CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

It's pretty obvious that the problem of evil has occasioned more discussion, controversy and painstaking analysis than perhaps any other issue in philosophy of religion. Most people seem to agree that it is the single most formidable obstacle to the credibility of theism. How can this world, full of apparently needless suffering and monstrous evil, be the creation of a loving, all-powerful God? An enormous variety of theodicies has been developed in response, with some of the most famous being the free-will defense of Alvin Plantinga, the 'Irenean' or 'vale of soul-making' theodicy of John Hick and the 'inscrutable purposes' argument of Peter Van Inwagen and others. The work produced by these scholars is subtle and profound, but the problem itself refuses to go away. The problem of evil remains an intractable conundrum in the Western classical philosophical tradition.

But what if this tradition has obscured the resources of a very powerful response to the problem of evil which the biblical writers recognized but we have forgotten? Gregory Boyd in his book God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, argues that the world often looks like a war zone because that's exactly what it is: the locus of a cosmic conflict between God the Creator and a host of spiritual beings who are violently opposed to His will. In contrast with the standard view of God's omnipotence as 'meticulous control' over Creation, Boyd suggests that God has created a 'semi-democratic' Universe in which not only human beings, but also a variety of nonphysical beings, have a degree of autonomy and influence which God has chosen not to override. He argues that the 'cosmic blueprint' model of God's sovereignty renders the problem of evil unsolvable, because there does not seem to be an ethically conscionable way to account for the intense suffering that pervades the human and natural worlds. The 'warfare' theodicy, however, can relieve us of the pointless search for explanations for each and every instance of evil (because in final analysis they are due to the freely-willed actions of creatures, whether human or spiritual) and can instead empower us to confront evil in the world and overcome it. Instead of being puzzled by evil, we should be struggling against it. The book is devoted to arguing the case for a pervasive 'cosmic warfare' motif in Scripture as well as the traditional worldviews of societies all around the world.

This is the most exciting, refreshing book on the problem of evil that I've read in a long time and literally sent me back to the drawing board theologically. I've always harbored the intuition that much of the evil I see in the world can only be described as demonic in some sense. People who dismiss events like the Holocaust as due to psychological or sociological factors alone I always suspect of not having fully come to terms with the reality of concrete evil. As Peter Berger argues in A Rumor of Angels, some deeds simply cry out to heaven for retribution, and we feel that only 'damnation' is a strong enough word to evaluate such a deed. Boyd helped me put this intuition on a philosophical and scriptural footing which I did not believe possible. It also helps me make sense of the idea that God is just as angry and frustrated with injustice and evil as we are, but has chosen to work through us and His creation to resolve it. A very interesting element of Boyd's warfare theodicy is his interpretation of Genesis 1. He translates the first verse not as "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" but as "When God began to create..." and sees God as moulding Creation in the aftermath of a cosmic struggle which turned the cosmos into a wasteland. The Universe was structurally flawed to begin with, which can also explain various natural evils such as the apparent cruelty and waste of the evolutionary process.

I think that this view has real potential in accounting for senseless suffering in a theistic universe. There are, however, a number of issues which I feel need to worked out (which may be dealt with in the sequel to God at War, Satan and the Problem of Evil, which I have not read yet):

1) Boyd explains the reluctance of modern people to accept the existence of spirits as due to an overriding naturalistic mindset. While this is undoubtedly true, another issue for many Westerners is that they have not seen good evidence for their existence. Boyd does cite some anthropological and missional literature which document cases of exorcisms, etc. but more work needs to be done to show that such creatures can feature in the ontology of rational persons (see as another example Philip H. Wiebe, God and other spirits).

2) Related to the first question, there is the issue of when we should attribute illness for example to 'natural causes' and when to actual demonic influence, among other questions. Boyd is aware of this difficulty and insists that exorcism is not a cure-all for all the problems we have. Some standard of discernment must be developed for dealing with concrete instances of evil and how we should respond.

3) As Boyd himself acknowledges, the question of theodicy does not go away in this view, but simply takes another form: why would God create a 'democratic' Universe in which creatures can defy his will and cause great suffering to others? Especially when these creatures have great spiritual power compared to frail, puny human beings.

