The suffering God (AGSTIWG IV)

I’m somewhat behind with feedback from Alpha, hence dealing with something about four weeks late in my last post. This, therefore, represents something of an improvement, coming as it does only from a week ago as of Wednesday (as I type this bit, it’s Thursday 28th, but the post probably won’t be finished today).

That Alpha talk was “How can we resist evil” and this time, rather than focusing on a personalised force of evil, the focus was on theodicy, i.e. how come evil is permitted to exist. This flowed through into the formal discussion and then into a more informal one I had later while clearing up.

How is it, given that God is thought to be omnipotent and omniscient, but also omnibenevolent, that evil exists? The old choice is between power and goodness; if God has the power to stop evil and does not, then he cannot be good, if he is good and evil is not stopped, then he does not have the power. As the talk noted, this is a problem which has been around since the days of Epicurus. A God who is not omnipotent is, arguably, no God, a God who is not omnibenevolent is, arguably, indistinguishable from a demon.

There are a number of solutions to this logical problem which present themselves immediately.

1. God is not, in fact, omnipotent and/or omniscient. This subdivides:-
1a. God is in fact weak, the thesis of John Caputo’s “The Weakness of God”
1b. God is balanced by a power of evil to which all evil can be ascribed; this has the weakness of either failing to solve the problem (“why does God not defeat the power of evil immediately?”) or positing a dualism in which there is no guarantee of the victory of good; Manicheanism followed that path, but Christianity ostensibly doesn’t, except perhaps for gnostic Christianity, which is officially heresy since the third century.

2. God is not, in fact, omnibenevolent. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.” (Shakespeare, King Lear, Gloucester).

3. God is omnipotent, but reward and/or punishment is delayed e.g. until a post-mortem reconciliation at which point God’s benevolence can be proved. God ensures fair results without actually preventing evil outcomes, in other words. This does not fully answer the issue of why evil outcomes are not just prevented without invoking one of the other possibilities.

4. Evil is in some way deserved or, at least, repaid. This should perhaps be conjoined with #3.
4a. All evils are actually deserved or will be redressed as a result of actions which have occurred outside our timeframe; the obvious example is reincarnation and karma (this is similar to 3, except that the balancing is both before and after the event).
4b. Evils are deserved, but not necessarily on the basis of actions by the one who experiences the evil; original sin, for instance, can be used to justify any evil occurring to mankind as long as no concept of proportionality of punishment is involved.

5. A greater good is being served than the evil which is permitted to exist; this subdivides:-
5a. Good and evil are two sides of the same coin; one cannot exist without the other and good (and variety) are sufficiently good to justify the existence of balancing evil. This is by and large foundational in Taoism, in which existence is a greater good than either good or evil.
5b. Evil stems from the wrongful exercise of freewill, which is so great a good that it justifies the existence of the evil results. (In order to explain evil which is not caused by humans, this concept needs the concept of free willed spiritual powers).
5c. Evil is part of a teaching technique, and is not fundamental; “what does not kill you makes you stronger” and is therefore ultimately “good”.
5d. Evil is not a thing in and of itself, it is merely the absence of good.

6. Evil is not a thing in and of itself (other than as dealt with by 5d), so the syllogism fails; this can be subdivided:-
6a. Evil is illusory (commonly coupled with “as is good”). This is, by and large, the Buddhist solution.
6b. Evil and good are both relativistic rather than absolute terms, and it makes no sense to talk of evil or good except in relation to some person or thing. What is good for one is commonly evil for another, and it becomes entirely possible that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds” (Voltaire; “Candide”), thus giving this some characteristics of a #5 solution.

7. For completeness: “This question is above my pay grade; I can cope with a quantity of cognitive dissonance, and any answer is beyond my ability to deduce.” The book of Ecclesiastes seems to adopt this stance, and possibly also the book of Job, although other conclusions are sometimes reached about a moral in Job.

Many writers combine two or more of these to make up a rather less obviously spartan rationale.

At the discussion last week, there was significant input from someone who found a solution in karma and rebirth. I gather there are Christians who manage to splice belief in reincarnation into their thinking, although I’m not familiar with anyone who does this successfully. It seems to offer a sufficient solution, though, for those for whom it makes sense.

I linked above to the Wikipedia article on the problem of evil. Suffice it to say that none of the answers there quite satisfy me, although Alvin Plantinga’s attribution of the whole problem to the existence of free will which is taken as a greater good than any evil which might arise from it, coupled with positing a “mighty nonhuman spirit” (of a malevolent nature) to deal with events of “natural evil” such as typhoons (1b plus 5b) maybe goes some way toward a solution, but is of itself unsatisfactory. Why does God not eliminate this spirit, or (if that would prejudice the spirit’s free will) circumscribe the spirit rigidly? What exactly is it about free will which makes it a great enough good to warrant all the evil I observe? Indeed, is free will really possible, or at least possible to the extent which would make it a great good? Also, it must be taken that, as ultimate creator, this is all (including free will and the existence of the nonhuman spirit) God’s doing.

There’s some scriptural support for the view that God creates evil as well as good in any event in Isaiah 45:7: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (KJV – other translations attempt to avoid the word “evil”, probably for theological reasons, but whatever term is used fails to avoid the general point). The writer of the “God of Evolution” blog has just made the same argument from Romans 8. There’s a long potential list, probably starting with the book of Job.

