Classifying Biblical Theodicies (Or, Must There Be Only One?)

lisbonEvil and theodicy are central to the storyline of the Bible. Indeed, they are central to much of the great secular and especially religious literature in history. Theodicy, for those unaware, is the term coined (or simply popularized) by Leibniz referring to the sort of rational justifications or explanations given for the co-existence of evil and God (or the gods). Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor’s massive, edited work Theodicy in the World of the Bible is a collection of essays dedicated to exploring the various sorts of theodicies on offer both in the Ancient Near Eastern texts (ranging from Sumerian, Assyrian text to 2nd Temple Jewish text) surrounding the world of the Bible as well as the biblical materials themselves (both Old and New Testaments). They do so both for historiographical as well as properly theological reasons, calling on specialists to describe, critique, and retrieve the perspectives of the ancients for reflection today.

A Typology of Theodicies

In an attempt to lend order to the various essays and perspectives, in their introduction Laato and De Moor come up with a helpful typology of the kinds of theodicies found in the texts their contributors deal with. After listing various categories, they narrow their options down to the monotheistic, non-dualist options given in the Jewish-Christian theological tradition (p. xxx):

  1. Retribution theology
  2. Educative theodicy
  3. Eschatological theodicy
  4. The mystery of theodicy
  5. Communion theodicy
  6. Human determinism

The names tend to be straightforward, but I’ll briefly give you the gist of each, but know that I’m leaving out references to a number of the texts they use in each section.

Retribution theology as a theodicy explains human suffering in terms of human responsibility and divine punishment for sin. Humans are given free will, which they are legally accountable for (per the widespread covenant theology found both in the ANE and the Biblical record), and as violators, much of the evil suffered is the result of divine retribution. Much of the theodicy given in the OT surrounding the Exile falls under this rubric, as well as the Deuteronomistic literature and vast swathes of the Wisdom texts. Disobedience results in curse, just like Leviticus and Deuteronomy warned (xxx-xxxviii).

Educative theodicy can be found in places like Job, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ruth, and other types of wisdom literature. In essence, suffering is allowed in the light of the righteous because through it he gains understanding he would not have had otherwise. Naomi learns God’s purposes span farther than she could know as her suffering leads to the birthline of the Davidic king. (xxxix-xlii).

Eschatological theodicy tries to justify God allowing evil by pointing ahead to either the reward of the righteous in the afterlife, or the judgment of the wicked to come. This thread is found in some of the prophetic literature such as Isaiah, Daniel, and so forth. Here, the emphasis showing that much human suffering will shown to not have been in vain. It is a theodicy of comfort, in that regard. (xlii-xlv)

The mystery of theodicy refers to the various traditions which emphasize the fact that we just don’t know what God is up to. Here, humanity’s epistemological limits are compared to the divine’s limitless, unfathomable wisdom. The book of Job and Qoheleth are taken as paradigms here, as well as Maimonedes reading of Job or the theology of 4 Ezra. Lamentations also contains texts that conform to this pattern (xlvi-xlviii).

Communion theodicy emphasizes the fact that in the midst of suffering, the afflicted may draw closer to God in the end. Psalms is a key witness here. But again, so is Job. Here Laato and De Moor also include the tradition of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, where his expiatory, redemptive suffering actually brings the nation into closer to God through reconciliation. For that reason, its hard to classify it under communion alone, because it (along with the later martyr traditions in the Maccabees) blending suffering for sin with restored relationship. Indeed, often the martyr traditions following blend educative and eschatological dimensions as well (xlvii-liv).

Finally, human determinist theodicies appeal to a certain, necessary human sinfulness or with divine determinism. Here Laato and De Moor have less material, and the Biblical material they adduce is hints in Paul and Qoheleth. It seems the biblical material about Israel’s stiff-necked nature and Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy might fit nicely here as well.

Varied Answers for Variegated Experiences

Laato and De Moor’s typology and helpful literature review points up nicely one of my major problems with certain kinds of theodicies that I see offer: too many insist that only one or two of these theodical angles are the proper answer to or explanation of suffering. Actually, it seems that in light of the fact that all of these themes are at play in the Biblical text, it’s probable that we are meant to understand them all playing a partial role in explaining the problem of evil in the Scriptures. For that reason, we should refrain from settling on just one answer, or reducing our explanations to simple, pat answers. We should also slow down from rejecting these answers as part of the Biblical analysis, as some have done, simply because it doesn’t account for a certain experience or text. Taken as a total answer it might not, but as a partial dimension, it could be very helpful.

