Suffering and the Problem of Evil
Written by: Ted Vial
Like all monotheists (those who believe in one God), Reformed Christians confront a dilemma on the subject of evil and suffering. Does God want to relieve suffering, but is unable? In that case God is good but not all-powerful. Is God able to relieve suffering but unwilling or too unconcerned? Then God is all-powerful but not good.
Zwingli and Calvin agreed with most of the Christian tradition that the universe was created from nothing by God. This is the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This belief emphasizes God's complete sovereignty. It also carries as a consequence the fact that anything wrong with the universe cannot be attributed to matter or the material of the universe, since this too was created by God and it was created good.
The entrance point for evil and suffering in the world, then, is sin. Zwingli and Calvin agreed that sin is an act of human disobedience against God's command, and that this disobedience is entirely humans' responsibility. For Calvin, since the time of the fall (Adam's original sin), one could not say that humans sin necessarily, by compulsion, because that would make God the author of sin. But one could say that humans sin inevitably. We love it.
But on the question of human responsibility for sin and the role played by God, this claim of human responsibility simply pushes the problem back one square. Could not God have created humans in such a way that they would not sin? Again, Calvin was a thorough systematic theologian. In the end he had to maintain that we are not privy to God's plans, and that it is inappropriate for us to question them or speculate about them. Our task is to trust that God knows what God is doing. But before Calvin got to this point, he spelled out exactly all the things that God did for Adam that delayed the need to appeal to the mystery of God's plan. Adam had uncorrupted reason, Adam had free will, Adam lived harmoniously in the presence of God. The one and only positive quality not bestowed on Adam by God was the gift of perseverance.
But again, while these theological moves seem to delay assigning responsibility to God for sin, in the end many people think that Calvin cannot avoid this claim. This is the root of the Arminian controversy, and was what eventually would separate Reformed Christians from Methodists. In the end, while continuing to assert that sin was a human responsibility, Calvin's strong emphasis on God's sovereignty meant that the answer to the question of why God allowed sin to occur, or why God set up the universe in such a way that it could occur, is simply a mystery.
Here, again, we see the influence of the medieval nominalists and their arguments that we cannot reason or speculate our way to knowledge of God, and we cannot draw analogies from human experience and from nature to God. All we know about God is what we learn in scripture. Calvin did not ask the question, "Why is creation the way it is?" He observed the fact of evil and suffering in the world, and the biblical account in Genesis of the fall. The elect are given the gift of faith, which brings, along with assurance that our sins are forgiven, the confidence that while we may not know why God does what God does, God surely does know.
Calvin could identify one positive outcome of the divine plan for history that includes the fall: the elect enjoy the one benefit from God denied to Adam. They are given the gift of perseverance. For Calvin (as for Zwingli and Luther), once you are saved you cannot lose your salvation. Humans do not have it in their power to damn themselves, just as they do not have it in their power to save themselves. Again, this will distinguish Reformed theologies from Catholic and Methodist theologies. Calvin and Zwingli are willing to pay any theological price to protect the doctrine of God's absolute and fatherly sovereignty.
1. How does belief in God’s complete sovereignty complicate questions of evil?
2. Describe the relationship between sin and evil.
3. Describe Calvin’s understanding of Adam’s personality before the fall. What did it lack? Why is this important to consider?
4. What does scripture reveal about sin and evil?
5. Can humans damn themselves? Explain.