Calvinist Paul Helm Fails to Acquit God of Causing Evil

Closely related to Calvinism’s problem with the fall is its problem with the presence of evil (See my articles The Word “Permit” Is As Micro-Determined AS Everything Else;  D.A. Carson Fails to Absolve God of Causing Evil, and Calvinism Fails to Absolve God from Causing the Fall ). The reality of evil is very problematic within Calvinism’s compatible determinism, as is the whole issue of sovereignty (as defined by Calvinism) and human freedom and responsibility.[1] Calvinists employ various terms when speaking of these “mysteries,” which I believe are contradictions within their theological system. J.I. Packer employs antinomy and mystery,[2] G.T. Shedd and others invoke the common phrase, “it is a mystery.”[3] Similarly used phrases are “I have no answer for it,” “it’s hidden,” and “two parallel lines that meet in eternity.” Extensivism’s (non-Calvinism’s) libertarian freedom does not require gauzily cloaked contradictions.[4] The contradictory problems of Calvinism are quite pronounced when they seek to explain God’s sovereignty (as they define it) and evil.

Paul Helm argues for a compatibilist moral freedom,[5] which he explains as “the idea that human actions are free in a sense that is consistent with determinism.”[6] He then poses the obvious question, “Yet does not invoking compatibilism . . . as the reason why God knows all future free actions mean that God is the author of evil? No. . . . But how does God know of the causes of evil actions if he himself is not the cause of them? Augustine’s[7] answer is that “God foreknows future evil by knowingly and willingly permitting particular evil actions[8] (italics added). Helm goes on to argue, “For God to permit some event to occur does not entail that he brings that event about, but it is consistent with his foreknowledge of such events. God does not and cannot will evil actions, but he may nevertheless know that they will occur and be willing for them to occur”[9] (italics added).

Now, I appreciate Helm’s attempt to remove God from being the “author of evil” or being the “cause” of evil. But, compatibilism’s micro-determinism will not allow him to distance God to the point of no culpability for evil. God gave man a compatible moral freedom in which his decisions to sin are free, but they are only predeterminately free. That is to say, while compatibilism allows humans to be the proximate cause of their sin and evil, they are not and cannot be the ultimate cause of them. That belongs to God alone. That God uses secondary causes changes this not one whit since all causes, determinative antecedents, in compatibilism lead back to the ultimate cause, who alone is ultimately responsible. This reality (inescapable conclusion) does not equal denying man’s humanness (as understood in Calvinism) or reduce his choices to animalistic instincts or equate this inviolable chain back to God with a Darwinian naturalist chain without full humanness. Instead, it merely reflects the indissoluble micro-determinism of Compatibilism and, therefore, Calvinism.

This is not to say all Calvinists claim to believe God is related to sin and evil in the same way, nor that they do not work tirelessly and creatively to convince others they have extricated God from certain complicities, but only that it seems that the logic of their system inescapably straps God with culpability. It does not seem possible that you can accept comprehensive determinism (compatibilism) and reject libertarian freedom (which means that people could have chosen differently than they did even with the same past) and remove God from being the determiner of the determinative chain of the mind, volition, and acts of the determined.

Helm seeks refuge for God in the one last bastion of hope for freeing God from complicity in evil by contending that he only permits it rather than God being the author or cause of evil. Rather than be the cause of evil, he portrays him as simply having foreknowledge of such events. But when we understand Helm’s perspective on God’s foreknowledge, it actually compounds the problem of relying on the concept of permission to solve the impasse.

Helm offers three perspectives regarding God’s foreknowledge: in the first sense, he says, “On this view there would appear to be no distinction between what God causes and what he permits . . . A second sense is that in which the foreknowledge of God . . . is simply his knowledge of what he has decreed before that decree takes effect in time . . . The third and weakest sense . . . is what he decrees is conditioned by what he foreknows.”[10] Notably, one and two represent Calvinism’s view that God foreknows because he determined everything, whereas the third sense represents man having libertarian freedom. He then says, “My arguments entail . . . one or other of the first two senses; these instances are inconsistent with the third sense of foreknowledge”[11] (italics added).

