Is God the cause of human evil in Calvinism?

Wes over at Reason to Stand thinks so.

The problem:

A Calvinist friend of mine recently asked me the difference between “unwilling” and “unable” and why I consider the two to be mutually exclusive when talking about mankind’s ability to sin or not.

And here is his reply to his friend:

If I am unable I cannot be unwilling because my inability precludes my willingness either way.

[…]If I am unable then I am no better off than a robot preprogrammed to run a certain course and as such I cannot rightly be held accountable for that which I have no control over.

On the other hand, if I am unwilling then I logically have the ability to act in a manner other than that which I choose.

If I am unable to not sin then I cannot logically be held accountable or responsible for choices that are, by definition, beyond my control.

If I am unwilling to not sin then I am not only responsible for my choice but, in light of the holy standard of God, I am unable to bridge the gap I freely created.

[…]The bottom line is that we are either free and responsible or else we are not free and therefore not responsible.

And William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga also like middle knowledge. Hmmmn. Wes and Bill Craig and Alvin Plantinga are pretty smart guys.

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16 thoughts on “Is God the cause of human evil in Calvinism?”

  1. “Wes and Bill Craig and Alvin Plantinga are pretty smart guys.”

    And Augustine, R.C. Sproul, MacArthur, Spurgeon et al were/are pretty smart guys. Not sure how that sways the debate. Craig is a super philosopher but his theology has gaps. James White does a nice job explaining why.


  2. I have to say that there seems to be a bit of a trend between philosophers and theologians. Practically ALL the top theologians and even just generally solid pastors, ALMOST without exception, (to my dismay) seem to be calvanists, that is wayne grudem, john macarthur, r.c sproul, philip yancey, john piper, Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll, Ligon Duncan, Matt Chandler, Tim Keller, C.J. Mahaney, Al Mohler, J.I. Packer, Steve Lawson, Brandon Smith etc etc. I could go on and on lol.
    But, it seems, most of the top philosophers and apologists seems to support middle knowledge. Some notable exceptions are greg koukl, r.c sproul, ken samples, douglas wilson etc.

    I’m really undecided on this issue, i generally lean middle knowledge but to be honest seeing almost every single top theologian adhere to calvanism does kind of send a message to me lol…i need to read some books in favour of calvanism before i can make my mind up lol.

    On a side note, I really, really don’t like the manner in which Wes talks about calvanists and calvanism, it’s really disrespectful and combative. And that’s coming from someone sympathetic to his viewpoint. (BTW i don’t mean that particular post or anythign i just mean the general tone of his comments and posts around the blogosphere.) But maybe that’s just me.


      1. Really? I don’t think I know any arminian theologians actually…that are alive and teaching at the moment i mean. Obviously there was C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer and Billy Graham of the last century but I don’t know any now I don’t think. Can you direct me to some good arminian theologians (if you know any)?


    1. I find the calvinist and arminian labels quite frustrating, and unfortunately often divisive. In this case I agree with Stan and Mary. Their points are backed up biblically rather than philosophically like Wes’ argument above.

      Somehow we are responsible for our sin yet unable to convert ourselves – though I choose to follow Christ, faith is a gift/miracle from God (as Mary points out below) as I was an enemy of God due to my sin. There is a balance of our responsibility vs God’s sovereignty all throughout Romans. Why do people sit in one camp and throw stones at the other?


  3. This is what I consider one of the most difficult questions for a Calvinist to answer. Personally, I lean towards Calvinism, although not rigidly, but this question is one of the hardest for me to understand from a Calvinist perspective. Jonathan Edwards wrote some very good stuff in response to exactly this question. A large part of his argument concerns what we mean by “cause”. And Edwards is generally acknowledged as both a great philosopher and great theologian. :) I’m actually not sure that either argument (Calvinist or Arminianist) satisfies me entirely. Although I must say that Craig’s Molinism fascinates and if I were to migrate to Arminianism of a sort this is the route I would take because it doesn’t rob God of His sovereignty, like so much other Arminianism one sees floating around. Maybe this is one of those things we only get to understand fully in Heaven. Two things I know *for certain* on this: God is sovereign, and I am accountable for my actions. Exactly how those two things fit together is a humdinger of a question.


