Where one man sorts out his thoughts in public


David Ray Griffin

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Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, Stephen T. Davis, ed. Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1981. A revised edition was published in 2001.  Professor Griffin has published two books on the problem of evil: God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976; reprinted with a new preface, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991; and Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Creation Out of Chaos

and the Problem of Evil

David Ray Griffin

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  This is how Genesis 1:1 has traditionally been translated. Even the Revised Standard Version so renders it.  However, the RSV in a footnote gives an alternative reading: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void. . . .”  I understand that most Hebrew scholars believe this to be the more accurate translation.  For many years I did not give much though to the possible implications of the alternative reading.  Recently I have come to see that the alternative reading suggests a radically different view of the god-world relation from that which has dominated traditional theology and has thereby had a decisive influence upon Jewish and Christian sensibilities.  If accepted, this radically different view will influence every aspect of Christian thought; but its most obvious and central impact will be upon that problem which has increasingly been perceived as the Achilles’ heel of traditional theology, the problem of evil.  (This metaphor is overly generous to traditional theology: Achilles had only one vulnerable spot.)

The central issue between the two readings is whether creation was ex nihilo, i.e., whether God created the world out of absolutely nothing.[1] The traditional reading of Genesis 1:1 does not say that it as, but it suggests it more readily than does the alternative reading.  And it has been used by traditional theologians to support the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.

The alternative reading, while also not spelling out things with the precision desired by philosophical theologians, suggests that God’s creation of our world did not involve the absolute beginning of finite existence but rather the achievement of order out of a pre-existing chaos.  This interpretation of creation, which is reflected in many passages in the Old Testament, would make the Hebrew view structurally similar to that reflected in man other Near Eastern creation myths, and to that of Plato’s Timaeus.  In the Timaeus the “Demiurge” is a craftsman working with materials that are not completely malleable to his will.  They confront him with elements of “necessity,” and he works to create out of the chaos a world that is as good “as possible.”  The world achieved represents a victory of “persuasion” over necessity.

Traditional theologians have contrasted the “Christian” or “biblical” understanding of creation with this Platonic view.  Creation really worthy of the name, they have said, is not the mere remolding of pre-existing materials, but is making things out of nothing.  Most importantly, the Platonic view held that these pre-existing materials put limits on what God could do; since they were not created by him out of nothing, they were not totally subject to his will.  This runs counter to clear biblical statements of divine omnipotence (e.g., Gen. 18:14: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”; Matt. 19:26: “With God all things are possible”).  And it is destructive of the hope that God will totally defeat the powers of evil and make all things new.  Accordingly, the traditional Christian view of creatio ex nihilo was formed indirect opposition to the idea of creation out of chaos.

It is interesting to note that a doctrine so central to traditional theology has so little direct biblical support.  The only clear statement in II Maccabees (7:28), a book that Protestants and Jews do no include in their Bibles.  The majority of passages I the Old Testament that speak to the issue one way or the other support the idea that creation involved bringing order out of pre-existing materials.  Many contemporary theologians who think the notion of creatio ex nihilo is important agree that they have the weight of the biblical evidence against them, but argue that this is not decisive: the crucial question is, which view is more compatible with the essence of the Christian faith?  Some would add: and which view is, all things considered, most reasonable?  These indeed are the grounds upon which the debate should rest, especially since the biblical evidence is so ambiguous.  Of course, having argued that the number of explicit biblical passages is not decisive in regard to creatio ex nihilo, upholders of traditional theology should in fairness grant this in regard to the related issue of divine omnipotence, where they have the majority of explicit passages on their side.

The point to be stressed here is that the contrast between the two views is not a contrast between one view that is “biblical” and based on “revelation” and another that is a “departure from the biblical view” based on “dubious speculation.”  The biblical support is ambiguous.  And both views are speculative hypotheses.  The only question is which hypothesis has more to commend it.


Statement of the Problem of Evil

In order to compare different solutions to the problem of evil, we need to have a clear statement of what the problem is.  The apparently simply statement found in most textbooks are riddled with ambiguities. The usual 4-step statement is:

1.    If God is all-powerful, God could prevent all evil.

2.    If God is all-good, God would want to prevent all evil.

3.     Evil exists.

4.    Therefore God is either not all-powerful or all-good (or both).

The central ambiguity is that none of the premises indicate whether the evil to which they refer is genuine evil or merely apparent evil.  This ambiguity has allowed many theologians to have false sense of confidence that the problem is quite easily solved.  They reject premise 2 on the grounds that a good God would not want to prevent all evil, since much evil turns out to contribute to a higher good.  But, rather than being a rejection or premise 2, this move is really a rejection of premise 3, as these theologians are saying in effect that there is no genuine evil––all the evil is merely apparent evil since it contributes to a greater good.

For these and other reasons, I find the following 7-step statement to be most helpful in eliminating ambiguities, thereby allowing one to see just which premise is being rejected by the various theodicies.[2] 

1.     To be God, a being must be omnipotent (with an “omnipotent being” defined as one whose power to bring about what it wills is essentially unlimited––except [perhaps] by logical impossibilities).

2.     An omnipotent being could unilaterally bring about a world devoid of genuine evil (with “genuine evil” defined as anything that makes the world worse than it could have otherwise been).

3.     To be God, a being must be morally perfect.

4.     A morally perfect being would want to bring about a world devoid of genuine evil.

5.     If there is a God, there would be no genuine evil.

6.     But there is genuine evil in the world.

7.     Therefore there is no God. 

I will comment upon some of the six premises, pointing out the ambiguities some of the terms are designed to eliminate.

