Accepting/Rejecting Calvinism
(Pt. 7b: WLC and the Problem of Evil)

, posted by jordanjapo

This is from a series of posts which was copied with permission from Jordan Apodaca’s blog, “Thoughts & Anti-Thoughts,” which can be accessed here:

This particular post, which allows comments, can be accessed here:

William Lane Craig

In my last post I talked about how my apologetic answers were coming up short. Then my friend showed me a video of William Lane Craig, and after a while I finally decided to check out his website, Reasonable Faith.

I remember that night so clearly. It was, without a doubt, one of the happiest nights of my entire life. I first read the transcript of a debate he had with Ray Bradley, entitled “Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?” I then read a popular-level article simply entitle “The Problem of Evil.” That night, I did not have every question answered. But I felt like, for the first time in quite a while, that there might actually be answers! This might actually make sense, after all! I’ll share a sampling of the quotes that stood out to me, with a few of my own comments mixed in. I’d highly recommending both of those, or at least the short article on the problem of evil. Here are the highlights which I spent the night thinking through:

The Debate

Explicit Vs. Implicit Contradictions
The statements “God is all loving” and “Some people go to hell” are not explicitly contradictory. So if these two are inconsistent, there must be some hidden assumptions which would serve to bring out the contradiction and make it explicit.

But what are these assumptions? It seems to me that the detractor of hell is making two crucial assumptions. First of all, he assumes that if God is all powerful, then God can create a world in which everyone freely chooses to give his life to God and is saved. And second, he assumes that if God is all loving, then God prefers a world in which everyone freely chooses to give his life to God and be saved. Since God is thus both willing and able to create a world in which everyone is freely saved, it follows that no one goes to hell.

This was incredibly helpful to see. I had never made the distinction between explicit and implicit contradictions. Explicit contradictions are things like “God is love and God is not love.” (Or, to use the Trinity as an example, it’d be a contradiction to say “God is one and God is not one” or “God is three and God is not three.”) Implicit contradictions, on the other hand, must be drawn out. And it is the job of the one who claims to see a contradiction between two propositions to draw those two assumptions. This forced me to ask: “What is actually the problem here?” Clearly, something seems intuitively off, but I ought to be able to figure out what’s explicitly the problem.

And these assumptions have to do with what God can do and what he wants to do. Namely, 1) God can create any world of any sort in which all are saved, and 2) God will always want that world.

Burden of Proof
Now notice that both of these assumptions have to be necessarily true, in order to prove that God and hell are logically inconsistent with each other. So as long as there’s even a possibility that one of these assumptions is false, it’s possible that God is all-loving and yet some people go to hell. Thus, the opponent of hell has to shoulder a very heavy burden of proof, indeed. He has to prove that both of these assumptions are necessarily true.

This was stunning to read; this whole time I thought that it was the Christian who had to defend his belief in God against the atheist who claimed that evil disproved it, but he helped me see that the atheist must shoulder the burden. And by “atheist,” I also mean that inner atheist in my head; he (or it) must show that these things two assumptions are true.

Free Will and God’s Desire for our Salvation
Therefore, we must cast ourselves on God’s mercy. Even though we are guilty and deserve to die, God still loves us. Sometimes people get the idea that God is a sort of cosmic tyrant up there, out to get us. But this isn’t the Christian understanding of God. Listen to what the Bible says, “‘Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?,’ says the Lord God, ‘And not rather that he should turn from his way and live? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,’ says the Lord God. ‘So turn and live! Say to them, “As I live,” says the Lord God, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways. For why will you die?”‘” (Ez. 18.23,32; 33.11).

Here God literally pleads with people to turn back from their self-destructive course of action and be saved. And in the New Testament it says, “The Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance” (2Pet. 3.9). “He desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1Tim. 2.4).

For given that God has created us with freedom of the will, it follows that He cannot guarantee that all persons will freely give their lives to Him and be saved. The Bible makes it very clear that God desires every person to be saved, and by His Spirit He seeks to draw every person to Himself. The only obstacle to universal salvation is therefore human free will. It’s logically impossible to make someone freely do something. God’s being all-powerful doesn’t mean that He can do the logically impossible. Thus, even though He is all-powerful, God cannot make everyone freely be saved. Given human freedom and human stubbornness, some people may go to hell despite God’s desire and efforts to save them.

