Christianity and the Problem of Evil (pt 4): Is God good? Or sovereign?

leviathan1In the last post, we discussed what constitutes evil in an evolutionary framework – namely, evil is the identity crisis we all face as we interact with the world, which threatens to drown us in despair (aka, “non-being”), or tempts us to use the coping mechanisms of violence and selfishness that was so helpful to our species’ evolution.

Moltmann puts it nicely,

Our numerous anxieties and fears continually crystallize into a general anxiety about life. It is this heightened and diffused anxiety which spreads, takes on independent existence and robs men and women of their self-confidence and very identity. It can be described as the fear of fear.

But…

If what we perceive to be evil is the result of God calling us into identity, then in what way can God be said to be good? And if evolution is the paradigm – a seemingly random process – in what way can God be said to be sovereign?

God’s Sovereignty

Sovereignty is usually thought of as a supreme power or authority that is able to effect the desired ends of that authority. When people talk about “sovereign nations” they typically refer to the ability of a nation to govern its own affairs and achieve the ends it desires without outside interference. Since God is over everything in the cosmos, divine sovereignty refers to God’s ability to achieve any and every desired end without being thwarted. In other words, God gets what God wants.

In an evolutionary framework, some theists complain that God’s sovereignty in making creation is abridged by the randomness of natural selection. If God wants creatures with whom to be in relationship – if God wants a creation which cries out to the divine – then the uncertainty of evolution seems to go against the assuredness of divine sovereignty. After all, since the physical forces of the cosmos are blind, they don’t have to lead to abiogenesis at all, and evolution doesn’t have to create intelligent creatures that can grope after God. If natural selection is the paradigm, some might complain, then God might not get what God wants.

I offer two suggestions to navigate this complaint. The first suggestion is a rethinking of divine sovereignty. When humans refer to sovereignty, it is a limited resource that can be taken away, and once taken away, might never be recovered. This leads to an anxiety that is pervasive in human sovereign systems – sovereignty must be protected at deep cost in order to maintain power. This concept of anxiety is often transferred to God in ways that are troubling. In some theological systems, God is almost obsessively concerned with glory, power, and sovereignty; and every divine action is predicated on maintaining divine sovereignty and power, and getting more glory. But the Christian God is infinite, including infinite sovereignty, power, and glory. In true infinity, God can give away each of these attributes with impunity, and still maintain infinity. Likewise, no amount of praise from finite beings can increase God’s glory and power. There is simply no need for God to be anxious over the divine attributes, which explains the times when, in scripture, God is denigrated without concern. This is why, despite “the fall”, which might be considered a threat to the glory and sovereignty of the divine image, humans still bear the imago dei.

Secondly, one of the ideas behind these posts is to look at what God has done in order to discern God’s intent. With this in mind, I propose that the fact that creation is anthropic is suggestive that God gets what God wants. As long as we can agree that the creatures who ultimately bear the mantle “image of God” don’t have to look like Homo sapiens, then it appears that creation is indeed tuned to give God what God wants. Alternatively, we could say that since God is sovereign, then creation HAS given God what God wants.

The fact that the process of evolution takes lots of time, or might result in promising lines of biological development that die out, does nothing to diminish the sovereignty of an infinite God. Within theism, God established a creation that is able to satisfy the divine intent via a self-organizing cosmos, which is measurable in many scientific ways. This is at least as amazing as God calling creation into being through divine fiat.

God’s goodness

Any discussion of God’s goodness in the face of evil and suffering must necessarily concede that the problem of reconciling what humans conceive as “goodness” with the realities of a savage cosmos might not be possible. This is the major critique of the historical theodicies I discussed in the first post of this series. Each historical solution makes God complicit in evil in various ways; they simply cannot avoid it. An evolutionary theodicy may very well share this problem.

However, as we discussed in the third post of the series, evil isn’t illness or suffering, which many categorize as evil. In fact, within an evolutionary framework, the trials of creation are what have given rise to the complex biological and social structures God has called the imago dei. Without the stress of competition, God doesn’t get what God wants. Within an evolutionary framework, suffering is the very thing that gives rise to the ability to perceive our human identity, and to ponder our place in the cosmos.

As we ponder our place in the cosmos we face an identity crisis, which can give rise to evil when we pursue warped ways to soothe our anxieties. If God cares about evil – this loss of identity that we all face – then what does God do about it?

