Infralapsarianism, Supralapsarianism, and the Problem of Evil

Did God predetermine the salvation of man before the fall, or after? If before, then does that make God the author of sin? Obviously not -- but how do I explain that to my Arminian peers and teachers?
Reformed theologians have argued both sides of this issue. The Puritans were largely supralapsarians, believing that God predetermined the salvation of man before he decreed the Fall. Most modern Calvinists/Reformers are infralapsarians, believing that God decreed election (predetermined salvation) after he decreed the Fall. There are good arguments on both sides. For example, the supralapsarians can point to verses like Proverbs 16:4 ("The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil"). On the other hand, infralapsarians argue that it would not make sense to decree the "salvation" of those who have not yet been decreed to fall ("salvation" from what?). In all of this, remember that the debate is which decree "logically" precedes the other, not which "temporally" preceeds the other. That is, neither side argues that God did one "before" he did the other, but rather than one decree is the logical foundation of the other.

I and many other modern Reformed thinkers, however, especially among those whom we might call "presuppositionalists," think that both supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism assume facts not in evidence. Some problems with either line of thinking, as I see them, are:

1. They ignore the possibility of what in philosophy might be called an "if-and-only-if" formula. That is, they ignore the possible mutual dependence of the decree of election and the decree of the Fall. Both the infra- and supra- positions must assume that one decree can stand logically without the other, and that the subsequent decree is in part a means of bringing the prior decree to pass (supra-) or of counteracting the full effects of the prior decree (infra-). I believe that God does not think in such small scale. Rather, I would compare the decrees in creation to the ingredients in a cake. When baking a cake, do I put in the flour because I put in the milk? Or do I rather put in the milk because I put in the flour? Of course, the answer is "neither." I put them both in because I want to make a cake. If I leave one out, I will not have a cake. The ingredients are mutually dependent means to the cake.

2. They assume the Bible gives us enough data to know which decree was more primary in God's mind before he created. Putting aside my response immediately above, even if one decree were the logical foundation of the other, one could still only adopt a supra- or an infra- position if he/she believed the Bible provided the necessary data to answer the question. Simply put, however, the Bible does not provide this data (in my opinion). The Bible was not written in order to reveal to us the hidden counsel of God. Rather, it was written to reveal to us those things necessary for us to know for life, salvation, and appropriate knowledge of God. I think it's a mistake to try to read between the lines to put together a picture of God's hidden counsel. It may very well be that, even if we think we can find the verses to draw this picture, the biblical authors would have worded those verses differently had they known we would try to do such strange things with their language. Quite simply, the infra- vs. supra- argument was not an issue in their day, and they did not take care to tailor their language to avoid controversy (or even to shed light!) in this area.

3. While I also question the typical definition of eternity as outside the bounds of time (a construct of the ancient philosopher Boethius), if one assumes (as do the supra- and infra- arguments) such a construct, the applicability of Aristotelian logic in such an environment is not at all certain. Many argue that Aristotelian logic is simply a statement of part of God's eternal character, that it is truth grounded in the character of God himself. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it assumes a perfect understanding of logic on man's part. Mathematics and physics show us that, in fact, the "laws" that we depend upon so regularly do not actually apply to certain circumstances (such as those beyond the speed of light). Einstein put it this way: "Insofar as the laws of mathematics are true, they do not apply to reality. And insofar as they apply to reality, they are not true." The "laws" are approximate theories that help us explain and deal with the reality we see around us. If we have not yet discovered a situation in which Aristotelian logic does not apply, this does not mean that we never will. And, if there is anywhere we might expect exceptions to occur, I would suggest it would be in eternity.

4. Lastly, and related to "3" above, God is not ruled by reason. He may do that which appears illogical. He may act according to his preference and/or emotion just as easily as he may act according to his reason. This does not make his actions irrational or unreasonable, but it may make them appear irrational or unreasonable to us. Consider for example Paul's answer to the "reasonable" objection, "Why does he still find fault?" (Rom. 9:19). Paul makes no attempt to reason out God's actions. Rather, he says that God's actions are justified by the fact that God is God and we are not. God does not promise that everything he does will make sense to us -- the book of Job ought to be enough to convince us of that!

