Human Machines, Free Will, and Moral Evil

There’s a popular view on love and free will that I regularly encounter. It goes something like this: In order for love to be genuine, the agent has to have the ability to choose not to love. Unless there is freedom of one’s will to either love someone or hate them, it isn’t really love. I’ll call this the Genuine Love Principle. This principle is regularly called upon to support claims on a variety of subjects. Something like it was behind Western culture’s shift away from arranged marriages to marriages based on mutual choice.

Many Christians, most notably C. S. Lewis (for whom a have an abiding respect and admiration), invoke this principle to explain why there’s moral evil in the world, why God allows it, and why there can’t be a world with love in it and no prospect of evil. Now whenever you’ve got a principle invoked to bear a workload of this magnitude, it needs to be quite ironclad. Yet, as often as I hear the Genuine Love Principle stated, and as much as weight is put on it, I find that advocates offer very little in the way of a defense for it. In fact, Lewis himself offers a very weak argument for it. In Mere Christianity, he writes:

Why, then, did God give them [the first humans] 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. A world of automata–of creatures that worked like machines–would hardly be worth creating (Mere Christianity in The C. S. Lewis Signature Collection [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002], p. 34).

Lewis’ argument is hasty, and he’s missing a few key premises. So I’ll fill in the missing premises, and then we can see what can be said for the argument. 

  1. Free will is the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.
  2. [Missing Premise] For love to be genuine agents have to be able to choose between loving and hating or rejecting the one they love.
  3. [Missing Premise] This ability is what keeps humans from being automata.
  4. A world of automata would hardly be worth creating.
  5. Therefore, for God to create a world worth creating, he had to give us the freedom to love him or reject him.

Ignoring the missing premises for a moment, notice that Lewis goes from arguing that we need free will to have genuine love, to without free choice, we would be automata. Assuming that it is true, let’s wonder for a bit, “What’s so bad about being automata?” Well, according to Lewis it means that we wouldn’t have nice things like love and choice. But notice the circularity here. He goes from:

If no free will, then no love.

If no love, then automata.

If automata, then no love.

Ultimately, Lewis’ argument just terminates in the Genuine Love Principle without ever offering a real defense  for this principle. His automata claim terminates in this undefended principle. Rather than arguing for the Genuine Love Principle, Lewis uses it as a step in the argument, and in doing so, he makes his argument entirely circular.

Supposing, though, that Lewis could state it in a non-circular way, there are several reasons I think Lewis’ argument is a bad one. But before I make the case, I want to make an observation about choice in general.

While we humans generally like having choices, there’s no obvious reason why choice is, by itself, a good thing (and we must never equate what we like with what is good). Most of us were born with good health. We didn’t choose it; we were simply born with it. Now, suppose we were given a choice at birth to opt for good health over bad, what is to be gained from adding choice to this? We would inevitably choose good health and end up with the same state of affairs as when we didn’t have a choice. Why, then, is [Good Health + Choice] necessarily better than [Good Health – Choice]? Where I think we really want a choice in the matter is when the situation is something we don’t like. Naturally, we would like to be able to choose a different outcome. Even in these kind of cases, however, we see choice as only good for achieving our desired end. But what we’re really after is the desired end, not the choice. Were the end we desired to come about apart from our choice, there’s nothing that choice improves here. This is worth pointing out, because if we are operating with the view that choice is, on its own, a good thing, then we will automatically grant Lewis his point that a world with choice is better than a world without it. As far as I can tell though, Lewis doesn’t quite argue that choice is inherently good (though he might be interpreted that way). What he does argue for quite clearly is that love is a good thing in itself, and since free choice is necessary for love, we should value it for love’s sake. Secondly, he claims that without free choice we would be machine-like, which as we saw above, really just amounts to the claim that we wouldn’t have love and free choice, since that’s what he means by “machine-like”. In spite of the fact that Lewis doesn’t defend his claims that love requires free choice and that we would be robots without free choice, I want to press these claims in order to see whether the Genuine Love Principle can hold up.

 Does Love Require Choice not to Love?

