Thesis: Presuppositions IV – The Problem of Evil

After a week of hosting people, jumping back into a thesis mindset is difficult. Please bear with me.

The point of this thesis is to compare two quite different takes on demonology in order to show that, in spite of their differences, these models have very similar ethics. The trouble with it is that, though he has a strong demonology, Gregory Boyd is not trying to develop a demonology as much as he’s trying to answer the age-old “problem of evil.” This is not a presupposition as such, but it has the same effect on my thesis, as it influences Boyd’s thought at every step. So, here’s a summary of the problem of evil, and Boyd’s response to it.

The problem of evil is one of those problems that never goes away. We live in a messed up world full of suffering: if God is both all-good (omnibenevolent) and all-powerful (omnipotent), how can this be? If suffering exists, this implies either a) that God wants a world without suffering, but is unable to create one, and is therefore not all-powerful, or b) that God is able to create a world without suffering, but does not want to, and is therefore not all-good.

This classical statement of the problem makes a lot of assumptions. It assumes that for God to be God, he has to be omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (everywhere), and omnibenevolent (all-good). This description of God has been around for a very long time, and it makes sense: God is the perfect being, and therefore could not be stronger, know more, be in more places, or be more good than he currently is; if he could, then he wouldn’t be perfect, right? Though this view has been embraced by the Church going all the way back to Augustine, it doesn’t actually come from Scripture – it’s a very Greek idea, and like most Greek ideas, it almost jives with biblical views, but not quite. Even so, it’s been the framework through which we’ve always tried to answer the question: why does a good God allow evil to exist?

The problem, as stated, is a conundrum. It seems that in order to account for the existence of evil, you must take away one or more of these omni-attributes of God. Atheists see the existence of evil in the world as evidence against the existence of God at all, or else insist that if God exists, he is not good at all. Not a particularly nuanced view there (for an expansion of it, check out Christopher Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).

Others simply modify the attributes of God. For example, some scholars (I think Wink fell into this category) hold that the earliest traditions in the Old Testament held that God was the source of both good and evil, and they have several scriptures which seem to imply this. For example, in the New Testament, death is seen as God’s enemy; yet God is the one who sends the angel of death to kill every firstborn in Egypt in Exodus. God is credited with sending an ‘evil spirit’ to torment Saul, causing him to lash out at David. Job is a particular problem: God seems to make bets with Satan, allowing him to torment Job terribly, while Job himself says “should we accept good from the LORD and not evil?” According to this view God is not purely good but is the source of all things, good and evil. This view doesn’t hold up against later biblical traditions, so nobody really believes it about God today, but the point remains: the problem of evil can be solved if we modify our notion of God’s perfect goodness and allow him to be morally ambiguous.

Today, most Christians modify their notion of omnibenevolence in a different way. Not comfortable with saying that perhaps God is the source of evil as well as good, we instead change the definition of what is good. This is a central feature of Calvinism, as espoused by Mark Driscoll, John Piper, etc. They say that because God is perfectly good, he is therefore the definition of goodness, and whatever he does is good by default. They go so far as to say that God can murder as many human beings as he likes, as many children as he likes, and this would still be good, because God is good by default! Calvinists need to say this, because they hold that God’s omnipotence and sovereignty in the world means that God must (and does) control all things at all times, so that nothing that happens is outside of his will or purpose. Therefore, the things that seem evil to us are actually good, because they come form the hand of God. Here’s a video I found in which John Piper lays it out:

His point here is that God creates/allows all evil for a purpose. In this video, he says that the whole purpose is that God can only show us his love for us by dying for us, and this required a sinful world in which he would die, to make his love for us that much more plain and visible. Now, not many people actually believe this, but most of us still subscribe to some version of it: we affirm that “God is in control,” and admit that “his ways are higher than my ways.” We can’t always understand the greater purpose behind the suffering in our lives, but we trust that God has a reason for allowing it to happen, no matter how hard or horrible it is.

