Indeed, if this concept were taken to its logical conclusion then one would have to argue that Paul stood even against the Old Testament! At the same time, Thornhill is cautious not to overstate this point. He is clearly aware that Jewish thought at this time was rather amorphous. Nevertheless, there are certain widespread characteristics that he will seek to illustrate in subsequent chapters.

With this in mind, our author establishes a criterion by which he will proceed: each work from Second Temple Judaism that he will analyze will be addressed on its own merits and only then will it be compared with Paul’s material. The hope is that this methodology will offer a necessary safeguard against reading a preconceived notion of Paul’s theology into surveyed material and vice versa. The goal is to develop a picture of the zeitgeist of the Second Temple Jewish world, in relation to the doctrine of election. This goal is to be reached by analyzing three sources: the Dead Sea scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha. In each case, an attempt will be made to expose those ideas that seem to be held by a broad sector of the Jewish world.

Podcast: C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Personal Suffering with David Baggett

In this week’s podcast, we hear from Dr. David Baggett as he discusses two of C. S. Lewis’ most psychologically insightful works, A Grief Observed and The Great Divorce. Dr. Baggett helps us understand how Lewis thought we should deal with intense emotional pain, how the love of God “has teeth,” and how moral transformation may require much suffering.

Image: “Premade BG 32” by Brenda Clarke. CC License. 

Podcast: Chad Thornhill on the Doctrine of Election and the Moral Argument (Part 2)

Part 1

On this week’s episode, we hear from Dr. Chad Thornhill regarding the doctrine of election and some of the implications for the moral argument. Certain views of the doctrine of election might pose substantial problems for the defender of the moral argument, but Dr. Thornhill explains how, when we have a biblical understanding of the doctrine, these objections can be turned back and how a good understanding of the doctrine of election actually supports the moral argument.

This is a two part series. In this second part, we discuss problems with moral culpability and the character of God that may be raised by certain views of election.

Chad Thornhill on Election and the Moral Argument (Part 2)

Photo: “Irish United Nations Veterans Association house and memorial garden (Arbour Hill)” by W. Murphy. CC. License.


Podcast: Dr. Chad Thornhill on Election, Moral Performance, Culpability, and the Character of God

On this week’s episode, we hear from Dr. Chad Thornhill regarding the doctrine of election and some of the implications for the moral argument. Certain views of the doctrine of election might pose substantial problems for the defender of the moral argument, but Dr. Thornhill explains how, when we have a biblical understanding of the doctrine, these objections can be turned back and how a good understanding of the doctrine of election actually supports the moral argument.

This is a two part series. In this first part, we discuss the nature of human freedom and some questions related to moral performance and the moral argument.

Chad Thornhill on Election and the Moral Argument (Part 1)

Photo: “Irish United Nations Veterans Association house and memorial garden (Arbour Hill)” by W. Murphy. CC. License. 

God, Evil, and the Human Good (Part 2 of 2)

By Jonathan Pruitt

(Thanks to Dr. David Baggett and Dr. Marybeth Davis Baggett for substantive feedback on this essay)

Evil and the Human Good

Continued from this post

How can Christians give a theodicy in light of Rowe’s argument and the specific cases he presents? The first step is to get clear on what we mean by “evil.” What is meant by the term “evil”? One way to answer is by ostension. We point to the Sue and Bambi cases and say, “Here is an example of evil.” But that does not do enough. We need to know what it is about the Sue and Bambi cases that makes them evil. Rowe will say that suffering is an intrinsic evil. The Bambi and Sue cases are evil because they involve gratuitous amounts of suffering.[1] But that just pushes the problem back a step. Why is suffering evil? What does it mean to say that suffering is evil? Perhaps Rowe could say that it is just self-evident that suffering is evil; we do not need to provide any explanation because we can just see it is the case. But this response confuses epistemology with ontology. What we want to know is not whether we are justified in taking suffering to be evil, but what makes suffering evil. Here, the naturalist faces a problem. As Mackie says, “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.”[2] The point here is that there is no worldview-neutral way to talk about moral properties. Since evil is a moral property, it can only be meaningfully referred to from within a given worldview. Because the problem of evil is an objection aimed at Christian theism, the term evil must refer to something Christians will recognize as such.

