Theodicy and the Idolatry of “Free Choice”

skepticBefore I even begin this post, I want to say explicitly what should be obvious from the first paragraph:  my critique of theodicy is aimed exclusively at Christian theodicy. Jewish theodicy -- and theology -- is a whole separate matter. Jewish theodicy is much less prone than its Christian counterpart to knee-jerk-ingly validate God's actions in the world. This is especially true of Jewish theologians and writers who reflect on the Holocaust:  Richard Rubinstein, Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovits, David Blumenthal, Zachary Braiterman, Elie Wiesel, et al., none of whom ever let God off the hook.  Even with comparatively honest Christian theologians like Philip Yancey (Disappointment with God, Where is God when It Hurts?, et al.), you just know God is going to be exonerated in the end. Even comparatively radical authors like Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker have a quarrel much more with Christianity than with Christianity's God.   But with their Jewish siblings, all bets are off. Years ago, the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis compiled an anthology of theodical essays called God in the Dock.  The title notwithstanding, it was evident from Page Zero that God would be acquitted. By contrast, Elie Wiesel long ago published a book called The Trial of God. With the latter, the grand jury -- a group of concentration-camp inmates, as I recall -- at least returned an indictment, even if the final trial verdict was left ambiguous. And with Blumenthal's Facing the Abusing God, there is an explicit verdict of "guilty". Christian theodicy has no equivalent. In fact, Christian theodicy is an instance of John-Gotti-style jury tampering. That is the difference I mean.
Theodicy is the sub-discipline of theology concerned with justifying God’s actions – or lack thereof – in such a way that the existence of Evil in the world (the so-called "Problem of Evil", which should properly be called the "Problem of God" ... but never mind) cannot diminish God’s goodness. Theodicy has been a cottage industry of Christian theology ever since at least the time of St. Augustine, who was one of the first to engage in theodical argument in order, as John Milton said, to “justify the ways of God to man”. I will be very honest and up-front with you, my Courteous Readers. Herewith full disclosure: I have very little use for theology, and even less use for theodicy – both of which I regard as especially transparent forms of “special pleading” in which the conclusion – that God is good, despite Evil in the world – is “always already” baked into the premises of the argument. Theodicy is the upside-down art of devising post facto justifications for premature conclusions. So much for my cards-on-the-table disclaimer. But there is one theodical argument in particular, one form of which is usually associated with St. Augustine, which is exceptionally flimsy, even by the ramshackle standards of theodicy. This is sometimes called “the theodicy of free choice”.th

In a nutshell, the “theodicy of free choice” says that we are not justified in imputing Evil to the character or actions of God, because Evil in the world comes from the choices human beings make, not from any perversity in the nature of God. (There are several different versions of the "theodicy of free choice", but they all boil down to the boldface text above.) The “theodicy of free choice” continues: God does not intervene to keep human beings from implementing their choice to do Evil because God, having endowed humans with free choice, refuses to renege on that gift by interdicting that capacity for choice and the actions based thereon. God has enough respect for human moral autonomy to allow the consequences of freely chosen Evil to play out, rather than "save us from ourselves". Examples abound. I know a good one!

Consider the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in December of 2012. Why did God not intervene to stop Adam Lanza from killing his mother, and then proceeding to kill 20 school kids and 6 adults? The “theodicy of free choice” would say that, while the Sandy Hook / Newtown killings were indisputably horrific, God places such a high premium on the integrity of humans’ capacity for moral choice that, in God’s judgment, the consequences of contravening that choice would be even worse than the consequences that ensued from the choice itself:  a Universe in which Adam Lanza could not choose to kill little kids would be worse than a Universe in which he actually killed them.  I suppose one could argue that Adam Lanza, a severely disturbed young man, was (a) not altogether responsible for the choices he made, and that, in fact, (b) because of (a), the degree to which we can meaningfully talk about “free choice” on his part is itself debatable. But (a) and (b) put an even sharper edge on the question of God’s involvement: if Adam Lanza was, as he almost certainly was, less a free moral agent than a kind of runaway meat-and-bones  robot, not unlike the cyborg in the Terminator movies, whose capacity for moral choice was lacking and perhaps altogether absent, then the case for God’s intervention is more compelling, not less. In that latter case, there was no capacity for moral choice, and therefore no, or vanishingly little, moral choice to contravene. If we follow the logic of the “theodicy of free choice” with perfect fidelity, the conclusion would seem to be inescapable that God places such a high value on the human capacity for choice that God will not inhibit even whatever tenuous spider-thread of volition may be possessed by a person with a severe mental illness.