If this seems difficult to you, then you might be interested in reading more from Greg Boyd. In God At War, he argues that this view of the problem of evil is backwards: it attributes evil to God and says it is good, and in doing so it fails to hold people or spirits accountable for their own actions. He holds that such answers to the “intellectual” problem of evil fail to take into account the radical and real nature of evil in the world.

In the first chapter of God At War, Boyd tells the story of Zosia, a little Jewish girl in Nazi Germany. In the true story of Zosia (skip this paragraph if you’re squeamish), German soldiers notice Zosia, and comment on how pretty her eyes are. They decide that they’d like her eyes, and so they take them – they gouge out the little girl’s eyes, laughing all the while. Those who can hear their laughter and Zosia’s screams later wrote that they wondered which sound would be heard by God first – the screams, or the evil laughter? It appeared that neither sound was heard, because no help came to Zosia. She survived having her eyes gouged out, but the next time the Nazi patrols came by she was noted as being defective, and was therefore killed. This is a true story, and there are millions of stories like it in our world; all of them make the intellectual problem of evil seem an inadequate question to be asking.

The underlying problem with the problem of evil, as Boyd sees it, is that we assume that God’s omnipotence and sovereignty require that God is in control of everything at all times (basically, he implies the problem is Calvinism!). If there is such thing as free will – truly free will – then evil should not only be possible, it should be expected. If children really do have the ability to choose to obey their parents, and disobeying them is evil, then they are capable of disobeying. By this account human beings create evil all the time, and we are largely to blame for many, if not most, of the problems in the world.

But even this is not nearly enough to account for all of the evil in the world, Boyd insists. There were many normal, even “good” people who were Nazi soldiers, and who ended up doing completely awful things that they otherwise would never have dreamed of doing. There must be a deeper source of evil in the world: Satan, a fallen angel. And Satan, like us, is one of God’s creatures. Like us, God has given Satan free will and the ability to exercise it; to put limitations on Satan’s ability to exercise his free will would invalidate it, and turn God into a controlling tyrant or puppeteer. So rather than simply denying Satan’s free will, God battles against him and his evil forces.

Satan and his demons have the ability to influence or even possess human beings, causing us to do great evil. We also have the ability to do evil on our own. In a world of choice and agency we can fail, we can be disordered, and we can do evil. In such a world, evil is not only possible, it should be expected.

You’ve probably noticed that Boyd’s view doesn’t alter the definition of goodness the way that John Piper’s does; we don’t pretend that evil is somehow good, attributing it to some good purpose that we can’t comprehend. Instead, Boyd’s view modifies the notion of God’s omnipotence: God is not in total control. This does not actually imply that God is not all-powerful, but only that God does not choose to¬† exercise his power in order to force things to be as he wants them to be. This is God limiting himself for the sake of genuine relationship with his creation, refusing to make us into puppets who only do his will. This works in theory, but when applied to a literal eschatology in which Satan is eventually destroyed, I’m still left asking “if God will destroy Satan eventually, and God is actually at ‘War’ with Satan now, then why doesn’t God just destroy Satan now?”

God’s omniscience is a problem for the problem of evil as well. Even if we allow that God does not force us all into line, to do good all the time, God still created a world in which people would do great evil. God’s foreknowledge implies that God knew how each of us would turn out (nature and nurture), and created us this way anyways. This implies that God could have created us all to be saints, with predispositions toward goodness like little Oliver Twist, who is always good no matter how badly he is mistreated. If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, then even if he allows us to have genuine free will, the problem of evil remains. Why did God create a world that has more suffering than other possible worlds? Why didn’t God create the best possible world?

Boyd solves this through the “open view of God,” which I’ll talk about in my next post. In the meantime, what do you think about the problem of evil? What does the existence of suffering in the world imply to you? Do you think (with Piper) that the existence of suffering and evil on the scale that we’ve experienced it actually gives greater glory to God? Do you think that God couldn’t have shown his love for us in a peaceful world? Do you think that there’s a reason for every evil thing that happens, or do you think that, sometimes, shit happens? Is God good, morally neutral, or does he have an evil streak?

