Reconciling God’s Sovereignty with Human Choices and Evil
One of the hotly debated topics within Christian theology is the question of how God can be sovereign and yet allow evil in the world. Two people asked me about this issue on social media recently and I offered a brief response. See what you think of the questions and objections raised as well as my replies. Please consider also my recommendations for further reading about this important topic.
Respondent 1 (paraphrased):
If God is sovereign in a traditional sense and is thus in control of how all things ultimately unfold, then isn’t God responsible for such evil things like rape? God not only knew about it, but his sovereignty brought it to be.
Greetings, brother. Your question is a challenging one. I’ll offer a brief response and then recommend some sources that address the topic further.1
Three different but related theological traditions within Western Christendom have more robust views of divine sovereignty, including the Augustinian, Thomistic, and Reformed traditions. All three of these traditions have high views of divine sovereignty and they see it as fairly representing Scripture. For example: “According to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). But contrary to their critics these theological traditions don’t view God’s sovereignty as a type of theological fatalism.
Instead, they affirm a compatibility between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility just as God decreed Christ’s crucifixion and yet also held those who carried it out personally responsible (Acts 2:22–23):
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”
Here we see a divine sovereign decree and human responsibility in the very same verse. So God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are somehow compatible.
Concerning your question, all of these theological traditions—while allowing for mystery with regard to God’s exact relationship to evil—could nevertheless say that God’s decree includes the willful actions of human beings. So the rapist actively commits evil and God’s providential decree either allows and/or ensures that it transpires. However, these compatibilist views would also say that God not only allows evil but also uses evil for his good purposes (Romans 8:28). But in doing so God doesn’t actually commit evil and is not ultimately morally responsible for it. The compatibilist view says that God will punish evil and set all things right in the age to come (Revelation 21:4).
It is certainly your prerogative to differ with the biblical interpretations and theological explanations of compatibilism. But this is the basic view of many of Christianity’s classical theologians (including, with some important differences of course, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Edwards, and Warfield).
My book Classic Christian Thinkers may be of some help as it introduces such thinkers as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, and Lewis.2
Respondent 2 (paraphrased):
Respectfully, much of your “more robust” theology seems to be merely restating the problem in your own terms and then punting to “mystery” at the very point where the circularity is most evident to non-Reformed scholars.
Thank you for your comments. Here are some thoughts in response:
1. My use of the words “more robust” describe not the strength of the compatibilist view per se but the significance that providence plays in the various theologies I mentioned.
2. My very brief response above is an attempt to answer the question asked from multiple theological perspectives (Augustinian, Thomistic, Reformed), which requires explanation or restating.
3. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were not Protestant
s scholars, so it is not just the Reformed who affirm a form of compatibilism. Again, while there are real differences among these theological traditions, I think it’s fair to say compatibilism is the consensus view among the more classical theologians (whether Catholic or Protestant).
4. Since God is infinite and eternal and humans finite and temporal then everything about God from the human perspective involves mystery. With all due respect to my learned colleagues and friends who don’t affirm compatibilism (such as Molinists3), in my view the middle knowledge perspective functions as a model of theological explanation, not as an ultimate solution to the mystery.
5. I don’t think circularity is the central objection that Molinists bring forth against the compatibilist view. I think it’s usually the challenge of determinism.
6. It may seem that I didn’t resolve the mystery in this brief response. Please see my latest book where I have a chapter entitled “Aren’t Theological Mysteries Just Logical Contradictions?” There I address challenging topics like God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.4
7. In addition to my books, I think you’d get more from reading some of classical Christianity’s greatest scholars who affirmed compatibilism (such as Augustine, Aquinas, Edwards).
Best regards in Christ.
Christians and Christian theological traditions differ over how to best explain God’s sovereignty, human responsibility, and the problem of evil. My strong recommendation is to read the best books on all sides of the issue before making up one’s mind.
Reflections: Your Turn
Other than Scripture, what do you consider to be the best books on God’s sovereignty, human freedom, and evil? Visit Reflections to comment.
- Along with recommending Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, etc. firsthand, two contemporary Reformed sources include these two books: J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008) and Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994).
- See my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019).
- Molinism, named after sixteenth-century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, is the theological view that attempts to reconcile the sovereignty of God with human free will. Molinists hold that in addition to knowing everything that does or will happen, God also knows what his creatures would freely choose if placed in any circumstance. Thus God could place someone in a circumstance where they would freely choose God’s sovereign will. For an explanation and defense of Molinism, see Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2010).
- See my book Christianity Cross-Examined: Is It Rational, Relevant, and Good? (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chap. 5.