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Can theology affirm

a good God in a
world containing
evident evils?
Jonathan Cole

Introduction
Life is a paradox. It is an unpredictable mixture of suffering and joy unequally
and unfairly distributed. There is no escaping this inexorable truth of human
experience. Yet Christianity claims that a good, personal God created and
sustains the universe and the life in it. Moreover, Christians claim that this
same God sacrificed his only Son to break the bonds of sin, evil and death.
And still evil remains present and potent. So how is it that Christians can
theologically assert Gods goodness in the face of the worlds evil and suffering?
There is no dispute about two aspects of this question: that Christians
really do claim that their God is good and that evil really exists. The heart
of the issue falls to a related question: how can a good, omnipotent God
allow or permit pain and suffering without compromising his goodness?
Answers to this question are traditionally known as theodicies. This essay
argues that a defence, as opposed to a theodicy, for the Christian claim that
God is good can be built on four pillars: free-will, a proper understanding
of evil, the atonement and eschatology.
Jonathan Cole is married, has just become a father, lives and works in Canberra and is
studying theology at St Marks National Theological Centre. Jonathans previous postgraduate studies specialised in the Middle East and Islam.

Can theology affirm a good God in a world containing evident evils?

Theodicy versus defence


Alvin Plantinga, in his seminal work God, Freedom, and Evil, identified
an important distinction between a theodicy and what he called a free-will
defence (also defence or strong defence). While a theodicy attempts to
tell us why God permits evil, a defence seeks not to say what Gods reason
is, but at most what Gods reason might possibly be (original emphasis).1
This distinction is important because as Daniel Migliore argues, our
reflections on theodicy necessarily remain broken, incomplete and ultimately
incapable of yielding a definitive theoretical solution.2 The Bible, while
having much to say about Gods goodness and the nature of evil, does not
offer a theodicy per se an explanation for why God permits evil. Graham
A Cole agrees with Plantinga and Migliore. He argues that we may float
a theory as to why God has allowed evil as long as its theory status is
acknowledged, whereas any theodicy that specifies the divine rationale for
allowing evil goes beyond what has been revealed.3 Plantinga maintained
that a defence was sufficient for allowing the Christian to uphold belief in
a good God despite the existence of evil.4

Pillar 1: free-will
Free-will remains the natural starting point and bedrock of any good
defence to the problem of evil. The important role of free-will in responding
to the problem of evil dates back to Augustine and remains just as pertinent today.5 A free-will defence to the problem of evil asks whether it is
ontologically possible for God to create sentient beings the bearers of his
image without the inherent risk of evil (the misuse of free-will). Rowan
Williams asks whether a world in which an omnipotent God intervened to
prevent all pain and suffering could even be described as a world in any
meaningful sense a place with its own integrity and regularity.6 CS Lewis
argued that a world thus continually underpropped and corrected by Divine
interference, would have been a world in which nothing important ever
depended on human choice.7 Plantinga sought to demonstrate that it was
possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good
without creating one that also contained moral evil (original emphasis).8
That is to say that this world is the best possible world.
There are strong philosophical grounds to believe that human free-will
is simply not possible without the concomitant risk of evil. In fact, such a
world is philosophically inconceivable. Therefore we might conclude that
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God chose to create a good world (that is, the best possible world) despite
there being an inherent risk of evil as a consequence of the misuse of human
free-will. In other words, in order for God to make a good world with joy,
happiness, success, love and beauty he had to do so with the risk that at
least some evil would enter that world at some point. Whether one believes
the risk was worth it will perhaps depend on ones individual experiences. It
is worth noting, however, that people generally find life worth living despite
the effects of past suffering and the risk of future suffering; suicides form a
proportionally very small number of deaths worldwide.