Scripturally, one of the most prominent narratives is that God is engaged in rescuing and redeeming the enslaved and exiled – those mired in identity-shattering suffering. God is the one who calls into a relationship of identity via the covenant with Abraham and in the giving of the law through Moses. God is engaged in the call to identity in sending the messiah as the perfect example of living a life in proper relation to humanity and God in such a way that each anxiety is dealt with properly. And, in the eschaton, it seems that humanity, once again, finds our place in relation to the divine, as we finally encounter God, face to face. As Barry Callen puts it, “God as biblically revealed is associated closely with suffering and is related particularly to those marginalized by others. Such divine associating and relating surely says much about who God really is and what God actually intends.” God is intimately concerned with identity-making, which rescues from the clutches of evil.

In the New Testament, I’m struck by how often the followers of Jesus don’t ask for an end to their suffering, but instead thank God that their identities are assured, hidden in Christ. Instead of resorting to the violence of revenge when they are oppressed and persecuted, they pray for their enemies and ask God that the sins of their enemies not be held against them. In the book of Acts, we see a fascinating picture of believers who have so redefined their identities that they share all things in common and take care of each other with all of their money and possessions. The anxiety most of us would face in taking care of everyone in our communities without invoking meritocracy is almost unimaginable. And yet God’s goodness lies in calling us – wooing us – into dealing productively with such anxieties and becoming “new creations”.

My point is that God might have initiated a self-organizing cosmos that eventually gave rise to the pitiless indifference of natural selection (which is neutral at its worst), but God’s goodness is found in the identity provided to those who wish to seek it. Far from being satisfied with a creation that’s perpetually red with tooth and claw, God calls us to transcend the vagaries of life as Homo sapiens and to instead find our identities in the imago dei.

A Conclusion?

This theodicy, while only loosely fleshed out, seems to satisfy the requirements of Blocher’s “T”, but does it really satisfy?

Can it heal the hurt of those who have experienced loss?

Can it lead the lost to soothe their anxieties in the identity of the imago dei?

Can it give consolation to those in despair?

Of course not – theodicies rarely soothe. It takes a different kind of response to suffering to address questions of how to cope with loss and despair without loss of identity. For Christians, such a response is found in Christ, and in authentic Christian community as we put off any pretense of intellectual or moral superiority – any pretending that our own anxieties don’t warp us – and embrace the suffering in love. And it is with this love that the ultimate end of creation comes to rest.

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Christianity and the Problem of Evil (pt 3): What is Evil?

In the last post, we laid down some ground rules for how to parse through this particular answer to the problem of evil – namely that we’ll be using Blocher’s “T”, and we’ll be accepting the theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

Point #1 of Blocher’s “T” is that evil must truly be evil. What, then is “evil” in an evolutionary paradigm? Isn’t the universe devoid of any kind of value judgment in such a framework, operating, as Richard Dawkins says, only with “blind, pitiless indifference”?

Well…yes and no.

I’ve read many things, and asked many people how they think evil manifests itself in the world. Inevitably, people say that evil manifests itself in things like rape, murder, genocide, abuse, oppression, and rebelliousness*, and in things like loss of property, life, or limb. From these manifestations, evil can be categorized as suffering. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Do we call it evil or suffering if a far-off star explodes and ceases to be? Certainly not. The explosion of a star is not evil – it simply is. The explosion of stars is simply the nature of things. Similarly, when a rock tumbles off of a remote mountain, or leaves decompose in a forest, do we think of it as suffering? No, instead it is simply the nature of things – leaves rot, rocks fall.

Similarly, when a deer eats berries or grass, we don’t think of that as evil. Neither do we think of it as evil when a pack of wolves hunts and kills that deer for food. It’s not evil, it’s just the nature of things, despite the suffering of the deer, or the potential hunger of the wolf. It’s just the deer being a deer, and the wolf being a wolf.

But what about rape and murder? Let’s turn again to the animal kingdom. Many species of ducks are well-known for the male forcing himself on the female. This often happens in groups where multiple males will assault a female, sometimes holding the head of the female under water until she passes out or dies. Most people, when they learn of this, are appalled, and rightfully so, because if this happened to a human there would be outrage. But ducks aren’t human – we’re projecting anthropomorphic sensibilities onto duck instincts when we are appalled at their behavior. Some species of duck only conceive through rape. It’s the only way that the species survives. So, is that evil? Or, is it simply a duck being a duck?

Silverback gorillas, when they take over the harem by defeating the previous alpha male, will often kill all of the infant gorillas in the harem, presumably to accelerate the fertility of the females so that genes of the new silverback can be more readily spread. In human society, killing babies is the very definition of evil. But what about for gorillas? Is the new alpha male evil, or is he simply doing what gorillas do?

