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Re-sketching the Problem (of Evil)

(Developing my recent post on the parousia and divine crucifomity.)
(1) If, in the beginning, the character of God compels God to allow the existence of evil (i.e. out of respect for the free agency of his creation, or whatever), then this implies that, in the end, God is compelled by God’s character to allow evil to persist (i.e. God cannot put a forceful end to evil, since God couldn’t forcefully prevent evil in the first place).
(2) If, however, the character of God does not compel God to allow the existence of evil, if God simply chooses to allow evil to come into being, then God could forcefully overthrow evil in the end.  However, this alternative is equally problematic because it means God could have chosen to prevent evil in the beginning but chose not to.
(3) The final(?) alternative is that evil is somehow an eternal force or being that has existed alongside of God, and exists apart from what God chooses or what God is compelled to allow based upon God’s character.  Naturally, from a Christian perspective which affirms God’s uniqueness and sovereignty, this is even more problematical than the first two positions I’ve outlined.
Thus, we are left with three equally troubling options: either God’s character prevents him from stopping evil (and so evil will endure ad infinitum) or God simply chooses to allow evil (thereby making God appear to be fairly evil) or God and evil are like competing deities (thereby leading to an Eastern sort of philosophy or polytheism).
Consequently, I continue to think that the problem of evil (and suffering) is the great challenge to faith.  I have not yet read any satisfactory response to this challenge.

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  1. Have you read any Marilyn Mcord Adams? On a whim last year I read her Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God and was hugely impressed. It’s the best work on the problem of evil I’ve ever read. Although often an analytic philosopher brings an experiential perspective (Horrendous evil – ie., evil that is difficult to reconcile with any sort of soul-making theodicy, is far more important that often recognised).
    My review of the book is linked below if it helps but, as I say, I think you’d appreciate it.

  2. How about this take:
    What if #1 were the sort of default reality given the way things were prior to the incarnation? The incarnation changes things in that when Christ ministered he subverted the reigning paradigm that insists that when the profane touches the sacred (or the unclean touches the clean) it renders it profane? Therefore, the incarnation shows that when God pours himself into his creation in the uniqueness of Christ, it shows a slow overcoming of evil by making it sacred? This, as a result, allows for the effect of #2, whereby evil is overcome in the end, but not by force, but by the transformation of creation through the incarnation presence of the church. That, over time, the sacred overcomes the profane as evil slowly gives way to the good? Just a thought. I’m not sure how compelling this line of thought is, however I believe that, in the incarnation, the way in which evil is addressed is fundamentally shifted.

  3. I do favour one of your options, but I’ll keep my mouth shut about which!! As you say, each of them comes with uncomfortable tensions. The best thing I’ve read on the topic is ‘Evil and the Cross’ by the French Theologian Henri Blocher.

  4. Actually there is a fourth and fifth – fourth, God isn’t good -just God, sometimes nice, sometimes not nice, evil and good both therefore coming equally from God alone; and five – God is evil (the Gnostic option).
    I am not just being irritating here – I think these options are compelling in some ways and I at least have had to think about them.
    Cheers – Peter

  5. Option 1 describes God as someone having total control over the creation, and “allowing” evil to exist. This of course makes God responsible for evil, but I don´t think God has ever had this kind of control. I think God´s power has always been christ-like, as I tried to say in the comments on the previous post on this subject. To create is to allow some real autonomy to creation, but I am not sure how or to what extent God foreknew the consequences of creation.
    I think I would connect to Mark´s suggestion and view creation as a yet unfulfilled process (Iraeuneus). God has begun creating, but we still look forward to the new creation. Maybe suffering is the birth pains of the new creation? Would this be a cynical view?

  6. Absolutely – and thank you for being a Christian who is willing to face the stark realities that entrenched evils bring to theism. (And I second the recommendation of Marilyn McCord Adams, though it is still not fully satisfying to me, even though I am still, months later, digesting it.)

