1. If someone has good reasons to trust a person, then she can have good reasons to believe that he has good reasons for causing, or permitting, some evil, even when she has no idea what those reasons might be. Thus the person of faith need not experience a conflict between her belief in God and the apparently gratuitous evil she sees in the world. But, of course, evil can at times generate a personal, existential crisis of faith. Scripture contains many instances of this, in the Psalms, in Job, in the Lamentations on the destruction of Jerusalem, and above all in Christ’s cry of dereliction from the cross.
2. Whether or not evil causes doubt in the believer, it poses a serious theoretical challenge to Christian belief. If there is gratuitous evil, then the perfectly wise, all powerful, and perfectly good God of Christian faith does not exist, and our faith is in vain. And there appears to be gratuitous evil. The burden that falls to us is to make the case that we have good reasons to deny that the world’s apparently gratuitous evil is really gratuitous, because God has good reasons for making it possible and for permitting it to continue. (The attempt to show that this is true is a theodicy. To show that it could be true is a defense. Here I don’t pay much attention to the distinction.)
3. The Christian has no stake in defending belief in a generic deity in light of the world’s evil. Our concern is to show that the God of Christian faith is a God that has good reasons for acting in ways that made evil possible, and that he deals with the actuality of evil in the best conceivable way. Our contention is that in the history of Israel, and decisively in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and then in the ongoing life of the Christian Church, God has dealt with, is dealing with, and will deal with evil—what we might better call the problem of sin and death#in the best conceivable way.
4. First, we contend that God had good reasons to create a world in which evil is a possibility. If someone acts in a way that makes evil possible, but this is a low-probability event, and he knows that he can deal with any actual evil that ensues in the best possible way, and intends to do so if it does, then the goodness of his ends may justify his action. If, for example, a physician begins a particular course of treatments, knowing that there is a low probability of serious side effects, but intends to deal with them in a good way if they occur, then he may well being acting properly in initiating the treatment. Whether the action would be justified if evil effects were inevitable, or highly probable, is a further question. But I will argue that evil, or at least moral evil, had low probability in God’s creation. I assume that God never intended there to be evil, at least not moral evil.
5. In The Material Image, I argue that the naturalistic implications of science can be reconciled with Christian faith, but only when we pay heed to its particular claims about God’s purposes in creation. The same, I hold, is true when it comes to coping with the problem of evil. We must take account of God’s aims in creation to grasp how he can justifiably permit the evil that now mars it and calls his goodness, and thus his existence, into question. God created with the aim of there being personal creatures, truly distinct from their creator and capable of being called to share in his triune life. The wise pursuit of this aim involves creating a world governed by indeterministic causal laws. The God of Christian faith does not design his creatures. He brings them into existence by natural means that preclude their specific characteristics being intended, or foreknown, by him. These means, e.g., natural selection in a universe governed by the probabilistic laws of quantum theory, necessitate the possibility of low-probability bad events. (It also necessitates high-probability bad events, such as the suffering of many sentient creatures. Natural evil I will discuss in future, my focus here is on moral evil.)
6. The approach I offer rejects the familiar human impulse to envision human beings as the crown of creation, superior to all other creatures. I conjecture the human species consists of creatures close to the boundary of persons and mere non-personal animals. Most of the personal creatures God’s creation has brought forth are further removed from their non-personal origins than we are. (I assume that the creation contains many other kinds of personal creatures, in absolute terms even if they are relatively very rare.) For them, the irrationality of moral evil is obvious and they do not indulge in it. Humans find it more difficult to avoid irrational choices destructive of themselves and others. However, when God is unambiguously empirically present to them, they are capable of doing so, but their not avoiding such choices remains a possibility, one they can freely choose. The likelihood of making evil choices increases as God’s empirical presence becomes ambiguous. (In the Eden story the humans sometimes hear, but never see, God.) On further conjecture, God’s compelling empirical presence would overwhelm them, rendering them incapable of freely rejecting evil and trusting him. I take it that the story in primeval Genesis, portraying the Fall as an historical event in an imagined past, makes the crucial point that our rejection of God, succumbing to the desire to put ourselves in his place, was contingent: not necessitated by human nature, not God’s intent but only a possibility he allowed for. God, regarding his human creatures’ freedom and distinctness from him, gave them time and space to do their worst, creating a world in which he appears not to exist, and where he is replaced with productions of the religious imagination, byproducts of our evolved cognitive architecture. This is how I understand our fallen condition and ‘original sin:’ it is to be born into a world from which God has to all appearances been evicted. But God does not abandon his wayward creatures. He sets out on the long course of saving them in the best possible way: by letting them do their very worst, executing his incarnate self for blasphemy and sedition, and using this very act to save them. It is a means that will finally deliver them from the subjugation to sin and death they have chosen.
