Interpreting Jesus and Atonement – Practical Issue #3: Is God Partly Evil?


In this series, I’m comparing the practical implications of penal substitution vs. medical substitution.  The third reason everyone should care about the atonement is because it affects the character of God Himself.  Is God wholly good?  As in 100% good?  Or is He partly evil?  Is He two-faced?

One’s view of the atonement is directly related to one’s view of hell and the character of God as He displays it eternally.  Penal substitution by necessity makes hell God’s prison.  If Jesus saves some people from God’s retributive justice, then the rest must suffer infinitely in prison, because God’s retributive justice, holiness, and wrath are infinite.  They want to get out, but God keeps them in.  This is what penal substitution advocates typically say:

‘Sin against an infinite being demands an infinite punishment in hell.’[1]

‘There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery.  When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all… All that we can possibly say about it, gives but a very feeble, faint representation of it; it is inexpressible and inconceivable:  For who knows the power of God’s anger?’[2]

Even more interesting is the step that high federal Calvinists take.  As I pointed out in the last post, they say that human evil is necessary so that God can demonstrate His wrath and retributive justice against it.  Even hell is necessary, and unbelievers are necessary, so that God can continue demonstrating those qualities for all eternity.  John Piper says:

‘God created the universe so that the full range of His perfections – including wrath and power and judgment and justice – will be displayed.’[3]

And by this, he also includes hell.  But this sounds like a man who wants to be appreciated as a fireman, so he is also an arsonist.[4]  ‘I must set fires, so that you will know that I can also put them out.  Because I can only create you in such a way that you can only know goodness by its contrast, evil.’

Medical, or ontological, substitution, sees hell as an addiction treatment center for people who refuse to give up their addiction.  Jesus still loves them with a purifying love, but they refuse the purification.  Hence, hell is not a different face of God.  It is still his purifying love, which is simultaneously His wrath against the corruption of sin.  But God wants to come in, but they want to keep Him out.  Hence, C.S. Lewis famously says, ‘The gates of hell are locked from the inside.’  That difference has tremendous implications for life and ministry.

Let’s start to piece life and ministry together, to see how theology fits.  God’s character (theology proper) is important when it’s connected to human morality (ethics).  If I as a parent say to my children, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ something about that seems inherently fishy.  If I make moral exceptions for myself, like lying while I insist that they tell the truth, what will we do with that inconsistency?  If God tells me to love my enemies, while He reserves the right to hate and torment His enemies, targeting their very personhood, what will we do with that inconsistency?

Consistency or inconsistency is important, especially around questions of good and evil.  When people worshiped many gods in a polytheistic framework, the gods were not the source of human morality.  The problem is immediate, however, if you have one high ‘god.’  And the most natural conclusion a person can make about a generic ‘god’ and the character of that ‘god’ is that this ‘god’ is both good and evil.  Just look out at the world.  There is good and there is evil.  We human beings do good and evil.  Despite all the questions of how exactly one defines good and evil, the most logical conclusion is that ‘god’ is both good and evil.  So can that kind of ‘god’ be the source of a morality?

Thus, in Hinduism, Shiva the Destroyer is merely an aspect of the one God.  And while all people die, some people clearly get ravaged by Shiva more than others.  Why?  Where is justice?  The Brahma Sutra 2.1.34 – 36 offers endless cycles as a way to resolve the apparent problem of injustice.  The great Hindu commentator Sankara says that the resolution involves saying that people are actually receiving the karmic rewards or consequences from a past life, and that the creation is beginningless, so that there is no true problem of injustice.  It’s only an illusion caused by our lack of memory of our past lives.  The Wikipedia article called ‘The Problem of Evil in Hinduism’ reports:

‘Thus Sankara’s resolution to the Problem of Injustice is that the existence of injustice in the world is only apparent, for one merely reaps the results of one’s moral actions sown in a past life, which is compatible with the Justness of an Omniscient and Omnipotent God.  On the higher level of existence, however, there is no evil or good, since these are dependent mainly on temporal circumstances. Hence a jnani, one who has realized his true nature, is beyond such dualistic notions.’[5]

In Hinduism, good and evil are held to be constructs of our own limited perspective.  The goal is to transcend our own perspective.  Once we see that there is no fundamental difference between good and evil, we are enlightened.  Our own ignorance is evil in a perceptual sense.