It is ironic that Lewis considers his claims about love and free will to answer one of the deepest questions we can ask about God, but manages to do so without any biblical support for it, and he makes no attempt to support it in this way. What’s worse, the teaching of Scripture actually contradicts Lewis’ views. Scripture teaches that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). This is a claim about the nature of God. He is – as a matter of essence – love. Furthermore, we are told that the persons of the Trinity have a deep abiding love for the others. God has no accidental properties. What he is, he is essentially. And so if we wonder whether it is possible for God to be other than he is, the answer is, no. There are things God cannot do, and one of those things is for the Son to hate the Father. In spite of the fact that God cannot not do otherwise, God’s love is genuine love. More than that, it is the paradigm of love, and, according to the First Letter of St. John, it is the love to which we should aspire, and any love we express is an expression of the divine love. Thus, if God’s love among the divine Trinity does not include the possibility of hate, there is no reason to assert that for human love to be genuine it would have to include the possibility of rejection. Obviously God did create our first parents with the ability to reject him. There’s no denying this. However, it does not follow from the fact that he did create them with this ability that God had to do so in order for their love to be genuine.

Lewis himself is inconsistent when it comes to hatred of God. It is also part of the orthodox Protestant Christian doctrine which Lewis held, that following the Fall, we cannot please God on our own. Our efforts to please God are themselves a sin against God. As Martin Luther states in Heidelberg Disputation #3: “Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.” Luther makes clear that this does not mean that we should regard good works as civil crimes. No, they are good works in society, but they are attempts to please God in our own way, and these attempts are a rejection of his way. So, left to ourselves, there is no possibility of us choosing what is pleasing to God. It is interesting to note that in spite of our lack of choice in the matter, Lewis still considers our disobedience and hatred of God to be genuine.

In both of these examples from Christian doctrine, there’s something important to see here. Genuine choice does not entail the freedom to do otherwise. In the mutual love of the Trinity, God cannot do otherwise. In our attempts to please God, we cannot do otherwise than displease him. Yet, in neither case does it warrant the conclusion that there is no genuine choice. The persons of the Godhead nevertheless choose to love one another because love is what they want. And in our actions which displease God, we are doing what we want. Some will recognize this view as compatibilism. If that’s what it is, I’m fine with that. Take another view if you like, but you’ll have to explain how God cannot do the opposite of some of his actions.

Free Choice and Human Machines

According to Lewis, the consequence of lack of free choice is a machine-like existence. Again, Lewis does not defend this claim. As I argued above, this isn’t true in the case of God’s love, and it isn’t true in the case of our disobedience against God. There is no ability in God to do evil, but this hardly makes him an automaton. But suppose for a moment that Lewis is right: without free choice we are just automata. What is so special about the possibility of doing evil? Why think that free choice has to include the choice to do evil? Couldn’t we be free in a way that doesn’t allow evil? And if so, wouldn’t this be enough to prevent us from being automata? I think so. Suppose God did create us in such a way that we could only love him, but left us free to express that love in a variety of ways. Assuming that Lewis is right that genuine love requires genuine choice, why isn’t this genuine choice, and therefore genuine love?

I suspect Lewis might say that in this case one has freedom with respect to how love is expressed, but not whether love is expressed and so therein is the reason that what is called “love” here is not genuine. But we still don’t have an answer to our original question as to why genuine love requires free choice as Lewis means it. If this was Lewis’ response, we’re still left with the Genuine Love Principle as it’s own defense. But invoking it doesn’t explain it.

Lewis and others claim that they cannot imagine a world in which love could be genuine when one has no ability not to love, but this intuition involves another suspicious assumption: that one can’t genuinely want a thing unless he has the ability not to want. Let’s call this the Wanting Principle. If this is where one must go in order to defend the Genuine Love Principle, then we have an infinite regress problem. Suppose the Wanting Principle is right and that one had to be able not to want a thing in order to genuinely want it. This kind of demand on wanting would itself be subject to the same demand. If a person must be able not to want a thing in order to want it, then she must also be able to want to want the thing and be able to want to want the thing’s opposite as well. But there’s no stopping here. If wanting something is to be genuine, we will have to invoke the Wanting Principle endlessly. The Wanting Principle is, I think, what’s really at the heart of the Genuine Love Principle we first stated, and it’s what is at the heart of Lewis’ argument. Yet, for all of Lewis’ attempt to explain something as grand as why God allows evil in the world, it rests on a weak principle which cannot be applied to all cases of love and which itself leads to infinite regress.

