A Few Example Posts:

  • "The End of Faith: A Short Response to Sam Harris"
  • See also:
  • "A Long Response to Sam Harris' The End of Faith, by Neil Shenvi"

  • "Is John Piper the Best Answer to Emergence and Postmodernism?"

  • "Captured"

  • "The Storm is Over"

  • "If Golfing Were the Pursuit of Moral Perfection"

  • 3.19.2007

    Dr. MacArthur's Theodicy

    I really enjoyed my conference experience at Ligonier 2007. I'll post again on my impressions about the conference. I have so many positive things to say. However, right now I want to focus on a message John MacArthur brought on "The Problem of Evil."

    I have a great appreciation for John MacArthur and men like him. I'm grateful to God for the heavy lifting they are doing in these spiritually vacuous days. The writing, speaking, and representing they do in our country is an important witness for Christ and the church.

    Now, here comes the conjunction but....

    I do need to get some thoughts written down after hearing Dr. MacArthur's theodicy (the justification of God in the face of evil).

    You can read my notes on his message here. I hope I recorded them fairly and accurately. The basic outline of Dr. MacArthur's message was:

    1. Evil Exists. This is axiomatic.
    2. God Exists. That is, the Biblical God.
    3. Therefore, God wills evil to exist; He ordains it.

    Dr. MacArthur said some things like: "Now this is where Arminians become apoplectic. Their eyes roll back and their palms become sweaty. Panic sets in. So they have to reinvent God with a revisionist [hermeneutic.]" Both speaker and audience gave a knowing laugh at these comments.

    Now, I do admit to having some emotional responses upon hearing Dr. MacArthur's words. To be sure, I was not apoplectic. I did not experience an increased heart rate or sweaty palms, or panic.

    But I did feel a sadness, a deflation, and a wonderment at the presentation of his argument. I felt like, "If I believed this picture, I might as well go back to the hotel room and draw the shade."

    The speaker and audience may laugh with the knowing chuckle of the truly initiated, but I think I can explain why some folks may struggle with this kind of theodicy.

    When you deal with a man's view of God, you are dealing with the most important part of who he is. So we should not be surprised that emotional reactions may occur when God is painted in certain ways.

    I have the following concerns with Dr. MacArthur's theodicy.

    1. His argument comes very close to an eastern view of God--where good and evil have a common source. Hence good and evil become illusions surrounding the One of all things. Surely, Dr. MacArthur would deny that this is his view. However, to speak his way has the same blurring effect on the soul. It is a de facto equivalent.

    Did not Christ tell us to pray "Deliver us from evil?" If God ordains evil, then where can a man go to hide from it? If the only refuge from evil is the source of evil, this is indeed a scary thing. Hence the suffocating effect on the soul.

    2. In exalting one attribute of God above all others, Dr. MacArthur undermines God's love, justice, and power. Does a loving God create people solely for a pragmatic purpose of displaying His wrath? Does a just God hold creatures accountable for sinning sins that He ordained? Cannot a truly powerful God create people in His image without his sovereignty being reduced? According to Dr. MacArthur, a real person must be a threat to God's sovereignty. So I think Dr. MacArthur's view of God is too small. This leads me to the next point...

    3. No matter how we address this issue, paradoxes will arise. A theology that appears to have it all wrapped up (making 90 yard touch-down passes) still results in paradoxes. Because Dr. MacArthur seems to despise the thought that Adam had a free will, he settles for statements like:

    "God ordains evil but is not guilty of it."
    " God is responsible but not guilty."

    How is this any less a paradox than "Man can choose, and God is sovereign?"

    4. In the Q & A about this issue, I believe it was Dr. Sproul who distanced himself from "determinism." And I noticed one of the nearby Table Talk magazine covers had a puppet with strings attached. The subtitle was, "What Reformed Theology is Not." But one cannot use the language of determinism and then cry foul at being perceived as deterministic!


    I have come to the conclusion that I will not know a complete answer to the mystery of evil. Therefore, I have to choose the best paradox-- one that addresses the whole counsel of God. Dr. MacArthur's view does not seem to encompass the complete picture of God in the Bible. For example, the Bible says that:

    God Loves.
    Man was created as a Real Person.
    God is Just.
    Man is Guilty.

