Tag Archives: omnipotence

Process theology part 3 – Omnipotence and the problem of evil

Evil is a major problem in our world today. With the increasing number of mass shootings, the threat of terrorism, and the growing environmental crisis, evil is on the forefront of our minds. Many Christians have explained evil in such a way that it ends up blaming God as the cause. Perhaps no question is as pertinent as the question: How can both a good God and evil exist? In this post, I will first explore two of the more common ways Christians have traditionally answered the problem of evil. Then, I will explain how process theology answers this problem. Lastly, I will argue that a process theodicy is indeed a better way to understand how both a good God and evil can exist.

Many people throughout history have asked why there is evil if there is a good God who is in control of everything.[1] Christianity has answered this question in several different ways and the theological name for this has often been referred to as theodicy. Theodicy stems from the combination of two Greek words for “God” and “justice,” and is the way a person explains how there can be a good God in light of the evils of this world.[2] In other words, theodicy is the attempt to give a reason how God and evil are compatible.[3] In his book God, Power, & Evil, David Ray Griffin gives a straightforward summary of the problem of evil by using eight simple propositions:

  1. God is a perfect reality. (Definition)
  2. A perfect reality is an omnipotent being. (By definition)
  3. An omnipotent being could unilaterally bring about an actual world without any genuine evil.
  4. A perfect reality is a morally perfect being.
  5. A morally perfect being would want to bring about an actual world without any genuine evil.
  6. If there is genuine evil in the world, then there is no God. (Logical conclusion from 1 through 5)
  7. There is genuine evil in the world. (Factual statement)
  8. Therefore, there is no God. (Logical conclusion from 6 and 7).[4]

The above argument has been used by many to provide evidence that God does not exist (proposition eight).

a2-the-problem-of-evil300-thumbnail-4

Though Christian theodicy has taken on more than two forms, I will explain what I believe are the two primary ways that Christians have answered the problem of evil. One of the dominant ways that Christians have answered the problem of evil is by arguing that genuine evil does not exist. While no one outright denies evil, those who have found this answer compelling will argue that the evil we see is only “apparent evil.”[5] In other words, the evil that humanity calls evil is only apparently evil from our limited, finite perspectives.[6] Those who argue for this theodicy believe that God is all controlling – meaning everything that happens is controlled and willed by God.[7] The evil we see around us is not genuine evil but rather only apparent evil because it contributes to the overall good.[8] This theodicy is most popular in Calvinism where God is viewed as an all-determining deity. Many very popular and influential Christian theologians including Augustine, Luther, Aquinas, and Calvin have argued some variation of this theodicy.[9]

The second answer to the problem of evil that many Christians have given is what I will call the “free-will theodicy.” This theodicy argues that God and evil exist because God self-limited Godself in order to allow humans to have freedom.[10] One theologian explains this theodicy by writing:

God could have prevented Auswitch, Hiroshima, Wounded Knee, and the current mass starvation in the world. But to have done this to avoid momentary pain and suffering would actually have hindered the realization of the long-term purpose, the development of moral and spiritual qualities through free decisions.[11]

In other words, the “free-will theodicy” argues that evil exists because it is a necessary byproduct of human free will.[12] While the all-determining theodicy believes God directly controls everything that happens, a free-will theodicy does not believe that evil is caused directly by God but is rather the necessary result of allowing free choice to humans. Some traditional theists would even go so far as to declare that suffering exists because it is a needed part of our spiritual journey and suffering brings necessary growth.[13]

Process theologians believe that God’s power is always persuasive and never unilateral power. In this view, evil exists because God cannot stop all evil. One critique that process theology raises against more traditional Christian theodicies is that if God could act unilaterally to prevent evil, than God should. Process theologians argue that traditional theodicies leave God culpable because God does not act to prevent evil even though God could prevent evil. If a parent decided to allow a car to hit and kill their child even though they could have prevented this, we would believe that parent to be culpable.[14]

Omnipotence:

If God’s power is omnipotent power then “it must be the power to determine every detail of what happens in the world.”[15] An omnipotent deity is a deity who has all the power.[16] This is the crux of the problem of evil because an omnibenevolent (all-good) God would not want evil to exist, and an omnipotent (all-powerful) God would be able to create such a world.[17] As mentioned above this has led an unknown number of people to believe that God cannot exist (proposition eight).