My argument is that these things are NOT evil. Stars exploding, rocks falling, the brutality of the food chain, and even duck rape and gorilla infanticide aren’t evil. They simply ARE. They are the nature of things.

Calvin-and-Hobbes-Discuss-the-Devil

So, then, what is evil?

If humans are the product of natural selection, then our complexity as creatures is largely due to generations of selfishness and greed, envy and malice, and violence and indifference as our ancestors out-competed others. Deep within our collective biology lives a murderous rage, lustful eye, and selfish heart to all but our in-group. But if we are also to take Genesis 1 seriously, humans are the lone creatures called out as the Image of God (imago dei), which over-lays and defines our being. Natural selection (along with the wooing of the Spirit) may have given rise to our consciousness and complexity, but God defines our place in the cosmos. And if we are to take Genesis 1 seriously, it is only after this relating of humans to the imago dei that creation moves from “good” to “very good”.

Evil is a matter of identity. Humans, with our big brains and complex social structures seek a place. Thoughts about our place in creation cause anxiety, and in response to that anxiety, we fear the present and the future. There is a human tendency to act out that fear in ways that reinforce the behaviors that were so helpful for natural selection. It isn’t that this anxiety is evil in and of itself. That would be like calling the nature of rams to butt horns, or gorillas to have harems evil. How we respond to the identity crisis is what we call evil. Taking the biological path – reverting to primal violence, greed, and wrath is typically considered evil. That’s where rape and murder and oppression come from. But transcending the more primal aspects of our biological urges seems to be a uniquely human call. It’s the imago dei – this definition of who we are before God – that continually calls us into new identity as “self”. When our ability to transcend is thwarted – when we let our anxieties get the better of us and we despair that we can’t obtain our true identities – when we reject the call of the imago dei – we usually call that thing “evil”, because the imago dei was vandalized in both the victim, and the perpetrator.

But what if there is no perpetrator? Disease and tsunamis and earthquakes and tornadoes are neither creatures, nor evil – they simply are. However, when they ruin our property, or result in loss of life or limb, then we assign the moral value of “evil” to otherwise neutral phenomenon. What we perceive as evil is not the tornado itself, but the inconvenience of the event. We do this, I argue, because we have an identity crisis as we face our own mortality and potential for non-being in the face of seemingly uncontrollable forces. Disease and tsunamis and earthquakes and tornadoes threaten to render our self-complexity moot. They threaten to erase the imago dei and make us not-being without providing a way to resist. During such natural events, we feel the weight of being demigods and yet have no control over our own mortality. We are deficient.

We have these giant brains that can imagine literally anything. We can harness nuclear power and make energy from light, but we can’t stop our own bodies from turning against us. We are the smartest things we know of, but can’t keep ourselves from perishing from the blind and unthinking forces of nature. And so we face an identity crisis – we are gods, and yet we are frail. We suffer physically and mentally because this world makes no sense – it defies the definition of who we are. And so we despair. Not because the tsunami itself is evil, but because in its wake we don’t know who we are anymore. Our true selves and place in creation as the imago dei has been lost. And that is evil.

So, what is evil?

It’s our warped response to the identity crisis we all face as we interact with the world. Evil is the despair of not being a true self before God.

But if evolution is the paradigm, and evil is the result of God’s call on humans, in what way can God be said to be good or sovereign?

In the next post, I’ll examine this question as I explore the next two points of Blocher’s “T”.

*There might be some equivocation about the fact that stars exploding or leaves decomposing are from entropy due to “the fall”, but that goes back again to discerning the intent for creation from scant data, and using the assumed intent to say how things work. This integration is  interested in looking at the mechanisms within creation to determine how things work.

Christianity & the problem of evil (pt 2): When the stones cry out

theodicy-otAs I stated at the end of the previous post, most of the traditional responses to the problem of evil have significant problems. A lot of those problems are with internal consistency, but a significant piece of the problem is that they tend to rely on the intent of creation to make their case. I would like to argue that evidence about the intent of creation is scant at best, and non-existent at worst. However, we can pretty easily discern the mechanisms present in creation and work towards a solution to the problem of evil. This isn’t an idea that originated with me. John Feinburg, in his book “The Many Faces of Evil” advocates that Christians, “Look at what He has done, and that will show what He intended.”