Connecticut School Shooting

Do you begin to get a vague and perhaps only half-articulated sense, even this early, that somehow the wheels are beginning to come off the discursive bus? I do. Yes, of course, there is the visceral reaction to the stunning blood, pain, and horror of the act itself. But if we overrule that initial, purely emotional reaction, and look at the question from a sheer rational standpoint, that wheels-off-the-bus feeling persists. For in a much wider and more general sense, the perception that something is somehow wrong with the above theodicy derives, I believe, from the clash between the reasoning behind the “theodicy of free choice,” on the one hand, and our commitment to living in an ordered community governed by law, on the other. For reasons of sheer logic, if nothing else, we cannot do both.

Suppose for a moment that you are wholly committed to the theodical justification articulated in the “theodicy of free choice”: God did not stop Adam Lanza because of God’s respect for human moral freedom. Now suppose, further, that you had been visiting Newtown, CT, on that fateful day of 14 December, 2012, that you heard news accounts of a possible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and that the news report said that police were on the way in overwhelming force to oppose the shooter and to protect the kids. That would put you in an awkward position, wouldn’t it? On the one hand, you admire (by hypothesis) God’s “bite the bullet” refusal to intervene to stop Adam Lanza from shooting his victims, especially the kids. But on the other hand, you nevertheless fervently, passionately hope and pray that the police arrive so that human law enforcement can do precisely that: stop  Adam Lanza. I.e., you find yourself in the anomalous position of hoping that secular / human / finite law enforcement will do what (again, by hypothesis) Almighty God will not.  (That, after all, is the basic purpose of law enforcement and the entire corpus of criminal law: to prevent people from implementing some of their free choices and to prescribe penalties when they do.) How can one be committed to a view of God which understands and approves of God’s unqualified respect for human freedom – while at the same time supporting law enforcement in its efforts precisely to curtail that freedom? Which of the two reactions should I believe? Which of the two should you believe?


The fact that you even have to make such a choice in the first place is symptomatic of what I have come to regard as the foundational problem with all theodicies -- not just the "theodicy of free choice", but all theodicies:  you cannot do any form of theodicy with which I am acquainted without somehow and at some point lopping off some critical aspect of reality. (Note:  I say "with which I am acquainted" because I am not intimately familiar with literally all theodicies and all supporting arguments. I am familiar with a helluva lot, but not literally all.) In order for any theodical argument to work, something has to end up being ignored, and that critical "something" is an element which, in any non-theodical context, no sane, rational human being would ignore. Moreover, the part of reality that must be ignored is a part of reality that, in all other contexts, everyone acknowledges to be necessary. In non-theodical contexts, we all acknowledge the importance of restraining certain free choices in the interest of living in a coherent, civilized society. (Sigmund Freud said "Civilization is bought at the price of inhibitions".) But in order to do theodicy, we have to pretend not to know this. In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre called this habit of mind -- pretending you don't know what you really do know -- mauvaise foi:  "bad faith".  The irony? Theodicy as a defense of faith always requires a prior act of bad faith.

I have had theodical debates with people and have raised just these objections to the "theodicy of free choice", only to have my debate opponent adopt a curious strategy. At this point, they allege that … well … God does block our choices for Evil, but God does so through human agencies like law enforcement, the courts, and the criminal justice system. I say this is a “curious strategy” because this twist in the argument puts God in the position of opposing Godself. Qua God, God has such absolute and unqualified respect for humans’ agency that God refuses to intervene to block the choice to do Evil – but qua humans – when God wears God’s “human hat,” as it were -- God acts in such a way as to do just that: block the choice to do Evil, and to exact penalties when human law enforcement is unsuccessful. In my millennia-ago first freshman-level philosophy course in logic, I was taught that from a logical contradiction, any conclusion may be validly inferred. To paraphrase Jesus’ remark about faith, all conclusions are possible to one who contradicts herself. But aside from that, there is Occam’s Razor: if God’s actions may be conceived as just human actions, if the “vertical” collapses into the “horizontal”, then … well … why do we need God at all? Why not factor God out of our equation and talk about human law and human justice? But these “down in the weeds” technical issues aside, this is not the real question I want to ask. Rather, I observe such dialectical somersaults on the part of otherwise intelligent, rational, well-educated people who advocate for theodicy, using contorted arguments that could be easily refuted by a slightly dull-witted third-grader in a single sentence, and I discover that the real question is simply as follows …