    I believe that God is Good. There is no shadow of turning in Him. If He cannot tempt men with evil, He surely doesn't direct them to commit it! I have to hold to a theology (paradoxical as it may be) that separates evil from a sovereign God--as the Bible does.

    I believe that God created the world knowing full well that man would sin, but His love created a solution before the foundation of the world. But man's sin was against God's will.

    I believe that when men are damned, it is because men are truly guilty. It's our fault. We have rebelled against our Maker.

    I believe that God is sovereign when He chooses to act or not act--according to His own will. How is God's sovereignty reduced if He chooses to limit Himself in any way? If God chooses to make real persons in His image, isn't that His business? Why could not God ordain that people have a will? Dr. MacArthur sounds like God values evil more than creating amazing creatures in His image.

    I have some follow-up issues with the theological perspective Dr. MacArthur represents.

    1. I think Michael Horton, in the afore-mentioned "Table Talk" magazine, said their view of election brings great consolation to God's people. I've never found their view of election to bring consolation. I have known their view to bring the opposite. Their view of election puts my eternal destiny--not in the hope of the gospel, but in an impersonal and arbitrary Will. Their view of election is an amplification of God's sovereignty apart from the context of His personal nature, virtue, love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness. Their view of election erects a high, thick, circular brick wall on which I find myself pounding from the outside.

    2. How does one know if he's elect? It seems that according to their view, you know if you're elect if you persevere in righteousness. I have found this to be a back door to legalism. Instead of trusting the promise of God in the gospel, I would find myself trying like mad to convince myself that I'm elect by looking at the subjective experiences in my life: my performance. No grounds for confidence there!

    3. Sometimes, I sense a condescension in some folks I've met in Dr. MacArthur's theological camp. It is the air of being in the "know." I'm sure this is unintended on their part, yet I do perceive it. Maybe it comes from being in the inner circle of election.

    However, I have very true and extremely valuable friends who are not this way. With the love of Christ, they listen to my concerns about their view. So I honestly try to see the "glory" of deterministic theology. I can tell it is a source of consolation and security for many.

    4. I have heard some say that people don't like Dr. MacArthur's theology because it strikes at the pride in man. Well, I acknowledge pride needs to be stricken. However, I think I react against it because it strikes at my hope in God. If salvation is based on the Great Will instead of the Glorious Gospel of God, I know I have no hope.

    5. It seems that Dr. MacArthur's view weakens the potency of both Good and Evil. God's love isn't really love. It's simply the execution of a personally pragmatic plan. Evil isn't really evil. We can just shrug off this week's atrocities in the news as "God's will." Under Dr. MacArthur's view, do we resist evil or not? Should we react viscerally against evil as reprehensible? Or do we register evil cognitively and put it in the ledger as "part of the plan"--and go about our determined day? Something about this minimizes the goodness of the good and the wickedness of the wicked...

    6. I'm willing to be put in the same camp as "liberals," but I'm not sure how I could honestly be so labeled.

    I affirm that God's eternal justice redounds to His glory. It is good that evil is finally destroyed from His presence. But the picture is bigger than this one aspect. And God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

    I affirm that men's salvation redounds to God's glory in eternity, but it is in a context of God's love for real and responsible people.

    I affirm that God is sovereign, in charge, and victorious. But He is not Fate. Creation is not a gray, two-dimensional, deterministic sketch. It is a wonderful three-dimensional world filled with people made in His image. Sin has effaced this image, but it is still there.

    I affirm that justification is by faith alone--not by anything meritorious in a sinner.

    I affirm that God is omnipotent.

    I affirm that God is omniscient.

    I affirm that God is sovereign.

    I affirm that God wants to save me--nor is willing that any should perish; that He loved the world; that He is the propitiation for our sins, but not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.

    I deny works-for-justification, the loss of salvation, universalism, "open theology," and "process theology."

    I hope I am not "revising" God. I hope I can honestly say, "I'm simply trying to account for the big, Biblical picture." Yet, in all this, I truly believe I have more in common with Dr. MacArthur than I have in distinction--namely, the Savior.

    I recognize this little post on an insignificant blog must resemble a rat terrier yapping at the heals of a great theological mastiff. But, there you go.

