Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Interview with John Frame on the Problem of Evil

Interviewed by Andy Naselli

John Frame (b. 1939) is professor and chair of systematic theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, where he has taught since 2000. He previously taught for thirty-one years at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and was a founding faculty member of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California. He has earned degrees at Princeton University (A.B.), Westminster Theological Seminary (B.D.), Yale University (M.A., M.Phil.), and Belhaven College (D.D.). His website lists (and hosts many of) his voluminous publications and includes a blog.

He has written on the problem of evil in at least the following publications:
  1. 1994: “Apologetics as Defense: The Problem of Evil.” Pages 149–90 in Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed.
  2. 1995: Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed. [See pp. 83–86.]
  3. 2002: “The Problem of Evil.” Pages 160–82 in The Doctrine of God. A Theology of Lordship 2. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed.
  4. 2008: “The Problem of Evil.” Pages 141–64 in Suffering and the Goodness of God. Edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. Theology in Community 1. Wheaton: Crossway.
1. It may be misleading to speak of the problem of evil. Would you agree that there are at least these two (and would you add any others)?
  • The logical-intellectual-philosophical problem of evil is the logical tension in the following three statements: (1) God is all-powerful, (2) God is all-good, and (3) evil exists.
  • The emotional-religious-existential problem of evil is the emotional and religious tension people experience when they or those close to them suffer.
Yes, these are the standard ways of formulating the problem. One might add “God is all-wise” to the three propositions in the logical-intellectual problem. With only (1) and (2) someone might argue that though God is all-powerful and all-good, he might not be wise enough to find a way to prevent or avoid evil. But of course the Bible teaches that God is so wise (and implicitly so knowledgeable) that he can always find a way to accomplish his purposes. So the logical-intellectual problem posits that evil conflicts, not only with God’s power and goodness, but also with his wisdom.

I think these exhaust the forms of the problem of evil. Others reduce to one of these.
2. You assert, “The problem of evil is probably the most difficult problem in all of theology, and for many atheists it is the Achilles’ heel of the theistic worldview” (2008, p. 141). Why is it such a difficult problem for theists?
I think it is a hard problem because of the sheer quantity of evil in the world and the terrible suffering that it brings. Events like genocide, terrible floods, and infant-suffering are very hard to reconcile with the idea that God has a good purpose for everything. I don’t think that evil logically justifies unbelief, but I can well understand how personal tragedies have led people to abandon faith in God.
3. People often think that the logical problem of evil is a problem primarily for theists. Would you say that it is at least equally problematic for atheists? Why?
In order to formulate the problem, atheists have to use the concepts “good” and “evil,” which make no sense in their system. If good and evil are just names for our feelings of approval or descriptions of the pleasure that comes from various events, then there is no reason to assume that God would produce only good and avoid all evil. So, as some have said, if believers have a problem with evil, unbelievers have a problem with both good and evil. For on the unbelieving view, there is neither good nor evil in an objective sense. Still, it is legitimate, I think, for atheists to question whether the Christian faith is consistent within itself. Whatever the unbeliever may think about good and evil, he has a right to ask how the Christian concept of good and evil is consistent with the Christian view of God.
4. One of the most common evangelical “solutions” to the logical problem of evil is the free-will defense, which presupposes that humans have a will that is absolutely free, thus making God contingent. Why is this such an attractive view, and what are the main reasons that you reject it in favor of compatibilism?
It is attractive because people like to think that they are in control of their own choices. People like the idea that they are utterly free, autonomous. But of course this idea is unbiblical. Scripture teaches that God controls human decisions (Gen. 45:5-8; Prov. 16:9; Acts 2:23-24), even when these decisions are sinful. We cannot become followers of Christ unless God draws us (John 6:44, 65; Acts 16:14-15). In fact, God controls all events; he makes everything happen as it does (Lam. 3:37-38; Rom. 8:28; 11:36; Eph. 1:11). So human freedom must be understood in a “compatibilistic” way, i.e., as compatible with God’s foreordination of our decisions.
5. Why do you argue that it is merely possible that this is the best of all possible worlds?
People sometimes say that God must make the best possible world because he himself is perfect. So they think that although evil exists now, this is nevertheless the best world God could have made. That is one traditional attempt to solve the problem of evil.

I disagree, however. Genesis 1:31 says that God made everything good, but not perfect. “Perfect” would mean not only good, but also incapable of becoming evil. Clearly God did not choose to make that kind of world. In that sense, the new Heavens and the new Earth (Rev. 21:1) will be a better world than this one, for that world will be confirmed in goodness, incapable of becoming evil. So the world in which we presently live is not the best possible world. God is free to make a world that is imperfect in some respects.