Its undeniable that sometimes evil befalls us because of evil choices leading to suffering (both for the perpetrator and victim). Beyond that, Scripture attests that evil does often provoke God’s retribution in this life. Of course, discerning that retribution is a dicey business for those without eyes to see (as Elisha had), or lips cleansed by God’s purifying fire (as Isaiah did), so it is wise to refrain from presuming all suffering is the direct result of sin as the disciples did (John 9). From another angle, it may be that we suffer evil because God is delaying retribution and so evil will have its recompense in the next life, and undeserved suffering will be rewarded at that time as well. What’s more, it could very well be that God allows certain instances of suffering in order to teach us, or to draw us nearer to himself. Finally, as I’ve already argued, it could be that some ultimate explanation for particular evils or evil as a whole will only be unveiled at the end of all things. Mystery can coexist with the acknowledgement that there are various dimensions to the problem of evil.

The biblical corpus is multi-faceted as is its theological witness. I don’t mean that it is self-contradictory, but that it preserves a plurality of voices testifying to the various, real, dimensions of human existence in the world that need to be reckoned with and not simply flattened into each other. And that makes sense given that it’s the revelation of God and his works. God himself knows to understand the whole from his eternal, unified, singular perspective, but for finite beings such as ourselves, we need multiple angles, or lenses on the world to make sure we get a more appropriate understanding of the whole.

Let us not, then, flatten or deny that witness in search of cheap, easy answers.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saying God Has a Reason for Something Doesn’t Mean You Know What It Is (And Other Concerns)

JobMost of Christian theology, one way or another, is caught up with the problem of evil–what it is, where it comes from, how will it be defeated, and how do we live with it in this world. God’s providence, though, is one of those doctrines that seems to uniquely impinge on the question of evil. How could a good, all-powerful God allow the amount and kinds of evil we see and experience in the world? Is it possible to speak of his control and sovereignty, his foreknowledge and wisdom, in a way that’s consistent with the world as we know it.

I’ve written on this before, but it bears repeating that one of the key points made in recent, philosophy of religion (especially of the analytic sort) is that if God had a good enough reason, then it’s possible for a good, powerful God to allow evil to exist for a time. One of the key issues distinguishing different forms of Christian theology is which kinds of reasons are deemed to be sufficient to justify the sorts of evil we see in the world. Your overall theology of salvation and providence plays out in your view of the problem of evil.

Arminian and Wesleyan (and open or relational) theologies typically appeal to the good of libertarian free will (the ability to do otherwise in any decision, without being ultimately or finally determined by situation, disposition, or metaphysical constraint) at this point. On their account, it is supposed to be necessary to the nature of love, and the good of freely-chosen love, significant moral choices, etc. Because of that, it’s worth the risk, the possibility, and the actuality of evil in the world. More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.

Instead, Reformed theologians have offered a couple of different, interlocking considerations. Some, appealing to Romans 9, say that God’s deepest reason for allowing all that he does is the display of his own glory in human history (through his work of creation, judgment, redemption, etc). If some tragedy befalls, then, we can know that its direct purpose is to somehow glorify God.

Others, more modestly (I think), confess that while in the end all things will redound to the glory of God, we simply don’t know what his reason is for various, specific events or the way they fit into the broader tapestry of the Triune God’s purposes for history. We are finite, small, and too sinful to expect to have that kind of comprehensive knowledge. That said, we view all things in light of God’s work in the tragi-comedy of the cross and resurrection, wherein the Son came in the power of the Spirit at the behest of the Father to give himself up into the hands of sinful men on our behalf, so that one day we might be raised with him. Because of that we know that our good God is loving, powerful, and does have purposes in all of human history, even the darkest and most opaque of our trials. And these are purposes that, if we knew all that God knows, were as good as God is, and saw all that he sees, we would see that he is right to allow all that he has and redeem it in all the ways that he eventually will.

I bring all of this up because of a recent conversation about the problem of evil and what it means to assert that God has a good enough reason to justify and allow the evil that we see in the world.

