Updated June 3, 2023
Any discussion of the existence and nature of God must take seriously the problem of evil. If God is the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenvolent being of classical theology, then how does this perfectly good deity cause or, at minimum, tolerate the presence of evil in creation?
Theodicies comprise an entire branch of theology devoted to answering how a good God and evil can coexist. The subject is far too complex and deep for me to cover here, and it may be the single knottiest problem in all of theology; however, I can’t simply ignore it. Briefly, evil can be classified as moral (caused by human actions) and natural (due to events in the natural world). Some events may be atrocious or painful but bring about a greater good (e.g. the pain of childbirth)—these are called instrumental evil. In other cases, on balance, the world would have been better off had the events never occurred—these are called true or gratuitous evils. Even if one only looks at true, moral evils, why would a loving, omnipotent God allow these to happen? Why allow pain and suffering at all, much less without any redeeming purpose? While the formal argument concludes that God cannot exist, I questioned more whether God was good.
I believe God exists because I can’t conceive of a world without a first cause, and the problem of evil doesn’t particularly weaken that belief. It does make me believe that we need to think very differently about God’s attributes and perfections. Does omnipotence require absolute sovereignty over all events, or do we have free will? Does omniscience require complete knowledge of future events? If God is sovereign and omniscient, how are we responsible for our actions? Is our agency a higher good to God than sovereignty?
In order to maintain the ideal of a perfectly good deity, Evangelicals, especially Calvinists, have imagined a bizarre parody of a loving god, who is also so holy as to be unable to tolerate the presence of even the smallest flaw in his creation. In counterpoint, they have constructed a view of humanity as so totally depraved that they are entirely responsible for the evil they suffer and deserve eternal conscious torment inflicted by the same god. And it is only by the grace of this graceless god that they will be spared.
Frankly, this god scared the shit out of me, so much so that, well into my forties, I was periodically reduced to screaming “please god, no no no” into my pillow at the thought of eternity. My choice seemed to be spending a never ending existence with a god who, at the least provocation, would have tormented me eternally or, if I was lucky, annihilated my soul. Actually, less than the least provocation because, if I was unlucky, this god would have determined before creating me or anything else that he would torment me eternally. Why create in sixfold goodness1 knowing that you would later declare your creation fallen, then zap that sucker to hell? That seems a bit pointless or even megalomaniacal and not at all like a loving and patient mother or father.
I eventually came to a belief that God was loving and good, but I first had to abandon Evangelical and Reformed ideas about the nature of God and what was accomplished in Christ’s work of atonement (at-one-ment). Their version of God only made sense if I stuck strictly to their postulates and abandoned all my intuitions about what a loving God should be.
This Evangelical view of God and evil either leads to or enables some awful beliefs, weaponized by demagogues in times of tragedy. They see the literal hand of God in tornados and tsunamis and earthquakes and say, “This tragedy was God’s punishment for <insert scapegoat here>’s sinful ways”, or “God is calling you to repent of <sin de jour or fundraising rant>”. But what of the collateral damage? Do innocent children deserve to die because God was ticked off about the “gay agenda”? Would God wipe out the homes of the poor to teach a lesson to the rich? That isn’t the God that Jesus showed us.
There are better ways to understand the problem. Open and relational theology (ORT), also known as Process Theology (developed by Alfred North Whitehead), posits that God can be affected by external events and that, while God may be more powerful than any other being, God may not be infinitely powerful. In answer to the question of evil, ORT answers, because God can’t. Maybe exercising absolute sovereignty over every event would destroy the purpose of creation. Maybe God’s power over humanity is persuasive rather than coercive. Boy, does that get Evangelicals hot under the collar, but it may be the best answer I’ve heard so far.
There are seven days of creation and six statements, “it was good”, in Genesis 1. For realz. Actually, the last one is “it was very good”, which sorta makes up for the missing good. Additionally, some days have no goods and some days have two. There are all kinds of symmetries and structural elements elements in Genesis 1 that make it appear that it is (gasp) a poem. ↩︎