Evil and Human Freedom


John Hick summarized the traditional freewill defense as an argument with three phases. First, God’s omnipotence is defined as excluding the capacity to perform what is logically absurd. Secondly, to claim that man is free to assert that he can choose between right and wrong. The possibility of choosing wrong is necessary for beings to be free. Men in fact realize this possibility in doing evil. Thirdly, Hick takes issue with Flew and Mackie, when they suggest that God could have created human creatures so that they would always choose the good.

Flew pointed out that one of the ways of escaping from the dilemma concerning the goodness and omnipotence of God was to lay emphasis on human freedom. Since men are free they may do good or evil. Thus evil has its source in human freedom, for when they commit evil, men employ their freedom. That God created men free involves that they perform either good or evil. This possibility is realised in that they choose and perform evil.

Flew argues that this position can be counter-attacked, since it affirms that ‘there is a contradiction involved in saying that God might have made people so that they always in fact freely chose the right.’ What Flew means by freedom is that if a person had chosen to do otherwise he would have been able to have done what he so chose. To say he is free ‘is not to say that his actions or choices were uncaused or in principle unpredictable: but precisely and only that . . . he did what he did and rejected alternative courses of action without being under any pressure to act in this way.’1 So an action can be both free and predictable in terms of caused causes. A free action is neither uncaused nor unpredictable. The natural order with its laws and causal explanations is such that there were enough known, freely chosen courses of action which could be predicted.

Flew then argues that if it is logically possible for an action to be both freely chosen and determined by natural causes, there is no contradiction in speaking of God so arranging the laws of nature that all men always as a matter of fact freely choose to do the right.2 Hence the free-will defense cannot accomplish its stated aim: to shift the responsibility for evil from God to man. Moreover, the other lines of defense of theism then become unnecessary. There would be no need for the presence of evil in order to produce virtues, second-order goods. Nor would there be the problem of hell and damnation.3

In short, the argument against the traditional solution to the problem of evil rests on two assertions about logical possibilities. First, that human behaviour may be determined, that is to say fitted in with and predictable on the basis of the laws of nature. (It would be a different nature from the one which we know, of course.) The notion of caused cause would apply to all human behaviour. Secondly, men always do the right. This does not mean that there would be no temptation. It means that in face of temptation, men will be more successful to resist, indeed that they would always successfully resist.

God did not realise this possibility. So the original dilemma remains. God is either not all-good or all-powerful, or neither.

But is it consistent to hold the crucial proposition that men may be free and always freely choose the right because they have be so created by God? Hick takes issue. While it is logically possible that God may have created human creatures so that they would always act rightly to one another, ‘it would not be logically possible for God so to make men that they could be guaranteed freely to respond to himself in genuine trust and love.’4 That would be to make the relationship between God and man analogous to that of a hypnotist and his patient/subject. The relationship would not be one of personal trust and devotion. The concept of God would have been so radically altered as to be no longer Christian. Whatever the appearance may be, the actual relationship would be that of manipulator- manipulated.

Hick’s second objection is that the conception of freedom is inadequate. The theistic position requires a more thoroughgoing definition of freedom, stronger than that freewill is simply absence of external constraints: ‘. . . the Christian conception of the divine purpose for man requires as its postulate the stronger notion of free will as a capacity for choice whose outcome is in principle unpredictable.’5

What is at issue in the nature of the relationship of creature-man to Creator-God? An authentic relationship between Creator and creature demands a creativity on the creature’s part, ‘a genuine though limited autonomy,’6 oblique to philosophical analysis (it must be admitted).7


1Antony Flew, ‘Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom,’ New Essays in Philosophical Theology, London: SCM Press,1955. pp. 144-169.

2Ibid., p. 152.

3Ibid., p. 155.

4Hick., Evil and the God of Love. London: Collins, 1975. p. 310.

5Ibid., p. 304.

6Ibid., p. 313.

7The question remains whether in affirming such freedom one must, as Hick argues is the case, assert the inevitability of the Fall. Discussion of the question of the ultimate use or misuse of such freedom will also proceed by introducing further considerations of both a theological and philosophical kind, which will have to be appropriately and critically assessed.



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