Browsed by
Tag: Theodicy

A God That’s Cool

A God That’s Cool

Whats God Really LIke

In the introduction to his book What’s God Really Like? S. J. Hill tells the story of a student who announced at the end of a term in a class he taught, that she had discovered that God was cool.

I don’t know how you react to that, but the moment I read that line I knew that I’d be offering the author a contract to publish the book. I’ve long been annoyed by all the theological words we use to describe God, even when those words are true.

My question is this: Do we understand the words? Does “omnipotent” mean anything to me? Does “infinite?” One can get infinitely wordy and yet communicate very little.

What’s more, how likely are we to be attracted to a relationship with a God because of all of these ultimate words? It’s not that I do not believe God is ultimate. In fact, I like the language of Paul Tillich that God is our “ultimate concern,” and that making anything that is not actually ultimate our ultimate concern is idolatry.

This idea of ultimate concern leads to the claim that faith in God is something that involves and demands everything. To quote Tillich, “Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements” (Dynamics of Faith, Nook position 16).

Notice how I jumped into theological speaking in discussing this topic. I think Tillich is talking about a dynamic God, an exciting God, and I even personally love what he has to say about this God. But can we say this a bit more to the point?

A God who engages your whole personality, who is ultimate in everything, will have to be more dynamic than a set of theological definitions. God must be more than a collection of attributes. To be truly dynamic, the God we’re talking about here must be exciting, interesting, all-encompassing.

In a word, Cool!

Unless, of course, you mean something different than I do by “cool!”

In his little book Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job, Bruce Epperly notes:

Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim once noted that the most important theological question is not “Do you believe in God?” but “What kind of God do you believe in?” The author of Job would concur with Fretheim’s vision. Job is a God-filled book, reflecting the deep piety of its author and his main character. Like the Psalms, Job describes a faith for every season of life and shows that piety can be revealed as much in our questions as in our affirmations.

Bruce G. Epperly, Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job, p. 8

Now who could possibly go to the book of Job to find a cool God? That’s a frightening place! A God who was involved in all that couldn’t possibly be cool.

Let me detour for a moment. I recall traveling with a friend who was not a Christian. We had a long time to discuss things. My son James had died only a few weeks before. After a considerable discussion of the nature of my faith, my friend said, “I so admire you for keeping your faith through all of that.”

I was a bit shocked. It was my faith that had held me together. I had spent much of that time with God, something yelling and screaming. Sometimes weeping. But also sometimes laughing.

The God that could ride with me when I had hours to travel to a speaking engagement while James was in intensive care is a God I can call cool. Yes, I can use terms like merciful, kind, compassionate, and loving. Those are all good. But the reality is more lively.

Until I read S. J. Hill’s book, I hadn’t thought of the word. I like it.

Bruce Epperly also comments that theology begins in the experience of disappointment and suffering (ibid, 3).

My challenge as we explore the nature of God is to connect that point of entry with discovery of a God whose personality is pleasing. Yes, a God who is cool.

Book Notes: God’s Problem (Ehrman)

Book Notes: God’s Problem (Ehrman)

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-06-117397-4. 294 pp.

I have previously noted that Bart Ehrman’s books are much more controversial on their jackets than on their pages (see notes on The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot and Response to Misquoting Jesus). This is not to say that there is nothing controversial. Rather, well-known issues are stated in a stark and controversial way.

This book is no exception to this prior experience. I was both amused and annoyed that my copy from the library had been “annotated” by some previous user. That always annoys me, because defacing library books is vandalism and I don’t like it. But the form it took is interesting.

On the title page the words “fails to” are crossed out of the subtitle, and and “s” is added to “answer” to that it says “How the Bible Answers Our Most Important Question.” Then there is a note that says simply “sin, In the 1st Book Genesis 3.” Of course, as any competent scholar would, Ehrman covers the role of sin in human suffering according to various Biblical authors.

In the conclusion he also notes how people are divided between two groups. Those who announce their answer as though it was conclusive and obvious, as this annotator did, and those who really don’t want to discuss the topic at all.

I have thought a great deal about the problem of suffering and am willing to talk about it a great deal, but I don’t actually think I have any very good answers. It was interesting to me that neither Ehrman nor I will give a definitive answer, but we have a certain amount of affinity for similar answers. The bottom line for me is simply, “That’s the way the universe works.”

Of course there is also suffering caused by human evil, so the “sin” solution is certainly a part of suffering. But any of these leaves one with the question of just how God fits in. And there I would differ with Ehrman considerably. The problem of suffering itself is one thing; one can even ask the question why we should not suffer. The problem of suffering when one also believes in a “good” God is another matter entirely.

And that’s why the book is titled “God’s Problem.” On one level this is simply a summary of how the various Bible writers answer the question of why we suffer. On another, it is Dr. Ehrman’s journey in dealing with the fact that we do suffer and the implications of that fact for our understanding of God. Some may dislike the idea of mixing one’s personal experience with a book of scholarship, even a popular one. I would disagree. I think the personal reflections, however much they differ from my own, enhance the book and help one to connect the various scriptural responses to real life.

Let me look at these two levels separately. It was interesting to read this book nearly simultaneously with Bruce Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology. The books differ a great deal in size, intended audience, style, and the level of presentation, yet they very clearly illustrate a significant divide in Biblical scholarship. Do we look try to see the scriptures as ultimately unified, and thus reconcile apparent differences theologically or do we lay out those difficulties as starkly as possible?

That question outlines extremes. There are many variations along the way, including a kind of unity in diversity. I like to refer to the unity of a large river system, rather than that of a carefully delineated pathway. But Waltke approaches the Bible as a unity to be brought into subjection to his christology, while Ehrman sees the Bible as many individual schools of thought and tends to demarcate these schools rather strictly.