  7. Richard:
    I remember skimming your review when you posted it, but I’ve gone back and read it in more detail. It does look like a good book… although I do remain skeptical about how convinced I will be by her argument (or by any argument on this topic, for that matter!).
    Mark & Jonas:
    I’ve thought about this process approach and, to me, it seems too closely aligned with modern myths of progress and (moral) evolution. It doesn’t sound biblical enough for me. It seems to fail to account for the advance of evil that we have witnessed in history (the twentieth century, after all, wasn’t the best century in history… it was the most violent!), and it doesn’t seem to leave much room for the apocalyptic rupture that occurs when God sees, hears, remembers, and comes down.
    Matthew: Is it option two?? If I absolutely had to choose one of these options, that’s probably the one I would go with… even though it makes God look like he might be an asshole.
    Peter: Fair enough, although, to a certain extent, options 4 & 5 are anticipated in option 2. That said, there is also an option 6 — God doesn’t exist.

  8. I didn’t intend my comment to fit within the paradigm of process thought, though I could certainly see that fitting into the mix. God overcoming evil…and even death…in Christ is certainly biblical, and that sort of triumph is part of our birthright as the church. I would argue that any response to the problem of evil MUST hinge upon the incarnation. God’s response to evil is perhaps better understood as apocalyptic, rather than in process, but I don’t think that response is simply at the end of days. Rather, it has largely come into reality with the advent of Christ and his church and yet awaits completion. That completion is both, I suppose, in process, and also will culminate, but has already largely begun.

  9. I think option (2) (which could just be a version of (1)) is the least problematic. You say it is problematic because it means God could have chosen to overcome evil in the beginning, but didn’t (instead, waiting until the end). This is only a problem if there is no purpose in the waiting. But scripture is clear that there is, that he is waiting for all people to come to him. The OT is full of stories of God tolerating evil for a time only to finally bring down the hammer on it.
    This is a weak answer, however, and ultimately I think the answer is that there’s no answer. I disagree with Peter on his reading of Job. I think the point of Job is to address the problem of Evil directly and its answer is that we shouldn’t worry about trying to figure it out because the slice of reality we are capable of seeing and contemplating is way too small. Evil is cosmic and we just don’t have enough data on it to figure out why it exists. Essentially, Job affirms the problem, but suggests there isn’t a good answer.

  10. Mark:
    Yes, I agree that the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth must be that which dictates how we understand God’s (problematical) relationship with evil. And I agree with your remarks about “contagious holiness” (Blomberg’s term) in your last comment. I also agree that with your observation that we must think of the apocalypse as something that has begun with Christ and continued alongside of Christ’s church (in fact, my current provisional title for my thesis is “Apocalyptic Eschatology and the Politics of Subversion: History, Ethics & Empires”… something like that).
    However, first of all, I would reiterate my point that we have seen evil progress just as much as the new creation of all things. So, to say that this process is somehow leading us to the consummation of God’s new creation seems to be a symptom of a false idealism (don’t get me wrong, like Jon Sobrino, I’m all for utopian thinking and action… but we must make sure that our utopias are well grounded!).
    Secondly, I would strengthen this point by arguing that the church, by and large, has failed in her task. In fact, I think that the church has mirrored the history of Israel. Israel, like the Church, received a divine commission, and divine empowerment, but she, like the Church, failed. Hence, it takes a major rupture — the incarnation — to fulfill the mission of Israel. And it might also take a major rupture to fulfill the mission of the (failed) Church.
    Indeed, this is one of the things that leads me to my hopeful universalism — if the failure of Israel resulted in the inclusion of the Gentiles (to the shock and awe of most involved), perhaps the failure of the Church will result in the inclusion of non-Christians (to the shock and awe of most Christians).
    (On the other hand, this could be read the other way — if, in the beginning, it is possible to reject God; if, in the incarnation, it is possible to reject Jesus; then, perhaps in the end, it remains possible to reject the new creation of all things… but I don’t think this will be the case. Why? Because when we encounter God unveiled then I think it is impossible to reject God — this, at least, was the experience of Paul, and it was my own experience as well [see my latest blog post, although, to be clear, I’m not comparing myself to Paul here!]).

