Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Problem of Evil, Redux

A while back, Crystal asked me about my theodicy. More recently, Paul (no, not our Paul) asked something similar. I've finally managed to put together a few paragraphs that communicate the essentials. Mostly it's just a bit of self-justification, but maybe a couple of other people will find it helpful.


It is not enough for God to feel bad about human suffering, or to somehow make up for it after the fact. To allow the torture of innocents is to be complicit in that torture, Free Will be damned. Consequently, it is plainly incoherent to posit a God who is both good and overwhelmingly powerful.

But most of us still believe in a God. So what do we do with this belief?

We should affirm it, but also accept that we must have been mistaken in some ways, and go about finding a different way to think about God.

In my opinion, the best thing to do next — given the track record of power — is to abandon the idea that God is powerful, and by doing so, liberate our claim that God is good … that God is essentially goodness itself … or if we want to angle it a bit differently, we can claim, as the Bible does, that God is love.

This is hard for many of us, because not only does it mean giving up little things, like a God who magically gives us rain and parking spaces and helps us find our keys, it also means giving up really big things, like a God who is a big grand king, who creates everything from nothing, who inspires a Bible, and who raises people from the dead. And maybe these things are too big to give up.

But for those of us who have already given up most of those things, giving up power actually solves more problems than it causes. It’s the piece that makes everything click.

And because I’m one of those people, that’s my position. God is not powerful. Or to put it another way: Love, and nothing else, is God in the world.


Vincent said...

I quite like your elegant solution. All love, no power.

But where does this leave prayer? Does it get answered or not, and if so, by whom?

crystal said...

This reminds me of the quantum cosmology idea that God didn't create the universe, the 'not the big bang theory', but it's still possible that he sustains it in some way (maybe through love?) - counter balance.

It's so hard to give up the idea that God is all powerful. Iif he's not, then there's no last minute save, no happy ending evern if it has to be after death. But the alternative, a God who lets there be so much suffering but who is still good and lovong, is so tiring to reconstruct after every disappoinment out of my desperate hopes.

Matthew said...

@Vincent: Thanks.

One way to approach it would be to say that prayer doesn't get answered, because if prayer /could/ be answered, then God would still be entirely culpable, hence not good.

Another way to approach it, though, would be to say our prayers are answered all the time, but not because some disembodied power on high waves a magic wand. Instead, love comes to our rescue through entirely prosaic means. Someone sees our hunger and provides food. Someone sees our loneliness and provides friendship. Someone studies a disease and learns ways to help heal us.

@Crystal: Yes and no, will comment more later.

Paul M said...

I think life sets about doing its job as well as it can for as long as it can and that this even applies to life when it runs amuck. Life experiments with a lot of things and makes a lot of mistakes.

I don't think there is any evil, just that there are some things that go far off-course and that hurt a lot.

Because nothing and nobody would freely choose pain and error that it fully recognized as pain and error. That would be true of God too.

To me God is a personification of the overall context in which we find ourselves and which is much bigger than we can understand. In some respects the personification works and in others it doesn't. If you expect life to behave just as a person would then you have to either get really good at rationalizing or at enduring disappointment.

Vincent said...

I'm still feeling that the question of prayer is not resolved. Just looked up Wikipedia on the topic and found this quote from Kierkegaard:

"the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays."

I wonder whether you (Crystal, Matthew, Paul & other readers) find that this resonates. For it seems to me that prayer is a universal urge regardless of belief.

Paul M said...

Vincent - I really like that quote. It raises the distinction between prayer as contemplation/meditation and prayer as petition or request.

crystal said...


"the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays."

A lot of religious people subscribe to that view of prayer - recently I saw Rowan Williams make a similar comment - but I personally hate that idea. I do pray to change the way things are, and no matter how hopeless that sometimes seems, I'm not ready to give up on asking for what I really what instead of asking to be changed into wanting what I have.

Matthew said...

> It's so hard to give up the idea that God is all powerful. Iif he's not, then there's no last minute save, no happy ending evern if it has to be after death.

