Evil, Free-Will, Predestination

Evil, Free-Will, Predestination

Question

I would agree with Calvinists that God is the one who decides who is saved or not. Free will would limit the omnipotence of God. But when they try to explain Adam and Eve's disobedience in Eden, here they say our first parents, being able to use free will, disobeyed God. But isn't that exertion of free will a limitation of God's power already? Does it really matter placing that limitation before or after the Fall? Somehow it seems something sneaks out of God's omnipotence leading to evil, and that something (whether human will or Satan) is always necessarily inferior to God. How is that possible? Is evil something God wants to take place? Or is it an accident within God himself (the gnostic approach)?

Answer

The issues you have raised are very important ones (predestination, free will, and the problem of evil), and many centuries of scholarly thought have been spent on them.

God's omnipotence is his absolute power and strength. When we say that God is omnipotent, we mean that he is so powerful that he can do anything -- he has infinite power. When we say that he is sovereign, we mean not only that he has such power, but also that he has the right to exercise that power in any manner he sees fit. Now, when we say that God has infinite power, we do not mean that God has not delegated some responsibilities, rights and powers to other beings. Nor do we mean that no other beings have any power of any sort. Rather, God has chosen to exercise his sovereignty by granting certain freedoms and powers to his creatures.

In his sovereignty, God has created men with souls and bodies, with minds and emotions, and with powers and freedoms associated with these. For example, human beings have the power to do physical things like eat and walk. They depend upon God's delegation of power to them so that they may do these things, but nevertheless human beings do themselves possess this delegated power, and their possession of this power does not limit God's power. In the same way, human beings have wills that want, choose and decide (such as wanting and deciding to eat, or choosing what to eat). People are able to do these things because God has delegated them the appropriate abilities and freedoms. By delegating these powers and freedoms to his creatures, God does not himself become less powerful or less sovereign -- he is still infinitely powerful and sovereign, even over those things which he has delegated. Instead, he exercises his own power and sovereignty to create, delegate and bestow, and retains ultimate power and sovereignty even in those things which he has delegated to others. Traditionally, Reformed theologians have referred to this as the idea of "second causes" or "means." That is, God exercises his power to accomplish his will by allowing other parts of his creation to act according to the limited powers he has delegated to them.

We might compare this delegation to a military general who delegates to a private under his command the right to decide which entree to eat for dinner. The general still has the right to tell the private what to eat, and if he does the private cannot respond by saying, "No general, you no longer have the authority to tell me what to eat -- you delegated that authority to me." Man's delegated authority is inferior to and subject to God's authority.

Since it does not threaten God's sovereignty to allow men to exercise their wills according to their own natures, Reformed theologians like Jonathan Edwards have not erred to state that man has free will. But notice that Reformed theologians mean something very different by the term "free will" than do others. A person has "free will" only in the sense that God allows him to will and to choose without compulsion from an outside source. His will is not free, however, to will or to choose anything. For example, fallen man wants and desires only sin when he considers the things of God. It is against his nature to believe and receive the gospel. His will is enslaved to sin, unable to choose the good. Nevertheless, his will is still free insofar as neither God nor anyone else forces fallen man what to believe or what to will. It is only the freedom or power of "contrary choice" (the power to choose what is against one's nature, as if man were not enslaved by sin) that Reformed theology denies. Ultimately, Reformed theology asserts God's sovereignty in predestination for two basic reasons related to your comments: 1) the Bible directly teaches the doctrine; 2) fallen man has been so corrupted by sin that he cannot freely choose to receive the gospel. It does not see in free will of either type a necessary challenge to God's sovereignty or omnipotence.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve possessed greater freedom of will than fallen men now do. They did not possess the power of contrary choice, but it was within their nature either to obey God or to disobey God, and God himself had delegated to them the power and freedom of will to make either choice. This delegation, however, did not reduce God's power or sovereignty -- he did not have to give away part of his power or sovereignty in order to delegate these to Adam and Eve. Rather, the power to chose which Adam and Eve possessed was subject to and inferior to God's own power, and was merely on loan from God. The fact that God allowed Adam and Eve this power, and freedom did not mean that God could not retract them or that he could not override them.

The question of the origin of evil is a related matter. Specifically, if God did not give away part of his power or authority to others but merely delegated it, then isn't he in some sense the ultimate cause of evil? (Of course, the problem can exist in other scenarios too, e.g.: If God knew what would happen when he gave away his power, isn't he responsible for evil?) The Bible's answer to this question is that God ordained evil (as he ordains everything; cf. Acts 4:27-28), but that he brings evil to pass in such a way that he himself does not violate his own perfectly righteous nature (1 John 1:5). In a certain sense, God desires evil's existence, and the existence of evil brings him glory (such as in his just condemnation of it; cf. Prov. 16:4; Rom. 9:21-24). For reasons known only to God, God has chosen to bring about evil in order that he may be glorified and we may be blessed. Ultimately, the existence of evil is a good thing for believers and for God. In fact, theologians used to speak of the "Fortunate Fall" of Adam because the restored state of man in Christ is more blessed than was Adam's perfect condition in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.