Throughout July, we’re celebrating the legacy of philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who reintroduced the validity of Christian thought to the academy. Last year we commissioned 13 students to write on the importance of Plantinga for the modern university. Here is the first of three featured essays:

In the opening scene of the movie Blood Diamond, the protagonist, Danny Archer, surveys the landscape of Sierra Leone, a country whose people are regularly brutalized by the exploitative Western diamond industry. He takes stock of the horrific, often deadly consequences of this greed: the blood which stains the soil red, the kidnapping of children to become child soldiers, the wrenching separation of families, and the question falls easily from his lips, “…will God ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other?” He pauses, and then answers his own question, “God left this place a long time ago.” His summation is at once devastating and appealing; even as it dashes all hope of divine justice, it offers a kind of comforting and rugged realism, one which soberly accepts human solitude in facing our fate, however grim that fate may be.

This realism can sometimes feed arrogance, but it also represents the source of legitimate questioning of the Christian God, whose seemingly paradoxical nature is exemplified in his benevolence and omnipotence that nevertheless permit the existence of evil. This paradox is often used as evidence against Christian doctrine; indeed, this argument is invoked with such frequency that we run the risk of too easily dismissing it. The vagueness of the argument’s terms may exacerbate its triteness, since evil does not seem quite so terrible when neatly and blandly conceptualized. This, in combination with the Christian hope of our suffering being turned to joy in Heaven, helps us minimize the objection to belief in an all-loving and all-powerful God. Nonetheless, the existence of evil represents a compelling challenge to Christian doctrine and is one worth investigating.

In his book on God, Freedom, and Evil, Alvin Plantinga explores the problem of evil through a series of sub-topics: the omnipotence of God, the possibility of our world being the best of all possible worlds, and the question of free will. Plantinga begins by establishing God as an omnipotent being with no nonlogical limits to his power. This, of course, begs the question of whether God can eliminate every evil state of affairs. It seems rational that he would be able to do so, given his omnipotence and omniscience. But this itself demands another significant question: “under what conditions would an omnipotent being be unable to eliminate a certain evil without eliminating an outweighing good?” In other words, is it possible that God, in order to preserve an outweighing good, had to allow for the existence of evil? Plantinga provides the example of what he calls “creative moral heroism” –– a quality which typically only exists as a result of “suffering or adversity.” Plantinga explains further by saying that “if someone bears pain magnificently,” it must be true that “someone is in pain.” Perhaps our very best nature can only emerge when we have experienced great suffering. Therefore, it is possible that God allowed evil for a good reason: without it, our world would lack certain human qualities that manifest most richly in the aftermath of evil.

This idea is at the crux of the Free Will Defense, which designates our world as the best because of the existence of “significantly free” creatures. These are beings, according to Plantinga, who are free “with respect to morally significant action.” An example would be conscientious objection, or to give a more quotidian example, not cheating on a test. Choosing to eat Cheerios over Count Chocula for breakfast is not a morally significant action, because we cannot say that picking one cereal over the other would be wrong to do (or right to refrain from). God creates us to be free, but we are not significantly free if we are causally determined to refrain from evil –– God cannot create us to be at once free and incapable of evil, as this would violate the fundamental characteristics of freedom itself. Plantinga argues that, in essence, this means that God “could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil” only by taking away our capacity to do moral good. At this point, we have determined that God is an omnipotent being with no nonlogical limitations on his power, who allowed for the existence of evil in order to create significantly free human beings.

Plantinga then deals with a significant objection to the Free Will Defense, which is that God’s inability to create beings who are both free and commit no evil is inconsistent with His omnipotence. If God’s power has no nonlogical limitations, the argument goes, why couldn’t He have created a world in which there are only people “who are significantly free but always do what is right”? We assume here that his omnipotence entails the capacity to create any possible world. Plantinga begins his investigation of this claim by defining “possible world” as “a way things could have been” or a “state of affairs.” He then distinguishes between a possible world and a possible state of affairs by saying that “a possible world is a possible state of affairs,” but the same is not true in reverse; not every possible state of affairs is a possible world. One characteristic of a possible world is that it must be “complete or maximal”; this necessarily excludes states of affairs that are too elemental or small to be full worlds.