In premise 1, the key term is “essentially.”  Some theologians believe in a divine self-limitation, in which God voluntarily gave up power.  This would not be essential limitation.  God’s power is essentially limited only if this limitation is “in the nature of things,” not being a product of God’s will.  This limitation could be due to another actuality or actualities having its or their own inherent power, or to some impediment to God’s will in God’s own nature (a “dark side” to God not totally controllable by the divine will), or to the possibilities open to God (perhaps the realm of “possible worlds” contain none that is devoid of evil).  Regarding the last phrase of the premise: most theologians who have affirmed divine omnipotence have held that God cannot do that which is logically impossible, but they have not considered this to be a real limitation on God’s power.

In premise 2 one of the key terms is “unilaterally.”  If that term is not inserted, the statement could mean: God could bring about a world devoid of genuine evil, if God is lucky, i.e., if the creatures decide to co-operate. But if that were all that were meant, premise 5 would not follow from premises 1-4, and the whole argument would be invalid.  It is only if God could unilaterally bring about such a world that God can be blamed for not doing so.  We do not blame parents for not raising perfect children, even though it is logically possible for them to do so, since we recognize that there are all sorts of limitations upon their influence––the main one being the power of self-determination possessed by the children by which they can resist their parents’ wills.

I have already pointed out the importance of inserting the word “genuine” before “evil.”  With this insertion, we can be spared those lengthy explanations as to why a good God would allow evil for the sake of a higher good, since the statement already says that the only kind of evil in question is genuine evil, precisely the kind which does not make the world better place, all things considered.  Hence this insertion forces those who might otherwise attack premise 4 to openly reject premise 6––a move that is possible but which makes most sensitive people uncomfortable, especially in this post-Holocaust world.


Creation and Divine Power

I now turn to the solution I favor, to which the rejection of creatio ex nihilo is fundamental.  In fact, the problem of evil is uniquely a problem for those theistic positions that hold the doctrine of omnipotence implied by the doctrine of creation out of nothing.  For, the problem of evil can be stated as a syllogism entailing the non-existence of deity only if deity is defined as omnipotent in the sense of having no essential limitations upon the exercise of its will.  And it is precisely omnipotence in this sense that the speculative hypothesis of creatio ex nihilo is designed to support.

Two issues are involved.  First, if God in creating our world necessarily worked with some pre-existent actualities, these actualities might well have some power of their own with which they could partially thwart the divine will.  Second, there might be some eternal, uncreated, necessary principles (beyond purely logical truths) about the way these actualities can be ordered which limit the sorts of situations that are really possible.  But if God created this world out of absolutely nothing, then the beings of this world are absolutely dependent upon God.  Any power they have is not at all inherent, but is totally a gift of God, and as such can be overridden (or, which amounts to the same thing, withdrawn) at any time.  And if there has not always been a multiplicity of finite actualities, it does not make sense to think of any uncreated and hence necessary principles as to how the actualities of the world can be ordered.  Any such principles would be purely contingent ones, created along with the actualities whose behavior they describe, and hence alterable at (divine) will.

My solution dissolves the problem of evil by denying the doctrine of omnipotence fundamental to it.  Of the various ways of denying deity’s essentially unlimited power to effect its will, mine is to hypothesize that there has always been a plurality of actualities having some power of their own.  This power is two-fold: the power to determine themselves (partially), and the power to influence others.

Traditional theism has always held that energy or power is eternal.  But it hypothesized that this power all essentially belonged to God alone, and was at some point all embodied in God.  I share the view of those who hold instead that power has always existed in non-divine actualities as well as in the divine actuality.  No special philosophical problems are raised by this view: if it is intelligible to hold that the existence of God requires no explanation, since something must exist necessarily and “of itself,” then it is not unintelligible to hold that that which exists necessarily is God and a realm of non-divine actualities.  Nor is this a denial that our world is contingent and created by God.  My view is that the beings making up our world, including the most primitive ones (such as quarks and electrons) are contingent, having been brought about and sustained through the creative providential activity of God.  All that is necessary to the hypothesis is that power has always been and necessarily is shared power, that God has never had and could never have a monopoly on power, and that the power possessed by the non-divine actualities is inherent to them and hence cannot be cancelled out or overridden by God.

This last point is the most essential one.  Some theologians might agree that we have power, even power in relation to God, and yet say that God could overpower us and hence totally determine our activities, including our willing and desiring.  But that is excluded by what I mean by saying that we have inherent power in relation to God.  The claim is precisely that our self-determining activity, and the consequent influence we have on others, cannot be totally controlled by God.  Hence God cannot control but can only persuade what we become and how we affect others.

My position is that this inherent power did not arise at some point in the past, such as with the creation of human beings.  All creatures have at least some iota of this two-fold power.  And there have, by hypothesis, always been such creatures that have had some power of their own by which they could resist the divine creating activity.

Our present view that the creation of our world occurred through a long evolutionary process jives with the notion of creation out of chaos and its correlative assumption that divine creative power is necessarily persuasive.  The outdated view that all the present species were created instantaneously in their present forms jived with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and its correlative idea of divine omnipotence. Contemporary theologians who accept the evolutionary hypothesis and yet hold to the hypothesis of divine omnipotence have a lot of explaining to do.  Most centrally they must explain why a God whose power is essentially unlimited would use such a long, pain-filled method, with all its blind-alleys, to create a world.  The need for explanation is further aggravated when they hold that human beings are the only creatures that are really important to God, and that the rest of the creation exists only for the sake of the divine-human drama.  If that is so, why did God take so long getting to the main act?  Of course, theologians can claim that they need not answer these questions.  But the hypothesis of divine omnipotence must, like any hypothesis, commend itself by its explanatory power.  Each unanswered question reveals deficiencies in that power.


