Thursday, October 25, 2007

POST #11: Theodicy, Q & A

My last post on theodicy, in which I propose that this cosmos exists as God’s answer to evil, and as his means of exterminating evil, has caused some consternation (as I expected). Mine is hardly a traditional concept. It is admittedly “outside the box”. Maybe a bit too far outside for some! But as these posts continue, I hope to demonstrate how well it fits Biblical theology, even as it flies in the face of traditional theology. My friend Steve, host of An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution has raised some excellent questions. As I typed out my response, the comment grew to the size of a full post. Here are excerpts from Steve’s comments and questions (italicized), followed by my answers. Steve begins by responding to some comments from Jac. If you want the full context of this discussion, it can be found in the comments section of Post #10.


Hi Jac:

I admit that when Cliff first started discussing these ideas a few months back, I thought it smacked very much of dualism. I don’t think that anymore since I believe Cliff has carefully addressed that concern a number of times. There is a difference in not be able to do something, and choosing not to do it. God is not limited in any way UNLESS he limits himself.... I’m not sure I’d put it in the same language as Cliff, that evil is “difficult for God to eliminate”. I think a more appropriate way of phrasing it is that the ramifications of eliminating evil in one swift blow are worse than allowing it to continue. (i.e. what Jesus said about wheat and chaff) But Cliff & I might be saying the same thing.

So I don’t think dualism is a problem, but I see two other challenges.

1) Where did evil come in the first place? ... Doesn’t the existence of evil outside of the space-time of our universe just push the issue back in “time” (if we can speak of time prior to the big bang)? Don’t we just end up needing the same argument again - i.e. a free-will / free-process argument? What is the benefit to theodicy of having the origin of evil outside of our universe? My questions don’t in anyway address whether your argument is consistent/good (and I know even you say it is speculative), I’m just not sure what the point or benefit is to theodicy. Maybe I'm missing something.

2) I’m really uncomfortable with the implication that the purpose of the universe is the destruction of evil. Maybe you aren’t saying “only purpose”, but it seems to be “primary purpose”. Is this what you are saying? To me this seems very much like we are being “used” by God. And I know we ARE “used” by God (we are his “hands”, “feet”, “eyes”, “ears” on earth helping to bring in the kingdom of God) – but that is different. I think the overriding theme in the bible is the redemption of creation, not the destruction of evil.



• In your response to Jac, your framing of the choice God made comes close to my own thinking. We’re going way beyond anything we could know when we talk about the pre-cosmos mind of God. But I conceive of it as something like this: when evil rose up, God might have chosen to snuff it out, maybe only to have it recur again and again ... but that perhaps he devised a plan involving us and this universe which would purge it forever. Whatever he is doing here with us is going to set the whole of the angelic hosts into awe at his wisdom (Eph. 3:10). That verse has always set me on a search for something more dramatic than Jesus dying for my sins and admitting me to heaven (as wonderful as that is!). I mean that these angels have known God intimately for billions of years, and he is doing something through the church (I understand church in this verse to refer to believing mankind of all time) that will demonstrate facets of his wisdom they have never witnessed before! Something very big is happening in the cosmos. My details may be sketchy. They may be all wrong. But I have to believe that we are in the midst of a drama that is beyond anything we have ever imagined! Evil may be a thing difficult to purge forever, but God has devised a plan -- long and involved -- that will do just that. Clearly any theology that sees evil as being once-and-for-all annihilated could hardly be called dualism.

Should it surprise us that God opted not to use his “Iron Fist” to stomp out evil? Is the concept that he would utilize a more “passive” tactic to overcome evil really so startlingly new? Is this not the manner in which we are instructed to overcome evil? Does he tell us to overpower evil? or to turn the other cheek. Does he tell us to use force against evil? or to go the extra mile. He says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) Why should we think that a cosmic battle with evil changes the rules of divine engagement? Is it not at least possible that God tells us to war against evil through nonresistance because that is precisely how he does so? And might it be that this is actually the best way? to let evil run its course, and actually die under the influence of divine goodness, love, and nonresistance ... even a nonresistance that cost the blood of Jesus? Or are these just the wistful notions of a Sermon on the Mount idealism that could have no practical role on a cosmic scale?

• You say Where did evil come from in the first place? and doesn’t this problem just put us right back at square one, with no real theodicy solution other than free-will?

Those are very insightful questions. I have excluded events outside of time and space from my posts, because we have no way of discerning anything about them. But that is a too easy cop-out, and your questions are valid. One possibility, I suppose, is that prior to the drama of this cosmos, there was some kind of balance-of-power dualism, one that will after this cosmic battle come to its final end. But I doubt it. The Bible does tell us about a war in heaven, a rebellion against God’s authority led by Lucifer. But imagine with me that that is exactly what happened, and this cosmos and its process was God’s answer. (The following logic gets very complicated, but stay with me.) We do not need a new free-will theodicy to explain this eruption of evil. In fact, if we surmise that angels do have an inherent power of self-determination, and that Lucifer simply made a horrible choice, note that he did so without a backdrop of evil going on around him. This angelic “free-will” did not require a context filled with natural evil and moral evil, did it? In other words, if your argument is valid (that I have just pushed the “free-will” theodicy argument back 13 billions years) then our present day free-will theodicy arguments make no sense. Why should unthinkably horrible events be a necessary backdrop to ensure genuine free-will, as free-will theodicy implies? If Satan had genuine free will without tsunamis and earthquakes and unthinkable suffering of millions of innocents, why would such manifestations be deemed necessary to validate our free-will?

