Review by Daniel Muth
If God is good, how can there be evil? To many a modern mind, it is the great atheist “gotcha!” And certain presentations of the problem accordingly slouch toward the silly — the notion that a good and omnipotent deity must adjust weather patterns and tectonic plate shifts to account for human demographics, reassign viral and pathogenic physiology to ensure disease only afflicts the wicked, and, of course, make sure the bad guys’ guns don’t work. Serious objections are another matter. One cannot but grieve along with Charles Darwin at the loss of his beloved daughter, and consequent loss of Christian faith, which his scientific work had never even seriously shaken. The cry of souls in distress rings throughout Scripture — from Abraham’s pleas on behalf of Sodom, to Job on the dung heap, through most of the psalms, to Christ on the cross.
Many Christians have tried to make evil understandable as a part of God’s great plan for creation. Dostoevsky demonstrated that matters would be far worse if it were. In a conversation with his brother Alyosha, Ivan Karamazov limns a number of scenarios of people doing horrible things, mostly to children. If divine harmony is brought about through killing, he claims, then God is a moral monster and his order and harmony come at too steep a price. Ivan will have nothing to do with such a divine bully. And he is right. Can Christians make sense of, say, the brutal murder of children? Should they even try?
In his succinct if fairly bloodless If God, Why Evil? Norman Geisler, an apologetics professor at Veritas Evangelical Seminary, presents in encapsulated form many of the classic discussion points regarding the problem of evil. He deals with its nature, origin, persistence, purpose, and avoidability, the problem of physical evil, miracles and evil, and the problem of those who have never heard the gospel.
In each chapter, Geisler lays out the problem as a logical formulation. On the persistence of evil: (1) if God is all good, he would destroy evil; (2) if God is all powerful, he could destroy evil; (3) but evil is not destroyed; (4) therefore no such God exists. He then spends the chapter examining the veracity of each statement and applying corrections as he goes along: God intends to destroy evil but he cannot do so without destroying free choice. The significant correction, per Geisler, is that evil has not been overcome yet.
The approach has its obvious advantages. The chapters are admirably clear and succinct. Christians called upon to answer the typical prattle of the village (or dorm room) atheist will find it useful. An electronic copy would provide particularly quick and handy reference.
On the other hand, while Geisler is clearly a capable and experienced pastor and peppers his text with practical anecdotes, he suffers from the malady of most writers on the intellectual problem of theodicy: he fails to address the visceral response that suffering and evil provokes in Christian and secular hearts alike. On the whole, I would not hand his book to a grieving parent.
Even deeper problems inhere. In his opening chapter, Geisler rightly and vividly explains the Christian understanding of evil as privation. Yet later, in a chapter on the ways God might make use of evil (what C.S. Lewis referred to as God using simple evil to achieve a complex good, the crucifixion being the prime example), Geisler lists a number of options and yet curiously omits the most important reality: that in itself evil simply has no meaning. God can redeem its effects, but being pure negation, evil has no place in God’s intentions for anyone or anything. To neglect to mention this is to leave the most significant fact about evil out of the discussion.
A somewhat deeper chord is struck by Terence Fretheim’s Creation Untamed, which limits itself to the question of natural evil. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, brings an Old Testament scholar’s background and sensibility to the question, building his case mainly around the Genesis accounts of creation and the flood, and the book of Job.
His rich account of the Genesis creation stories begins by noting that though God’s creation is good in that it corresponds with divine intention, it is not perfect. It is capable of improvement. God’s original blessing/command to mankind to “fill the earth and subdue it,” meaning to continue God’s work of bringing order out of chaos, indicates that we still inhabit a chaotic, unfinished world.
The creation of Adam in the second story brings several of Fretheim’s themes together: the use of pre-existing matter (i.e., the “dust of the ground” — Fretheim never denies ex nihilo creation, though he does alas underemphasize it), the incarnational mode of its accomplishment (God brings off his great work in a strikingly bodily, breathy way), and the expectation of divine imitation to include creativity (Adam evaluates the animals as God has evaluated him and his situation). The deeply Jewish notion of human beings becoming like God via imitation, particularly when contrasted with Eve’s errant attempt to become like God via disobedience, is a theme strongly driven home throughout this part of the narrative, albeit more inferred than explicated.
God’s creation is noted to be wild, risky, random and unfinished, yet nevertheless good. In the flood story, we are presented with the problematic picture of natural disaster as divine judgment. Fretheim makes clear that the snowballing sin being punished is social rather than idolatrous: people are sinning against one another rather than God. Though clearly less than eager to visit justice on humanity, God does so, while preserving a remnant. The story ends with a divine promise to limit his response to human evil.
Nature occupies center stage throughout much of the book of Job. His friends use nature to buttress their claims of Job’s deserved suffering, while Job increasingly understands his damaged relationship with God as represented by an off-kilter created order. When God speaks, it is out of the whirlwind and from that tempestuous place he brings Job to “where the wild things are.” God has set limits, but wild things are what they are and he will not protect us from them. In the end, questions of whether suffering is deserved are beside the point. God has willed a dangerous created order, but within that order he offers us a deep relationship with him and with one another (Job must pray for his errant friends). The book ends with meditations on these final themes of suffering and prayer.
Perhaps because of the modesty of its ambitions and the quality of the writing, I’m inclined to say that Thomas G. Long’s What Shall We Say? is the best book of this lot for the general reader. True to his discipline, Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, limits himself to what ought to come from the Church’s pulpits. It is not the most wide-ranging: Geisler covers more ground and Fretheim goes into more depth, though he limits himself to the Old Testament and to natural evil. But whereas Geisler is concerned with responding to attacks on the faith (and thus winds up in some problematic territory), Long focuses on propounding the faith.
