Category Archives: problem of evil

Are Darkness and Evil Rooted in God’s Nature?

 

This is the third and final installment of my review and critique of Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God. In the previous two essays I described and analyzed Oord’s argument and criticized three of his crucial assertions. Today I will address a fourth assertion.

4. God’s Nature Limits God.

For Oord, the problem of evil focuses on absolving God of responsibility for the evil that plagues our world. Oord argues that the problem of evil cannot be dealt with as long as we view creation as a voluntary divine act. If God voluntarily created our world then God either allows or positively wills the evil that occurs within it. And no being that allows or permits, much less positively wills, the horrible evils that happen in our world can be considered loving. Oord “solves” the problem of evil by concluding that God did not choose to create a world with randomness and freedom, which are the necessary conditions for evil. Because God is love by nature, God creates our world by necessity.

Oord contends not only that God is love by nature but also that love is the preeminent divine attribute and limits the other attributes. God’s power extends only as far as his love. God cannot act contrary to his loving essence and must express that essence by creating. Let’s listen to some of Oord’s claims:

“God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control” (p.146).

“By contrast [to John Sanders], I do think God’s nature dictates the sort of world God must make” (p.148).

“God’s love is uncontrollable, not only in the sense that creatures cannot control divine love but also in the sense that God cannot stop loving” (p. 161).

“Essential kenosis says limitations to divine power derive from God’s nature of love” (p.164).

“Essential kenosis says God’s self-giving, others-empowering nature of love necessarily provides freedom, agency, self-organization and lawlike regularity to creation. Because love is the preeminent and necessary attribute in God’s nature, God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom , agency, self-organizing and lawlike regularity God gives. Divine love limits divine power” (p. 169).

Is God a Prisoner of His Nature?

For many readers, the familiar idea that God cannot contradict his nature seems correct. God cannot lie or sin or die. We could add that God cannot act in an unloving or unjust way. I too agree with these statements. But Oord goes further.  He contends that God’s nature limits God, which in effect makes God a prisoner of his nature. The traditional teaching that God cannot contradict his nature was never understood as “limiting” God, that is to say, depriving God of an option that God might otherwise have willed to use for some good purpose. On the contrary, the idea that God cannot die or sin or act unlovingly expresses God’s unlimited perfection! It would be silly to say that there is something good or great in dying or sinning that God is missing because he cannot do it. Dying is not something you. It is something that happens to you. Nothing just happens to God!

But Oord insists that “Divine love limits divine power”? In the traditional doctrine of God, God’s power is thought to be unlimited, which means that God’s power extends to everything that is logically possible. Oord adds a further qualification by excluding some logically possible things. Specifically, Oord wants to exclude God using power to control or coerce his creatures. These actions are, according to Oord, logically possible, but given the priority of divine love in the divine nature, are impossible for God. It is logically possible for God to prevent evil actions but impossible for God actually to do this. God cannot act contrary to his loving nature, and his loving nature demands that he give irrevocable randomness and freedom to creatures.

Darkness and Evil Within the Divine Nature?

Our suspicions are rightly raised when we hear a thinker using one divine attribute to limit the others. Oord speaks as if God were essentially love but not essentially power or eternity or justice or others. It seems to me that we ought to reject out of hand the attribution of incoherence and disharmony to the divine being. Instead we ought to allow all the divine attributes modify and enrich each other. If we believe God is perfect in every respect, we should also assume that there is no tension much less conflict between divine love and divine justice or power or eternity or omniscience. God’s love is just and his justice is loving. And God’s love is powerful and his power is loving.

Oord, to the contrary, defines God’s love independently of the other essential attributes and seems to base his definition of divine love on a human conception of love. He then uses this human conception to restrict divine power. Consequently his conception of divine power is likewise distorted. Oord seems to think of divine power as force and coercion, which must be limited by divine love. Divine power is obviously conceived as the possibility for evil as well as good. Amazingly, this move grounds the tension in creation between love and evil in a tension within the divine being. Hence to escape rooting evil in the divine will Oord places its possibility in the divine nature! The problem of evil has infected the divine being. And God must continually overcome his possibility for evil. Evil has been eternalized.

But divine power is not the possibility for good or evil, love or coercion. Divine power is the power of being; it is unambiguously good. God is the power of his own being and consequently the power for the being of creatures. God’s power always manifests itself in creation as giving being. There is no reason to see any tension between God’s power and his love. Every act of love is also an act of power. God loves by giving being in all its richness to creatures.

