Category Archives: Decree

God’s Causality and the Existence of Evil

“The Lord has made all for himself, yes even the wicked for the day of doom.” Proverbs 16:4

It is interesting here how the Psalmist qualifies his statement. He seems to go out of his way to make sure you know that when he says “all things” he really means all things – yes, even the wicked.

Now we could debate whether or not the Psalmist was speaking a timeless truth about the actions and nature of God or whether his own culturally biased and naturally sinful character permitted him only to say of God what he was able, given his condition, to understand. Or we could even debate the nature of inspiration altogether: should Old Testament texts – particularly the gruesome ones – be considered as truly revelatory as those of the New?

But to do that would miss the point I want to talk about, which is the relation between God’s causality and the existence of evil. On the model I’ve been proposing, in which God causes all things that exist in the whole history of space and time, it seems to follow that God is the cause of evil as well. After all, evil certainly is something that exists in space-time. Not only is every rape, suicide, and murder an evil, but so is every bitter thought, every hurt feeling, every pain however slight. Even a stubbed toe is in its own sense a real evil. And since God causes all things and events, it follows, since these are things or events, that he causes them too. But doesn’t this make God himself the “author of evil”?

I would say that it does make God evil’s “author,” but that this doesn’t imply anything negative about God. We must be very careful here in our phrasing. What exactly is entailed in the word author? If we mean that God is himself guilty of something morally impure or evil himself, I deny that he is evil’s author. But if it means that he brings about things which are themselves evil I think we could agree with this without creating any theological problems.

Think about it like this. When God creates, say, an apple tree, he creates something which itself brings forth apples and feeds other of his creatures. He does not himself become either an apple tree or an apple. Or when God creates a roaring waterfall, he does not himself become one. What must be understood is that God’s creative action both a) distances himself from the created object; and b) gives the created object whatever definite and meaningful reality that it has. Thus when God creates an apple tree what exists is an apple tree. Furthermore, when God creates evil, say in the form of a wicked angel, what he creates just is a wicked angel. 

With this distinction in mind we can also avoid another common objection against the omnicausal view of God which is that if God creates absolutely everything then whatever he creates must be good. Therefore – the objection goes – every rape, murder, kidnapping, cancer, etc. must be really good, since God has ordained that it occur. What this objection fails to understand however is that these things are not good things precisely because God’s creative action has made them to have whatever evil that they do. In other words, the reason why evil things are not really good is because they really are evil. Death, torture, war, sickness – these things are true evils, horrible ones (and God knows them as such). They are not good just because they exist.

Lurking behind the objection above is the idea that a morally perfect and good God logically cannot create a universe containing evil. There are a few things that could be said here to help us navigate this puzzle.

1) There has not been a proper argument showing that God could not create a universe with evil in it. At least, we would need to see a logical incompatibility between a) the existence of an all perfect first cause God and b) the existence of evil in the created universe.

2) On any scheme of theology, God still has reasons for allowing evil to exist, otherwise it wouldn’t be at all. Even on the least providential view of God, where he is totally hands off and totally causally distinct from the world, God still has good reasons (e.g. his respecting of free will) to permit evil in the universe.

3) This assumes that to create a universe with evil, or to create evil in a universe, is itself morally evil or an instance of evil. But again, that just begs the question. It has not been proven that to create evil is itself an evil thing to do. If the connection between “creating x” and “being x” were inescapable it would mean that, when God creates a bird chirping, he himself would also be a bird chirping.

The real question that is most pressing at this point is not if the existence of evil and a perfectly good God is logically compatible, but rather why evil exists. What would such a God’s motives be in creating evil, especially if the existence of the universe itself is something contingent? God did not have to create – his nature does not logically require a universe in order to be maximally perfect. Why then make a universe with evil? Why not make a universe with no evil at all? Or why not make a universe where all beings were saved? Or why not only create morally perfect creatures?

This is a tough question, but a few things can be said I think to alleviate some difficulties.

1) Although it is true that God’s nature does not necessarily entail the existence of the universe, it may not be meaningful to say that God “could have done otherwise.” That is, to ask “why didn’t God do such and such” may in fact be an incoherent question. For it seems that for it to be meaningful it would have to be possible for us to go back to some first point – some first moment in time – of creation, and imagine God as doing something other than he did. I can ask why I drove this way rather to work than that way because I can rewind my day and evaluate my motives at that particular point in time. But God’s actions – even his free ones – are done timelessly. They are not done sequentially. (This is also another good reason Molinism seems false: it creates a sequential and therefore temporal God.) He doesn’t “first” do this “then” do that. Therefore it doesn’t seem meaningful to ask why God created a universe with evil in it “rather than” a universe without evil. For again, that implies that he is temporal and capable of going back in time to evaluate a choice which he could have done differently.