That is, why do so many people expend such intellectual effort attempting to crawl up various bodily orifices -- backwards! -- in order to salvage the moral character of God by recourse to arguments that would make Chevy Chase's Summer Vacation look like the Gifford Lectures? Why bother? My theory is that, while the logic and evidentiary criteria of theodicy are indisputably dilapidated, the psychological comfort derived from even risible justifications for God's actions -- or lack thereof -- is really hard to beat. Reason, logic, and evidence provide but cold, coldcold comfort to scared and hurting people. So theodicy steps in as their proxy and provides what for many people is a (perhaps literally) life-saving service:  preserving belief. And if belief has to be preserved at the expense of logic and intellectual integrity ... well ... so be it. A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world -- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Nevertheless, I offer my preferred alternative:  Think ... thinking will probably hurt now, but not thinking will almost certainly hurt worse later.

James R. Cowles


  1. Lionhear.ted said on February 20, 2018
    Your analysis is stunning. You almost go as far as Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamozov in condemning God's refusal to prevent evil; he takes God's omniscience fully into account and condemns him for creating the world (one where children can be brutally killed) at all. There are hints of it in your article though, and I think you'd agree with Ivan. But Dostoyevsky doesn't and neither do I, though not for all the same reasons. There are a couple other things you stance doesn't take into account. They and others are investigated more at length in this book, but in short, you've been beating the hell out of a strawgod, and I'll help you to do it! But when we talk about God and not some god say that God gives freedom and won't reneg on that gift, we have to remember that: a) If he's God, then he also knows everything, including what we'll do with that freedom, even before he gives it. b) Giving it regardless of what we do with it isn't the same as him doing it c) It's not as if he's the Great Policeman in the sky, either there is freedom because he's free and he gave us freedom, or there isn't. Stepping in to stop any of our bad choices isn't permitting freedom. Freedom exists in God if it exists at all, or it's not God. If we have freedom at, then we really have it because God cannot change or he isn't God. If we choose to do bad things with our freedom, its us that freely choose to do them, not God who made us to--God gives us freedom and a universe to live in with its own natural consequences, and commandments both to test us, give us a real choice to be responsible for, and to make clearer beforehand whether those consequences will be good or bad if we choose them. You seem to argue that God is evil for creating us evil, and should step in to stop us from doing evil or should never have created us, but that simply isn't what Christianity or Judaism ever taught. They've always said "God saw all, he had made and it was very good" Gen. 1:31 and "without him, nothing was made" Jn 1:3 and "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? “I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.” Jer 19:9-10. They also struggled with times when this last part didn't seem to happen, see Ps 73 and 37 and the whole book of Job. But much more so, why Dostoevsky disagrees with Ivan, is the person of Jesus, who deliberately came to suffer innocently. This of course doesn't take away our pain, but it makes God share it, because God is free too, and he chooses to use his freedom to suffer with us, and thus take us beyond suffering to happiness undying, if we'll choose obedience rather than sin, just like he made us for in the first place. Obedience is not like following a tyrant, that's coercion, obedience is like driving, because that's how you get where you want to go. If you drive the wrong way down the road, you won't make it to your destination.
  2. jrcowles said on February 20, 2018
