Centuries ago skeptics raised the fundamental questions. The difficulties can be put under two headings: the moral issue and the philosophical issue. The moral issue is that in this life it often happens that the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. That does not seem fair. In a rightly ordered world, it would be the other way around.
The philosophical issue is that a benevolent God would want to prevent or overcome as much evil and suffering as possible. An all-powerful God would be able to overcome evil and suffering. But since there is a lot of evil and suffering in the world, it would appear that either God cannot or will not prevent it or overcome it. If God cannot, that impugns omnipotence. If God will not, that impugns divine love.
Students said of me that it was forbidden in my classes to refer to mystery before noon. They had a point. My concern, however, was not to reject an appeal to mystery outright but to make sure we properly discerned where mystery is to be located. I often tell the story that all I remember from the speech Claude Welch made to the graduating class of 1953 at Yale Divinity School, of which I was a proud member, was the following admonition: “Avoid premature appeal to mystery.” Good advice, but when is an appeal premature, and when it is mature?
I am inclined to approach the issue with a distinction between a problem and a mystery. A problem has an actual or a potential solution. A mystery has no solution actual or potential. It is unanswerable by human beings. Tic Tac Toe has an actual solution. My good friend Charlie Perkins and I used to play this game endlessly in high school when the teacher was not looking. One day we discovered there was a way to make initial moves so that you would never lose. You could not win, however, unless your opponent had not caught on. Once we came upon this discovery, the game lost interest, since all instances ended in a stalemate. Checkers has an actual solution that is more complicated, and Chess has an actual solution, although very complex indeed, so that even the best minds and the most talented computers are challenged to master all possible strategies. In 1900 travel by humans to the moon had a potential solution. After 1969 it had an actual one. You get the picture.
Why is there something rather than nothing? So far as I know, that is a genuine mystery. Why is the world the way it is and not some other way? Maybe there is some ultimate necessity that makes some one and only answers to these conundrums inevitable and unavoidable if we only knew what they were or could understand them.
Is theodicy a problem or a mystery? My hunch is that it is a problem. The reason so many theologians appeal to mystery is that they have adopted initial premises that are contradicted, or at least put in jeopardy, by experience. So deep is their confidence that the initial premises are correct, they continue to assert that God is omnipotent and perfectly loving despite all the evil and suffering for which no good reason can be given. This framework must be maintained, although we cannot possibly figure out how hydrocephalic babies and other such horrors figure into the divine plan.
Now let us admit that if we had some absolutely certain and utterly convincing grounds for accepting divine omnipotence and love despite earth’s massive afflictions, we should probably agree with Hume that we finite beings cannot say with confidence that this is not the kind a world such a God would create. But, in my opinion, there is no infallible way to know for sure that an Omnipotent Benevolence exists. It is not that I have not considered all the options usually set forth for overcoming our ignorance on this matter. You know – divine revelation, the Bible, reason, readings from chicken entrails – that sort of thing. I just don’t think any of them or all of them in combination do the job. Of course, I could be wrong, but so could all of those who are so sure that I – not they – are mistaken.
It is always surprising to me that theologians and preachers seem to know so much about God, the meaning of life, sin, grace, salvation, the nature of the Trinity, the divine and human natures of Jesus, and so on. But when it comes to theodicy, they suddenly get ignorant. Why? This issue is different, they say. Is it?
Some argue that there was no theoretical “problem of evil” in the modern sense before the Enlightenment. Suffering, they maintain, was not an issue that called the existence or attributes of God into question. It was a practical problem that required conversion, faith, and the development of the habits of life appropriate for the community of believers who sought grace to go on despite their inability to find a rational explanation and without any need for one anyhow. They go on to argue that to seek an explanation indicates a lack of faith and a serious misunderstanding of suffering in a Christian context. In this view, evil is not a problem to be solved but a challenge to be met. The issue is how suffering is to be endured, conquered, and otherwise dealt with in ways that deepen trust in the God of grace who has a purpose in all things.
This is certainly one way of understanding the torments, terrors, and trials of this life, but it is not and cannot be an acceptable way for me. Moreover, while the classical thinkers did not permit evil to jeopardize the wisdom, power, and love of God, some of them did offer considerations designed to show that evil did not invalidate orthodox assumptions. For one thing it was not a positive creation of God but only a privation. Just as the hole in the doughnut is not directly made or intended but is the simply the absence of something, so evil is a lack, a corruption, a defect in something real. They were particularly concerned that God’s virtue was not besmirched by the presence of moral perversity. Even if God is implicated as Ultimate Cause in human willing of sin at some level (as concurrent cause, e. g.), the sinner is still responsible for it. Moreover, God uses everything – sin included – as instruments of a commendable divine purpose. Augustine said that the world as a whole is beautified even by sinners even though the wrongdoing itself is a blemish. His premise that God permitted evil in order to bring out of it a greater good was widely accepted.
In response I note that, of course, suffering is a practical problem calling for resources of grace to deal with it. But I stubbornly persist that theodicy is also a theoretical problem. Moreover, I insist that we must be open to reconstructing the traditional understanding God. Praise God, we are not obligated to believe everything that some or all Christians in the past have believed. Augustine thought that God permitted baptized babies to be tortured in order to turn our minds away from this veil of blood and tears toward the blessed life to come. He also thought God permitted virgins to be raped in order to cure them of pride, pride in their virtue they presently had or might develop in the future apart from this divinely permitted but instructive violence. Calvin thought it was no blot on divine perfection for God at one level to cause people to do evil deeds and then punish them for their disobedience. After all, they sinned voluntarily, i. e., really wanted to and did will to do what they did and so justly invited retribution. Just as we do not condemn the sun because its rays make dead animals stink, so we should not hint that the divine imperfection is blemished by punishing people for deeds they both willed but were caused to do by God. We have not even mentioned the Calvinistic notion that God created and then condemned to eternal damnation a good portion of the human race. Hence, we should not bow to these great thinkers as if they were the fount of all wisdom.
