Roger Olson, in shadowboxing with John Piper, is using the recent bridge collapse in Minnesota to score points against Calvinism.1 Let's consider his arguments, such as they are:
A popular Christian band sings "There is a reason" for everything. They mean God renders everything certain and has a good purpose for whatever happens.Olson disagrees with this sentiment. He cites it in order to express his disagreement. So Olson's alternative is to deny that God has a good purpose for whatever happens.
But how does such a denial solve the problem of evil? Doesn't that, in fact, concede the key premise in the argument from evil? That various evils occur in this world without any overarching rationale to justify their occurrence?
This theology is sweeping up thousands of impressionable young Christians. It provides a seemingly simple answer to the problem of evil. Even what we call evil is planned and rendered certain by God because it is necessary for a greater good.This is a rather condescending view of young Christians. And if Arminianism rather than Calvinism were sweeping the field, would he be equally dismissive?
But wait. What about God's character? Is God, then, the author of evil?Let's keep in mind that the author of evil is a metaphor. It is not a self-explanatory metaphor. And a metaphor is not an argument.
To deploy this against Calvinism, Olson needs to explain what he means by that metaphor, and he then needs to work it into an actual argument.
Most Calvinists don't want to say it. But logic seems to demand it.It's true that many Calvinists have difficulty articulating a sufficiently nuanced formulation to finesse the problem of evil. But that's because Calvinism is not a philosophy. Calvinism didn't introduce evil into the world. And Calvinism didn't introduce the sovereignty of God into Scripture.
We play the hand that God has dealt us. We didn't make the deck, or shuffle the deck, or deal the deck. We are simply coming to terms with what God has told us about himself in his Word.
Although the Bible gives us the resources to address the problem of evil, it doesn't give us a ready-made verbal formula. For that matter, the "author of sin" is a manmade, extrascriptural phrase.
If God plans something and renders it certain, how is he not culpable for it?Well, that's a valid question. But Olson is not the only one who can pose valid questions. How about this one:
If God merely allows an evil to occur which he could prevent, how is he not culpable for it?
You can raise parallel objections to the Arminian position. The Arminian has his own burden of proof to discharge.
Some Calvinists will say he's not guilty because he has a good intention for the event -- to bring good out of it, but the Bible expressly forbids doing evil for the sake of good.I take it that Olson is alluding to Rom 3:8. Several problems with this appeal:
i) Rom 3:8 refers back to an ongoing discussion, which begins with Paul's quotation of Ps 51:4, in which the Psalmist (David) says that, in the providence of God, his sin was committed in order that God's justice might be manifested in his judgment of David.
ii) Throughout this pericope, Paul distinguishes between divine and human actions. God is not the evildoer in 3:8. The sinner is the evildoer.
For Olson to say that, according to Calvinism, God would be doing evil for the sake of good merely begs the question. Calvinism denies that God is doing evil by including evil in his plan for the world as a means to a greater good.
And Olson is citing Rom 3:8 out of context, since God is not the agent of evil in this verse. The sinner is. By contrast, God is the agent who brings good out of the sinner's evil. That is scarcely a trivial distinction.
iii) Olson also fails to distinguish between moral and natural evil. Rom 3:1-9 is talking about moral evil, not natural evil. What Paul is repudiating is the antinomian claim that we should indulge in sin if sin ultimately glorifies the ways of God.
Yet the bridge collapse seems to be more analogous to natural evil than moral evil. The bridge wasn't sinful. The bridge didn't sin against the commuters. And the commuters didn't sin against the bridge. It's fundamentally no different than if the bridge were to collapse in an earthquake.
iv) Let's take an example. Families sometimes drift apart. And family tragedies sometimes bring families back together. Say a family member is murdered. As a result, the survivors no longer take each over for granted. They make time for each other. They value the time they spend together. They make the most of the time they have. That's a good result of a heinous crime.
