Q&A: Evil and Free Will

Evil and Free Will

Question

I was discussing this question with a fellow Christian. He argued that God gave man free will even though God didn't want man to sin (although God knew man would sin). Man chose to sin, making man's free will the source of evil. Does this argument abridge God's sovereignty?

Answer

I suppose in some sense we can say that man's free will is the source of evil, but that language seems a bit misleading to me. Free will itself never did anything: man sinned, not man's free will. That is, free will was not an independent agent, but an ability that man exercised when he chose to sin. We can think of free will as the source of evil if we understand that to mean that free will was simply the ability that man exercised when man sinned. But we need to make it clear that free will did not invent evil, nor did it compel man to sin. I would prefer to say that man's free will was the means to evil.

I'm not sure that there really is a single source of evil. Certainly evil did not originate with man: the evil serpent was already in the garden before man sinned. And that evil did not spawn new evil in man. Man was not under the serpent's control, but actively created new evil himself. Moreover, it seems to me that every fallen individual does a pretty good job of creating new evil on a daily basis (cf. Matt. 15:19 // Mark 7:21-22). I would prefer to speak of each sinful moral agent as an actual source of evil, rather than of one universal source. Perhaps though you are thinking of an ultimate "cause" rather than of an ultimate "source"? In that case, we have to go back to God as the ultimate "cause," but with the understanding that in causing evil God does not commit evil (cf. Prov. 16:4).

Regarding God's sovereignty, God's use of secondary agents does not abridge his sovereignty. It is also worth pointing out that on one level God did not want man to sin, but on another level God did want man to sin. God specifically commanded man not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so in one sense he didn't want man to eat of that tree. But God also created the tree, and put man in the garden with the tree, and allowed the serpent to tempt man, and even sovereignly ordained that man would eat of the tree. Through all these things we can see that in another sense God did want man to eat of the tree.

God's motives and will in this are complex, and the Bible does not tell us everything God was thinking. But it does indicate that there were at least two aspects of God's sovereign will that appear to us to conflict. One the one hand, God did not want man to eat of the tree; on the other hand, God did want man to eat of the tree. These don't actually conflict, at least not in a contradictory way, but they are still hard (perhaps impossible) for us to reconcile perfectly in the absence of further special revelation (with which God has not been forthcoming).

In any event, the fact that in some sense God wanted man to sin makes it impossible for man's sin to counteract God's sovereignty. When man sinned, man did exactly what God sovereignly ordained that man would do, thereby affirming God's sovereignty.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.