In short, I think that both supra- and infralapsarianism are somewhat simplistic because they assume too many facts not in evidence.

As far as God being the author of sin, neither supra- or infra- imply or necessitate that he is -- directly. But the problem of evil (of God being the author of sin) is not unique to Calvinism. It is a question that has been levied against Christians of all persuasions for centuries. Arminians have the same problem: Why did God create a situation in which he knew that evil would necessarily come about as a result of the actions of his creatures? The answer is usually that "this is the best of all possible worlds," as if God were somehow unable to create a better world than this one. If that's true, then what assurance do we have that the new heavens and new earth will be wonderful forever? What's to stop us from ruining that, too? Heaven is a real world, not a fictional one. That means that it must be included in the set "all possible worlds." If heaven is better than earth, then this is not the best of all possible worlds. The only theology that begins to answer this question from an Arminian perspective is Clark Pinnock's process theology -- but most Arminians wisely reject that heresy.

When it comes to debating Arminianism, I have not found my position on the infra-/supra- debate to be a weakness. Even Reformed people can argue with you if you claim either supra- or infra-, but it is much harder for people to attack a doctrine you refuse to define according to their terms.

Follow-up Question:

Your statements concerning the - lapsarianisms - are compelling. Enjoyed them a lot. BUT

Part of your article is refers to the "best of all possible worlds" question in which you include heaven as one of the possible worlds. That cannot logically be the case since the question that must be posed is: Is this the best of all possible worlds God could have created to carry out His plan for His creation? I submit that it is and absolutely must be.

Heaven, the place where the throne of God resides and His undiminished Glory shines forth, is not part of this created realm, and therefore not a possibility to compare for "best of all possible worlds."

The question: Is this the best of all possible worlds? is meaningless because it assigns no purpose for which it was created to be the best. And people being people, take something without a defined limit to all kinds of places it was never intended to go, especially the patently absurd.

Thanks for your efforts!


Thanks for your comments!

I'm sure we can agree that heaven is a created world, even if it's in the preternatural realm rather than the natural realm. But God's ultimate goal even for the natural realm is for his preternatural heavenly kingdom to be extended to include the natural realm, and especially earth. That's the "new heavens and new earth," when God's "kingdom comes," so to speak. So, while the categories of natural and preternatural are useful for drawing some theological distinctions, I don't think they invalidate my argument about heaven being a "possible world."

Still, I'm happy to grant that your more specific version of a possible world doesn't have as many obvious weaknesses as the other. I agree that God's ways are perfect, so his creation must perfectly fit his plans for it. But I'm not sure how casting the question in light of his plan gets rid of the problem of evil. Most people I encounter, when they talk about the "best of all possible worlds" in the context of the problem of evil, focus on our suffering rather than on God's goals. They aren't really worried about his plan. They just point to evil in the world as proof that God is either limited in power, or evil. If God can't avoid evil, he's not omnipotent. If he can avoid evil but chooses not to, he's evil. And Christians who respond by appealing to the best of all possible worlds generally do so as a way to excuse God, as if he would have done it without evil if he could have.

For my part, I don't think evil is a necessary component of every possible world. In fact, I look forward to a world that has been completely purged of evil, and that is therefore better than the one I currently inhabit. So, when it comes to the problem of evil, I have to admit that God is able to create a world without evil. In fact, I expect him to. I just think if he gets more glory by dealing with evil than he gets by avoiding it. I'm content if unbelievers think God is evil, because I know that their value system is broken and that they assess his character wrongly. To put it bluntly, they call evil "good" and good "evil," so calling God "evil" turns out to be a compliment.

I personally don't use "best of all possible worlds" arguments at all, regardless of their nuances. We have the world God intended, and that's good enough for me.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.