Gunslingers & Guilty Minds: A Response to Greg Welty



(The FreeThinking Theist)


May 11, 2017

Thursday the 27th of April, I published an article responding to Greg Welty’s chapter in the book Calvinism and the problem of Evil. I specifically argued against a view of Calvinism that is wedded to exhaustive divine determinism (a view that God causally determines all things: actions, behaviors, beliefs, and thoughts)I was shocked — and honored — that Greg Welty himself wrote a rather long article on his website in response to me just two short days later! As Welty noted, and one thing in which we both agree, the two of us are Christian brothers and this disagreement is welcomed as it sharpens us and transforms us to become stronger Christians who are striving to love God with all of our minds.

I hope this dialogue serves as an example demonstrating how two Christian brothers can argue (and lovingly disagree) while sharpening each other like iron (Proverbs 27:17).

With that said, Welty makes several mistakes in his response to my article. For example, he misses the main point, does not see the big picture, and misunderstands legal philosophy. This article will survey these points and others.

With sincere due respect to Welty, the first thing to point out is his unintentional inconsistency.

Inconsistent Objections

I find it inconsistent for a Calvinist to object to Molinism by complaining that God “ensures” or “guarantees” all things on Molinism. Is this not exactly what Calvinism claims too? Why argue against a view (Molinism) that seems to do everything his favorite philosophy (Calvinism) does just because he believes it accomplishes the exact same thing but in a different manner? It seems that if this is the case, Welty is more committed to his assumption of causal determinism than anything else.

It seems that by making this tu quoque (meaning “you too”; pronounced too-kwo-kwee) case against Molinism — by showing that it is quite similar or “just as bad” as Calvinism — he has no need to reject Molinism as a Calvinist. However, if these competing views are not that similar, then it seems that perhaps Molinism might not be what Welty contends.

The Primary Problem

My major issue with Welty’s Gunslinger argument comes down to his tu quoque conclusion:

“Molinism makes God the author of sin (in the objectionable sense) if Calvinism does.”

For the sake of argument, I am willing to concede on Molinism, that God is the “author of sin” in a certain sense – but not the objectionable sense as is Calvinism! What would make certain Christian views objectionable? Three things come to mind:

1 – Views that are not supported by a proper interpretation of all the biblical data
2 – Views that are logically incoherent
3 – Views that diminish or negate the maximal greatness of God

I have argued at length that if the philosophy of Calvinism is true, then not only would some parts of the Bible be false, but God would fail to be a maximally great being. This conclusion can be deductively demonstrated via logical syllogism:

1. If irresistible grace (the “I” of Calvinism’s T.U.L.I.P.) is true, then for any person x, if God desires to, has the power to, and knows how to cause x to go to heaven and not suffer eternally in hell, then x will go to heaven and not suffer eternally in hell.
2. If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then for any person x, God desires to, has the power to, and knows how to cause x to go to heaven and not suffer eternally in hell
3. There is at least one person who will not go to heaven and suffers eternally in hell.
4. Therefore, one cannot affirm both (i) that irresistible grace is true and (ii) that God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient (a maximally great being).
5. God is a maximally great being.
6. Therefore, irresistible grace is false.
7. Therefore, divine determinism is false (God does not causally determine all things).
8. God is completely sovereign and does predestine all things (Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:5, 11).
9. Therefore, predestination and determinism are not to be conflated.
10. Thus, abductive reasoning denotes that Molinism is the best explanation of the biblical data.

To save space I offered this deductive argument in my initial article via hyperlink. Welty must have missed it as he did not interact with it in his response. Additionally, I also argued that if God is a maximally great being then He would allow evil because of the greater eternal good that is a consequent to the existence of evil – the ability to love (which I have argued is illusory on Calvinistic determinism)! I offered a deductive argument by way of syllogism in the conclusion of the text of my initial article making this case. Welty must have missed this argument too.

