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Dave • 3 years ago

Howdy! I’ve been recently wrestling a bit with prayer and evil, and was hoping you could help me clarify a few things, or point me to some resources that could help.
At the end of the post you say, “…even God cannot create a world that includes genuine moral free will and responsibility and constantly interfere to stop gratuitous evils from occurring.” My question then is, how does this still leave room for prayer against specific evil? Based upon your other writing, I doubt you mean that to read that God never “interferes” (I’m using this in the sense of intervening in response to prayers), but I’m wondering if you can flesh it out some. This then leads into some of my general questions on prayer.
In other places, you’ve written about the tension that we have when we pray for something that is known to be God’s will, and it still doesn’t happen. I’m trying to understand that concept and its potential implications a bit deeper. Most of what I’ve come across that tries to address this tension does so by appealing to some version of an argument that says God doesn’t answer the prayer in order for some greater good to occur. A simple example would be a parent praying for a child to be cured of cancer, and yet the child still dies. The typical response would be that God allowed (or “decreed” it, if you’re a Calvinist) that to happen for some unknown greater good to occur. My concern is that most Christian ethics seem to reject the utilitarian concept of greater good when it comes to people as it is usually employed at the expense of one (or many) individuals. Is it treated differently when applied to God, or am I confused on some finer points of distinction here?
An additional concern I have is that this idea that God answers some prayers but not others, even if they are in his will, also tends to rely on a “ends justify the means” type of argument. Basically that God is justified in allowing certain suffering if it leads to some specific end. Again, it seems that most Christian ethicists reject this kind of approach when it comes to people, and typically see the means as the ends when it comes to right Christian behavior.
The cynic in me wants to say, “Why pray at all if even things that are God’s will are not answered?” It is hard for me to not start viewing it as wishful thinking at times. It also makes it difficult to answer some of the skeptical challenges to the faith regarding evil and prayer. Ultimately, I’m struggling to piece together a cohesive theology of prayer that addresses real-world concerns and experience, and would love any help you can give.

Roger Olson • 3 years ago

I have often here recommending Greg Boyd's book Is God to Blame?--as expressing my answer to your questions. Please read it. If it doesn't satisfy, then I can't either.

Dave • 3 years ago

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll read it.

Rob • 4 years ago

This is a major issue in contemporary ethics. I think that most people make the moral judgment that there is some sort of distinction between doing and allowing although it is difficult to pin down. However, I do not think it has anything to do with greater evil. The right thing to do might be to allow the greater evil to occur rather than doing an evil oneself.

The go-to example would be of a surgeon about to operate on a relatively healthy patient whom the surgeon discovers is a perfect match for four patients in the hospital running out of time for live-saving transplants (of different organs) and finds himself faced with a decision: do I kill the one relatively healthy patient and make it look like a surgical complication and save four lives? Or do I treat and release him and allow the other four patients to (probably) die? Most people think it would be wrong to kill the healthy patient, but not because of any greater goods or evils at issue--obviously four deaths are worse than one.

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

We disagree. See my essay (a lecture given at Baylor and posted here) "Sin Boldy: Christian Ethics for a Broken World." Some acts are necessary even though wrong (sinful). My argument is that God automatically forgives necessary acts such as taking life to save innocent life.

Rob • 4 years ago

So you think the surgeon should kill the one relatively healthy patient?

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

You are asking me to engage in casuisty. I can only say what I think I would probably do--when talking about "limit cases." And in this case I don't know. But I doubt I would condemn the surgeon in your hypothetical scenario. Have you seen "Sophie's Choice?"

Unfortunately, it seems to me that your examples of distinction with difference only work in situations in which the actor is not omnipotent. I would be interested in an argument demonstrating that an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being could permit evil. Or am I misunderstanding somewhere?

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

The answer has to lie in divine self-limitation. See (as a good example) "God's Self-Limitations" by Augustus Hopkins Strong in his compendium of essays entitled Christ in Creation and Ethical Monism. If you can't get your hands on that you might read E. Frank Tupper's A Scandalous Providence although it is much broader than Strong's essay. It includes divine self-limitation as the ground and basis for creation and evil.

Thank you for the recommended reading; I'll get to work.

Mark Hendrickson • 4 years ago

This is a really helpful article. Thank you Dr. Olson for posting these books. I am already starting to read Gregory Boyd's book. When I was studying with Dallas Willard he says those who do not ascribe to the latest version of Calvinism have a temptation to feel intimidated. I read your blog every week. You are helping me to develop my theology. and not feel so intimidated, even though in my circles I am outnumbered.

