The famous Lutheran theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked that “the one empirically verifiable Christian doctrine is the doctrine of original sin”. He said this in order to empathize with the fact that very few people will go so far as to deny the infamous “problem of evil”. Some have attempted to do so (e.g. Mary Baker Eddy), but a flat out denial of what is most basic to our being is bound to be less than existentially satisfying. If one believes in a traditional monotheistic conception of Divinity, then one must grapple with the existence of evil in the face of this God. If He is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then how can evil exist in His world? If He has the ability and He has the motivation, then why do we, especially those who are deemed His chosen people, still suffer? This is the dilemma we face.
One way to reconcile this supposed logical inconsistency is to radically redefine the term “omnibenevolence”. Many so-called “determinists” do exactly this. Determinism is the belief that what is “good” in God is simply what He does by nature. Murder is wrong because God does not murder; and lying is wrong because God does not lie. Therefore, the statement “God is good” is a logical tautology. Since “good” is defined as “what God does”, then God can do no other than be good; or “be Himself”. While this seems prima facie to allow moral relativism (couldn’t God one day decide lying is good?), many Christians have latched on to this uber-sovereign notion of God’s character. If God is completely “above” our finite moral categories, then He can, and should, commit atrocities in order to further His plans. After all, “who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this’? Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” Thus the problem of evil is eradicated. Unfortunately, however, this theological move makes God into the devil. Such a re-definition forces the problem of evil to become the problem of God. As Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart observes,
”There are those who suffer from a palpably acute anxiety regarding the honor due the divine sovereignty. Certainly many Christians over the centuries have hastened to resituate the New Testament imagery of spiritual warfare securely within the one all-determining will of God, fearing that to deny that evil and death are the “left hand” of God’s goodness in creation or the necessary “shadow” of his righteousness would be to deny divine omnipotence as well.”
Determinism fails to account for the goodness of God and the freedom of man that the Scripture seems to assert. Not the goodness of God that turns the Infinite God into a divine Santa Claus, nor the libertarian freedom of the philosophers that turns finite man into a little autonomous god; but that of the Scriptures: “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live”. The goodness of God that is thoroughly kenotic and incarnational: the Infinite becoming finite in order to make the finite, like Him, infinite. The freedom of man that makes mankind responsible for his actions rather than making God a sovereign schoolyard bully that takes pleasure in pilfering our proverbial lunch money for His own ends (as if He needed such a thing?). Allowing God to be the Hegelian synthesis between good (thesis) and evil (antithesis) only pushes the problem back further. In fact, it might be said that the problem becomes no more. For, if God is the problem, how can there be a solution?
Many theologians agree that re-defining God’s goodness in this way ends in nihilism. In contrast, some maintain that we must keep God out of the equation and allow man’s freedom to bear the blame for evil and sin. The best expression of this “Free Will Defense” comes from Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga:
“A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He cannot cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they are not significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He cannot give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.”
This free will defense has strengths, and they are legion. First, the free will defense places the blame for sin squarely where it belongs: on those who have sinned. Second, it places God in the role of Judge rather than the dual roles of Judge-Defendant, having perpetrated the crimes Himself, a la determinism. And finally, the free will defense makes the gospel beautiful again by having God deliver man from his self-made predicament. Despite all these strengths, however, free will defenders still have one major difficulty: the problem of permission.
God is not directly responsible for evil; to this we agree. But is God indirectly responsible for it? Did he “allow” or “permit” evil in order to showcase all of His divine attributes? Many theodicies bank on this turn in God’s divine psychology. This view holds that God allows evil to occur in this world in order to ensure that the greatest good is achieved in the end. Following Leibniz, it is believed that God is obligated by His nature to create the best of all possible worlds. According to Leibniz, this would require a certain amount of evil, for some goods cannot be achieved without presupposing the existence of some evils. Forgiveness, mercy, grace, and justice are all thought to be attributes of God that necessitate the subsistence of evil in order to be dispensed.
