Divine Soveriegnty and the Problem of Evil: A Compatibilist Approach

Many suggest that the problem of evil provides a singificant obstacle to a robust understanding of divine sovereignty. I disagree. Here are my thoughts:


Thomas Tracy suggests that the “incompatibilist is concerned that theological determinism both (a) denies certain great goods in human moral life and relation to God and (b) makes God the cause of sin.”[1] Now in regards to (a), I think that compatibilism (see previous post) provides an intuitively plausible, scripturally consistent account of how agents may be held morally responsible for actions which God nevertheless determined. Furthermore, it seems that it has also been established that the text excludes libertarian accounts of freedom without exempting Joseph’s brothers from a general responsibility for their transgressions. However, a canonical/conceptual argument may be marshaled against compatibilism which runs as follows. If God ordains all things, including evil, then it follows that he is in some way implicated in the evil he ordains. They could argue that the functionality of the compatibilist concept breaks down when we try to apply it to a good God in whom there is no darkness. This is libertarian worry (b) according to Tracy. If we can deal compellingly with this final libertarian anxiety we will have offered a comprehensive theological, philosophical, and scriptural motivation for compatibilism.


Although the problem of evil objection might have some initial appeal, upon careful scrutiny it clearly breaks down. I will start with an analysis of individual actions and then work back to the origin and creation of evil. We can use the Joseph Story as a case study for individual actions (Genesis 50, esp. 50:20). First, recall that the acts of Joseph’s brothers were both intended by God and secured by his providential activity. The text is not clear, however, as to how God’s providential activity was effective in the event. I propose that God provided the circumstantial environment for the free decision to be made. In his middle knowledge (his knoweldge of what agents would do in particular circumstances), he knew exactly how Joseph’s brothers would act in that situation and chose to actualize it knowing that it would ultimately result in the fulfillment of his eternal decree. Now it seems fairly obvious that for God’s action here to be considered evil, it would have to flow from an evil motive or intention. But this clearly is not the case. It was only Joseph’s brothers that possessed the evil intention. God meant the event for good. Merely providing the circumstantial environment in which God knew the evil choice would be made in no way seems to be saying the same thing as God acted in an evil way. Indeed, God had a good purpose for Joseph’s brothers acting as they and had in this way predestined it. But this is not to say that he purposed or instantiated their actual evil intentions. The text clearly distinguishes between the good intentions of God and the evil intentions of Joseph’s brothers. So while God determined an event which involved the free evil acts of his creatures; his purposes, motives, intentions, and actions in the event remained good and undefiled by the evil free decisions of his creatures in the event. This account can be generalized to fit a variety of circumstances.


Well what about the origin and present existence of evil in the world? I will start by giving an account of the existence of evil presently in the world and then move on to give an explanation of the origin of evil. Regarding the problem of present evil, we first need to construct a simple working definition of omnipotence. Commensurate with traditional Christian Theism, I define omnipotence not as God’s ability to do anything; but rather, as his ability to do only what is logically possible and what is consistent with his nature. He can’t make a square circle or a rock too big to lift, for example. The reason he can’t make such things is because these semantic items have no corresponding states of affairs. As Freddoso and Flint point out, omnipotence should not be conceived of as raw power but as the ability to actualize states of affairs.[2] Given that God has the essential property of being maximally powerful, there is no state of affairs, the actualization of which exceeds his power. In the same way in which there is no such state of affairs as a square circle, there is no such state of affairs as a rock too heavy for God to lift. The idea is simply unintelligible. Having defined omnipotence, we are ready to move to the second stage of my argument. The first part of this second stage of my argument follows fairly closely some ideas advocated by John Feinberg.[3] Here, I argue that God had to choose between creating one of two good things: the removal of evil and the creation of a certain type of human beings. These two are mutually contradictory. And since God can’t actualize contradictory states of affairs (i.e. he can’t do what is logically impossible), he can’t be required to bring about both of the good things. The first good God could have chosen is to create our world with no evil. Now, this may be a good world if the only purpose God had for the world was a world with no evil. But if God wanted to create a world inhabited by certain kind of human being, a world free from moral evil does not seem to be possible. Before I explore exactly what this world might look like, I should mention that Feinberg seems to think that free will defenses (of any type) are not open to the compatibilist. I disagree. Consequently, the world I construct is similar to Feinberg’s in one way but drastically different in another. The similarity lies in the idea that if God wanted to create a world with a certain kind of humans, he could not create a world with no moral evil. But whereas Feinberg wants to emphasize that God may have wanted to make a world of a non-glorified humans, I will insist that God’s plan may have been to make a world of compatibilistically free agents. I do borrow significant elements from Feinberg’s non-glorified human defense in the content of my own defense but as a method, my approach follows more closely to Plantinga’s [4] than it does to Feinberg’s.