There are other challenges that could be raised, but I remain convinced that this view is worthy of serious consideration by everyone who is troubled by evil and suffering in the world and wants to know how to confront it.

P.S. Be on the lookout also for a new book on the problem of evil by William Hasker which may take a similar position to Boyd, based on the title: The Triumph of God over Evil.

3 comments:

The "problem of evil" is certainly a big deal nowadays, but my impression is that this is a rather "modern" issue. Not that the question hasn't always arisen and been a tough area to tackle, but I don't think the idea that it's some huge "obstacle" was all that prevalent throughout most of history. After all, even though the fact of evil is pretty obvious, most people (even today) did or do find belief in some sort of God just as obvious.

To be honest, the "warfare model" sounds like just a particular version of the free-will defense with some inscrutable soul-building thrown in. (That's not to say there's anything bad about it, just that I'd expect it to be more or less the default position for your average Christian -- at least before the 20th century, anyway.)

----->"[Boyd] sees God as moulding Creation in the aftermath of a cosmic struggle which turned the cosmos into a wasteland. The Universe was structurally flawed to begin with, which can also explain various natural evils such as the apparent cruelty and waste of the evolutionary process."

Maybe I'm taking Boyd (or your paraphrase) a bit too literally, but of course there was no cosmos to waste. "Cosmic struggle" can be taken metaphorically, and perhaps "turning the cosmos into a wasteland" is meant that way too; a picturesque image of the good angels driving Lucifer's forces out of heaven. But unlike an earthly battlefield, Heaven could in no way have been damaged or ruined by this battle.

More disturbing to me is the claim that "the universe was structurally flawed to begin with". Genesis quite particularly points out that, at each stage of creation, "God saw that it was good". God created a perfect universe -- only after that did man come along and mess everything up. (With a little prompting from Satan, to be sure, but not compulsion; Adam and Even were fully in control of their free wills.)

Of course spirits can cause evil too; and they indeed wield great power -- but we frail humans wield a lot of power too. We can control demons, cast them about, make them tremble at the mere mention of a Name on our lips; a thought, a prayer, even the most casual act of generosity can drive them away. Who's puny now? As important as it is to recognise the reality and danger of wicked spirits, it is just as important to recognise that we have great power -- the greatest power! -- to call on at any time.

If the point is that God and devils are fighting each other over us, or even that the forces of good (human and spiritual) are fighting the forces of evil (human and spiritual), then yes, that certainly is true. I do agree that to our modern western minds, the military metaphor that was so obvious to our forebears has been largely forgotten, and that we do need to be reminded of it. I disagree that we can blame our problems on the Devil (not even partially, as in, "the Devil made me do it!")

----->"There are other challenges that could be raised, but I remain convinced that this view is worthy of serious consideration by everyone who is troubled by evil and suffering in the world and wants to know how to confront it."

I guess I would say that knowing we're in a war is vital to waging it; but it doesn't help much in answering the question of why we're in a war or why God permits it in the first place. Nonetheless, such academic questions, while intriguing and even important, are not why we're here. (Ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die to self!)

-David

David,

Those are some very good observations. I think I'll wait to comment on them until I've read "Satan and the Problem of Evil", as it might clarify some of these issues. I am inclined to agree with you that this warfare theodicy is in large part a version of the free-will defense, and I was surprised to learn that Alvin Plantinga actually discussed a 'Satan hypothesis' to explain natural evil in "God, Freedom and Evil". But I also think that Boyd wants us partly to move away from thinking about evil in terms of explanations for it. Instead, he wants Christians to be empowered to confront it. In that sense it's not just another version of your standard theodicy, but more of a model for praxis in the face of evil.

WALTERS
As Peter Berger argues in A Rumor of Angels, some deeds simply cry out to heaven for retribution, and we feel that only 'damnation' is a strong enough word to evaluate such a deed.

HINMAN
T...he example of Thomas Borge in Nicaragua, the FSLN Minster of Interior, is awe-inspiring in that he confronted the torturer who tortured him and killed his wife. He forgave the man and let him live because Borge had become a Christian and read in the Bible to turn the other cheek and forgive

CARR
Retribution or forgiveness?

Whichever of the two totally contradictory things happens, that is the Christian way.

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