Some see this sort of defense as a rationalizing system that calls evil good and good evil. Or it’s a cold comfort that alienates the truly broken-hearted with bland pieties about “God’s plan.” Or even more, a possible attempt to act as God’s spokesman, because if you’re the one who can say that God has purposes for all things, then you’re the mediator of God’s purposes. An appeal to God’s sovereignty over all things and inscrutable purposes puts you in danger of becoming one of Job’s friends, offering up proverbs of ashes and unwitting condemnation.

I simply want to make a few points by way of clarification and response here.

First, it should be obvious that to say that God has a purpose for all things is not to say that I have any clue what those specific purposes are from case to case. It’s simply to point out that a God of infinite goodness, wisdom, and love doesn’t simply let evil befall the world for no good reason, or only general ones. It is an affirmation that God is not careless, nor is he asleep at the wheel but is attentive to the plans he has for all of his creatures. If anyone is tempted to claim that kind of specific knowledge, they have missed the point of Job and are probably at the risk of coming under judgment themselves. It’s the difference between saying that you believe the Bible is inerrant and claiming that your own interpretations of it are also inerrant. It is by no means the case that the one follows logically from the others. It’s possible to have a very high view of God’s Word and little confidence of your own ability to work your way through it without making a mess of things.  In the same way, it’s quite possible to have a very high view of God’s wisdom in history and acknowledge your own blindness to what that wisdom is.

Second, to claim that God has specific purposes for what he permits is not to claim that evil isn’t really evil. That’s a very sloppy, unbiblical claim. It is only to say that God means something good to come out of the evil which he still calls evil. As with the situation of Joseph being sold into slavery, God still condemns the hatred and jealousy of his brothers and their sale of Joseph as evil, though God permitted and even decreed it so that one day he could save Jacob’s family and the birth-line of the Messiah through Joseph. Saying that God doesn’t allow the evil of cancer for no good reason, by no means commits me to saying that any case of cancer is a positive good. We have to have a space for the infinite, Creator God to view a single event or activity from a far more expanded, complex, unified perspective than you or I typically do. For more on this, see here.

Third, to say that God has purposes for all things in no way necessitates that God’s providence is the only doctrine we can appeal to in the context of pastoral comfort. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how little attention we give to the fact that not only is right doctrine a matter of chief importance, so is the proper use of doctrine. Just as having a high view of Scripture won’t save you from a misuse of Scripture, neither will having correct doctrine always mean you’re applying it properly. But this is of chief importance. Being a good doctor is not simply a matter of knowing varieties of good medicines, but the ability to prescribe the right medicine at the right time, because even good medicines misapplied can do harm. There are dozens of other glorious, comforting truths such as the resurrection, God’s atonement, his grace, etc, that you can apply to people in times of suffering and pain beyond the issue of the providence of God.

As always, there’s more to say, but hopefully these considerations offer some clarity as to what we are and are not saying when we claim that our sovereign God has a good reason for all things.

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvinism and the Problem of Evil (Or, Dealing with the Sparsity Objection)

JobThere are many of overlaps between the problem of evil in philosophy and apologetics (how could a good, all-powerful God allow such evil as we see in the world?)  and issues concerning the tensions between divine sovereignty and human effort in our theology of salvation (if God is sovereign over history, then what role does our will play in things?). How you answer the one question inevitably affects the approach you take in the other. And that’s unsurprising when we think about it.

What is God’s salvation other than a practical solution to the problem of evil as it exists in history because of human sin? The Triune God of glory has dealt with and met the evil of the world in the person and work of the Son according to the decree of the Father in the power of the Spirit.

Stepping back from the existential dimension, though, and addressing some of the more traditional formulations, there are a couple of different approaches that people take to answering the problem of evil at a philosophical level. These usually end up having a corollary in your theology of salvation.

Libertarianisms, Theodicy, and Salvation

One of the most popular responses to the problem of evil is to appeal to God’s gift of human freedom. God can be all-powerful and all-good and yet still allow human evil because he has created us with the great good of free will of the libertarian sort–the ability in every situation to do otherwise than you have done, without ultimate determination from God, the natural order, or even your own character. According this argument, that’s the sort of freedom you need for love and for truly moral actions. But the freedom to choose God, love, and the good also includes the possibility to do the opposite, and that’s what we’ve done. And so, God is good, powerful, and loving, and yet still allows evil because of his own sovereign decision to give us free will.

