An article of mine entitled “Free Will and Soul Making” was recently published in Philosophia Christi.  My thesis is that the free will defense and soul-making theodicy are complementary, mutually dependent approaches to the problem of evil.  Below is a little dialogue featuring imaginary characters (as realistic as the names might seem) which explores the whole idea of embracing both approaches rather than opting for just one or the other.

PILGESE:  Hello there, Gelespi, how are you today?

GELESPI:  Doing fine, Pilgese.  And you?

PILGESE:  Fine as well, though I’ve been saddened by the news of a recent tragedy, and it has me thinking about theodicy.

GELESPI:  In what respect?

PILGESE:  The greater-good theodicy in particular.  I’m bothered by how some people talk of God intending painful circumstances to bring about greater goods.

GELESPI:  Hmm…  And just why does this bother you?

PILGESE:  I think there is something fundamentally mistaken in thinking that God intentionally causes any pain.

GELESPI:  And why is it wrong for God to cause pain?

PILGESE:  That’s not intuitively obvious to you?

GELESPI:  Not at all.  What makes it so obvious to you?

PILGESE:  Well, because pain is evil.

GELESPI:  Why is pain evil?  It is unpleasant, yes.  But unpleasantness does not imply evil.

PILGESE:  Pain is a lack of goodness, a departure from the way things should be.  And this is the essence of evil.

GELESPI:  But that can’t be right, since this implies that every time I lift weights or fast, then I’m doing evil.  Surely it’s not evil to lift weights or fast?

PILGESE:  That’s different, because you’re imposing that pain on yourself, as opposed to someone else causing your pain.

GELESPI:  And how is that relevant?

PILGESE:  Because self-inflicted pain is an autonomous choice.

GELESPI:  So you mean to say that it’s wrong for God to cause our pain because we’re not autonomously choosing it, even if that pain makes us better?

PILGESE:  Exactly.

GELESPI:  And why is it okay for me to autonomously choose to cause myself pain for my betterment but not for God to autonomously choose to do so?

PILGESE:  Because only you can autonomously choose for yourself.  That’s the nature of autonomy.  It’s the right of self-determination, as opposed to determination of others.

GELESPI:  But where does such a right come from?  Doesn’t this assume something like self-ownership?

PILGESE:  Of course.

GELESPI:  But, biblically speaking, we are not our own.  God made us, thought us into being, as it were, out of nothing.  Thus, God owns us in a way that we do not even own ourselves.  As the Apostle Paul himself says, “you are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19), and the psalmist says, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1).

PILGESE:  Yes, I grant that God owns us in that general sense.  But when he made us as libertarian free creatures, he endowed us with self-ownership and, thus, moral autonomy.

GELESPI:  And how do you know that?

PILGESE:  Well, that is just what it means to be free in a libertarian sense.

GELESPI:  You are confusing two issues here:  the definition of freedom and what might be called moral propriety rights.  Let’s grant the libertarian definition of freedom as the power of contrary choice, which includes a denial of universal theological determinism.  It doesn’t follow from this that God has no right to inflict pain on his creatures, so long as his intentions are always to do good, such as to build character and bring those creatures into better relationship with God.

PILGESE:  But there are many instances of suffering that do not bring about such greater goods.  This implies that God is horribly inefficient and gratuitous with the pain he inflicts.

GELESPI:  First of all, you are assuming you know what God-inflicted suffering does or does not result in greater good.  For all you know, the apparently gratuitous suffering does contribute to greater goods, if only in the next world.  Secondly, to assert that God can or does inflict some suffering does not commit one to saying that God is responsible for all of the suffering in the world.  Remember, we’re granting a libertarian view of freedom here, and this allows us to explain at least some of the worst evils, and perhaps the origin of evil, as being the result of the abuse of creaturely freedom.

PILGESE:  Hmm…  So you seem to be using two different approaches to the problem of evil: the free will defense and the greater-good theodicy.  Can you do that?

GELESPI:  Why not?

PILGESE:  Well, most theists use one or the other, not both.

GELESPI:  Why go with the crowd, Pilgese?  If both approaches are useful to address different aspects of the issue, then it seems foolish to ignore one of them.

PILGESE:  Good point, Gelespi.  I’ll have to give this some thought.

GELESPI:  Thanks.  Glad to be of service.

7 Responses to “Pain, Autonomy, and God”

  1. Chris Fauble


    You’ve named the voices in your head. I like it. I think I will have to do the same.

    Say hi fellas.

    Blafue: Hey!

    Laufbe: Sup!

  2. Marc Belcastro


    Dr. Spiegel:

    What do you think of the following (indirect) objection to your thesis that the free will defense (FWD) and soul-making theodicy (SMT) “are mutually dependent approaches to the problem of evil”? Actually, it’s not even an indirect objection to the thesis itself, but rather an objection based upon or inspired by an apparent consequence of the thesis.

    Using GELESPI’s terminology, those theistic advocates of “universal theological determinism” who affirm compatibilism seem committed to the view that it was within God’s power to bring about a Mackie world – a world in which every creature always freely does what’s right and never does what’s wrong. For such compatibilists, Mackie worlds aren’t merely possible worlds, but feasible worlds as well. By contrast, many theistic proponents of libertarianism who endorse the FWD, like Plantinga, contend that while Mackie worlds are possible, they’re not feasible for God. A perceived virtue (or at least desideratum) of the FWD is the claim that, for all we know, it wasn’t within God’s power to bring about a Mackie world. But since compatibilists reject libertarianism, and since libertarianism serves an important function in explaining why Mackie worlds are possible but not feasible, it doesn’t appear that compatibilists are able to avail themselves of the FWD. Thus, to the extent that the FWD and SMT “are mutually dependent,” the compatibilist can’t deploy one without the other, which means the SMT is also unavailable.

    The objection assumes that the dependence relation between the FWD and the SMT is such that the viability of one depends on the viability on the other, but perhaps your thesis doesn’t rely on the relation’s being that strong.

    • Jim


      This is a very interesting point, but notice that it is directed just at compatibilists who want to deploy both the SMT and FWD. So what you have (perhaps) shown here is that this eclectic approach to the problem of evil is only available to those who affirm a libertarian view of freedom. Perhaps this explains why it was only when I grew more sympathetic with libertarianism that I found myself wanting to affirm the usefulness of both the SMT and FWD.

  3. Brandon Myers


    Great dialogue Dr. Spiegel! Thanks for the post! Will you be at the ETS/EPS conference in this fall?

    • Brandon Myers


      Should say in the* fall. Oh the joys of trying to blog comment using a smart phone.

      • Jim


        Yes, Brandon, I’ll be there—presenting a paper on whether Augustine was a proto-evolutionist. See you there!

  4. Marc Belcastro


    Hi, Dr. Spiegel. For some reason, your comments in this conversation thread (and in some other posts as well) are invisible to me. (I tried applying some lemon juice to my screen in case you had employed invisible ink, but that didn’t seem to work very well.) Perhaps you could dispense some wisdom to help address my folly and help me see the light — i.e., your comments.

    Has anyone else experienced trouble viewing your comments?


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