Following Bentham and Mill’s Utilitarian ethics, God creates a redemptive-history that will balance itself out in the end. Here, the biblical notion of the providence of God becomes 19th century continental moral philosophy with a dark twist. Hart describes this problematic view in stating that
“Many Christians clearly seem to wish to believe there is a divine plan in all the seeming randomness of nature’s violence that accounts for every instance of suffering, privation, and loss in a sort of total sum. This is an understandable impulse. That there is a transcendent providence that will bring God’s good ends out of the darkness of history – in spite of every evil – no Christian can fail to affirm. But providence (as even Voltaire seems to have understood) is not simply a ‘total sum’ or ‘infinite equation’ that leaves nothing behind.”
Ivan Karamazov, the great atheist in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, responds to this notion directly when confronting his monk brother: “It is not God that I do not accept… I merely most respectfully return him the ticket”.
D.Z. Phillips, the great Wittgensteinian scholar, suggests that “to rescue sufferings from degradation by employing cost-benefit analysis is like rescuing a prostitute from degradation by telling her to charge higher fees”.
The main problem with this method (despite its many strengths) is that it attempts to justify the existence of evil aesthetically. It makes the mistake of making evil necessary. If Augustine is right, and evil is a negation, a cancer, a nothing, then we should not explain evil in this way – if at all.
And thus we see the real problem in theodicy; what I will call the problem of correlational theodicies. On one side we have an Aristotelian God who is so overly sovereign that He finds it necessary to contemplate only Himself for all of eternity, completely oblivious to all of the suffering that transpires on the earth. On the other side, utilitarian ideas of “goodness as utility” help interpret God’s process theology-like history. What we need to do in problem of evil studies is re-define our terms Christianly rather than first and foremost philosophically. Only in this way can we understand the puzzle of evil as Christian theologians.
When we speak of God’s sovereignty, which is most definitely a biblical concept, we often mix our categories. Our Evangelical theology often utilizes cosmological-scientific terminology in order to further explain our theological concepts. This is correlational theology. We need to take the advice of Wittgenstein and understand that each and every language-game can help solve its own puzzles, but it must solve these puzzles within its own language-game. Therefore, we must speak theologically about theology and cosmologically about cosmology. The Bible (the grammar of our language-game) speaks of God’s sovereignty in redemptive-historical and, ultimately, theological terminology. When we speak of sovereignty we should do the same. Neither microcosmic determinism nor macrocosmic indeterminism will do the job. We need an entirely new picture of Christian reality in order to work out our theodicy.
If we, as Christians, are to understand God’s relation to evil, then we must first look to Christ, the Logos; that which enables us to know God. A Christocentric starting point leads us to one unambiguous conclusion:
“If it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God… Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering or death, that cannot be providentially turned toward God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
Inevitably, I hold that we cannot fully explicate evil. The problem of evil is eschatological in nature. There is always more to come. We look back to the cross in order to know the promise and we look forward to the end (actually, the real beginning) in order to know the answer. In this sense, as Wolfhart Pannenberg would say, truth is eschatological. We are always looking ahead to its arrival. When we are resurrected and our deaths are finally reversed, then we will know the solution to the problem of evil. God has already made the promise; now we must wait in faith for the doctor to enter into the waiting room and call our name.
Before Christ and the salvation that He brought was revealed to us, a man named Job struggled with the existence of evil. He tore his clothes and wept and complained, yet no answer came his way. His friends and neighbors tried to tell him that he must have done something wrong. After all, God is sovereign and God is fair. He punishes in accordance with the crime committed and rewards according to the degree of unswerving obedience shown. “Isn’t that how it is?” – Job’s friends must have wondered. Job could only say with existential despair, “I know that my Redeemer lives”. We can say much more now that Christ has been revealed. God has answered our prayer against evil in Christ. He became like us in order to suffer under the subjugation of the devil. He died the death that is ours to die so that we might live the life that is His to live. The world will always try to explain evil through victimization mechanisms and genetic manipulations, but Christ on the cross is our theodicy. Can we join the chorus of a groaning world: ‘How long, O Lord?’ – forfeiting the luxury of the easy resolution?