Conclusion

In sum, Oord solves one problem of evil only to create an even worse one. He succeeds in absolving God of any responsibility for evil by transferring the possibility for evil from the divine will to the divine nature. However, the price of this transfer may be greater than many are willing to pay. If the suffering we endure in this world is somehow rooted in the unfathomable divine will and purpose, we can still hope that evil will be overcome and “every tear will be dried.” But if evil is rooted in the eternal divine nature, God has no place to stand to pull us out of the pit. How can he sympathize with our pain when he is distracted by his own suffering? How can God “lead us not into temptation” when he must continually overcome his own temptation?

Coming Soon: Eschatology. What can we know about something that hasn’t happened yet?

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God and Evil: Three Steps to the Wrong Answer

In my previous post I began a review of Thomas Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God. I focused mostly on describing the argument of the book as fairly as I can. Today I want to explain where and why I disagree. Allow me to summarize what I said last time: Oord “solves” the problem of evil by limiting divine power and freedom in favor of divine love. According to Oord, love is the dominant divine attribute, and it limits the scope of the others. God cannot refuse to love, for that would contradict his nature. Hence God must create a world of creatures and give them freedom. God has no choice. When creatures misuse their freedom by doing evil and when the randomness of physical processes produces suffering, God is not to blame. As I said in the last lines of the earlier post,

“At no point is a divine decision involved actively or passively in the occurrence of evil or even in bringing about the conditions that make evil possible. Hence God cannot be blamed for genuine evil at any point in its genesis or history.”

According to Oord, this understanding of the divine nature solves the problem of evil. (For a fuller explanation, read the previous post, which bears the title, “Must we Limit God’s Power to Solve the Problem of Evil?”)

I will organize my comments around several of Oord’s presuppositions and assumptions, which, if you accept, will lead you to accept the conclusions of the book. If you do not accept Oord’s assumptions you probably will not accept his conclusions.

“Tragedy Needs an Explanation”

This assertion forms the title of Oord’s first chapter. Of course everyone feels the need to ask “Why did this happen?” when tragedy strikes us or those we love. We want an explanation, and not having one intensifies the suffering of injury and loss. But what kind of “explanation” counts as a satisfactory explanation? Reading his first chapter shows that for Oord, “explanation” means a coherent harmonization of the facts of nature, human experience of evil, and the idea of God. Oord excludes any “appeal to mystery” or expressions of trust as simplistic, if not irresponsible (p. 64, p. 89). He says,

“Simplistic responses to life’s difficult questions—“I just trust God”—leave many of us unsatisfied. We need better answers. Believers want to reconcile randomness and evil with the idea that God acts providentially” (p. 27).

Apparently, for Oord adequate explanations must make all things clear.

If you accept this thesis you will need to look for rational clarity in your explanation of tragedy. And Oord’s doctrine of God makes things clear. We understand perfectly why every evil event happens. God had to create a world where evil was possible, and God bears no responsibility for any genuinely evil event. God did not cause it or permit it. Crystal clear! But will such clarity really satisfy? For some people, perhaps it will. But others may find a loving but effectively powerless God very unsatisfying. Why can’t God be both powerful and loving! And why should we shy away from divine mystery? Should we expect the ways of God to be clear to us always? Hence I reject the presupposition that we should look only for “clear” explanations and refuse to consider those that resolve the problem in the depths of the divine mystery. Could a non-mysterious God be the Creator and Lord of the Bible?

Some Evils are Gratuitous.

This assertion is central to the argument of the book. Without it the argument fails. Throughout the book, Oord refers to some evils as “genuine” or “gratuitous.” Other evils are “necessary” and may produce good results in the long run. Pain, for example, warns of physical damage and danger. But “genuine” evils never produce anything good; or not enough good to outweigh the evil suffered. Oord defines genuine or gratuitous evil as

“events that all things considered, make the world worse than it might have been…Genuine evils happen, and they have no greater overall purpose” (p. 68, 65).

In other words, some evils are so outrageous and horrendous that not even God can redeem them or turn them to the good—not in a million years, not in all eternity! Now, if you admit that there are evils so destructive that not even God can redeem them, Oord has won the argument. For a loving God would not allow such evils if he could prevent them, and if God’s allows irredeemable evil when he could prevent it, he cannot be the loving God we believe in.