So, then, what is the Christian view of evil? One well-accepted definition comes from Augustine: “For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’”[3] In this case, evil is a privation of goodness. On the Christian view, then, evil is not a substance on par with goodness. Christianity is not dualistic in this way. Evil is parasitic on the good. But parasitic in what way? Here Augustine is again helpful. Hick points out that Augustine thought of all God’s creation as good; Augustine “lays the foundation for a Christian naturalism that rejoices in this world… seeks to share it in gratitude to God for His bountiful goodness.”[4] Included in God’s creation is a God given telos. God makes the world and everything in it for a reason so that there is a way the world should function.[5] Augustine thinks that man’s telos is “to enjoy God as the end of all, while he enjoys himself and his friend in God and for God.”[6] Evil occurs in every case where a man loves for their own sake things which are desirable only as means to an end, and seeks for the sake of something else things which ought to be loved for themselves. Thus, as far as he can, he disturbs in himself the natural order which the eternal law requires us to observe.[7] It is evil when man acts in a disordered way, when he acts contrary to God’s intention.[8]This principle can be broadened so that evil, generally speaking, can be understood as disorder and malfunction.

With this view of evil in mind, let us now consider the nature of the human good and how it might help shape a theodicy. Scripture teaches us that the good for humans has to do with how God made us. For example, when Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to get a divorce, he appealed to how God made humans to justify his answer.[9] The first chapter of Genesis also shines some light on this topic. In 1:26, we are told that humans are made, male and female, in God’s image and that we are supposed to take dominion over all the earth. The biblical anthropology is very rich and drawing out all that it has to say would take a very long time. But all that needs to be accepted here is that mankind has a telos and that telos includes three dimensions. First, being rightly related to God as his image bearers. Second, being rightly related to other humans in community, and third being rightly related to the earth as its rulers.[10] That this is the biblical view is not a controversial point.

Now, in light of this biblical view of the human telos, I want to suggest the following principle:

T1: For an agent to achieve its telos, it must do so with internal integrity.

What I mean by “internal integrity” must be specified. Achieving one’s telos is not a matter of simply getting certain inputs to generate the desired outputs. In other words, being a good human person is about more than just behaving the right way or doing the right thing. It is about being a certain kind of person. This involves a transformation of the individual from one state to another. This transformation takes place through an individual’s development of character, accomplished by habituation and the practice of the virtues. Part of the human good is that humans achieve it as humans —this is not to deny the need for God’s grace as a necessary condition, but the process also requires some real element of free human participation in the process. To see why this is so, we can run a thought experiment. Suppose that very technologically advanced aliens abducted a human named Dale. They implant into Dale’s brain a microchip that will override Dale’s normally disordered desires and give him good desires. The result will be that Dale will now live as an ideal human should. But it seems there is something deficient about Dale’s story. The good for Dale is not merely that he act like a good person, but that he would actually become a good person on his own volition. It would be better if Dale would live as a good person, not because he was made to, but because he wanted to and thus, through a slow and difficult process, began forming his character to become a good person. The end matters, but so do the means to the end. C. S. Lewis makes a similar point in the Problem of Pain. Lewis points out that in the game of chess   

…you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him – if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking – then you could not have a game at all.

There is an analogy between the integrity of a chess game and the integrity of the human pursuit of their good. Humans must “play the game” on their own if winning is going to mean anything. Humans as humans must achieve their good; there is no other possible way it could be. This is what I mean by “internal integrity.” For an agent to achieve its telos, it cannot be overridden by forces outside itself; it must pursue its telos by its own volition.

Another idea implicit in the notion of internal integrity is the reality of libertarian free will. This means our choices are, at bottom, self-determined and not determined by God. God is restricted by what libertarian agents would choose to do.[11] But what reason is there to think that we actually have this power? While this is not the place to develop a full argument, I will give at least one piece of evidence. Libertarian freedom is the commonsense view. We navigate our everyday lives under the assumption that we determine what we will do. Of course, our determinative powers are limited. For instance, I cannot will that I teleport to Mars and have it happen. But within the range of my natural powers (like the power to move my arm or not), I can will to do or not do certain things. It is only when we operate according to this presupposition that things like deliberation or weighing our options make sense. We deliberate because we think we will make an important choice, not that someone else has already made the choice for us. So we should accept that we really have libertarian freedom or pay the very high cost of saying our commonsense experience is completely mistaken.

