Tag Archives: Problem of Evil

Are Darkness and Evil Rooted in God’s Nature?


This is the third and final installment of my review and critique of Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God. In the previous two essays I described and analyzed Oord’s argument and criticized three of his crucial assertions. Today I will address a fourth assertion.

4. God’s Nature Limits God.

For Oord, the problem of evil focuses on absolving God of responsibility for the evil that plagues our world. Oord argues that the problem of evil cannot be dealt with as long as we view creation as a voluntary divine act. If God voluntarily created our world then God either allows or positively wills the evil that occurs within it. And no being that allows or permits, much less positively wills, the horrible evils that happen in our world can be considered loving. Oord “solves” the problem of evil by concluding that God did not choose to create a world with randomness and freedom, which are the necessary conditions for evil. Because God is love by nature, God creates our world by necessity.

Oord contends not only that God is love by nature but also that love is the preeminent divine attribute and limits the other attributes. God’s power extends only as far as his love. God cannot act contrary to his loving essence and must express that essence by creating. Let’s listen to some of Oord’s claims:

“God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control” (p.146).

“By contrast [to John Sanders], I do think God’s nature dictates the sort of world God must make” (p.148).

“God’s love is uncontrollable, not only in the sense that creatures cannot control divine love but also in the sense that God cannot stop loving” (p. 161).

“Essential kenosis says limitations to divine power derive from God’s nature of love” (p.164).

“Essential kenosis says God’s self-giving, others-empowering nature of love necessarily provides freedom, agency, self-organization and lawlike regularity to creation. Because love is the preeminent and necessary attribute in God’s nature, God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom , agency, self-organizing and lawlike regularity God gives. Divine love limits divine power” (p. 169).

Is God a Prisoner of His Nature?

For many readers, the familiar idea that God cannot contradict his nature seems correct. God cannot lie or sin or die. We could add that God cannot act in an unloving or unjust way. I too agree with these statements. But Oord goes further.  He contends that God’s nature limits God, which in effect makes God a prisoner of his nature. The traditional teaching that God cannot contradict his nature was never understood as “limiting” God, that is to say, depriving God of an option that God might otherwise have willed to use for some good purpose. On the contrary, the idea that God cannot die or sin or act unlovingly expresses God’s unlimited perfection! It would be silly to say that there is something good or great in dying or sinning that God is missing because he cannot do it. Dying is not something you. It is something that happens to you. Nothing just happens to God!

But Oord insists that “Divine love limits divine power”? In the traditional doctrine of God, God’s power is thought to be unlimited, which means that God’s power extends to everything that is logically possible. Oord adds a further qualification by excluding some logically possible things. Specifically, Oord wants to exclude God using power to control or coerce his creatures. These actions are, according to Oord, logically possible, but given the priority of divine love in the divine nature, are impossible for God. It is logically possible for God to prevent evil actions but impossible for God actually to do this. God cannot act contrary to his loving nature, and his loving nature demands that he give irrevocable randomness and freedom to creatures.

Darkness and Evil Within the Divine Nature?

Our suspicions are rightly raised when we hear a thinker using one divine attribute to limit the others. Oord speaks as if God were essentially love but not essentially power or eternity or justice or others. It seems to me that we ought to reject out of hand the attribution of incoherence and disharmony to the divine being. Instead we ought to allow all the divine attributes modify and enrich each other. If we believe God is perfect in every respect, we should also assume that there is no tension much less conflict between divine love and divine justice or power or eternity or omniscience. God’s love is just and his justice is loving. And God’s love is powerful and his power is loving.

Oord, to the contrary, defines God’s love independently of the other essential attributes and seems to base his definition of divine love on a human conception of love. He then uses this human conception to restrict divine power. Consequently his conception of divine power is likewise distorted. Oord seems to think of divine power as force and coercion, which must be limited by divine love. Divine power is obviously conceived as the possibility for evil as well as good. Amazingly, this move grounds the tension in creation between love and evil in a tension within the divine being. Hence to escape rooting evil in the divine will Oord places its possibility in the divine nature! The problem of evil has infected the divine being. And God must continually overcome his possibility for evil. Evil has been eternalized.