In response to these assertions about “genuine” evil, we must ask Oord how he knows that some evils cause so much damage that not even God can repair or redeem them? His answer is simple. He knows it because of the way it makes him feel. He says this:

“I cannot imagine, for example, any instance of rape to be necessary to promote greater good. Genocides are genuine evils too” (p. 66).

What he “cannot imagine” cannot be true. In the book’s first chapter, Oord does what almost all of the advocates for gratuitous evil do. He recounts horror story after horror story and banks on the emotional appeal of such stories dissuading us from trying to explain them as redeemable in some way. It is what I call in my book, The Faithful Creator, the “rhetorical argument from evil.”

He does not show that a particular evil is irredeemable. How could any mortal do that? How could he know that the final resurrected, redeemed, and glorified state of rape victims or the victims of genocide will be worse than it could have been had not these evils affected them. Only God knows what God can do. So, no human being can know whether or not some evils are irredeemable unless God reveals it.  Instead of demonstrating rationally or on the basis of revealed truth the reality of irredeemable evil, Oord in effect silences us with the thought “How dare you justify this evil by making it redeemable!” Or, “What kind of person could “imagine” rape and genocide making the world a better place!”

I admit that just as he cannot show that some evils are irredeemable, I cannot show clearly that all evils are redeemable. I would not presume to try. But I can hold on to this hope because it is grounded in the resurrection of Christ.

Some Events are Truly Random.

This thesis also is crucial to Oord’s argument. Oord begins his argument for randomness by giving examples from common experience. The outcome of a coin toss, the timing and landing place of a leaf that falls from a tree, and the time and place of a lightning strike seem to common sense to be random. And Oord argues that we ought to trust our common sense to tell us the truth in this case. He explains,

“Most of us are realists, in one sense or another. And the way we act presupposes our belief in the reality of genuine randomness…If we are to make sense of life, we need to take everyday experiences of randomness seriously. We should believe our intuitions regarding randomness tell us something true about reality” (pp. 32-34).

The author then appeals to modern natural science’s incorporation of randomness into its theories. Quantum physics has discovered no way to determine the future state of certain subatomic particles from their previous states. Biology assumes randomness in the process of mutations that bring about variety in the biological world.

(Note: I would argue that one cannot prove that a particular event is truly random. To “prove” something is to show that it follows from the preceding conditions. But the very definition of true randomness or chance is that it does not follow from the preceding conditions, that those conditions do not determine the outcome. Randomness as a concrete event is unknowable.)

I agree that certain events seem to be random as far as we can determine. But this is a rather trivial conclusion. The real question is “Are some events random to God?” Only if Oord can show that the randomness we experience is also experienced by God in the same way, will his argument work. But his only arguments for this conclusion derive from extrapolation from our experience in common sense and natural science. Because we cannot know the full causes of some events, neither can God. He says it this way:

“If the dominant views of science and philosophy are correct in their affirmations of randomness and chance, theologians such as Augustine, Calvin and Sproul are wrong” (p.41) in their contention that God knows and, in a special sense, causes all things.

The validity of Oord’s extrapolation from human experience to divine experience is crucial to his case. Note that he uses the same method here he used when he argued in thesis two that our experience of evil as “gratuitous” and irredeemable shows that it is also gratuitous and irredeemable to God. This assumption was also evident in thesis one where he rejects “appeals to mystery” and seeks rational clarity. We are beginning to see a deep presupposition of Oord’s perspective come into view. Oord and thinkers like him assume that the methods of common sense, natural science, and philosophy can see reality as God sees it, at least with regard to evil and physical laws. This presupposition is well articulated by Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of Process Philosophy:

“In the first place God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” (Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1929), p. 521).

For process thought, God and the world fall under one grand system of metaphysical principles. And if they are subject to the same laws they must be simply two aspects of the one eternal reality. God is a part of the world or the world is a part of God.

Traditional thinkers such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and others assume a radical difference between God and the world, Creator and creation. Hence they never extrapolated directly from human experience to divine experience. The laws and limits that define and delimit creation do not apply to God. For God created all things and determined their laws and limits.

The most fundamental reason I reject Oord’s detailed arguments and conclusions is that I reject his fundamental assumption that God and the world can be understood under the same categories and laws and concepts.

