This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 5 (2007). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.
Perhaps the thorniest issue in Christian apologetics is commonly known as the problem of evil. How can the existence of a good, all-powerful, and all-knowing Creator be squared with the world in which we find ourselves, riddled as it is with evil and human suffering? One common Christian response is known as the free will defense. Not all Christians believe in free will, however. How would a strict adherent of Calvinism, for example, address the problem of evil?
In the point-counterpoint that follows, Chad Meister, assistant professor of philosophy at Bethel College, Indiana, tackles the problem of evil from the free will position while E. Calvin Beisner, associate professor of historical theology and social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary, Florida, provides an apologetic for the same problem from a Reformed perspective. They then interact with and rebut each other’s presentations.
Both the free will and determinist positions are well represented in historic Christian orthodoxy. The question is, which approach is more consistent with Scripture and sound reason? We invite you to decide for yourself as you consider the cases for both sides made by these two able Christian scholars.
IF GOD EXISTS, WHY IS THERE EVIL?
by E. Calvin Beisner
If there’s anything likely to stump Christians when witnessing, it is the challenge, “If God exists, why is there evil?” Merely anticipating the objection can stop many Christians cold in their tracks.
Through the centuries theologians and philosophers from a wide range of backgrounds and interests have tried various responses to explain what appears to be a logical contradiction in the following five propositions:
1. God exists.
2. God is all-powerful.
3. God is all-knowing.
4. God is all-good.
5. Evil exists.
EVIL AS ILLUSION?
Some have denied proposition 5, that anything truly evil occurs. What seems evil is really good. Our perceiving it as evil is illusion. This has been the answer of pantheism, Gnosticism, and modern Christian Science, but never of Christianity. For if evil is mere illusion, then, first, disobedience to God’s law is equally as good as obedience, and second, Christ’s dying on a cross as atonement for sin was an exercise in futility, for there was no sin for which to atone. If evil is an illusion, Christianity is false. But then the illusion of evil certainly seems to be as evil as evil itself would have been if real. The same suffering, grief, terror, anger, envy, and other mental states that we associate with evil still occur. Illusory evil doesn’t solve the problem of evil even for the non-Christian.
EVIL AS DEPRIVATION?
Others have argued that while evil is not an illusion, neither is it a real thing in itself. Thomas Aquinas, and before him Augustine in his early thought, held that evil is not an entity but a deprivation or absence of good. But to this the opponent of Christianity may reply, “Well, granted all the suffering involved in those deprivations, an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God wouldn’t have allowed the deprivation any more than He’d have allowed a positive existent that was evil.” Such a reply leaves the Christian with the problem of seeming to affirm two contradictory propositions: that a God who would never allow deprivations to occur exists, and that deprivations occur.
EVIL AS A RESULT OF A DIMINISHED GOD?
A few have admitted that real evil occurs and that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God would not have created a world in which evil would occur. They have decided that contrary to propositions 2, 3, and 4, God is not all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. The most prominent proponents of this view today—Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, Greg Boyd, John Sanders, and others—call themselves “Open Theists.” Open Theists teach that the capacity of choice God gave us is unrestricted by anything in God, whether His foreknowledge or His plans, that is, that the human will is radically free and God therefore cannot know in advance what we will choose. As John S. Feinberg1 and Bruce Ware2 have demonstrated, however, the god of Open Theism is not the God of the Bible.3
EVIL AS A RESULT OF FREE WILL?
The most common answer to the problem of evil through the centuries has been the free-will defense. This states that God is indeed all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good; that there are certain things that even such a Being cannot do; and that one of those things is to create a morally good world in which no evil occurs.
Is Human Will Absolutely Free?
The Bible tells us that God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2; Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; 1 John 1:10; 5:10). Surely this isn’t because He lacks the power to lie, or because He doesn’t know how to lie; rather, it is because His goodness makes His lying impossible. Lying would contradict His own nature, for God is truth (Exod. 34:6; Deut. 32:4; Ps. 31:5; Isa. 65:16). Neither could God make a round square, not because He lacks the power, but because “round squareness” is not something subject to power. A round square is a contradiction—something the Bible condemns (Isa. 5:20). Proponents of the free-will defense, such as C. S. Lewis,4 Alvin Plantinga,5 and Ronald Nash,6 argue that it would be impossible for God to create a morally good world in which no one would ever sin. According to this argument, it is better to have moral capacity than to lack it. But moral capacity entails the capacity to choose right or wrong equally in any given circumstance—no prior condition can ensure either choice. This view is called “libertarian free will.” The will must be entirely free or the agent is amoral. It is better for God to create a world with moral than with only amoral beings, but moral beings by definition are capable of sin; consequently, if God were to create a world at all, He could not create one with moral inhabitants who could never do evil.
