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No Other Gods by John M. Frame

The First Commandment: No Other Gods

We come now to our exposition of the Ten Commandments.[1] Following the Westminster Larger Catechism, we can divide them into one group of four, pertaining to “our duty to God,” and a group of six, describing “our duty to man.”[2] So the structure of the Decalogue parallels Jesus’ “two great commandments,” to love God and to love one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:36–40). This is something of a rough-and-ready distinction, however, since the last six commandments certainly describe duties to God as well as to man, and since the first four have implications for our conduct toward other people as well as toward God.[3] As I indicated in chapter 22, the law is a unity.

My discussions of the commandments will move, as a rule, from theological background to specific applications, from narrow meanings to broad meanings (see chapter 22), from positive to negative.

The first commandment reads simply, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Confessional expositions have been as concise as that of Luther’s Small Catechism: “We must fear, love, and trust God more than anything else.”[4] And they have been as elaborate as this from the WLC:

Q. 104. What are the duties required in the first commandment?

A. The duties required in the first commandment are, the knowing and acknowledging of God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly, by thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honoring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him; believing him; trusting, hoping, delighting, rejoicing in him; being zealous for him; calling upon him, giving all praise and thanks, and yielding all obedience and submission to him with the whole man; being careful in all things to please him, and sorrowful when in anything he is offended; and walking humbly with him.

Q. 105. What are the sins forbidden in the first commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the first commandment are, atheism, in denying or not having a God; idolatry, in having or worshiping more gods than one, or any with or instead of the true God; the not having and avouching him for God, and our God; the omission or neglect of anything due to him, required in this commandment; ignorance, forgetfulness, misapprehensions, false opinions, unworthy and wicked thoughts of him; bold and curious searching into his secrets; all profaneness, hatred of God; self-love, self-seeking, and all other inordinate and immoderate setting of our mind, will, or affections upon other things, and taking them off from him in whole or in part; vain credulity, unbelief, heresy, misbelief, distrust, despair, incorrigibleness, and insensibleness under judgments, hardness of heart, pride, presumption, carnal security, tempting of God; using unlawful means, and trusting in lawful means; carnal delights and joys; corrupt, blind, and indiscreet zeal; lukewarmness, and deadness in the things of God; estranging ourselves, and apostatizing from God; praying, or giving any religious worship, to saints, angels, or any other creatures; all compacts and consulting with the devil, and hearkening to his suggestions; making men the lords of our faith and conscience; slighting and despising God and his commands; resisting and grieving of his Spirit, discontent and impatience at his dispensations, charging him foolishly for the evils he inflicts on us; and ascribing the praise of any good we either are, have, or can do, to fortune, idols, ourselves, or any other creature.[5]

Both Luther and the Larger Catechism find in the first commandment an issue of the heart. For both, the commandment does not tell us only to avoid worshiping other gods, like Baal, Moloch, Chemosh, Astarte, Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and so on. It also teaches us to avoid placing anything other than the true God ahead of him in our thoughts, actions, and affections. The forbidding of literal polytheism is the “narrow” meaning of this command (chapter 22). The forbidding of any competition at all with the true God for our allegiance, obedience, and affection is the broader meaning. As with all biblical ethics, the first commandment is a matter of lordship. We are to recognize from the heart that God is Lord of all things and that therefore he will tolerate no rivals.

The difference between Luther’s exposition and that of the Larger Catechism is that the latter tries to enumerate, as exhaustively as possible, the attitudes of heart and the physical actions that are appropriate to this command and the would-be rivals of God that tempt us to violate it. I find the long lists of virtues and sins in the Larger Catechism amusing at times. I can almost picture a committee sitting around a table, with various people putting up their hands to inject this or that item (“Oh, we must not forget ‘highly esteeming’!”), leading to a list of gargantuan proportions and literary disaster. The Heidelberg Catechism, as usual, is far more graceful:

Q. 94. What does God require in the first Commandment?

A. That, on peril of my soul’s salvation, I avoid and flee all idolatry, sorcery, enchantments, invocation of saints or of other creatures; and that I rightly acknowledge the only true God, trust in Him alone, with all humility and patience expect all good from Him only, and love, fear and honor Him with my whole heart; so as rather to renounce all creatures than to do the least thing against His will.

In this catechism, there is also a list, but it makes no attempt to be exhaustive, and the first person language (echoing the second person, singular language of the Decalogue itself), along with the rhetorically powerful final clause, engages the heart as well as the mind. The Larger Catechism also tries to engage the heart, but it always seems to have in mind the model of a legal document, multiplying citations as if to close every loophole. The Larger Catechism wants to ensure that “having another god before me” will be illegal in the church, and that nobody will have any excuse.

Nevertheless, I actually find the Larger Catechism more edifying than the Heidelberg Catechism, because of its breadth and depth. Whatever we may think of the long lists, the items are almost always biblical (I have chosen not to list the proof texts), and they enable us to dig deeply into the nature of our exclusive allegiance to the Lord. Did it occur to you that “lukewarmness” was a violation of the first commandment?[6] It didn’t occur to me, either, before reading it here. But when you think about it, that correlation is a profound insight. To the extent that we are lukewarm in our attitude toward God, we are putting other things ahead of him. Like other Bible passages (see chapter 21), the first commandment makes demands upon our emotional life. So for those who have the patience to actually meditate on the lists of the Larger Catechism and compare each item with Scripture, there is great spiritual profit here.

Note also little touches like the opening of Answer 104, where we are urged to recognize God as “the only true God, and our God” (emphasis added). That picks up the language of Exodus 20:2, where God identifies himself as “the Lord your God.” This language excludes any merely theoretical acknowledgment of God’s existence. This confession, as much as that of the Heidelberg, is a personal confession, one of covenant allegiance. The Larger Catechism repeats that point in Answer 105, where atheism is either denying (the existence of) God or “not having a God.” So an atheist may be someone who believes that God exists, but who refuses to be his covenant servant.

The lists show us, in practice, what it means to interpret the Decalogue according to the principles of WLC, 99, which I discussed in chapter 22. In the lists, the Larger Catechism considers how each commandment “requires the utmost perfection of every duty” and “forbids the least degree of every sin” (rule 1). The lists also show the “spirituality of the law,” how it extends to “understanding, will, and affections,” and also to “words, works, and gestures” (rule 2). And they show how each prohibition also forbids all “causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto” (rule 6). In the end, they show that each commandment commands all righteousness and forbids all sin. If you or I can measure up to the standards of WLC, 104 and 105 (and of course we will not measure up, short of glory), then we will be completely sinless. For one who is not disloyal to God in any way, in any degree, will surely not do anything contrary to his will. All sin is disloyalty to God. All sin is putting something else before him. So the first commandment defines all sin and all righteousness, from its particular perspective of covenant loyalty.


The Larger Catechism makes a huge number of connections between the first commandment and various virtues and sins. In what follows, I will focus on some of the more obvious virtues implied by the first commandment, perhaps adding some structure and organization to the lists in the Catechism. I shall thereby try to show that the Catechism’s perspective is warranted by Scripture itself, for it summarizes the ways in which Scripture applies this commandment to our ethical life.

In chapters 3 and 22, I described the suzerainty treaty as an ancient Near Eastern literary form, of which the Decalogue and the book of Deuteronomy are examples. In the secular treaties, following the name of the great king and the historical prologue, came the stipulations. The first stipulation, typically, was the requirement of exclusive loyalty. The vassal is not to make similar treaties with any other king. In Exodus 20:3, the first commandment makes that same requirement of Israel. Israel is not to give its ultimate loyalty to any other god.

In the secular treaties, such exclusive covenant loyalty was sometimes called love. Deuteronomy 6:4–5 also expresses covenant loyalty in the language of love: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This is, of course, Jesus’ first great commandment (Matt. 22:36–38). This loyalty-love is the center of the believer’s relationship with God.

I discussed the nature of love in chapters 12 and 19, so I won’t say much more at this point, except to reiterate that in the Decalogue, as well as in the rest of the Bible, love is central to the lives of God’s people. It summarizes our entire obligation.

In the context of the Decalogue, this law of love follows the historical prologue (“who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”), so we see that grace precedes obedience, and that love is the first response of a person whom God has redeemed. And the command to love God precedes the other commandments, indicating that love is the motivation for keeping the rest of the law.

The New Testament realization of this commandment is that Jesus demands the same exclusive covenant loyalty that the Lord demands in the Decalogue. Jesus says that loyalty to him is a higher obligation than loyalty to our parents (Matt. 10:34–37). He did defend the fifth commandment as well, charging that the scribes and Pharisees did not honor their parents (Mark 7:9–13), but he nevertheless placed himself ahead of parents in our hierarchy of ethical obligations. But who deserves a loyalty higher than our parents except the Lord himself?

Jesus should be more important to us than our own lives (Matt. 16:24–27). Indeed, Paul says, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:7–8). None of this makes any sense unless Jesus is indeed God. As God demanded exclusive covenant loyalty of Israel under Moses, so Jesus demands no less from us in the new covenant.

When the rich young ruler asked Jesus what he should do to attain eternal life, Jesus mentioned several commandments of the Decalogue. He mentioned only commandments from “the second table,” the commandments emphasizing our responsibility to our fellow man. When the ruler asked, “What do I still lack?” the reader might expect that Jesus would cite the first table, our responsibility to God. Instead, Jesus said, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). Jesus here demanded a radical renunciation of the ruler’s besetting sin, coveting wealth. And, in effect, he replaced the first table of the law with the commandment to follow him. To be perfect, we must be exclusively loyal, not only to God, but specifically to Jesus. Exclusive loyalty to Jesus does not detract from exclusive loyalty to God, only because Jesus is God.

So the first commandment of the Decalogue is first of all a demand for exclusive loyalty to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—which is another way of stating the law of love.


Another way to look at the first commandment is to say that it is about worship. The first four commandments deal especially with our relationship to God. But in all our relationships to God, we stand as worshipers. When people meet God in the Bible, they bow down; they are moved to worship. So the first four commandments serve as rules for worship. The first commandment deals with the object of worship, the second with the manner of worship, the third with the language of worship, and the fourth with the time of worship.

People who take courses on ethics usually don’t expect to have to study worship as well. Students usually like to focus on second-table issues like abortion, war, and divorce. But in a Christian ethic, we must focus also on our duty to God. Indeed, that must be our primary focus. And the term worship is shorthand for “our duty to God.”

In Scripture, worship is both a broad concept and a narrow concept. Narrowly, worship is what we do on certain occasions. In the Old Testament, it includes the offering of sacrifices of animals, flour, oil, and wine. In both testaments, it includes meetings for prayer, praise, the reading and teaching of Scripture, and observing sacraments. The people of God carry out similar activities in families and privately. The word cultic is sometimes used to describe such activities.[7] The first commandment requires, of course, that such worship be given only to the one true God.[8]

Remarkably, however, Jesus also accepts worship from human beings (Matt. 28:9, 17; John 9:35–38), and he demands that we honor him as we honor the Father (John 5:23). Even the angels worship him (Heb. 1:6). One day all will bow before the name of Jesus (Phil. 2:10). The hymns of Revelation are directed to him (Rev. 5:11–12; 7:10).[9] So first-commandment language applies to the worship of Jesus: his is the only name on which we should call for salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). As the Lord is our exclusive object of worship, so is Jesus, rendering an identity between the two inevitable. As we are to love Jesus above all others, so we are to worship him as we worship God.

Worship in Scripture also has a broader meaning, as indicated in Romans 12:1–2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Here the “living sacrifice,” the “spiritual worship,” is to live lives in the world that are transformed by God’s Spirit. Here, worship is ethics. In the Old Testament, too, there was a close relationship between worship and purity of life. One could approach God only with “clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4; cf. Luke 1:74; Acts 24:16; 2 Tim. 1:3). When we come before God, he must deal with our sins. Hence, Old Testament worship emphasizes sacrifice, and New Testament worship celebrates the finished sacrifice of Christ.

The biblical vocabulary of worship (as ‘abad, latreuein, douleuein, leitour-gein) uses terminology that can refer either to secular or to religious service. And cultic language often applies to ethical purity in general (Matt. 6:24; James 1:27; Heb. 12:28). Paul uses such language also in connection with his mission to the Gentiles. “For God is my witness,” he says, “whom I serve (latreuein) with my spirit in the gospel of his Son” (Rom. 1:9). In Philippians 2:17, he says, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.”

I shall therefore distinguish between worship in the broad sense and worship in the narrow sense. In the broad sense, worship is a perspective on all of biblical ethics. To worship is to obey God, and vice versa. All of life is worship, an offering to him, the living sacrifice of our body. Thinking of our lives in that way is a motivation to godly behavior. And this image shows us again how all sin violates the First Commandment, and how all righteous actions fulfill it.


Consecration is an aspect of worship—setting ourselves and all our possessions apart for God’s use. In a sense, all worship is consecration and vice versa, so consecration is another perspective on the first commandment and on the Christian life as a whole.

Note the many laws in the Pentateuch requiring the sanctification of individuals and things: the firstborn child (Ex. 13), the ransom of individuals for the census (Ex. 30:11–17), the consecration of the Nazirite (Num. 6:1–21), the consecration of firstfruits (Deut. 26:1–19). In circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14; Lev. 12:3) and the Passover (Ex. 12; Num. 9; Deut. 16), God’s people recognize that he has set them apart (consecrated them) from other nations and made them his “holy” people (Lev. 20:26; Deut. 7:6; 14:2, 21; etc.). Similarly, when a person is baptized, he takes upon himself the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19): he becomes God’s person, distinguished from all the other families of the earth. And the Lord’s Supper signs and seals the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, by which we are separated from the world (Matt. 26:28; 1 Cor. 11:25).

So God separates his people from the world to be distinctly his. In covenant, he is our God and we are his people. We have seen in previous sections of this chapter that the first commandment is grounded in who God is, as the Creator, in contrast to us, as creatures. By the fact of our creation, we are bound to love, serve, and worship God above all others. But our obligation is also grounded in what God has done in history, namely, his redemption (Ex. 20:2) and his choice of us as his people, taking us from all the other nations to be holy in him. He is our Lord by creation and redemption.


In discussing love, worship, and consecration, I have linked the first commandment to three positive biblical concepts.[10] But the language of the commandment itself, like most of the commands of the Decalogue, is negative: “You shall have no other gods before me.” So we should look also at the negative thrust of the commandment.