Next time, I will discuss the fourth thesis: “God’s Nature Limits God.” I am sure you have heard this idea many times. Perhaps you thought it self-evident. Nevertheless, it is false. And next time I will explain why.

 

Must We Limit God’s Power to Solve the Problem of Evil?

 

Something Different

Today, I am doing something I don’t usually do in this blog. I am reviewing a book, a very provocative, sometimes infuriating, book. Let me explain why. Last October InterVarsity Press published my book, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety. A few weeks later InterVarsity Press published Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. These books could hardly be more opposed to each other. After some communication with Oord, he graciously invited me to join him on a panel with two other theologians that will meet at the annual meeting of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship in San Antonio, November, 2016. The theme of the discussion is the problem of evil. My presentation will bear the title, “Faith, Hope, And The Rhetoric Of Despair: Providence And Evil After Ivan Karamazov.” In preparing for this paper I read Oord’s latest book. And I thought I would share some thoughts on the book. I cannot summarize or respond to every argument in the book. But I hope to give you the heart of its central argument. I am sure you have heard these ideas even if you are not familiar with the books, authors, and labels.

Open and Relational Theology

Let me give you some background. Within the past 30 years, certain evangelical theologians have begun to advocate a view of God and providence called “open” or “relational” theism. I have written articles and sections of books explaining and criticizing this movement. John Sanders, Gregory Boyd, William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, Terence Fretheim are well known exponents of this view. Thomas Oord places himself broadly within this school of thought. But he also criticizes many of his fellow open and relational theologians for not following the basic logic of the position consistently to its end. In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Oord presents a modified open and relation view he calls the “essential kenosis” model of providence. Even if you know nothing of the general open and relational model, I think you can pick it up as I review Oord’s modified open and relational model of providence.

Oord’s Argument For a Limited God in Context

Oord’s argument in its simplest form contends that the problem of evil can be answered only by giving up the traditional doctrine of omnipotence. God’s power is not unlimited but limited. So, God cannot control all things. Hence God is not responsible or culpable for the horrendous evils that occur in the world. But Oord knows that this simple solution raises a host of questions for Christian believers, and he devotes most of the book to addressing them: How limited is God? Are God’s limits natural or self-imposed? What thing or things limit God? And does this limited God measure up to the God of Christianity?

First, let’s set the argument of Oord’s book into the larger context of argument from evil to atheism or some form of modified theism.

The General Philosophical Argument from Evil (Simple Version)

  1. An omnipotent God could prevent every instance of genuine evil
  2. A perfectly good God would want to prevent every instance of genuine evil.
  3. Genuine evil exists

Therefore:

  1. Either God is omnipotent but not good.
  2. Or, God is good but not omnipotent.
  3. Or, God is neither omnipotent nor good.
  4. Or, there is no God at all.

You can see clearly from the two arguments below how Oord’s overarching argument is driven by the general argument from evil:

Oord’s General Argument #1

  1. A God of love would want to prevent all genuine evil.
  2. Genuine evil occurs in the world.
  3. Hence, either there is no God of love or God cannot prevent all genuine evil.

Oord wishes to affirm the existence of a loving God, so he accepts the conclusion that “God cannot prevent all genuine evil.” But why can’t God prevent all evil? This question leads us to the next argument:

Oord’s General Argument #2

  1. If genuine randomness in physical processes and genuine creaturely freedom exists in the world, God cannot control everything that happens.
  2. Genuine creaturely freedom and randomness in physical processes exist in the world.
  3. Hence God cannot control everything that happens (including events that are genuinely evil).

In relation to the general philosophical argument from evil, we can see that Oord accepts conclusion #5 (God is good but not omnipotent) and rejects #4 (God is not good), #6 (God is neither omnipotent nor good, and #7 (There is no God).

Oord’s Critique of Other Open and Relational Thinkers

But now Oord faces a barrage of questions. It is not enough to say that God is loving but not omnipotent. One can imagine many loving but totally powerless beings. Why should we consider this loving but not omnipotent being “God”? Many thinkers who agree with Oord’s argument so far take this question very seriously and give this answer: God is not intrinsically, that is, by nature, limited. God limits himself. God freely decides to create a world where randomness and creaturely freedom exist. Once they exist, of course, God cannot determine the outcomes that randomness and freedom produce. But they do not exist by necessity. They exist only because God chose to create them. God was unlimited before creation but after creation God limits himself to give creation room to exercise freedom to love or hate, to choose good or evil. God chose to allow the possibility of genuine evil for the sake of the possible good. The ground of the possibility of good and evil is the same: creaturely randomness and freedom. But God never does evil or approves of evil. God does everything he can—other than reverse his decision to create creaturely freedom and randomness—to prevent genuine evil from occurring. In this way, these writers think they’ve preserved the deity of the loving but limited God…and solved the problem of evil.

