Thesis: Implications of Boyd’s Warfare Theodicy

I had a thought tonight regarding possible implications of Boyd’s Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy, and I need work them out. Please bear with me.

Boyd asserts that the reason that God allows Satan to continue to choose evil in the world is because it is required by the nature of true freedom. If God gave us free will, but revoked that will as soon as we made the wrong choice, we didn’t actually have free will at all. Further, he claims that for us to be truly free we must have the same ability to influence the world for evil as we do for good: the more good someone is capable of, the more evil they must also be capable of. And further still, he claims that for our freedom to be genuine we must also have a duration or span of time over which we can exercise our influence that corresponds to the amount of influence that we have.

To make this more concrete: Satan was supposedly God’s second-in-command, the most beautiful and powerful of all of the angels, given authority over the entire earth (as he himself claims when tempting Jesus). He has unparalleled ability for good (next to the triune God, of course), and therefore he also has unparalleled ability for evil. He was created with this incredible ability, and creating creatures with free will is a gamble; in this case, Satan went bad and we’re all feeling the effects. If God were to retract Satan’s freedom, or more directly, simply kill Satan, the free will that God bestows upon his creatures would be a sham, and all real relationship between God and his creatures would fall apart.

Now, Boyd claims that Satan fell long before human beings were created, and that we were created as a part of God’s plan to take back creation from Satan (without violating Satan’s free will). Satan was given dominion over the earth, abused it and rebelled against God (and perverted creation as a part of this rebellion); God fought against Satan and his forces, decimating the earth in the process of subduing Satan, and then re-creating the earth out of the ashes and creating humans as his new representatives to rule over it (see my previous post for a brief discussion of Boyd’s tentative support of the Gap Theory of creation in support of this view). But Satan returned, corrupted human beings, and resumed his dominion over the earth. Now, on to implications and speculations!

This view implies that human beings were plan B (or XYZ, for all we know). Open Theists are okay with this notion, holding that by allowing for the free wills of his creatures, God inherently allows for multiple ways for us to enact his plan, and that even God cannot (or need not) know exactly how everything will happen even if he knows how it will end. I for one am okay with the notion that God might not know how long it will take for his desired ends to occur; it might take a few billion years and a few million “plan B’s” for people to come around, but eventually God’s plan for the earth and perfect relationship with humanity will come about in such a way that it does not require the overriding of his creatures’ free wills. I don’t feel like this makes God any less sovereign, only more patient!

But here’s the other implication: if God originally created angelic beings to represent his dominion and authority over the earth, and then later gave that role to human beings after the fall of those angels, this particular “plan B” seems to imply that God is working in a specific way, namely, investing moral agency and dominion in creatures of lesser power and influence.

Satan was given dominion, and had incredible and unmatched power among all created beings. His fall means incredible levels of evil in the world, and so his freedom entailed a bigger risk than, say, my freedom. If God created human beings after Satan fell, and gave us dominion as he had previously given Satan dominion, this implies that God has replaced Satan with a far less risky type of steward. Rather than one incredibly powerful creature, God has created billions of relatively puny and powerless creatures who can only match Satan’s power when acting collectively. Is this divine risk management in action?

Then, seeing that we have incredible power when acting collectively, Satan corrupts our systems (the Powers), using us (to amplify his power?) for collective evil. So we have our God-given power to choose good or evil and a relatively small amount of influence either way, but Satan is empowering us for collective evil. God, seeing this, breaks Satan’s power through the cross and empowers us with his own Spirit, so that collectively we might have not just the power of the agency that he gave us, and not just (or not even, when we are set free from sin) the empowerment of Satan for collective evil action, but we now have the power of God himself for collective good action (i.e. the power to be the Church, the collective embodiment of Jesus Christ on the earth).

The implication, then, is that God is managing his risks by investing his dominion in less powerful creatures, diffusing the power for evil over many free agents rather than a few more powerful ones. In so doing he has also diffused the power for good over many agents, lessening the effectiveness of his agents.