As an outline, I’m rather happy with Ehrman’s work. He points out what the major positions are. I think there could be some more work done on seeing how those positions might coexist. For example, the view that suffering is a punishment for sin can co-exist with the apocalyptic view that sees suffering as something inflicted by evil forces. I know people in real life who will respond with either of these options according to the circumstances. They don’t always have any logic other than whether they feel that a particular person is deserving of “discipline” or is demonstrating strength as they face the forces of evil.

Scholars tend to try to keep things more logically disciplined than that, which is probably a good attitude for a scholar to have. But it can get in the way of describing real people who are quite frequently a great deal messier.

In particular, I question some of Ehrman’s work on Job. I think he takes a view on Job that would require the final redactor to be some sort of idiot. See my notes on this on my Participatory Bible Study Blog.

Those who would be very critical of Ehrman’s approach, however, should consider the almost casual way theologians often try to brush aside such objections. I did not include this topic in my notes on his book, but Waltke brushes aside major issues in this fashion, particularly when talking about genocide in Joshua.

There he dismisses the problem by suggesting that those who were willing to repent and convert, such as Rahab were subject to destruction, while those in Israel who failed to maintain the standards, such as Achan, were also destroyed. Many people, myself included, would not see a “convert or die” approach as substantially more acceptable than genocide. In fact, any theory of inspiration that does not take adequate account of human failings and ideas runs aground on this problem. If God in fact said “kill them all, even babies” and intended this as a good thing, then God is monstrous. It is possible that God allowed them to think that, because that was what they were inclined to do. It is sufficiently difficult to explain God allowing such a thing, much less explaining why he would positively demand it.

Yet of course the text says that God did just that. For me, that is a strong sign of how the Bible deals with people, still steeped in the culture and moral standards of the time, struggling with what God would have them to do. This is an aspect of the problem that Ehrman only touches on as part of the punishment for sin view.

As for Ehrman, just as I noted in my review of his book Misquoting Jesus, I think he responds largely to a fairly conservative evangelical view of Biblical inspiration, such as would be espoused by Waltke. I don’t mean that a bit of adjustment in one’s view of inspiration solves all the problems. Hardly! But it does make the discussion much more interesting and offer more avenues for a solution.

And this is where we come to the more personal issue. While I did not go on to get a doctoral degree, nor have I written such popular books, I really empathize with Ehrman’s experience. I came out of seminary with a “this can’t be” kind of feeling, and departed the faith at that point. Twelve years later I came back, but to a much more liberal theology. I came to the realization that I did believe in God, however much I might prefer not to, and thus I would have to deal more with my concept of God.

I’m not trying to present my position as the better option, though obviously I prefer it since it’s mine! But if I’m to believe that the physical universe reveals its creator, then I have to be willing to adjust either the adjectives I use in referring to God or the meanings of those adjectives. In general, it may be more honest to use different adjectives.

That’s why I have written that God is more interested in freedom than comfort. Ehrman discusses the “freedom of the will” explanation for suffering, though he correctly points out that the Bible isn’t that much concerned with such an explanation, and also that it fails to deal with natural disasters that are chosen by nobody. At the same time the Bible does address this issue from the direction of responsibility. Sin comes through one man and thus death (Romans 5:12). But the Bible tends to lay responsibility without really acknowledging freedom, something that puts Paul into contortions in chapter 9, from which he extracts himself (if one is generous) by breaking into a bit of doxology.

By freedom, however, I mean something more than freedom of choice. Rather, God constrains the universe within laws rather than directing particulars. God didn’t want Hurricane Ike to destroy so many homes on the gulf coast; he wanted each hurricane to behave as hurricanes do. If you want to see God as loving, you also have to see him as willing to allow hurricanes to be hurricanes.

Is that a solution? All I can say is that it works for me, but I know plenty of people, my wife being one, who do not find that very satisfying. I found it interesting that Dr. Ehrman and his wife also differ, more profoundly than I do with my wife, on the very issues involved.

The bottom line here is that I deeply appreciate this effort to discuss such a difficult problem, and to relate it to one’s personal struggle. I disagree substantially with the conclusions, but largely because I start with different premises. My belief in God, with the kernel being “ground of all being” (Tillich) is fundamental, while my concept of God is more flexible. I’m much less likely to say, “I see that my old concept of God won’t fit with the suffering in the world, so there must not be a God” than to say, “My concept of God doesn’t fit with the suffering in the world, so I must have misunderstood God.”

That difference is personal and experiential at root, I think, and would be very hard to reconcile. It lies way too far outside the realm of “mostly certain” knowledge. In the meantime, you could do worse than to read this book and see how it helps you think about the problem of suffering.

Source and Redaction Criticism: Ehrman on Job

Source and Redaction Criticism: Ehrman on Job

In chapter six of his book God’s Problem, Ehrman tackles the book of Job.  (My notes on the book as a whole are here.)  He describes the book as coming from two sources, one containing the narrative portions, and one containing the poetic dialogues.

This view is not that exceptional, though one should also consider a very common alternative, that the dialogues were written separately, but that one and same person wrote the narratives and redacted the entire book.

Ehrman says:

Most people who read Job do not realize that the book as it has come down to us today is the product of at least two different authors, and that these different authors had different, and contradictory understandings of why it is that people suffer. . . . (p. 162)

The prose author, he says, sees suffering as a test of faith, while the author of the dialogues believes that there ultimately is no answer.

