November 14, 2011

Molinism and the Soteriological Problem of Evil Once More

Dr. Craig:

I am very troubled by your Molinist response to the soteriological problem of evil (aka "The Memo Problem," the fact that since Jesus died, millions of folks never got the Gospel Memo and thereby had no means of getting saved thru accepting Christ.) We can all agree that, say, second century Tibetans never heard the Gospel and, therefore, that not one of them had a pre-mortem chance to accept Christ.

Your Middle Knowledge response, as far as I can ascertain, is that God knew before he created these people that they would reject the Gospel, so he put them in second century Tibet where it didn't matter anyway. No harm, no foul.

Apart from the intuitive unattractiveness of this position, your view entails several difficult philosophical problems. First, you have an intelligibility problem. What does it mean to say "Before the cosmos existed God knew that Fred would reject the Gospel so God put Fred in second century Tibet"? I suspect that it means nothing. The name "Fred" can only refer to an individual in some factual context. Without that context the name "Fred" does not refer to anyone. Fred can be a 21st century Virginian or a second century Tibetan, or somebody else. But he cannot just be Fred. Your view fails to see this. Instead you assume that "Fred" refers to a human being (one with full powers of agency) even absent a factual context.

The same goes for "this person;" the term does not refer to anything until a human being is created and placed in a factual context. Thus, your view that God knew that "this person" would reject the Gospel long before he created him or her is unintelligible.

You can avoid the intelligibility problem by adding that God knew that Fred would reject the Gospel "in XYZ circumstances. " But this raises a different problem. Before God sticks Fred in second century Tibet wouldn't He have to ascertain that Fred would freely reject the Gospel in all circumstances, not just some of them? And can it really be that there were no circumstances whatsoever in which Fred would have freely accepted the Gospel? How plausible is this? Had Fred been placed in 16th century Wittenberg and been given a profound talking to by Martin Luther would he have freely rejected the Gospel? What if he had been a witness to the resurrection? Or been given visions like Moses was? Or been personally confronted by God Himself, like Paul was? Or been born and raised the son of William Lane Craig? Did God really vet all these options? If so, were there really none in which Fred would have freely accepted the Gospel? I find this deeply implausible. And if God did not vet all options, how can He say that Fred would have freely rejected the Gospel?

On a related note, I have a hard time believing that there are any human beings who would freely reject the Gospel under any and all circumstances. Anybody who knows of Jehovah's existence, His love, his plan for salvation, and who rejects it all in favor of eternal torment is literally insane. No sane human being chooses eternal flames over eternal bliss. Your view seems to require that such sane people not only exist but are plentiful. That seems to me empirically wrong. (I also suspect that there are no human beings who would accept the Gospel in any and all circumstances, but that is a different matter.)

Finally, even if we grant that Fred would have rejected the Gospel in any and all circumstances, why did God just not bother creating him? After all, this would have avoided one more monstrous bit of eternal suffering. In dealing with this matter, you raise a compossibility defense whereby it may have been impossible for God to create a certain individual, Sophie, who freely accepts the Gospel without also creating Fred. I have a hard time envisioning an omnipotent God limited in such a way, but even if He is, what prevents God from refraining from creating both Fred and Sophie? After all, Sophie has no right to be created. And given that there are an infinite number of beings God can create who would freely accept the Gospel without somebody else rejecting it, (and a non-infinite number of places for humans on earth,) why did He create a Sophie's choice for Himself?

Your Molinist response to the Memo Problem, it seems to me, creates some ugly messes that need mopping up.

Thank you for your interesting and provocative work.



United States

The soteriological problem of evil concerns the alleged logical incompatibility of the two claims

1. God is all-powerful and all-loving.


2. Some people never hear the Gospel and are lost.

The Free Will Defense attempts to show that the religious pluralist has not been able to prove a logical incompatibility between (1) and (2) and, moreover, that we can show (1) and (2) to be compatible by adding a third statement which is compatible with (1) and entails (2), to wit,

3. God has created a world having an optimal balance between saved and lost, and those who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have believed it even if they had heard it.

Now your objection, Steve, is only to the second part of the Free Will Defense. You don’t think that (3) is possible or plausible.

We can set aside right away the objection that (3) is not plausible as irrelevant to the Free Will Defense, which requires only that (3) be possible. Like those who objected to the plausibility of Alvin Plantinga’s hypothesis that all natural evil could be due to the influence of demonic beings, so you have mistaken the role of (3) in the argument. (3) needn’t be plausible or, indeed, even true; in order to show that (1) and (2) are logically compatible (3) just needs to be possible. So is it?

You claim that it is unintelligible because of problems of reference. You state that counterfactuals involving proper names of individuals cannot have a truth value because in the absence of a context, such terms are vacuous, that is, they fail to refer to some specific person. That, of course, is correct (does “William Craig” designate the famous Berkeley logician or that fellow at Talbot School of Theology?) but irrelevant, since the canonical form of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom employed by contemporary philosophers includes a set of circumstances C which includes the whole history of the world up to the time of the choice in question. So contemporary Molinists are hardly guilty of the oversight of ignoring context.