I'm not sure this is necessarily so. The argument I've outlined doesn't have any implications for what might be possible after death, outside of our universe, etc.

Paul M said...

Crystal and Matthew: Maybe the distinction would be between all powerful and ultimately powerful or prevailing.

crystal said...

I never understand, though, why God would have more power over our lives, or have more ability to intervene, in the afterlife - isn't heaven a created place too?

Matthew said...

Nod, if we think of God as a very powerful person floating around somewhere, the idea of God having different power at different times doesn't make a lot of sense. But if we think of God as love itself, then maybe it makes a little more sense how God could eventually win -- how the whole universe might eventually be redeemed -- but gradually, as love works over millions of years, or over millions of universes.

Paul M said...

Maybe there is a God who’s all loving and all powerful, appearances not withstanding.

Maybe God is love winning out over a long stretch of time.

Maybe love relates us to “the green fuse that drives the flower” as something specifically human and yet tributary to the flow of sap that blossoms the world.

For sure faith exists; for sure it doesn’t depend on our explanations for it. Long before every religion we can name, faith is, so to speak.

For me, faith is in the fact that I find myself chuckling over the ridiculous noises I make from pain as I walk in a kind of controlled stagger on my broken feet. I sound like a duck trying to intone the letter “W” in creative rhythmic patterns.

Faith is in how I can truly enjoy a conversation on the phone with my mom, tailoring it to what she can still remember and to the fact that she needs reassurance and good humor now, not worry. She doesn’t need to hear the details of what I’m going through anymore and I don't need to tell her.

I think faith is a song we already know by heart – a lullaby singing itself to ourselves. And we can hum a few bars out loud to each other once we start to pick up on the tune.

Amy said...

Hope and Love are the other two words that immediately come to mind when I read two of Paul M's examples of faith: chuckling while walking painfully, talking to his mom. Paul, amazingly, you are able to focus on the positive rather than your hurt. Something that you feel either in your soul or outside of you, in the universe. So, when there is suffering or brokenness, we can look either deeper within ourselves and/or further outside of ourselves? And feel faith, hope, and love?

Matthew - Although I hope God is more than just love itself, I do think your comment is compelling...about the whole universe eventually being redeemed, as love works over the years.

God with no power. That is interesting, and I can see how it solves a problem and liberates the claim that God is good. It makes me think of parenting, though. Parents create a child and then they try to guide the child. And I guess parents could do more forcing to make the child do what they want, but they also want the child to figure it out on their own so the child really learns it. So there's guidance and not forcing.

Sometimes I wonder if God is too powerful and decided to back away a bit so that we would learn to fix things with love. Sounds like a difficult gift, but a gift.

One of my favorite songs is Winter Snow(Tomlin/Assaud). "Could have come like a mighty storm, with all the strength of a hurricane, you could've come like a forest fire, with the power of heaven in your flame. But you came like a winter snow, quiet and soft, and slow. Falling from the sky, in the night, to the earth below."

I like Paul M's analogy of a lullaby in our hearts. I think I understand it as: Faith is, and we are trying to figure it out, and once in a while, we can hum a little bit of it out loud to share with each other.

Paul M said...

Amy – Faith, hope and love seem interrelated to me too. I like those lines of poetry. On being positive…

In his “Intimations of Immortality” ode, William Wordsworth spoke of “the faith that looks through death”– and not around it, not closing our eyes to it. That’s my feeling for what faith is like too. A faith that looks through death strikes me as consistent with Christianity, whose central image of the cross literally holds up suffering, mortality, and apparent failure as the way to faith.

“So, when there is suffering or brokenness, we can look either deeper within ourselves and/or further outside of ourselves? And feel faith, hope, and love?”

For me, that gets to the gist of it.

“I and the Father are one.” You might say that Jesus’ words point to an experience of life that understands the deep within as being of one piece with the far beyond.

“I and the One are one” works too – for me, better. But either way, whether you think of the One as a Creator or as identical with the universe or being itself, the fact is that each of us is part and parcel to that greatest and inscrutable Context of whatever it is we’re all doing here. Jesus’ words point to his awareness of his place within that widest sphere of influence.