I used this solution in the first edition of Answers for Atheists.7 Then I noticed that if the free-will defense were right in its definition of a moral being as one that could choose evil as readily as good at any given moment, five things followed: First, either God must not be a moral being or God could choose evil as readily as good. The Bible, however, by affirming the holiness and goodness of God and the impossibility of His doing evil, rejects both those options. Second, Christ must have been able to sin, and God could not have prevented it; but His sinning would have made His offering of Himself as a sinless sacrifice impossible, and therefore would have made the prophecies of His sacrifice unreliable. Third, the doctrines of original, inevitable, and universal sin must be false. The Bible, however, affirms each of them (Rom. 5:12ff, Ps. 51:5, and Rom. 3:20, respectively). Fourth, the doctrine that the saints in heaven cannot sin must be false, yet the Bible affirms it (Heb. 12:23; Rev. 21:8, 27).
Relevant to these third and fourth problems, Augustine taught that before the fall Adam and Eve were righteous but able to sin (posse peccare); since the fall, each human has been, until conversion, sinful and not able not to sin (non posse non peccare); after conversion, one remains sinful but becomes able not to sin (posse non peccare); and at death the believer becomes not able to sin (non posse peccare). If the free-will defense is right, then we have been wrong all along in believing that humans are not able not to sin before conversion and believers after death are not able to sin.
Fifth, the insistence that no prior determination could ensure the will’s choices would make divine foreknowledge and prophecy impossible. But since God does foreknow and infallibly prophesy even the sinful acts of moral beings or agents, moral choice and some kind of predetermination must be compatible, and hence libertarian free will is an unnecessary element of the solution to the problem of evil. Something other than libertarian free will, then, must be the reason why a being is moral and not amoral.8
How Is the Human Will Free?
As the late Gordon Clark put it, “Free will is not the basis of responsibility. . . . the basis of responsibility is knowledge”9 of right and wrong. Paul wrote, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness . . . . For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks” (Rom. 1:18, 21, emphasis added).10 Similarly, Jesus said, “That slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready to act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes” (Luke 12:47, emphasis added), and to the Pharisees He said, “If you were blind [i.e., didn’t know], you would have no sin, but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41). The Reformers Martin Luther11 and John Calvin,12 along with other great Reformed thinkers, distinguished between freedom and free will. The Westminster Confession of Faith affirmed that God “endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.”13 In the discourse of the day, however, this language affirmed not libertarian free will but rather that the human will is not subject to physical coercion. The mind or will is not subject to bodily (material) force because it is an aspect of man’s spirit, not of his body. But the Confession taught simultaneously that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”14
God being spirit (John 4:24), the authors of the Confession recognized that the will’s freedom from physical causality did not entail its freedom from spiritual (divine) causality. They held that God not only foreknew, but even foreordained (predestined, predetermined) human acts that, though free (by natural liberty) and sinful (because contrary to God’s law), were nonetheless, due to the infallibility of God’s plan and foreknowledge, absolutely certain to occur. To demonstrate this they cited many biblical texts, such as Acts 4:27–28: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur,” and Acts 2:22–23: “Jesus the Nazarene … delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men.” And as Clark points out, since only an omniscient person could know that his will was subject to no cause, and no mere human being is omniscient, no human knows that his will is subject to no cause, so there is no good reason to insist that it is.15
If an act could be both sinful and inevitable, the authors of the Confession reasoned, there must be no contradiction between moral responsibility and inevitability/predestination/foreordination. This insight implies the historic Reformed answer to the problem of evil: the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God planned for evil to occur and uses it for His own good purposes.
EVIL AS A MEANS FOR GOOD
Stated in its most powerful way, the logical problem of evil is this: a God that would create a world that would contain evil cannot be the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God of the Bible; but the God (if any) that created this world is a God that created a world that contains evil; therefore the God that created this world cannot be the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God of the Bible. The first point of this argument sums up a longer argument. Christians believe that:
1. The God who created this world is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and
2. the God who created this world is a God who would create a world that would contain evil.
