I 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
Here’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
Over 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.
“Is it really a bad thing if God does something good with it?” You may have heard this kind of question before. Maybe in a discussion after your philosophy 101 class, or a Bible study, or in a coffee shop, the issue of God and evil comes up. How can God still be good and powerful given the amount of evil and suffering we see in the world? Copious amounts of ink have been spilt on the subject and numerous answers have been given. I’m not going to attempt anything so bold as to hazard a definitive answer but I do want to clarify a couple of important points to keep straight in our thinking about this issue.
Good Enough Reasons and the Problem of Naming Evil
One point that commonly made is that it is possible for God to still be good and powerful and allow all the evil we see in the world, if he has a morally justifiable reason to such as avoiding a greater evil, or bringing about an outweighing moral good. For instance, I’m morally justified in allowing my child to suffer pain while getting vaccination shots because it will prevent some later, horrible disease. In fact, at that point, I’m just justified in purposing the pain, because it is outweighed by the good of avoiding the disease. This is somewhat common-sensical, and leaving aside some issues related to God’s power, you could see the way that the principle could apply to God. God can still be good and powerful, yet allow for some good purpose even if it’s one that only He can understand. (The epistemological issue is an important one, but I’ll deal with that in another post on another day.)
This is the point that the title question is appealing to. God is justified in allowing something we think is evil because of the good that comes from it or that evil that it avoids. But, the question actually goes a bit further and says, “Well, in fact, that instance of suffering and evil, wasn’t really evil because of the good result that came from it. Maybe it’s just that evil is just a good that is misunderstood?” Is that right, though?
It is because of seemingly natural questions like these that some worry about appealing to some higher “plan.” They fear that it impermissibly justifies evil and makes moral language ambiguous. In other words, if that crime was really part of God’s plan that he used to bring about some greater good, are we allowed to call it evil? Is suffering really bad? If that’s the case, then doesn’t that remove moral responsibility and render us unable and name evil as evil since it is “justified”? In light of this, they would want to say that, in fact, all we can morally say is that there is no good reason for much of the evil that we see in the world. All we know is that God hates it, will end it someday, and make everything better.
But that seems troubling as well because if we can’t say that God had a good reason for allowing an evil, that leaves us back where we started with God allowing evil for no good reason at all.
Is there a way forward from this?
C.S. Lewis on Simple Good, Simple Evil, and Complex Good
There are a great many issues to consider here, but C.S. Lewis has a great little passage in his work devoted to the problem of suffering and evil, The Problem of Pain, that begins to address the issue. He’s discussing whether Christians should seek suffering because so often it is linked to spiritual growth and moral goodness. In it he says:
I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads. In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) The simple good descending from God, (2) The simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted; suffering and repented sin contribute. Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse – though by mercy it may save – those who do the simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.
We may apply this first to the problem of other people’s suffering. A merciful man aims at his neighbour’s good and so does “God’s will”, consciously co-operating with “the simple good”. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.
So we see it is possible to speak of simple good, simple evil, God’s redemptive work, and the complex good that follows from God’s redemptive work. It is possible for both God and humans to be at work in one and the same events event, be able to speaking meaningfully of human evil while still affirming God’s goodness in that particular event. Sounds good Clive, but is it biblical?
Joseph: A Biblical Paradigm
There are a number of events in biblical history which God speaks of as evil on the part of humans, yet part of a broader, good divine plan; the story of Joseph is often used as a paradigm for this way of thinking. In the story, he is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, is wrongfully imprisoned by his Egyptian slave-master, left in jail for many years, but through a providential chain of events is elevated to a position of power in Egypt before a time of great famine. This then enables him years later to provide food for his family that had initially sold him into slavery as well as provide for the entire nation of Egypt. Eventually, from that family, comes the Messiah, the savior of the world. In an encounter with his brothers years later he realizes that they fear for their lives from him. Even years after forgiving them and treating them well, they still worry that he might be holding a grudge against him for their evil. Joseph calms their fears by assuring them he knows that although they did what they did for evil intentions, God intended for good. (Gen. 50:20)
So, in the one affirmation we see him affirm that being sold into slavery by your own brothers is evil. Being wrongfully imprisoned is evil. At the same time, being in the right place, at the right time to avert disaster for a nation and one’s own family is good. But the humanly-intended evil and the divinely-intended good were being accomplished side by side in the same events! Examples like this could be multiplied over and over again in Scripture, whether in the prophets or the preaching of the early church in Acts. Lewis is on firm, biblical ground here.
So let’s put this together: First, it is not that moral evil or evil events are just good not yet understood. We don’t want to deny the evil of evil, especially of sinful human actions. At the human level, we can say of those things that God condemns them as wicked and they ought not be done. Again, Judas is morally blameworthy and an evil individual for betraying Jesus. God disapproves of his actions. They are really and truly evil.
At the same time, on another level the existence of these evils is morally-justified even if we cannot see the moral justification currently, with respect to God. In the case of Judas and the Cross, God used Judas’ wickedness to accomplish his good divine intention. Judas is evil in his action. God is not because he had a good enough reason for allowing this evil to occur.
Admittedly, this is just a thumb-nail sketch of an answer to one of the many questions within a much broader issue. Still, I think can help us keep a couple of points clear that ought not be confused whenever we are trying to think about or discuss the issue of evil and suffering from a biblical perspective.
In all things Soli Deo Gloria.