Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Puritans and the Problem of Evil

If we want to understand William Bradford and the Puritans, we have to wrestle with the problem of evil. How do we reconcile the following facts?

1. God is omnipotent.
2. God is good.
3. Evil exists in the world.

The study of the problem of evil is called theodicy, and it goes back as far as human thought can be traced, so let's not expect too much of our own quick overview. In short, many modern theologians take the view that God has imposed limits on His own omnipotence in order to allow human beings to truly have free will. This means that people have the ability to make real choices, and those choices are not restricted by God in any way. Since this means that people can choose evil -- intentional, malevolent harm -- evil exists.

The Puritans weren't having any of this "God limits Himself" stuff, and they also did not believe in free will. Strict Calvinism means that people are following God's script to the letter and cannot deviate from it, even if they want to. That lead the Puritans to believe that the fourth part of the syllogism above must be:

4. God is responsible for evil as well as good.

Nevermind that this is a direct contradiction to scripture; it is the central tenet of Puritan religious thought. If evil happens, God caused it, NOT merely "allowed" it. If something evil happens to an individual -- let's say the savages murder a child -- it's because God is punishing that individual for something he or she did. This is why, when his wife is dying, Cotton Mather is downstairs in his study, asking God what he did wrong, instead of upstairs comforting her.

Other solutions for the problem of evil exist, and the thinking person has to sort it out for himself, or herself. The Puritan view is probably not your best option.


  1. I imagine that the Puritans had a very high suicide rate. I mean, I know if I were constantly feelings as though God hated me and wanted nothing more than to punish me, I wouldn't want to be on this Earth for very long. I don't understand how these people believed stuff such as when a little girl is killed by savages, it is merely God punishing her. It makes me wonder if these people ever felt emotion. And if they felt emotion if they ever showed it, even in private. I suppose there is no private with God...

  2. Actually, it was a huge catch -- suicide was a big sin, and Puritans rarely committed it. William Bradford's wife was the exception. I have often wondered how people would deal with life, though, if they felt that God really was out to get them.

  3. I imagine that if you're living out in the wilderness, at the mercy of several different elements, none of which you have the control of I'd come up with some way to imagine that everything's in control and following some grand scheme.

    I know people that think like this today, and that makes less sense to me. I'd be panicking at all times when things were going well waiting for the shoe to drop.

  4. But at the same time it would be easy to see why they felt this way. As opposed to focusing on the grace of God in these times, it was probably easier for them to believe in divine punishment.

    Looking at the culture they came from, the strict persecution of protestants in Europe, they had never known anything but pain and suffering when it came to their religious beliefs. Having to cross the pond to escape the persecution of their churches, they still wound up facing death and hardships in the new world.

    And the puritans essentially did come from a background of hyper-calvanism and hard-determinism in the form of their theological beliefs. God was the cause of everything and there was nothing they could do to deviate from his will .

  5. You're exactly right, Brent, and it poses an interesting dichotomy. The Puritans believed that they could not deviate from God's will in the slightest, and yet they still felt personally responsible for their sin and the sins of their community. No one ever indicated that they felt this was a raw deal, but we, looking back, see them as trapped between two very hard places -- on the one hand, God controls every single decision. On the other hand, they will be punished for the choices God forced them to make. It turned out to be an untenable theological position.

  6. ok. So did the belief that God deals harshly with those who've sinned as he sees fit develop from the fact that their lives sucked? Or did they start out with the belief then started interpreting their own dealings this way?

    Horribly worded question that essentially boils down to which came first? The crappy life or the belief? Chicken or egg?

  7. Brent can check my facts on this one, but I believe the belief came first. John Calvin, who was pretty much the ruler of Geneva, Switzerland, is credited with the theological view that people do not have free will and salvation is for a pre-determined elect, not for everyone. He was not suffering at the time. Calvin also expounded on the Catholic, and indeed, orthodox belief that every human is completely depraved and utterly without worth in God's sight because of sin. If people are *in their very natures* sinful and despicable, then God is perfectly justified in whatever God chooses to do to them.

    Later theologians focused on God's grace -- the gift of salvation to undeserving people -- and the love that God must feel for humans in spite of their total depravity. Calvin, and the later Puritans, absolutely could not relate to this. They had a very "Old Testament" view of God, which isn't the complete picture.

  8. Back to William Bradford's wife committing suicide upon seeing the new world. In class you stated that Bradford NEVER makes mention of this incident in his writings. Could the reason he nevers mentions this in his writing be because free will did not exist in his mind? In that God must have been punishing her for some previous sin. Which also makes me wonder how they considered suicide a sin if they were not able to make real choices.

  9. William Bradford may also be in a sort of denial about his wife's suicide. He could think of it as punishment or mentioning it may bring about feelings that he can't hide such as sadness and anger. We already know that they have to be reserved for their religion so it could be an issue for him that is just easier to ignore than deal with, particularly in a public setting.

  10. You've made an important point, Sarah. The Separatists distrusted emotion. They tried to banish it from their religious practice, and did not give too much scope to it in their personal lives. We'll see in Anne Bradstreet a refreshing (to our 21st Century sensibilities) emotional honesty that the early Separatists tried very hard to kill off. If God has predestined every event, there's no room for emotion; it would seem like complaining against God.

  11. You stated "This means that people have the ability to make real choices, and those choices are not restricted by God in any way. Since this means that people can choose evil -- intentional, malevolent harm -- evil exists." in the original post. And, I can’t help but feel that’s exactly correct so the Puritan view is not for me. One thing that bothers me most about certain people is that instead of taking responsibility in their own actions they blame God. I understand why people would do that, I mean we’re all looking for an explanation to why bad things happen. For example; the Virginia Tech Shooting or 9-11. The decisions made by those people were made by them and they were evil. I can’t find justice in saying that there is no such thing as evil when there are people like that in our world.

  12. People are more likely to use the opposite argument: How can there be a God when there are people like that in the world? Why wouldn't God just strike someone dead before allowing that person to kill innocent people? Leibnitz, and others, have asserted that free will means that God puts the responsibility for our actions on us, and therefore does not countermand the exercise of that free will, even when evil results. See how thorny the problem is?

  13. The Puritans beliefs can from John Calvin who was only a man. However, the Bible is the inspired word of God. If they used ths Bible and intrepreted it correctly, they would have know that God gave man free will to choose to be a child of God or not. Being a child of God does not guarantee that bad things will not happen to you. Bad things happening to you doenst always mean that you have done something wrong, but may be to test your faith.
    -Katy Simpkins