God, Philosophers, and Evil

A reader named David wrote me to ask about how to answer a friend who is “struggling with Calvinism,” because “he has not heard an explanation of the fall (and ultimately reprobation) that goes beyond the idea of a ‘blessed fall.’ In other words, he has trouble accepting that the fall was ultimately a good thing, that it was caused directly by God for the ultimate purpose of saving sinners and sending some to hell, all to glorify himself.”

He continued by asking whether I am a compatibilist or determinist on such questions. I am not a philosopher. I am a church historian and historical theologian. If someone wants to know what a Christian philosopher would say about these questions, he should ask Mike Horton (who teaches apologetics and modern mind, and, though he may not be a philosopher, interacts with them academically), or Bill Davis (Covenant College), or Kelly James Clark (formerly Calvin College).

I do not know whether that makes me a compatibilist or a determinist (or both), but the biblical doctrine of providence as the Reformed have understood it teaches that God operates by concursus, through agents. At the same time, everything happens within God’s decree, but most things, the fall included, are accomplished through agency in a way that does no violence to the uncoerced choice of the agent.

As to reprobation specifically, the “problem” is intensified because we are speaking about things in logical rather than chronological categories. This is perhaps one reason to favor the infralapsarian position whereby it is the fallen who are said to have been reprobated as opposed to the supralapsarian position in which it is the creatable (people considered as potentially but not actually created) who are said to be reprobated. Since I am an infralapsarian and since it is the fallen who are reprobated, this response focuses on the problem of the fall rather than reprobation.

The fall is a great mystery about which Scripture says relatively little. We understand Scripture to teach that God ordained the fall but also that he neither takes nor has moral responsibility for it. The Reformed orthodox worked on ways of speaking about this. They typically used the Christian-Aristotelian language of “second causes.” Adam fell. God did not. Some writers say that God permitted the fall. I have come to appreciate this language more and more. It is not mere or bare permission. Adam, who was created good, exercised his will, which was unencumbered by sin. He freely chose to disobey. Why would a truly good man, created in righteousness and true holiness choose to sin? I have no idea. We say that choice was comprehended in the divine decree and ordained to achieve God’s glory.

The Reformed orthodox often appealed to the analogy of Deuteronomy 19:5,

As when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live.

I am not sure I really get it yet. In the analogy, God ordains the ax head to fly off. The orthodox tended to argue that it is not the fault of the ax maker if the ax head flies off. My response is, “Why did he not make a better ax handle and head?” Of course creation was “good” and without sin, so the analogy breaks down. This is why the medievals and some fathers adopted the doctrine of concupiscence before the fall and the donum super additum. To make the problem ontological, however, is not helpful as it makes God the author of evil all over again.

Every time Scripture touches it directly (e.g., Rom 9 or Job 38), the philosophers are unsatisfied. God refuses to give an account of his lack of moral culpability. He refuses to give a detailed account of his relations to the agents of the fall and evil. Nevertheless, I find very instructive what God says and what he does not say. In Job 38:4–5 God says,

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Job wants an explanation from God who refuses on the grounds that Job lacks standing. In other words, God appeals to the Creator-creature distinction. To paraphrase Tom Cruise in Top Gun, “If I told you, it would kill you.” Finitum non capax infiniti. We are not capable of understanding God’s relationship to sin and evil.

The Apostle Paul addresses this problem directly in Romans 9:14–23

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.

I have always found this passage most instructive when dealing with the “problem” of reprobation. I put “problem” in scare quotes to signal that I understand that it is a problem for your friend, and it is a problem for the philosophers, but it is not a “problem” for the Apostle Paul, or at least not a problem that he was willing to address at length. Indeed, he seems to do everything he can to intensify the problem. It is his way of preaching the law. We want to hold God to our standard of justice, but God will not have it, and neither will Paul. If we will accuse God of injustice, then Paul (good Lutheran that he was) just makes the problem worse by pointing out an egregious example of what troubles the philosophers. God is the potter. He has ownership of the clay. The clay works for him. He does not work for the clay, and he will not answer to the demand, as it were, by the clay to explain himself. He even invokes the problem of reprobation, but he offers no relief, only a demand for submission to God’s righteousness, sovereignty, and glory.

Your friend is dissatisfied with an appeal to God’s glory, but appeal to the divine glory is exactly what the Apostle Paul does. What does it mean, in this context, to appeal to God’s glory? It is not done facilely. Remember, this is the same Apostle Paul, who, when contemplating the potential reprobation of his kinsmen offers himself as a substitute of sorts. Paul is not glib, but he cannot and will not go behind the glory of God. When we say “glory” here we must think in concrete as well as abstract, terms. We must think of the glory cloud that filled the temple (1 Kings 8:11). In the Hebrews scriptures, the divine glory is closely associated with the Spirit of God, the same Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep. In other words, we should begin first with the divine persons and then think secondarily of the abstraction. What do we mean by the abstraction, “the glory of God”? At the least we mean, “the humble acknowledgment of God’s sovereign right to dispose of matters according to nature, character, and ends.” It is to speak of his wisdom, power, goodness, and holiness. Mystery is embedded in these very ideas.

