Alvin Plantinga on Theodicy

In Alvin Plantinga’s book, God, Freedom and Evil, Plantinga uses rigorous methods unique to the western analytic philosophical tradition to discuss the relation between the Christian God and the existence of evil. In this way, Plantinga presents topics in Theodicy, a term first coined by the 17th century thinker Gottfried Leibniz. A theodicy is an attempt to explain “the problem of evil” in a theistic context. The dilemma generally states that the existence of suffering or evil in the world is contradictory or inconsistent with the existence of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God. If God is truly omnibenevolent and omnipotent, as the argument goes, then he would not allow evil and suffering. Since Christianity simultaneously affirms these divine attributes and the existence of evil, Christianity is internally incoherent and ought to be abandoned. Plantinga argues that these propositions are perfectly consistent with one another, appealing to what he calls “a Free Will Defense”, which I shall later critique.

Plantinga first quotes well-known figures, like the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, to give us a sense of the many forms of suffering present in the world:

“Remorse, shame, anguish, rage, disappointment, anxiety, fear, dejection, despair – who has ever passed through life without cruel inroads from these tormentors? How many have scarcely ever felt any better sensations?…All the goods of life united would not make a very happy man, but all the ills united would make a wretch indeed” (8).

All humans experience some form of suffering. The worst off experience disease, pain, poverty and so on. Even the wealthiest and most comfortable of people experience boredom. How then could a good God exist?

Although human suffering is awful, the existence of suffering in the world does not explicitly contradict the existence of God. As Plantinga indicates, unless there is a formal argument able to demonstrate their mutual relevance, the so-called “problem of evil” poses no problem to belief in God. It would be like asserting backpacks exist and therefore honey does not exist. What do backpacks have to do with honey? Likewise, what does evil or suffering have to do with God’s existence? What we need is a formal argument able to specifically indicate how these two propositions contradict one another. Plantinga provides us with such an argument based upon comments made by the 20th century Australian philosopher John Mackie.

After distinguishing between implicit contradictions and explicit contradictions, as well as logical truths and a posteriori truths (Kant’s analytic-synthetic distinction), Plantinga addresses Mackie’s argument. Mackie asserts:

“…good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.” (16)

Before Plantinga translates Mackie’s comments into a formal argument, Plantinga rightly points out the vagueness of Mackie’s assertions. For instance, is it really correct that “there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do”? Can an omnipotent being make contradictions true? To the contrary, scripture says God cannot lie or contradict himself (2 Timothy 2:13, Titus 1:2), so there are limits to what God can do. Also, is it necessarily true that “a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can”? Or is Mackie just asserting erroneous premises? Why couldn’t God eventually eliminate all evil rather than be required to eliminate evil immediately? Plantinga raises objections and counter examples like these against Mackie’s argument. These help demonstrate the premises Mackie asserts are not as self-evident as they may first appear.

In an attempt to make Mackie’s formal argument against the existence of God the most plausible, Plantinga reformulates Mackie’s premises into the following form:

  1. God is omnipotent
  2. God is wholly good
  3. God is omniscient
  4. Evil exists
  5. And omnipotent and omniscient good being eliminates every evil that it can properly eliminate
  6. There are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent being can do (21)

In order to present the argument as it is now, Plantinga had to help Mackie clarify his own argument. Plantinga added proposition 3, while also reformulating propositions 5 and 6 to make them more relevant. Because Mackie’s original set of claims was wholly insufficient to provide any definitive conclusions, it is no mystery Plantinga states:

“One wonders…why the many atheologians who confidently assert that this set [of propositions] is contradictory make no attempt whatever to show that it is. For the most part they are content just to assert that there is a contradiction here.” (23)

Many, like Mackie, love to say that evil and suffering contradict God’s existence, but fail to explicitly indicate where the contradiction lies. Perhaps the problem of evil is so popular that many philosophers and theologians are content to merely assume there is a contradiction, or at least an apparent one. Plantinga brilliantly challenges this mindset. So far, Plantinga succeeds in elucidating this common failure by providing specific counter-examples, as well as providing the reader with a brief explanation of the logical concepts involved in these types of arguments.