Now, if you take this route, most of the time you’ll end up affirming some sort of Arminianism or Wesleyan synergism in salvation, where this sort of free will is necessary also for salvation. A classic Arminian will readily grant the reality of human depravity and sin, the need for God’s prevenient grace (a grace that precedes and prepares) that spiritually awakens you, so to speak, in order for you to even respond to God and trust in his mercy and Jesus’ work on the cross. Contrary to some slurs, they are not Pelagians. But the freedom God awakens you to is the freedom to do otherwise–freedom of the libertarian sort that can still reject God’s loving invitation through the Spirit. The free-will defense or theodicy usually goes against any kind of theological determinism inconsistent with Arminian or Wesleyan views.

Calvinism, Theodicy, and Salvation

Typically, Calvinists and Reformed types don’t affirm that sort of libertarian freedom. Some are trying to work it out, with some very interesting approaches, but by and large, they will view freedom in a different light that is compatibilist–positing no ultimate dichotomy between God’s foreordination or human freedom. This is usually taken to be necessary for a more “robust” view of God’s regeneration and calling of us out of the bondage of the will in sin.

On this view, when God awakens your heart from its sin-dead slumber, it is not only a prevenient act of grace but an efficacious act. It not only enables you to maybe choose life, but transforms and reforms your will–not by over-riding it, but by healing and restoring it–so that you gladly, lovingly, and willingly choose it. This view of freedom views God’s choice, not as a threat to our freedom, but the only possibility of exercising true freedom–the freedom to love what we were made for. It’s not coercive, imposed from the outside, but awakening and transforming from within.

Of course, all of this is very condensed. But the key thing to see is that this view is not likely going to push you to lean on the libertarian free-will theodicy or defense. No, in fact, it’s more likely going to appeal in a very different direction to considerations regarding our knowledge of God’s purposes–epistemological concerns.

In a nutshell, most philosophers have agreed that if he had a good enough reason to, it is possible for an all-powerful and all-wise God to allow the evil in the world to exist. This is the assumption the free-will defense draws on–freewill, love, and moral choice is a good enough reason for the risk of free will.  Well, on that same assumption, some Calvinist philosophers like Stephen Wykstra and Alvin Plantinga have pointed out that there is a massive gap between our knowledge and the knowledge of an infinite God. Their point is this: if the infinitely wise God who created all things had a good enough reason for allowing all this evil, how are you so certain you would understand it?

Or, to put it another way, in order to know there isn’t a good enough reason, you’d have to know all that an infinite God would know in order to rule out the possibility. But you couldn’t possibly do that given your limited, finite knowledge of, well, everything. The scale between your understanding and God’s isn’t even that of a child to an adult, but more on the scale of an ant and a human. In other words, saying, “If I can’t see a good enough reason for evil there must not be one” doesn’t answer the question. Just because you “can’t see” a good enough reason, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

If that’s the case, then, while we don’t necessarily have an “answer” to the problem of evil like libertarian free will, it’s not a defeater for our belief in God. Given our belief in the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have hope in God’s good purposes in the middle of evil even if we don’t know what those are. A God good enough to live, die, and rise for sinners is trustworthy enough.

Another Problem of Evil?

love freedom and evilBelieve it or not, all of that is just set up for what I really wanted to get to: dealing with an objection to a more Calvinistic view of God’s efficacious liberation of our will to respond to him. To do that, I’m going to quote from Thaddeus Williams’ fascinating work Love, Freedom, and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will? Now, the title of the work is a bit misleading. Williams believes love requires freedom of the will, but not of the libertarian sort. His book is an exploration of the cluster of philosophical, biblical, and theological questions surrounding love, freedom, and the problem of evil.

Towards the end of the book he takes up what he calls the “sparsity objection” to the compatibilistic view of God’s liberation of the human will I outlined above–the one Williams calls “the Heart Reforming view.” Williams quotes philosopher Jerry Walls putting the objection this way:

Arguably, the most damaging strike against compatibilism is its utter inability to explain why God has not predestined everyone to freely choose him if freedom is really compatible with determinism. In our estimation, this is the mortal blow to the compatibilist. If this question cannot be answered convincingly, then compatibilists can hardly expect their position to be taken seriously by those who firmly believe in a profoundly loving and richly relational God.