Modal Mistakes

It is important to note that there are several reasons as to why Welty’s defense of his Gunslinger objection fails. It seems to me that Molina’s doctrine of providence (see MacGregor, Luis de Molina, pp. 106-21) avoids Welty’s criticism. Welty’s argument seems to hinge on the crucial claim that God actualizing circumstances “ensures” or “guarantees” outcomes necessarily, which commits a modal error in logic. If Welty’s claim is correct, his argument might gain some traction. We have good reason, however, to think his assertion is false.

Exactly how the actualization of certain circumstances, plus the knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom “ensures/guarantees” outcomes is difficult to see. If they do not, then Molinist providence is not sufficiently analogous to sufficient causation for Welty’s tu quoque of Molinism to work. The circumstance-actualization does not “ensure” or “guarantee” anything in a necessary sense and counterfactuals do not accomplish this either (since counterfactuals, as abstract objects or something functionally equivalent per William Lane Craig, are causally effete). How combining the two together “ensures/guarantees” anything escapes me.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that because the actualization of certain circumstances does not ensure outcomes and counterfactuals do not ensure outcomes, that the two together do not ensure outcomes. If I were suggesting this I would be committing the fallacy of composition. Rather, what I am suggesting is that the burden of proof here lies with Welty who is making the claim. I would be curious to see how, exactly, his claim that these two things together somehow necessarily “ensures” specific outcomes would be successfully defended.

I offer it up to Welty to make this case. Until he does, his objection has no teeth in its bite.

Mens Rea & the Guilty Mind

A major difference in Calvinism and Molinism is that on Calvinism there is no libertarian free will, but on Molinism humans possess this libertarian freedom. This means that according to Calvinistic determinism humans are not free to think; however, on the other hand, humans are responsible free thinkers if Molinism is true (we are free and able to take our thoughts captive and think otherwise).

According to Molinism, God is the ultimate indirect cause for much of what happens in the universe, including the love human minds can choose to offer others and also the evil actions of these free thinking agents. Molinism also holds that God is the ultimate direct cause for some of what happens, for example, the Big Bang and Jesus’ resurrection. However, if God created a world in which humans were free to think and take thoughts captive (at least occasionally), then human minds are morally guilty and responsible when they fail to take their thoughts captive. Why are human minds guilty for thinking certain things? Because we possess the ability to think otherwise. Scripture makes this clear (click here)!

Hence on Molinism, God is an indirect cause of human evil, but He does not cause it or determine it in any necessary sense. Moreover, God does not causally determine eternal damnation on Molinism. These claims cannot be consistently affirmed by the Calvinist who assumes divine exhaustive determinism.

Thus, God bears no moral responsibility for evil in a direct and necessary sense (which is the objectionable sense), unless Calvinism is true.

Welty contends that an ordinary gunman is not a direct cause of evil either since he is not responsible for things such as the laws of nature which are necessary to allow the gunman to shoot his victim. However, we can easily adjust our claim: unlike causally effete counterfactuals, given the causally deterministic physical forces of nature, the gunman — as an intentional agent — is the sufficient intentional cause. He is the only criminal mind involved in the scenario. According to mens rea (the legal philosophy of the “guilty mind”), the gunman is sufficient as far as evil intent is concerned. This is why agents (free thinking minds who could have taken their thoughts captive and not acted upon them) are tried in courts of law as opposed to the physical forces of nature or inanimate objects like bullets.

Intent is key when it comes to moral evil. After all, intent can make the difference between murder, manslaughter, or even innocence. As attorney, Johnny Sakr notes:

“Although circumstances are taken into account, the intent of the party determines culpability in most criminal cases.”

Mens rea (the guilty mind) boils down to one’s thought life. Are human beings responsible free thinkers, or has God causally determined all of our thoughts? As I have argued in “Semi-Compatibilism & Responsibility,” if a human being cannot freely think because another mind — God — causally determines all of the human’s thoughts, then the guilty mind is God, not the human.

Welty said:

Perhaps Stratton has some subtle argument according to which unless an agent satisfies incompatibilist sourcehood conditions, he cannot be a genuine cause.

