Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Theodicy as a Criteria for Theology

In an earlier post, I talked about why I'm interested in theodicy. Theodicy is the attempt to defend God's goodness despite all the evil and suffering in the world.

In this post, I want to talk more about how theodicy is one criteria I use to determine some of my theological positions.

I agree with David and Randall Basinger when they argue that theodicy is one of the most important factors to consider when discerning the superiority of rival theological systems.1 But I use theodicy not just to judge between whole theological systems, but even when choosing between alternative points of view on specific theological topics.

Here I will show some examples of how my desire to uphold God's perfect goodness has affected my theological points of view, as demonstrations of how theodicy is a helpful criteria to use when doing Christian theology.

My Trust and Love for God

The reason I am so adamant that theodicy should be a major factor in Christian theology is because it has been a major issue in my personal spiritual life. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have had to work hard at straightening out my beliefs about God by rejecting any ideas about God which imply that God is not perfectly good or loving.

I need to know that God is absolutely, 100%, fully loving, good, and perfect, with no hint or trace or shadow of evil in Him at all. This is the only way that I can personally love and trust God, and worship Him.

I need to know that God never lies (Titus 1:2), that God is pure goodness, holiness, and light (1 John 1:5, James 1:17), that God is love (1 John 4:8; 4:16), that God's eyes are too pure to look on evil (Habakkuk 1:13) and that evil has never even entered His mind (Jer. 7:31; 19:5). I need to know that God only wants what is best for me, and for everyone else, always.

Because if there was even the tiniest chance that God might actually want evil to happen, for people to suffer, or for some people to not be saved, then it opens up the chance that He might want those things to happen to me. And how can I completely love and trust someone who might just want to inflict evil on me, make me suffer, or send me to hell? I could attempt to force myself to 'submit' to such a God, but I could not fully trust myself to Him or love Him.

Therefore, in order to uphold the conviction that God is worthy of my love and trust, I need to take theological positions which keep God as far away from being the 'positive' or 'active' cause of evil and suffering as theologically and Biblically possible.

Predestination

I can't accept the idea that God ever predestines anyone to not believe in Him. This just doesn't match with what a truly good and loving God, who claims he wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), would do.

Jerry Walls says that a God who predestines anyone to hell "does begin to look like the perfect conception of wickedness rather than the exemplification of perfect goodness."2

Therefore, the only reason why people are not saved must be because of their own free will. And, they must legitimately have had an opportunity to believe as well as the ability to believe, if they had chosen to do so. Because otherwise, they could not be properly held responsible for their choice not to believe.

As Walls says "Without libertarian freedom, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of the claim that some are damned even though God wishes to save all people. For if human beings are not free in the libertarian sense, it would seem to follow that if God wishes to save all, then all in fact will be saved. For if freedom is compatible with determinism, then God could save everyone and do it in such a way that everyone would freely choose salvation."3

And if freedom is compatible with determinism but God chooses not to save everyone (even though he very easily could apply that 'irresistible grace' to their hearts which causes them to believe and be saved), then we're back to the earlier problem of God actually desiring some people to go to hell. As I've discussed here, Jonathan Edwards' excuse for why God must predestine most people to hell (to increase the happiness of those in heaven) is bizarre and nonsensical.

So therefore, I believe that God is constantly drawing people to himself through the work of the Holy Spirit who enables people to make a genuinely free choice to believe in Jesus and be saved (even if we do not naturally have this ability, due to our inherited sinfulness).

Creationism

Theodicy is one factor which influenced my change of mind from theistic evolution to young-earth creationism.

Theistic evolution says that God created all life through the processes of evolution (some process which adds new information to DNA to create new lifeforms) and natural selection (the survival of only those lifeforms which are compatible with their environment and can defend themselves against other lifeforms).

But, this means God actually intended nature to be 'red in tooth and claw'. The suffering of animals as they starve to death, are eaten by others, are infected by parasites, or die from diseases, is supposedly not actually 'evil' at all, theistic evolutionists say, but is just an unavoidable byproduct of how God chose to create the world.

Theistic evolution means that the perfection of the Garden of Eden would have been a result of billions of years of death and suffering of creatures struggling to exist and reproduce, and then dying off. The fossil record as interpreted by evolutionists shows that cancer in animals and animals killing and eating one another occurred far before any humans were around. (In contrast, young-earth Creationists say these fossils were made during Noah's worldwide flood, and show effects of a post-Fall world.)

But I cannot accept that a perfectly good and omnipotent God had to create through this horribly destructive, and wasteful process, where most life-forms that have ever existed have been wiped out by natural selection, and those that did survive did so only through a process that involved enormous amounts of suffering, for millions and millions of years.

A perfectly good God would not willingly choose to use this method if a less destructive method were available. Plus, a truly omnipotent God would not be limited by anything which would make choosing such a destructive method necessary.

