God is Responsible for Evil

Jason Micheli —  August 6, 2014 — 9 Comments

Untitled10111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the earlier installments here.

Here are questions 27-28

I. The Father

27. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then what is evil?

There are two kinds of evil: evil suffered and evil done.

To evil suffered we give the name ‘creation.’

To evil done we give the name ‘no-thing.’

Evil suffered is what comes to a creature from outside it, the evil that happens to a thing for which it is not itself responsible.

Evil suffered is relative in that the suffering of one creature comes about by the flourishing of another; for example, when a lion eats a lamb the evil suffered by the lamb is real but it comes about by the lion simply fulfilling its lion-ness.

Evil done is particular to responsible beings, as in, wickedness.

Evil done is ‘nothing,’ meaning it’s an absence or privation within a person.

A wicked person does not possess within them something called wickedness. There’s no such thing as ‘wickedness’ in and of itself. Rather a wicked person is someone with an absence of good, a person who fails to be fully human.

If we were ‘free’ in terms of being independent from God, then evil suffered would present the only problem of evil, for God, having no control over our free actions, would not be able to prevent evil done.

However, since God is the cause of all things, both evil suffered and evil done present problems for believers in God.

“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”    

– Matthew 5.45

28. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, is God responsible for evil and suffering?

Responsible? Yes.

But guilty? No.

If God is the cause of all our actions, even our ‘free’ acts, then God is the cause behind both evil suffered and evil done in that God has created all things in the world and continually holds all things in existence.

In the case of evil suffered, God has created and continually holds in existence a world in which the flourishing and fulfillment of one creature leads to the suffering of another. A tumor flourishing as a tumor leads to the suffering of the person with cancer.

A lion fulfilling it’s lioness leads to the suffering of the lamb.

So God is responsible for much of the evil suffered in the world, but God is not ‘guilty’because there is not another kind of world God should have created. A world where God stops the lion from eating the lamb, for example, would be a world where God prevents the lion from fulfilling its lioness. In other words, a world of machines rather than a world of creatures.

In the case of evil done, God has created and continually holds in existence every person who commits evil. Even as those people commit evil, God holds them in existence. Their evil acts are never ‘free’ in the sense of being independent from God so in this sense God is responsible for evil done.

However, God is not ‘guilty’ of evil done for evil is not a thing which God has created. Evil is a privation, an absence, identifiable only in relation to the good God has made. Evil is a defect, the failure of people to flourish and fulfill their humanness.

Whereas there does not seem to be another world free of evil suffered that God should have created, it does seem possible that God could have created a world where humans do not fail to fulfill their humanity.

That God did not create such a world is a deep mystery to which we can only reply by way of the Cross.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12.21

Jason Micheli


9 responses to God is Responsible for Evil

  1. 1) Seems like classic Wesleyan predestinarian Arminianism (AKA “God creates the conditions for salvation or damnation…good or wicked; we choose good or evil…salvation or damnation”). Is that about right? How do you avoid the charge of being semipelagian?

    2) You know Jason I actually became Reformed because I have more and more rejected libertarianism (that and Barth/Torrance/JM Campbell). Furthermore, I’ve had it up to here *points to head* with our culture’s idolatry of “choice.” Thus, what attracted me to Reformed theology was that there is no such thing as “free” will but that there is a bondage of the will and, thus, our will is not “free” but it can only ever be “self will.” Thus, when there is not “free” will, it no longer has any moral imperative attached to it; which is oftentimes the theological starting point for libertarian apologists. When there is not free will, it isn’t a commodity in the soteriological economy, but it is a contradiction to the biblical witness of the soteriological economy altogether that requires movement by God (ad nauseum) and, thus, the human soteriological economy is moot as far as it consisting of an independent space for humans.

    More and more I’m persuaded by the Evangelical Calvinist crowd that classic Arminian thought as per Wesley is insufficiently Pauline. For instance, Ephesians 4:30 is not about our free will to choose God but the (both) ontological and eschatological category of “union with Christ.” The only way we can create an autonomous space for humans to affect their their salvation is (like what predestinarian Arminans do) is if “union with Christ” is not both eschatological and ontological and, rather, an abstract doctrine of the Creator is substituted for the “vine of Christ” that is God’s movement toward fallen humanity from top to bottom.

    • I concur about the idolatry of choice and the story that makes it such an idol. I don’t think I mean to suggest that God creates the conditions for salvation or damnation and we choose for nothing else but that I would quibble with how ‘salvation’ gets defined then. I’m also not sure that that to say moral evil is due to someone (Hitler) failing to be fully human reflects choice. It’s not at all clear to me such deficient humans are freely in the end choosing to be such.

