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To Avoid Evil, Why Not Prevent Sin?

Ehrman Project - Monday, February 28, 2011
In response to Alvin Plantinga’s “Free-Will Defense,” many raise the following question:

"If God is capable of making a world in which free creatures will not sin in the future, then why didn’t He do so from the onset so we could avoid all of this evil?"

Certainly, this seems to be a logical and fair question. After all, if there is a future state of affairs in which free creatures will not sin, why did a wholly-good and omnipotent God not start there? Could we not have skipped all of this evil nonsense? What is the answer?

Let us first reexamine the question as it is framed above. Without going into too much detail, I think a couple of hidden premises need to be fleshed out.

  1. It is assumed that the eschaton represents a completely new “world.” But is this true? I would argue that it is not. Rather, it seems more accurate to describe the eschaton not as a new “world,” but as a “different stage” or “different state of affairs” within the same world, which should be understand as a complete book starting from creation and continuing through the eschaton. As Dr. Bruce Little has pointed out in his book A Creation-Order Theodicy, “The word ‘world’ primarily refers to the realm of humanity and its culture (See Jn. 3:16; II Tim. 4:10; 1 Jn. 2:15). Therefore, it includes humanity as a whole from the point of creation to the full realization of the Kingdom of God on this earth throughout everlasting.

  2. It is assumed that God could have created free creatures who would not sin. But is this true? Here, I would argue it may not be. For example, when Christians say that God can do anything, most mean that He can do everything that is not logically contradictory with He who is. As God is truth, He cannot lie. Thus, it may not be possible for God to create a world with significantly free moral agents who do not sin. Assuming that God always does His best and therefore this is the best of all possible worlds, it may be concluded that a world “where all God’s free moral agents love and obey Him . . . is not a possible world if moral agents are to have the power of moral choice in nondetermining circumstances” (Little). In God, Freedom, and Evil, Plantinga raises the idea of transworld depravity and argues that if it is true, then all possible worlds would contain moral good and moral evil. In short, God could not create a world in which all moral evil is absent.
Taken together, these two points completely reshape the present discussion. One now understands that it may be that (a) God could not have crated significantly free moral agents who always chose to love and obey Him and (b) the eschaton is not a complete break from, but another stage in this world. With this in mind, we can now better appreciate responses like the following one given by Christian philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig in a 1994 debate:
Heaven may not be a possible world when you take it in isolation by itself. It may be that the only way in which God could actualize a heaven of free creatures all worshiping Him and not falling into sin would be by having, so to speak, this run-up to it, this advance life during which there is a veil of decision-making in which some people choose for God and some people against God. Otherwise you don't know that heaven is an actualizable world. You have no way of knowing that possibility.
Two lingering questions still remain. Unfortunately, I only have enough space to address one of these here. For the question of how believers we will live without sin in the Kingdom, I point all interested readers to Dr. Craig’s humble response on his blog.

So, one question still remains: Whether or not my response above makes our present evil necessary for its future absence in the eschaton. Here I tread carefully as I want to make sure that everything I say truly reflects God and His revelation. The Scriptures assert that God truly desires the salvation of each of His created image bearers (2 Pet. 3:9) and that everyone who calls on Him will be saved (Rom. 10:13). Alongside of this, however, it also teaches that He has given mankind over to the sin we have freely chosen (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). Thus, Jesus taught on Hell more than He did Heaven. God respects our free choices. Taken together, the biblical witness is reflected in the eloquent words of C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’  All that are in Hell, choose it.  Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.
In the end, it seems that the possibility of evil is a necessary condition for God to create significantly free moral agents, namely you and me. The mystery in all of this, then, is not why evil exists, but why we exist. The answer to this can only be found in the authentic, unmatched love of God and His passionate desire to have a meaningful and real relationship with us. As Plantinga notes:
As the Christian sees things God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon His son’s humiliation and death. He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine.
David BakerPhD
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Robert Landbeck commented on 03-Mar-2011 06:16 PM
"If God is capable....." The answer to the question is that God has offered humankind the means to those ends with every prophet the Bible mentions. Yet the 'seed' never took root in a first chosen people. When the message failed again two thousand years ago and the murder of his son, later to be replaced by the existing theological counterfeit of history, the Lord decided to wait until the corruption within human nature had made such a mess of the planet, threatening the whole of civilization, was crystal clear before sending his last teacher of righteousness. That those who have learned the limitations and dishonesty innate to the species, would have no where else to turn.
Jason Dulle commented on 01-Apr-2011 05:53 PM
I liked William Lane Craig's perspective, and have argued similarly myself: Evil in this world is necessary to exercise our moral being to the point of maturity, so that when we are glorified and no longer experience a predisposition toward evil, we will
choose the good. The existence of evil in this world serves as an immunization of sorts, ensuring that free creatures will not choose evil in the next world. But if this is the proper explanation, then what about those who have not been able to have a period
of decision-making in which they can choose the good over evil (perhaps those who converted just hours before death), or understand just how bad evil really is (such as infants)? Could they end up sinning in heaven? It seems to me that more of an explanation
is needed. Perhaps the answer is to be found in something J.P. Moreland said: Just because I have the freedom to eat my dog's feces does not mean I will ever choose to do it (my paraphrase). Could it be that due to our glorification and the presence of God,
sin will be so repugnant to us that we will never use our freedom to engage in it, just as we would never use our freedom to eat our dog's feces? Jason
David Baker commented on 27-Jul-2011 04:09 PM
Jason, Dr. Moreland's metaphor is an important one and I do believe it may contain more than just a kernel of truth. As the great medieval theologian Anselm argued, true freedom is not the freedom TO sin, but the freedom NOT to sin. Otherwise, we would
face the incomprehensible position of saying God is not truly free.
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