Ehrman correctly notes differences of genre, and differences of style.  The seams in the book suggest the possibility of multiple sources.  Ehrman adds to this a difference in the portrayal of Job.  While I have been aware of the possible sources since college, and have read the book many times, I have never seen a problem with the characterization of Job.  I chalk this one up to the common scholarly exercise of trying to make people more coherent and logical than they normally are.

Ehrman also feels that the parts were not combined very well.  On page 167 he notes the reaction of God in chapter 42:

. . . It is obvious that a bit of the folktale was lost in the process of combining it with the poetic dialogues, for when it resumes, God indicates that he is angry with the three friends for what they have said, in contrast to what Job has said.  This cannot very well be a reference to what the friends and Job said in the poetic dialogues, because there it is the friends who defend God and Job who accuses him.  And so a portion of the folktale must have been cut off whent he poetic dialogues were added.  What the friends said that offended God cannot be known. (p. 167)

All of which treats the final redactor as an idiot.  This is one of the key problems when source and redaction criticism are viewed as providing “the” answer to the meaning of a passage or book.  Source critics tend to think they’re done when they have finished identifying the sources and mourning the missing parts.

But is the redactor (or final author) actually so silly that he fails to miss the fact that the friends are defending God and Job is challenging him?  I think there is good evidence to suggest not.  In the dialogues, the friends hold that Job is guilty of something and that God is punishing him.  The narrative portions clearly state that this is not the case.  In other words, the friends have been making false claims about God and accusing Job of wrongdoing, when no such wrongdoing has taken place, according to the narrative portions.

If one takes the resultant whole as a polemic against the Deuteronomistic approach (or at least a supplement to it, as the two are not completely incompatible), which holds that blessing comes to those who do right and curses to those who don’t, then I think the combined text makes quite good sense.  It is not a theodicy.  I want to scream when people insist it is; there is no intention of justifying God in the book of Job.  If there is, it is a miserable failure.  It is not a coherent picture of why people suffer.  In fact, it makes clear that one cannot know.  From the point of view of the text as a whole, Job never gets to know what the problem was.  He may have been enduring a test of faith, but all he knows is that he is a) innocent and b) suffers.  He is satisfied that God appeared, and he is affirmed as a righteous man by God’s actions.

I think a better redaction theory would be that the narrative author had the dialogues before him, which fail to present an answer.  Suffering there is mysterious, and the issue is never resolved.  He wraps this in a story that makes the mysterious suffering have a cause, in this case, the test.  While Job still remains in mystery, he is satisfied that at least God showed up.

Ehrman comments on Job’s response to God’s presence:

. . . God is not to be questioned and reasons are not to be sought.  Anyone who dares to challenge God will be withered on the spot, squashed into the dirt by his overpowering presence.  The answer to suffering is that there is no answer and we should not look for one.  The problem with Job is that he expects God to deal rationally with him, to give him a reasonable explanation of the state of affairs; but God refuses to do so.  He is, after all, God.  Why should he have to answer to anybody?  Who are <em>we</em>, mere mortals, to question GOD? (p. 188, emphasis in original)

The problem, in my view, is that this does not give adequate credit to even the literary concept of an encounter with God, much less the reported personal experience.  People speak of being terrified, spent, and shattered, yet they come out encouraged and feeling positive.  Those who have had mystical encounters, amongst whom I count myself, may well not record such encounters as entirely joyful, and may not come out with all answers, but at the same time, generally don’t feel that they can no longer seek answers.

In this concept, the friends have to repent of trying to represent God, and doing so incorrectly.  They have to repent of accusing an innocent man.  Job, on the other hand, at the same time repents of thinking he’s going to be able to handle it and understand it, yet he is not condemned for seeking an answer, and for upholding his own innocence even in the face of seemingly irrefutable theological positions.

The redactor is thus not an idiot.  I personally don’t find his approach to suffering all that helpful, but I do find it challenging.  It provides a way to think further.  This redactor, or final author, if he is trying to present Job as squished into the dust and intimated into no longer seeking answers, has a rather odd way of doing so.  He presents a book that seeks after answers, challenging old ones and suggesting new ones.

I think that Ehrman has misunderstood the narrative portion, and done so in such a way as to present some unknown final redactor in the worst possible light.  Careful reading of the final whole finds a viewpoint that is worth considering in itself.

This doesn’t detract fromt he sources, though personally I think that there is only one source, the poetic dialogues.  The author of our canonical book took those dialogues and wrapped them in prose, forcing them to serve him.  Far from being an idiot who couldn’t tell that his ending didn’t match his beginning, he was a creative author who molded older material into a new and useful form.

An Answer for Mark: Death as a Divine Tool

An Answer for Mark: Death as a Divine Tool

Mark responded to my post Dealing with the Theological Implications of Evolution, and in turn poses a question to me, well summarized in the last sentence of his last paragraph:

What is the particular problem that is raised that Stegosaurus had a million or so years in the sun but now is no longer?

Which reminds me that I get in the most trouble for the things I don’t say in a post. That question needs to be put into the context of the point I was trying to address in the post. Some Christians respond to evolution by saying that it doesn’t really make any difference. Genesis tells us that God created; evolution tells us how God created.

Depending on your audience, that will mean substantially different things. In some ways I regret growing up and essentially completing my formal education as a young earth creationist. There are so many lines of inquiry I would have pursued. I don’t mean things that would have advanced knowledge generally, but that could have advanced my knowledge.

At the same time, I understand how young earth creationists think, and telling them that evolution doesn’t make any difference is quite futile. You see a substantial part of the young earth creationist background involves an understanding of the fall. I’m not saying that every young earth creationist feels this way, but I personally haven’t encountered one who doesn’t.

