Saturday 17 February 2007

Ten propositions on theodicy

by Kim Fabricius

1. Unde malum? Primers on theodicy easily put the question: God is supposed to be both all-loving and all-powerful, yet evil and suffering demonstrably exist. Therefore either God can do something about it but won’t – in which case God is not all-loving; or God wants to do something about it but can’t – in which case God is not all-powerful. Gotcha! Or so it would seem.

2. It is quite astonishing that Christians have allowed themselves to be set up in this way – or at least post-Enlightenment Christians. For as Kenneth Surin points out, “It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every contemporary discussion of the theodicy question is premised, implicitly or explicitly, on an understanding of ‘God’ overwhelmingly constrained by the principles of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophical theism.” And Surin goes on to observe that the ‘God’ this discussion seeks “to justify is the very ‘thing’ that the adherent of a properly Christian ‘understanding’ of God will find herself being disposed to abjure.” Of course pre-modern Christians wrestled with the reality of evil and suffering, but their faith was not intimidated by it, nor did it throw their belief in the divine goodness into a crisis of coherence. Unde malum? Rather Quis Deus! Not the god of theism who is discussed remoto Christo, but God the Trinity, the Deus incarnatus et crucifixus, who is known in worship.

3. Alas, many Christian theologians themselves do not seem to know this God. They think God requires an apologetics, and their defence takes the form of accusation and explanation. First, they are Job’s comforters, resembling “a circle of police around a suspect” (Girard), reading a list of the charges to the suspect from Uz; and then they are attorneys for God in the dock, arguing the case of their client in absentia with cool calculation and untroubled conviction. The irony is that in explaining evil and suffering, theodicists inevitably explain them away. Wittgenstein said that “What’s ragged should be left ragged,” but the post-Cartesian theodicist, intent on “reducing the muddy and mixed to the clear and distinct,” not only “idealizes the reality of evils” but also, in his theoretical detachment, connives in the conditions that give them purchase (Terrence Tilley); and in making a pact with death in order to defend the deity, he unwittingly turns God himself into a capital criminal.

4. Process theologians are the greatest explainers. Their strategy turns on free will. Evil, they urge, is the inevitable risk of human agency, and if it results in free-fall and its attendant wreckage, well, (a) we can’t blame God; and (b), still, this valley of death is also a vale of soul-making (i.e. suffering has pedagogical or therapeutic value). But even apart from the question “How real is our freedom?”, can bad choices alone account for the sheer scale of suffering, and therefore can the buck be so easily passed? And can so-called second-order virtues bear the burden of vindication that is placed upon them? Marilyn McCord Adams declares that, given “horrendous evils” – the physical agony, the eclipse of meaning (what Simone Weil called “affliction”) – this putative god would be paying us “an inappropriate respect,” and indeed “would not thereby honor but violate our agency by crushing it with responsibility for individual and cosmic ruin.” And D. Z. Phillips refers to the argument from character development as “the outward-bound school of theology,” and 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.”

5. Calvinists are the greatest defenders. David Bentley Hart writes of a Calvinist minister who, “positively intoxicated by the grandeur of divine sovereignty, proclaimed that the Indian Ocean disaster – like everything else – was a direct expression of the divine will, acting according to hidden and eternal counsels it would be impious to attempt to penetrate, and producing consequences it would be sinful to presume to judge” (with chapter and verse, of course). More extreme still are the false prophets who thundered that the denizens of the Sodom of New Orleans only got what was coming to them when the whirlwind of Katrina tore into the city. I admit to finding this whole track of retributive thought so unbearably desolate that I will only say, in answer, that here we see the dead and deathly end of late medieval nominalism, see that potentia absoluta is at best a theological solecism, and at worst sheer satanic power. It is also the inevitable result of the deity known in abstraction from the concrete reality of Christ. God cannot will evil and suffering, either directly or indirectly.

6. And here we come to the nub of the matter. The divine nature is the grammar of the divine will. “God’s action has been held, in orthodox Christian thought, to be identical with God’s being – that is, what God does is nothing other than God’s being actively real” (Rowan Williams). And in being and act, God is love – all the way down and all the way out. The conundrum of the divine love and the divine power that theodicists accept and then attempt to resolve is thus a false one. God is not all-loving on the one hand and all-powerful on the other: no, the only power of God is the power of love:

Here is God, no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain.
(W. H. Vanstone)

7. Rejecting, then, the Calvinist collapse of secondary into primary divine causality, shall we say that God permits the evil that is contrary to his will? Philosophically (with Aquinas) it would seem to be a necessary distinction to make, but I remain uncomfortable with the language of permission, and for two reasons. First, because it suggests that God has a psychology like ours only bigger, conjuring up an image of one who has to make allowances for the world to be other than he really intends it to be, “on the lines that the poor fellow couldn’t help it, he’s only God after all” (Herbert McCabe). And, second, because we are still playing the game of explanation. Evil, we must insist, cannot and must not be explained. If the language of permission still seems inescapable, then continuing to insist that the free-will defence is a busted flush, we must confess that we don’t have the faintest idea why God permits evil. Ultimately we can only gaze at the iconic image of the crucified and, like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights, freeze at the mystery of iniquity – and then, in faith, be drawn into the more unfathomable mystery of a love that is stronger than death.

8. We must also be modest with the discourse of eschatology. Certainly we must hold fast to the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1, 4). But two points. First, hell. Whatever the Bible says to the contrary – and the Bible actually says many things to the contrary of the contrary – it beats me how an eternal Auschwitz (under a righteous commandant to be sure) could provide an adequate retributive balance to the temporal Auschwitz. If for some the idea of hell performs a successful operation in the theatre of theodicy, for me it kills the patient. And, second, children. When we speak of the glory of ultimate, we must not out-shout the cries of the penultimate; we must speak softly and tenderly, and never say anything that we could not say, paradigmatically, in the presence of parents who have watched their child torn limb from limb by a pack of hunting dogs, or tossed to and fro on soldiers’ bayonets.