The idea of God having unilateral power stems from Greek philosophy.[18] Christianity became a religion of the Gentiles and was heavily influenced by the Greeks – so much so that the New Testament was written in Greek. Process theologians critique the idea of an omnipotent God in many different ways. First, some process theologians such as David Ray Griffin in his book God, Power, & Evil, argue that one can believe that God is indeed omnipotent, but then reinterprets the definition of omnipotence to mean perfect power or greatest conceivable power – though not unilateral power.[19] Another way process theologians understand the idea of omnipotence is that it is not and cannot be an accurate description of God.[20] Thus we should reject this word completely (including proposition two). Process theologians would echo the popular statement by Alfred North Whitehead, one of the founders of process philosophy, by declaring:

“They [classical theist] gave unto God the properties that belonged unto Caesar.”[21]

Process theology stems from the philosophical work of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne who taught that perfect power is always persuasive and never coercive.[22] That is not to say that God chooses to use persuasive power, as some might argue, but rather God cannot use coercive, unilateral power – it is not a choice.[23] Of course some would argue that this places false limitations upon God, but process theologians disagree. Process theologians believe that God’s power is not and cannot be unilateral power, but is rather the greatest conceivable power – the greatest power any one being can possibly have.[24] Process theologians deny the idea that “It is possible for one actual being’s condition to be completely determined by a being or beings other than itself.”[25] Basically, the idea of actual beings having at least some self-determining power while one actual being has all self-determining power is a metaphysical impossibility.[26] As actualities, humans have the power to make choices and thus shape the present and future. If humans have at least some self-determining power, than no single being can have all the power to control them.[27] Griffin argues that if any single actuality or being can be totally determined by another, than that actuality has no power.[28] This metaphysical impossibility has led process theologians to believe that God cannot have unilateral, coercive power, but only the highest conceivable power. The highest conceivable power, which in relationship to all actual beings, must always be persuasive power.

What about evil?

Process theologians suggest that evil is not necessary.[29] God’s aim and lure in the world is always for good, beauty, complexity, and is never for evil.[30] Evil exists because other actualities have self-determining power and have freely chosen not to follow God’s initial aim. Process theologians believe that in order for God to stimulate more complex creatures, the possibility of evil must always be equal to the possibility of good.[31] In other words, God took huge risks by creating more complex creatures. The more complex a creature, the more possibility they have for good or evil. Griffin explains this by writing:

Only in those forms of life to which we attribute a significant capacity for suffering do we suppose there to occur a significant level of enjoyment. Only those creatures that have the capacity for enjoying the higher forms of value sometimes find their experience so miserable that they commit suicide.[32]

Process theologians suggest that “evil is not necessary” but “the possibility of evil is necessary.”[33] In process thought evil does not exist because God wills it or because it is a part of God’s plan. Evil does not exist because it will be used for good, though that can be true at times. Nor does evil exist because God self-limited Godself. God chose to create knowing that in stimulating creation to greater complexity God would risk the possibility of evil. Yet God is not culpable in that God does not stand by and allow evil while being able to prevent it rather God is always working to prevent evil.

 

[1] John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 69.

[2] David Ray Griffin, Evil Revisited (New York: State University, 1991), 198.

[3] Ibid, 211.

[4] David Ray Griffin, God, Power, & Evil (Louisville: Westminster Press, 2004), 19.

[5] Griffin, Evil, 197.

[6] Ibid, 197.

[7] Ibid., 197.

[8] Ibid., 79.

[9] Ibid., 197.

[10] Cobb and Griffin, Process, 74.

[11] Griffin, Evil, 15.

[12] C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1993), 74.

[13] Ibid., 73.

[14] Ibid, 59.

[15] Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes (New York: State University, 1984), 11.

[16] Mesle, Process, 28.

[17] Griffin, God, 262.

[18] Mesle, Process, 28.

[19] Ibid., 252.

[20] Cobb and Griffin, Process, 53.

[21] Hartshorne, Omnipotence, 14.

[22] Mesle, Process, 8.

[23] Ibid., 8.

[24] Griffin, God, 261.

[25] Ibid., 264.

[26] Ibid., 265.

[27] Ibid., 268.

[28] Ibid., 268.

[29] Ibid., 69.

[30] Ibid., 69.

[31] Griffin, Evil, 28.

[32] Ibid., 27.

[33] Cobb and Griffin, Process, 69.