I have written extensively on the incoherence of compatibilism and semi-compatibilism and it is available for all to see on my website (click hereherehere, and here to get you started). Shannon Byrd has also contributed an article on this topic here). These arguments are not hidden. I offered hyperlinks to some of these essays in my initial article.

When discussing responsibility and guilt in a legal sense, establishing what one is responsible for thinking is key! This is why some who could have taken their thoughts captive and acted otherwise are sent to prison, and those who possessed no ability to take their thoughts captive and think/act otherwise are found not guilty. However, if God causally determines all the thoughts of all people, then how can any person be held responsible for these thoughts?

Jesus seemed to be just as concerned with our mental thought life as to how we actually move our physical bodies in accord with the laws of nature (Matthew 5:28; 1 John 3:15). But Calvinistic exhaustive determinism holds that God is the ultimate direct cause for everything that happens — including the thoughts the gunman had about killing or merely hating Mario. Hence on Calvinism, God bears moral responsibility for the mental evil (the human has no ability to think otherwise) which leads to physical evil. This is a problem that Calvinism carries but Molinism does not.

Chain of Causation

I noted that, “[Welty] argues that the gunman is still responsible for Mario’s death even though Bullet Bill possessed the libertarian freedom to choose to kill Mario or not. This is akin to suggesting that parents who know that if they have a child, their child will freely choose to sin, then the parents should be held responsible for the child’s free choice to sin later in life. My parents knew, for example, that I would not be a perfect human being long before they chose to start a family. If I get a speeding ticket should they get one too? Of course not — that is absurd!”

Welty responds:

I agree that the consequence would be absurd, but thankfully the situations are not relevantly analogous. . . Here, Stratton can only avoid my conclusion by suppressing the Molinist details that generate it, and putting in its place something akin to open theism. . . the mere fact that I conceive a child is not sufficient to make me culpable for what he later chooses to do. But that’s because my choice to conceive, combined with relevant knowledge I had at the time, is not sufficient to ensure any future sins on the part of my offspring.

My analogy is not “akin to open theism” and this is easy to demonstrate. There are not many things most philosophers would contend we know with absolute certainty. Be that as it may, one counterfactual I am sure Welty would say he knows with extraordinary high degrees of certainty (near 100 percent) is that if he were to have a child, then his child would sin. It follows that if Welty chooses to bring a child into this world, then Welty knowingly chooses to bring more sin and evil into the world. Although he does not know what specific sins his child will commit, he knows his son or daughter would sin if he or she were born. It follows, then, that if he chooses to help actualize the existence of a child anyway, then according to Welty, Welty is guilty of the sins of his offspring.

But as I asked in my initial article, should Welty be culpable for the sin of his son even though Welty knew – with near absolute certainty – that his son would be a sinner and bring evil into the world? Of course not! That is absurd!

Welty continues to ignore the fact that God creating a specific world with the freedom to sin, might also be — and probably is — the same world in which the greatest amount of people freely choose to enter into a true love marriage with their Creator for all eternity. So God is completely justified for predestining sin on Molinism (as opposed to causally determining sin on Calvinism). Welty says,

By way of contrast, given his exhaustive and infallible knowledge of would-counterfactuals, God’s actualization of the circumstances is sufficient for the agent to sin.

It is not sufficient in any necessary sense! The agent has the genuine ability not to sin (there are no causal strings attached) on Molinism! According to deterministic Calvinism, on the other hand, the agent (if he can legitimately be called an “agent” on exhaustive determinism) does not have this ability at all!

Welty says,

//As we all know, knowledge matters for culpability, and in the actual world God infallibly knows that his actualization combined with the true counterfactuals ensures the future sinful actions of agents, in all their specificity. There is nothing remotely analogous to this in Stratton’s example of mundane conception.//

Welty is wrong! As I pointed out above, Welty knows with near perfect certainty that if he were to procreate and bring life into the world, then his baby would  grow up and make some evil choices. Yet, no one would condemn Welty or any new parents for bringing a little bundle of evil into the world – evil they know (in general terms) will certainly occur! Be that as it may, parents are not guilty for the free choices of their children — especially if the parents pleaded with them to do otherwise and offered them a genuine option to do otherwise and resist evil (as is the case on Molinism)!