When God created humans, he created democracy.

Or bureaucracy. Probably both.

In this way, he could maintain the free will of his creatures while still safeguarding his creation. Human beings depose or kill monarchs or autocrats who abuse their power; God gives us irrevocable power and the ability to use it freely, but created a system in which the fallenness of a few will not destroy the whole. Meanwhile, our dignity is not less than that of an angel so long as we are able to act collectively, as collectively we embody Christ himself, and collectively we are adopted as children of God, and collectively we hold dominion over the earth.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, as my own are only half formed. It seems to be a strong call to the Church, leading to a robust ecclesiology. It seems to apply ethics, something that is usually applied to individuals, at a collective level. I should note that I didn’t get the notions of collectivity from Boyd; it just seemed to arise from the implications of what Boyd was saying about levels of influence, and the implied notion that we are plan B for God’s dominion on the earth. What do you think?


Thesis: Boyd on Natural Evil

Gregory Boyd’s aim in God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil is to solve the problem of evil by appeal to the evil free wills of spiritual beings, i.e. Satan. In this fashion he also explains “natural evil,” something that Wink only alludes to in his theology of the Powers. I’ll give you a brief rundown of Boyd’s thought on the subject, which is taken mostly from Satan and the Problem of Evil.

Nature exhibits many “evil” traits: tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters cause incredible destruction; animals kill each other, often not even for food, frequently with a type of sadistic playfulness; disease kills and cripples millions; and, of course, the very fact of death itself. These things do not square well with our notion of an all-loving Creator who raises the dead and heals the sick. In the New Testament, death is called “an enemy” and Jesus rebukes illnesses and violent winds in the same way that he rebukes demons. Indeed, for Jesus, healings, exorcisms, and the forgiveness of sins are all used interchangeably: all are expressions of rebuking the kingdom of this world and asserting the presence of the Kingdom of God. Paul tells us that all creation groans, longing to be set free from its bondage. Clearly there is something wrong with the world.

Traditionally we’ve affirmed that God cursed the ground because of Adam and Eve’s sin as a type of punishment, making it harder for them to work the land and survive outside Eden. Boyd doesn’t mention it, but it says “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen. 3:17), which seems to imply that Adam caused this curse, and need not imply that God enacted it at all (i.e. maybe it’s the natural result of sin in the world?). I’m sure Rick will correct my implication with a better reading of the Hebrew 😉 In any case, the traditional view is that God cursed the earth because of Adam’s sin, and that’s why animals are carnivorous (Genesis says that they were herbivorous before the Fall) and we deal with natural disasters.

But why would God curse the earth he had just created, making it do all of these evil things? We’re left with either the notion that “natural” evil is not evil at all (tell that to the victims of natural disasters), or that God brings this evil on us as a punishment for sin, or as I implied above, that this is the result of human sin. In an era of climate change, it’s easy to see how human sinfulness can result in killer weather – but I doubt Adam had difficulty farming the land because eating apples increased his carbon footprint, causing climate change! Boyd doesn’t even refer to the notion of human sin causing natural evil, for the very reason (I’m sure) that it makes no sense in an ancient context. And he’s spent the rest of the book arguing that God doesn’t do evil things, so that one’s off the table. Boyd addresses the notion that natural evil isn’t evil at all, along with several other attempts to explain it, but ultimately ends up with a solution that nobody else tends to see: rather than saying that “natural evil” is not actually evil, he points out that it’s not actually “natural” – i.e. that there is a cause behind natural evil, and it’s the same cause as all other evil: Satan.