However, it is at this point in the book where I have serious disagreements with Plantinga. The solution he offers to the problem of evil is what he calls “a Free Will Defense” which he juxtaposes with “a Free Will Theodicy” (28). Free Will Theodicy attempts to explain what God’s reason really is for allowing evil in the world, while Plantinga’s Free Will Defense is only what God’s reason might possibly be for allowing evil in the world. By giving a Free Will Defense, Plantinga only aims to prove that the set of propositions listed above are not necessarily contradictory to God’s existence.

Although I reject free will with the utmost severity, I would find value in the Free Will Defense if we could use it for different purposes. Contrary to Free Will Theodicy, Free Will Defense claims to be a hypothetical postulate rather than an actual solution. Because of the hypothetical nature of its claims, Plantinga’s Free Will Defense is a fascinating launch pad from which to discuss possible worlds, hypothetical human depravity and other philosophically relevant modal concepts. This Free Will Defense, though I disagree with Plantinga’s approach, helps to demonstrate that there is no necessary contradiction between human suffering and the existence of God. However, I will soon argue that the Christian solution to the problem of evil is so much less complicated and does not rely upon false postulates like human free will.

Before I attempt to refute Plantinga’s general approach, I want to respond to some of the initial claims he uses to support it. Not only is his entire approach misguided, but it is based upon a variety of false smaller premises. Plantinga describes his Free Will Defense in the following way:

“What is relevant to the Free Will Defense is the idea of being free with respect to an action. If a person is free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain from performing it; no antecedent conditions and/or causal laws determine that he will per­form the action, or that he won’t.” (29)

This account of free will is fair. An individual is not causally determined by antecedent conditions” or external forces that would render their choice certain. This does not state we are left unaffected by circumstances, like being sleepy or hungry, but that we have the real possibility of choosing differently from how we actually chose in any given situation. This definition aligns with common intuitions about what free will is.

In addition to defining free will, Plantinga tells us what he means by being “significantly free” and “moral significance”:

“an action is morally significant for a given person, if it would be wrong for him to perform the action but right to refrain or vice versa…a person is significantly free, on a given occasion, if he is then free with respect to a morally significant action” (30).

Both definitions, in my estimation, are fair and plausible. I am perfectly happy to accept Plantinga’s stipulative definitions of “morally significant” and “significantly free” in this context. He has not yet asserted anything that is contrary to my theological paradigm because he is only here defining terms.

Though I have no problem with these definitions, what Plantinga next asserts is a huge leap in reasoning which I oppose vigorously.

“A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, an else being equal, than a world contain­ing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so…The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.” (30)

First I would like to examine some of the claims Plantinga makes in this paragraph and then I will critique his general approach. These are a few of the premises in this paragraph that are completely baseless:

  1. A world with significantly free creatures is more valuable than otherwise.
  2. Creaturely free will does not contradict God’s omnipotence.
  3. A world with creatures that commit both moral good and evil is more valuable than a world without moral good or evil.

1. This assertion is the most egregious. To the contrary, I hold that a world with no significantly free creatures is more valuable than otherwise. I accept Plantinga’s definition of significantly free, but an individual being significantly free is not itself significant or valuable. Plantinga inserts this assumption into his reasoning most likely because he believes freedom is necessary for moral good, which I argue is false in response to number 3. There is no inherent value in freedom and it has not necessary relation to moral goodness.

