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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

Is there a relevant difference between causing and permitting evil?

An exchange with Arminian theologian Roger Olson.

I am going to repost an exchange I had with Roger Olson, author of Against Calvinism, on the question of distinctions without differences. Original discussion here. I plan to post more exchanges like this in future since they are helpful to other Christians. Roger’s comments are blockquoted; mine are inline:

One thing that puzzles me (and more) in theology is the frequent appeal by theologians (including philosophers doing theology) to distinctions that seem to me to have no real differences. I cannot claim to be innocent; I’m sure that (at least to others) I have sometimes fallen into the same trap. But when I do I expect to be called on it.

I’m taking you at your word when you say you expect to be called on it when you appeal to distinctions without a difference.

With that in mind, what about the distinction between permitting evil and causing evil?

Now, of course I don’t think it is a distinction without *any* difference. But it is a distinction without a *relevant* difference with respect to the purpose for which it is deployed: namely, absolving God of evil. After all, we know that in many situations it is evil to permit evil as well as to cause evil. It is evil to permit a toddler to walk into a swimming enclosure and fall into the pool and drown when you are standing two feet away, just as it is evil to push a toddler into a swimming pool and hold his head under while he drowns. One is *more* evil, certainly; I’m happy to admit that distinction. But the Arminian doesn’t say God is *less* evil under Arminianism than under Calvinism. He says God is *not* evil under Arminianism. So it seems to be a distinction without a difference.

Well, I don’t see that at all. To me it is a very strong difference–in everyday life. We make that distinction and difference all the time. I could easily assure that every one of my students passes each of my classes but only by overriding their own free will and responsible decisions and choices and simply recording a passing grade for them–whatever they do or achieve. Instead, I permit some to fail a course. That’s just one analogy of the distinction with a difference.

But I didn’t deny there is *a* difference. What I said is that there doesn’t seem to be a *relevant* difference *with respect to God’s being evil*. I’m not sure why you made up a new, seemingly irrelevant analogy instead interacting with the one I gave.

You’re drawing a distinction between causing and permitting evil, to get God off the hook for sin. You have an argument something like this:

1. To cause evil *is* evil
2. God is not evil
3. Therefore, God does not cause evil

Then, in order to preserve God’s sovereignty, you say that God merely *permits* evil. Obviously evil is not outside his control altogether.

My contention is that you are drawing a distinction which amounts to no difference whatsoever; and I can construct a parallel argument to show this:

1* To permit evil *is* evil (relevant example: toddler at the pool)
2* God is not evil
3* Therefore, God does not permit evil

But of course, (3*) is manifestly untrue.

Notice I am not arguing that causing evil and permitting evil are *identical* kinds of evil. I am only arguing that permitting evil *is still evil* — and since permission is supposed to get God off the hook, the distinction between causing and permitting is therefore *irrelevant*. It is a distinction without a difference, because *either way*, God is *still* evil.

All I can say to this is “sheer nonsense.” To permit evil is not always evil. Everyone knows this.

Roger, I never claimed that to permit evil is *always* evil. Why would you even raise that?

I claimed that *in this relevant circumstance* it is evil to permit evil.

An intelligent, well-adjusted athletic man who is a strong swimmer, is following a step behind his child (it could even be an adult child who can’t swim). The child walks into the swimming enclosure, falls into the pool, and drowns. The man, standing at the edge of the pool, does nothing to save his child.

Again, I’ll ask you the question you keep avoiding: did this man do good, or did he do evil?

If you agree that he is evil, then you seem to be drawing a distinction without a difference between causing and permitting evil *in this kind of case*. One may be worse than the other, but *both* are evil.

But a fortiori, God is much more powerful and much more loving than a human father. So if it is evil for a human father do permit evil in a situation like this, then it is a fortiori even more evil for God to do so.

You can certainly say that how God causes evil under Calvinism is *worse* than how he permits evil under Arminianism. But nonetheless, you do seem committed to saying that he *is still evil*.

My point was simply that there are human circumstances were permitting evil is not evil so we can imagine from that to a real difference between God permitting evil and “doing evil.”

But I never claimed that permitting evil was evil in *all* circumstances.

My argument is that *in some relevant situations* the distinction between permitting evil and causing evil collapses *inasmuch as* both are still evil.

