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The Divine Glory Defense

In the previous two posts, I looked at Daniel Johnson’s explanation of what Calvinism is and an objection to Calvinism, that is the objection that if Calvinism is true then God intentionally causes evil and God cannot do that. This will be my last post on Johnson’s article, “Calvinism and the Problem of Evil.” Although there is much else in his chapter worth reading and discussing, it is time to wrap things up. In this post, I will discuss the section on the more general problem of evil. I want to focus on the discussion of the divine glory defense.

The problem of evil stated

The problem starts with a question: why is there evil if there is an all good, all powerful, and all knowing being? This question gets reformulated into an argument with the conclusion that there is no such being.  It is common place to distinguish between two different versions of the problem of evil: a logical problem and an evidential problem. The logical problem is that God is metaphysically impossible given the existence of evil. Sometimes the logical problem is stated this way: a contradiction can be derived from the premise that God exists (where God is attributed to have certain properties: omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience) and the premise that evil exists, and we cannot reasonably doubt that there is evil and there are no true contradictions. The evidential problem is a weaker version in the sense that it does not amount to a proof that God does not exist; rather given some evidence, it is more likely than not that God does not exist. How exactly that argument goes can take a variety of forms. William Rowe, who is famous for presenting a forceful version of the evidential problem, provided both an intuitive version and then later a Bayesian version.

There are in fact a variety of different ways to cut up what the problems are, even given the logical / evidential distinction. Is it the existence and duration of some evil that gives us a good reason to think God does not exist? The sheer number of evils? The types of evils? All of these and more can be and have been used as arguments for God’s non-existence.

How to respond to the problems

Over about the last fifty years, philosophers have distinguished between a theodicy and a defense. Roughly stated, a theodicy is an account, or explanation, of a reason God has for permitting some evil to occur. It is identifying a reason God actually has. A defense, by contrast, does no such thing as identify a reason God actually has, were God to exist. The way Johnson discusses the notion of a defense is such that to provide a defense for some evil E is to identify a reason God could have and which would justify the permission of E.1 Regardless of whether one provides a theodicy or a defense, one is arguing that “the objector has insufficient reason to think that God doesn’t actually or possibly have a good reason to allow evil” (Johnson, 41).2

There is no reason to think that the Christian, or more specifically the Calvinist, is limited to providing only one such theodicy or defense. Johnson goes through a series of these and argues that the Calvinist can use them in response to the evidential problem. Less time is spent on the logical problem because, he thinks, if you can answer the evidential problem, you have sufficient resources to answer the logical problem. What is rationally required, though, is that all of the defenses and theodicies one provides should be consistent with one another. The remainder of this post will look at one defense called the “Divine Glory Defense.”

The Divine Glory Defense

The divine glory defense, Johnson writes, “identifies divine glory as the motivating force behind all of God’s actions” (Johnson, 43). Don’t read too much into the idea that there is some force – i.e., some external entity – moving God. That is not what is being said. Johnson is merely saying that the reason for which God acts is that God is seeking his own glory.  What could motivate this idea particularly when it comes to explaining why God would permit evils to occur? The answer is that Biblical passages say as much. Some examples:

  • And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. (Revelation 11:13)
  • And I will set my glory among the nations, and all the nations shall see my judgment that I have executed, and my hand that I have laid on them.  The house of Israel shall know that I am the Lord their God, from that day forward. And the nations shall know that the house of Israel went into captivity for their iniquity, because they dealt so treacherously with me that I hid my face from them and gave them into the hand of their adversaries, and they all fell by the sword. I dealt with them according to their uncleanness and their transgressions, and hid my face from them. “Therefore thus says the Lord God: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel, and I will be jealous for my holy name. They shall forget their shame and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they dwell securely in their land with none to make them afraid, when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies’ lands, and through them have vindicated my holiness in the sight of many nations. Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God, because I sent them into exile among the nations and then assembled them into their own land. I will leave none of them remaining among the nations anymore. And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 39:21-29)
  • Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 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— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:21-24)
  • and say, Thus says the Lord God“Behold, I am against you, O Sidon, and I will manifest my glory in your midst. And they shall know that I am the Lord when I execute judgments in her and manifest my holiness in her;…” (Ezekiel 28:22)

This is a small sample of such passages and it is well worth reading through Jonathan Edwards’ A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World to see what evidence there is. There is no single silver bullet passage, I think, for the claim that all of God’s actions are for the ultimate end of his glory, but there is an impressive inductive case that Edwards provides.3

If God’s wrath, judgment, and mercy are given to show or make known God’s glory as these passages indicate, then we have identified a reason for which God permits evils. 4 But in order for the concept of God’s glory to function as part of a response to the problem of evil, this reason must justify God in permitting these evils. It is one thing to say that R is the reason God does an action, and it is another thing to say that R justifies God in doing it. Thus if R is God’s glory and R the reason for permitting evil, then for the evils that occur R had better be worth it.

