David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson, ed. Calvinism and the Problem of Evil. Eugene: Pickwick Publications (an Imprint of Wipf and Stock), 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Calvinism is a Christian belief system that holds that God, before
the foundation of the world, predestined the specific individuals who
would be saved and damned. It thinks that people are so sinful that
they are unable to repent and believe in Christ apart from God’s
transforming grace, and that conversion is inevitable when God’s
regenerating grace works on a person. There are many Calvinists who
also maintain that God foreordained everything that would happen.
The problem of evil is a philosophical problem that asks how evil can
exist, if God is omnipotent and benevolent. If God is both omnipotent
and benevolent, would not God stop evil, which hurts so many people?
Many Christians address the problem of evil by appealing to
libertarian free will. The idea is that God allows people freely to
make their own decisions, since they can only accept God authentically
if that is the case. Their version of free will is called “libertarian”
because it presumes that people’s decisions are uncaused and that
people were able to choose differently from the choice that they
actually made; this, the idea goes, is why people are morally
responsible. Not only have many Christians appealed to libertarian free
will to explain why God permits evil choices today, but they also
believe that it is relevant to God allowing Adam and Eve to sin, in a
sin that brought evil and chaos into the world.
Calvinism differs from this approach. It tends to reject libertarian
free will, embracing instead compatibilism, which holds that there are
causes to (or, perhaps, influences on) the choices that people make.
Rather than regarding people as morally neutral and thus able to choose
equally between good and evil, it holds that people have a propensity
towards evil as a result of original sin, and yet that God can change
the desires of those whom God elected unto salvation.
As David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson state in their introduction to Calvinism and the Problem of Evil,
Calvinism has been rather marginalized in Christian discussions of the
problem of evil. The reason is that many Christians think that
Calvinism makes the problem of evil worse rather than solving it. If
Calvinism believes that God not only permitted, but foreordained, that
evil should exist, does that not make God the author of evil? Does
Calvinism make people into robots rather than rational agents with
choice? Moreover, how can God send people to hell for something that
they cannot control, namely, God’s decision to choose them for damnation
rather than salvation?
This book interacts with these questions, and others. In terms of
another question with which the book interacts, there is the question of
how Adam and Eve could sin, when God made them good. Calvinists can
understand how people born with original sin and a corrupt nature can
sin: it is their nature. But how could good people sin?
In this review, I will comment about each chapter.
Chapter 1, “Calvinism and the Problem of Evil: A Map of the
Territory,” by Daniel M. Johnson, is lengthy, yet well-written and
lucid. Unlike some of the later essays, it tends to avoid arguments in
which letters stand for concepts. It lays out different Calvinist
perspectives on such questions as how Adam and Eve could sin. It said
that God has a reason to damn at least some people as an object lesson
of God’s justice, and the reaction that immediately occurred in my mind
was: “But Calvinism does not just say that some people will be damned,
but that a lot of people will be. Why would God do that?” A later
essay in the book would address this question.
Chapter 2, “Molinist Gunslingers: God and the Authorship of Sin,” by
Greg Welty, argues that Molinism has the same problem that many think
Calvinism has. Molinism holds that God foresaw different possible
worlds and chose to create a world in which people freely sinned. For
Welty, one can accuse Molinism of presuming that God is the one who is
responsible for sin, which is what critics of Calvinism say about
Calvinism. Welty perhaps could have made this point without all of the
elaborate argumentation, but he still raises an interesting question,
one that subsequent essays will raise, as well: Do non-Calvinist
Christian beliefs run into the same problems that many think are
inherent to Calvinism? This chapter is also effective because it cites
Scriptures in which God is portrayed as somehow causing, or being
behind, people’s evil deeds, only God uses those deeds for a positive
and just end. The question that occurred in my mind was this: Even if
there are cases of determinism or compatibilism in the Bible, does that
mean that all decisions are foreordained or influenced by factors beyond
the decider’s control? Maybe God can use a person who has voluntarily
become evil as a tool for God’s just purpose.