Christians, however, say the anti-theists, also should believe that:
3. An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God is not a God who would create a world that contained evil; therefore,
4. the God who created this world is not omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
Proposition 4, however, though implied by propositions 2 and 3 together, contradicts proposition 1. The Christian therefore must believe either proposition 4 or proposition 1, but cannot believe both. The antitheist has posed a powerful dilemma:
- if you believe 1 and 2 together, you must deny 4; and,
- if you believe 2 and 3 together, you must affirm 4; but,
- 2 and 3 together are true; therefore,
- 4 is true, so 1 must be false.
- The Christian therefore must deny 1 and 2 together and believe 2 and 3 together. Hence
- the Christian must believe 4 also—instead.
As we have seen, pantheists and Gnostics answer by denying proposition 2 on the grounds that evil is an illusion; Open Theists answer by denying propositions 1 and 2. Neither option is compatible with historic Christian faith. Adherents of the free-will defense deny proposition 3 by arguing that a moral world without evil is impossible, which, as we have seen, is also mistaken.
The Reformed answer of Luther, Calvin, the Westminster Divines, and others also denies proposition 3, but on different grounds. They argue that although it would not have been logically impossible for God to create only moral creatures that would never sin, He in fact created a moral world with creatures whose evil He foreordained for His own good purposes—to display His justice in punishing some (Prov. 16:4) and His grace in redeeming and pardoning others (Eph. 1:5–6; 2:7).
Does this mean God justifies His means by His ends? Yes. Is that wicked? No. An end-justifies-the-means ethic is fallacious and therefore wicked for finite men (who can neither control nor know all the results of their choices), but it is perfectly fitting for the infinite God (who both controls and knows all the results of His choices)–and, after all, God being supreme need not justify His choices to anyone:
So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? (Rom. 9:15–21).
Does the reality of evil make the existence of the Christian God impossible? No. For good reasons, God created a world that contained evil. For those same reasons, as we have seen, the Christian position does not self-contradict.
- John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God. Foundations of Evangelical Theology, ed. John S. Feinberg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001).
- Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000).
- See my own refutation of Open Theism, under the name of Moral Government Theology, in Evangelical Heathenism? Examining Contemporary Revival Theology (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1996).
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).
- Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).
- Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988).
- E. Calvin Beisner, Answers for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Thoughtful Skeptics: Dialogs about Christian Faith and Life (Colorado Springs: Campus Crusade for Christ/Northstar, 1985).
- In Evangelical Heathenism (80–92), I explain the difference between free agency and free will.
- Gordon H. Clark, God and Evil: The Problem Solved, 2nd ed. (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2004), 44; a reprint of the chapter “God and Evil” in Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 3rd ed. (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 1995), 230.
- All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible.
- Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Ambassador Classics (Greenville, SC: Ambassador-Emerald International, 2007).
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), II.ii.1–7 (vol. 1, 255-264).
- Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1976), 9.1 (51).
- Ibid., 3.1 (28).
- Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 228-30; God and Evil, 42-43.
DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO BELIEVE IN THE GOD OF THE BIBLE?
by Chad Meister
The world is filled with tragedy and wickedness: pedophiles prey on the innocent; cancer ravages families; earthquakes, floods, and fires destroy villages and communities; and the AIDS virus is obliterating millions of men, women, and children. The torrents of evil and human suffering are always with us.
In a world like ours—filled with horrendous evil—does it make sense to believe in the perfect God of the Bible? Atheists have argued for centuries that it does not. They have produced a straightforward argument against the reasonableness of belief in the God that the Bible describes as omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good):1
- If God is omnipotent, then He could destroy evil.
- If God is omniscient, then He would know how to destroy evil.
- If God is omnibenevolent, then He would desire to destroy evil.
- Evil, however, has not been destroyed; it still exists.
- God, therefore, must not exist.