Yet a person’s deeds are still classified as ‘good’ or ‘evil.’  So the nagging question creeps in with the Hindu God, too:  why is there a difference?  If God is neither good nor evil, and is more like a cosmic law of cause and effect (karma-dharma), what makes it so important that I do ‘good’ and renounce ‘evil’?  Such a deity would be just as much at work to neglect it or undermine it.  The same is true in relation to other eastern concepts of ‘god,’ if they exist in those systems.  Good and evil are either eternal principles that just fight each other forever (as in Zoroastrianism), or aspects of the same God (as in Hinduism) and therefore just constructs in our own minds (by implication in Buddhism).

In a sense, the Islamic concept of God leans towards the Hindu concept of a god who is both good and evil.  The Qur’an says, ‘Verily, God will cause to err whom he pleaseth, and will direct whom he pleaseth.’ (Qur’an 6:39; 4:88, 143)  At least in major schools of Sunni thought, nothing happens without his actively willing it, compelling it to happen.  ‘Allah is Al-Jabbar,’ or ‘all compelling.’  The saying refers to God’s determination of the fate of individuals, and this becomes the Islamic equivalent of double predestination.  This is rather strongly reinforced by the idea that the Qur’an was pre-existent.  By elevating the authority of the Qur’an so high, the problem of unbelievers is cast into the character of the Islamic God:  The deity enacts a predetermined narrative which requires unbelievers; the Islamic God then condemns those unbelievers to hell before they actually existed and before their choice.

Additionally, Muslims identify a total of ninety-nine names or attributes of God in the Qur’an.  Integrating these ninety-nine names or attributes together, however, into a coherent statement about the character of God is a challenge.  For the God of Islam is both the giver of life (Allah Al-Muheed) and the bringer of death (Allah Al-Mumeet), to all.  He is the Benefactor, the one who gives benefits to whomever he wills (Allah An-Nafi’), while being the Abaser, the one who lowers and degrades (Allah Al-Khafid and Al-Muzil) and the Distresser, the one who makes harm reach whoever he wills (Allah Ad-Darr).  Can these actions describe a character?  What is the relationship between all these attributes?  Many Muslims refuse to say anything integrative about the overall character of the Islamic God.  They claim instead that the God of Islam is beyond all human language because all words become anthropomorphic and tainted by human experience.  They also claim that any personal knowledge of God is impossible because God does not bridge his unified, unitarian transcendence into a localized, humanly knowable immanence.  In effect, they resort to mystery and unknowability.  Thus, we cannot speak truly about the character of God, nor can we know him, in Islam.  Despite these claims, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Islamic God is both good and evil, or, quite simply, evil.

In his magisterial study of the historical development of Christian theology, Christian church historian Jaroslav Pelikan finds:

‘It was the widespread belief of Christian theologians that Islam represented an out-and-out determinism.  They saw in it the teaching that “God does whatever he wishes, and he is the cause of everything, both good and evil.”  Christians made him the cause only of good, Muslims the cause of evil as well.  This meant, of course, that God must also be “the cause of sin” according to the teachings of “the godless Mohammed.”  From its beginnings, Christian anti-Muslim polemic denounced this as a notion that made God unjust.  But God was the just judge of both good and evil, rendering to each its proper due, and could not be either an unjust judge or the author of evil… The implication of the Muslim position was that, since there were some who were not saved, God either did not want to save them or was not able to save them.  Both possibilities were blasphemous in Christian eyes.  The Christian alternative to such determinism was to assert the universal salvific will of God, but also to assert free will and responsibility in man.’[6]

This raises the thorny question for the Augustinian tradition.  Among Protestants, Luther and Calvin drew heavily from Augustine, and as Augustine’s mistakes have been examined quite carefully,[7] this has led to some deep soul searching within those traditions.  Augustinian theology, rooted in monergism (God’s will alone is the sole, efficient cause of human activity, including faith in Christ and also persistence in sin) finds a hard time escaping the same predicament.  Why is evil in the world not a direct result of some evil in the character of God?  For if God’s will is irresistible, then logically speaking, the reason for evil, injustice, and human sin is ultimately God’s will, and therefore God’s very character.

Significantly, the Catholic Church at the Council of Orange (529 AD) denied that Augustine’s writings meant double predestination, and condemned the idea as a heresy.  But this type of theology emerged in the Latin West through the Scholastics, like John Duns Scotus and William of Occam,[8] in part because of contact with Islam and the handling of Aristotle’s idea of causality by the Muslim philosopher Averroes.  The Spanish Catholic Banezians adopted the position of double predestination; the Calvinist tradition did as well.[9]  Calvin himself believed that God actively willed the fall:

‘Nor ought it to seem absurd when I say, that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.’[10]

‘Nothing is more absurd than to think anything at all is done but by the ordination of God….Every action and motion of every creature is so governed by the hidden counsel of God, that nothing can come to pass, but what was ordained by Him….The wills of men are so governed by the will of God, that they are carried on straight to the mark which He has fore-ordained.’[11]