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

I am gratified. Thank you.

Julie Walsh • 4 years ago

Dr Olson, how does Gospel/"good news" presentation look different on the issue of evil between an Armenian and a Calvinist? Our family is currently waiting to hear whether our 18 yr old son has a form of cancer--thankfully a "curable" form--and I struggle for the right words to say to people. God has given us peace in His presence and He is wholeheartedly against this evil that has caused our son's blood to be abnormal. I also meditate on Peter's letter to those "grieved by various trials" (1 Pet 1) and am (so far) appreciating that God has given me an opportunity to choose to be with Him even when life is hard, and not choose some other pain-reliever. (Not quite "counting it joy" yet, though I do know that it will draw us closer to Him and make us more compassionate towards others who suffer and able to encourage them--2 Cor 1:3) So the fact that God did not make this evil is easy, but how would you state the positives that an Armenian can say that a Calvinist couldn't? (P.S. I like the bank guard analogy--analogies are helpful for me.)

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

I am very sorry about the anxiety and possible diagnosis and wish you and your son the very best outcome. Arminianism does not include any particular view of "natural evils." Some Arminians would say SOME are from God; others would argue that innocent suffering is NEVER God's antecedent will and that God always only reluctantly permits it because to always "step in" and stop it would change the nature of free will in this world (Peterson's view). Personally, I do not think we can always know and must remain uncertain of anything but that God can bring good out of any natural evil. Arminianism ONLY claims that God NEVER wills moral evils antecedently (e.g., Adam and Eve's fall into sin) but reluctantly permits them (consequent will).

Julie Walsh • 4 years ago

Thank you for your concern, Dr Olson. And this is informative about natural evils. By the way, I did find on the web a helpful quote of yours that suggested a way of speaking of God being "in charge" versus "in control," which allows for God reluctantly permitting natural evils as we see in Jesus' event with Lazarus and His healing of the man born blind.

Peterson? Is that Eugene or another theologian?

On another note, can you direct me to any of your writing on the monergism of Calvinism? My questions are: the history of monergism in the Church (did it begin primarily with Calvin), what you see its effect upon Ethics to be, and how prevalent in the US church is a monergism that extends beyond justification into sanctification? Thanks.

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

Sorry that I don't have time to say more than this. Teh philosopher I spoke of is MIchael Peterson (Asbury College). I think monergism began (in Christianity) with Augustine, not Calvin.

David Martinez • 4 years ago

Furthermore, doesn't the claim that God needed to ordain evil in order to display all of His attributes make God dependant on creation in order to accomplish this?

Duane • 4 years ago

Dr. Olson -

I am deeply impressed with your scholarship and your exposition of the classical Arminian position. I read your post today with interest as I felt it related to your posting a year or so ago related to Luther's early "Calvinism." Luther also suggested that God "allowed" evil without making him the author of it, but some of his other writings make this distinction less clear. Later on he just didn't seem to want to talk about it.

I am interested in finding out if your new book on pietism includes an overview of Lutheran pietism and its relationship to the19th century predestination and election debates in American Lutheranism?

Having been involved in churches in the Wesleyan tradition for some time, I will soon begin serving a church that is recently independent of its connection with a large liberal Lutheran body. Its 19th century founding, I've discovered, was rooted in Haugean Pietism and the later "Anti-Missourian" movement. It seems that these streams of Lutheran thought, along with the views of those even earlier labeled "Philipists", have been completely lost in the Lutheran tradition today, subsumed by dogmatic predestination, exclusivity and liturgical rigidity at the one pole and anything goes liberalism at the other.

I've discovered in my reading that the "Anti-Missourian" camp cited the Articles of the Remonstrance as a correct exposition of the order of salvation and suggested that they were in complete alignment with the Augsberg Confession. Furthermore, neither the Norwegian State Church nor the Norwegian Lutheran Synods in the new world subscribed to the more Calvinist leaning Formula of Concord (at least as originally founded before outside pressure).

I desire to be truly Lutheran in my ministry to this congregation, especially in the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments as means of grace, in the liturgy, and in preaching a distinction between Law and Gospel (things I've missed in the Wesleyan tradition). At the same time I feel like I need to be able to say (in ways I don't have the vocabulary to say yet) that one can be authentically Lutheran and theologically conservative without having to be one of those Lutherans that you, Dr. Olson, sparred with in your post regarding Luther.