Why is the Decalogue so largely negative? All of the commandments except the fourth and fifth are stated as prohibitions, and the fourth contains much negative language. It is, of course, a matter of emphasis. As we have seen (and as the Catechism emphasizes), negative formulations do not rule out positive paraphrases and applications. Positive and negative are matters more of phrasing than of meaning. But why all the negative phrasing?

The very notion of exclusive covenant loyalty requires us to refuse rival loyalties. And there are rivals, others who tempt us to abandon our covenant with God.[11] God has made covenant with us in a fallen world. So the negative focus reflects the reality of sin and temptation. Obedience to God in a fallen world always involves saying no—to Satan, the world, and our own lusts (1 John 2:15–16). And it requires us to take up arms against wickedness (Eph. 6:10–20). So the ethical life is a conflict, a battle. Scripture calls us to repentance (turning away from a sinful course), self-denial (taking up our cross to follow Christ), and separation (breaking away from associations that compromise our loyalty to God). The New Testament in this regard is no less negative than the Old Testament, the Sermon on the Mount being a case in point. And even love, that most positive of virtues, is described negatively in 1 Corinthians 13.

There is a strong tendency in modern evangelicalism to stick to the positive and avoid the negative. We can argue about the rhetorical issues, but we should be reminded that Scripture, God’s own communication to us, often stresses the negative. Sometimes we need rebuke; we need to be told no. Sometimes we need to reject false doctrine because it is false. Sometimes we must present God’s standards in contrast to the standards of the world, if they are even to be understood.

So the first commandment implies a doctrine of separation, of exclusion, of denial. It tells us to say no. From what are we called to separate? Here, as in all matters, Scripture is our sufficient guide. The concept of separation has been prominent in evangelical writings about the Christian life. Such writings have described “the separated life” as one without alcohol, tobacco, dancing, card playing, and so forth. I shall say more about these issues, but for now we should note that such things are not the focus of biblical separation. Scripture itself focuses, rather, on separation from the following:

False Gods

The narrow teaching of the commandment is that we should not worship beings other than Yahweh (cf. Deut. 6:13–15; 12:29–32). Scripture mentions many such beings that demand and receive worship from humans: Baal, Astarte, Moloch, Chemosh, Dagon, Rimmon, etc. These gods may be fictions, or they may be supernatural beings (demons, 1 Cor. 10:20) who wrongly claim the prerogatives of Yahweh. When tempting Jesus, Satan himself demands worship, and Jesus rebukes him by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, which reflects the first commandment (Matt. 4:9–10).[12]

God tells Israel to be literally iconoclastic, to break down the pillars and altars of false gods, to destroy every vestige of Canaanite religion (Ex. 23:24; 34:13; Deut. 12:2–3). Israel’s separation from false worship is to be drastic, radical, and complete.

If exclusive covenant loyalty-love is the root of all righteousness, then to give that love to someone else is the root of all sin. The true God is a jealous God, as the second commandment tells us, and he will not give his glory to someone else (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). As the unfaithfulness of adultery betrays a marriage, so false worship violates the covenant at its heart. Thus, Scripture often draws parallels between adultery and idolatry (Lev. 20:5; Jer. 3:9; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1–4) and between faithfulness in marriage and faithfulness to the Lord (Eph. 5:22–33).


Worship of Baal and Astarte violates the narrow meaning of the first commandment. But the command also has a broader meaning. It is wrong also to worship our own power (Hab. 1:11), money (Job 31:24; Matt. 6:24), possessions (Luke 12:16–21; Col. 3:5), politics (Dan. 2:21), pleasure and entertainment (2 Tim. 3:4), food (Phil. 3:19), or self (Deut. 8:17; Dan. 4:30). Surely, if it is wrong to worship Baal, it is also wrong to worship something that is even less than Baal pretends to be. And yet that is what we often do. People who would never dream of bowing down in an idol’s temple put other things ahead of God in their lives. Here the temptation is more subtle, and the rationalizations are more readily at hand. Often we just slip into these patterns, rather than making a conscious decision. So the Bible warns us, using language inspired by the first commandment.[13]

Practices of False Religions

God’s people must abstain from divination, sorcery, necromancy, human sacrifice, and superstitions (Lev. 18:21–30; 19:26, 31; 20:6, 27; Deut. 16:21; 18:9–14). Only the true God knows the future, and he is the only one to whom the believer should turn for supernatural help.

False Prophets and Religious Figures

The Old Testament provides the death penalty for sorcerers (Ex. 22:18), those who tempt Israelites to worship other gods (Deut. 13), and false prophets (Deut. 18). If a city in Israel becomes a center for false worship, other Israelites must make war against that city and destroy it completely (Deut. 13:12–18). False prophets include both those who speak in the name of other gods and those who falsely claim to speak the words of the true God (Deut. 18:20). God’s people are not to give heed to such (Deut. 18:14), but only to the word of God (Deut. 18:18–19).

The death penalties here must be understood in the context of Israel’s unique status as God’s covenant people, in his holy land, with his holy presence dwelling among them. Vern Poythress argues that the destruction of an idolatrous city in Deuteronomy 13:12–18 is in effect part of the holy war of Israel against the Canaanite cities in the time of Joshua.[14] When Israelites behave like Canaanites, they must be treated like Canaanites. But Deuteronomy 20 distinguishes between Israel’s wars against cities within the Promised Land and its wars with cities outside. So the issue in these passages is not idolatry per se, but idolatry within the precincts of God’s holy presence. We should not assume, therefore, that the death penalty should be applied to all idolaters everywhere or in our modern nations. Nor is the radical iconoclasm that God demanded of Israel normative for new covenant believers.

Nevertheless, the death penalties indicate even to us today that idolatry is serious business, and that we should be concerned not only with false religion, but also with people who practice it, lest they influence us to be unfaithful to the Lord (Ex. 23:31–33; Deut. 13:6–8; Josh. 23:7–8; Ezra 4:1–3). That God’s people should shun false prophecy and false teaching is also a New Testament principle. Jesus tells us to beware of false prophets (Matt. 7:15; cf. 24:11, 24), and the apostles oppose them (Acts 13:6–12; 2 Cor. 11:13; 2 Tim. 3:1–9; 2 Peter 2:1–22; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 16:13).

Unholiness and Uncleanness

The objects of Israel’s world were divided into three categories: holy, clean, and unclean. The tabernacle, the temple, and the furniture of these buildings are holy. Cattle are clean animals, suitable for food, but pigs are unclean. God intended his people to give special reverence to holy things and to avoid unclean things.

Fig. 6. Degrees of Holiness

God himself is supremely holy,[15] and holy things are things that have a special relationship to God. The tabernacle, God’s house, is holy, but its holiness admits of degrees. The innermost room is the Most Holy Place, entered through another room called merely the Holy Place (Ex. 26:33–34). Compared to the Most Holy Place, the Holy Place is common (the usual opposite of holy). Compared to the Holy Place, the rest of the tabernacle is common. But compared to the area outside, the whole tabernacle is holy. There is even a sense in which the whole Promised Land is holy (Zech. 2:12), the place that God has chosen for his name to dwell in. And in a still broader sense, the whole creation is holy (see fig. 6). The Lord says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool” (Isa. 66:1), relativizing the value of any temple that men might build for him.

The priests are holy people, with holy garments (Ex. 29:29). But, in a broader sense, the whole nation of Israel is holy. God’s own people, separated from all the other nations, are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). They perform holy actions, primarily the sacrificial offerings given to the Lord.

Certain times are holy: the Sabbath and the feasts of the Lord. So, as Tremper Longman points out, God gives to Israel holy places, holy times, holy people, and holy events.[16] The opposite of holy is profane or common, and these terms also admit of degrees. Compared to the Most Holy Place, the Holy Place is common; compared to the Holy Place, the rest of the tabernacle is common, and so forth. God does not tell Israel to avoid the profane or common. Such a prohibition would take Israel out of the world entirely. But he does urge Israel to distinguish between the holy and the common, as between the clean and the unclean (Lev. 10:10).

God revealed to Israel distinctions between clean and unclean things, animals, and people (e.g., Num. 19; Deut. 23:1–14). Poythress believes that cleanness has to do with God’s righteousness and orderliness, and with his desire to illustrate to Israel the importance of separation from sin and death:

Dead bodies are unclean both because of the immediate connection with death and because they degrade the order of living things back to the relative disorder of the nonliving earth. Birds that feed on carrion (dead bodies) are unclean. Things that are somehow defective or deviate from a paradigmatic order are also unclean. Fish with scales are the paradigmatic form of water creature; hence, all water creatures without scales or fins are deviant and unclean.[17]

He subsequently discusses other instances of holiness, cleanness, and uncleanness. These laws do seem to have some connection with hygiene. Many of them mandate practices that modern medical science recognizes as conducive to good health. This may be one means by which God fulfilled his promise to deliver Israel from “the evil diseases of Egypt” (Deut. 7:15; cf. 28:60–61). It shouldn’t surprise us that obeying God tends toward life, rather than toward death. But, Poythress adds, the context of the laws themselves

says nothing about hygiene but stresses the need of Israel to “be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The entire system is a pervasive expression of the orderliness and separation required of a people who have fellowship with God the Holy One, the Creator of all order. As Gordon Wenham says, “Theology, not hygiene, is the reason for this provision.”[18]

The language of clean and unclean can also take on a broadly ethical meaning. Psalm 24:3–4 reads, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” Here it is difficult to tell where the ceremonial ends and the ethical begins, but both are certainly present.

The broadly ethical meaning is prominent in the New Testament. God has cleansed the Gentile nations by the grace of Christ, so that they may enter the covenant people on the same terms as the Jews (Acts 10:15; 11:9). In teaching this lesson to Peter, God tells him in a dream to kill and eat unclean animals. In the Old Testament, the pagan nations were the paradigm of uncleanness. God wanted Israel to be separate from them. But in the New Testament, the grace of God abounds to send Christians out to the nations, taking the gospel to them (Matt. 28:19–20). Association with pagans is now mandatory, not discouraged.

In the Old Testament, the assumption was that association with pagans would lead Israel into sin (see Ex. 23:33). Indeed, God instructed Israel to annihilate the Canaanite tribes within the Holy Land (Deut. 7:1–4, 16–26). In the New Testament, however, the assumption is that the power of the gospel will lead pagans into the worship of the true God and Jesus his Son. Even in a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever, God encourages us to hope that the believer’s faith will prevail (1 Cor. 7:12–16; 1 Peter 3:1–6). This doesn’t always happen, but God often works this way, and we are encouraged to pray for this result. As I mentioned earlier, Christians are to shun false teachers, as in the Old Testament. But the fullness of grace in the new covenant gives us freedom from fear and anxiety about the power of Satan.

So, in one sense, God through Christ has cleansed the nations: not that every pagan will be saved, but that the power of Satan to deceive the nations has been so weakened (Rev. 20:3) that paganism is no match for the power of the gospel, and Christians should seek to become fully involved in the lives of pagans, without participating in their sin. And if the nations themselves are now clean, then there is no need to continue the system of clean and unclean objects. So Jesus teaches his disciples that food cannot defile them, and Mark adds, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19; cf. v. 15; Acts 10:15; Rom. 14:14, 20).

So, in the New Testament, cleanliness (or purity) is ethical, as in 2 Corinthians 7:1, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (cf. Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5).

Holiness and cleanness, then, follow the larger pattern in the biblical applications of the first commandment. Narrowly, they describe the ceremonial requirements for living in the place of God’s special presence. Broadly, they describe our overall ethical relationship to God. The former symbolize the latter, and they also apply the latter to Israel’s unique role in the history of redemption. When the new covenant sets aside that unique role, fulfilling and setting aside the Holy Land, the temple, and the Aaronic priesthood, the ceremonial requirements change. But in the broader sense, we are still in the presence of God, wherever we are in the world, for heaven is his throne and earth is his footstool. And, in his broader presence, it is still important that we have clean hands and a pure heart, that we be separate from the defilements of sin, and that we be holy, as he is holy.

John Frame is the author of many books, including The Doctrine of the Knowledge of GodThe Doctrine of GodThe Doctrine of the Word of GodThe Doctrine of the Christian LifeSystematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian BeliefConcise Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian BeliefA History of Western Philosophy and Theology, and Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief.

John M. Frame (BD, Westminster Theological Seminary; AM, MPhil, Yale University; DD, Belhaven College) is J. D. Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. He is the author of many books, including the four-volume Theology of Lordship series, and previously taught theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and at Westminster Seminary California.