Nevertheless, proposing to reconstruct the doctrine of God raises a fundamental problem and one that has dominated theology in the modern era. If the Bible and classical theology have to be challenged in some respects in the interests of morality and credibility, how far can we go and still claim to be a Christian in ways that preserves what is essential or at least maintains some kind of meaningful continuity with the past? I used to sum this up to students in the following revised way: Some things must remain the same to preserve Christian identity. Some things must change to insure relevance. Which is which, and how do we know? The rest of this essay is my answer to that question with respect to theodicy, formulated as a question as to whether the omnipotence and goodness of God are compatible with the suffering and injustice in the world.
A solution is possible by qualifying one of the initial premises: omnipotence, goodness, evil. Yes, but all such solutions come with a great price. If God is too weak, too dumb, or too mean to prevent or overcome unnecessary or avoidable suffering, then we have a rational solution that works. Not many will buy either of these alternatives. If God permitted evil in order to achieve a greater good as much classical theology claimed, then that greater good comes with a high price indeed.
Yet despite the price to be paid, I think we have to take a path that qualifies one of the initial premises. Over a period of time I reluctantly, with resistance that involved kicking and screaming, have come to believe that the power of God must be limited to save the divine love. I have argued against conventional theodicies and for my heterodox alternative in books and articles and on the Internet. I will not here repeat in detail the case I think can be made for a limited but loving God. I also follow the process philosophers who say that God’s power is persuasive and not coercive.
The critic immediately pounces on the adverse consequences of this drastic move. A limited, persuasive, non-coercive God has no power to overcome evil decisively and with certainty. Such a weak deity not only has no truck with biblical or traditional thinking but surely is not worthy of worship. Surely such a God is the Ultimate Underachiever.
A kind and wonderful professor at Morehouse College spent some sabbatical time years ago at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. One day he sat in on one of my courses and heard me propose the notion of a limited God. “Professor Cauthen,” he demurred, “black people cannot accept a limited God. We must have a God with power to guarantee liberation.” Good point, well taken.
I was struck with the fact that an African-American theologian whose ancestors were brought here in chains and held in slavery for centuries and who have been treated unjustly since continues to have faith in an omnipotent God. In contrast, I was in the group that has been the object of every liberation theology ever written – a tall, white, heterosexual, educated, prosperous American male.
The only mark against me was that I was from the South. Some Yankees have difficulty believing that anyone from Georgia could be anything but a little bit dumb. I have had students in my classes in a liberal Northern seminary who told me later that when they first sat in my class and heard my Southern accent, they doubted that I could be smart enough to teach them anything. I smile victoriously with a pride that Augustine would rightly condemn that it only took two or three days to undermine that illusion. But I digress.
I believed in a God limited in power. Professor Tobin believed in an all-powerful God. You would think it would be the other way around. Yet religious logic is more complex than that. It was during the Babylonian exile that Israel produced the most eloquent statement of divine power and sovereignty (Isaiah 40-45). It might have been reasonable to conclude that if Israel could be taken captive, then perhaps Yahweh was not as powerful as had been thought or that maybe the Babylonian deities were of equal or superior strength. Yet it was at the point of defeat and captivity that God’s power was elevated as never before. Can it be that the greatness and power of God increase in proportion to human need?
My response to the objection that my God is a weakling not up to the job, once I thought it up, has always been as follows: Look, my feeble, puny God is getting as much done in the world by way of overcoming suffering, rooting out injustice, and in general making things better as your Almighty Deity. After all, we live on the same planet. There are no more congenitally deformed babies, no more holocausts, no more cruelty, tyranny, torture and murder of innocents, homeless refugees, starving children, no more misery, suffering, and torment in my world presided over by my Suffering, Limited, Persuasive God than in your world ruled over by an Omnipotent God. My God can’t, and your God won’t prevent or overcome more of the world’s ills. Which one of us has a God less worthy of worship?
At that point, my opponent may play the eschatology card. “OK, we live in the same world now, but bye and bye, my omnipotent God will straighten things out, perfect the world, eliminate all suffering, obliterate injustice, and make heaven real. Your God offers no certainty of an eventual and total victory of good over evil.” Now, says my antagonist, “I gotcha!”
Well, maybe. But I have one last question: If heaven is possible, why not now? One possible answer to that question that might work is the one provided by John Hick in Evil and the God of Love. If you want to retain a traditional theodicy, he is your best bet, in my opinion. Hick argues that heaven cannot be made real now for a good and simple reason. God’s purpose – and a highly commendable one – is to create free, rational beings and bring them to moral perfection in an arrangement whereby people all love God and each other. The only way this can happen is for the world to be a “laboratory of soul-making.” This means that we must have some uncertainty about ultimate matters. It means that we learn to fight evil and love each other in a setting in which there are challenges and genuine options that can be freely chosen. In other words, sin, evil, and suffering are deliberately built into the design of the world or permitted so that we can learn through choice, defeat, struggle, and in mortal combat with evil and suffering to love God and neighbor. In my words, the only possible road to heaven runs straight through the middle of of the hottest portion of hell.