That’s a tough objection. If libertarianism isn’t necessary for love and God can liberate our wills without violating them, why doesn’t God liberate more people’s wills? Why not liberate everyone’s will and purge the evil from the world immediately? Why are God’s chosen so relatively sparse? Williams gives at least four responses, but the one that’s relevant is one that draws on the insights about the limits of human knowledge:

The insight of Plantinga…applies when approaching the Sparsity Objection. The difference is that it is no longer the atheologian arguing against God’s existence, but the libertarian theologian arguing against the existence of one particular view of God, namely, a God with the ability to bring about Heart Reformation. If we seek to justify disbelief in the existence of a Heart Reforming God on the basis of the Sparsity Objection, then we find ourselves, oddly enough, in the same plight as the atheologian. We commit ourselves to a problematic premise….:

P2: It is impossible, improbable, or less probable than some libertarian account that a God with Heart Reforming ability possesses morally sufficient reasons behind withholding a more widespread exercise of that ability.

The fatal flaw of P2 is the same as that of P1, namely, how difficult the premise is to establish given the cognitive gap between God and us. Alston argues that the atheologian’s induction from “I can see no” to “There is no” is unjustified. Alston’s point holds true for the libertarian theologian who attempts to reach the conclusion “There is no [morally sufficient reason for a God with Heart Reforming ability to exercise that ability as sparsely as it may seem]” from the premise “I can see no [morally sufficient reason for a God with Heart Reforming ability to exercise that ability as sparsely as it may seem].” The induction rests on a failure to appreciate the Creator-creature cognitive gap. –pp. 167-168

In other words, just because you can’t see a good enough reason for God to call and liberate those that he does and not others, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a good enough reason. It’s just one that you can’t see. But you’re not God. You’re not the counter-intuitive Lord of all Creation who chose to redeem the world through assuming human nature, frailty, and the weight of sin and dying on a cross in order to rise to new life. That’s not the sort of thing you would come up with on your own. So maybe, just maybe, God’s ways in salvation are going to be a bit beyond us. That doesn’t mean they’re not true, though.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, obviously. And, of course, all of this matters only if Scripture points us to the idea that God’s liberation of the human will works this way. And that is a question I simply don’t have the time to address in this already longish post, which is why I would commend Williams’ work to you, as he spends quite a bit of time addressing that question. Still, in my reading and study, time and again I have come back the fundamental importance of this insight: God is the perfect Creator and we are but fallen-though-being-redeemed-creatures.

I suppose all of this boils down to an invitation to hear the wisdom of Job:

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3)

Soli Deo Gloria

Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings (Reformation21 Review)

rejoicingJ. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. $14.99/£11.99
Much of life in a fallen world consists of navigating through the fog of tragedy and suffering. Any pastor who has spent more than a month or two in any given parish will come up against the broken gears of the cycle of life. Illness strikes the healthy, death comes to take the young, and all too often it seems that curse falls upon the way of the righteous. At times like these, in a church culture that has all-but-lost the Psalmic language of lament, it can be difficult to avoid falling into trite speech more hollow than even explicit silence. And sometimes temporary silence is initially the best path. Yet the hearts and the minds of the afflicted need answers. They need a comfort grounded in the deep, glorious truth of the gospel.
That’s what Todd Billings has given us in his recent offering Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. At the age of 39, Billings was happily married, father of two young children, and beginning a promising career as young Reformed theologian turning heads with rich, careful theological scholarship (Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, The Word of God for the People of God, Union with Christ). Then he was diagnosed with advanced, incurable blood cancer, and the bottom dropped out. The future that once looked so clear–marriage, watching his children graduate, scholarship–immediately fogged over with the pronouncement that he could no longer look forward to the “median” life-span that that most of us blithely assume we’re owed (p.7).
In the midst of his own struggles with pain, suffering, and the agony of uncertainty, Billings has produced a profound meditation on the hope of the Christian life in light of the realities of the gospel. Rejoicing in Lament is rather unique in that it occupies a middle range in terms of its approach and appeal. It is not a strictly academic work, and yet Billings is a top-shelf theologian, so it’s not just a pop-book either. It is top-shelf theology that has been lived in and communicated with an eye toward the sufferer in the pew, with Billings interspersing the story of his cancer battle–diagnosis, treatment, future prospects–within the broader story of God’s saving action in Christ.
I hope you’ll read the rest of my review at Reformation21. This is an important and helpful book.
Soli Deo Gloria

Hey, So I’m Going on The Radio Today–in Pittsburgh

word fmI wrote a little post on the problem of evil yesterday that gathered some attention. John Hall and Cathy Emmons from 101.5 Word-FM in Pittsburgh have graciously asked me to take part in a little phone interview on the radio with them on that subject this afternoon. I’ll be chatting with them at 4:40 pm Eastern and 1:40 pm Pacific time. You can tune in to listen live online at their website HERE.

