When I came out as an atheist to my roommates last December, one question that they asked me was “Why do atheists like to argue with Christians and talk about God and religion so much?” It’s a question that, honestly, I think I’ve been wondering about ever since. I’m sure that it varies from person to person, but other than wanting to justify why my views are accurate, I simply enjoy pondering the arguments for and against God’s existence. It’s why I took Apologetics 101, why I love to write, and why I’m so fascinated by atheist books and YouTube channels.
One topic that has always fascinated me about Christianity is the problem of evil, and lately it’s lead me to consider various issues and explanations concerning free will, heaven, prayer, and God’s omniscience and omnipotence. Allow me to elaborate.
Firstly, I would like to shortly revisit an element of paradox in praying that I mentioned in a previous post. I said that if God is omniscient, then he already knows what is going to happen, so praying is useless, because we can’t change God’s predetermined course of action. Some might say, however, that if he is omnipotent, then he could change the future, although that begs the question of whether or not he knew what you wanted to happen before you prayed about it, and why he didn’t just put that outcome into action in the first place. If he already knows what you want, why would he need reminded?
You can read more of my objections to prayer in the link in the previous paragraph, but for now I’ll move on. Even if you did, say, want a specific outcome, and you prayed to God for it, and he could give it to you, that means you’re compromising someone’s free will. If God approves and decides to take your suggestion of making something happen, he’ll have to control the person making that action, such as the boy you like texting you, your mom buying you that kitten, or the oncoming driver swerving back into her own lane just in time.
With that in mind, let’s now consider the problem of evil. We all know it: if God is perfect and omnipotent, then why does he allow for evil? A very common response to this question is that God doesn’t create or commit evil acts, we do. What we do is out of his control; he didn’t intend for humans to sin, but Eve ate the apple of her own accord. It’s not his fault that we can sometimes be despicable, because we’re free agents and while he can steer us in the right direction, what we do is ultimately up to us.
So, what I ask is this: if you explain the problem of evil by saying that God can’t control our actions, then why would you pray to him to influence what someone does? Even praying for something like world peace would mean that he influences what happens in the minds of world leaders, which, as you tried to explain the problem of evil, you said he can’t do. The only thing worth praying for is safety from “natural evil” such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or other weather-related abominations.
Another paradox related to free will was summarized nicely by CosmicSkeptic (or Alex J. O’Connor) in his video The Problem of Evil: The Free Will Defense, and I’d like to relay it here. It seems as though the problem of evil and the concept of free will within Christian thinking are very closely intertwined. As I said earlier, a common explanation for why God allows for evil is because it inevitably arises out of our own free will (keep this in mind in the next paragraph). Free will was given to us by God, as many Christians say, so that he can have a real, meaningful relationship with us, as opposed to us acting as robots who only love him or do good because we’re programmed to.
Given these points, consider this question: can free will exist in heaven? In his video, Alex gives three possible answers and the reasons why none of them are entirely satisfactory.
- Yes, there is free will. Since evil arises out of free will, there’s also evil in heaven.
- No, there is no free will in heaven (neither #1 or #2 sound like a very ideal way to spend eternity, do they?)
- Yes, by some miracle (perhaps one of God’s mysterious ways), free will exists in heaven but evil does not.
Surprisingly, answer #3 actually gives us the biggest problem, because if there is an instance in which we can have free will, but commit no evil, then you can no longer use the idea of free will inevitably leading to evil in order to explain the problem of evil.
Ironically, the day after I watched Alex’s video, we discussed the problem of evil in Apologetics. My professor essentially shrugged it off using the “God’s Mysterious Ways” excuse by saying that God’s holiness is a more salient attribute than his lovingness, which means that he can do whatever he wants and we ought not to ask. He continually brings up how we ought to have faith and trust in God, which is honestly a waste of my hard-earned tuition money. Other professors I’ve had have come up with much more satisfying explanations for the problem of evil (mentioning this free-will-leads-to-evil phenomenon), but my apologetics teacher didn’t even try. At least without his direction, I’m still driven enough my curiosity to research these questions on my own.
What do you think of free will within Christianity? Do you agree that it’s paradoxical, or do you use another explanation? Let me know in the comments!