  4. There are two issues here. First, it is not “Calvinism” that says that Natural Man is unable. It’s the Bible. Jesus said (more than once) “No man can …”, indicating the lack of ability — “unable”. But it was Paul who said unequivocally, “Natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” He said both “does not” and “cannot”.

    But the other issue would be in answering the question of WHY they cannot (“unable”). It is not that there is some external force preventing them. It is not that they lack the natural ability. It is, in fact, most accurately, “will not” based on the natural inclination of Natural Man. If Man by nature is hostile to God, unable to understand, inclined only to evil (and more), to choose Christ would be to go against his own natural desires — to violate his own free will. Since humans always choose according to their strongest inclination, it is their own natural inclination that prevents them from choosing Christ. They are “unable” to violate their own wills.


    1. Not really schooled in either Calvinism or Arminianism, so I can’t comment on that. But Stan’s point makes sense until we consider that one can be driven to one direction by one’s own strong inclinations, but reason themselves toward the other. I don’t think this is violating one’s own will, but exercising it. It does, however, violate one’s own nature. Certainly, I’ve chosen Christ but am still driven towards all that nasty things that make me the scumbag I am. I just try to ignore those urges and stay focussed on Christ as best I can. What more can anyone do?


      1. When your reason drives you in a different direction, it is because at that time your reason is your strongest inclination. When we sin, it is because sin is our strongest inclination.

        I think of a fireman as an example. Two people standing at the door of a burning building could have two radically different inclinations. One would (quite reasonably) say, “Dying is not a good idea. I’m not going in there.” The fireman WHO SHARES THE SAME NATURAL INCLINATION will tell himself, “Yes, but saving the life of the person inside is a stronger inclination” and he (or she) will go against the strong inclination of self-preservation toward the stronger inclination of saving a life.


    2. James Arminius:

      “But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of any by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good, but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing, and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.”

      Works of James Arminius, V. 1, 659-60

      Calvinism does not have a corner on the bible, it’s understanding, or its reading, but I have found in research that some of the best and brightest Reformed theologians overstate their case where they are weakest.

      I’m not sure that “humans always choose according to their strongest inclination.” That’s certainly not my experience. I would say that things like avoiding temptation, second guessing yourself, hesitation, changing your mind, and probably some others I’ve forgotten, demonstrate acting contrary to your strongest inclination while showing that there is actually a strongest inclination. These things are common to regenerate and unregenerate, though I think it would be fair to entertain the idea that these are more common in the regenerate person.

      This isn’t a question of Total Depravity, which both James Arminius and John Wessley affirm, it’s a question of who the causal agent of sin is.

      If Creatures can act, or act otherwise, and have in some way shape their actions, then it’s easy to lay blame for their actions at their feet.

      If creatures act as-and-only-as God has decided they would act, the consistent reformed position, then God is the causal agent of creaturely acts, including evil ones, which reformers consistently deny.

      For me this indicates a problem of consistency in the system.

      In fact, the difficulty in creating a satisfactory explaination of this appearent contradiction is demonstrable. Look at what Millard Erickson, a very smart and Calvinist Theologian mentioned above, says in his Christian Theology (p. 388):

      “If one maintains that failure to prevent something constitutes causation or responsibility, then God would have to be regarded, in this secondary sense, as causing evil. But we should note, this is not the way that responsibility is usually assigned.”

