Theological Determinism’s Problem With the Problem of Evil: The Compatibilist Objection

In the previous post, I discussed why the theological determinist/Calvinist could not rely on Plantinga’s solution to the logical problem of evil due to the fact that the idea of “proper” elimination of evil and the idea of free will in his argument grate against determinism.  I first addressed why compatibilism is an inadequate theory of human freedom because it fails to ground moral responsibility in created creatures and transfers that responsibility to God.  Now I’ll reproduce another section of my paper, which discusses another problem for the theological determinist: Given a compatibilistic view of freedom, there is no good reason why God would not have created a world without evil.

One of the most common objections to Plantinga’s Free Will Defense is called the “compatibilist objection,” which goes like this: If compatiblism is true, then God could have created free creatures and yet also determine that they always do good without violating their freedom.  If so, then God could have had his cake and eaten it too: He could have had free creatures, allegedly a good in itself, as well as free creatures who didn’t choose evil.[1]  Thus, there is no good reason why God would allow or cause evil.

Now, as should be clear from the previous post, for a theist who rejects compatibilism, this would not be much of a problem.  He would simply disagree that God could have created free creatures and yet determine all of their actions.  For the theological determinist, however, this criticism hits home, and is yet another reason why the Free Will Defense is unavailable to them.  If compatibilism is true, then God could have preserved human freedom (and angelic freedom) while determining that they do not fall into sin.  There would therefore be no evil, but that is clearly not the case in the real world.

Possible defenses

Theological determinists are not without responses.  David Werther argues that theological determinism need not be self-defeating here because, for one, theological determinists could ascribe compatibilism to God.  If so, God’s actions are determined by his nature or by his nature along with other contingencies, in which case there is only one possible world, the actual world.[2] If that is the case, then God can hardly be blamed or argued to not exist simply because there is evil in the world, for this is the only world that was possible for God to create.

The obvious problem with this is that it resorts to theological fatalism, a position that even theological determinists often try to avoid because it removes God’s absolute freedom.[3] Christian orthodoxy tends to reject that God had to create the world, so this way out is not an option for Christians.  Werther also offers another escape by supposing that God is not a necessary being, and while it arguably helps avoid the compatibilist objection, the cost is too high for the classical theist because classical Christian theism has always held that God is a necessary being.[4]  Werther, then, offers no real help to the theological determinist who does not wish to stray too far from orthodoxy.

Another response, this one from John Feinberg, is that if God created human beings with such a nature and will to always do good and resist evil, he would not have created human beings but a type of “superhuman,” which would contradict his desire to create actual human beings.[5] Since not even God can actualize a logical contradiction, his desire to create genuine human beings ran contrary to the possibility that they would always do what is right.  Thus, one can hardly blame God from creating a world that has evil because a wholly good world would not be compatible with a world of humans.

Feinberg, however, fails to answer a simple question: In what way would human beings, made compatibilistically in this manner, stop being humans and be “superhumans?”  Unless there is something essential to being a human being that is violated here, it is altogether unclear how God doing this would be contradictory (also, it is bizarre to say that God cannot make human beings in a way that he wishes, given that he is the one who creates humanity in the first place).  As Reichenbach observes, orthodoxy teaches that human beings do not sin in heaven.[6]  It would seem strange to say that we cease to be human in heaven.  Furthermore, it would seem to imply that Jesus was not really human because he always chose what was right.

However, even if one were to grant that God could not make human beings in this way, what exactly is wrong with superhumans?  If the main purpose of God is to be glorified and to have beings who worship him, it is unclear why superhumans would not satisfy that objective.[7] Unless there is something intrinsically better about being human rather than superhuman, there is no reason why God would not create superhumans who always glorify him and always do good.  He would still have free creatures, in a compatibilistic sense, yet would have removed evil from the world.  The contention, then, that God could not have created humans to achieve his good purposes while eliminating evil is arbitrary, for God easily could have either created and determined humans differently or created other beings to do his will.  If that is the case, one could justifiably expect God to thereby determine these creatures, human or otherwise, to always perform what is good.

The Fortunate Fall

The best option available to the theological determinist is the idea that God could achieve a greater good through sin and evil than he otherwise could.  This is implied by Sproul, who says God allowing sin was a good thing even though sin itself is not, and that God did so to bring forth his plan of redemption.[8]  Feinberg also argues that what God in creating human beings who would sin was the highest good available to God.[9]  These so-called “fortunate fall” arguments make the case that while the Fall was bad, it enabled the highest good possible, which was for God to send Jesus as the Redeemer and choose for himself the elect to be his bride.

As stated, this is a strong response and may frustrate several atheistic arguments as well as arguments from fellow Christians who reject theological determinism.  No Christian would argue against the fact that the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection are great goods that lead to the good of the saved having a relationship with God.  Does this “fortunate fall” argument evade the compatibilist objection?  It does not seem so.

Reichenbach rightly wonders: Why is it more glorifying to God to fix a problem that he could have easily avoided (and in fact caused) than creating creatures who would always be good and always glorify and praise him?[10]  For sure, the fact that God the Son became a man and humbly submitted himself to the cross says something good about God, but it was to achieve a good that God could have had without the sacrifice: That he would have people who worshiped him and performed what is consistent with his good will.  This is not denigrate to the Incarnation or sacrifice in any way, but only to point out that while the person and work of Jesus says something infinitely good about God for men and provides a good for everyone, it is conceivable that the world could have had that good and recognize that good without it.  Reichenbach argues, “Consequently, the redemptive process cannot be of greater value or good than the state of innocence.”[11]  While this could be nuanced more, the idea is that unless the theological determinist can show that sin and evil bring forth a good that is simply not possible with compatiblistically free creatures who are always good (not to mention deal with the arguments about God’s own culpability in the sin that he causes and what such causing means for the idea of grace), then these “fortunate fall” theories fail.  Those that reject theological determinism and compatibilism, however, can make this argument, for they would uphold the value of free creatures having a relationship with God but also point out that God could not determine that his creatures to always do good without violating their freedom.

Thus, even given the viability of compatibilism, the theological determinist has no good reason to hold that God could not have created a perfectly good world and still achieve his main ends.  If so, the compatibilist objection succeeds against those who accept compatibilism, which theological determinists and Calvinists almost universally do.


[1] Explanation drawn from Jerry L. Walls, “The Free Will Defense, Calvinism, Wesley, and the Goodness of God,” The Christian Scholar’s Review 13, no. 1 (1983): 20.

[2] David Werther, “Another Look at the Logical Problem of Evil: The Compatibilist Objection,” Philosophia Christi 5, no. 2 (2003): 557-558.

[3] John Feinberg, “God Ordains All Things,” in Predestination and Free Will: Four Views on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom, ed. Basinger, David and Randall Basinger (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986), 23.

[4] Werther, 559.  If God exists contingently, his essential properties are not within his control, including the one to create the world.  We could not blame him for creating the world that we see.  Unfortunately, such a supposition goes against the vast majority of orthodox Christian theology on the necessity of God.  Werther also mentions that one can suppose that God has libertarian freedom, but I do not see how that remotely helps the objection because then the defense that God could not have created another world falls flat (561).

[5] Description from Bruce R. Reichenbach, “Evil and a Reformed View of God,” Philosophy of Religion 24 (1988): 74-75.

[6] Reichenbach, 75.

[7] Ibid., 75-76.

[8] Sproul, 31-32.

[9] Feinberg, 39.

[10] Reichenbach, 80.

[11] Ibid., 81.


One thought on “Theological Determinism’s Problem With the Problem of Evil: The Compatibilist Objection

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

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