We are the Problem of Evil: The Case for a Purely Reformed Theodicy

Part of the popular response to the common objection to the existence of God rests on an optimistic understanding of free will, a view of free will which fails to recognize the universal impact of the fall and the effect of sin. This article intends to counter-act this widely spread approach while proposing the introduction of a different view of theodicy so far neglected. The problem of evil is claimed to be the Achille’s heel of the Christian theistic position. The issue with many apologists approaching this problem today, however, is that of projecting human conceptions upon God. A Christian answer to the problem of evil based upon an Arminian understanding of the will is counter-productive, whereas a Reformed theodicy offers a better response, being centered entirely upon the Scriptural teachings on sin, the fall, and providence. This I believe could be the “other way” to respond to the argument on God’s existence and the problem of evil.

The objection to the existence of God in the face of evil pertains primarily to the branch of philosophy called theodicy (θεός δίκη), which tries to “justify” God’s righteousness and goodness in light of the perturbing existence of evil. In light of several premises (divine omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolent) if evil exists then God lacks either one of those attributes (he is omnipotent but not omnibenevolent or vice versa). According to this objection, the existence of evil is absolutely incompatible with a God that is good, omnipotent and omniscient. Popular responses to this challenge in today’s evangelical apologetics shift the focus from suffering to freedom. To guarantee genuine love, it is argued, God must grant humans the freedom of the will, even if it leads to evil. God would go against His love by violating our free will. Free will, therefore, becomes the foundation of the whole response to the problem of evil. 

The idol of human freedom becomes so central that the fact that men can freely choose sin is more important than anything else. This apologetic approach sacrifices the omnipotence of God on the altar of the omnipotence of free will. In contrast with this Arminian answer to the argument, a purely Reformed approach to the problem of evil starts with the obvious: our sin and the fall, when properly understood in all the depth of their implications, are the ultimate answer to the problem of evil. When sin is in the picture, the existence of evil does not negate in any way any aspect of the character of God. John Calvin, standing upon the teaching of the total depravity of men, clearly identifies man as deprived of free will. The center from which evil flows, sin’s root, is inside the realm of human responsibility. Likewise, Augustine centuries earlier, unambiguously emphasized the basic starting point for Reformed Theodicy, namely that the fall drastically changed the picture of human will, and that evil is a problem that man, not God, has brought into the universe. 

Although God did not create evil, He still can, in a Reformed understanding of theodicy, use it to accomplish His purposes. In light of all this, rather than holding God responsible for the effects of evil in the world, such culpability should be laid at the feet of those with whom it properly lies: all of us as human moral agents, in the measure we openly rebelled against God and succumbed to the influence of the ultimate source of evil. Sin is not something external to mankind, we cannot in any way blame God for sin, it has its root in us and our lusts. It is part of our nature, being a deficiency caused by us that was alien to God’s original creation. Yet it doesn’t fall outside of God’s providence either. When sin and the fall are given their proper place the focus immediately switches from the culpability of God to our individual and corporate responsibility for the evil we observe in this world. The Arminian answer cannot pursue this option consistently, since its response entails an undermining of God’s omnipotence.

A theodicy based on free will undermines the supremacy of an omnipotent God. On the other hand, a purely Reformed theodicy, which is the most consistent apologetic defense due to its Biblical concepts of sin, depravity, and providence, does not charge any incoherence in God. Nor does a Reformed approach fall into determinism, being sensitive to the ultimate hiddenness of the Divine. The task of a Reformed Theodicy is not to just render the existence of God credible in light of the problem of evil but to seriously reflect on the theological and practical consequences of sin. In one way or another, suffering is fundamentally linked to the fall and sin as their ultimate causation. 

In this sense, we are not, as Leibniz puts it, living in the “best of all possible worlds” and we must face the pessimistic consequences of sin for what they, in fact, are. On the other hand, once the unbeliever has been confronted with those necessary truths about sin, such an approach should lead to the hopeful proclamation of the good news of the Gospel that even under those miserable conditions, God in His grace has not abandoned us to our just punishment but has sent His Son to experience the ultimate suffering and separation from the Father on the cursed tree so that death might be defeated and sin’s power overcome through His precious blood.

Citations & References [1] John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil. Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 215.
[2] Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil. Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 50.
[3] Barnhart, J. E. “Theodicy and the Free Will Defence: Response to Plantinga and Flew.” Religious Studies Vol. 13, no. 4 (Dec., 1977): 441.
[4] James L. Crenshaw, Defending God. Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), 75.
[5] Michael Olaseni, The Problem of Evil, Modern Calvinism and the Doctrine of Free Will (Doctoral Thesis, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, 2012), ii.
[6] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion (Book II, Chapter 2, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 157.
[7] Reformed Theodicy rejects Augustine’s neo-Platonic understanding of evil as privation of good yet it resigns with its Biblical understanding on sin and doing justice to a transcendent God.
[8] See: Albert Taylor Bledsoe, A Theodicy, Vindication of the Divine Glory (New York, NY: Carlton & Phillips, 1854), 40, and Gordon H. Clark, God and Evil. The Problem Solved (Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1996), 19.
[9] Peter Geach, Providence and Evil (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 3.
[10] Douglas Geivett, The Logic of the Problem of Evil (Doctoral Thesis, University of Southern California, 1991), 10.
[11] Roman Wiens, Sin and Its Place in the Experience of Suffering: Presenting the Basis for a Sound Theodicy (Doctoral Thesis, Andrews University, 2017), 1.
[12] Hans Madueme, and Michael Reeves, Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin. Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 308.

Ottavio Palombaro

Designation

Dr. Ottavio Palombaro is an Italian Theologian, Sociologist and Cultural Anthropologist. His research focused on the contemporary relevance of the sociological theory of Max Weber on Protestantism, as well as studies on the history of religion with a focus on Calvinism. He studied at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” (B.A.), at the University of Turin (M.A.), at the University “Statale” of Milan (Ph.D.) at Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands, at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S.A. (M.Div.) and at the Free University of Amsterdam (Th.D.). His research interests gravitate around Sociology of Religion, Church history and Calvinistic theology.

Similar Posts