Once again eschatology is the saving feature. God will keep working with us until all are redeemed, are brought to spiritual perfection by freely choosing God and a life of neighborly love in the present of challenges where alternatives are available. Looking back from that Great Day at the End, he says, all the miseries of this life will fade into insignificance. We will recognize how wise and good God was to set up this horrible classroom filled with terror and torment where we could learn to be good.
To keep the record straight, I would put the aim of God in creation a little differently. The purpose of God is to actualize those potentialities that maximize enjoyment in all creatures not just human beings. Moral virtue or perfection is a concomitant and prerequisite of the most joyful, happy life but not its direct aim as such. Hick is too focused on human beings rather than the general aim that pervades all life.
My first reaction to Hick’s proposal is visceral. I reject it with feeling. Let us have less character and more fun! Upon reflection I still reject it. The notion is abhorrent to me. Yet, when I wrote a chapter on theodicy, I found myself wrestling harder and longer with this alternative than with all the others combined. If you want a traditional theodicy unwilling to compromise either divine power or goodness, while recognizing the enormity of suffering, this the best option.
One other point before we leave heaven. It has never been clear to me how bliss then can redeem misery now. To be fair, Hick says only that looking back the sufferings we have known will fade into insignificance. Even so, it is still true that whatever happens later does not change the horror and hellishness many people experience here and now. That is a fact that nothing can change. The prospect of a perfected future beyond all suffering and injustice in the far distant future is little comfort in the present moment of agony. Even if a lot of misery is necessary for achieving that great sweet by and bye, the means are still what they are – massive suffering and cruel injustice today. Besides, if you make the blessed life in heaven so continuous with this world that we recognize it, ourselves, and others, it is difficult to see how it can be redemptive of this life. If you make it so discontinuous with this world that we don’t recognize it, perfect though it is, it is difficult to see how it can be redemptive of this life. Maybe there is some combination of continuity and discontinuity between now and then that resolves all these issues, but I have not seen it spelled out anywhere. But, then, there is always the appeal to mystery. You can divert attention from the difficulties with this claim by insisting as one preacher did that our role is not to plan the program but to make sure we have our tickets of admission. Homiletically good. Theologically, an irrelevant diversion.
Certainly we have been taught to believe that the next world is different in a lot of respects from this one. It would have to be to be everlastingly blissful. Jesus said that when the blessed “rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Mark.12:25) I point out to students that Jesus did not say there would be no sex in heaven, just no marriage.
To proceed, I cannot believe that a God as smart and competent as Hick’s God could not figure out a better way to run a world. Surely there must be a road to heaven that detours to some extent around some of the hellish elements of earthly existence. I am at a loss to come up with an alternate overall plan, although I tried once. Any such effort if it contains a lot of details could be shot down as easily as I think all the traditional options can.
I do believe that Hick rejects too easily the notion that God could make free, rational beings who would always choose the good, in so far as they knew which choices were best. To make the case here would involve a long excursion into defining what we mean by freedom. To put it briefly, I believe that freedom means creative self-determination. In particular, our day to day choices are the expression of our character. Who and what we are determines what we choose and do. As Jesus said, a good tree brings forth good fruit. I cannot resist the notion, although I cannot demonstrate it, that an omniscient, omnicompetent deity could figure out a way to create free, rational beings whose hearts would be more inclined to goodness than ours are. Couldn’t God have made us better trees so our fruit would be more just and loving? OK, the extreme of this would be pre-programed, very clever robots who automatically functioned in a certain way. But maybe there is something between a directionless, sheer undetermined being, and an automaton. Maybe inclinations, instincts, drives, an initial genetic makeup, whatever could be built in that tilt us more toward cooperative, non-violent approaches to life – a kind of natural predisposition to enter into harmonious relationships that could be developed in a less harsh environment. Of course, we need challenges, and obstacles to inspire us to do our best, but could these be arranged in a world less dreadful and less punishing of mistakes? I don’t know, but I believe an omnipotent, omniscient God could come up with something better than this present world so full of blood and tears that was still designed to urge us upward and onward toward better things and even eventually maybe to moral perfection.
Reinhold Niebuhr believed that because we are free, rational finite beings, we are made anxious when we become aware of our perilous situation as vulnerable, mortal, limited creatures. This tempts us to take self-protective actions out of our inordinate self-love (pride) that result in domination of our neighbors (injustice). Or we may try to escape our anxious freedom by immersing ourselves in the pursuit of selfish pleasure and anesthetizing diverting worldly activities (sensuality). Hence, because as free spirits we are aware of out precarious situation in the world, we inevitably and universally but freely sin.
I think there is a lot of truth here. Yet could God have equipped us better to deal with our frightening, precarious situation so that we would be more likely to respond by trusting God and treating our neighbors more kindly than we do now? Contrary to Hick, I suspect the answer is yes, but he does not think that we could be both free and predisposed to be good all the time. I don’t know whether God could have made us free so that we would always choose the good and nothing but the good all the time. But against Hick and Niebuhr, I suggest that maybe we could be made so that, despite our anxiety-ridden freedom and the temptations to act selfishly and self-protectively, the probabilities of goodness could be increased. Every little bit would help.
Hick has thought about all of this and has answers to every objection and to every alternative that anyone could reasonably think up. Most of them are pretty good. He says once we start down the path toward Hume’s hedonic paradise, we would never be content and would keep on until we got our pleasure palaces but with a resulting loss of moral vigor and integrity. If God agreed to rid the world of the smallpox virus, we would demand that the AIDS virus and hydrocephalic babies go to and so on until not one pain or one bit of unhappiness remained.
