Scattered Ramblings on Whether This World Is the Best Possible World

I read a couple of posts this week about the question of whether this world is the best possible world.  See here and here.  The first is on an atheist web site.  The second is on the blog of Arminian Roger Olson.

The philosopher Leibniz is credited with saying that this world is the best possible world.  I have not read Leibniz.  I first read about him and his claim that this is the best possible world in James Byrne’s Religion and the Enlightenment.  I was thinking of checking out the Cambridge Companion to Leibniz last time I was at the library, but I did not do so.  Now, I’m tempted to read it.

Asking you to keep in mind that I do not know much about Leibniz, I’d like to quote what R.L. Culpeper says about him:

“…according to Leibniz, God is omnipotent but he cannot break rules of logic; and, if he were to alter one aspect of this world, there would be a consequence felt somewhere else. Thus, God created this world such that the perfect balance of evil to good exists. Whereby, we might experience the evil in order to experience the good, but to such a degree that the good outweighs the evil. His intellect and power, moreover, are infinite insofar as his awareness to all of the possible worlds and his capability to actualize any of them is concerned. This represents the claim that this world is ‘the best of all possible worlds.'”

God is good in allowing us to have free will, but free will can lead to evil.  And the presence of evil enhances our appreciation of the good.  That’s why the world is as it is, and, according to Leibniz, it is the best possible world.  Consequently, Culperer asks, will not heaven be like this?  Will there be free will (and thus evil) in heaven?  Will God permit evil in heaven because that will enhance our appreciation of the good?  Many Christians will answer “no.”  But why do they say “no”?  If this is the best possible world, why won’t heaven be this way?  Will heaven be inferior to what we have now?

Roger Olson addresses similar issues.  If this is the best possible world, what about the coming eschatological paradise that Scripture talks about?  We expect that to be better.  If that is the case, then this world is not the best possible world, right?  A better one is coming.

Olson makes the point that “I take it that even Leibniz thought there was a better world coming, so when he argued that this is the best of all possible worlds he meant ‘for now.’ Saying this is the best world leading up to the best of all possible worlds is the same as saying this is the best of all possible worlds—right now.”  That would make sense, though Roger Olson doesn’t exactly buy it.

I appreciate these posts because they do undercut certain Christian apologetic arguments that I have heard.  “There is evil because God gave us free will, and free will is good because God wants us to love him freely, otherwise we would be robots.”  But will God dispense with free will when we get to heaven or eschatological paradise?  Will God at that time be open to robotic humans loving him?  In the biblical prophetic writings, we see God in the eschatological future essentially programming Israel so that she does right—-so that she automatically obeys God’s laws.  Does this violate free will?  One could answer “No.”  After all, God can give Israel desires that are in accordance with righteousness, and so, when Israel does what’s right, she is actually doing what she wants, freely.  Of course, God has programmed Israel to want a certain thing.  Still, she’s choosing to do right because she’s acting according to her desires.  It’s like the reverse of original sin: we were born with a propensity to evil, and yet, in doing evil, we are acting according to our desires.  We are doing what we like, and thus we are responsible, according to many Christians.

If free will can coincide with us being programmed to want righteousness, however, then why couldn’t God have done this at the outset?  Why give us a free will that can permit us to do evil?

In asking whether this is the best possible world, I think we should add a few words to the question: Is this the best possible world for what?  What is the goal of this world being as it is?  God perhaps made this world so that we can build character.  For character to be produced, there needs to be adversity.  Is this the best possible world for that?  Well, that’s debatable.  How about the people who die before they can build character?  And are suffering people guinea pigs for my moral education?  Still, I think that people are looking at worlds and asking if they are the best possible worlds, without asking what the goals of those worlds might be.  Maybe, in this season, the best possible world for us is one with adversity.  Eventually, however, another world would be appropriate.  Here and now, we’re building character and making choices and seeing why right is right and wrong is wrong.  After we learn that, we can move on into a world of total righteousness.

Neither post, as far as I can see, mentions the Fall.  Of course, the Fall is difficult because science has challenged it.  It’s hard to believe that there was no death or chaos at all in the world before Adam and Eve ate the fruit, for there are fossils of dead animals dating millions of years before Adam and Eve allegedly existed, plus entropy is essential to the universe.  Many Christians say that the world now is not the best possible world but is fallen—-it does not line up with God’s standards.  But God is making due with it, adapting God’s strategies to teach us righteousness in light of our fallen nature.  Is this the best possible world for that?  Well, people can debate that.  Suppose one does not believe in the Fall?  I guess, then, that God made things imperfect (from a certain sort of view) because coping with imperfection is how people can learn and grow.

There are problems in what I am saying.  For example, in biblical prophecies, we read of children being born in the eschatological paradise.  So will children be deprived of what we have now: the opportunity to build character through adversity?  Well, perhaps the lessons that the human race collectively learned will be passed on to them: the lessons of why right is right and wrong is wrong.

I’ll stop here.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to Scattered Ramblings on Whether This World Is the Best Possible World

  1. This is chockfull of really good questions James 🙂


  2. A lot of great questions…


  3. makagutu says:

    you ask very interesting questions James, and they need to be answered.
    This world is best for what? Does it have an end?
    What would prevent a omni god from actualizing a world where all the choices are in degrees of good- whatever you take good to mean.
    An interesting question was asked on Atheist Enquiry what is evil?


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks R.L.! I really enjoyed your post!


  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Yeah, that is an interesting question.


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