    And I'm brought full circle to thanking God for His good use of Dr. MacArthur in this needy world.


    It was a great conference.

    I quickly shook off the air of sadness brought on by one sermon, escaped its great flattening of the world, and got back on track by rejoicing in the goodness of God--and the future destruction of evil.


    At 10:22 AM, Anonymous Susan said...

    John, I appreciate your honesty and happen to agree with your "view"! I believe it is Biblical. It's refreshing to see those words.

    love ya


    At 7:51 AM, Blogger Rose~ said...

    I really, really appreciated reading this. It is very balanced and expresses many of the concerns that I clumsily try to express - only more eloquently.

    [This] view of election puts my eternal destiny--not in the hope of the gospel, but in an impersonal and arbitrary Will.


    At 9:30 AM, Blogger Missy said...

    Hi, John. I was gratefully led here by Rose.

    I have been running across this theology more and more lately and have come to a time in my Walk where I am wrestling through my own convictions. I could not put to words to explain the sadness this theology was creating in me. Thank you.

    At 9:38 AM, Blogger Todd said...

    Hi John,

    I too appreciate John MacArthur on a devotional level, but theologically he choses extremes that disjoints Him from other equally devoted brethren.

    I appreciate your 'great flattening of the world' sentiment because the theological view above
    does crush, in my opinion, the huge active personality dynamic that God presents of Himself in His book.

    And then, of course, the vast mysteries He leaves us with offer both fear and hope to all men.

    Nice devotional yourself John!

    At 10:03 AM, Blogger jazzycat said...

    There are but two choices on God ordaining evil.

    1. He does not ordain evil…. This means he has no power over evil and cannot control it or do anything about it. Evil has no boundaries and potentially can cause anything to happen. We are at the mercy of evil and not God.

    2. God ordains evil….. He can control it, stop it entirely, use it for his purposes and in short has complete and total power over it. We are at the mercy of God and not evil.

    I am perplexed that you seem to view choice one as more comforting. You did say that you believed God was sovereign, which means he has ordained ALL that comes to pass. Am I missing anything in your view?

    At 1:02 PM, Blogger John R. said...

    Thank you all for engaging my blog.

    I do not have internet access at home, so I have to moderate the comments when I can...

    It was fun to see you all here.


    I understand the logic of either God ordains evil, or He does not.

    The problem that I struggle with is that Point #1 makes God the source of evil. This is also an incredible ramification. Do you mean that God wants people to sin, abuse children (like we heard about a 6 year old boy last week...), etc. Do you not see how this is as much a problem as thinking God is powerless against it?

    I believe that God can use evil for His purposes... and will destroy it in the end. But if God is the source of evil, then evil will never end, will it?

    Either way, we are both striving to maintain a "Good God" in our theology.

    Many folks just chuck the project altogether.

    Hence, the need for some sort of theodicy.

    I get nervous when I hear people say, "Sin originated in Heaven"--implying its source is in God.

    I am perplexed that you seem to view God in such a way. Where are you going to hide from evil within yourself and others?

    John R.

    At 4:12 PM, Blogger Dawn said...


    Excellent post!

    Colossians 1:16 "For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:"

    I think that God did create evil, but I do not think that He CAUSES it. I think that comes about within the freedom that God has given to his creation.

    At 4:24 PM, Blogger jazzycat said...

    I have no answer for how evil came to be or why it came to be. I also heard Dr. Sproul say that he did not know the answer to that. I think Scripture teaches that God is not the source of evil. However, he allows it to exist and that means he has ordained it. By ordain, I mean he has the power to destroy and end it at any moment.

    The Bible tells us that we cannot understand his ways. Therefore, I see no necessity to try to construct a "good God" to satisfy our concept of how God ought to be (I am not accusing you of that). Such a God would be an idol of our imagination.

    The secret things belong to God and all we can do is to study what he has revealed to us in his Word. I think it is clear that his Word reveals that he is sovereign and in control of his entire physical and spiritual creation.

    As to where will I hide from evil, I am clinging to the cross and the salvation that is availabel through faith in Christ. This world is not my home and while evil may kill my body, it cannot touch my soul and my future of eternal life where we are told there will be no evil. Romans 8 is such an encouragement to believers.

