Gordon Clark and the Problem of Evil

One of the most common arguments against orthodox Christianity is the so-called “Problem of Evil” (POE).  This argument is that there is supposed to be a logical contradiction in that these three particular doctrines are held in combination: 1. God is loving, 2. God is omnipotent (all powerful), and 3. There is evil in the world. It is argued that acceptance of any two of these doctrines requires a denial of the third. Yet, Christians hold to all three simultaneously. Hence, a problem. Is the Christian being illogical?  Are their doctrines not consistent?

Naturally, Gordon Clark, in his thorough systematic approach to Christianity addressed this supposed problem.  In his book “God and Evil, Problem Solved” (originally part of “Religion, Reason, and Revelation”) he presented a an answer to the POE consistent with Reformed Theology and in line with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

A common Christian answer to the POE is to assume God gave man “free-will” which man then exercised for evil. (preceded by Satan’s similar choice)  This answer is intended to protect God from charges of creating evil, by putting the responsibility on man and angels. However, according to Clark, it only moves the issue one step further; why does God allow them to be evil?. That God only permits evil and doesn’t actively ordain it, he argues is nonsense.  Permission only applies where there is a force independent of the actor. But the idea of permission is inconsistent with a sovereign, omnipotent, God who has no force independent of him.

Clark pointed to Calvin as supporting the same position:

Calvin’s Institutes (III, xxiii, 8 & II, iv., 3)

“Here they have recourse to the distinction between will and permission. By this they would maintain that the wicked perish because God permits it, not because he so wills. But why shall we say “permission” unless it is because God so wills? Still, it is not in itself likely that man brought destruction upon himself through himself, by God’s mere permission and without any ordaining. As if God did not establish the condition in which he wills the chief of his creatures to be! I shall not hesitate, then, simply to confess with Augustine that “the will of God is the necessity of things,” and that what he has willed will of necessity come to pass.”

Having presented Clark’s critique of the common “free will” theodicy, let’s now look at Clark’s answer. There are four elements of his answer that should be noted.

A. The Distinction Between Free Will and Free Agency

The false doctrine of “free will” is that man has the ability to choose between two incompatible actions; that the will is free from any outside factor.  Clark rejects this teaching. However, he does ascribe to man a “free agency” – that man’s will is free from outside forces in the world, but not free from God.   The Free Agent is independent of natural forces, but not independent of God. Thus, man makes choices as he is a Free Agent, but these choices are only made within God’s will or plan.

Thus, Clark takes a compatibilist view between the free agent’s ability to choose and the deterministic necessity of that choice occurring as God has willed it.  He writes, “A choice is still a deliberate volition even if it could not have been different.”

B. God is the Ultimate Cause of all Things Including Sin

Here, Clark pulled no punches and outright said “Let it be unequivocally said that this view certainly makes God the cause of sin. God is the sole ultimate cause of everything. There is absolutely nothing independent of him. He alone is the eternal being. He alone is omnipotent. He alone is sovereign.”

Clark found support in the Westminster Confession which states that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass and foreordained even the means.

But, while God is the ultimate cause of sin, He is not the author of sin. The author is the immediate cause, whereas God is only the ultimate cause of sin.

C. Responsibility is Derived Not From a Free Will but From God’s Sanction

We are responsible for our actions not because we have the ability to choose otherwise (we don’t) but because God set punishments for those actions.

Consider the Biblical example of the Crucifiction of Jesus Christ.  God foreknew, even foreordained, the crucifixion of his Son by the hands of sinful men. It was God’s will for Herod, Pilate, and the Jews to crucify Christ.. Yet, according to Scripture the godless men who carried out the act are responsible (Acts 2:22,23; 4:27,28)

D. By Definition God Cannot Sin

Whatever God decrees is right simply because he decrees it.  Whatever God does is just. What he commands men to do or not to do is similarly just or not just.

“God is neither responsible nor sinful, even though he is the only ultimate cause of everything. He is not sinful because in the first place whatever God does is just and right. It is just and right simply in virtue of the fact that he does it. Justice or Righteousness is not a standard external to God to which God is obligated to submit. Righteousness is what God does”.


So why is there evil in a world created and sustained by a loving, omnipotent God? Almost hidden in Clark’s writing on “God and Evil” is his answer. In his refutation of a non-Christian professor and speaking of that professor’s view Clark writes:

“To suppose that God created the good and the evil for his own glory, to bestow his love on the good and his wrath on the evil is to lower God to the level of the most degenerate human tyrant.”

This is Clark’s answer. And it’s a Biblical one.  God created the good and the evil for his own glory, to bestow love on the good and wrath on the evil. This doctrine likely came from Paul’s letter to the Romans where he writes:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory. – Romans 9:22-23

6 thoughts on “Gordon Clark and the Problem of Evil”

  1. Gordan Clark answers this question quite well, I believe though there are 2 meanings for the term ‘Author of Sin’ one is blasphemous and means God is blameworthy of sin and approves sin, while the other definition means that God is the ultimate cause of all things which you affirm, Vincent Cheung who is a student of Gordan Clark has written a book on the latter definition, I recommend reading his book ‘author of sin’ . You can also see my post for example http://protestantreformed.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/author-of-sin/

    1. Given the standard definition of “free will” your statement is logically contradictory – being predestined negates free will. However, I’ve found that the standard theological definition (that free will is that man has the ability to choose between either of two direction) does not always match the common or colloquial understanding of the term. Certainly the Bible says that we don’t have Free Will in the sense that we, as sinner, are able to choose God and our salvation. But, the distinction many theologians make regarding “free agency” entails that we do have power to choose simple things in life, even if we are effected by sin in our choice.


  3. I’m confused by your 2nd and 3rd paragraph in the conclusion. It seems to state the same quote but with differing perspectives?

    1. Gabe, I can see how that looks confusing in the text. The second paragraph is actually Clark stating another professors view which he disagrees with. And so, in the third paragraph, I wrote of Clark’s view as the opposite. I definitely could have been more clear!

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