So if God wanted to create, for example, creatures that had a compatibilistically free will, who could act in accord with their desires—wherever they may lead—then it seems that he could not remove evil since to remove evil, he would have to remove all objects of desire that could possibly lead to evil. The first thing this would probably mean is that humans could not have bodies since we know that other people’s bodies can be an object of desire in an evil way. This would leave us with a world of disembodied minds only. But if people (if you can even call them that at this stage) could desire other people’s minds in an evil way then there could only be one mind. But if this mind, it seems, could desire its own mind or God’s mind in an evil way (as Lucifer did) then it does not seem that even this disembodied mind could exist. It seems further that the world would have to be one without beauty since this also can be desired in an evil way. Perhaps even no matter at all could exist since it would be possible that it become an object of evil desire. But I don’t think this was the purpose God had for the world; that is, a world with no bodies, beauty, or matter. Rather, it seems that what he had in mind was a world of what we call human beings; not super-humans or sub-humans but human beings—beings with bodily capacity; that is, natural or nonglorified bodies as the first phase of our existence (though we will receive glorified bodies one day). He also desired that we have freedom, emotions, intentions, and that we would have the ability to follow our desires where they lead. He intended that we be beings with social and relational capacities. As Feinberg points out,[5] he did not intend to create super-humans who have no further need of God’s assistance and so have no need to give him glory nor subhumans without, say, a freewill or bodily capacity. He intended to create human beings as we know them—with all of the goodness that that entails. How do I know that this is what God intended for humans, it is because this is what kind of humans and world God created.


Now in order for God to remove and/or prevent all moral evil, he would have had to do one of two things which both seem quite undesirable: First, he would have to contradict his intention to create human beings as we know them. As I have pointed out, he would have to make either super-humans or perhaps sub-humans without free will, bodily capacity, etc. But God’s intention was not to make these creatures but human beings as we know them. Or second, it seems that he would have had to create a world more evil than ours or one we simply would not want. Someone might reply that God could have created a different kind of being than he did so as to avoid moral evil—that is, a creature without, say, desires or intentions. Perhaps God could have done this and avoided evil but as Feinberg points out “It is hard to know what to call the resultant creature since it could neither move or think—even “robot” seems too “compli-mentary.””[6] Furthermore, a being without desires would not have free will nor would he be able to follow his desires where they led. Another response may be that while it would have been undesirable for God to make the sub-humans just described, he could have made moral super-humans who could always overcome their desires which go astray. But again, my contention is that human beings as we know them are a first-order good and are of significant value. Genesis 1:26-30 teaches mankind was made in the image of God and that he considered humanity good. That man bear this image was God’s intention for creation all along and so constitutes a value of such a high order that God was willing to actualize it even if it meant that evil would result.


So can God remove evil? Yes, I think so. But this would involve either that some creature other than human beings inhabit the world or altering life in a way that would compromise humanity in significant respects. So it seems that if God wants to remove evil from our world then he can. But he cannot both remove evil and accomplish other worthy goals for creation like creating humanity as we know it.


Finally, we address the origin of evil. Many critics of compatibilism have posed the following question: “If compatibilistic agents act on desires then how could a compatibilistically good agent (like Adam) make an evil choice?” This popular question confuses two issues: (1) the biblical view of the relationship between desires and sin and (2) the nature of the desire complex on compatibilistic model. First, in James 1:13-15 we are given a fairly detailed account of the relationship of desires to the act of sinning. This text makes three distinctions in the process of sin. It distinguishes between the temptation, the desire, and the act of sinning. The text makes very clear that sin has not taken place “until desire…has conceived” (NAU). Earlier in verse 14, the text makes plain that temptation occurs when desires are lured away. This implies that the desires which were enticed into temptation may have initially been good desires. It is not until these desires are corrupted by being led astray by temptations that they become sinful. So with Adam, for example, it would not have been the case the he started out with an evil desire and then chose to execute that desire by eating the fruit. Rather, his desires would have been good. But as I argued earlier, compatibilistic freedom means having the ability to follow your desires wherever they may lead. If God were to inhibit Adam from following his desire he would inhibit his freedom. Thus, while Adam’s initial desire may have been good, it was lead astray by temptation and ultimately corrupted. As Feinberg observes


Morally evil acts, then, ultimately begin with our desires. Desires alone are not evil, but when they are drawn away and enticed to the point of bringing us to choose to disobey God’s prescribed moral norms, we have sinned. Desires aren’t the only culprit, for will, reason, and emotion, for example, enter into the process. But James says that individual acts of sin ultimately stem from desires that go astray.[7]


This account is not only consistent with compatibilism but seems to function with it in a conceptually superior way than it would function with a libertarian account of agency. So far from the origin and existence of evil providing a problem for compatibilism, it actually ends up providing an argument from conceptual functionality for it.


[1] Tracy, “Divine Action, Created Causes, and Human Freedom,” 97.

[2] Flint and Freddoso, “Maximal Power,” 265-68.

[3] John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil, exap. and rev. ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), 165-202; cf. John S. Feinberg, “And the Atheist Shall Lie Down with the Calvinist: Atheism, Calvinism, and the Free Will Defense. TJ I NS (1980): 142-52.

[4] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1974); cf. his God and Other Minds (Ithaca: N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), 134-35.

[5] Feinberg, Many Faces of Evil, 183-90.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 170.

Any problem with “The Problem or Evil?”

The Problem of Evil. Greg Welty.

More of Prof. Welty’s writings.