The fall of humanity happened at a specific historical point. There was no sin in the world before that, and there was sin afterward. The physical world suffered as a result of sin, and was, in fact, dramatically altered because physical death was introduced at that point. (Never mind how an ecology would function without death.) In the particular form in which I learned it, the deteriorating ages of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 & 11 indicates the deterioration of the very fabric of the universe, or at least of life, so that people became less and less long-lived as they separated from God.

In that context, to say that evolution makes no difference theologically is nonsense. Evolution makes all the difference in the world. If God used evolution as his tool to create the world, not only is the chronology different, but the connection between sin and physical death is broken. There might be some deterioration of the world after sin, though no evidence of this is available, but the direct connection cannot exist.

For people who hold the young earth creationist viewpoint, at least in the form I grew up with, evolution is a devastating blow to all they hold dear. If the fall did not cause deterioration, then how can redemption cause recreation? Remember here that they believe this does involve the physical world, all of creation (Romans 8:22). Everything from God’s personal care of everyone, to redemption, and finally to the life hereafter and the new creation falls under their system if evolution is true. The theological impact is massive.

I would add a side note on the “gap theory” or “ruin and restoration creationism” which holds that the earth is very old, the same age as that held by mainstream science and by old earth creationists, yet that sin was brought to earth before the creation that occurred in Genesis 1. In their view sin caused death, but did so before Adam was created. Adam then participated in that death at the fall. For them successive extinction events can become successive acts of destruction by God intended to wipe out or punish evil. Evolution is still devastating to their theology and they would reject it vigorously.

One other odd view is Bill Dembski’s view that death was introduced prospectively, i.e. God knew that evil would occur and dealt with it before the fact. Adam was thus responsible, even though he sinned much later. I blogged about it a bit here, and Dembski’s article can be found here. (Note that he has revised this several times, so quotes from it in any earlier articles may be wrong. I’ve tried to note the date, but I think I forgot a few times. I always used the version that was online as of the date I posted.)

Old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists are in essentially the same place on this. Death must be seen as a natural part of the way the universe is designed, and death becomes God’s tool. I would say that the issue is even harder for old earth creationists. Let me digress for a moment to explain why.

I’m not much impressed with the common argument that God didn’t create evil; God created Satan, who then rebelled. In other words, I don’t feel the separation between God taking action directly, God creating someone who has the option to take an action, or God creating a process that has that same effect. If God created Satan knowing he would do evil (a requirement if one accepts foreknowledge, which in the traditional sense I do not), then God is equally responsible. If God creates a world in which the holocaust can occur, he can’t evade responsibility. In scripture, I don’t see any great effort to avoid God’s responsibility for whatever happened. That seems to be mostly a later effort.

Let me illustrate. Supposing I have responsibility for a group of children, and I let them loose in a room full of valuable but fragile items. I don’t set any parameters, but simply tell them to play and then I run off. I don’t come back, observe, and most importantly intervene when their play gets lively and the valuable items are broken.

If the owner of the valuables comes to me and charges me with responsible, will he except the excuse that the children did it? I suspect not. I put the children there. I didn’t instruct them properly. I didn’t monitor them, and I didn’t intervene to stop them. I think most people would regard me as responsible for the breakage.

In the same way I regard God as responsible for the universe. I think I have warrant to believe that God regards God as responsible for the universe.

But the fact is that in my experience most people do not agree with me with regard to God. They do find “the devil did it” to exonerate God in some sense. In that context, I think the old earth creationists have a bit of a problem. As a theistic evolutionist I believe that God so ordered the universe that there would be processes that would bring about life and allow it to diversify. I must accept that God is thereby responsible for such things as scarcity of resources; no diversification would occur if there was no selective survival.

The old earth creationist, it seems to me, must see God as creating an incomplete process. Variation and natural selections works some, but appears to be defective. Thus God allows the process to work and then steps in and creates greater variations from time to time. So God is not merely using a tool that is part of the fabric of the universe; he is also getting involved on a day to day (or more likely age to age or period to period basis. I think if they were consistent the same people who accept a devil based theodicy should regard this as God with dirty hands.

I must restate, however, that I think theistic evolutions and old earth creationists are in the same boat on this one, and that evolution does not make a theological difference on this one point. But that is only true between old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists. Young earth creationists or ruin and restoration creationists would see it somewhat differently.

Making the World Make Itself

Making the World Make Itself

PamBG quotes a letter that using some wonderful phraseology with regard to the process of creation, but also related to theodicy. I can’t access the letter itself due to a subscription requirement, but the part Pam quotes is quite good.

I like these two sentences particularly well:

Suppose instead that he made the world make itself.

. . .

Be the incarnation suggests that, in Jesus, God knew by experience, not just observation, what it was to be rejected, and hunted down; . . .


Creation, Fall, and Redemption: Three Views

Creation, Fall, and Redemption: Three Views

Yesterday I wrote about the significance of the theory of evolution for the view of evil, particularly whether physical death is the result of human evil. Understanding Christian views on this topic requires some knowledge of the doctrines of creation and the fall, and secondarily of redemption.

One of the most contentious issues in the creation-evolution controversy amongst Christians involves specifically the creation of human beings. When surveys ask whether humans were specially created by God recently (6-10 thousand years), they may get skewed results because of this. There are a number of Christians who believe the universe and the earth are old, and that life on earth is old and may well have developed via evolutionary processes, but believe that human beings are specially created. Thus, they would affirm that all life is related except for human beings.