Now that we have these definitions, Plantinga returns to the original question: could God have created any world He wanted to? Here Plantinga makes another important distinction. God does not, in fact, create worlds; rather, He created the heavens and the earth, which resulted in the actuality of the state of affairs which contains our world’s existence. Plantinga summarizes this as God “actualizes the possible world that does in fact obtain.” Plantinga continues with yet another question: is God a necessary or contingent being? A necessary being exists in all possible worlds, while a contingent being only exists in certain possible worlds. Most theists believe that God is a contingent being1, which Plantinga defends with the simple argument that “God could not have created a world in which He doesn’t even exist.” So, we continue with this alteration to our question: out of all the possible worlds in which God exists, could He have actualized a state of affairs such that the resultant earth contained significantly free beings who never commit evil?

Here Plantinga introduces the concept of “transworld depravity,” a characteristic of human beings which stipulates that significant freedom results in taking at least one wrong action. Essentially, what this means is that God could not actualize a world in which human beings are significantly free yet always do what is right, because transworld depravity is a trait that exists regardless of which world is actualized. This is because transworld depravity infects every essence of human beings, such that regardless of which essence manifests, so long as human beings are significantly free, they will always do wrong in some way.

At this point, Christian doctrine appears at best, grim and at worst, staggeringly out-of-touch with earthly realities. Plantinga’s thorough investigation of the existence of evil provides a strong defense against the notion that God is simply not powerful or loving enough to eliminate suffering. Indeed, we are given the reassurance that God, in his benevolence, actualized the best possible world, which, despite the existence of evil, allows us to thrive as free creatures. But what comfort does this provide in the face of life’s particular, specific griefs? Evil is much harder to grapple with outside the confines of philosophy: its edges are harsh and jagged. Our vision of the rationality of its existence is clouded by our anguish and anger, our pain and our agony. We feel alone, and there is a kind of twisted vindication in our loneliness: at the very least, we tell ourselves, we are not deluded by the false hope of a benevolent God.

If Christ’s coming to Earth were not a fundamental part of Christian doctrine, our loneliness would indeed be complete. Like Danny Archer, we would conclude that God is distant, perhaps even indifferent. How can he understand our earthly pain? But then we set our eyes on Bethlehem, where from a cattle stall emerges a King, fully human and fully divine. He becomes intimately familiar with our pain and suffering. He weeps at the loss of a friend; his stomach twists with hunger; he cannot stay awake out of exhaustion. He is mocked, doubted, and scorned. His most beloved friends betray him. He then displays a love that goes far beyond “creative moral heroism.” He accepts an agonizingly long, painful, and humiliating execution, culminating in suffering that goes beyond human conception: bearing the wrath of his father for every sin ever committed in the past, present, and future. This sacrifice, in combination with the remarkable life Christ led, is what infuses Christian doctrine with complexity and deep meaning richness –– it is resilient in the face of immeasurable horrors, the deepest grief; it bears up the widow, the orphan, the abused, the lost, the bitter, the empty. And it provides the enduring hope of salvation and the promise of a new time in which, as J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, “everything sad is going to come untrue.”

  1. In his other works (cf. God and Other Minds; The Nature of Necessity), Plantinga presents many arguments for the necessity of God. The statements he makes here do not appear to be a summation of his personal views, but rather a logical claim made for the purposes of exploring the Free Will Defense in God, Freedom, and Evil. This discussion of contingency vs. necessity establishes a constraint on God’s ability to create any possible world, which serves to narrow the question of whether a world could exist such that its inhabitants were significantly free but never committed any wrongdoings (Plantinga 39-40).