Something very important follows from T1 and the biblical view of the human good that will allow us to say something about Sue’s case. Given that the human good includes relations with other humans, it follows that God must, as a general policy, not intervene in human interactions. If he were to intervene too often, he would compromise humanity’s internal integrity and short circuit our ability to achieve our telos. This is similar to the chess game. Once too many concessions are made, there is no point in playing the game. And, given the reality of libertarian freedom, sometimes humans may do things God does not want them to do. All things considered, it is better for humans for God to allow us autonomy and the possibility of achieving our good, even if this means that we inflict terrible evils on one another. It is better for God to do this because, if were to intervene too much, he would undermine any chance for humans to attain their good.

Some might object to what I have said so far on this basis: it is unjust for God to allow Sue to be murdered so that other humans have the chance of achieving the human good.  Such an act presupposes an “end justifies the means” ethic that is not acceptable. In response, I suggest that often there is not much difference between the way a consequentialist, “ends justify the means” ethic and a a deonitc ethic actually work out. If we imagine that a person has the moral duties to tell the truth and to protect human life, then we can easily construct thought experiments that show one principle  must be compromised for the end of keeping the other. Even in deontic ethics, there is often a means/end kind of justification for what actions ought to be taken. In the often cited “Nazi at the Door” thought experiment, we are asked to consider whether it would be right for a homeowner with Jews in the attic refrain from truth telling to the Nazi inquisitor at the door. The homeowner faces a dilemma. Should she fulfill her duty to protect human life or to tell the truth? A plausible way out of the dilemma is to say that because telling the truth would likely have a terrible consequence, she should take her duty to protect human life to override the duty to tell the truth. So the homeowner would be justified in refraining from truth telling .  Consequences matter to all plausible ethical theories and simply because a bad consequence is given as a justification for some action (or omission of some action) does not make a person an unacceptable consequentialist. In the case of Sue, the suggestion is that by allowing Sue’s murder to take place, God is justified because he is in a “Nazi at the door” type scenario. He cannot both save Sue and preserve the possibility of the human good, so he allows one thing to happen for the sake of protecting another.

Besides this objection, I suspect there is another objection forthcoming. Many today at least implicitly hold a view like this. Humans are autonomous and isolated from one another. Each man is a world unto himself. Whether or not he achieves his good is up to him and him alone. In fact, what counts as “good” is up to him, too. So people are like tiny ethical islands. Each person has his own rules and his own aims and so talk of the “human good” as a justification for why God allows evil will never work. There is no “human good” that includes all humans as a community. At best, there is a “human good” in the sense that there are states of affairs that some particular human desires. If people are islands in this way, then only integrity with respect to the individual needs to be maintained. God could, then, allow Sue’s abuser to think he was murdering Sue without actually murdering her.

Despite the fact that so many today hold such a view either implicitly or explicitly, this is not the Christian view. Nor has it been the view of most people throughout history. The view is a rather unfortunate result of The Enlightenment. Ancient thinkers, like  Aristotle, taught us that being a truly virtuous person is impossible to do on our own. We must live in the right kind of society – a society aimed at realizing the human good. Humans as islands will never flourish. Here Lewis is again helpful. In Mere Christianity, Lewis suggests that the metaphor of a fleet of ships on a voyage toward a particular destination captures the essence of the moral life: “The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order.” Later, Lewis adds a third part: the fleet must have a specific destination if the voyage is to be successful. Lewis concludes,

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.

In our secular society, it often seems as the only real moral value is the first thing, staying out of each other’s way. However, on the Christian view, like other ancient views, humans cannot just stay out of each other’s way and expect to flourish. This is because of what humans are by nature. As mentioned earlier, humans are made for intimate fellowship with God, each other, and to rule over the earth. This telos cannot be realized on one’s own. It requires humans to cooperate together. It also means that the human good is objective and communal. What one person does has a real effect on others. Having very briefly laid out this ancient view, I commend  it to you as true. It is more robust and makes more sense out of the world than the other view. It also better explains our actual experience. Even if we like to imagine that a person’s flourishing is a matter of individual effort and ideals, history has shown us this is not the case. We are all in this together, like it or not.

