God sovereign but not author of evil

By Spencer D Gear

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Auschwitz-Birkenau (flickr)

Bill Muehlenberg is a Christian social commentator – a cultural apologist – based in Melbourne, Australia. His incisive assessments of cultural and Christian issues have earned him a solid reputation among many evangelical Christians for exposing what is happening in our culture. See his ‘Culture Watch‘ website.


In a recent post, Muehlenberg stated:

I actually had a guy recently send in this comment: “God cannot be ‘forced’ to do anything, you reprobate heretic.” Suffice it to say I did not bother to print this guy’s comment. So what was he on about here? Earlier I had written an article about God’s rejection of Saul

In it I said, “Overall, the biblical message is that God is indeed sovereign, but he is not directly the author of evil. This passage is one of many texts that must be examined in this light. And it serves as a strong warning to us all as well. God may well use a person for his purposes, but it is also possible for that person to reject God, forcing God to reject him.”

And for daring to say that, I am now a “reprobate heretic”! Do I laugh or cry at this? Obviously my point was that God felt compelled to act, in light of Saul’s bad choices and rebellion. Of course God is not forced to do anything in one sense. But this person leapt to an unwarranted conclusion about what I had said, and was ready to at least tar and feather me.[1]

It really is a sad state of affairs in the Christian church when Muehlenberg is called a ‘reprobate heretic’ for stating that God ‘is not directly the author of evil’. This, of course, relates to the Arminian-Calvinism debate where Arminianism allows for the manifestation of evil and some Calvinism supports God’s decreeing evil (as a general statement).

There have been others who have made claims about the difficulty of the problem of evil for Christianity:

  • ‘The most serious challenge to theism was, is, and will continue to be the problem of evil’, according to Ronald Nash (Nash 1988:177).
  • ‘How can evil be compatible with the concept of a good God who is actively ruling this world? In the past these have been called “acts of God”’ (Boice 1978:229-230).
  • ‘The Bible is clear that both good and evil cannot stem from one and the same essence (God). God is light, and “in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John1:5; compare Habakkuk 1:13; Matthew 5:48). First John 1:5 is particularly cogent in the Greek, which translates literally, “And darkness there is not in Him, not in any way.” John could not have said it more forcefully’ (Rhodes 2004:47).
  • Paul Little offered this penetrating analysis: ‘If God were to stamp out evil today, he would do a complete job. His action would have to include our lies and personal impurities, our lack of love, and our failure to do good. Suppose God were to decree that at midnight tonight all evil would be removed from the universe – who of us would still be here after midnight?’ (Little 1975:81).

Let’s look at a couple of examples of how this conflict plays out theologically.

1. God causes all evil: Calvinists

Johnpiper3.jpg

John Piper (Wikipedia)

a. John Piper, a Calvinist, stated:

‘So every spin of the roulette wheel … you know Las Vegas … every roll of the dice in your family board game, every reaching of the hand for the scramble of the letter, is determined by God’.[2]

Piper‘s view of the Sept 11, 2001 disaster in the USA was: ‘God, by his very nature, cannot or would not act to bring about such a calamity. This view of God is what contradicts the Bible and undercuts hope’.[3]

This kind of message is nothing new for Calvinism.

b. John Calvin agreed with such a sentiment:

Let us suppose, for example, that a merchant, after entering a forest in company with trust-worthy individuals, imprudently strays from his companions and wanders bewildered till he falls into a den of robbers and is murdered. His death was not only foreseen by the eye of God, but had been fixed by his decree. For it is said, not that he foresaw how far the life of each individual should extend, but that he determined and fixed the bounds which could not be passed, (Job 14:5).[4]

Is this what Calvinists want to affirm with God as the author of such evil?

Highlights of the Holocaust

 

AND,

A montage of eight images depicting, from top to bottom, the World Trade Center towers burning, the collapsed section of the Pentagon, the impact explosion in the south tower, a rescue worker standing in front of rubble of the collapsed towers, an excavator unearthing a smashed jet engine, three frames of video depicting airplane hitting the Pentagon.

September 11, 2001 (Wikipedia)

AND,

Daniel morcombe.jpg  

Murder of Daniel Morcombe (Wikipedia) and Brett Peter Cowan (public domain), convicted murdered of Daniel Morcombe

So all of this is from the hands of God with God as the author of evil, according to the Calvinists cited above? Such a view is obnoxious and abhorrent, making God the sinner as the perpetrator of sin.

