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. (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.) 

Creation Out of Chaos:

Responses to Critiques


David Ray Griffin


There are numerous issues raised in the foregoing critiques [by John K. Roth, John H. Hick, Frederick Sontag, and Stephen T. Davis].  I will organize my responses to them under nine points.  The first four deal with more limited issues, and partly attempt to clear up misunderstandings.  The latter five deal with much more wide-ranging issues, including the basic issue of what Christian faith and theology are all about.  These points reflect the fact that theodicy is only one part of the total theological enterprise.

(1) Hick and Davis both evidently misunderstand the distinction between “genuine” and “apparent” evil.  It may help to introduce a third term, “prima facie evil.”  This refers to anything that is taken to be evil at first glance, as it were.  The question is whether at least some of this prima facie evil is genuinely evil, i.e., whether it results in the world’s being a worse place than it might have otherwise been, all things considered.  If one were to conclude, upon reflection, that there were no genuine evil, one would be asserting that all prima facie evil were merely apparently evil, i.e., that it was not evil at all.  That was the position adopted by traditional theists such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther.

Roth and Sontag clearly reject this view.  The positions of Hick and Davis are less clear.  They evidently think they can, without contradiction, affirm that genuine evil exists and yet that all evil will be used to contribute to a state better than which none is possible.

Hick’s affirmation is clearer, as he speaks of a “limitlessly good end-state.”  If it is “limitlessly good, there would seem to be no possible state that would be better.   Hence, none of the evil is genuine––it does not result in the world’s being a worse place overall than it could have been. 

Davis is less clear, speaking of “the great good of the kingdom of God.”  If he means this to be the greatest possible state of affairs (or at least one of the greatest possible), then he too has denied the genuineness of evil––all evil is merely apparent.  But if he means only that the kingdom of God will be a great good, but less great than it could have been, then he should tell us why his God is perfectly good if this God allows the world to come to a worse conclusion that would have been possible.  Why didn’t his God use the divine omnipotence to bring about the best possible result? 

This is the dilemma of those espousing omnipotence: they must either admit that God is not totally good, or else deny that any of the prima facie evil in the world is really evil. And if they say the latter, I fail to see how their view finally differs from that of Mary Baker Eddy (Davis’ protest notwithstanding).

(2) This leads into the question of “common notions.”  I claimed that the idea that genuinely evil things occur is one of the “common notions” of humanity, those things we all know to be true.  Hick and Davis demur, saying that not all people agree to this.  Of course, a lot of people have said that no genuine evil exists.  But I defined a common notion as one of those things that all people affirm in practice, regardless of what they may say.  Just as all Humeans reveal in practice that they know that some things causally affect other things, I claim that the emotions, attitudes, and actions of all people manifest their conviction that some things have happened that should not have happened.  So, if Hick and Davis do finally deny that any genuine evil occurs, I believe they are contradicting verbally something they affirm in practice.

(3) Roth asks for evidence for my hypothesis that every increase in the capacity for positive enjoyment is necessarily an increase in the capacity to suffer.  In trying (unsuccessfully) to provide a counter example, Roth seems to misunderstand the nature of my position.  I am simply pointing to the correlations that in fact exist, from the bottom to the top of the evolutionary scale, and then suggesting that these correlations exist necessarily (because of metaphysical truths inherent in the nature of things), rather than being due to accident or the arbitrary fiat of a creator.  It simply is a fact––at least most of us believe it to be so––that fleas can enjoy more and suffer more than single-cell organisms, dogs more than fleas, humans more than dogs, and normal adult humans more than babies.  Increased complexity in the structure of an individual means increased capacity for enjoyment and for suffering.  The correlation exists universally.  I am only suggesting that this universal correlation exists necessarily, so that it would necessarily obtain in any world God could create. 

My suggestion is a speculative hypothesis.  But it is more grounded in empirical reality than the contrary hypothesis, accepted implicitly or explicitly by other four authors.  For, they are asserting (Roth and Sontag), or at least assuming (Davis and Hick), that there are possible worlds in which this correlation does not exist.  This is an empirically groundless speculation, since we have never experienced a world in which this correlation does not exist.  Hence we do not know that such a world is really possible. But we know that a world in which the correlation holds is possible, since ours is such a world.  Hence my speculation is much more modest and rooted in empirical reality, since my speculation is limited to the suggestion that the way things are (in terms of this aspect of our world) may be the ways have to be.  Recognizing that the contrary hypothesis is not only responsible for the problem of evil, but is also based on a groundless flight of fancy, may be enough to free people from its embittering grip.