Necessary Correlations between

Power and Value

The fact that our world arose through an evolutionary process has further theological relevance beyond the support it gives for the idea that God’s power is necessarily persuasive.  It also gives support to the idea that there are certain necessary principle correlating power and value.  These correlations form the second major part of my theodicy (the first being that all individuals have inherent power so that God’s power is necessarily persuasive).  My thesis here is that there is a positive correlation among the following four variables, so that as one rises in degree the others necessarily rise proportionately:


1.    The capacity to enjoy intrinsic goodness (or value).

2.    The capacity to suffer intrinsic evil (or dis-value).

3.     The power of self-determination.

4.    The power to influence others (for good or ill).


By “intrinsic value” I mean the value that something has for itself, apart from any value it may have for others. Intrinsic value can be possessed only by individuals that experience, although this experience need not be self-reflexive or even conscious.  According to the non-dualistic position which I accept but cannot defend here, there are no non-experiencing individuals which are mere objects. All individuals experience, which means that all individuals have some capacity, however minimal, to enjoy and to suffer, i.e. to experience intrinsic goodness and intrinsic evil. 

This does not entail the extreme and totally unwarranted hypothesis that everything experiences.  Aggregates of individuals do not experience (e.g., when there is a crowd of people, the crowd itself has no experience over and above the experiences of the individual people).  Rocks, chairs, planets, typewriters, automobiles and probably plants are aggregates which as such have no experience; the only experiences contained in them are those of the individuals making them up. Examples of genuine individuals would be electrons, atoms, molecules, cells, and animal (including human) souls or psyches.

This means that there is a hierarchy of individuals: less complex ones are compounded into more complex ones. For example, electrons and other subatomic individuals are contained in an atom; atoms are contained in molecules; molecules in cells; and cells in living animals dominated by a central experience called the soul.  (The major difference between plants and animals is that the former do not seem to have one member that dominates over and coordinates the rest.)

The direction of the evolutionary process toward increasing complexity raises the question as to whether this directionality is explainable as a reflection of the creative purpose of God.  This would be the case if complexity could be correlated with something that a loving God would be interested in promoting.  And this is precisely what we find: increased complexity of the organism seems to be the condition for increased richness of experience, hence of increased intrinsic goodness.  Whatever experience is possessed by electrons, atoms and molecules must be extremely slight; hence any intrinsic good they can enjoy must be extremely slight (so we are justified in not considering their “rights” in our ethical deliberations).  But when we come to living cells, we are probably at the stage where significant degrees of enjoyment can first be experienced.  With animal souls, especially those supported by a central nervous system, we have another quantum jump in the capacity to experience value.  Finally, the human soul is capable of enjoying all sorts of values not open to the souls of the lower animals.

However, every increase in complexity in this hierarchy is Janus-faced: each increase in the capacity to enjoy intrinsic goodness is likewise an increase in the capacity to suffer.  It probably does not make sense to speak of the capacity for pain below the level of the cell. And––to jump to the top––the human being is susceptible to all sorts of sufferings to which the lower animals are virtually oblivious. 

My thesis is that this correlation between the capacity to enjoy and the capacity to suffer is a necessary, metaphysical correlation, inherent in the nature of things.  This thesis provides an answer to one of the central questions involved in the problem of evil, namely, “Why did God create us so that we are so susceptible to physical pain and psychological suffering?”  The answer, according to this thesis, is that God could do no other.  That is, not without foregoing beings capable of the kinds of values we can experience.  To have the good is necessarily to risk the chance of the bad.

Of course, there is nothing certain about this thesis.  It is a speculative hypothesis.  But––and this is often overlooked––the denial of the thesis is equally speculative.  No one knows for certain that such a positive correlation does not necessarily exist. In fact, to deny that the correlation is necessary, i.e., that it would have to obtain in any world, is even more speculative.  For, we know form our experience of this world that worlds in which the correlation obtains are really possible.  But we have no experiential basis for knowing that a world in which the correlation would not obtain is even possible.  (And hopefully no one will maintain that this philosophical knowledge has been vouchsafed us by revelation.)

My hypothesis is that the other variables rise proportionately with the first two, and with equal necessity.  Individuals with greater capacity for the enjoyment of values necessarily have more power of self-determination, i.e., more freedom.  One of the other questions most often asked is, “Why didn’t God create rational saints?”––by which is meant, “Why didn’t God create beings who would be like us in every respect (having the capacity for rationality and all the values this allows), except that they would never sin?”  The answer provided by my theodicy is, “Because God couldn’t.”  That is, God couldn’t do it unilaterally––recall the insertion of this word into the formal statement of the problem.  The idea of a being capable of rational thought who would always use this capacity to make the right decision is not a logically contradictory idea.  Hence there is nothing contradictory in the idea that God could produce such a being.  What is contradictory––given the hypothesis that all individuals have some power of self-determination––is that God could unilaterally produce such a being.

