Tuesday, 10 May 2011

An evangelical theodicy? A response to the "problem of evil"

A ministry colleague sent me a query from someone within his ministry context about the origin of evil, asking me to help him frame a response. Here's an edited version of my response. Anyone got any thoughts? Feedback appreciated.

The classic dilemma goes as follows: how can a good and all-powerful God permit evil and suffering to exist? It either denies his goodness, or his all-powerfulness.

The very simple explanation - classically called the "free will defense" - goes like this: God created humans, and other spiritual creature - like the angel who became the Devil - with a genuine capacity for choice. This genuine capacity for choice is itself a good thing - it gives us dignity, some genuine independence from God, and responsibility. But, while being good, this capacity for choice is fragile. It's natural goodness makes it vulnerable to being used in a bad way - viz, to choose against God, rebel against him, and bring in chaos. Therefore, we should not blame God for giving us the "space" to make choices - to do that is effectively to depersonalise ourselves and say "God, I wish I was a robot." Instead, we should accept our responsibility for using God's good gifts in an evil manner, and thus siding with the Devil and his supernatural forces against God.

Notice this doesn't try to explain why God made us as personal beings. It merely asserts that God made it that way, and appeals to our instinctive preference for relational choice over being an automaton.

From a Christian point of view, God in his kindness provides a solution to get us out of the mess we've put ourselves in. That solution is found in Christ - in his death and resurrection. And the nature of God's solution itself points to the problem - an evangelical, gospel-shaped response to evil.

Jesus always chose for God. He resisted Satan in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11 & parallels). Hebrews 4:15 says Jesus "has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin." Therefore, Jesus deserved to be honoured by God, vindicated by him. That happened in Jesus' resurrection. Jesus also takes the punishment we deserve for rejecting God. That happened in his death on the cross, where the punishment we deserve fell on him (Isaiah ch 53; Mark 10:45; Romans 3:21-25; 1 John 4:10; etc...). So we now need not fear God's anger - it was all exhausted on Jesus on the cross.

For those of us who have put our trust in Jesus, God now calls us to choose for him (Deut 30:19-20; Ezek 18:33, 33:11; Acts 2:38, 3:19; 1 Thess 1:9-10... etc) - to exercise our wills, make our decisions, his way, not our own way or the world's way or whatever. This happens as we read the bible, through which we little by little understand God's way of thinking, and his perspective on the world (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Tim 3:16-17; etc). It also comes through the power of his Holy Spirit working invisibly within us to reshape us from the inside (Gal 5:22-25). We're never perfect - that only happens in glory - but we're constantly being reshaped to be more & more like Jesus (Colossians 3:9-10).

This adds some detail to the free will defense. If Jesus is truly human, but didn't sin, then true humanity is choosing for God - joyously obeying him in all of our life, with all that we are. We, in our rejection of God, become sub-human - or, more correctly, brokenly human. Personal choice is an aspect of the good humanity that God created us for.

Did God have to give us choice to make us personal beings? Perhaps not. The persons of the Holy Trinity - Father, Son and Spirit - can't help loving each other. So in that sense they don't have the choice to not love. So that means that choice is not necessarily essential to personhood.

On the other hand, we can't simply draw analogies between the persons of the Holy Trinity and our personhood, for the simple reason that the Trinity is uncreated and immortal, and we're created mortals. So we must be careful before drawing connections, in either direction, between the persons of the Trinity and ourselves. All I would say, therefore, is that we cannot say that God had to give us choice to make us fully personal. He could somehow make himself so gloriously proximate to us - as the persons of the Trinity are gloriously proximate to each other - that we could not help but love and obey him.

Anyway, getting back to Jesus (always a good thing...): Jesus shows us that, whatever we think about the necessity of God giving us choice as an aspect of our good created humanity, it is actually possible to choose for God. So bang go all our excuses.

I would contend that the gospel itself - the message about Jesus, and what he's done for us - both puts some detail on the "free will defense", and provides God's solution to evil. And that's an evangelical theodicy - a solution to the problem of evil shaped around Christ and his cross.

Thoughts, anyone...?

1 comment:

Troy said...

One response to the question of the origin of evil: "Why does the sun cause shadows?"