Natural selection involves the 'strong' creatures surviving at the expense of the 'weak'. Yet this is actually contrary to how God commands people to behave towards the weakest in our societies - the poor, ill, orphans, and widows (Ex. 22:22, Deut. 10:18, 24:19, 24:21, 27:19, Lev. 19:10, 25:35, Ezek. 34:4).

If natural selection is such a useful tool that God uses to create and improve species, then why shouldn't it apply to humanity as well, to make us better and stronger by letting the weakest members die off and not burden the strong?

Theistic evolution would mean God has one rule for nature and the totally opposite rules for human behavior, which doesn't make sense.

It makes much more sense to me to say that all these things such as animal suffering, disease, parasites, and predation are not what a perfectly good and loving God intended, but are a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, which caused all nature to be subject to futility (Rom 8:20, Gen 3:17-18).

Additionally, the Bible shows that God does care for the smallest creatures (Matt 10:29; Lk 12:6) and wants them to have food and to survive (Matt 6:26), and so saying that God is indifferent to animal suffering is not Biblical.

Annihilationism

I have recently written a post about why I am convinced that annihilation is the correct understanding of hell.

Even though I had previously been told that the eternal conscious torment of the damned in hell was Biblical, it always seemed strange to me how a perfectly good and loving God could do such a thing.

If God wants us to genuinely love Him, it's very difficult to feel genuine love for someone who threatens to inflict unimaginable suffering on you if you don't love Him!

Does it really make sense for God, who is perfect love (1 John 4:8), to say to humanity "Love me, or I'll torture you forever!"? In what human relationship would that be acceptable? And if it's not acceptable on that level, why would it be acceptable in a divine-human relationship? Is this really how the God who is perfectly revealed in Jesus would act?

Jerry Walls says many theologians have given up on the traditional view of hell because: "the doctrine is widely regarded to be morally indefensible. As such, the doctrine is an integral part of the most serious difficulty posed for traditional theism, namely, the problem of evil".4

Instead, hell as annihilation is much more compatible with God's perfectly loving and holy nature. If God is perfect love and the source of all life, and who upholds all things in existence, then those who reject God are effectively rejecting their own existence. So God gives them what they have chosen: non-existence.

I was extremely relieved to find out that annihilation is not only a better understanding of hell which can uphold God's perfectly loving nature better than eternal conscious torment does, but it is actually more Biblical than eternal conscious torment is.

This means I no longer have to worry about trying to love a God who plans to torture my unbelieving friends and family forever. Instead, God does what is good and just and will utterly destroy and wipe out anyone who is finally opposed to Him, and then goodness and love will be all that remains, eternally.

But Not Universalism

So you might wonder: why not opt for universalism, in order to uphold God's goodness even more? Why not say that no one will be ultimately destroyed, but everyone will sooner or later choose to love God and be saved?

While it would be ideal for everyone to freely choose to be saved, if God has given us genuine free will, I'm convinced that God cannot force people to be saved. I would not want to worship a God or love a God who says "You will love me, sooner or later, whether you want to or not. Resistance is futile." That's not love; that's bullying.

If God somehow applied so much pressure on some people that it forced them to love God apart from their own free choice, then they would be brainwashed, or coerced, or pressured, into 'loving' God. In which case, it's not truly love at all, anymore than programming a computer to output "I love you" is real love.

This reasoning is also why I'm opposed to any deterministic views which say that God simply gives people faith, apart from any free choice they make, by using irresistible grace which causes a person to believe in Jesus or love God.

Open Theism

I wrote my Master of Theological Studies thesis on theodicy in Open Theism, and whether Open Theism is a better solution to theodicy than the alternatives (Arminanism or Calvinism).

I concluded that Open Theism is indeed better than both of these, because in Open Theism not only does God never determine or cause evil to happen, but He also doesn't even perfectly foreknow what evil will happen in the future. As discussed here, the problem is that if God perfectly foreknows that evil will happen in the future, then that evil becomes unavoidable, because nothing can change God's foreknowledge.

For example, the question "Why would God create Hitler and allow him to live, if God foreknew what Hitler would do?" is unexplainable by those who claim God has perfect foreknowledge of the future. They must appeal to the typical deterministic answer that God knew this evil was necessary for a greater good purpose (e.g. the re-establishment of the state of Israel?).

But this question is more easily answerable by Open Theists, by saying that God did not certainly foreknow what Hitler would do. God might have had a very good idea of what Hitler wanted to do, or how Hitler's character was being formed in ways that might lead to hatred of the Jews and others, but it was not foreknown as a certainty by God. Therefore, it could have been avoided.