Oord disagrees. He argues that the divine self-limitation theory does not do justice to the love of God. It makes God’s love for creatures a choice for God instead of the chief attribute of his nature. It implicitly makes God’s omnipotence the chief attribute because God could have chosen never to create and could yet reverse his decision if he wanted to do so. God could choose not to love, even if he never actually does so.

The Essential Kenosis Model of Providence

Oord offers an alternative to the divine self-limitation theory: “The Essential Kenosis Model of Providence.” According to Oord, if “God is love” in his essential being, he always loves and cannot refuse to love. God cannot contradict his essence. “God must give freedom and cannot override the gift given” (p. 171). God does not choose to limit himself. God is essentially self-giving, or self-emptying. Though he never explicitly says this, it seems to me that Oord thinks God creates the world by necessity, that creation is implicit in the inner nature of God. And if God creates by necessity, God has always been creating the world. I will pursue the consequences of this line thought in the next installments of this review.

Oord considers his model of providence superior to the models proposed by other open and relational thinkers (e.g. John Sanders) for two reasons. (1) The “essential kenosis” model possesses an inner coherence not present in the others. It makes love the master divine attribute in a radical and consistent way. Divine love judges and limits the exercise of all other divine attributes. (2) It really solves the problem of evil. In the “essential kenosis” model of providence, God cannot interfere with creaturely freedom and can never coerce creatures. God must create and give freedom to creatures. God has no choice. We know God does not desire or even allow evil because he does not even choose to create free creatures. God has no choice about this. They exist by necessity of the inner logic of divine love. Hence the problem of evil is solved. At no point is a divine decision involved actively or passively in the occurrence of evil or even in bringing about the conditions that make evil possible. Hence God cannot be blamed for genuine evil at any point in its genesis or history.

Next Time: I will offer some critical reflections on the fundamental presuppositions, central arguments, and implications of this book.

 

Forgiveness Is Not Enough

Forgiveness is not enough. If sin is as destructive as the New Testament claims, if it’s a condition of the will as well as a quality of the act, if it attempts the absurd, destroys the self, and produces death (see the posts of January 06, 16, and 23), divine forgiveness is only the beginning of salvation. In forgiving sin, God deals with the insulting aspects of sin not by becoming angry and taking revenge but by renewing his standing offer of reconciliation and fellowship. God, so to speak, absorbs, ignores, and neutralizes the insult to his dignity. But what about the damage sin does to others and ourselves? Sinful acts cause damage that sometimes continues long after the act. A person who steals your possessions or injures your body or harms your child sets in motion a cascade of ill effects in the world that may cause damage far beyond the their original intention or control. Such sinful acts affect others at every level, physical, social, psychological, and spiritual.

Suppose for example that someone lies about you so effectively that you lose your job, are abandoned by your closest friends, and your marriage is on the brink of divorce. You determine that you will not allow your enemy’s hatred to evoke hatred in your heart and provoke you to take revenge. Suppose further that your enemy comes to realize his sin, repents, confesses his wrong to you, asks for forgiveness, and seeks reconciliation. You respond by assuring your former enemy that you will not seek revenge and harbor no hatred. Does repentance and forgiveness heal the damage sin has caused? No, not fully. Even the best efforts of the repentant person to replace property and mend relationships cannot restore things to their original state. Repentance and forgiveness cannot replace a lost limb or bring the dead back to life or restore trust to a betrayed heart. It cannot undo past suffering or erase traumatic memories. Our willingness to forgive does not cause us (or others) to forget. We don’t have complete control over our psychological nature any more than we have complete control over our physical nature. Damage to the psyche can be as lasting as damage to the body. We cannot change the past or stop the cascade of cause and effect flowing from past sin.

Human repentance and forgiveness is not enough. Nor is divine forgiveness enough; it is only the beginning of salvation. In last week’s essay on divine forgiveness I asserted this:

“the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us.”

