The Problem of Evil–Pt 3–Interesting (but failed) Approaches

Posted: December 24, 2010 in Uncategorized

Some Interesting (but failed) Approaches

As we mention various positions, it may be helpful to define a couple of terms.  Traditionally, theologians and philosophers had differentiated between theodicy and defense.  Gregory Boyd has a helpful glossary in the back of his massive work, “Satan and the Problem of Evil:  Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy.”  There we find a definition of both terms.

A theodicy is defined as a “term coined by Leibniz to describe a means of giving a rational justification for God in the face of evil in the world.”[i]  John Feinberg defines the term like this: “A theodicy purports to offer the actual reason God has for allowing evil in our world.”  Simply stated, a theodicy claims to have the answer as to why God allows evil and suffering to exist.  By contrast, a defense “is much less pretentious, for it claims to offer only a possible reason God might have for not removing evil.”[ii]

With those distinctions in mind, the first approach to this problem that I want to mention is often called A Theodicy of Protest.  John K. Roth is an articulate proponent of this view.  Roth himself states that he is protesting “against philosophies and theologies that do not take the historical particularity of evil seriously enough, even when they claim that evils are horrendous.”[iii] This approach to the problem of evil, as Roth puts it, “puts God on trial, and in that process the issue of God’s wasteful complicity in evil takes center stage.”[iv]  And it puts God on trial because Roth agrees with Hegel.  History is the “slaughter-bench” which shows God has not made very “cost-effective” decisions.[v] “History itself is God’s indictment.”[vi]

Upon closer inspection of this view one will see that Roth finds the “wastefulness” in human history as too much for God to bear.  He cannot be let off the hook.  Roth states that “because of God’s sovereignty, this God is everlasting guilty, and the degrees run from gross negligence to murder.”[vii] What Roth seems to be concluding is that God is less than perfectly good.  Stephen Davis finds this sufficient reason to reject the position Roth holds and defends.  “The essential difference between Roth’s theodicy and mine is that his response to the problem of evil involves giving up something I regard as religiously essential, central to scripture and Christian tradition, and personally precious:  the notion that God is perfectly morally good.”[viii]  While Roth certainly strikes a chord in expressing how evil and suffering should outrage us, his willingness to compromise the absolute goodness of God is grounds for a rejection of his overall theodicy.

John Hick writes in defense of what John Feinberg calls the “Soul-Building Theodicy.”[ix]  This position is also known as an Irenaean Theodicy as it supposedly flows from some thoughts of the early church father Irenaeus. For Hick, the reason we find the world as we do is because God has created the universe the way that He has so that the stage is set for soul-making.  John Fienberg points out that in this theodicy, “without suffering souls can’t be built.”[x]  Hick credits the existence of evil to the idea that God has created mankind at “distance”.[xi] This distance is not spatial since God is present in all places.  Instead, God has created us at a “distance in the cognitive dimension.”  That is, we are created “etsi deus non daretur, as if there were no God.”[xii]  As life comes into existence through the evolutionary process, we move from a lower degree of life to a higher.  As we move, we make choices.  As these choices are made, souls are built.  Without evil there could be no possibility of building souls.

Upon first exposure there are elements of this position that are agreeable.  Biblically it can be defended that part of the reason God allows evil and suffering is to test, refine, and build the character of His children (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, Hebrews 12).  Even Jesus “learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).  “Thousands of missionaries through the centuries have found that the sufferings of life have been the school of Christ.”[xiii]  So, an element of truth resides within John Hicks theodicy.

When one looks closely at Hick, however, numerous problems arise.  According to our ground rules above, Hick seems to make the cut.  He retains a belief in an all-good and all-powerful God.  The reality of evil is not something he denies.  And I do not read him as one who out rightly denies that humans are responsible for their actions.  On the other hand, the ground rules listed above are not exhaustive.  There are numerous other nonnegotiable that must be retained.  Hick sacrifices the eternal judgment of God upon unrepentant sinners in a place called hell.  Instead, Hick is a universalist.  In the end, everyone makes it into the kingdom of God.  Overall, there are some positive things that are present within this position.  But the fact that Hick sacrifices the exclusivity of Christ and the eternal judgment of God seems too much for me.  Not to mention the fact that simply stating that evil is here because God wants to build souls does not explain enough.  It fails to deal with the reality of evil and how it came to exist.