(4) Davis demands an argument for the hypothesis that all actual individuals have power of their own with which they can resist God’s will.  In other words, why is not the view that God has a monopoly on power a coherent and hence possibly true view of the world?  I have provided some argumentation for this in God, Power, and Evil, especially Chapters 7, 14, 16, 17 and 18.  To the points made there I will add one similar to the one made above in regard to the correlations: it does seem to be the case that every actual individual has power.  And if God be conceived (e.g., on the basis of Christian faith) to be perfectly good, the most natural hypothesis is that this power includes the power to go contrary to God’s will.  All the authors in this book agree that at least some creature have this power.  My hypothesis is simply that all creaturely individuals have this power necessarily, i.e. that creaturely individuals in any world God could create would have this power. 

Again, my hypothesis simply takes a fundamental aspect of the empirical situation and suggests that this aspect obtains necessarily.  The other authors, in holding that the freedom of the creatures to go contrary to God’s will is due to a voluntary relinquishment of power by God, are indulging in a much more speculative hypothesis.  For they do not have any experientially-based knowledge that a world of totally controlled actualities is even possible.  Hence, the demand for argumentation falls much more heavily on their own hypothesis than on mine.  The mere fact that they represent the majority viewpoint in the history of Christian thought and within this book does not change this situation, though it tends to disguise it.

(5) I begin now the points that reflect differences in our understandings of what Christian faith and theology are all about.  As I argued in my essay, a theodicy is simply one part of an overall theological position.

Positively, this means that to defend one’s theodicy means finally to defend one’s entire theological position.  (For example, Davis would need to defend, in the light of the historical-critical study of the Bible in the past 200 years, his assertion that we can still responsibly take the Bible as an external guarantee of the truth of particular propositions.) 

Negatively, this means that one’s theodicy is not necessarily inadequate because of its failure to fit into someone else’s total theological position.  Yet theologians keep forgetting this.  Since Roth, Sontag and Davis hold to the traditional doctrine of omnipotence, the fact that the world is pervaded by evil is a severe threat to the notion that there is a God worthy of worship. 

Because they do not share Hick’s faith that divine persuasion will eventually overcome all evil, they can justify allegiance to their God (even in the half-way fashion advocated by Roth) only by expecting an extraordinary act of God in which things will suddenly and dramatically change.  They then look at my doctrine of God’s power and conclude that it is inadequate since it does not support the kind of eschatological hope that is necessary to solve the problem of evil that was created by their doctrine of divine power.

Davis sums up their sentiments: “I do not believe the problem of evil can be solved from a Christian perspective without crucial reference to the future.”  That is true for them.  But within my theological perspective God’s creative activity can be seen as the expression of perfect goodness apart from any expectation for a radical change in the nature of finite existence, and even apart from any expectation of continued consciousness after bodily death.

(6) Another complex issue concerns the basis from which one constructs a doctrine of God.  Sontag and Roth portray me as having a “natural theology” and a “Greek” God rather than a theology based upon the biblical, especially the New Testament, revelation.  These are matters of judgment.  Is their view that the divine power of the universe is partly good and partly evil less of a “natural” theology than the view suggested by Plato and most of the bible that God is the source only of good?  Is their view of partly malevolent deity closer to the New Testament than my view, in which a God of perfect love is battling against other powers?

In any case, to take revelation seriously means, to me, to take what has actually happened more seriously in forming our doctrines than the ideas spun out of imaginative flights.  And what actually happened during the history that the “people of the book” take to be revelatory?  God’s “chosen” people are constantly defeated.  God’s prophets are stoned.  And the one whom Christians take to be God’s decisive revelation was crucified.  There is nothing in this picture that suggests that the God served possesses controlling power.  Nor does anything in the following two thousand years, including and especially the Jewish Holocaust.

Sontag and Roth think that the resurrection of Jesus supports their doctrine of omnipotence.  But what does the resurrection of Jesus reveal, in terms of divine power?  At most, that God has the power to renew life after bodily death.  It emphatically does not reveal that God created the world ex nihilo, or that God can change the basic structure of existence as we know it.  That doctrine of omnipotence is not based upon historical revelation, but upon imaginative flights designed to fill egocentric wishes.  Sontag admits as much, saying that “we must decide what we expect God to do and then outline a doctrine about a God who has power commensurate with his responsibilities and our expectations.”  Should we not instead try to discover what God is like, on the basis of the revelation history provides us and our best reasoning on the basis of this revelation, and then reform our expectations in this light?

(7) Closely related is the charge made by Sontag, Roth, and Davis that my doctrine is “optimistic.”  For this to be a source of reproach, they must mean unrealistically optimistic.  Their point is that their view is much more realistic than mine, as they know, in Sontag’s words, that “evil is pervasive e of the very structure of nature and human nature,” so that God with only persuasive power could never bring about an end to evil.  Hence, they posit a God with controlling power. 