In the same way, I do not think it is correct to think of the work of Jesus Christ as making it possible for God to heal the world of the destructive effects of sin. Jesus Christ is the enactment of this divine healing. God always has been the creator, the giver of life, the healer of our diseases, and the Lord who “works all things for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). God has determined from all eternity that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Jesus enacted divine forgiveness by willingly enduring the fullness of sin’s insult and injury, without retaliation. What could be worse than annihilating humanity and blaspheming God? Healing impossible and forgiveness unthinkable! From a human point of view, the result of the sin done to Jesus was totally irreversible, completely hopeless. No human regret, repentance, or attempted restoration could change the deed that was done. In the suffering of the cross we see divine forgiveness happening before our eyes and, in the resurrection of Jesus, we see sin’s damage healed and turned to God’s service and glory.

Jesus’ resurrection was not merely the healing of his private wounds and the restoration of his personal life. The New Testament gospel understands Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of a new humanity, the first fruits of the resurrection of all the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20), and the liberation of creation from its “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). In Ephesians, chapter one, Paul speaks of the mystery of God’s eternal plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (1:10). The history of Jesus Christ from his birth to his suffering, death, and resurrection sums up the history of all creation from beginning to end. God’s hidden work in creation, providence, forgiveness and redemption becomes visible and concentrated in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we can see how all the damage, destruction, and death caused by sin, from the beginning to the end of time, will be and has been healed. Christianity reads history backwards, from the future revealed in the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ to the act of creation and the course of providence. Every divine act in creation and providence finds itself fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus Christ is, was, and always will be the life-giving, forgiving, and healing God with us and for us.

Next week: we’ve seen how God forgives insult sin directs at God and heals the damage cause by sin, but how can we be saved from the condition of sin, which the New Testament describes as corruption, sickness, slavery, powerlessness, blindness, and death?

 

Can Sin Really Be That Bad?

In the previous post (“Why We Really Need a Savior”), I defined sin as a condition of the will in which we assert ourselves against our Creator. We prefer our own judgment about what is good and bad, possible and impossible, and wise and unwise to God’s judgment about these things. In sin, we reject our place in God’s creation and put ourselves in the place of the Creator. We try to reorder creation so that it centers on us and serves our private interests.

According to the Christian message, God acted in Jesus Christ to save us from sin. This message is called “the gospel” or the good news. But do we hear it as good news? Aren’t believers as well as nonbelievers tempted to ask, “What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?” Whatever its motivation,  this is a good question and deserves a good answer.

Sin Attempts the Impossible

The first step toward grasping the badness of sin is understanding that the sinful will and the act of sin attempt to do the impossible. God is the Creator, and we are God’s creatures. A creature cannot make itself the Creator by an act of will or imagination. God gave creation existence, order, purpose, and destiny. We cannot change it. By preferring  our own private wishes above God’s will for us, we won’t change our nature. But we can divide ourselves by superimposing an imaginary image of ourselves over the person God created. In our image of ourselves we become alienated from our true nature and destiny.

Likewise, our attempts to make creation fit our preferences and go according to our wishes cannot defeat God’s plan. God is the Lord, and God sustains the order he created. We too are creatures in God’s created order and we have no power that God does not give us. We can do nothing God does not permit. Attempting to defeat God’s will aims at the impossible.

Sin Destroys the Self and Implies Death

If you try to do the impossible, you will fail. And this failure is destructive. When we imagine taking God’s place as the Creator and Lord of creation, we entertain a false image of ourselves. And what is appealing about that image is a lie, an impossibility. We imagine attaining a greater abundance of pleasures, a feeling of power, dignity, security, and many other good things. In reality, however, we cut ourselves off from the Creator who is the source of everything good. God freely gives us life and power, the dignity of being in his image, and the security of his care. Since we are not the Creator, we cannot supply these things for ourselves. Apart from God we are nothing. Sin implies only death and destruction. If God cooperated with our sin, if he gave us what we say we want, he would stop giving us life and all good things. We would die. More than that, God would forget us, and we would never have been.

But God does not cooperate with our sin! He keeps giving us life and all that sustains it. And this gracious act has a double effect. God wills to save us from our foolish, absurd, and self-destructive wish. But God’s gracious preservation—for the sake of our future salvation—also sustains us in our self-contradictory condition. And this condition is painful in two ways. First, we experience division, self-alienation and frustration within ourselves. Our true nature and destiny keep coming into our consciousness reminding us that we are not what we should be. We cannot seem to remake ourselves to our liking, and this is a source of great unhappiness. We bounce back and forth between pride and shame, both of which are attempts to escape from what we are or what we think we are.