He starts off with the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and tsunami, in which an age-old center of deep medieval piety was devastated in the midst of her All Saints celebrations, leaving untold thousands dead and believers and unbelievers alike scrambling for answers. It was the first major natural catastrophe of modern times and set a tone for the debate — Leibniz’s rationalist theodicy vs. Voltaire’s outraged skepticism — up to this day. We are all children of Lisbon.
The next couple of chapters, examining some things that have been said, begins with wise counsel from David Bentley Hart, whose book The Doors of the Sea gets my vote for the best treatment of the topic currently available: any theodicy that we would consider shamefully foolish and cruel to say to a man in the deepest pits of his grief ought not be spoken at all, ever, says Hart. The currently popular atheist position was laid out by J.L. Mackie in the 1950s, according to which the existence of evil means that God cannot be good and omnipotent. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga skewered the argument — beings that are both free and incapable of evil are logically impossible — however, Long notes, “clear logic sometimes makes for cold comfort.”
He then examines several popular responses, all of which are on to something but lack depth, thinks Long. Like Fretheim, he sees Job as pointing the way to a deeper understanding. And his treatment of Job, while similar to Fretheim’s, is on the whole superior. After detailing the dispute to the point of God’s appearance in the whirlwind, he presents the denouement as not just a restored relationship of creature to creator, but a restoration in terms of a vision of evil defeated, gathered up into the palm of the divine hand. God does not offer a counterbalancing yes to the no of fallen creation, but a consuming yes that points to the cross and transcends every no. God will not make death a friend or suffering an ally; he will “make all things new.”
Long sums up the matter through the parable of the wheat and the tares, which he carefully examines in context. The workers question God (“did you not sow good seed?”) and so remind us that questions about his goodness may be asked — indeed they ought to be asked and must not be seen as impious. God answers, “An enemy has done this.” And so he has. The horrors of death, evil, sin, and the devil are never, and can never be, reconciled to God. He may make use of them, but in themselves they mean nothing to him — or to us. The parable ends with the eschaton. God will defeat evil; the promise suggested in Job and realized in Christ’s resurrection will be universal.
There are, of course, other ways of looking at the matter. Jill McNish, a Jungian psychologist and Episcopal priest, attempts one. She starts her Getting Real About God, Suffering, Sin and Evil with the question of why politicians she does not like are allowed to do things of which she does not approve, in this case, the Iraq War, and concludes that the explanation lies in sin and evil. She rightly notes differences in the two concepts: the personal nature of sin is not the same as transcendent evil.
McNish wisely remains unflinching in the face of the problem of evil and the goodness of God. Without recourse to Scripture or Church tradition, however, she attempts to solve the problem by seeing God as encompassing both good and evil. The method leaves something to be desired — why work apart from the Church’s primary sources? — and creates an unresolvable tension between the wholly good Jesus and a God purportedly beyond good and evil.
McNish also objects to the doctrine of original sin without demonstrating a clear understanding of it. Here she might have turned to Ian McFarland’s very fine In Adam’s Fall — the best book of the lot overall.
McFarland, associate professor of systematic theology at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, after noting the current unpopularity of original sin, begins with the biblical concepts of unintentional sin (participation in a complex web of relationships means harm will be done to others regardless of one’s intentions), sin as external power (fallen humanity as “slaves of sin”), and sin as universal condition (“in sin did my mother conceive me”). From there, he examines modern attempts to reappropriate sin language, all unsuccessful in, as he emphasizes, “bringing together humanity’s radical responsibility for sin and radical powerlessness in the face of sin.”
Following a careful history of the doctrine of original sin, he examines both Augustine’s theory of the will in which willing follows desire, and Maximus the Confessor’s careful separation of the will from human identity. Maximus contrasts the natural will (our desires for food and sleep) and the gnomic will (our ability to deliberate and decide under conditions of ignorance and doubt) and argues that willing is not the same as choosing. The gnomic will is not power over one’s nature, since it cannot control the desires that drive it, but rather identifies the fact that one lives out one’s nature as an agent or, as the Greek fathers said, a hypostasis: a person. The will is no more the whole of a person than his body, mind, or heart is. The “who-ness” of the individual is the hypostasis, or person. The will, like the nature, is part of a person’s “what-ness.”
The will, then, is in an ontologically odd category. It is constitutive of human nature; and, because human beings are creatures of God, the will must be irreducably good, however damaged. At the same time, the will is the locus of human agency without being the source of human personhood. Reviewing the implications, McFarland argues that Christ may well have assumed a fallen nature and yet, because his hypostasis is that of the second person of the Trinity with a divinized will, he is without sin. For Christ, fallenness and sinfulness are not the same. For us, by contrast, fallen nature at least potentially implies a disordered will, hence our personhood becomes congenitally sinful.
Such a view presents a radical challenge to our latter-day consumerist culture, which conflates desire with identity, making it hard to imagine doing without what we want.
What, then, is God’s answer to our questions about the problem of evil? The same as his answer to any of our truly difficult questions, an invitation: “Come and follow me.” And a reminder: “An enemy has done this.” Death, evil, and sin have no inherent meaning. None of these will be redeemed, for redemption consists precisely in their defeat.
In the end, the Christian gospel does not concern itself with explaining God’s enemies, but with the Easter promise of life after death, thence salvation. The Lord will make all things new; and the first fruits may already be tasted. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.”
Daniel Muth, principal nuclear engineer for Constellation Energy, is secretary of the Living Church Foundation’s board of directors.