  1. Scripture refers to “the Ten Commandments” (see Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4), but never numbers the individual commandments. There are several different numbering systems. Roman Catholics and Lutherans combine the commandment to have no other gods with the commandment forbidding graven images into one commandment, calling that the first, and then split the prohibition of coveting into two: the ninth being about coveting your neighbor’s house, and the tenth being about coveting his wife, servants, or animals. I will be using the form of numbering common in the Reformed tradition, which sees the prohibition of other gods as the first, the exclusion of idols as the second, and the prohibition of all coveting as the tenth. Choice of a numbering system is not of much theological importance. The Roman-Lutheran system does give less prominence than the Reformed to the command concerning the worship of idols, reflecting a difference in theological emphasis that I will discuss under the second commandment. Nevertheless, their numbering system may be correct. The blessing and curse in Ex. 20:5b–6 appropriately attach to all of verses 3–5a, not just to verses 4–5a. On the other hand, the Roman-Lutheran division of the prohibition of coveting into two commandments is quite implausible. Another possibility is that the references in Ex. 34:28 and elsewhere include the preface of 20:2 as the first. That verse is not, of course, a commandment, but the Hebrew term translated “commandment” in Ex. 34:28 is dabar, “word.” In the traditional Jewish numbering, verse 2 is combined with verse 3 to constitute the first word, and the other commands are numbered as in the Reformed view. But if verse 2 is taken to be the first word, then verses 3–6 could be taken together as the second, and from then on the numbering would work as in the Reformed tradition. That seems to me to be the most likely alternative, but I will follow the standard Reformed numbering.
  2. WLC, 98.
  3. Traditionally, it has been held that the two groups of four and six commandments are the “two tablets” of the original edition (Ex. 31:18; 32:15; 34:1, 4, 29; Deut. 4:13; 5:22; etc.). But I agree with Meredith G. Kline’s argument that the two tablets each included all ten. In the Near Eastern treaties, two copies were made, one for the sanctuary of the great king and one for the sanctuary of the vassal king. In Israel, however, there was only one sanctuary, and both copies were placed there. See Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 113–30.
  4. Luther’s Small Catechism, I, A.
  5. Luther’s Large Catechism is even more elaborate, but its answers, here and elsewhere, are sermonic essays on the text. The Larger Catechism, on the other hand, is a list of mandatory applications, without sermonic discussion. It is more like a legal document.
  6. Or “bold and curious searching into his secrets”? Or “vain credulity”? Or “charging him foolishly for the evils he inflicts on us”?
  7. Do not confuse this use of the term cultic with its use to designate heretical and non-Christian sects.
  8. For a more elaborate account of worship in Scripture, see my Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1996).
  9. For additional references, see DG, 679–80.
  10. Recall my argument in chapter 19 that love gives a positive thrust to biblical ethics, even though Scripture often states its commands negatively.
  11. Hence there is the frequent biblical parallel between our covenant with God and the marriage covenant. See chapter 19 and our later discussion of the seventh commandment.
  12. The Syrian general Naaman, healed of leprosy by Yahweh, determined from that time forward to worship only the God of Israel. But he told the prophet Elisha that he would still be required to escort the king of Syria into the temple of Rimmon for worship. The king would lean on his arm, forcing him into a bowing position! He asked pardon in advance for this, and Elisha appears to have granted it (2 Kings 5:1–19). In these bows, Naaman would not actually be worshiping Rimmon, for worship is a matter of the heart. But the physical act of bowing is something that both Naaman and Elisha took seriously: it requires a pardon, divine forgiveness.
  13. “Mammon,” in Matt. 6:24 and Luke 16:9–13 in some translations, simply means “wealth” or “money.” But Jesus personifies it, as if it were the name of a god, enhancing the allusion to the first commandment.
  14. Vern S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995), 141–42.
  15. For the meaning of holiness, see DG, 27–29. On p. 28, I define it as “God’s capacity and right to arouse our reverent awe and wonder.”
  16. Tremper Longman III, Immanuel in Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001).
  17. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, 81–82.
  18. Ibid., 83. Poythress cites Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 21.

THE WARFARE MODEL by T. David Gordon

In the often invisible, yet real warfare between the forces of good and evil, will this decision likely serve the forces of good or the forces of evil?

Beneath everything else recorded in biblical history is the great warfare between Satan, God’s rebellious creature, and God himself. Satan is malevolent, attempting to destroy all true pleasure, health, happiness, and holiness. God is benevolent, ultimately establishing in his created order the richest pleasure, health, happiness, and holiness. As early as the third chapter of Genesis, even as God cursed the created order because of Adam’s sin, he also promised that there would be a great war in which God’s purposes would triumph:

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3:14–15. The word translated “bruise” here is rare, but in Job 9:17 it is translated as “crush,” which may be more indicative of a serious wound than “bruise.”)

Some may be uncomfortable with it, but one of the most common titles for God in the Bible, used 259 times, is “Lord Sabaoth,” meaning the Lord of Hosts or the Lord of Armies. The title refers to God as he wages terrifying (and ultimately triumphant) war against his enemies and the enemies of his people. As a benevolent sovereign, he will not permit those who revolt against his reign to destroy the inhabitants of his realm, and he therefore wages warfare against the revolutionaries. While much of God’s activity as Divine Warrior occurs in the context of geopolitical Israel, this is nothing less than a type of his eschatological warfare, anticipated in Genesis 3 and consummated in the realities recorded in the book of Revelation.

The Biblical Basis for the Warfare Model

The warfare model arises essentially from three streams of Scripture. First, the Old Testament’s typological expectations of the coming of Christ often include military kings, who lead the people of God in triumph over their enemies. Second, there are those various “apocalyptic” passages in the Bible that describe the entire drama of human existence as a great war between good and evil, between light and darkness.[1] Third, there are those many passages that employ military figures of speech to describe Christian ministry, life, and duty:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Eph. 6:11–13)

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? (James 4:1)

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

Apocalyptic Warfare in the Bible

Scripture often employs military images when describing the future, final consummation of history. In these passages, God is envisioned as a great warrior, ultimately triumphing over the enemies who have despoiled his land, in order to restore order, justice, health, and peace (see Rev. 19:11–21). There is even a vision of warfare in heaven, as Michael and his angels make war against the dragon and his angels (see Rev. 12:7). The beast wages war against the Lamb of God (see Rev. 17). And the exalted Christ himself threatens to war against those within the churches who teach the doctrines of the Nicolaitans (see Rev. 2). In these visions, we perceive the utter incompatibility between righteousness and wickedness, between submission to God and resistance to his reign.

Military Descriptions of the Christian Ministry and the Christian Life

In light of these realities, it is not surprising that the New Testament often describes the Christian ministry and the Christian life using military language. Those who follow Christ are engaged in the great, historic warfare between life and death, health and illness, good and evil, justice and injustice. The Christian ministry is described in military terms; many passages describe the particular nature of Christian warfare and use martial language to depict the life of believers.

For example, in Philippians 2:25, 2 Timothy 2:3–4, and Philemon 1:2, Paul refers to ministers as soldiers. In 1 Timothy 1:18, he uses military language to describe Timothy’s work:

This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophesies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare.

Certain texts describe the nature of this warfare. In Jesus’s day, Hades was considered a place of torment in which souls were imprisoned. When Jesus told Peter, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell [Hades] shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), he was describing the church as a militant institution that breaks down the prison walls of Hades and releases its captives. Additional texts elaborate on this ecclesial conquest:

As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left. (2 Cor. 6:3–7)

Though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Cor. 10:3–6)

Not surprisingly, the New Testament often describes the life of faith in military terms, depicting believers as soldiers who fight on one side of a great war.

Do not present your members to sin as instruments [or “weapons”] for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Rom. 6:13)

The word translated “instrument” (hopla) ordinarily refers to military armament of some sort. Indeed, in contemporary English, we refer to a person who is afraid of guns as a hoplaphobe. The term means “weapon” or “armor” in texts such as John 18:3, Romans 13:12, and 2 Corinthians 10:4.

In Galatians 5:17, Paul writes, “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” The word translated “are opposed to” in this verse is commonly employed in martial contexts, to refer to one’s “opponents” in warfare. Indeed, the devil himself is referred to by this term in 1 Timothy 5:14: “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.” So the term is used in 2 Samuel 8:10: “Toi sent his son Joram to King David, to ask about his health and to bless him because he had fought against Hadadezer and defeated him, for Hadadezer had often been at war with Toi.”

Other passages — such as Ephesians 6:10–17 (the armor of God), 1 Timothy 6:12, James 4:1–2, and 1 Peter 2:11 — envision the Christian life as one of perpetual warfare, in which the forces of evil assault and oppose the forces of good, and vice versa. To believe in Christ requires us to enlist in his cause, to wage war against sin, and to resist its attacks on ourselves, the church, and human society. Not surprisingly, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer published by the Episcopal Church, following many similar vows in earlier liturgies, includes this question as part of its baptismal rite: “Dost thou, therefore, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?” Note the militant nature of this baptismal vow, some form of which can be found in Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Cyril of Jerusalem. Such vows imply that the baptizand is leaving the life of a citizen and beginning the life of a warrior.

Further, these passages often refer to the cosmic warfare as “resistance” on the one side or the other. Satan and his adversaries (including most of the structures of fallen human societies) “resist” the purposes and ways of God, and God’s soldiers resist the resistance. To be a follower of Christ, one must be willing to spot resistance to God’s rule and to resist such resistance. The entire force of well- known texts such as Romans 12:2 suggests this resistance: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” “This world” is hostile to God’s created purposes, and its various cultural expressions always manifest the resistance in their own peculiar ways. We must not be conformed to such resistance.

How the Warfare Model Functions

Before I discuss the duties of the Christian warrior, I must make an important qualification. The Christian faith and the Christian life cannot be reduced to a technique. Jacques Ellul and David F. Wells”[2] have made this case cogently. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit either to enter this warfare or to make any headway therein, and even as we consider those practices, disciplines, and duties by which soldiers wage holy warfare, we must do so with a due recognition that there can be no progress whatsoever apart from the blessings of the Ascended Christ, chief of which is his gift of the Holy Spirit. Only the last Adam, the Seed of the woman, can emerge victoriously over the seed of the Serpent, and all smaller sub- victories are part of his great work, both in his humiliated state and in his exalted state. So we undertake this warfare as a minister undertakes preaching: with complete dependence on the work of Christ and his Spirit.


One of the most common, universal duties in any military is that of the watch. Since surprise is one of the great tactical assets of every army, watchfulness is, and always has been, an essential element of warfare. In ancient times, the watch was quite literally visual; in more recent times, it also includes radar, sonar, satellite photography, and electronic eavesdropping. But the mission has remained the same: don’t let the enemy sneak up on you and catch you unprepared. Many biblical texts warn us to adopt the same strategy. Peter urged, “Be sober- minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

Obedience to Orders

Similarly, obedience is a universal aspect of military life, whether ancient or modern. There may be a place for developing a philosophy or theology of warfare and for debating such things as just war theory, but the battlefield is not that place. Once an engagement has begun, everyone must respect the chain of command, and all inferiors must obey the commands of their superiors.

But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Matt. 8:8–10)

In some sense, then, we might suggest that the warfare model embraces the law model, because the obedience that is such a prominent feature of the law model is also a necessary component of the warfare model.

Equipment and Preparation

Students of the Second World War are quick to point out that American industrial might was critical to the Allied victory. The Americans surprised the Japanese by the speed with which they rebuilt the Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbor, and Hitler could not compete against the ships, airplanes, tanks, and landing craft that the United States produced with great efficiency. The cost of equipping soldiers has increased considerably in the last half century or so: in WWII, it was $170 per soldier; in the Vietnam War, $1,112; and in more recent operations, it is $17,472, primarily because of the rising cost of body armor, communications, and sighting equipment (day and night) for weaponry.”[3] An ill- equipped army cannot defeat a well- equipped one — many battles are won before the first round is fired, because of the successful equipping and preparation that precede the battle itself.

Similarly, in the Scriptures, believers are instructed to prepare and equip themselves for war by putting on the entire armor of God (Eph. 6) and by arming themselves with the right kind of weapons (2 Cor. 10:3–6).

Strategy — Offensive and Defensive

In any military engagement, the highest- ranking officers deliberate and develop strategies, and these strategies are both offensive and defensive. Offensively, the officers determine where and by what means they might achieve the greatest victories; defensively, they determine where their greatest weaknesses lie and how to defend these areas against attacks. Where would a successful offensive procure a great victory? Where would a defeat prove a real setback? Where is the enemy weak? Where am I weak?

Believers must think strategically as well. We must develop long-range offensive strategies — plans to make progress and take ground that is not currently ours. We must also consider defensive strategies, honestly assessing our own personal, ecclesiastical, and cultural weaknesses that the Enemy might exploit, and striving to prevent such victories.

Knowledge of the Enemy

The apostle Paul told the Corinthians,

What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. (2 Cor. 2:10–11)

Sadly, in our present day, we are almost entirely “ignorant of his designs.” If I were to give a pop quiz and say, “Name five of Satan’s designs,” how many would pass? How often do we familiarize ourselves, through study and conversation, with Satan’s designs? Of course, we know that he tries to break our communion with God; we know that he tempts us to sin. But do we know how he goes about breaking that communion or how he goes about tempting us to sin? If we don’t, then we are ignorant of his designs, at our own peril.

As an example, consider Satan’s designs in our contemporary high-tech culture. What does Satan desire but to disrupt our communion with God? And how might our culture and its tools aid him in his effort? Well, in a “connected” culture — where social media, texting, video calling, voicemail, and email are ubiquitous — doesn’t such increased communication with humans naturally result in decreased communion with God? It isn’t easy today to find a place where one can be alone and undisturbed; our technologies, unless we deliberately turn them off, prevent us from having uninterrupted seasons of prayer and meditation. We must not be ignorant of the ways in which Satan would use these tools, and we must intentionally use them in a manner that enhances our true communion with God and with others.

Special Challenges to the Warfare Model

Satan’s Weapons: Deceit and Desire

Scripturally, we find again and again that the primary weapons in Satan’s arsenal are deceit and desire (especially strong desire, or passion). When Satan deceives our understanding, we then behave in a manner consistent with that deception. He makes the world look a certain way to us, and we then behave in accordance with that perception of the world. Of course, the perception is wrong, and the behaviors that follow are destructive. Jesus said about him: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

Satan deceived Adam and Eve into thinking that God’s purposes for them were malicious and would prove harmful. He deceived them into thinking that it was better and wiser to follow him (the Serpent) than God. Once they were so deceived, they behaved accordingly. This remains the preeminent deception Satan employs today. He always attempts to deceive us into thinking that God is malevolent, and that following God will ruin our lives, when nothing could be further from the truth. Following Satan (and his close cousin, self) debases us, demeans us, dehumanizes us; it cuts us off from that great pleasure of knowing and serving God and neighbor — a pleasure that ennobles us and humanizes us — and it substitutes fleeting, debasing pleasures for lasting, ennobling pleasures.

Satan deceives us into thinking that life is better if we seek our own will; the truth is that life is better — both for us and for those around us — if we deny our will and seek God’s. Satan deceives us into thinking that God doesn’t care for us, which leads us to worry and despair; the truth is that God cares for us tenderly, specifically, benevolently, wisely, and eternally. Satan deceives us into thinking that our greatest comforts come from God’s creation; the truth is that our greatest comfort comes from God himself.

Satan deceives us into thinking that receiving is better than giving; the truth is that giving is more blessed than receiving (see Acts 20:35). Satan deceives us into thinking that a “good” life avoids and evades trials, hardships, and suffering; the truth is that Christ called us to taking up our cross daily (see Luke 9:23). His apostle taught us that we are strong when we are weak (see 2 Cor. 12:9), and our communion with the “man of sorrows” (see Isa. 53:3) is rarely more profound than when our afflictions cause us to abandon all confidence in our own resources.