7. Because I invoke God’s regard for human freedom in this account, I pause to note that, so far as I can ascertain, the familiar free will theodicy on its own faces fatal objections. First, it is simply false to claim that God cannot create a world in which there are free creatures and no moral evil. God could create a world containing exactly one creature who has just one free choice between good and evil. This creature could, since he is free, choose good and not evil. If he does, then God has created a world in which there is freedom and no evil. Giving the creature more choices, and increasing the number of creatures with such choices, makes no essential change. What is true is not that God cannot create a world with freedom and without evil, but that he cannot create a world with freedom and no possibility of evil. He cannot, of course, force creatures to freely choose good over evil. Perhaps it is also true that he cannot create a world in which he ensures that free creatures never do evil. However, if he knows what possible free creatures would choose if he were to create them, then he could create only those he knows will never choose evil. (A response to this is to float the possibility that all possible free creatures suffer from “transworld depravity,” i.e., there are no possible worlds in which they never freely choose evil. I find this implausible: if a creature is free, then whenever she chooses evil, she could have chosen good instead, and thus there is a possible world in which she chooses good over evil. If she has n choices between good and evil in her life, and she has made n-1 good choices, when she comes to the final, nth, choice either she can choose good one more time, or her choice is not free, and all her choices are free and good. In any event, because I maintain that God created persons by indeterministic natural processes, I believe that he did not foreknow what persons he was creating and did not select either species or individual members of species from the set of possible persons.
Further, we know that human beings are capable of persuading other human beings to choose good over evil, and to do so in ways that involve neither manipulation nor coercion, so that the choice is free. If human beings can sometimes do this to one another, especially when there is a large differential in wisdom, as there is between adults and children, it is not plausible that God cannot always do it. If a human being can freely choose good rather than evil, then there is a possible situation in which she does choose good, and God can put bring that situation about. It’s also worth noting that the bare claim that God permits evil because of the value he places on freedom is not plausible. Sometimes it is right to permit a morally wicked act for the sake of a person’s freedom, but sometimes it is not. One can place too high a value on freedom. It cannot reasonably or rightly be accorded infinite value in its own right. A person having fellowship with God is of infinite valued. It is sometimes said that God values human freedom because it is possibly for a person to have a relationship with him only if she freely chooses to do so. Perhaps this is true, but it is not reasonable to think that if God prevents someone from doing some great evil he thereby renders her incapable of freely choosing him at some later time. Indeed, the opposite seems more likely in many cases.
Finally, we should note that the appeal to free will runs counter to some traditional theological views held by those who make it. If, as some Christians believe, God causes, foreknows, and intends each human choice, then no human choices are free (even on a compatibilist conception of freedom) and divine regard for our freedom can’t be invoked to explain evil. If, as many believe, God foreknows who will freely finally choose to be in relationship with him, it is not clear why he would not prevent those who will not be saved from doing certain evils. And, as my colleague Randy Jensen has pointed out, if God threatens everlasting damnation for those who do evil, this is a paradigmatically coerced choice and thus not free.
On its own, not embedded in a larger context, the appeal to freedom’s value cannot solve the problem of moral evil.
8. We should, of course, ask why God would create a universe likely to bring forth such lowly creatures, given the probability (even if only a low one) of our behaving as we have. God could have created a world containing only superior creatures with no likelihood of rejecting their creator. But God is a community of loving persons, and it is characteristic of him that he freely reaches out to what is other than himself, sharing his love. Thus, while God does not have to create, it is no surprise that he does, aiming for the existence of persons distinct from himself. Nor is it a surprise that this God chooses to create in a way that allows for the possibility of the lowliest personal creatures existing. God has revealed the propensity not only to reach out to those who are other than him, as he does by creating a universe that in due course gives rise to persons, but to reach out as far as—and as far down as—he can. (The great biblical illustration of this is God electing Israel, the least of nations, as his chosen people, his nation of kings and priests to represent him to the world.) I believe that God created this universe with the intent of becoming incarnate as a creature of the lowliest sort. This turned out to be humankind. We are called to serve as the image of God not in virtue of our superiority to other creatures, but quite the contrary. God’s hope was to be welcomed among us as Lord, but in the event comes to us our crucified and resurrected Savior. By this, the best of means, sin and death is defeated. What remains to be seen is the case that this is the best conceivable means for God to deal with evil.