This portion came in the middle of his opening remarks, in which he quite explicitly shares the Gospel during his explanation. One thing stood out to me: the texts he cited seemed to genuinely make it sound like God wanted to save everyone! It suddenly hit me that, if God does exist, he certainly loves these people more than I do. That simple truth I had learned, and which Calvinism taught me to deny, is that God really loves everyone. To love someone is to desire their highest good; our highest good is God; we can only enjoy God as our highest good if he saves us; Calvinism denies that God really desires everyone’s salvation in the same way, so they deny that God really loves everyone in the same way. I genuinely hadn’t thought this way in a long time, and it was like a gust of fresh air. He seemed to be letting these texts speak far louder and more clearly than I had been letting them.

A Glimpse into Molinism (to be explained in the future)
Moreover, it is far from obvious that God’s being all-loving compels Him to prefer a world in which no one goes to hell over a world in which some people do. Suppose that God could create a world in which everyone is freely saved, but there is only one problem: all such worlds have only one person in them! Does God’s being all-loving compel Him to prefer one of these underpopulated worlds over a world in which multitudes are saved, even though some people freely go to hell? I don’t think so. God’s being all-loving implies that in any world He creates He desires and strives for the salvation of every person in that world. But people who would freely reject God’s every effort to save them shouldn’t be allowed to have some sort of veto power over what worlds God is free to create. Why should the joy and the blessedness of those who would freely accept God’s salvation be precluded because of those who would stubbornly and freely reject it? It seems to me that God’s being all-loving would at the very most require Him to create a world having an optimal balance between saved and lost, a world where as many as possible freely accept salvation and as few as possible freely reject it.

This kind of thinking blew my mind. I had never in all my thinking even considered a scenario like the one above. It’s creative, it’s logical, it takes the deepest questions of life seriously, and it simply struck me that there were entirely new perspectives on problems that I hadn’t, up until that point, been able to think of.

The Justice of Hell
The Objection
Now the opponent of the doctrine of hell might admit that given human freedom God cannot guarantee that everyone will be saved. Some people might freely condemn themselves by rejecting Christ’s offer of salvation. But, he might argue, it would be unjust of God to condemn people forever. For even grievous sins like those of the Nazi torturers in the death camps still deserve only a finite punishment. Therefore, at most hell could be a sort of purgatory, lasting an appropriate length of time for each person before that person is released and admitted into heaven. Eventually hell would be empty and heaven filled.

One Answer
… Now if one finds this objection persuasive, one could avoid it by adopting the doctrine of annihilationism. Some Christians hold that hell is not endless separation from God, but rather the annihilation of the damned. The damned simply cease to exist, whereas the saved are given eternal life. Now while I’m not of this opinion myself, it does represent one way in which you could blunt the force of this objection.

Three Answers
1) We can agree that every individual sin which a person commits deserves only a finite punishment. But what about in the afterlife? Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.
2) … To reject Christ is to reject God Himself. And this is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore deserves infinite punishment. We ought not, therefore, to think of hell primarily as punishment for the array of sins of finite consequence which we have committed, but as the just due for a sin of infinite consequence, namely the rejection of God Himself.
3) Finally, it’s possible that God would permit the damned to leave hell and go to heaven but that they freely refuse to do so. It is possible that persons in hell grow only more implacable in their hatred of God as time goes on. Rather than repent and ask God for forgiveness, they continue to curse Him and reject Him. God thus has no choice but to leave them where they are. In such a case, the door to hell is locked, as John Paul Sartre said, from the inside. The damned thus choose eternal separation from God.

So, again, so as long as any of these scenarios is even possible, it invalidates the objection that God’s perfect justice is incompatible with everlasting separation from God.

I thought this was an extremely helpful section, offering three justifications for how an eternal, self-chosen hell could be just: 1) men commit an infinite number of sins, 2) men commit sins of infinite evil, 3) men continue eternally in unwillingness to return to God. Plus, he offers the option of annihilationism. I appreciate that he mentions it as a legitimate position for the Christian to hold, even though he doesn’t believe Scripture teaches it. I think it is definitely an evangelical option.

The Problem of Heaven
As I mentioned in my last post, one of my biggest questions concerned heaven. Why is it that God is able to create a heaven full of people with free will who are unable to sin, but when he creates us our free will somehow entails the possibility of sinning? Bradley himself spent nearly his whole first speech developing a detailed philosophical form of this argument (which, by the way, is fascinating to follow). Craig’s response was as follows:

Heaven may not be a possible world when you take it in isolation by itself. It may be that the only way in which God could actualize a heaven of free creatures all worshiping Him and not falling into sin would be by having, so to speak, this run-up to it, this advance life during which there is a veil of decision-making in which some people choose for God and some people against God. Otherwise you don’t know that heaven is an actualizable world. You have no way of knowing that possibility.

