Letter from Visitor on Calvinism, Evil and God’s Holiness
Today I received an email to my to Monergism.com account from a visitor named Shawn. He asked some important questions on on Calvinism, Evil and God’s Holiness. I have reproduced his email in full with my response (with a couple paragraphs on Job that quote liberally from John Piper)
Dear Mr. Hendryx,
I’ve been reading your website with interest and find it to be one of the very best Calvinistic resources I’ve seen on the net. I am not a Calvinist, though I can’t say I’m decisively against Calvinism either. I still have lingering questions which I hope you might be able to answer, or point me to ressources that would help.
Perhaps my main objection to accepting Calvinism involves the problem of evil. I’ve read several of the articles you have on the subject (by Piper, Bahnsen, [Cheung] and two others by authors whose names I can’t recall), but none
seemed to offer any new or helpful answers to my objections/doubts/questions.
This is what I understand the Calvinistic claim to be: God is sovereign over everything, having decreed before the foundation of the world everything that will come to pass. This would include, I should think, all moral evil, whether realized in word, thought or deed, or merely imagined in man’s heart. In other words, before there was a devil, man, or sin, God ‘imagined’ (for lack of a better word) all of the horrific, sinful and debased things that have ever and will ever come to pass, and then chose to actualize them. God was not coerced into allowing evil to exist as if it was outside of his power. Rather, God chose to actualize sin and evil where before there was none. Would that be an accurate conception so far?
If it is, then my first thought is that whether or not God uses the Devil or humans as ‘secondy’ causes of these evils seems to be a moot point at best. I can’t help but think that sin, death, and the Devil are nothing more than God in disguise. When I ask some Calvinist friends about this they usually answer in one of two way. Either to say (1) reconciling a holy God with an evil decree is a mystery we should not even talk about; or (2) God is unquestionably the author of evil, but since God is God, and by definition all that he does is good, he can do whatever he likes.
And so we come to my two objection or concerns with Calvinism.
My first problem is fairly straightforward: I have one life to live – why should I spend it serving a God who admittedly is the author of all evil in the world, especially when there are other equally plausible Christian accounts of God that claim he is not the author of evil? Wouldn’t making God the first cause of all evil be a reason to think that account is false?
Secondly, if God is the first cause/author of evil, it would seem that claims by Calvinists that God is good, just, or holy, are pretty hollow. At least I haven’t read any that seem even remotely convincing. But I have a deep-seated conviction that God is holy, and could not be the inventer, creator or decree-er of evil, therefore its hard for me to accept that Calvinism is true. Rather than being holy or good, it seems to me that in Calvinism what is decisive is that God is all-powerful, where might makes right. He’s holy because he says he’s holy; He’s good because he says he is good, even if he acts contrarily to what he has decreed to be good and holy. I’ll leave what questions/comments/objections at that, and hope you might be able to point a way forward. Cheers, Shawn
Thanks for your email. It appears from your email that most all of your objections are moral rather than exegetical. You are, therefore, basing your considerations and thus your theological future on shakey ground…
The conclusions you eventually reach, I would contend, should be based on what the Scripture says. For the alternative is to draw your highest presuppositions from something other than an authoritative source, such as unaided human reason. It would likewise cause you to draw the erroneous conclusion that God can somehow be taken by surprise … that there is actually something called “chance” in the universe, something over which God has no control, and thus it very well may be that, in the end, this thing called chance will get the upper hand. For if God had no control over evil entering the universe (i.e. if it was against his will but occured anyway), then it would appear He is not all-powerful and that there is some other entity in the universe which may even be more powerful than He. Such is what we must conclude from the position you seem to be toying with. My advice is to come up with exegetical grounds for your position, rather than base your theology on an emotional reaction against someone elses. Truth must be derived from looking at the whole counsel of Scripture, not just texts we like.