And to me, dying to self and living to Christ means personally awakening to the reality of my life, death and unity with the One. Me-in-Context has become more real to me than me looking at myself in isolation and as having boundaries that I feel a need to defend forever. That sounds so abstract, but this idea can come out of real experiences – for example, the kinds of things you can experience in relation to nature.

I should add that though we’re talking about all this in the context of adversity and mortality, I feel that when I was healthy I was on the same basic path of increasingly experiencing myself as one with One – at that time, with increasing joy. So to me it seems the way to go regardless of circumstances.

The Waking

Richard Beck said...

These are good words.

crystal said...

I do appreciate what Paul and Amy have written, but some part of me is just depressed to read it too, because it seems like a kind of giving up, an acceptance of things not being the way we hoped they would be, and then restructuring our hopes so we don't have to spend the rest of our lives disappointed.

A lot of the time I don't even know if there is a God, but I really want there to be one, and if I'm going to invest in that hope, I want the kind of God revealed in the gospels - one who heals the sick, raises the dead, stops the storm, feeds the multitude.

I do know that I don't know what God's really like, and maybe he can't actually do that stuff. The only experience I've had that was a sort of religious experience was of God being Love, as Mathew comments. If that's how he is then I'll accept that and be grateful, but until I know, I still hope for miracles because I believe suffering is just bad and wrong and I want it to be gone.

Matthew said...


I completely understand the feeling that "love" is a weak replacement for the God of traditional theism -- like I said, maybe he's too much to give up.

But given the suffering in the world, I think claiming "God is love" is actually a very positive and hopeful view.

For example: when researchers and doctors and fundraisers and advocates and patients spend their lives finding cures for diseases like typhoid, polio, malaria, smallpox, love heals the sick.

When they're diseases that once were fatal, or when a first responder breathes life back into a person, love raises the dead.

When compassionate people build alert systems and house refugees, protecting people they've never met from hurricane, tornado, and earthquake, when rescuers go out in the aftermath, and when build teams go to clean up debris and construct new houses, love stops the storm.

When nations spend millions on foreign aid, when individuals sponsor people in developing nations, when eventually we get our act together and eradicate world hunger, love feeds the multitude.

And as far as death itself, we can still hope. I mean, certainly, definitely, without a doubt, our smallest acts of love will echo into eternity. But maybe we're in for even more than that.

Love is the strongest, best thing I know, and to me it seems possible -- likely -- that love will triumph in ways we can't even comprehend: rewinding universes, peering back into the past, shining bright lights into our minds and and pulling us all along behind it; until finally we wake, together again, and to our delight, find that love is now truly all in all.

crystal said...

I like that, Matthew :)

Two things. One is that I had an "experience" during a retreat - it seemed like I could feel God's feelings for me as if I was feeling them myself - it was love for me so strongly felt it made me cry, a love that had such a stake in my happiness that God couldn't be happy unless I was too. I hadn't believed this before (and I don't know if I do now) - it surprised me. The other thing is the way I felt about Kermit and the other cats. I think I loved them more unconditionally than any people I've known. They suffered a lot when they got old and sick, and sometimes I really hated God for that. But I also thought that even if I hadn't known them, they'd still get old and suffer and die, but in this case they had someone who kept them company in their suffering and who loved them. And now that they're dead, I still love them - love trumps death and maybe in a way suffering too.

Vincent said...

To Matthew, Crystal, Paul & other commenters: this post and ensuing discussion helped inspire a post over at my place. You might not see the connection, and who knows how the subconscious works, but when Crystal said she hated that idea from Kierkegaard that prayer doesn't change the situation, only us, I had to agree with her. Prayer, in its own way, does work, like a kind of magic.

Paul M said...

@ Crystal:

"The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love."

Meister Eckhart

@ Matthew: Our echoes roll from soul to soul/And grow forever and forever.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Amy said...

