The Problem of Evil is to understand how God can allow evil in the world if He is omni-benevolent (all-good), as someone who is all-good would not knowingly allow evil to occur where they could prevent it. However, if God allows man free will (enough to allow man the ability to choose evil himself), does this count as a resolution or at least some progress towards the problem of evil?

For example, had men no free will, then they would be automatons or robots, essentially not much different to a brick that must react to a given situation in a completely specific and determined way.

  • Perhaps the "play" by Raymond Smullyan, "Is God a Taoist?", would contribute to answering your question.
    – prash
    Commented Aug 11, 2013 at 18:58
  • Maaaan you don't know personality of GOD, why you put on him your local human constrain??? How can evil be there how can it be? If you see it, than it CAN be. Learn how.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 13:10
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    There is a lot of work out there on this; have you read any works prior to posting this that you can list?
    – labreuer
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 17:39
  • @labreuer:Only brief popular accounts, and that sometime ago - do you have any suggestions? Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 12:28
  • To give the short answer (since most don't like my long answer): Yes - as long as a "greater good" occurs because of free will than the resulting evil that men commit because they have free will. My hypothesis is that the "greater good" is the ability to love and have true relationships (including with God). See Alvin Plantinga's Free Will defense to the Problem of Evil (link in my answer...)
    – LightCC
    Commented Mar 17, 2017 at 3:37

6 Answers 6


I would say that Alvin Plantinga's free will defense is perhaps the most philosophically rigorous defense that many agree defends the logical possibility of a good God which has created a world with evil. Please see the link for arguments pro/con about his defense.

Let's be clear about the argument - it's not just that God always acts good (or is all-good/omnibenevolent), it is also that God is all-powerful and all-omniscient, but evil still exists - how can a good God create/allow moral evil?

Platinga's argument is a logical attack on the core ability of an all-powerful being to logically create a world in which a true moral actor can always act good. However, I think that leaves the argument rather dry and makes it easy to miss the deeper logic of it.

There Must Be A Greater Good

The core of the defense must be that there is a "greater good" in allowing free moral choice and thus permitting - and even creating - evil in order to preserve free moral choice, because that is the morally right thing for God to do. It is morally right for God to give humans free will, even though a side result of giving free will is that they are able to commit evil.

Good must be defined as "whatever God wills", because God is defined in the "Problem of Evil" argument as all-good. Therefore evil cannot be committed by God - again, he has been defined in the argument to only do good. Evil must be defined as being committed only when a free moral actor other than God chooses to do something other than what God wills. Therefore it is never God desiring or willing evil, but only permitting the evil that other moral actors commit, because - and this is the key - to not permit a free moral actor from committing evil would be to override free will, and free will must therefore be a greater moral good than permitting evil.

I do believe this answers the problem of evil, per your question.

Why Is Free Will a Greater Good?

Some will ask why allowing free moral will is a "greater good" which overcomes the fact that evil must be allowed in this world. I believe this can be answered as follows:

1) God is love, he made us to be in relationship with him and with each other, to love and be loved. This is evident throughout the entire metanarrative of the Bible from a Christian perspective. For example, Jesus said, paraphrased: "Love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself, these commands sum up all of the law". The ability to love is therefore the essence of all good moral conduct.

2) Given #1, the argument is that the greater good for allowing evil is to allow love. Therefore, an assumption made is that free will is required in order to allow love. If one cannot choose to love, one cannot love. The definition of love must require free choice to love - if one is compelled to love another being it cannot properly be called love. A world without free will is therefore a world without the greatest moral choice - love.

3) Given #1 and #2, it follows that for God to create a world where the highest moral good is possible, he must create a world with love. To create a world with love, he must create free moral actors. Free moral actors must be allowed to choose either good or evil by definition. Therefore, evil must be allowed in order to allow free will and thereby allow the greater good of love to exist.

A good God therefore must create a world in which free moral actors other than God himself are allowed to commit evil moral acts, because that is the only way that the greater moral act of love can also exist.

Put another way - to create a world without evil is to create a world without love.

Note: Free moral will in this defense is Libertarian Free Will, not Compatibilist Free Will

Edit to add comment regarding last 2 paragraphs:

1) A world without Hitler would thus be a world in which no human is able to love each other or have a relationship with God, greater than perhaps a dog might have with a man. Is a world of "not-evil" robots better than a messy, but meaningful world of real humans with real relationships and choices? I say no, but your mileage my vary!

