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David Ray Griffin

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From Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, Stephen T. Davis, ed. Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1981. A revised edition was published in 2001. (See Amazon link in left column.)  Professor Griffin's publications on the problem of evil include two books: 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.  (See Amazon links in left column.) 

A Critique of

John K. Roth's Theodicy

David Ray Griffin

Roth and I agree that all evil cannot be explained away as merely apparent, and that therefore the traditional doctrine of omnipotence cannot be consistently held with the doctrine that God is totally good.  And we agree that this is true even with Hick’s addition of the doctrine of divine self-limitation.  We only disagree in that Roth rejects the doctrine of God’s total goodness instead of the traditional doctrine of omnipotence.  One reason is that he believes this option provides a better basis for hope: if the reason for evil were an ontological limitation on God’s power, we could never expect a radical reversal in the relation between good and evil; but if the excessive evil is due to a moral problem in God, we can regard this as a merely contingent fact that may be overcome.  In fact, our very protest may, Roth seems to say, be a factor in effecting the needed conversion in God.

I will mention three of the major problems I have with his view.  First, I see no basis for hope that a partly evil deity could be led to repent.  In our case, conversions usually involve coming to adopt a larger perspective on things.  But God by definition already has an all-inclusive perspective.  We have experienced the difficulty of trying to change the mind of a president who thought he was in control of the facts: our protests fell on deaf ears, since he was convinced in advance that our protests were based on ignorance of the total picture.

Also, how long has God had this moral defect?  Presumably forever.  That’s a long time!  And many would say that that which has been forever is necessary.  This makes very questionable Roth’s suggestion that a moral problem in God would be merely contingent.  The moral problem of a lack of total goodness in God may be just as irreversible as the ontological limitation on God’s control hypothesized in my essay.

Second, I believe Roth’s position contradicts the very nature of religion.  Vital religion, as I understand it, is driven by the desire to be in harmony with what is taken to be the Holy Reality.  The extraordinary moral concern in cultures decisively affected by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism is due to the fact that the Holy One worshiped by devotees of these religions has been perceived to be a Just and Righteous God.  It is true that many of the doctrines of the theologians of these traditions have implications, when examined closely, that make God’s goodness questionable.  But the ordinary believers have always held God’s holiness to include, as a central element, goodness without qualification.  When this belief has been challenged by the problem of evil, theologians and ordinary believers have taken comfort in the assurance that in some way, perhaps totally mysterious to our finite minds, God is nevertheless totally good.

This conception, and the intimately related perception that goodness is holy, have been fundamental to the more-than-normal drive in these cultures to reform the structures of society to make them more just.  And yet Roth now urges us to adopt a position in which we would consciously be working for justice in opposition to God.  We are to be “for God by being against God,” to “turn divine injustice into human justice.”  This attitude is psychologically possible in the short run, i.e., for people whose perceptions and aims were originally molded by the drive to be in harmony with the Holy One whose goodness, when it differed from our conceptions of justice, did so by going beyond it, not by falling short of it.  But, if my understanding of religion is correct, the attitude Roth advocates is psychologically impossible in the long run: the belief that God is not perfectly good will eventually undercut our own concern for moral goodness.  The religious drive to be in harmony with Roth’s God, rather than countering our own evil tendencies, will actually give support to them.  This is the most unfortunate aspect of Roth’s position: directly counter to his intentions, his position does legitimate evil, since it says that deity itself, the Holy One, the one with an all-inclusive perspective, fosters it unnecessarily.

My third criticism: Roth rightly points out that everything in his position hinges on the proposition that God has totally determined the basic structure of the world and has the power to intervene to prevent any specific evils.  But he provides no good reasons for affirming this all-important proposition.  In part he seems to affirm it because of the biblical statements that all things are possible to God.  But this cannot provide a sufficient basis for several reasons.  First, Roth believes that God gave freedom to human beings, and humans could have used their freedom to write false statements in the Bible.  Second, even if that statement were divinely inspired, that would provide no assurance of its truth, since Roth’s God might have inspired that idea while in one of his more demonic moods.  Third, there are many statements in the Bible, such as those affirming God’s total goodness, that Roth rejects.

One of Roth’s explicit arguments for affirming the traditional doctrine of omnipotence is this: “If God raised Jesus from the dead he had the might to thwart the Holocaust.”  This is an extremely weak argument.  For example, it is not immediately self-evident that the kind of power needed for the two types of events is the same.  In any case, we have far too little knowledge of what precisely happened in the event we call “the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” to make sweeping ontological inferences from it.

When Roth raises the question as to why he affirms that “God is bound only by his will,” and that “all possibilities are within God’s reach,” his answer is extremely vague.  He gives no analysis of the nature of possibility; we are not told, for example, if it is possible for God to create things whose description involves logical contradictions, such as round squares.  In any case, his answer seems to reduce to the assertion that much of the tradition carried forward in the Bible continues to ring true in his life, and that this tradition has made those affirmations about God’s power.  But of course that provides no answer as to why he chooses to reaffirm this tradition’s affirmations about God’s power instead of its affirmations about God’s total goodness.

Roth describes his position as an anti-theodicy.  It is, but for a more important reason than the one he gives.  The task of theodicy is to show how, in spite of evil, there is a power worthy of worship.  The being Roth calls God is not one I can consider worthy of worship.  Of course, Roth thinks the same of the God I portray.  Since this God does not have the kind of coercive power needed to prevent natural and moral evil, Roth sees this god as “weak” and “ineffectual,” and hence as “hardly worth bothering about.”  The contrast between Roth’s position and mine raises clearly the question: what is it we should be “bothering about” in our religious activity, if we have to choose overwhelming power or overwhelming goodness?

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