Crystal - I liked your sharing of your retreat experience and about your cats. I wish my earlier comment hadn't given you a sense of depression. I find great hope in it. When I said that maybe God decided to back away a bit, I meant with the obvious powerful miracles, but I didn't mean non-involvement. I do believe in the God of the gospels that can do all those powerful things you mentioned, but with Matthew's focus in the post on suffering, I wanted to address my hope in God's gift to us of love, and not just miracles. I think he gives comfort and guidance, but he doesn't do everything for us, even if, and I believe he is, he is all-powerful and may still do some miracles. With all the suffering in the world, there would need to be billions of miracles. Would we grow in love and faith if miracles took care of everything, or even be very thankful? Wouldn't we keep causing some of the suffering? I think as we are loved, we are better able to learn love and to pass on that love. It sees that love (that we feel from God and others and love that we give) is made even more meaningful and powerful because of the existence of suffering. And though bad stuff is not wished for, but sometimes it happens anyway, I like to choose something to be thankful for, and that is love. "The Lord is close to the broken-hearted." Love helps us through it and to do something about it. Like with your cats. Like with disease, pain, hunger, and natural disasters.

Matthew - I liked your beautiful description of what love does.

Paul - "as one with One...So to me it seems the way to go regardless of circumstances." Yes!

crystal said...


Thanks :)

I guess in a way suffering gives us a chance to express love, but I would hate to think that it's necessary or that love is the sort of silver lining to suffering. I think there's a kind of theology that says the good is better for having to triumph over evil .... that 'felix culpa' thing. There was an email discussion once between David Bentley Hart and some others about suffering, and DBH said (and for once I agreed with him :) ...

To suggest that evil can serve to increase the good sounds marvelous and dramatic; it is also quite heretical and quite philosophically incoherent.

If you guys ever want to read the discussion, I had posted it here -

crystal said...

Hi Paul,

Meister Eckhart :)

Matthew said...

Dear everybody:

Thanks for being awesome!

Darin said...

Good thoughts everyone.

Matt, I like your "love" examples that you gave. I have often thought that the primary way that God works in this world is through people. Which seems to align exactly with what you described. Like Crystal, I like to think that God works in other ways, but I can't get passed why he would answer some prayers and not others. (i.e one praying person is healed while another praying person with similar circumstances does not).

So prayer then becomes more a plea to change us to be more loving, faithful, hopeful, which goes well with the quote from Kierkegaard about changing the nature of the one who prays. Through prayer and God working in us, we should have more faith, hope, and love than we would without Him. These three things change things in amazing ways. A person with hope can heal from serious injuries even when doctors say they have no chance. People overcome addictions, depression, etc when they get a glimpse of hope and love. Heaven is the ultimate hope that conquers even death.

May faith, hope, and love triumph!

@Matt - Out of curiosity, how does Jesus fit into your view of God presented in your post? Since he is the representation of the all-powerful God who came here to earth to show us how to love.

Matthew said...

Hi, Darin!

> @Matt - Out of curiosity, how does Jesus fit into your view of God presented in your post?

I'm not sure. My instinct is to first observe that the biblical stories about Jesus are like all the other biblical stories: experiences (in this case, of a third person) filtered through many minds and pens. So we have to assume some distance between the person Jesus of Nazareth and the character in the Bible. But regardless of how much distance there is between those two things, a couple of things seem very likely:

First, that the person Jesus of Nazareth embodied the powerlessness of God: illegitimate, born into a marginalized culture, poor, despised, rejected, scapegoated, executed.

Second, that the character Jesus of Nazareth exemplifies the deep love of God: long-suffering, merciful, forgiving, extravagant, available to insiders and outsiders alike.

Beyond that, I don't know. I'm hesitant to interpret any miracle story literally, primarily because that would create the same theodicy problem that I finger at the top of the post, but if someone could make a good argument for why any use of miraculous power should be exempt from that moral bind, I'd be glad to hear it.

Matthew said...

Paul M said:
"Maybe love relates us to “the green fuse that drives the flower” as something specifically human and yet tributary to the flow of sap that blossoms the world."

I just read that bit again, and I like it very much. The careful phrase "specifically human" is especially nice.