I mentioned a little while back that Boyd tentatively affirms a “Gap Theory” of creation – that is, that between Genesis 1:1, in which God creates everything out of nothing, and Genesis 1:2, where the Spirit of God hovers over the deep, there are aeons of time during which God created angelic beings, Satan rebelled against God and took a whole bunch of angels with him, and a cosmic battle was fought that ended with the decimation of all the earth, and Satan subdued. This explains why the creation of angels is not mentioned in Genesis, but is instead assumed; why the world is “formless and void”, a phrase used elsewhere (e.g. Jeremiah 4:23) to describe a place after God has judged (i.e. destroyed) it; why there are already “waters,” which are almost always symbolic of the forces of chaos; why God told the first humans to “subdue” the earth and “guard” the garden; and why an evil serpent appeared out of nowhere in the midst of God’s good creation. It also makes better use of the many other creation accounts in the OT, most of which are just as violent as the other Ancient Near East creation accounts, in which God triumphs over the forces of chaos personified in “the sea” or “rahab” – a serpent. He suggests that perhaps “the Genesis narrative begins where other ancient Near Eastern and other biblical accounts end, namely, when the battle between God and his foe had just come to an end” (Satan and the Problem of Evil, 316, n.41). He suggests that perhaps the Spirit of God hovers over the waters in order to keep them in check.

Using this take on the creation of the world, Boyd is not only able to affirm the amount of time required for evolution, but he can also affirm the aeons of death required for evolution to take effect. He quotes one philosopher to the effect of saying that Satan has perverted God’s plan for evolution itself (though I fail to see how evolution could occur without death). The point is that though God created everything to be good, Satan and his cohorts poison and ruin everything. The overall goodness of the world can still be affirmed while acknowledging that it is far from perfect, that it is fallen. Boyd says that this is why everything is fallen.

He’s careful to point out that this is not a solution to how evil spiritual forces cause natural evil. In the same way that we do not know how our “self” controls our brain, or how God (who is spirit) interacts with the world (which is matter), science cannot explain how evil spiritual forces cause “natural” evil to occur, nor can this theory. What it does affirm is that there is a cause for evil in the world, that it is a rational extension of the existence of moral evil, and that God (and even humans) are not ultimately to blame for it. Whether it implies that Satan somehow corrupted plate tectonics and weather patterns to create natural disasters billions of years ago and we’re still feeling the effects, or whether it implies that he’s personally at the helm of tornadoes is beside the point.

I don’t think that this reading depends at all on the Gap Theory (or “restoration reading”, and Boyd calls it) of creation. Boyd thinks that it fits best, and I’m still quite intrigued by it, but we don’t need it to affirm a pre-Genesis fall of Satan, particularly in mythological readings of Genesis. So say what you will about his gap theory, I see no major problems with the general notion that demonic influence is behind so-called natural evil.

We can draw a few important lessons from this. First of all, claims that victims of natural disasters are being punished for particularly heinous sins (a la Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson) are thrown out the window. We don’t need to affirm that God indiscriminately wipes out large groups of people in order to talk about sin and judgment, and we certainly don’t need to judge people who are already the victims of “natural” evil as being sinful. Secondly, we don’t need to get caught up in debate over how God created the world (because the evidence of millions of years of death seem to contradict the notion that God created the world without death); if Satan had his dirty hands in it from early enough, it’s easy to affirm that creation is tainted while still affirming God’s declaration that it is good. And third, this is yet another example of how we need to stop separating the physical from the spiritual: spirit and matter are intertwined, whether good or evil, and we should not shy away from the notion that some spiritual beings (e.g. Satan) have some of the same abilities to affect the world as others (e.g. angels, and even God). Conversely, we should not be surprised at the notion that we physical beings also have the ability to affect spiritual realities (e.g. through prayer and ethical action and sacramental praxis), and that we as spiritual beings can affect physical realities (e.g. miracles through prayers and faith).

So the next time you see someone with cancer, or the victim of a freak accident, or a natural disaster on the news, don’t be angry at God. Be angry along with God, and get on your knees to join in the fight (see my previous post about prayer).

Thesis: Common Ground on Prayer

After a few weeks of overwhelming work schedule, I’m finally back on the thesis train. Hallelujah!