9. The images, of course, come from Dostoevsky’s unsurpassable The Brothers Karamazov, as Ivan challenges the faith of his little brother, a novice monk, with a rending litany of human depravity, and then declares that “It is not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket,” i.e. to the slaughter-house of history. Mark well that Ivan is not an atheist, he is a rebel. He has been to the house of God and knows its liturgies better than many a believer – but he cannot kneel and he will not pray. And also mark well that Alyosha accepts Ivan’s argument that human freedom, ultimate victory, everlasting punishment, all finally fail to persuade: he concedes the case that the universe is not morally intelligible. Theoretically, nihilism triumphs…

10. … But, practically, nihilism fails. It can be thought, but not lived: Ivan himself becomes a monster, twisting the mind of his half-brother Smerdyakov, turning him into a patricide – and he himself finally commits suicide. But Father Zosima presents Alyosha with an alternative – not an alternative explanation but an alternative praxis, presupposing conversion, issuing in awe at reality (Job) and compassion for others, and mediated by the church, the harbinger of horror-healing. It is participation in God’s own triune love overflowing in the cosmos, and in the universal salvation wrought by the atoning death of Christ. It is “joy over the abyss” (Barth). The logical problem of evil and suffering is not thereby solved, rather it is dissolved in the existential narrative of discipleship. As a hymn of mine concludes:

Answers aren’t in explanation,
answers come at quite a cost:
only wonder at creation,
and the practice of the cross.


Anonymous said...

An amazing thing here that you manage to discuss theodicy without citing scripture (save two passing, clearly tangential to your argument, references) and without making mention of the most important interpreter of the subject in the 21st century, James Crenshaw.

Crenshaw can help you very much with the relevant texts, unless your purpose is simply a philosophical theology (a la Tillich) which has no basis in biblical revelation and seeks none.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

But when Paul says that women should be silent in the churches in 1 Corinthians he says that this is just as the law says. Yet what biblical passage does Paul cite to explain where the Torah explicates this principle? He doesn't quote anything and in fact there isn't a single verse in the whole Torah that says women are to be silent. Paul just extrapolates the paradigm from some place that we're hard pressed to explain. Paul was at least as guilty of tangential references to Scripture as Ben Myers.

There hasn't been a book on theodicy that has made any more substantial progress on the subject than City of God and if Augustine says there is no natural efficient explanation for the origin of the evil will then to say that evil cannot be explained fits what Paul called the mystery of lawlessness.

The most important interpreter of the subject in the 21st century isn't a high recommendation since we've only had seven measley years in it and there's nothing new under the sun. :) Maybe Crenshaw is as good as you say but most books never do more than rehash Augustine .

Anonymous said...

An excellent reply, Wenatchee the Hatchet, thank you for the important and thought-provoking points you raise.

Anonymous said...


Great post, but I am struck by how Protestant it is. As a Catholic, it would be impossible to speak of evil and suffering without relating it more positively to our own "transformation in Christ" (von Hildebrand).

...we must confess that we don’t have the faintest idea why God permits evil.

We may have no adequate presentation for a skeptic to accept, but the Christian can surely see a greater purpose for evil that does bear positive relation to our free will, namely God's own willing that we come to him through the Cross, both of Himself in the Incarnate Son and ourselves in union with Christ, which for the Catholic is a deeply ontological affair of a non-forensic sort.

Tripp said...

Hey Kim
Three Questions

Where would you see the biggest disagreement with DBH?

Would it be wrong to read you as responding to the problem in point one by arguing that genuine evil does not exist?

How would you respond to Jungel (if i read him correctly) that the question 'Where is God?' is simultaneously a question of essence and existence?

Tripp said...

Here's the Jungel quote I was thinking of:

"We can no longer avoid the remarkable fact that this question, in its modern form, is not directed toward the existence of God, but toward his essence. What tradition has understood by 'God' is what has become a problem. The 'idea of God,' which thought of God as the totally Other and thus as the Omnipotent One who controls everything, as the One Beyond and thus supraterrestrial ruler over everything which is this-worldly, was questioned. By questioning the divine essence, it becomes a question which casts doubt on the existence of God" (God as the Mystery of the World, 102

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

Well, I may not cite much scripture directly, but the whole argument is framed within an understanding of God as trinitarian, crucified, and saving.


I quite agree with what you say about our own "transformation in Christ". I actually make this very Augustinian point in my climactic Proposition 10, where I refer to "conversion". But thanks for emphasing it.

Also, regarding Catholic sensibilities, you might care to check out Marilyn McCord Adams' recent Christ and Horrors (2006), with its quite extraordinary last chapter (I still don't know quite what to make of it) on theodicy and the eucharist. For example: "God in Christ crucified offers us His Flesh to chomp and bite and tear with our teeth, invites us to get even, horror for horror, urges us to fragment God's own Body in return for the way God has allowed horrors to shred and fabric our lives."

And Tripp,

About the non-existence of evil - non-starter (unless you're a Christian Scientist!).

As I understand him, I think I agree with Jüngel: among other things he is pointing out that the god of the philosophers is not the God of Christ.

As for Hart, I follow him pretty closely, but continue to wrestle with his outright rejection of the divine impassibility.

Shane said...

"Of course pre-modern Christians wrestled with the reality of evil and suffering, but their faith was not intimidated by it, nor did it throw their belief in the divine goodness into a crisis of coherence."

Doesn't the garden of eden story functioned as a theodicy for the israelites on a pre-theoretical level?

"God cannot will evil and suffering, either directly or indirectly."

When you say this, how are you not constraining the freedom of God with your apriori, human, finite, dubious, idol-prone metaphysics?

But in all seriousness, on the one hand, I think the problem of evil is a deeply existential one that all the logic and metaphysics in the world cannot conjure away. The proper response to Ivan Karamazov is to kiss him on the lips, after all.