Indeed, according to the Scriptures, we are so deceived that we even confuse death and life. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12). Satan attempts to make a way appear right and pleasant, when he knows it will destroy us. Thomas Brooks referred to this as Satan’s great device, “to present the bait and hide the hook.””[4]

Perhaps the greatest instrument of deception is cultural habit. Cultural anthropologists assure us that every culture establishes habits by which it shames some values or behaviors and honors others. Sociologists of knowledge similarly tell us that every culture, through its habits, creates “plausibility structures” by which some ideas and values appear more plausible and others less so. Since all cultures are now infected by human rebellion, all cultural activity has something of the Tower of Babel in it: an attempt to secure blessedness without God’s re- inviting us to the garden from which we were banished.

Each of us is thus reared in a culture that regards as “normal” values and behaviors that might not at all accord with God’s revealed norms. And yet, the frequency with which we encounter cultural expressions may lull us into thinking that these expressions are “normal,” when they are merely common in our culture. Some cultures revere those who are older, while our culture prizes youth — which accords more with the fifth commandment or with Solomon’s proverbs? Some cultures are ascetic or communal, resisting the acquisition of material goods, while ours is capitalist and consumerist, encouraging the acquisition of material goods — which accords more with the teaching of Jesus? Some cultures respect their received traditions, eagerly studying the past, while ours values novelty, routinely assuming that “newer is better” — which is more consistent with the teaching of Scripture, which urges even new covenant saints, after the resurrection of Christ, to consider the faith of various old covenant saints (see Heb. 11)?

Diversion a special form of deception. Students of military history and tactics note that diversion is one of the most ancient military stratagems, a stratagem designed to turn the enemy’s resources in a direction that will be less dangerous for the attacking force. Before Chancellorsville, for instance, Joe Hooker, knowing that Confederate spies had broken his flag-signal codes, sent a bogus signal that indicated a plan to attack the Shenandoah Valley, hoping thereby to dilute Robert E. Lee’s forces by sending them westward. Similarly, before the D-Day invasion in June 1944, the Allied forces set up a false military base in the north of England, complete with plywood “tanks” and other matériel, in order to divert Hitler’s gaze from Normandy. Those who wage war reckon that the next best thing to destroying an enemy’s capacity to fight is diverting his military power to a place where it will be considerably less threatening.

Since the Enemy of all that is good does not always succeed at persuading us that good is evil and evil is good, he often blunts the force of God’s kingdom by diverting its energies and resources. Indeed, he employed this tactic when he attempted to destroy Christ, the last Adam, in the temptation narrative of Matthew 4. Note, when Christ began to reestablish the reign of God through his public ministry, how Satan worked: by diversion. Satan could not take away Christ’s power to work miracles, so he attempted to divert that power into such meaningless displays as turning stones to bread or leaping from the temple. Similarly, he offered the various kingdoms of the world, and their wealth, in exchange for Christ’s worship. He was desperate to divert and deflect the powers of God’s kingdom that were emerging in the person and work of Christ.

This attempt at diversion did not end with the incarnation of Christ. The church’s temptation, historically, has resembled Christ’s own temptation: to divert her energies from her principal tasks to those that are less significant. Quite frequently, the Enemy diverts the church’s attention to some social reform movement, lest she devote her energies and resources to her distinctive concern for the spiritual and eternal wellbeing of her flock. He routinely diverts the church’s intellectual energy from the vigorous study and refutation of particular cultural errors to quibbling and squabbling over theological issues that have little or no consequence, regardless of how they are resolved.”[5] Often, he even succeeds in creating the same litigious atmosphere inside the church as exists outside it, which spends an enormous amount of time and energy adjudicating matters that are of comparatively little consequence. Obviously, he would rather have the church expend her resources fighting herself than fighting him, and the degree to which he has succeeded in thus diverting our energies would be admirable were it not so wicked.

This Diverter appears to take special delight in persuading ministers to use their pulpits to pursue their own peculiar hobby-horses (often faddish and culture-specific) rather than to declare the unchanging redemptive counsel of God. And few things please him more than cultivating in churchgoers a greater interest in “special” music, dramas, and entertainment than in the divinely instituted means of grace: prayer, the Word, and the sacraments. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could recognize that the means of grace are already “special”?

If I were the devil (no comments, please), and if I knew that “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21), I would do everything in my power to divert both the minister’s and the congregation’s attention and energy in any other direction to any other thing. I would suggest to ministers that what is “really” important is visitation, counseling, playing tennis with the youth, or administration; and I would suggest to worship committees that what is “really” important is giving people what they desire, amusing and entertaining them by abbreviated and simplistic preaching, or by diverting their senses to anything else but the preaching (e.g., the architecture, the interior design, the pipe organ, the choir, the choir robes, the praise band, the chorus, the dramatists, the jumbotron, and so on). If I were the devil, the very last thing I would want would be ministers like the apostles, who “devoted” themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word (see Acts 6:4). But then, I’m not the devil, so perhaps he is not doing such things to divert the church today.

Desires. In addition to deceit, Satan employs corrupt desires to attack us. In our fallen condition, having served the creature rather than the Creator, we have inverted the universe, prizing what God made more than the God who gave it. We have upside- down values, and upside-down desires. “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17).

Further, these upside- down desires are often quite forceful (the Puritans frequently called them “violent”), and when they are unusually forceful, they are called “passions.” These strong desires overwhelm our reason, causing us to behave stupidly.”[6] Some passions are so strong that, once ignited, they almost sweep us away. The unbelieving world thinks of such passions as “irresistible” — and indeed, apart from God’s grace, they genuinely are irresistible.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:1–2)

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

Our Weapons: Faith and Repentance

The weapons of the Christian church are manifold and, we trust, growing. One can only hope and pray that “research and development” will never end, as long as the church is militant. But among the church’s foremost weapons are faith and repentance — these are the antidotes, respectively, to deception and desire. Faith assents to (and rests in) what God reveals, and the more our minds are influenced by his revelation, the less easy it is for the Evil One to deceive us. The ignorant and the uncertain are much easier to deceive than the thoughtful, the learned, and the well- grounded. Those whose faith is fortified by many hours of study, reflection, meditation, instruction, and conversation are more resistant to deception than those whose faith is shaped by sloganized or emotional Christianity. Similarly, repentance is perhaps the greatest antidote to sinful desire — it is the deliberate, intentional determination to exercise self-control and self- denial regarding some specific thought, attitude, or behavior. Indeed, it is the very repudiation of such desire.

When one considers how effectively these two weapons oppose Satan’s primary tactics, it is not surprising to notice how frequently the two are spoken of together in the New Testament.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14–15)

How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:20–21)

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God. (Heb. 6:1)

The two great weapons in the believer’s arsenal are faith and repentance. Each of these is well- suited to counterattack deceit and desire. The “solution” to Satan’s deceptions is to believe what God has revealed. The “solution” to evil desires is to repent of them (the sooner, the better). Faith and repentance, then, are like a soldier’s two legs: With one we stride toward God, and with the other we stride away from sin.

Faith is the positive side of the coin, if you will. On the opposite side is repentance. Faith treasures what is right and true and trusts in what God has said, relying entirely on his Word. True faith is not mere assent, but a heartfelt trust in God’s revelation, because the faithful one reveres God as loving and wise. True repentance is not mere resolve but a resolve based on the perception of sin’s blackness and deadliness. To repent requires a genuine, soul-felt acknowledgment of how vile and wicked sin is.

Application of the Warfare Model

The warfare model reminds us that the stakes of our decision-making are high. In a sense, every decision makes the next battle easier or harder; every decision either strengthens or weakens us amid life’s greater battle. As we evaluate our past decisions, and as we consider making present and future ones, the warfare model demands a broader field of vision — it suggests that we look beyond the immediate consequences of our decisions to the longer-range consequences and tendencies to which they may lead. Especially, perhaps, it challenges us to think strategically: to think of all of life as having both an “offensive” and a “defensive” component. Offensively, we desire to take new ground, not previously occupied; defensively, we desire to protect hard- fought ground from the Evil One.

To illustrate this, imagine two individuals, Mary and Bill. Mary participates in a wide range of church and community activities and is a devoted (and busy!) wife and mother. Bill is single, contemplative, somewhat reclusive. Mary’s faith is fervent and sincere, but her schedule is so full that there is little time in her life for prayer, thoughtful study, or meditation. Bill is similarly sincere, but his personality has left him comparatively withdrawn, if not aloof, from others.

Both Mary and Bill attend First Lutheran Church, and the consistory has announced a new program for distributing goods to those in the congregation who are needy. It asks if anyone in the church is willing to chair this project, and both Mary and Bill think about it. What should they do? Well, Mary is busy enough (probably too busy), and at this point in her life, it would be poor strategy to assume yet another responsibility. Bill, however, needs precisely to actively serve his neighbor, and the fact that he has no family responsibilities means that he has more than enough time to do this. Further, such service would help him to develop in areas where he is comparatively underdeveloped — that is, to take new ground from the Enemy.

Thus, when they face this decision strategically, two different individuals might legitimately give two different answers to the same question (Mary declines; Bill accepts). While the Scriptures do not say to all people, “Thou shalt never serve as chairman of any form of church ministry,” and while they do not say to all people, “Thou shalt always serve as chairman of every church ministry,” the warfare model brings light to the matter that other models do not. For Mary, this is not a strategic time to increase her activity; if anything, she needs more time for the contemplative aspects of the Christian life. But for Bill, this is a strategic time for him to actively serve others and to thereby emulate our serving Lord.

Similarly, the decision regarding which local church to attend is fraught with strategic considerations and consequences. When a family elects to attend and support one local church (and therefore not to attend and support the other local options), this has profound consequences for both the family and the local churches. Ideally, our affiliation with a local church would be highly beneficial both to us and to the church — an affiliation through which we can both bless and be blessed, both serve and be served. Of course, we will rarely achieve such a perfect blend. At some moments in our pilgrimage, we may need to be served more than to serve, and vice versa. In some circumstances, the decision to attend a smaller, struggling church or church plant will demand more of us, but will do more good, strategically, for the kingdom of God than would attending a larger, better- established church. In other circumstances, the opposite could true. Thinking strategically, then, about self, family, and the local and universal kingdom of God might lead two different families to make two different decisions, both of which might be “right.”

Such examples also demonstrate how the five models inform one another. In some sense, the strategic question of which ministry to perform or which local church to attend is also a matter of wisdom, and it is certainly a matter that effects communion with God. While any legitimate form of service in any legitimate expression of the visible church is lawful and is an occasion to imitate God, not every decision is equally wise, not every decision has the same consequences for our communion with God and with other saints, and, surely, not every decision has the same consequences for the warfare between the seed of the Serpent and the Seed of the woman.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  1. Name five of Satan’s designs.
  2. How does the understanding of all of life as warfare challenge or convict you in your decision-making?
  3. How might the warfare model encourage us to boldly apply other models, such as the law model, at times when doing so might be uncomfortable in our secular culture?
  4. How might the communion model help you to resist the enemy’s weapons of deceit and desire?
  5. In what way does the warfare model have implications for every decision we make?

Case Study

Return to your case study from the opening chapter and answer the following questions with it in mind.

  1. What is helpful about viewing the situation through a warfare lens?
  2. What aspects of the situation, if any, does the warfare model not seem to address?
  3. Based on the warfare model, what decision(s) would you advise a person in this situation to make? Why?
  4. Are you satisfied with how the warfare model addresses this situation? Why or why not?

T. David Gordon is the author of Choose Better, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, and Why Johnny Can’t Preach.

T. David Gordon was professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College for more than twenty years. Previously, he was an associate professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and, for nearly a decade, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashua, New Hampshire. He is the author of several books and numerous theological articles.

  1. For example, “Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 12:17).
  2. See Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Knopf, 1964); and David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
  3. Associated Press, Thursday, October 4, 2007.
  4. Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices (1652; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1984), 29.
  5. See T. David Gordon, “Distractions from Orthodoxy,” Modern Reformation 17, no. 5 (September/October 2008), 21–25.
  6. Thus, they are studied by behavioral economists, such as Daniel Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. See his Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions(New York: HarperCollins, 2008), especially chapter 5, “The Influence of Arousal,” 89–105. See also Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” The Atlantic 302, no. 1 (July/August, 2008), 56–63; Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (Tarcher Press, 2008); Ori and Rom Brafman. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (New York: Doubleday, 2008); and Farhad Manjoo, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post- Fact Society (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2008). I fully expect a new area of academic studies to emerge: “Stupid Studies.” In fact, behavioral economics is very close to being such a discipline.

The Free-Will Problem by Scott Christensen

Biblical Christianity makes two indisputable affirmations, yet not without generating fierce controversy. First, God controls in some sense all that transpires in time, space, and history, including the course of human lives. Second, human beings are responsible moral agents who freely choose the direction that their lives take. Our ability to make meaningful choices that impact history as it unfolds is what separates us from every other creature.[1] On the surface, these two truths appear to be in conflict with each other. How can God direct the path of human history and yet humans remain free to choose their own course of action?

This question has plagued philosophers and theologians throughout the ages. The problem perplexes us no less today. Even popular culture has tuned in to the vexing question. Anyone who has watched the Matrix trilogy or Groundhog Day is confronted with daunting notions about free will and whether events are predetermined. The comic strip Foxtrot by Bill Amend tackled the matter with a dry wit befitting the ponderous nature of the subject. In the first frame of a strip composed in 2003, the main protagonist of the comic, ten-year-old Jason Fox, holds a football over his head. He calls out to his best friend, Marcus Jones, to “go deep.”[2]

Marcus deadpans, “How can free will coexist with divine preordination?”[3]

In the next frame, Jason silently ponders the question. In the third frame he replies, “Too deep.”[4]

Marcus then alleviates the moment with lighter fare: “If Batman died, would the Joker be happy?”[5]

Is Reconciliation Possible?

Since free will and divine sovereignty seem irreconcilable, one or the other is usually denied or limited in some degree. Historically, some Christians say that God has purposely limited his sovereignty in order to uphold man’s free will. This is most often associated with Arminianism and the teachings of the theologian Jacob Arminius (1560–1609). Other Christians have emphasized God’s sovereign determination of what transpires while either limiting human freedom or denying it altogether. This is generally associated with Calvinism, a term derived from the Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509–64). Of course, both views date to the early history of the church.[6]

The matter seems straightforward. Either man has a free will that limits God’s sovereignty or God is absolutely sovereign and man is not really so free. But is it possible to somehow reconcile God’s sovereignty with human freedom? It is my quest to answer that question in the affirmative.

