In response to the problem of evil Christian history has produced a number of defenses for God. These defenses are known as "theodicies." A theodicy doesn't claim to prove that God exists or that its explanation for evil's existence is the correct one, but it merely offers what is a possible explanation for evil's existence alongside a good God. If the theodicy's explanation is logically possible, then evil's existence is not incompatible with the existence of God, even if this particular explanation doesn't end up being the correct one. The goal is simply to show that the existence of a good God and evil aren't logically incompatible. At the moment, the most broadly accepted theodicy on the market is the free will theodicy as refined and presented by Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga argues that for a God to create a world in which his creatures loved him in a meaningful sense, then those creatures would need to have the choice not to love him. God could have created robots that would have never disobeyed him or done any evil thing, but in creating such a world, he would have created a world where true love was impossible. So while it is true that evil exists, it's only in a world where evil is possible that love can exist, and God deems that the existence of love is worth the price of allowing evil.
The Free Will Theodicy (FWT) is a beautiful defense because it makes a lot of sense. Everyone would love a world without evil, but we recognize that we'd all likely prefer a world where we make meaningful choices to love than a world where we were programmed robots - even if the price of love was the existence of evil. Love is such a beautiful and powerful thing that we recognize evil pales in comparison to it. The FWT is a fantastic defense of God, though as with all arguments, there are some problems. But it isn't in the scope of this article to expound on this theodicy or defend it. Suffice it to say that this is the going theodicy in Christianity, particularly Western Christianity. With the acknowledgement of this broad Christian adherence to the FWT, what I want to do, then, is actually draw out some implications this theodicy has for two other Christian positions: nonviolence and Christian anarchism.
An important acknowledgement before we move into this section is to recognize that the FWT is not just an explanation of how evil came to be. I often find that people use the FWT to explain why evil exists in the first place, but throw it off as an explanation of why evil persists. It's almost as if God was concerned about free will in the Garden, but after Adam and Eve sinned, the FWT is no longer in play. God cared to give people meaningful choices and he refused to violently coerce and interact in the Garden, but then the whole metric whereby we defend God from evil gets thrown out in Genesis 3. That may seem like a minor distinction, but it's actually a huge one which has serious ramifications for our view on violence, as we shall see. But before we get there, let's begin the story at the same place where human evil began.
When humanity sinned, they offended a holy God. But even beyond offending him, humanity, upon sinning, became the type of being who seeks self rather than other. Whereas Adam looked out for Eve, nature, and God prior to the fall, upon his embracing of the self-determination of morality and purpose, he began to look first and foremost to self. That's why the first consequence of Adam and Eve's sin was the realization of their nakedness. They had never looked to themselves before because everyone and everything else was always looking out for them. All creation was outward facing, providing for everyone else. All humanity was outward facing, providing for and thinking of others. And of course, God was always looking out for the needs of his creatures. So while the first sin may seem like a trivial one - the eating of a harmless, forbidden fruit - in that action was contained the seed of all human sin, from the little white lie to the genocide - the seed of self-focus, and subsequently, the objectification of others. These seeds are present in all humanity now and they are just as potent in each human heart. While it may be true that I am not Hitler, that's likely only because I didn't have the experience and opportunity which shaped Hitler to be who he was. He and I may have done very different things in our lives, but the seeds germinating in our hearts are the same. His seeds were just nurtured more than mine were. But like Hitler, I have killed many a human being. I have killed fellow commuters who cut me off in traffic. I have killed many competitors in sports and in video games. I have killed acquaintances, family members, friends, my wife, and my kids. In fact, I kill my wife and kids almost every day. I murder those closest to me many times over with the anger I have held in my heart, anger often held for very selfish reasons. Jesus wasn't kidding when he said that we ought not to call others fools or that to have anger is to murder. What is murder but anger in action, and anger taken to its logical end? So I may not have killed six million Jews, but I've murdered thousands in my heart, as I willfully focus on self and view others as disposable objects who get in my way.
Understanding the gravity of sin is vital to understanding the solution for sin. Martin Luther, in his work, "The Bondage of the Will," said that if we don't understand how great our sin is, we can't understand the extent of what it takes to save us from that sin. Sin offends the holy, transcendent, triune God and is antithetical to his outward facing created order. Such a great offense requires a great cost. Our sin - all sin - requires the life of the son of God. Of course God, being a free being, didn't have to pay that price. God could have stomped out sin immediately by destroying Adam and Eve. He could have started over. But he didn't. He allowed them to live and even provided for them, and he promised them a savior. But God went even further than this. When Cain committed the most heinous sin, the murder of his own brother, a fellow image-bearer of God, God not only refused to take Cain's life in response, but he chose to protect Cain from any who would seek to take his life. God protected the first murderer. This is vital to understand. God knew the cost of allowing the world to continue. He knew that evil would multiply and that a rescue mission would cost him the life of his son. Yet God continued to refuse intervention against the wicked and he continued to allow humanity to choose between good and evil, between other and self, and between love and hate.