Having said this, I think it is occasionally worth showing that the central teachings of the Christian faith are not nonsense. After all, no one is ever justified in believing nonsense. But the purpose of this endeavor is not so much to force people to convert through the brunt of mindpower as to help the individual christian people who would like to relate the content of their faith with their secular knowledge in a critical way. (For an example of the wrong approach: my friend David Congdon once hosted a street evangelist/apologist who referred to himself as "The Fucking Hammer".)

To highlight this pastoral dimension of Christian Philosophy, suppose one of the members of your congregation goes to college and takes a philosophy of religion class where he is presented with Mackie's version of the problem of evil and takes mackie's argument as successful. The professor says that he has now logically proven christianity false. The student comes home for christmas with his faith severely shaken and wants to talk to you, his pastor, about what his professor said.

In this situation, I think it would be disastrous to say: "Well sure the professor proved Christianity is false, but keep believing it anyway." I think the proper thing to do would be to distinguish mysteries from logical contradictions. The two are often confused because they share the common feature of proposing for our belief something strongly counter to our ordinary intuitions. But, whereas all contradictions are false (the professor is right of course that nobody is ever justified in believing a contradiction); some mysteries might turn out to be true. A square circle is a contradiction; a God Man is a deep deep mystery, but not a logical contradiction.

The trick will be showing why the incarnation, trinity, the problem of evil, etc. do not entail logical contradictions. And at that point you, the Pastor, call your buddy the Christian Philosopher. "Why is it that the problem of evil doesn't entail a logical contradiction, again?" Then the Christian Philosopher responds with something like this. Our Christian philosopher has not created faith for the student, but he has stilled an attack against the student's faith.

There is probably a more positive place for Christian philosophy too, but this is not the place to go into that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shane,

Thanks, as ever, for your witty and acute comments.

In all seriousness - :) - God cannnot will evil quite simple because God is love. The dictum "God's nature is the grammar of God's will" - it is a grammatical rule that issues, theologically, from God's self-revelation. Mike Higton nicely sums up Rowan Williams on the matter in terms of Nicene orthodoxy:

"There is nowhere we can go in God, no extra we can think about or point to, no reservation, no sanctuary, in which God is not engaged, involved, loving, and relational. God is love all the way down. The supporters of the Nicene Creed insisted that being a Father - being the one who brought forth, loved, and gave himself to a Son - was not, as it were, something which God decided at some point to enter into, not something which happened to God whose nature was already defined apart from that relationship ... No: for Nicene theology God is always, eternally, Father and Son. That relationship is intrinsic to who God is, and there is nowhere in God that we can go which is defined apart from, or prior to, that relationship. God is not the one who decides to give; God is eternally giving," such that God's love "is not trumped by power."

As for giving Ivan a big fat kiss, spin the bottle! But as Ivan has Christ plant one on the Grand Inquisitor? The serious point is that Ivan's argument is an astonishingly astute theological one which, as Hart observes, "constitutes the only challenge to the confidence in divine goodness that should give Christians serious cause for deep and difficult reflection."

As for Mackie, he initiated a conversation in his famous 1955 article "Evil and Omnipotence" which kept philosophers and theologians going for the rest of the century, and spawned an academic industry in some entirely inadequate responses, particularly in the area of free-will defences and cost-benefit analyses. Not least because of the laudable rigour of Mackie's logic, his argument certainly demands a better reply: first (I'm following McCord Adams here) in the area of deconstructing his assumptions (which she does in Horrensous Evils, after observing how they were tacitly accepted by friend and foe alike); and, second, in constructing a Christian, rather than theistic, account of God.

As for the contributions of the pastor's buddy the Christian Philospher - they will be most gratefully received!

Finally, I whole-heartedly agree that the mystery card is a playable card - but never as a joker for for a lousy hand. When a contradiciton is a contradiction, logically, irreduciibly, one must fold and re-deal. Only a fool appeals to mystery in such a circumstance - and you know the old saying about a fool and his money!

Anonymous said...

Kim, I'm not trying to argue for anything here, but can you explain how you understand "I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things" (Is 45:7)? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous,

Here is the great German OT scholar Claus Westermann on the climax to the Cyrus oracle (from his commentary Isaiah 40-66): "And now the final words here set this action [choosing Cyrus] in such vast perspectives that we can only tremble and fall silent as we contemplate them. To push the word 'all' to its full logical conclusion is to land ourselves in difficulties from which there is no way out. The creation story in Gen. 1 shows the utmost care to preserve the limit. Though he is Lord over the darkness, God is certainly not its creator. He took it into creation and set bounds to it, but he did not bring it into being. [cf. Barth on das Nichtige.] Precisely the same is true of the world of events, as J's version of the creation story makes clear."

Yet here, Westermann continues, "for the one and only time in the Bible and in direct opposition to Gen. 1 and 3," Deutero-Isaiah says "that God created the darkness as he did the light. God brings about woe (the Hebrew word embraces both woe and evil), just as be brings about salvation. This shuts the door firmly on any dualism" - and also indicates "that God's divinity transcends the limit imposed on human speech and thought about him - which means the limit imposed on all theology."

That puts the verse in canonical and theolgical context (to which one might add the historical context for such speech, viz. the Babylonian captivity). It would seem unwise to build a theodicy around it, making God the cause of horrendous evils.

Anonymous said...

Hi again Anonymous,

As an addendum, here is Brueggemann in his Theology of the Old Testament, who, though (contra Westermann) he adds Job 5:18, Isaiah 14-27, and Daniel 4:35 to the list of significant texts, insists that "These assertions are not in the service of speculative or metaphysical claims. They are addressed to Israel's embrace of faith in concrete situations, and they are disputatious claims," - opposing any idea that other gods have any reality, that Israel's plight is fated, that human autonomy is sovereign, that opposing political power is to be taken with ultimate seriousness - "and they intend a decision in the moment of utterance for this version of reality that has the majestic Yahweh as its center."

My conclusion, then, still stands.

Shane said...

"God cannnot will evil quite simple because God is love."


I'm in a class right now on Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (What would philosophy say to Ivan?) and I came across a reference to Lactantius's De Ira Dei in the footnotes. What is interesting about this text from Lactantius is that he argues exactly the opposite--God wills evil precisely because God is love.