This may seem very odd from a scientific point of view, but I’m dealing here with theological objections to evolution. While I’m primarily presenting this material as background for understanding the previous objection, there is also the simple objection that because of their special place in God’s plan, human beings must be a special creation. This objection is often misunderstood, and is also often misstated. The major theological problem is not whether the first human was directly formed from dust rather than developed from a prior form, but more that the development must be special and a direct intervention of God. (Note that this is not my view, but rather I’m trying to represent a range of views that require a separate, special creation.)

There are three elements here. First is the creation of human beings, however accomplished. What was the moral state of these creatures, and how did they attain “the image of God?” Second is the fall. Assuming that humanity original carried God’s image and was on good terms with God (as presented in Genesis), what happened and when? Finally, these two elements will combine to impact one’s view of redemption. The result of redemption depends on what the original state actually was.

I’m not going to try to name these views. I’m going to describe them and present them in three columns. These views range from a fairly literal one (but not necessarily young earth), to a completely evolutionary view.

Element View 1 View 2 View 3
Creation Human beings are specially created, either separately or individually, or on a plan similar to existing apes. They are formed precisely according to a detailed, divine plan. Human beings evolve physical, but receive or become a soul through action of God at a specific point. At that point they are morally innocent and what God would want them to be, even though their bodies are the result of evolutionary processes. Any self-aware, intelligent creature should be regarded as “in the image of God.” The means of forming such a creature are irrelevant. Such a creature would be innocent, but also morally limited based on heredity and environment.
Fall The fall resulted from a specific violation of a specific, known command of God. Eating the fruit may be symbolic, but it is symbolic of a particular event that occurred chronologically after the creation of human beings, i.e. it is not a part of their state as physical creatures. As a general rule, similar to the first view, though the specific nature of the rebellion may not be specified so precisely. The fall expresses something inherent in the state of a finite creature. There may be a moment of stepping away from innocence, but this is more a matter of recognizing and consciously making moral choices than specifically violating a specific command or even rebelling generally against divine authority.
Results Physical death resulted from the fall. Young earthers will generally hold that all physical death results from this act. Old earthers may believe simply that human beings suffer death because of the rebellion. Physical death is simply part of the state of being a physical creature. Creatures die; humans are creatures. There is inherent in our condition a separation from our spiritual home with God.
Redemption Involves return to the originally created state via God’s creative power. (The first two views will overlap here. Involves a return to the original state, only better, with a spiritual body. Redemption allows the spiritual side of humanity to connect with the creator in eternal life, which is a gift given by God. What is meant by “eternal life” varies in how it will be interpreted and what that state of being will be.

I believe that almost any actual theologian will vary from any single column. My hope is that you will think of a continuum starting with the first view and ending with the third for each element and realize that some mixing and matching will occur. These are just summaries of some of the possibilities. I’m trying to keep this short and thus have not provided all the Biblical support for each position.

If I generate enough interest in my own mind or on the blog, I may write some more on the Biblical and theological implications of each of these points.

Of Necessity and Suffering

Of Necessity and Suffering

I’ve appreciated much of what John Piper has said about the prosperity gospel. Prosperity theology strikes me as not just false (Biblically and experientially), but particularly dangerous because it either drives one from faith and its actual benefits, or creates a very shallow Christian at best, ready to be driven away at the first difficulty. “Come unto me, all you who want to get rich,” just doesn’t sound much like Jesus to me.

Via Adrian Warnock’s blog ( PIPER FRIDAY – Suffering is Essential to Christians), I found this set of notes from a talk by John Piper.

I’m going to use the same quote Adrian did:

Let me underline one of the statements I’ve already made: Suffering is an essential part of your Christian existence. I choose the word essential very carefully. Paul said to new believers in Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations we will enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is Christianity 101. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 that we Christians are destined for suffering. This is your destiny—suffering. Think it not strange when the fiery ordeal comes upon you. And 2 Timothy 3:12: All who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted. And Romans 8:16: We are fellow heirs if we suffer with him. There is one God-appointed path to glorification—suffering. If you are making it your life ambition to avoid suffering, you will perish and suffer forever. And all this Pauline talk is based on Jesus’ talk.

I am not in disagreement with this statement, but I would take a slightly different angle on the issue. Suffering is an essential part of the way that the universe is put together. The difference in suffering for a Christian is one of perspective, and not one either of suffering exclusively. I’m not in disagreement with Piper here. One commenter at Adrian’s blog seemed to think Piper was indicating that only Christians suffer, which would be a foolish thing to say, not to mention demonstrably false.

There’s also a reverse link that I have heard frequently, the idea that suffering or receiving persecution indicates that one is right. I hear this frequently about great leaders of the past. If they hadn’t been right, why would they have been so persecuted? This sentiment reflects an awe-inspiring ignorance of history, in which people on all sides of various controversies have suffered persecutions. The trinitarians, who won, were persecuted until they did win. The Arians, however, also suffered for Christ. Gnostics suffered as well. In the reformation, Catholics and all varieties of protestants were persecuted at various times for their beliefs. Persecution is an indication of persistence on the one hand, and a severely overdone desire for control on the other, but it doesn’t tell you whether someone is right.

Back in March, I wrote about Bill Dembski’s article on theodicy, in which he argues that though evil occurred later in humanity, that evil (the fall) was nonetheless the logical cause of death and suffering. (Note that the article was revised on March 15, 2007, and the date of that post was March 4, 2007. I have not reviewed the article since that revision.) Though I have often written negatively about Dr. Dembski’s work, I find this particular article intriguing and challenging.

