The Most Neglected Issue in Explanations of Evil

September 4th, 2014 / 19 Comments

In my current book, I offer a model of providence I call “Essential Kenosis.” One of my main arguments is that this model gives a plausible reason why a loving and powerful God fails to prevent genuine evil. One aspect of my argument, however, addresses what we might call God’s “constitution.” I find this aspect neglected more than any other by those who address the problem of evil.

My solution is, I believe, novel, because I point to God’s nature of love as the reason God cannot prevent genuine evil caused by random events or free creatures. My work is funded by the Randomness and Divine Providence project, directed by James Bradley.

But there is another, often overlooked, aspect to what I think is a plausible solution to the problem of evil. This aspect addresses an aspect of the problem of evil not directly tied to God’s love and power.

God as Omnipresent Spirit

It is important to say God cannot prevent genuine evil because doing so requires nullifying the divine nature of love. This is the heart of the essential kenosis model of providence. But another set of issues remain. We can address these issues by asking this question:

If we creatures sometimes thwart a planned terrorist attack by using our bodies, sending agents, or using various instruments, why can’t God do this?

To ask the question more specifically, if we creatures can step between two combatants and thereby prevent evil, why can’t God do the same? If creatures can use their bodies to prevent evil, why can’t God prevent evil in this way? And if creatures can marshal others to use objects to prevent genuine evil, why doesn’t God do the same?

God is a Loving Spirit

Essential kenosis answers this set of questions by affirming the traditional view that God is a loving spirit and lovingly omnipresent. Unfortunately, those who believe in God often fail to think through the implications of these traditional views.

Believing God is an omnipresent spirit has implications for thinking well about why God cannot unilaterally prevent evil in ways we might sometimes prevent it. Being an omnipresent spirit affords God both unique abilities and unique limitations.

To say God is a loving spirit is to say, in part, God does not have a divine body. God’s essential “being” or “constitution” is spiritual. In fact, because God is spirit, we cannot perceive God with our five senses. Christians have proposed various theories to explain how God’s invisible spiritual life exerts causal influence, and many involve affirming some form of nonsensory causation. The details of these theories deserve fuller explanation than what is possible here.

God is Lovingly Omnipresent

The second divine attribute typically neglected in discussions of evil is God’s universality. God is present to all creation and to each individual entity. God is omnipresent, most believers say. Rather than being localized in a particular place as creatures are localized, the Creator is present to all.

As an omnipresent spirit with no localized divine body, God cannot exert divine bodily influence as a localized corpus. God cannot use a divine body to step between two parties engaged in a fight, for instance. God doesn’t have a wholly divine hand to scoop a rock out of the air, cover a bomb before it explodes, or block a bullet before it projects from a rifle. While we may sometimes be morally culpable for failing to use our localized bodies to prevent such genuine evils, the God without a localized divine body is not culpable.

God cannot prevent evil with a localized divine body, because God is an omnipresent spirit.

God Calls Upon Creatures with Bodies to Love

God can, however, marshal those with localized bodies to exert creaturely bodily impact in various ways. God can call upon a teacher to place her body between a bully and his victim. God can call upon the fire fighter to reach through a burning window to grab a terrified toddler. God can even call upon lesser organisms and entities to use their bodily aspects, in whatever limited way possible, to promote good or prevent evil. We rightly regard the positive responses of less complex organisms, for instance, as instrumental in the physical healings we witness in our world. And we rightly honor humans who respond to God’s calls to use their bodies to prevent genuine evil or do good.

Of course, we with localized bodies do not always respond well to God’s call. God may want to prevent some evil and call upon a creature to use its body for this purpose. But creatures may fail to respond well, disobey, and sin. God is not culpable for the evil that results when we fail to love. God may marshal groups to intercede to help, but these groups may ignore God’s commands. When God calls and we fail to respond well, we are to blame.

Creatures sometimes respond well to God’s call, however. They “listen” to God’s call to prevent some impending tragedy or stop an ongoing conflict. When creatures respond well, we sometimes even say, “God prevented that evil.” This should not mean that God alone prevented it. Creatures cooperated, playing necessary roles by using their bodies to fulfill God’s good purposes. Our saying, “God did it,” simply expresses our belief that God played the primary causal role in the event.

