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20 March 2023

Very often, we are stumped when faced with the question or charge, “Is God the author of evil that happens in the world?” Expanded, the charge goes something like this: “If God is the sovereign creator of the world, and if being the sovereign creator means that he has predetermined (in whatever sense) things that happen in the world, doesn’t that make God the author of the evil that happens in the world?”

I want to raise two arguments. First, somewhat controversial, on all accounts we cannot escape from the charge that God is the “author” of evil. The only way that we can free God of this charge is if he did not create at all!

Second, we are disturbed by the notion of God being the author of evil because we have understood “author” in a way that automatically entails moral responsibility. I want to argue that this doesn’t have to be so. There are ways of conceding the fact that God is the author of evil that happens in the world without attributing to him moral responsibility for those evils.

The first argument then. Often, this charge is raised against a (for lack of a better term) “Calvinist” backdrop to understanding the interaction between divine determination and human free will and actions. The assumption is because God is sovereign and all-determining, human beings have already been predetermined in making the wrong choices they make and carrying out the evil that happens in the world. Under such thinking, the common and unspoken assumption is that because God has predetermined this, that makes him the “author” of evil in a way that entails responsibility. I will show how this need not be the case in my second argument.

But for now, I would just like to press home the point that the same question or challenge remains for the other accounts of understanding divine determination and human free will interaction that differ from the Calvinist one.

Take for example the alternative account: a divine foreknowledge view coupled together with Middle Knowledge/Molinism.

[Excursus: Middle knowledge or molinism originates from the 16th-century Jesuit, Luis de Molina. It seeks to hold together the notion that God is completely sovereign and man is also free in a libertarian sense. It does so by maintaining as per the tradition that God has “natural knowledge” (knowledge of all logic and moral truths) and “free knowledge” (knowledge of what he decided to create; knowledge of the actual world as it is). But in addition, it posits another level between his natural and free knowledge, “middle knowledge,” which is God’s knowledge of what any and all creatures with free will would freely do in any circumstance the creature could be placed (philosophers call this the knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom). God, by his middle knowledge “knows” all the infinite possible outcomes of all the worlds resulting from the infinite choices that could be made from the creatures’ free will, and he decides to “actualise” one such world, that is, the world that we actually exist in. In this way, the libertarian free will of man is preserved and God is still sovereign in choosing this world to actualise.]

I want to argue that, under a Molinist scheme, as long as any world that God actualises, and subsequently forms the actual world we exist in, has evil present within it, the question still remains: “Why did God ‘actualise’ this world? Wouldn’t that still make him the author of evil that happens in this world?”

Going further, even if we were to surrender notions of divine determination or divine foreknowledge altogether and go with an Open Theist way of framing divine action and human action—where God doesn’t know how humans will respond and takes a “risk” in creating humankind with free will—that still doesn’t negate the challenge of God being the author of evil. If God knew that there was a high risk of him bringing about a world where humankind could very likely abuse the free will they have resulting in evil occuring and yet still “risked” bringing about such a world, doesn’t that in some way still render him the “author” of the evil that happens?

I hope one can see by now my first argument that the charge of God being the author of evil is not tied to the idea of God’s all-and-predetermination of things but is tied to God being the creator. As long as God is the creator of this world that actually is and has evil present within it, whether God predetermined, permitted or allowed, or even “risked” having the possibility of events that result in evil, the charge that God is the author of the evil in this world sticks. Ploughing deeper: the charge sticks because God as creator is the “author” of this world (upon a certain way of understanding authorship).

To be sure, the charge is attenuated under a Middle Knowledge or Open Theist framework, mainly because shifting from the idea of predetermining to permitting or even risking weakens the link between authorship and the owning of responsibility for the evil that occurs. And it is the ownership of moral responsibility that constitutes the force of the charge that God is the author of evil that happens in the world.

That brings me to my second argument. I want to argue that as long as human agents make a decision or choose a certain course of action i) not coerced or under conditions of compulsion; ii) according to their desire which they fully own at the point of making that decision, or iii) according to what they see as the greatest good at the point of making that decision, they can be said to be acting out of their free wills, and are therefore on good and sufficient grounds to assume moral responsibility for their choices and actions. Readers familiar with philosophy will see that the three levels of freedom listed form the standard description of a compatibilist free will.

The above holds even if the human agents’ choosing and the outcomes following from their choices were predetermined in the first place. That is, there really was not present any alternatives that the human agent can voluntarily, rationally, and intentionally choose otherwise. In other words, the human agents are not choosing and acting out of a philosophical notion of a libertarian free will in this case.

My point is: even under these conditions of predetermination and lack of libertarian free wills, it could be argued that the human agents act willingly and freely, and hence assume moral responsibility for their actions. In other words, God can be conceived as the author of the evil that happens (because of his predetermination of things) but yet absolved of moral responsibility (because human agents act freely and in doing so can sufficiently own moral responsibility for their choices and actions).

Perhaps the following analogy and thought experiment might help to illustrate the above point.

Author Peter James has written the novel Love You Dead.[1]  The main character in the novel is a scheming lady who schemes and plots the murders of the husbands that she marries. She does all this evil not under coercion or compulsion; she acts out of her warped desire which she fully owns, and she conceives all her doings as part of a greater good for herself. So on the one hand, in that sense, she acts out of her free will in the story, even though on the other hand it could be said that there is no other alternative for her actions because the story is authored by Peter James in this particular way.

Now (and this was an actual survey that I conducted with my Theology class), when asked if Peter James is the author of all the evil that took place within the novel, the answer was quite unanimously “Yes.” But when asked the follow-on question if Peter James should therefore bear the responsibility for the evil that took place, the answer was a surprising majority “No.”

There could be more than one reason for the negative answer to the second question. It could be as simple as intuition. It just did not feel right that the author should bear moral responsibility for the actions of one of the characters, especially when that character was able to choose and act freely within the story. Another reason could be the different desires and intentions held by the author and the character in carrying out the (evil) events in the story. The character clearly acted out of her less than noble desires and intentions, while it could be argued that the author wrote the story (which included the evil events) out of nobler desires and intentions, perhaps to bring out the greater theme of justice in the resolution of the story. But the varying desires and intentions justify the rationale of not attributing moral blame to the author.

To sum up, if both my arguments succeed, there is no way of not saying that God is the author of evil in the world, simply because as the creator he has brought about this world in which evil is evidently present. It is not only those who go along with a deterministic framework that must face the charge. But at the same time, there is a way of saying that God is the author of evil that happens in the world that does not require him to assume moral responsibility for the evil that happens. This is true even for stronger models of the interaction between divine and human agency that run on the notion of predetermination.

So, is God the author of evil that happens in the world? The short answer, as we have seen, depends on how we define “author.”

[Epilogue: I wish to dedicate this article to the Theology II class of TTC Academic Year 2021/22, with whom I had the privilege of having many stimulating discussions (this being one of them) over the period of the course.]



[1] London: Macmillan, 2016.

Rev Dr Edmund Fong is a lecturer in Theology, Hermeneutics and Presbyterianism at Trinity Theological College, and an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.