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.


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.


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

  1. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was – The Pietist Schoolman

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