[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]
Defending God is not my job. Good thing because I would be awful at it. However, my faith does seek understanding; it looks for answers even when I cannot find them. Exploring the mysteries of divine providence and human suffering is a journey into the recesses of the divine mind and most of it is inaccessible to humans. So, the real question of providence and evil is not can we explain it but can God be trusted with the answer even when that answer is inexplicable or incomprehensible to us or when our best efforts ultimately just don’t make sense. I think the answer to that question is “Yes”.
Traditional Language. Providence (God’s provision for the creation as one who “sees ahead”) is traditionally encompassed under three headings: conservatio (conservation or preservation), concursus (concurrentism), and telos (governance toward an end or goal). The first and third are the least controversial in the history of theology. The first affirms that God sustains the creation by divine power. The cosmos is not self-sustaining but is dependent upon the action of God (cf. Hebrews 1:3; Isaiah 42:5). This sustenance includes God’s preservation of human meaning and purpose within the creation. The third affirms that human history and the creation are moving toward a divinely appointed goal (Isaiah 41:20; 43:10; 45:3; 46:10). God so governs history and creation—through whatever means, including natural agencies—that God orders their movements to secure the ends of the divine telos.
The most controversial is concurrentism (concursus). This affirms that divine and human actions (or nature, if a natural phenomenon) are concurrent in every event within the world. In other words, God is always working within every event, and each event is some kind of cooperative effort between God and the creation. God, therefore, is always a cause that works through or alongside other causes both human and natural. Consequently, nothing happens in the world in which God is not somehow involved and where God does not intend that something specific happen. In every event God acts alongside his creatures to accomplish specific goals, even if God’s goal is different from other actors in the drama. For example, whereas a human being may intend evil, God may, through that same event, intend good as in the case of Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 50:20; cf. Isaiah 45:1, 7, 12-13). As a result, God and human agents worked concurrently to produce the event, but with different intentions and ultimately with the divine telos accomplished.
A Game Metaphor. If we imagine that the comos is a field sport (like football or soccer), a broad typology for Providence emerges. In a Deistic theology, God is a mere spectator even though God is also owner and inventor (e.g., Langdon Gilkey). In some versions of postmodernism personalism, God is more like a coach who encourages and directs from the sidelines but does not participate in the field action (e.g., Rabbi Kushner). In more traditional models, God is an owner-player-coach who is actively participating in the game on the field.
Within the traditional framework, we can extend the game analogy to distinguish three further typologies. For some, such as Reformed theology, the game is determined by the owner’s decrees as to how each play will unfold, who will score and which players will win or lose (e.g., Ulrich Zwingli). Reformed theologians, generally, embrace concurrentism but maintain that God is the primary, determinative cause though God also uses real secondary causes (human will or nature; cf. Paul Helm). Thus, every choice that human beings make—whether good or evil–is “already predetermined” (G. I. Williamson, The Shorter Catechism, 1:26-27). To be fair, there are “harder” and “softer” versions among Reformed theologians and some of the “softer” versions are barely—yet still—distinguishable from Classic Arminianism.
For others, such as Free Will theism (or Open Theism), God serves more as an emergency substitute who occasionally intervenes but rarely (e.g., John Sanders). Free Will theists reject concurrentism as do some Arminians (e.g., Jack Cottrell) even though they do not necessarily agree with particular dimensions of Open Theism (e.g., their rejection of traditional omniscience).
“Classic Arminianism” affirms that God is always on the field, active in every play, and directing the game toward its telos (e.g., Robert E. Picirilli). This is would amount to a strong concurrentism without determinism (or compatibilism). Others, less “classic,” would only suggest that nothing happened on the field without specific divine permission even if God was not actively on the field (e.g., Jack Cottrell).