However, someone might well grant that answer and still press the question, refining it to this form: “Granted that God cannot completely control any individuals, since they all have some power of self-determination by which they can resist the divine persuasion, why did God give some human beings such an inordinate degree of this power.  Electrons, atoms, and molecules have, according to the hypothesis, some degree of self-determinacy, and yet they seem to do pretty much what they are supposed to.  Why aren’t human beings kept on a shorter leash?”  It is to this refined form of the question that the correlation between the first and third variables supplies an answer.  To have creatures who can enjoy much more intrinsic good than can electrons, atoms, and molecules is necessarily to have creatures with much more power of self-determination with which to deviate from the divine will.  Greater freedom is a necessary corollary of the possibility of higher value experiences.

The correlation between this third variable and the second one (the capacity to suffer) helps illumine the reason for the extent and depth of human suffering.  It is precisely we creatures who have by far the greatest capacity for suffering who likewise have by far the greatest power to deviate from God’s will for our lives.  Combining these two factors gives us an extraordinary capacity to make ourselves miserable.  God did not, according to my hypothesis, make us this way because of some mysterious reason totally beyond our ken, nor because of a desire to “toughen us up,” nor because of some sadistic strain in the divine nature.  God did it because there was no choice––except the choice of calling off the evolutionary advance before beings of our complexity had emerged.

The fourth variable explains the need for an evolutionary process in order to attain the kind of world we now have.  This fourth variable says that those individuals with more intrinsic value (for themselves) also have more instrumental value (to contribute to others).  For example, electrons and protons do not have as much intrinsic value as molecules.  Accordingly they do not have sufficient data to contribute to support a living cell; the cell cold not emerge prior to the requisite atoms and molecules. Likewise an animal soul could not be supported by the data that can be derived from a large aggregate of atoms; a large aggregate of cells was required before the animal soul could emerge.

From the perspective of my theological position, the fact that our world was evidently formed through a long, step-by-step process constitutes no refutation, even partially, of the hypothesis of divine creation. Nor does it present theology with a probable fact that can only be handled by some ad hoc hypothesis. Rather, it suggests a way of understanding God’s creative activity that does not present theology with an insuperable problem of evil.  And it fits in perfectly with a set of principles that commend themselves on other grounds.

The fourth variable also illuminates even further the reason this world is such a dangerous place, especially since human beings have arrived in it.  Those beings with the greatest power of self-determination, and hence the greatest power to deviate from the divine will for the good of the whole, necessarily have the greatest power to influence others––for good or ill.  The capacity to create and the capacity to destroy go hand in hand.

Again, this feature of our world was not ordained by God for some reason that God only knows.  Rather, by hypothesis this is a feature that would necessarily obtain in any world; the principles correlating value and power are uncreated.  (Incidentally, they need not be conceived as metaphysical principles external to God.  Rather, they can be thought of as belonging to the divine essence.  Like divine omniscience and love, they can be considered principles that are neither the product of the divine will, nor contrary to it.) 


The Goodness of God

What then is the upshot of my theodicy, my attempt to “justify the ways of God”?  It is not to maintain that god is not responsible for any of the evil in the world.  For, in a very real sense, God is responsible for all of those things that we normally think of when we refer to the problem of evil.  For, if God had not persuaded the world to bring forth living cells and then animal life, there would be no significant suffering in the world.  If God had not continued to draw the creation upward until creatures with the capacity for rational thought were evoked, there would be no moral evil, or sin, i.e., deliberate disobedience to the divine will; nor would the most awful forms of suffering exist––there would be no Holocausts.

The question then is, “Can God be thus responsible without being indictable, i.e., blameworthy?”  I would say “Yes.”  In the first place, although god is ultimately responsible for the world’s having reached a state in which significant evils can occur, God is never totally responsible for the evils that do occur.  Each situation contains seeds for good and evil.  God (by hypothesis) seeks to lure the creatures to realize the greatest good that is possible in that particular situation.  When the creatures actualize a lesser possibility, this failure is due to their exercise of power, not God’s.

In the second place the aim of a “morally good being” is more accurately stated positively than negatively.  That is, the aim is first of all to produce good, not to avoid suffering.  If the moral aim could be adequately expressed as the intention to avoid suffering, then moral adults would never have children––that would be the way to guarantee that they would never have children who would suffer or cause suffering.  Analogously, a perfectly moral God would simply avoid bringing forth a world with any creatures capable of any significant degree of suffering.  But––by hypothesis––this would mean that there would be no world with any significant value in it.  Surely that cannot be our idea of what a perfectly moral being would do!  The aim must be to create the conditions that allow for the great good while minimizing the evils.

In other words, suffering and sinful intentions resulting in suffering are not the only forms of evil.  Any absence of good that could have been realized is evil even if no suffering is involved.  Recall that the definition of genuine evil offered earlier was “anything which makes the world worse than it could have otherwise been.”  Any absence of good that makes the world worse than it could have been, all things considered, is an evil.  Hence, for God to have failed to bring forth beings capable of experiencing significant value when this was possible would have made God indictable.

Unless, of course, the evils that were thereby made possible are so great that the goods that could be achieved are not worth the risk.  That is a question that each of us can answer only for ourselves.  Those of us who are among the most fortunate people who have ever lived on the face of the earth must of course be aware of our biased perspectives, and must be sensitive to the response that may come from the less fortunate.  But, even when trying to take into account my biased perspective, I cannot imagine that I would ever conclude that the evils of life have been so great that it would have been better had life never emerged, or that the evils of human life, as horrendous as they have been (and quite possibly the worse is still to come!), are such that it would have been better had human life never been created.