And so Lewis’ argument simply won’t work to explain why God allowed moral evil in the first place. Perhaps the most we can say is that we don’t really know why God allowed moral evil. Perhaps the answer is too complex for us. Or for God’s purpose to work out, we have to remain ignorant of his purpose. But there’s no harm in saying we don’t know, when we don’t know. The fact that we don’t know, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have a good reason. Whatever his reason, I doubt he’s very concerned with trying to justify it to us. It’s understandable that we would like to know, but any argument that seeks to explain something so grand as God’s reason for allowing evil needs to have enormously strong biblical and logical support — characteristics lacking in Lewis’ explanation and characteristics which I suspect any explanation will lack.

About Pastor John Fraiser

Pastor Fraiser didn't begin as a Lutheran, but he became one as soon as he could. He grew up as a Baptist and received his M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. With time on his hands following his seminary studies, he began reading the writings of Martin Luther and became convinced that Lutheran doctrine was a faithful presentation of the doctrine of Scripture and answered many of his perplexing Baptist questions. After joining the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, he went on for graduate philosophy studies, while also taking post-graduate courses at Concordia Seminary. Though he intended to teach philosophy in a university setting, he also applied as a candidate for ordination through the Synod’s colloquy program with the plans of bi-vocational parish ministry. Following colloquy, he assisted in a vacancy at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in LaGrange, Kentucky where he was eventually called as pastor. He said 'no' to a philosophy PhD fellowship and was ordained on Luther’s ordination date – April 3rd – in 2011. Pr. Fraiser is married to Emily, and they have a four-year-old daughter named Jillian.


Human Machines, Free Will, and Moral Evil — 17 Comments

  1. Perhaps first, we should define exactly what love is; most philosophical and theological arguments boil down to defining terms. Besides “Mere Christianity” I’d also go and read Lewis’ “The Four Loves” in which he does define terms and does a better job of justifying his arguments.

    Personally, I think that the reason for allowing “moral evil” is rather simple: we are His children. Ultimately, every parent faces the day when their children have grown to the point that they must allow them to do as they will and suffer the consequences. It’s a necessary part of growing up. (My pastor also pointed out recently that while God saves us from our sin, He almost always lets us handle the temporal consequences of our actions ourselves).

  2. @Paul of Alexandria #1

    Your answer seems to further complicate the issues the author outlines doesn’t it Paul? Meaning that your answer just raises more questions.

    That was not a criticism. I could not have responded to his article any better! 😉

    Natural Man only knows the sacrifice that justice demands. We get what we deserve for what we do. Self sacrifice (all the Aristotelian self virtues, aka mortification of the flesh) is a prerequisite for any goodness or mercy to happen out of sinful men.

    That is why the parables have us struggling. We live, as natural man with his natural law (rom 2:15) in the world that demands self sacrifice for anything good to happen in us. The parables therefore seem to upend all that we think we know about fairness.

    God desires Mercy and Goodness and not Sacrifice. There is One Sacrifice that WAS desired by God, because it has put an end to the demand of justice for endless sacrifice to be made in order for Goodness and Mercy to happen. That was what St Paul means when he says that that One Sacrifice was the end of the Law for Righeousness.

    That One Sacrifice is the only sacrifice that IS, also, mercy and goodness. Our sacrifice? Death. Life is mortification. Life is death. This does not mean that death , mortification and self sacrifice are Life. Virtue is not it’s own reward biblically. It exists, alone, to bear the fruit of Goodness and Mercy. If there is no Goodness and Mercy being done for neighbor as it’s intended and consequent fruit, Virtue is mere moral masturbation.

  3. @Paul of Alexandria #1

    I sympathize with your explanation for why God allows evil, but I don’t think it explains very much. This theodicy has been tried many times and found wanting.