Chapter 3, “Theological Determinism and the ‘Authoring Sin’
Objection,” by Heath White, proposes that God foreordained evil but did
not intend to do so. This does not imply that evil was God’s accident,
but rather that God had a just and righteous purpose in mind (God’s
glorification and display of God’s righteous character), and God foresaw
that a world that had evil would best achieve that purpose. In my
opinion, this model somewhat presents God as limited by the alternatives
in front of God. This chapter was rather helpful in concisely
explaining the difference between supralapsarianism and
Chapter 4, “Not the Author of Evil: A Question of Providence, Not a
Problem for Calvinism,” by James E. Bruce, concerns the thought of
Francis Turretin (1623-1687). According to Bruce, Turretin said that
God acts on people, and yet people remain free and rational agents.
Like Welty, Bruce cites Scriptures in which God seems to cause certain
people’s evil acts. Of particular interest was Bruce’s discussion of
Turretin’s interaction with Proverbs 21:1, which states that the king’s
heart is like water in the hands of the LORD, who turns it wherever the
LORD wills. According to Turretin, God here is not tempting the king to
sin, for that would be impossible: James 1:13, after all, emphatically
denies that God tempts people to sin. Rather, for Turretin, what is
going on is that God is providing the king with righteous ideas knowing
fully well that the king will use those ideas in wicked ways. That view
was new to me!
Chapter 5, “Orthodoxy, Theological Determinism, and the Problem of
Evil,” by David E. Alexander, essentially argues that many Christian
beliefs presume compatibilism or are more consistent with compatibilism
than with libertarianism. These are Christian beliefs that even
non-Calvinist Christians hold. They include such beliefs as original
sin, the inspiration of Scripture, Christ’s sinlessness, and God’s
sovereignty. This is a legitimate point, yet questions can be asked.
Does God have to determine everything, to be sovereign? Cannot God be
sovereign over the big picture without controlling every little detail
(even through secondary causes or means)? Cannot God mitigate original
sin and provide people with more ability to choose with prevenient
grace, or common grace? This chapter also addresses the topic of hell
and proposes that God shows some love to people in hell by keeping them
alive there. This is a difficult concept for me, since they are being
eternally tormented in hell.
Chapter 6, “Discrimination: Aspects of God’s Causal Activity,” by
Paul Helm, likens God’s love for the elect to people legitimately loving
their own family more than outsiders. Helm seems to question whether a
world in which there is absolute equality among people is even
possible. Helm also challenges the idea that Calvinists believe that
God forces the elect to convert, or brainwashes them: it is rather a
matter of enlightenment, of awakening.
Chapter 7, “On Grace and Free Will,” by Hugh J. McCann, is noteworthy
because it recognizes and wrestles with different dimensions of human
decisions. On the one hand, we did not technically decide what the
desires that influence our decisions would be: those desires are just
there. On the other hand, it does appear that our decisions are
spontaneous and that we are active in making them. McCann seemingly
attempts to posit that determinism and compatibilism can co-exist with
human free will. Another noteworthy element of this chapter is that
McCann rejects any idea that God deliberated prior to creation, for
McCann believes that God knew what was correct and made what was
correct, without really needing to deliberate. That seems to differ
from Heath White’s model (chapter 3) of God surveying various options,
depending on how literally White took this model.
Chapter 8, “The First Sin: A Dilemma for Christian Determinists,” by
Alexander R. Pruss, engages the question of how Adam and Eve could sin,
being good. This chapter is detailed and complex, but it is still
useful because it interacts with options. Pruss does appear to have a
problem with Jonathan Edwards’ model, in which God somehow influences
Adam and Eve to sin by withdrawing grace from them. This shows that
there is diversity among Calvinists. (UPDATE: Actually, Pruss is a Catholic.) Pruss also seems rather open to
libertarian free will being something that Adam and Eve possessed.
