Could God have willed that there be no evil while still leaving the human will to be free?

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 21

In the previous post I made the claim that for Aquinas, God could have willed that there be no evil in the world while still leaving the human will to be free. This is a point, however, upon which not all Thomist scholars appear to agree. Jean Oesterle, for example, in her translation of Aquinas’s On Evil, writes:

a position often advanced by contemporary authors is that there was an option for God to effect the better possibility of making human beings who in choosing freely would always choose what is right and hence never sin, and that this is what an omnipotent and wholly good God would do. But such a position seems in fact to be inconsistent and even implicitly contradictory. For it is not naturally possible for God to create human beings having a rational nature and a free will who always choose what is right and never commit a fault or a sin. Indeed, Aquinas says in effect that no rational nature can always perform actions that never depart from what is good. This is possible only for a being in whom is found in a natural and immutable manner the universal and perfect nature of good. This is possible only for God Who alone has a free will which is naturally incapable of sin and confirmed in good, which is not possible for a creature. Human nature is naturally fallible. Although the ability to sin is not a necessary property of free will, still it does follow de facto upon free will as it exists in a created and finite nature. One is therefore inclined to say that to be what a human being is, is to be capable of committing sin, and at times to do so because of the finite, fallible nature man has; and this follows from the way free judgment and choice functions, given that nature. (Jean Oesterle, “Preface,” in Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Oesterle, xvii, emphasis added)

According to Oesterle, in short, in creating free, rational beings, not only is God unable to guarantee that none of them will sin, their freedom virtually ensures that they will in fact sin.

But here Oesterle seems to conflate two issues that are in fact distinct: the question of the intrinsic possibility of the human nature to sin and the question of God’s ability to ordain a world in which the always present possibility of sin nevertheless goes forever unrealized. According to Herbert McCabe, not only are these two issues distinct for St. Thomas, but keeping them distinct is essential to preserving a sense of the mystery of God’s purpose for allowing evil in the world, that is to say, his purpose for allowing something that is in fact not necessary for human beings to be free. As McCabe inquires,

must we not admit that although God did not, of course, bring about my failure he could, instead, have brought about my success? In fact it was the fact that God did not cause me freely to succeed that brought it about that I freely failed. There can be no doubt, then, that had he wished to do so God could always have prevented me from sinning—without, of course, in any way interfering with my freedom. For freedom does not mean independence of God. It means independence of other creatures. Thus although God does not cause me to fail of choosing the good, he could easily have caused me to choose the good… It remains of course, that I have not the faintest idea why God permits moral evil… This is an unfathomable mystery but it is not a contradiction. (McCabe, God Matters, 38)

McCabe’s student Brian Davies makes the same argument with respect to Aquinas over against the kind of free will theodicies advanced by contemporary philosophers of religion Richard Swinburne and John Hick (Davies, “Introduction,” in Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Regan, 50-1). As for McCabe, while I agree with him that the question of why God allows evil is indeed ultimately an unfathomable mystery, as I suggested in the previous post (on God’s ability to bring a different–if not a “greater”–good out of evil), I do think Thomas and Tolkien have a little more than this to say on the subject.

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One thought on “Could God have willed that there be no evil while still leaving the human will to be free?

  1. You don’t suppose it’s a contradiction to say that God has the ability to prevent all evil (child rape, starvation, infidelity, etc.) but refrains and simultaneously maintain that such a being is good? Would you call me good if I watched a child wonder into oncoming traffic, all the while being perfectly capable of stopping him? It seems to me that an all good, all powerful God (on Aquinas’ system where everything is “caused” by God) could not create a universe with evil in it at all. Yet evil is here – surely. Either then God is evil, or else evil is an illusion. But both of those, again, are problematic.

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