Now I want to say how this view provides an advantage in explaining God’s justification for Sue-like cases. If the human good is objective and communal in the way just suggested, then, returning to the chess analogy, we are all playing the same game together. Or, perhaps a better way to make the point is to say that we are all members of the same football team. We each have different roles and abilities, but we share the same goal of winning the game. And this goal cannot be meaningfully reached if the rules of the game are compromised too much. If, for example, the referee counts any progress past the fifty yard line as a touchdown for us, then we may have the highest score at the end of the game, but we haven’t really won. This football analogy can also help us see why God might allow cases like Sue. We can think of Sue’s abuser as a particularly bad player on the team. He never shows up for practice, he does not know the rules or the plays, and he is out of shape. On game day, he racks up penalty after penalty. He breaks the rules of the game. Now, if we want to really win the game, then we cannot also want the referee to simply overlook these penalties. The rules of the game must be enforced, even though it hurts the team. It may seem like enforcing the rules makes winning the game more difficult, but actually it is required to make winning even possible. Similarly, God may be required to allow Sue-like cases if humans want even to have the possibility of attaining their good, even though there are very bad “penalties”  associated with Sue-like cases.

That said, I want to make two important clarifications. First, I do not intend to say that human life is a game. Being human is a very serious matter indeed. My analogy of human life to a game, especially in an attempt to explain Sue-like cases, may unintentionally communicate that I do not take Sue’s suffering to be very bad. That is not the case. The analogy to games is only intended to illustrate the principle of internal integrity that I have proposed. In no way should it be taken as an attempt to diminish the suffering of Sue. Second, even though the idea of the human good and internal integrity might help us make sense of why God allows even terrible evils as a general rule, we should exercise epistemic humility here. I do not mean to suggest that this is the reason God allowed Sue’s case. Alston is right; in most cases we cannot know what the actual reason is for God allowing an evil to occur. At best we can make some “theodical suggestions.”[12]

But how can T1 and the biblical notion of the human good help us make sense of a case like Bambi’s?  Here we must remember that the human good includes care of the earth. Perhaps God’s intention for human care of the earth is that we were to be so meticulous that we would prevent cases like Bambi’s from ever occurring. At first, this might seem absurd, but that may be only because we humans have strayed so far from God’s intention for us. In a world in which every human properly exercised his or her responsibility to care for God’s creation, I suspect there would be vastly fewer Bambi-like cases. And, once humans actually achieved dominion of the earth, perhaps no Bambi-like cases would ever occur. So part of the answer for why there are Bambi-like cases may be that humans continue to fail in their responsibility as care-givers of the earth. Another part of the answer comes directly from Scripture. Paul says that nature itself is “subject to frustration”[13] because “humanity’s fall into sin marred the ‘goodness’ of God’s creation.”[14] Human sin, then, is the cause of natural evil. And, given that the welfare of the earth is so closely connected with the human telos, God cannot, as a general rule, intervene in nature without compromising the internal integrity of humanity. Humans, if we ever hope to be what God intends, must willingly take on their responsibility as caretakers of the earth and its redemption and their redemption are inextricably linked.

If what I have said is correct, then God has good reason to allow Bambi and Sue cases. This undermines Rowe’s R1, and thus his argument no longer goes through. But before moving to the conclusion, let me consider two objections.

First, the atheologian might say, “All this talk of the human good and human responsibility is very noble, but couldn’t have God lessened the suffering of both Bambi and Sue and not compromise the internal integrity of humanity?” This objection presses an ambiguity in my argument, specifically the idea that God could not intervene as a “general rule.” If the rule is generally applied, then there is no reason God could not intervene in any particular case. But from this it also follows that God could intervene in Sue or Bambi’s case and not compromise human integrity. No particular case is essential to human integrity. However, if God intervenes too much, then human integrity will be compromised. So at least some evils must still be allowed. We can reason that those evils that occur must be allowed or else human integrity would be compromised.[15] So if God prevented Sue’s case or a Bambi-like case from occurring, there would be some evil equally bad or worse he would have to allow somewhere else. Therefore, this objection does not defeat the argument.