Based on the law of identity, a child is a different being than their parents (this is one good argument against abortion). Children are “their own persons” each created in the image of God who can freely think and take their thoughts captive (or not). This provides logical grounds not to hold parents guilty for the sins of their sons and daughters. I offered the following passage of Scripture to support my case:

Ezekiel 18:20 (NRSV):

The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.

Welty objected and replied:

I find it curious that Stratton reads into Ezekiel 18:20 concepts that are nowhere to be found: that “the son’s free choice to sin broke ‘the chain of causation’.” The text speaks neither of the son’s ‘freedom’ nor of a ‘chain of causation’ (which then gets ‘broken’ by freedom).

Although the text does not specifically use the lay terms, “chain of causation,” or “free choice” it is not rocket science to read this passage and understand its implicit presence. At the least, this passage of scripture is certainly consistent with my claim.

A Divine Sting Operation?

Welty seems to think that knowing what one will freely choose to do in certain circumstances and providing the circumstances for one to freely make their choice, makes one just as morally guilty as the one who actually freely makes a sinful choice. I do not believe God is setting up “sting operations” on unbelievers. But even if He were, God would not be guilty of their sin.

Consider FBI agents who set up a perfectly legal sting operation to catch a criminal. Suppose the FBI is absolutely certain that the criminal will choose to commit the crime. Now of course the criminal could freely choose NOT to commit the crime (there are no causal strings attached), but they just know he will do it. The FBI agents set up the sting operation, and the criminal commits the crime.

Are the FBI agents morally responsible for the criminal’s behavior? Of course not! The choice to commit the crime was up to the criminal (not the FBI). The criminal was the only guilty mind (mens rea) in this scenario. This is a drastic distinction between Calvinism and Molinism.

If Welty disagrees and continues to demand that his tu quoque objection passes, then he needs to be consistent. He should demand that when FBI agents catch criminals via sting operations, then both the criminals who freely chose to commit the crime and each of the FBI agents involved in the sting operation should all go to prison!

This is precisely analogous to the situation with God even if He were setting up some sort of a “sting operation” on unbelievers. God is absolutely certain (which is all His middle knowledge amounts to!) that unbelievers will sin in various circumstances, which He then actualizes. The only disanalogy here is that unlike the FBI agents who want to catch the criminal and “lock him up,” God does not want anyone to sin and He actualizes circumstances in which one does not have to sin (1 Corinthians 10:13). In fact, God bends over backwards to give them a way out of freely committing sin — especially the ultimate sin of resisting His grace (Deuteronomy 30:10-20) — hoping He ends up being wrong (weird to say, but true).

But, alas, God is certain that He is never wrong.

However, the bigger picture that Welty misses is that God allows humans to freely choose some evil because it ultimately leads to the greatest good (Genesis 50:20Romans 8:28). That is to say, a world with some allowed “free evil” ultimately leads to the greatest number of humans freely choosing to love their creator in heaven for eternity (maximum human flourishing). This is consistent with Molinism, but Calvinists can make no such claim.

Moreover, on Calvinistic determinism God is the only libertarian freethinking mind (and thus the only mind who can legitimately be a guilty mind). On Molinism, human beings are created souls in His image who are also free to think and free to choose to love or commit evil. God’s desire and intent is not for humans to be “guilty minds” (Deuteronomy 30:10-20Ezekiel 18:30-3233:10-11; John 3:161 Timothy 2:42 Peter 3:9). God has offered a way to take the guilt of sin away for the entire world (1 John 2:1-2) and offered it to all people (Titus 2:11).

Putting God on Trial

With mens rea — the guilty mind — in mind, carefully compare and contrast Calvinism with Molinism to see exactly what the mind of God is “guilty” of on each view. This is vital to see if Welty’s tu quoque objection really passes.