Calvin admits that logic implies God is therefore responsible for human sins.  He dismisses the accusation, but without a real basis.  I quote him at length:

‘By the same class of persons, past events are referred improperly and inconsiderately to simple providence. As all contingencies whatsoever depend on it, therefore, neither thefts nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will. Why, then, they ask, should the thief be punished for robbing him whom the Lord chose to chastise with poverty? Why should the murderer be punished for slaying him whose life the Lord had terminated? If all such persons serve the will of God, why should they be punished? I deny that they serve the will of God. For we cannot say that he who is carried away by a wicked mind performs service on the order of God, when he is only following his own malignant desires. He obeys God, who, being instructed in his will, hastens in the direction in which God calls him. But how are we so instructed unless by his word? The will declared by his word is, therefore, that which we must keep in view in acting, God requires of us nothing but what he enjoins. If we design anything contrary to his precept, it is not obedience, but contumacy and transgression. But if he did not will it, we could not do it. I admit this. But do we act wickedly for the purpose of yielding obedience to him? This, assuredly, he does not command. Nay, rather we rush on, not thinking of what he wishes, but so inflamed by our own passionate lust, that, with destined purpose, we strive against him. And in this way, while acting wickedly, we serve his righteous ordination, since in his boundless wisdom he well knows how to use bad instruments for good purposes. And see how absurd this mode of arguing is. They will have it that crimes ought not to be punished in their authors, because they are not committed without the dispensation of God. I concede more–that thieves and murderers, and other evil-doers, are instruments of Divine Providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute the Judgments which he has resolved to inflict. But I deny that this forms any excuse for their misdeeds. For how? Will they implicate God in the same iniquity with themselves, or will they cloak their depravity by his righteousness? They cannot exculpate themselves, for their own conscience condemns them: they cannot charge God, since they perceive the whole wickedness in themselves, and nothing in Him save the legitimate use of their wickedness. But it is said he works by their means. And whence, I pray, the foetid odour of a dead body, which has been unconfined and putrefied by the sun’s heat? All see that it is excited by the rays of the sun, but no man therefore says that the fetid odour is in them. In the same way, while the matter and guilt of wickedness belongs to the wicked man, why should it be thought that God contracts any impurity in using it at pleasure as his instrument? Have done, then, with that dog-like petulance which may, indeed, bay from a distance at the justice of God, but cannot reach it!’[12]

I have underlined places where I see Calvin embracing logical inconsistency, and acknowledging it.  For example, to say that ‘neither thefts nor adulteries nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will’ and then to simultaneously assert, ‘I deny that they serve the will of God’ is rather puzzling.  Are there two different wills of God?  Then Calvin says, ‘But if he did not will it, we could not do it.  I admit this.’  That is the fatal admission.  Some followers of Calvin postulate that God indeed has two wills:  a moral will and a sovereign will.  God’s moral will is ostensibly the source of the morality He gives to us, as well as the call to us to believe in Christ.  However, God’s sovereign will is the source of people’s actual behavior and decisions, which include unbelief, resistance, evil, injustice, destination in hell conceived of as a prison system, and in this framework, desire to escape from this hell but to no avail.  This supposed division between the moral will of God and the sovereign will of God, however, raises the haunting question of whether God’s morality has an actual foundation in God’s being.  As I said before, if I as a parent say to my children, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ my authority is compromised because I would lack the integrity to command a morality in the first place.  Likewise, can God serve as the basis for His own morality, if His sovereign will is different from His moral will?  I do not think Calvin successfully extricates himself from this conundrum.

Calvin’s analogy – that of the sun’s rays causing a dead body to decay and stink – can be questioned on the grounds that a dead body has neither will, nor moral agency, to do wickedness by itself.  So a dead body cannot acquire guilt; but if another animates that body and causes it to do evil, then the one pulling the strings is, by definition, to blame.  Calvin is confusing categories.  Therefore, it is insufficient as an analogy to convince me, at least, that God can incite a man to do wickedness, as Calvin claims, and remain blameless.  Yet high federal Calvinist theologian Mark R. Talbot maintains:

‘God does not merely passively permit such things by standing by and not stopping them.  Rather, he actively wills them by ordaining them and then bringing them about, yet without himself thereby becoming the author of sin.’[13]