Second, the atheologian might object because, he says, I have described a morally hopeless situation. Humans, as they are now, will never develop to the point where we would prevent Sue and Bambi cases. A long list of gross human failures even from the past thirty days could be easily produced. If T1 is right, then the hope of ever realizing a just world is absurd. We are like a terminally ill cancer patient who suffers tremendous pain and has no chance of recovery. Given the hopelessness of the situation, the only good we can reasonably hope for is that doctor would give us some drug to deaden the pain. So God should realize that since humans are in such a sad state, human integrity is not worth the suffering because it will never be realized. What is the point of allowing cases like Sue’s if it will never amount to anything? But, on this point the atheologian is mistaken. We Christians have yet more to say. Our plight is not hopeless because God himself has become one of us. God has done something dramatic and heroic on the part of creatures like Bambi, even more so for humans like Sue. In the person of Jesus, God has given humanity a way to be truly human and a way to end human and animal suffering. Through Jesus, God has acted to overcome human sin in a way that does not compromise the internal integrity of humanity because Jesus is fully human. And since Jesus is incarnate and fully human, he makes a way for humans to overcome the problem of sin as humans. Apart from him, humans are unable to achieve our God-given telos. But with him, we can become what God intends. In every way, Jesus has redeemed humanity from our sin.


In this essay, we have seen a promising way for Christians to respond to the problem of evil. We saw that God can allow some evil if it realizes a worthwhile good and that he is limited by what is logically possible. Further, we saw that allowing humans autonomy to achieve their good is worthwhile and that this entails that God cannot, as a general rule, intervene in areas of human responsibility. Finally, we saw that God, in Jesus, has acted in a way to solve the problem of evil while simultaneously preserving human integrity.



[1] Rowe. 3.

[2] J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). 115.

[3] Augustine, The City of God, XI, CHAP. 9.

[4] John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 2d ed. (London: Macmillan, 1977). 45.

[5]See Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (New York: Octagon Books, 1983). 132.

[6] Augustine, Contra Faustum, Book 22, chapter 78.

[7] Augustine, Contra Faustum, Book 22, chapter 78.

[8] A similar point is made by N.T. Wright in N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006). Kindle location 343. He says that evil in the OT is understood as “idolatry” or “dehumanization.” This is consistent with the idea that evil is disorder or malfunction.

[9] See Matt 19-1-6.

[10] These three relations are inspired by a similar list mentioned in John Randall Sachs, The Christian Vision of Humanity: Basic Christian Anthropology, Zacchaeus Studies Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991). 17.

[11] Sometimes, defenders of libertarian freedom are accused of improperly limiting God. But this accusation is wrong for two reasons.  First, God is still fully omnipotent on the libertarian view. God can do whatever is logically possible for him to do. Second, to say that God chose to create agents with libertarian freedom does not mean that God has fewer options open to him at all. The opposite is true. The defender of libertarian freedom thinks that God could have determined everything; that is his prerogative. However, the defender also thinks God has the power to create finite, self-determining creatures. God has more options and not less on this view. It is the compatibilist that is, arguably, artificially limiting God’s power.

[12] William Alston, “The Inductive Argument from Evil,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington, ID.: Indiana University Press, 1996).103.

[13] Romans 8:22

[14] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1996). 515.

[15] This response is inspired by a similar discussion in David  Baggett and Walls Jerry L., Good God : The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). 144. Here they discuss an analogy from Peter van Inwagen aimed at showing that if God intervenes too much, he will defeat the law like regularity in a world.


Photo: “Struggle for Life” by Harpagornis

God, Evil, and the Human Good (Part 1 of 2)


The aim of this series of posts is to give a theodicy. A theodicy is an explanation of how God and evil can co-exist in the world. In order to do this, we will first see why there is such a thing as “the problem of evil.” Then we will see how Plantinga’s response to this problem provides useful guideposts in constructing a theodicy. With these guideposts in place, I will argue that one reason for supposedly gratuitous evils is that they are required to realize the human good.


The Logical Problem of Evil

One powerful way to show that a worldview is false is to show that it contains internal contradictions. If, for example, we could show that Buddhism teaches that there are no such things as unified, human selves, but we can show that a real and unified human self is everywhere presupposed by Buddhist teaching, this counts as an internal contradiction. Buddhists are committed to two beliefs that cannot be reconciled together. This is the kind of challenge that the problem of evil poses to Christian theism.