I would suggest, however, that in order for their to be free will there must be options with consequences. Those consequences must offer the full range of results of the choices. Further, if there is both free will and interaction with other creatures, not all consequences of any one creature’s choices will fall on that creature alone. To take a simple example, if I fail to pay my power bill, I’m not the only one who has to sit in the dark. My wife shares that problem with me. If one person takes an incomplete course of an antibiotic, and as a result helps release a resistant strain, the consequences fall on many, not just one.

One can easily imagine a universe in which there is no suffering, or no negative consequences, but such a universe would simply be a machine. I think it’s difficult if not impossible to demonstrate that the universe is not a machine, though most of us persist in the belief that somehow it is not and that our choices matter.

Which leads me to a brief excursus on free will. I have heard many folks say there is no free will only to discover that what they mean is that our will is not completely free, i.e. that there are options closed to me. What I am speaking about here is any departure from the purest determinism. If the universe is not perfectly deterministic, and more specifically if my actions are not 100% determined by knowable causes, then I would call that free will. I would imagine a continuum, from pure determinism through absolute freedom. On the one hand, there would be no responsibility, because there would be no I with an input into my decisions. On the other hand, there would be no order against which to observe freedom in action. I’m calling anywhere on the intervening continuum free will. My feeling is that the reality is much, much closer to determinism than to complete freedom.

I would note with some humor that every time I discuss this I seem to get someone who will tell me that quantum theory demonstrates determinism, and someone else to tell me that it demonstrates that there is some indeterminacy. I don’t know enough about it to argue with either one, though I lean to some level of indeterminacy.

In any case, let me get back to my point. Suffering exists in the world, and it is a necessity because there is freedom. While I do not understand the physics, I can affirm that the Biblical writers believed in some degree of human freedom and responsibility. The Bible also affirms that God’s servants, even God’s very good servants, suffer. Job is called righteous, and he suffered. Jesus, according to Christian theology, made all the right choices in his life, and he suffered. The question is not whether some form of hardship will come, but rather what will come of the hardship.

And let me make a little point here. Suffering is hard to measure, and it is probably better not to even try. When our son was suffering from cancer, one of our friends complained to my wife about a problem she had, and then was embarrassed. “How could I complain to you about my tiny problem when you are facing such a big one?” she asked. Well, just what a particular problem does to you isn’t that easily measurable. Even the moment in a situation that is hardest to take differs. I recall my lowest point being when I spoke to the doctor and heard the word that cancer had spread and was not treatable. My wife was overseas leading a mission trip, and I knew it would take hours at best to contact her. I’ve never felt anything like that pain and isolation, even when he died. (It’s coming up on the anniversary of that, September 22, so it’s kind of running through my mind again.)

My wife Jody has just written a book about grief (which also is making me remember), based on what she learned in 12 years as a hospice nurse and our own experience. In it she said:

I believe that each loss is personal and the degree of grief or pain is personal and cannot be compared!

(OK, here’s the shameless advertising plug. The book is Grief: Finding the Candle of Light and should be shipping September 21. She has also written about this on her blog here.)

The question is not one of quantity or whether or not you will suffer. Suffering is an essential. The question is what you are going to do with it. One of the things both my wife and I have been able to do is to listen with sympathy to people who are undergoing loss, and occasionally even to talk to them. Many people were encouraged by the way that James faced death. That is a good thing that happened. I know a number of people who started to wear “Live Strong” bracelets because of what they saw in James’ life and the way he faced death. More importantly, they determined to “live strong” themselves.

Those are good things. Now comes the odd question. Did God kill James in order to accomplish those good things? I’ve found that there are some Christians who seem to need to think of it like that in order to deal with what happened. Somehow it’s easier for them to handle if God is doing everything. For others, the thought that God did it is so repugnant that they will deny it with all their force, or alternatively abandon faith because they can’t deny it, and feel certain that God did it.

There is a sense in which God does everything. He is that First Cause (logically, not temporally) that brought everything into being. If it were not for God there would be no cells, no DNA to have copying errors, and thus no cancer. At the same time, all of those things are results of that basic law of cause and effect without which freedom would have no meaning. Thus as I see it God didn’t give James cancer; James got cancer in God’s world.

I have been asked how I kept my faith through this struggle. I would say two things about that.

First, I never thought that my faith would make me exempt from the troubles that are in the world. In other words, my theological thinking about suffering was refined, but not essentially changed by this experience. This is a major reason I oppose prosperity theology. One’s faith is most needed when things are not going so well. Discipline is needed when they are going well.

Second, however, it was my faith that helped me work my way through it. To ask me why I didn’t abandon my faith in the midst of this difficulty is to ask a man in danger of drowning in heavy seas why he doesn’t let go of the life preserver. He’s in heavy seas, after all! But anyone in that situation would say, “That’s precisely why I’m clinging to this life preserver.”

Faith will be tested. How and when will vary. You may find it impossible to compare your suffering to someone else’s. The question is whether you will grow from it, or get destroyed by it.

PS: For more information, see my three essays titled The Hand of God, part 1, part 2, and part 3. These three essays are edited and incorporated in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic.

Theodicy and Openness Theology

Theodicy and Openness Theology

Some time ago I made a few remarks on Dr. William Dembski’s article, Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science (last accessed 3/4/07). I think it’s a wonderfully well-written article, though I disagree with his conclusions. I’m going to discuss this article a bit more, but first I want to cover one or two points (in separate posts) that are peripheral. The first one is Dembski’s treatment of openness theology. In general, Dembski is quite fair to his opponents in this article, but I think he misses the boat just a bit on dealing with openness theology, as one generally does when one attributes motivation to other people’s beliefs.

