A Brief Theodicy: 4 Voices worth hearing

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Determinism, Sovereignty, and Free Will

Last year, I took my first tentative steps into formal theological training with an organisation called Westminster Theological Centre. During that time and since then I have stumbled across a broad range of perspectives on the problem of evil, and so given Stephen Fry’s recent outburst on this very subject, I thought that I’d join the conversation and offer an introduction to four voices worth hearing. Without further ado, here they are:

The warfare worldview

Our first voice is Greg Boyd’s “warfare worldview”,  which he defines at length in his controversial book called “God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict”. Admittedly, it amounts to a variation of the free will defence, and definitely has inconsistencies and problems. Nevertheless, I found it to be a salient starting point.

Some helpful quotes:

“From a Biblical and early church perspective, evil ‘fits’ in the cosmos only by constituting that which God is unequivocally against, and that which God shall someday ultimately overcome.” [1]

“The warfare worldview thus presupposes that the power to affect things is not monopolised by God but is by God’s own design a shared commodity throughout his creation.” [2]

And

“..the world is caught in the crossfire of a cosmic battle between the Lord and his angelic army, and Satan and his demonic army.” [3]

“Apocalyptic thought considers evil more a structural characteristic of a war-torn cosmos than a feature of human decision making.” [4]

“Jesus’ teaching, his exorcisms, his healings, and other miracles, as well as his work on the cross, all remain somewhat incoherent and unrelated to one another until we interpret them within this apocalyptic context: in other words, until we interpret them as acts of war.” [5]

So for Boyd, the origin of evil is located in Satanic/demonic rebellion, which predates humanity and the Fall (also known as the Chaoskampf hypothesis). He pushes back against divine determinism and an anthropocentric worldview whereby from a broadly Christian perspective the locus of all creational chaos is original sin (e.g. Gen 3). Now, his thesis has substantial issues, not least some major exegetical errors, however despite being flawed I wouldn’t dismiss it outright. After all, alongside other biblical evidence of present, active demonic forces in creation, the writer of 1 John seemed to think that “..The reason the son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the Devil” (1 Jn 3:8). [6]

Three sources based on a New Testament model

A helpful, balancing secondary voice comes from John Christopher Thomas in his “The Devil, disease and deliverance: Origins of illness in New Testament thought.” He argues at length for a plurality of sources of suffering and sickness, and arrives at the conclusion that a biblical model encompasses three causes: God (i. e. Righteous Judgment), Satan/Demonic forces (akin to Boyd), and finally infirmity/unattributed/natural causes. This latter category is potentially part of a fallen world hypothesis, or even functional Deism. [7]  Notably, the assumption is therefore that whilst God can and may judge his creation, he is not directly responsible for every case recorded by the biblical writers. Creaturely free will has its place.

A Theology from the trenches

A third perspective worth engaging with is prison chaplain and missiologist Dr Bob Ekblad, who describes his overarching approach to life and ministry as a “Theology from the trenches” of his experiences in various real world contexts. [8] In his “A New Christian Manifesto”, he advocates a holistic view of radical Gospel activism as a means of what he calls “resisting the powers”:

Whatever cosmology I end up with needs to take account of the microforces that assault people in forms such as anger, jealousy, lust, and greed…and the larger macropowers such as legalism, nationalism, discrimination, and the like, labeled by social prophetic writers according to the biblical vocabulary surrounding ‘principalities and powers’. Open eyed realism before the myriad of forces in the way of healing and transformation is showing me the need for an approach that brings together social and legal advocacy and deliverance from evil spirits, 12 step and other recovery programs emphasising counselling and inner and physical healing. [9]

Granted, Ekblad doesn’t directly address the problem of evil per se, but his expansive (and ambitious) attempt at seeking a rich, biblically informed worldview is surely a central theme of any potentially accurate Theodicy? More importantly, his desire to mobilise the church into active participation in resisting evil in all its forms is (arguably) a Gospel imperative.

I have selected Boyd, Thomas and Ekblad as relevant examples of an alternative approach to a deterministic view of Theodicy. [10] All three authors take Scripture seriously, and yet in so doing create space for human/demonic free will as one of the direct causes of sin, evil, suffering & chaos in the cosmos. I must say that I find a nuanced synthesis of these and other related viewpoints compelling based upon a range of biblical evidence.

Framing the problem from a Reformed perspective

By way of contrast, I recently blogged a brief summary of Reformed Theologian John Frame’s view of the same topic here (my last post in fact). His is the fourth and final voice I want to bring to your attention. Ultimately, Frame lands on what he calls “the greater good” hypothesis. Here is a helpful summary of his position:

My conclusion on the greater-good defense, then, is that God certainly does will evil for a good purpose. The good he intends will be so great, so wonderful and beautiful, that it will make present evils seem small. [11]

Given his Reformed credentials, this is hardly surprising and given my distinctly non-reformed standpoint, it won’t surprise anyone that I disagree with him. Still, I generally take the view that as many voices as possible need to be heard in theology, and particularly on this kind of sensitive topic.