The point of my thesis is that, though Wink and Boyd have quite different notions of what types of entities are involved in spiritual conflict, their ethics are the same. The first half of the thesis shows how different their theologies are, and the second half shows how similar their responses to those theologies are – that is, how they believe we ought to respond to those realities. I was relieved, while reading Satan and the Problem of Evil by Greg Boyd tonight, to see just how right I was about this overlap in regard to prayer: he quotes Wink about a dozen times in this chapter.

Prayer is something that I’ve always struggled with. Jesus tells us that God knows what we need before we even ask for it, but then later tells us to be persistent to the point of being annoying in asking God for things. It has always suggested to me that God knows what we want, is able to grant it, but withholds it until we beg for it. Naturally, I don’t like this image of God. I’ve taken solace for the last several years in the notion that prayer is more about us aligning our wills to God’s will; rather than prayer being about us changing God, it’s a way for God to change us. I still believe that this happens to a large extent: pick something important that you don’t particularly care about, like a person or company or nation you find to be annoying or  belligerent, and pray for them every day for a month, and then see how you feel about them. Prayer is a conversation with God, and though we don’t hear God’s responses audibly, they do influence us; I believe that they do so by making us care about what God cares about, and making us see others in the way that God sees them.

But this doesn’t account for the way scripture portrays prayer, particularly the passages in which people successfully change God’s mind. Abraham and Moses stopped God from killing large numbers of people, begging for leniency and grace when the people didn’t deserve it. There are times God says that he looked all over for someone to intercede on the behalf of those people whom God was about to judge, and couldn’t find anyone (Ezekiel 22:29-31). The former passages sh0w that God can be influenced by human beings; the latter shows that God wants to be influenced by human beings. Indeed, it’s hard to make sense out of prayer, and especially about the way scripture portrays prayer, if it doesn’t actually influence God or earthly events. As Wink puts it,

If we are to take the biblical understanding seriously at all, intercession…changes the world, and it changes what is possible to God. – Engaging the Powers, 302.

Reflecting similarly on Daniel 10, Wink had previously noted that

The point here seems to be that Daniel’s intercessions have made possible the intervention of God. Prayer changes us, but it also changes what is possible for God. Daniel’s cry was heard on the first day; it opened an aperture for God to act in concert with human freedom. It inaugurated war in heaven. – Unmasking the Powers, 91.

We can come to the same conclusion from the other side: why do some prayers go unanswered?

Prayer involves not just God and people, but God and people and the Powers. What God is able to do in the world is hindered, to a considerable extent, by the rebelliousness, resistance, and self-interest of the Powers exercising their freedom under God. – Engaging the Powers, 311.

I’ve said that Wink and Boyd have common ground on this issue. In fact, all of the quotes above were taken from Satan and the Problem of Evil by Gregory Boyd, who relies on Wink more than any other source in chapter seven of this book. But Boyd isn’t just repeating Wink, though he quotes him extensively; he goes beyond Wink’s thought in this regard, filling in the blanks.

Wink is adamant that prayer changes God, and even that God (at times) needs prayer in order to be able to act. He implies that, because of the God-given freedom of human and spiritual beings, God’s ability to act in a situation is enhanced by partnership with other actors; in a sense, when we pray we are giving God permission to get more directly involved. The argument could be made that when God gets directly, miraculously involved in a situation, it impinges on the freedoms of the other agents involved; prayer is an acknowledgement of this, a way for us to freely give up our God-given freedom so that God can exercise greater influence over events. There are problems with this, and Wink never really discusses them; he’s much more focused on the fact that our prayers DO change God’s mind, have an actual impact on events in the real world, and therefore we have a responsibility (and privilege) to pray. “Prayer that acknowledges the Powers,” he claims, “becomes a form of social action” (Engaging the Powers, 317 – again, cited by Boyd).

