Category Archives: Providence

God Ordains Evil for the Perfection of the Finite Universe

“And because this orderly arrangement maintains the harmony of the universe by this very contrast, it comes about that evil things must need be.” Augustine, Divine Providence and Evil, Chpt 7

We have been looking for a reason why a God who causes and ordains all things would create a universe containing evil. A few posts back I argued against the Calvinist position that God ordains evil in order to appease his wrath, for that ultimately reduces to the fact that God metaphysically needs evil in order to fully satisfy his desires.

However, what is often not fully realized when giving God’s “reasons” for ordaining evil, is this glaring truth: God does not only not need evil in his creation to fulfill his own desires – to fulfill his own desires God doesn’t need creation at all. This is shocking only because of our own self-centeredness and feelings of cosmic importance. But here is the truth: God’s goodness and happiness do not depend on anything outside his own triune relationship. If we say that God’s happiness is maximized only by some other thing outside himself, then a) he is not the very source of Goodness itself, for he would lack some good essentially that he only gained by being united to this other thing; and b) God, the first cause of all, becomes one more dependent cause among others that needs something additional to maximize itself. Thus he would cease being God the absolute and fully actualized good and become just another potential, because unfulfilled, finite good.

Here then is the point. God’s act of creating does not in any way add to his own enjoyment of himself (for then God without creation would not be perfectly fulfilled). God’s act of creation, rather, is done in order for the creation to be fulfilled, and for the creation to reflect God’s glory, in itself.

Now it may be that the perfection of this particular universe that God made requires that there be evil in it. And this is intuitively very obvious: for some created goods we experience require evil in order to exist. Indeed many human virtues, such as courage, patience, self-control, could not exist in a universe without evil. Courage assumes some evil that is being withstood, patience some evil that is tolerated, self-control some evil that is held at bay. It just may be that for the perfection of this created universe various evils must needs exist; otherwise you would not have this created universe.

I put “this created universe” in italics for a very important reason, which is this. Just because the universe itself requires evil to be perfected does not entail that God or Goodness as such requires evil to be perfected. This is one of the misunderstandings in certain Calvinist schemes of God, which posit that God had to create sinners in order to appease his wrath. God needs no evil to be fulfilled, satisfied, or appeased. That is an idea that ultimately entails Dualism and makes God’s own fulfillment dependent on sources outside himself. It also posits that evil can somehow infect God’s inner being and impact him, which is another error. But, although God cannot be dependent on evil, it may be that the finite, created universe, in order to be “this universe” needs evil to be fulfilled.

Now, the question at the back of this is why God created “this universe” at all. Could he have made one without any evil whatsoever? Well, if by evil we mean metaphysical evil – i.e. some limitation in goodness – then the answer seems clearly no. God is the only uncreated and underived Goodness. As soon as you posit a creation then you unavoidably admit some metaphysical evil. But could he have made a universe with no physical or moral evil in it – i.e. no pain and suffering at all? This at least seems a possibility, insofar as God in his own fullness of being is not necessitated to create this or that particular universe, or even any universe at all. But why, then, did he create a universe which requires, for rational beings, the experience of pain and suffering to fulfill their own perfection in goodness? Why did he create “this universe”?

For all the “why” questions pertaining to God’s act of creation, there can be no other answer than simply that “he chose to.” For there is not some higher reason, outside God, to explain his free and voluntary act of creating the universe. God did not have to create. But then why did he? He simply willed to. That is the final explanation. It is indeed incomprehensible and impenetrable. But there is no contradiction. Nor, by the way, is there implied that just because evil exists in the universe there exists any imperfection in the creation taken as a whole, as it is, insofar as it is exactly as it is because of God’s omnicausal ordination. For the entire creation has the exact harmony, the exact proportion of goods and evils that has God freely intended it to have. And since all of God’s acts are perfect, then what he has made, given what it is, cannot be improved upon.

But again, it is the “given what it is” that is answered ultimately in the mysterious and incomprehensible will of God.


Thomas Oord vs. John Sander’s Conception of Providence and the Problem of Miracles

My note to Thomas Oord about his book The Uncontrolling Love of God:

I’ve been thinking about the main difference in yours and Sander’s approach to miracles – the God can’t vs. God won’t problem. You (I think rightly) maintain God can’t (otherwise he could, and simply chooses not to intervene, effectively making every bad thing that he could have miraculously prevented a good thing.) As I said I think this is the right way to go, but your model it seems could better explain the times God can and does intervene to do miracles than it currently does, with one small change. Why not simply say, given the world God has decided to create, he cannot unilaterally intervene (i.e. he cannot do any more than he does), and also that, the world he has decided to create, is one in which miracles have been predestined to occur, selectively, based on various free responses?

