Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Is God an evildoer?

In theory, there are different ways in which God might relate to evil:

i) Allows 

ii) Determines 

iii) Causes 

iv) Commands 

v) Commits 

Freewill theists grant that God allows evil. And they say Calvinism makes God "causally determine" evil, which they set in contrast to their own position. However, they rarely define their terminology. Some freewill theists think the OT contains "abhorrent commands" or "texts of terror," and they deny that God issued the commands which the narrator attributes to him.

Normally, both sides (Calvinists, freewill theists) deny that God commits evil. They strive to put some kind of buffer between God and evil. To say that God commits evil is typically discountenanced as wholly unacceptable. On a spectrum from allowing to committing evil, committing evil is the worst. Of all the theoretical ways God might relate to evil, that's off the table. That can't be exonerated. If God commits evil, that makes God evil. 

In my experience, that's the usual position. However, in a book review, Michael Almeida makes the following observation:

Since God has the traditional attributes of perfect beings Rowe concludes that it is impossible that God should choose to perform an evil action. But it is not at all clear why Rowe urges that" a being who freely chooses to do what it knows to be an evil deed thereby ceases to be a perfectly good being"(p. 26). Certainly in ordinary moral contexts no one would make such a claim. Suppose a being freely chooses to do what it knows to be an evil deed because it necessarily faces a moral dilemma. If an agent necessarily faces a moral dilemma then there is nothing the agent could have done to avoid the dilemma. Indeed there is nothing that an omnipotent being could have done to avoid the dilemma. The agent must choose some wrong action or other. It is difficult to see how the agent's choice might nonetheless be blameworthy or how that choice might reflect poorly on his character. Since blamelessly choosing to do wrong does not diminish moral perfection at all, it cannot be assumed that necessarily a perfect being does not choose to do wrong. Almeida, Michael (2006) "Book Review: Can God Be Free?," Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers: Vol. 23 : Iss. 3 , Article 8. 

And that's of more than hypothetical consequence. For the freewill defense is usually cast in terms of how God's hands are tied. He'd like a better outcome, but he's stymied by the intractable defiance of free creatures. Given the freewill defense, God is routinely confronted with moral dilemmas, because human agents remove the best options from consideration. God stuck with the worst remaining options. So freewill theism leaves God with no choice but to commit evil, and does so on a regular basis.  

In Calvinism, by contrast, creatures never back God into a corner. Ironically, then, the Calvinist God is never in a position that requires him to be an evildoer–whereas the freewill theist God often finds himself in that predicament. So their theology and theodicy commits freewill theists to the most odious position along the continuum–one which Calvinism escapes. 


  1. are you in the "reformed pub" group on Facebook? they had several posts about this last week

  2. It seems like a free will theist could respond to this in two ways. First, they could say that in cases of moral dilemmas, choosing the lesser of two evils does not amount to doing evil since choosing the lesser of two evils is actually the good choice to make. For example, if you have to choose between lying to the gestapo or turning in your Jewish guests, both of which are prima facie evil, it's not actually wrong to lie in that case. Moral dilemmas just mean there are exceptions to moral rules.

    Second, God may never find himself in a moral dilemma under the Calvinist view that forces him to choose the lesser of two evils, but he does nevertheless do evil things. This just means that under Calvinism, he doesn't have an excuse like he does under free will theism. That makes him even more evil. All you've argued is that the Calvinist version of God isn't evil BECAUSE of finding himself in moral dilemmas. It doesn't mean he isn't evil for other reasons.

    I would like to see a post where you tackle the accusation of evil that free will theists place on the Calvinist understanding of God that is based on God decreeing, causing, or determining that people do evil. If it is wrong to cause another person to sin, and if God causes other people to sin, then wouldn't God's action then be evil? How do you create a buffer between God and evil in that case?

    1. i) Yes, there's the issue of whether the very category of moral dilemmas is even coherent. It could be argued that the concept of genuine moral dilemmas suffers from internal tensions.

      But the concept of moral dilemmas is taken seriously by many ethicists. And Mike Almeida is a case in point. So it's not a straw man.

      ii) And even if we deny the possibility of genuine moral dilemmas, I don't think that buys the freewill theist much relief. It suggests that moral norms are suspended in extreme cases. What's ordinarily a heinous act is permissible when there's no better alternative. But isn't that rather nihilistic? Are there any limits on that principle? Is anything intrinsically wrong on that view?

      iii) There's a common distinction between something that's prima facie wrong, wrong all things being equal, but permissible or obligatory all things considered. But even on that view, some actions may be impermissible regardless of the situation.

      iv) I've done many posts on whether Calvinism makes God culpably complicit in evil.

    2. I've done many posts on whether Calvinism makes God culpably complicit in evil.

      I'll have to search around for them, then. Thanks for the response.

      I don't know why my name is showing up as "unknown." I'm Sam Harper.

  3. The definition of evil/sin gets us in trouble, I think. If we couch evil only, or at least primarily, in behavioral terms, then we limit the discussion to those things that happen or occur. While behavior is an aspect of evil, it is merely a result of evil. We must consider the intent behind evil.

    Even intentional sin isn't the most fundamental aspect of evil. By definition, evil is that which opposes God by his nature, and according to it's relationship to God. So the most foundational aspects, which are closely related, are evil by nature and evil by position. A couple of observations with this in mind:

    a. God cannot sin since his nature is the standard against which there is evil. There is no standard greater than God by which God is beholden to obey.

    b. One aspect of the noetic effects of sin is that we cannot think clearly about this. Sin so distorts our ability to understand God's decrees with relationship to the problem of evil that we can only see intellectual conflict at every point. If there was no sin, there would be no conflict.

    c. We should all recognize that the act of eating the forbidden fruit was not the first sin. At some point, perhaps in Adam and Eve's innocence, they were not in perfect relationship with God. That allowed for a transformation of their nature from innocent to evil. The perfect relationship with God is redeemed, regenerated, resurrected, and righteous. (I honestly didn't mean to alliterate there. Someone need some sermon points?) The walk through the darkness of evil and redemptive history is the way we get from mutable innocence to immutable righteousness.