2) If God is related to a thing, it seems he must be related to it as perfectly as possible. For instance, the Father is related to the Son perfectly as Father. Furthermore, the whole Trinity is related to the creation perfectly as Creator. What this means is that there is nothing in these particular relations that is imperfect or lacking. When we create something or are father of someone, we at times fail in living up to the maximally perfect relation possible between ourselves and such things. We can be bad fathers or create something poorly. But God, since he is perfect, cannot himself fail to be in perfect relation to whatever he is related to.

With this in mind we can ask the question: is it possible that God, in creating unrepentant sinners and the wicked who are reprobate, did so in order to stand in a perfectly appropriate relation to such a kind of evil being? That is, why can’t God express that which in him is infinitely and perfectly opposed to implacable evil by creating beings who themselves are implacably evil? Is it because he would be doing an injustice to the created being? Not that I can see. One could only think that by first imagining God creating an innocent person and thereafter “making” him sinful. But remember, God’s creative action creates its object immediately and with the entirety of its essence. Thus, if what God created just was a being who deserved judgment, how would it be unjust of God to judge it? God would just be bringing about a truly logically possible kind of creature.

Would we think this view of God makes him petty or egotistical? Not if we understand the traditional doctrine of creation. That traditional teaching is that God, since he is of himself perfect, does not need the universe in order to actualize his perfection, nor does he somehow become more perfect or fulfilled simply because it exists. If this is true then God in creating beings does not enrich his own experience of himself. Therefore he could not create the wicked in order to make himself look better or to flex his egotistical muscles. He doesn’t get his juices flowing by making creation such and such a way.

Perhaps we think it is just a waste of God’s time to make such a world. Why would he make beings who he knows will ultimately deny him and so be consigned to everlasting destruction (whether that be annihilation or some degraded or primal sense of consciousness)? What’s the point, especially if he is already perfectly fulfilled? Could it not be for the benefit of his creation, so that they could more perfectly know and understand who God is? I am far from agreeing with the Edwardian/Calvinist picture of God who is positively wrathful or somehow outraged, in the sense of losing his emotional control, over something that goes on in a world where he has ordained all that comes to pass. But if we look at God’s anger more along the Pauline lines of “longsuffering” and “endurance” I think we can perhaps get a better grasp of how to think about this objection.

Traditionally, God’s nature is such that it cannot suffer. That seems to me to imply he cannot be in the sort of emotional distress that the common Calvinist picture paints him to be in: like an enraged alcoholic who can hardly control keep from destroying the slightest thing that offends him. However, it seems to me perfectly compatible with an impassible nature to suppose that God’s anger is something like a perfectly patient and disapproving endurance. A sort of disapproving putting up with, with the thought of eventually destroying altogether, not with any bitterness, but with an unflinching – because completely deserving – finality.

Imagine a time when someone has wronged you. Which is a more appropriate, a healthier, a more God like response? Wishing and brooding over getting even with the person, or a calm recognition that, although that person may have gotten away with what he did, in the end, all will be set right? You see, when we imagine God as being positively offended by the creation, we are imagining him as passible and even whimsical. (We’ve certainly lost sight of actus purus – no consistent Calvinist can consistently believe in that it seems.) Does it not make more sense to view God’s wrath, anger, justice, endurance, etc. along the lines of a well-controlled but still absolutely disapproving judge?

So is it not possible to say that God created evil in order to display to his creatures that which is in itself (and in himself) a perfectly appropriate stance towards implacable evil, that is, as St. Paul said, enduring it with longsuffering and patience for a season, and then eradicating it altogether?

God’s Timelessness, Permissive Decree, and Omnicausality

What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction…” Romans 9:22

There is a nest of problems that come with thinking of God’s causal relation to human’s free will. One of the views that I’ve been interested in lately (and that has been made popular in the blog world lately – see Eclectic Orthodoxy) is that of Hugh McCann’s. His position is not something entirely new, although he has perhaps done the best recently at most clearly articulating such a view. In short, McCann thinks that God causes absolutely all things that come to pass in time, but not in such a way that destroys free will. God “creates us willing.” He does not create “us” and then go on from there to make us will a certain way. Rather, his creation of us immediate. There is nothing between his willing that we exist in a certain way and our subsequent existing in that way. That would entail determinism – i.e. that God forces us to be something other than what we are. The way McCann sees it, and I tend to agree with him, is that God’s creating us just is his making us what we are in the first place.