That is, why not make the miraculous functionally equivalent to the non-miraculous in terms of God’s initial creative parameters in making the world? You don’t have to have miracles things which God is “now” deciding to do or not do. Why can’t they be powerful, creative divergences from the “regular” pattern of perceived occurrences, which are themselves *built into the creation from the get go?* This would seem to alleviate some of the pressure regarding your explanation of miracles – they occur because God has created a world in which, given that things unfold in just such and such a way, X will miraculously occur. Yet, depending on just what the initial creative act is like, and how God has decided to sprinkle in miracles, and what goods/evils he leaves up to the free will of agents, it may still be the case that only given the actualization of various factors — only then will certain miracles occur.

What do you think? It is a sort of Deism with various miracles built into the system from the beginning, but God is not “distant” because he is still exerting the maximal amount of positive influence on every free agent at every moment, given their particular condition.

On Divine Providence

“Did Ophelia die because Shakespeare for poetic reasons wanted her to die at that moment—or because the branch broke?’ I think one would have to say, ‘For both reasons’. Every event in the play happens as a result of other events in the play, but also every event happens because the poet wants it to happen.” CS Lewis, Miracles

How to reconcile free will and predestination? Scripture verses can be stacked quite high supporting both sides. But the two things seem to be mutually exclusive: if humans are free, their actions seem to be up to them. Whether or not they do a or b is something not in God’s control. Yet if this is true it is possible that God not get the outcome he wants in certain circumstances. Consider the case of the crucifixion. If Jesus’ death depended on the evil free willed acts of humans, and if those acts were ultimately decided by the agents themselves making the choices, then it was not ultimately up to God whether or not Jesus would be crucified. The only way God could guarantee a particular outcome – and this need not be only the crucifixion, any species of divine providence will do – the only way God could ensure that a particular outcome came about would be if he overrode free will. But if he is prepared to override our freedom, we’re left wondering a) why he gave it at all; and b) how those who did such actions could be morally responsible for what they did, seeing as God “overrode” their “normal” freedom.

On the other hand, if we are all indeed free, how does God’s providence work? If God wants the crucifixion to occur, but he also wants free beings, how does he get both?

At first it seems a possible solution is to say that God can foreknow what any free being would do in any circumstance, and, thus knowing this, he can providentially arrange things such that he places free beings in various circumstances the outcomes of which are certain to occur. This is the idea that God has “middle knowledge.” But the problem here is that prior to the creature’s existence, there is no truth to speak of regarding it. Before a free person exists, how could God know what it “would” do, unless he determined that action himself beforehand?

Another popular solution is to say that God can know what beings will do simply by “observing” them outside of time. But this solution has a crippling catch. If God only passively observes by seeing all things at once, then he cannot also be orchestrating the circumstances of history in any providential sense. What God sees is an already existing thing – an already determinate reality. Time and all of history that fill it are already out there, existing over and against God. As such what goes on in time and history determine God’s knowledge itself. Therefore his knowledge, even if it is timeless, would come to him too late to be useful, for reality is already how it is. His knowing is simply his act of understanding what has already occurred without his providential guidance. (Anyone interested in more on this can see my past posts about problems in the purely observatory account of timeless knowledge.)

I believe the solution to the problem of free will and providence certainly involves God being outside of time. But it is not only this idea that is needed. As the last paragraph states a timeless being could be one that is timelessly impotent in doing anything with the knowledge that it has. (Ironically, this is also the case if God is in time learning what we do from moment to moment. Once he knows what free acts we will do it is already too late for him to do anything about those choices. He can only “guess” or “risk” with the possibility of failure.)

What must be coupled with the notion of a timeless God is also the idea that he is, from within, the determining source of all finite and created being whatsoever. Augustine, Aquinas, and most all classic theologians held that God’s knowledge is not caused by the existence of things themselves. For this would make him a contingent and dependent being. Contingent because his particular state of being was what it was because of other things (free choices of creatures.) And dependent because for God to be this – that is, a being who knows such and such – he needs the existence of free beings first. What the tradition has always said, rather, is that it is God’s knowledge which cause the things.

Now this at first immediately raises the problem of predestination and absolute determinism. If God’s knowing causes my actions, how are my actions not ultimately determined by God himself? And if this is the case, how can I be free?

