Edwards on Evil at 303
There’s nothing particularly special about the number 303, but those of you who know me probably figured out that I couldn’t let October 5th go by without saying something about Jonathan Edwards. For those of you who didn’t know, Edwards was born on this day 303 years ago. It seems appropriate, then, at least for me anyway, that we take note of his immense contribution to our understanding of God.
One of Edwards’ more intriguing and controversial suggestions concerns the problem of evil. He addressed the subject on numerous occasions, but nowhere with greater clarity than in Miscellany 348 (see the Yale edition of Edwards’ works, The Miscellanies, edited by Thomas A. Schafer [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994], pp. 419-20).
I’d like to cite his comments together with a few observations of my own in an attempt to bring clarity to this massively difficult subject. I’ve taken the liberty of smoothing out Edwards’ prose in order to facilitate our grasp of his argument. Here is what he said:
“It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested and another not at all, for then the effulgence would not answer the reality.”
Edwards argues elsewhere that it is more than “proper” and “excellent” that God’s glory shine forth in its fullness, it is essential. This isn’t because something other than and outside God requires it of him. Rather, it is the very nature of divine glory that it tends toward self-expression and expansion, not in the sense of growth or quantitative increase, but manifestation and display for the sake of the joy of God’s creatures in it. Not only that, but it is “proper” that all of God’s glory be seen that we may know God as he truly is and not simply in part. If one or several divine attributes were disproportionately dominant in their display (and others barely noted at all), an imbalanced and inaccurate view of God would emerge (this is what Edwards meant when he said that otherwise “the effulgence would not answer the reality”). He continues:
“Thus it is necessary that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.”
In using the word “necessary” he is not suggesting that sin, considered in and of itself, has a right or inherent claim on existence. Rather, sin was “necessary” in the sense that in its absence there would be no occasion for the display of his righteous wrath, justice, and holiness as that in God which requires punishment (or at least no display sufficient for a “complete” or true knowledge of what God is like and why he is glorious). And without a revelation (or “shining forth”) of the wrath that sin deserves there would scarcely be a revelation of the true and majestic depths of goodness, love, and grace that deliver us from it.
“If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s justice in hatred of sin or in punishing it, . . . or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. No matter how much happiness he might bestow, his goodness would not be nearly as highly prized and admired. . . . and the sense of his goodness heightened.
So evil is necessary if the glory of God is to be perfectly and completely displayed. It is also necessary for the highest happiness of humanity, because our happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of God is imperfect (because of a disproportionate display of his attributes), the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.”
This point is directly related to the question: Why didn’t God elect all unto eternal life? Paul addressed this point in Romans 9:22-23 by reminding us that God desired to show his wrath and make known his power in order that his mercy and grace might be seen in unmistakable clarity and his glory displayed to his everlasting praise. Were he to have elected all, rather than some, to eternal life this goal would not have been attained nor would the plenitude of God’s glory been sufficiently seen.
Such was Edwards’ attempt to account for the existence of evil. I don’t expect everyone to applaud his efforts, but there is one thing on which we can, indeed must, agree: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).