This is the old “slippery slope” stratagem. The general principle that we should not do something that is wise and good because it would or could or might lead to something not desirable has severe shortcomings. Even if God did not do more than eliminate the smallpox and AIDS virus, plus a few more nasty ones that may devastate the planet soon, we would have a better world than we have now but still lots of suffering. So why could not God at least do us that little bitty favor. We could still have Hick’s “laboratory of soul-making” but with a lot less wretchedness.
He does admit that in this world the suffering that occurs is far in excess of what is needed to provide the necessary incentives toward moral goodness. Indeed, he confesses that this is the most powerful argument against this proposal. But then in a move that snatches victory from near defeat, he submits that it is the very excessiveness of evil that makes it work. In a perfectly rational world the motivation to contend against the absurdity and massiveness of evil would weaken. So we must have this very irrational, hellish world full of excess agony in order to learn perfection through suffering. Wow, that is strong medicine. It gives a tragic sense to life that cannot be evaded. I am not convinced Hick is right on this point.
To get back to my question, Hick says heaven is possible, but we cannot have it now, since the essential requirement of there being a heaven worth waiting and working for is this very “laboratory of soul-making” in which we presently live with all its horrors. Thank you, God!
Hick has the best possible answer to my question, but I am still not convinced that his God and the God of Christian tradition could not come up with a better plan.
The great majority of Americans believe in miracles and that God sometimes does miracles in answer to prayer (Newsweek, May 1, 2000). So do most seminary students. That prompts me to ask them some questions that I don’t often hear other people raise. This leads me to wonder sometimes if I were born into the wrong world, since my reasoning so often appears to be eccentric and even perverse measured by the conventional wisdom. But that is another issue. I digress again.
Does your church have a ministry of raising the dead? In some astonishment they answer in the negative. I ask them why not and ask someone to read Matthew 10:8. Jesus sent out the disciples on a mission that included raising the dead and casting out demons. Most churches see themselves as continuing the ministry of the Apostles.
Some other questions follow. Why could not an omnipotent God raise the dead just as easily as heal someone from cancer? Of course, the answer has to be that such a God could with no sweat before breakfast. Why, then, do we stop praying for the sick when they die? Why not pray that God will raise them from the dead? No one has come up with a good answer yet. Matthew 10:8 is plain, simple, direct. Raise the dead. Why don’t we? That verse is just as much a part of the instruction of Jesus as anything else we make a lot of fuss about.
If God performs miracles in answer to prayer or just out of mercy and compassion, why would it not sometimes happen that when thousands of children are starving in Africa that God would send down from heaven a banquet of good nourishing food and have it land gently in their midst so that all could eat and live? Why not indeed? But that is our responsibility, you say. Yes, of course it is, but we do not fend off the question when we pray for the sick and hope for an immediate, life-saving rescue. But you persist, God only helps us out with a miracle when we cannot help ourselves. That principle would rule out miracles to save us from the consequences of accidents – like plane crashes – that result from human carelessness. And are you saying that because we fail to feed the starving, God just lets them suffer? That does not sound like a nice God to me. But you could reply that if God stepped in every time we failed to help ourselves or one another, then we would surely become lazy and irresponsible. We begin to see how difficult it is for God to work out a plan that gets the best results with the least suffering and injustice.
So most Christians believe that miraculous healing of the body sometimes occurs, but our common sense tells us that God is not likely to perform a mass feeding of starving children. I know of no recent examples anyway. So we do not even pray for it to happen.
Likewise, we know that when people die, they stay dead. OK, OK, I know about Lazarus and Jesus in the Bible, but since then the resurrection rate on planet earth has been zero unless you know something I don’t. Another time I will deal with the biblical stories themselves and how they are to be understood. Today we do not pray for the resurrection of those who die, at least nobody I know does. Jesus plainly commanded us to raise them, and the assumption of divine omnipotence assures us that God could do it with no sweat. But realistically we don’t have that hope. Why?
Again, you are standing on the sidewalk when accidentally a steam roller runs over a man in the street and mashes him flatter like a pancake and then grinds him into a bloody, ugly mess with bits of bone and brain and guts everywhere. Gross, as my kids used to say. Yes, but why not pray on the spot for God miraculously to restore that crushed body to life and complete bodily integrity? We pray for people dying of cancer to be healed. Theologically, there is no difference whatsoever between the two cases. Yet who is there who would realistically hope that the man crushed into a million pieces by the steam roller would be brought back to life, while lots of people think God can and sometimes will heal a cancer patient? Tell me what the difference is. If we prayed, it would likely be for the family of the deceased not for the splattered body on the street whom we just assume is dead and will stay dead in this dispensation. What happens ultimately is another story.
One more question. Nearly everybody recognizes that miracles are rare. All agree that most of the time the laws of nature hold. Not everybody who is prayed for is healed. Not everybody in plane crashes or tornadoes lives. Some inexplicably do. How do we account for the relative rarity and seeming arbitrariness of miracles? Why are some saved and some die? The usual answer is that is a mystery of divine providence. Well, you know what I think about the appeal to mystery.
To be totally candid about miracles, in my view there is no supernatural, but we should be cautious about drawing the boundaries of the natural. God always works in and through the general laws and processes of nature and human freedom, but we should be careful about saying what is possible thereby. There are no exceptions to natural law (miracle in the strong sense), but there are surprising outcomes sometimes that bring us joy (miracle in an extended experiential sense). I would just suggest we not overuse the word and stretch the meaning so much that it loses its power. I became a grandpa again last week, but to call the birth of a baby miraculous is going too far. Once there was the “big bang” – a very hot, very big, real, real big explosion. Billions of years later here we are wondering about what it all means. Ten billion years ago, who would have thought that a few billion more and Mozart would be as his desk composing beautiful music? Wow! That is, well, miraculous in my way of thinking. That would flow into the suggestion of Schleiermacher repeated by Tillich that miracle refers to an astonishing event especially revelatory of the deeper realities.