They key is in understanding the fact that God’s power and creative motion themselves give to the will their very freedom itself. God and creatures are not on the same level of being. They do not face each other like two people do in a conversation, nor do they work together when an action takes place in the world, as if each one contributed some share to the project. Two people can both build a house. One person may lay the foundation and the other may do the roof. But the relations between man and God – that is the cooperating between the two – is not like this. God is at all times actively upholding every atom of the universe. Any action we do, even free ones, are ultimately possible only because of the movement and causal influence of God.

God therefore when he moves the will – when he creates it in a particular state – does so in a manner consistent with the wills nature. In fact his creating and moving the will just is what a natural human free will is. In short, what God creates is a will that is freely inclined and moved towards such and such. It is just that God’s action, since it is responsible for the very conditions of all reality – which themselves include the parameters of free will – itself causes both the inclination and movement of the will as free.

To put it in more metaphysical terms, we say that certain things are “necessary” or “contingent.” Most people normally assume that mathematical truths are necessary. 1 + 1 has to equal 2. On the other hand most people normally assume that free acts are normally consider contingent. Although I chose pizza for dinner, it was possible for me to have chosen a cheeseburger. Now, both the necessary and contingent as such are different modes of existence and reality. They are, if you like, different “species of being,” different metaphysical pieces of furniture that reality is populated with. Therefore they must get their particular realness and distinction from somewhere – God. But God in creating them in their particular modes does not destroy their individual metaphysical realness, but rather perfects and completes it.

Aquinas, in his question on providence and necessity, puts it like this. “We must remember that properly speaking “necessary” and “contingent” are consequent upon being, as such. Hence the mode both of necessity and of contingency falls under the foresight of God, who provides universally for all being.” Thus he goes on to say in his questions on the will that “As Dionysius says “it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things.” Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently.”

Hence the idea is that God is able to move things – that is, he is able to determine and cause things – such that their freedom and contingency is not destroyed, but rather established. God causes then not only the particular things that occur but also the *manner* in which they occur themselves. The only reason this seems problematic is because we imagine that there is first an “us” or a “free will” and then God goes about moving that will to either this or that thing. Hence all the talk before about God having to “override” our freedom to get what he wants. But to think this way is to fail to grasp the all comprehensive creative power of God. Apart from God’s creative activity there is no “us” to speak of. We have no being independent of or “before” his power and motion. Rather, his creative action as making us as we are just is our very existence itself. There is no gap between God creating us as we are and the subsequent movement of our free will to something. For any movement of the will would also have God as the source of its very existence too. God, as the absolute creator of all that is, does not need a medium by which to create us free. God, all at once, creates us in our very state of free willing itself, and this action does not violate our freedom but rather establishes it.

The best way I think to conceive of the situation is like that of an author to the characters and story in his novel. No one would say that the author in creating a character violates the free will of that character. Rather, the character just is the creation of the author. Nor would it make sense to ask why the author made one character to be this character – say an evil one – rather than that character – say a good one. For insofar as the author creates this particular character it and not another must exist. He could of course refrain from making it, or make some other in its place. But it is absurd to suppose he could make “it” into a different character entirely. For then the first particular character would never have existed.

With the idea of “particular characters” in mind we can perhaps get a better understanding of divine providence and predestination. Each character plays the precise role that God has made it to play. And it does this freely. For the character itself was made for its circumstance and the circumstance made precisely to accent or bring out the personality of the character. Thus, since God is the author he can get what he wants in the story while also ensuring that each character gets what they want in it.

Of course we can ask why God allows this particular character to do such a particular act. And we can also ask how it is consistent with God’s perfect goodness that he creates just this type of novel. But to answer the objection fully we would have to know the entire novel – for instance the destination of each character and how small each affliction was in light of the ending. We would also have to know the exact effects of each choice of every character as they effect every other character and element in the story. This may no doubt raise a moral concern. But notice we are no longer talking about a metaphysical or logical one – i.e. how to reconcile providence and free will. For though the two are closely related they are nevertheless distinct.

(How then does God know our free acts – how do you resolve free will with foreknowledge? He does not know them by being determined by them and “seeing” them over and against himself. Rather, he knows them by knowing his own free creative action of them in themselves.)

I end with a quote from Lewis.

“…we are not to think of God arguing, as we do, from an end (co-existence of free spirits) to the conditions involved in it, but rather of a single, utterly self-consistent act of creation which to us appears, at first sight, as the creation of many independent things, and then, as the creation of things mutually necessary. Even we can rise a little beyond the conception of mutual necessities as I have outlined it—can reduce matter as that which separates souls and matter as that which brings them together under the single concept of Plurality, whereof “separation” and “togetherness” are only two aspects. With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent.”