Gregory Boyd discusses prayer much more thoroughly, picking up Wink’s thoughts and exploring them philosophically. God has made us morally responsible agents, which requires that we have free will (the ability, or “say-so” as he puts it, to influence others for good or evil). The point of this free will is love: God created us to participate in his triune love, and for us to do so, we have to not only be able to choose to love (and obey) God (or not), but also have the ability to influence God even as God has the ability to influence us. These are all essential parts of a real relationship, and even if they are not equal (i.e. we don’t have as much influence over God as he does over us), without them we wouldn’t have a real personal relationship with God.

So the upside of this is that we have real relationship with God, and that we are in a very real and important sense free. The downside of this is that we are free to disobey, free to harm others, etc. We have equal potential toward either good or evil, but in either case, every relationship we have involves the ability to influence the other in that relationship – including God. For God to have real relationships with human and spiritual beings, then, God must be self-limiting, restraining himself from controlling people and events entirely, and allowing himself to be influenced and changed by us. This is the only way that we can be free, i.e. moral agents, and this gives us a spiritual influence not only over God, but over the world and events:

Prayer is part of our moral say-so in influencing the flow of history and thus is a crucial variable that God considers in determining his response to certain situations. – Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 230.

Boyd highlights something that I had never thought about before: we’re very aware of our physical influence over events, why should we doubt our spiritual influence?

In other words, just as the Creator set things up so that we have genuine say-so on a physical level, so we can envisage him setting things up so that we have genuine say-so on a spiritual level – and this say-so is the power of prayer. As morally responsible agents, we are empowered to affect other people’s lives and the flow of history by what we physically do and by what we do in prayer. – Ibid., 231.

An important point, to me, is that Boyd relates prayer to our divine vocation as God’s representatives on earth, and its eschatological fulfillment:

Prayer is an essential aspect of our coreigning [sic] with God. God wants his will carried out on earth, but he wants it carried out in cooperation with us….In prayer we begin our eternal job of mediating the Father’s will and reigning with Christ on the earth. – Ibid., 233-234.

Again, we gain insight from looking at this from a negative angle: why are some prayers unanswered? Jesus says that we ought to have passion, persistence, and strength in numbers. As I mentioned above, this notion has always sort of bothered me – but as Boyd points out,

Why should we think otherwise, since persistence, passion, and large-group cooperation significantly affect what morally responsible creatures can and cannot accomplish on a physical level? – Ibid., 235.

If I affirm that I am necessarily both a physical and a spiritual being, why do I assume that my spiritual influence does not correspond at least to some extent to my physical influence on the world around me?

Another thing that I love about both Wink and Boyd’s approach to prayer in a “spiritual warfare” context is that they don’t attempt to apply prayer to spiritual warfare; they treat them as inseparable.

The importance of the above noted variables of persistence and numbers in prayer only begins to make sense when we begin to understand that prayer is fundamentally a warfare activity. To pray that the Father’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven (Mt. 6:10) is to pray against all wills that want their own will done against the Father’s will – and these opposing wills are significant. – Ibid., 235.

Both of them thus affirm not only our privilege to pray and participate with God’s will, but also our responsibility to pray as a way to enact our co-regency over the earth in anticipation of the eschaton, and in so doing as an act of spiritual warfare against those beings and forces that would oppose God’s kingdom. Prayer does not just change me, it changes the world; it projects the moral influence that God has given me as a free moral agent into the spiritual realm, just as my choices affect the physical world around me. Prayer is a form of exercise for my will in the spiritual realm: similar to the way that Christ becomes incarnate when I act ethically in the world, I become incarnate (reverse-incarnate?) in the spiritual world when I appeal to him in petitionary prayer.

I’m going to pray more from now on, and I don’t think it’ll be a chore.

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?

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?

Thesis: Presuppositions II – Scapegoating

Walter Wink’s theology of the Powers is a complete system, and it’s difficult to remove any piece of the puzzle or extract a central essence.  Not that the individual pieces can’t stand on their own – they can – but only that all of the pieces are so intertwined that, even if you think that something is somewhat peripheral, it keeps popping up in unexpected places.  One of those pieces of the puzzle that I don’t want to spend much time on in my thesis, but which seems to play an enduring role in Wink’s thought, is the idea of scapegoating that he draws from the philosophy and anthropology of Rene Girard.