A Concurrentist Providential Theology. Arminian concurrentism suggests that God, as player, is synergistically creating the future with the creation itself. God, as owner and coach, is the ultimate reality in the universe and sovereignly directs the game toward the divine telos. God, then, acts within the creation to secure the divine telos but acts in concert with or concurrent with the created reality. The sovereign God permits players to act—indeed, gives them a moral agency out of which they freely act—but they do not act autonomously as if their freedom is absolute since their freedom is circumscribed by the divine purpose. This divine permission, which empowers other players (both human and natural), is both specific and self-limiting, but it is not impotent. The divine purpose will not be frustrated. Nevertheless, the freedom of creation is an authentic divine gift and undetermined by divine decrees.
The critical question, then, is the nature of the divine purpose or telos. Since God’s ontology is relational (Triune) and God’s identity is holy love, the divine purpose is communion with the creation in a way consistent with God’s own nature to love in freedom. The praise of God’s glory is located in communion with the good creation who loves in freedom just as God does. God sustains history, acts in history, and governs that history toward that telos. God will accomplish the divine purpose while at the same time sustaining the freedom of the creation because God values the authenticity of loving communion.
Whence Evil and Why? Ultimately, I don’t know. Mystery acknowledges that our finite understanding cannot fathom the purpose and meaning of divine acts or permission. This incomprehensibility does not undermine faith since “for Christians,” as Marilyn McCord Adams has written, “as for others in this life, the fact of evil is a mystery. The answer is a more wonderful mystery—God” (Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment, 267).
The Biblical narrative itself raises the question “why?” The particularities of suffering are not answered by a poetic Psalm, a prophetic oracle, a Jesus sermon or a Pauline letter. Instead, the question “Why?” reverberates throughout the narrative on the lips of believers from Moses (Exodus 5:22) to the Psalmists (10:1; 42:9; 44:23-24; 74:1; 88:14) to Job (3:20; 7:10; 10:18; 13:24) to the prophets (Jeremiah 14:19; Lamentations 5:20) to Jesus (Matthew 27:46).
Philosophers have attempted many strategies to answer the question without much success though some perspective has been gained. For example, Free Will Theodicists claim that God created a world with the possibility of evil and has a good reason for doing so (e.g., a world of free beings is better than a world of coerced ones or no morally significant beings at all). The Free Will Defense argues that free will means that God can not guarantee the absence of evil once God decided to create beings with free will (Alvin Plantinga). But this, even if successful, does not begin to answer the “why” questions that consume so many (e.g., tornadoes, tsunamis, etc.).
The Soul-Making theodicists argue that the process of maturing human beings involves a refining fire. Suffering is a necessary condition for the maturation of human beings. It claims that there is good(s) that is worth the existence of evil (John Hick; Austin Farrar; Thomas B. Warren). But this does not explain the quantity, quality and intensity of the evil present in the cosmos, and it often assumes a Deistic understanding of how God relates to the world.
Natural Law theodicists (Bruce Reichenbach; Richard Swinburne) argue that natural law establishes cosmic parameters in which freedom can be deliberately exercised. Natural law enables predictability for choices, but that predictability entails natural “evil” as those laws function independently of human or divine choices (Bruce Reichenbach; Richard Swinburne). But this distances the Creator from the creation as if nature has autonomy and it does not explain why God does not sometimes—particularly in major catastrophes—intervene. Surely God would make some exceptions.
The Christian Metanarrative. But the Christian narrative does not leave us totally in the dark as if we were wholly blind though the light is dim due to our finitude, feebleness, fallibility and fallenness.
The story, as I read it, begins with the divine intent to share the Triune love in communion with creation and ends with the divine purpose fulfilled. This loving communion entails a freedom to love that is rooted in our relational ontology that images God’s own love. Yet, the risk of love entails the possibility of hate and thus rejection. Humans have consistently chosen to reject God’s love. This is a part of the evil in the cosmos.
God, in response, pursues us with an unrelenting love and sometimes a “tough love.” God, the Psalmist declared, does whatever God pleases (Psalm 115:3). Humans have no concept of the radical nature of evil until they see it or experience it. Human history, unfortunately, is strewn with examples and God—as the biblical narrative tells it—has unreleased the evil human heart in order to allow evil to fully reveal itself and permitted natural chaos to refine humanity.