The target of Lactantius's argument is the problem of evil in its Epicurean modality--to which Mackie's version is strikingly similar, it seems to me. The text was hard to find, but here is Lactantius, de Ira Dei, 13:

"You see, therefore, that we have greater need of wisdom on account of evils; and unless these things had been proposed to us, we should not be a rational animal. But if this account is true, which the Stoics were in no manner able to see, that argument also of Epicurus is done away. God, he says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? or why does He not remove them? I know that many of the philosophers, who defend providence, are accustomed to be disturbed by this argument, and are almost driven against their will to admit that God takes no interest in anything, which Epicurus especially aims at; but having examined the matter, we easily do away with this formidable argument. For God is able to do whatever He wishes, and there is no weakness or envy in God. He is able, therefore, to take away evils; but He does not wish to do so, and yet He is not on that account envious. For on this account He does not take them away, because He at the same time gives wisdom, as I have shown; and there is more of goodness and pleasure in wisdom than of annoyance in evils. For wisdom causes us even to know God, and by that knowledge to attain to immortality, which is the chief good. Therefore, unless we first know evil, we shall be unable to know good. But Epicurus did not see this, nor did any other, that if evils are taken away, wisdom is in like manner taken away; and that no traces of virtue remain in man, the nature of which consists in enduring and overcoming the bitterness of evils. And thus, for the sake of a slight gain 1728 in the taking away of evils, we should be deprived of a good, which is very great, and true, and peculiar to us. It is plain, therefore, that all things are proposed for the sake of man, as well evils as also goods."

Now, I'm not about to try to judge whether your position rather than Lactantius' is correct. I'm bringing this text up just to show that there was a different way of considering this historically.

I also bring the passage up because, while I don't doubt that Mackie's metaphysics need a good deconstructing, the problem seems to have such an impressive philosophical lineage that it is likely to reoccur in pretty much any discourse about God of sufficient conceptual clarity.


No doubt the metaphysics underlying Mackie need a good deconstructing, but I think it is significant that the problem has such a long historical lineage.

Anonymous said...


I am no expert on Lactantius - :) - but his god sounds a lot like like the god of the philosophers, doesn't he?

So I went to my The SCM Press A -Z of Patristic Theology (2004), which describes his theology as "archaic for someone writing on the eve of the Council of Nicaea. He ... presents an angel Christology, and was a Binitarian in his doctrine of God." His Christ is mainly a teacher of philosophy, and his project was "a new universalised religion that will gather all the nations to a philosophical cult of the divine Wisdom".

Lactantius' reason, as John Webster might say, does not seem to have been very chastened in the crucible of revelation. And the giveaway in this passage, perhaps, is, first, his understanding of the divine omnipotence as God's ability "to do whatever he wishes" - very nominalist; and, second, his suggestion that "unless we first know evil, we shall be unable to know the good." I would say it's just the opposite.

But, thanks, I will give what Lactantius says - and what you say - more thought.

Guy Davies said...

Didn't God, in love will the greatest of all evils, the crucifixion of the Lord of glory? Or was the cross just an accident waiting to happen?

Anonymous said...

Hi Exiled Preacher,

I knew we would eventually get here! And you're a consistent Calvinist, I'll give you that, rejecting any distinction between divine will and divine permission. And your point, of course, covers God's willing the fall as well as the cross. And I respect the intention of this position. But that God in his love wills evil - that makes no sense to me, and opens onto a theological abyss. God's sovereignty and election must be protected and articulated in other ways. I don't think Jesus wanted to die, and I don't think the Father wanted him to die.

As the Dominican Herbert McCabe put it: "The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human... the fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but what we have arranged. We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering."

Sorry, but I'm afraid this distinction for me is vital. So, Calvinists, please treat this poor sinner gently :)

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I can't, like so many, lay the problems all at the feet of post-Enlightenment theologians. I think some of the problem has been with us since the early church accepted Greek metaphysics--so that theism then entails a God who cannot suffer with Creation. The Hellenistic metaphysics of the early church, including its great Trinitarians, finally make nonsense out of both the Trinity and the Cross.

Arthur C. McGill, a theologian who had an incredibly painful crippling disease that cut his life very short, wrote in his amazing little book, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method that the early Trinitarians like Athanasius were right about the Trinity, but for reasons they never dreamed of. An Arian view of God cannot make sense of suffering because such a God cannot be compassionate, cannot be a co-sufferer.
Explanations may be faulty or even anthropocentric. But evil and suffering cry out for explanation. In my experience, theodicy is the one theological topic whose importance laity naturally understand. They WANT explanation, if not defense. They want comfort and assurance that God really is GOD FOR US--when all evidence seems to point the other way.
All too often we live in a world in which "what's dead stays that way." Taking up our crosses and living in resurrection hope is very hard--and explanation--even a partial explanation to the WHY we fling out at heaven with Job, Jeremiah, and the Psalmists, is necessary (if insufficient), if we are to be faithful disciples--living in an Easter dawn that still is marked by Golgotha's shadow.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kim, for a very helpful series. Can I also suggest everyone check out the series Byron did on this topic some time ago.

Weekend Fisher said...

KF: God cannot will evil and suffering, either directly or indirectly.

I think that overstates it. God willed the cross, and willed it directly; it was God's will to crush him. "Suffering" cannot be equated quite so cleanly with evil, unless the cross itself were to become evil.

Or to take a spinoff from a famous literary scene, if the eternal happiness of all mankind depended on a single innocent being tortured to death, it would be wrong to will it; but it would be the highest good for an innocent to undertake it, to be the innocent whose suffering brought redemption.

In Scriptures, all the blood shed for the forgiveness of sins, the ritual slaughter of the animal drives home the point: the death of some animal doesn't reconcile us to God. It's the evil inside us that must die with the sacrifice. And God wills for that evil to be destroyed. When our sinful nature is offered up to die, when that is nailed to the cross to suffer and be buried, it may cause us some suffering, but that is to be expected in dying with Christ.