  11. Dan. I believe strongly in the apocalyptic inbreaking of God´s kingdom, so I´m not expecting the world to move gently into the kingdom. Hence no process-theology, more of a creation in a few radical steps. I agree with you that the world generally has not become better, but I believe that there is a light in the world since Jesus – namely Jesus and his spirit-filled followers. And I cannot see that Jesus has failed building his church, I just can´t see that everything called “the church” is this for real. Not every “christian” is a disciple. I believe that the followers of Jesus and the church of God has been a small minority within christendom post AD 300, and still is. (I know Mark will frown upon me for this comment and call me a separatist, but that´s ok with me… 😉 It seems to me that your view has to take everything baptized with the christian name as somehow included in God´s ekklesia, but this I think goes against the grain of both Jesus´s and Paul´s teaching.
    Honestly, I definitely think I wouldn´t follow Jesus if I couldn´t believe in the coming kingdom of God AND in the church in the present era who walks the truly narrow path and is a visible light from this kingdom.

  12. Jonas:
    Yes, of course there are some within the Church who are living as a faithful remnant and some in the Church who have betrayed their identity in Christ.
    However, your comment makes me uncomfortable, not only because it might be “separatist” but because of its potential elitism. That is to say, who made you the judge of which members of the Church are truly Christian and which are not? How do you know where to draw the line? Who are you, or I, to say who is a member of God’s people, and who is not?
    Granted, we can challenge our fellow Christians on things in their lives that appear inconsistent with the Gospel, and inconsistent with their identity in Christ — heck, we may even need to engage in the practice of excommunication at times — but all of these things fall short of saying: “You call yourself a Christian, but you are not”. Rather, we say, “You call yourself a Christian, but much of what you do is inconsistent with your identity as a Christian”. This is an important distinction to make.
    In fact, I think I am on firmer ground with Jesus and Paul, by taking this approach, than you are. Yes, Jesus and Paul challenged the lives and understanding of many in their day, but they often stopped short of saying that such people were outside of the people of God. Hence, Jesus clashed with a good many of the religious leaders in his day, but he never said that those religious leaders had been removed from being a part of Israel. Instead, Jesus said that those leaders risked experiencing great suffering in the coming judgment. However, until that judgment they were still considered members, albeit corrupted members, of God’s people. Ditto for Paul. He had many clashes in his churches, but he almost never said that those opponents should be considered outside the body of Christ.
    So, yes, the tares and the wheat grow up together, but they grow up together in the Church. Thus, it is up to the remnant to be identified with the majority. That is part of way of the cross.
    Much love and respect to you,

  13. Dan. I`m actually a bit surprised that you cling to the augistinian/post-constantinian/christendom-position about the invisibility of the true church. I humbly but with all of my heart suggest that you with an open mind study what the early church fathers, the anabaptists, and John Yoder has to say about this subject.
    I think that Jesus teaching in the sermont of the mount clearly implies that his disciples lives kingdom-like lives that distinguishes them from the system. This is made clear, I think, both by the introduction and the metaphors of salt, light and city on a hill, but also in chapter 7 where the disciples are admonished to look out for false prophets by discerning how they live, whether they do the will of God or just confess with their lips. The will of God is here not some mystical, esoteric or inner entity, but the hearing and doing of the words of Jesus.
    I also think that several of the church´s practices can only be understood if we can and should make a difference between those who are in and out, for example church discipline (Matthew 18, 1 Kor 5-6), teaching, evangelism and baptism.
    And even the ecumenical minded people still have to draw lines around “the church”, even if they think that the true church is somehow hidden within the church. These lines are drawn in different ways depending on tradition, but often along institutional lines (roman catholicism) or in connection to the creeds or a certain view of the gospel. Probably you wouldn´t include Jehovas Witnesses, the Mormons and others when you talk about the church? So we all draw the line somewhere.
    And regarding the parable about the wheat and the tares, I think Jesus own interpretation of the parable is that the field is THE WORLD and not the church. This text should not be used against church discipline, but against violent revolution, trying to cleanse the world from “evil people” by violent means.

