Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Theodicy and eschatology II

That God uses evil to bring about good, that God is bigger than us, that God knows the dark night of the soul, these may or may not be of comfort to the sufferer. But they are not directly attempts to 'justify the ways of God to man' (Milton).

One famous attempt at theodicy is the so-called 'free will defence', which says (more or less, and with variations) that a world in which humans are free to make real decisions (including the real decision to cause suffering for themselves and others) is better than a world without free will. Thus, the possibility of evil is a necessary correlate of the best (or at least a better) kind of world. This is a theodicy.

But it fails.


Because it makes evil necessary. It says that God weaves a tapestry, and to make it beautiful, he needs both light and dark threads. If that is so, then I think God is a nasty old piece of work. Is life - or rather, death and suffering and injustice and pain - to be justified aesthetically? While I don't think this is entirely off the mark (aesthetics goes deeper than our all-too-instrumental western mindset often allows), I do think that it is barking up the wrong tree. And it is not biblical.

What is the biblical answer to the problem of evil? Well, for a start there are the various ones mentioned above as existential answers, that say what it is like to live in a suffering world, and give resources for coping. But if you stop there, you've missed the point. The answer, as any good Sunday school student can tell you, is... Jesus. His suffering brings God into the middle of suffering. And that not only leaves marks on God (Lady Macbeth thought she couldn't get her hands back to how they were before...), but begins to do something to evil.

At this point, some may say that suffering is sanctified. That is becomes the path to glory. That it is God's discipline. Again, there may be something in some of these, and they are notes struck by the biblical authors. But again, let's go back to the narrative. Back to the text. What happens next? Because that's God's answer to this worst of all possible worlds in which his Son would be ruthlessly murdered.(next)
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.


gchrisw said...

Hello Byron,

I have a tag on "eschatology" and that's how I found your comments. I confess that I approach this from a faith perspective, as you seem to do (at least in part), and I personally think there is a confusion of terms here. You mention the argument from “free-will” and I assume you are speaking of the traditional use of free-will to explain why God allows evil to occur. But then you say that this is not biblical, which may or may not be completely true, one can find some evidence in Paul for the foundation of free-will and it is also found in some of the earliest fathers of the Church, Clement of Alexandria, Origen. But my point is that the solution of Jesus is indeed the solution to the problem of evil, but he is not the solution to the question of evil and why it exists at all.

I think there is also another presumption in your comment about “the best or at least a better kind of world.” It seems to me that this presumption rests on a kind of utopian or realized (not exactly in the liberal Protestant sense) eschatology that comes close to identifying earthly existence with the kingdom. I believe the promise of the kingdom is something far grander than human imagination can allow for and, biblically speaking, the kingdom is not of this world.

I also think that the presence of free-will as the origin of evil need not assume a tapestry of black and white threads (well put by the way!). According to Thomas of Aquino evil is not necessary for God’s plan, it is only useable or transmutable from lead into gold by the divine Alchemist. In other words, because some goods has been drawn from evil it does not follow that some goods must always be drawn from evil. Evil is more of a turning away from God, a negation of his offer, a negation of his will, a negation that is necessary if we are to be understood as born in the image and likeness of the Author of freedom and to be able to choose God as offered us in the gift of love that is the sacrifice of his son. Evil has no existence, no substance, it is like blindness, it is a lack of something, i.e., in theory. Though, of course, it is not experienced in this way.

Anyway, these are a few of my thoughts, or the thoughts of others which I rehashed. Thank you for your comments on this blog, they are insightful and I am not under the illusion that my responses are enough to rectify the situation.


Gil said...

Just came across your blog here and found it thought-provoking and insightful. Nice work. I must object, however, to your reasons for dismissing the ‘free-will defence’. You provide a nice summary of this position and then seem to object to a very different model in what follows. You paint the picture of a God who has chosen to allow human freedom (genuine freedom it must be said) and then object to it on the grounds that it is an unpleasant God that weaves a tapestry by using pre-existing elements of good and evil (light and darkness).

Free will theodicies (at least the good ones) argue that God has given up a significant amount of control in allowing humans to choose how they would like to respond to him. This doesn’t make evil necessary it simple allows for the possibility of rejection. You can object on the grounds that you don’t think this was ‘worth the gamble’ for God to make this kind of world but not on the grounds that he chose to use both good and evil as part of an ongoing project over which he presently exercises total control. The point is precisely that God does not, at the moment, exercise total control. That is why we pray (and long) for his kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

The free will defence doesn’t make evil necessary, it makes love possible. I prefer to talk about love and not freedom as the highest value in God’s economy (God IS love after all). This frames the entire conversation in relational terms rather than abstract concepts of the origins of evil. It seems that, in God’s estimation, a world where love is possible is better than one in which it is not.

By the way, I found your description of Jesus as the answer to this question very compelling.

byron smith said...

Thanks Gil and gchrisw for your feedback. You've each pointed out some flaws and shortcuts in my argument. I do plan on writing again (at least once, probably a few more times). I'll try to answer/incorporate your main points. To briefly address some peripheral comments: I am indeed intending to write from a perspective of faith in Jesus, love for his world and hope for the final glorification of God in it.
Jesus' kingdom is indeed not from (Greek ek) this world (John 18.36); it is from God. He does not base his authority or methods on fallen and fallible human conventions. His goals are not like ours. His kingdom is, in its origin, modus operandi and telos indeed God-ly, as opposed to worldly. But, his kingdom is of this world: he is king of the Jews, king of the world. It is precisely this world over which he claims to rule. It is this world that is under dispute, whose goodness has been problematised. It is here that the rule of God is contested, and has in his Christ been reaffirmed against the forces of evil and death. Thus, God's final kingdom is indeed far more than anything we can ask or imagine, but it will be the transformation of this world, not our escape from it to another one. Human utopian dreams become nightmares because they are rest satisfied with too little, and so destroy hope.
More to come, but thought I'd clarify where I stand on those two issues from the start.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Byron. Very helpful for our church at the moment.

Incidentally, you allude to Milton's theodicy in Paradise Lost (my favourite poem). Do you think he mounts a free will defence?

I always thought his theodical project was more tied up in his narrative - particularly the eschatology which is revealed to Adam as he is consoled outside the garden by the arch-angel Michael:

and thence shall come,
When this world's dissolution shall be ripe,
With glory and power to judge both quick and dead;
To judge the unfaithful dead, but to reward
His faithful, and receive them into bliss,
Whether in Heaven or Earth; for then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier days.
So spake the Arch-Angel Michael; then paused,

Now, Adam's response sounds a lot like a felix culpa / fortunate fall argument (that evil is good because it brings about greater good - possibly the only theodicy less successful than free will), but I think he's just overexcited:

As at the world's great period; and our sire,
Replete with joy and wonder, thus replied.
O Goodness infinite, Goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done, and occasioned; or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring;
To God more glory, more good-will to Men