Take care & God bless

Aric Clark said...

Amen, Kim!

As you go along your propositions begin running into one another more and more. It used to be that you would start each proposition with a clear summary statement and go on to explain it. Now it is getting so I'm not sure there are ten separate supporting arguments here... but your content remains thrilling.

Overall I am just singing your praises on this one. And though I'm a presbyterian and consider myself a Calvinist, I likewise cannot abide the strain of thought which suggests that God willed Jesus to be tortured and killed. The distinction you make in response to Exiled Preacher above is dead on! So much harm has been done by preachers who turn God into the most horrendous of child-abusers.

However, I must also agree with Shane and Michael that this problem has a longer genesis than just with post-enlightenment thinkers. I think that early hellenistic thinkers, scholastic thinkers and many others have tended just as much to use philosophical/logical categories of thought to attempt to explain evil, though we are doubtless most familiar with the enlightenment formulations of thinkers like Hume and Mackie nowadays. I think Michael is right that the genesis of this problem is more pastoral and experiential. People experience evil and experience it as something in need of redress. It is natural to assume that someone in a position of ultimate authority (as the church presents God) ought to be the one to do the redressing - or else that person might actually be the one who is responsible for the evil.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, everyone, for the continuing comments - and critical challenges.

Those who would make the Enlightenment a whistle stop rather than the terminus ab quo of the problem of theodicy are in a sense correct. The power/goodness dichotomy goes back at least to Epicurus (341-270 BCE), who is cited by Shane's Lactantius. It was, however, Surin suggests, the Enlightenment thinkers, with their ecclesiastical axe to grind, who gave the problem its "decisive formulation" and "canonical form". And though the church, due to its Greek philosophical heritage, has always found the divine pathos a stumbling block, their God at least has been trinitarian, and the immoveable boulder of Chalcedon has, perhaps, acted as a restraint and reminder that even if it is the impassible that suffers, the impassible really does suffer.

Thanks to Michael for his reference to Arthur C. McGill's Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (1982). McGill taught at my alma mater Wesleyan University, and his book is a little diamond, especially the discussion about Arius and Athanasius. McGill's fundamental point is that Arius' god cannot love. And this is true.

Of course as a minister myself, I know that the problem is fundamentally pastoral. Indeed the Wittgensteinian D.Z Phillips argues that "the distinction between the logical problem of evil and the existential problem of evil is a spurious one. The 'logical' is rooted in 'the existential'," and indeed "It is only by paying insufficient attention to existential problems of evil that an independent logical problem of evil can be thought to exist."

I am also painfully aware how much havoc has been wrecked by ministerial shrugs and facile appeals to the "will of God", and such slogans as "These things are sent to try us", or "He always takes the best", let alone the pastoral abuse exemplified by the heirs of Job's so-called comforters. But I don't think that "explanations" are the answer - because I don't think there are any! Rather the proper response is the patient desconstruction of the bad theology which compounds the pain; the assurance that God wills not the suffering but its elimination, that he is a sustainer, not a tester, let alone a punisher, that his love embraces all things and really is, if hidden, triumphant; and (with Zosima and Alyosha) the praxis of the compassion of being there.

Finally, yes, Miner, as Shane once pointed out on his old blog, my "propositions" have evolved to the point where the word is really a misnomer, as I develop thoughts or follow a thread. Only the "10" (usually) remains. So please take "propositions" not in the strict sense of the word but as a convention and a classificatory convenience. Or perhaps henceforth I shoud call them "Ten Thingies"?!

John Meunier said...


Thank you. Whatever you call these in the future, please keep them coming.

The discussion of the literature goes way over my head, but I find listening in on the conversation edifying.

Shane said...

" . . . God wills not the suffering but its elimination, that he is a sustainer, not a tester, let alone a punisher, that his love embraces all things and really is, if hidden, triumphant; and (with Zosima and Alyosha) the praxis of the compassion of being there."

Kim, I would very much like to affirm this sentiment, but, of course, God does test and punish people (even in the NT-cf. Ananias and Sapphira). It seems to me that there is no way to avoid the problem by trying to get God off the hook. It isn't that God lacks the power to prevent evils from occuring. Nor is it the case that bad things only happen with God looking on permissively: in the Bible God hurts people, kills people, creates evil (Is. 45), and executes bloody vengeance against his enemies and even his own sinful people.

God resists domestication.

Weekend Fisher said...

"Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer ..." Isaiah, predicting Jesus' suffering and death.

"Not my will, but thine" -- Jesus in Gethsemane, shortly before being arrested and caused to suffer.

The reason I keep on is that I think you've missed more than a pedantic trifle, I think you've missed an important point. We live in a hedonistic age where we tend to forget: suffering is not the definitive sign of evil, just as pleasure is not the definitive sign of good. Sure, the healthy cases have pleasure pointing to either good or a fallen remnant of good, and the unhealthy cases of suffering are at the hands of the cruel. Still the fact of our own unhealthiness -- our sinfulness, brokenness, and fallenness -- necessarily means that there are opposite cases: pleasures which are evil in that they feed evil, and suffering which is good because it destroys evil. When our will is led astray, then the effects of pleasure and suffering are often the opposite of the expected.

Take care & God bless

Anonymous said...

Excellent, Kim. How on earth we got into the pattern of developing theodicies apart from the praxis of the cross is beyond me. We are in the absurd position of defending the existence of evil, when God himself is ruthlessly opposed to its existence.

I've written before that Job is a fantastic guide to these questions. We must not fall in to the trap of Job's friends - calling evil good in an attempt to justify God. We must not fall into the trap of Job's wife (in which Job all but falls) - saying it was better for God not to create than for the horrible things that exist exist. The way forward is the way of absurdity - "though he slay me, yet will I hope in him. But I will argue his ways to his face."