A tentative conclusion (of sorts) with caveats

What to make of all this then? Well, It goes without saying that this isn’t anything like a comprehensive treatment of the subject in question. I have only chosen a few examples of scholarship on the issue which might help to frame a biblical response to the problem of evil. For critics, I’m aware of D. A. Carson’s extensive critique of Boyd’s thesis, and would agree that Boyd’s view is problematic, and creates as many questions as it purports to solve. My goal here isn’t to solve the problem of evil but to contribute a range of viewpoints as good starting points for further reflection and dialogue on the issue at hand.

So, to summarise, how do Determinism, Sovereignty and creaturely free will interact? I might aver that God has sovereignly determined to create a multi-faceted reality wherein creaturely freedom is a genuinely causative factor in defining the nature of existence. At the same time, God himself retains the right to judge his creation as he sees fit, and intervenes in creaturely affairs in this way on some, but not all occasions. Put simply, in a cosmos filled with sentient creatures capable of free will, God also has a will which he exercises in specific circumstances.

Why would God allow and tolerate the possibility of a cosmos replete with sin, death, evil and suffering? For me (at the moment) it boils down to God’s love for his creatures expressing itself in allowing free will, and thus the possibility for evil to exist, until the eschaton is finally achieved. The burden of responsibility lies in a creaturely misuse of freedom. In other words until Jesus returns and finally redeems, restores and renews creation we are left with this difficult and often painful conundrum: God is love and yet we experience sin, suffering, death and evil in a flawed and hostile world. Worse yet, God isn’t primarily to blame, his creatures are: which includes us.

Tenuous? Perhaps. Does this logically imply that after Jesus returns free will shall cease to exist? In its present form, maybe. Yet what if what we consider freedom of choice isn’t really what true freedom looks like? Christian hope is finally grounded in the promise of the coming Kingdom of God, and the absolute destruction of sin, death and evil which will be replaced by eternal life for the faithful, in the presence of God himself. He will personally wipe every tear from our eyes, and justice will finally be done.

What about you? How do you view Theodicy, and what would you say to Stephen Fry’s recent outburst? Maybe a blend of a fallen world hypothesis/randomness & chaos/demonic activity, or even divine judgment could provide a biblical means of constructing a response? Or are none of those categories acceptable to you? If so, why?

Comments welcome.

M.

1. Gregory A. Boyd, God at war: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict, (USA, Inter-varsity press, 1997) 57.

2. Boyd, 58.

3. Boyd, 172.

4. Boyd, 174.

5. Boyd, 180.

6. For some relevant scriptures to support this view, see Matt 4:1-17, 8:16, 28-34, 9:32-34, 10:8-9, 12:22-31, 43-45, 17:14-22, Mark 1:21-39, 5:1-20, 9:14-29, Luke 4:1-12, 31-37, 41, 8:2-3, 11-12, 26-39, 9:37-43, 49, 10:17-20, 11:14-26, 13:10-16, 22:3-6, John 8:44-45, 14:27-28, 17:15, Acts 8:4-7, 16:16-18, 19:11-20, 1 Cor 10:19-22, 2 Cor 4:3-5, 6:14-16, 11:14-15, Gal 1:8-9, Eph 1:21-22, 6:10-20, Col 1:13-14, 16-18, 2:15-18, 1 Thess 4:16, 2 Thess 1:7-10, 2:9-10, 3:3-4, 1 Tim 3:6-7, 4:1-3, 5:15, Heb 1:5-14, 2:2, 12:22, Jas 4:7-8, 1 Pe 3:22-23, 5:810, 2:4-6, 11-12, 1 Jn 2:13, 3:8-9, 4:1-3, 5:18, Jude 5-8, 9-10, 14-17, Rev 2:1, 8-9, 12-14, 18, 24, 3:1, 7, 9, 14, 8:6-8, 9:9-12, 10:1, 12:7-10, 13:1-5, 11-12, 14:6, 8-10, 17, 15:1-3, 16:1-21, 17:1-2, 18:1-2, 21, 20:1-3, 7, 13-15 ).

7. John Christopher Thomas, The Devil disease and deliverance: Origins of illness in New Testament thought, (Kindle edition, CPT press, Cleveland, Tennessee, USA: 2010) Chapter 8/Intro.

8. This quote comes directly from a video conference seminar I had with Bob during my last Theology course.

9. Eugene Robert Ekblad Jr, A New Christian Manifesto: pledging allegiance to the Kingdom of God, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA: 2008) 68.

10. Loosely defined, this is the idea that God has sovereignly foreordained all things, including evil, yet remains beyond reproach.

11. Frame, John M, Systematic Theology: An introduction to Christian belief (Kindle edition, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, USA, P&R Publishing Company, P.O. Box 817: 2013) 511.