Does God Have Free Will?

CS Lewis in his influential book The Problem of Pain makes an argument that explains the presence of evil in the world as a consequence of free will. In his chapter on “Divine Omnipotence,” Lewis states “Again, the freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between.”

Later, Lewis draws out the implication of this freedom: “But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void… Try to exclude the possibility of suffering [which is the consequence of freely choosing the wrong]… and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

In other words, Lewis is saying that for human beings, having free will means having the ability to truly choose. And this includes the ability to choose right and wrong. God made the world good. Choosing the wrong brings about sin, evil, and suffering in the world. In order for Lewis to remove the suffering in this world, he would have to remove free will and its consequences. Lewis puts it more plainly in “The Shocking Alternative” chapter of Mere Christianity:

“Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”

In human beings, to remove free choice (and thus the possibility of evil), God would have to remove love. But God believes love is worth the risk.

The purpose of this essay is not to completely go through Lewis’ argument against the problem of pain. If you have not, you should do yourself a favor and read that book.

Instead, I wanted to raise an objection to Lewis’ explanation of freedom. If having a free will means being able to choose between good and evil, then does God have a free will?

On a cursory view of Lewis’ argument, it would seem that God does not have free will. We say that God is all-good. If that is the case, then there can be no evil in God. If there can be no evil in God, then it would be impossible for Him to choose evil. But on Lewis’ definition, having a free will means being able to choose between good and evil. So it would seem like God does not have a free will.

To address this problem, we need to make a few distinctions.

The first is that whenever we talk about attributes of God that are also found in humans like freedom, consciousness, thinking, etc, we must remember that we speak of these qualities in God only by analogy. We must remember that God is not a creature like us. He is the infinite and eternal Creator. There is no way we could fully comprehend how He lives and exists. But we have some idea because reflected in us are analogous qualities.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. Imagine a painter does a self portrait of himself. There are great similarities, but they are all analogous. If the painter drew a hand on the portrait, you could say that the picture has a “hand” in the sense of a two-dimensional drawing of an end of a limb that appears to have five digits. But it is only analogous the real hand which is made of flesh and blood, not paint and canvas. In the same way, our free will is similar to God’s free will, but ours is like the paint and canvas version of the Divine thing.

The second distinction we have to make is that Lewis is clearly only talking about freedom in human creatures and not God. If creatures are made by Goodness Itself, but these creatures are not Goodness Itself, and these creatures are free, then it must follow that if they are free they must have the real choice between good and evil. Lewis is not speaking here about freedom as applies to God.

So is God free?

The short answer is yes.

God cannot choose evil, but that is no impediment to His freedom. As Lewis points out in The Problem of Pain, God cannot perform a contradiction. God can cause miracles like parting the Red Sea. But God cannot do a contradiction, like giving us free will and not giving us free will at the same time

As Lewis writes: His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense… It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God…”

God is Love. Because of this, He cannot choose not to love. If He did, this would be a contradiction (to be Love and not be Love at the same time., which would be nonsense. God is Goodness Itself. Because of this, He cannot choose evil. If He did, this would be a contradiction (to be Goodness Itself and not Goodness Itself at the same time), which would be nonsense. And as Lewis pointed out, nonsense is not a thing for God to do, and thus His omnipotence meets no obstacle.

God does have the ability to choose things that are not necessary to His being. St. Thomas Aquinas says “Since the evil of sin consists in turning away from the divine goodness, by which God wills all things, as above shown (De Fide ii, 3), it is manifestly impossible for Him to will the evil of sin; yet He can make choice of one of two opposites, inasmuch as He can will a thing to be, or not to be. In the same way we ourselves, without sin, can will to sit down, and not will to sit down.” (Summa Theologiae, I.Q19.A10)

God cannot choose evil. But He can choose things that do not have to be. He could have created me or not created me. He could have created you or not created you. He could have created the universe or not created the universe. And in this, God has great freedom.

It is important to remember that God is not free to do evil. Rather, God, in a sense, is the most free of any of us.

He is free from evil.

Copyright 2020, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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