We are left with paradoxes - of a God who is certainly sovereign over all things - and but for his allowance nothing can be. And such horrible evil exists, and we have right to demand an explanation. And yet we demand one because we know the one we cry to is indeed holy, just, and righteous. Our cries for him to explain himself are themselves affirmations of his goodness. And he offers an explanation alright, but could we stand to hear it? Do we even know the vocabulary? And then, we find the evil that we decried all along has vindicated both God and man, while remaining evil and being rightfully destroyed.

"What a book is the Holy Scripture, what miracle, what power are given to man with it! Like a carven image of the world, and of man, and of human characters, and everything is named and set forth unto ages of ages."

Anonymous said...

Of course, Shane, God cannot be domesticated. God is fire and wind. "'Course he isn't safe," says Mr. Beaver about Aslan to the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - and then adds: "But he's good."

So a punitive God who hurts and kills people? Sure - and let's not forget the Great Ethnic Cleanser who hates his enemies - the god Jesus entirely deconstructs in Matthew 5:43ff. And the god who gives sinners just what they deserve here and now, whose will and ways can be read out of contemporary events (the god of Jerry Falwell) - whom Jesus dismisses in Luke 13:1-5. (Nor, by the way, do the myocardial infarctions that took Ananias and Sapphira suggest an interventionist god but rather the God of Romans 1 who "hands over" people to their sins; i.e. we have a story that illustrates that lies have short legs.)

Golden Rule: If you want to know about the nature of God, look to the nature of Jesus - it is the criterion that trumps all other biblical biblical references. Violence, vengeance, and the infliction of pain? I don't think so.

And Weekend Fisher, I quite agree that "suffering is not the definitive sign of evil," agree even more that "pleasure is not the definitive sign of good." There is certainly suffering I bring on myself. I am hardly going to shake my fist at the heavens if, after smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for thirty years (or even, Shane, enjoy a pipe!), I contract lung cancer. But though we might ask where malignant cells might lie in the grand scheme of things, this suffering hardly constitutes the "horrendous evils" which are Ivan's problem and with which my propositions deal.

Aric Clark said...

Weekend Fisher,

The Isaiah text has to be read way out of context to be interpreted as predicting the crucifixion. Yes, the tradition has long done so, but it is at least dishonest exegetically.

The Gethsemane prayer is hardly a definite proof that God wanted Jesus to suffer - actually since Jesus is God we have clear indication the other way around. What seems to be at issue here is whether Jesus is going to continue his revolutionary kingdom-announcing ministry, which is the reason for his persecution or give it up in order to avoid suffering and death. Yes, crucifixion is the consequence of Jesus life, but it is not the GOAL of Jesus life. The cross is the sign of our own sin, not the sign of God's justice. It is the fallen world that crucifies God, not God who crucifies her son.

Anonymous said...

If you want to know about the nature of God, look to the nature of Jesus - it is the criterion that trumps all other biblical biblical references. Violence, vengeance, and the infliction of pain? I don't think so.

Kim, this is too close to the error of Job's wife I'm afraid. Jesus did say, after all "I have a fire to bring, and I wish it were already kindled" and he warned and even symbolized the destruction of the temple which would be the judgment of God. He warned of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" for those who would usurp God's rule, and said that drowning would look like a tea party compared to what will happen to those who "cause these little ones to stumble". Actually, as N. T. Wright notes, Jesus looks like the OT portrait of YHWH come to life.

You don't escape the difficult paradoxes we find in Israel's God by looking to Jesus - you only focus them. We see a God so ruthless in his anger at the spoiling of his creation and in the unfaithfulness of his chosen people, who is yet unrelenting in his love for his creation and his commitment to the redemption of his people - at the cost of his own intense suffering. Indeed, it is only in taking upon himself the curse that he himself issued, that he makes a way for his creation to rise again and be made new. Ecce Homo, Ecce Deus.

Shane said...

"So a punitive God who hurts and kills people? Sure - and let's not forget the Great Ethnic Cleanser who hates his enemies - the god Jesus entirely deconstructs in Matthew 5:43ff."

I always thought that they were the same guy.

Geoff said...

Just a thought... Perhaps an attempt to define "evil" more clearly might also assist in developing a response to it? This may be my own myopia, but it seems part of the problem we have discussing evil is that we approach it from so many different angles... there is clearly the "horrendous evil" of the tsunami, or the suffering of the innocent, but evil seems far more extensive... but how far? Can there be evil apart from moral being? Is it possible to view all corruption, natural or otherwise, as evil? Does evil inevitably stem from finitude? My tentative answer to each of these questions is 'yes' but as I'm not as well-read as many of you, I don't know that I will attempt to systematize my thought... so I'll just ask and hope for a response! :-)


Weekend Fisher said...

Hi all

1) Miner -- First, re: the Suffering Servant. It's almost a red herring to get into whether it's King Messiah (though your calling it "dishonest exegesis" was nice bait to go down the off-topic trail); still, while I can show from the rabbinic tradition that Messiah is the ultimate fulfillment of all prophecy, it's beside the point for whether God causes suffering. Regardless of the identity of the Suffering Servant, it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer. Likewise, the prayer "Not my will but thine" cannot be brushed off so easily given a Trinitarian God. The Father willed the Son to suffer and die.

2) Kim - on your comment "So a punitive God who hurts and kills people? Sure - and let's not forget the Great Ethnic Cleanser who hates his enemies " (etc.). That came across as mocking, and it's fairly clear that the intent is as least to minimize the aspects of God's love and goodness with which you may possibly be personally uncomfortable, holiness and power and strength and justice and even punishment. God's love, God's goodness, includes the will to destroy evil. The power of God to destroy evil is part of the good news of the Last Day, part of the renewal of the world, part of the good news of the cross. I'm not dragging this out to annoy, but because the picture you've painted is such a truncated view of God's love that it amounts to a lesser view of love. I'm sure you intend it to be a greater kind of love but it is not. God takes no delight in the death of the wicked; but he will destroy wickedness all the same. God would rather have our wickedness destroyed in the cross with Christ. It was God's will to crush him; and not Christ's will, but the Father's. It's a greater love that includes these things; I'd respectfully ask that you give it open-minded consideration.