Process theology part 2 – attributes of God

God has been given many different attributes as humans wrestle with ways to understand and explain who God is. Several of the most common attributes have been:

  • Impassibility – cannot experience emotions such as pain, suffering etc.
  • Immutability – changeless
  • Omnipresence -present everywhere
  • Omniscience – all-knowing
  • Omnipotence – all-powerful

god

Process theologians argue that these attributes have been falsely given or at least wrongly defined, and that this has led to a grave misunderstanding about God’s interaction with the world and why evil exists. In this post I will explore each of these attributes very briefly from a process theological perspective. (Since omnipotence is the most difficult attribute to see differently, and the attribute that most informs how one answers the problem of evil, I will attempt to explain why process theologians argue that omnipotence is a false attribute while dealing with the problem of evil in the next post.)

Impassibility:

In classical theology God “is not subject to suffering, pain, or the ebb and flow of involuntary passions.”[1] As I shared in the last post (part 1), at the very foundation of process philosophy is the belief that all of reality is relational, and because all reality is relational, God must also be relational. By definition a relational entity must be able to affect and be affected by others.[2] Central to Christian theology is the idea that God has incarnated Godself in Jesus who suffered and was crucified on a cross. In other words, God suffers in Jesus who hangs upon a cross. How could one suffer and not be changed? It is impossible. Process theologians deny the impassibility of God and instead see God as one who not only affects, but is also affected by others.

Immutability:

Immutability is the belief that God cannot change.[3] Early Christian theologians – influenced heavily by Greek philosophy – believed that God’s perfection must mean that God cannot change. Process theologians argue that God does indeed change because God, like everything else in the cosmos, is relational (see previous post on more concerning this). In essence, God is not the “unmoved mover,” but the “most moved mover.”

Omnipresence:

Omnipresence is an attribute that both process theologians and traditional theologians agree upon. Process theology may differ slightly in that process theology often leads to panentheism. Panentheism is not to be confused with pantheism, and is not exclusive to process theologians as some non-process theologians would also consider themselves panentheists. Pantheists believe that “all things together are God” while Panentheists believe that “all things are in God.”[4] Process theologians tend to view the entire cosmos as part of God, though God is not limited to any one part of the cosmos. In a process perspective the interconnectedness of all things is central, and this includes God’s interconnectedness to all of creation.[5]

Omniscience:

Omniscience, or all knowing, has been traditionally interpreted to mean that God knows everything past, present, and future.[6] Omniscience is an attribute that process theologians tend to keep, but they redefine this (similar to open theists, but with slight variations). Many have understood God to be outside of time. One way to understand this is to think of God as viewing time like we read a book. God can turn the pages from past, present, or future as God looks on from beyond. Process theologians agree with traditional theology in that God knows the past completely and the present perfectly as it unfolds, but differs in that they believe even God cannot yet know the future.[7] Since actualities (e.g., humans) have some self-determining power and are partially self-creative, the future is not yet determined and thus cannot be known as determined.[8] In this regard, process theologians believe that God’s knowledge is omniscient in that it is perfect knowledge – full knowledge of all that can be known including complete knowledge of the past and present, and full knowledge of all future possibilities. One process thinker explains this by writing, “if God has perfect knowledge of the world and of me, God will know exactly what all of the possibilities are and how probable they are. But even with perfect knowledge God could not know what I will choose in the future because that choice has not yet been made and it is a real choice.”[9] Process theologians argue that if God knows the future as determined than real freedom would be impossible.[10] Hartshorne summarizes this by writing, “future events, events that have not yet happened, are not there to be known.”[11]

Next post I will explore the attribute of omnipotence and the problem of evil from a process perspective.

 

 

[1] “Impassibility of God,” Theopedia, accessed June 9, 2016. http://www.theopedia.com/Impassibility_of_God

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] “Immutability of God,” Theopedia, accessed June 9, 2014. http://www.theopedia.com/Immutability_of_God

[4] C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1993), 137.

[5] John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 52.

[6] “Omniscience of God,” Theopedia, accessed June 9, 2014. http://www.theopedia.com/Omniscience_of_God

[7] Cobb, Jr. and Griffin, Process Theology, 52.

[8] Ibid., 52.

[9] Mesle, Process Theology, 37.

[10] Ibid., 37.

[11] Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes (New York: State University, 1984), 39.