Accepting/Rejecting Calvinism (Pt. 5: The Calvinist’s Problem of Evil)

Calvinism with a Caveat

When I accepted Calvinism, I saw that it had two strengths and one weakness: The two strengths were 1) biblical, and 2) theological. Biblically, it made sense of the text. Theologically, it gave a structure that was capable of accounting for almost everything. But its weakness was that one thing I perceived it couldn’t account for theologically: the problem of evil.

But I decided to take the two strengths and deal with the one weakness; besides, I was convinced that no other systems handled it much better. But when I first accepted Calvinism, I did so with a caveat: if I were to ever find a better account for how to explain the problem of evil, and it was still able to make sense biblically and theologically, I would drop Calvinism and believe that instead.

And that’s what happened.

The Traditional Problem of Evil

The “problem of evil” is  typically thought of as the problem that arises in our minds when we consider two truths in conjunction: 1. God exists. 2. Evil exists. And the problem is that it seems like if God (who is perfectly good and perfectly powerful and all-knowing) really did exist, he wouldn’t allow evil to exist. But evil does exist. So either God doesn’t exist or evil doesn’t exist. So which is more likely? Well, clearly, we have empirical evidence before our eyes every day that evil exists. So God must not exist. In short:

  1. If God exists, evil would not exist.
  2. Evil exists.
  3. Therefore God does not exist.

I’ll get around to answering this in my next post or two. But first:

The Calvinist Version of the Problem of Evil

The Calvinist has a harder, distinct problem to deal with, and it was this problem, as stated here, that eventually led me to reject Calvinism. And it concerns from one angle God’s love and from another angle his justice. There is something unjust and unloving about the following scenario:

  1. God creates man.
  2. God tells man that if he sins, he will punish him in hell forever.
  3. God causes man to sin.
  4. God does nothing to save some of those men.
  5. God punishes those men in hell eternally.

(The key point of contention, by the way, is premise #3: Does Calvinism imply that God is the author of evil or not? Again, I’ll get to that soon.)

Concerning God’s love: why would a God who is love (1 John 4:8) actively want some people to suffer in hell? What could justify such a desire from a God who is love? Why wouldn’t love simply want what is best for everyone as much as is possible?

Concerning God’s justice: how could it possibly be just for God to cause man to sin and then punish him for it? God’s goodness and justice are on the line. Imagine a man chained to a wall. His friend walks in and tells him: “Walk to the other side of the room, or I will beat you.” The chained man replies “I can only obey your word if you grant me the ability to do so by unchaining me.” The man does not unchain him, gives him a few hours to try to walk to the other side of the room, and then beats him to death.

Now, obviously, a Calvinist will be quick to respond to the above objection. Are there any good responses? I’ve heard a lot. Here is my best attempt to consolidate them:

Three Bad Responses

1. “It’s a mystery that we can’t understand, so we just have to accept it.” This is a poor argument, precisely because it assumes that its own position is correct. Certainly, if we have really good reasons to think something is true, yet we can’t understand it, it seems like the best option would be to accept it in mystery. For example, if a Mormon wanted to argue with me about the Trinity, just saying “It’s a mystery, so just believe it!” is a stupid tactic. What I ought to do is point to Scripture at the texts that led the early church to believe in Trinitarian theology, and help him see how they were carefully thinking it through. Only after that evidence is in place does it make sense to say “I know it’s a bit of a mystery as far as how it all works, but I think we have really good reasons to believe it.” The principle: we ought to be willing to hold some things in mystery if we must, but an idea isn’t more likely to be true if it is more mysterious.

2. “Your failure to believe in Calvinism is ultimately a faith issue; you just need more faith! Stop trying to think so much about it.” Thankfully I’ve only heard this a few times. But it still has the same problem as above: the answer assumes his position is right but gives no evidence for it.

3. “What’s really amazing is that God would save anyone!” I agree; grace is amazing because we did not deserve it and God was under no obligation to save us. However, this misses the point. The problem with Calvinism isn’t just that he doesn’t want to save everyone; the problem is that he’s the one who made them need saving in the first place. The arsonist firefighter: he sets fire to people’s houses, and then rushes to the scene to save them. But not all of them! Only those has has chosen. The biggest problem I’m trying to highlight here is that he caused these people to suffer, come close to death, and need saving. Even if he had “mercifully chosen” to save them all, it still would have been wrong to inflict willful pain on others.