This is no easy task, for several reasons. First, the issue has generated no small amount of controversy within the history of the church, including the present. Second, confusion is often generated by the controversy because of caricatures on both sides of the debate. Third, the issues can get complicated, especially because of the apparent contradictory nature of the two basic propositions. Fourth, the claim that we have free will is usually assumed to be true and its meaning self-evident. But if pressed, few are able to articulate a definition. The idea of free will becomes muddled very quickly. Finally, Scripture itself doesn’t provide straightforward answers to questions about free will.[7]For that reason alone, one must approach the subject with great care.

My purpose is to try to clear up some of the murkiness that is commonplace and to provide biblical answers to the questions that free will raises. Most Christians have no problem accepting God’s control over the big picture of history. When it comes to God’s preordaining our actual choices, however, we often entertain a different perspective. Many assume that God’s actions have little bearing on our personal choices. We like to reserve a degree of autonomy for ourselves. God’s sovereignty provokes nightmares “that we are like puppets being jerked around against our wills by a malevolent master puppeteer.”[8]

For many, to deny free will is anathema—we have no choice (!) but to believe in free will. This is understandable. It appears intuitively obvious that we make our own independent choices.[9] They are usually made unhindered and seemingly apart from any outside causes other than our own freedom to choose. This is where confusion sets in. Many readily accept that God chooses us for salvation and directs our lives for his purposes, but don’t we freely choose what we want as well? How can both notions be true? The burden of this book is to answer such questions.

Why Bother?

Does it really matter what one believes about such a contentious subject? Why is it so important? Well, it certainly generates lively debate, but there are reasons why believers need clarity about the matter. A biblical view of divine sovereignty and human freedom highlights a host of important matters in the Christian life. It helps us in the following ways:

  • Sorting out God’s role and our role in matters of salvation.
  • Making sense of how regeneration, conversion, and sanctification work.
  • Understanding how we should engage in evangelism and discipleship.
  • Building greater confidence in God’s providential purposes for both history and our individual lives.
  • Navigating crucial questions about the existence of evil and whether God or man or even Satan is responsible for it.

The questions can be quite personal:

  • If God determines the course of events in my life, how can I be responsible for my actions?
  • How can I have a meaningful relationship with God? Doesn’t his sovereignty undermine my choice to freely love him?
  • Why should I pray, if God has already determined the future? Can my prayers change God’s mind? Do my choices have any bearing on the course of the future?
  • Do God’s commands really matter? If he is sovereign, can’t I do whatever I want?
  • Isn’t divine determinism—another way of speaking of God’s absolute sovereignty—really fatalism, so that it doesn’t matter what choices I make? Shall I resign myself to “what will be will be,” since I can do nothing about it?
  • How can I know whether my choices are in or out of the will of God?

The questions are endless, and the unbridled speculation about the answers threatens to wreak havoc on our limited brain capacity.

I am not writing another book about the doctrine of predestination or the problem of evil and suffering. It will become necessary to touch on these topics, but full treatments of them are to be found elsewhere.[10] Yet few books treat the issue of free will exclusively, especially from a distinctively biblical perspective. Older treatments on the topic are so ponderous that they leave the average reader bewildered—works such as Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Willand Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will. Other treatments of free will engage in discussing heavy philosophical concepts that make matters worse.

Compatibilism and Libertarianism

I approach this subject from what I believe the Scripture, rightly interpreted, teaches. Nonetheless, it corresponds historically to what Calvinism has taught. Furthermore, the approach taken here is often labeled compatibilism. Although the term compatibilism is part of the parlance of modern philosophical discourse on this issue, it accurately reflects what the great American colonial pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards taught. He was the first to thoroughly articulate the ideas of compatibilism in his magisterial tome Freedom of the Will, written in 1754.[11] The common alternative view to compatibilism held among theologians is known as libertarianism, which is in no way related to the political ideology of the same name. This is the view held by Arminians and open theists.[12] This subject matter is not confined to the domain of theology. Secular philosophers engage in these discussions as well, and the viewpoints span a wide and complicated spectrum.[13] Generally, I will not concern myself with non-Christian viewpoints, even though some significant overlap in ideas occurs.

A distinctly biblical form of compatibilism holds that there is a dual explanation for every choice that humans make. God determines the choices of every person, yet every person freely makes his or her own choices. Thus, divine sovereignty is compatible with human freedom and responsibility. In this model, people are free when they voluntarily choose what they most want to choose as long as their choices are made in an unhindered way. In either case, what people actually choose, whether hindered or not, is determined by a matrix of decisive causes both within and without. Biblical compatibilism says that our choices proceed from the most compelling motives and desires we have, which in turn is conditioned on our base nature, whether good or evil. The more voluntarily and unconstrainedly our choices are made, the more freedom and responsibility we have in making them. Sometimes this is called the freedom of inclinationbecause a person is always inclined to make particular choices.

Conversely, libertarianism teaches that free will is incompatible with divine determinism (i.e., God’s meticulous decreeing of all things), since this undermines human freedom and responsibility. It should be noted that Arminians do not espouse the incompatibility of human freedom with divine sovereignty. Rather, they hold that divine sovereignty is exercised so that God does not causally determine human actions.[14] Libertarian freedom of choice comes about when we have the ability to choose contrary to any prior factors that influence our choices, including external circumstances, our motives, desires, character, and nature, and, of course, God himself. If these prior influences decisively determine choices, then the freedom and responsibility of those choices are hindered. God is in control of history, but he exercises that control so as not to interfere with man’s free will. Libertarian free will is often called the freedom of contrary choice.

If the libertarian definition of free will is correct, then God is limited in his sovereignty. On the other hand, if the compatibilist view of man’s will is correct, then it not only is compatible with a robust view of divine sovereignty, but also preserves human freedom and responsibility. I will seek to show how the libertarian view of free will falls short of making sense of human experience and what Scripture teaches. Throughout the book, the main object of my critique is classic Arminianism and its appropriation of libertarian arguments. In contrast, I will devote the larger part of the book to defending a compatibilist perspective on the human will, which I believe is more faithful to Scripture and makes far better sense of our actual experience.

In making the case for compatibilism and against libertarianism, I run up against some unavoidable philosophical concepts and arguments. But my primary goal is not to assess all the complex philosophical arguments, but to show that a broad compatibilist framework better fits the scriptural evidence. The Bible is our decisive authority for judging ultimate truth claims.[15]

The organization of this book is as follows: Chapters 1 and 2 will lay out the libertarian viewpoint and its shortcomings. Chapter 3 will examine what the Bible teaches about God’s absolute sovereignty in determining human affairs, including our choices. This chapter precedes the overview of compatibilism in chapter 4, since God’s sovereignty is foundational to understanding biblical compatibilism. Chapters 5 and 6 will look at two prominent sets of compatibilistic patterns in the Bible to demonstrate the truth of this perspective. The chapters that follow will seek to flesh out the compatibilist view of the human will, freedom, and responsibility. Along the way, I will discuss how this perspective makes sense of many theological and practical issues that affect our everyday lives. The book is designed to facilitate further study of the topic. With that in mind, I close each chapter with a chapter summary and study questions. Most chapters also include a glossary of terms[16] and resources for further study. There is also a full glossary of terms at the end of the book, as well as two appendices. The first appendix is a chart that compares libertarian beliefs with compatibilist beliefs. The second appendix is a review of Randy Alcorn’s recent book hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice, which tackles the same topic. Although Alcorn promotes a compatibilist position, I seek to point out that his perspective differs considerably from traditional biblical compatibilism.

To sort through all the thorny questions and befuddled ideas that surround this topic is daunting, but the rewards are worth the effort. When we enhance our understanding of God’s role and our own roles as his plan unfolds for history and our personal lives, it gives us confidence and hope that God is good and wise and powerful and that our choices have meaning and purpose. We are a vital part of what he does in the world. Our choices matter, and what makes this true has everything to do with the manner in which his sovereignty manifests itself in our lives. I trust that this book will be a faithful guide in understanding this truth.


Arminianism. A theology associated with the teachings of Jacob Arminius (1560–1609). Arminianism teaches five basic ideas. First, God has predestined to save those whom he foreknows will exercise faith in Christ. Second, Christ’s death was an atonement for all mankind regardless of who believes on Christ for salvation. Third, humans in their natural state do not have free will or the capacity for saving faith. But, fourth, God has supplied prevenient grace to all humans so that they can recover free will and exercise saving faith. This prevenient grace enables them to either cooperate with God’s saving grace or resist it if they choose. Fifth, the grace of God assists the believer throughout his life, but this grace can be neglected. Subsequently, the believer can incur the loss of salvation.

Calvinism. A theology that embraces a broad spectrum of ideas associated with the teachings of the Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509–64). Calvinism, however, is often identified by the five points of Calvinism, traditionally represented by the acronym TULIP. The T stands for total depravity, which indicates that humanity is in bondage to sin. The U stands for unconditional election, which indicates that God chooses people for salvation wholly apart from anything they do. The L stands for limited atonement, which indicates that Christ’s death secured atonement only for the elect. The I stands for irresistible grace, which indicates that God draws chosen sinners to salvation irresistibly. The P stands for perseverance of the saints, which indicates that the elect will certainly persevere in their salvation until the end.

compatibilism. The biblical view that divine determinism is compatible with human free will. There is a dual explanation for every choice that humans make. God determines human choices, yet every person freely makes his or her own choices. God’s causal power is exercised so that he never coerces people to choose as they do, yet they always choose according to his sovereign plan. People are free when they voluntarily choose according to their most compelling desires and as long as their choices are made in an unhindered way. While God never hinders one’s choices, other factors can hinder people’s freedom and thus their responsibility. Furthermore, moral and spiritual choices are conditioned on one’s base nature, whether good or evil (i.e., regenerate or unregenerate). In this sense, one is either in bondage to his or her sin nature or freed by a new spiritual nature. See also soft determinism.

divine sovereignty. The biblical doctrine that God controls time, space, and history. Calvinists usually hold that God meticulously determines all events that transpire, including human choices. Arminians teach that God limits his sovereign control of events, giving humans significant freedom of choice, which is defined as libertarianism. See also determinism.

free will (free agency). The idea that humans are designed by God with the capacity for freely making choices for which they are responsible. Most Calvinists and Arminians agree that some kind of free agency is necessary for moral responsibility. But each branch of theology defines it differently. Arminians embrace a libertarian notion of free agency. Many Calvinists embrace a compatibilist notion of free agency. See also compatibilism and libertarianism.

human responsibility. See moral responsibility.

libertarianism. The view that free will is incompatible with divine determinism (i.e., God’s meticulous decreeing of all things), which undermines human freedom and moral responsibility. God’s sovereignty is exercised so that he does not causally determine human actions. Freedom of choice comes about when one has the ability to choose contrary to any prior factors that influence the choice, including external circumstances, one’s motives, desires, character, and nature, and, of course, God himself. If these prior influences decisively determine choices, then the freedom and responsibility of those choices are undermined.

moral responsibility. Humans’ culpability for their moral choices. A person who does good deserves praise or reward. A person who does evil deserves blame or punishment. Most Calvinists and Arminians believe that some kind of human freedom is necessary for moral responsibility. Also termed human responsibility.

Resources for Further Study

F. Leroy Forlines, Classical ArminianismA Theology of Salvation (Nashville: Randall House, 2011). A very readable defense of Arminianism.

Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006). One of the better defenses of Arminianism.

R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1986). A classic defense of the Calvinist view of election.

R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997). A survey of the debate over free will in the history of the church.

David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004). An excellent source for Scripture’s defense of the five points of Calvinism.

Sam C. Storms, Chosen for Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007). An engaging defense of the Calvinist view of election. Also treats libertarian and compatibilist views of free agency.

Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004). A popular defense of Arminianism and critique of Calvinism.

Scott Christensen is the author of What about Evil? A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory and What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty.

Scott Christensen (MDiv, The Master’s Seminary) worked for nine years at the award-winning CCY Architects in Aspen, Colorado: several of his home designs were featured in Architectural Digest magazine. Called out of this work to the ministry, he graduated with honors from seminary and now serves as the associate pastor of Kerrville Bible Church in Kerrville, Texas.

[1] Mark R. Talbot, “All the God That Is Ours in Christ,” in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 56.

[2] FOXTROT © 2003 Bill Amend. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.; also reprinted in Peter J. Thuesen, Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 222.

[6] For the history, see R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997).

[7] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 679.

[8] Gerhard O. Forde, The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 31.

[9] Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 104; Clark H. Pinnock, “Responsible Freedom and the Flow of Biblical History,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1975), 95.

[10] Good accessible treatments of the doctrine of predestination include R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1986); Sam C. Storms, Chosen for Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007); and David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004). Good accessible treatments of suffering and evil include chapters 6 and 7 in John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994); D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006); and Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes, When God Weeps (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997). For a more advanced philosophical and theological treatment, see John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004).

[11] Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will, vol. 1 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957). On Edwards as a compatibilist, see Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 164–71; Paul Helm, “Edwards and the Freedom of the Will,” available at http://paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.com/2011/02/edwards-and-freedom-of-will.html. Compatibilist beliefs are not monolithic. One need not follow all that Edwards taught to be a compatibilist.

[12] Open theism is a radical brand of Arminianism that has been rejected as unorthodox by Calvinists and many Arminians. Open theists virtually deny God’s sovereignty as clearly spelled out in Scripture, including his omniscience and other attributes accepted by orthodox Christianity. See the treatment of this movement by Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000); John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001).

[13] See Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Joseph Keim Campbell, Free Will (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011).

[14] Steve W. Lemke, “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 150–51.

[15] Many philosophers believe that the arguments for various views on free will and determinism have reached an impasse. But philosophical argumentation is not our final recourse—Scripture is (John 17:17; Col. 2:8).

[16] Most italicized terms in each chapter’s glossary are cross-references to other entries, either in the chapter glossary or in the full glossary at the end of this volume.

Encountering the Darkness by Scott Christensen

Untold evils lurk in the ever-present darkness of our disturbed world, a world that is not what it ought to be, a world that is often cold and inhospitable, where pain and suffering seem to be the rule of the day. Consider the story of Louis Zamperini.[1] Louie was a promising young American track champion who ran in the 1938 Berlin Olympics. But the outbreak of World War II brought unimaginable misery to Louie. Drafted as a bombardier, he inexplicably lost control of his B‑24 and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He managed to survive in shark-infested waters for a record forty-seven days before being captured by the Japanese navy. He was transferred to several POW camps over the course of the next twenty-seven months.