    Even if you accept that God is just treating us as wayward children allowing us to suffer the consequences of our sin, it does not account for the suffering that God visits on us in natural disasters or infant mortality. These are not just natural consequences of sin. These are things that God sends upon his world. He could stop the next hurricane and still be treating us as wayward children. So why doesn’t he withhold sending the next hurricane? Treating us as wayward children also leaves unexplained why he doesn’t allow more evil to befall us. So, whatever reason you could offer to explain why he sends the next hurricane would also serve as a reason for him to send, say, five more hurricanes than he actually will this year. So why don’t we suffer more than we do?

    In the end, I think we end up having to say that God has his reasons to which only he is privy. The fact, that I don’t know what the good reason(s) is/are for God’s permitting of evil, doesn’t mean for one second that there is no good reason for evil.

  4. Pastor Fraisier,

    You are right about the problems with Lewis’ argument,

    “In order for love to be genuine, the agent has to have the ability to choose not to love. Unless there is freedom of one’s will to either love someone or hate them, it isn’t really love.”

    Still – perhaps we can state things a bit differently. Try this:

    “Only freely given love is genuine love. Love that is forced is not free, and therefore not genuine love. In that case, we might as well be robots.”

    Luke 15 (“the prodigal son”) shows us how God is with us.

    Let’s be clear: Western culture’s shift away from arranged marriages to marriages based on mutual choice is a good thing. Its a Christian idea – we do not choose God but He does allow us to leave – to disown Him. This is the reason why free consent is now considered to be at the heart of marriage in the West.

    We know from the Scriptures that Adam and Eve, though created “very good” were still capable of sin – only because it happened though. Therefore, we now ask questions we would have never asked before about the nature of love. So why didn’t God create them so they would not sin? Why were we not “free” in a way that didn’t allow evil? A mystery indeed! That said, we also know there will be no sin in heaven. Is this because we will now be automata? (of course not, as you point out in referring to the Trinity) Is this simply because the devil will be removed? Or is it because we will no longer be “very good” as children, but “very good” as adults? Or might it be because of both?

    Speculative? Yes. In line with Christian truth – and capable of explaining all the Scriptural data? Certainly. Of all the things that the 2nd century father Irenaeus (who evidently knew Polycarp who knew the Apostle John) said that were not in line with the Scriptures, this was not one of them.


  5. Frank,

    I agree with most of what you say here. Still, when you say this: ” If there is no Goodness and Mercy being done for neighbor as it’s intended and consequent fruit, Virtue is mere moral masturbation.”

    …I think about just spending time in God’s presence, letting Him teach me. That desire is goodness, and a virtue He creates in me. Yes, I always want to remember to do it for my neighbor as well (just as I keep myself healthy for those who depend on me), but there is nothing wrong in realizing that God does not simply see me as a means to an end either! Yes, He desires my growth in faith and love, but He also is pleased that I simply desire to dwell in the house of the Lord – having been brought there by grace for Jesus’ sake.


  6. @Nathan #4

    Being worried about being a mere means to and end and losing ourselves if we pour out ourselves completely in service to others is the opposite of Faith. it is looking for meaning and significance in our own selves isnt it? Our Life is in Christ. In heaven we will truly love our neighbor, exactly as we love our own selves. Which means we will, finally, know what it means to love our own selves. And this will be all just who we are. We will not need to work at this or even think about it. It will be like breathing for a healthy person.

    St James: Faith is to the body as Works are to breathing. Only a sick person is conscious of his breathing. Only a sin-sick person (ALL of us, ALL the time) needs to be conscious of his Good Works and to WORK at them, to consciously ponder and think about what love is and how to do it. In heaven this will just happen like spontaneous combustion. This happens even now in our New Man.

    And we cannot see even one teeny tiny small drop of that New Man spontaneous combustion good Works. Nor should we look for evidence of it staring at our spiritual navels.