This is what is typically referred to as “the problem of evil.” Skeptic and philosopher David Hume (1711‑1776) succinctly stated the problem as follows: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”2
If we are honest about it, there does seem to be an obvious and troubling issue here—not just for the atheist, but for the believer in God as well. The Christian theist isn’t the only one on the defensive, however. This crucial point is often overlooked, but whether one holds to a theistic, atheistic, pantheistic, or other worldview, one is not off the hook in offering an account of evil. Everyone—every worldview—must give an answer to explain the experienced reality of evil. As I argue elsewhere, though, the Christian has by far the best answer of any of the competing worldviews.3 The purpose of this essay, however, is not to compare the Christian answer with those of other worldviews, but to offer a sound response to the alleged “problem of evil” that confronts the Christian.
AN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE
How do Christians respond to this challenging problem? It is important to note first that there are rational responses and there are emotional responses. For example, in a recent evangelistic trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, a young woman asked my cohorts and me why we were there (it was obvious that we weren’t typical Mardi Gras patrons since we weren’t wearing any beads!). We told her that we were there to talk about God with anyone interested in the dialogue. “God,” she said. “I quit believing in God last year when my father died of cancer.” As she said these words, several tears began to form and run down her cheek.
This was obviously not the time to dive into a theological or philosophical diatribe about the logical consistency of God and evil. It was rather a time to show the love of Christ to her, to affirm her in her grief, and to simply receive her as a fellow human being whom God deeply loves. We did this as best we could, and one of the women in our group ended up developing an ongoing friendship with her.
This kind of emotional response is just as important as a rational response. At times, however, Christians and non-Christians alike need more than love, sympathy, and friendship—they need solid, rational, logical answers. The rest of this essay, then, will be an attempt to offer what I take to be the most persuasive rational response to the problem of evil.
A RATIONAL RESPONSE
One of the most important theologians in the history of the Christian church was St. Augustine (354‑423). In his book On the Free Choice of the Will,4 he provided in seminal form what has become a powerful response to the problem of evil. Contemporary Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has reformulated the argument (which is commonly referred to as the free-will defense5). Here is his most concise formulation of it:
A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.6
It is reasonable, then, contrary to the atheist perspective, to believe that an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God coexists in a world filled with evil, if we grant that His created world contains creatures who are free. This freedom must be a real ability to choose one way or the other—what is called “libertarian” freedom—though; it cannot be a sham. Fortunately, both the Bible and our own experience affirm that we do have such free will. Without believing that creatures have free will, though, the Christian would have a serious problem, for if evil didn’t emerge from the free will of created persons, then where did it come from? God? If God were the author of evil, the atheist would be right—we would have a real conundrum on our hands.
As powerful as it is, we Christians do have more than the free-will defense at our disposal. There are additional reasons why God might allow evil to continue—reasons that we consistently can couple with the free-will defense. Consider the points in the following sections.
For a Greater Good
God may allow evil in our lives for our own greater good (Rom.5:3‑5,8:28, and James1:2‑4, e.g., suggest such). I once received a letter from a woman I knew that explained how as a child she had been sexually abused and traumatized by her stepfather over a long period of time. If God really exists and loves her, she asked, how could He let that happen to her?
The next time we spoke, I explained that it’s not that God wants people to have horrendous experiences, but that He is big enough to take and use them for good purposes. “Take your own case,” I said. “You are an incredibly compassionate, encouraging, joy-filled person…God has taken the hurt and pain you’ve experienced and through them He’s molded you into…someone who can truly empathize with hurting people.”
“When you bake a cake from scratch,” I continued, “you use raw eggs, baking soda, flour, salt, and butter, among other things. Suppose you decided to taste them all individually. With the exception of the sugar, they would be rather disgusting, but by mixing them together and baking them, a transformation takes place. So it can be with our experiences—delightful, dreadful, and everything in between. Over time, God can use them to transform us into people who are deep and rich in character.” Nothing is irredeemable in God’s universe.
To Bring People to God
God may use evil to bring people to Himself. Not only can God use evil in people’s lives for their character development, but He also can use it to help them find Him. In my own life, for example, as a teenager and young adult I was headed in a direction that was leading me far from God. A number of bad things happened, though; tragedies too painful to rehearse here. Through them, however, I finally came to see how good and wise and trustworthy God really is. Through them I turned my life over to Him. The words of the early apostles certainly rang true for me: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts14:22).7 I believe C.S. Lewis got it right: pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.8
To Punish Wickedness
God may use evil to punish wickedness. The Bible is clear that God didn’t create evil, but it also seems to indicate that God uses evil events and persons to bring retribution against wickedness. For example, in Jeremiah 25:8‑14 the Lord is said to have brought tribes from the north to punish Israel for her wicked idolatry. Babylon did, indeed, “punish” Israel, and God allowed this nation to do so. It’s not that He caused evil things to happen to His people, but He can and does allow such things to happen to them. Wickedness does need to be dealt with, and whether sooner or later (or both), one way or another, either in this life or in the next, it will be.
