Sunday, December 06, 2015

Does God permit evil?

1. Calvinists often say God "permits" evil. Some Arminians say it's misleading or meaningless to speak of divinely determinate events as divinely permitted events. 

2. To begin with, the usage varies with the Calvinist. Paul Helm uses permissive language. He's defined and defended what he means by that. Here's one example:

Scroll down to the "willing permission" section. 

Calvin himself was ambivalent about permissive language. Calvin made the elementary observation that you can't drive a wedge between what God wills and what God permits. Divine permission is either willing or unwilling. If unwilling, it would be coercive rather than permissive. But if permission is willing, then God wills to permit evil. Yet in that event, what's the big difference between willing evil and permitting evil? If he wills to permit evil, then he wills evil. To will to permit it is to will it. The circumlocution doesn't eliminate divine volition in the matter. At best, permission indicates God's grudging attitude towards the relative necessity of evil. 

And notice that this applies to freewill theism, not just Calvinism. 

3. Let's compare two questions:

i) Why does God permit evil?

ii) Why doesn't God prevent evil? 

These are equivalent questions. They convey the same idea. The only difference is that the first formulation is positive while the second formulation is negative. 

4. Moreover, this is consistent with predestination since God could prevent evil by not foreordaining evil. Therefore, it's not contradictory for a Calvinist to say God permits evil. 

5. I myself have no particular attachment to permissive language. However, in discussing the problem of evil, I often frame the question in terms of why God permits evil.

An Arminian like Jerry Walls, who assumes the worst about the Calvinist motives, might suspect that I use permissive language to conceal the true nature of Calvinism. If I were more forthcoming, I'd come clean and phrase the question, "Why does God predestine evil?" The fact that I avoid that either means I'm lowballing Calvinism or that I'm conflicted. 

But as I just demonstrated, that language is consonant with Calvinism.

Moreover, I've often defended the claim that God predestines evil. I'm not running away from that fact. 

6. I generally use permissive language for two other reasons:

i) It's the stereotypical way in which the problem of evil is framed. And since that's consistent with Reformed theology, there's no overriding reason to depart from that formulation.

ii) But more importantly, I don't usually phrase the question "Why does God predestine evil" because that has the wrong emphasis.

That formulation suggests the question at issue isn't so much about God and evil, but about predestination. Why does God predestine evil, in contrast to evil coming about some other way. 

But although that's worth discussing in its own right, the problem of evil centers on the divine rationale for the existence of evil in God's universe. Given that God could prevent evil, why doesn't he? What possible reason could he have not to prevent it? 

That's why I generally use permissive language in framing the issue. To phrase the question in terms of predestination would distract attention away from that central concern. 

Moreover, once we discuss the purpose that evil serves in God's world, that can naturally segue into a discussion of predestination. But doing that in reverse is less logical. 


  1. I think all clear thinking Calvinists agree with Calvin that God always wills willingly, not unwillingly. However, that doesn't preclude the use of "permission" language because not everything that God wills He wills with full approval and sanction. Most Calvinists make a distinction between different senses in God's will including 1. God's decretive will, 2. God's prescriptive will, [and even some Calvinists like R.C. Sproul speak of] 3. God's dispositional will [I myself see 6 senses of God's Will]. Given the fact that God's will of decree can sometimes go contrary to God's other wills (e.g. prescriptive will and dispositional will), it is not misleading/meaningless/disingenuous for Calvinists to use permissive language. For example, all things being equal God disapproves of murder. However all things considered and in God's sovereign right and plan He sometimes (permissively) decrees murder to take place.

    Arminians like Jerry Walls make the mistake in thinking that the God of Calvinism decrees everything with equal indiscriminate approval and delight in every sense.

    Moreover, once we discuss the purpose that evil serves in God's world, that can naturally segue into a discussion of predestination. But doing that in reverse is less logical.

    Steve, I like what you once wrote that was so succinct. You wrote, "According to Calvinism, God does will sin [and by extension evil]. He doesn’t will sin for its own sake. He doesn’t will sin in isolation. But he wills sin to achieve certain second-order goods."

  2. I think the answer is in the nature of evil itself. We tend to treat it substantively as though evil were some thing that stands on its own. Rather, it should be seen as a relative qualifier for a moral agent that affects everything that moral agent produces. What should be noted in this construction is that a moral agent might not be the only moral agent causing something. If a righteous moral agent and an evil moral agent contribute to the production of a thing, then that thing is evil. However, the righteousness of the righteous moral agent isn't compromised because of it. The only way for a righteous moral agent to be compromised and become evil is from within.

    Therefore, I suggest that Adam and Eve did not fall by eating the fruit. They fell because they doubted God and consequently their eating the fruit was evil.

    By the way, this principle is seen in the judgment of nations by other nations where God intentionally uses evil nations to judge evil nations and then promises to judge the evil nations he used for being evil.

    The question might be asked, how can we not judge the same way God does and it be called righteous like God? The answer is that only God can judge. If any one of us does anything evil to another, for us it is evil. We have no right to judge. But for God to be a cause, it is righteous because each on of us deserves something far worse than any evil that is done to us. Rather, the fact that we didn't receive far worse, or that such judgement is delayed is an act of grace. By the same token, if we deserve worse, then we should be able to see that even the most innocent of us has been dealt with graciously when we were not dealt with quickly and severely when we did evil to others. So whether God permits evil or restrains evil, he is both gracious and a righteous judge. For if he permits evil, then he is gracious to the evildoer. If he restrains evil, he is gracious to the one to whom the evil would have been done.