    We instead should take up the Law and get to work! Our task is to cooperate with the Holy Spirit by a “life of continual repentence”. It is to DO what Baptism signifies. New Man takes up the LAW as a club, to beat into submission his “recalcitrant ass” of an Old Adam (cf FC art VI “third use” again) to “extort” out of his own old adam … lovem, goodness, and mercy for others, by…. drowning his Old Adam in daily contrition (latinate for “grinding down”) and repentence (moral reformation, self discipline etc) and then to fall, exhausted at all that work, at the foot of the Cross, only to HIDE, ALL that work of daily repentence inside the Works of Another. It is precisely in this terror of conscience that working at repentence produces (for we find then truly we cannot do it sufficiently ), that Faith is nurtured and grows by clinging, alone, to the Promise found, alone, by hiding ALL our own best Works inside the Works of Another to be safe from the just judgement and wrath of God.

    “Only when the Law can no longer acuse us can God become an Object of Love” (apology III) . This happens , alone, by hiding even our most sanctified Works inside the Works of Another. (all those believers Works are the moral equivalente of used tampons according to st Isaiah)

    He who lays down his life will find it.
    This is a mystery to Old Adam who wishes to find meaning, and significance and his place in the universe in his own being

    To Faith this way of thinking that is NOT conscious of its own self or its own nakedness! is reflexive like light from sun, automatic, spontaneous , as the angels do God´s bidding. (formula of concord art VI “third use of the Law”) It is only sin that has us worrying about loosing our own selves by being fully devoted in our being in service to the rest of Gods creation.

  7. @Nathan #4

    “I think about just spending time in God’s presence, letting Him teach me. That desire is goodness, and a virtue He creates in me. ”

    That desire is not just goodness. It is the very Image of God being made in you Nathan.

    “whatsoever is not of Faith is sin”
    What does that mean Nathan?

    it means that our Reason is wrong. Reason says that the opposite of sin is goodness.
    The truth: the opposite of sin is, alone, Faith in Christ.

    Paradise is restored in us and in creation starting with that ONE thing that was lost to natural man . It is the ONE thing that was there before creation and is now lost. That one thing, is alone, restored in Holy Baptism. It is Faith , alone, in Christs Works alone, that is, alone, the Restored Image of God. And once Faith is restored, we automatically, with no thought or effort required, simply will DO the Law that is Goodness and Mercy.

    This Goodness and Mercy Always requires at least two persons. That Faith of which you speak, and also the working of the Law on our Old Adam, are the two means by which God Works that Goodness and Mercy.

    You describe means. You are not describing fruit. Faith and the Law are two trees God uses to produce the same identical fruit of Goodness and Mercy. You as believer can only see the tree of the Law producing Goodness and mercy. and in Faith, you believe God´s word when it tells you that there is that other invisible tree, producing the same identical fruit of Goodness and Mercy for your neighbor.

    What can you see? your own death working Goodness and mercy for others. Others praise God for that. And you can see also the death of others (the self sacrifice) that results in Goodness and mercy (Always undeserved, and which happens indeed even without your prayers) for you. And you are to give thanks for that! ( small catechism 1st article and the Lords prayer 4th petition. )

  8. Frank,

    All this just because I say we can just enjoy sitting at Jesus’ feet and He enjoys our being there?

    Will take time to read what you wrote again…maybe more later : )


  9. @Pastor John Fraiser #3
    Let’s imagine what a perfect world would be like, sans the sinful nature of humans. I rather suspect that it would look very much like what we have now: hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, earthquakes, and all. These are not necessarily evils visited upon us by a vengeful God (although He certainly could do so if He finds it necessary), they are natural occurrences that result from natural processes. Hurricanes and other storms are a natural result of the heating of water and the Earth by the Sun, Earthquakes are natural results from tectonic shifts, which in turn result from the natural convection currents in the magma beneath the Earth’s crust. And so forth.

    Rather, the evils that result from these natural occurrences are due to man’s sinful nature, pride, and irresponsibility. New Orleans suffered from Katrina primarily because it was built on a swamp, is currently below sea level, and the levees weren’t properly designed. Not to mention the innumerable human failings that lead to the horrendous results.

    In an ideal world, we would be much more careful about where and how we build things and take into account the kinds of natural occurrences that will happen there. Also, of course, we would pay much better attention to nature and its signs; we would also, presumable, be in much closer communion with God and pay much better attention to His warnings. In fact, I rather suspect that we’d be able to foretell rather well what was going to happen and simply avoid it as necessary.

