If God Is Love, Does That Mean He Is Free Not to Love?

The Problem

A friend emailed me a question: when confronted with the problem of evil, many Christians respond that most evil comes from humans freely choosing to do evil. Why, it is asked, would God give humans the free will to do evil if that free will would lead to evil and suffering? Because, the argument goes, God had to give humans free will so they could love. Robots, for example, cannot love because they do not have free will. And, as the argument normally ends, the existence of loving humans was a greater good than the good of excluding evil. So God decided to create humans who could love even though that would end with evil in the world.

Though it takes a few moves to set it up, it is probably the most common response to claims that the existence of evil shows that a good God doesn’t exist.

Back to my friend’s question, which was about what this response implies about nature of God: if God is love, then God had to have the freedom to be able to choose what is evil. Right? After all, God had to be free to be able to love. God’s freedom, though, means that He could choose to do evil. He could be an oppressive and vicious God rather than a God who is merciful and loving.

But is that what we want to say about God? This is especially troubling because the traditional view is that God is love not because He merely chooses every time to do the loving action rather than the unloving action, but because God is, by His very nature, good.

So the free will defense (not to be confused with Alvin Plantinga’s more sophisticated free will defense) seems to lead to the denial of the good nature of God.

What should we say about this? Is there a way to say that God has free will in a meaningful way but isn’t free to choose evil? Or must we choose between a God who is good by nature and a God who is free to love?

My Answer

(I’m not sure if this ends up being a satisfactory answer.)

I think when we talk about free will (libertarian free will), we have to think about what choices are open to someone. It’s not freedom to do every possible configuration.

This can be illustrated using a problem involving God’s omnipotence, that is, that God is all-powerful. Is an omnipotent God powerful enough to create a square circle? If God is all-powerful, then surely He can do even something as outlandish as creating a square circle. But the classic response is that God can only do things that are logically possible. God cannot create a square circle, because it is a logical impossibility. In other words, God’s ability to do anything is only within the scope of logically possible things. Therefore, God can still be omnipotent even if He is unable to create a square circle.

It’s not that God’s omnipotence is limited in any meaningful sense by His not being able to create a square circle. It’s that God’s omnipotence only means that He is able to do anything that is logically possible.

How does that relate to the question? Because the same is true of saying that God is free. We have to ask what are the options open to God. His freedom means He is free to do that. God, as all-good and all-loving by nature, doesn’t have the option of not loving. The logically possible actions for God doesn’t include any choices that are unloving. So God has free will, but He is unable to choose to do evil.

Another way to explain this is to think of free will as the absence of something external to one’s self forcing one to do something.

God, if He forced humans to love, would be an external force that forced love. To be love, humans need to be able to love in the absence of an external force making them love. But God isn’t externally forced to love. God’s love arises internally, from His nature.

So, isn’t it contradictory to say that love only exists when there is free will? No. Humans, who are not essentially loving, have the free choice not to love. But God can freely choose to love, even though He can only choose to love, because he is, in nature, love.

God is freely choosing to love, because he is freely choosing from the logically possible actions that are before Him. But, because He is loving by nature, there are no logically possible unloving actions before him.

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  1. Micah, for the sake of disambiguation I would not say “God is freely choosing to love” and instead say “God is freely loving”.

    The former implies that the contrary is an option, the language of “choice” is exactly what you are arguing about above.

    As an example, I would say that “Sharks swim freely” as swimming is part of the nature of sharks; I would not say that “Sharks are freely choosing to swim” (as opposed to walking).

    For a man like Phelps I would say that “Phelps is freely choosing to swim” when he is in the pool at the olympics, as it is not a necessary feature of his being to swim but it is a chosen option.

    1. Yes. I think you’re right, though I do think we want to see God as making choices in some sense. Is there a way to retain the idea of God’s acting freely without the possibility of the contrary position? I’m not sure, though.

      Maybe I should not speak of God choosing to love, but instead of God choosing a loving act. Unless the loving act is necessary, then God had to choose to act in that particular way.

      I don’t know. There’s a lot about my response that I’m unhappy with.

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