2. Norman Geisler’s response to a Calvinist, ‘God killed my son’

In his seminal book, Chosen but Free, Norm Geisler illustrated the illogical nature of the Calvinistic view of God and evil:

Not only does extreme Calvinism tend to undermine personal responsibility, it also logically lays the blame squarely on God for the origin of evil.  Many years ago, when the late John Gerstner and I taught together at the same institution, I invited him into one of my classes to discuss free will.  Being what I have called an extreme Calvinist, he defended Jonathan Edwards’ view that the human will is moved by the strongest desire. I will never forget how he responded when I pushed the logic all the way back to Lucifer. An otherwise very rational man responded to my question ‘Who gave Lucifer the desire to rebel against God?’ by throwing up his hands and crying, ‘Mystery, mystery, a great mystery!’  I answered, ‘No, it is not a great mystery; it is a grave contradiction.’  And this is because on the premises of extreme Calvinism, only God could have given Lucifer the desire to rebel, since there is no self-determined free choice and Lucifer had no evil nature.  But if this is so, then logically it must have been God who gave him the desire to sin.  In short, God caused a rebellion against God. Perish the thought!

The second example is also tragic. A well-known conference speaker was explaining how he was unable to come to grips with the tragic death of his son.  Leaning on his strong Calvinistic background, he gradually came to the conclusion: ‘God killed my son!’  He triumphantly informed us that ‘then, and only then, did I get peace about the matter.’  A sovereign God killed his son, and therein he found ground for a great spiritual victory, he assured us.  I thought to myself, ‘I wonder what he would say if his daughter had been raped?  Would he not be able to come to grips with the matter until he concluded victoriously that ‘God raped my daughter?’  God forbid!  Some views do not need to be refuted; they simply need to be stated (Geisler 1999:133).

3. God does not cause all evil: Arminians

Dr. Olson

Roger E Olson (Baylor University)

a. Roger Olson, an Arminian, disagrees with John Piper’s perspective:

I am not willing to rule out the possibility that God might send judgment on a city with a seemingly natural disaster. Who knows? (But I don’t believe God causes people to do evil as in the case of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.) God is God. He may very well have reasons I can’t even fathom. And, of course, in the end, we are told God will intervene in history and defeat his enemies. I’m sure that won’t be pretty. However, EVEN IF GOD TOLD ME a natural disaster that caused untold suffering was his judgment I would not announce it publicly. Unless, of course, he told me to. Does Piper claim God has told him to proclaim these things? Or is he just speaking out of his theological convictions? I’m not sure about that.

I think it is the height of insensitivity to target calamities in which husbands, fathers, mothers, children have died horrible deaths and pronounce them “God’s judgment.” I would urge Christians not to do that unless they are certain God has called them to do it and given them the reason that particular disaster was his judgment. And I would urge people like Piper not to do it unless they are also willing publicly to proclaim that a kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered child was also targeted by God and why. It’s all part of a package deal in his and their case (i.e., Calvinists). So, my challenge to them is to bite the bullet and not just proclaim natural disasters or even man-made disasters “God’s judgment” but also to explain that they believe every child murdered, tortured, raped is also suffering because God willed it.[5]

4. Jacobus Arminius on determinism, free will and evil

Jacobus Arminius

Jacobus Arminius (About.com)

At the time of Arminius’ ministry in the Netherlands (he lived 1560-1609), there were certain theological articles distributed extensively that accused him and Adrian Borrius, a minister of Leyden, of suspected ‘novelty and heterodoxy, of error and heresy, on the subject of religion’. He responded with a defence against these. One of those stated: ‘God has not by his eternal decree determined future and contingent things to the one part or the other’ (Article 7).[6]

In this response, Arminius stated that ‘a calumny … lies concealed under ambiguous terms’ that are ‘capable of inflicting deep injury’ but when these terms are explained the slander is exposed and loses its force. Calumny means ‘a false and malicious statement designed to injure the reputation of someone or something’ (dictionary.com).

The ambiguous term in Article 7 is ‘determined’. In explaining this word, Arminius exposes his understanding of the origin and continuation of evil. His assessment was that ‘determined’ could be used two ways:

  1. Firstly, the determination by God that something shall be done and it is fixed, but its ‘power, remains free either to act or not to act, so that, if it be the pleasure of this second cause, it can suspend [or defer] its own action’. So, by application, this understanding of God’s determination does not exclude the free acts of human beings in performing evil acts.
  2. The second understanding of ‘determination’ is that when something should be done, it is fixed and ‘the second cause (at least in regard to the use of its power,) remains no longer free so as to be able to suspend its own action, when God’s action, motion and impulse have been fixed; but by this determination, it [the second cause] is necessarily bent or inclined to the one course or the other, all indifference to either part being completely removed before this determined act be produced by a free and unconstrained creature’. This means that God’s determination is fixed and there is no free act for the person involved. So, by application, God is the cause of evil in the past and present.