2. Asserting that God would still be omnipotent even if he created significantly free creatures is contradictory on its face. This would involve God willing that which is contrary to his will or opposing that which he wills. Under Plantinga’s formulation, even if God knows “Billy” will commit sin contrary to God’s will, God wills “Billy” to commit the sin anyway, because he wants Billy to be free. Hence, God is “omnipotent” enough to create creatures able to oppose his omnipotence. God wills for creatures to be free so that they can oppose his will. This is as nonsensical as saying God is so powerful that he can prevent himself from being powerful. This is not real omnipotence but a fundamental contradiction. (Calvinism escapes this contradiction by demonstrating that there is two senses God “wills”: (1) God’s will of command and (2) God’s will of decree. Therefore, God may freely decree that which is contrary to his commands because he wills these in two different senses. But as for the free will position, God really really wants people to obey his commands, but fails to accomplish this. In fact, God’s priorities are so confused that he would rather his creatures possess the freedom to sin and experience eternal Hell, contrary to his will, than to determine the actions of any of his creatures.)

3. The capacity for sin is not a prerequisite for moral goodness. It may be true that for an individual to be significantly free they must be capable of both moral good and evil, but not for an individual to be capable of moral goodness in general. To the contrary, God could have determined all people’s actions in such a way that they only committed moral goodness. Clearly they would not longer be significantly free, but Plantinga presents no argument, philosophical or otherwise, demonstrating why freedom is a necessary prerequisite for moral goodness as such. Freedom is necessary to freely perform morally good actions, but not all morally good actions must be free. Take God for example. God only commits morally good actions while it is also impossible for him to commit evil. There is no reason why God could not have created creatures only capable of moral good just as he is only capable of moral good. It may be true that certain good states of affairs would require evil in order for them to obtain, but it is not true that all good states of affairs require evil or the possibility of evil.

These comments oppose what Plantinga says next:

“The heart of the Free Will Defense is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good (or as much moral good as this world contains) without creating one that also contained moral evil. And if so, then it is possible that God has a good reason for creating a world containing evil.” (31)

Notice how Plantinga qualifies his statement by saying “or as much moral good as this world contains”. He assumes that God is forced to create a world in which there is the most good, and that this world we inhabit happens to be the one containing the most good. I would like to point out that believing one of God’s goals was to create a world containing the most possible good is completely unwarranted (pun intended, Plantinga wrote two books titled Warrant and Proper Function and Warranted Christian Belief). He presents no argument  in favor of this; he merely assumes it. But even if he can demonstrate one of God’s goals in creating the universe was to make one containing the most good, it is ridiculous to say that this world is that world. As I already pointed out above, not all moral good requires the existence of a moral evil accompanying it; only significantly free good moral actions require the simultaneous possibility of moral evil.

Furthermore, it is vague what Plantinga means by “as much moral good”. If there were a million people who never sinned throughout history, as opposed to our world where billions of billions of people commit both moral good and evil, it seems cheap to say that our world containing billions of people contains more moral good. Sure there may be quantitatively more morally good actions in the latter case, but there is also innumerably more evil actions in our world than the former. The “atheologians” Plantinga refers to would probably argue that a world with no evil is of greater importance than a world containing the most moral good.

What justifies Plantinga’s preference over the other, and where does scripture state any of this? The fact is, is that God could have created a world without the possibility of any evil while simultaneously determining human actions in such a way that they only performed morally good actions. If humans only performed morally good actions, the Fall would never have taken place and there would be no death nor suffering. Why then did God create the world knowing suffering would take place? Plantinga resorts to saying that God has a good reason for allowing evil because it somehow maximizes the amount of good in the world. This answer is not satisfactory. 

This is why Plantinga’s approach to this issue is problematic: not only because the answer is unsatisfactory, not only because Plantinga has to posit unwarranted and undemonstrated assumptions into the content of his argument, but because Plantinga assumes along with the atheologian that there is a problem that needs to be solved in the first place. Plantinga admits that there is some problem of evil and then sets out to solve it by positing an absurd doctrine.

The problem of evil is first and foremost a pseudo-theological problem. Christians who want to solve the problem ignore the fact that they are attempting to respond to an argument whose very premises are antithetical to the Christian faith. It should not be so profound to theologians or philosophers like Plantinga that atheistic premises entail atheistic conclusions. What ought to happen is for the Christian to reject the atheistic premises to begin with, rather than to accept the premises and grope for a different conclusion.