    Point (a) about God's foreknowledge ... in this case, it is highly debatable whether there is any such thing as morality at all, not only because what is going to happen is already preordained, but also because there would seem to be no such thing as causality / temporal sequence. You seem to be adopting Boethius’ argument from “The Consolation of Philosophy”. Under this paradigm, ostensibly “moral” acts are just “acts-period”, with no issue of right or wrong because whatever is going to happen was foreordained to happen, anyway, and there is no question of volition. Point (b) about enabling not being the same thing as doing … Frankly seems a bit disingenuous. An analogy: under the laws of the State of CA, if I give a shotgun to a man who I know to be intent on robbing a bank, and the robber kills people in the process of bank robbery, the robber himself is guilty of capital murder and subject to the death penalty. SO AM I, for having given him the “instrumental cause” of others’ deaths. In fact, CA law even goes a bit farther. If the robber has partners, and if the police arrive on the scene and, during a shoot-out, kill those partners, the robber is also responsible for the deaths of the robber’s partners. SO AM I. The trigger-pulling was, yes, done by the robber and not by me. But that is irrelevant. My guilt lies in my role as an ENABLER. That seems, to me, to be an entirely just, reasonable, and defensible law. No defense attorney could defend the robber, as you defend God, by saying “But he didn’t really DO anything”. I could also cite, e.g., the Nuremberg trials for similar precedents. Doing does not just mean “proximate doing” or “phenomenal doing”. The shotgun manufacturer would not be at risk, because, unlike me, the shotgun manufacturer had no inkling of the purpose to which the weapon would be put. So there is a “firebreak” in terms of various agents’ knowledge-state, as well as the manufacturer’s power to prevent how that particular gun was used. Point [c] about being the “Great Policeman” is founded on a false all-or-nothing dichotomy: any restriction whatsoever, to any degree, of one’s freedom vitiates EVERYone’s freedom EVERYwhere under all conditions. So if God had prevented Adam Lanza from killing the kids in Newtown, then you would not be free, I would not be free, NO ONE would be free. I think this is a tad overstated. More on the “human dimension” of moral theology later. You also mention “natural consequences”. I would argue that it is not legitimate to conflate the actual, moral evil-witnhout-quotes that people do to one another, and that – yes, to speak plainly – God is derelict in not interdicting such, at least in those cases where innocent people are hurt, with evil-in-quotes that is consequent upon living in a world governed by physical / natural law. (E.g., God and I would have had no issue if, say, the gun had blown up in Cruz’s face the first time Cruz pulled the trigger, or the round ricocheted and killed O. J. Simpson.) Was the Xmas-Day tsunami in Malaysia that wiped out 200K or 300K people evil? I would argue no. It was an inevitable consequence of living on a geologically active planet where, among other things, the laws of hydrostatics govern the movement of liquids … like oceans. The latter are evil only in a descriptive, not a normative, sense. Tragic? Yes. Evil? No. Life in any lawful universe is always going to be risky. If one thing doesn’t getcha, another thing will. There is an inevitable issue of chance, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of course, but that is a matter of mathematics, not morality. Finally, the thing about God, in the Person of Jesus, sharing our pain, of God “being with” us. This, IMHO, is vastly, VASTLY oversold theodically. First of all, it’s important to be realistic. Because we are humans, we are creatures of incorrigible finitude. There are some things, we just simply cannot do. I used to work in a pediatric oncology hospice in Wichita, KS, and all I could do was just “be with” the kids and their parents as they endured their respective nightmares. But … IF I COULD HAVE CURED THE KIDS, I DAMN WELL WOULD HAVE DONE SO. I DID not because I COULD not. Understood. But imagine an Olympic-caliber swimmer, someone who would make Michael Phelps look like … well … look like me. He’s working as a lifeguard on a public beach. A swimmer goes out too far, starts to get pulled under by a rip-tide, starts to holler for help. Our Phelps character swims out to him. When out alt-Phelps gets there, he puts his arm around the shoulders of the drowning swimmer. And that’s all. The swimmer looks at alt-Phelps incredulously and gasps out “Please save me”. Alt-Phelps replies “Oh, I didn’t swim out all this way to SAVE you. I swam out all this way to share with you the experience of drowning. No, no … ‘s all right. You don’t have to thank me”. You can, yes, view the death of Christ as Dostoyevsky does. But you can also look at the flip side: if power plus knowledge equals responsibility, then to have both and use neither is morally culpable. This is not to say that this exhausts the significance of Christs life, death, and ministry, far from it. It is, however, to say that relying on the Passion to exonerate God does not work. To quote Archibald MacLeish in his play “JB”: “If God is God, He is not good; / if God is good, He is not God. / Take the even, / Take the odd”. The Jesus-as-being-with theodicy just puts an infinitely sharper edge on this bit of doggerel.

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