Another issue that I have with the historic views is that they don’t seemed to be influenced by outside philosophies. The assumption about intent drove the conversation, and the only way to know about intent was through theology and scripture. There wasn’t much room for things like other religious systems or science to influence the conversation. In fact, the synthesis of science and theology was so lacking that when Teilhard de Chardin started working to understand the theological implications of evolution in the early 1900s, it generated a ton of buzz. No one was really doing meaningful, high-quality integrations of theology and science. Even though the Roman Catholic church eventually censured his works (mostly because of his views on original sin) Chardin’s work really served to get people thinking about the implications of science for parsing though theological problems.

While I don’t go nearly as far as Chardin, an integration of evolution by means of natural selection with the theological question “Why evil?” can open up new space. But first, some ground rules.

Ground Rule #1 – Blocher’s “T”

Henri Blocher, in his book “Evil and the Cross” discusses that any Christian theodicy must contain three fundamental elements – 1.) that evil is truly evil, 2.) that God is truly sovereign, and 3.) that God is good, which Blocher organizes into a “T”. These three rules are crucial for any truly Christian theodicy, because without them you could describe the presence of evil in the cosmos by saying that evil doesn’t really exist, or that God sometimes loses control of creation and bad things happen, or that God is actually sadistic and enjoys seeing us suffer. Or, you could say that God doesn’t actually exist.

The problem with these rules is that they are debatable. What does it mean, for instance, for evil to be truly evil? What, exactly, are the boundaries of God’s sovereignty? At what point does God’s allowance for suffering override goodness? Unfortunately, I won’t be able to resolve those debates, but will only be able to open up the possibility to think about things differently.

Ground Rule #2 – When the Stones Cry Out

Here’s what’s going to rub a lot of my evangelical friends the wrong way – I think the theory of evolution by means of natural selection is a huge help to navigating the problem of evil.

I’ve read many things and talked to many people, both “pro” evolution and “con”, and have come to a place where I’m in agreement that evolution is the best interpretation of the data. That’s why I’ve been so pleased with the Biologos project, which is trying to encourage Christians to think in more accurate terms about evolution. But evolution by no means cuts God out of the equation for me. I’m theistic to the core.

Over and over again in scripture when God is without someone with whom to work, He calls people out, and woos them into relationship. God called Abram out of paganism, He called Isaiah into faithfulness, and continually widened the circle to include gentiles. The rule of blood and law evolved into faith and love as God continually woos humanity. And what happened when, in the book of Luke, the Pharisees tried to keep people from shouting praise to God for what had been done? Jesus said that if the people were silent, then the stones would shout out.

Is it so much of a leap to believe that all life – and the universe itself – is shouting out to God? From the Big Bang to the coalescence of the stars, to the production of heavy elements and the organization of galaxies – the universe was crying out. And when this tiny dust-ball formed, orbiting an average star in a backwater arm of an average galaxy – complexity and chance combined to give rise to life, and ultimately the sort of creatures who could be in relationship with God. We are made of the stuff of the universe, and yet we transcend it. We are the very stones, brought to life to shout out to God.

This view of the universe is so exciting to me. Within it, I get to be less worried about demons and evil around every corner which turns the world into a dark and cynical place. Instead, I get to look for the working of God – the way in which creation always has and always will call out to the creator, and participate in the “very good” that God has declared this cosmos.

And yet, we’re left with a nagging sense that something is not right. The cosmos seems to contain at least something that feels like evil.

In the next post, I’ll start to explore the first piece of Blocher’s “T”, and ask the question “What is Evil?”

 

Christianity & the problem of evil (pt 1): The historical solutions

masaccio-expulsion-adam-eveNot too long ago I was participating in a discussion in which someone asked the famous question “Why is there evil in the world?” In all honesty I botched the answer in all kinds of ways, though I have plenty of thoughts about the question. The next few posts will serve to coalesce my thoughts.

The question of “How does a good God allow evil and suffering?” is probably the most enduring question for monotheists. I’ve even read that some eastern religions, such as Buddhism, which are largely atheistic, believe that the problem of evil is so vexing that the solution will have to come from a philosophy outside of their religion – namely the west. But truthfully, I don’t think the question to the problem of evil has a satisfying answer within the realm of theism, deism, or religion in general. That’s why I mostly dislike the question. Simply put, there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing or which way the river’s flowing…

epicurious quoteBut none of that has kept people (including me) from trying. The technical term for dealing with this problem is “theodicy”, and numerous solutions have been proposed. However, historic Christian solutions have fallen into three major camps.