      Now look what Don Carson, another undeniably brilliant Calvinist theologian writes in How Long O’ Lord (p. 213):

      “God stands behind evil in such a way that not even evil takes place outside the bound of his sovereignty, yet the evil is not morally chargeable to him: It is always chargeable to secondary agents, to secondary causes. On the other hand, God stands behind good in such a way that it not only takes place within the bounds of his sovereignty, but it is always chargeable to him, and only derivatively to secondary agents.”

      Do you see the problem? What is secondary causation? Is it chargeable or not? Who says and why? Where is this concept present in the bible?

      As yet, (and I’ve asked people who hold the Reformed position to point me to the best resources, I’ve explored them and found them deficient, but please if you have some, let me know) I’ve seen no satisfactory reformed defense for the problem:

      God is the ultimate Causal agent for all acts.
      Creatures act evilly.
      Therefore God is the ultimate causal agent of evil.

      The Reformed position affirms the first two, denies the conclusion. *If* this conclusion were required by the reading and understanding of scripture, I would be compelled to believe, but it is not so cut and clear.


      1. “What is secondary causation?”

        That would be where something else causes something. A biblical examples would be where “God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem” (Judges 9:23), when “an evil spirit from the LORD tormented [Saul]”, or where Micaiah told Ahab, “The LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of these your prophets” (2 Chron 18:22). In 2 Sam 24:1 we read that the Lord incited David to number the people while in 1 Chron 21:1 we read that Satan did it. That would be second causes. Job is a prime example of second causes. Who tormented Job? Satan. On whose approval did Satan do it? God’s.

        I think that illustrates second causation AND answers examples of where it occurs in Scripture.

        On the other hand, if God is not the First Cause of all things, I don’t understand how Paul could say, “[God] works all things according to the counsel of His will”. Wouldn’t it be necessary that this stuff (evil) happens outside of His will and not all things are according to His will?


        1. I think you’ve misunderstood my point, because you’ve only addressed a part of it. You answered the second and fifth questions in a series.

          I’d start by asking, do you see that Erickson and Carson directly contradict each other on chargeability of secondary causation?

          Because I think it’s important to establish that there is an apparent contradiction from top Reformed theologians on a point of great weakness.

          Now we can look at the examples, and I think you’ve given some good ones to show secondary causation, but then we have to follow to the NEXT question, not the last one… I’ll clarify after this example.

          (It’s also worth noting, that you haven’t clearly stated in your examples, who is the primary agent and who is the secondary agent.)

          We could go through your examples one by one, and show this same sort of problem, that they don’t help your point as much as they’d seem at first glance. I’ll just point out one and if you’d like more, we can do that:

          When Michaiah comes to Ahab and tells him that a lying spirit has gone into the mouths of his prophets, what’s going on? Well, King Ahab wants to hear what he wants to hear. He had 400 prophets, the ones Michaiah refers to, do just that, tell him that he would be victorious. And yet the King is not satisfied, because he knows there’s a true prophet in the land, who incidentally never tells him what he wants to hear.

          Now here’s where context is important… Micaiah’s quote doesn’t begin in vs. 22. It begins in vs. 18. You see, Micaiah is telling Ahab the absolutely plain truth, the truth that Ahab already suspected, the other prophets have lied to him, in fact God wanted them to lie to him so that he’ll go off and die. But now God’s true prophet is telling him plainly (also in God’s sovereignty), they are liars, if you go off to war, you’ll die.

          So what does Ahab do with this information? He already suspected the other prophets are flatterers. He already knew that Micaiah is a true prophet of God. Well, he acts just like God (foreknew/foreordained) he would act: he ignores the message from Micaiah, and he goes off to war and dies.

          So God clearly appears to cause the 400 prophets to lie to Ahab, but He also gives a vision of the truth to Micaiah to share with Ahab. So Ahab has the truth to work with, which he rejects. What is NOT clear, without Calvinist presuppositions, is that God causes Ahab to choose one set of advice over the other.

