Alvin Plantinga provided a solution (or what he called a defense) to the problem of evil based on the value of freewill. Assuming one believes in God, the problem is how to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the fact that God is omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent on one hand, and the existence of evil in the world on the other hand. Plantinga's defense (called a defense because he purports to show that there is no problem, as opposed to trying to solve the problem) is the following:

  • People who are compelled to do only good do not have freewill.
  • Actions are not considered moral or good unless people have the freedom to behave otherwise.
  • For there to be good in the world, freewill is necessary.
  • In a world where freewill is possible, evil is possible.
  • Therefore a world where evil is possible is better than a world were evil is impossible.
  • Evil occurred because humans were free to commit it, and freewill was necessary for a better world, not because God willed it.

For a long time, this argument made sense to me. I have since started having doubts about it, for the following reason: Only so much evil can occur in the world before God becomes guilty by inaction. Consider the following example:

  • A kindergarten teacher believes that his students will be better off if they learn how to resolve their conflicts by themselves. Accordingly, he doesn't intervene when they fight over a toy or a piece of candy. If however a fight between two students escalates to the point where one of them severely injures the other student, and the teacher knowingly allowed it to happen based on his principle of non-intervention, the teacher will be held responsible for the students injury. A truly moral teacher would have intervened at some point and prevented the student from injuring his classmate, even if it was OK for him to let him be mean or even land a few punches on the victim. There's point at which the teacher becomes just as guilty as the perpetrating kid.

Other similar scenarios are valid as well: A corporate executive is held accountable for turning a blind eye towards corruption, even if they didn't partake in it themselves. Law enforcement officials would be held accountable for failing to prevent a crime they knew about in advance, etc....

By this same ethical logic, isn't here a point at which the evil and violence committed against innocents (the holocaust, the massacre of the children in Syria, the Armenian genocide, Sandy hook) become so disgusting and irreversible that God should be held responsible for their occurrence? Doesn't he become guilty because of his inaction, just as the kindergarten teacher does? And doesn't this contradict the notion of divine omnibenevolence?


4 Answers 4


The end point of Plantinga's defense is that without evil, there is no good. And by extension of his argument, without free will, there are no real relationships and no real love.

Given that, the logic of applying ethical responsibility/conduct to someone in a position of authority doesn't really apply here, or at least it applies only in an all-or-nothing way - either take the good with the evil, or remove both.

Therefore, if there is a tipping point, an "amount of evil" that is too much and something must be done about it, that's when you must flip the switch and get rid of both free will and any meaningful definition of "good", "relationship", and "love" (based on Plantinga's defense).

How can we ever hope to make such an evaluation? Can we even really comprehend what a reality like that would be like - living like dogs to a master, or like robots to a factory owner, rather than free moral agents?

Note that if we are to make that evaluation (and I am convinced we are not properly equipped to do so), we have no idea what other factors are involved. For example, is God mitigating evil already so that it is not as bad as it might have been?

Also, this doesn't take into the equation any metaphysical considerations about individual accounting for deeds done in this life, heaven/hell or any other considerations of this life compared to the afterlife. If you are going to "weigh the evil" and define an amount that is "too much", it really needs to be an equation which weighs all factors, in which case we need more information to solve for "x".


The "problem of evil" argument is intended to be a logical proof against God's existence. Plantinga's defense shows that "the problem of evil" does not logically preclude God's existence.

It seems you're expecting Plantinga's argument to do something it wasn't intended to, namely, explain God's reasons for allowing evil. That's a very different question.

  • Plantinga's defense does give a possible reason for permitting evil - because creating creatures with free wills requires it. The defense specifically states that creating creatures with free will is a "greater good" than restricting evil. It doesn't explain how allowing free will is a greater good, though - is that what you meant?
    – LightCC
    Mar 19, 2017 at 4:41
  • He may provide reasons, but he could just as well have left them out without weakening the argument.
    – user18800
    Mar 25, 2017 at 22:11

i don't see Plantinga's argument the same way as LightCC does. i believe that Plantinga is a Christian apologist. most Christians believe in the concept of Heaven where there is no evil and there is good.