Why do you keep responding to a position I never took, rather than interacting with the argument I have carefully and repeatedly articulated?

But I have never said that there is NEVER a difference…so why are you responding to a position I never took? YOU said (in your original comment) that there is NO difference between “doing evil” and “permitting” evil. I said that in SOME situation (e.g., teaching) there is a difference. All I was doing was showing that your generalization could not hold because there are many exceptions. I’m tired to debating about who said what when. State your case very carefully with all necessary qualifications and let’s see where that leads. Mine remains that in the case of God and the human fall into sin there is a clear difference between God “doing it” (causing it directly or indirectly such that he wanted it to happen and rendered it certain) and “permitting it.” (By the way I’ve explained this distinction-with-a-real-difference here several times before. I’m reluctant just to repeat myself. Try googling key words to find what I’ve written about this already.)

Roger, I was and always have been talking about a toddler falling into a pool. Not the fall into sin…

I’ll restate my case again.

If it is evil for a loving father to permit his child to drown, then it is, a fortiori, significantly more evil for God to permit the child to drown. *In this scenario* there is no *relevant* distinction between permitting and causing evil.

But if even just *one* real world event occurs where it is evil to permit evil (and I’m sure you’ll agree plenty of toddlers do drown, let alone all the other examples we can imagine), then the Arminian position collapses — because God does evil.

You need to read one of two (or both) books: Evil and the Christian God by evangelical philosopher Michael Peterson and/or Is God to Blame? by Gregory Boyd. Both answer your claim successfully. I don’t have time to repeat their arguments here.

If we’re just going to wave at a book to rubberstamp our views, why didn’t we do that to start with and avoid all this unnecessary discussion?

My hypothetical explicitly takes into account the distinction between God “doing it himself” and God “letting it happen”.

Even if counterfactual theories of causation are false, and permitting is actually different from causing in this case (another distinction without a difference?), I made allowance for that from the outset — but still showed that permitting is evil. So on your view, God is evil in many real-world circumstances.

Now, you can try to run damage control by showing that God has some overriding reason to let this happen (eg, if he kept intervening our actions wouldn’t have predictable consequences such that we couldn’t make meaningful choices). But aside from looking like hypocritical special pleading — since you won’t let Calvinists appeal to overriding reasons when it comes to God causing evil — this move suffers defeat at the hands of the very same analogy I’ve been using from the beginning: we don’t think a parent is illicitly interfering with his son’s free will choices by preventing him from drowning. Neither do we think it is wrong to have life-guards posted at a beach only some of the time. A fortiori, the idea that God is absolved of culpability merely because he can’t make the world too unpredictable is so morally unintuitive that it’s not even implausible; it’s just absurd. [See The Molinist/Arminian ideal of fatherhood and Why can’t God interfere with our free will?.]

Sorry, what seems absurd to you seems completely plausible to me.

But this is completely reversible. You’re arguing like a relativist. What seems absurd to you (that God can cause evil without being evil) seems completely plausible to me.

What privileges your intuition over mine?

You can’t say Scripture, because by your own admission *whatever* the Bible says, it can’t say that God causes evil, since that conflicts with your intuitions.

But what if the authors of Scripture didn’t share your intuitions? How could you even know that, since your intuitions can’t be falsified against the Bible?

I think you’re arguing like an authoritarian relativist. What seems plausible to you must be believed by all.

Ironically, that’s both hypocritical *and* a false ad hominem.

First, it is hypocritical because your exact method of argument is to say that what should be believed by all is that Calvinism is completely implausible because, on your intuition, it makes God the author of sin. Worse—you use your intuition to stake out the “plausible” limits of what *God* must believe and convey to us in Scripture!

Second, it is false ad hominem because I don’t believe—as should be obvious from my previous comment—that our intuitions can (or should be) the final arbitrators of truth. I believe God’s word should be.

Since your acceptance of one theology over another comes down to your private intuitions, I’ll ask you again: what if the authors of Scripture didn’t *share* your intuitions? How could you even know this? Suppose for the sake of argument that Scripture does teach Calvinism. How could you ever discover that, given that you use your intuitions to demarcate acceptable exegesis, rather than exegesis to demarcate acceptable intuitions?

And if, in principle, you cannot discover that Scripture is teaching something that deviates from your intuitions, how can you plausibly claim to be doing *exegesis* rather than *eisegesis*?