I am very interested in exploring this historic common ground with classical Arminianism more deeply and in the process finding ways to help this congregation share the Gospel more effectively. In fact, I'd like to see a recognition of this alternative Lutheran heritage become a spark that lights a fire for evangelism in the newer Lutheran association that my new congregation is now a member of.

I'm interested in your answer to my first question but also your thoughts and suggestions as I move forward.

Duane

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

I hope you will read Reclaiming Pietism and pay attention to the footnotes. I do briefly discuss the non-Calvinist leanings of most Lutheran Pietists. (How could I avoid it! :) Also, the early Remonstrants (e.g., Episcopius) were fond of pointing to Melanchthon and the Phillipists among Lutherans to defend their orthodox Protestant credentials. Another connection is the Danish Lutheran theologian Hemmingsen whose books were found in Arminius's library and who almost certainly influenced Arminius and the Remonstrants. He was no friend of Calvinism.

george canady • 4 years ago

I appreciate, but obliviously as a Calvinist do not agree with, the way you attempt to rescue Gods' character from the Calvinist. I find no malice, I think in motive, even if in tone. My hope continues to be to learn the Arminian position well so as to someday carry on cordial conversation about these differences with all brothers and sisters, hopefully leaving the argumentative spirit behind me. Of course not being an educated thinker, I can only say what comes to mind as someone who can be easily put in his place, but here goes anyway. It seems simplistic to me to judge God the Fathers' character with some scripture yet finally wind up in the human court of Law, which I find might be the ultimate answer of your article here. On another note: I did read the Romans 9 commentary on the Society of Evangelical Arminians. Given the initial limited parameters of Gods' character, I continue to see some wisdom in that interpretation. However, I did find it interesting that the author failed to mention how the Apostle Paul himself "came" to individual saving faith. Pauls' own experience, it seems to me, would be a good starting place for Pauls' perspective on the effectual call.

klarmstrong • 4 years ago

I count a substantive distinction between God's "permitting evil" and His "ignoring evil." Have you ever read such a thought?

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

No and probably because no Christian theologian or philosopher (that I know of) ever entertained the thought that God "ignores evil."

klarmstrong • 4 years ago

Forgive my presumptuously disturbing. I beg your ear for one quote (although Vigilius Haufniensis admitted he was an author without significance and a layman).

"If … freedom remains in the good, then it knows nothing at all of evil. In this sense one may say about God (if anyone misunderstands this, it is not my fault) that he knows nothing of evil."

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

But in that case, taken literally (which I'm never quite sure Kiekegaard intended) God would not be omniscient. Surely he meant that God "knows nothing" of evil in the sense of has no direct experience of doing evil.

klarmstrong • 4 years ago

Someone might equally well say that the god who cannot do evil, who cannot be tempted, and who cannot tempt anyone would not be omnipotent.

The prodigal son's father willed his sons' freedom (to voluntarily depart and to voluntarily return). He did not will either son to depart, neither antecedently nor consequently. The elder brother was also voluntarily "absent" though he remained ignorant of this. Without willing human absence and without knowing what it's like to will to become absent, God knows when each child is absent. God ignores Christendom as that father "ignored" his elder son's absence. That is the judgment which terrified Haufniensis, the layman.

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

I'm not sure I can say God ignores what I believe grieves him.

klarmstrong • 4 years ago

That father did not ignore the road down which the prodigal would return. That road would be traveled should his son discover… let's say it was a homing-device his father had hidden in the very bottom of the coveted wealth, a conscience and the possibility of forgiveness (or prevenient grace if one prefers). I stretch the parable further to say the father continually kept equal eye on the sibling's "road;" but as long as his younger brother remained unforgivable, the elder brother could not "forgive" his father either. MEANWHILE his father could not know him.

Perhaps God's being ignorant could be more palatable than His ignoring They are not strangers to scripture about whom these words were spoken: 'I never KNEW you. Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.' 'I tell you, I do not KNOW where you are from; depart from me, all you evildoers.'

Human beings use the word "ignore" in concert with inflicting discomfort on someone craving but judged unworthy of attention (i.e. human judgment precedes ignoring). I venture that God's ignoring precedes and foretells judgment. MEANWHILE He distracts no one from despairing of her coveted wealth.

klarmstrong • 4 years ago

Agreed. If anyone misunderstands this, it is not (that author's) fault.

Steve Rogers • 4 years ago

Excellent post with compelling points for consideration. That there is so much literature and controversy around the topic is an indicator that the matter remains unsettled. I have yet to find an explanation that satisfies me. For now I am weary of trying to figure it out. I have been asking myself how important is it that I form an opinion that will only be disputed by a host of credible thinkers? Only God knows, so I might as well leave it to God. But I don't fault the academy for wrestling with it.

stefanstackhouse • 4 years ago

Can't "evil" be defined as that which is contrary to God's character and will? Must it not be so defined, because otherwise there would exist something that is independent of God and to which God Himself would be subject, making Him less than the absolute and only God?