So no, I do not think I just pushed the problem back to an earlier free-will argument. Or if I did, then the nature of that earlier free-will argument is completely different from the one I have rejected. Still, I have not answered your question, and that is because I believe no answer exists. Our problem of evil is limited to events within our cosmos. We know evil exists. It’s ultimate cause is a mystery, for now. But theodicy attempts to answer the question, “why does it persist? why does God just look on, and take no action?” My thoughts are limited to these questions.

• You say, I’m really uncomfortable with the implication that the purpose of the universe is the destruction of evil. Maybe you aren’t saying “only purpose”, but it seems to be “primary purpose”. Is this what you are saying?

Yep, that is what I am saying. Shocking? But it may make more sense to you after I have posted more thoughts about how death, resurrection, evolution, nonresistance, the theology of suffering and glory all interconnect to this framework. In my mind, a goal to destroy evil does not exclude nor minimize the stories of the redemption of creation, and our personal redemption, etc. Rather, it adds a layer of purpose and meaning on top of these themes, enriching them and contextualizing them.

Are we just being “used” in this scheme? I certainly don’t conceive of it that way. I see that we are called into a significant and meaningful partnership with God, and with Jesus. It is our choice whether to accept this call. Its a volunteer army!* Part of this calling may be an invitation to suffer for his cause. But God, through our captain Jesus, has already led the way in suffering. We are called to join in with him. And if we do, we are granted to share in the glory of the Kingdom! This is the teaching of 1 Peter, and Romans 8. This certainly elevates our role in the cosmic scheme of things. Traditional theology has taught us to see ourselves as of little count. Pawns being acted upon. A false humility. What I am seeing is that God has given us significance beyond our imaginations. Can he get the job done without me? Yes. But I have (we all have) the amazing potential of actually speeding up the process! (2 Peter 3:3-14). A God who adopts me as his own child, calls me into high service, asks me to join in his suffering, makes me a co-heir with his Son, sharing in his glory ... such a God can scarcely be seen as “using” me.

* An exception might be those innocents who suffer at the hand of evil, and unwittingly play a role in this battle. When they experience the glory that goes hand in hand with their suffering (Romans 8:17-18), I have no doubt they will in retrospect happily accept the role they were given to play out, and not object that they were “used”.


Anonymous said...


To encourage this conversation a bit more, can you elaborate on why God gave us free will? If our purpose is to join with God in defeating evil, why would God give us the option of joining evil and making matters worse? It seems to me that there would be much less evil in this world if it were impossible for humans to do evil.


Cliff Martin said...


In this battle, in which I am presuming a significant role for mankind, there must have been some ground rules. At least that is what I am presuming. Since I am presuming that God is allowing a natural course in which life and goodness are overcoming death and evil, there had to be no rigging of the stage.

Of course, in much of these thoughts, I am saying more than I know. But what makes sense to me, Jac, is that automaton creatures could not grow into what Paul calls “sons (and daughters!) of God made manifest,” a coming reality which will trigger the end of entropy, the redemption of Creation and (I think) the end of evil (Romans 8:19-23).

Whatever the reason ... here we are, with free wills. And you are quite right, our race is doing a good job of mucking things up. And it is quite obvious that the forces of evil have access to man, and are feverishly battling against life and righteousness. If all of this is true, then the focus of this ages-long cosmic battle is now, in its final days, focused in the hearts of men. Here is the awesome responsibility for people of faith: the ball is in our court, our faith and obedience matter profoundly. I do not mean by this that the outcome is in doubt. But the Bible indicates that the timing of the outcome is in doubt (2 Peter 3:4-13).

The heavenly scene throughout Revelation is dominated by the question, “How much longer, Lord? How long will these horrible manifestations of evil persist upon the earth.” The answer, sometimes explicit, sometimes implied, is that the determining factor of the timing has to do with people of faith upon the earth, their prayers, their worship, their martyrdom (and by extension, their willingness to suffer in other ways). That is how I understand it. All of these things would be quite meaningless in a world populated with automatons.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

On the question of dualism:
I think you've answered it without quite drawing the threads together. God is able to destroy evil through the use of crushing force, just as Christians have always maintained. But God has chosen not to destroy evil that way, because his method is to destroy evil by doing good.

Perhaps you're right that evil would just re-emerge if God destroyed it through force. That is certainly our experience on the earthly plane. Topple Saddam — Iran turns into a problem. It becomes a giant game of whack-a-mole.

On the other question, whether God created the cosmos solely as an instrument to destroy evil —
I don't think you need to be so categorical about it. The two purposes that Steve refers to are not mutually exclusive, are they?

God's plan is to destroy evil by doing good. So let's presume that this creation is good (just as God says in Genesis 1). To generate many sons and daughters of God is good. To devise a plan which will simultaneously generate many sons and daughters of God and destroy evil — why, that's very good!

Your other remarks about our being caught up in a very noble process to accomplish a very noble goal are right on.

Cliff Martin said...


Thank you for your constructive ideas. Yes, no doubt more than one “good” will be accomplished through all the processes of Creation and Redemption. I do tend toward strong statements about the ultimate purpose of the cosmos being the annihilation of evil, and the overthrow of death. The more traditional views of God’s purpose in Creation are not negated by this idea. They are given a context in which they have even deeper meaning for me. That is, while I view the goal of new souls to populate God’s Kingdom as a secondary purpose, it is not less wonderful to me. And that many sons and daughters are brought to glory in the context of this overriding conflict (in which we play a pivotal role) makes our relationship and ultimate value to God richer, more meaningful.