The first coercive intervention against the human will we see in the Bible is the violence against humans in the great flood. And even in this instance there are many scholars who would argue that 1) the flood was a small scale, local flood, and 2) the language and imagery used here are not a sending of some judgment on the earth, but rather a de-creation - or a releasing of God's protective hand. Whereas God tamed the waters of the deep when he created the world, the flood was God's withdraw from holding creation together. If humanity, through violence was declaring that they no longer wanted God, then the flood, rather than violent vengaence, may have been God giving humanity what they wanted - a world not held together by God, and a return to the chaotic, murky abyss. However you look at the flood, God had waited through many, many generations of evil and had protected or refused to judge horrendously violent people. The flood only comes after a long, hopeful, and nonviolent waiting on God's part. We see this pattern time and time again throughout the Bible. God allows Egypt to be an empire and enslave Israel for 400 years before the cries of his people are sufficient to cause him to act against other beloved image bearers, and even then, God only allows the slaughter of the firstborn as a last resort, plague ten of ten. In a similar way God declares that he waited 400 years to judge Canaan for their atrocious actions, actions like flaying their kids alive, because he wanted the fulness of their judgment to be built up. He wanted to make sure that they were really bad enough to warrant his intervention and the throwing off of his mercy. God doesn't judge lightly, and he doesn't want to judge the wicked, because as I've argued elsewhere, God loves the wicked.
I know a lot of people want to think of God as this seething, vengeful God, as if Jesus didn't show us the image of the Father was different than that. But this pattern of God's patience persists all throughout the Bible, even in the Old Testament. When we look at the Old Testament with the idea that God values love, human choice, and mercy - ideas shown to us by Jesus as well as logical extrapolations of the FWT - we begin to notice that the violence of the Old Testament is much more limited than most people think it is. The violence is limited in both time and quantity. God often allows evil to go unpunished for quite some time - one generation between many of the judges, or 10 generations with Egypt and Canaan. In the meantime, many children were sacrificed and many slaves abused. God wasn't just patient with petty theft, but with egregious oppression and atrocity. The Old Testament is also less violent than we tend to think in terms of quantity. God actually doesn't kill that many people as far as it's recorded in the Old Testament. Taking an antagonist's high estimate of those killed in the Old Testament, they put the total number at 25 million killed in the Old Testament. That number has some pretty big assumptions, like a worldwide flood, which accounts for 20 of the 25 million deaths at the hands of God. 25 million deaths is a lot to attribute to the hands of God, putting him on Par with Mao or Stalin. But when you consider that the population estimates up to 1 C.E. were about 55 billion - that means that as a worst case scenario, God was responsible for .045% of all the deaths of those who have ever lived.
I certainly don't want to make light of the taking of human life, but there are a number of important concepts to hold together here. If all of the Bible is taken as historical accounting, if the highest estimate is taken for deaths God is responsible for, and if we consider that all sin has in it the seeds of utter evil requiring the death of the son of God for salvation - then taking a high number of God smiting .045% of the world's population, then that's not a lot of blood on God's hands. And the blood that is on God's hands tends to be the blood of those who have stored up wrath through the heinous oppression of others. I look at moments in history, like Hitler's Germany, and in my evil heart, I want God to go John Wick on their asses because I don't value all human life. I'm not patient and loving like God is. The point here isn't to declare that God isn't so bad because he only killed 25 million people, but rather to put the Old Testament's violence into perspective. God is far more patient with wicked choices and does far less violence against the human will than we often think.
So the first thing to note about the FWT here is that while most antagonists to Christianity want to put a lot of blood on the hands of God, even at the highest estimates, God doesn't really do very much violence at all. In fact, given what we know about the depths of sin and depravity, and what we know about the wickedness and oppression that have run rampant throughout human history, if we were people who truly hated evil and wanted to see it disappear, we should have hoped for and expected much more violence and judgment from God in the past. Why didn't God smite the Egyptians before they oppressed Israel into slavery and forced them to commit infanticide? Why didn't God kill the Canaanites before they could torture even one child? Yet we don't see that wrath but in a few instances of culmination. Instead, we see a God who often waits a painfully long time to intervene. And when he does intervene, as we see in places like Isaiah 10, he often intervenes by coordinating the free will actions of other agents to act as judgment.