  14. Jonas,
    Actually my approach has nothing to do with an Augustinian (or whatever) notion of an invisible church. Let me put your mind at ease and assure you that I have no interest in that idea. Thus, like you, I affirm the suggestion that Christians should be defined by particular actions and ways of being in the world, and that they should function as communities of discipline in this regard.
    However, I am simply saying this: when we speak with those who identify as Christians — but who exhibit anti-Christian behaviours — our message is not:
    “Hey, you’re not really a Christian!”
    But rather:
    “Hey, you’re acting in ways that fundamentally contradict your identity in Christ.”
    The first approach makes a fundamental judgment about another person’s status with God (a judgment we are not qualified to make). The second makes an observation of how a person’s actions relate to the status claimed by that person, while avoiding any claims about what that person’s status actually is (only God knows, anyway).
    So, I’m not using the parable of the wheat and tares to counter the practice of church discipline. Far from it. I’m actually just arguing that one’s ultimate status in Christ is judged by God, not by us.

  15. I’m a bit off topic here, but when you say that someone is acting in ways that fundamentally contradict her identity in Christ… I can’t help but think that it would be great if a few of us in here came up with a clear list of what we think these things are.
    This could be complemented with a second list of things which we think are relatively congruent to someone’s identity in Christ (and good luck with that one!).

  16. Dan. Well, I agree it´s hard in many cases to know whether a person is in or out, among other things because baptism can no longer be taken as an act of conversion. So I do listen to what you say in this regard.
    Still, you said:
    “So, yes, the tares and the wheat grow up together, but they grow up together in the Church. Thus, it is up to the remnant to be identified with the majority.”
    With this I disagree, strongly (but friendly, and in christ)! We should not accept the tares growing together with the wheat in the Church! We should go to our brother (which implies that we know who they are) and admonish her/him etc, and after lots of love and patience, be ready to treat her/him as a heathen if she/he doesn´t repent. So I really think we should strive for churches that consists only or at least mainly of disciples. Also, I hold to the (ana)baptist view of baptism, which means baptism should be tied to conversion. Which means that it´s up to the church to decide whom to baptize and not.
    To use the word “judge” about the church´s need for discernment etc works well in satisfying modern sensibilities, but I don´t think it matches the notion of the keys of the kingdom as given to the church.
    Also, you said: “I affirm the suggestion that Christians should be defined by particular actions and ways of being in the world”. This is not my suggestion. My suggestion is that the disciples of Jesus ARE defined by particular actions and ways of being in the world.

  17. Dany. I would say that we already have such a list, namely the Torah, as interpreted by Jesus in the double love-commandment, in the sermon on the mount and through his life.
    When Jesus said that only those doing the will of God will enter the kingdom (he actually said that, at least according to “Matthew”), I don´t think he had a check-list in mind. (This would be legalism). I think he was referring to a way, a process, a direction. Are we building on the sand or on the rock? Are we striving for God´s kingdom or the system? Are we being formed towards likeness with christ or not? Is our love for our neighbour and the poor growing?

  18. Jonas, I agree with the substance of what you’re saying. Still, I long for a bit more specificity, i.e. for us to engage in defining what loving our (global) neighbour might mean in this day and age.
    I’m massively frustrated with approaches that favour buying fairtrade or handing out sandwiches to the visibly poor one Saturday per month and doing a bit of volunteering here and there.
    So I keep racking my own brain and coming up with stuff, but it’d be great if we could brainstorm together in one place. I guess I’m looking for a disciplopedia of sorts.

  19. Further to Jonas’ points, I also think Christians are a bit f*cked by the injunction to not let one hand know what the other hand is doing.
    Because we might be assuming that others in the mainstream church are apathetic when they’re most definitely not.
    The mainstream church might seem corrupt and unfaithful, but on occasions, I have had to gain a renewed appreciation for the little old ladies, who it turns out were a lot more committed than the hyped-up kids.

  20. Dany. I´m not quite sure that this is what you are looking for, but to give just one example, I think that if we (as most “christians” do) cling to our wealth and riches while others are starving to death, we are not following Jesus. To follow Jesus is to break the bond of loyalty to Mammon, and this conversion has to be visible. We cannot serve two leaders. It´s not ok to claim to be a follower of Jesus and still hold on to our riches, the disciple has to move towards a simpler lifestyle more in line with God´s kingdom and righteousness.