    At 8:13 AM, Blogger John R. said...

    Jazzy Cat,

    I have no answer for how evil came to be or why it came to be. I also heard Dr. Sproul say that he did not know the answer to that. I think Scripture teaches that God is not the source of evil. However, he allows it to exist and that means he has ordained it. By ordain, I mean he has the power to destroy and end it at any moment.

    We are pretty much on the same page. The reasons (plural) God allowed evil must be morally sufficient. My problem with Dr. MacArthur's theodicy is that his language (it seems) squarely puts the source of evil upon God. We cannot do that and remain scriptural since God is not tempted by evil, neither does He tempt men to do evil. I have to agree with Norman Geisler (who I have read on this topic since returning from Ligonier) that God does not produce or promote evil He can only permit it--not because He isn't sovereign but because of His very own nature. He is good. If we don't have a good God--then just what are we worshipping here?

    I agree that God uses evil to accomplish His purposes and can destroy it at any moment.

    Keep clinging to the cross. It is our only hope.


    At 11:17 PM, Blogger Keith Jackson said...

    I was at the conference....and I believe what Dr. Mac spoke about was very comforting...would you rather believe no one is control or a caring God....

    If you do not believe what he was preaching I would probably start ripping large portions out of my scripture...starting with the whole book of Romans then to Ezekiel...then even to Job....

    Job explains it best at the beginning God is in control...it's a very hard doctrine....but it being hard doesn't change the truth of it....

    At 10:48 AM, Blogger John R. said...


    Thanks for stopping by Anvil and Fire.

    Concerning the Bible: My attempts at thought and writing are to account for all of the Scripture. I know that this is Dr. MacArthur's desire as well. In fact, I concede hands down and without controversy that Dr. MacArthur is smarter, more spiritual, more effective, more experienced in ministry and fighting the good fight than I'll ever hope to be.

    However, I get hung up on Scriptures that teach, "God is not tempted to evil. Nor does He tempt men to do evil." And many other Scriptures that tell us that God is totally pure and holy. He hates sin.

    I think we all agree with this.

    So we struggle with the presence of evil.

    I affirm that God allows and permits evil in such a way to accomplish His purposes, display His glory, and for other mysterious reasons that must be morally sufficient.

    But I have to stop at the concept that God "causes" or "ordains" evil--lest I be unfaithful to the whole counsel.

    I can even accept that God ordained to allow evil. He absolutely must have done this.

    But to say that sin begins in heaven before Lucifer and Adam and Eve is skating close to the edge--in my opinion. We are talking about the ontology of God. He can only be good. If good and evil MEET in God, our theology short-circuits. It a melt-down I can't participate in.

    Concerning Comfort We either believe that God is omnibenevolent or we don't. I can see why people would deny His omnibenevolence placing God's will as the determiner of His nature. Language in Romans 9 lends itself to that understanding--and I don't have all my ducks in a row to comprehend it or even answer it.

    However, I think the rest of Scripture is clear that God is omnibenevolent. And I believe you and I both find comfort in the concept that God is good. I link God's goodness and His omnibenevolence. This goes to the heart of why every individual is made.

    Personally, I find no comfort in thinking that God is the source of evil. And I try my best to understand why others find this to be the case. I just cannot understand it. (I'm willing to be called thick-headed.) If God is the source of evil, where do we go to escape it? Hence, the source of sadness I mentioned in this post. The whole issue bolsters or strikes at our hope.

    I find no comfort in a strong, fatalistic determinism referenced by language that says "God causes evil." (Dr. MacArthur was careful not to say this. His wording was "Sin begins in heaven"--meaning before Lucifer, before Adam. So who is the only person left? [I just referenced my notes of Dr. MacArthur's message which have the statement, "Sin started in heaven." [I'm willing to be corrected in the accuracy of my notes or in anything I say or reference....]

    So, before Lucifer or Man--we have evil. God is responsible.

    This changes our understanding of God. (And causes more heat than light in many-a-discussion.)

    Is He Good or Not?

    And the discussion is right back at the starting point.

    I'm not ready to rip anything out of the Bible or deny God's sovereignty, or base my theology on "what's easy." In fact, I find myself praying, "Lord, Help me to submit to any truth in your Word."