Does this let the murderer off the hook? Is he entitled to say, "Since things worked out for the best in the long run, I should be acquitted"?
That would be a completely illogical inference. For one thing, he didn't have the right to take the victim's life. For another thing, it didn't necessarily do the victim any good. Finally, he didn't intend to benefit anyone by his actions. That was an unforeseen consequence of a malicious deed.
v) Likewise, the sinner is still guilty for what he did, even if God has a good reason for what happened. He didn't intend to glorify God by his actions. He was sinning because sinning is pleasant.
vi) Finally, Paul does, indeed, present a teleological theodicy (Rom 9:17,22-23; 11:32; Gal 3:22). So Paul does, in fact, and quite explicitly, treat the fall, and attendant evils thereof, as a means to a higher end. And he's not the only author of Scripture to do so.
Many conservative Christians wince at the idea that God is limited. But what if God limits himself so that much of what happens in the world is due to human finitude and fallenness?Finitude and fallenness are not interchangeable concepts, and they don't have the same theodicean value. It's one thing to say that we deserve whatever we get because we're fallen—quite another thing to say that we deserve whatever we get because we're finite.
There's nothing culpable about finitude. So why should we be liable to horrendous natural evils—or analogous events (like a bridge collapse)—merely because we're finite—especially if God is in a position to prevent these evils? How is that any sort of answer to the problem of evil?
What if God is in charge but not in control?That distinction is far from self-explanatory. And even if it's valid in principle, how is this any solution to the problem of evil? If God doesn't take control of the situation, even though it lies within his power to do so, how does Olson acquit God of blame for the outcome?
What if God wishes that things could be otherwise?What does this mean, exactly? Human beings wish that things could be otherwise because we can't make our wish come true. But how does God sincerely wish for an outcome he doesn't choose to bring about?
In what sense do I really wish to save a drowning child if I can't motivate myself to get out of my lawn chair and fish him out of the swimming pool?
And someday will make all things perfect?How does that differ from the greater good defense? If God can make all things perfect tomorrow, why not today or yesterday? Is it because it's better, in the long run, to wait?
Why does Olson think that we live in a fallen world here and now, although God will make all things perfect in the future? Does he think that God has a good reason for postponing perfection?
In this world, because of our ignorance and sinfulness, really bad things sometimes happen and people do really evil and wicked things.i) Once again, sin and ignorance are not interchangeable categories. Although there's such a thing as culpable ignorance, there's also such a thing as inculpable ignorance.
Didn't Olson say that we are finite? We are ignorant, in large part, because we are finite. This is irrespective of the fall. It's our natural condition. God is omniscient, we are not.
So how is it any solution to the problem of evil to say that really bad things sometimes happen to us because we're ignorant?
ii) And even more to the point—how does this apply to the concrete case of the bridge collapse? How does an Arminian theodicy specifically address that example? Remember, Olson is making that event a test case for his alternative theodicy.
So which factor is he attributing to the bridge collapse? Did it collapse because the designers or builders were finite and ignorant? Or because they were sinners? Did it collapse because the inspectors were finite and ignorant? Or because they were sinners. Did the victims die because they were finite and ignorant? Or because they were sinners?
Not because God secretly plans and prods them, but because God has said to fallen, sinful people, "OK, not my will then, but thine be done -- for now."In what sense are these evils outside of God's plan? Is it like an unplanned pregnancy?
Olson is taking the fall for granted. But that only pushes the problem of evil one step back. Didn't the fall figure in God's plan for the world? Or was this an unforeseen contingency?
Couldn't (didn't?) God foresee that this would happen if he created this particular world? So wasn't he implementing one plan for the world rather than some other plan? Couldn't he have chosen to create a world in which the bridge didn't collapse?
Didn't he have a purpose in creating a world in which the bridge would collapse? Does it serve no purpose?
If an evil, whether natural or moral, serves no purpose, then that's the definition of gratuitous evil. The argument from evil is premised on the existence of gratuitous evil. Not evil in general. Not any kind of evil, but gratuitous evil. So Olson is conceding the key premise of the argument from evil.
