How to Address the Problem of Evil Part 3


As we continue to build on our theology of suffering we decided to look at the problem of evil to help us understand why pain, suffering, disease, and death are present. In our first post (found here) we defined what a Theodicy is, and in our second post (found here), we started working through common answers that fall short of the whole counsel of God’s Word.

Today, I want to briefly explore one of the most common answers that is filled with truth but does not go far enough in explaining the problem of evil.

The Free Will Defense:

Free will

One of the main theodicies is what is called the free will defense. There are many forms of theodicy that fall under this category. One biblically accurate form of this view was presented by one of the later church fathers, Augustine.

This approach states that God created human beings with the capacity to do both good and evil. Here, he’s speaking specifically of Adam and Eve, not you and me. Humans, Adam and Eve, chose to commit evil, and as a result evil was introduced into the world. We call this, the fall.

That’s the fall of man. Adam and Eve put their judgment over the judgment of God. They rebelled against the Word, the will, and the judgment of God. At the heart of rebellion is a conscious choice to place one’s self over God as the ultimate authority. And that is exactly what Adam and Eve did. It’s a denial of the Creator/creature distinction.

So this view, in this form, holds that before the fall there was real free will but now people are dead in trespasses and in their sin. Now we’re good up to this point. It’s accurate to say that humans are directly responsible for evil in the world—not God. This perspective is consistent with the traditional view that evil entered the world through the sin and fall of Adam.

But when people typically talk about the “free will defense” today, this isn’t exactly what they mean. They tend to take the free will Adam and Eve had, and claim that we have what they call “libertarian” free will to choose whatever we desire, whether it is good or evil.

“This heart of “libertarian free will” is that God doesn’t override this type of free will and neither do external circumstances for that matter.”
This heart of “libertarian free will” is that God doesn’t override this type of free will and neither do external circumstances for that matter. You always have choice no matter what the circumstances are. But is that what Scripture teaches about free will? Let’s see.


Scripture does teach that man is or can be, free in the following areas (to name two): 1) He does what he wants to do, acting in accordance with his own desires. 2) Adam had the freedom or ability to choose either Good or evil.

But the Fall removed this freedom from us, and Scripture makes the point that fallen creatures can do only what is evil: Gen 6:5The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Isa 6:5We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Rom 3:10-12 “as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Where does this leave those who are redeemed and have their identity in Christ)? When you are saved by the substitutionary work of Christ, you are brought to an even higher freedom. You have a freedom from sin and its effect altogether. For example in John 8:32, Jesus says “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

This is important because “freedom from sin” is the usual meaning of “freedom” in the context of free will in the New Testament.

We are free in the sense that we are not the helpless victims of historical determinism. Scripture does not allow us to say it’s our parents fault, or the environment, or psychological imbalance, or self-esteem, or whatever else we come up with as excuses for violating God’s commandments.

We are, in all our actions responsible to obey the Lord. That’s why Paul tells us in 1 Cor 10:31 – that, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” That’s what Scripture teaches us in terms of our free will.

Before we’re saved, all we do is sin because we are slaves to sin. It owns us and drives us and we can’t choose to glorify God. After salvation, we now have freedom to be free from sin, because we are redeemed purchased.

“Scripture does not teach free will in the sense that it is used by the current free will defense.”
However, Scripture does not teach, in fact, I believe it denies free will in the sense that it is used by the current free will defense. In that view of freedom, man’s free choices are not in any way foreordained or caused by God.

Scripture frequently speaks of God determining our free choices: Gen 50:2020 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

Acts 2:23 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Prov 16:9 “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (2 Sam 24: 1, referring specifically to evil choices; Luke 24:45; John 6:44, 65; Acts 2:47; 11:18; 13:48;16:14; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29). And certainly the free choices of human beings are included among the general statement of Romans 11:36 and Ephesians 1:11.)


Paul’s argument in Romans chapter 9 is a good example of this. It is remarkable that in Romans 9, where the problem of evil is raised explicitly, Paul does not use the free will defense in fact he argues the exact opposite.

Paul is dealing with the issue that very few Jews have believed in Christ. This reality caused Paul much heartache and pain (vs. 2-5 sorrow, unceasing anguish in his heart), because these are his people and, historically, the people of God, the heirs of the promise.

So Paul is bringing up the question of why so few Jews believe and this question itself is rooted in a strong view of the sovereignty of God. Do you see it? Why would the problem of evil arise here at all unless Paul were assuming that faith is a gift of God?

The problem is that God has taken Israel to be His people, yet he has largely withheld from them the gift of faith.

Paul’s answer is that since the time of Abraham, there has been a division among the “people of God” between those who actually belong to God by faith and those who are only physically descended from Abraham.

What causes this division? It’s not human choice, it’s not free will. Instead he traces the division back to “God’s purpose in election (v. 11), adding, “not by works but by Him who calls” (v. 12). God foretold the fate of Esau and Jacob before they were even born, indicating that He had foreordained their destiny (vs. 12-13).

In verse 14, the problem of evil comes to the foreground: was God unjust to ordain evil for Esau before he was even born? No, says Paul. But why? The free will defense would say that God foresaw Esau’s autonomous free choices and therefore determined to punish him. But Paul traces it to God’s own free choice (you know, God’s free will):

Verse 15, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (he’s quoting Exodus 33:19).

In v. 16, he then adds, it does not depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. Then comes verse 17, which tells us that God’s purpose for raising up evil Pharaoh was to declare His name throughout the earth.

In vs. 18 it says, “Therefore, God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy and he hardens whom He wants to harden”.

In verse 19, the problem of evil comes up again: Why does God still blame us? And again, the answer is not “because God does not control our free choices.” But the answer is that He has the full rights over us to do whatever He (sovereignly) chooses to do.

The Word of God does not use the free will defense in any passage where the problem of evil is up for discussion. You will not find in Romans 9, the book of Job, in Psalm 37, or in Psalm 73. All these texts are rooted in God’s sovereign choice and rule.


Now, I know that is complex, and challenging, especially to our individualistic culture where we self-determine everything. But today’s free will argument is not a proper argument for the reason evil and suffering exist in the world.

So where does that leave us? Check back next week as we dig deeper into Scripture to see what answers we can find.


About the Author

Jeff RoetsJeff is a disciple of Christ, a husband, a daddy, and serves as senior pastor of Newark Community Church, in beautiful Newark, CA.View all posts by Jeff Roets →

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