God and Evil

, posted by

by Roger E. Olson

Obviously, one posted message cannot begin to solve the problem(s) of God and evil. All I want to accomplish here is clear up some misconceptions about the Arminian view and ask some questions about the classical Calvinist view as some have articulated it here (and elsewhere).

First, all classical Arminians agree that evil is not a “thing” or a substance; it is strictly no-thing: the absence of the good. That is not a notion of evil unique to Calvinism. And Augustine did not come up with it, either. It is clearly articulated by Gregory of Nyssa before Augustine.

What evil is, exactly, is not pertinent to the Calvinist-Arminian debate. We can agree that it is the absence of the good. The issue is why evil exists. (I realize “exists” is not the best word for “absence,” but any better way of stating the question eludes me right now. By “exists” I simply mean “is.”) Even though evil, like darkness, exists in the mode of absence and not substance it is still real. (Try going on a cave tour and having the guide turn out the lights and sit in the dark for a while. The absence of light is very real!)

The question, then, is not what evil is but why evil is. From the Arminian perspective, the Calvinist (or any believer in what we regard as determinism, whether they use that language for their view or not) must say (although they do not always say) that the ultimate cause of evil is God. That is not because we Arminians think Calvinists believe God forced Lucifer or Adam or anyone to sin but because we think the Calvinist system necessarily implies that God positively planned and rendered it certain.

Contrary to the accounts of Calvinism offered here by some, Calvin himself strongly denied that God merely permitted the fall of Adam and Eve. His language against that is quite strong; he scoffs at the idea that God would ever merely permit something. We Arminians are confused and even bemused by contemporary Calvinists’ use of “permission” when referring to God’s relationship to sin and evil. One reason is classical and contemporary Calvinists’ strong doctrine of providence. (See Paul Helm, Providence, and R. C. Sproul’s books as examples.) According to this doctrine, God foreordains and renders certain and controls everything in creation including the very thoughts and intentions of every creature without exception.

After articulating this very strong idea of God’s sovereignty, some Calvinists turn around and say that God did not cause the fall of humanity but that it was freely chosen by Adam and Eve and that God permitted it. When I look deeper into the meaning of “permitted it” in the leading Calvinists’ books, however, what they seem to mean is “efficacious permission.” That is, God planned for the fall to happen, it was willed by God and God rendered it certain by withdrawing the grace Adam and Eve needed not to sin. This is clearly and unequivocally stated by Edwards and other Calvinists.

So when I hear Calvinists talking about God’s permission of sin and evil, in light of their doctrine of God’s providence and their rejection of libertarian free will (as ability to do otherwise), I hear their language of “permission” as meaning something quite different than “the man in the street” or I mean by it. I wish they would abandon it (following Calvin) and come up with some clearer language for what they mean.

Sure, no Calvinist I know believes God forced Adam and Eve to sin against their wills. God exercised no compulsion on them. But that’s not sufficient to say God is not the author of sin and evil. Even if God only planned and rendered certain the fall by withdrawing the grace they needed not to fall, God is the author of sin and evil. Sin and evil, in the Calvinist view, in contrast to the Arminian view, are positively the will of God to glorify himself (by overcoming them).

What I still want to know, that no Calvinist here or anywhere in my experience has sufficiently answered, is why anything is considered truly evil in the Calvinist account of God and creation. If everything is planned and rendered certain by God for his glory, including sin and evil (even as only absences and not substances) why not praise God for sin and evil? They are, after all, his will and necessary for his full glorification.

So, to sum up, we agree that evil is not a “something” but rather a “nothing” (in the sense of an absence, not a substance). What we disagree about (among other things) is whether God positively willed evil to glorify himself and whether God’s causal agency with regard to sin and evil is determinative or not. I think only the Arminian (or person who holds a similar view of God’s sovereignty) can consistently say that God is not in any sense the author of sin and evil and use the language of permission for God’s relationship to them. I wince when a Calvinist uses that language because it seems to me misleading at best and disingenuous at worst.