We Can Be God’s Co-Workers

Creaturely cooperation inspired the phrase, “we are God’s hands and feet.” It also inspired the saying “the world is God’s body” and God is the “soul of the universe.” These phrases only make sense, however, if we do not take them literally. We do not literally become divine appendages; the world is not literally a divine corpus. God remains divine; and we and world are God’s creations.

But when creatures respond well to God’s leading, the overall result is that God’s will is done in heaven and on earth. When God’s loving will is done, we might feel provoked to credit, praise, and thank the Creator. And this is appropriate. But when we do so, we can also rightly acknowledge the creaturely cooperation required for establishing what is good. God gets the lion’s share of the credit, but should appreciate creatures who cooperated with their Creator.

We can be God’s co-workers (1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 6:1; 3 Jn 1:8). Hallelujah!

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Comments

Charles W. Christian

So, if God’s divine influence is SOLELY through human beings responding to God’s presence and love, how does God love influence these people?  Does God influence believers to go out and commit acts of love?  If so, some sensory perception (i.e., the five senses you mention in your first paragraph) has to be present, right?  Overall, though, I agree that creature cooperation is essential in accomplishing the overall good in creation.  To say that God cannot influence through sensory perception, though, seems to go a bit far.  In fact, you say so in your final section.  Did I misread your sentence about God not acting upon the five sense??  ~ Thanks…


Thomas Jay Oord

Thanks for the good question, Charles.

I think we can perceive God directly through nonsensory perception. Our primary nonsensory perceiver is our mind, but many of our other bodily members also perceive nonsensorily. The best words to use when describing this nonsensory perception may be “intuit,” “discern,” “apprehend.” I think people are referring to nonsensory perception when they say things like “I can feel it in my bones” or “I hear a still small voice.”

I think we can perceive God INDIRECTLY through our fives senses. We can see the beauty of creation, for instance, and we can infer God’s activity. But we can’t actually see, touch, hear, taste, or feel God with our five senses, because God is spirit.

Thanks for asking!

Tom


Mark W. Wilson

1. What about the O.T passages where God seems to act directly? 2. What about God acting through angels? 3. Does the account of creation show God acting directly on specific parts of his creation? (adamah?) 4. If as you say, direct intervention isn’t just a result of kenosis, but a fundamental violation of God’s loving nature,why is it not a violation of love when we intervene in our localized bodies? 5.What about the apocalyptic literature that speaks of a day of the Lord that seems quite interventionist? How is such a day compatible with the idea that God cannot intervene locally?(in Jerusalem?)However the idea that God desires to work through co-workers and relationship is revealed from Genesis to Revelation. It is the “cannot” rather than “chooses not” that I find troubling.


Aarlie hull

Where do angels factor in?


Thomas Jay Oord

Good questions, Mark. And I’m answering them currently as I write this book. The concluding chapter (which I am working on now) addresses miracles and biblical stories of God’s actions.

A few brief comments here without answering all your questions:

1. Notice that I don’t say God can’t act directly. I strongly believe God can! I just don’t believe God ever totally controls others (coerces). God can act directly without having to control.

2. “Intervene” is a word I don’t like. It sounds like God isn’t already present. But I think God is omnipresent. I also don’t like it, because some use it to say God acts coercively. I don’t think God coerces.

3. I think your being troubled by “God cannot” is a very common reaction people have to the phrase. I address this in the book. But perhaps I should say here that the vast majority of theologians have agreed that there are things God cannot do. And there are several scriptures that say God cannot—not chooses not to—do some things. (e.g., God cannot lie, cannot deny himself, cannot be tempted).

Sorry to not give a full explanation. I hope you consider buying the book when it is available!


Thomas Jay Oord

Aarlie,

I put angels in the same category as other creatures. They are not omnipresent, but they can use their localized bodies for limited purposes. They can also say “no” to God (which is what many Christians think demons have done). Their spiritual bodies place limitations on the kind of bodily impact they might have. But they can still be influential without ever being controlling.

