The Problem of Evil


“We may, of course, raise the basic charge against God: why is not His will for creation wholly and utterly a voluntas efficiens, and a good will only in this form? Why does this refraining, this not preventing and not excluding exist only in this utterly terrifying power which is proper to it as the divine will, and seems so fatefully to conceal the goodness of His will? To this our only answer is that God’s supreme and truest good for creation, and therefore the good determined for and promised to creation, is revealed in its full splendour only when its obedience and blessedness are not simply its nature, the self-evident fulfillment of its existence, its inevitable course, but when they are salvation from the edge of an abyss, when in its obedience and blessedness creation is constantly reminded of its creation out of nothing and its preservation from nothingness by the menacing proximity of the kingdom of darkness, when its obedience and blessedness are therefore grace and salvation…If God is greater in the very fact that He is the God who forgives sins and saves from death, we have no right to complain but must praise Him that His will also includes a permitting of sin and death, God is not less but greater – He does not come under suspicion, but shows Himself to be holy and righteous, in fact the He not only efficit, but also permittit. For in this way His will appears as the will of the gracious God who in His grace is the glorious God (CD II/1, 595).

The problem of evil is easily the best reason to reject God. The many other objections albeit scientific, rationalistic, Freudian, Feuerbachian while legitimate, are not the ones that keep me up at night. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, so why do people suffer needlessly? Augustine understood evil as the privation of goodness. Hence, evil has no real substance and is non-being rather than being. Thus God is not to blame for all the suffering in the world. I want to reject this ontological move made by Augustine because I have a hard time reconciling this account of evil with scriptures. In fact, I have never seen any description of evil in the Bible that defines evil as the privation of good.

Process theologians often simply deny God’s omnipotence and omniscience and so completely exonerate God of any of the blame. Caputo’s recent work has pursued a thinking of a weak God, and although I like Caputo’s theology it’s painful to see just how much of the tradition must be rejected to situate this weak God within a Christian framework.

Let’s move onto Calvinism. Zizek raises three objections to different explanations of the sovereign God. The first answer to be rejected is that suffering is accounted for by your sin, an explanation Jesus himself pretty clearly rejects. Two, suffering is a test of faith and if you can endure, God will reward you for your faithfulness. However, if it turns out like Job, you’re probably going to lose all your sons and daughters. Humans are irreplaceable singularities, so this sort of compensation God offers Job is clearly unfit. Three, God’s mysterious will is responsible, but this will is something we cannot know and should not question. Again, God swoops down and asks Job if he was there for the creation of the world. Of course Job was not so he is in no position to question God. Zizek suggests following Hegel, that God’s mystery is a mystery unto God himself.

Some people say, “I know it might not seem now that the starvation of millions has meaning, but that’s because we only have a myopic view of history. In the end, everything works to a higher purpose”. This explanation reminds me of the trite solace offered by some to those who are suffering: everything happens for a reason. Of course, the one suffering subject should reply, “What reason is that?” “Well, um, God has a purpose”, “Do you know his purpose?”, “Well, no”, “Oh, so everything happens and you don’t know either, thanks”. This is ideology at its purest.

Not only is this view of God often ethically despicable but also quite frankly creates a view of this perverse, Satanic God. Here is Hart’s critique of Calvin, “Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably far more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted.” God ends up looking like some ridiculous, clownish puppeteer putting on a show for his own amusement while completely indifferent to human suffering.

Barth seems to be hung up on this notion that God both wills and permits. This sort of distinction seems exceptionally fuzzy and introduces a rather arbitrary element into creation. I think I’ll bless person X but not Y. Why? Well, because it makes me that much more awesome. This move strikes me as a weak one that is ultimately unsatisfactory. Why does God permit some things and not others, because it only serves to enhance his glory? Why does it enhance his glory? Don’t question God. Eventually if you ask enough questions the entire argument will unravel. The same thing happens when wants tries to explain the origin of evil. Who’s responsible? Satan or perhaps Adam and Eve are culpable. Unfortunately, God gave them free will to rebel. Without this free will God could gain no satisfaction from our voluntary love of Him and each other. Hence, it’s ultimately God’s fault. The only question remaining to be asked after this is why did God even bother creating the world? Non-existence seems infinitely preferable over the suffering a single individual human.

