Once again, I embark on a fool’s errand, a vain attempt to justify the ways of God to man. It is the perennial problem of theodicy, of how and why an all good and all powerful God permits nearly unspeakable evil to persist. I am prompted (provoked?) this time by watching a recent episode of The Big Conversation, a discussion between Bishop Robert Barron and Alex O’Connor, the former an apologist for the Christian faith, the latter an evangelist for atheism. My general comments on the episode may be found here: https://firstblessings.blog/2021/04/06/the-0-1-problem/ , which also contains a link to the episode itself.
Why do I consider the pursuit of an answer to theodicy a fool’s errand? It all comes down to mathematics. The German-American mathematician Kurt Godel — a contemporary and colleague of Einstein — demonstrated that a system of thought complex enough to support the most basic arithmetic computations (think 1 + 1 = 2) will generate propositions whose truth value cannot be determined from within that system. In other words, a complex worldview will raise questions for which it provides no definitive answers. The Christian metanarrative is surely such a worldview, and theodicy is surely such a question. When a Christian admits that theodicy is ultimately a mystery, he is not admitting theological defeat, much less admitting that there is no good answer. He is simply acknowledging that Godel is correct, that there are inherent limits to human knowledge operating within a system of thought. Read the end of Job for a biblical version of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.
So, why bother? Why write yet another brief reflection on the problem when it, like all the rest, is doomed to failure? Well, theodicy is the elephant in the room. If we can’t shoo it out, at least we can acknowledge its presence and perhaps learn to live with it.
One classic Christian approach to theodicy — and the one espoused by Bp. Barron on The Big Conversation — is that God allows evil in order to produce a greater good that could not have obtained without the evil. There is a divine calculus that takes into account the variables of all space and time and outcomes and determines that, on balance, the sum of the consequences of a particular evil result in net good; thus, the evil is allowed. While this may indeed be true — better minds than mine think so — I find it problematic.
First, it is consequential ethics, that is, it uses a balance of outcomes to determine the morality of an action. An action is neither good nor bad in itself; rather, its morality is determined by the consequences it produces. If the “greater good” is served, an action is deemed acceptable. To use an extreme example, if some greater good obtains as the result of the Holocaust, then that almost unimaginable horror is justified. The problem with this is, as Bp. Barron himself critiques such thought when applied to human ethics, it “brackets out” the intrinsically evil act. Are there really no actions so intrinsically evil that no consequential good could ever justify them? I think there are. I can image an action so inherently evil that I could say to its perpetrator, “I don’t care why you did this. I don’t care what good might result from it. It is simply and unacceptably wrong.” Consequentialism fails in this respect, even, dare I say, when applied to God.
Second, this classic view entangles us in a kind of low level fatalism: what is, is what God has decreed must be for the greater good. Why then would I ever work against it or pray for relief from it? My mother has cancer? It must be that a greater good will come from this, a good so overwhelming that if only I could see it, I would actually desire it. So, I should offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the cancer, but not a prayer of healing for my mother. I do not find this biblically sound.
So, while the classical answer may indeed be correct, I sit with it very uncomfortably. There are other possible answers, each with their own problems. I don’t pretend that the one I will sketch out below is better than the ones I reject. But, it is my flawed approach, and I am more comfortable with its flaws than with those of others.
Let me first briefly state the fundamental proposition of this approach:
Theodicy is the consequence of God’s creation of a world that is both other than God and radically dependent upon God.
Man is creature, not Creator; human, not Divine — other than God. God endowed man with life, with reason, with will, with causality, all of which obtain and function properly only when man is in right relationship with God. That is, man is both other than God and radically dependent upon God. But man chose — and man still chooses — to exercise his will to declare independence from God. Consequently, those characteristics that are radically dependent upon right relationship with God are impaired. Since man has no life inherent to himself, sickness and death result. Since reason depends on thinking God’s thoughts after him, man’s mind is darkened. Since the will is rightly directed only toward God, the will is weakened; it can no longer consistently choose the good nor refuse the evil. Man retains a certain causality, but it is no longer unerringly directed toward human flourishing.
What is true primarily of man is true secondarily of the world. God created the world to function properly when superintended by humans in right relation with God. The world is both other than God and radically dependent upon God (secondarily) acting through God’s righteous stewards. When those stewards declared independence from God, the world was thereby subjected to futility and no longer functions as God intended, as the ground of human flourishing. Man was intended to cultivate a garden but has instead created a bombed out war zone.
Is it any wonder that evil obtains under these conditions: a world that is both other than God and radically dependent upon God, but which has declared its independence from God? Moral evil persists because men with terminal sickness and disordered minds and wills still exercise causality. Natural evil — fire, storm, flood, pandemic — persists because the world has lost its righteous stewards and is thereby subjected to futility. These evils, both moral and natural, may not — and I suspect often do not — redound to any greater good. They flow from a greater good — the creation of a world that is both other than God and radically dependent upon God — but do not necessarily flow toward greater good. Thus, we are free — and commanded — to work against the evil, to pray for God’s good will to be done in contravention to what may be unfolding before us. There is no reason to believe that what is, is what should be and every reason to believe the contrary.
Why does an all good and all powerful God allow evil to persist? Because God is still committed to a creation that is both other than God and radically dependent upon God.
I have long considered the language of God allowing or permitting evil to be far too passive. Rather, God is always actively opposed to evil, calling its perpetrators to repentance and amendment of life and drawing good from the evil (not consequentially, but providentially). God could immediately eliminate evil by eliminating his creation or by eliminating its “otherness”, i.e., by domineering over creation and reducing man to automaton. But God has chosen another way: to call man back to God through the incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of his Son; to renew a right relationship with man — to reconcile man to Himself — through the cross; to renew man himself and to make him a partaker of the divine nature through the Holy Spirit; to restore creation under the rule of its righteous stewards. This is a long and complex process, but it is the way God has chosen to conquer evil.
What does this view offer pastorally? A God who is fully committed to his creation. A God who is always opposed to that which is intrinsically evil and who never passively allows evil to persist. A God who entered history to deal with the problem of evil — to reconcile man to himself and to heal creation. A God who has himself experienced moral and natural evil and has indeed taken all evil upon himself, suffering as we suffer. A God who has conquered evil and is even now working through his Spirit and his Spirit-filled people to put the world to rights again. A God who promises a new heaven and a new earth in which all evil will be an old tale, forgotten at last.
Alex O’Connor could surely poke this notion as full of holes as he did the classical approach to theodicy. And yet, I find it helpful. If you do as well, hold it lightly. If you do not, cast it away. Ultimately, the answer to the problem of theodicy lies not in our good notions about God, but about God who is good beyond all our feeble notions.