Solution by Universal Order – aka, Augustinian Theodicy

The short version of this solution is that the Abrahamic God created the cosmos as “very good”, and since God is omnipotent and benevolent, then evil is not part of creation. Ergo, “evil” is not a created thing, and God is therefore not responsible for its occurrence. Instead, evil is a lack of goodness.

Imagine it this way – in Augustinian thought, God is infinite, and is wholly and completely good. God is perfect in goodness and in ability to accomplish good. However, when creation is made, it cannot contain an infinite amount of God’s good. Therefore creation, being finite, is good, but it is not infinitely good. This lack of goodness, Augustine argues, no matter how small, is evil. Therefore, in the solution by universal order, evil has its root in finitude. Creatures, such as humans, are lacking some measure of God’s goodness, and are therefore tempted by vices which can diminish the other “good” qualities we do have, such as integrity, beauty, welfare, virtue, etc..

In the universal order, evil isn’t natural, but is an outworking of free will exercised by humanity to oppose God’s rule. Not only does free will produce the worst that selfishness has to offer, but inappropriate use earns humans punishment for their disobedience, which is commonly referred to as “The Fall” and caused by “Original Sin”.

The traditional Reformed and Neo-reformed views fit into this camp, along with their own variations.

Solution by Autonomous Freedom – aka Irenaean Theodicy

The short version of this solution is that the Abrahamic God created the cosmos as “very good”, but this didn’t mean “perfect”. Instead it meant “the best possible world God was able to create given the limitations of finitude.” Since this is the best possible world, but not a perfect world, there is room for improvement.

Irenaeus therefore proposed that creation is a two-stage process. The first stage was when God created. The second stage is when humans use their free will to develop towards perfection through their experience of suffering and evil. The world is therefore a school-room for making the human soul complete. The theologian John Hicks terms the world “a vale for soul-making”.

Unlike the Augustinian view, in which God was in no way responsible for the presence of evil in creation, in the Irenaean view God is responsible for making the world a perfect classroom in which genuine moral choices can be made. When humans experience the natural consequences of these choices (which have the potential to be “evil”), we learn how to be more moral and make better decisions. In this way the Image of God is developed in humans. In other words, evil IS part of God’s natural creation, but its function is to drive us closer to the likeness of God in our moral behaviors.

Greg Boyd’s Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy, broadly speaking, fits into this camp.

Solution by Dialectical Reasoning – aka Plotinian Theodicy

This is likely the most confusing of the three, since it can get into things like process theology and discussions of human ontology. However, the short version of this solution is that what we consider “evil” is really a lack of being able to call harmony into being. Evil is therefore “non-being”.

Perfection, within this view, is the ultimate harmony of all things. Take light and darkness, for instance. Harmony would not be combining them into some sort of low-light situation, since that wouldn’t respect the BEING of each. Instead, harmony means both light and darkness would exist, side-by-side, neither being destroyed or overwhelmed by the other. But this process of harmony requires infinitude. Our finite beings can’t accomplish it, much less wrap our minds around it. Simultaneous harmony is not possible for finite beings. This lack of finding harmony gives birth to non-being within us  – the idea that we won’t be able to bring the BEING of harmony to reality within us. And this potential of non-being is what we find as evil.

As humans struggle against non-being, their very being springs into existence. So, the more a person can find perfect harmony, the more that person can find their being. God’s goal in creation is to help creatures find their being, which requires complexity (sometimes called goodness) and harmony (sometimes called beauty). God’s infinitude harmonizes all things simultaneously , and is therefore worthy of being called perfectly good and beautiful. Evil is everything not harmonized in proper complexity.

Whitehead, Tillich, Moltmann, and Barth are all theologians who play with various methods of dialectical reasoning.

So What?

All of these solutions have merit, but they have significant problems, too. What strikes me most about these solutions is that they all arrive at the solution philosophically by trying to resolve the intent for creation from very paltry evidence. What if, instead, we look at the mechanisms of creation, which are comparatively obvious? Rather than trying to discern God’s intent for creation, what if we used tools like science to determine what is evident and let that light our way forward?

The question of evil is important because we want to make sense out of who we are and the world we live in. It’s not a silly question, but a question that we ask as we try to find our place in the world. In the next post, I’ll try to venture an answer to the question “Why Evil” in a way that respects both science and Christianity.

 

I’m thankful to both Henri Blocher and John Hick for their discussion and summary of the categories I’ve used in this post.

  • Blocher, Henri, Evil and the Cross (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994).
  • Hicks, John, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).