          I think you’ve done a good job of identifying secondary causation of the prophet’s lies, but it doesn’t address the causation of Ahab’s actions (the central character in the story) and it is ALSO but one question in a series which I asked and which are interrelated.

          So, we must continue and ask:

          Is God chargeable with Ahab’s decision? (This is where the Erickson and Carson quotes come to play.) Are secondary agents chargeable?

          Another way to think about it: Did Ahab have a genuine choice, or did God pre-decide how Ahab would act. If the latter, which is the Calvinist position, then who is chargeable?

          Well I know the Calvinist answer, but it doesn’t make any sense. Where is the scriptural support for God placing judgment on creatures for what HE has done?

          There is an example in Scripture where something like that formulation is charged back to the ultimate agent through secondary causes: David’s murder of Uriah. David, by means of his general a secondary agent, murders Uriah, and yet scripture is very clear that it is David who murdered Uriah.

          So, if you want to simply insulate God’s causal agency through mediated secondary causes, you’ve got to deal with that. You need something else going on.

          I know that you’re thoughtful and intelligent and you know your bible well, so I trust that if you take another pass and address the whole question asked, I can be enlightened. I’d especially appreciate if you could point me to some resources that would support your position.

          So as to not confuse things:

          To answer your introduced question about God’s sovereignty. This is a common and consistent response from Calvinist. The Systematicians speak of “making God contingent,” that is, placing God in the position of “wait and see” with His creatures, powerless to do anything to the contrary…

          This is the fallacy of the omitted third option.

          To say that “God work’s all things according to the counsel of His will,” which I absolutely affirm, does not rule out creatures having true choices to act or to act otherwise.

          Can it not be God’s will that a creature have a free choice?

          Can not God bring about whatever results and final outcomes He decides no matter the free choice of moral agents?

          Here’s where the issue of motive becomes important and clear. If God in His sovereignty gives me the ability to decide to kill or decide otherwise about a friend I’m angry with… And this is a friend whom God has plans, plans to prosper and not to harm… and if I decide, in my heart of hearts, that I am going to drive to a friend’s house and kill him, then based on that decision, I am morally chargeable for murder by God who knows all men’s hearts.

          This is further supported by Jesus teaching about hating a brother…

          But God, having me allowed a morally significant decision, then sovereignly prevents me, call it by car breakdown, dropping a rock on my head, or even Divinely sovereignly changing my mind, can still charge me with murder, because given a free choice to act or to act otherwise, I chose in a morally chargeable way.

          The only other option away from Calvinism is not libertarian free-will-ism. That’s a red herring.

          God can allow, in his might and power and wisdom and sovereignty, true choices, within the umbrella of His control.

          Does that make sense? Because I hear this objection a lot, and I don’t think it’s a very robust one.


          1. “I think you’ve misunderstood my point, because you’ve only addressed a part of it.”

            I think you’ve misunderstood my response as an actual response to all your points. I was only answering the question(s) I answered. Theological/philosophical debates are like books; there is no end to them.

            “What is NOT clear, without Calvinist presuppositions, is that God causes Ahab to choose one set of advice over the other.”

            Not being a … what’s your term … “top Reformed theologian”, I wouldn’t overstep my station for their writings. I don’t believe God causes Ahab to choose one or the other. If God causes Ahab to choose, then there isn’t the remotest sense of anything even remotely approximating “free will” … or culpability. If Ahab genuinely made no choice, but, instead, God made it for him, then Ahab is not culpable for any of his choices. But in Luke 22:22 we see quite clearly that 1) Judas was ordained (“predetermined”) to betray Christ AND 2) was culpable for his choice to do so. In other words, God didn’t make the choice; Judas did. But God ordained it. That is the intent of “cause”. And Judas, as the secondary agent, is chargeable.

            “It’s also worth noting, that you haven’t clearly stated in your examples, who is the primary agent and who is the secondary agent.”