Arminius supports the first understanding of ‘determined’. He explained:

For I am aware that it is said, in the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, ‘Both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together against Jesus, to do whatsoever God’s hand and counsel determined before (or previously appointed) to be done.’ But I also know, that Herod, Pontius Pilate, and the Jews, freely performed those very actions; and (notwithstanding this ‘fore-determination of God,’ and though by his power every Divine action, motion and impulse which was necessary for the execution of this ‘fore-determination,’ were all fixed,) yet it was possible for this act (the crucifixion of Christ,) which had been ‘previously appointed’ by God, not to be produced by those persons, and they might have remained free and indifferent to the performance of this action, up to the moment of time in which they perpetrated the deed. Let the narrative of the passion of our Lord be perused, and let it be observed how the whole matter was conducted, by what arguments Herod, Pontius Pilate and the Jews were moved and induced, and the kind of administration [or management] that was employed in the use of those arguments, and it will then be evident, that it is the truth which I here assert.

However, if the second understanding of ‘determined’ is accepted, he stated,

I confess, that I abominate and detest that axiom (as one that is FALSE, ABSURD, and preparing the way for MANY BLASPHEMIES,) which, declares that ‘God by his eternal decree has determined to the one part or to the other future contingent things.’ By this last phrase understand “those things which are performed by the free will of the creature’. He regards this second position as ‘falsehood’ because God in the administration of his Providence conducts all things in such a manner that when he is pleased to employ his creatures in the execution of his decrees, he does not take away from them their nature, natural properties or the use of them, but allows them to perform and complete their own proper motions. Were it otherwise, Divine Providence, which ought to be accommodated to the creation, would be in direct opposition (emphasis in original).

Arminius goes even further to ‘detest it as AN ABSURDITY: Because it is contradictory in the adjunct, that “something is done contingently,” that is, it is done in such a manner as makes it POSSIBLE not to be done; and yet this same thing is determined to the one part or the other in such a manner, as makes it IMPOSSIBLE to leave undone that which has been determined to be done’ (emphasis in original).

Arminius’ point was that human beings have been made (by God) with the ability for contingency, liberty and to be able to ‘freely act according to nature’ and that ability is impeded. It finds it a position of ‘insanity’ that it has been conferred ‘at the creation a power on the creature of acting freely or of suspending its action, and yet to take away the use of such a power when the liberty comes at length to be employed’.

He abhors such a position as it is

CONDUCING TO MULTIPLIED BLASPHEMIES. For I consider it impossible for any art or sophistry to prevent this dogma concerning “such a previous determination” from producing the following consequences: FIRST. It makes God to be the author of sin, and man to be exempt from blame. SECONDLY. It constitutes God as the real, proper and only sinner: Because when there is a fixed law which forbids this act, and when there is such ‘a fore-determination’ as makes it ‘impossible for this act not to be committed,’ it follows as a natural consequence, that it is God himself who transgresses the law, since he is the person who performs this deed against the law. For though this be immediately perpetrated by the creature, yet, with regard to it, the creature cannot have any consideration of sin; because this act was unavoidable on the part of man, after such “fore-determination” had been fixed. THIRDLY. Because, according to this dogma, God needed sinful man and his sin, for the illustration of his justice and mercy. FOURTHLY. And, from its terms, sin is no longer sin.

I never yet saw a refutation of those consequences which have been deduced from this dogma by some other persons. I wish such a refutation was prepared, at least that it would be seriously attempted. When it is completed, if I am not able to demonstrate, even then, that these objections of mine are not removed, I will own myself to be vanquished, and will ask pardon for my offense. Although I am not accustomed to charge and oppress this sentiment [of theirs] with such consequences before other people, yet I usually confess this single circumstance, (and this, only when urged by necessity,) that “I cannot possibly free their opinion from those objections (emphasis in original).

I have provided this detailed explanation from Arminius because it explains in some detail why Arminianism refuses to give up free will given to human beings at creation and to refuse to accept the Calvinistic view of determinism / determination with regard to the origin of evil and the contemporary problem of evil. I recommend that you read this section online.