God is willing to use “tough love” to remind humanity of their relationship to the Creator and move them toward embracing the divine purposes for human existence. Ultimately, as I once learned from Philip Yancey through his reflections on Job, God is more interested in our faith (loving communion) than in our pleasure (in the way broken humans think about happiness).
The Purposes of Suffering in the Story. One size does not fit all in the biblical narrative. There are multiple purposes for suffering; some overlap, some are distinct. Some apply to one, and sometimes none seemingly apply. These purposes certainly do not dictate how we should view our own experience of suffering though some may apply as we interpret our situations. Nevertheless, they are present in the story as lights to guide us in our reflections on suffering.
In particular, the story unveils—as I see it—these purposes (and my list is not exhaustive): (1) punishment and deterrence (Amos 3:6); (2) cosmic and/or personal testing (Job 23:10; Genesis 22:1); (3) pedagogical discipline (Hebrews 12:7) like a refining fire; (4) gifting and equipping for ministry (2 Corinthians 1:3-7); and (5) painful but redemptive experiences for the sake of others (Genesis 45:7-8; 50:20).
Living within the Story
Living within the story means seeing ourselves as part of the biblical theodrama. We are players on the field and actors in the drama, but we did not create the game or write the play. God lovingly calls us to participate in the story and see the world through the lens of divine intent, actions and goal. Living within the story is ultimately faith seeking understanding.
In relation to the problem of suffering, we will have to decide whether we trust (believe) because we have resolved our cognitive (rational) and existential (personal suffering) difficulties or whether faith is the mode in which we seek understanding. Is there reason to trust? Can God be trusted?
This is where Christology functions in my theodicy. Christology provides the ground for trusting God even in the darkness of our suffering. We have reason to trust because we hear and see the “good news of the kingdom” enacted in the ministry of Jesus. We have reason to trust because we see the love of God demonstrated in the cross of Jesus. We have reason to trust because we see the victory of God over death in the resurrection of Jesus.
The incarnation reveals both divine intent and divine love. God seeks communion with humanity by uniting God and humanity in Jesus. The love of God shines through the empathy that God shares with humanity. God’s incarnational involvement in the world to redeem, restore and heal through suffering is a testimony to God’s ultimately redemptive relationship to suffering. God will resolve the problem of suffering in a renewed and restored creation free from mourning, death and pain. This is the “eschatological verification” of God’s project (John Hick).
While the mystery of evil is disconcerting and generates questions, the denial of God seems to create more questions, problems and conundrums. To choose the mystery of God over the mystery of evil is neither dishonest nor irrational. For example, apart from God, what grounds ethics so that “evil” is something more than personal or social taste? Can we speak of “evil” without God? In other words, does naturalistic intuitionism justify/define good without recourse to some more fundamental religious intuition? The existence of objective evil means there is some ground for why evil is evil. Again, as another example, is there a religious intuition (encounter) for which the denial is more problematic than the problem of evil?
The mystery of evil emerges within the biblical narrative through the practice of lament which contains protest, complaint and questioning doubt. Lament can be a faith-filled response for people living within the story. Lament—even angry complaint against God (Job 7:11-21)—should not be discouraged. It is an expression of faith as it addresses God as the one responsible for the cosmos.
The mystery of providence means that God is at work in the creation to move the world towards the divine telos. God uses various means to accomplish this goal, including human freedom, natural events, nation states, etc. God’s actions—and human actions concurrently working to co-create the future with God—have meaning. We do not always know nor see the meaning, but the sovereignty of God gives meaning to everything within the creation.
Ultimately, we don’t know, but God does and God cares. Ultimately, we don’t understand, but God has reasons. I have reason to trust the God of Israel and Jesus. Therefore, despite my pain, hurt and suffering, I will continue to trust the Creator who loves me more than I love myself.
Michael L. Peterson, ed., The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).
William L. Rowe, ed., God and the Problem of Evil (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001).
Steven Davis, ed., Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981).
Marilyn McCord Adams, ed., The Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University, 1991).
Classic Modern Theodicies or Defenses
John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).
Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).
Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1961).
Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Bruce Reichenbach, Evil and a Good God (New York: Fordham University, 1982).