The entire section to which I want to respond is contained in a single paragraph on page 34 of the essay, starting with this:

The overwhelming reason for truncating divine foreknowledge in current theological discussion (especially among openness and process theologians) is to assist in the task of theodicy.

This misses the point somewhat. I certainly did not come to favor openness theology because I needed it for theodicy. In fact, I regard theodicy as a generally doomed business. Theodicy has proven useless to me. When I watched my 17 year old son die after a five year fight with cancer, it was not any principled theodicy that kept my spiritual life alive. It was simple experience of the presence of God, even around the time of death. God is whatever God is.

No, the problem for me is that there is simply a gap between God as portrayed in different passages of scripture and even the God I experience. I don’t mean that my experience of God challenges scripture. In fact, one of my major reasons for accepting the authority of the Bible is kind of in reverse. The God that I experience in prayer, meditation, and worship, is so effectively described by the vocabulary of the Bible, that I have to accept the probability that my experience is similar to the Biblical writers.

In fact, my personal experience of God is fractured in similar was to what a surface reading of many Bible passages presents. Without going into great detail, one needs to reconcile the God who “declares the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10) is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” (Hebrews 13:8) and yet “if a nation will turn from its evil, he will change his mind/relent” (Jeremiah 18:1-11). Many of us have become so theologically adept, whether we’re theologians or not, that we can reconcile those texts without thinking, bring the meaning of each into line with our theology.

Similarly my personal experience of God goes through times of absolute sovereignty in which I feel carried forward without choice, and yet at other times places at which God allows me broad freedom. If my concept of God is too narrow for this experience, how likely is it to be broad enough for an actual infinite God who is the ground of all being?

For openness theologians in general, and for me in particular, reconciliations of these aspects seem somewhat shallow, and seem to truncate one concept or another. The Bible speaks of humans having choices with consequences, consequences that would be different had humans behaved in a different manner. God repents frequently. In the book of Jonah, the prediction is that Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days. The people repent, and God repents. God’s grace is given priority over at least the appearance of his foreknowledge.

Thus my motivation in exploring openness theology is more an effort to give full weight to all of these aspects of scripture and personal experience of God in my theology. I have never seen free will or such broader approaches as openness as all that helpful. In the end, God created absolutely everything, good and bad, whether he did so directly as in special creation or indirectly as in an evolutionary model. If God is the ground of all being–a definition I like–then all chains of causation lead back to God, and all things happen because God wanted the universe to be that way. This remains true whether he limits his foreknowledge or not.

In such theodicies, a limited God is absolved from having to remove evils for the simple reason that he is incapable of removing them.

Well, no, not really. In such theologies God would be incapable of creating logical inconsistencies in the universe. Thus the finite beings cannot simultaneously have full freedom and yet be restricted from being evil. I recall interviewing Dr. Richard Rice, one proponent of openness theology a few years back for a conference on the Religion Forum, and he commented that it was not that God could not know everything, but that he chose to create the universe in such a way that he would not know everything. (I lost the transcript of that talk, so that is from memory, but I believe it is an accurate representation.)

But why engage in such theodicies at all? No sound arguments show that divine foreknowledge is logically incoherent. To argue against God knowing future contingent propositions invariably involves questionable assumptions about how the world, though created by God, might nonetheless impede God’s knowledge of the future.

Except that what is actually argued is that God impedes his own knowledge of the future. Now I have not read every exposition by openness theologians, and I imagine there are those who would limit God in the way Dembski describes, but that is not a necessary component of openness theology. Openness theology would best be expressed, in my view, solely as God’s approach to interaction with this finite universe. It’s a way in which various possibilities have been reconciled in the finite, when in the infinite they had no need of such reconciliation.

Further, I think that the coherence of free will and foreknowledge is quite illusory. William Lane Craig’s lengthy exposition to the contrary notwithstanding, I would still regard a fixed future as incompatible with free will. That’s a long discussion in itself, however, so I will hold with just the assertion at this point.

Moreover, divine foreknowledge does not preclude human freedom. If God foreknows what I shall choose, then I shall not choose otherwise. It doesn’t follow, however, that I can’t choose otherwise. As William Lane Craig puts it, “my freely chosen actions . . . supply the truth conditions for the future contingent propositions known by God.”62 In contrast to theodicies that attempt to justify God’s goodness/benevolence by looking to divine limitation, I’m going to argue that full divine foreknowledge of future contingent propositions is indispensable to a theodicy that preserves the traditional understanding of the Fall (i.e., one that traces all evil in the world back to human sin). [Citations in this passage are from from William Lane Craig. I reproduce footnote 59: William Lane Craig, “Divine Foreknowledge and Newcomb’s Paradox,” Philosophia 17 (1987): 331-350, available online at (last accessed January 12, 2006). Access date is Dr. Dembski’s.]

Here we see, I believe another example of the type of reconciliation I’m talking about. For Dembski, preserving a traditional understanding of the fall is important, and thus he looks for a reconciliation of the various elements that includes that traditional understanding. I believe that he operates in a way that is very similar to the openness theologians, and for that matter to most everyone else, in that he sees a number of teachings in scripture and hopes to provide an overarching theory that will account for them all. I have no problem with that. I simply point out that others are operating on the same motivation, and not simply moving the boundary markers in order to make themselves feel better about God.

One option at all times is to reexamine our understanding of any particular point in the light of whatever evidence we have available. This means that the ideas of free will, of sovereignty, of evil, and yes, the traditional understanding of the fall can be examined again and again as we try to reconcile the various pieces of information available to us. There is no God-given general theory of divine sovereignty and human will. That is something we have to look for.