Arminius provided logical and biblical reasons why Calvinistic determinism should be rejected because,

(1) It makes God the author of sin, which is an absurdity for the sinless, perfect, holy Lord God Almighty;

(2) God is the one who transgresses his own law and makes him a sinner – which is a blasphemous concept;

(3) God, to demonstrate his justice and mercy, needed human beings, not to perform the acts of evil, but to be vehicles for God to perform original sin and contemporary acts of sin – this is blasphemy;

(4) How can sinful actions in society (September 11, 2001 tragedy; Holocaust slaughter; murder and rape of human beings) be regarded as sinful if God is the originator of such evil? God is the sinless, righteous Lord God who cannot commit sin. Calvinism makes God an evil monster by redefining who this God is and how he acts in society.

God’s attributes include:

  • ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ (Isaiah 6:3 ESV).
  • ‘Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?’ (Psalm 71:19).
  • ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5).
  • ‘This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 18:30).
  • ‘He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is!’ (Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT).

That God should be accused of being the originator of evil and to be the contributor to causing evil in our contemporary world flies in the face of the very nature of God and his attributes.

But have a guess what is accused of being the real heresy? It is Arminianism. Did you realise that? Take a read of Pastor Pribble now:

5. Arminianism as a heresy

 Google (public domain)

 

a.  Stephen Pribble, pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Lansing, Michigan regards Arminianism as a heresy, writing,

Arminianism is indeed a heresy, a serious departure from the historic faith of the Christian church…. Is Arminianism a heresy? Yes.

Are Arminian preachers heretics? In a sense, yes, though most have not been condemned as such by a church council having the authority to make such a determination.

Can an Arminian preacher be a “damnable heretic” who preaches a false gospel of man’s free will instead of the true gospel of God’s sovereign grace? Yes, surely….

Is Arminianism a damnable heresy? Yes.[7]

That is an example of the kind of antagonism towards Arminianism by one Calvinist. However, he is not alone.[8]

b.  Phil Johnson, the executive director of ‘Grace to You’, the John MacArthur organisation, wrote:

But let me be plain here: Simple Arminianism doesn’t fall in that category [heresy]. It’s not fair to pin the label of rank heresy on Arminianism, the way some of my more zealous Calvinist brethren seem prone to do. I’m talking about historic, evangelical Arminianism, of the classic and Wesleyan varieties — Arminianism, not Pelagianism, or open theism, or whatever heresy Clark Pinnock has invented this week — but true evangelical Arminianism. Arminianism is certainly wrong; and I would argue that it’s inconsistent with itself. But in my judgment, standard, garden variety Arminianism is not so fatally wrong that we need to consign our Arminian brethren to the eternal flames or even automatically refuse them fellowship in our pastors’ fraternals.

If you think I’m beginning to sound like an apologist for Arminianism, I’m definitely not that. I do think Arminianism is a profound error. Its tendencies can be truly sinister, and when it is allowed to go to seed, it does lead people into rank heresy. But what I’m saying here is that mere Arminianism itself isn’t damnable heresy. It’s just grossly inconsistent with the core gospel doctrines that Arminians themselves believe and affirm.[9]

6. A mediating position: Sin and God

Andrew Wilson has proposed a conciliating position between Calvinism and Arminianism. I recommend a read of his article at it provides an exposition of these two summary points on a mediating, biblical position between Arminianism and Calvinism, ‘Piper and Olson: Does God ordain all sinful choices?’[10]

1. Firstly, ‘the purpose of God in ordaining that Joseph be sold into slavery, and that Pharaoh harden his heart, and that the Assyrians attack Israel, and that Jesus be executed despite his innocence, is explicitly redemptive. All of those evil things happen because through them, in the providence of God, the redemption of the world is ultimately being accomplished. God uses Joseph to save many lives, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness to show his power and demonstrate his support of Israel, and the Assyrians to drive Judah to repentance, and so on, right through to the cross. In all of these examples, the sinful human choices are part of God’s plan to bless the world through the seed of Abraham’.

2. Secondly, ‘clarifying that God ordains some sinful human choices but not all of them enables us to engage in theodicy with integrity. As I have said here before, many high Calvinists answer like Arminians when asked about the problem of evil, displaying a fatal inconsistency which indicates either that their Calvinism doesn’t work, or that they haven’t really thought about it properly. If you believe that God ordains all sinful choices, from the fall to the Holocaust and beyond, then saying that Auschwitz was a tragic result of God giving humans freedom is simply not an option; Nazis killed Jews because God ordained that they would, even if they remain morally culpable for it. But if you believe, as I do, that God ordained some sinful choices in the history of his people and his Son, but always with redemptive purpose, then the classic answer to the Holocaust question is the right one: God allows human beings to make evil choices, even though it grieves him when we do. And this, if we’re honest, is much more compelling on an Alpha table than saying it was all pre-planned for God’s greater glory. Especially when the Bible doesn’t actually say that’.