Welty thinks the Molinist has an “exacerbated” problem if, in fact, the Calvinist view is problematic. I fail to see why. Sure, God actualized a world — for all we know, the best of all feasible worlds with human salvation in mind (or as Kirk MacGregor says “tied for the best possible world”) — with human agents who can freely sin and do evil. But as I made clear in my article (which Welty avoided) the same ability to love is the same ability – when used in a backwards way – can be used to do evil. I recently gave a sermon on this topic and encouraged the church to remember it like this:

“LOVE backwards is EVOL.” (I was never the best at spelling!)

The point is this, if God wants to create a world in which all people could experience true love (and eternal flourishing in this love relationship), then God has to provide humanity with libertarian free will (unless one is going to affirm that Stockholm syndrome leads to true love)! We have biblical reasons to think God desires to create a world where all people can love Him, be loved by Him, and where all people can love each other (Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39: (i) – Love God first! (ii) – Everybody love everybody from your neighbors to your enemies)!

This world of true love requires libertarian free will, and thus, if libertarian freedom really means libertarian freedom, it logically follows that persons possessing this freedom to love can also freely commit evil!

So, if God desires to create a world in which it is possible for all to enjoy a true love relationship with Him for eternity (which seems to be a great world), He must provide genuine free will to humanity. And if free will is really free – and not some word game – then humans can freely choose to use this ability to love in a backwards way and bring about evil. Humans can also freely choose to resist God’s grace and be eternally separated from His perfect love.

God created a world in which He knew humans would freely choose to bring about evil. However, with eternity in mind, He also knew this world would be the feasibly best (or tied for the best possible) world to actualize. So, before one accuses God of “ensuring evil,” it is best to consider that by doing so He also “ensured” true and eternal love which allows for ultimate and eternal human flourishing!

Consider the following argument:

1- God desires a genuine & true love relationship with all people for eternity.
2- Genuine & true love between two persons requires libertarian freedom (LFW) to be possessed by both persons.
3-  Therefore, God creates humanity with LFW.
4- Created beings who possess LFW take “perfect states of affairs” for granted and freely choose to leave or ruin perfect states of affairs (i.e., Adam, Eve, Satan, & a third of all the angels).
5- With (4) in mind, God creates a world where libertarian free humans can experience evil in limited amounts so that they can learn from evil mistakes so we do not take the perfect state of heavenly affairs for granted and freely leave or ruin it for eternity (1 Corinthians 4:17).
6- Therefore, God creating a world where free creatures can learn from our evil mistakes is good! (This is a gift from God!)

With God’s eternal intent in mind, it is easy to see that God is no guilty mind. Mens rea does not apply to God if Molinism is true! The same argument cannot be made by the Calvinist affirming exhaustive divine determinism.

Allowing sin for the sake of the greatest good 

Welty might object and state that it is still morally wrong if God allows free agents to sin in circumstances He actualized even if it leads to the greatest good. But surely this is false. For example, the FBI might create circumstances and then allow a certain evil and illegal act like a small drug deal to go down so that they can follow the lowly drug dealer on the bottom of the totem pole to catch the “bigger fish to fry” down the line. Perhaps the FBI knows that if they allow a small drug deal (a sinful and morally wrong act) to occur, then this interaction will ultimately lead them to the kingpin drug dealer who also controls the sex slave operation of many young children.

The FBI knows that if they allow a little evil (the small drug deal) to occur in the circumstances they arranged, the ultimate good would be achieved and they would free all the enslaved children. So, the FBI allows the drug deal which leads them to taking down the kingpin of the evil operation and all of the children are freed.

Would anyone hold the FBI morally guilty for allowing the small drug deal they had the ability to stop? I think not. Allowing this limited evil — freely performed by drug dealers — ultimately resulted in a positive outcome! The FBI should be praised for creating these circumstances and allowing this limited evil which eventually freed enslaved children from the evils of sex trafficking.

This thought experiment demonstrates that if one has the greater good in mind, the actualization of circumstances in which one knows that an agent will freely choose evil is not necessarily evil. Intent of the “mastermind” is vital (mens rea). The FBI had the greater good in mind in this scenario, and God has the greatest good in mind by creating this world full of free creatures who can freely choose between a range of evil actions or take the way out that God provides (1 Corinthians 10:13).