ALL WILL BE WELL
One final thought is worthy of mention. Our world is filled with evil now, but it won’t always be this way. There will come a day when there will be no more tears or terror. God allows evil to continue now because “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2Pet.3:9), but He will put an end to evil and do away with pain and suffering. At that time, as the medieval Christian mystic St. Teresa put it, “in light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures on earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”9
We have seen, then, that the atheist’s claim that there is a contradiction in believing in the coexistence of God and evil is false, and that the Christian faith does have reasonable explanations for how the God of the Bible and evil could coexist.10 For God to create a good and moral universe, He needed to make creatures with free will. Along with free will came the possibility—and, as it turned out, the reality—that these creatures freely would choose evil. God, however, is willing and able to redeem this fallen world and abolish evil. He will do it, and all will be well.
- Scripture declares God’s omnipotence—God is able to accomplish everything He desires (Jer.32:17; Matt.19:26; Luke1:37; 2Cor.6:18); omniscience—God knows everything, including all past, present, and future truths (1Sam.23:11–13; Ps.139:2; Isa.46:9–10; 1John3:20); and omnibenevolence—God is the standard of goodness, which primarily is reflected in His moral attributes, especially love (Ps.25:8; Mark10:18; Rom.5:6–10; 1John4:8,16).
- David Hume, Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988), 63.
- For arguments that Christian theism has the best answer to the problem of evil among the competing worldviews, see chaps2,3, and 6 in Chad Meister, Building Belief: Constructing Faith from the Ground Up (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006).
- Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993).
- Technically, Augustine’s argument is referred to as a theodicy rather than a defense (a theodicy is different from a defense in that a theodicy is an attempt to justify God’s ways to human beings whereas a defense is a rebuttal to an objection to God’s existence given the existence of evil). I will ignore this distinction for the purposes of this article.
- Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 30.
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version, 1984.
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 93.
- St. Teresa, as quoted by Peter Kreeft, interview, in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 47.
- For two helpful introductory treatments on the problem of evil, see Norman L. Geisler, The Roots of Evil (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002) and Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1986). For a more technical introduction, see Michael L. Peterson, God and Evil: An Introduction to the Issues (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998).
GENERAL OBJECTIONS TO THE FREE WILL DEFENSE:
A Response to Chad Meister
Certain weaknesses affect all versions of the free-will defense. All wrongly assume no moral significance without libertarian free will—contrary to Acts 4:27–28, 2:22–23, and similar passages. This notion implies that God and His acts have no moral significance, since God does not have libertarian free will (i.e., it is impossible for God to do evil—Titus 1:2). This, however, is contrary to Isaiah 6:3, Deuteronomy 32:4, and Psalm 119:68 (“You are good, and do good” NASB).
All versions of the free-will defense also fail by restricting God’s relationship to the occurrence of evil to “allowing” it rather than causing it. As Gordon Clark explained:
Free will was put forward to relieve God of responsibility for sin. But this it does not do.
Suppose there were a lifeguard stationed on a dangerous beach. In the breakers a boy is being sucked out to sea by the strong undertow.… He will drown without powerful aid.… But the lifeguard simply sits on his high chair and watches him drown.… After all, it was of his own free will that the boy went into the surf.… Would an Arminian now conclude that the lifeguard thus escapes culpability?
. . . [U]nlike the boy who exists in relative independence of the lifeguard, in actuality God made the boy and the ocean, too. Now, if the guard—who is not a creator at all—is responsible for permitting the boy to drown, even if the boy is supposed to have entered the surf of his own free will, does not God—who made them—appear in a worse light? Surely an omnipotent God could have either made the boy a better swimmer, or made the ocean less rough, or at least have saved him from drowning.1
Far from teaching, “Although God didn’t want those horrible things to happen, still He is big enough to take and use them for good purposes,” the Bible teaches that God foreordains everything that happens (Dan. 4:34–35; Ps. 33:10–11; 135:6; Acts 17:25–26, 28; Matt. 10:29–31; Eph. 1:11). We do not serve a frustrated deity!