(However, even if we assume for a moment that it really was just for God to cause man to sin, we still can rightly ask why he doesn’t want everyone to be saved. Scripture affirms that God desires “all people to be saved” [1 Timothy 2:4]; Calvinists affirm God can save whomever he wants whenever he wants; why then are they not saved? Is appealing to God’s mysterious will the best move theologically?)

Eight Better Responses

1. “But God doesn’t ’cause’ people to sin!” This is getting closer to the heart of the matter: does God cause people to sin or not? “Cause” is a tricky word to define. Let’s think of it this way: if someone is in direct control of all the relevant variables so as to guarantee an outcome, it can be rightly said that he caused it. By “variable” I mean something that isn’t always going to be true. For example, if I drop a pen, the pen will fall, so I caused it to fall. (Yes, gravity was necessary for it to fall, but it wasn’t a variable in the sense I’ using: gravity always causes things to fall.) But take another example: if I tell a joke, I didn’t cause other people to laugh. Why not? Because I wasn’t in control of whether or not they thought it would be funny; that was either a free choice or brain chemistry or something like that. And under my current view, there are certain things God is in direct control of, and certain things he is in indirect control of. He directly causes certain things, such as the working of miracles and working within people’s hearts. But there are certain things, namely creaturely free will, that I deny he directly controls, even though he uses it and foreknows it.

So then, does God cause sin in the Calvinist interpretation of reality? Undeniably yes. To see it, you only need to understand the Calvinist’s view of freedom. Calvinists believe that man’s free will should not be defined as the ability to do otherwise, but simply as “the freedom to do what we most want.” But what determines what we most want? Our nature. Who we are, how God made us, determines what we most want, which determines what we choose to do. So what this means is that for every choice humans make, there are only two factors, two variables: internal and external, (or) who we are and where we are, (or) our nature and our environment. So why did Adam and Eve sin? Because they wanted to. And why did they want to? Because of 1) the natures they had, and 2) the environment they were placed in. And God was in complete control of those two variables, both the natures and the environment: and he set them up to fall. He made the human nature such that “if they face temptation X, they will fall,” and then placed them in temptation X.

That is what I mean when I say that Calvinism teaches that God caused mankind to sin.

2. “God’s causation doesn’t remove secondary causation.” Calvinists often try to make distinctions to get around this problem. They say God can cause things in a certain sense, but in such a way that secondary causation (that is, mankind’s causal ability) is not removed. And that is certainly what needs to be said. But this seems like a “distinction without a difference” — if what I described above is accurate (man’s choices flow from their nature and their environment necessarily, and God established both), then it seems like there isn’t room for any actual distinction.

Greg Boyd has referred to this strange use of language. For instance, he quotes D.A. Carson, who argues: “God stands behind evil in such a way that not even evil takes place outside the bounds of his sovereignty, yet the evil is not morally chargeable to him; it is always chargeable to secondary agents, to secondary causes. On the other hand, God stands behind good in such a way that it not only takes place within the bounds of his sovereignty, but it is always chargeable to him, and not only derivatively to secondary agents.”

Boyd’s question is simply to ask what the mysterious phrase “in such a way” really refers to. He writes: “This means that the ‘in such a way’ clause serves opposite purposes when used to ‘explain’ how God is not responsible for the evil he controls, on the one hand, and how God is exclusively responsible for the good he controls, on the other. Whatever the mysterious phrase might mean, therefore, I can only conclude that it can also, at the same time, mean its exact opposite. And this, to my way of thinking, forces the conclusion that the “in such a way” clause means nothing… What does that mysterious phrase mean?” Unless Calvinists can move beyond merely verbal distinctions, this response is a failure.

3. “God isn’t responsible for the sinful desires of our natures; they are corrupted by original sin.” This is a simple misunderstanding of the argument; I am focusing on Adam and Eve in the Garden, man and woman before sin. How could it be, given a Calvinist view of freedom, that humanity, originally created good by God, could ever sin? Unless freedom is more than acting out our desires according to our natures, then the nature God gave them was itself bad, and God the cause of their sin.

4. “But God didn’t tempt them! It was Satan!” Yes, this is true. Two things: 1) But all this does is kick the problem back one tiny step. Nobody tempted Satan to fall, so God must have made Satan with a nature such that if he were to place him in the situation he was going to place him in, he would desire nothing more than to sin. 2) By placing Satan in the garden, knowing that his desire would be to tempt Adam and Eve, and knowing that Adam and Eve would fall to it, God still caused Adam and Eve to sin.

