Today, I want to talk about probably the three most important interrelated problems facing Christianity: the problem of free will, the problem of evil, and the problem of Hell. These are not only the issues which drive people away from Christianity, but they’re issues which have divided even Christians, with some Christians denying that free will even exists, while others deny the reality of Hell.
At first brush, free will may not seem like much of a problem. In fact, it’s one of the most vexing problems. Why did God create us with free wills, instead of in a state of perfect obedience and love of Him?
As Fr. Jacques Philippe noted in his book Interior Freedom, “In the area of morality, freedom appears very nearly the only value about which people still agree unanimously at the beginning of the third millennium. Everyone more or less agrees that respect for other people’s freedom is more or less an ethical norm.” So we generally agree with this idea of free will, except when we don’t like the outcome.
Free will requires the possibility of evil. Otherwise, the freedom of the will is illusory. Think of the ballot used by Saddam Hussein in what would be his last re-election. As ABC News described at the time:
On Tuesday, voters were faced with a remarkably simple ballot: Should President Saddam Hussein be given another seven years in office? Yes or no. There were no alternative candidates on the ballot, and absolutely no campaigning against the entrenched Saddam.
Not surprisingly, the result was was unanimous.
It’s also another way of describing Hell. When non-Christians talk about Hell, they sometimes joke like it’s going to be a big party. “I may be going to Hell, but at least all my friends are going to be there,” one Facebook group proclaims. We imagine we can take the graces of this life – including our ability to feel pleasure – and take it with us into the eternal abyss. That’s tragically mistaken.
Imagine a woman being wooed by a romantically-interested man, who declines his overtures, but accepts his many gifts. One day, she eventually marries someone else, and the rejection is complete. The would-be suitor, while still in love with her, respects her decision and stops sending gifts. Given her choice, it’s the appropriate thing to do. Now that she’s married to someone else, her chance to choose the suitor is over once and for all.
So it is when we live and die outside of God’s grace. During this lifetime, we still enjoy the graces of God even while we’re rebuffing His attempts at a meaningful relationship. But upon our death, when we’ve made it clear once and for all that we’re choosing someone or something other than Him, our rejection of God becomes final, and the gifts we’re reliant upon stop coming. He loves us, but respects our decision.
This is the answer which seems to be given by Scripture. God says in Genesis 1:26, “Let Us make man in Our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” The “image of God” isn’t a physical description, but a spiritual one.
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
So it was true that their eyes were opened. They came to know good and evil. But in coming to know good from evil, they came to know shame. Suddenly, Adam and Eve become morally responsible for their actions, because now they know better. They’ve lost their ignorant innocence. All of us go through this in our own lives, as we mature from small children.
But the rest of what the serpent said was false. Unsurprisingly, God was telling the truth: acquiring knowledge of good and evil requires death. Not simply the death of innocence, but the risk of eternal death — Hell. Tiger Sharks kill one another in the womb. But they’re not at risk of Hell for this fratricide, because they’re not morally responsible agents. In contrast, when Cain kills Abel (Genesis 4:1-16), he is morally responsible.
That brings us, more or less, to the present day. We have free will, which is good. And we have the knowledge of good and evil, which helps us make informed moral choices. But because we have knowledge of good and evil, we’re accountable for our actions. That includes the risk of Hell.
The best challenge I’ve heard to Christianity is this one: why did God create the damned at all? After all, God:
- wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)
- knows perfectly well who will choose and who will reject Him. (Romans 8:29; John 21:27)
- knows that for the damned, it would be better not to have been born. (Mark 14:21)
God desires the best for everyone, including those who end up in Hell. If that weren’t the case, we could imagine a higher good than God. And He knows the terrible fate of the damned. Yet in His Goodness, He’s not going to stop the free will of damned, just as the military doesn’t stop free elections, even when it becomes clear we’re going to make a terrible choice we’ll have to live with four years.
Having said all that, couldn’t God simply not create the damned?
If God foreknows that Adam, Betty, and Charles will accept the grace of salvation, but that David, Ellen, and Francis will reject it, ending up in eternal anguish, why create David, Ellen, and Francis at all? Why not create a world with only Adam, Betty, and Charles in it?
I struggled with this issue for a long time, but having listened to some brighter minds than mine talk about it (like William Lane Craig), I’m satisfied that there’s a good answer. God foreknows that in a world with Adam, Betty, Charles, David, Ellen, and Francis, the first three will go to Heaven and the last three to Hell. But that doesn’t mean that things would look the same in a world with just Adam, Betty, and Charles.
Perhaps it was the bad example of Francis which turned Betty away from a life of sin; or perhaps Charles came to know Christ through caring for his father, David. After all, there are plenty of priests and preachers whose own souls are in danger, yet these same people often lead others to Christ.
None of us go through life in isolation: we’re surrounded, and influenced, by countless numbers of those around us, sinners and Saints alike. To imagine that we could change one variable — much less a million variables — without impacting the final outcome seems naïve.
Finally, consider the fate of Judas. It’s of Judas that Jesus says, “It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). Yet Judas is the one who betrays Christ, and his betrayal results in Christ’s Death on the Cross, which results in our Redemption. Every Saint in history profited directly from Judas’ betrayal. That doesn’t make that betrayal alright (obviously — it wasn’t as if Judas was being public-minded), but it does give us a hint into why God would permit someone like Judas to exist. There’s no question that Jesus loves Judas, that He would have taken Him back in an instant if Judas had converted. Yet God, knowing Judas’ stubbornness and sinfulness, was able to draw profit from that, too. He’s always able to draw good out of evil (Romans 5:20). Here, He drew the supreme good, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, out of the supreme betrayal.