Now this position is able to preserve human freedom because of God’s timeless causality. That is, because God transcends time, there is nothing out there in the world that comes “before” our free action such that since it exists therefore our free action must also exist. In other words, it’s not because at the beginning of the universe the particular atoms were arranged in just such a way that they necessarily arranged to produce our brains, and that those brains, themselves being governed by the laws of physics, had to give rise to the free choices that they did. Since God is really the ultimate cause and explanation of every movement in time whatsoever, the case is quite different. He operates on a different plane of causality altogether. The classic example is of his causal power being like that of an author to a novel. No one would accuse the author of “determining” the nature of his characters such that their freedom was violated when he makes them doing different things.

The whole question of a “violation” of freedom presupposes that there is some person already there – some creature that is just “given” – that God then acts on to make it do such and such. But again, if God is timeless, and if he is the source of all reality, there is no such character already “there” just existing by its own necessary existence. For it to exist at all God must first cause it to be. But in that case, we already have a fully created character.

One more thing that follows from saying that God is timeless is that asking whether or not he could have done otherwise becomes a meaningless question. I think it is true to say that God’s creation is contingent and that it need not exist. I also think it true to say that given God’s existence (which is necessary), the existence of the world does not necessarily follow. But, at the same time, since we know that God in fact has freely chosen to create (we do exist after all), God cannot not create. Since God is timeless there is no sequence to his acts (for sequence implies temporality and movement.) Therefore, since what he does he does changelessly, there is no sense in asking if he “could have” not created. For “could have” implies some past state of affairs when God could have actually acted differently. It’s not that God “had” to or “must” have created. Nor is it that he at one point just freely chose to do something he didn’t have to do. Both points put God in time. I would rather say that, given Gods necessary existence, a creation does not necessarily follow, but only if he freely wills to create the world does its existence follow. Putting the situation in a tenseless (and therefore timeless) conditional upholds both Gods necessity and the creation and contingency but avoids the “could have” problems.

Now, one apparent problem with McCann’s view is that it seems to fall victim to the critique against Calvinism insofar as it makes God the cause of sin and evil. It also seems to divide his will: God creates the very beings who he is wrathful with and who he commands to be otherwise, even though they have no real ability to do otherwise.

A couple things can be said here. The first is that the ability to do otherwise may not actually be necessary to secure moral responsibility. It may be that all that is required is a) a rational motive by the intellect; and b) the perception that acting on that motive is wrong. The second quick thing that can be said is that there may be nothing either logically incompatible or theologically problematic in saying that God has caused or created all sin and evil. You see, what we want to specifically avoid is making God out to be evil or of having him do or commit evil himself. But to create evil, or to make a universe in which sin exists, is not necessarily to commit an evil act. That would be a sort of fallacy of transfer: if God makes a red apple exist, he himself must be a red apple; or if God makes a man riding a bike, he himself must be riding a bike. Is it not possible that God, in creating evil and sinful actions, does not do evil insofar as all that he is causing he is doing with perfectly wise, pure, and good motives?

Now, this leads me to the last point of this post, which is about God’s permission of sin and evil. It’s easy to think that if God causes all that comes to pass, he is delighted or gleeful whenever sin occurs. After all, if people sin, they only do so because he has willed that they sin. And since God’s will is always fulfilled – since, indeed, according to this scheme all things that happen do so by God’s decree – how could he ever be upset about anything? Furthermore, how could he even “permit” a thing in the first place? If he is omnicausing all, just what could he be permitting, besides his own causal power?

This is where I think the question of God’s timeless relation to creation becomes really interesting. Sam Storms has suggested that God “is pleased to ordain his own displeasure” and John Piper has talked about the “complex emotional life” of God. Could it be that in willing sinners, God is revealing that which is in himself analogous to our experience of “permission” and “longsuffering”?

Think about it like this. What if God’s very causal, timeless relation is to the reprobate just such a species of permissiveness? What we mean by permission automatically presupposes some resistant object over and against which we exert a sort of causal allowance. What if God’s causal relation between sinners is this same sort of thing, just taken up timelessly?