Plantinga is instead saying, if someone's will is free then their will is truly free, no strings attached.

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.

this part i resonate with, i am less certain about the premise:

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.

it probably is to God, which may be the motivation of God to create human beings with free will. but i don't believe it is necessary for us to know or to presume to know exactly the mind of God to have a freewill response to the Problem of Evil.

a question for Alex:

Only so much evil can occur in the world before God becomes guilty by inaction.

how much evil would "so much" be? where is the line?

when i have arguments/discussions with apologists of atheism (not presuming any position from Alex) there are two issues that they consider slam-dunks that i consider less than that. one, of course, is the Problem of Evil (the other is the God of the Gaps thingie which we can leave to a different discussion about purpose and teleology).

about the Problem of Evil, the apologists of atheism are so convinced that they know the mind of God, if God existed. and then because their concept of the mind of God, that they believe they understand, is so non-sensible in human terms, that it must mean that God can't exist. i consider that position flawed. it doesn't mean that i understand the mind of God either, so much that i can dismiss the Problem of Evil. i cannot. but i don't presume that the Problem of Evil authoritatively concludes that God cannot be all of Good, All-powerful, All-knowing, and Existing. yet i acknowledge the reality of deep Evil in this world, and i assume if there are other planets in the Universe somewhere with conscious, sentient, and sapient life, that those beings will likely have virtually the same problem.

BTW, Plantinga has a great response to Dawkins called The Dawkins Confusion.

  • I do not understand your initial statement - while Christians certainly believe in a Heaven in which good exists, and evil does not, they also believe in a natural world that has both, and a spiritual place called hell. You seem to be focusing on just Heaven in isolation. In addition, regardless of Plantinga being a Christian apologist, his defense is philosophical in nature and applies more broadly. Regardless - I appreciate the reference to The Dawkins Confusion
    – LightCC
    Apr 11, 2016 at 3:45
  • so @LightCC, specifically what is the problem? just because there is both evil and good in this material universe with conscious, sentient, and sapient life, does not mean that good cannot exist without evil also existing. nothing stops God from creating a reality with only good. some people believe that is precisely what God created, yet somehow, given the free will of these conscious, sentient, and sapient beings, sin and evil has emerged. we call that the "fallen creation". we don't have an answer how. that is our problem with the Problem of Evil. Apr 11, 2016 at 5:25
  • yeah, what @BenPiper said (below). Apr 11, 2016 at 5:27
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    Alright, I get what you are saying.
    – LightCC
    Apr 15, 2016 at 2:08

To answer your question with another question, why conflate Good and Evil with Free Will? Any action, be it performed by human, animal or even chemical can be labelled as good or evil (positive and negative, if you will) and therefore correlating it with the concept of free will muddies the waters.

Regarding the concept of God as an Omni- entity, it would follow that God is also malevolent as well as benevolent, that is positive and negative, for without one there cannot be the other, by definition.

Unless Platinga goes on to expand on the proposition that free will is necessary for goodness or positivity it becomes as valid as in order for eggs to exist, there must be stones.

Another flaw in his argument is that free will changes from being necessary to possible, a leap with no logic to it, at least that I can fathom.

As it stands, moral responsibility remains a societal standard, that can vary among cultures rather than a global absolute, though it could be argued that the resultant feelings and reactions in mind to certain actions could be universal, in my belief these are conditioned and can be de-conditioned accordingly to create a perfect society, once this has been defined by all concerned - a mammoth task.

  • "Unless Platinga goes on to expand on the proposition that free will is necessary for goodness or positivity" - that's exactly what he is doing. I might not have illustrated his point very well, check the sources I've linked to. Jan 4, 2016 at 17:24
  • You're right, that is the premise of the argument, must have been tired when I wrote that segment of my answer ;) Jan 5, 2016 at 12:29
  • This answer doesn't demonstrate any familiarity with Plantinga's argument or with basic concepts in the philosophy of religion.
    – virmaior
    Jan 6, 2016 at 1:37
  • Care to explain? Jan 6, 2016 at 17:11

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