Skip to main content

Plantinga's version of the free-will argument: the good and evil that free beings do


According to Plantinga's version of the free-will argument (FWA), the existence of free beings in the world who, on the whole, do more good than evil is the greater moral good that cannot be secured by even an omnipotent God without allowing some evil and thereby shows the logical compatibility of God with evil. In this essay, I argue that there are good empirical and moral reasons, from the standpoint of one plausible conception of Christian ethics, to doubt that Plantinga's version of the FWA succeeds as a theodicy. In particular, I argue that, given this understanding of Christian ethics, it seems reasonable to think it false that free beings are doing more good than evil in the world. While there are surely possible worlds in which free beings do more good than evil, this material world seems clearly not one of those. Thus, while Plantinga's version might succeed as a defence against the logical problem of evil, it will neither rebut the evidential problem of evil nor, without more, ground a successful theodicy that reconciles God's existence with the evil that occurs in this world.

Corresponding author
Hide All


1. Put otherwise, the strategy of this version of the FWA is as follows: the FWA attempts to show the claim that (1) an all-perfect God exists is consistent with the claim that (2) evil exists, by showing that the claim that (3) the existence of free beings, by itself, is a moral good outweighing the evil that cannot be achieved without allowing such evil. I have criticized this version in Himma Kenneth EinarThe free-will defence: evil and the moral value of free will’, Religious Studies, 45 (2009), 373395. This paper should be considered a companion piece to that one.

2. See, e.g. Rowe WilliamThe problem of evil and some varieties of atheism’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 16 (1979), 335341.

3. Augustine The Problem of Free Choice, XXII of Ancient Christian Writers (Westminster MD: The Newman Press, 1955), book 3, 9. Other attempts to defend free-will theodicies include Richard Swinburne ‘Some major strands of theodicy’, in Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.) The Evidential Argument from Evil (Indianapolis IN: Indiana University Press, 1996); Peter van Inwagen, ‘The problem of evil, the problem of air, and the problem of silence’, in Howard-Snyder Evidential Argument from Evil; and Stephen T. Davis ‘Free will and evil’, in idem (ed.) Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (Atlanta GA: John Knox Press, 2001).

4. Alvin Plantinga God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 30 (emphasis added). Strictly speaking, the last sentence in the quotation is false. Moral good is possible in a world if there is at least one moral agent in the world; since, by hypothesis, God exists and is a moral agent, God's existence is enough to ensure the possibility of moral good in the world.

5. One might think that I am interpreting Plantinga too literally here. The claim would be that Plantinga does not intend to suggest by use of the locution ‘freely perform more good than evil actions’ that the FWA succeeds only if the totality of good deeds (or positive utility) exceeds the totality of bad deeds (or negative utility). For my part, I cannot see a more plausible interpretation or even a plausible one that coheres with this wording. But if so, the burden is on the proponent of that interpretation to produce and defend it.

6. See ‘Crime in the United States: murder’, Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation, available at:; see also ‘United States Crime Rates 1960–2006,’, which summarizes other crime rates from 1960 to 2006.

7. The source for all of the statistics in this paragraph is

8. This is where the source of the weakness in the argument becomes apparent. We have had the ability to fully alleviate global poverty for a comparatively short period of time.

9. US Statistical Abstract 2005; CIA World Factbook 2005.

10. Sources: Historical Tables – Budget of the United States 2007; and CRS Report for Congress 2004.

13. Mother Teresa is presumably an exception who has met this standard. Bill Gates with all his new humanitarian work probably has not; after all, he still has US$25 billion to live on.

14. I am greatly indebted to Mark Nelson whose insightful comments on this essay helped me to improve it considerably.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
  • URL: /core/journals/religious-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 13
Total number of PDF views: 62 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 195 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.