Louie’s first experience as a POW was to be shoved into a filthy little wooden shack infested with rats, lice, and the stench of human urine and feces. Beatings were regular, and the food was usually leftover slop full of rat droppings and maggots. Scurvy, dysentery, and beriberi were common killers in the camps. The Japanese strategy for POW treatment during the war was to dehumanize their victims, stripping them of every ounce of dignity, to take away their will to live.

In a prison camp named Omori, Louie met his nemesis, Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe, the disciplinary officer known as “the Bird.” Watanabe was a psychopath of the first order. His menacing black eyes told the story. “Decades after the war, men who had looked into those eyes would be unable to shake the memory of what they saw in them, a wrongness that elicited a twist in the gut, a prickle up the back of the neck.”[2] The Bird would beat a man senselessly for hours and then bizarrely come to tears and apologize, hug him, and give him candy, beer, or cigarettes. Then in a moment he’d return to pummeling the poor soul in another fit of rage. “When gripped in the ecstasy of an assault, he wailed and howled, drooling and frothing, sometimes sobbing, tears running down his cheeks.”[3]

Seeing Louie’s utter determination to survive this kind of hellish treatment, the Bird singled him out for his most malicious attacks. One day Louie’s leg was severely injured by a guard. Because he was unable to do the labor of the others in coal and salt mines, the Bird had him clean a pigsty, using no tools. He was consigned to crawl around, wiping excrement from the sty with his bare hands while secretly stuffing his mouth with pig food to keep from starving.

The Bird sometimes enlisted a line of prisoners to punch the faces of their fellow prisoners who were officers as hard as they could. Those who refused were subject to brutal beatings themselves. Louie was pegged for the worst of this kind of treatment. Each of the enlisted men reluctantly hammered him as he repeatedly dropped to the ground and then finally blacked out. When he regained consciousness, the Bird screamed for the men to resume their punches, which lasted several hours into the night. With every new blow, the Bird became increasingly enraptured with glee. Louie’s face was swollen like a basketball for days.

The climax of wills between Louie and Watanabe occurred when the Bird punished Louie for supposedly letting a goat die under his care. He was ordered to pick up a six-foot wooden beam and hold it straight above his head in front of the other prisoners. If he should lower his arms, a guard was instructed to hit him with the butt of his rifle. The Bird sat on the roof of an adjacent building, laughing and mocking Louie as he stood quivering in the baking sun. Louie was undeterred. He looked the Bird straight in the eyes with unflinching hatred.

Louie’s arms seared with pain. After ten minutes, they grew numb. He faltered slightly, and the guard jabbed Louie with his gun. He straightened up but started becoming disoriented, his thoughts turning hazy and his consciousness weakening. Nonetheless, he summoned a steely resolve: He cannot break me. After some thirty-seven minutes, the Bird was dismayed with Louie’s defiance. He jumped off the roof and rushed to his unyielding enemy, giving him a massive blow to the gut. Louie collapsed, the beam striking his head as he fell unconscious.[4]

By now, Japan’s defeat was imminent, as the devastating B‑29 bombing missions heard and seen overhead made clear. The POWs entertained hope, but they also had every reason to fear that the guards would make good on the military’s “kill-all” orders for prisoners if the war were to end. Of the more than thirty-four thousand American POWs held in Japan during World War II, nearly 37 percent (13,000) died, compared to the 1 percent who died while being held by the German Nazis and Italian fascists.[5]

Finally, Louie was liberated, but his ordeal was not over. He could not adjust to civilian life. Flashbacks brought the sounds and sights of war and prison rushing back. The wrong sound or a difficult recollection would elicit panicked outbursts. The Bird followed him, tormenting him almost nightly in his dreams. The line between reality and illusion became blurred. Sudden and unpredictable rage possessed Louie like a demon. He sometimes assaulted innocent bystanders in public places at the slightest provocation. He turned to uncontrolled alcoholic consumption to relieve his terror, but it was useless. He couldn’t hold a job. He made shipwreck of everything he tried to do. Even his return to the running track failed.

Louie then set himself to a singular objective. He would find the Bird and kill him, and all would be set right. But every wasted scheme on this front failed as well. Most of all, he failed his new bride, Cynthia. He treated her as though she were another enemy. She became frightened for him and then by him. During one nightmare, he found himself in a deadly match with the Bird. He had his neck in a death grip when suddenly he awakened and realized that he was strangling his terrified wife. Sometime later, Cynthia came home to see her drunken husband shaking their newborn baby with the same death grip. She had no choice. She and the baby left him. Louis Zamperini was in worse condition now than he had been in the prison camps.

Coming to Grips with the Problem of Evil

The story of Louis Zamperini is one of countless examples throughout history that expose evil in all its feral wickedness. A whole constellation of evils encompassed the life of Zamperini. Not only did he endure morally evil people, but his human vulnerability had to endure all sorts of natural evils. He was a victim of a malfunctioning aircraft. While adrift at sea, he endured an inadequate life raft, ravenous sharks, hunger and thirst, inedible fish and fowl, and unexpected typhoons. In the camps, he experienced scorching heat and bitter cold, muscle atrophy, delirium, repeated multiple contusions, malnutrition, and disease.

Theologians make a distinction between both kinds of evil. Moral evil refers to the unrighteous thoughts, words, and actions[6] of all morally responsible creatures—angelic and human—in violation of a holy God’s moral commands and principles to whom all stand accountable.[7] These evils cause pain and suffering for others. Natural evil refers to adverse conditions in the world that also cause pain and suffering. Such evil can proceed from (1) natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires, or tsunamis; (2) accidents and mishaps due to the unfortunate consequences of the laws of nature, such as when someone drowns in a lake because he can’t swim or a boulder falls from a cliff and crushes a busload of schoolchildren; (3) sickness and disease, such as pancreatic cancer or COVID‑19; (4) physical and mental handicaps, such as paralysis or Down syndrome; and (5) physical toil that inhibits our bodies almost daily.

Natural evil is the result of the fall of Adam and Eve into moral rebellion against God whereby he brought about a perpetual curse on the creation, altering its favorable conditions (Gen. 3:14–19). We live in a broken world where things don’t function as they should. The laws of nature do not always work in our favor. Decay and corruption have spoiled the pristine goodness of the original creation. Gone is the order, beauty, and functional perfection of Eden.

Evil in a Fallen World

The collusion of all these heavy chains of pain and suffering can hardly be comprehended. The history of the world is the history of humanity’s faltering under the weight of unending systemic moral evils: greed, deceit, exploitation, sexual perversion, rape, racism, terrorism, slavery, murder, war, and genocide. Modern history has no shortage of examples. The Atlantic slave trade captured and sold some fifty million men, women, and children in the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler enacted the Final Solution to kill six million Jews. Eighteen million dissenters of Vladimir Lenin’s and Joseph Stalin’s tyranny suffered in their hellish gulags. Mao Zedong’s revolution starved, persecuted, imprisoned, or executed some sixty million innocents. From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge exterminated over two million souls, most of them buried in the mass graves called the Killing Fields. Other harrowing examples could be recounted.

Contemplating the sheer numbers of such atrocities can become numbing, demonstrating our own desensitization to evil. Yet moral evil is not the only problem we face. We are ever threatened to be laid waste as well by a myriad of natural evils: earthquakes cracking the earth beneath our feet, hurricanes assaulting the cities on our shorelines, floods rushing through our docile subdivisions, tornadoes ripping our homes to pieces, and fiery infernos decimating our beloved forestland. Our physical bodies suffer under endless injury, sickness, disease, and threats of worldwide pandemics. Youth and strength give way to old age and an onslaught of incalculable bodily ailments. No sooner do we emerge bright and beautiful from our mother’s wombs than we are thrust into a storm-tossed sea of pain that pitches us toward death.

No human being is exempt. We all suffer evil. Our personal tragedies are sometimes unrelenting and unbearable. Life seems unfair. Injustice prevails. True acts of righteousness are rare commodities. Wickedness dominates the menu. The guilty flourish while innocent ones languish. All humanity cries out with Job, “But when I hoped for good, evil came, and when I waited for light, darkness came” (Job 30:26). Just when the future looks bright, evil comes roaring back to shatter our hopes. Even now, we seem to be entering a new and disconcerting age when evil is accelerating at a dizzying pace. This has caused no small amount of consternation, fear, and uncertainty about what lies ahead.

The nefarious thinking behind various Marxist-inspired critical theories has emerged to radicalize the world and marginalize any resistance, castigating those who don’t walk lockstep with its tyranny as bigots, racists, privileged upstarts, and truth-deniers who need to conform or be silenced.[8] Its divisive and corrosive effects were first incubated in our universities, and have now infected nearly all our K–12 school curriculums. It is relentlessly pushed by Hollywood and our news media. The poison is injected into all forms of our entertainment, sports, and advertising. The largest and most influential corporations are colluding with government entities at all levels to utilize this radical ideology to deconstruct all the world’s cultural institutions and to reshape education, language, law, economics, entertainment, the arts, and so forth.

This is especially true in the realm of sex and family. The sexual revolution has all but destroyed the family—the fundamental communal institution that God designed for a society to flourish. Our hypersexualized age knows no bounds of perversion with its confusion about so-called gender and sexual identity. Who would have thought that The Walt Disney Company, known for producing family-friendly fare for nearly a century, would redirect its mission to the aggressive sexualization of our children?

Pornography is often a requirement for elementary-school education. Drag shows have become the new entertainment for kids. Genital mutilation is pressed upon young people confused about their gender identity. The purveyors of this abuse have the gall to call it gender-affirming care. Pedophilia is the next socially acceptable perversion, calling its perpetrators MAPs (Minor-Attracted Persons) to soften its heinousness. Sex trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry. Unfettered promotion of sex for anyone with anyone or anything is increasingly part of the driving ethos of the age.

The moral landscape of the Western world has completely shifted as we are poised for collapse. We undoubtedly live in a post-Christian world where God has been “de-godded”[9] and set aside as an outdated relic of a childish bygone era. The notion of unchanging, universal, objective morals has been relegated to the trash heap. If you ask the average person on the street how to distinguish between good and evil, most will have no clue. We live in an age of “expressive individualism”[10]—an age reminiscent of the dark days of the judges, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 21:25).

A Corrupted Christianity

Nowadays what usually passes for Christianity, even evangelical Christianity, is nothing more than what Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.”[11] This man-centered religion has simply adapted the insipid values of the world to its belief system. Its namby-pamby deity sits aloof and allows us all to set our own course toward happiness so long as we tack a Bible verse to the end of our sentences and try to be nice to others. Its religious creed is “God helps those who help themselves.” God is no demanding deity but an easygoing and tolerant buddy, cheering us on from the sidelines so that we can feel good about ourselves while we pursue psychological wholeness and follow our hearts wherever they may lead us. Pay no mind to what the prophets of old declared concerning the deceitfulness of the human heart (Jer. 17:9).

This benign religion and its illusory notion of God obscures a looming problem. We have been programmed by our culture and by our own self-centered and self-deceived nature to put all our focus on the evil that lies outside us, thinking that we are basically good (however we define good). But alas, the true God who has revealed himself in his Word does not allow us such a truncated and distorted perspective. We are not merely victims of evil. We are also perpetrators of evil—all of us. We are violators of true good—good that is defined and exemplified by God himself, not by us and not by the culture.

Under the divine standard: “None is righteous, no, not one; . . . no one seeks for God. . . . No one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12). We are selfish glory-seekers, liars and deceivers, lovers of wanton pleasure (2 Tim. 3:1–5). We are willing to kill and steal to get our way (James 4:1–3). This does not bode well for us. Our intractable and inescapable bondage to our own personal sin (John 8:34) deceives us (Rom. 7:11). It generates no true happiness. Rather, it is a path to unrelenting misery.

Why, O Lord?

And so we are utterly dismayed by this black world and the hopeless conditions we find ourselves in. Unpleasant questions plague every soul under the sun. We cry out—why!? Why all the lies and deception, the dismantling of truth? Why the ugliness, the marring of what was once beautiful? Why the corruption and waste, the dissolution of what is good? Why all this murder and mayhem, the destruction of life itself? And why are we all helpless and impossibly obstinate accomplices in this cosmic catastrophe? Surely this is not the way that it’s supposed to be.

But most of all, we demand—where is God?

We cry out: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1).

Why couldn’t God prevent all this madness from unfolding? Why doesn’t he protect us from harm? Why does he allow us to continue unabated down the hellish trail that the devil has blazed for our darkened souls? Does God not love us? The Almighty One has already shown that he has all the requisite powers to stop the wind and stave off the waves with a simple word (Mark 4:39). What about all the other storms that afflict us? Surely his sovereign power could minimize our harm and maximize our safety. Why doesn’t he do more to prevent chaos and promote peace? Better yet, why does a supremely good and powerful God permit all this calamity in the first place?

Theologians and philosophers call this the problem of evil. It is, no doubt, the most difficult problem that humanity faces. But it is a particularly troublesome matter for genuine and thoughtful Christians, sometimes called the Achilles’ heel of the Christian faith. Why is this? Because Christianity alone among all the world’s religions and ideologies holds to the belief that God is supremely good, righteous, holy, wise, loving, and powerful—the Creator, Sustainer, and Governor of all that exists. His perfections are infinite, unchanging, and unassailable.

No other conception of deity or deities can possibly compare. In fact, the Bible is clear—there is no other God (Isa. 43:10–13). If this is true—and it is—then how can such an unfathomably glorious God permit his wonderfully designed creation and creatures to be decimated by the fall—to descend into this disconcerting darkness?

Tracing the Problem of Evil

Throughout the ages, many unbelievers have refused to acknowledge the God of the Bible directly; nonetheless, they know in their heart of hearts that such a God exists, as Romans 1:18–32 clearly teaches. Furthermore, they have surmised the basic contours of the problem of evil, yet doggedly insist that it proves that God does not exist. And yet, ironically, they intuitively know that if God did not exist, then there would be no problem of evil. Why?

Because we cannot avoid presupposing that a supremely wise God of perfect goodness, righteousness, justice, and truth alone sets the standard by which all things that fail to meet this standard must be measured. Without the sun, we’d never know that we lurk beneath the shadows. In other words, without a supremely good God, you cannot say that there is such a thing as evil. And you would have no basis to ask God the question “why?” when evil smacks you hard in the face.