Remember, regarding the death of Jesus the Biblical text says, “…both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.” (Acts 4:27-28)
So the Bible itself testifies that God ordained evil men to crucify Jesus. Acts 2 says the same. So you need to be able to develop a theology which fits that into your view. While you may not understand it, you must yield to what the Scripture teaches regarding God’s meticulous hand of providence in all things:
God “works all things after the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). This “all things” includes the fall of sparrows (Matthew 10:29), the rolling of dice (Proverbs 16:33), the slaughter of his people (Psalm 44:11), the decisions of kings (Proverbs 21:1), the failing of sight (Exodus 4:11), the sickness of children (2 Samuel 12:15), the loss and gain of money (1 Samuel 2:7), the suffering of saints (1 Peter 4:19), the completion of travel plans (James 4:15), the persecution of Christians (Hebrews 12:4-7), the repentance of souls (2 Timothy 2:25), the gift of faith (Philippians 1:29), the pursuit of holiness (Philippians 3:12-13), the growth of believers (Hebrews 6:3), the giving of life and the taking in death (1 Samuel 2:6), and the crucifixion of his Son (Acts 4:27-28).
From the smallest thing to the greatest thing, good and evil, happy and sad, pagan and Christian, pain and pleasure – God governs them all for his wise and just and good purposes (Isaiah 46:10). Lest we miss the point, the Bible speaks most clearly to this in the most painful situations. Amos asks, in time of disaster, “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?” (Amos 3:6). After losing all ten of his children in the collapse of his son’s house, Job says, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). After being covered with boils he says, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10).
John Piper once wisely said, “Oh, yes, Satan is real and active and involved in this world of woe! In fact Job 2:7 says, “Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” Satan struck him. But Job did not get comfort from looking at secondary causes. He got comfort from looking at the ultimate cause. “Shall we not accept adversity from God?” And the author of the book agrees with Job when he says that Job’s brothers and sisters “consoled him and comforted him for all the adversities that the LORD had brought on him” (Job 42:11). Then James underlines God’s purposeful goodness in Job’s misery: “You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (James 5:11). Job himself concludes in prayer: “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Yes, Satan is real, and he is terrible – and he is on a leash.”
As for the alternative views you are considering, they cannot consistently say that God foreknew who would be saved and then preach that God is trying to save every man. Surely if God knows whom He can save or who will be saved, then who would say that He is trying to save more? Certainly, it is foolish to assert that God is trying to do something which He knew never could be accomplished.
Likewise other positions cannot consistently say that God foreknew which sinners would be lost and then say it is not within God’s will to allow these sinners to be lost. Why did He create them? It is important that the synergist consider this question. God could have just as easily refrained from creating those that He knew would go to Hell. He knew where they were going before He created them, correct?. Since He went ahead and created them with full knowledge that they would be lost, it is evidently within God’s providence that some sinners be lost, He evidently has some purpose in it which we human beings cannot fully discern. The Christian humanist can complain against the truth that God chose to allow some men a final destiny of Hell all they want, but it is as much a problem for them as for anyone. As a matter of fact, it is a problem which they must face like anyone else. If they face it, he will have to admit either the error of his theology or deny foreknowledge all together. But he might say that God had to create those that perish, even against His will. This would make God subject to Fate.
Likewise these cannot consistently say that God foreknew who would be saved and then preach that God the Holy Spirit does all He can do to save every man in the world. The Holy Spirit would be wasting time and effort to endeavor to convert a man who He knew from the beginning would go to Hell. You hear these other positions talk about how the Spirit tries to get men to be saved and if they don’t yield to him they will “cross the line” and offend the Spirit so that He will never try to save them again. Bottom line, the synergist makes a finite creature out of the Divine Godhead.
Listen, when disaster strikes, we should not sit around and presume that such persons must have done something worse than we did to have to deserved such a thing. Rather, we should wonder why it did not happen to us. When the tower of Siloam fell on some people, Jesus said, “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:4,5) In other words, disaster should strike into our hearts the precarious position of mankind as a whole before God and His judgment, specificially it should make us consider that but for the grace of God, that would be me.
Hope this helps clarify some things …most of all, I would challenge you to let the conclusions you ultimately draw take into account all biblical evidence.
Dear Mr. Hendryx,
Thank you for your reasoned reply. You are right to point out that my objections and conclusions need to be shaped by exegesis rather than by reason. That is a lesson I find hard to accept, and yet it is one I must surely learn.
The reply to the letter was written by John Hendryx, at Monergism.com and a contributor at Reformation Theology. I recommend reading the comments too. Both the letter and the comments can be found here.