But divine power is not the possibility for good or evil, love or coercion. Divine power is the power of being; it is unambiguously good. God is the power of his own being and consequently the power for the being of creatures. God’s power always manifests itself in creation as giving being. There is no reason to see any tension between God’s power and his love. Every act of love is also an act of power. God loves by giving being in all its richness to creatures.


In sum, Oord solves one problem of evil only to create an even worse one. He succeeds in absolving God of any responsibility for evil by transferring the possibility for evil from the divine will to the divine nature. However, the price of this transfer may be greater than many are willing to pay. If the suffering we endure in this world is somehow rooted in the unfathomable divine will and purpose, we can still hope that evil will be overcome and “every tear will be dried.” But if evil is rooted in the eternal divine nature, God has no place to stand to pull us out of the pit. How can he sympathize with our pain when he is distracted by his own suffering? How can God “lead us not into temptation” when he must continually overcome his own temptation?

Coming Soon: Eschatology. What can we know about something that hasn’t happened yet?

Would You Torture a Child to Bring Universal Harmony? The Rhetorical Argument From Evil

The most potent argument challenging belief is not an argument at all. The other two arguments from evil discussed in previous posts attempt to maintain a logical form and a rational tone. Not this one! It rehearses in exquisite detail the horrors of war, the ravages of sicknesses and the savagery of human cruelty. It speaks of holocausts and genocides. It places the believer in a completely untenable position. The suffering described is so horrible, so unforgiveable that voicing any hope for redemption or for any good to come from it makes you sound like you are trivializing it.

The argument is sometimes called the “emotional” argument from evil, but I think it is best labeled the “rhetorical” argument from evil. I prefer this designation for the argument because it attempts not to persuade believers but to silence them with sarcasm or nauseating descriptions of suffering. It pictures those who believe in a kind Heavenly Father who takes care of us as fools blindly following an optimistic theory in face of its obvious refutation or as unsympathetic listeners unmoved by the most horrendous human suffering. In this setting believers are placed in the dilemma of either remaining silent and giving tacit assent to the argument or speaking and sounding foolish or cruel.

Voltaire’s book Candide is the most famous example of using sarcasm to attack belief in that God allows everything happen for a reason. The book tells the story of the misadventures of Candide and his companions as they witness and endure terrible wickedness and suffering. Dr. Pangloss is a blind optimist who believes that everything happens for the best. His constant refrain is that “this is the best of all possible worlds and everything happens for the best,” which sounds absurd in the context of Voltaire’s description of the death, dismemberment and suffering they encounter. What makes Pangloss seem foolish is not his deep faith that God will work all things for good but his silly presumption that he can see this with his own eyes and his tactless voicing of this opinion.

The most famous example of using agonizing and nauseating descriptions of wickedness and suffering against belief is the conversation between Ivan Karamozov and Alyosha his novice monk brother in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. Ivan explains to his younger brother why he rejects God’s world and plans to kill himself when he turns 30 years of age: “Yet would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept” (p. 203, Norton Critical Edition)! Ivan tells story after story of innocent children tortured by heartless adults. But the most agonizing is the story of a little girl tortured by her own parents:

“These educated parents subjected this poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat, thrashed, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, turning her whole body into bruises; finally they reached the highest refinement: in the cold, in the frost, they shut her up all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to be taken out at night (as though a five-year-old child, sleeping its angelic sound sleep, could be taught to ask)—for that they smeared her whole face with her excrement and made her eat that excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her! And that mother could sleep at night, hearing the groans of that poor little child, locked up in that vile place! Can you understand that a little being, who still can’t even comprehend what is being done to her, in that vile place, in the dark and cold, beats herself with her tiny little fist on her strained little chest and cries her bloody, unresentful, meek little tears to ‘dear God’ to protect her—can you understand that nonsense, my friend and my brother, my pious and humble novice, do you understand why this nonsense is necessary and created? Without it, they say, man could not have existed on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil, when it costs so much? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the little tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’”

Ivan concludes that no possible good that could be achieved is worth even one tear from that little girl. “I don’t want harmony, for the love of humanity, I don’t want it. I would rather remain with unavenged suffering. I’d rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong” (p. 212). Alyosha the believer is completely silenced. There is nothing to be said.

