Tag Archives: theodicy

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).

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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.