There is one other theological conviction that reinforces my judgment on this matter. This is the conviction that God shares all our sufferings (analogously to the way that I share the pains of my bodily members).  Accordingly, while every advance in the creative process has been a risk, since greater sufferings were thereby made possible as well as greater goods, this has never been a risk which God has urged us creatures to run alone.  It has always been a risk for God too.  In fact God is the only being who has experienced every single evil that has occurred in the creation.  This means that God is the one being in position to judge whether the goods achievable have been worth the price.


Natural Evil

Thus far, insofar as I have discussed the cause of evil, I have focused attention primarily on moral evil, as I have sought to explain why human beings can cause so much evil   But the theological position being outlined here is equally capable of explaining so–called “natural evil,” that which is caused by non-moral agents.  And it is this form of evil that most theodicies find most problematical.  For, they employ what I call a “hybrid free-will defense” to account for the evil caused by human beings.  I call it a hybrid free-will defense because it does not say that freedom is inherent in the world as such, but instead says that God voluntarily bestows freedom upon the creation––and usually only to a select portion of creation, i.e., to human beings alone, or to them and other rational creatures (angels).

Accordingly, this hybrid free-will defense has a difficult time with evil is apparently caused by sub-human nature, since the beings constituting this realm by hypothesis have no power with which to deviate from God’s will.  One way out is to say with Augustine that no genuine evil ever results from sub-human causes.  But in the face of the enormous and non-rationalizable distribution of sufferings caused by tornadoes, earthquakes, droughts, germs, and cancer cells, this is a difficult assertion to make.  Another way out is to affirm that all such evils are caused by a fallen angel (Satan).  This is, of course, not readily falsifiable, but it does strain credulity (for me, at least, much more than the hypothesis that all creatures have some power of their own).  Also it raises the question as to why God allows Satan to do things that make the universe worse than it cold have been; hence it calls God’s goodness or wisdom into question.[3]

According to my theodicy, all creatures great and small have some power with which to deviate from the divine will for them.  This means that there never  has been a time at which we could say that the creation was necessarily “perfect” in the sense of having actualized the best possibilities that were open to it.  Granted, very low-grade actualities cannot be thought to deviate very much from the divine aims for them. But over a period of billions of years very slight deviations occurring in each moment can add up to a state of the world that is very far removed from the state that would have results had the divine aims been actualized all the way along.  Accordingly, if God has always worked with materials that were not necessarily in a perfect state, and which have some inherent power to deviate from God’s aims and to influence their successors forevermore, there is no reason to infer that cancer, polio, tornadoes, and earthquakes exist because God wanted our world to have them.


Why Does God Not

“Prevent” Some Evils?

I will conclude with a discussion intended to drive home more clearly why God (according to my hypothesis) simply cannot prevent the major types of evils that usually lead people to question God’s goodness or even reality.  These questions can be phrased in the form: “Why didn’t God prevent such and such?”  For example, why didn’t God prevent that bullet from striking my son?  Why didn’t God prevent that mine shaft from caving in?  Why did God allow all the pain that occurred in the evolutionary process?  Why didn’t God prevent Hitler from murdering six million Jews?

The answer to questions of this type will be more evident to us if we think in terms of the way God can affect the following three types of entities: (1) low-grade enduring individuals; (2) high-grade enduring individuals; (3) aggregates of individuals. (For the sake of simplicity I have left out the whole spectrum of medium-grade individuals, from the lowest animals through the non-human primates.)  These three types of entities differ from each other in having (1) very little power of self-determination, (2) very great power of self-determination, and (3) no power of self-determination, respectively.

(1) God acts in the world, by hypothesis, by seeking to persuade individuals to actualize the best possibilities that are real possibilities for them. (E.g., it is not a real possibility for a chipmunk to write a symphony.)  Low-grade enduring individuals, such as electrons, atoms, molecules, having very little power of self-determination, and not having many real possibilities open to them, cannot change their behavior very quickly.  Individuals at this level are largely the products of their inheritance and their environment.  They essentially repeat the same patterns of behavior, century after century.  Even as we move into the medium-grade level, with living cells, the capacity for novel self-determining behavior is very limited, compared with that of human beings.

The theological significance of this discussion is this: on the one hand, these low-grade individuals cannot deviate very much from the divine aims for them.  On the other hand, the divine aims for them, since they can only be for possibilities that are real possibilities for these low-grade creatures, cannot be aims for very radical changes in behavior. Insofar as God can move these individuals to change their ways, it must be over a very long period of time. (This is why evolutionary change occurred so gradually until relatively recently on earth.)

Accordingly, if the behavior of one or more of these individuals is causing destruction in its environment, God cannot do much quickly to change things.  For example, if you have been exposed to radio-active materials, God cannot divert the alpha, beta, and gamma particles out of your body before they have done irreversible damage.  If cancerous cells have developed in your body, God cannot lure them to leave voluntarily.

(2) By “high-grade enduring individuals” I am referring here exclusively to human beings.  These individuals have much power of self-determination, and have many more real possibilities open to them than do the lower creatures. Hence, very rapid changes of behavior can occur with them.  What is God’s power to affect them?  On the one hand, God can present quite novel aims to  them, one after another. And God can seek to persuade them to change their behavior quite rapidly––for example to stop one’s journey to help the victim of a crime.  But on the other hand, these creatures have tremendous power with which to deviate from the divine aims for them, and they can deviate much more widely than can lower individuals.  In a relatively short time after they learned to write, these individuals could discover that E=mc2; and they can use this knowledge to destroy the world even more quickly.