And God says, "Pray because sometimes I can intervene to stop innocent suffering when people pray.i) What does it mean to say that God sometimes can intervene? Does this mean that at other times, he can't intervene? Or that he won't?
ii) And how does that apply to the bridge collapse? Was he unable to intervene? In what respect was he unable to intervene? Or was he able to intervene, but unwilling? If the latter, then why, according to Olson, was he unwilling to intervene?
That's one of my [God's] self-limitations. I don't want to do it all myself; I want your involvement and partnership in making this a better world."i) Well, in that case, why would God leave the bridge builders or designers or inspectors or commuters in a state of ignorance?
Why didn't he inform them the bridge suffered from a design flaw, or a loss of structural integrity, so that they could intervene to rectify the problem before disaster struck? How can they be his "partners" if the senior partner leaves the junior partners in the dark?
ii) In addition, if God limits himself because he doesn't want to do it all himself; because he want our involvement and partnership in making this a better world, then isn't this a version of the greater good defense? Isn't Olson tacitly admitting that God did have a good reason for permitting evil?
Notice how often he retreats into comfortable abstractions without bothering to show us how they apply to his test case. Olson floats these airy, pillowy platitudes without bothering to bring them down to earth.
And I can see why. For when we do apply them, they don't solve the problem he posed for them. Olson isn't following through with the implications of his own position.
It's a different picture of God than most conservative Christians grew up with, but it's the only one (so far as I can tell) that relieves God of responsibility for sin and evil and disaster and calamity.A couple of problems:
i) He acts as if responsibility and culpability were synonymous concepts. How does that follow? Where's the supporting argument?
ii) It's not our job relieve God of responsibility. God isn't asking us to relieve him of responsibility. God isn't a subordinate whose commanding officer relieves him of duty and restricts him to quarters.
The God of Calvinism scares me; I'm not sure how to distinguish him from the devil.Well, his reasoning is reversible. If Arminian theism is wrong, then, by his own logic, Arminianism is synonymous with Satanism. If Arminian theism is wrong, then, by his own logic, Olson is a devil-worshipper.
If you've come under the influence of Calvinism, think about its ramifications for the character of God. God is great but also good. In light of all the evil and innocent suffering in the world, he must have limited himself.But this misses the point in two essential respects:
i) The atheist is blaming God precisely because God—to his way of thinking—limits himself. He is blaming God because God didn't intervene to prevent disaster and calamity. Rather than answering the objection, Olson is merely paraphrasing the original objection as if it were an answer to the argument from evil. But an atheist would say that Olson's "solution" to the problem of evil is the problem of evil. His answer is merely a restatement of the problem itself: a God who doesn't do what he could do to preempt or eliminate all the evil and innocent suffering in the world.
And Olson misses the point because he's debating Calvinism rather than atheism. But the argument from evil is an atheistic argument. And even if Olsen were successful in attacking the Reformed theodicy, that doesn't begin to show that his Arminian theodicy will fare any better. For the atheist will merely reassign Olson's solution to resume its place a premise for the argument from evil. God is too detached. Too passive. Too indifferent.
ii) Another one of Olson's elementary oversights is that the argument from evil is by no means limited to what God refrained from doing. To what God merely allowed to happen.
Rather, the atheist blames God, not simply for what he fails to prevent, but for what he actively perpetrates or promotes. The atheist is blaming God for various things he positively did (e.g. sending the Flood; visiting judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah; consigning the lost to everlasting hell) or commanded others to do (e.g. execute witches, Canaanites, sodomites, adulterers, Sabbath-breakers, juvenile delinquents).
Olson's critique of the Reformed theodicy is an abject failure at every level:
i) It's unscriptural.
ii) It's incoherent in principle.
iii) It's ineffectual in practice, since it fails to address the test case he himself proposed for it to solve.