5. “But the ends justify the means!” Some will bite the bullet, admit that God causes men to sin, but say that it’s okay for God to cause people to sin. (Even though James 1:13 says clearly “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”) And one reason they’ll give is because God is using that evil to accomplish a good purpose. They say something like this: If we didn’t sin and know the depths of despair, we wouldn’t know the depths of his love. (Or) if we hadn’t been lost, we wouldn’t know the joy of being saved. (Or) if we didn’t know evil, we couldn’t know love.

Three things: First, the morality of an action is not determined chiefly by its effects; it is determined primarily by the goodness of the action itself. Just because something good comes out of an evil act, it doesn’t mean the evil action was good. Second, even if the ends could justify the means in certain circumstances, it doesn’t seem to be the case that the ends justify the means in this case. Perhaps the ends could justify the means under universalism (the idea that all will be saved): everyone is forced to sin, so everyone can be forced to see the depth of joy from being saved. But under Calvinism, some are eternally damned. What end could possibly justify that means? And third, the Calvinist argument seems to make good require evil. Why believe that maximum creaturely joy in God is impossible apart from sin?

6. “God causes sin in order to give a full exercise to all his attributes.” This attempts to answer my last two points. They argue that the maximum joy of man and glory of God depend on sin and judgment because creation exists as a showcase for all of the attributes of God. We see his power in mountains and the sun; we see his creativity in anteaters and the northern lights; we see his grace in the saving of men; and we see his judgment and wrath in the damning of men. The glory of all of God’s attributes demands that some men suffer eternally in hell under his fierce wrath. And this, it is said, is for our joy and for God’s glory.

I used to believe this. And it came to horrify me. Because this says something profoundly disturbing about God: he is unable to love without hating, it seems. He could find no way to bring about the glory of his name and the joy of his elect than by sacrificing millions of souls in hell! I thought Christianity was about Jesus laying down his life for our sake, not the other way around. Even if it were true — even if my maximum joy for some reason really did depend on some people being in hell, then I’ll gladly settle for less! If universalism were to hypothetically only bring about 75% joy capacity as opposed to 100%, then I’ll take that! I don’t want people suffering in hell!

7. “It’s like a story.” This is my least favorite response. The argument is that God stands in relation to this world in the same way that Tolkien stands in relation to Middle Earth. He created it and gave it its very existence. The more Tolkien writes, the more the characters have life. The more Tolkien writes out their decisions, the more free will the characters have. And just as Tolkien is not morally responsible for the sins Sauron commits — even though he wrote down his very sins — neither is God responsible for the sins we commit, even though he wrote down every one of our sins as well.

First of all, metaphors don’t prove anything. They merely illustrate. So what’s being illustrated? Tolkien certainly shouldn’t be charged with moral wrongdoing for causing Sauron to sin. Why not? Because Sauron is not real. To use another author as an example: None of the people in Dante’s inferno are actually in pain. If Dante had actually created torture chambers and pits of lava and forced real, conscious beings to go through them, he would then be morally responsible for those choices. But it is perfectly permissible to cause imaginary people to commit sin. So the key is that their art is not real, can’t feel, and is not in any pain because of their writing.

And the point should be plain: the difference between God’s art and our art is that his is real. It takes on life. He is able to create beings that truly come to life, whom he has blessed with the gift of freedom. This is not the case for fictional work.

God does not actually stand in the same relationship to the world as an author to his work, so this is a bad metaphor.

8. “I know it seems like a harsh doctrine, but it is actually quite comforting at a psychological level.” I don’t think so. Knowing that other lives were disposed of to increase my joy does anything but bring me comfort; it made me horribly depressed. The comfort I originally felt, that God alone had rescued me from my sin, had vanished once I realized he caused me to sin. I just tried to work up the faith to trust that one day it would be worth it; at least, it would be worth it for me. But what about my family? Wouldn’t you be willing to accept a less-than-perfect eternity to allow others to enjoy it as well? Tough luck to the damned, though. Apparently they’re a necessary cog that needs to spin endlessly in hell.