Gregory Boyd advocates an open view of God.  This open view, known as Open-Theism, states that the future is open in the sense that God does not know what free creatures will choose to do in the future.  God knows everything that is knowable.  The future, because free creatures have not actualized the future through free choice, is unknowable…even to God!  This, honestly speaking, is an approach that seems to make sense and initially placates the person who is suffering.  I can still trust God in the midst of suffering because it is not what He wanted.  He simply did not know this would happen.  When God created the universe He knew that there was the possibility for man to sin against Him.  He knew that evil could potentially be.  But He didn’t know for sure.  He took a risk in creating.

So, where does evil come from?  The free choice of creatures to rebel against God.  This seems to be a simplistic approach to the problem of evil.  The responsibility is removed from God and placed squarely on man.  Again, that is appealing.  However, I find the approach of open theism to be unhelpful for a number of reasons.  It cannot make sense of the Bible.  The witness of the Bible is one that testifies to the omniscience of God.  He “declares the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:9-10).  Randy Alcorn quotes D.A.Carson saying that open theism “so redefines the God of the Bible and of theology that we wind up with quite a different God.”[xiv]  Although the problem of evil doesn’t seem to be a problem for the open theists (it simply is the result of wrong choices), we now have a problem of God.  The open-theist seems to believe in a god of their own imagination and not of the Bible.

Lastly, Stephen Davis and others advocate a Free-will Defense (FWD).  The most prominent of this position seems to be Alvin Plantinga.  His work on this specific issue, according to many, have caused many atheistic philosophers to concede that the FWD is indeed internally consistent.  John Fienberg devotes sixty-one total pages to this position in his “The Many Faces of Evil.”  This position goes back to Augustine (at least).  Augustine said that God is free from responsibility for evil because it simply stems from the evil we willfully commit.  Feinberg says that in the view of Augustine “Our decision to sin is voluntary,” and that “the human will is the radical root of all evil.”[xv]

As with the position advocated by Boyd, this position seems to provide a clean and simple answer to the problem.  Those within the tradition hold to an all-powerful, all-good God and affirm the existence of evil.  God is “off the hook” because it is solely the responsibility of man that evil has entered into the created order.  Of their own free-will they have chosen to sin.  The result of that choice brings about Hegel’s “slaughter bench.”  The problem that I have here, however, is that the Bible seems to say that God is the one in control of history, not men.  In Acts 4:24-28 we are told that those who “gathered together against” Jesus were doing “whatever” God “had predestined to take place.”  Simply appealing to free-will does not seem to be an adequate answer the question.  God seems to be in more control that this.

Free-will also fails to answer the question of evils’ origin.  Saying that Satan, or Adam and Eve, simply chose wrongly does not explain where the initial inclination to move towards evil arose.  We agree that sin begins in the heart.  Before Eve stretched out her hand and took the fruit, the sin was springing forth.  Where did the inclination to move towards moral evil originate in a creature created good?  From Satan?  That simply moves the question back a level and can be asked of him as well.  I don’t find this approach satisfying to the mind or biblically defensible.

All the above approaches have been argued extensively by their advocates in other places.  There is much that I have not said about the positions mentioned and to fully understand what each position holds to one must do their own research.  They are simply a few approaches that I have encountered in the process of study.

In the next post I hope to start laying out my specific answer to the question at hand.


[i] Boyd, Gregory.  Satan and the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 2001), 429.

[ii] Feinberg. The Many Faces of Evil (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2004), 29.

[iii] Davis. Encountering Evil (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 3.

[iv] Ibid. 6.

[v] Ibid. 7.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid. 14.

[viii] Ibid. 20.

[ix] Feinberg. The Many Faces of Evil (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2004), 142.

[x] Ibid. 146.

[xi] Davis. Encountering Evil (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 42

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Piper. Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2006), 92.

[xiv] Alcorn. If God is Good (Colorado Springs, CO: Multinomah Books, 2009), 161.

[xv] Feinberg. The Many Faces of Evil (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2004), 71.

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