Thus far I have been speaking of individuals. Most of these are compound individuals in which a number of individuals are ordered hierarchically, with one dominant member giving a unity of experience and activity to the whole society.  The atom, the molecule, and the cell all have a unity of activity due to this hierarchical organization.  Likewise the animal, by virtue of the dominating influence of its soul, has a unity of response to its environment.

(3) But some of the entities of this world seem to have no such unity.  They are mere aggregates.  Non-living things such as rocks, bodies of water, planets, automobiles, and timbers are obvious examples. Plants also probably have no dominant member, no soul.  In any case, those things which are aggregates cannot, as aggregates, be directly affects by God. Since God acts by seeking to persuade individuals, and there is by definition dominating the other members of an aggregate, God cannot directly get an aggregate to do anything.  God can move a living human body by persuading the soul to move; if the soul decides to cross the street, the rest of the body has little choice but to go along (assuming a healthy body). But there is no corresponding means by which God can directly move a rock––or get it to stop moving down the ban towards the highway.  There is no way for God to stop that bullet speeding toward the heart of a man “too young to die.”  There is no way for God to stop the overburdened timber in a mine shaft from caving in.  There is no way God can stop the automobile with a sleeping driver from crashing into the oncoming cars.  There is no way God can prevent that aggregate of molecules called a hurricane from devastating the towns in its paths.

In the earlier part of the paper I stressed what God has been doing in the world, by way of creating the conditions for good.  With more space, I would describe some of the ways in which God seeks to overcome evil in the world. But I thought it best in these last few pages to stress the limitations on God’s prevention of evil, since God’s “failure” to prevent evil is usually the chief source of complaint, by theists and non-theists alike.  This brief analysis of these limitations leads to the following three-fold conclusion: 

1.    Those things which cannot deviate much from the divine will also cannot be influenced by God very quickly.

2.    Those things which can be influence by God quickly can deviate drastically from the divine will.

3.    Those things which can do nothing on their own cannot be directly influenced by God at all. 

I could not, of course, in the brief space of this essay hope to justify the wide-ranging hypothesis outlined here.  But I do hope that readers find the hypothesis potentially helpful enough to consider it worthy of further exploration.  It (including variations on it) is the only hypothesis I have found that makes faith possible in the face of the horrendous evils that occur in our world.


Faith, Reason, and Theodicy

The foregoing completes the sketch of my substantive theodicy.  However, a theodicy is only one part of a complete theology.  The differences between theodicies are closely correlated with different understandings of the total theological task.  In this final section I will briefly summarize my understanding of this task, especially the relationship between “faith” (in “revelation”) and “reason,” and how this understanding is related to the theodicy sketched above.

The central theme running through the following points is that I reject all views according to which faith is somehow opposed to reason.

(1) I reject the view that we are called to believe any ideas, allegedly based on “revelation,” that are self-contradictory.  For example, some theologians admit it is contradictory to maintain both that (A) God determines all events and that (B) human beings are partly free and hence responsible for their actions; yet these theologians claim that “faith” demands that we affirm both of these ideas. I reject the view that “faith” forces us to reject “reason” in the sense of logical consistency.

(2) Some theologians hold that logical consistency is the only requirement of “reason” to which our beliefs must conform.  According to this view, reason’s task of determining the most probable view of the world need not influence our religious beliefs.  Hence the believer is said to be “rationally justified” in maintaining some theological belief that seems very improbable so long as no logical impossibility (inconsistency) is involved.  Theologians, to defend the rationality of some doctrine, need only present some hypothesis, however improbable, that shows the doctrine might be true.  I reject this view. The theological task as I see it is to present a view of reality that seems more probable than other available views.

(3) Implicit in the previous two points is the view that the Christian “revelation” does not provide us with a set of clearly formulated statements which can then be compared with another set of statements produced by “reason.”  All Christian doctrines are human attempts to formulate the significance of experiences taken to be revelatory.  For example, it was never shouted down from heaven, or even whispered, that God is triune, or that the world was created out of nothing, or that God is omnipotent, or that God is perfect love.  Each of these doctrines arose in the past as fallible human beings, guided but not controlled by the divine spirit, tried to express their understanding of God in the most adequate way possible, given their contexts, including their questions, their knowledge of the world, and the conceptual tools available to them. 

Our theological task today is not to try to hold on to their formulations at any price, but to re-think the implications of the Christian revelatory events in the light of our contexts––our questions, our knowledge, and our conceptual tools. Accordingly, one theologian cannot dismiss another’s position as “unchristian” simply by showing that it does not accept some ancient dogma, especially some previous attempt to state quite precisely the meaning of some fundamental Christian idea. For example, the idea that we and the world in which we find ourselves owe our existence to God is one I consider central to Christian faith; but I see no warrant for the insistence that this idea must be expressed in terms of “creation out of nothing,” especially if that means that there was a time when God existed all alone, without any realm of finitude whatever.

(4) The idea that “faith” and “reason” confront each other as two sets of possibly conflicting statements not only reflects an unacceptable view of revelation; it also reflects a misunderstanding of reason. There is no such thing as a world-view that is based upon “pure reason,” unaffected by some “faith.”  Every world-view is based upon a pre-rational acceptance of some “insight” or “hunch” or “clue” as to the nature of reality.  Some dimension of experience or part of reality is taken as the essential clue to the nature of the whole. One’s reasoning is guided by this pre-rational acceptance of a starting-point.  Faith in the Christian revelation gives Christian theologians a starting-point for their reasoning that is analogous to the starting-points accepted on faith by theologians of other persuasions.  (These theologians are usually called “philosophers” when their acceptance of some “faith” as a starting-point is not acknowledged.)  The Christian starting-point justifies itself rationally insofar as it provides the basis for a more probable (i.e., more consistent, adequate, and illuminating) account of this mysterious world in which we find ourselves than those views which being with some other “revelation.”