However, the greatest suffering we endure is felt hardly at all, except as a huge emptiness. Something very important is missing. Since we have cut ourselves off from God, we do not have fellowship with God. What an infinite loss! We give up the Source of all good, true, and beautiful things and leave home for the “far country” in search for something better. We lose confidence in our worth and our sense of place in the world fades. Since we possess a dim awareness that we are empty and powerless, we can never feel secure and in control.

In this case, as we can see clearly, sin is its own punishment. There is no need for God to add any suffering to the suffering we inflict on ourselves. Indeed, in view of his love for us manifested in Jesus, God protects us from receiving the full consequences of our own choices. And the merciful suffering we endure may awaken us to the truth and motivate us to turn toward home and begin to seek God.

Sinful Acts Cause the Sinner and the Whole World to Suffer

Our sinful wills drive us to endeavor to force creation conform to our selfish wishes. Whatever its nature, every act expresses the will of the actor. A sinful act attempts to express the sinful will of the actor. The sinfulness in the sinful act is the will to substitute the private wishes of the sinner for God’s will. But there is a sense in which no sinful act can succeed in achieving its true aim, because we cannot defeat God’s will.

Suppose I wish to take your money or your car. Or perhaps I want to diminish your sense of self-worth by cursing you or lying about you. Of course, these acts are possible. Thefts, murders, lies, and all sorts of other sins occur in the world, and they have destructive effects. And they are forbidden according to God’s law. But they do not defeat God’s will and replace it with the sinner’s sinful will. The sinner intends to take God’s place as the sovereign over the course of the future. This cannot happen. God works out his sovereign will whatever creatures do; God can work through natural causes, through chance events, through free human actions, and even through sinful acts. God negates the sinful imagination that inspired the sin and defeats the sinful intention in the act. It comes to nothing. It fails utterly because it is impossible. But God uses the physical motion and results of the act for his own purposes. “God works all things for the good of those who love him…” (Romans 8:28).

Even though God uses sinful acts for his good purposes, they still cause great suffering. They cause suffering in those to whom they are directed. Murders cut short the lives of those they target and cause deep grief in those left behind. Out of the sinful condition of the will—which itself implies death and nothingness—come actual death and destruction, pain and suffering, loneliness and heartache, war and hatred. Just as the sinful act arises out of the sinner’s internal misery and death, it returns to plague the sinner once more. When sinners externalize the sin festering in their hearts, they are made that much more aware of their miserable condition and this awareness compounds their misery. The anger, condemnation, and scorn of others fall on them, making them even more aware of their unworthiness and ugliness. The human community seeks revenge. Hatred excites hatred. Violence provokes violence. And the isolation and selfishness expressed in sin finds itself rewarded with exile. Sin is its own punishment.

“What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?”

Answer: the nature of sin is absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.

And that is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news!

Evil is No Thing!

Last week’s post concluded that however much our experience of evil might challenge belief in an omnipotent, perfectly good and omniscient God, it does not disprove or even challenge the existence of a divine reality as such. There are many views of the divine and its mode of interaction with the world that are perfectly consistent with the existence of evil. The importance of this insight can hardly be overstated, and I will explore its significance in a future post. For now we need to explore the nature of evil in a bit more detail.

Evil as Conflict

In a recent post entitled “When is “Evil” Truly Evil?” I argued that describing an event as “evil” makes sense only if the event transgresses a cosmic plan for the way things are supposed to go. Evil is too strong and emotional a word to be used as a way to say “this is not what I wanted” or “I don’t like this.” In that essay I wanted to show that the concept of evil is evacuated of significance unless the thing we call evil is also “wrong.” Hence the concept of evil entails the concept of wrong.

Today I want to point out another quality of evil, not so much a moral quality (wrongness) as a physical quality. Whatever else one might say about evil, everyone can see that it involves disorder, disharmony or conflict. In a moral evil such as theft or murder the perpetrator abandons adherence to the moral law and enters into conflict with other people’s interests or rights. Vices such as greed, envy and lust arise from inner disorder and generate outer conflict. Such diseases as cancer, heart failure and diabetes begin when the natural integrity and harmony of the body fails and degeneration sets in. I use the word “conflict” to stand for the family of physical qualities mapped by the terms disorder, disharmony, disintegration, antagonism, conflict and other like terms.