Ivan Karamosov is the literary expression of what came to be known in the mid-20th century in response to the Holocaust as “protest atheism.” Protest atheism contends that any effort to find meaning in horrendous events of suffering diminishes that suffering and dampens our enthusiasm to fight against evil. The “unavenged suffering and unquenched indignation” must be kept alive for the victims’ sake. Their suffering must not be made a means to a higher end.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, the rhetorical argument from evil is not a logical and rational argument. Now I think we can see what it is. It expresses agonized rebellion against forgetting and minimizing the suffering of the victims of the evil that human beings do to each other. And it expresses an irrevocable commitment to keep alive the determination to fight against such evil. Christian believers can and should share these concerns. We must. To believe that God will dry every tear does not mean that the tears were not cried or were cried in vain. No. Hope in God does not exclude weeping for ourselves and others who suffer. Faith that God will make all things right does not mean that we are relieved of the duty to denounce evil as evil and fight against it with all our might.

These thoughts are expanded greatly in the 25-page chapter (“The Rhetorical Argument From Evil”) in my soon-to-be published book, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (InterVarsity Press, 400 pages). I will be saying more about his book when it is released this fall. Here is the Amazon.com link for the book:


The Real “Problem of Evil” is Not How to Understand it but How to Escape it!

In this fortieth essay in my series on “Is Christianity True?” we continue to consider the challenge to Christian belief that arises from our experience of evil.  In the three previous essays devoted to this challenge, I claimed that the argument from evil to atheism fails rather dramatically and that what we call evil is disorder and conflict rather than an actual concrete thing or force. Today I want to build on this foundation.

The two main contemporary forms of the argument from evil are the “logical argument” and the “evidential argument.” The logical argument contends that the classical divine attributes of omnipotence, perfect goodness and omniscience are logically at odds with the proposition that evil exists. If God were omnipotent, God could prevent all evil. If God were perfectly good, God would want to prevent all evil. And if God were omniscient, God would know every instance of evil and how to prevent it. But evil exists. Therefore God is either omnipotent but not perfectly good or perfectly good but not omnipotent.

Such Christian philosophers as Alvin Plantinga have argued that the logical argument is not as logically impassable as it seems to be. Even if God could prevent all evil, he could have a morally sufficient reason for allowing some evil. Suppose that a world containing free beings, even if those beings can do evil as well as good, is a greater good than a world without instances of evil but also without freedom. And suppose further that God cannot create this better world without allowing the possibility for evil to occur, since a creature’s act cannot be both free and determined at the same time. Hence asserting the three classical attributes is not logically inconsistent with the admission that evil occurs.

The evidential argument from evil gives up the idea of a logical contradiction between the three classical attributes and the admission that evil occurs. Admitting that God might have a good reason for allowing some evil, the advocates of the evidential argument contend that there is too much horrendous evil  in the world for any greater good to justify God for allowing it. In my view this argument is much harder to make and refute. The reason is simple: it attempts to quantify how much evil could justify any possible good outcome. We have no perspective from which to make this judgment and no scale on which to weigh present evil against future good. The debate goes nowhere and turns quickly into an appeal to emotion and an attack on the character of the believer.

It is important to note that neither of these arguments (logical or evidential), even if you accept them, concludes to atheism. They merely point to an alleged contradiction or difficulty in the classical doctrine of God. And it should be obvious that our inability to articulate a perfectly coherent doctrine of God should not count as strong evidence for the nonexistence of God. Such a demand would be considered ridiculous in almost any other area of science or philosophy. If you have other compelling reasons for believing in God or affirming the classical doctrine of God, the challenge of the problem of evil need not defeat this belief even if you cannot resolve the difficulties completely.