If God either causes or permits evil, then doesn't that mean that He is causing or permitting something that is contrary to His own will and character? In other words, isn't He contradicting Himself?

If God can contradict Himself in this, then how can we presume that He can't contradict Himself in other ways? How can we be sure that He won't change His mind about His promises? If that is the case, how can we have any real faith at all? Aren't we then totally at the mercy of His totally arbitrary and changeable whims?

The problem, of course, is that evil does in fact exist. If it didn't, then we wouldn't have a problem here.

I think that the answer is that we don't have complete information. We are not God and can't see the totality of the situation as He can. He has revealed enough of Himself to make faith possible, but not so much as to make faith unnecessary. This is one specific area where He has left us in a spot where faith is needed. I don't think that it is possible to resolve this logical dilemma without resort to faith. God is all good and God is all possible and God doesn't contradict Himself or change His mind, even in spite of evil existing in this world. I don't see the logical resolution to this, but I do believe by faith that it does exist.

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

I don't see this as a logical problem at all--once one accepts that God can limit himself.

Dale Wayman • 4 years ago

Dr Olson - Thanks for writing this post. This is an important topic in our discussions in the Christian community and also in our discussions with atheists.

You mention that you have 25+ books by leading contemporary Calvinist theologians speaking about God's permission of sin and evil. Do you plan, at some time, to write a post providing direct quotes from these books with references?

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

Too much work :) They are all well-known Calvinist theologians. I read only the best. :) I did mention Paul Helm--one of the brightest and most articular Calvinist scholars among conservative evangelicals today.

Adam "Giauz" Birkholtz • 4 years ago

The security guard example (except in the case you say he planned the robbery) is an illustration of the "... then why call him god?" part of the discussed argument. You even strongly imply this in the article. Why did you bring up the example when talking about a "security guard" who does purportedly have the ability to negate all those negative consequences but watches other people have their free will taken from them anyway?

Also, if it is necessary that evil be permitted so that some people can have free will at times, how might heaven work that would justify NOT implementing heaven from the start?

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

I don't understand your first objection/question. It was only an analogy, not an allegory. In the analogy the security guard isn't "God." It was only offered to make one point--that it's easy to think of cases in which... (Sorry, I got bored writing this so I quit. The response is so obvious.) As for your second question. Well, I've discussed that many times here before. Everyone believes heaven will be different. There will be no temptation to sin and we (in heaven) will share in the divine nature. We will be transformed.

Adam "Giauz" Birkholtz • 4 years ago

The answer to the question why a limited being, such as a security guard, is being talked about as an easy example of why evil is sometimes unavoidable in an article apologizing an assumed unlimited being, that one might call god, does not have an obvious answer. Nothing like 'god can't... so... is unavoidable', 'This [unintended negative consequence] is not possible for god to negate', etc was provided. Replace 'god' with 'security guard' and any of those arguments are understandable in explaining the security guard's inaction to use his gun to stop the crime. If the security guard then claimed that none of those negative consequences could happen if he simply willed them not to would raise questions about the said claim and of the guard's morals. Perhaps I am wrong to assume that you agree with the assumption in the "... then why call him god?" part that just because a being cannot stop (some) evil doesn't mean one has to justify calling that being 'god'?

"There will be no temptation to sin and we (in heaven) will share in the divine nature. We will be transformed."

The 'what' one (in heaven) is transformed from is left unexplained as to why it is better to be created as (opposed to being created as the post-transformation 'We'). Why is it better to implement heaven later? Why is it better that some are not in heaven? Why wouldn't god want someone who rejected him stripped down to only their non-undesirable parts with everything else replaced by a lack of temptation to sin and the divine nature (just like all the other "transformed") versus going to hell when he was perfectly fine with them being raped and tortured by other people even when they didn't want to be (a "good hell" is obviously more just and loving than a "bad" hell, everyone was forced to be born into the system, and any number of other objections to not placing everyone in heaven would do)?

Roger Olson • 4 years ago

I won't let you turn the tables. Your problem (and that of all agnostics and atheists) is that IF there is no God or anything like God "evil" is an empty word except for subjective meanings (viz., I don't like that thing you do). I've discussed that much before, please don't attempt to hijack this discussion thread which is "intramural"--between theists.