Rene Girard sees endemic violence going all the way back to the earliest humans, and notices that it follows an escalating pattern of retaliation.  He sees this as the result of a mechanism he calls “mimetic rivalry”.  It starts with “mimetic desire”, which is actually what leads to social cohesion – you and I get along because we mimic each others’ desires, or want the same things.  Wanting the same things involves having the same purposes, and as any politician worth his salt can tell you, people need a common purpose if they’re going to get along or make any progress.  (This also lends itself well to in-groups, because if there’s one thing that gives human beings a common purpose, it’s having a common enemy!)

So we get along when we mimic each others’ desires, or want the same things.  But what happens when there’s only one thing that we both want?  We both still want it, but you have it, and I don’t.  This creates “mimetic rivalry” – and we compete over the thing that we both want.  But we still need each other, and we’re still bound together by our mimetic desires, and so we can’t just kill each other (sometimes people do, but if we all did, there’d only be one of us left).  So there’s still a community, but it’s full of tension as these rivalries play out.  Faced with this, a community can make one of two choices: we can kill each other, or we can redirect the tension onto someone or something else: a scapegoat!

In the Pentateuch, God gives Israel all sorts of instructions on how to worship, including what to do when they wanted to approach God.  Being sinful, they needed to deal with their sin, to ease the tension between them and God, before they could enter his presence.  They would deal with their sin like this regularly: by taking an animal, placing their hands on it to transfer their ritual uncleanness to it, and then killing it.  There was even a ritual in which the people’s sin (collectively!) would be passed on to a goat, which was then sent out into the desert to die – exiled on behalf of the entire community.  The animal would have to be without any defect or uncleanness, so that it was clear that it was not dying or being exiled for its own impurities, but for those that were being imparted on it.  A scapegoat.

We scapegoat people all the time; we call it “passing the buck”, or simply “blaming” someone for something we’ve done.  We let someone else face the consequences of our own issues, problems, sins.  We “civilized” people no longer do this in a physical way most of the time.  As individuals, we lay blame on others for our actions, and sometimes people are wrongfully executed (“I’m just a patsy!”) for crimes others have committed – but most of the time we just do it for petty things: like when your big brother bugs you so much that you hit him, and then you get in trouble for hitting him, and then claim “he made me do it” – as if he was forcing you to hit him, rather than you just not controlling yourself.

But collectively, we scapegoat in VERY big ways – economists call them “externalities” because they are the costs of a service or product that are external to that service or product.  For example, the shirt you’re wearing right now was probably made somewhere in Southeast Asia, and the person who sewed it probably worked for fifteen hours straight and barely had enough food to eat; this is the cost of our cheap products, and it’s a cost that we’ve “externalized” – that is, it’s a cost that we don’t pay.  We have tension in our community about fashion (because we don’t have anything important to fight about), but we can all have more fashion (and thus get along) if we find people in Bangladesh to pay for it.  The environment is a big scapegoat: almost everything that we own is produced using fossil fuels, which pollute our air, water, and soil – but it solves so many of our problems!  We can (somehow) tune out the environment, pretend it’s not there, send it into the desert, out of sight and out of mind – but enjoy the fruits of its misery in the form of products made from and by oil.  Oil is the root of global conflict (“mimetic rivalry”) but the environment (and the troops) are the scapegoat that allows the rest of us to be productive and successful and bond as a community or nation.

