Theological Determinism’s Problem with the Problem of Evil: The Inadequacy of Compatibilism

At seminary, I wrote a philosophical paper titled, “Theological Determinism’s Problem with the Problem of Evil.”  I noted that while Alvin Plantinga’s work on the logical problem of evil and the free will defense has largely eliminated the problem for general Christian theism, I argued that his solutions do not completely work for the theological determinist (most Calvinists), something that Calvinist John Feinberg readily admitted.  I discussed why this is so briefly in a previous post.  Essentially, I argued in the paper that if one adds in certain beliefs on God’s sovereignty as “all-determining” and “omnicausal” to the general framework Plantinga uses, it would create a new logical problem of evil unique to them.  I will reproduce the section on compatibilism below and perhaps add in other sections in the future.  I will also try to make the content as accessible as possible to laypersons.


Theological Determinism Shifts Blame From Creatures to God

A general definition of theological determinism is in order, or at least, what is generally accepted as theological determinism to describe Calvinists: Theological determinism is the belief that God determines all things to come to pass as they do, either through direct or instrumental causation.  It is important to see that this is intentional and unilateral on God’s part.  This definition, by the way, encompasses views of “hard” or “soft” determinism.

Theological determinism suffers from at least two problems with regards to the problem of evil:  It implicates God as the main cause of every evil act, and it gives no good reason as to why God, if compatibilism is an adequate enough theory for moral responsibility, could not have created a world with compatibilistic free creatures who never sinned.  Therefore, theological determinists have a hard time absolving God of any moral blame, often punting to appeals to mystery,[1] especially when their logic is applied to particularly tricky matters such as the Fall of Man.  For example, R.C. Sproul—a theological determinist who argues that if God does not directly control even just one molecule, it could possibly lay waste to creation[2]—struggles mightily with the problem of evil, the Fall, and determinism.  He admits that to say that God is the author of sin is “unthinkable,” yet he refuses to let go of his conception of God’s sovereignty as all-causing.[3]

I will consider the first problem, which is that theological determinism makes it difficult to see how an all-good God and evil can coexist.  It is important for theological determinists to affirm some form of free will for created creatures, or else there is no other agent but God to pin moral responsibility on.  They turn to an account of free will that is still causally determined yet still, in their estimation, satisfies basic philosophical and intuitive standards for moral responsibility (compatiblism).  I will argue two related things within this issue:  One, that compatibilism fails to ground moral responsibility in contingent agents, and two, that God’s unilateral and causal determination of evil would make him responsible for that evil.

Compatibilism is inadequate for moral responsibility

Compatibilism can take many different forms, but essentially, compatibilists argue that a person is still free and morally responsible for a causally determined action if the determinative causes do not run contrary to his will.[4] In other words, as long as the will is not suppressed, such as a gun to the head, or manipulated in some way, then the action is still free because the person still desired the action through his own will.  It is true that he could not do other than he did, but because the action did not run contrary to his will, he had the requisite enough of control over the action to be morally responsible for it.[5]  The will is still the cause of the action, albeit a secondary or instrumental cause.

This formulation of moral responsibility is problematic.  First, the “control” spoken of here seems illusory.  It may be true that human wills remain secondary causes, but the problem is not causation per se but agency.  As William Lane Craig points out, while an “omnicausal” God could use secondary causes for his ends, the problem is not that theological determinism entails “monocausality,” God as the only cause, but rather “monoagency,” God as the only agent.[6] If there is only one true free agent, God, then only he can be ascribed moral responsibility, not any other creature.

The reason compatibilism reduces to monoagency is because the wills and desires people have are themselves determined by external factors in which they have no control, ultimately all coming from God’s intentions.  The compatibilist condition that the causal factors must run through an agent in “the right way” is arbitrary; the will itself, and any changes it undergoes, is causally determined by uncontrolled factors.  Making distinctions between willing and acting is unpersuasive, for deliberating and deciding are themselves causally determined by God.[7] Whether or not the control exerted by God is immediate or mediated through secondary causes is also ultimately irrelevant, for the problem is the fact that “the control is there, that it’s intentional, effective and, in particular, that it isn’t within one’s power to alter, affect or otherwise to change.”[8] Therefore, if a person does not have any sense of freedom in his action, he cannot be held morally responsible for it.[9]  If this analysis is correct and if theological determinism is true, compatibilists are mistaken in believing that human beings (or angels for that matter) have enough control over their actions to be treated as morally responsible agents.  The only being who does is God, and it is only to him that all events, including evil ones, should be credited to.