            Seriously? Let me look. Let’s see … “God sent …”, “… from the LORD …”, “The LORD has …”. I think I was pretty clear. I was abundantly clear that God was the first cause in Job’s case. But I thought the question I asked regarding God working all things according to His will would clear up any question like that.

            I am pretty sure, however, that we’re speaking past each other. When you think of God as First Cause, you seem to only be thinking in terms of direct and absolute control. When I think of God as First Cause, I think of Joseph and his brothers. God did not make them choose to hate him. God didn’t make them choose to sell him into slavery. They made those choices on their own. About this Joseph says, “You meant it for evil.” But he doesn’t stop there. “But God meant it for good.” There was an intent on their part and an intent on God’s part. He wasn’t along for the ride, hoping to make the best of it. Nor was He forcing them to choose (or they wouldn’t have the ability to “intend”). He saw what their choices would be, determined that their evil choices would produce the results He intended, and ordained them. If this is not so, where do we go? Using your example, if you decide to kill someone that God has plans for and you carry out the murder … in what sense did God work all things after His will? He had plans. You changed them. So much for His will.


  5. Hi all. I have been mulling further over this… My answer yesterday was in response to the title of this post. However, the content of the post itself addresses a related but different question: can man be both unwilling and unable? Jumping from there to the title of the post is confusing.

    As to the question of our ability and willingness – or lack of both – Stan has expressed it beautifully! Golly, I woke up and started to think pretty much exactly what he said – except that he expressed it better than I would have. I’d also like the reader to think carefully about what they make of biblical passages which indicate that we have inherited a sin nature from Adam, which we escape only by appropriating the nature of Christ. We die in Adam, because he brought in the sin nature which makes us incapable of and unwilling to do what is right. We live because of the imputed sinless nature of Christ. (cf. Romans 5) The problem is fundamentally not with what we do as sinful acts, but what we are at the sinful core. It is the sin nature which separates us from God. The sin acts are an expression of that sin nature. If we are able to not sin, what is the effect which Adam’s sin has on us? Yes, it’s hard to grasp, but it’s there in the Bible. Many arminianists, seeing this biblical teaching, will accept that we are incapable of not sinning. However, they will make an exception for the act of receiving Christ and say that we are able, in and of ourselves to do this. This is inconsistent and explicitly countered by scripture – cf. Ephesians 2:8, which states that faith itself is a gift from God.


  6. “I consider the two to be mutually exclusive when talking about mankind’s ability to sin or not.”

    This, itself, is problematic. Paul told the Philippians that they were to work out their salvation BECAUSE it was God at work in them to do and to will His good pleasure. Humans require TWO things (not one or the other) to do right. First, they require the power (“to do”) and, second, they require the willingness (“to will”). BOTH are needed. Natural Man lacks the willingness and, therefore, the ability.

    The other problem is that the Bible is quite specific about Natural Man. “There is NONE who does good, NO, NOT ONE.” The repetition makes the point. Not one. We can quibble over “unwilling” or “unable”, but the Bible is quite clear that it doesn’t happen apart from God.


  7. Calvinist thought is pretty strightforward. It’s clear for me that we are “free and responsible” and the sin comes to help our spiritual growth… so we don’t sin again.

    The problem of evil is a classic in theology. I think you tend to see much in black and white. Humans are capable of altruism and great evil. We are not the same every day.

    But could an almighty God had created us without evil? There is a contradiction between almighty, all good and the existence of evil. From here we have 2 options:

    1 – God is not almighty therefore we were created with some amount of evil.
    2 – Free will, learning and development as opposed to a perfect creation without evil or suffering are muttually exclusive (within metaphysics). So even an almighty God could not creat us perfectly without evil and free at the same time.

    Conclusion: even if God is almighty, He is so within the limits of reality and logic. For example: He is not capable of altering the basis of reality and making the concept of One in Two. I believe abstract objects like numbers were not created, they are part of reality that enables God to exist… Maybe God’s first thought was: “I am One”


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