Category Archives: Evil

Calvinism: A Refutation

I grant that the strongest weapon in the Calvinist’s arsenal is Scripture. In fact, if some things weren’t (supposedly) found in the Bible I can’t imagine anyone would believe that a good God has intentionally ordained even evil acts for his own good pleasure.

But, there is a rebuttal to this claim. Before anyone says that Scripture forces us to hold that God is the source of all evil I would remind them that it is only the goodness of God which makes worshiping Him permissible or even rational. For if God is not good – or is not what we mean by that word – then worshiping Him may not really the “right” thing to do. If God’s moral being is so utterly different from our own moral intuitions then God may delight in punishing those who worship him or reward those who defy him. The heaven prepared by a morally alien God may indeed be hell to any human being we would define as virtuous. So to say that there can be some authority outside or over and against our own moral intuitions that commands us to pay allegiance to a being we find morally repulsive is literally self-refuting. For it makes no sense even to believe in the Scriptures if in doing so we destroy all possible ethical connection to God. However we interpret the Bible, if that method results in us burning our bridge back to God, we simply must abandon it. For the existence of a bridge itself is more necessary to reach our destination than any particular tool (however useful) which helps us cross it.

Continuing on then with my criticism of Calvinism. For an omnipotent God there is, as it were, no metaphysical speed limit that prevents him from going as fast as He can. There are no limitations over and against an omnipotent God, and unless he so limits himself, there can be nothing existing outside His own nature which pushes back against him or that is an obstacle. Thus a God who does NOT so limit himself – say, by granting other beings an amount of say-so regarding what comes to pass in the universe – must necessarily intend absolutely all that happens in his creation. Since there are no other independent forces at work and since everything is an expression of his own will, what occurs in creation must be 100% willed and intended by God, the first and only cause. This means that there cannot be some “piece” of God’s personality which is unhappy or dissatisfied with what he has made. How could there be? He is omnipotent and all good and, since no other agents with power or freedom exist, the finished product of creation came entirely from him. The sculpture is the result of the most perfectly imaginable artist who not only is unsurpassed in terms of skill but is, in his own being,  the very essence of flawless artistic beauty.

Does the problem with determinism now begin to become clearer? If God has determined absolutely everything that comes to pass and if free will is illusory then God intentionally causes all evil in the world – all the extracted torture and rape and mutilation. He must therefore want such things. For again, there are no other competing wills that God can use to take the blame for the occurrences of such things. He cannot point to the devil and say that he is responsible for sickness and disease for God himself literally determined absolutely every feature and action of Satan’s existence. But again, if it were true that God in fact DOES directly cause all evil in the universe then our calling him “good” would ultimately be meaningless.  A God who can positively cause hundreds of child rapes a day is so different from our conception of goodness that it is just as reasonable to believe that he would send us to Hell for obeying Him. So therefore once again, worshiping such a being becomes not only immoral but self-refuting.

So far I have been claiming that if God causes evil then He is evil. But the obvious and common rebuttal to this is to say that this isn’t necessary so because without certain evils certain goods would not be possible. In other words, this rebuttal goes, God may be forced to cause certain evils in order to bring about the most good possible. God may really want to have a perfectly good universe with no evil in it, but then He would not be able to fully display His goodness.

Notice though what this rebuttal assumes. At the back of it is really a denial of the omnipotence of God. Any time we say that God is ‘forced’ to do things, or when we say He is not ‘able’, we are supposing some outside, imposing power that God is contending with. On the Calvinist scheme, however, this is absurd. There simply are no other causes, outside of God’s own singular will, which could create such resistance. Even the Calvinist distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent will is absurd, for there is no other force independent of God which would cause him to have a divided desire. All things are as they are from his unilateral, determining, desiring will.

I think it is here, in this claim that the good is somehow made more good by the presence of evil, that the root of the Calvinist error lies. At the bottom of it is the idea that the good is somehow metaphysically dependent on evil. This, however, if true, amounts to Dualism, not Christianity. Let me explain.

God’s goodness, according to Christianity, is maximally perfect. ‘God is light’ St. John says, ‘and in Him there is no darkness at all.’[1] That is on one hand, it is true that there can be no evil without good. On the other hand, the opposite – that there can no good without evil – is not true. God’s goodness is such that it does not need anything else other than itself to exist. It simply is, and is good, through and through. If we were to imagine God’s goodness as a color it would be absolutely solid white. Whiteness as such does not need or ‘depend’ on blackness to be white.

If we deny this, and if we say that God’s goodness does in fact depend on evil, then this entails Dualism. If God ‘needs’ evil in His creation, then Goodness, as such, needs Evil. Good and Evil are then on some level or equal ground. I am dependent on food and water and air because without them I cannot exist. But the Christian God does not “need” evil in this way.  The good as such would still be just as good if evil never existed. Indeed, apart from creation, God existing in His own right has no evil in Him at all. Evil, however, is parasitic. It can only exist if there is something good there first that it can live off of.

Although we live in a world of contrasts, and we very often experience certain goods otherwise impossible without certain evil, this, I believe, is not because God’s nature is dualistic in this way. It is because His omnipotence is such that He can draw forth good even out of evil. To suppose that good needs evil would be equivalent to supposing a marriage needed adultery, or that a beautiful face needed some grotesque deformity, in order to be maximally good. A marriage may, in the long run, be better after adultery has occurred, but it is not something that must happen to have a maximally great marriage.

Therefore the unanswerable question for Calvinism is this: where – metaphysically speaking – does evil come from if not from the freedom of creatures? How can an all-good, all-powerful being such as God make a universe containing evil? If God makes a world exactly how He wishes, like an artist painting a picture in order to please Himself, and, further, if God is omnipotent such that nothing outside His own nature presents an obstacle to Him in attaining His wishes, and, finally, if He must still include evil in His universe to make it ‘maximally good,’ does this not mean that God’s will in some way requires there to be evil in order to be maximally satisfied? And how is this any different from saying that ultimately God wills and desires evil? If in God’s mind and will there is this need for evil, would this not make Him less than all good?

[1] 1 John 1:15

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?