2) It is wrong to say heaven is the best possible world - your view here is too narrow - you must include all of creation/the universe/the multiverse in order to make this argument. Thus a universe including both existing earth and heaven, future earth and heaven (if different than current), and also hell, must be considered. If you boil the defense above down to allowing relationship with God and choosing either for his way or against it, then heaven just ends up being the place where you continue that relationship, and hell is the place where you go to continue not having a relationship with God, so they are sort of just an extension of your choices in that regard here on earth and morally the spiritual world is not then much different in analysis from the material world.

  • For a long time I found Plantinga's argument convincing. I have since then changed my mind. First of all it doesn't explain suffering due to natural (non-human) causes, second there is a point at which God becomes guilty by inaction, the way a parent is guilty of letting his child eat poison, even if they didn't eat the poison themselves. Did we really need the holocaust or ISIS for us to also enjoy the benefits of love and altruism ? - the traditional religious narrative that in the long run good triumphs over evil doesn't seem to hold in the real world, pure evil just goes on and on and on. Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 0:10
  • - continued: But my biggest beef with Plantinga's argument is that even if freewill is a greater good, in the end God still ends up being very cruel. Assuming he's omniscient, why would he create people he knows will turn evil, only to later punish them. Isn't he ultimately responsible for their actions by the very fact that he knowingly created them? If I make a cake, knowing full well that it was going to taste bad before I even started cooking, then I am fully responsible for the way it tasted. I can't claim it was an accident or it wasn't my fault. Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 0:15
  • The only way Plantinga's argument would work is if everyone went to heaven regardless of their deeds, but that kind of defeats the whole purpose of the monotheistic religions. Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 0:16
  • @AlexanderSKing Note that I indicated Plantinga's defense is merely a logically possible solution to the problem of evil/suffering. If I have the terminology right, it is not a sufficient conclusion that must be accepted, so I do understand your objections - while I disagree with them. But this is truly a discussion question rather than Q&A - if you wish to continue discussion, that is. I have a problem with some of your definitions - heaven especially. It's not the end-goal...
    – LightCC
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 1:57
  • Opened a chat room here: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/info/32978/…
    – LightCC
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 2:02

Evil only exists as a view point of a specific perceiver. It has no objective reality. For example: if a scientist developed a virus that when released killed 90% of humans, we would call that evil. However, from the view of other mammals this would be a good as it would keep many from extinction.

  • This is good but it doesn't answer the question. Seems you have too little rep to comment so here's +1 to get you a bit closer.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 9:15
  • Good point. BUT is does have objective reality.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 13:58
  • 1
    Can you find someone thinking that killing a baby the minute after he has born is not evil? Would you say that person is sane?
    – Paolo
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 15:36

An essentially omnipotent god can set the payoff matrices of interactions. By allowing strong negative terms, God is allowing evil. The problem is in creating a universe where evil is so easy (and desirable!) to do, not in allowing free will.

(For example, why is it even remotely possible for one person to kill another?!)

This therefore does not solve the problem of evil at all.

  • 1
    Also, don't forget natural evil! Free will is not a very good theodicy.
    – Dennis
    Commented Aug 11, 2013 at 22:07
  • 1
    Additionally, there are plenty of things God has decided that I am NOT free to do: Fly by flapping my wings, change color at will, bend my limps against my joints etc., so he has specifically decided that "free will" means I am free to be evil, instead of free to fly. Thanks, God.
    – shieldfoss
    Commented Aug 12, 2013 at 9:19
  • Problem of evil is much simpler. Terrifying problem of evil is that EVERY creature attempting to solve problem of evil is also EVIL on the inside. Thus problem of EVIL is NOT the problem of gods, its the problem of US. Gods laugh.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 13:51
  • You are right that evil is a POSSIBILITY, not action.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 13:52
  • @medivh The free will discussed here is moral free will, not the ability to physically do anything you can dream up.
    – LightCC
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 9:32

Yes to "some progress", with a free will defense like Alvin Plantinga's or Alexander Pruss'. These only allege to rebut the logical problem of evil, leaving the evidential one wide open. Note that a free will defense is weaker than a theodicy.