Take care & God bless

Anonymous said...

Hi Weekend Fisher,

Sorry about my "mocking" comment, but it was directed to Shane, and Shane and those who have gotten to know and love him often take the piss out of each other. It is not to diss him; on the contrary, it assumes the highest respect. And as you can see, Shane has gently mocked me back!

Shane said...

yes, please not to worry on my account. My skin is thick and bristly and Kim can take care of himself. The Welsh are used to being made fun of as I understand it. (Fabricius doesn't sound like a Welsh name, but perhaps its a simplification of Fabrywllencyylwn).

Pleasantries aside, come on Kim, show me why you aren't a marcionite or a Sabellian modalist. Isn't sweet baby Jesus laying in the manger is the terrifying man of war who dips his arrows in the blood of his enemies in the OT, and who treads them in the winepress of his wrath in the apocalypse?

And if we believe in God's metaphysical simplicity, then we somehow have to say that God's wrath just is his love . . . because we cannot allow wrath and love to be two separate and competing principles in him.



Anonymous said...

Yo, Shane!

The Bible nowhere says that God is wrath, but in the wake of God's self-revelation in Christ it says emphatically that God is love. God's wrath itself, I would say, must be reconfigured in the light and terms of the love (and anger for that matter) we see in Jesus of Nazareth. This is not to be Marcionite or modalist, it is to read the Old Testament Christologically. To take over all the images of God in the Old Testament lock, stock, and barrel seems to me (if you like) a rabbinic reading of scripture.

As for the imagery in Revelation, I am with numerous commentators who suggest that it is not a valorising of violence but its deconstruction. The central image of Christ, after all, is the lion of Judah who goes, "Baaa!"

Next stop, a discussion on pacifism!

Anonymous said...

O Shane,

By the way, I'm as American as violence itself, a New Yorker.
My paternal background is Italian - Italians evidently too proud (or snobbish) to turn the second declinsion ending of the Latin Fabricius (the one known for his incorruptibility I like to think!) into a vowel.

Anonymous said...


I came across your propositions on theodicy while surfing. I am particularly interested in your #4 on process theology. I have been reading and studying process theology for over a decade, and I must say that I did not recognize your description of it.

1) I don't know of any process theologian who asserts that their theodicy turns on "free will." Process theodicy is not really a free will defense. Process theodicy turns more on creativity and power (Hartshorne, Griffin), or a structural analysis of love (Hartshorne, D.D. Williams, Paul Fiddes)

2) Process theologians would not say that evil "is the inevitable risk of human agency." David Griffin is the most widely recognized process thinker on theodicy issues, and he most definitely does not say this.

3)Process theologians do not emphasize the world as the "vale of soul making." Or at least, it is not a major feature of any of the major process writers (Hartshorne, Cobb, Griffin, etc.) In fact, the soul making emphasis is mostly associated with the thought of John Hick, and he is not a process thinker.

4) I think there can be a good discussion of whether process theology is biblically faithful and provides an adequate understanding of God, but I didn't want people thinking that your description and dismissal of process theodicy was reflective of what process thinkers have actually said.

For a good basic introduction to process theodicy see:

For a more nuanced description of process theism see:

Kip Ingram

Anonymous said...

Hi Kip,

Good points, thanks. You're right that John Hick is the great free will defence defender (even more the eschatological it-will-all-come-good guy), and in that respect it is at least misleading to make the connection I do. I stand corrected.

However, it seems to me that free will is crucial to the theodicies of process theologians like Griffin too, in spite of their denials and critiques. It may be that their motive is theological rather than anthropological, but the two, in fact, are inextricably connected.

And the connection I see is this: God is put "on a leash", he "is doing the best God can" (John Roth's jibes), he cannot coerce but only persuade - why? - not only because of process theology's take on the nature of God but out of concern for human agency. Power must be shared power lest the creature be crushed. And therein lies the theolgoical problem I have with process theology: God's power is not redefined in terms of love. As D.Z Phillips argues, ultimately "Griffin shares a conception of God's will as sheer power with those he criticizes. He simply limits this power. But this general use of power is incoherent."

Griffin, I know, explicitly demurs. But one of the reasons why I think Phillips is right is that if he weren't, Griffin wouldn't find the creatio ex nihilo as problematic as he does.

Thanks again for your perceptive comments.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your response. I will try this again, but before I do I want to say one thing: why do theologians tend to caricature positions they disagree with? I don't know of any process theologian who would recognize what they are doing in what you say above and in your #4. Maybe it is inevitable, and theologians of different persuasions will always talk past each other, but I am scratching my head in trying to correlate what you say with what process theologians are actually saying.

A couple of points about process theology:

1) Process theology does not say that "free will" and "concern for human agency" are the crucial factors in their theodicy. Actually, human agency comes much later in process thought (in terms of what they call "the phases of concresence"). Griffin rarely uses the term "free will" and typically speaks in terms of power and creativity. And it is pretty clear in Griffin that his motivating concern is not "anthropological" or even "theological" as you've construed it above, but rather, it is metaphysical in the sense of a search for coherence between God and the world (not limited to anthropology). You may disagree with his position on this, but would you at least recognize his own sense of what he is doing?

2) Process theolgians explicitly correlate (or "redefine") their understanding of power in terms of love. Daniel Day Williams wrote the first systematic theology from a process perspective called "The Spirit and the Forms of Love." Griffin and Cobb, in their classic introduction, "Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition", have a whole chapter devoted to "God as Creative/Responsive Love." Charles Hartshorne has written about love many times, but see his "Love and Dual Transcendence" article. My friend, Tom Oord, wrote his dissertation under Griffin on "An Evangelical Process Theology of Love."

3) The critique of creation ex nihilo in process thought is not based on some concern for human agency, it is part of a growing recognition that ex nihilo is somewhat dubious biblically and in its historical origin, as well as being incoherent with process thought. See the magisterial study of Gerhard May, "Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of "Creation Out of Nothing" in Early Christian Thought" trans. A.S. Worral (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994). For other biblical critiques of ex nihilo, see Jon Levenson, "Creation and the Persistence of Evil." And Terence Fretheim, "The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective" from the Overtures to Biblical
Theology series.