In addition, we have to look at the sources. One difference between various approaches to theodicy is sources. What weight is given to scriptural statements over observations of the natural world? I would have to say, for example, that an observation of the history of life on this planet creates an interesting question about the God who “sees a sparrow fall” (Matthew 10:29) and the God who permits “survival of the fittest” as the driving force in the diversity of life.

Theodicy: Taking a Stab at Natural Evil

Theodicy: Taking a Stab at Natural Evil

Theodicy is a big subject, but for many people it relates closely to acceptance by Christians of the theory of evolution. I recall conversing with one friend who commented that while he could understand my acceptance of evolution, he just had a terribly hard time accepting a loving God who could, at the same time, use a process that involved so much killing and destruction in the creation of life.

Now personally, I have a much harder time dealing with the holocaust, the Russian revolution, or the death of Saudi Middle School girls because of the actions of religious police. Those actions represent clear evil to me, moral choices made in favor of evil resulting in pain and death. The fact that God allows such things requires a bit of explaining.

Nonetheless, the sheer bloodiness of the evolutionary process is certainly troubling to many. Since I grew up believing in young earth creationism I can understand this. To go from the idea that God painlessly and bloodlessly created all the creatures essentially as they are, and that all pain and death are the result of evil, to a view that pain and death are simply a part of existence in the universe is quite a step. There are those who will say blithely that evolution really doesn’t make any theological difference. It’s just a matter of the technique God used to create. But that is to ignore serious implications.

In this case, however, the implications also apply to old earth and/or intelligent design creationists just as much as they do to theistic evolutionists. The blood and guts exist, and they exist before any human being has made a choice to sin. Thus they seem to be a feature of the universe rather than the result of some wrong action. This is called “natural evil.” Wikipedia gives a fair definition, but when dealing with creation one needs to note in addition that the traditional Christian view that has accomplanied young earth creationism is that there was no natural evil in the world prior to the fall of man (Genesis 3), and that all natural evil resulted from that moral failure. Thus while you can distinguish natural evil from moral evil on an ongoing basis, even natural evil ultimately was caused by the actions of a moral agent.

Dr. William Dembski has written an excellent article on this subject, Christian Theodicy in Light of
Genesis and Modern Science
. Those who read this blog regularly will be aware that I generally don’t hold a positive view of Dembski’s work, so listen to me here. This article is the best single discussion of natural evil that I’ve read. It’s clear, well argued, and creative. I think those who write on theodicy will be responding to it and referencing it for some time to come. Having said that, I disagree with the major conclusion and would debate a number of individual elements. Dembski believes in an old earth, though he also supports intelligent design, which makes his overall view very close to that of most old earth creationists. I’m going to quote it here simply to demonstrate the widespread acknowledgement that this is a problem. In some later posts I plan to respond to individual elements of Dembski’s view.

With regard to Hugh Ross, he says:

Nonetheless, the actual arguments I’ve seen from old-earth creationists that attempt to preserve both theological and scientific orthodoxy have struck me as inadequate if by theological orthodoxy one means a traditional understanding of the Fall that traces all natural and personal evil in the world to human sin. Take Hugh Ross. Ross does not believe the Garden of Eden was free of death, decay, pain, and suffering. For him, there was never a perfect paradise. To justify this claim scripturally, Ross will cite Genesis 3:16, in which God informs Eve after she has sinned that he will greatly multiply her pain in childbirth. Since zero multiplied by anything remains zero, Ross infers that God did not here initiate Eve’s pain but rather increased her existing pain in childbirth. More generally, Ross will suggest that God uses randomness, waste, and inefficiencies (his terms) to bring about the “very good” world into which he placed Adam.

I will simply note that I sympathize with the problem here. For people who are used to thinking of a God who uses no “randomness, waste, and inefficiencies” this seems a pretty serious problem. Dembski cites Ross as accepting that, and indeed he accepts that he himself has a need to discuss this particular problem.

I was thinking about all of this when I ran across a post by Carl Zimmer on The Loom, Cancer: An Evolutionary Disease (follow links from there to an abundance of additional information). My son died of cancer, and suddenly the whole issue becomes personal. In my view of evolution, cancer is just as much a product of natural selection as is anything else. So “natural evil” touched me rather directly in this case. At the same time, I’m extremely interested in seeing evolutionary research aid our understanding of cancer and help find cures.

Now let me try to get to the point of this note. After thinking a bit about how I’ve answered this question before, I simply don’t believe in natural evil. What we call natural evil is simply the environment in which we live, and which rewards our good choices and “punishes” our bad choices. Further, the sort of environment proposed by young earth creationists–which I believe for the first 20 odd years of my life, is non-sensical. Dembski quotes Ross as referring to the “increase” in labor indicated in Genesis 3 as part of the curse as a reason to believe that there was hardship and death prior to the fall and it was merely increased.

I would suggest that there’s a better reason: It simply couldn’t be any other way. And Genesis confirms this, I believe, when it says that God placed the man in the garden ” to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15 NRSV). Do you suppose that if Adam did not till the garden, the plants would grow equally well? If he chose one seed over another, would there be more of what he did plant than of what he didn’t? Even the much maligned author of the second creation story (Genesis 2:4b and following) doesn’t imagine a perfect world in the way that Christian theology imagined. There would still be choices and there would still be consequences, ultimately confirmed simply by the fact that the human couple were able to make the choice to sin, and noticed consequences even before God came a talked to them.

There would simply be no meaning to moral evil, or no possibility of it in a world in which there were no consequences to one’s choices, and if there are consequences, then it must be possible for them to be negative as well as positive.

I’ll be posting more details. This is just my opening shot on the topic. Watch for the category Theodicy in the coming weeks.