Hellbound? The Review

I recently saw a documentary in a theatre, on opening night. Extra nerd points. Sadly, not everyone is as nerdy as me; even with the carload of students I brought with me, there were only about 30 people in the theatre! Winnipeg, you’re missing out.

The film does have a fairly niche market. It’s called Hellbound? (www.hellboundthemovie.com) and addresses the recent controversy surrounding the doctrine of Hell. Remember that little book Rob Bell put out a few years ago that set the internets on fire? Love Wins was released, John Piper tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell,” Kevin DeYoung wrote a lengthy rebuttal online within days, and within months Francis Chan and half a dozen others had published book-length rebuttals. It seems like there isn’t much a person can do to get Christians after them than to question a particular interpretation of a secondary doctrine.

The controversy was, and is, about Christian Universalism, the doctrine that holds that God will eventually save everyone. It’s still a strongly Christian doctrine – not the “all roads lead to God, so you go be Buddhist because Buddha is interchangeable with Jesus” approach – in that it holds that the efficacy of the cross is universal, and that there will come a day when “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord,” even if those knees and tongues are in Hell. Some propose that there is a Hell, but it will eventually be empty; others don’t see it as a place at all, but perhaps a state of mind or experience. Most people who hold to this doctrine also question what has been the go-to version for a very long time: the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT), in which those who do not accept Christ as their saviour will suffer in Hell forever at the hands of God or his designates. It can be hard to square that idea with our understanding of God as a loving Father who desires that everyone should be saved.

So back to the film. It never states it flat-out, but it’s an apologetic for Christian Universalism – not even for the doctrine, per se, but for the conversation about it. Canadian filmmaker Kevin Miller looked at the debate and saw that a lot of the people who were speaking up about it were actually trying to shut the conversation down, and I think he made this film to give the Christian Universalists their due.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t look at other angles. It only makes a brief mention of Annihilationism, the doctrine that God will simply destroy the unrepentant in the end, but it spends some quality time with some of the ECT crowd’s big names, and even checks out a death metal show and speaks with a bass player named Necrobutcher and the singer from Gwar. While Miller’s choices for interviews to represent the ECT view may face criticism (he speaks at length with members of the Westboro Baptist Church who were picketing at the 10th anniversary of 9/11), he can’t be faulted for paying more attention to the Christian Universalists; after all, ECT’s been the default for most people for ages, it hardly needs further explanation.

Even with the Westboro Baptist Church aside, some of the ECT people pictured are easy targets. Kevin DeYoung interviewed very well, and Mark Driscoll looked very sharp in his long interview (one of the longer ones in the film); but clips of Jerry Falwell, John Piper, and even Mark Driscoll saying things like “God hates you” are pretty hard to ignore, even though Miller includes some of the context for the clips. Doing street evangelism with Ray Comfort, during which he asks people on the street to name their sins before naming them sinners and reminding them of their damnation, can’t help but leave a bit of a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. Where are the less inflammatory defenders of Hell? Well, I suppose they aren’t the ones engaged in the controversy.

Miller speaks with a wide variety of defenders of Christian Universalism, including a former pastor who lost his job due to holding this view; big names like Brian McLaren, Robin Parry, Frank Schaeffer, Peter Kreeft (a Catholic apologist), Sharon Baker, William Paul Young (author of The Shack); Canadian names like Michael Hardin and Brad Jersak (editors of Stricken By God?), and Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (of the Canadian Orthodox Monastery); and others I was less familiar with.

This film is meant to be a conversation starter, and it does so very well. For most Christians, this will be their first serious look at Christian Universalism, and it’s a pretty good introduction. I was very pleased to see the humility of Robin Parry, author of The Evangelical Universalist, when he noted that this is a very attractive doctrine for some, and urged them to take it slowly and read as much as they can before jumping into it. But probably my favourite part of the film is that it makes the point that what we believe about Hell has huge implications: for our understanding of God, and for the way we see the world and other people.

