Randal Rauser, PhD
Over the last week I have heard on at least three different occasions claims made to the moral equivalency of God allowing x and God commanding x. The argument has been made by Christians to demonstrate that if I accept that God providentially allows evils like genocide and infant sacrifice, I should have no problem if God also commands genocide and infant sacrifice. The argument has also been made by non-Christians to argue that if I have a problem with God commanding genocide and infant sacrifice, I should also have a problem with God allowing genocide and infant sacrifice.
It’s always interesting when you have same premise — the moral equivalency between allowing and commanding — used for completely opposite ends. I disagree with both conclusions however because I disagree with the starting premise. In this brief commentary I’ll present two arguments against it, the first one general, the second aimed specifically at Christians.
The argument for everybody
In response to Pete on this issue I presented the following two scenarios, the first allowing and the second commanding:
(1) Mr. Jones sees Billy picking on Tommy. He allows Billy to pick on Tommy for two minutes and then steps in, using Billy’s bullying as a teaching moment for both Billy and Tommy so that neither will bully in the future.
(2) Mr. Jones commands Billy to pick on Tommy. He insists that Billy pick on Tommy for two minutes and then steps in, using Billy’s bullying as a teaching moment for both Billy and Tommy so that neither will bully in the future.
As I noted to Pete, most people will recognize that Mr. Jones’s actions in (2) are morally problematic in a way that they are not in (1). Human beings recognize that there are many things which it are morally permissible to allow but not to command.
It should not be surprising then that God likewise may allow things that he would never command.
(Of course a person could retort: “But Mr. Jones could never allow Billy to kill Tommy. And yet God allows things like that every day.” In response, we could note several points at which God is disanalogous to Mr. Jones. But that would take us too far afield. Instead, I’ll simply observe that even if you want to argue there are some things that ought never be allowed, that is still a different moral issue from commanding those same things.)
The argument for Christians
If allowing is the same thing as commanding then there is no moral distinction between God allowing x and God commanding x. This has absurd consequences that should make any self-respecting Christian theist run from this kind of argument.
Recently a man in Canada made headlines because he (allegedly) killed, dismembered and then ate an acquaintance all while filming it. If the allowing is morally equivalent to commanding premise is true then there is no moral difference between God allowing this atrocity and God commanding it. And from this it follows that it is possible for God to have commanded the man to kill, dismember and eat his acquaintance.
In other words, if one accepts this premise then they must accept that anything that happens as the result of a moral agent’s actions could have been commanded by God. And that’s crazy.
Initially, I think it is important to point out how this analogy between human permission and divine decree fails. God has not taken a passive position in the activities of creation. In order for this analogy to work, God must take a passive position similar to the one humans opt to take. As God, He cannot do this. To do so would be a surrender of sovereignty. God cannot surrender His sovereign control over all things even for a nanosecond without at the same time ceasing to be God. Eph. 1:11 says that God is the one who is working all things according to the counsel of his own will. Again, Romans 8:28 says God works all things for the good of those loving Him.
Hence, divine decrees, in reference to God, are one single act only. As Shedd says, God knows by decree. What God knows He decreed and what God decreed, He knows with certainty. God does not know a thing that cannot happen as if it could actually happen. Contingencies are known as just that, contingencies that could never happen because the very thing they are contingent upon, God has not decreed nor known as actual. God did not decree them and therefore He does not know them as actual, but rather, only as the possible. This is not an easy concept for finite humans to conceive.
Dr. Rauser’s response really misses the crux of the argument. To use his example, Mr. Jones has a moral responsibility, a duty if you will, to stop the bullying if he can. If Mr. Jones does not stop the bullying, then it follows that he is morally culpable for allowing evil to continue even though he could have stopped it. I know of no rational human who would argue to the contrary. If you witness a rape and you can stop it and do nothing, you are a villain yourself. To those who know to do what is right, and fail to do it, it is a sin.
Dr. Rauser seems to overlook the idea of moral culpability as it relates to God. The argument against the parallel existence of God and evil is exactly here. In essence, the argument says that God’s failure to use his power to stop evil when He could easily do so impugns His just character. It nullifies the Christian claim that God is all-good. Dr. Rauser’s example does not seem to account for this criticism. While it may be a different kind of moral failure to murder than it is not to stop a murder, it is still a moral failure. The same is true of commanding a murder. It does not matter if I commanded a murder or refused to stop one within my power, I am still morally culpable. I stand condemned for refusing to do the good that was well within my power. This, it seems to me, is the point of the argument against the Arminian and Dr. Rauser softens it up quite a lot and then constructs his argument.
It is true that God never commands sin. What God commands is holy and right and it is so because He commands it. When God commands that Israel cleanse the land of Canaan, we feel that we need to defend God’s action. We do not. God ordered the annihilation of men, women, and children who were wicked in all that they did, sworn enemies of Himself, against all that is right, and holy and good. God was perfectly within His right to issue the command, and no human being has any right whatever to speak one word of criticism about it. We are all rebellious sinners and He is a perfectly moral God always doing and willing what is right. The proper Christian response to God’s actions is really quite simple: may it be according to your will, my Lord. Moreover, we ought to say this with great humility, respect, and fear.
We must recognize the wickedness that still lies within our own deceitful hearts on such matters. It is undeniably true that the sin in us continues to resist and fight against the perfectly holy and sovereign God wherever it can.
The Arminian will always struggle with theodicy because of the presuppositions in that system about what is fair. For example, it doesn’t seem fair to destroy innocent children. What innocent children? Show me an innocent child and I will show you the Christ child. Beside Him, there has never been an innocent child. The reason we are so tempted to think this act immoral is because we fail to grasp what it means to sin against a holy God. Our view of sin is terribly flawed and this is due to the fact that we refuse to acknowledge a perfectly holy and just God. Without saying so, we think sin is not so bad and God is more like us that He actually is. Sin is a mistake in our thinking and God is like our worldly fathers. Sin isn’t a big deal and God understands our rebellion.
In closing with Dr. Rauser’s analogy of bullying, we must say that God ordained the bullying incident, because nothing happens that God did not decree. God knew it would happen because He planned it from the beginning. The bullying will serve to glorify God in one way or another for God works all things for His own glory. The bully is commanded not to bully and he is responsible for obeying God’s command. The object of the bullying, if he is a lover of God will have the bullying work for his own good in life for that is God’s design for him. In short, God decreed the bullying even though His command is not to bully and He will mysteriously use this act to glorify Himself. God’s mercy is demonstrated in that the bully is not immediately destroyed the minute he violated God’s command. We believe God’s care comes in the good that will result from the bullying later in life. Of this we are persuaded because we know God keeps His word. Pride lifts us to places where we have no business. We raise our fists to God and demand He behave in a way we consider moral. We place our standards upon God all the while demanding we be freed from His divine law. We argue that it was wrong for the Canaanites to be killed, men, women, and children. We demand that God enable everyone alike to repent and believe the gospel. Election we hold in contempt and disdain. We demand that God let people off the hook if they never heard the gospel. It wouldn’t be fair to judge them. We scream that everyone deserves a second chance to avoid eternal damnation. We deny that God could be loving and just and sentence people to eternal fire. How dare God behave this way! Yes, we are arrogant sinners judging God in one way or another, sometimes willingly and openly, and at other times, most unwittingly. Either way, we are without excuse. And yet, while we may be without excuse, God has seen fit to make sure that we are never without grace.