Olson has written a followup post, Is There a Difference Between Permitting Evil and Doing Evil? I assume this is prompted by our discussion, but it substantially misses the point. The issue is not, as Olson has it, that there is no distinction ever between causing and permitting evil; it is that if there is even one case where permitting evil is, itself, evil, then the Arminian appeal to permission collapses. Contrary to Olson’s contention that it takes only one case to disprove the claim, the fact is it takes only one to prove it. God only has to be evil once under Arminianism for Arminianism to be demonstrably false.


  1. bethyada

    not certain if I want to go here, but here goes…

    You need to be clearer in what you are claiming here. Roger’s distinctions make sense and you come up with a counter example but there is still stuff unsaid.

    Your first syllogism is correct because causing is doing.

    The second is incorrect because it is incomplete. Allowing evil can be correct. But because it can be there need to be premises that discuss what types of circumstances suffice to say allowing evil is evil such as: allowing evil is evil when it is in your capacity to act. Or when refusing to act causes more evil.

    Even if we take you specific example, that a man allowing a toddler to drown (when it is in capacity to act), we still need to establish that God allowing this is an evil. There may be circumstances that apply God that do not apply to men (due to their different nature).

    You may answer that Calvinism says the same about causing evil, but the difference is not that Arminians think that an evil action by man makes it an evil action by God, rather that if something is intrinsically evil by God or man then God does not do these actions because he is not evil and he does not do evil that good may result; however he may allow evil because he wishes to do good.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Bethyada, my argument is simple: if it is evil for a father to permit X (watch his toddler drown, whatever), then a fortiori, it is evil for God to permit X.

    Not sure what you think is missing here?

  3. bethyada

    But it is not evil for God to do _some_ things that it is evil for men to do.

    God can take the life of anyone at any time as he is judge. Men can only take the lives of men in limited circumstances. Thus God cannot murder.

    So you have to establish that God (theoretically) doing something would be evil.

    Second, your toddler example assumes that the father is able to prevent the drowning: he is not absent, he is not trying to prevent another toddler from drowning, he is not locked behind a gate, etc.

    The point is that while these limitations do not apply to God, other considerations may do. I have no doubt that God (or his angels) prevent a number of events (though we often don’t know of them); but there may be considerations relevant to God (though not to man) in situations where we wonder why he does not intervene.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    But it is not evil for God to do _some_ things that it is evil for men to do.

    This is just repeating Olson’s red herring. I have explicitly acknowledged that; indeed, I made allowance for it from the very outset of the exchange.

    The argument is not that there is no difference between God and men with respect to doing or permitting evil.

    The argument is that in this particular limiting case, if man is evil to permit evil, then a fortiori it appears that God is evil to permit evil.

    Second, your toddler example assumes that the father is able to prevent the drowning: he is not absent, he is not trying to prevent another toddler from drowning, he is not locked behind a gate, etc.

    Of course, because it is an analogy. If even a human father can prevent such an accident, how much more could God, who is omnipotent, prevent it?

    but there may be considerations relevant to God (though not to man) in situations where we wonder why he does not intervene.

    The problem is, this is a Calvinistic move. You’re saying, in effect, that God has good reasons for permitting evil. But then why won’t Arminians like Olson let Calvinists make that exact same move with respect to God causing evil? (Again, this is assuming there is even a distinction between God permitting and causing evil in situations like this; viz counterfactual theories of causation.)

  5. spectator

    Please define evil? Where does it come from?

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Evil, broadly speaking, is when a person willfully breaks God’s law. Which hopefully answers the question of where it comes from.

  7. Anna

    “You’re saying, in effect, that God has good reasons for permitting evil. But then why won’t Arminians like Olson let Calvinists make that exact same move with respect to God causing evil?”

    Two reasons. [For conciseness, I will below use the word “may” to mean “may do so morally”, “may do so and still be doing good”—not in the sense of “this sometimes happens”.]