Certain weaknesses are specific to Chad Meister’s able presentation of the free-will defense. I will address these in the remainder of this rebuttal.
A Different Challenge. Meister writes as if the challenge were to explain why God has not yet destroyed an already existing evil. The real challenge, however, is to explain why evil occurred in the first place. Christians cannot refute the problem of evil by appealing only to the future, which the skeptic, not presupposing biblical eschatology, recognizes as the fallacy of argumentum ad futuris.2 Further, Meister’s argument misrepresents biblical eschatology, for Scripture nowhere teaches that God will abolish all evil. On the contrary, sinners (human or angelic) never reconciled to God and therefore never repenting of their sin will suffer eternally (Rev. 20:10–15).
A False Choice. Meister presents a false choice between libertarian freedom and “sham” freedom. That choice presupposes that for the compatibilist–that is, one who holds determinism and moral responsibility/free choice to be compatible, as I have argued–there is no difference between how a stone responds to gravity and how a child responds to his or her parent’s command. Hidden within this mistake is a deeper one: the assumption that “a real ability to choose one way or the other”—“libertarian freedom”—is the same thing as free will, that is, a will that is not predetermined. Compatibilists assert that moral agents (God, angels, and men) choose, but that choosing per se and choosing indeterminately are not synonymous.
A Lack of Evidence. Meister mistakenly asserts, “Both the Bible and our own experience affirm that we do have [libertarian] free will.” Since he offers no biblical evidence, I cannot reply here to whatever he might say in the follow-up other than to point out that the Bible teaches the contrary (Prov. 16:1, 9; 21:1; Acts 2:22–23).
But the notion that we have experiential verification of libertarian free will—that is, of the absence of any predetermining cause of our choices—is readily refuted,3 since we all acknowledge that the will is influenced by physical causes—illness, fatigue, weather, and injury, for example—even though we frequently are unaware of them. Intellectual and moral influences also affect our wills (Prov. 22:6). Why not God’s predetermination? As Clark put it, “In order to know that our wills are determined by no causes, we should have to know every possible cause in the entire universe.… To be conscious of free will therefore requires omniscience. Hence there is no consciousness of free will; what its exponents take as consciousness of free will is simply the unconsciousness of determination.”4
A Confusion of Ideas. Meister confuses the idea of evil’s coming from God with that of God’s being its author. To equate the two without argument, when no less brilliant theologians and philosophers than the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith (and Reformed theologians before and after) explicitly distinguish them,5 is to beg one of the most serious questions in the debate.
The Reformed explanation still enables us to say that God uses evil in our lives for our good, to bring people to Himself, and to punish wickedness,6 but it avoids the pitfalls of the free-will defense. It also enables us to echo Paul’s doxology in Romans 11:36, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things”–including evil. “To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (NIV, emphasis added).
— E. Calvin Beisner
- Clark, God and Evil, 17-18; Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 204-5.
- This fallacy essentially says, “I can’t answer your challenge now, but if you wait a while–maybe a few thousand years–you’ll see I was right.” As Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks put it, “this is hope, not proof. It is argument by anticipation, not demonstration. No poker player would dare to pick up the pot because he felt sure he would win the next hand. No logician can do it either.” Geisler and Brooks, Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990, 2004), 99-100.
- Put technically, it is an argument from silence (or lack of evidence): “I’m not aware of a cause for my choice, so there must be none.” That would follow only if I already knew that no cause for my choice could exist without my being aware of it–which would require my omniscience.
- Clark, God and Evil, 43; Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 229-30.
- Chapter 5 of the Confession states that “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things” (par. 1) and that God’s “providence…extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding…to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who…neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (par. 4)—the last phrase equating “author” and “approver.” Westminster Confession of Faith, 33, 35-36. The distinction is this: an author approves of a deed, while a planner or foreordainer need not. Thus, for example, God foreordained that evil men would crucify Christ (Acts 2:23), but He did not ordain (author) it (Acts 2:38).
- Using evil to punish wickedness is no answer by itself, for it only begs the question, “Why the wickedness?”
