Monday, July 25, 2016

Is God exempt?

I'll respond to a statement that a commenter left on my blog:

I'm not sure how to answer the atheist objection that it's special pleading and ad hoc to appeal to God's special prerogatives (as God) to get out of the dilemma that the types of evils God allows/permits (and ordains in the case of Calvinism) would be evil on our part if we allowed or planned them but somehow not evil for God if He allows or plans/ordains them.
I believe that by faith, but I'm not sure how to rationally defend that to an atheist (though, it's much easier against an Arminian who accepts Biblical authority). Especially if I include in the problem of evil the uniquely Calvinistic view of reprobation (and pre-damnation as some Calvinists make a distinction).
The atheist question is "How does appealing to God's superior ontology and status as Creator, the most perfect and supreme being and who is allegedly the standard of goodness exempt Him from being guilty of evil for allowing and ordaining such things when of all beings in existence He's the most capable of preventing them?" It's not merely that God is supposed to be guilty, but especially guilty because God, in His omnipotence, can prevent them from occurring. 
And in the case of Calvinism, God doesn't passively permit, but actively ordains evils and reprobation. As I've been asked, "How can Calvinists claim God is good with a straight face?" Allegedly, there's cognitive dissonance involved.

Ryan Hedrich already gave a good response. Now for me:

i) It's true that some Calvinists are too quick to invoke divine authority as a solution. Although that response is true at a certain level, it's not an explanation, and it's only persuasive for someone who already agrees with the theological framework–yet that's the very issue in dispute. 

In fairness, I've seen Arminians stipulate that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting inscrutable evils. But, of course, that appeal has no explanatory value, and begs the question. Likewise, Marilyn McCord Adams contends that divine and human goods are ontologically incommensurate. So these maneuvers are hardly confined to Calvinists. 

ii) Suppose you have a fictional character in a story who enjoys foresight regarding the future. To be precise, he foresees two possible futures: what will transpire if he intervenes and what will transpire if he doesn't intervene. He often finds himself in situations where he could prevent some tragedy, yet he refrains from doing so. For instance, he sees a house fire. He's in a position to rescue one of the children who's trapped inside. Yet he does nothing. To outside observers, his inaction appears to be reprehensible. 

But here's the dilemma: what if by preventing a short-term evil he causes a long-term evil or preempts a second-order good? Whenever he intervenes, there are tradeoffs. By preventing harm to some people, his action has the side-effect of harming others, or eliminating some resultant good. 

What if he knows that the child, had he survived, would have a tenth-generation descendent who's a serial killer? Or what if he knows that if the child dies, the parents will procreate another child to take the place of the child they lost in the house fire. If he intervenes, he deprives the replacement child of existence. So which life takes precedence? On either scenario, someone loses out. Someone will benefit from his action or be harmed by his action. There's no timeline that secures all the same goods while eliminating every evil. In each alternate timeline, some evils are offset by some goods while some goods come at the cost of some evils. 

A fallen world is a network of good and evil. Some evils cause some goods. Some goods cause some evils. Some goods preempt other goods. 

iii) Or suppose you had a video game with artificially intelligent characters. Should the gamer forestall harm to his characters? Well, that depends. The game has a plot. One thing leads to another. Some characters come into existence as a result of what other characters do, including the actions of villainous characters. You might even have the heroic son of a villainous father. By preventing certain harms to certain characters, the gamer is robbing some potential characters of existence. Likewise, by eliminating all the villains, he eliminates some of the heroes, whose existence is contingent on the prior actions of the bad guys. Some good guys wouldn't exist if some bad guys didn't exist. Suppose a bad guy kills the boyfriend of a female character. As a result, she marries someone else, and has a son by him, who turns out to be a hero. (Or has a daughter who turns out to be a heroine.) In this case, preventing one murder takes another life. So eliminating some evils must be balanced off the resultant goods that you thereby eliminate, or alternative evils that take their place. 

iv) The fact that humans are related to other humans, whereas God is inhuman, can in some measure justify differential treatment. To take a few examples, suppose a grown son commits a heinous murder. He is sentenced to death. It would be cruel to require his family to carry out the sentence. It's better to delegate execution to a disinterested third-party.

Likewise, suppose you're given a choice between saving your mother's life and saving the lives of fifty innocent people. Objectively speaking, it could be argued that saving fifty innocent lives is better, or more obligatory, than saving one life. But it would be unbearable for a son to sacrifice his own mother to save fifty strangers. Moreover, it's not even clear that his duty to the common good overrides his filial duty. 

There are situations in which in would be right for an angel or an alien from Alpha Centuri to do something which would be wrong for a human to do, precisely because the alien or angel isn't human. He doesn't have the same social obligations or emotional investments where humans are concerned. He can act with greater moral detachment. 

v) Finally, everyone who suffers evil is evil in some degree. Take a mob family. Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, husbands, wives, siblings, cousins. Some members of the mob family may be much more evil than others. Still, there's a sense in which none of them deserves to be immune from harm. And some of them richly deserved to be harmed. 


  1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Steve. Really good points there that I'm adding to Ryan's. A related objection that you (and others) might want to respond to is the claim that Christianity (and especially Calvinism) is evil because its God accepts the principle that "the ends justify the means" and that therefore the Christian God apparently practices a consequentialist morality.