How did the Spirit operate when he hovered over the face of the deep or when he accompanied the church through the wilderness? I doubt that any creature could say, but we cannot say that he did not operate. He sovereignly operated. How did he come upon the apostles and cause them to speak in languages hitherto unknown to them? How did he transport members of the apostolic company from place to place? How did he heal people? How did he resurrect Jesus or how does he bring spiritually dead sinners to life?

The plain fact is that we like to talk about divine sovereignty and glory when it comes to election, but we do not want to submit to that same sovereignty and glory when it comes to reprobation and evil. No one can make the problem of reprobation and evil go away, but infralapsarianism does mitigate it. If God permitted free creatures to fall, and if he permitted those free creatures to remain in their fallen state, and if he elected some out of that fallen state, who are we to complain? Any complaint presumes that we fallen creatures had some moral claim on God. Really? How is that exactly?

Let us also go to James 1:13 ff.:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

It seems at least possible that James is thinking of the fall. I think the old Reformed were quite cognizant of this passage. We cannot say, “God tempted me.” James is explicit about the fact that God is incapable of being tempted. He has a relation to evil that we do not have and cannot have. I doubt that we can understand the relationship he has to evil. James’ approach is to focus on us, on our agency, on our willingness, on our desire. The law is good, and we were created good and righteous, able to obey, but the law created the potential for evil. It had to be obeyed and it created the potential for disobedience. I suppose we could blame God for issuing the law, but how exactly? We were able to obey. Rome is wrong. There was no concupiscence before the fall. We sinned and gave a place to desire; it produced sin and death.

I suppose this approach is quite pedestrian and certainly unsatisfactory to the philosophers. I have tried and failed, and now I have given up. I am convinced that there is no resolution for the problem of evil in this life. I doubt there can be. That is why I call it a great mystery. There are solid truths to be confessed about this and reasoning to be done, but we cannot climb into heaven and make God answer when he will not.

I doubt I can make your friend’s problem go away. In counseling I always take sinners to the cross. Whatever problems they have with evil I tell them to tell it to Jesus. He was sinless and yet he, the God-Man, faced evil in a way that none of us has and he did not curse God. If someone wants to shake his fist at God, let him do it in front of the crucified Lord of Glory. If he can do that, his problem is not intellectual, it is spiritual, and he just needs to hear the law and the gospel.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the Heidelblog in 2008. 


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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. How about Edward’s….God desires to show the fullness of His glory (Rom. 9:22-23). Thus He ordains a violation … the fall so He can display those glories/attributes to the vessels of mercy. Without a violation there is no cause to show holiness, wrath and mercy.

    • Paul, in the Spirit, poses these concepts as questions in the format of “If this indeed were the case, wouldn’t God have the right?” If Paul will only pose these ideas as questions, and leaves them unanswered, then perhaps Edwards goes too far if he turns them into statements.

  2. “ The plain fact is that we like to talk about divine sovereignty and glory when it comes to election, but we do not want to submit to that same sovereignty and glory when it comes to reprobation and evil.”

    This is the most helpful discussion of the subject I have read, and I have been delving deeply into the problems of evil, suffering, the fall, and reprobation, having dealt with physical illness and disability for 8 years. There is no answer in God’s revelation that will satisfy our finite and fallen mind. But there is God, himself, sovereign and glorious, merciful and compassionate.

  3. I had a problem myself, at one time, not with the presence eg of evil and suffering in this life, which I could accept because it wasn’t forever, but of the eternal nature of hell. It gnawed at me for years, and I prayed many times about it. I read a lot of commentary, all the Bible verses etc on it, and almost was a convinced annihilationist.
    God had mercy on me. He has given me peace – in answer to my prayers, and I am grateful. I still think annihilation is a slight possibility, but lean away from it. I know God is good and all He does is good, and I was able to just leave it in His capable hands. So honest prayer and seeking is so important (James 5:16).
    This post was a very helpful analysis of part of reformed theology, and clarified some things for me. I was glad to see that Adam, at least, is considered to have had a free will.
    A question I have is on the supra- sub- infra- lapsarian camps. If I understand it right, this seems to be about the chronology of God’s decrees… almost like He was thinking about what He wanted to do, or changed His mind.
    It seems to me that everything was planned and ordained, pretty much all at the same “time,” outside of time, where God exists; which is all past my understanding! But seems to fit Scripture better. He never changes. Am I wrong?