    But think of this: If God decides to limit Himself in his relationships to man, in order that we can be "real people,' would not such a decision arise from HIS WILL--hence HIS SOVEREIGNTY?

    I've got no problem with that.

    Do I have a lot more to learn & account for?

    I do.

    At 11:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I respectfully disagree with most of what you've written but instead of specifically addressing each I'll just outline a few thoughts.

    1. God created the world knowing that man would sin. You essentially agree with this, according to your blog. God never "causes" anyone to sin. According to your view it seems you suggest that people would all be very nice folks if not for the ordained evil brought by God (based on your view of MacArthur's message). Obviously, scripture would not agree with this idea. Romans 3:10-18,23 would deal with that issue. God doesn't have to "cause" sin, all he has to do is let men do what comes natural to them.

    2. Man has free will. Who can disagree with this? Of course he does otherwise he could not be responsible. The issue is what is his will? According to the passages mentioned above it's totally anti-God!! We don't want God, we don't seek God, we couldn't care less- all of us.

    I once read an excellent illustration of this:
    A vulture and a sheep are together in a field of green lush grass where the carcass of a cow is also found. The vulture eats the dead cow, the sheep eats the grass and neither has to worry about the other moving in on the other's food. Why? A vulture's will is determined by his nature just as the sheep's is.
    Man's will is determined by his sin nature. Man has the ability to choose but he will always choose sin- always.

    3. You made the statement: "Does a loving God create people solely for a pragmatic purpose of displaying His wrath?"

    Of course not. A loving God ordains evil so that his glory can be displayed in his mercy towards those who are his!

    Finally, I'm including a passage from Romans 9:9-24

    9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return and Sarah shall have a son.”
    10 And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,
    11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad––in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call––
    12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”
    13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
    14 ¶ What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!
    15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
    16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
    17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
    18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
    19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
    20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”
    21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?
    22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
    23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory––
    24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

    This passage seems to explain all these issues perfectly and, in fact, Dr. MacArthur referenced some of these verses in his message (according to your notes).

    According to you Dr. MacArthur's God is too small but (big surprise) it seems the opposite to me. The God I see in the Bible isn't limited to me and my understanding of justice. Most if not all of your argument seems to begin with God having to be found fair and just- according to your definition.
    There are no universal "rules" to which we hold God accountable. He IS the rule if you understand what I mean. It's not that God does right things- things that he may do are right because he does them. Big difference.

    I'm not the most eloquent speaker (or writer), which is painfully obvious, but the passage from Romans 9 says it all. God has compassion on whoever he wills and that's right. It's right because of Romans 3:10-18,23. There aren't a bunch of folks standing at the door of heaven trying to get in and God says, "Sorry, you are not chosen." No, we are all running as fast as we can in the opposite direction completely responsible for our sin and God says, "No, you will not continue in this way," and he gloriously saves someone. Based on his own will, not man's.
    If God didn't choose, there would be no one that would come to him.
    And it's the backdrop of evil, look back at Romans 9, that contrasts the mercy of God and shows forth his wondrous glory in saving anyone.
    That's why it's grace- unmerited favor -because we're all in the same boat (headed straight to hell) and if not for God saving some, all would perish.

    Perhaps I've missed it on Romans 9 but it seems to me that your comments concerning this message are in direct opposition to very, very plain language found in Romans 9.

    I appreciate your honest consideration of such a difficult subject but I would suggest, in all humility, that you are looking at God through the wrong lens.

    At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Marv Fray said...

    Hi John,

    Thank you for taking the time to put your beliefs on your site. I believe as you do, but you say it all better than I have. I've been a church planting missionary in Brazil for 43 years, but now find myself director of a Bible Institute which has the same theological position. We have been looking for good articles that we can put in the hands of the students. We have been concerned to see MacArthurs's position being aggressively pushed and thus becoming popular here. We do have Geisler's book Elect But Free in Portuguese, but not much else. I trust you will be glad to see your blog translated and distributed. Would you like us to give credit to your full name (I believe it is John Rush)? Any other information that you would like included?

    Marv Fray
    Sao Paulo, Brazil


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