Skeptical philosophers—going back to Epicurus (341–270 b.c.) and, famously, to David Hume (1711–76)—have tried to frame the problem of evil as a logical conflict between the existence of God on the one hand and the presence of evil on the other, as shown in the argument put forth below. Notice, however, that the argument does not target some generic version of God. Only the God of the Bible undergoes the sort of scrutiny that the problem of evil demands. In fact, we all know this as creatures made in his image. We don’t have to be skeptics to question how the one true God fares in the face of evil while it tests just how much faith we really have in him.

Here is the argument:

(1)  The God of the Bible is all-powerful (omnipotent).

(2)  The God of the Bible is all-good (omnibenevolent).

(3)  Yet evil exists.

(4)  Therefore, the God of the Bible cannot possibly exist.

The argument assumes that statement 3, “evil exists,” is not in dispute; and this is true. Rarely does anyone dispute this fact. What is in dispute is either statement 1 or 2. But notice that the argument has some hidden assumptions and can be reworded this way:

(1)  The all-powerful (omnipotent) God of the Bible can prevent evil.

(2)  The all-good (omnibenevolent) God of the Bible wants to prevent evil.

(3)  Yet evil exists.

This leads to some preliminary conclusions:

(4)  Therefore, either God is not all-powerful(he cannot prevent evil) or he is not all-good (he does not want toprevent evil).

The supposed conflict between these two preliminary conclusions leads to the same conclusion as before:

(5)  Therefore, the God of the Bible cannot possibly exist (because the Bible insists that God must be both all-powerful and all-good).

Let us examine this argument. Some suppose that statement 1 is false while statement 2 is true. This is what Rabbi Harold Kushner argued in his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The famed rabbi wrote, “I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.”[12] People who believe this must find themselves in a miserable quandary, believing in an impotent God who can do nothing more than cry with us when tragedy strikes.

On the other hand, many smug secularists are happy to concede that statement 1 is true while statement 2 is false; this way, they can claim that any God who allows evil when he could easily prevent it must be evil himself. But are these the only two conclusions that one can draw from the argument? Christianity does not need to cower in a dark corner when faced with the supposed conundrums here.

When this argument is closely examined, one serious problem is seen with it: statement 2. All orthodox theologians acknowledge that statement 1 is true, and the Bible itself is clear on this matter. God has all the requisite powers to prevent or stop any instance of evil. But it does not necessarily follow that God in his all-encompassing goodness wants to prevent or stop every instance of evil, as statement 2 suggests. The fact is, he clearly has not done so, and the Bible is also clear on this. The skeptics think this means that either he is evil or he cannot exist. But is it possible that the God of the Bible can be supremely good, having no possibility of evil in his being, and yet somehow have a sufficiently good and wise reason for allowing evil to exist? The burden of this book is to answer that question in the affirmative.

More than One Problem of Evil

There is more than one problem of evil. The mere existence of evil is not a sufficient reason for many people, especially Christians, to question the existence of God. Consider, however, the vast extent of evil or the horrendous nature of some evils. Does this not impugn God? The Holocaust serves as one of countless examples. Maybe one could forgive God if six or even sixty Jews had died at the hands of the demonically inspired Hitler. But what about six hundred? Six thousand? That seems to stretch our patience.

If sixty thousand Jews had died or, God forbid, six hundred thousand, Hitler would still be one of the greatest villains in the history of the human race, and many would demand that God has some explaining to do. Yet that is not what we are dealing with. We are confronted with the fact that nearly all European Jews—six million of them—were wiped off the face of the planet, regarded as vile creatures in the eyes of not only Hitler, but most ordinary, God-believing, hardworking, family-oriented German citizens (and many other ordinary citizens throughout Europe).

Can you see the problem that the Christian faces?

But that is not all. The vast extent of the Holocaust is one thing. Consider the horrendous nature of many of the crimes that were committed by the Nazis. No one has captured the horror of the Holocaust as Elie Wiesel has in his memoir Night. Wiesel survived both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Monowitz concentration camps during World War II. When he first arrived at Auschwitz, he watched helplessly as little babies were unloaded from the back of a lorry and nonchalantly tossed into a fire to be reduced to ashes.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget these things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.


We look at such horrendous evil and we say that it is senseless, gratuitous, having no possible good reason to transpire. Why would God allow it? Later Wiesel and multitudes of other prisoners fixed their eyes on two men and a boy who were ordered to the gallows for sabotage in the camp.

The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.

“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.

But the boy was silent.

“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.

At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.

Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. . . .

Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing. . . .

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“For God’s sake, where is God?”

And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

“Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows . . .”

That night, the soup tasted of corpses.[14]

As Wiesel so poignantly illustrates, it is not just the extent and horrendous nature of evil that gnaws at us. It is the way in which evil impacts us directly, personally, powerfully, hauntingly, ripping its deadly claws through our tender souls and leaving us to cry out to God.

Does he hear us? Is he there?

If you are honest with yourself, you have been in this place too: When your beautiful baby unexpectedly dies. When your wife declares that she does not love you anymore and leaves for good. When your business fails because your partner embezzled all its funds. When the fire from your faulty furnace lays waste to your uninsured home. When your church splits in two because your pastor has been exposed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

How about when your grandchildren have to live with parents who exist in a perpetual delirium while being decimated by methamphetamines? When terminal cancer has canceled all your plans for the future? When your girl comes home from school and declares that she is a boy? When child protective services comes knocking because you disagreed with the school’s assessment of your girl’s transition?

We have our stories. We have our anger, our bitterness, our depression, our disillusionment. We have our ceaseless sorrow, our unfading wounds. We have our questions for God.

Will he answer us?

Searching for a Solution to the Problem of Evil

Believers have been responding to the problem of evil from the beginning of history. The technical term in theology used by believers to defend the Christian faith with respect to the problem of evil is theodicy, a word coined by the eighteenth-century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. It combines the Greek words for “God” (theós) and “justice” (dikē). Consequently, a theodicy is an attempt to put forth a solution that “justifies God” in the face of evil, defending his divine integrity and exonerating him from the charge that he is morally culpable for the evil that permeates his creation. Ultimately, a theodicy tries to show why God has allowed evil to ruin his good creation. While Christians have put forward many different theodicies, they can be consolidated around two basic approaches.

The first and most common theodicy is often called the free-will defense. This solution says that evil unfortunately arises as a risk God takes when he grants free will to his moral creatures. There are serious problems with this solution, as we will see in chapter 2. The second basic approach to the problem of evil is often called the greater-good defense. This theodicy’s solution says that God allows evil only in cases in which that evil is necessary for the emergence of some greater good—a good that could not otherwise emerge unless the evil connected to that good existed.

The theodicy I present in this book is a species of the greater-good defense. It takes the ideas that are crucial to this solution and advances them in very specific and far-reaching ways. Most solutions to the problem of evil are content to provide the most succinct and sufficient way that the Christian faith can avoid the charge that God is culpable for evil. By contrast, a more robust theodicy gives reasons not merely why God is not culpable for evil, but in fact why he has a very clear and definite purpose for it.

In other words, most theodicies are strictly defensive positions, trying to defend God from the fiery darts of the skeptics and all those dismayed with a God who seems too inept to handle all this pain and suffering. This is unfortunate. The God of the Bible is never backed into a corner of the ring, trying to avoid all the punches thrown his way. The Bible is not afraid to expose the full gamut of evil right from its very first pages. Rather, evil, in all its manifestations, is a prominent part of the whole storyline of Scripture, and God is never tainted by his indispensable connection to it.

Evil was no accident.

Yet the Bible does not provide a direct answer to the questions: Why evil? Why the fall? Why all this corruption, pain, and suffering marring the cosmos? Nonetheless, it tells a remarkable story that narrates God’s plan for history in which it becomes clear why he not only permits evil, but dare we say, planned for it—all of it—to contribute to his glorious plan. The theodicy that the Bible implicitly unfolds is one in which the incomprehensible magnificence of our God is on full display.

Many Christians suppose that God’s purpose in creating human beings is to maximize their happiness. Evil disrupts these plans, and so the solution to the problem of evil is to figure out why God hasn’t restored human happiness. But if maximizing human happiness is God’s purpose, then let’s be honest: he has not done a very good job.

Furthermore, this solution is cringeworthy because it places humanity at the center of God’s purposes, as though human happiness were the supreme good of all reality. That is simply not true. God is at the center of all reality. God’s purpose in creating humans and the rest of the created order is to put his own glory on display, and to do so supremely. In fact, it could be no other way. If God is truly God, then he must of necessity be at the center. If reality were analogous to our solar system, then he must be the sun and we be the planets orbiting the sun. Only the sun has the mass and gravity to maintain the center and to keep the planets from flying to pieces. Nothing can displace the sun from its central place.

Likewise, we can never imagine a world where God does not occupy the place of singular majesty and glory. Everything that takes place, whether good or evil, must not detract from that glory. Rather, every last vestige of good and evil was purposely designed by God to magnify his glory and to do so supremely. And it is here that a legitimate pursuit of human happiness lies. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism captures this point well: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Our joy as human beings is found in one place—the glory of the incomprehensibly magnificent God (Ps. 16:11).

Thus, whatever theodicy the Bible supports must be one in which God is supremely glorified. For that reason, the theodicy I propose is called the greater-glory theodicy. The greater goods that God brings out of the darkness must shine a brilliant light on a greater glory resting in himself. Furthermore, he has designed his plan for history to magnify the well-being (happiness) of his adopted children, whom he has chosen to pull out of the darkness and to set before his glorious grace.

In the light of his wonderful countenance we find our greatest good and our greatest joy. Furthermore, what magnifies our own personal well-being is directly tied to the fact that we had to be dragged through all the filth and debris of a dirty, broken world, of our souls’ being corrupted by evil within as well as victimized by all manner of evil without. The grace of God that penetrates the darkness within and without is what in the end supremely magnifies God’s glory and works for our greatest well-being.

The Rest of Zamperini’s Story

This is exemplified in the rest of Louis Zamperini’s story. Louie’s wife filed for divorce after his abuse and violence reached a point of no return. But shortly afterward, she attended the well-known 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that jump-started the evangelistic career of the young firebrand Billy Graham. Cynthia was converted to Christ the first night she attended and told Louie that she was dropping the divorce.

After days of resisting, Louie finally consented to go with her one night to hear Graham preach. The evangelist was in dead earnest in his gospel appeals. Louie was uncomfortable. But when Graham spoke of divine judgment for those who think they are good, Louie was moved to anger. He thought of himself as a good man. Yet he knew that he was a liar. With every word Graham spoke, Louie’s thoughts grew more haunted. He huffed home that night and faced the maniacal Bird once again.

Louie was convinced to see Graham the following night. This time, Graham spoke directly to the problem of evil and why God allows such suffering, and then how he often penetrates the pain with a supernal peace. Louie was transported to a day in 1943 when he was adrift at sea after his B‑24 crashed. He entered that place along the equator called the doldrums where the sea mysteriously turns into a motionless sheet of glass. He knew without a doubt that the strange feeling of absolute serenity he felt that day could come only from the hands of an immensely powerful and benevolent God. Louie knew that he should have never survived his ordeal. God’s mercy had sustained him every moment.

Then Graham spoke of the saving grace that all must find in Christ. Still, Louie resisted, his head sweating now, throat constricting, the weight on his chest increasing. His rage returned, and he grabbed Cynthia and bolted from the service. But as he rushed outside the tent, it began to rain. He stopped and turned toward Graham. Then he had one final flashback. It was a moment on the life raft when he had made a promise to God: “Lord, bring me back safely from the war and I’ll seek you and serve you.”[15]

This recollection was the turning point. He soon dropped to his knees and begged God for pardon and trusted Christ. Louie went home that night in a state of serenity that he had never experienced before. God had indeed saved his physical life; now he embraced Christ to save his spiritual life. He threw all his alcohol down the drain along with his anxiety, his anger, and his thoughts of revenge. The Bird came to him no more—neither that night nor any night since. Suddenly, Louie developed an insatiable appetite to know Christ and the Bible.

Louie Zamperini was a new man, and the gratitude he felt for his salvation was incomparable to the misery he had endured for the previous six years. In fact, the contrast between the depths of his misery and the heights of his peace made his experience of God’s grace and glory all the more remarkable.

Zamperini’s story is one of many that provide us with a glimpse into what God is doing in this broken world. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). The one whose head is “like white wool, like snow,” whose eyes are “like a flame of fire, his feet . . . like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace,” and whose voice is “like the roar of many waters” (Rev. 1:14–15)—this One is magnifying his grace and his glory beyond all compare, and this is what is at the heart of the greater-glory theodicy that we will explore.

Study Questions

1.  Can you recall some “evil” event that affected your life? How did you respond to it?

2.  What is the difference between moral evil and natural evil?

3.  How did evil come about in the world?

4.  What do you believe is the greatest evil afflicting our culture today?

5.  What is the problem of evil? Why is this a unique problem for Christianity?

6.  Is the problem of evil more of a problem for God’s omnipotence (all-encompassing power) or his omnibenevolence (all-encompassing goodness)? Explain your answer.

7.  The author says that there is more than one problem of evil. Aside from the logical problem of evil as expressed by various philosophers challenging the existence of God, what other two problems does the author discuss?

8.  What is a theodicy?

9.  Explain the basic difference between the free-will defense and the greater-good defense.

10.  Why must a biblical theodicy be God-centered instead of man-centered?

Scott Christensen is the author of What about Evil? A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory and What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty.

Scott Christensen (MDiv, The Master’s Seminary) worked for nine years at the award-winning CCY Architects in Aspen, Colorado: several of his home designs were featured in Architectural Digest magazine. Called out of this work to the ministry, he graduated with honors from seminary and now serves as the associate pastor of Kerrville Bible Church in Kerrville, Texas.

[1] See Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (New York: Random House, 2010); Louis Zamperini with David Resin, Devil at My Heels (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

[2] Hillenbrand, Unbroken, 232.

[3] Hillenbrand, 237.

[4] Hillenbrand, 296.

[5] Hillenbrand, 315.

[6] See Gen. 6:5; Matt. 5:21–30; 1 John 3:15.

[7] See Rom. 1:18–32; 2:14–15; 3:9–20, 23.