God, Free will, and evil:
A Response to E. Calvin Beisner
I previously offered a free-will answer to how there could be evil—real, horrific, and widespread evil—in a world that God created. I now respond to Dr. Beisner’s Calvinistic answer—an answer in which biblical citations and theological terminology mask the following presupposition: God determines our every act (evil or good) and sends some people to hell for their predestined sins and others to heaven for their predestined repentance, regardless of whether it seems fair, logical, or just.
I respect Beisner’s work. I will focus this rebuttal, however, on a few underlying problems with his answer to this challenge.
A Biblical Problem. Despite Beisner’s view, the Bible strongly affirms human free will (the ability to initiate a moral decision either for or against any given option). Jesus laments over His city in Matthew23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (NIV, emphasis added). In Acts7:51, Stephen chastises the Jewish council for resisting God: “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (NIV, emphasis added). In the Old Testament, the Lord repeatedly implores His people to turn from evil and do what is good (e.g., Jer.18:11). The natural reading in each of these passages is that the people being chastised can respond in the way the Lord wants them to. They are being chastised for not doing so! I have documented dozens of other passages that also provide examples of freedom of the will.1
It was this freedom of will that, while a blessed gift from God, nevertheless allowed for evil to arise in the world. For Calvinists such as Beisner, unsaved people have no such free will, for they are “not able not to sin.” To put it differently, unsaved people can never choose to do any good thing; they can only “choose” to do evil (if we can call that a “choice”). This contradicts passages, such as those I listed previously, in which God is pleading with people to turn from wickedness.
The reason people choose to do evil is not because God causes them to (a conclusion you must hold if you believe God is the determining cause of all events); it is because they refuse to do what is right and good. It is not God’s fault, then, that evil exists—the blame belongs to free creatures who turned away from Him.
Of course God is sovereign. I’m not denying that, but as the late Bob Passantino used to say, “God is so sovereign that He is not intimidated by granting free will to those He created in His image.”
A Philosophical/Theological Problem. Another problem with Beisner’s position is that it (unintentionally) makes God the author of evil. For people to be morally responsible for an action, they need to be able to choose either to commit the act or not to commit the act. (They need what is sometimes called “natural freedom of self-determination”—the ability to choose otherwise than they do. This is real “choice.”)
Suppose, for example, I designed and programmed a robot—let’s call him “Bill”—to crush the next person who walked into the robot factory showroom. If Bill crushes the next person who walks in, would he be guilty of murder? Of course not. Why not? Because Bill could not choose to do otherwise—Bill has no free will. It’s the programmer (me) who would be held morally responsible. If the jury traced back the causal series to determine who was guilty of the crime, they would stop at the person who freely caused the evil deed, not the person (or thing) who could not choose otherwise.
If God is the predetermining cause of all events, and people thus are simply acting out His divine program, then God turns out to be the author of evil. The problem here is that there is no qualitative difference between being the author of evil and being evil.
A Practical Problem. Several years ago my wife and I invited a young non-Christian woman who had been part of an aberrant religious group to move in with us. This group not only adheres to unorthodox views of the Trinity and salvation, but also affirms the Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty such as presented by Beisner.
This young lady told me numerous times she was sure God had not predestined her to go to heaven; in fact, she thought she was predestined to hell! I was able to tell her, however, in full confidence, that God loves her, Jesus died for her sins, and that He longs for her to turn to Him in repentance and faith. Praise God that she did!
If I held to the Calvinistic doctrine espoused by Beisner, I could not have said what I did. From that perspective, I would never have known whether she or any other person I had shared the good news with was predestined for hell (and therefore unloved, unatoned for, and unable to repent) or predestined for heaven (and therefore in the elite class of those loved, atoned for, and predestined to repent)! If she were predestined for hell, I would be lying to tell her God loves her, Jesus died for her sins, and that He wants her to turn to Him. I submit that Jesus would have a serious problem with any theological system that hinders the good news from being shared in this way, especially to people who, like that woman, so desperately need to hear it (note John 4 and 12:32).
The central issue in this dialogue is straightforward: how do we account for evil in a universe that God created? Either God is the author of evil or He is not. To say God is the author of evil is unbiblical and horrifying. If He is not the author of evil, however, then where did it come from? The only reasonable answer we are left with is “free will.” This answer, fortunately, is in accordance with the Bible, logic, and our own experience.
— Chad Meister
1. “God’s Salvation Strategy: A Brief Exposition of Romans 9” (unpublished essay); see also Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).