Monday, May 02, 2022

Swinburne's Free Will Theodicy for the Holocaust

In this post, I want to critically assess Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne's theodicy for the Holocaust. I think his theodicy is of philosophical interest, for three reasons. First, I think Swinburne is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, natural theologians of the 20th-century. Second, Swinburne is an evidentialist and Bayesian; he shares the same general epistemological framework used by Paul Draper, who is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, atheist philosophers of religion. Third, Swinburne has not only written a book-length defense of Christian theism against the argument from evil, but has explicitly offered his theistic explanation for the Holocaust. For these three reasons, then, Swinburne makes a perfect foil for my evidential argument from the Holocaust

In his book-length defense of Christian theism against the argument from evil, Providence and the Problem of Evil, Swinburne comments specifically on the Holocaust. I want to quote what Swinburne writes about the Holocaust in its entirety. He writes:

Human choices, I have emphasized, may reinforce each other and have long-term consequences; and it is good that they should. The possibility that our bad choices will cause the suffering of victims distant in time and space (which God is unlikely to prevent) gives us a yet greater responsibility in the choices we make. The suffering and deaths of the Jewish victims of the Nazi concentration camps were the result of a web of bad choices stretching back over centuries and continents. So many humans spread false rumours about Jews, developed anti-Semitic propaganda without considering counter-arguments, limited the employment and educational possibilities for Jews, confined Jews to ghettos, and so on, until Hitler was able to issue orders to exterminate Jews which had some prospect of being carried out. And the sufferings and deaths in the concentration camps have in turn caused or made possible a whole web of actions and reactions stretching forward over the century of sympathy for victims, helping their relatives (to set up the state of Israel), avoiding any such event ever again, etc. The possibility of the Jewish suffering and deaths at the time made possible serious heroic choices for people normally (in consequence often of their own bad choices and the choices of others) too timid to make them (e.g. to harbour the prospective victims), and for people normally too hard-hearted (again as a result of previous bad choices) to make them, e.g., for a concentration camp guard not to obey orders. And they make possible reactions of courage (e.g., by the victims), of compassion, sympathy, penitence, forgiveness, reform, avoidance of repetition, etc., by others. (On the goodness of different kinds of reaction to suffering, see the next chapter.) Of course, I am not saying that anyone other than God would have the right to allow such things to happen, without intervening to stop them. (On God's right, see Chapter 12.) And, as I am emphasizing throughout, there is obviously a limit to the moral evil which God will allow us to cause (as there is to the natural evil by which he will allow us to be afflicted), but it is not obvious where that limit lies. And note again that the suffering in the Nazi concentration camps was the result of a very large number of free bad choices over many centuries, and made possible very many good choices.[1]

According to Swinburne, God was morally justified in allowing the Nazis to murder six million Jews (who Swinburne thinks are God's chosen people). Why? Because that gave the Nazis significant freedom to make "bad choices." Why was it good for God to allow the Nazis to make 'bad choices' like murdering six million Jews? Because that made it possible for other people (who were neither Nazis nor Jews) to (i) show sympathy for victims; (ii) help their relatives, and (iii) harbor the victims. It made it possible for (iv) Nazi guards to disobey orders. Finally, it made it possible for victims to show (v) compassion, (vi) sympathy, (vii) penitence, (viii) forgiveness, and (ix) reform. 

This version of the free will theodicy employs the following expansion of theism:

T2: God exists, and one of His final ends is for humans to have the freedom* to make very important moral decisions.[2]

Let us agree that (i) - (ix) are all goods, viz., things which have positive value. Even granting that, this theodicy is not a strong (=successful) answer to the evidential argument from evil. 

First, Swinburne assumes that humans have libertarian freedom, but he is well aware of the fact that his position is controversial, even among some of his fellow Christians. But let's put that to the side. 

Second, Swinburne assumes that the value of goods (i) - (ix) is so great as to outweigh the enormous disvalue of the horrors of the Holocaust. But why? From the fact (i) - (ix) are valuable, it does not follow that their value is so great as to outweigh the obvious disvalue of the six million lives prematurely ended by the Holocaust.[3] And notice that many of the goods listed in (i) - (ix) are only contingently valuable: their value depends upon evil, pain, suffering, etc. existing. For example, forgiveness isn't valuable in situations where someone hasn't done anything wrong. So there is a kind of circular justification here: evil is necessary for forgiveness, but forgiveness is necessary for evil (in the sense of justifying why God allows evil to occur). 

Third, even if the previous response were somehow incorrect, notice the distribution of value and disvalue. Who benefits from the Nazi's ability to choose to murder Jews? The Nazis. Who is harmed by that same freedom? The Jews. The idea that the 'benefits' of the Holocaust to Jews, as captured by (v) - (ix), is as preposterous as it is offensive. 

Fourth, Swinburne admits that there must be a limit to the amount of suffering which God, if He existed, would allow. I agree, but notice that, in order to maintain his theism, Swinburne is forced to deny that the Holocaust exceeds that limit. While it is logically possible that God exists and has a morally justifying reason for allowing the Holocaust, that mere possibility doesn't deny the fact that horrors like the Holocaust are better predicted by naturalism than by theism. To be more precise, naturalism doesn't make a prediction here, whereas theism predicts the non-existence of horrors; so perhaps a better way to make the point is that horrors like the Holocaust are mystified by theism but not by naturalism, where mystification means the opposite of prediction.

In conclusion, Swinburne's theodicy for the Holocaust fails and fails badly.


[1] Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 151-52.

[2] Paul Draper, "Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists," Nous 23 (1989): 331-50 at 343. 

[3] See Laura W. Ekstrom, God, Suffering, and the Value of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).

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