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Sometimes the problem is presented in such a way that it seems that it is the shear existence of evil, any evil no matter how small, that creates the problem for theism.  And, I suppose that naively we may think that a universe created by an all-powerful, all-loving, and perfect being would have to itself be perfect and thus one in which evil is non-existent.  If we are at all swayed by this intuition, then it might appear that the task for the theist is to explain why God would allow any amount of evil to infect His creation.

I think that the whatever argumentative force the free will defense has results from this way of understanding the problem of evil.  To most minds, it is at least as obvious that free will is of tremendous value (and that thus an omni-benevolent God would grant it to His creation) as it is that God is opposed to evil.  Granting this, it is a short step to the realization that free will necessarily entails that (at least some) people will (at least sometimes) choose to engage in activities that have bad consequences.  Thus, God, if He is indeed all-loving, cannot help but create a world in which evil is at least a possibility (since if He is to create conscious beings at all, He must, out of concern for their value, grant them the option of choosing to do wrong).

So long as we understand the problem of evil narrowly, as the need to explain why God would create a less than perfect world, the free-will defense gives us a plausible resolution of the problem.  However, a different and stronger version of the problem points not to the existence of evil in general but to specific evils (van Inwagen would call this the distinction between global arguments and local arguments).  When we consider certain cases of horrible evil (especially cases involving children) it is far more difficult to explain why God would allow them to occur.  Sure children are often the victims of (bad) free choices but, given the arguments of my two previous posts, God can prevent much of the negative consequences of an act without interfering with freedom.

Now if we assumed that God needs to prevent all evil, then the level of intervention required would, as Dilley suggested, undercut the value of freedom.  But if instead we believe that the real problem of evil is to explain why God would not prevent horrific cases of evil (such as the holocaust, the slaughter of innocent children, etc.), then, since preventing these instances would not involve constant intervention (and thus not undermine human freedom) the free will defense seems entirely impotent as a solution.  God could have prevented the suffering and deaths of many of the victims of history’s great villains without infringing upon freedom.

I think that the real strength of the problem of evil lies in its appeal to such horrible instances of evil (think of examples like Ivan Karamazov’s description of the child’s encounter with the Turks). Against this understanding, the free will defense is ultimatey a non-starter as a solution to the problem of evil.


In 1982 Frank Dilley published a response to Boer’s argument in a paper called “Is the Free Will Defense Irrelevant?”  The suggestion that God might intervene with coincidence miracles to prevent evil intentions from producing negative effects, Dilley called the “Boer Reform.”  If God adopted the Boer Reform, then whenever God sees that someone will attempt to cause harm, He would intervene so as to prevent that someone’s intention from culminating in the harmful consequence(s).  And, as Boer had suggested, this need not entail any infringement of free will.  Using the example from Part I, when God diverts the path of the bullet, He is in no way interfering with any of Jones’ choices.

Nonetheless, Dilley argued that the Boer Reform, if adopted, would seriously undermine the value of freedom.  He listed several consequences of the Reform, but the most important of which is that the Reform would rob attempting to bring about either good or evil of its very sense.  The Boer Reform would entail that no person would be capable of deliberately bringing about evil (since God will always prevent any negative consequences of our choices).  As Dilley says, “Even the fool would learn after his hundredth attempt that is silly to intend harm, that the deck is stacked against him.  To be unable to succeed, then, deprives trying of its point and makes it nonsensical.” (358)  Dilley claims that this is also true of attempts to bring about good; since we would soon learn that nothing but good can come of our intention, it would be pointless to try to bring about good.  In addition, the Reform would entail a drastic revision of the notion of a law of nature (since God would be constantly intervening) and it would so sever consequences from intentions that we could no longer think of ourselves as interacting agents.

I think that Dilley is correct (with a few small caveats that I will leave for another time) that the Boer Reform, assuming that it required constant intervention on God’s part, would result in a drastic devaluation of freedom.  However, this is true only given that the Reform requires God to intervene in every case in which someone tries to bring about bad consequences.  If instead, He only intervened to prevent the most awful kinds of evil, while He would be intervening often, the level of intervention would not, I think, severely undermine the value of freedom.  If, for example, He intervened to prevent the severe suffering of children, this would not rob trying to bring about harm of its very sense because, even though we would not be able to cause tremendous harm to children, there would remain ample opportunity to try (and succeed) to bring about other harms.

Whether we expect an omni-benevolent God should intervene to prevent all evil or just the more horrendous evils depends a great deal on how we understand the problem of evil.  This will be the focus of my next post.

Jason Thibodeau

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