Open Theism says that God gives people genuine free will to either choose to love God or not, and to make a real difference in how events unfold in the world. God cannot give freedom and then take it back when we use it in ways He disapproves of, or it's not really freedom.

Of course, the extent of each person's freedom may vary, and no one has absolute freedom, but the point is that if God desires for us to make genuinely free choices to influence the world, then God cannot take away all our freedom.

I can accept that there may be times when God does override someone's freedom, but if He does so, then that person is not held morally responsible for that action. And God could only do so in order to cause a person to do good (never evil).

But Not Process Theology

However, given my concern to keep God as separate from evil as possible, some may ask: why not opt for Process Theology?

This is the approach of Thomas J. Oord in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God (2015). He dislikes the Arminian or Open Theist positions that God allows suffering to occur which otherwise God could prevent.

So for example, Oord tells the story of a woman who is horribly raped by gangs and suffers severe injuries that cause pain for the rest of her life. He thinks it is better for Christians to say that God did not want this to happen but could not prevent it, because a God of pure love would never allow any evil that He could prevent.5

Oord argues that it's better to say God gives all creation real, irrevocable freedom and never takes it away, even when free creatures use it to do evil, or when the freedom inherent in creation leads to negative consequences like natural disasters.6

And because God is spirit and does not have a body, God literally cannot override all evil since God can't physically intervene in the world, but must influence others to intervene on His behalf, if they so choose.7 So if people disobey God, there's nothing God can really do about it.

But to me, this is not a viable solution. If God is unwilling or unable to ever stop evil apart from creaturely cooperation, then there is no hope that God will ever fully triumph over evil or be able to achieve His promised New Heaven and New Earth where there will be no evil (Rev. 21:1-4).

I would rather believe that God is omnipotent and thus can hinder, prevent, or ultimately destroy any or all instances of evil, but because of various good reasons, He chooses not to do so until the Final Judgment (Rev. 20:12-13).

Why A Perfectly Good and Loving God Allows Evil

One of the best arguments for why God allows evil to exist temporarily is because if he did not, he would have to wipe out all humanity. If God did not tolerate the existence of sin and evil at all, He would have had to wipe out Adam and Eve the moment they sinned, thus, ending humanity. It is because of God's love and mercy that He does not do so, even though He could, and He would be entirely righteous in doing so.

Some argue that God should prevent the worst evils from happening, if He could. Why does God have to allow so much and such awful things to happen in the world?

Let's imagine that God does intervene to prevent the worst moral evils. Things like the holocaust, ethnic cleansings, and the massacres under Stalin and Mao do not occur because God prevents them.

Then, since we would be unaware of these worst evils that God prevented, we would demand that he also prevent the next-worst moral evils that we see occurring. This would continue in a cycle until we would expect God to prevent all moral evil.

But to prevent every instance of evil, would mean God would have to override all free will, so that no moral choices would be possible. Therefore, it is understandable that God does not prevent all moral evil (even if God actually may have prevented worse evils that we are unaware of), because to prevent all evil would override all free will.

And if God overrides all free will, we become puppets or programmed robots who only do what God commands. But if what God wants most is for people to freely love Him, then we need free will. Without free will which gives us the option of saying "no" to God, our love for God would be totally meaningless to Him.

So I think there are good reasons why Christians can say that a perfectly good God does allow sin, evil, and suffering temporarily, even though God could prevent these things. Yet He could not do so without destroying the very reason why God created the world in the first place: to participate in more loving relationships.

Conclusion

So these are several ways that I have used the criteria of theodicy to help me discern which theological points of view I believe are most acceptable.

I hope I've demonstrated that this is a reasonable way of doing Christian theology, and should not be surprising to Christians, for Christians all agree that God is perfect goodness and love, and so any idea which contradicts this cannot be theologically correct.

But, as shown, if we try to go too far with our ideas of how a perfectly good and loving God would act, then there start to become other negative theological consequences, such as:

  1. Removing the ability to reject God (universalism).
  2. Removing the guarantee that one day God will utterly destroy all evil (process theology).

These positions cause just as many problems for theodicy as they solve.

Therefore, even if it is still partly a mystery why a perfectly good and loving God allows evil in this world, I think there are ways to justify God's ways in relation to this fallen world which minimize the problem, and which are compatible with scripture.

Yet ultimately, we can look forward to the day when evil will be utterly destroyed, and then only goodness and love will exist forever and ever, making any evil experienced in this lifetime infinitely negligible for those who will live eternally with God.

Footnotes:

  • 1. David Basinger and Randall Basinger, "Theodicy: A Comparative Analysis," in Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honour of Clark H. Pinnock, eds. Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 2003), 144.
  • 2. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 36.
  • 3. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation, 39.
  • 4. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation, 3.
  • 5. Thomas J. Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 140-143.
  • 6. Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God, 169-175.
  • 7. Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God, 176-180.