Theological Determinism Makes God Morally Responsible for Evil

Perhaps the theological determinists can argue from a different angle: While it is true that God ordains and causes all evil events and is therefore responsible for them, he is still blameless in doing so.  As Helseth argues, God determines all things, including evil, in “such a way” that he is not the author of evil nor guilty of it.[10]  Paul Helm argues similarly, saying that the way God is behind good events is “asymmetric” with how he is behind evil events, for he is praiseworthy for the former but not blameworthy for the latter.[11] Helseth, contrary to many Calvinists, even has the stomach to explicitly state that “evil must be regarded as something that is not contrary to, but an essential component of, God’s will,” yet somehow he is not guilty of evil.[12] How this works is a mystery, but because this is what Scripture clearly teaches, philosophical questions should not lead one to lose sight of what is biblical.

The problem with this line of argumentation is that there is simply no explanation as to how this might even begin to be intelligible.  Helm attempts to make a parallel with natural determinism: Factors outside of one’s control, like genes, may determine actions, but no one argues that the genes are morally responsible, only the person who performed the action.  Therefore, God may cause a person to act evilly, but he is not responsible for that act.[13]  Not only does the analogy wholly fail in justifying any belief in free will (exhaustive physical determinism is hardly a good place to turn to), the key difference is that genes are not agents with intentions while God is one.  As Judisch points out, the fact that an agent is exerting intentional and one-way control over someone else would make that agent responsible for that person’s actions, akin to brainwashing or a mad scientist putting a mind-control device in someone to produce desires as he wills.[14]  Of course one does not assign moral responsibility to genes, migraine headaches, sugar, or any other non-persons that may affect a person’s actions.  They are not agents.  Jerry Walls captures the significant difference between natural and theological determinism:

Not only is everything determined, everything is intended.  The determining cause of our actions that preceded our birth by countless years is not merely impersonal forces of nature, but an intelligent agent who executes his intentions in every detail of what happens as well as every human choice.  It is the difference between being determined by blind forces and being determined by the most perspicacious sight possible.[15]

Helm’s analogy is therefore woefully inadequate.

Furthermore, this distinction of God being causally behind an evil action “in such a way” that is different than how he causes good events is in danger of being meaningless.  Gregory Boyd makes the point well in a footnote: If how God is behind evil events is so unique, so utterly beyond our experiences, then it is difficult to see how we could even be discussing God’s activity by way of analogy.  The “such a way” clause, then, is meaningless:  Take it away from the explanations of theological determinists, and there is no discernible loss of meaning.[16]  The explanation is therefore really no explanation at all; it adds nothing to the idea that God is unilaterally determining evil, and it does not give the slightest hint as to why he would not therefore be responsible for that evil.

Other than attempts like Helm, the majority of theological determinists resort to appeals to mystery and to their own biblical interpretations.  Helseth, for example, scolds critics of his view of divine sovereignty as omnicausal for turning to philosophy when Scripture clearly teaches his view.[17]  Carson, less bold than Helseth, nonetheless argues that while the problem of evil for a determinist is certainly perplexing, we must be content with the mystery because the Bible teaches this.[18]  Sproul is also forthright about the difficulty of this issue but nonetheless appeals to mystery because this mystery is taught in Scripture.[19]

I applaud these men in their commitment to the Bible, but this argument presupposes, intentionally or not, either that they are flawlessly correct in their interpretation of Scripture or maybe even that their critics are not even bothering to read the Bible.  Of course Christians should look to what the Bible says, but that is precisely the point: Christians differ on how the Bible should be interpreted in this matter, and the use of logic and philosophy to aid in the interpretation of Scripture is not illegitimate (clearly, as Helseth accuses libertarianism of being incoherent, which is strictly a philosophical argument[20]).  There is not space here or even in a very large book to overview all the relevant passages in Scripture, but to dodge philosophical questions by appealing to allegedly obvious Scriptural teachings is to beg the question against critics.[21] The underlying assertion, although unintentional, is that theological determinists care more about clear Scriptural teaching than other Christians, which is clearly not true and does not make the philosophical problems go away.