(5) In the preceding sentence, one of the criteria for a “more probable” account was that it had to be “more adequate.”  This means, “more adequate to the facts.”  What are the “facts” to which an account must be adequate?  This is, of course, often precisely the point at issue among various theological and philosophical systems.  One system is seeking to account for facts that the other system dismisses as “myth” or “illusion.”  Nevertheless considerable agreement is possible; there are many things that are widely acknowledged to be “facts,” or at least acknowledged to be so probable that any presently accepted theory must incorporate them.  The area that springs most quickly to mind for most people today is probably the whole body of widely accepted scientific facts (meaning primarily the natural sciences).  I would include, for example, the idea that more complex forms of life evolved over a period of millions of years from less complex forms is one of the scientific ideas that is so probable that it must be incorporated into any acceptable theological doctrine of creation.

However, there is another type of “fact” that should be even more regulative of our theological formulations: there are a number of ideas that we all presuppose in practice whether or not we espouse them verbally.  Even if we verbally deny these ideas, our behavior shows that we accept the.  For example, some philosophers have denied that we have any knowledge of causation in the sense that one event influences another event.  And yet all of us, including those same philosophers, presuppose in every moment that we are influenced by other events (otherwise we wouldn’t get angry at others for stabbing us) and that our present actins will influence the future (otherwise we wouldn’t brush our teeth).  All those notions that are presupposed in practice by all people, regardless of their cultural backgrounds, have been called “common notions.”  To deny one of them would be to be guilty of self-contradiction, for one would be denying verbally what one is otherwise presupposing in one’s living. 

These common notions constitute the most fundamental facts to which any philosophical or theological position must be adequate. It is not an easy matter to formulate these common notions precisely.  In fact, the attempt to approximate them more and more closely is the unending philosophical task.  However, some of them can be identified and expressed with enough adequacy to serve as criteria.  Any position that clearly denies one of these common notions is ipso facto inadequate.  One such common notion, I maintain, is that we are partially free and hence partially responsible for our actions; another one is that genuinely evil things happen in the world.

(6) One other central assumption behind my theodicy involves the nature of “religion.”  What does being “religious” or having “faith” involve?  Most centrally, it involves what has variously been called “a vision of God,” “a sense of the sacred,” “a taste of the holy,” etc.  What is meant by the “holy” or the “sacred” probably cannot be adequately defined, but certain pointers can be given.  The holy is that which evokes awe, worship, commitment.  It is that which has ultimate intrinsic value, and in relation to which other things have their value.  To sense something as being holy is to want to be in harmony with it.  This, in fact, is the basic religious drive of human beings––the desire to be in harmony with the holy reality.

What attributes does a reality need to have to be considered holy?  Insofar as one is talking of things that have been actually worshiped as holy, there has been great diversity.  If we limit attention to what has been explicitly conceived as worthy or worship, then the number of characteristics is greatly reduced, and there is some unanimity on certain characteristics.  For example, the various religions agree that the ultimately holy reality must be eternal, and must exist necessarily.  Also it must be the ultimately decisive power, at least in regard to matters of ultimate concern.  And there is considerable consensus that the divine must be perfect, in the sense defined by Anselm: that greater than which nothing can be thought. Only that which is perfect an evoke our wholehearted worship and commitment.

But there are still important differences among the various religious traditions.  In particular, there are differences in regard to which attributes are essential to perfection, and hence which attributes must be possessed to a perfect degree.  The tradition in which we stand largely shapes our perception of what a reality must be like in order to be considered holy, perfect, worthy of worship and ultimate commitment.  Those who have been decisively shaped by the biblical tradition generally have felt that to be holy a reality had to be morally perfect (as well as eternal, necessarily existing, and perfect in power).  In fact this perception has been so central that the word “holy” has tended to lose much of its original meaning and to become virtually synonymous with “morally good.”  It is the idea that the holy reality is morally perfect as well as perfect in power that creates the problem of evil: if God is perfect in regard to both power and moral intention, it seems that there should be no evil in the world. (My solution to this problem involves arguing that “perfect power” need not be equated with the traditional doctrine of omnipotence.)

(7)  I said above that to sense something as holy is to want to be in harmony with it.  To make this statement credible, a distinction implicit in it must be made explicit.  This is the distinction between a perception (what I have been calling a vision, a taste, or a sense) of the holy, and the conception (or belief) in something as holy.  One may conceptually believe, for example, that the God revealed through the biblical tradition is holy, and hence believe that on we should live in harmony with this God’s will, without really perceiving the world in these terms.  One will perceive something else to be holy, such as material things or “the bitch goddess success,” and it is around this other thing that one’s life will be decisively oriented.  One’s conception of the holy will have some affect upon one’s attitudes and emotions and hence upon one’s outer behavior: for example, one may give some money to the church.  But one’s attitudes, emotions and behavior will be more decisively affected by one’s perception of holiness.  Insofar as one’s conception and perception of holiness conflict, one will be psychically split, unable to act spontaneously on one’s beliefs, and unable to support one’s spontaneous impulses with conviction.  It is the task of preachers, teachers, counselors and finally the individuals themselves to bring their perceptions of holiness into harmony with their beliefs.  This presupposes, of course, that the beliefs are worthy beliefs, ones to which people’s perceptions of the world ought to be aligned.  It is the task of the Christian theologian to help people arrive at a set of beliefs that are worthy and that can, at the same time and place, be somewhat readily apprehended as convincing, so that the beliefs about the Christian God can become a perception of this God as the Holy Reality.