    1) Humans may never cause evil; sometimes humans may permit evil and sometimes they may not. To say ”God may permit evil’, even in cases where humans may not, is to see God’s morality as an extension beyond, but bearing some similarities to, human morality. Since when humans may or may not permit evil depends on various circumstances, it’s easier to think that God just has a whole lot more situations in which He may permit evil than we do, than to think that He may cross completely over the line into territory where we may never go. Precedence in our own human lives speaks more strongly against causing evil than permitting evil. It may seem arbitrary to allow God to push the morality barrier higher than humans but not as high as “causing evil”, but the Arminian is trying to keep the bar as low as possible—trying to keep God out of the ‘evil’ range as much as the reality of life allows. Ultimately, it’s about maintaining God’s goodness.

    2) To a large degree, saying that a good God may cause evil wipes out the semantic distinction between good and evil. What does it mean to say that someone can cause evil and not be doing evil by it? What do we really mean by “evil”, if God is completely good, and yet God does it? [Or do you see a difference between “causing” evil and “doing” evil?] Maintaining that God may permit evil but not cause it allows Arminians to preserve some of that distinction a bit more clearly. (Mind you, there’s still a lot of people who don’t see the difference between permitting evil and causing evil, so that they think God isn’t good. I think Arminianism is, in a way, mainly aimed at refuting that.)

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Anna—

    With regard to (1), I don’t see how this does the work it needs to, since my argument is an a fortiori one. Given God’s far greater abilities, it seems far more evil for him to permit evil than for a human father to do so. So your “extension” of morality is pulling in the wrong direction. The natural extension follows my argument; appealing to some speculative circumstances to get God off the hook makes his morality look completely dissimilar to ours. So it doesn’t strike me that going after the cause/permission distinction (assuming it even exists!) is any more or less plausible than a Calvinist going after some kind of greater good argument. Both are basically appeals to mystery.

    The difference is, the Calvinist has an exegetical case to make that God causes evil for the sake of his own glory. The Arminian does not have a commensurate exegetical case for his permission argument. It is simply an argument from intuition. But as I’ve pointed out many times here, given the doctrine of total depravity (with which Arminians agree), if we should assume anything about our moral intuitions, we should assume that they are false with respect to God.

    With respect to (2), we only wipe out the distinction between good and evil if we wipe out the distinction between types of causation. But since Calvinists are careful to establish causal distinctions (viz primary/secondary, ultimate/proximate, existential/intramundane), obviously the good/evil distinction remains intact.

    Or do you see a difference between “causing” evil and “doing” evil?

    Well of course I do. Olson doesn’t seem to realize there is a difference in Calvinistic thinking, which doesn’t surprise me since the man is such an incompetent thinker. But obviously if Calvinists thought that to cause evil in any sense was simply to do evil, we would think that God was an evildoer. That’s a notably absurd caricature of what Calvinists believe, innit?

  9. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Anna, it seems like your argument really boils down to an appeal to majority intuition—what most people find most comforting or comprehensible.

    But that really just concedes that Arminianism is ear-tickling. Take a hard doctrine and soften it up some, so it’s more palatable for those without theological jaw muscle.

    but the language that I have seen help people is generally closer to Arminian language than Calvinist.

    The problem is, God doesn’t use Arminian language. God says, “I made that happen; I brought about that calamity” etc.

    it seems to me that you have to expect that a lot of people are going to get the wrong impression.

    Assuming that’s true, it doesn’t seem to bother God. So why should it bother me? I’m not God’s bodyguard. My job is to be faithful to his word and to teach it to those he gives me. Not to protect them from it or try to shield him from what he himself said.

    Be that as it may, I’m not as cynical as you with respect to what people are willing or able to figure out. I agree that coming to a full and clear understanding of the kind of distinctions we’re discussing is well beyond most lay Christians; but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of grasping that the distinctions exist. You can illustrate them quite easily. A lion and gazelle are both caused to exist by God from moment to moment; God certainly causes the lion to hunt and kill the gazelle; yet God himself does not do the killing. God doesn’t eat the gazelle. So demonstrating that there is a distinction is fairly trivial, even if most people don’t have the mental machinery to pick out precisely what the distinction looks like.

    I’d also be fascinated to know how well Arminianism fits people’s intuitions outside the Enlightenment-influenced West. Would peasants in the Congo be more or less comforted that God permitted their children to be raped to death by soldiers, or that he caused it for a perfect purpose? Bear in mind that people like Olson don’t even think that God will necessarily bring good out of such an event—they believe that there really are gratuitous evils that God reluctantly permits because the alternative is a less predictable world. Personally, I’d much rather know that God brought about evil in my life for his own reasons than that it simply happened for no good reason.