Chapter 9, “Calvinism and the First Sin,” by James N. Anderson, also
addresses how Adam and Eve could sin, being good. Anderson relays a
helpful analogy from Alfred Mele, in which an ordinarily self-controlled
woman named Ann gives in to alcohol when she is pressured. Anderson
also elaborates on the authorial model of God’s providence, a model that
was briefly mentioned by previous contributors, but which Anderson
explained more fully. In this model, God is likened to an author: a
character is acting as he is acting because of what the author wrote,
and yet the character is still acting according to his own free will.
In reading this, I thought of the show, Once Upon a Time, in
which an author wrote what the characters did, and they did it, while
acting freely. Moreover, Anderson interacts with Molinism, the belief
that God foresees but does not foreordain evil, and open theism, which
denies that God even knows the future. These are non-Calvinist views.
Anderson believes that divine foreknowledge is rather deterministic
itself, for, if God foresees something, does that not make it
inevitable? (I one time debated this question with an Intervarsity
sponsor, and his answer to the question was “no.”) Anderson also holds
that open theism presents God as a gambler. To that, I ask this
question: Can one legitimately believe that God does not know every
detail of the future and yet still exercises sovereignty over the big
picture? God can control how God will act, after all, whether or not
God entirely knows how we will act.
Chapter 10, “A Compatibicalvinist Demonstrative-Goods Defense,” by
Christopher R. Green, explores interesting questions. Green interacts
with the question of whether God could have used nightmares to teach
people about God’s righteousness and justice rather than actual evil.
He makes a point about animal suffering, contending that it may be an
example of God showing God’s consistency and faithfulness through the
regularity that exists in nature, which Jeremiah 33:20 states is the
case with the day and the night. (As an animal lover, I consider that
to be a grisly way for God to demonstrate God’s nature; still, animal
suffering is a theological problem.) Green also talks about how God can
use a person’s story for future generations, without that person’s
knowledge, as God did with the characters in the Bible. One’s
participation in the divine drama, in which evil is a reality with which
people deal, may show people what God is like and edify future
Chapter 11, “Calvinism and the Problem of Hell,” by Matthew J. Hart,
articulates the thoughts of Jonathan Edwards to argue that so many
people are damned to hell to edify the glorified elect: to enhance their
appreciation of their redemption, as they realize that they themselves
could have been damned, apart from God’s grace. To this, I ask whether
glorified Christians will have any love for the people in hell. Are we
not on earth, after all, to learn to love others, and is that not more
important than for us to relish our own advantages? Hart also addresses
the question of whether God is responsible to love everyone God brought
into being and sustains, even the non-elect. Hart invokes an analogy
in which a capsule produces adult males. Are the creators of the
capsule required to love those adult males, to the same extent that they
love their own families, even though they technically created the adult
males? Hart’s answer seems to be no, and he believes that this
resembles God’s stance towards the non-elect. This analogy made me
question the effectiveness of analogies in explaining the Bible: Is a
sci-fi analogy, like this one, a bit anachronistic? Should not
something on the radar of the biblical authors be cited, instead?
Chapter 12, “Calvinism, Self-Attestation, and Apathy toward Arguments
from Evil,” by Anthony Bryson, challenges an idea held by some
Calvinists that the Bible is self-attesting: that Christians know it is
true because it is God’s word, period! According to this view, to
appeal to, say, reason or evidence to substantiate the Bible is to say
that there are criteria for truth above God’s word, and this is wrong.
For Bryson, this belief influences some Calvinists to conclude that the
problem of evil is not a significant problem. If we know that God is
real because the Bible is God’s word, after all, then the problem of
evil cannot challenge God’s existence. Bryson disputes this. This
chapter will be challenging and difficult for those who are unfamiliar
with epistemological externalism and epistemological internalism.
Overall, this book does provide food for thought. It explores and
interacts with various possibilities. A possible disadvantage is that
the book was rather clinical and abstract in its discussion of evil,
rather than acknowledging the real-life damage that evil brings.
Whether the book successfully makes the God of Calvinism look any better
is a subjective judgment: I did not always think that it did. A
definite positive of the book, however, is that it shows how diverse
Calvinism can be, and it highlighted some interpretations that were new
I apologize for any unintentional distortions on my part in describing Calvinism or the views of these authors.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.