Tertullian – Against Marcion’s “Problem of Evil”

As early as 300BC, Epicurus posed the Problem of Evil succinctly: Since evil exists, either God is not good (He does not wish to stop it), or He is not all-powerful (though willing to stop it, He is not able) – or He simply does not exist at all.

It’s a pithy way of summing it up, but it wasn’t a new thought to the world. The most ancient book of the Bible is a story built around this problem (the book of Job, written ~2000BC).

Some Christians within the past 500 years have proposed that God is, in fact, the scriptwriter of evil. Not only has God permitted it with the desire to redeem people from it, but has God conceived or and ensured every act of moral decay: God scripted the exact ways they would desire and bring about every single sin. Strange, indeed! Their defense of God is two-fold.

  1.  First, they object that this view is no more problematic than saying God permits evil, especially since God foresees the evil that will emerge from His creation.
  2. Second, they claim that when God “creates sin”, and brings forth such evil plans, it is “good.” (Despite poetic language exalting God for His plan for scripting such evil, one gets the distinct feeling that such theologians are calling evil good).

Tertullian wrote in ~200AD against the heretic Marcion, who had numerous issues. One of them was a flawed way of dealing with this problem of evil and the implications for who God was. Tertullian deals with all the issues above, for Marcion contested that if God was good, and powerful, and had knowledge of the future, then there was no possible way for Him to be a ‘good’ God as revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. For Marcion, he felt this was a philosophical proof that there must be a darker, more sinister side to divinity. (This section is found in Against Marcion, Book II, Chapter 5).

If Tertullian had embraced the view that all sin is indeed from the pen of God, scripting angelic and human agents to desire and perform evil, then he might have said, “It is true that God desires evil to occur. However, this does not impair His character, for whatever evils men do with malicious intent, these He scripts them to do with the good intent of damning them forever in the exaltation of His justice.” This odd argument is often used by the theistic determinists who claim God is the author of sin.

Tertullian will have none of it. He comes out swinging:

Now then, you dogs, whom the apostle puts outside, and who yelp at the God of truth, let us come to your various questions. These are the bones of contention, which you are perpetually gnawing! “If God is good, and prescient of the future, and able to avert evil, why did He permit man, the very image and likeness of Himself, and, by the origin of his soul, His own substance too, to be deceived by the devil, and fall from obedience of the law into death? For if He had been good, and so unwilling that such a catastrophe should happen, and prescient, so as not to be ignorant of what was to come to pass, and powerful enough to hinder its occurrence, that issue would never have come about, which should be impossible under these three conditions of the divine greatness. Since, however, it has occurred, the contrary proposition is most certainly true, that God must be deemed neither good, nor prescient, nor powerful. For as no such issue could have happened had God been such as He is reputed— good, and prescient, and mighty— so has this issue actually happened, because He is not such a God.

So Tertullian – rather than avowing that God has some secret plan to exalt Himself in the sins and damnation of humanity – seeks to vindicate God’s reputation and to show that God is truly represented in the goodness in Jesus Christ (a position Marcion found untenable).

In reply, we must first vindicate those attributes in the Creator which are called in question— namely, His goodness, and foreknowledge, and power.

…But what shall I say of His prescience, which has for its witnesses as many prophets as it inspired? After all, what title to prescience do we look for in the Author of the universe, since it was by this very attribute that He foreknew all things when He appointed them their places, and appointed them their places when He foreknew them? There is sin itself. If He had not foreknown this, He would not have proclaimed a caution against it under the penalty of death.

Now if there were in God such attributes as must have rendered it both impossible and improper for any evil to have happened to man, and yet evil did occur, let us consider man’s condition also— whether it were not, in fact, rather the cause why that came to pass which could not have happened through God. I find, then, that man was by God constituted free, master of his own will and power; indicating the presence of God’s image and likeness in him by nothing so well as by this constitution of his nature. For it was not by his face, and by the lineaments of his body, though they were so varied in his human nature, that he expressed his likeness to the form of God; but he showed his stamp in that essence which he derived from God Himself (that is, the spiritual, which answered to the form of God), and in the freedom and power of his will. This his state was confirmed even by the very law which God then imposed upon him. For a law would not be imposed upon one who had it not in his power to render that obedience which is due to law; nor again, would the penalty of death be threatened against sin, if a contempt of the law were impossible to man in the liberty of his will. So in the Creator’s subsequent laws also you will find, when He sets before man good and evil, life and death, that the entire course of discipline is arranged in precepts by God’s calling men from sin, and threatening and exhorting them; and this on no other ground than that man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance.

Goodness, then – why would God give such power to mankind? As CS Lewis put it, “Apparently He thought it worth the risk.” But what worth? Tertullian explains God’s purpose in granting freedom to man:

[Experientially knowing God’s own possession of freedom of will is the reason for God’s gift of it to man, and it shows God’s goodness to us]…Well, then, it was proper that God should be known; it was no doubt a good and reasonable thing. It was also proper that there should be something worthy of knowing God. What could be found so worthy as the image and likeness of God? This also was undoubtedly good and reasonable. Therefore it was proper that (he who is) the image and likeness of God should be formed with a free will and a mastery of himself; so that this very thing— namely, freedom of will and self-command— might be reckoned as the image and likeness of God in him…. The goodness of God, then, you can learn from His gracious gift [of free will] to man, and His purpose from His disposal of all things. At present, let God’s goodness alone occupy our attention, that which gave so large a gift to man, even the liberty of his will.