To proceed, I think the only way to save the initial premises of omnipotence, goodness, and evil is to limit divine power. It is a bit more complicated than that. I do not mean to imply that all efforts short of that are vain. Numerous consideration help us understand how evil and suffering are perfectly compatible with a God of power and love. It has all be said before many times. The main points of reference are freedom and finitude.
God has given us freedom, which can be misused to do harm and cause misery. Freedom accounts for moral evil, i. e., suffering to the extent that it involves human irresponsibility. Freedom does not account for natural evil, i. e., suffering that arises out of the nature of things and does not involve any human irresponsibility. Cancer, other disease, tornadoes, earthquakes, and the like are examples. For this we need to appeal to finitude.
Finitude refers to the fact that we are vulnerable to disruption and destruction. Human bodies are made up of systems of organs and activities that must all work together harmoniously to sustain life and health. In such a complicated arrangement, something can easily go wrong in two ways. Something external can collide with our bodies, e. g., a falling stone, tornado, speeding car, a virus that gets in the blood stream, etc., and damage or kill us. Something internal to our bodies can start malfunctioning for all sorts of reasons and make us sick or cause death, e. g., cancer and other diseases.
All our suffering can be traced finally either to freedom or to finitude or to some combination of the two. Since we, not God, are responsible for our bad choices that cause suffering, an omnipotent, loving God is not to blame. So far so good. Appeal to freedom can account for moral evil. It cannot account for natural evil. Finitude is a little more complicated. The possibility and very great probability is that in a world made up of finite beings evil and suffering will occur because of collisions of things with each other or because something for some reason goes wrong in our bodies that hurts us, makes us sick, or kills us. If we alter or begin to mess around with either of these arrangements, would we have a world less good that ours? Most of us think the capacity for making choices is a good thing, even if we often misuse it. Goodness, love, mercy, justice, and compassion also come about because we can choose them. The extreme alternative is to make us into machines, maybe complicated computers, with built-in software that makes us be good.
We generally think that it is a positive feature that the world is composed of a whole lot of different things interacting with other things, including people who can relate to each other. This makes it possible for interesting things to happen. Otherwise, nothing would take place. If there were only one thing and nothing else to act upon or respond to, it would be a pretty dull world. So finitude organized to produce the world system we live in seems like a good idea too, even if it means that things can collide with each other and that our internal bodily parts can get sick, go awry, or otherwise malfunction.
To take one example, the fact that the laws of nature always hold means that sometimes their operation will hurt or kill us. But unless they did always hold, we could never learn or carry out our purposes. If we put water on a hot stove and instead of boiling it turns into a hippopotamus, we could never learn how the world works or be sure that our water will boil so we can make coffee instead of producing a zoo. You get the picture.
So don’t we really like this world the way it is even thought both moral and natural evil can occur? It would appear that the very features of the world that make it possible for evil and suffering to occur are the very same ones that make possible all that is good. It would seem that we cannot have one without the other.
Here some interesting questions arise. We have said that it is a good thing to have a world made up of a lot of interacting things in a law-abiding world that contains some free, rational beings even though some bad stuff can easily happen to our bodies that can damage or kill us (finitude) and even though we hurt each other by our wrong choices (freedom). Isn’t this the kind of world an omnipotent, loving God might create? We can argue for a yes answer because in such a world a lot of good things happen too, and we might well conclude that on the whole the good outweighs the bad.
So an all-powerful, loving God who is very, very smart might decide to create a world just like ours even though a lot of suffering and evil will occur or probably will. We could argue that the possibility of evil and suffering is inevitable and unavoidable but that is worthwhile because more happiness than misery can and, in fact, probably does come about. If we add the idea that evil is necessary to the achievement of something wonderfully good that could be had no other way, we have a very strong case. Therefore, we could argue that God is justified in creating just this sort of world. In no way does the evil and suffering that do occur impugn either the love or the almighty power or the intelligence of God. So the critic is wrong after all.
But if this is so, why do I contend for a God limited in power. I do so because there is one more question that has to be raised. Could an omnipotent, loving God have created a better world than this one that would still have all the good things – a lot of interacting things operating in accordance with laws and processes that make it work properly and containing free, rational beings like us – but that would produce on the whole a better ratio of good to evil than this one?
The philosopher Leibniz argued that this is the best of all possible worlds because any other world that God could have created would be worse than this one. God could have made a world with no sin (moral evil) or suffering (natural evil), but it would be less good than this one. God considered all the possibilities – all of them right down to the last detail, foreseeing even what human beings would choose in every conceivable world – and chose to make this one with all its evils because it was on the whole judged by God’s purposes better than any alternative. You might, of course, in a Calvinist spirit say that God chose to create this world for purposes sufficient for God, and we would do well to accept it as it is and not get obnoxious and annoy the Deity by raising all these silly questions about whether God could have done a better job of it.
Ignoring that advice, I would put the question a little differently: Is this world, in principle and structure, equal in excellence or superior to any possible world? You have to say “in principle and structure,” i. e., in basic design, because this world could have been better than it is if fewer unnecessary bad things had happened in the natural world and if human beings had made better choices. Leibniz took all that into account and argued that in every detail this one is the best. My question, however, is whether there a pattern, a design, a blueprint for a possible world that would on the whole be more likely to produce more good and less evil than this one? Good in my view is what produces enjoyment, and best is what optimizes or maximizes enjoyment, all things considered.