7. Conclusion

The Calvinistic position that God is the author of evil and the one who decrees evil in our contemporary world – as applicable to all circumstances – cannot be supported from the Scriptures. The holy, righteous, good, perfect and sinless God of light cannot be the one who creates evil. To use Arminius’ words: ‘It is an absurdity’ to promote such a view as it makes God a sinner.

The Arminian position with its emphasis on the God who made human beings free will persons and what God decrees can be accepted or rejected, has many positives.

However, the mediating position of Andrew Wilson seems to have the considerable weight as a theological position. It demonstrates that there were times when God ordains some sinful human choices, but mostly he does not. However, it does have the challenge that on those occasions, the holy, righteous God does decree sin. That leads to Arminianism as being the preferred position.

However, I have grave concerns over Arminius’ view that Herod, Pontius Pilate, and the Jews could have chosen not to crucify Jesus, in spite of the fore-ordination of God. It makes God’s eternal plans putty in the hands of the fickle perpetrators of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Idi Amin.jpg    Rwanda Massacre    Victims of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia

Idi Amin (Wikipedia)   Rwanda massacre 1994 (BlackPast.org)    Victims of Pol Pot & Khmer Rouge, Cambodia (The Holocaust explained)

Who was the author of these gross sins? Human beings or God?

 

Here are some more of my articles for your consideration:

Conflict over salvation
Calvinist misrepresents the Reformed
Sent to hell by God: Calvinism in action?

The injustice of the God of Calvinism

Blatant misrepresentation of Arminians by Calvinists

Is a Calvinistic God a contradiction when compared with the God revealed in Scripture?

 

Works consulted

Boice, J M 1978. The sovereign God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Geisler, N 1999. Chosen but free. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.

Little, P E 1975. Know why you believe. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Nash, R H 1988. Faith and reason: Searching for a rational faith. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

Rhodes, R 2004. Why do bad things happen if God is good? Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers.

Notes:


[1] Bill Muehlenberg, Culture Watch, ‘On heresy hunters’, 9 April 2014, available at: http://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/09/on-heresy-hunters/comment-page-1/#comment-354036 (Accessed 12 April 2014).

[2] ‘John Piper addresses God’s sovereignty amid calamity’, August 30, 2012, The Wartburg Watch 2014. Available at: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2012/08/30/john-piper-addresses-gods-sovereignty-amid-calamity/ (Accessed 12 April 2014).

[3] John Piper 2001. ‘Why I do not say, “God did not cause the calamity, but he can use it for good”’, Desiring God, September 17, 2001. Available at: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/why-i-do-not-say-god-did-not-cause-the-calamity-but-he-can-use-it-for-good (Accessed 12 April 2014).

[4] Institutes of the Christian religion 1.16.9. (Accessed 12 April 2014).

[5] Roger E Olson 2012. ‘My response to John Piper’s recent statements about God and tornadoes’, March 8. Patheos, available at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/03/my-response-to-john-pipers-recent-statements-about-god-and-tornadoes/ (Accessed 12 April 2014).

[6] Arminius, J 2013. The works of James Arminius, vol 1, The apology or defense of James Arminius (online), Wesley Center Online, Northwestern Nazarene University, available at: http://wesley.nnu.edu/arminianism/the-works-of-james-arminius/volume-1/the-apology-or-defense-of-james-arminius/ (Accessed 12 April 2014). All of the following Arminius’ quotes are from this website. The Works of James Arminius may be accessed at the Wesley Center Online, available at: http://wesley.nnu.edu/arminianism/the-works-of-james-arminius/ (Accessed 13 April 2014).

[7] Stephen Pribble n d. ‘Is Arminianism a damnable heresy?’ Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Lansing, Michigan, available at: http://www.all-of-grace.org/pub/pribble/damnable.html (Accessed 12 April 2014).

[8] David J Stewart is another example in his article, ‘Arminianism’, in which he tried to demonstrate that ‘Arminius taught heresy’ at jesus-is-savior.com. Available at: http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/False%20Doctrines/Arminianism/arminianism.htm (Accessed 12 April 2014).

[9] Phil Johnson, Executive director, Grace to you 2008. ‘Why I am a Calvinist, Part 1’, available at: http://www.gty.org/Resources/articles/10194 (Accessed 12 April 2014; emphasis in original).

[10] All of these Andrew Wilson citations are from his article, ‘Piper and Olson: Does God ordain all sinful human choices?’ Thinking Matters, 15 October 2012. Available at: http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/does-god-ordain-all-sinful-human-choices (Accessed 12 April 2014).
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 29 October 2015.