(By the way, the same is not true of “this person.” Unlike a proper name, this expression is a demonstrative term which designates a specific individual in a situation of use. If I point to my wife and say, “This person was born in Minnesota,” that expression picks her out without any further specification. Of course, one cannot say “this person” of a non-existent person unless one has previously designated that person in some other way, e.g., “Plato was the teacher of a man named Aristotle. This man became the greatest of the Greek philosophers.”)

Now you do go on to address the correct formulation of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, noting that “you can avoid the intelligibility problem by adding that God knew that Fred would reject the Gospel ‘in XYZ circumstances.’” So that solves the problem of reference you had alleged.

But now you raise a quite different objection aimed specifically at (3). “Before God sticks Fred in second century Tibet wouldn't He have to ascertain that Fred would freely reject the Gospel in all circumstances, not just some of them?” Well, He wouldn’t have to, but that’s my hypothesis. Clearly, God could place a person anywhere He wants in human history, regardless of how that person might freely behave in different circumstances. But my suggestion is that God, being so merciful and not wanting anyone to be damned, so providentially orders the world that anyone who would embrace the Gospel if he were to hear it will not be placed in circumstances in which he fails to hear it and is lost. Only in the case of someone who would be saved through his response to general revelation would a person who would freely respond to special revelation, if he heard it, find himself in circumstances where he doesn’t hear it.

I’m mystified that you find this suggestion “intuitively unattractive.” On the contrary, I think it magnifies the goodness and abundant graciousness of God, that He would prevent anyone’s being lost though the accidents of history and geography. God is so good that He won’t allow anyone to be lost if that person would under any circumstances respond to the Gospel and be saved.

In any case, you then go to your plausibility objections. These are just irrelevant, as explained above. So long as (3) is even possibly true, which you seem to concede, it shows that (1) and (2) are logically compatible, Q.E.D.

But I can’t resist saying something about the plausibility of (3). Why isn’t (3) plausible? You suggest that God would have to vet all the options in order to actualize such a world. That’s not really true, but is in any case no problem because the doctrine of middle knowledge entails that God knows which of all the possible worlds known to Him via His natural knowledge are feasible for Him to actualize. All feasible worlds are given to Him by His middle knowledge, so sovereignly picking one is just no problem.

You suggest, more plausibly, I think, that that there are no persons whom God could have created who would under all circumstances reject His grace for salvation. Maybe you’re right; but how can you know? I just don’t think we’re in a position to make those kinds of judgements. You talk about the insanity of unbelief; and yet such persons are all around us, people who have heard the Gospel again and again, who have the Bible, who have read apologetics material, and yet who refuse to believe. In fact, I’ve had unbelievers say to me on more than one occasion, “Even if I knew that Christianity is true, I still wouldn’t bend the knee!” (Remember we're talking only of freedom-permitting circumstances here.)

How do you know that God couldn’t put together a world in which the unreached are people who wouldn’t bend the knee under any circumstances? In fact, this hypothesis has real implications for other issues like the wider problem of evil. For example, maybe only in a world involving scads of natural and moral evil could God arrange the sort of world we’re envisioning. Maybe His desire to achieve an optimal balance between saved and lost overrides the benefits of a world with less natural and moral evil. It may well be that getting the right counterfactuals of creaturely freedom in place to achieve (3) involves putting up with a lot of otherwise gratuitous evil.

Now you ask, why create “Fred” in the first place? Here’s the real nub of the issue, I think, and why you find my hypothesis unattractive. You think God could have just left Fred out. But that’s not true, if my hypothesis is correct! There may be no world feasible for God involving universal, freely embraced salvation which comes without other overriding disadvantages. Sure, God could have refrained from creating Fred (or both Fred and Sophie), but then the resulting world might have been even worse or at least no better. The hypothesis is that God has done the very best He can, given the true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which confront Him.

Your claim that “there are an infinite number of beings God can create who would freely accept the Gospel without somebody else rejecting it” is guilty of the same error you alleged earlier, namely, speaking without a context. Suppose that for any possible person there may be circumstances under which he would be freely saved without someone’s being lost; it doesn’t follow that there is a feasible world in which every person would be freely saved without someone’s being lost. For the relevant circumstances may not be compossible. Your pun on Sophie’s Choice (a choice between two bad options) reveals that you haven’t yet grasped the theory of middle knowledge, for God doesn’t create such a choice for Himself. The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which confront Him are outside His control. He has to play with the hand He has been dealt.

So I’m a good deal less confident than you are about our ability to pronounce on what worlds are feasible for God. Therefore, I’m not inclined to regard (3) as implausible. In any case, we both agree that it is possible, and that suffices for the purposes of the Free Will Defense.