This is a tough question to answer in a short space, not least because it ties together two complex and controversial topics! Let’s begin with some basic definitions. The problem of evil refers to the challenge of reconciling the reality of evil with the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God. If God is all-good, presumably he would want to prevent all evil. If God is all-powerful, presumably he would be able to prevent all evil. How then can God and evil co-exist?
As many Christian philosophers have pointed out, the apparent logical conflict can be resolved once we recognize that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting an evil; for example, if permitting that evil were necessary to accomplish some greater good. Thus, there is no inherent conflict between the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God and the existence of evil. This insight points us in the direction of a greater-good theodicy: a more detailed explanation of why God permits various evils within the world, whether natural evils (such as diseases and earthquakes) or moral evils (such as murders and rapes). Christian thinkers have developed and defended a variety of greater-good theodicies, but it’s enough for our purposes here to recognize that such theodicies exist and many of them are complementary (i.e., they can be combined to address a wide range of different evils).
So what does predestination have to do with it? The term predestination refers primarily to the idea that God, by some means, predetermines the final destinies of his creatures—either eternal salvation or eternal damnation. However, the term can also be used in a broader sense for the idea that God sovereignly directs everything that takes place in his creation. (As chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession puts it, “God, from all eternity, did […] ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”) Although the concept of divine predestination is often associated with the Reformed or Calvinist tradition, the Bible itself states explicitly that certain things have been ‘predestined’ by God (Acts 4:27–28; Rom. 8:29–30; Eph. 1:5, 11).
If God does indeed predetermine events, including those events that depend upon the free choices of his creatures, that raises two significant concerns with respect to the problem of evil. The first is the worry that predestination would make God “the author of evil” and therefore morally culpable for the evil in his creation. However, divine predestination doesn’t mean that God directly causes or forces his creatures to sin; nor does it mean that God himself commits evil or approves of evil. Rather, it implies that God sovereignly directs events according to his eternal and infallible plan, so that any evil that occurs—including human sin—does so only because it serves some greater good purpose. Arguably the two most striking biblical illustrations of this principle come from the story of Joseph (Gen. 45:7–8; 50:20) and the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 4:27–28). It turns out that divine predestination is consistent with nearly every greater-good theodicy. After all, if God can have morally sufficient reasons for permitting an evil, then he can have morally sufficient reasons for ordaining that same evil.
The second concern is that divine predestination would undermine human moral responsibility. If God predetermines even human choices, how could those choices be free choices for which we can be held morally responsible? If we’re not morally responsible for our choices, then it would be unjust for God to blame or punish us for our sinful choices. A full response to this concern would take us deep into philosophical debates over the nature of free will and moral responsibility. But suffice it to say that there are defensible theories of free will—known as compatibilist theories—according to which there is no conflict between human freedom and divine predetermination. Given a compatibilist account of free will, there’s nothing inherently contradictory about affirming that God can sovereignly direct the free choices of his creatures while rightly holding them responsible for those choices. Indeed, since the Bible itself seems to affirm that very position (consider Acts 4:27–28 again) Christians ought to favor some kind of compatibilist account.
In the end, one might even argue that some form of divine predestination is necessary for a satisfying answer to the problem of evil. For only if God has the power to sovereignly direct everything in his creation, including sinful human actions, can we truly have confidence that, as the Bible says, “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28).
James N. Anderson, Ph.D. is Carl W. McMurray Professor of Theology and Philosophy and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, his scholarly interests primarily lie in philosophical theology, religious epistemology, Cornelius Van Til, and Christian apologetics.
Professor Anderson's Recommended Further Reading on the Topic:
David E. Alexander & Daniel L. Johnson, eds., Calvinism and the Problem of Evil
Guillaume Bignon, Excusing Sinners and Blaming God
Paul Helm, The Providence of God
Greg Welty, Why Is There Evil In The World (And So Much Of It)