  21. Jonas:
    I guess the problem for me is that you are still being too general in describing your approach… and that makes me nervous.
    Should we be striving for churches that are full of ‘disciples’? Absolutely. Should we be practicing church discipline, admonishing one another, confessing our sins, and practicing repentance? You bet. Should baptism be tied to conversion and genuine commitment to the way of Jesus Christ? One can certainly make a strong case for this.
    However, where and when does one draw the line? When does one engage in excommunication and, as you say, treat a sibling ‘as a heathen’? (and how exactly do we treat ‘heathens’?) The examples you provide seem unhelpful to me, and too open to abuse. After all, almost all of us in the West are still holding onto our riches in one way or another so any one of us (certainly me, anyway) could be excommunicated because of the way in which we cling to our wealth; further, most of us are likely building on both the rock and the sand in different areas of our lives — we are good at trusting God in some areas, not so good in others; again, if we simply look at trajectories, then the chances are that we could all be held to account, because we all deviate from the Way — and sometimes are pursuing contradictory trajectories in different areas of our lives. So, where do you draw the line?
    To talk about the Sermon on the Mount, the love command, and Jesus’ interpretation of the Law, simply tells me that any one of us could be open to being excommunicated — meaning that, in practice, it’ll probably just be the people we don’t like whom we try to excommunicate.
    You know, the whole paying attention to the logs in our own eyes seems kind of relevant at this point (which, I’m sure, is part of the reason why Jesus mentions this in the Sermon on the Mount).
    Thus, you talk about showing “love and patience” but you suggest that a time comes for more extreme measures. Recalling that I do think there is a place for excommunication in the church, I still wonder about when you think we arrive at that time. From the tone of your comments, you strike me as a little hasty.
    You see, my talk about being judgmental is less related to modern sensibilities (I knew you would say that!) and more related to my understanding of grace and the way it works in the world. Thus, for example, when I work with a drug addict, who wishes to become free of his or her addiction, I recognise that we’re in for a long process of ups-and-downs with no guarantee as to the outcome. However, as long as this person is committed to trying to become free, then I try to be committed to the person as well. Of course, if I am working with this person in a program, then there are certain things that could get the person excommunicated (i.e. kicked out of the program) — say assaulting another program participant — but such a consequence is reserved for extreme, and carefully explained situations.
    I reckon that taking a similar approach with others in the Church would be appropriate. Granted, there can be actions performed by members that require something like an excommunication, but such actions should be suitably extreme, and carefully explained, so that everybody knows what actions will result in what consequences.
    Hence, Dany is quite right to ask for specificity. It is this specificity that prevents massive abuses of power, for it prevents one person’s opinions of others from being confused with God’s opinions of others. This has nothing to do with legalism, and a lot to do with grace.
    Much love to you,

  22. Dan. I have never been part of excommunicating anyone, and I don´t go around saying to people that they aren´t christians. I try to encourage and admonish people around me, though, and expect them to do the same for me out of love. Often what this does is just to show me that I misunderstood the situation. Sometimes there has been a need to repent and forgive each other. I have never yet needed to bring a matter before the church, though I have myself been disciplined a couple of times.
    Having said this, I think your nuance-ful (is that an english word?) approach doesn´t match up to what Jesus and Paul says on these matters. Jesus is much more “either-or” than we would like him to be. I have had a hard time with this, too. And then we haven´t even brought John into the discussion (1 Joh 2:3-6)…
    Regarding the power-issues, I think you are right in bringing this into the discussion. There has been lots of abuses, of course, regarding church discipline. I would say most of them comes from either of the following mistakes;
    -Letting these processes into the hands of a few leaders, despite the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 18:15-20, 23:8-12) which gives this practice to the whole church to be used only where there is consensus.
    -Relying on a general list of sins (legalism), instead of taking the approach from a relational perspective (Matt 18:15).
    -Forgetting that the christian way is a journey, and that we therefore has to handle each with respect to their convictions, history etc.
    -Forgetting that the context and intention of this practice is reconciliation (18:23-35) and not punishment.
    So I think these guidelines are more important than trying to use some variant of the lutheran “we are all sinners”-approach.
    And I now I come across as more aggressive in writing than IRL. I´m praying and working on these hypocritical tendencies of mine. Most people I guess actually know me as quite friendly IRL and not as extremely judgmental… 🙂