God, Freedom, and Evil Review

Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1974)

alvin-plantingaAlvin Plantinga is arguably the most significant Christian philosopher in the 21st century. The former John A. O’Brien professor of philosophy of Notre Dame has been described by Time magazine as “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher” whose work has “contributed greatly to [a] renewal of Christian philosophy.”[1] He is commonly referenced in debates between Christian apologists and nonbelievers and is viewed as one whose arguments are cogent, sharp and worthy of respect. His more discussed and important works include God and Other Minds (1967), The Nature of Necessity (1974), and Warranted Christian Belief (2000). In his book God, Freedom and Evil, the renowned philosopher seeks to rebuff and respond to arguments from evil used to deny God’s existence. Dr. Plantinga does not think that arguments from evil lead to the conclusion of atheology or exist as formidable foes of the Christian faith. His work is segmented in two parts with the first half of the book offering a defense as to why God might allow evil to exist and also a second part that offers critiques and support for arguments from natural theology.

After affirming that evil exists and there is quite a lot of it, Dr. Plantinga opens his work asking whether or not the theist contradicts himself. Various atheists in the past have affirmed that belief in God is inconsistent and irrational at its very core in the face of evil’s mass proliferated existence. There is a contradiction between set A which includes the propositions that 1) God is good, 2) God is omnipotent and 3) evil exists. Plantinga argues that there’s no apparent or explicit contradiction within the set. Atheists and others have to add or infer “additional principles” or “quasi-logical rules” within the set to arrive at some form of a contradiction. Additional principles added are “A good being always eliminates evil as far as it can” and “there are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do” (17).  Plantinga responds to the first extra proposition by showing through a counter example that there may be cases where a good being would not in fact seek to eliminate evil altogether. Maybe the being does not know the evil is occurring. Or the being cannot eliminate every evil without eliminating a good state of affairs that outweighs it or a state of affairs that brings about an even greater evil. He remarks concerning the latter, extra principle that omnipotence does not mean that there are no limits to God’s power. It means there are no nonlogical limits to what he can do. He can do everything that is actually able to be done. Some things are not possible for even God to do for they are absolute impossibilities. The ends the section noting that “…our discussion thus far shows at the very least that it is no easy matter to find necessarily true propositions that yield a formally contradictory set when added to set A” (23).

9780802817310Not merely satisfied in having a set that’s not implicitly inconsistent, the philosopher seeks to show that the set is consistent or possible in the broadly logical sense. He argues that evil’s existence is rational if God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing it to continue to survive. He articulates what he deems to be a “Free Will Defense.” The difference between a defense and a theodicy is that a theodicy seeks to inform someone what God’s reason is, but a defense merely posits what God’s reason might possibly be (28). The Free Will Defense (FWD) argues that “…it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good 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). Several objections are stated and critiqued. Plantinga rejects the idea of causal determinism and also the idea that an omnipotent God can create a world in which completely free creatures always do what is right. A world in which free creatures exist and they never do wrong is the best possible world and an omnipotent, wholly good entity would create such a world by necessity. The problem the writer finds with it is that it is not true that God is able to create or actualize any possible world (what he refers to as Liebniz’s Lapse). God cannot actualize a world in which a significantly free creature does both X and not X. He cannot create a world in which a creature is free and yet determined. The action lies within the choice of the free creature. Central to Plantinga’s argument is also the claim that God could not have created a world that contains moral good and no moral evil because people suffer from transworld depravity. Transworld depravity includes the idea that there’s a possibility that a creature would do a reprehensible action in any given world that could be created with significantly free creatures. For the creature to be truly free, the opposite of a good action has to be obtainable. In the end, the author believes the FWD is successful.