Pillar 2: understanding evil


Though the term theodicy only dates back to the eighteenth century,9 the
problem of evil has been the subject of theological reflection since the
church fathers. Irenaeus and Augustine have lent their names to two famous
classical schools of theodicy that have influenced to some extent all subsequent theodicies. At the heart of these schools are the notions of divine
punishment and divine pedagogy.10 These ideas posit God as the ultimate
architect of much of the worlds evil,11 insofar as he uses instances of both
natural and moral evil for either the purposes of justly punishing wrongdoers
or edifying people in need of spiritual growth. These ideas continue to lurk
in the background of many contemporary theodicies none more so than
the work of John Hick, one of the most influential contemporary thinkers
on the problem of evil.12 Building on Irenaeus work, Hick argued that pain
and suffering are a necessary feature of a world that is to be the scene of a
process of soul-making.13 However such theodicies are built on a critically
flawed understanding of evil and the way God acts in history. They are
therefore obstacles to building a defence based on free-will and the nature
of evil. As this is the critical issue upon which theodicies or defences stand
or fall, we now deal with it in more detail than devoted to the other pillars.
Theodicies built on a view of meticulous providence14 run in to very
serious theological problems. Chief among them is what we could call the
God-as-monster problem.15 The goodness of a God who massacres, or allows
to be massacred, untold millions in wars and natural disasters in either acts
of cruel vengeance or acts of soul-building lost on the obliterated souls
and utterly indiscernible to the bereaved left behind simply cant survive.
Christiaan Mostert described this problem as the long shadow of Auschwitz.16

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Can theology affirm a good God in a world containing evident evils?

Not even a defence is possible if God is in some sense theologically


responsible for evil, even if he ultimately settles the debt in an eschatological sense through the reward of the afterlife. Eastern orthodox theologian
David Bentley Hart has made a stinging attack on the foundations of such
theodicies in The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? He is
worth quoting at length:
If all the tribulations of this world were to be written off as
calculably necessary contributions to redemption part of
the great balance of things then Christs sacrifice would not
be a unique saving act so much as the metaphysical ground
for a universe of sacrifice, wherein suffering and death are
part of the sublime and inevitable fabric of finitude; and
divine providence would be indistinguishable from fate.17
Hart argues that New Testament cosmology actually depicts evil as an
independent force (both demonic and human) working against Gods
purposes not the mysterious and inscrutable means by which God realises
his hidden good purposes. Hart describes the worldview of the New
Testament writers as provisional cosmic dualism (provisional in the sense
of only lasting until the return of Christ). Tyron Inbody agrees. He argues
the New Testament depicts God as being engaged in warfare with Satan and
other free evil agents.18 An understanding of evil as an independent cosmic
force working against God provides a much firmer basis for a defence to
the problem of evil than God providentially working through evil. It opens
the path to argue that evil has no part in Gods nature and that he stands
in unequivocal opposition to it. This is not to suggest that God doesnt or
cant turn evil to his good purposes there is no better example than the
cross. Rather, it is to suggest that God doesnt cause evil in order to achieve
his purposes. Another way of articulating this truth is to say that evil cant
frustrate Gods good purposes he can work through, around and beyond
the evil that people and Satan commit.
The view of providence underpinning this mistaken view of evil stems
from a flawed deduction from the way God is depicted as acting in Scripture.
It is true that God intervenes in history. He has even wrought divine judgement on his creation on occasion the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah,
for example. But it doesnt follow that God is the architect of every such
event in history. In fact, the biblical narrative suggests that such acts, though
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possible, are exceedingly rare. Many of Gods interventions in history were


teleological and done within the context of a unique covenantal relationship with one particular nation in history Israel. Extreme caution, then,
is necessary in trying to divine the hidden hand of God in historical events
resulting in tragedy, such as the holocaust, to which there is no revelatory
testimony.
Hart is surely right in saying that God will not unite all of historys
many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history as false
and damnable 19 This seems a much more plausible explanation for Gods
attitude to the twentieth centurys genocides and wars if we are to believe
he is a good God.

