T he common argument against the existence of God is If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why is there evil?

The common retort to that argument is: God’s love demands that He give His creatures freedom to choose. It was in response to this retort that atheist apologist J. L. Mackie presented a fascinating rebuttal:

“If God has made men such,” Mackie wrote, “that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he have not made men such that they always freely choose the good? If there is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or on several occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion. God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong; there was open to him the obviously better position of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.”

WOW! At first glance that sounds powerful. A second glance, however, reveals just how weak it is. Sure, God could have created beings who would choose only the good, but would they really be “free,” and would what they choose really be “good”?

A person free to make only good choices is “free,” but in the limited sense that a prisoner—if allowed to walk around their cell, use the toilet, or think whatever thoughts they want—is “free.” A person locked in a dungeon is, in one sense, “free,” in that their mind isn’t chained to a wall. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that even a person under torture is “free” in whether or not to divulge information. Mackie’s people are “free” in the way a poor person is “free” (along with a rich one) to sleep on a park bench. If one has a very narrow, parochial, and limited view of what it means to be free, Mackie has a good point. In contrast, a broader, deeper, and more-dimensional freedom saps Mackie’s argument of vitality because people free to make only moral choices are not only not free but not even “good.”

Can a person capable of only moral (or good) acts be moral (or good)? Or can coerced acts ever be moral? Did a person forced at gunpoint to give blood in order to save a life commit a moral act or just one that resulted in the good (in the same way that a tree blown over a bridge resulted in the good because it prevented a family from being killed in a wreck on the other side)? A computer can be programmed to do the good (such as warn of an air attack that gives innocent people time to find shelter), but is its action moral? Mackie’s people, who can do only the good, who have no other choice than the good, are no different than actors who perform the “good” on stage. There’s a thinness to their deeds that denudes them of virtue or “goodness.”

If God wanted to create moral beings, free beings, good beings, He had to create them with a freedom much broader than Mackie’s argument allows. Morality, to be morality, must possess the potential for immorality, just as goodness, to be good, must possess the potential to be not good. God could have created “men such that they always freely choose the good,” but only in a universe in which the notions of “freely,” “choose,” and “the good” were cardboard cutouts of the real (and bad ones at that).

The core of Mackie’s rebuttal is this: No free persons ever created by an omniscient and loving God should ever do immoral acts. The core of my retort is this: Nothing in the notion of an all-loving and omnipotent God demands that the free beings created by Him must always do right. On the contrary, a loving and omnipotent God who creates moral and free beings has to, of necessity, place them in an environment in which evil, though not inevitable, must be possible. The definition of “moral” and “free” demand it. Otherwise, all God could have created were Mackie’s gutless and amoral stickfigures who, in the end, are neither good nor free.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.

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