How these statements can be logically held together is beyond anyone’s ability to explain.  Some choose to be content with that.  But the decision is devastating, because rationality itself ceases to be on the side of the Christian.  This idea, paired with the conviction that there are unredeemed people in hell by God’s own willing, would in effect, make God both good and evil, or possibly, quite simply, evil.  To make matters fairly puzzling, Calvin claimed that man was still free and accountable, and that God’s reason for willing the fall is hidden but could not be unjust.[14]  For Calvin to appeal to ‘unknowability’ or ‘mystery’ in this way sounds like special pleading, like the Muslim who insists that one cannot say anything negative about Allah’s character, despite the logical implications.  Furthermore, if Jesus offers salvation to only the elect, and not for all people, and if God has a causal role in humanity’s sin and suffering, not to mention some people’s damnation in hell, then that would mean that Jesus reveals only a part of God – the nice part.  There remains a frightening part, what some theologians have called ‘the dark face of God.’  In this theological system, God wills people’s damnation prior to their choice and prior to history.

Under these remarkable, weighty statements, the impression that God is at least partly evil does tend to be reinforced, rather quite a bit.  This conclusion is sometimes denied by Calvinists, who at various points invoke the concept of ‘mystery.’  Many, including me, find this whole system to be illogical to the degree to which the logical conclusions are avoided, and troubling to the degree in which they are.  However, other Calvinists, like Joseph Haroutunian (1904 – 1968), a professor of systematic theology at McCormick Theological Seminary and later the University of Chicago, ‘gloried in Protestantism’s insistence that God’s sovereignty pushed the conclusion that God decrees evil as well as good.  Double predestination was, for him, the last assertion of God’s ultimate freedom as He creates the world, a last terrible tribute to the fact of reprobation as known in this world… These doctrines distinguished Calvinism from theological traditions that suffered a failure of nerve and let down a culture that was desperate for a theology with iron in its blood.’[15]

But theology affects life and ministry.  If you surrender rationality on the central issue of good and evil, then you might be troubled by others who happily welcome irrationality into their own belief systems.  For example, postmodern hedonist partiers and ‘secular liberal’ individualists who say that they can define their own morality.  But what can you do?  You role model accepting irrationality.  In effect, you might see the speck of irrationality in the eye of other beliefs while dismissing the magnitude of the log of irrationality in your own.  Meanwhile, your evangelism starts to rely on relational tactics and emotions, like worship music in dimly lit rooms.  And you feel irritated at anyone else who points out your irrationality.  For example, secular universities, which explains some of the fear American evangelical parents have of sending their kids there.  To the extent that your ministry emphasizes the rational mind, it is to deconstruct other belief systems (e.g. the ‘presuppositional apologetics’ of Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til), or to argue for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  That is important, but truncated.  Because you’re missing the opportunity to declare that Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the deepest response of a God who is 100% good to the problem of human evil, in each and every person.  You’ve given up on the central biblical meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.  And you’ve given up on addressing one of the building blocks of all human life, thought, and experience:  good and evil.


[1] R.C. Sproul, Christ’s Descent into Hell, last accessed December 10, 2013

[2] Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, given July 8, 1741

[3] John Piper, How Does it Glorify God to Predestine People to Hell?, March 21, 2013;

[4] A point made by Austin Fischer in a debate, Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism – Proposition 1;  Thanks to T.C. Moore for calling the debate to my attention ( and to Greg Boyd for connecting it to the photograph of the firefighters (

[5] Wikipedia, The Problem of Evil in Hinduism

[6] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, volume 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600 – 1700) (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p.234 – 5

[7] See my summary at

[8] R.J. Snell, ‘Overcoming Omnipotence:  The Crisis of Divine Freedom in Ockham and Descartes’, Quodlibet Journal: Vol.5, Number 1, January 2003;; quoting  William Ockham, Philosophical Writings, translated by Philotheus Boehner (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1990), p.26.  Greek Orthodox philosopher Christos Yannaras also criticizes William of Ockham for moving Western theology and morality away from truly Trinitarian Christian thought; see his books The Freedom of Morality and The Meaning of Reality.  See also the lecture by David Bentley Hart, Nihilism and Freedom, available on my website:

[9] David Bentley Hart, Nihilism and Freedom, a lecture given in 2007

[10] John Calvin, Institutes, Book 3, ch.23, section 7

[11] John Calvin, Institutes, Book 1, ch.16, section 3

[12] John Calvin, Institutes, book 1, ch.17, section 5, italics mine

[13] John Piper and Justin Taylor, editors, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL: 2006), p.35, footnote 7

[14] Calvin, Predestination 122, OC 8.315

[15] Stephen D. Crocco, ‘Whose Calvin?  Which Calvinism?  John Calvin and the Development of Twentieth-Century American Theology,’ edited by Thomas J. Davis, John Calvin’s American Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p.177 – 8

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