Let us turn finally to this ultimate and crucial question. If you say this world is at least as good as any possible world, then you can reasonably conclude that an omnipotent, loving God could have created this very world. The evil and suffering in it do not contradict or even call into question either divine power or divine goodness. The only question then is whether, given the fact that it does have so much evil and suffering in it, it was a good thing for God to have created it. Most of us would say that God did a good thing and was completely justified in creating this very world since the good in it is worth putting up with the bad in order to have the good.
The justification for my belief in a limited but loving God hinges on my giving a different answer. As of this moment, I believe it would be possible for there to be a world more excellent in principle and structure than this one, i. e., one that would produce on the whole more good and less evil than this one. Therefore, since I believe God is loving and that a loving God would have created this better world if God had the ability to do so, I conclude that God is limited in power. Power here implies and includes the notion of ability to do anything possible.
What would this better world be like? I cannot give a full description, and I may be utterly wrong, But I do have a few suggestions.
If all suffering and evil can be traced back ultimately to freedom and finitude, then we have to deal with them both. I have already argued for a conception of free (self-determining) beings who could be created with a greater instinct or inclination toward doing good than the current crop of human beings. They would do good as an expression of their nature. This means they could grow and develop and become better or even worse, but I believe with a better genetic design from the start we could have a better outcome. It is possible, I believe, to conceive of a better model with greater potential for love and justice than the beings actually produced by the contingencies and complexities of the evolutionary process. Had the evolutionary process worked differently for all sorts of reasons, we might have inherited a better nature than we did and could more easily have learned to be good people, better people than our present genetic makeup produces. In short, people could have been designed better so that they would have been more likely to be more kind to each other love each other than they are.
The big philosophical question here is the relation of freedom to our biological nature. If freedom completely transcends nature and is in no way conditioned or shaped by it, then my point is not valid. Here is where Reinhold Niebuhr and I disagree. He says we exist at the junction of nature and spirit, finitude and freedom. He affirms that we are embedded in nature and subject to its laws. But by virtue of the capacity for self-transcendence (spirit), we are free to choose between good and evil. Sin originates in spirit (freedom) and not in nature. Niebuhr is a true Augustinian for whom the locus of sin is in the will itself, and this emphasis is undiluted by our natural, biological, and genetic makeup. Niebuhr rejects those Pelagian tendencies that find the inclination toward evil not in the human will but in “some sloth of nature” inherited from “the brute creation.”
For Niebuhr the only significance of our connection with nature is that we are subject to its laws and that we are made anxious and tempted to sin. Finite freedom is experienced as anxiety. Anxiety is not sin. It is the precondition of sin. Anxiety constitutes temptation. Nevertheless, freedom is such that we could still choose to do good. If we chose to, we could resolve our anxiety by trust in God. Sin is neither sheer perversity since we are tempted as a result of anxiety. But neither is it an unavoidable outcome of our situation, since ideally we could do otherwise. We sin inevitably but not necessarily. Inevitability and responsibility are both matters of the spirit, of freedom that transcends nature.
This Augustinian paradox of universality of sin and responsibility of choice cannot be sustained and in fact is, I believe a contradiction. Niebuhr argues that simple Aristotelian logic is not capable of dealing with the complexities of the human spirit. He contends that responsibility despite inevitability is proven by the remorse that follows wrong doing. We acknowledge that we really did it by choice even though we know it was bound to happen. Neo-liberals with a taint of Pelagianism like Robert Calhoun (one of my teachers) take one side of the Niebuhrian paradox and argue that if we are created so that we inevitably sin, then the goodness of creation is impugned. That is right, but Niebuhr equally contends that we could freely choose to trust God and love our neighbors, i. e., avoid sin. He holds these two in unresolved tension. I think that tension finally collapses into an untenable position.
I believe that our freedom – our souls, our spirits, whatever – are profoundly shaped, molded, conditioned, limited, etc. by the genetic makeup that evolved over billions of years. Our spirits are embedded in bodies. We are unitary selves with mental and physical dimension, not a dualism of body and soul. Our genes predispose us to act in certain ways. When confronted with some socio-biologists, I am prone to think they make the opposite mistake and underestimate the extent to which freedom transcends nature. But that is another story. Here I am arguing with most people who think we have a greater range of freedom or a different kind of freedom than we do and that we are less shaped by our biological makeup that I think we are. Is there a defensible position on freedom and nature that is between and beyond the extreme socio-biologists, on the one hand, and Hick, Niebuhr, on the other hand? On that possibility my case rests.
We are also profoundly shaped by our culture with its long history, by our own personal life history, by our social location, family background, and so on. We could argue that ultimately families and cultures are the product of freedom. Yes, but our freedom is shaped by historical circumstances and genetic factors and always was from the very beginning of the human species. Freedom transcends nature but is embedded in it. Freedom transcends culture but is profoundly conditioned by it. I just think nature and culture shape us more profoundly than apparently Hick and Niebuhr do.
