Is There a Difference between “Permitting Evil” and “Doing Evil?”

Is There a Difference between “Permitting Evil” and “Doing Evil?” January 12, 2015

Is There a Difference between “Permitting Evil” and “Doing Evil?”


They may make strange bedfellows but on one issue some Calvinists, many atheists, and most process theologians agree: there is no real difference between “doing evil” and “permitting evil.” For them, the traditional claim of free will theists (and many Calvinists!) that God permits evil but never does evil is specious.

When Calvinists (or other divine determinists) claim there is no real difference between God doing evil and permitting evil they are usually objecting to free will theists’ (e.g., Arminians’) claim that for God to design, ordain, render certain, and govern sin and evil makes God monstrous. The Calvinists making this argument against free will theism say that if God is omnipotent and could stop evil from happening but doesn’t he is just as culpable, if at all, as if he designed, ordained, rendered certain and governed evil.

I ask these Calvinists to look at their own theologians most of whom also distinguish between God doing evil, which he never does, and permitting evil, which they say he does. The vast majority of Calvinist theologians fall back on the language of divine permission when describing God’s role in sin and evil. Of course, Calvinist theologians such as Paul Helm (in The Providence of God) clearly mean something different by God’s “permission” of sin and evil than free will theists mean by that. Still and nevertheless, they regard this as a distinction with a difference (even if free will theists such as Arminians think they take back with one hand the distinction they offer with the other). I have read very few Calvinist theologians who say that God does or causes evil. In almost every case, when it comes down to expressing God’s role, they appeal to some kind of divine permission.

Atheists sometimes claim that if God is omnipotent and could stop evils such as the Holocaust from happening but does not he is not good and therefore must not exist. This is the old “problem of evil” in especially modern philosophy (as articulated by David Hume and many later modern thinkers). The underlying issue here is whether the existence of gratuitous evil undermines belief in an all-powerful and all-good God. (“Gratuitous evil” is evil that is not necessary for some greater good.)

Process theologians agree with atheists but discard God’s omnipotence for the sake of theodicy—defense of God’s goodness in the face of evil. So, in the end, of course, they disagree with atheists about God’s existence.

So, that leaves two strange bedfellows on the issue of the difference between God doing evil and God permitting evil—traditional free will theists (e.g., Arminians) and most modern Calvinist thinkers (e.g., Paul Helm). I find it strange when some Calvinists ignore their fellow Calvinist thinkers who make this distinction-with-a-difference and point the accusing finger at free will theists claiming that they are guilty of making a distinction-without-a-difference. My initial response to them is: “Don’t point at me! Ask your fellow Calvinists about this first!”

Sidebar: To any who would be tempted to claim that modern and contemporary Calvinist thinkers do not affirm this difference I can only say: “You have not read them.” I have at least twenty-five books by leading modern and contemporary Calvinist theologians on the subject of God’s sovereignty on my shelf and I have read them all and more. Virtually all of them at least once write of God’s permission of sin and evil. Even John Calvin, after denying that God ever merely permits anything, at least once in the Institutes of the Christian Religion writes of God’s permission of sin and evil. This has been a major bone of contention between Arminians and Calvinists—viz., who really means it when they speak of God’s permission of sin and evil!

Now, to the issue of whether the distinction (between God “doing evil” and “permitting evil”) includes a meaningful difference.

All one has to do to turn aside the sweeping claim that this is a distinction without a difference is demonstrate that everyone, including the objector himself or herself, knows this to be a difference in at least one case. In other words, if there is even one instance in which everyone, including the objector, must admit that there is a real difference between “doing evil” and “permitting evil,” then the claim that this is a distinction without a difference must fail.

But, of course, everyone does know that there is a difference between “doing evil” and “permitting evil.” In the one case, “doing evil,” the evil is actually, physically acted out by the doer whereas in the other case, “permitting evil,” the evil is not actually, physically acted out by the permitter. This is why, to the best of my knowledge, no law exists in any civilized society that equates the doing of a crime with the permitting of a crime. True, some societies have criminalized certain behaviors that include permitting a crime without doing it. But the mere permission is never actually equated with the actual doing and that because of two factors: 1) different intentionality, and 2) different physical involvement.