I cannot but wonder why they find their doctrine less unrealistically optimistic than mine.  To expect, after all that has happened which any decent being with controlling power would have stopped, that God is going to act differently than ever before, bringing about a complete change in the structure of existence, seems the height of unrealistic optimism.  Again, Sontag is at least candid, saying that a theodicy should be based upon our hopes, not on our ideas of what is “likely.”

Since they have no faith in the persuasive power of love to effect salvation, they see my position as providing no basis for hope.  It is true that my position supplies no guarantee that we will not destroy ourselves and perhaps all life on this planet.  But there would be more basis for hope in this regard if those who worship God would disconnect this worship from the assumption that this God has the power unilaterally to prevent this disaster.  The complacency promoted by this unrealistic belief is one of the reasons, in my view, that people of good will have allowed the world to get into such a hopeless state.  There will be more basis for hope for this world when more people perceive that God’s modus  operandi is to save us through our activities, not in spite of them. 

(There is, I believe, a sense in which our salvation is effected by God alone, without any co-operation being required of us.  But salvation in this sense involves saving our lives from ultimate meaninglessness, from making no difference in the ultimate scheme of things.  But it is a mistake of utmost seriousness to transmute the intuition of this truth into the baseless doctrine that the reformation of our individual lives and/or our world will be effected by God unilaterally.)

(8) The differences between me and some of the other authors on the previous three issues reflect differences in regard to what the Christian gospel is, and what Christian faith is all about.  Sontag and Roth in particular think there is no “good news” in my position, and that my view makes faith in God “irrelevant.” 

From their perspective (partly for reasons explained above), the good news is that God will save us, in the sense of bringing us into a state of existence in which evil is totally overcome; and this is the content of faith––what God will do in the future. 

From my perspective, central to the good news is the cry, “Emmanuel––God is with us and for us!”  The key question, in this evil-riddled world, in which every movement, every structure, every dimension of existence is ambiguous at best, is whether there is any reality which is working unambiguously for good, to which we can give our allegiance without reservation (with our whole heart, soul, and mind), which can empower us to overcome the evil within ourselves and the world around us, and the worship of which can integrate our lives and give them purpose and direction. 

The Christian gospel, as I understand it, is that there is.  God is with us here and now, and is totally for us.  Accordingly, from this perspective it is Sontag and Roth who deny the good news by transposing the world’s ambiguity into the very heart of God.  Their God needs help as much or more than we do (which makes their characterization of my God as “pathetic” somewhat humorous).  And if what we most need, in order to prevent this whole planet from premature death, is empowerment to co-operate with God’s purposes, then it is Sontag, Roth and Davis, with their focus on what God will unilaterally do in the future, who present a faith that is irrelevant.

(9) Most of the other authors agree that my theodicy solves the problem of evil.  Their central reason for considering it inadequate is that it does so by portraying a God who is not worshipful.  This charge can mean that this God either (i) does not evoke worship or (ii) should not evoke worship.  Unfortunately they do no distinguish these two meanings.  In any case, there are several reasons given as to why the process doctrine of God is inadequate.

(A) One such reason is that this God is “limited” or “finite.”  These terms are acceptable if they are properly understood; but often they are used as synonymous with “imperfect.” 

My God is finite if this means that God is not the totality of reality, that there are other actualities besides God.  (The biblical God is clearly “finite” in this sense.) 

My God is limited if this means that these other actualities have power of their own that cannot be totally controlled by God.  (The biblical witness is ambiguous on this point.) 

But my God is not finite or limited if this means that God’s power is imperfect in comparison with that of some other conceivable deity.  As I stated in the last section of my essay, I conceive God to be perfect in power (as well as goodness), which means having the greatest power it is possible for one being to have.  Accordingly, what is at issue is not a God whose power is imperfect in contrast with a God whose power is perfect; rather, what we have is a conflict between two conceptions of perfect power. 

Insofar as the arguments (referred to in point 4) as to why the idea of a divine monopoly on power is an incoherent idea are convincing, an answer is provided to the claim that my God is not worthy of worship because “not powerful enough”––i.e., one cannot reasonably ask for more than the possible.

Hick indicates that his chief criticism of my theodicy would be directed toward its idea of a limited God.   The only suggestion he gives as to what his criticism would be is that this idea is “metaphysically unsatisfying.”  He gives no hint in his critique as to the direction his argument would take.  However, in his Evil and the God of Love (pp. 35-36) he provides this explanation: if God were not “the creator of everything other than Himself,” God would not be “an eternal self-existent Being.”  Hence one would have to ask who created God. 

Unfortunately, this argument itself is metaphysically unsatisfying, since a being could well be eternal and self-existent without being creator of everything else.  If that is the worst challenge the process doctrine of God must face, it is in good shape.