To take one example, how do we account for the fact that the violence in this world is committed more by males than by females? Is the explanatory factor nature or nurture, genes or culture, biological conditioning or social molding? Something more seems to be present than a transcendent, unconditioned freedom that can choose whatever it wants by just choosing. Whatever the determinants, freedom does seem to function differently in one sex than another. It may very well involve a genetic component. Murders occur more frequently and persistently in some zip codes than others and is usually perpetrated by males. A recent report noted that 80% of the murders in Rochester, New York, occur in 27% of the area. Most of them are committed by males between 15 and 45. It does not just happen that people, usually males, in certain locations within a certain age range simply choose to murder by merely deciding to murder more than females or people living in other parts of town do. Apparently their freedom has been tilted differently in statistically important ways by something. I suspect that both biological and social factors are at work. Differing murder rates in different zip codes do not just happen any more than it just happens that heavy smokers contract lung cancer more frequently than non-smokers. Reference to a transcendent free spirit alone is not sufficient to account for the complexity of human choice and destiny.
Freedom is self-determination, and the self is determined by our moral character, and our character is the product of nature and nurture, our life experiences, and our choices over a lifetime. So what we choose at any given moment is an expression of what we are, what we have become as a result of all the causal and conditioning factors that produced us. In many contexts we cannot choose differently from what we do. Kind people do kind things repeatedly. They cannot by mere unprovoked force of will in a flash be mean to everybody. Pedophiles repeatedly molest children. Both kindness and a habit of molestation express a formed character structure. We cannot at any given moment choose to love what we hate or hate what we love. We love and hate because of who and what we are at some point of decision. We do not have the power to choose anything we want to choose by just choosing to choose it.
We also, however, have a power of creative self-transcendence that comes into play that enables us to imagine alternatives and, under certain circumstances, to choose them. Usually we change when something becomes unsatisfactory for any number of reasons, including a change in circumstances, and a more attractive option is available in imagination and in fact. Growth, change, development, and even radical conversion can occur under these conditions. The relationship between self-determination by our formed character and our power of creative self-transcendence defines the crucial issue. I make no pretense of having it figured it all out. I apparently do put more emphasis of choice as the expression of nature and culture-formed character than do most people.
Hence, I believe that an omnicompetent God could have designed a better human model who would have been more capable and more likely to create a better culture. This better specimen would have made less of a mess and done a lot more good than the species that actually came about through the accidents, vagaries, contingencies, and chance elements involved in the evolutionary process. We are not talking about pre-programmed robots. We are talking about real life flesh and blood creatures who can make choices for good and evil, who can grow and learn, who can do bad things, and so on. We are just talking about a better initial design that would make it easier and more likely that we would do better than our current species with less likelihood of fouling things up so awfully as we currently do. All cars can be crashed and destroyed, but some are designed so that they are safer than others. I am arguing that all creatures we would care about being would have the possibility of making a mess of thing. They would just be less likely than we are to go wrong and more likely to do right.
Likewise, I think an omnicompetent God could have designed the order of nature (finitude) better, i. e., so that it would have less pain and more pleasure, more health and less disease, more stability and less chaos. Let us start by eliminating a lots of viruses that cause sickness and death – smallpox, AIDS, and a lot of other harmful little entities that the world could do without and be a lot better off. A very smart God could do this with a little thought, I am sure. Weather is a realm where a lot of improvement in design would be possible. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods could be better harnessed so that we could have an orderly world without so damn many of them. The body could certainly be designed to be less susceptible to sickness, damage, and death than the ones we have now. Every little bit would help, and there is a long way to go before we would be in Hume’s hedonic paradise that Hick wants to avoid. His fear that we cannot start down the road of improving the world structure without sliding all the way down the slippery slope is just unfounded. Wouldn’t his all-wise God know when conditions were just right to produce the optimum character-building environment with enough suffering to do the job but with considerably less than we have to put up with now?
As the little kid wrote in a letter to God, “I hurt myself and had to have three stitches. Why did you make it so we come apart so easily?” Good question.
I invite you to use your own imagination to think about how we could still have an orderly, law-abiding, interesting, challenging world with an arrangement that produces far less sickness, pain, and destruction than the present world.
We are not talking about a perfect world with no pain, one that is all happiness and pleasure with no risks and no possibility of failure or damage. We are just talking about a better world model than this one that would have more pleasure, happiness, and justice than this one. We could have a better design for the natural world order and a better blueprint for human beings that would lessen the evil and suffering that flow from finitude and freedom. Finitude and freedom would still be real but within an overall design than was productive of a better ratio of good to evil than the one we now enjoy and suffer in.
Hick disposes altogether too easily of this type of argument. I
he is simply wrong in claiming that we need the excessive
he admits is present to do the job of “soul-making.” He does not come
terms with the realities of the evolutionary process. Evolution could
taken all sorts of other directions
that could have produced other types of intelligent, creative beings whose inclinations would have made it easier to become saints. I claim that an Infinite, Benevolent Intelligence would not have brought about the present world by using the kind of evolutionary process that actually occurred. This process is full of chance, accident, waste, misery, and suffering. Human beings like us were eventually produced, but we well might not have been if any one of millions of different things had occurred somewhere over the billions of years the process took. I cannot imagine an omnipotent, infinitely intelligent, loving God as the Author of the evolutionary process that actually occurred.
If you disagree, what are your options? 1. You can maintain that God can create just any old kind of world for no other reason than that God wants or chooses to. 2. You can say that God could not have produced a better design for the world than we actually have. If you do, who is putting limits on God now? 3.You can insist that the present world is the most excellent possible. If you do, then you have to admit that it has a horribly tragic dimension to it. Remember that old distinction between the optimist and the pessimist? The optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist believes that the optimist is right! Possibility and necessity exact a high price indeed if no better world than this one is possible.