And, of course, everyone can think of instances in which there is a real moral distinction-with-a-difference between permitting an evil to occur and actually doing the evil (or causing it). These are instances in which the permission is based on avoidance of a greater evil or on the bringing about of a greater good (by permitting the evil).

Imagine, for example, that an armed bank guard observes a robbery in progress and could simply pull his firearm and stop the robbery but does not. He permits the robbery to take place. Is it the case that the guard robbed the bank? Not at all. However, some might argue that the guard in this scenario is necessarily just as guilty as the robber. That, however, is not necessarily the case. One can think of many scenarios where the guard’s permission of the robbery is justified. Suppose, for example, that the guard knows the robber has a bomb and will blow up the whole bank if he, the guard, attempts to stop the robbery. Or suppose, for example, that the guard knows that the robber has two hostages in a car outside the bank who will be killed by an accomplice if the guard stops the robbery.

One does not have to think hard to come up with numerous examples in which a person with the power to stop an evil but does not stop it is doing something entirely different from the actual doing of the evil. In the above hypothetical scenarios, for example, no jury would convict the bank guard of robbing the bank (or any other crime).

Unless…it turned out during the trial that the bank guard “designed, ordained, rendered certain, and governed” the robbery. In that case, I propose, the jury would reject any claim by the defense that the guard merely “permitted” the robbery and would convict him of something like conspiracy. He would be considered just as guilty as if he had actually done the robbery.

However, so long as the guard was not involved in designing, ordaining or governing the robbery, any jury of right-minded people would acquit him should he be brought up on charges of doing the robbery (assuming one of the scenarios I described above were the case).

My one and only point here, at this moment, is that anyone can easily conceive of cases in which permitting evil and doing evil are two entirely different things. So the sweeping claim made by some that this is a distinction without a difference must be itself swept away.

Now, other issues still remain. No doubt the astute defender of the claim that divine permission of evil is actually no different than divine ordination of evil will ask what justifies God’s permission of evils such as the holocaust if God is omnipotent. Calvinists who distinguish between God’s ordination of evil by permission and “doing evil” will appeal to a “greater good” such as God’s glory. In sum, so the argument goes, God ordained to permit sin and evil so that all his attributes could be displayed without prejudice to any of them. In other words, both God’s love and God’s justice had to be displayed for his full glorification so that sin, evil and judgment had to be permitted and God’s permission of these was efficacious. That is, it was such a permission as rendered sin and evil certain.

Free will theists claim that that account of God’s involvement in evil and sin is a distinction without a difference. In that case, like the bank guard who did not interfere with the robbery because he helped plan it, there is no real moral difference between “permission” and “doing.” In that case, either God is guilty of the ordained and permitted sin and evil or the evil-doer is not guilty (or both).

Then free will theists will typically appeal to the necessary concomitants of free will to justify God’s permission of sin and evil (and innocent suffering). A great deal of literature exists about this including sections of C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, Peter Geach’s Providence, Alvin Plantinga’s The Nature of Necessity, F. R. Tennant’s Philosophical Theology (Volume 2), and John Hick’s Evil and the God of Love. But the briefest and simplest and yet profound explication of this “free will defense” may be found in evangelical philosopher Michael Peterson’s Evil and the Christian God (Baker, 1982). A similar, more popularly written, explication may be found in Gregory Boyd’s Is God to Blame?

All these Christian thinkers argue that free will requires an environment of natural laws, predictability, risk and ability to do evil. In other words, even God cannot create a world that includes genuine moral free will and responsibility and constantly interfere to stop gratuitous evils from occurring. The ability to do great good includes the ability to do great evil. If this seems counter intuitive, I urge you to read the carefully laid out argument of Peterson in Evil and the Christian God in which he uses arguments offered by the likes of Plantinga, Lewis and Geach to establish the case.


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