[8] See Voddie T. Baucham Jr., Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe (Washington, DC: Salem Books, 2021); Owen Strachan, Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement Is Hijacking the Gospel—and the Way to Stop It (Washington, DC: Salem Books, 2021); Erwin W. Lutzer, No Reason to HideStanding for Christ in a Collapsing Culture (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2022); John MacArthur and Nathan Busenitz, eds., Right Thinking for a Culture in Chaos: Responding Biblically to Today’s Most Urgent Needs (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2023); Carl R. Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022).

[9] See D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 33.

[10] Trueman, Strange New World, 22–24.

[11] Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[12] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 134.

[13] Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 34.

[14] Wiesel, 64–65.

[15] Zamperini and Resin, Devil at My Heels, 241.

Plato (427–347) by John M. Frame

Plato was the greatest student of Socrates and one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The greatest philosophers (among whom I include also Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel) tend to be those who bring together many ideas that at first seem disparate. As an example: Parmenides said that Being is fundamentally changeless, Heraclitus that the elements of reality are in constant change. Plato’s genius is to see truth in both of these accounts and to bring them together into a broader systematic understanding. Similarly, Plato provides distinct roles for reason and sense experience, soul and body, concepts and matter, objects and subjects, and, of course, rationalism and irrationalism.

Plato’s epistemology begins with the observation that we can learn very little from our sense organs. So far, he agrees with the Sophists. Our eyes and ears easily deceive us. But the remarkable thing is that we have the rational ability to correct these deceptions and thus to find truth. It is by our reason also that we form concepts of things. We have never, for example, seen a perfect square. But somehow we know what a perfect square would be like, for we know the mathematical formula that generates one. Since we don’t learn the concept of squareness by sense experience, we must learn it from reason. Similarly concepts of treeness, horseness, humanity, justice, virtue, goodness, and on and on. We don’t see these, but somehow we know them.

These concepts Plato calls Forms or Ideas. Since we cannot find these Forms on earth, he says, they must exist in another realm, a world of Forms, as opposed to the world of sense. But what are Forms, exactly? In reading Plato we sometimes find ourselves thinking of the Form of treeness as a perfect, gigantic tree somewhere, which serves as a model for all trees on earth. But that can’t be right. Given the many different kinds of trees, how could one tree serve as a perfect model for all of them? And even if there were a gigantic tree somewhere, how could there be a gigantic justice, or virtue, or goodness? Further, Plato says that the Forms are not objects of sensation (as a gigantic tree would be). Rather, they are known through intelligence alone, through reason. Perhaps Plato is following the Pythagoreans here, conceiving the Forms as quasi-mathematical formulae, recipes that can be used to construct trees, horses, virtue, and justice as the Pythagorean theorem can be used to construct a triangle. I say “quasi” because Plato in the Republicsaid that “mathematicals are a class of entities between the sensibles and the Forms.”[1] Nevertheless, he does believe that Forms are real things and are the models of which things on earth are copies.

The Forms, then, are perfect, immaterial, changeless, invisible, intangible objects. Though abstract, they are more real than the objects of our sense experience, for only a perfect triangle, for example, is a real triangle. And the Forms are also more knowable than things on earth. We might be uncertain whether a particular judge is just, but we cannot be uncertain as to the justice of the Form Justice. Thus, the Forms serve as models, exemplars, indeed criteria for earthly things. It is the Forms that enable us to know the earthly things that imitate them. We can know that someone is virtuous only by comparing him with the norm of Ideal Virtue.

The Forms exist in a hierarchy, the highest being the Form of the Good. For we learn what triangles, trees, human beings, and justice are when we learn what each is “good for.” Everything is good for something, so everything that exists participates in the Form of the Good to some extent. The world of Forms, therefore, contains not only formulae for making objects, but also norms defining the purposes of objects.

In Euthyphro, Socrates argues that piety cannot be defined as “what the gods desire.” For why should they desire it? They must desire it because it is good. So piety is a form of goodness, and goodness must exist independently of what gods or men may think or say about it. So it must be a Form. We should note, however, that if courage, virtue, goodness, and so forth are abstract Forms, then they have no specific content. To know what is good, for Plato, is to know the Form of the Good. But Good is what all individual examples of goodness have in common. How, then, does it help us to know specifically what is good and what is bad?

Anytime we try to define goodness in terms of specific qualities (justice, prudence, temperance, etc.), we have descended to something less than the Form of the Good. The Form of the Good serves as a norm for human goodness, because it is utterly general and abstract. Any principle that is more specific is less normative, less authoritative. Such is the consequence of trying to understand goodness as an abstract Form rather than, as in biblical theism, the will of a personal absolute.[2]

The world of sense experience is modeled on the world of Forms. Plato’s Timaeus is a sort of creation account in which the Demiurge, a godlike figure, forms matter into patterns reflecting the Forms, placing his sculpture into a receptacle (perhaps empty space, or an indeterminate “stuff” anticipating Aristotle’s matter). The Demiurge is very different from the God of the Bible, for he is subordinate to the Forms and limited by the nature of the matter. The matter resists formation, so the material objects cannot be perfect, as the Forms are. So the Demiurge must be satisfied with a defective product. It is not clear whether Plato intended this story to be taken literally. He sometimes resorted to myth when he could not come up with a properly philosophical account of something. But it is significant that he saw the need for some means to connect the Forms with the sensible world. And it is significant that he made that connection personal rather than impersonal.

But how do we know the Forms, located as we are in this defective, changing world? Here Plato reflects the subjectivism of the Sophists and Socrates: we look within. We find within ourselves recollections of the Forms. Recollections? Then at one time we must have had experience of the Forms. When? Not in this life, where our experiences are limited to imperfect and changing things, but in another life before this one. So Plato embraces the Pythagorean-Orphic doctrine of reincarnation. We lived once in a world in which the Forms were directly accessible to us. Then we “fell” from that existence into the sense-world, into bodies. Our knowledge of the Forms remains in memory, but sometimes it has to be coaxed out of us by Socratic questioning. One famous example is in Plato’s Meno, where Socrates asks questions of an uneducated slave boy, leading him to display a knowledge of geometry that nobody expected him to have.

The world of sense is not strictly knowable. Plato compares it to the shadows cast by a fire in a cave. Prisoners chained in the cave all their lives can see the shadows, but they mistake them for the truth, so in fact they know virtually nothing. Their notions are conjecture, not knowledge. We can move beyond conjecture to belief by distinguishing between images (such as shadows and pictures) and actual objects. Thus we come to know the visible world. But we do not “understand” the visible world until we see the things of the world as instances of general concepts. Thus we move from conjecture, to belief, to understanding. Pure knowledge is still a fourth stage: intuitive vision of the Forms. The first two stages Plato calls opinion, the last two knowledge. The first two come through sense experience, the last two through reason. Our sense experience is illumined by the sun; our knowledge of the intelligible world is illumined by the Form of the Good.

In Phaedrus, Plato considers knowledge from another perspective: knowledge is motivated by love. In beautiful objects,[3] we see an echo of true beauty, and we are moved by passion to seek the Form of Beauty itself. Here is another example of the Greek focus on inwardness. People have sometimes said that the search for knowledge must be disinterested, without passion. Although Plato advocated the dominance of intellect over the appetites, he saw a positive use of the passions, even in philosophy.

Since we once lived apart from the body in the world of the Forms, it must be the case that the human soul can exist separately from the body. In Phaedo, as Socrates prepares for death, he bases his hope for immortality on this epistemological argument. Plato divides the soul into three parts. The lowest is the appetitive, which seeks physical necessities and pleasures. Next higher is the spirited, which includes anger, ambition, desire for social honor, and so on. The highest is the rational, which seeks knowledge for its own sake.[4] We can see how, with a bit of emendation, these divisions correspond to the later common distinction between emotions, will, and intellect, respectively. They correspond even more closely to Freud’s distinction between id (appetitive), ego (spirited), and superego (rational). In Phaedrus, Plato sees the spirited part as a driver with two horses, white (the rational) and black (the appetitive). The spirited is swayed sometimes by the appetitive, sometimes by the rational. The more it subordinates its appetites to its intellect, the better off it will be; see fig. 2.1.

Fig. 2.1. Plato’s Analysis of the Individual Soul, with Comparisons

But Plato’s major interest, like that of Socrates, was to tell us how to live. His metaphysics and epistemology are all a prelude to his ethics and political theory. Yet it is in these areas that he is most disappointing. His Socrates discusses at length the nature of justice and courage, but comes to no firm conclusion. He does conclude that the definition of virtue is “knowledge.” One never does wrong except out of ignorance. If one knows what is right, he will necessarily do it. But most of Plato’s readers through the centuries (including his pupil Aristotle) have dismissed this statement as naive, and Christians have found it superficial in comparison with the Bible’s view of human depravity.

And if virtue is knowledge, knowledge of what? Knowledge of the Good? But good is more difficult to define than virtue is. Like all other Forms, it is abstract. So how can it settle concrete ethical disputes, such as whether abortion is right or wrong? For Plato, to live right is to know the Good. But to say that is to leave all specific ethical questions unanswered.

Plato did come to some specific recommendations in the area of politics. But these recommendations have been almost universally rejected. In the Republic, he divides the body politic into groups corresponding to the divisions of the soul. In his ideal state, the peasants are governed by the appetitive soul, the military by the spirited, and the rulers by the rational. So the rulers of the state must be philosophers, those who understand the Forms. Such a state will be totalitarian, claiming authority over all areas of life. The upper classes will share their women communally, and children will be raised by the rulers. Art will be severely restricted, because it is a kind of shadow of which one can have only conjecture, the lowest form of opinion. Images detract from knowledge of Beauty itself (the Form), and they can incite to anarchy. Donald Palmer says that Plato’s Republic “can be viewed as a plea that philosophy take over the role which art had hitherto played in Greek culture.”[5]

Most modern readers look at these ideas with distaste. Where did Plato get them? It would not be credible for him to claim that he got them by contemplating the Good. Rather, the whole business sounds like special pleading. Plato the philosopher thinks that philosophers should rule. He is rather like a Sophist here, claiming to be the expert in the means of governance. But he certainly has not shown that philosophers in general have any of the special qualities needed to govern. And the Sophists denied what Plato claims: access to absolute truth. We may applaud Plato’s rejection of relativism. But his absolutism is what makes him a totalitarian. He thinks the philosophers have Knowledge, so they must rule everything.

Plato engages in special pleading because he has no nonarbitrary way of determining what is right and wrong. But as we’ve seen, once one identifies Goodness as an abstract Form, one cannot derive from it any specific content. So Plato’s ideas about ethics and politics lack any firm basis or credibility.

The best thing that can be said of Plato is that he knew and considered seriously the criticisms that could be made against his system. He treats a number of these in the Parmenides, without actually answering them. In this dialogue, Parmenides asks the young Socrates whether there are Ideas (Forms) of such things as mud, hair, and filth. He might also have asked whether there are Ideas of evil, of imperfection, of negation. But how can there be a Form of imperfection, if the Forms by definition are of perfection? But if there is no Form of imperfection, then the Forms fail to account for all the qualities of the material world.

Another objection (called the third man): if the similarity between men requires us to invoke the Form Man to account for it, then what of the similarity between men and the Form Man? Does that require another Form (a Third Man)? And does the similarity between the second Form and the third Form require a fourth, ad infinitum?

The first objection shows that the Forms are inadequate to account for experience. The second objection shows that on Plato’s basis the Forms themselves require explanation, and that they are inadequate to provide that explanation themselves.

Plato also explores other objections to his theory that I can’t take the time to describe here. The main problem is that the Forms cannot do their job. The Forms are supposed to be models for everything in the sensible world. In fact they are not, for perfect Forms cannot model imperfection; changeless Forms cannot model change. So the imperfection and change of the experienced world have no rational explanation. Plato tries to explain them by the story of the Demiurge in Timaeus. But that, after all, is myth. Plato gives us no reason to believe in a Demiurge, and in any case the Demiurge does not account for the existence of matter or the receptacle. So the changing world of matter and space is for Plato, as for Parmenides, ultimately irrational. Parmenides had the courage to say that the changing world is therefore unreal. Plato does not go quite this far; rather, he ascribed a greater degree of reality to the Forms than to the sense-world. But we must question Plato’s assumption that there are degrees of reality. What does it mean to say that one thing is “more real” than another?

The picture should be clear by now. Though Plato is far more sophisticated than the pre-Socratics, his position, like theirs, incorporates rationalism and irrationalism. He is rationalistic about the Forms, irrationalistic about the sense-world. For him, reason is totally competent to understand the Forms, incompetent to make sense of the changing world of experience. Yet he tries to analyze the changing world by means of changeless Forms, an irrational world by a rationalistic principle. Eventually, in the Parmenides, he has the integrity to admit that his fundamental questions remain unanswered; see fig. 2.2.

Fig. 2.2. Plato’s Rationalism and Irrationalism

With Plato as with the pre-Socratics, the tension between rationalism and irrationalism has a religious root. If Plato had known the God of Scripture, he would have known in what fundamental ways our reason is competent, yet limited. And he would have understood that the world of change is knowable, but not exhaustively, because God made it that way. He would also have been able to consult God’s revelation for ethical guidance, rather than teaching his students to rely on the abstract Form of the Good, which has nothing specific to say to them.

John Frame is the author of many books, including the four-volume Theology of Lordship series, and previously taught theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and at Westminster Seminary California.

John M. Frame (BD, Westminster Theological Seminary; AM, MPhil, Yale University; DD, Belhaven College) is J. D. Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando.

[1] Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 20. Allen’s further comments on this issue are helpful.

[2] And if anyone asks the relation of goodness to the God of the Bible, the answer is as follows: (1) Goodness is not something above him, that he must submit to; (2) nor is it something below him, that he could alter at will, but (3) it is his own nature: his actions and attributes, given to human beings for imitation. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

[3] His example is the beauty of a boy, as a pederastic love interest. As did many other Greek thinkers, Plato favored homosexual relationships between men and boys, another indication of how far the Greeks were from the biblical revelation. Paul’s argument in Romans 1 presents homosexuality as a particularly vivid example of the depths to which people fall when they reject God’s revelation.

[4] In Phaedo, the soul is only the higher part, but in Phaedrus, the soul includes all three parts, even prior to its bodily existence.

[5] Donald Palmer, Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing, 1994), 73.