Pillar 2 (continued): a special word about natural evil


Before continuing, a brief word on the special problem of natural evil in light
of modern scientific discoveries is necessary. Any theodicy, or defence for
that matter, must contend with the reality that evil (death, pain and suffering) is constitutive of life and not just a consequence of an historical event
(original emphasis).20 In other words, the scientific record establishes that
predation, and hence animal and human death, long predates any realistic
dating of the Genesis account of the fall. According to Christian scientist
Robert John Russell, this fundamental problem points at last to the impossibility of articulating an adequate response to theodicy in terms of the
universe as it presently exists and thus in the doctrine of creation.21 How
to properly interpret the account of the fall in Genesis is beyond the scope
of this essay. Irrespective of the exegesis we choose, a defence of natural
evil can still be constructed on the model used by Plantinga with respect
to moral evil. Daniel C Harlow provides a case in point:
The question of why God would create a good creation
with suffering, death, and dying woven into its very fabric
admits of no easy answer. Yet for all we know, this kind of
world may be the only kind capable of allowing for genuine
free will and real moral development in rational creatures
like us. We must be careful not to assume that suffering
and death are necessarily unmitigated evils.22
Harlows last comment is instructive. Much of the philosophical discussion
of pain is facile. Great care and nuance is required before one blames God for
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pain. Firstly, pain is not an evil in and of its self. Pain is a biological defence
mechanism integral to human survival. Without the initial pain that sends a
person to the doctor, a life-threatening cancer might not be detected in time
for treatment. Moreover, without painful treatment to remove the cancer,
death cannot be avoided. The pain of labour is necessary for reaching one
of lifes greatest joys the birth of a child.
Suffering gratuitous physical or psychological pain is really the heart
of the theodicy problem. It is difficult to imagine any good could possibly
come from child abuse. But even suffering on occasion can ultimately lead
to positive outcomes. The loss of someone dear can direct a life in new and
unexpected positive directions. This is not to suggest that such a loss is in
any way a good in itself. Every loss is a tragedy. It is rather to suggest that a
nuanced understanding of pain and suffering is essential for any intelligent
examination of why God permits suffering.
A defence of natural evil might posit the theory that although pain
is constitutive of creation, human rebellion in the shape of the fall might
have introduced or increased gratuitous suffering in a way that wasnt
constitutive of life or part of Gods original design. Maybe things are worse
than they might otherwise have been. In any case, a defence of natural
evil is possible in the same way that a defence is possible with reference
to moral evil.

Pillars 3 and 4: atonement and eschatology


Thus far we have concentrated on the existence and persistence of evil in
Gods good creation. It is now time to turn to Gods response to evil which is
articulated in the atonement and eschatology. While we can only speculate
about the reasons why God created a world in which death is a constitutive component and which possessed an inherent risk of evil, we need not
speculate about Gods solution. About this the Bible is explicit. God hates
evil, empathises with human suffering, has acted decisively to conquer the
power of evil and promises to eliminate evil completely in the future.
The atonement and eschatology must form key components of any
defence to the problem of evil. Cole has called the atonement a theological
code word to describe the core of the divine response to evil23 and Hick
rightly argued that one cannot hope to state a Christian theodicy [I would
substitute defence] without taking seriously the doctrine of a life beyond
the grave.24 Russell maintains that evolutionary science forces us to relocate
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the response [to the problem of evil] to the context of eschatology and its
portrayal of the new creation.25
In the atonement the death and resurrection of Gods incarnate Son
God defeats the power of sin to condemn humans to permanent separation from God and makes possible a new communion with him through a
regeneration of the spirit. The atonement does not, however, eliminate the
presence of evil or its effect (suffering) in the world. This is not the purpose
of the atonement. The atonement is concerned with removing the bonds
of sin rather than the presence of sin and with righting mans relationship
with God.
But this is not Gods final word on evil. The atonement is only the first act
in Gods two-act response to evil. Jesus Gods risen Son will come again
to draw the curtain on this broken world and inaugurate a new heaven and
a new earth in which evil will be eliminated once and for all. Gods gracious
self-sacrifice which forms the atonement is the ultimate demonstration of
his love for his creation and, consequently, of his goodness. The promised
return of Jesus provides the basis for Christian hope in a better world and
a life freed from suffering.
If there is a lesson to be drawn from reflecting theologically on the
problem of evil, it is the inextricable connectedness of the atonement and
eschatology. These two doctrines really ought to form a single Christian
doctrine rather than being separated into discrete doctrines as they too
often are. For only when they are taken together can the Christian provide
a complete and cogent account of Gods response to evil, and in the process
build a viable defence.