This ability to do otherwise is not an option on deterministic Calvinism.

Welty’s BIG Question-Begging Question

Finally, Welty’s entire response seems to hinge on the assertion that Molinists are entitled to respond in the affirmative to his BIG question. In his concluding remarks he says,

//Let Stratton answer the question directly: if I murdered someone with a Bullet Bill gun, would he hold me culpable?//

Welty is asking the wrong question. In fact, by asking this question he begs the question (a logical fallacy)! He commits this error by assuming he is a murderer before asking if he should be found guilty as a murderer (read his question again). The proper question to be asked is this:

If Bill freely chose to commit murder (and had the ability NOT to commit murder), why should Welty be found guilty of murder just because he “gave birth” to Bill and knew what Bill would freely choose to do even though Welty pleaded with Bill not to kill Mario and offered him a way out so that he did not have to kill Mario?

When the question is properly phrased it is easy to answer: NO! I would not hold Greg Welty responsible for Mario’s death if it were Bill who freely chose and decided on his own to murder Mario — especially when Bullet Bill genuinely could have done otherwise.

Now, it would be a completely different story if Greg conspired with Bill to kill Mario for their selfish gain or Welty’s “glory.” If Greg asked Bill to commit this crime (as a hitman), then both Greg and Bill would bear moral guilt/responsibility.

Moreover, if Greg somehow controlled all of Bill’s thoughts, beliefs, and intentions which forced Bill to want to kill Mario, and ultimately kill Mario, then I would not assign any guilt to Bullet Bill at all — even though he was the instrument who killed Mario — because he was not in control of his own thoughts (mens rea would not apply to Bill because his mind was controlled by Welty). The only guilty mind — of murder — in this scenario would be Greg Welty’s! This would be an easy case to defend in a court of law. No rational jury would condemn Bullet Bill in this scenario. Welty, however, would go to prison.

This is exactly what God is guilty of on Calvinism. However, on Molinism, after considering the human ability to think and/or act otherwise, God commanding humans to love all people, God giving humans the ability to follow His commands, God providing a way for humans not to sin, and considering the fact that God created the best of all feasible worlds (or tied for the best possible world), it follows that God’s maximal greatness and perfect purity remain in tact.

The same claims are not available for the deterministic Calvinist to affirm.

The Final Verdict

What is God guilty of on Molinism?

1- Creating the best of all feasible worlds (or “tied for the best” possible world).
2- Creating a world where true love and eternal flourishing can be attained by all people (1 John 2:1-2).
3- Creating a world where many people will attain true love (requires LFW) and eternal flourishing. (A world where all freely love may not be feasible.)
4- Creating a world where rationality is possible (requires LFW).
5- Creating a world where knowledge is possible (requires LFW).
6- Creating a world where no gunman has to ever shoot anyone.
7- Creating a world (and specific circumstances) where a gunman can shoot his victim – or freely choose to love the victim instead!

What is God guilty of on Calvinism?

1- Creating a world in which God causally determines all human thought (including evil thoughts).
2- Creating a world in which God causally determines all human action (including evil actions).
3- Creating a world in which it is impossible for most people to experience true love and eternal flourishing (just because God refuses to “zap” them with His irresistible grace, although He could).
4- Creating a world in which He forces the vast majority of humanity to suffer horribly into the infinite future in the torturous fires of hell for choices they were powerless to make (just because God refuses to “zap” them with His irresistible grace, although He could).


We have surveyed several drastic differences between deterministic Calvinism and Molinism. These are just a few reasons as to why Molinism should be preferred over Calvinism. When all the data is analyzed and with the bigger picture in view, Welty’s tu quoque objections fail.

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton

  • A special thank you to Peter Rasor, Shannon Byrd, Johnny Sakr, David Oldham, Jonathan Thompson, and others for your helpful input.

About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Tim pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (B.A. 1997) and after working in full-time ministry for several years went on to attain his graduate degree from Biola University (M.A. 2014). Tim was recently accepted at North West University to pursue his Ph.D. in systematic theology with a focus on metaphysics.

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