    Finally, it seems to me that as Calvinists we can't evade the conclusion that God purposes to ultimately bless the elect at the expense of the non-elect/reprobate. Is that a right or wrong inference. If right, I can accept it by faith as something God has a right to do.

    How can we Calvinists respond to the charge made by atheists and Arminians (et al.) that that's immoral for God to do that? I'm willing to accept the label of being insensitive, but I'd like to have answers that can escape the charge of irrationality and/or immorality for holding such a position. I like what Paul Manata once said. He said something along the lines of "It's legitimate for Calvinists to appeal to mystery, but we shouldn't deploy the parachute of mystery too soon." Meaning, we should do our best to have rational answers to the objections we face as Calvinists.

  2. To be sure, we don't need to understand it completely or even at all in order to know it's true. The evil God argument conflates two different epistomoligcal areas: knowledge by revelation and knowledge by analogical or experiential understanding. It's like the Germans of WWII who saw the Jews taken away. Although many Germans suspected what fate befell the Jews because they saw the Arian and eugenics propaganda, they suppressed that suspicion lacking direct experiential knowledge on the basis of the presuppositional claims of the very same propaganda.

  3. Mr. Hays (or Various other T-bloggers) , I have 2 questions that are not completely related to the post , but they are related to Calvinism.

    1. If we are born in a state of being totally depraved (having an inability of responding to God, like 1 Cor 2:14) , then why does Jesus have to speak in parables to them in Matthew 13:13-15 ,Acts 28:26-28, John 12:39-40 ? If we are born spiritually unable to come to God , then why does the text say that God had to blind them so they won't turn and be healed? ( It's a weird objection ,because it allows God the powers over the hearts of men(in which if as they argue LFW is necessary for moral accountability, then these people in there rejection of Christ aren't morally accountable. Which is ridiculous. )

    2. How can a timeless God know Tensed facts?
    You once recommended this link to Someone ( . But the link doesn't seem to work anymore. Maybe it's my phone or something. But I'd like your thoughts on it ,or any recommendations.

    Best of Providence

    1. Perhaps part of the answer is that God's words have the power to give life, to make clear, to defeat the person's depravity. Jesus could teach in such a way as to defeat their depravity and they would turn and be saved. But instead Jesus teaches in a defeasible way. An ineffectual calling, so to speak. That seems more problematic for the non-Calvinist than the Calvinist.

    2. i) There's a difference between inability to understand and inability to believe. A person can understand something, but be unreceptive to the truth.

      ii) Blinding and hardening are metaphors. By themselves, they don't explain how God blinds or hardens people. It could be direct divine action on someone's mind. Or it could be providential: sin, social conditioning, demonic influence.

    3. Besides Sudduth's article, which may now be inaccessible, here are two other discussions:

  4. I'll just add my ten cents.

    All goodness comes from God since He is the fountainhead of it, being purely good.

    Any goodness that we experience therefore is not actually ours by default. We're not owed it.

    When God chooses not to bestow good upon a people there is no foul play since it isn't theirs to begin with but borrowed from God.

    Once this goodness is rightfully removed from us by the owner, since He made no contractual agreement to guarantee it, the other party has no claim.

    The atheist is unwittingly glorifying God because in his objection, he infers that eternal torment which ultimately amounts to the separation of the creature from God's good graces is the most terrible thing whereas the corollary which is to be united with Him would thus be the most wonderful thing. In the foolishness of his sin he increases his hatred toward the very one his soul declares to be good. Such a proclamation begs the question- if it is so terrible to be separated from God then why persist to rush headlong in such a course? If it is truly justified on your part to rush away from God then you have no complaint when you reach your destination. It is like a traveller complaining of the heat yet knowingly setting course into the middle of a hot desert away from a stream of pure refreshing water.

    The atheist would justify the consumption of plants and/or animals because he has a higher state of consciousness than either and that he needs them in order to survive. But what does their survival or consciousness have to do with the animal or plant who most assuredly did not give consent. If one is to truly champion the elimination of suffering to the best of one's ability then why not sacrifice their own lives by starving and allowing the plants and animals to thrive? Furthermore, why shouldn't God be able to do for himself and his good pleasure since a) he actually owns animals, plants and us by virtue of being the creator 2) he has a far higher consciousness than we do and 3) the only reason we can even talk about life, dignity,survival and pleasure is because we thankless creatures have been bestowed them by God.

    Of course all of the above mentioned points are conditioned with a charitable turning a blind eye to the fact that the atheist is pretending that oughts exist.

    As for the Armenian, I would simply ask if Christ's death upon the cross was owed to us? If God chose to save noone
    And leave sinners to remain in their sins it would not make him any less just. I wonder what the hymnal of an arminian reads like. We're they to be truly consistent they should read something like this...

    Expected grace how sweet the sound
    When my wage came in
    It wasn't my fault Adam fell
    And put me into sin.

    So when God became a man,
    And suffered human life
    He only got what he deserved
    The agony and strife.

    And when the nails did pierce his hands
    And punctured too his feet
    He finally paid his debt to me
    By saving me complete.

    The fact is that God was under no obligation to give us grace at any point - from birth unto death. Nor is God obliged to extend grave beyond the
    grave. Otherwise grace is no longer grace.

    Since the arminian views as evil The God who predestines people to hell, would it be wrong for God to prevent people from going there? Would it be better for the arminian God to allow person x to go to hell or for the Calvinist's God to prevent him from going there?