I was quite taken by a few lines in a comment by Susan Frederick to Richard Beck’s blog (blogging about weakness and warfare):- At one point in my own spiritual journey, when considering a sermon I’d heard for the millionth time that “Jesus hung on the cross when it should have been me,” I felt the Holy Spirit present a contrasting thought. “No, the right person was on that cross. God hung there in Jesus because all the suffering in the world ultimately was his responsibility as creator.” It was a strange thought. One I’ve never heard articulated by any preacher or theologian anywhere. But it touched my heart in a powerful way.” In fact, the same concept was articulated by Jack Miles in “Christ, a Crisis in the Life of God”, which I strongly recommend along with “God, a Biography” to which it is a companion.

Susan’s comment, in fact, links to a parting reference made by our speaker that Wednesday to Matthew 25:31-46 (a favorite passage of mine because of its implications); where he went with it was with that which was important being what action we took to relive the suffering because “it could be Christ we were helping”.  He saw Christ as suffering in every suffering person. This issue is then not “what is God doing to stop this?” but “what are we doing to stop this”. In a very major sense I agree with our speaker; it is far more important to combat evil than it is to work out why it happens, at least on the proviso that resistance be nonviolent, as otherwise there’s a risk of creating more evil than is combated. However, I get more from this passage; see later.

In his (warmly recommended) series, Beck is seeking a solution in a combination of “Weakness of God” following John Caputo some way down the path he treads and bringing in a Plantinga-like acceptance of spiritual adversaries (working from Greg Boyd’s “God at War”), rightly commenting that in order to sustain any “Spiritual Warfare” concept, you need a weaker God than the omnipotent and omniscient God of classical theology. Although I incline to say that Charles Hartshorne has demonstrated in “Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes” that both omnipotence and omniscience are philosophically unsustainable if I’m looking for a quick and dirty exit from a theodicy discussion, I don’t actually see that as an adequate answer. Much as I admire Caputo’s linguistic gymnastics in “The Weakness of God”, I’m not able to buy into that theology myself, not merely because of the raft of scripture confirming God as extremely powerful but because of my own experience, which is inconsistent with a weak God. Accepting Hartshorne’s strictures about the impossibility of true omnipotence and omniscience does not mean that God is not mind-blowingly powerful and mind-blowingly knowing, after all.

The trouble is, for those of us of an inquiring and philosophical turn of mind, the philosophical problem will not go away, and could lead to us failing to act. I go in another direction.

Harking back to “Rather different Answers in Genesis”, I see creation as God creating from himself, thus everything that is is of the substance of and is God (albeit in a very partial way). In the process, he gives away some of his power, that resident in that portion of his creation. This is, of course, a panentheist viewpoint (if I held that God had poured out the whole of his self into creation, it would be a pantheist one, but I cannot escape the experience that tells me that there is more). It is not, however, the panentheism of (for instance) Jurgen Moltman which talks of a withdrawing of God to provide the space in which other things can be, though that can produce somewhat similar results.

This is, in essence, a solution of type 5; a greater good is served. That greater good is not, however, just free will, it is individual existence. Even the inanimate is of and is God, and is permitted existence without (in all probability) having any shred of self-will which could be free, so are “lower” forms of life in which free will is an even more dubious concept than it is in humanity. There is thus no real problem with the criticisms of the concept of free will, for instance from the psychological angle.

There are, of course, both elements of many of the type 5 solutions and elements of other solutions wrapped up in that concept. In particular, it is very compatible with type 6 (evil is not a thing in and of itself) solutions and type 1 (God is not all-powerful) solutions; though there is less necessity to posit other spiritual forces in order to make it work, conceptualising the actions of groups or other strictly speaking nonsentient parts of creation as animated by spirits in the way of Walter Wink, William Stringfellow and John Howard Yoder does meld very neatly with it.

Lest this be thought to be too much a type 2 answer, i.e. God is unfeeling, let me point out that in this concept-space although everything is done by God, everything is also done to God. Elie Wiesel wrote “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…”. And that is where Matt. 25 takes me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “.

I take very little literally, but that, I take literally. It is not just that the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick or the prisoner might be Christ in disguise, it is that they are all God, undisguised.

We suffer, any one of us suffers, any part of creation suffers: God suffers.

One Response to “The suffering God (AGSTIWG IV)”

  1. Chris Says:

    My wife Nel helpfully commented that I should look at Lorem Ipsum text. This is “filler” text used as standard to fill text boxes in a document, and is commonly a mangling of “Nemo enim ipsam voluptatem, quia voluptas sit, aspernatur aut odit aut fugit, sed quia consequuntur magni dolores eos, qui ratione voluptatem sequi nesciunt, neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum, quia dolor sit amet consectetur adipisci[ng] velit, sed quia non numquam [do] eius modi tempora inci[di]dunt, ut labore et dolore magnam aliquam quaerat voluptatem.”, which is from Cicero’s “De finibus”, about the purpose of good and evil. And it speaks directly to the Epicurean philosophy with which I started… the Wikipedia article for Lorem Ipsum is at

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