Furthermore, while appeals to mystery can be understandable and expected, given that human beings have cognitive limitations compared to the matters of God, these appeals are more persuasive when there are explanations as to why we should expect such inscrutable mystery.[22] For instance, with regards to the evidential problem of evil, Alvin Plantinga argues that, perhaps, we do not have the cognitive faculties to assess the complexity of the world and see God’s reasons to allow certain evils,[23] or perhaps God would intentionally not provide an explanation in order to teach faith.  That is, however, quite different when an issue is so intuitively problematic as the notion that God unilaterally determines evil events but remains completely blameless.  In other mysteries such as the evidential problem of evil, there can be at least attempts to put forth possible explanations, but in this matter, there are simple appeals to mystery to pass over the difficult conclusion that God is guilty of the evil he is causing or, at the least, is morally ambiguous.

There is one other way theological determinists can try to remove themselves from this problem, and that is to hold that God allows or permits evils, but he does not cause them.  I address the problems of going this route in this post.

Therefore, due to the fact that theological determinism eliminates moral responsibility for created beings and transfers that responsibility to God for all evil actions, it implicates God in evil and is subject to the logical problem of evil.


[1] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 282.

[2] R.C Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1986), 26-27.  Sproul also argues that if a theist gives up the notion of divine sovereignty, defined in deterministic terms, then he should embrace atheism instead.

[3] Sproul., 31.

[4] Moreland and Craig, 273.  Grudem in his systematic theology avoids using the term “free will” and prefers “willing choice.  See, Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 330-331.  D.A. Carson makes a similar distinction as he surveys the biblical evidence regarding human responsibility and divine sovereignty, preferring “free agency” over “free will.”  See, D.A Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 209.

[5] Moreland and Craig, 272-273.

[6] William Lane Craig, “Response to Paul Kjoss Helseth,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Gundry, Stanely N. and Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 61.

[7] David Griffin, “Divine Causality, Evil, and Philosophical Theology: A Critique of James Ross,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4 (Fall 1973): 174.  Griffin thinks that free will is incompatible with Christian orthodoxy, but only because he assumes that God’s omnipotence entails theological determinism.

[8] Neal Judisch, “Theological Determinism and the Problem of Evil,” Religious Studies: An International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 44, no. 2 (June 2008): 177.

[9] As even Sproul sees, so even though he holds to theological determinism he wants to do so in a way that does not violate human freedom (27).

[10] Paul Kjoss Helseth, “God Causes All Things,” in Divine Providence: Four Views, ed. Gundry, Stanely, N. and Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 18.

[11] Paul Helm, “God, Compatibilism, and the Authorship of Sin,” Religious Studies: An International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 46, no. 1 (March 2010): 119.  Carson makes the same appeal to “asymmetry” as well (212).

[12] Helseth, 51.

[13] Helm, 120.

[14] Judisch, 177.

[15] Jerry L. Walls, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist,” Philosophia Christi 13, no. 1 (2011): 81-82.

[16] Gregory A. Boyd, “Response to Paul Kjoss Helseth,” in Divine Providence: Four Views, ed. Gundry, Stanley N. and Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 74-75.  Open theists like Boyd  have their own problems, but many of their criticisms of theological determinism carry merit.

[17] Helseth, 44.

[18] Carson, 212.

[19] Sproul, 47.

[20] Helseth, 41-43.

[21] Craig notes this brazen assumption, “Response…” 56.

[22] Helm is admirably humble about his process of faith seeking understanding, stating that he is not trying to buy special pleading for “mystery” (123-124), but it seems like that’s what he does regardless.

[23] Alvin Plantinga, “Epistemic Probability and Evil,” in The Evidential Argument From Evil, ed. Howard-Snyder, Daniel (Bloomington and Indianpolis: Indiana University, 1996), 74-75.



3 thoughts on “Theological Determinism’s Problem with the Problem of Evil: The Inadequacy of Compatibilism

  1. Pingback: Summary of My First ETS Annual Conference | leesomniac

  2. Excellent!!! It would be wonderful to hear more historical and current discussion of the issue of agency and the problems therein within determinism / compatibilism.

  3. Pingback: A Primer on Calvinism | leesomniac

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