But this isn’t what Girard is talking about; he’s referring instead to a ritual scapegoating that he finds in most cultures throughout history.  Israel used actual goats for their scapegoating, but many cultures have ritualistically sacrificed a human being on a regular basis, supposedly to release this tension.  In the penal substitution theory of atonement, Jesus is the final scapegoat – the only scapegoat that is sufficient to die for the sins of all humanity, the true fulfillment of the Hebrew sacrificial system (and every other sacrificial system, I suppose).  According to Girard, the innocent victim of scapegoating is often honoured and even deified by their community afterwards, believed to live on as a god or goddess – this certainly applies to Jesus, who was only deified after his death and resurrection.  “Religion is therefore, according to Girard, organized violence in the service of social tranquility.” (Engaging the Powers, 146)

Walter Wink sees scapegoating as an essential problem of the fallen world, and finds the notion that God has ordained in through the sacrificial system to be simply wrong.  Perhaps God had ordained it for a period, as a part of progressive revelation?  Perhaps the people of Israel, coming out of pagan cultures, attributed this practice to God? (This is what Wink thought.)  But he holds that it is categorically incorrect to imply that Jesus was a scapegoat at all (and he condemns Paul on this point in places where Paul implies it), when in fact Jesus was the anti-scapegoat.

There is in the universe, however, a counterforce to the power of myth, ritual, and religion, says Girard, one ‘that tends toward the revelation of the immortal lie,’ and that is the Christian gospel….

The violence of Scripture, so embarrassing to us today, became the means by which sacred violence was revealed for what it is: a lie perpetrated against victims in the name of a God who, through violence, was working to expose violence for what it is and to reveal the divine nature as nonviolent.

It is not until the New Testament that the scapegoat mechanism is fully exposed and revoked.  Here at last, Girard asserts, is an entire collection of books written from the point of view of the victims.  Scripture rehabilitates persecuted sufferers.  God is revealed, not as demanding sacrifice, but as taking the part of the sacrificed.  From Genesis to Revelation, the victims cry for justice and deliverance from the world of myths where they are made scapegoats.  In the cross these cries find vindication. – Engaging the Powers, 146-47.

What Girard (and Wink) are saying here is that the scapegoat system is the tool of the Powers – a tool that we still haven’t properly taken away from them.  The cross was not God’s act of scapegoating against his own son, but rather God’s identification with the victims of scapegoating, in such a way as to reveal scapegoating as the opposite of his intention.  But not long after the cross, there were some who, being so conditioned by the scapegoating system, used this as a metaphor or explanation for the mystery of the cross.

Scapegoating did not become a primary theory of atonement for about a thousand years after the cross, but really took hold in the Reformed tradition in the form of the penal substitution theory.  There are many today (especially in Calvinist circles) who hold this to be the primary understanding of the cross, and even some who would break fellowship with Christians who do not hold to the penal substitution theory.  After all, one such scholar noted, behind theories of atonement lie the very nature and character of God, making arguments about atonement theories actually very deep and potentially divisive.

There are a growing number of scholars, particularly in the peace traditions (e.g. Mennonites) who reject penal substitution and the corresponding violent view of God.  As I was looking for the works of Marcus Borg in our library (because Wink refers to Borg very frequently) I came across a refreshing and exciting collection of essays called Stricken by God? in which Borg has a chapter (alongside NT Wright, Rowan Williams, Richard Rohr, CFC Moule, Miroslav Volf, and many others).  Most of the big-name scholars’ chapters are taken from other published works, but all of them at the very least question penal substitution, and many of them suggest alternatives.  Another thing that many of them have in common is their reference to Rene Girard, and the first endorsement on the first page of the book is from Girard himself.  This endorsement is followed by similar praise from Stanley Hauerwas, John D. Caputo, Brian McLaren, Marit Trelstad, and…Gregory Boyd!  I look forward to reading Boyd again to see how much this endorsement of a book which rejects penal substitution actually influences or has any bearing on his theology of spiritual conflict (and thus this thesis), but if it has a presence there than this can be a good point of comparison between Wink and Boyd.

So, to sum up: in spite of the violence of the Old Testament (which is usually human vs. human even though it is attributed to God), in the New Testament we see God identifying with the victims of violent scapegoating.  Yes, the atonement is still violent – but it is our violence, perpetrated against God, rather than God’s violence (through us) perpetrated against his Son.  In dying on the cross, God in Jesus Christ is identifying with humanity, giving his Yes to humanity while at the same time giving his No to the violence that humanity has projected on to him and was at that time using to kill him.  The Powers use scapegoating to prop up a system based on envy and rivalry; God calls us to a new system entirely, based on generosity and self-sacrifice – and that generosity and self-sacrifice exposes the scapegoating system for what it is: a tool of the powers which keeps human beings in endless cycles of bondage and violence.