Needless to say, some of this wording was quite complicated when I first read it. But the bottom line is this: Craig is merely suggesting as a possibility that heaven’s existence (with its perfect joy and sinlessness) was only possible with this world as a precursor to it. Bradley asked, essentially,”Why couldn’t God just create heaven?” and Craig’s answer was “Heaven wouldn’t have been heaven if earth hadn’t come before it.” In other words, perhaps this world of decision-making, including the possibility of evil, is in some measure necessary for a perfect world like heaven to one day exist.

And as Craig would suggest, so long as this is even a possibility, the objection is deflated.

Final Words
My spiritual journey is different than Dr. Bradley’s. I was raised in a non-Christian home and became a Christian in high school. And when I first heard the gospel, it bothered me deeply to think of my friends and others as going to hell. And I said, “How could this be true?” And the Christians wisely said to me, “Don’t worry about those others; worry about yourself. God judges them. We can’t judge them. Only judge yourself.” And when I looked into my own heart and saw the selfishness and evil that was there, I had no difficulty in seeing that God might send me to hell. And that impelled me to give my life to Christ as my Savior and to turn my life around. And I think that he can do that for you as well.

I loved that he ended the debate like this: ultimately, he did two things I was failing to do: 1) He answered all the questions I was thinking of (and even some I hadn’t thought of yet!) and 2) redirected me to my own heart before God.

The Article

This will be shorter, because the article itself is short. In short form, this is his answer:

  • Distinction: Intellectual Problem of Evil & Emotional Problem of Evil
  • Intellectual Problem #1: Logical form, which says that the idea of God and Evil are impossible to go together logically. As shown from the debate, this fails.
  • Intellectual Problem #2: Probability form, which says that it is unlikely God has sufficient reasons to permit evil as he does. Three Responses:
    • 1. We are not in a good position, as finite beings, to assess whether an infinite God would have “sufficient reasons” to do something.
    • 2. Christian doctrines increase the likelihood of God having good reasons to permit evil:
      • a. We do not exist to be temporarily comfortable, but to know God eternally.
      • b. Man is in rebellion.
      • c. The knowledge of God spills over into eternal life.
      • d. The knowledge of God is an incommesurable good.
    • 3. Relative to the full scope of evidence, God’s existence is probable.

It is this third point, which he goes on to defend quite a bit, that really struck me. He writes:

3. Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is probable. Probabilities are relative to what background information you consider. For example, suppose Joe is a student at the University of Colorado. Now suppose that we are informed that 95% of University of Colorado students ski. Relative to this information it is highly probable that Joe skis. But then suppose we also learn that Joe is an amputee and that 95% of amputees at the University of Colorado do not ski. Suddenly the probability of Joe’s being a skier has diminished drastically!

Similarly, if all you consider for background information is the evil in the world, then it’s hardly surprising that God’s existence appears improbable relative to that. But that’s not the real question. The real question is whether God’s existence is improbable relative to the total evidence available. I’m persuaded that when you consider the total evidence, then God’s existence is quite probable.

He then proceeded to, for the rest of the argument, offer three positive arguments for God’s existence. I feel like this was THE piece that I was missing. I got narrowly focused on one “What if?” and couldn’t think about the big picture. So as he went through his summary of the arguments, given this whole new perspective on these logical issues, the pieces all fell into place, and I literally began to cry tears of joy: “I can believe again!” Not that I couldn’t before, and not that I needed rational justification. But I felt intellectually free to, as if I didn’t have to be a split self any longer. “This actually makes sense. I don’t have to try to convince myself it does!”

He then got to the final point, which is the final answer the problem of evil, once and for all, in every sense of the word. He quoted Alvin Plantinga:

As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of His creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself . . . in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious that we can imagine. He was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.

Concluding Thought

Maybe it’s my personality, or maybe it was a unique situation, or maybe everyone is (or ought to be [or could be]) like this: but philosophy and solid logic had created in me unbelievable joy and gladness. I would certainly agree with Craig’s assessment:

American churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste… [As a result,] they know little of the riches of deep understanding of Christian truth, of the confidence inspired by the discovery that one’s faith is logical and fits the facts of experience, and of the stability brought to one’s life by the conviction that one’s faith is objectively true.