    • As usual, McCabe puts it better: “When, therefore, I act in a less-than-human way, this is a failure on my part because acting in a human way is what I am for. But the fact that God has not made me act in a human way is not a failure on his part because this is not what he is for. It needs a kind of cosmic megalomania to suppose that God has the job of saving my soul and is to be given bad marks if he does not do that. Whatever he does for us, like creating us in the first place, is an act of gratuitous love, not something that is demanded of him.”

  2. End of second paragraph should read this way:

    the biblical witness of the soteriological economy altogether. We then require what Paul insists is true: movement by God (ad nauseum) and, thus, the human soteriological economy is moot as far as it consisting of an independent space for humans.

  3. I am trying to name that feeling inside me whenever I read even a thoughtful theology of evil, or suffering — which you have surely written here. It is the part of me that wants to shout “NO! Not good enough.”

    Here’s where you lost me: “there is not another world God could have created,” . . . “a world of machines rather than creatures.” Because here’s the thing, to stand in Auschwitz and take in the evil, it seems to me, who wouldn’t say, “a world of machines would have been a far, far better choice. I don’t give a damn about “freedom” (or a lion’s lion -ness) –if it required a child’s being raped or tortured.

    I always know I’m gonna have these thoughts when I read even careful words about this matter, theology which uses words like (forgive me, “whereas.”) Because I just can’t read the paper today, and find any room in my vocabulary for the word “whereas,” — it seems a sort of un-Jesusy word, if that makes any sense.

    The only thing that has ever made any sense to me of suffering and evil was Elie Wiesel’s observation, “we Jews have a theology of protest. Like Job, we shake our fist at heaven and PROTEST this world which G-d created — and then we return to our prayers.”

    No explanation has ever worked for me. I submit that a reasonably thoughtful person might say, “better that there had been no creation at all, than this one, and I intend to take that up with God.”

    • Agreed, and well said. I think it’s a remarkable post, and beautifully articulated, but ultimately it falls apart like every other theodicy.

    • I definitely don’t disagree with you Tanya nor with the pathos of Wiesel’s perspective. The format I’ve chosen isn’t ideal, but part of what I hoped this to communicate was how I take evil seriously enough that I don’t think it can be ‘explained’ away by chalking it up to free will. I don’t think we have free will so conceived and don’t think God should get off the hook as easily as the Book of Job tries to do at the end. Maybe it’s too subtle but there’s an agnosticism in the final sentences I hope conveys that echoes exactly what you’ve said: …it does seem possible that God could have created a world where humans do not fail to fulfill their humanity.
      That God did not create such a world is a deep mystery to which we can only reply by way of the Cross.

      • Okay, I think I understand. I appreciate the pivot from “free will,” (because one still has to explain why God set the game up this way, which . . . as you say “is a mystery,”) I’m not sure if Job finally lets God off the hook — the ending is so ridiculous any thoughtful person would say, “um, no resolution here. A sincere explanation never even attempted.” I think I appreciate that.

        I’m trying to figure out what you can give a college student (as you say) that would get them to just stop talking. about “the problem of evil” Perhaps the Christian answer — Jesus’ cross as you say, — is to simply enter it. The trouble with telling most of us that the cross is the answer is that we’ll turn that into some other ridiculous explanation. Like the young person who recently told me that grace, as she was taught, is “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” Which is about as bloodless and meaningless a thing as I’ve ever heard.

  4. Yeah that’s what I don’t get about McCabe (as well as the rest of the Thomistic tradition). I understand what he’s saying, but it reeks of natural theology.

    I recently have been on this kick where I tell people that there really aren’t abstract disciplines (IE “ethics,” “philosophy,” “metaphysics,” “apologetics,” etc) rather they are invented by modernity. Thus, I urge them that there is only theology (in the Christian sense).

    His ontological account seems to assume the goal of articulating an ontological framework that has rejected the cultic nature of Christian theology and has, rather, spoken in essentially abstract terminology and concepts (which is fruit of ecclesio-centrism I think). I’ve started to think (by the influence of Robert Jenson and Hauerwas) that the need to extend Christian theology into the abstract rather than just admitting it’s cultic from the beginning to its end is a Constantinian motivation.

    For instance, I’d be curious to know how much McCabe (who I know only a minimum amount about) has engaged with John on this ontological matter.

    For John, the beginning is the Word. John reframes Genesis. For John, God as Word (that is Christ as Logos) is the a priori to the Father as Creator. Thus, rather than the issue being “are we being human” the issue is a matter of “union with the Word;” which has been provided from the foundations of the cosmos to its end.

    Thus, I am always going to act in my human way; which is depraved. The issue isn’t “am I acting human” but “is my humanness being rescued from itself?” Like Luther said, “I am a worm.”

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