  10. Anna

    “Given God’s far greater abilities, it seems far more evil for him to permit evil than for a human father to do so.”

    It WOULD be, for exactly those reasons, if God did not also have an ability that we do not—to bring goodness out of evil, comparable to His ability to create something out of nothing. (Before you say that explains/justifies Calvinist thinking as well as Arminian, continue reading.) :)

    I am, to be clear, not an Arminian, and my familiarity with Calvinist thought is a passing one, at best. You mention several distinctions of causation; can you say more about those? (A quick Googling turns up scholarly articles that are beyond my current ability to concentrate, so if you’re willing to sum them up in a sentence or two, that’d be helpful.) At first glance, both of the first two distinctions you listed—primary/secondary cause, and ultimate/proximate—sound to me like they are different terminology that is trying to get at the same root distinction that the Arminians are trying to get at when they speak of cause vs. permission.

    “So it doesn’t strike me that going after the cause/permission distinction (assuming it even exists!) is any more or less plausible than a Calvinist going after some kind of greater good argument. Both are basically appeals to mystery.”

    Yes, both are appeals to mystery. I would say, though, that the Arminian language is less “mysterious” than the Calvinist. Whether or not permission shows up clearly in Scripture (and do you claim that the Calvinist distinctions between types of causation have an exegetical basis?), the permission/causation language at least is something that we use in daily life and thus is something that most people can understand.

    In the end, everything we posit of God is an approximation. The advantage of the Arminian approximation is that when questions come up like, “How can I believe in God when he allows someone to shoot up classrooms full of Kindergartners and 1st graders?” or “Why did God make my brother die?” (and these questions come up very often and are very serious for the lives and faiths of many), the Arminian terminology allows people to distance God, in their minds, a step away from the evil and, through daily life analogies (usually comparisons to parents allowing their kids to get in trouble for their own good), to reconcile God’s actions with a conception of “goodness”, and therefore not to give up trusting in God altogether.

    The Calvinist distinctions are, presumably, aimed at the same end, but with the added goal of taking the more literal interpretation of certain Scripture passages. While I generally approve of incorporating Scriptural language as much as possible, in this case the result is something that clearly fails to convey itself to a large section of the population. Arminian terminology is often inadequate, as well, to someone who is suffering immediately—ultimately, the mystery can only be answered with trust or not-trust—but the language that I have seen help people is generally closer to Arminian language than Calvinist.

    “That’s a notably absurd caricature of what Calvinists believe, innit?”

    Only to someone who has studied what Calvinists believe. (I have never heard of Olson before coming across your post here, so I have no idea what he should be held responsible for.) To your average person using ordinary day-to-day language, “I caused this,” and “I did this” mean the same thing in almost all cases. So it is not at all absurd for people who hear, “God caused this evil” to think you also mean, “God did this evil.” You can explain that that is not what you mean, and some few will hear you, but as long as you rely on abstract distinctions to convey why you don’t mean what those words most often imply, it seems to me that you have to expect that a lot of people are going to get the wrong impression. (Given that a large section of the population is more or less immune to abstract distinctions in the first place, and a good bit of the remaining population doesn’t take the time to listen and investigate.)

  11. Anna

    It’s not about sacrificing truth for palatability; rather about evaluating various expressions for what they actually convey to people and seeing how that compares to the mystery being grasped after—a mystery which has no perfect expression in human language, not even in Scripture, which varies from Isaiah 45:7’s “I create evil” to James 1:13+, “Let no one say ‘God tempts me’.”

    “Bear in mind that people like Olson don’t even think that God will necessarily bring good out of such an event—they believe that there really are gratuitous evils that God reluctantly permits because the alternative is a less predictable world.”

    Olson might argue that “a more predictable world” is a good that God is bringing out of such an event. But I haven’t read him, so I don’t know what he would say. And, to be honest, my first reaction to hearing that someone might say that God will allow evil without bringing good out of it, is, “That’s horrible.” Part of the reason that I argue in favor of saying, “God permits evil but does not cause it”, is because I think that most people can relate that to times in their own lives when they permitted something that they did not want, for a greater good. If you eliminate the “for a greater good” part of that, it doesn’t matter what language you use, you’ve wiped out the goodness of God. In that much, you and I are in complete agreement.

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