For Christianity, the present tension created by sin, suffering and death cannot be resolved by rational arguments that attempt to balance accounts between good and evil. The resolution will occur in the future resurrection and redemption of creation and is grasped in the present only by faith in God through Jesus Christ. The Bible gives no rigorous rational account of the origin of evil or why God allows it. True, sin, suffering and death are roughly associated with freedom (Gen 3 and Rom 5:12-21), and sometimes suffering is said to produce good things in the long run (Rom 5:1-5; Heb 12:7-11; and James 1:2-4). But for the most part, New Testament authors take our existential situation for granted and focus on the salvation achieved by Jesus Christ in the cross and resurrection, they encourage living in the present in the faith, hope and love given by the Holy Spirit and they look to the future resurrection and judgment to correct all wrongs and make all things new.

For Christian theology, the most pressing problem of evil is not the disturbing question of why God allows suffering. It is existential fact that we are sinners, unable to clear our consciences or change our behavior, and that we are dying along with the whole creation. The cross is the ground and hope for forgiveness and deliverance from sin, and the resurrection is the ground and hope for death’s defeat and life’s eternal triumph. When the real problem of evil is finally dealt with the question of why God allowed suffering will be forgotten.

Evil is No Thing!

Last week’s post concluded that however much our experience of evil might challenge belief in an omnipotent, perfectly good and omniscient God, it does not disprove or even challenge the existence of a divine reality as such. There are many views of the divine and its mode of interaction with the world that are perfectly consistent with the existence of evil. The importance of this insight can hardly be overstated, and I will explore its significance in a future post. For now we need to explore the nature of evil in a bit more detail.

Evil as Conflict

In a recent post entitled “When is “Evil” Truly Evil?” I argued that describing an event as “evil” makes sense only if the event transgresses a cosmic plan for the way things are supposed to go. Evil is too strong and emotional a word to be used as a way to say “this is not what I wanted” or “I don’t like this.” In that essay I wanted to show that the concept of evil is evacuated of significance unless the thing we call evil is also “wrong.” Hence the concept of evil entails the concept of wrong.

Today I want to point out another quality of evil, not so much a moral quality (wrongness) as a physical quality. Whatever else one might say about evil, everyone can see that it involves disorder, disharmony or conflict. In a moral evil such as theft or murder the perpetrator abandons adherence to the moral law and enters into conflict with other people’s interests or rights. Vices such as greed, envy and lust arise from inner disorder and generate outer conflict. Such diseases as cancer, heart failure and diabetes begin when the natural integrity and harmony of the body fails and degeneration sets in. I use the word “conflict” to stand for the family of physical qualities mapped by the terms disorder, disharmony, disintegration, antagonism, conflict and other like terms.

What is the origin of conflict? Conflict makes sense only where there is more than one thing. Why is there more than one thing? In the end, there are only two ways to think about the origin of our universe. Either it derives from one eternal reality or it derives from more than one eternal reality. In worldviews that teach that there is only one eternal reality—for example monotheism—evil cannot be eternal because evil becomes possible only when the one eternal reality produces the many things of the world. In worldviews that appeal to more than one eternal reality—for example polytheism—the possibility for evil is eternal because division itself is eternal. Many of the differences between the ways the world’s religions and philosophies (East and West) approach evil can be explained by which one of these two presuppositions they hold to be true.

In continuity with Judaism, Christianity teaches that there is only one eternal God who is the creator of the world and its diverse creatures. God freely created the world with all its diversity by his word. In the early centuries of the church, Christian theologians faced a challenge from religious philosophies that asserted the existence of two eternal realities, one good and the other evil. These philosophies taught that the existence and apparent power of evil can be explained only by the existence of an eternal evil power that stands in eternal conflict with the good power. Otherwise, they argued, we would have to think of God as the origin of evil as well as good.