It sounds like a lot of fun and I’m excited, but I’d love it if you’d take a minute to pray for me today as well. Thanks reading (and maybe listening).

Soli Deo Gloria

Short, Admittedly Snarky Follow-Up on Process, Relational theologies and Evil

notesHere’s a little, admittedly snarky, follow-up summary point coming off of my last piece on the problem with process and ‘relational/open’ theologies and the problem of evil. It comes from one of my favorite books, a non-technical, non-specialist, super-brilliant, quirky piece of pop theology:

But if God is the creator God and He was somehow unaware of what He was starting, unaware that the Holocaust was going to happen, shocked when He first heard of Hitler’s plans, and embarrassed that He couldn’t stop him, then He still remains the first cause of all evil. He began a chain of events beyond His control.

“But it wasn’t on purpose (wring hands here). How was He supposed to know how fast everything would go to hell? He expected people to act more like Strawberry Shortcake.”

Don’t think this would get Him an acquittal. He might not like the world-accident He began, but He should have known better. If anyone could be expected to know better it’s God. Had He been drinking? I’d go with an insanity plea.

God was the first to cry. Is this comforting? He’s the first to get bad news. If only He were just a little quicker. Or maybe, “You know, He’s really sorry. When He invented fire He didn’t realize that it could burn skin. I hope you remember everything He’s said about being forgiving. Apply it now.”

-N.D. Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, pg. 71-72

The point is that even the God who doesn’t know stuff and can’t do much about it, either voluntarily or due to some incapacity, is still responsible. Sacrificing God’s power and sovereignty doesn’t get him off the hook–it just tells us there was no point and weakens our hope for redemption.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Couple Notes on Process and Relational Theologies and the Problem of Evil

Pedro_Fernández_-_Christ_Suffering_-_WGA07807Over 20 years ago Ronald Goetz noted the “Rise of a New Orthodoxy” when it came to the doctrine of God being taught in academic theology. God’s immutability, (changelessness), and impassibility (inability to suffer or be acted upon from without), was axiomatic in patristic, medieval, reformational, and even early modern theology, but over the last 100 years a sea-change occurred and an acceptance, even a championing, of God’s passibility or mutability has largely been accepted. Goetz points to four causes, one of which is the problem of evil and suffering in light of the horrors of the 20th Century. (If God is all-powerful then he can stop evil. If all-good then he wants to. Evil. Therefore, no God.) After surveying them, he comes back around to the problem of evil in order to point out the weakness of two sorts of passibilist responses.

One comes from the limited God of Whitehead’s very influential process theology:

If God is conceived as being limited in power, though perhaps unlimited in love, then the defense of God in the light of evil and suffering boils down to the contention that God has created the greatest amount of good that he can, and the evil that remains is beyond his capacity to eliminate. A limited deity of this kind is portrayed in contemporary Whiteheadian-process theology, but the doctrine has a distinguished pedigree going back at least as far as Stoicism. A fundamental assumption in this approach is that an imperfect world is better than no world at all. What is unique to the Whiteheadian version of the limited deity is its departure from the classical Western view that God cannot be affected by the pain of an imperfect world. Indeed, as a seal of God’s goodness and love, God is, in Whitehead’s lovely phrase, “the fellow-sufferer who understands.”

The problem of evil has traditionally been formulated this way: How can it be that God is all powerful and all good and yet there still is evil? The doctrine that God is limited in power solves the problem by sacrificing God’s omnipotence. However, to my mind, any concept of a limited deity finally entails a denial of the capacity of God to redeem the world and thus, ironically, raises the question of whether God is in the last analysis even love, at least love in the Christian sense of the term.

All assertions of a limited deity must confront the fact that, if the world’s imperfections are the inevitable consequences of the limited capacity of God to create a world that is both perfect and free, then inescapably any other realm of being, any eschatological reality, would be similarly flawed. The blessing of eternal life would thus be impossible, for an eternal life flawed by imperfection and suffering would not be redemption, it would be hell. Hell is the prospect of wallowing forever in one’s weakness and finitude.