    There is also this: remember always that illness, old age, suffering, even death is temporary. In looking at the evils of this world, people tend to forget that God has the final say, and we are told that he will both destroy and recreate this world and will resurrect us. It doesn’t matter how much you suffered, how much you lost, how badly you dies: after the Resurrection all of this, even Auschwitz or the recent tsunamis will be comparable only to a child’s scraped knee. Ultimately, God lets us suffer here on Earth because it doesn’t matter in the long run except as a learning experience and test.

  10. @Nathan #4

    “‘Only freely given love is genuine love. Love that is forced is not free, and therefore not genuine love. In that case, we might as well be robots.'”

    I agree with that love and force are mutually exclusive where force is understood as causing action in another that violates the agent’s will, but this thesis wouldn’t be useful as a substitute for the work that the Genuine Love principle is called in to do, namely, answer why God allows/ordains evil. For we know that God can change hearts to shun evil and choose what is good and that is not force.

    My statement about the shift away from arranged marriages in Western culture was not to comment on whether the shift was good or bad (surely it’s a mixture), only that I suspect that the Genuine Love Principle was behind it.

    God created everything good, but in creating he did not make everything maximally good (that there was a creation mandate to cultivate is enough to demonstrate this). I agree with Augustine that, in Eden, our Parents were ‘able not to sin’, but at the end of all things, the saints will be ‘not able to sin’. Presently, fallen humanity is ‘not able not to sin’.

    Thanks for the excellent dialogue. Feel free to keep it going.

  11. Pastor John,

    I agree with what you say, although I think that “hard” arranged marriages would be bad (very “soft” ones, where the person getting married has some choice).

    When people equate “very good” with perfect (complete, fulfilled) that seems wrong to me. Perhaps you might have some more insight on that.

    Thanks for taking on this topic. Good stuff.


  12. “And so if we wonder whether it is possible for God to be other than he is, the answer is, no. There are things God cannot do, and one of those things is for the Son to hate the Father.”

    I’m not sure why, but I’m finding this troubling. Are you saying that God is not omnipotent?

    Would it not be more correct to say that God does not choose to be other than he is; or that God does not choose to hate himself; or that God loves himself perfectly as we will in the life of the world to come?

    I’m sorry if this seems like a ridiculous question.

  13. @Erich #12
    As C.S. Lewis (I think) pointed out, even God cannot do that which is logically impossible – although you must be very careful in defining this.

    It’s actually an interesting question, though – especially since God did choose to be other than what He was: the Incarnation.

  14. @Erich #12

    That is not a ridiculous question.
    We must bind our reason by the word of God.
    We must pay careful attention to the words we use , using those words given to us to use and avoiding getting creative wherever we possibly can.

  15. Please observe #14!
    It is possible for fws to answer something in four lines!

    [Thanks for saving me a lot of scrolling!]

    You may be sure I don’t know what you said in the 3 screen+ posts! And no, breaking them up into 2 or 3 really doesn’t change the length over all. 🙁

  16. Hey, I found this site through a link sent me via Facebook. It looks very interesting. I’m delighted that I at last found a forum, where somebody is defending Lutheranism bringing the arguments to the present day.

    I like this article, because I seem to have the same problem or “incoherency” with C.S.Lewis as You, dear pastor John Fraiser. So, I mean, I like Lewis due to many clever ways to defend Christianity, but I can’t avoid to notice his contradictions with Lutheran point of view in very essential points of the doctrine.

    You are right, that if love is not genuine without free will, then also (is coherent to think that) sin or opposing God is not possible without free will. But is it true that Lewis thinks that a sinful man of nowadays, so, after the Fall, really does not have the free will? I thought he supposes free will. Maybe I’m wrong.

    Maybe Lewis teaches, that we have not free will without Christ, so, it is not possible to do good deeds without sharing the nature of Christ through faith. but I have understood, that he supposes the free will when receiving Christ. That would be also a contradiction between Lutheranism and Lewis. But if Lewis thinks by the latter manner, then Your argumetation is correct also at that point.

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