However, the atheists themselves would object to my comments and say that they are not formulating atheistic premises, but drawing upon Christian doctrines themselves to demonstrate the internal incoherence of Christianity. If God is loving, and is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, good, omniscient and the rest – assuming a valid argument can even be formulated – all of this contradicts the existence of moral evil and suffering. There is just no way around it, they may say. But, what they do not tell you is that they apply non Christian definitions to the Christian terminology used in the argument. Hence, “good” means “cannot allow evil”, “God is loving” means “God cannot allow evil” and “omnibenevolent” means “cannot allow evil”. Scripture itself never defines these terms in the manner atheists want them to be defined.

If we let scripture define these terms, then, by definition, these words cannot possess these definitions. Atheists and their Christian counterparts believe themselves to be participating in a profound discussion of vast philosophical and theological significance, when in reality both parties are guilty of mere equivocation and careless application of definitions.

In reality, God not only allows evil, he causes all evil. Not only that, God loves only his elect. Also, God intended evil to come into the world in order to redeem the elect and punish the reprobate. God is good and loving for doing so. This is because scripture defines these words in a manner that is internally consistent, but inconsistent with the meanings applied to them by atheists and confused Christian theologians. What God does is just and good by definition, so if God wants to create a vessel of wrath, fit it for destruction and then destroys it, he does so without ceasing to be good. If God causes evil, he does not himself commit evil, and does not cease to be good.

Once Christians realize their atheist opponents use atheistic problem-of-evil premises to make atheistis conclusions, all the Christian has do to is reject their premises. Christianity disagrees with these definitions and premises to begin with, so there is no use arguing against the conclusion when the premises leading up to the conclusion is what is at fault.

Plantinga, in response to assertions against God’s existence, began wonderfully. He demonstrated that atheologians often do not even understand their own argument and cannot usually indicate explicitly where the contradiction lies. But, instead of continuing this strain of thought, Plantinga gives this nonsense argument the benefit of the doubt and proceeds to offer a theory to solve the issue which is likewise unchristian – the doctrine of free will.

Free will is the complete inversion of the Christian worldview. It makes God a creature and turns the creature into the Creator. It nullifies the grace of God in salvation and makes redemption dependent upon human initiative. Free will morphs utterly depraved wretches into morally neutral people generally capable of righteous actions. It turns the cross of Christ into a potential atonement rather than an actual payment for sin. Free will turns the Lord Jesus Christ into an effeminate beggar desperate for anyone to love him, as opposed to a powerful Savior who sacrifices himself for those whom the Father has given him. Free will turns Jesus into an adulterer who sacrifices himself indiscriminately for those who will spend an eternity in Hell rather than sacrifice himself for his Bride alone. Free will is the single most evil doctrine in the history of the Christian Church. Its implications are so wide-ranging and destructive that one cannot help but question the mental wellbeing of such a person. Such a person is either ignorant of the issues or on the verge of insanity.

Not all philosophers should comment on theological issues; Alvin Plantinga is one of them. Free will, and thus Plantinga’s entire Free Will Defense crumbles in response to a single sentence:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

God works in us to will.

This means God controls the wills of his people.

A thousand other passages can be cited which speak of God hardening hearts of wicked men, stirring up people’s spirits, of predestination, of working all things according to his own will, of controlling the outcome of battles, of manipulating the hearts of kings, of God accomplishing all that he wills to come to pass…

But still, philosophers want to talk about free will. Plantinga wrote a 100+ page book to solve a pseudo-problem with a hypothesis explicitly contradicted by scripture. This is a man who is well-respected and well-known in the philosophical community, who has contributed significantly to our understanding of modal concepts and who knows what else; yet, he cannot understand one of the most fundamental truths of Christian theology.

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2 thoughts on “Alvin Plantinga on Theodicy

  1. I’ve interacted with atheists who try to use this argument. But I’ve found that they’re not really interested in solid, Biblical answers; they’re more interested in creating a straw man they can knock down, or to find ways to justify themselves in their own eyes.

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