Could God have made a better world than this one? Certainly. He could have made what we call the “new Heavens and new Earth” right back at the beginning. Why, then, did he choose not to do so? I don’t know. That is essentially the problem of evil. I think there are some biblical ways of addressing the problem, but I don’t think we will have a completely satisfying resolution of the problem during our present life.
6. It is not uncommon for people to assert, “God does not cause evil; he only permits it.” Why do you disagree with that? What verbs do you prefer to use to explain God’s relationship to evil? (You list “some initial possibilities” in your 2008 article: “authors, brings about, causes, controls, creates, decrees, foreordains, incites, includes within his plan, makes happen, ordains, permits, plans, predestines, predetermines, produces, stands behind, and wills.”)
Yes, well, I discuss a number of these terms at some length in Doctrine of God. Certainly God “permits” evil, and I think it’s legitimate to use that language. People sometimes think that we should say God “permits” evil, but doesn’t bring it about. They think that would alleviate the problem of evil.

The question, though, is whether God merely permits evil, or whether in addition he actually brings evil about in some sense. I think the latter is true. Scripture often says that God brings about sinful decisions of human beings (see above under Question 4). This is a hard teaching, and on one level it makes the problem of evil more difficult. But in another sense, this teaching is reassuring. If evil comes from some source other than God, that would be pretty scary. It would imply that there are forces of evil that are capable of resisting, even overcoming God’s desires. But if evil comes from God, we know that he has a good purpose in bringing it about (Rom. 8:28).

I avoid saying that God “authors” evil, an unclear expression which seems to suggest that God (like the author of a book) not only brings evil about, but approves of it. “Creates” is awkward: evil is a quality, not a thing, and God creates things, not qualities. “Wills” is ambiguous, since it can mean that he approves it or simply that he brings it about. “Incites” suggests that God encourages people to do evil things; Scripture says he does not do this. “Stands behind” can also suggest this. The other terms listed above differ mainly in their connotations. I think any of them are legitimate, depending on the context. I have used all of them, but I tend to prefer plain-English phrases like “brings about” and “makes happen.”
7. What advice would you give to Christians who are wrestling with the emotional problem of evil?
Usually it is not helpful to get into the intellectual issues during a personal tragedy. It is best to find family, pastors, and Christian friends who can weep with you and bring the comfort of Jesus. The first priority is to recognize that Jesus has redeemed us from sin and death, and that he promises a world to come without any suffering at all. Similarly, when you are counseling someone else who has suffered great loss, don’t batter him with arguments at first. Show love and give good counsel. And admit (which is true) that we don’t have an ultimate answer. This is God’s mystery.

Now later on, after a time of weeks, months, or even years, genuine intellectual questions may come up, and we need to deal with them honestly. Although there is no fully satisfying answer to the problem of evil, there are considerations that will alleviate it if we are willing to recognize God’s Lordship over his world.
8. How should Christians apply the gospel to the intellectual and emotional problems of evil?
The Bible is really all about the problem of evil. It shows how evil came into the world (Gen. 3), and it tells us how God sent his Son to deal with it, to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The death of Jesus atoned for the sins of his people, and sin is the root of all evil. So through him all the heavens and the earth will be renewed.

In dealing with the emotional problem of evil, therefore, Jesus is our greatest source of comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-4), our only ultimate source of comfort. Without him, evil reigns. But because he has risen from the dead, he has gained the victory over evil, and will come again in triumph. Paul says we should comfort one another with these words (1 Thess. 4:18).

As for the intellectual problem of evil, we must point out that the intellect itself is God’s creation, and it must operate according to God’s rules. That is, God himself has the right to govern our epistemology. So if we come up with an argument that questions or denies God’s existence, we subvert the intellect itself. God often asserts his authority when people charge him with evil: see Job 38-42; Matt. 20:13-15; Rom. 9:14-24.

So our intellect, too, is fallen and needs the redemption of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). We need a new heart and a new mind, to see things as they really are. Remarkably, in the new Heavens and new Earth, nobody will raise the problem of evil. They will find it obvious that God is just and true, and they will praise him that his righteous acts have been revealed (Rev. 15:3-4). Why are people no longer troubled by the problem of evil? Perhaps God gives them more information. But he also gives them new hearts and minds. So the gospel provides the best answers to both forms of the problem of evil.
9. What are some of your forthcoming writing projects (short-term and long-term)?
My Collected Works is being compiled in three CD/DVD sets, one on Theology, one on Apologetics, one on the Christian Life. The first volume is available now; the others will be available later this year or in 2009. We’re also putting together a “Festschrift” in which a number of authors will write essays, critically analyzing my ideas.

What is most important to me, however, is Doctrine of the Word of God, the last of the four Lordship books, a study of the word of God and Scripture. That will be a multi-year project. I’m praying that God will give me more time to work on this.
[Editorial note from Naselli: Check out about thirty endorsements of volume 1 of Frame's collected works (about half-way down this page). Authors of the endorsements include J. I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, D. A. Carson, R. Kent Hughes, Bruce Waltke, Ligon Duncan, Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Robert A. Peterson, Kelly M. Kapic, and Vern Poythress.]
10. Many thanks, Dr. Frame, for taking time to serve the readers of JT's blog with such helpful comments!
You’re welcome, Andy. I hope this interview will be helpful to your readers. May God lead us into his truth, in Christ.