One way to get more progress is to talk about other things a benevolent creator would want, like for his/hers/its creation to form rational beliefs and be able to understand all things, including moral things. Then again, such a creator hopefully doesn't need e.g. Unit 731, which did provide knowledge that we otherwise wouldn't have. Is moral knowledge worth the cost? One can probably construct possible worlds where the answer is 'yes' and some where it is 'no'.


If free will necessarily leads to evil, and God desires good, then you have to find a way to make free will and its potential for evil a method for improved benevolence. One way is to show that an apparent good act of an agent is made good by the fact that the agent chose to do it. In other words, saving someone's life when you had the option not to, makes that act a good one. On these grounds, good cannot exist without the choice to do evil, and if you take away the ability to do evil, then you cannot describe that which is left as good.

Fair enough, but how to treat the evil that comes along for the ride? Aquinas came to the conclusion that evil does not really exist in the same way as good, so the good of a free agent is not negated by the evil of that agent.

More modern treatments seem to focus on the concept of the Best Possible World (BPW), where good/evil seems to have some kind score (like a football match). If there was no free will, the score would be 0-0, because no acts are good or evil. With free will, the score is x-y (let's say x for good, y for evil). Presumably, there exists some benevolence function of (x,y) and the BPW is the world where this function is maximized for good. Plantinga is probably the foremost authority on this view (I suspect he will probably reject my analogy though).

A successful refutation of the Problem of Evil on these grounds requires of our world to be the BPW. If our world is not the BPW, then God is somehow allowing more evil than is strictly necessary, which contradicts the property of omni-benevolence.

Is it the case that our world is the BPW? We can't prove that this is not be the BPW, so the defence on these grounds is logically sound. But considering our world the BPW has a number of interesting consequences. Firstly, if a world with Hitler and suicide bombers is the best God can do, that does provide some insights into the limitations of God's supposed omnipotence. Secondly, some religions believe in the concept of heaven, which they usually define as the BPW. If heaven exists, then that is the BPW, not this world, so we seem to have a contradiction here that needs explaining.

  • If there 'no free will' = score 0-0, then why does 'yes free will' necessarily lead to score of x-y (good-evil, respectively), with x>y? Why is it not possible for evil to overcome good? It seems it does at some points in human history (holocaust? crusades?), so if you agree with that then you agree it changes and therefore remains possible that evil could overcome good completely. I think the BPW is not a world in which evil could possibly consume all at the whim of fate...
    – stoicfury
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 8:59
  • Also: Causal determinism aside, from what basis can you say that a good act done by a free agent is better than one by a non-free one? This is a common thread of reasoning I see around this topic but no one really addresses this; they just assume it to be true. Lastly, if God is omnipotent and can see the future, he would know what action you will take at any moment. How can you say you have freedom of action in this case, when there is only one future before you? Complete free will requires no agent (God or otherwise) being able to calculate one's future; otherwise it is determined.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 9:02
  • x > y in order to be consistent with God's omni-benevolence, omnipotence and omniscience. If our world is not the BPW, then either God is not omni-benevolent, omnipotent or omniscient. From a religious point of view, it is important that those 3 properties be preserved.
    – firtydank
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 9:02
  • @stoicfury: On the second comment, I can't justify it formally, but it seems simply common sense. If I help an old lady cross the street out of my own free will, that is considered a good deed. If I help the lady because someone is holding a gun to my head (or because I was brainwashed to do so), then we commonly think of it as less of a good deed and more of a forced deed.
    – firtydank
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 9:06
  • P.S. I may like to add here that I do not buy any of this - I'm simply putting forward the arguments as I understand them. I am a devoted scientific realist myself - the concepts of free will and good/evil are simply not definable in my opinion.
    – firtydank
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 9:08

Free will can only be called such if it allowed you to choose to do things contrary to what God wants. It's very definition allows for evil to come into the world.

As for the why: my best guess is that God wants man to be able to resist the temptation and freely choose not to do evil. That is a much greater thing than merely being unable to do evil because God controls you.

  • Why is it a greater thing to freely resist temptation as opposed to resisting it with help? And who resists it freely? Everyone has help from something... friends, family, their believe in God, etc. No one is totally free — that is, no one is completely uninfluenced by those around around. Can you define what it means to be free?
    – stoicfury
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 9:13

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