Let us call the person pressing the objection to the Christian the “atheologian.” Now, the first the step the atheologian needs to take to show a contradiction within Christianity is say what two beliefs are supposed to contradict one another. The two beliefs in question are the orthodox view of God and the existence of evil. The next step is to spell out how exactly these beliefs contradict each other. The orthodox view of God is that he is maximally great. That is, he possesses all great-making properties to the greatest degree possible. Among these great making properties are omnipotence and omnibenevolence. By omnipotence, we mean that God has the power to do anything that is possible to be done. Being omnipotent does not mean that God can do what is logically impossible, like make a married bachelor.[1] By omnibenevolence, we mean that God’s nature is fundamentally characterized by love and goodness. As the Apostle John wrote, “God is love.”[2] Richard Swinburne says that God is “morally perfectly good… he always does the morally best action (when there is one), and no morally bad action.”[3] To say that God is omnibenevolent entails some important things about God. Atheist J. L. Mackie writes that “good is opposed to evil in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.”[4] God, being maximally good, will be necessarily committed to following this principle.  However, God is also omnipotent. This means that God, being willing and able, should eliminate all cases of evil. But our everyday experience makes it plain to us that evil exists. Therefore, the Christian is faced with a problem. The dilemma is well expressed by David Hume. Concerning God, Hume writes, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”[5] So the atheologian thinks he has shown that Christianity has an internal contradiction. God and evil cannot coexist, yet Christian teaching says they do. Therefore, Christianity must be wrong about their view of God.

Certainly, if we Christians were to tweak our view of God, we could easily make this problem of evil go away. We can get rid of either omnipotence or omnibenevolence and escape the atheologian’s argument. If God is not omnibenevolent, then he will not always remove evil every chance he gets. But this solution fails. First, it contradicts clear biblical teaching. Second, a God who is not omnibenevolent is not worthy of worship. So, perhaps, we can get rid of omnipotence. This has been a more popular option among theologians. For example, Rabbi Harold Kushner says, “I would rather worship a God who is completely good but not totally powerful than a God who is completely powerful but not completely good.”[6] Some Christians could also be accused of making a similar move. The Open Theist movement takes a view of God as less powerful. Specifically, they say God could know neither in advance nor for certain whether some particular evil would occur. Evil is out of his control in a way it is not on other views of God’s foreknowledge.[7] This solution fails, too. If God lacks omnipotence, then God is not maximally great. If not maximally great, then he could not properly be called “God.” So the Christian must find a way to preserve both God’s omnibenevolence and his omnipotence in the face of the existence of evil. Fortunately, Alvin Plantinga has provided a way out.


Plantinga’s Free Will Defense

Plantinga’s defense begins with this central insight: If an agent is free in the libertarian sense, then not even God could determine what she would do.[8] That is, it is logically impossible for God to determine what an agent does or for the agent’s actions to be self-determined.[9] This is not a threat to God’s omnipotence because, as mentioned earlier, being omnipotent just means being able to whatever is logically possible. Given that this is the case, perhaps the reason that God and evil exist together has to do with human freedom. At least some humans chose to use their freedom for evil instead of good. Add to this thought about free will the idea that humans having free agency is an intrinsically valuable state of affairs. It is better for humans to be free and not automatons. In fact, human freedom has the kind of value that God would consider worth the risk of realizing even if it means some humans might do evil. Thus, this is at least possibly the source of evil in the world. This insight, by itself, does not get the Christian completely out of trouble with the atheologian’s argument. For one, the atheologian might argue that God could have created both free will and a world without evil. But this might not be possible. Perhaps, as Plantinga suggests, all humans (including all non-actual humans) suffer from trans-world depravity.[10] If a being is trans-world depraved, it means there is no possible world in which he does not commit at least one act of evil. Thus, possibly, there is no possible world in which free creatures exist and there is no evil. If this is even possibly right, then the Christian has escaped the logical problem of evil.