In Whitehead’s philosophy, the creation of the world is the result of God’s primordial yearning for a concretization of merely abstract possibilities (reminiscent of Plato’s “Ideas”) , which Whitehead calls “eternal objects.” Until they are arranged and concretized in the world, these eternal objects are merely abstractions. God’s primordial nature is governed by a “yearning after concrete fact — no particular facts, but after some actuality.”

The other pole of God’s bipolar being, his “consequent nature, “is characterized by a dependence on the continual emergence of concrete reality or “actual entities” in the world. Actual entities are perpetually perishing and arising. Each successive actual entity is capable of using in its own development the entities that have preceded it. God alone is everlasting. And his being is constituted in the process of his taking into himself all that he is able to save of all actual entities. They thus have a kind of immortality in the memory and in the ongoing self-enrichment of God. But the personal existence of all actual entities perishes. God wills the best for us and is a sympathetic sufferer with us when, in the course of the enrichment of his being, we suffer tragedy; but God alone is the everlasting beneficiary of the creative process.

To modern “protest atheism,” the fact that God, though sympathetic with the suffering of humanity, is nonetheless enriched by it, would seem little more impassive than the bathos of the sentimental butcher who weeps after each slaughter. If the purpose of our life and death is finally that we contribute to “the self-creation of God,” how, an outraged critic of God might demand, does God’s love differ from the love of a famished diner for his meat course?

Whitehead’s process God is, if anything, even more implicated in the evil of evil. Goetz moves on then to insist that if the incapable God doesn’t help, then the kenotic God–“kenotic” being used in a very specific, not-quite-NT-sense–doesn’t help much either:

To my mind, the insistence on the almightiness of God and creation ex nihilo are indispensable for an adequate understanding of the Bible’s witness, both to God’s lordship and to his capacity to save what he has created. Without the Bible’s eschatology, the God of the Bible cannot be understood in terms of agape, the radical self-giving love of one who holds nothing back — not the life of his son, not the sharing of his own being.

But this understanding puts us back on the horns of the dilemma: If God is so powerful in creation and so willing ultimately to deify the creation, why is there now evil?

Two lines of defense have become popular among theologians who find themselves, for whatever reasons, unable to speak of God as ontologically limited and yet unable to affirm the predestinarian highhandedness of an impassible, immutable God.

The first is the so-called Irenaeian theodicy (after the second-century theologian Irenaeus) : God permits suffering and evil in order that by them we might come to sufficient maturity so as to be able to inherit eternal life. The problem with such an argument is that while it offers a very helpful insight into the question of why we suffer and endure hardship, it says nothing about real evil. For real evil, as we experience it, does not build up and develop its victims; it corrupts, corrodes and destroys them.

The other line of defense can easily incorporate the Irenaeian theodicy, and indeed, might even seem to strengthen it. In this view, the statement “God is love” is virtually synonymous with a kenotic (self-emptying) (Phil. 2:7) view of the incarnation. God’s love is supremely revealed in his self-humbling. God is a fellow sufferer who understands not because God cannot be otherwise, but because God wills to share our lot.

Here, as in the case of a limited doctrine of God’s being there is a certain immediate psychological comfort in the notion that God does not require of us a suffering that he himself will not endure. However, if this comfort is to be any more than a psychological prop, it must show how God’s suffering mitigates evil. This explanation has been, to date, curiously lacking in the theodicy of divine self-limitation.

To anyone who feels compelled to affirm divine suffering, the fact that God is deeply involved in the anguish and the blood of humanity forces a drastic theological crisis of thought vis-à-vis the question of evil. The mere fact of God’s suffering doesn’t solve the question; it exacerbates it. For there can no longer be a retreat into the hidden decrees of the eternal, all-wise, changeless and unaffected God. The suffering God is with us in the here and now. God must answer in the here and now before one can make any sense of the by and by. God, the fellow sufferer, is inexcusable if all that he can do is suffer. But if God is ultimately redeemer, how dare he hold out on redemption here and now in the face of real evil?

-Ronald Goetz, “The Suffering God–The Rise of a New Orthodoxy”, This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 16,1986, p. 385

In other words, a suffering God of the sort implied by the passibilists is the God whose redeeming power is in serious doubt and the fact that he feels my pain just isn’t enough sometimes. I want to know that there is a reason for it. I want to know that there is a secure end to it. I want to know that it’s redeemable.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS. If you want my explanation impassibility and how that relates to Christ’s suffering on the cross you can go read it here.