Since Helm is committed to Calvinism, foreknowledge based on determinism, and compatible moral freedom, it is easy for anyone not committed to Calvinism to see that attempting to exonerate God from ultimate responsibility for the existence of evil is unattainable. Consequently, in seeming desperation, he embraces the only hope of exonerating God, which is reliance on Augustine’s idea of God permitting evil rather than causing evil. Including Helm’s citation of Augustine, he uses a form of the word permission over fifty times in his attempt to distance God from being the cause of evil.[12] Although he has rejected libertarian freedom in both his acceptance of compatibilism and his acceptance of the first two perspectives of foreknowledge, his attempt to prove God guiltless forces him to argue libertarianly.

The reason I say this is that while Calvinists frequently make the distinction between things decreed or determined and things permitted, it is a distinction without one whit of substantive difference. Because, if God foreknows only what he determined to happen (there are no contingencies which are the acts of libertarian free beings) and he created man as compatibly free, things permitted and things decreed are composed of the precise same quantity of inviolable determinism.

Arguing God permits evil does no more to exonerate God from being the ultimate cause than does saying God uses secondary causes since in a deterministic perspective, even if God uses secondary, tertiary, quaternary, quinary, senary, septenary, octonary, nonary, and denary causes, God is still the primary, ultimate cause. The best they can logically argue is that man is the proximate cause, and God is the ultimate cause. Another “mystery,” contradiction, of Calvinism, Augustine, and Aquinas notwithstanding.[13]


[1] Compatibilism: Determinism and moral responsibility are compatible, hence the name. This compatibility is not achieved by compatibilism being less deterministic than hard determinism. Rather, it is achieved by defining free choice to mean as long as a person chooses according to his greatest desire, he has made a free choice for which he is morally responsible; even though given the same past, he cannot choose differently in the moral moment of decision.

Consequently, the difference between compatibilism (soft determinism) and hard determinism is not to be found in the levels of the deterministic nature of each since they are the same. Rather, the difference is compatibilism simply contends people are morally responsible for their choices if they are made according to their greatest desire, and hard determinism says they are not. Therefore, moral responsibility is the product of defining free choice as a person acting in accordance with his greatest desire even though the desire is determined. Resultantly, it is most precise to say that compatibilism entails a determined free choice.

[2] Philosophically, an antinomy is a contradiction between two statements, both apparently obtained by correct reasoning. Packer says the definition should open with “an appearance of contradiction.” J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1961), 18–19.

[3] William G.T. Shedd says, “The permissive decree as related to the origin of sin presents a difficulty that does not exist in reference to the continuance of sin . . . an inscrutable mystery.” Calvinism: Pure and Mixed–A Defense of the Westminster Standards (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893, https://archive.org/search.php?query=calvinism%3A%20Pure%20and%20mixed), 95. Accessed 2/18/20.

[4] Libertarian: Man is not determined. He has the actual ability to choose between accessible options, at least in some scenarios. Libertarians contend determinism is not compatible with moral responsibility. Man possesses actual otherwise choice and can, therefore, act or refrain in the moral moment of decision, given the same past within a given range of options.

Extensivism argues God endowed man with this ability, which is an aspect of being created in the image of God. God determines the range of options. Adam’s range of options, the result of creative grace, was greater than mankind’s options after the fall. Fallen man can still choose between options, but the range of options is less than man had prior to the fall. This lessening includes losing the ability to make choices that are inherently righteous or spiritually restorative (making one right with God) based solely on creative grace. In order to make an inherently righteous choice or one that is spiritually restorative, God had to provision redemptive grace—grace enablements—which he did.

[5] Paul Helm, “The Augustinian-Calvinist View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 162.

[6] Paul Helm, “The Augustinian-Calvinist View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 169.

[7] Helm is a compatibilist and assumes the same of Augustine and Calvin. Paul Helm, “The Augustinian-Calvinist View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 162, footnote 3.

[8] Helm is a compatibilist and assumes the same of Augustine and Calvin. Paul Helm, “The Augustinian-Calvinist View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 176. See also 173–83 and 158–59 in this same book.

[9] Paul Helm, “The Augustinian-Calvinist View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 176.

[10] Paul Helm, “The Augustinian-Calvinist View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 163.

[11] Paul Helm, “The Augustinian-Calvinist View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 163.

[12] Paul Helm, “The Augustinian-Calvinist View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 176–83.

[13] In Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, Helm mentions perspective one of foreknowledge being the view of Aquinas, and that Aquinas believed this allowed for some things to happen by permission.