(B) Hick and Davis almost seem to think that the mere fact that the traditional doctrine of omnipotence, including creation ex nihilo, has been the dominant view in Christian theology settles the issue as to the Christian position.  But, for example, a good case can be made for the proposition that anti-Semitism has characterized “the main Christian tradition”; this does not make anti-Semitism Christian in a normative sense.  So, more argument than an appeal to the past majority opinion will be needed to support the idea that Jews and Christians today should continue to accept divine omnipotence.

(C) Sontag, Davis and especially Roth say that the God of persuasion I portray has not been effective enough in the world to inspire awe and worship.  Roth speaks of God’s “unpersuasive performance in the world to date.” But when I contemplate the creation as a whole, I am rather overwhelmed.  When I view the heavens, and the beauty of our own planet, and when I reflect upon the fact that creatures as wondrously complex as ourselves were brought into being out of minute trajectories of energy such as protons and electrons, I am quite impressed.  I do stand in awe before the directive power that could bring about such results out of partially self-determining entities, and a sense of holiness is produced in me.  So to some extent it may simply be that Roth is more difficult to impress than I am.

However, to some extent it seems that Roth takes an anthropocentric view of things.  In saying that there has been little progress, he speaks only of moral progress; in speaking of resistance, he speaks only of human recalcitrance.  This suggests that Roth begins grading God only after human beings have been produced.  Perhaps if he would extend his vision a few billion years further back, he would see that we really have come along way.  Further, even during the extremely short period of human history, Roth admits that “many human beings have rallied nobly to their perception of God’s call.”  I wonder why this alone does not impress him.

Davis finds the God of process theology unworthy of worship because this God cannot guarantee that the risk involved in creating the world “was worth taking.” If the world were to end in a situation in which “all human beings die, cursing God, after years of horrible physical and mental suffering,” it would have been better, Davis maintains, that human beings had never been created.  In fact, like many who want to emphasize the necessity for a dramatic eschatological act of God, Davis says “the world is not worthwhile as it stands.” 

So, even apart from the grim scenario he sketches, if he were to be convinced that no such eschatological act were going to occur, he would presumably be one of those carrying a sign reading, “Doom, doom, the world is not going to end.”  Of course, if he seriously finds his own present life intrinsically unworthwhile (it would be presumptuous of him to say that his own is worthwhile but that of the majority of humanity is not), I can only respect his feelings while witnessing that I do not find my own and that of those I know well to be so. 

Nor can I judge that, for the majority of humanity, it would have been better that they had not lived, even if there is to be no future existence for them.  Furthermore, I have distinguished between the kind of power needed to change the very structure of existence, which I think God does not have, and the power needed to renew our lives beyond bodily death, which I think God does have. 

So, even if one did think that human life were not intrinsically worthwhile, so that a future life for humans would be necessary to justify God’s creation of us, it does not follow that God must be omnipotent in the traditional sense to be justified in bringing forth human life.

One of the stranger complaints from Sontag and Roth is that, given the enormity of evil in the world, a deity that is doing its best is not worthy of worship.  The implication is that a deity that is not doing its best is worthy of worship. 

For example, in reference to Auschwitz, Roth mocks my God with the statement that “the best that God could possibly do was to permit 10,000 Jews a day to go up in smoke.”  Roth prefers a God who had the power to prevent this Holocaust but did not do it!  This illustrates how much people can differ in what they consider worthy of worship.  For Roth, it is clearly brute power that evokes worship.  The question: is this what should evoke worship? 

To refer back to the point about revelation: is this kind of power worship consistent with the Christian claim that divinity is decisively revealed in Jesus?  Roth finds my God too small to evoke worship; I find his too gross.


POSTSCRIPT: In writing this response, it became obvious that many of the criticisms to which I was called to reply were made in triplicate: from Davis, Roth, and Sontag.  They have common objections to process theology.  This is probably not coincidental: Roth and Sontag have written books together, and Roth and Davis have adjoining offices.  Also, all three did their doctoral work in philosophy and presently teach in philosophy departments, whereas my graduate work was more concentrated in biblical studies, history of Christian thought, history or religions, and modern theology.  This probably has something to do with our different evaluations of the normative status of prepositional formulations of Christian faith coming from the early centuries of Christianity.

It also became more obvious than it previously was to me how much Hick and I have in common.  We both see God as relying solely upon persuasion to effect our salvation––we do not expect God one of these days to give up on this method and to resort to coercive measures.  We both place our faith in the attractiveness of the divine, agreeing with Whitehead that “the power of God is the worship He inspires."[1] The crucial difference between us is that Hick continues to insist that God has that other kind of power, i.e., the coercive kind.  And this is the idea that creates all of the objectionable aspects in his theodicy.  Since Hick, unlike Roth, Sontag, and Davis, believes that God will never use this coercive power, I wonder what value is derived from continuing to maintain that God has it.


[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan Co. 1953), p. 192.

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