Guideposts for a Theodicy

One important aspect of Plantinga’s argument here is that it is a defense, not a theodicy. All he aims to do is show how, possibly, God and evil might co-exist.[11] Plantinga is not arguing that his view is true, only that it is possibly true. If what he said about free will and the kind of restrictions it places on the worlds God could actualize is even possibly true, this means that the Christian is not uttering a contradiction when she affirms that both God and evil exist. But what we are after here is not merely a defense, but a theodicy. We want a true explanation of why God allows evil. Despite the difference in my aim and Plantinga’s, his argument is still useful for a couple of reasons. First, he has turned back the atheologian’s first attempt at refuting the Christian position. The atheologian must now revise his argument and try again. Second, it is likely that something like Plantinga’s account is true. Or, at the very least, certain features of his account are likely true. In spelling out my theodicy, I intend to deal with both these points, but let us first look at the true (and not merely possibly true) features of Plantinga’s free will defense. These will provide the guideposts of my own theodicy.

The first true principle is this:

P1: God can justifiably allow some evil if it realizes some worthwhile good that would not otherwise be possible.

But should we think that P1 is true? To get at that, we first have to be specific about what P1 is committing us to. One idea that believing P1 commits us to is that there at least some goods that cannot be realized without allowing some evil. This is not a new idea. Virtues like courage, compassion, and empathy all require evil in order to be realized. How can one be courageous unless he has some menace to conquer? Or how can we be compassionate unless there is some wrong in need of righting?  Another plausible idea is that the presence of good free moral agents requires at least the possibility of evil. It may be that, given a world with more than a handful of people and with genuine opportunity to do evil, all worlds like this would have at least some evil in them. Still further, as Plantinga argues, there is the tremendous good of the Atonement of Jesus which requires human evil as a precondition.[12] I take all of these as sufficient for establishing that some goods require evil to be realized.

Another idea P1 commits us to is that God will allow evil if the good it realizes is worthwhile. In Plantinga’s free will defense, he assumes P1 when he says, “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.”[13] To this principle, someone might say that this makes God into a consequentialist of the worst kind. Anything God does is acceptable so long as it gets the right kind of results. Kirk MacGregor writes, “If God permits evils to bring about greater goods, then God operates according to the principle that the ends justify the means, despite that he explicitly denounces this principle as unethical in scripture and punishes humans who act in precisely the same way he presumably does.”[14] One way to respond to this objection is to point out that God’s status as creator gives him a wider range of morally good actions to choose from than his creatures. For example, it would be wrong for a mere human to decide another’s eternal fate. However, a human’s Creator would be within his rights to make such a weighty judgment. Similarly, there is nothing inconsistent in saying that God could act as a consequentialist while simultaneously commanding his creatures to be deontologists or virtue ethicists. The apparent contradiction regarding what counts as right action could be reconciled by an appeal to a deeper story about the nature of the good.[15] But another way to respond to MacGregor is to suggest that he has too narrow a view of the greater good.

MacGregor seems to think that a principle like P1 can only be understood in terms of cold, utilitarian calculation. The variables in the equation do not matter so long as in the end, the good outweighs the bad.[16] But there is another way to understand the “greater good.” For example, we could say that God follows a principle like this: It is always good to create worlds with free creatures. [17]  Now, it may be, as Plantinga suggests, also true that no world with free creatures will be devoid of evil. But the deontologist is not primarily concerned with the consequences of an action, but with whether the act is good to do regardless of the consequences. In this case, God is like the man who tells the truth about who is living in his attic when the Nazis knock on the door. Protecting those under his care is important, but the “greater good” is fulfilling one’s duty by telling the truth, despite the consequences. God creates a world of free creatures even though he knows they will commit evil acts because the greater good is to create a world with free creatures. The upshot is that the truth of P1 is compatible with a wide array of ethical accounts. The compatibility derives from the fact that even the supposedly consequence-neutral, normative ethical theorist, like the deontologist, is committed to pursuing the greater good of fulfilling one’s duty instead of settling for the lesser good of happy consequence.  The bottom line is that P1 is a likely true principle.

The second true principle is this:

P2: God cannot do the logically impossible.

Not much needs to be said in defense of P2. It is a widely accepted theological principle, even if there are a few Ockhamists who disagree. What is worth pointing out, though, is that there are real limitations on how God relates to evil. He cannot magically make evil go away and preserve the goods that necessitate it.