Even if one takes the Bible very literally and attributes all the violence in the Bible directly to God, we can understand that his violence is very sparse. It should be no surprise to us, then, that the New Testament ethic for Christians is to leave vengaence up to God. Regardless of if God uses violence or not, he is more patient and loving than we are, and we are not to do violence on our own timing. We are to trust God to judge because he judges in love, and when he does judge, he often uses the wicked to judge the wicked. We are not to be defiled instruments who do violence out of hatred and judgment rather than love, but are instead to be set apart instruments of holiness and forbearance, living sacrifices with a sweet smelling aroma to the world. We are not to do violence to the free will of others because God himself so infrequently does such a thing, as he values human freedom, which is necessary correlate to love - the greatest of all things.
If the FWT leads us to conclude that coercive force is antithetical to God's created order, not only should that lead us towards an ideology of nonviolence, but it also has serious implications for systems of human government. Many Christian anarchists find themselves as such by first coming to a conclusion of nonviolence. For if one is not to act violently towards others, then in what sense are we to lord power over others, as the Gentiles do, through human government? In what way are we to have a king "like the other nations," who are princes of warfare, rather than a prince of peace? If nonviolence holds true, then almost certainly does non-participation in human government at the levels where it runs on coercive violence.
I want to note here that Christian anarchism means only human anarchism, because technically, Christian anarchists don't believe in no government. Rather, they believe that God is the only king, and that his kingdom is an upside down kingdom which runs in a very different way to earthly kingdoms. So human anarchism is simply the idea that humans are not meant to lord power over other humans through coercive violence. And of course this thinking seems to logically follow from adherence to the free will theodicy. If God set up his world in such a way where he chose to "rule over" it with a metric of love, allowing others to make free choices without the application of corrective, coercive force, then it seems strange to think that we should take up an ethic which is antithetical to the structure God himself initiated and intended.
When I was making this pitch to my wife last night, she said, "I know what the FWT is, and I understand the data you presented, but I don't see why the data can't stand on its own. What's the link between God's patience and the FWT?" She was essentially saying that I could make the case for a largely patient, merciful, and nonviolent God by looking at the numbers presented here without invoking the FWT. I think that perspective is likely to be a common one, so I want to ensure that I connect this clearly back to the FWT.
In science, data is not something that can stand alone. Data is pure information, it is not explanation. To explain data, we need a hypothesis. We could look at all the data of God's patience and the small amounts of people the Bible declares that he killed, and we could draw a conclusion: "God is relatively nonviolent." While the data and conclusion may be correct, we need a hypothesis to explain the "why?" Why is God patient, merciful, and nonviolent? The Free Will Theodicy seems to explain our data very well. God rarely interferes through violent coercion with the human will, and where he is said to interfere with it, it's often other free will creatures who are actually initiating and doing the violence, or it's God removing his protective hand of mercy and love. Judgment is often sin coming home to roost, and God simply allowing it to. The FWT explains not only how evil first entered the world, but why it persists. God loves the wicked, and he wants them to freely love others and to freely love him. Coercive force is rare in a world where the FWT is true because the FWT has implications for how we define, procure, pursue, and enact love.
The power of this argument lies not in the data or conclusion, but in the hypothesis. For if we just look at the data and conclusion we may recognize that God is a pretty cool dude for being more chill than we thought him to be from an initial reading the Old Testament. It's great that God is merciful and patient. However, when we apply the "why," it requires our world to change. If God is merciful because he values love, and if that pursuit of love means that God is patient with the wicked and rarely initiates coercive violence, then what should that say about the actions we are to pursue? If we know why God acts patiently towards the wicked and he does so in order to procure the most precious thing in the universe, love - then ought we not to do the same? Luke 6 tells us that it is a love for our enemies - for the wicked - which proves us to be children of God. That makes perfect sense. If God pursues love and we know that this pursuit entails patient endurance through evil, then if we are God's children, we ought to act likewise.
Unfortunately the Free Will Theodicy is something often used as a trite apologetic against the atheists who claim that God can't exist alongside evil. But the FWT does little to quell their opposition because we self-proclaimed children of God often prove with our lives that we who have God in us are unable (or unwilling) to endure evil with love, as our Father does. We may proclaim an intellectual FWT, as if unpracticed rhetoric alone was what the world needed, but we disprove our belief in it by our failure to apply the implications of the hypothesis. If we believe that the FWT is the best explanation for the existence of evil in the world, then this has more far reaching implications than a mere apologetic argument. It should impact how we structure and live our lives and how we interact with others. It should cue us into what true love looks like, and to what lengths it is willing to go in its pursuit of others. When we begin to apply the FWT to our lives, only then will it become a more believable and robust defense rather than a hypocritical offense.