Kevin DeYoung makes the point that if we preach that there is no Hell, and people believe us and therefore don’t repent of their sinful lifestyles, and then we find out that we were wrong, we’ve led people astray. (I’m not really convinced by this argument; deterrence doesn’t work with crime, why should it work with sin?) On the other hand, if we believe that God created a place of eternal conscious torment, and will send people there to be tortured for all eternity in retribution for finite human sins, it gives us a hard picture of a God who picks favourites and justifies endless violence against others. If this is our image of God, how will we treat those we perceive to be “others”? Jerry Falwell epitomizes this in a short clip from 2004 about the war in Iraq, in which he says “let’s blow them all away, in the name of the Lord.” Frank Schaeffer comes at it from the other side: if we believe that God is on the side of our enemy at least as much as he’s on our side, we’ll see our enemies differently, and therefore treat them differently.

Given the low turnouts, this film will only be in for one week. Go see it if you can – there’s a Q&A session after the screening on Wednesday at Silver City St. Vital. Bring some friends, and start a conversation – because your theology matters, and it’s something we work out in community.

Thesis: Presuppositions III – Mind the Gap

Though I haven’t been posting more thesis stuff recently, I’ve still been working away. I’ve finished with Walter Wink for now, and am digging through Gregory Boyd’s God At War, which I will be comparing with Wink’s theology of the Powers in my thesis. Though I am less inclined toward Boyd in general, he has an overall persuasive approach to spiritual conflict: he argues that we should have a “warfare worldview,” as the writers of the Bible did, recognizing that God is actually at war with evil cosmic forces, and that sometimes our side loses a battle. There are a few presuppositions on which this view depends, and I’ll talk about some of them later, but my reading tonight caught a very interesting (but actually not overly important) presupposition: the Gap theory of creation.

The “Gap Theory” isn’t actually necessary for Boyd’s general argument – a point he stresses, as he acknowledges that the theory is relatively tentative and speculative – but he appeals to it as fitting better with other scriptural accounts of creation. He points out that Genesis 1 is far from the only creation account in the Bible. Most of the other accounts show God in conflict with cosmic forces and evil monsters, with close and clear parallels to the creation myths of other cultures in the Ancient Near East; Genesis 1, on the other hand, seems to go out of its way to show God as creating the world peacefully, with no conflict involved. This is a good analysis of Genesis 1, and it is indeed the largest difference between Genesis and other cultures’ creation myths. Boyd notes that this difference is a major reason why we’ve traditionally given Genesis 1 priority over all of the other creation myths in the Bible: because the others are much closer to pagan myths, and more obviously mythological.

Those aren’t particularly good reasons for dismissing numerous passages of scripture! Boyd is clear throughout his book that he approaches his work from an Evangelical perspective, particularly affirming a high view of scripture as the fully inspired word of God, and makes frequent appeals to this authority as he describes this theory. As part of his argument, then, he points out that even if an event is portrayed in mythological terms, it can and most likely does still refer to a real event. So even if God didn’t fight a sea monster named Leviathan, he really did fight and defeat some evil cosmic force. Not only does this interpretation of the more violent descriptions of creation fit well with the general “warfare worldview” of the Bible, if we take the conflict model of creation as true, we are better able to harmonize all of the creation accounts found in scripture. If we take the non-violent theory based on Genesis 1 as the complete and exhaustive account of creation, we have to dismiss all of the cosmic battle passages outright as mythology; but if we take the conflict views as true, Genesis 1 still fits. Here’s how.

God fought Leviathan, and won. The question is, what deck did he use?

The “Gap Theory” of creation suggests that there’s a major gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. Boyd prefers to call it the “restoration theory.” According to this restoration theory, there’s a whole lot missing between those two verses. Boyd holds that God created everything ex nihilo (out of nothing), any number of things happened in what may have been any number of years in between, and the angels and cosmic forces rebelled against God. The good creation was tainted at a fundamental level, and the cosmic forces (which were now evil) met God in battle. The world was laid waste in the process, so that by the time we get to Genesis 1:2, it is “formless and void.” The Genesis creation account is thus actually a re-creation account.