Some speculate that the amount of moral evil is incompatible with God’s existence. The response is immediate for how can someone measure evil? Evil is not measurable and we lack the ability to judge such a thing. The author rebuts a more formidable foe that states that “God could have created a world containing less moral evil than the actual world contains” (55). Unfortunately, this is not self-evident and also not accurate because if the FWD is true, then it is not within God’s power to create just any world. The interlocutor may attempt to regroup and state that the FWD accounts for human moral evil but not natural evil. Following Augustine, Dr. Plantinga responds that there could be another free agent who also rebelled bringing natural evils upon the world. Christians would call this agent Satan. The same limitations exist for the spiritual entities as with humans and God could not create just any world. The last section of part one is spent critiquing athelogical arguments that purport that God’s existence is unlikely because of the amount of evil, the idea of God is merely a childhood projection, and the claim that God’s omniscience is incompatible with free choice.

fgkjgfkjfgPart two of the philosopher’s work contains debate surrounding the cosmological, teleological and ontological arguments for God’s existence. Thomas Aquinas offers a cosmological argument that the scholar believes contains fallacious reasoning because certain statements do not follow others. Furthermore, he rejects the success of the teleological argument because it ultimately does not provide enough sufficient evidence for the claims usually made by supporters of it. Who is to say that the universe was not created by a coalition of deities instead of one great one? The last part of Plantinga’s book is spent debating the validity and value of the ontological argument. In the end, he finds a modal form of the argument triumphant because of its soundness. Yet, this does not prove God exists. It merely shows that the truth of theism is intellectually rational. One can hold that God exists and remain a reasonable individual.

There’s a lot to praise about the scholar’s work such as its achieved outcome, the fair interaction concerning the arguments and the straightforward progression throughout the book. If the argument is sound, the logical problem of evil is possibly impoverished and answered. There seems to be no way an explicit logical contradiction can be deduced from the existence of a wholly good and powerful God and that of evil. The multiplication of premises and propositions speaks against such a notion. After reading the book, I have found myself with an advantageous weapon to be used within discussion concerning the problem of evil. I think the text also contained a fair interaction with various scholars whose work was taken seriously. I did not find Dr. Plantinga disagreeing with their positions because they disagreed with his own personal religious and theological convictions. He showed logically their ineptness in light of his argument. His sections on natural theology were also telling. The theist arguments were not viewed as “sacred cows” but were scrutinized with his sharp skills just as the atheological arguments. A writer seems to possess large amounts of intellectual honesty when he can examine and analyze his own academic commitments. Lastly, the book had a unified argument that progressed in a linear fashion from cover to cover. While reading the book, I felt that I could easily transpose his work into outline form for future use. His analogies and examples were always relevant and succinct in their aim. For such things, the book is to be celebrated.

Some flaws within the book could possibly be the paucity of interaction with compatibilism, the academic nature of the work and absence of more thorough discussion with other arguments from natural theology. Dr. Plantinga gave a paragraph and a half to the incoherence to holding to a compatibilistic notion of freedom as opposed to his indeterministic model. There are both theistic and atheistic philosophers and apologists who hold to a deterministic viewpoint concerning creaturely freedom that have good arguments for doing so. His lack of interaction with such arguments could be a very important blind spot within his argumentative formulation. Because the book proposes a defense and not a theodicy, it does not seem that I have to commit to everything within the exposition as being a statement of the way things actually are to utilize the argument. A second flaw would be the scholarly nature of the work itself. As one not formally trained in logic (outside of taking one class), there were times where I had to read certain parts multiple times to follow his argument. This likely is a consequence of his intended audience. If it is meant for fellow academians, then his book evades such a difficulty. Yet, if it is to be useful in conversation with those who are nontheists, the book has to be able to be understood by the laity. Lastly, I found his work on both the teleological and cosmological arguments to be too minuscule. The exact type of arguments he discussed (Aquinas and Paley’s respectively) might have some serious logical errors within them. But, there are others that seem to be more convincing and defensible. It would seem that more interaction concerning those would greatly enhance the book. Also, what about other types of arguments from natural theology (transcendental, axiomatic or human uniqueness arguments)? Surely the moral argument is popular enough to include briefly within the second part.


[1] Alvin Plantinga and James F. Sennett, The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1998), xii.

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