The psychological aspects got worse as I continued struggling with pornography. If God is causing me to sin in order to show me more of himself, did that mean that my addiction was part of this plan as well? Maybe God had a great plan to deliver me from it — “maybe even soon!” — and my life would be better for it. But maybe not? If hell is filled with sinners in order to increase the joy of the elect, maybe heaven is full of less-sanctified people to increase the joy of the more-sanctified. Maybe I was going to struggle with this my whole life, so that God’s attribute of “Savior-of-even-the-lifelong-porn-addict” could be manifested in me.

But, perhaps even worse: perhaps I wasn’t saved; perhaps God designed me to be a vessel of wrath, in order to show how much he hates lifelong porn addicts, and I was going to be his special case of the guy who thought he was a Christian his whole life but actually never was given the gift of faith.

Five Methodological Objections

1. “You’re not supposed to ask those questions.” Why not? It seems perfectly reasonable: plenty of people have fallen away who seemed to have far more evidences of salvation than I had. And I (thought that) I knew that God used some people’s damnation to serve his glory. Why not me? Why am I not allowed to ask that? I couldn’t think of a reason not to ask the question, and I never found an answer to the question. How was I to know my belief was legit?

2. “It seems like your real difficulties with Calvinism aren’t intellectual but emotional/faith-related.” To practice charity, I would ask you to believe me: this really is an intellectual issue for me. I didn’t want to give up Calvinism. I knew that at the church I was involved in it would drastically limit my ability to do ministry; I felt like I was giving up a beautiful picture of reality; I had to admit I was wrong (which I don’t like to do). And you may think, then, “But you sometimes seen quite emotional about it.” It’s possible to be emotionally committed to an idea without having emotions be the basis for that belief.

3. “God can do anything he wants, so you shouldn’t use human logic to try to put him in a box.” 1) God cannot do anything he wants; he can’t lie, sin, or be tempted. God is perfect; he has revealed himself to so be, and the very concept of God entails that he is the most perfect being conceivable. 2) All theological constructions, including Calvinism, use logic to make sense of what we see in Scripture. 3) Therefore it is our responsibility to test the logic of our theological systems; if any of them imply in any way that God is not a perfect being, then our system must be false in some way.

4. “I know these are tough questions to answer, but I don’t think you need an answer for all of them to be a Christian.” Absolutely! I agree: we do not need to understand in order to believe. But, having been saved, it is a virtue to seek truth. And if one interpretation of Christianity is more Scriptural and logical than another interpretation, I’m going with that one. And seeking answers is helpful. Had God not graciously helped me find better answers to the problem of evil than the ones listed above, I don’t know what would have become of my faith.

5. “I don’t think you really understand Calvinism; if you really understood, it’d be impossible to deny.” Again, give me the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible for two people to understand the same idea equally well and disagree as to whether it’s true or false. I know what it was like to be a Calvinist. I remember the “religious experiences” that Calvinists seem to think belong to them alone: feeling an overwhelming sense of my depravity, feeling lost in the wonder of the loving election of God, that he would choose me, a wretch, who had wronged him more than most of my unsaved friends and family, to be a vessel of mercy; to think in awe of the fact that the chair I’m sitting on, the sun blazing through the sky, were moved about by his sovereign will — and even my ability to understand this and be glad about it were a product of his will! I used to love that thought more than any other. Jonathan Edwards and I were agreed that there were few things I loved to attribute to God more than his absolute sovereignty. Trust me: I was moved to tears more than a few times while listening to sermons by John Piper on the sovereignty of God. I have known of what he calls the “Depths of the Gospel” that stretch into eternity past. And more than this, I know the sorrow of giving this up. This experience of God’s overwhelming, mighty, sovereign love was the number one thing that made me hesitate to give up Calvinism. Don’t act as if I “just don’t get it.” I promise, I really do.

Conclusion

Everything I have said thus far leads to one simple question: is there a better alternative? It’s difficult to examine one theological system on its own without seeing if there’s a better way to construe the evidence. If there is, it should be believed. If not, we should stick with Calvinism and hold it in mystery. Coming up next, I’ll look at how William Lane Craig began to provide an alternative that I have found far more plausible, Biblical, coherent, and logical.

Sources

Quotes from Greg Boyd and D.A. Carson were from the book “Four Views of Providence,” which can be found on Google Books for free on pages 73-76.

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5 thoughts on “Accepting/Rejecting Calvinism (Pt. 5: The Calvinist’s Problem of Evil)

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