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?


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