    • Think LOGICAL order, not CHRONOLOGICAL. That is so difficult as we experience events sequentially in time & it is hard to break out of that mode. Personally I have found Robert Reymond’s argument for supralapsarianism (found in his Sys Theo text) to be quite compelling. Ultimately we are left with mystery – like 1 God 3 Persons or “fully God & fully man”- but I confess I DO enjoy trying to tease out details not explicitly revealed in Scripture.

    • Hi Sheila,

      Divine wrath is a reality. It is the consequence of sin and it’s just punishment. Why would divine wrath end? Blessedly, divine favor does not end! What, in Scripture, would make us think that divine wrath ends? The Biblical picture of wrath is one of endless punishment.

      Honest searching is indeed necessary.

      Check out the resources attached to the post (updated)

      On the order of the decrees, no, it’s not about chronology. It’s about the logical order. Think of it this way: did God consider us, as it were (we have to use human language to talk about God with the understanding that he’s God) as created and fallen or merely as possibilities when (as it were—there’s no when in eternity) he elected us or when he reprobated others? If we say that we were mere possibilities (potentials) then then we’ve opted for the supralapsarian view but if we say that God had in view created and fallen sinners in view, then we’ve opted for the infralapsarian position. According to the majority in the Reformed tradition (including the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Standards) the latter better explains Scripture. It is the fallen who are said to have been graciously, unconditionally elected. It is the fallen who are said, in Scripture, to be left in their sin.

      The big point is that God was not making these decisions (as it were; there’s only one in God but we have to use the plural to talk about this) in time. He was doing it from all eternity.

      • It seems to me that it is a futile effort to try to imagine how God made His decisions.
        If it’s that difficult to ascertain then perhaps it’s not something He wants us to ascertain.
        And actually, it also seems to me that understanding foreknowledge and predestination as foreknowledge of whether an individual would choose to believe or not (I don’t think belief is a work, Romans 4:5) makes it easier to understand.
        I’ve been studying Calvinism for months and months, pretty much focusing all my Bible study efforts on it. I wanted it settled in my mind. I don’t mean to be argumentative. I just think it’s an extremely important doctrinal issue.

        • Hi Sheila,

          I understand that it might seem as though, when we discuss these things, we’re “imagining,” but that’s not how the Reformed worked on this issues.

          They were reading Scripture carefully and drawing inferences.

          The question is this: how does Scripture speak about election? Specifically, how does Scripture speak about those whom God has elected? Consider Ephesians 1:3–14:

          3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

          Here Paul teaches predestination. We were “chosen” (ἐξελέξατο) in Christ, “from the foundation of the world.” In both vv. 5 and 11 we are said to have been “predestined” (προορίσας in v. 5 and προορισθέντες in v. 11). So, that seems rather clear.

          Is there any indication that our election or predestination was conditioned upon anything God foresaw in us? Not at all. The indication from the text is that God chose us “in Christ” and “in love” from all eternity unconditionally.

          Romans 9:11–13 really nails this point:

          11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (ESV)

          Election (as distinct from reprobation) is said here to be unconditioned by anything in Jacob.

          What sort of people does God elect? Does Paul think of election or speak of it as though God was considering potentials or as creatures? God elects creatures. What sort of creatures? Fallen creatures. As Augustine, said, God elect us out of a “lump of sin.”

          Those whom he reprobates, i.e., allows to remain in their sin, are considered as fallen creatures—not mere potentials.

          Here is more on the basics of election.

          More resources

  4. A W Pink’s ‘ Sovereignty of God’ greatly helped me with this subject! I’ve found his writings on Reprobation, Election, Salvation, Sanctification, and Attributes of God almost unmatchable! I know he’s highly regarded, and he always reaches me both deeply and richly! Thankful for these Greats!✝️📖

  5. Very well and humbly stated Dr. Clark. We must allow God to be God and resist the fleshly desire to hold Him to our confused understanding of justice. I have a “natural revelation” view of the problem of evil which may oversimplify it for some, but as I am neither a philosopher, nor much of a theologian, it is as basic as this: Evil is simply an absence of God (or Godliness). Only God is good and evil is what remains when God (and therefore good) is withheld. In the natural world we see this in hot and cold (cold is scientifically defined as the absence of heat…the only way to get cold is to remove heat), light and darkness (darkness being the absence of light), sound and silence, full and empty, and likely many other analogous areas. To the extent that God withholds Himself, evil abounds. This is as true in the individual heart as in the world at large. Why does God choose to act in this manner? I have no idea, but I’m quite satisfied to allow god to be God.

  6. Well I thank God I’m a simple mind and trying to figure it all out isn’t in my wheelhouse. Hey, most true sound believers can’t explain God or His perfect purposes.
    Faith believes that by the word of God the world was created from nothing. Hey that’s a big leap in itself.
    And those who come to God must believe that He is and that He is the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. Those in Hebrews 11 certainly weren’t moved because an apologist explained everything to them. No, they believed God and His covenant promises.

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