What is the origin of conflict? Conflict makes sense only where there is more than one thing. Why is there more than one thing? In the end, there are only two ways to think about the origin of our universe. Either it derives from one eternal reality or it derives from more than one eternal reality. In worldviews that teach that there is only one eternal reality—for example monotheism—evil cannot be eternal because evil becomes possible only when the one eternal reality produces the many things of the world. In worldviews that appeal to more than one eternal reality—for example polytheism—the possibility for evil is eternal because division itself is eternal. Many of the differences between the ways the world’s religions and philosophies (East and West) approach evil can be explained by which one of these two presuppositions they hold to be true.

In continuity with Judaism, Christianity teaches that there is only one eternal God who is the creator of the world and its diverse creatures. God freely created the world with all its diversity by his word. In the early centuries of the church, Christian theologians faced a challenge from religious philosophies that asserted the existence of two eternal realities, one good and the other evil. These philosophies taught that the existence and apparent power of evil can be explained only by the existence of an eternal evil power that stands in eternal conflict with the good power. Otherwise, they argued, we would have to think of God as the origin of evil as well as good.

Evil is Not a Thing

In response to such philosophies Christian thinkers argued that evil is not an independent thing that can act on its own. Evil is disorder, misrelation or defective activity (failure) among real things. Evil is the condition of disorder itself, not a thing that instigates conflict against other things. And disorder is not an existing thing, like an atom, an animal or a human being. It can have no effect apart from the activity of things that exist. Real things can be ordered or disordered, but disorder cannot exist by itself. Augustine says, “I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, toward inferior things, rejecting its own inner life” (Confessions 7.16). Basil the Great also rejects the idea that evil is a real thing that can exist on its own:

Do not consider God the cause for the existence of evil, nor imagine evil as having its own existence. For evil is the absence of good…For it is neither uncreated…nor is it created, for if all things are from God, how can evil be from good. For nothing that is vile comes from the beautiful, nor does evil come from virtue” (God is Not the Author of Evil, 8; quoted in Dumitru Staniloae, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2).

Basil’s and Augustine’s rejection of the eternal and independent reality of evil solved one problem but created another. If God is the sole eternal creator of this diverse world why is there disorder and conflict? The mere presence of diversity does not cause disharmony and conflict; different things can be related harmoniously to achieve a greater whole. But how does a diverse world maintain its unity and harmony? No one thing within the world possesses the power to unify the whole world. If a brick were to impose its order on the house, it could at best transform the house into a brick; and that imposition would be an instance of violence and destruction. The Creator alone possesses the power, right and wisdom to unify the world of diverse things without doing violence to any of them. So, what disrupts the harmonious order? Two possibilities come to mind, chance or freedom.

Chance and Freedom as the Origins of Evil

Events that have their origin in chance or freedom are thought to break from the chain of events that preceded them and begin a new chain of events. Hence they can create order from disorder or destroy an existing order. Chance can be conceived in two ways. First, chance can be thought of as a spontaneous coming into being from nothing. Such an event has no origin and no explanation. It is absurd. Second, chance can be considered an event that occurs when two preexisting chains of events intersect in a way unpredictable from within either chain. A bird is flying overhead as I am taking my morning walk…I don’t need to describe what happens next. There is no vantage point from which the first form of chance could be predicted, but for the second there is such a possibility. Someone outside these chains of events in a position to see both could predict the time and place of their intersection.

From an external point of view freedom looks much like chance. Events originating in freedom look somewhat spontaneous and they often disrupt the expected flow of surrounding events. Chance events often cause suffering, death and destruction and so can events originating in freedom. But we experience freedom from within ourselves as rational deliberation and choice. Hence we know we are responsible for our deliberate actions, and we believe that other people are responsible for theirs. We may curse chance, but we don’t hold it responsible for what it causes. We attribute the suffering, death and destruction we experience at the hands of natural processes to chance. But most of the evil we experience at the hands of human beings we attribute to freedom.

Next Week: Why doesn’t God impose and maintain perfect harmony among the diverse things and free beings in the world? Why does God allow (or permit) evil? Is the free will defense the best answer to the argument from evil?