Boyd gives six arguments to support this theory. The first, as I mentioned above, is that it better accounts for all of the cosmic-conflict accounts of creation, including those of the pagan nations. But in some ways, it also deals with Genesis 1 a little better, too. 1:2 can be translated “But the world became (or ‘had become’) formless and void.” The words “formless and void” usually refer to places that have been destroyed or judged, in the rest of the Bible. And before God even begins to create things, there is already “waters” and “the deep”, which are usually symbols for chaos and death in the cosmic-conflict creation accounts, both in the Bible and in other ancient texts; if we hold that God is the only eternally existent being or thing, these things that are usually portrayed as his rivals should not be there before creation begins, lest we fall into the dualistic notion that good and evil have always coexisted and are in some sense equal.

There are other linguistic issues in Genesis: the first humans are told to “guard” Eden – but from who or what? And they are told to “subdue” creation, the same word used to describe the conquest of Canaan; if God had just created the world, and it was all good, then who are we to conquer? But if we are created in a re-created world in the aftermath of an epic battle between God and the already evil cosmic forces of the universe, these instructions make a lot more sense. Boyd suggests that God created us as his image bearers in an attempt to win creation back from the forces of evil, but that we went over to the enemy early on. This view even makes sense of God’s use of the first-person plural “let us make them”, traditionally described as God in council with angels, the creation of which is not mentioned in the creation account.

Boyd holds that the only way that we can make sense of the existence of fundamental evil in the universe is that the cosmic forces fell before humans were even created. “Despite valiant attempts to the contrary, there is simply no way to approach an explanation for this cosmic catastrophe by appealing to puny human wills. Our fall cannot explain the cosmic fall, but the fall of cosmic wills can help explain our fall, and with it, the fall of the world we were put in charge of” (God At War, 109). In this I disagree: I find Wink’s argument that the Powers fell due to human worship of them to be at least as compelling and scripturally based as the more traditional (in the sense that it is derived at least partially from tradition) view of an angelic fall that occurred sometime before the creation of humans. Even so, it’s not a bad point. He goes further, pointing out that this understanding of the world’s prehistory makes sense of the human vocation as God’s regents on earth and Christ’s incarnation as one of us: God chooses to overcome his enemies (being creatures whose free will he respects) through the intervention of other creatures with free will – namely, us – to the point where God becomes one of us in order to make sure the job’s done.

The issue of creation vs. evolution is only one of the six arguments that Boyd puts forth, and he does so only briefly, noting that it’s a handy way to account for not only all of the time that evolutionary theory requires, but also for the existence of “evil” (i.e. all of the dog-eat-dog competition and death that evolution requires) before the fall of humanity. The “Gap Theory” of creation is usually derided as a simple attempt to account for both biblical creationism and scientific evolution, and both sides generally reject it as a lousy compromise between them. When approached from the question of origins, it certainly comes across as an attempt to compromise, and is rightly rejected on those grounds because it tends not to fit with either view very well. Boyd’s attempt to account for evil in the world, however, has actually given the “Gap Theory” a biblical support that it previously lacked; it can now be seen to take scripture seriously, and not to impede scientific understandings of evolution, all because of a better understanding of evil’s origins in the unrecorded prehistory of Genesis 1:1.5. I’m certainly not jumping on the “restoration theory” bandwagon, but it’s certainly a better take on the issue than the old “Gap Theory” ever was, and requires some more thought.

This theory depends on a notion of an angelic fall before the world as we know it was created – that is, on a combination of implication, tradition, and speculation. That said, it fits right into the worldview that Boyd quite successfully argues is central to the Old Testament: the notion that God is at war, literally, with evil forces in the universe. What do you think? Do you agree with the notion of a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 (or, as I think makes more sense, a prehistory before Genesis 1:1)? Does the notion that the Genesis creation is a re-creation after a global destruction fit? Does this argument jive with your understanding of the existence of evil? How about with your understanding of creation?