(8) One implication of this understanding of the theological task is that a repetition of doctrines that performed this task quite well in previous centuries may fail miserably today.  What I have in mind in particular is this:  throughout most of Christian history in Europe (roughly the 4th to the 18th centuries), the cultural situation was such that the reality of God seemed overwhelmingly obvious to most people.  The understanding of the Bible, the ideas of the leading thinkers, the works of the leading artists, and the authority of the leading institutions all presupposed and reinforced the conceptual belief and perceptual faith in the Christian God.  In such a situation the theologian could, when having trouble reconciling Christian doctrines with each other, appeal to “mystery” without defaulting on the theological task.  Likewise, when Christian doctrines conflicted with the conclusions of “reason,” the theologian could simply appeal to authority (including the “authority” of reason which provided proofs for the existence of God), which supported the Christian doctrines.  In other words, the theologian did not need to present a comprehensive view of the world that was intrinsically convincing.  The truth of the Christian position (whatever it was) was widely held to be externally guaranteed (through the authority of the Bible and/or the Church).  In those centuries the theological task could be primarily limited to the refinement of belief and the essentially negative task of responding to objections to this or that doctrine.  The problem of evil in that situation constituted no overwhelming problem threatening to undermine faith itself.  There was widespread confidence that there was a solution, known to God, and there was no overriding need to be able to discover that solution.  Theologians often did devote many pages to it, but when they encountered questions they could not answer, there was no sense of desperation.  They could calmly say that those remaining problems were “mysteries” which we were not intended to understand.

But in our day, all of this has changed.  The results of the historical-critical approach to the Bible that has been carried out in the past two centuries make it very difficult to consider it (the Bible) an external guarantee for any particular doctrines.  The same is true for the Church.  The “authority” of the Church and its theologians is virtually non-existent.  Furthermore, the leading thinkers of the day, especially the philosophers, do not provide a cultural context in which the reality of God is either assumed or commonly supported by argumentation.  In this situation the evils experienced in the twentieth century constitute a much more serious problem for faith in God than did the evils experience by people in earlier centuries (and this is true even if one does not believe that the horrendous events of this century exceed the evils of the previous centuries qualitatively or even quantitatively).

I will now apply the above points to the task of a theodicy for our times. A theodicy should be part of a total theological position that is intended to be more consistent, adequate, and illuminating of our experience than any of the alternative philosophical and theological positions of the time.  Such a theodicy cannot merely show that the evils of the world do not necessarily contradict belief in God’s perfect goodness and power.  Nor can such a theodicy resort to encouraging us to believe that there is a God of perfect goodness and power in spite of the fact that the appearances suggest that some other hypothesis is more probable.  Rather, such a theodicy must attempt to portray the world so that the hypothesis that the world has been created by such a God seems more likely than other hypotheses, so that those who accept this belief can come to perceive the world in these terms.  In such a theodicy the evils of the world should not be an embarrassment to the total theological position; they should not be that ‘fact’ to which the theology somehow manages to be ‘adequate’ but which would fit more comfortably within some contrary hypothesis.  Rather, the theodicy should ideally be more illuminating of the nature of evil, and the reason for its existence, than other portrayals of reality, including atheistic ones.

These are austere ideals for a theodicy, and I do not pretend that mine achieves them.  But they are the standards by which I think a theodicy in our time should be measured.  The substantive differences between my theodicy and the others in this volume probably all reflect differences in regard to these formal matters. This does not necessarily mean that all debate should shift from substantive doctrine to formal issues, for there is a dialectical relation between substantive and formal issues.  One’s substantive beliefs influence one’s position on formal issues at least as much as the other way around.

What it does mean is that debates as to the adequacy of various theodicies should not be carried on apart from reflection on the over-all task of Christian theology in our time.


[1] Rather than rejecting creatio ex nihilo, some theologians (e.g., Nicholas Berdyaev) distinguish between two interpretations of nihil:  absolute nothingness (ouk on in Greek) and relative nothingness (mē on).  They then affirm the doctrine in the second sense.  That is a perfectly acceptable approach, and one which I as a Whiteheadian can take, since a pure chaos would have no order, and the first type of order is the ordering of momentary events into series of “enduring objects,” such as electrons.  Since when we speak of a “thing” we normally have an enduring object in mind, there would be no-thing in a state of pure chaos.  However, the doctrine of ex nihilo has usually been used to affirm creation out of absolutely nothing, often with the specific intention of denying creation out of chaos.  It is in this sense that I employ the term in this essay.

[2] Even this expanded statement would not be adequate for all positions, since some theologians do not consider God to be “a being.”  But this problem does not arise for the positions articulated in this book.

[3] Defenders of the hybrid free-will defense have another major problem which my more consistent affirmation of creaturely freedom avoids.  According to their position, since God freely created human freedom, God could interrupt it at any time.  Hence they must explain why God does not interrupt it to prevent at least some of the more horrendous moral evils that occur. This problem, along with that of accounting for natural evil, tends to lead them finally to deny that any events are genuinely evil.

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