Therefore, I conclude that there is a Divine Creativity at the heart of things that is good in intent and character but limited in power and ability. Only a finite God of the type I imagine could be responsible for bringing into being the current world with all the horrors, waste, chance, and suffering present in the evolutionary process that is in our human background. Nature shows on TV are mainly about animals eating each other or engaging in reproductive behavior. The sex is nice (except where one partner devours the other when it is all over!), but the process in which life devours life and has to to survive suggest that nature has a split within itself, an inner contradiction. That is my final reason for thinking of God as I do. The present world structure is not the product of a rational design in the mind of the of an Infinitely Intelligent, Benevolent Creator that just appeared by divine fiat or that worked itself out in time in every detail according to the plan. The cosmos and human beings as we know them came by about by a long process of natural evolution that has a purposive element in it but that includes lots of chance, accident, and happenstance such that things could have come out a lot differently than they did. It involves purpose and chance, law and contingency, causal determination and random happenings.
I persist. If heaven is possible, why not now? Remember that much Christian theology has said that the perfection of the cosmos and of humanity at the Endtime will come about by a fresh, supernatural, coercive act. So my question has particular pertinence in this context. If the consummated universe of moral saints requires a supernatural act which suspends and perfects freedom at the End, why not do it now? Hick would find that scheme implausible, and he has a point. We have to grow into moral maturity, he says, through experience, challenge, and choice. You can’t make a perfect moral being in an instant by fiat. I just don’t think we require the harshness and hellishness of the present world order to accomplish that. A better designed human being and world would do the job with a lot less pain and suffering.
Since we don’t have the nicer world that an omnicompetent Goodness would have created, then I think God must be limited in power. I have given reasons in some detail in other places why I think we have to attributed goodness to God so I will be brief here.
We experience the world as potentially and essentially good. Life is capable of exquisite pleasures, joys, and satisfactions when this potential is being fulfilled. Hence, since I am not responsible for my existence but receive it as a good gift from whatever did bring the world and me and everybody else into being, I conclude that the Giver of the gift must be good. I sense a Loving Creativity at the base of things that aims at producing a good world but is limited in the ability to bring it about in the best possible way.
Therefore, God is loving but limited. That makes better sense than any alternative known to me. The orthodox Christian one does not fit my experience of the world. I believe what I do because I cannot believe otherwise. We affirm what we cannot deny, and we deny what we cannot affirm. In the end it is as simple as that – a confession of faith that seeks understanding.
It may be useful, even at the expense of unduly prolonging this discussion, to indicate the nature of the argument I have mounted. I do not labor under the illusion that I have made a logically impregnable case for my view or that mine is the only one that fits the evidence.
1. I have already agreed with Hume that if we had certain knowledge of God’s unrestricted omnipotence, perfect goodness, and infinite wisdom, we could not prove that this is not the kind of world such a God might have created. I do insist that we do not know for sure that God is so constituted. I just believe that a loving God limited in power fits the available evidence better from my locally restricted vantage point.
2. With Leibniz I agree also that we cannot demonstrate that an Omnipotent Benevolence, if real, is the Ultimate Underachiever. We cannot show beyond the shadow of doubt that this is not the best of all possible worlds. While we might suggest improvements that would from our point of view make the world better in some local context, we cannot declare with utter confidence that the actual universe on the whole all things considered is not as good as some imagined one. We simply do not know how changing certain things would affect the general goodness of the total creation in the largest relevant framework. My suggested modest improvements take into account sentient creatures, especially human beings, within the restricted temporal and spatial location open to immediate observation and experience. That is what matters most to me. If that is shortsighted, selfish, and parochial, the so be it. I do insist that if a better world design is not possible, then necessity imposes a dreadfully tragic dimension to existence, given the massive suffering and injustice in this earthly habitat of ours. If even an Infinite Intelligence with good intentions cannot make a better world than this, then those factors in the nature of things more ultimate than God (those primordial possibilities and necessities) that make it so have a mean streak. Maybe that is what Satan is!
3. While I have not made an exhaustive study of the theodicy question, I have dabbled in it enough to know that the great minds of history contradict each right and left on the subject. Heck, philosophers cannot even agree on how Leibniz is to be interpreted much less on what the truth is about the subject he was exploring. That suggests to me that human beings simply do not know and cannot know with certainty the answers to these great questions. If truth is what the rational community of inquirers ultimately agrees to (Peirce), then I doubt we will ever know it on this earth. Meanwhile, I am left to my own devises. If thinkers over the centuries with far greater intellectual powers than I possess have not been able to reach a consensus, then I will not claim any more than that my views make more sense to me than any known alternative. When absolutist zealots claim to know the real truth – whether their source of information be empirical science, philosophical reason, divine revelation, or a personal, a handwritten message from God – or when more modest inquirers proffer their own tentative conclusions, I will say to each of them, “Well, maybe you are right, but here I nevertheless stand in my own invincible agnosticism with no option but to live by what I cannot deny.”
4. Finally, I am a pragmatist who, unable to know for sure the truth
that corresponds with reality on this topic, seeks for some practical
to live in this frightfully ambiguous world with its baffling mixture
joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. The absolute
line is that what I have done here is not so much an effort to think
from the head as it is an anguished cry from the heart torn and
from the suffering and injustice that is all around us every day.
My E-Mail Address
This is one in a series of essays on theological and ethical topics. The best place to start is:
Presently, the following essays are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
What I Believe
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God
Hints Toward a Doctrine of God
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Physician Assisted Suicide
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch
For fun I have rewritten some Mother Goose Rhymes for an electronic age.
Mother Goose Goes Electronic