Conclusion
Theodicy is a vast and deep ocean and we have travelled but a short distance
across its surface. Much territory has necessarily been left unexplored.
Nonetheless, several important conclusions can be drawn from this short
journey in pursuit of an answer to the question of how theology can affirm
Gods goodness in a world of evil and suffering.
First and foremost, while the Bible provides an explanation for the origin
of evil (the fall), what God has done about it (the atonement) and what he
will do in the future (eschatology), it simply does not provide an explanation
for why God permits the existence and effect of evil presently (post-Easter).
Lacking Gods perspective and in the absence of explicit revelation, we can
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Can theology affirm a good God in a world containing evident evils?

only speculate what the reasons might be. As such, a theodicy is not, strictly
speaking, possible. It might even be unwise and damaging to pretend to
know the reasons.
Instead, a defence can be offered which can show that God might
have a good reason for permitting evil, and even venture a theory as to what
this might be. A viable defence must emphasise free-will, the existence of
independent forces opposed to God (evil), the atonement and eschatology.
These defence foundations make it possible for the Christian to believe
that God:
1. might very well have a good reason for creating a world with an inherent
risk of evil (free-will, best possible world),
2. is not responsible for the worlds suffering (fallen angels, misuse of
free-will),
3. has acted to defeat evil in the ultimate demonstration of his love and
goodness (atonement), and
4. provides a basis for Christian hope in a better future free of suffering
(eschatology).
A specific, detailed theory for why God permits the continued existence of evil post-atonement and pre-eschatology is not, strictly speaking,
philosophically or theologically necessary to affirm Gods goodness. Many
such theories good and bad have been offered. Hart offers one of the
more cogent. He speculates that God may permit evil to have a history of
its own so as not to despoil creatures of their destiny of free union with him
in love.26 Could it be that God, in the ultimate demonstration of his love and
goodness, tolerates the continued existence of evil for the purposes not of
soul-building, but soul-saving? Might God be delaying the end of the world
to provide an opportunity for as many people to find salvation through the
atonement as possible? Hart believes this is what Jesus was hinting at in the
parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:3843. Christians can only wonder as
they patiently wait, confident in Gods goodness, for the promised end to
evil and restoration in new life.

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Endnotes
1. Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, Eerdmans, Michigan, 1977, p. 28.
2. Daniel L Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, Eerdmans, Michigan,
2004, p. 136.
3. Graham A Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom,
Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2009, p. 56.
4. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, pp. 29 and 31.
5. Robert John Russell, Natural Theodicy in an Evolutionary Context: The
Need for an Eschatology of New Creation, in Bruce Barber and David
Neville (eds), Theodicy and Eschatology, ATF Press, Adelaide, 2005, p. 132.
6. Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief,
Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2007, p. 41.
7. CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, HarperCollins, New York, 1996, p. 65.
8. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 31.
9. Bruce Barber and David Neville, Introduction, in Bruce Barber and David
Neville (eds), Theodicy and Eschatology, ATF Press, Adelaide, 2005, p. xi.
10. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, pp. 1245.
11. Russell, Natural Theodicy in an Evolutionary Context, p. 141.
12. Alister E McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, Blackwell, Oxford
UK and Cambridge USA, 1995, p. 229.
13. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Harper & Row, New York, 1978, pp.
2812, quoted in Robert John Russell, Natural Theodicy in an Evolutionary
Context, p. 142.
14. Nick Trakakis, The Evidential Problem of Evil, Internet Encyclopedia of
Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource, accessed 20 May 2012,
http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-evi/ .
15. Tyron Inbody, The Faith of the Christian Church: An Introduction to
Theology, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2005, p. 142.
16. Christiaan Mostert, Theodicy and Eschatology, in Bruce Barber and David
Neville (eds), Theodicy and Eschatology, ATF Press, Adelaide, 2006, p. 99.
17. David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?,
Eerdmans, Michigan, 2005, p. 80.
18. Inbody, The Faith of the Christian Church, p. 149.
19. Hart, The Doors of the Sea, p. 104.
20. Russell, National Theodicy in an Evolutionary Context, p. 152.
21. Russell, National Theodicy in an Evolutionary Context, p. 139.
22. Daniel C Harlow, Creation According to Genesis: Literary Genre, Cultural
Context, Theological Truth, Christian Scholars Review, 37, 2008, p. 191,
accessed 1 May 2012, http://www.calvin.edu/academic/religion/faculty/
harlow/Creation%20according%20to%20Genesis.pdf.
23. Cole, God the Peacemaker, p. 20.

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24. Hick, quoted in Russell, Natural Theodicy in an Evolutionary Context, p.


143.
25. Russell, Natural Theodicy in an Evolutionary Context, p. 139.
26. Hart, The Doors of the Sea, p. 87.

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