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Evil Never Escapes the Good

Calvinism and the Problem of Evil

The editors of this important volume, Calvinism and the Problem of Evil (Pickwick, 2016), acknowledge that Calvinism has recently enjoyed widespread revival in theological circles. However, when it comes to the realm of analytic philosophy, Calvinism still languishes in the backwaters of scholarly thought. This is especially the case when dealing with the perennial problem of evil or theodicy—the justification of God and his character in the face of evil.

On the question of human freedom and responsibility philosophers identify as libertarians or compatibilists. Libertarian views of free will in theology are associated with classical Arminianism, Molinism, and open theism. Compatibilism—the idea that human freedom and responsibility is compatible with God’s meticulous sovereignty over all that transpires—is associated with the Reformed tradition as understood through the eyes of Augustine and later Calvin and his successors.

Even though scholars in the field of philosophy are evenly divided between libertarianism and compatibilism, when it comes to the problem of evil the deck is stacked in favor of libertarianism due to the perceived success of the Free Will Defense (hereafter, FWD) which was first championed in modern debates over theodicy by the highly respected Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Nonetheless, philosophers who embrace a strong Reformed/ Calvinist perspective are beginning to make their voices heard, and this volume showcases the quality of this emerging philosophical defense of Calvinism.

Overview of the Work

The first few chapters provide the lay of the land, indicating the daunting task Calvinist philosophers face concerning the problem of evil. The FWD enjoys near unanimous acceptance among theistic philosophers because it appears to easily get God off the hook for allowing evil to transpire in the world. The FWD has a simplicity about it. In order for any meaningfully good choices to take place, God must allow people the freedom to equally choose good or evil. This means evil is a risk God is willing to take to preserve the value of free will. If he determines that people only make good choices, then this eviscerates their freedom and responsibility and we become nothing more than marionettes dangling from the divine puppeteer’s strings. Calvinism disputes these claims and each chapter in the book seeks to show why.


One of the serious contenders that Calvinism faces is the emerging popularity of Molinism which positions itself as a middle way between God’s meticulous providence (divine determinism) and libertarian free will (hereafter, LFW). It does so by introducing the concept of middle knowledge which refers to God’s prevolitional foreknowledge of counterfactuals of LFW—that is, what people would freely choose under any possible scenario. In Chapter 2, Greg Welty introduces a memorable illustration using the character Bullet Bill from the popular Nintendo video game Mario Brothers to show that Molinism has trouble exonerating God from moral culpability for evil.

Imagine God is analogous to a person deliberately shooting an ordinary gun with ordinary bullets that kill a person. For purposes of the illustration this is analogous to the Calvinist God. But imagine the Molinist God is analogous to a shooter who shoots a different kind of gun so that when he repeatedly pulls the trigger out come a series of Bullet Bills (analogous to humans). Each Bullet Bill has LFW and decides whether to kill or not to kill the respective victim.

The shooter has middle knowledge of the counterfactual decisions of each Bullet Bill and chooses to actualize the one that freely decides to kill the victim. But here is the problem. Even though the shooter didn’t directly cause the victim to die, nonetheless, Welty says we intuitively assign moral culpability to the shooter because he chose to actualize which Bullet Bill would use his freedom to kill the victim. Thus, this is not significantly different than the shooter who uses an ordinary gun. Both are responsible for killing the victim.

Moral Culpability

Of course, this doesn’t help Calvinism exonerate God from moral culpability, it simply shows that Molinism’s use of LFW doesn’t solve the problem if God is ultimately sovereign over the evil choices people make. But how does God escape culpability if Calvinism holds true?

In Chapters 3 and 5 Heath White and David Alexander (respectively) show the fallacy of trying to equate God’s character and actions to that of human beings, as proponents of LFW are want to do. Libertarianism misses critical points about the nature of God espoused by classical theism such as the Creator-creature distinction which throws a brilliant and incomprehensible light, for example, upon God’s transcendence, aseity, meticulous providence, moral perfection, freedom, and exhaustive foreknowledge.

Calvinistic compatibilism makes better sense of these essential attributes of God and this changes the whole game in terms of understanding God’s unique relationship to evil. Thus, Calvinists can say God stands behind evil in ways that are distinct from the way humans engage evil and this removes God from moral culpability.

God as Author

In Chapter 9, James Anderson points to an important analogy for divine providence called the Authorial Model. Because God stands outside the plane of creation and history, much like an author of a novel does, his causation is different than temporal, earthly forms of causation. Anderson says, “God has causal powers at his disposal which his creatures do not, and we shouldn’t assume that the exercise of those causal powers has the same entailments as that of human causal powers” (216). He affirms that “If God is the author of the entire creation and its storyline, it follows that God is the author of the sinful actions that take place within that creation” (210).

Nonetheless, just as we should not think that when Macbeth kills Duncan in his sleep Shakespeare deserves to be put on trial for murder, neither should we think that because God authors the unfolding plot of history he is thereby culpable for his creatures’ sinister actions. Comparing him to a mafia boss who orders his henchmen to carry out his dirty work simply will not do. God would never ensure that any evil takes place unless some greater good will emerge from it that otherwise could not. Click To Tweet

Greater Good Defense

This points us to the Greater Good Defense, a variation of which is presented in Chapter 10 by Christopher Green. Given God’s supreme and transcendent goodness, knowledge, wisdom, and power, he is uniquely positioned as the Lord of the universe to purpose all that takes place and does so in accordance with his unique divine character.

Thus, everything, including evil, must have some good end even when we, in our limited capacities, cannot always discern the reasons why. Our failure to do so is no argument against the existence of such reasons in the mind of God which he has not always chosen to reveal to us. We must conclude, as Paul Helm does, that Scripture presents God as the “supreme good, through whom every contingent good exists and is good” (149) and this includes the good that emerges from every evil. While mysteries will always remain, God would never ensure that any evil takes place unless some greater good will emerge from it that otherwise could not.

This is only true because, as Calvinism strongly affirms, evil never escapes the good and wise purposes of a perfect, infinite, holy God. This volume goes a long way in defending this truth.

Featured Image by Timothy Dykes

Scott Christensen

Scott Christensen (MDiv, The Master’s Seminary) is the author of What About Free Will? (P&R 2016). He is working on his current book entitled Light Pouring Out of Darkness which tackles the problem of evil. He pastors Summit Lake Community Church in Mancos, Colorado.

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