Evil is Not a Thing

In response to such philosophies Christian thinkers argued that evil is not an independent thing that can act on its own. Evil is disorder, misrelation or defective activity (failure) among real things. Evil is the condition of disorder itself, not a thing that instigates conflict against other things. And disorder is not an existing thing, like an atom, an animal or a human being. It can have no effect apart from the activity of things that exist. Real things can be ordered or disordered, but disorder cannot exist by itself. Augustine says, “I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, toward inferior things, rejecting its own inner life” (Confessions 7.16). Basil the Great also rejects the idea that evil is a real thing that can exist on its own:

Do not consider God the cause for the existence of evil, nor imagine evil as having its own existence. For evil is the absence of good…For it is neither uncreated…nor is it created, for if all things are from God, how can evil be from good. For nothing that is vile comes from the beautiful, nor does evil come from virtue” (God is Not the Author of Evil, 8; quoted in Dumitru Staniloae, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2).

Basil’s and Augustine’s rejection of the eternal and independent reality of evil solved one problem but created another. If God is the sole eternal creator of this diverse world why is there disorder and conflict? The mere presence of diversity does not cause disharmony and conflict; different things can be related harmoniously to achieve a greater whole. But how does a diverse world maintain its unity and harmony? No one thing within the world possesses the power to unify the whole world. If a brick were to impose its order on the house, it could at best transform the house into a brick; and that imposition would be an instance of violence and destruction. The Creator alone possesses the power, right and wisdom to unify the world of diverse things without doing violence to any of them. So, what disrupts the harmonious order? Two possibilities come to mind, chance or freedom.

Chance and Freedom as the Origins of Evil

Events that have their origin in chance or freedom are thought to break from the chain of events that preceded them and begin a new chain of events. Hence they can create order from disorder or destroy an existing order. Chance can be conceived in two ways. First, chance can be thought of as a spontaneous coming into being from nothing. Such an event has no origin and no explanation. It is absurd. Second, chance can be considered an event that occurs when two preexisting chains of events intersect in a way unpredictable from within either chain. A bird is flying overhead as I am taking my morning walk…I don’t need to describe what happens next. There is no vantage point from which the first form of chance could be predicted, but for the second there is such a possibility. Someone outside these chains of events in a position to see both could predict the time and place of their intersection.

From an external point of view freedom looks much like chance. Events originating in freedom look somewhat spontaneous and they often disrupt the expected flow of surrounding events. Chance events often cause suffering, death and destruction and so can events originating in freedom. But we experience freedom from within ourselves as rational deliberation and choice. Hence we know we are responsible for our deliberate actions, and we believe that other people are responsible for theirs. We may curse chance, but we don’t hold it responsible for what it causes. We attribute the suffering, death and destruction we experience at the hands of natural processes to chance. But most of the evil we experience at the hands of human beings we attribute to freedom.

Next Week: Why doesn’t God impose and maintain perfect harmony among the diverse things and free beings in the world? Why does God allow (or permit) evil? Is the free will defense the best answer to the argument from evil?

An Invitation to Thoughtfulness in Religion

In these pages I will address…

Infrequently asked questions, Frequently asked Questions, God and the Self, Human Freedom, Human Dignity, Moral, Creation, Providence, Human Existence, The Human Condition, Humanism, Atheism, Liberal Theology, Agnosticism, Theology and Empirical Science, The Problem of Evil, Jesus Christ, Church and other topics as needed.

I really don’t like...

Dishonesty, hypocrisy, double-speak, self-deception, narcissism, cynicism, misrepresentation, confusion, ignorance, humbug, obfuscation, deception and other intellectual and moral vices.

I really like…

Clarity in thinking, precision in speaking, honesty, truth, common sense, intellectual humility, thoughtfulness and fairness.

Where I Stand…

I see the world through Christian eyes. My understanding of God, nature, human existence, and moral and religious life is conditioned by my faith that in Jesus Christ the identity of God and the nature and destiny of humanity have been revealed. I hold to what many would call conservative or traditional or orthodox Christianity; but for me it is just the original, simple and authentic faith. Paraphrasing one of my favorite authors, Søren Kierkegaard, I do not believe I have the right to judge the hidden relationship any human being may have with God—that judgment is for God alone—but I think I know what Christianity is and what it teaches. That is what I believe and want to become. And that is the position from which I write.