One argument that I’ve been quite fond of over the years has come from Bonhoeffer’s prophetic writings in the Letters and Papers from Prison. In those letters he writes that only the suffering God cans help us. Schelling also puts it quite nicely, “God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming…Without the concept of a humanly suffering God…all of history remains incomprehensible” (Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 274). According to this perspective, when people suffer there is no question where God stands. He is not outside looking downward observing the suffering. Rather, he is alongside co-suffering with them. We know God can sympathize with our pain because He Himself through Jesus was completely forsaken by all and died utterly alone. He knows suffering. The cross shatters any notion concerning God’s position with respect to pain; He is standing alongside dying with us. I’m reminded of the time I went to visit a Quaker service for my psychology of religion course. During the meeting, only two people spoke. The first one lamented the fact that innocent children suffer for no reason, and the man asked sincerely why God does not intervene since he was quite convinced God loved children above all. Twenty minutes of silence passed. Another member said simply this, “The face of Christ is on all those who suffer”. The meeting adjourned. I want to affirm this. Of all the explanations it is the only one that is not morally reprehensible or simply unbelievable.

But, over the last couple of months I’ve had my doubts. Certainly this is the paradigm through which I understand the crucifixion, but what about salvation? What about damnation? What about election? Surely the suffering God is very helpful when it comes to thinking of atonement, but what about hell? Unless one wants to embrace some sort of universalism, it seems difficult to reconcile the difficulties the existence of hell poses for any notion of an all-loving God. I believe that it is perhaps too theologically hasty to completely dismiss these conversations as if they never happened. Again, the only question that needs to be asked is why does God bother making the world at all? Why didn’t He rather just not make the world and spare the eternal damnation of so many? Can the suffering God really be of any use in understanding the Hebrew Bible? Do we not end up with some sort of Marcionism? All the great theologians have thought election. Altizer’s work has what spurred me on to think more precisely about damnation and salvation. As I prepare to read Doctrine of God part 2 on the election of God I’m excited to see more fully how Barth develops his notion of double election. Damnation is also something central to the gospels and the Hebrew Bible as well. Jesus commits himself to declaring that those around him repent or else they will be consumed in the apocalyptic fire. The Baptizer says that God will lay an axe to the root. Likewise, does not God’s election of Israel simultaneously imply an exclusion of the all those of the non-elect (i.e. Gentiles)? So, even if God is a suffering God, what does that say about after death? Once, your eternal fate is decided it seems rather obvious that God is no longer a suffering God, but a God of wrath and judgment. A God who sends those to hell based on his infinite righteousness.

Maybe we should come to admit that none of these explanations can avoid many problems (ethical, theological, biblical). However, there is one other possibility that most dare not consider, namely that evil is not utterly alien from God. I plan on reading Altizer’s Godhead and the Nothing in the near future to speak more about this idea. Here are a couple of quotes by Altizer about this work:

“Only in the course of many years of theological struggle was I able to open myself to the possibility of the absolute transfiguration of the Godhead, for this is only possible if the negative pole or polarity of the Godhead is absolutely real, that could only mean that Godhead itself is absolutely “evil” even as it is absolutely “good,” only the deep darkness and abyss of the Godhead makes possible an absolute transfiguration, and not only is that abyss transfigured in this transfiguration, but it can even be understood that the final expression of this process could only be actually manifest in its most abysmal or negative mode. Thereby we can understand how both ancient and modern apocalypticism can know a totality of darkness, a darkness inseparable from a full and actual apocalyptic dawning, or inseparable from apocalypse itself.”

“One of the deeper motifs of Godhead and the Nothing is the transfiguration of evil, and a transfiguration of evil which is finally the “Self-Saving” of Godhead itself, a self-saving which is an absolute transfiguration, and an absolute transfiguration of an absolute horror. If our clearest vision of that horror is Moby Dick, this is a genuine vision of a uniquely modern epiphany of God, one going far beyond its ancient Gnostic counterparts, and beyond them as an actualization of absolute evil, but an evil absolutely essential to a genuine apocalypse, and to a truly apocalyptic transfiguration.”


One Response to “The Problem of Evil”

  1. james Says:

    Plantinga’s free will defense ( would seem relevant here. Note, as the article states, it’s merely a defense and not a full-blown theodicy.

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