Entire freedom of will, therefore, was conferred upon him in both tendencies; so that, as master of himself, he might constantly encounter good by spontaneous observance of it, and evil by its spontaneous avoidance… both the goodness and purpose of God are discovered in the gift to man of freedom in his will.   …It is, no doubt, an easy process for persons who take offense at the fall of man (before they have looked into the facts of his creation) to impute the blame of what happened to the Creator without any examination of His purpose. To conclude: the goodness of God, then fully considered from the beginning of His works, will be enough to convince us that nothing evil could possibly have come forth from God; and the liberty of man will, after a second thought, show us that it alone is chargeable with the fault which itself committed.

Tertullian sums up. He urges the reader to consider God’s revelation of Himself, rather than falling into flawed philosophical questions:

By such a conclusion all is reserved unimpaired to God; both His natural goodness, and the purposes of His governance and foreknowledge, and the abundance of His power. You ought, however, to deduct from God’s attributes both His supreme earnestness of purpose and most excellent truth in His whole creation, if you would cease to inquire whether anything could have happened against the will of God.

Tertullian explains:

For, while holding this earnestness and truth of the good God… you will not wonder at the fact that God did not interfere to prevent the occurrence of what He wished not to happen…  For, since He had once for all allowed (and, as we have shown, worthily allowed) to man freedom of will and mastery of himself, surely He from His very authority in creation permitted these gifts to be enjoyed: to be enjoyed, too, so far as lay in Himself, according to His own character as God, that is, for good (for who would permit anything hostile to himself?); and, so far as lay in man, according to the impulses of his liberty (for who does not, when giving anything to any one to enjoy, accompany the gift with a permission to enjoy it with all his heart and will?). The necessary consequence, therefore, was, that God must separate from the liberty which He had once for all bestowed upon man (in other words, keep within Himself), both His foreknowledge and power, through which He might have prevented man’s falling into danger when attempting wrongly to enjoy his liberty. Now, if He had interposed, He would have rescinded the liberty of man’s will, which He had permitted with set purpose, and in goodness. But, suppose God had interposed; suppose Him to have abrogated [repealed] man’s liberty, by warning him from the tree, and keeping off the subtle serpent from his interview with the woman; would not Marcion then exclaim, What a frivolous, unstable, and faithless Lord, cancelling the gifts He had bestowed! Why did He allow any liberty of will, if He afterwards withdrew it? Why withdraw it after allowing it? Let Him choose where to brand Himself with error, either in His original constitution of man, or in His subsequent abrogation thereof! If He had checked (man’s freedom), would He not then seem to have been rather deceived, through want of foresight into the future? But in giving it full scope, who would not say that He did so in ignorance of the issue of things? God, however, did foreknow that man would make a bad use of his created constitution; and yet what can be so worthy of God as His earnestness of purpose, and the truth of His created works, be they what they may? Man must see, if he failed to make the most of the good gift he had received, how that he was himself guilty in respect of the law which he did not choose to keep, and not that the Lawgiver was committing a fraud against His own law, by not permitting its injunctions to be fulfilled. Whenever you are inclined to indulge in such censure (and it is the most becoming for you) against the Creator, recall gently to your mind in His behalf His earnestness, and endurance, and truth, in having given completeness to His creatures both as rational and good.

Tertullian shifts from man and pivots to the emergence of Satan as an example of allowing evil so as to re-purpose it and/or redeem it:

…[Even the Devil] was once irreproachable, at the time of his creation, formed for good by God, as by the good Creator of irreproachable creatures, and adorned with every angelic glory, and associated with God, good with the Good; but afterwards of his own accord removed to evil…..  because he was himself as a spirit no less (than man) created, with the faculty of free-will. For God would in nothing fail to endow a being who was to be next to Himself with a liberty of this kind. Nevertheless, by precondemning him, God testified that he had departed from the condition of his created nature, through his own lusting after the wickedness which was spontaneously conceived within him; and at the same time, by conceding a permission for the operation of his designs, He acted consistently with the purpose of His own goodness, deferring the devil’s destruction for the self-same reason as He postponed the restitution of man. For He afforded room for a conflict, wherein man might crush his enemy with the same freedom of his will as had made him succumb to him (proving that the fault was all his own, not God’s), and so worthily recover his salvation by a victory [through the second Adam, Christ]; wherein also the devil might receive a more bitter punishment, through being vanquished by him whom he had previously injured; and wherein God might be discovered to be so much the more good, as waiting for man to return from his present life to a more glorious paradise, with a right to pluck of the tree of life.

But what of passages that seem to make God to be the creator of evil? Tertullian is about to address this, too:

On all occasions does God meet you: it is He who smites, but also heals; who kills, but also makes alive; who humbles, and yet exalts; who creates evil, but also makes peace; — so that from these very (contrasts of His providence) I may get an answer to the heretics. “Behold,” they say, “how He acknowledges Himself to be the creator of evil in the passage, ‘It is I who create evil’.” They take a word whose one form reduces to confusion and ambiguity two kinds of evils (because both sins and punishments are called evils), and will have Him in every passage to be understood as the creator of all evil things, in order that He may be designated the author of evil. We, on the contrary, distinguish between the two meanings of the word in question, and, by separating evils of sin from penal evils, mala culpæ from mala pœnæ, confine to each of the two classes its own author—the devil as the author of the sinful evils (culpæ), and God as the creator of penal evils (pœnæ); so that the one class shall be accounted as morally bad, and the other be classed as the operations of justice passing penal sentences against the evils of sin. Of the latter class of evils which are compatible with justice, God is therefore avowedly the creator. They are, no doubt, evil to those by whom they are endured, but still on their own account good, as being just and defensive of good and hostile to sin.

So then, Tertullian insists that the self-revelation of God’s character is consistent with Jesus Christ. God is not the creator or prescriptor of evil. His foreknowledge is in not way a cause for doubting His goodness.


For more articles explaining the Christian consensus against Determinism, click here.