What is God’s glory? In order to determine God’s glory can function are part of a sound defense, we first should know what is meant by “glory”.  Johnson discusses a few different ways to understand God’s glory. On his preferred account, God has excellences, which I think is another way of saying great-making properties. These are intrinsically valuable properties. These excellences can be made manifest, and their manifestation (that is, expression) is also valuable. They need not be known by others to have value. But if apprehended or known, that constitutes an additional value in the world.

Given this notion of glory, the defense can run in different ways because there are both ontological and (possibly) epistemic goods that result from the manifestation of the divine excellences. Johnson favors the ontological approach, which focuses on the value of the manifestation of divine excellences rather than the epistemic goods possibly gained by their manifestation. On this approach, there are two points relevant to the defense: (1) that the excellences manifested are themselves good; and (2) that the manifestation of those goods require evil.

Johnson attributes the point that excellences manifestations are themselves excellent to Aristotle. In Book I of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes,

our account is in harmony with those who say that happiness is excellence, or some form of excellence; for ‘activity in accordance with excellence’ belongs to excellence.

actions in accordance with excellence will be pleasant in themselves. But they will be good too, and fine, and will be each of these to the highest degree, if the person of excellence is a good judge here — which he is, and he judges in the way we have said. (NE I.8)

Why does Aristotle say “if the person of excellence is a good judge here”? In the next book, Aristotle concludes,

So things done are called just and moderate whenever they are such that the just person or the moderate person would do them; whereas a person is not just and moderate because he does these things, but also because he does them in a way which just and moderate people do them. (NE II.4)

Aristotle believes that excellent action gets its good making property from what an excellent agent would do.

With that as background, remember that point (1) is that manifested excellences are themselves excellent. How good or of what value are they? Johnson writes, “greatness of an action expressing an excellence seems to be proportional to the greatness of the being whose excellence is being expressed.” What the Aristotle quotes bring out is that there are different things Johnson might mean.

On one interpretation, the greatness of an action expressing excellence is proportional because actions acquire the excellence based on what an excellent agent would do. That is, the positive value an action has is posterior to or dependent upon what a good agent would do. Put another way, we account for what good actions are by starting with who the good agent is, rather than starting with good the actions and then determining who the good agent is on the basis of whether she would do those actions.

On another interpretation, the greatness of an action expressing excellence is proportional because the greater the excellence of the agent is, the greater the possibility for expressing that excellence. By analogy, with more money I can fund even cooler startups and better applications (obviously money is not sufficient for being successful at that). With less resources, the apps I fund or create will likely be less and less excellent.

The first interpretation implies the second, but the second does not imply the first. A more excellent agent has resources to make actions more excellent because actions become excellent in virtue of the agent’s properties. But on the second interpretation, it’s not the agent that makes the actions excellent; it’s just the the agent can do more excellent things.  As far as I can tell, Johnson is not committed to either interpretation. But a larger article on the divine glory defense would have to say something about which interpretation is preferable provided that the proportionality claim is accepted. Anyway, according to point (1), if God exists and is maximally excellent being, then there are some actions God can perform that would instantiate excellences in the world.

The second point was the claim that some of the manifestations of excellences require evil in the world. The best examples to motivate this claim are excellences manifested in response to evil: the excellences of forgiveness, justice, or mercy. It would be odd to forgive someone when there was no wrong committed, and even more odd for a maximally excellent being to do so. And it would be a scandal for God to give wrath to someone who did not deserve it.

Commentary on the divine glory defense 

There are at least three questions that matter in assessing this defense: (1) Are the manifestations of glory worth it? (2) Are the evils that occur necessary for those manifestations? (3) To what extent are these manifestations adequate to dissolve the problem? To answer these questions, let’s look at a recent event.

Italy experienced a 6.2 magnitude earthquake on August 27, 2016. Many people died. Many children died. The death count at the time of writing this is 290. It will likely increase. According to Calvinism’s theory of providence, this event was determined by God. Which excellences of God’s glory were manifested in the death of these children?5 The significance of this question is not about whether God determined, i.e. made certain, this event. Rather, it is to press on how far it goes in accounting for events that make one say, “How long, O’ Lord?” If we are to explain these evils by appeal to divine glory – as we should if we are prepared to say all of God’s acts are for divine his divine glory – then we need to have an answer to the question, even if we cannot identify which excellence(s) was manifested in the event.

There are two possible things I can think a defender of the divine glory defense can say. First, she might say that every action of God is a manifestation of God’s glory in one way or another. The power of God – either in directly causing or in setting up secondary causes – might be made manifest here. In this way, manifestation of power is present in the event itself. Alternatively, she might say that it is not present in the event itself, but the event is a means to some later manifestation of an excellence. Just like the justification for permitting Joseph to be sold into slavery was some later manifestation of God’s glory, so too might it be here with this natural evil.