With these guideposts in mind, let us return to the atheologian’s argument. The logical problem has been turned aside, so the atheologian must regroup and try another tack. William Rowe presents just such an argument. His argument has two premises:

R1: There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

R2: An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.[18]

From this it follows that “there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.”[19]This argument is logically valid. And R2 is a true principle. Therefore, the Christian must reject R1. However, Rowe has some evidence to present in favor of R1. First is the case of Bambi. The second is the case of Sue. The Bambi case is a hypothetical scenario in which a fawn (Bambi) is slowly burned alive in a forest fire.[20] Even though this is only an imagined scene, we know that cases as bad as or worse than Bambi’s must occur frequently. In the case of Sue, Rowe narrates the true story of a little girl (Sue) who was brutally raped and killed by her mother’s boyfriend.[21] Both cases are meant to show examples evil that are completely senseless, especially cruel, and that God could have easily prevented without “thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.”

Having now laid out the guideposts for a theodicy and the evidential version of the problem of evil, I can now give an argument that shows why God must allow some evils in order for the human good to be possible. This next piece of the argument will be posted later this week.


[1] Thomas Aquinas said something similar: “everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” ST I Q 25 A 3. Available here:

[2] 1 John 4:8.

[3] Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, Rev. ed., Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). 184.

[4] J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). 26.


[6] Sarah Price Brown, “Q & a with Rabbi Harold S. Kushner,” Jewish Journal 2006.

[7] It is important to add here that many, if not most, Open Theists would not see their position as weakening of God’s omnipotence. God still has the power to do whatever is possible. But, on their view, it is not possible to know the truth of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom in advance. Thus, God still is able to do whatever is logically possible to do. Further, Open Theism is often not a response to the problem of evil, but to problems created by human libertarian freedom and certain perceived problems with God’s knowing some agent’s action in advance and that agent being genuinely free with respect to that action. There is a good discussion of these issues in Jerry L. Walls’ Hell: The Logic of Damnation, Library of Religious Philosophy (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992). 33-56.

[8] Alvin Plantinga, “God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom,” in Oxford Readings in Philosophy, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). 85.

[9] This is similar to the definition of libertarian free will offered by Bruce R. Reichenbach, Evil and a Good God (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982). 57. Reichenbach takes his definition from Anthony Flew.

[10] Plantinga. 101.

[11] If this were all Christians could say about the existence of God, that possibly he exists, Christian apologetics would be in a sad state. However, Plantinga’s free will defense provides a way out of the logical problem of evil so that Christians can now present a positive and cumulative case for the truth of Christianity.

[12] Alvin Plantinga, “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa’,” in Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil, ed. Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).

[13] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977). Kindle location 337.

[14] Kirk R. MacGregor, “The Existence and Irrelevance of Gratuitous Evil,” Philosophia Christi 14, no. 1 (2012). 169.

[15] My own view would be that God is not really committed to a particular normative ethical theory. I think something like natural law theory is true. Whatever God does is good because God always acts in the appropriate way given the nature of the object he acts upon and his relation to that object.

[16] MacGregor, “The Existence and Irrelevance of Gratuitous Evil.” See especially his discussion on pages 170-171.

[17] MacGregor takes a similar view in the end. He wants to defend the idea that there are gratuitous evils (he wants to show that Rowe’s second premise is false), but that these pose no threat to the rationality of the theist’s position. The basic thought is that, following Augustine, evil is a privation. Because everything God creates is less than God, “it is logically impossible for God to create a world without evil,” says MacGregor. In this case, evils, even especially heinous ones, are not part of some very tight plan according to which, if a person refrained from a gratuitously evil act, some very great good would be lost. So some acts of evil happen just because an agent willed it to happen and no other reason. In some ways, I am inclined to agree with MacGregor on this point. However, I think it is a mistake to call these evils “gratuitous.” God does have some greater goods in view when he allows them. At least one would be the greater good of respecting human freedom. MacGregor may be right when he says that certain evil acts are not essential to God’s plan, but they might still be essential to the integrity of human autonomy. This does not need to be spelled out in terms of consequentialism. Perhaps God follows the maxim: It is good to respect human freedom without considering the consequences. In that case, the greater good is following the maxim instead of intervening.

[18] William Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington, ID.: Indiana University Press, 1996). 2.

[19] Ibid. 2.

[20] Ibid. 4.

[21] Rowe, William L. 1988. “Evil and Theodicy,” Philosophical Topics 16: 119-32.