Friday, July 24, 2015

Freedom to victimize?

I remember once pointing out in a debate with some Arminians that there was nothing that required God to allow someone to commit evil on another person, even under the auspices of the necessity of free will. God could always make a murderer’s bullet disappear mid-flight. He didn’t have to allow the killer to succeed.

I tried to find the conversation, but was unable to locate it given how frequently those subjects are talked about over here. But as I recall, the person I was debating with responded along the lines that if God stopped us every time there would be a victim to our sin, then we wouldn’t really be “free” because we’d never face the consequences of our evil, and we’d have to be free in order to have genuine love toward God.

Whether this summary of that argument is completely accurate or not, similar arguments have been put forth by other Arminians and non-Calvinists. That is, that somehow it is necessary for God to allow bad things to happen if He wants us to have freedom to choose Him. For instance, this blog post says:
On this proposal, God values free will--and the quality of the choices that flow from it (e.g., real love)--and thus tolerates the bad choices that can also result from it (i.e., sin and the suffering it causes).

He couldn't wipe out the latter without wiping out the former as well.

He thus tolerates evil for the sake of allowing good to be freely chosen.
For an even more “respectable” source, C.S. Lewis in The Case for Christianity wrote:
If a thing is free to be good it's also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.
Careful readers will see that this does not answer the problem I put forth. Suppose for the sake of argument that all of what Lewis and the other Arminians argue is true: God needs to allow the possibility of evil to exist in order for there to be “genuine” love, as defined by Arminians. This still does not mean that God is required to allow victims of sin to be victimized. Sin occurs the moment someone intends to engage in sin. This is why Christ said, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28, ESV). God does not need to actually allow the adultery to occur in order to permit men the option to be good or evil. If they intend evil, they have already made their choice.

This was all brought back to mind as last night I re-read the passage in Exodus 16, when God gave manna to His people. If you recall, God gave a command regarding manna: they were to only gather a single day’s use at a time, except for the sixth day (when they were to gather double the amount, since they would not be permitted to gather any manna on the Sabbath). Sure enough, people being who they are, we read: “On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none” (Exodus 16:27, ESV). And what was God’s response? “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?’” (Exodus 16:28, ESV).

Now the “you” in the passage refers to those who went out to gather manna, not Moses (God was speaking to Moses as the representative of Israel). But note what we have here.

1) It is unlawful for the Hebrews to gather manna on the Sabbath.
2) God does not give any manna on the Sabbath.
3) Some people still went looking for manna.

Now, because God had not given any manna, it was impossible for them to gather any manna. Indeed, it says “they found none.” Yet:

4) God says they broke His commandments and laws.

The people did not need to gather any manna to break the command not to gather manna on the Sabbath. In fact, they did not even need to be able to gather the manna—it was literally impossible for them to gather manna!—yet they intended to do so, and thus were lawbreakers.

This stands as clear evidence that it is not necessary that there actually be victims to a sinful act in order for the sinner to have a) made the choice to sin, and b) to be justly labeled a lawbreaker. After all, none of God’s manna was “stolen” or kept from someone by these people collecting it early. They literally harmed no one, as it was impossible for them to harm others since God withheld the manna that day. Yet they intended evil, and that was sufficient for God to label them as lawbreakers.

Given this, the “free will defense” against the problem of evil is shown to be the hollow shell that it is. For even if we fully grant the premises that writers like Lewis have put forth, the free will defense fails to account for this obvious rejoinder. Even if a free choice is needed in order for one to be able to “genuinely” love God, when an evil person chooses to harm another, that choice does not need to be allowed to be enacted. The intention alone is sufficient to establish the free relationship, ensuring that we are not “robots” under that scenario. Adding a victim to the process does not help anything.

Because we can accept for the sake of argument that God needed to give free will in order for Him to have loving followers, but we see that does not require God to allow any man to be murdered or woman to be raped or child to be starved, then clearly this view is insufficient to resolve the problem of evil (and this doesn't even begin to touch why "natural evils" like famines and earthquakes would need to exist lest we have no genuine love toward God). Ultimately, the freedom to choose does not require the freedom to act on those choices. And we can see that even in our own daily lives: If you see a man raise a weapon to strike another person, you are justly allowed to intervene—even using lethal force, if required. We do not first have to allow the victim to be struck before we can intervene.


  1. I'm going to take a stab at this - bear with me, I'm a professional engineer and only a amateur philosopher. On the bright side, I have pretty think skin and will not go off on a rant if someone calls me out for being wrong :)

    The example brought up is the manna in the desert. Going out to gather this on the sabbath did not harm any (that we know of!) yet God still was aware of the intent to disobey. Therefore bad intent does not require bad consequences to the innocent since God is already aware of the intent. I believe this would be a fair summary of the argument.

    I would propose a 2-prong argument against this:

    1. Although God is quite aware of intent without consequence, human beings are sadly lacking in that ability. Even if our intent is not harmful or evil, we often make a hash out of things through impatience, selfishness, greed, and many other such *lovely* attributes. If we were robbed of the consequences of our actions, I doubt that many of us would ever progress past the "3-year-old-I-want" stage.
    When our actions cause others pain or grief (I'm speaking here of minor pain/grief and not tragedies), we can learn to act with care, caution and compassion. Especially if we care about the person we are hurting.
    2. For those who don't care at all, how could any laws be enacted to respond to behavior if consequences do not exist? I'm not speaking here primarily of legal retribution but of those who may need psychological help. Should obsessions be allowed to fester since there are no outward signs? Also, would not these consequences serve as a self-condemnation against everyone's favorite defense - "I'm not a bad person" ?

    A 3rd thing I would bring up would be that good can come from evil. Because of our nature, it sometimes takes a horrible event or catastrophe to shake us out of our complacency. Looking back over my life (I'm 52), there are things that I wouldn't have wanted to have happened. And yet, I am grateful they did for the changes they effected in me.

    Finally, I'm going to paraphrase C.S. Lewis a bit here. Remember, as children of God we are destined for eternity. As Lewis said, a short temper may not be something to worry about if you only live 72 years. But if you live forever, that fault can turn you into a demon. While Christ saves us through grace, we should also be striving to participate and we can never know how well or how poorly we are doing without consequences. In fact, we would never know how much we need that grace.

    1. Thank you for your response. I should note off the bat that you and I are obviously coming from a different starting point, but for the sake of this argument I am trying to assume the Arminian view of free will.

      The problem I have with the first prong is that it's not realistic. What I mean is that you and I *can* go beyond the "3-year-old-I-want" stage without us ever victimizing someone else. In fact, my brother and I used to fight a lot as kids. If every time I instigated and tried to hit my brother as a child, my parents had successfully intervened and I was punished for my actions, but my brother was never hit, both of us would have still learned the correct behavior. If there is appropriate punishment for an action, then you do not need a victim.

      And as I'm sure you can see, there are indeed still consequences for those actions--punishment is a consequence. There is therefore no need to add on a victim. This would address your second and third points too, I think.

      So what you wrote, while very good for a self-described amateur philosopher, is not convincing to me regarding the problem of evil. Mainly because all of the things that one could gain--learning about consequences being the main one, and even having our love be "free" in the Arminian sense--can still be attained without any victims (with the exception of God, as all our sins are ultimately rebellion against Him). Thus, they cannot serve as explanations to why God allows actual victims. There must be something else that has yet to be uncovered...or, of course, the Arminian view could be built on a false foundation, which is what I think is happening here.