4) Again, beyond the actual discussion and disagreement with process thought, shouldn't we at least start with the acknowledgment that this is what they say they are doing?

Kip Ingram, who wonders sometimes what the way we characterize others implies about our theology.

Anonymous said...

Hi again Kip,

I certainly respect the intentions of process theologians (though what people think/say they are doing and what they actually do may be two entirely different things). I also acknowledge that process theologians have made an enormous contribution to contemporary theology well beyond their own union. But perhaps the most salient thing to say about their theodicies - beyond my beef about explanations in general and free will defences in particular (pace what you say) - indeed about process theology as such - is that because their dipolar theism entails a diaphanously thin trinitarianism - Paul Fiddes, for example, acknowledges that "it is difficult to find anything like inner mutual relationships between the different dimensions of God's own being" - Nicene Christians are always ultimately going to find it problematic. Which obviously does indeed say something about my theology!

Guy Davies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Davies said...


If God did not will the death of Jesus, what did the Lord mean when he prayed in Gethsemane, "Not my will, but your will be done"? God's will was related to the "cup" that Jesus had to drink. What was that cup?

Anonymous said...


I appreciate the spirit of your response to my concerns. I think the trinitarian concern you summed up with the Fiddes quote is certainly valid with regard to process theology, and, to me at least, much more substantial than what you wrote previously about process. Here's a couple of points in reaction.

1) You should know that Fiddes has been enormously influential to my theological pilgrimage. He provided the bridge for me between my earlier Barthian understanding (I actually cut my teeth on Otto Weber in early years of seminary) and my current leaning toward process thought (with some of my own idiosycratic qualifications).

2) Fiddes represents to me theological engagement at its best. In particular, he deals with process theology fairly and on its own terms (which separates his work from Gunton's book about Hartshorne). I agree with your point that Fiddes offers a challenging critique/concern about how di-polarity might compare to trinitarian mutuality. He is at a decisive point in this, although a number of process thinkers continue to work on trinitarian understandings. Allow me a couple of quotes from Fiddes which I like: speaking of process-"Those who do not want to adopt its metaphysics may still appreciate its basic model of the world as a living society, growing towards the aims God sets for it through a network of mutual influences, with God sharing in the suffering that is involved in its becoming." And in another place: "Indeed, we must recognize that process thought rightly affirms a correlation between God and the world that has often been lost in traditional Trinitarian schemes. Process thought is making a crucial contribution to the doctrine of God when it insists that there can be no 'otherwise' in God's suffering relationships with creation." Fair statement?

3) This last quote leads to my last point. Am I wrong in suspecting that as a "Nicene christian" you might be a little uneasy with Fiddes' fundamental claims around God's suffering? It seems to me that many of the most influential theologians writing from Nicea to Chalcedon had more than a little trouble with the idea of God's essential suffering. I will grant that a dipolar theism can seem "diaphanous", but doesn't the notion of "communicatio idiomatum", particularly as it was used in creedal theology, struggle with a diaphanous christology of sorts?

If I am dragging this conversation out farther than you want to go, let me know.

thanks for your time,
Kip Ingram

Anonymous said...

Hi Kip,

Paul Fiddes has been important to my own theological formation too, particularly Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (1989) and, for the present context, The Creative Suffering of God (1988).

To answer your question in (3), no, I am not in the least uneasy about God's suffering. On the contrary, theologically I insist on it (as my Vanstone quote in 6 and my iconic image of the crucified in 7 indicate). And process theology's emphasis on the divine pathos is one of those important contributions to contemporary theology that I mentioned. But, for me, it must be explicated in a robustly trinitarian way, which is precisely where process theology, while focussing the discussion, is not up to the task.

I actually think that the resources for this explication are there in Nicaea and Chalcedon, but that they have been largely untapped until the middle of the 20th century. However I myself am undecided who best develops the theme: those like the Orthodox Hart and the Roman Catholic Weinandy who continue to insist on the divine impassibility and look to the human nature of the one Christ to bear the burden, or those like the Protestants Moltmann and Jüngel who enlist not only the the eternal Son but even the eternal Father in their projects. But I think that this is the dialogue on which to eavesdrop.

Anonymous said...

A suggestion about the suffering of Job: it serves a divinely intentioned purpose, that of vindicating Job of the charge of venal servitude. Job's pleas for vindication thus need to be read with a sense of humour, and even more so his earnest requests for an opportunity to demonstrate his innocence. Perhaps there is a larger point here - that some suffering, at least, serves good purposes of which we are simply ignorant.

Unknown said...

It’s a tad unhelpful to have one’s argument turn on the supposed primacy of one of God’s attributes (#6). For example, one needs to understand what it means that “God is light” before one grasps that “God is love” (to wit: the God written of in Scripture is associated with the former more than the latter). Put differently, why is God “love” more than “light,” or “just,” or “faithful,” or “blessed,” or “joyful,” or “slow to anger,” or, for that matter, “wrathful” toward the wicked? How is he not each of these “all the way down and all the way out”?

All that said, I am inclined to respond to evil by gazing at “the iconic image of the crucified” — a love ineffable. This is essentially how Isaiah responded to the holiness of God, realizing fundamentally that evil is not a problem extra corpus (chap. 6) when he cried: “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” Good post. Thank you for it.

Anonymous said...

Hi there Kim. Excellent post. Really excellent. I was just wondering if you have ever read Kitamori's 'Theology of the Pain of God'. Pain here an inescapable corrollary to God's love. Not something I agree with myself, but just wondering if you had any thoughts on it. Also re: proposition 10, are there in your mind any limits to the practical application of this alternative praxis - can compassion for suffering too easily become nosiness and/or misdiagnosis. I am often wary this happens in prayer chains and the like, if Im brutally honest


ps if you've covered something akin to this already, Im sorry...

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