The latter response is appealing because it is hard to see how every event is a manifestation of some excellence. But there is an argument for the claim that every event is a manifestation of some excellence. The argument goes like this. Everything that happens is a result of God’s will. And for every action God does, he does excellently, because all actions are done by God’s providential wisdom. Hence every event is a manifestation of God’s excellence.6 But once we accept this much, we might wonder why God’s manifestation of excellence should have been manifested in the way that an earthquake would kill 290 people rather than in some other way. Couldn’t God have got the same manifestation of an excellence by doing something else? The answer seems to be “Yes! There is no bar on omnipotence concerning these contingent events; omnipotence ensures God could have manifested the excellence in some other way.  To the extent that this is true, that God could have manifested the excellence in some other way, the evil was not necessary for the manifestation of the excellence. And if the evil was not necessary for the manifestation of the excellence, it doesn’t seem worth it. (That then answers the three questions of this section.) There still seems to be something needing explanation.

Consider this analogy. I can move a stick by putting my hand in contact with it. There isn’t anything very amazing about that. But suppose I could move the stick without being in contact with it either directly or through a chain of intermediaries. That would be amazing. And it seems that physicists are now warming up to the idea of action at a distance. Now suppose, contra Newton, that God is not spatially located. The idea that a non-spatial entity can causally exert power on things in space is a pretty spectacular idea. Every action God does would be a manifestation of his power, and thus a manifestation of an excellence. But if God causes every event (or actualizes some state of affairs), he also causes events or actualizes some pretty mundane things: like that I put my pen three inches from the edge of my desk rather than four inches from the edge. We might wonder why providential wisdom brought one about rather than the other. I do not see how providential wisdom dictates one rather than the other.

The upshot of this discussion, I think, is that the divine glory defense is limited with respect to its ability to provide satisfactory contrastive explanations for why some evils occur. To the extent that the manifestation of God’s excellences require certain evils (e.g., wrath requires acts deserving wrath), the divine glory defense seems initially plausible. But even then, one might wonder why attempted murder, say, could not have been adequate for the manifestation of wrath? Isn’t that also punishable? Why permit murder rather than merely attempted murder? And if we need some murders to really understand how significantly bad attempted murder is, couldn’t we get less of it rather than as much as in, say, Chicago? Thus it seems to me that the divine glory defense can provide an reason for why there would be actions of some kind at a certain level of abstraction – that there would be actions that are worthy of punishment, or for which one could be forgiven – but it cannot provide answers to why some punishable actions rather than others would be determined to occur.

It may still be true that all of God’s actions are manifestations of God’s glory, and every event is a manifestation of that glory. It may also be true that all of God’s actions are exceedingly good, even more valuable than the sum of all the intrinsic and extrinsic goods apart from the manifestations of God’s excellences. But we are still left the desire for the sort of contrastive explanation that, I think, motivates the problem of evil.

One final point: even if the divine glory defense does not have have the resources to resolve why certain evils happened rather than other – that the defense does not resolve that question with respect to some evils, even if it is true that the manifestation of an excellence outweighs the disvalue of the evil – there is still something important we get from this defense. This defense shows it is possible that, on the assumption that God exists, there is some good worth having even though evil exists. And that shows the logical problem of evil has a adequate reply even if the free will defense were to fail.


  1. This is not the only way to understand the notion of a defense. Another way to provide a defense does not require identifying a reason God could have, but rather argue that the premises of the evidential argument do not justify the conclusion that God does not exist given everything one knows.
  2. Some Christian philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen, have also disputed whether the theist must think that God has to have a morally sufficient reason.
  3. Calvinism per se does not imply that all of God’s actions have as their ultimate end God’s own glory. It is entirely possible to think that some of God’s actions have as their ultimate end God’s glory and that other of God’s actions have as their ultimate end something else, e.g., loving some of his creatures; this is a plurality of ultimate ends. Whether there can only be one highest end or a plurality of equally ultimate ends, I will not settle the matter. I won’t settle the matter because it strikes me as a problem akin to the problem of the unity of the virtues, which is itself a complicated topic. However that problem is to be settled, even if it were false that all of God’s actions have as their ultimate end God’s own glory, the defense might still be applied to some evil.
  4. It might be tempting to think that the word “permits” here is too weak for the Calvinist. After all, God is causally bringing about these things. It is important to not get hung up on the use of this word. First, the use of this word by Calvinists was addressed in the previous post. And second, the passages tell that God is causally bringing about these things. So if it helps, just replace instances of “permits” or “allows” with “brings about” and you will still get the point that there is an identified reason for an evil that God has.
  5. This isn’t just a problem for Calvinists. I find no consolation in the idea that God merely weakly actualized this event. Anyone who says God had control over whether this event occur is stuck with the problem: that includes you too, Molinists. No free will here either unless you want to push the implausible idea that the devils freely moved the tectonic plates, but they could have willed otherwise.
  6. Remember, a manifestation of God’s excellence need not be recognized by us as such.
2016-08-28T21:10:57+00:00 August 27th, 2016|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Curt November 22, 2016 at 8:03 am - Reply

    I think the divine glory defense can answer questions such as “Why does God allow evil to exist?”, but not questions such as “Why did God allow 100 murders instead 2 murders?”

    I think that the divine glory defense can be used in conjunction with other defenses. There can be multiple reasons why God allows evil. If there is a certain instance of evil that we cannot explain, then we can use skeptical theism.

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