Thesis Interlude: Shad

Work is crazy this week (the students are coming back! Quick, everyone panic!), so I’ve put off the post I want to write on Rene Girard’s “mimetic violence” theory as it applies to Walter Wink’s theology of the powers.  Maybe this weekend.  In the meantime, here’s some song lyrics that really seem to grasp the idea that Satan isn’t just a fallen angel – there are whole systems involved.

Shad isn’t just Canada’s best rapper, he’s also a poet and a prophet in the best sense: he speaks the truth in ways that draw people in and call people out.  I highly encourage you to buy any of his albums, but this track is from The Old Prince; it’s called “I Heard You Had a Voice Like an Angel/Psalm 137” (listen below).

I heard you had a voice like an angel
I heard a strange tale
About a saint that fell
Music became jail
These bars
I hear you rapped/wrapped in em
Wove in the beats
Like the clothing of sheep
Wolves tracks
spin em
dj’s, cd’s
g’s thrown on d’s
we’ll be king like T.I hope
I heard you even sang when you spoke
And the emotion you evoked got you choked
When your beauty struck a vocal chord broke
Boatless dove overboard
Look upon the ocean
Caught your reflection before the Lord’s
I heard you had a voice like an angel
Strange though
You were blinded by the light
shining from your own halo
fell off
sort of like a rainbow when heaven watched
your faint glow fade slow
I heard you had a voice like an angel…

I heard that fame’s a killer
that can murder great princes
like Kurt Cobain singing Purple Rain
From a distance
Hope home aint a virtual game
Nor this cursed place earth
Where the dollars and the karma don’t circulate
The world’s a stage
And you know this play well
Gee I bet you even know how it ends, pray tell
Had a voice like an angel, now you score the drama scenes
The comedy’s the fact
We enact what you want to be
Had some old songs still stuck in your memory
Distorted though
So you sort of re-assembled melodies
And fine-tuning turned ’em into single after single
In this industry you built so sinfully simple for
You to write cuz, a song is what your life was
The destiny of stars is their light must
Fight dusk
With sparks of brilliance to ignite us
and of all the billions of stars
You were by far the brightest
I heard you had a voice like an angel
Now its just a light hush…

Now you keep everybody’s eyes on charts and schedules
And the trends trying to stack gold bars and medals
They want vessels void and dark as space
Fools wanna make stars instead of music that’s smart or special
Because art at a level that’s real can be harder to peddle
Business prefers a market that settles for second rate
Kill the true artists martyr the rebels
That’s the system and it’s straight from the heart of the devil
merchants of dreams
Sold to souls eyes-wide shut
Passin the buck to purchase a pass to buy stuff
Workin’ in this circus get hired up
To walk over half-knots on a tight rope
Tied-up in my gut
It’s a delicate balance
Developin’ the talent
Into persons that we worship
Yo, it’s a hell of a challenge
I heard you had a voice like an angel
And don’t really sing no more
But you still running the game so
If we don’t behave like them
They call us crazy
And if we won’t slave for them
They call us lazy
I’ve started to see why you hate me
Hearin’ this voice it must be painful
To the ears when for years
You had a voice like an angel…

If you don’t behave like them
They call you crazy
And if you wont slave for them
They call you lazy
Well I say…

They wanna take your mind
Turn it into a prison
Lock you inside
Then they call that livin
Well I say…

I heard you had a voice like an angel.

Smile for the camera
Smile for the camera
While they take your children
Smile for the camera
While we rape your women
Smile for the camera
While we make our millions
Smile for the camera
While we make our buildings
Smile for the camera
Smile for the camera
Smile for the camera