At least that’s how I see it,

Tom


Todd Holden

Tom
It still seems to me that saying, “God cannot…” is a hard pill for me to swallow. So, can we mitigate that by saying that, “God does not…” thereby making it a choice by God instead of a limitation?
In effect, God’s choice is self-limited by His divine nature.


Kevin Timpe

Tom,

I worry that your view that “God cannot unilaterally do anything (given His nature, not given external impediment)” is what is doing all the relevant work here.

Plus, I have a further worry about this: “God cannot prevent evil with a localized divine body, because God is an omnipresent spirit.”

God became Incarnate in a localized body and the incarnation has not ended, so He (well, more technically, the 2nd person of the Trinity) is still Incarnate in a localized body.


Ben Duarte

Tom and Kevin,

Enjoyable article Tom. Kevin, I take your point. It does seem that Tom may be overlooking the incarnate God in human form (Jesus) in his hypothesis. However, his thesis seems to somewhat presuppose that. Jesus (who is God) is in a localized divine body, it is also true that God is an omnipresent spirit. Jesus is risen from the dead and present ‘wherever two or more are gathered”. Both are true. However, I do understand your concern of Tom’s assertion. Tom, do you think that it is possible that your statement: “God cannot prevent evil with a localized divine body, because God is an omnipresent spirit.” inadvertently denies the incarnation? …..or at least leaves evidence that you have overlooked something?

Thank you.


Carol

Thank you for this excellent post. It helps to understand why a liberative and creative theology of justice/advocacy is so crucial for Christ-centred discipleship…co-creating the New Community…as it is in heaven…here on earth…so his kingdom comes (again and again…more and more fully) and his will is done…


James Goetz

Hi Tom, Thank you for the ongoing development of your Essential Kenosis. The most interesting aspect of it from my perspective is that in your (2010) THE NATURE OF LOVE supported that Essential Kenosis is compatible with the miracles reported in the New Testament, which also makes Essential Kenosis compatible with neo-Pentecostalism while distinguishing itself from tradition process theology. I suppose these miracles suggest the existence of supernatural activity and the ability for the spiritual world to cause activity in the material world. I wonder how you will consistently explain this? Peace, Jim


Bev Mitchell

Hi Tom,

Great to hear that this book is in the works. Looking forward to it. I agree, we don’t think through well enough the accepted and biblical reality that God is spirit, or what it really means that this Spirit (the Holy Spirit) is omnipresent. We usually understand that we can refuse to follow that Holy Spirit, follow poorly or ignore her all together, but other implications, even limitations, on God’s side need to be wrestled with. The causal joint between spiritual and material reality is obscure to us, to say the least, especially when we would really like to know the mechanism(s) – we’re only human grin

Your blog item deals with our role in thwarting and minimizing evil as God’s agents guided by Spirit. Will your book also address the origins of evil itself, which may well have a serious spiritual component itself – Scripture seems to say so. The two most reasonable interpretations I know of for this are summarized in the discussion between Boyd, Hardin and Wink in “Understanding Spiritual Warfare:Four Views”. I don’t expect you to referee on this, just wondering if you will include origin of evil in your new book.


Paolo Gamberini SJ

“The Uncontrolling Love of God” is just a great book!. I really enjoyed it. Few years ago I’ve read also Sanders’ book on “God who risks” . You just move forward his position in the right direction while dealing with God’s essential kenosis as the right way of addressing God’s nature as Love. God cannot but love, because God cannot deny Godself. That means that God love in such a way that the created otherness is acknowledged as such. Soren Kierkegaard has well expressed such idea of kenotic love which lets the other be other and not thwarted by God:

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Journals and Papers, trans. Howard and Edna Hong (Indiana

Univ. Press, 1970): vol. 2, entry 1251 from 1846 (VII1 A 181 in Danish edition)

The whole question of the relation of God’s omnipotence and goodness to evil (instead of the

differentiation that God accomplishes the good and merely permits the evil) is resolved quite

simply in the following way. The greatest good, after all, which can be done for a being, greater

than anything else that one can do for it, is to make it free. In order to do just that, omnipotence

is required. This seems strange, since it is precisely omnipotence that supposedly would make

[a being] dependent. But if one will reflect on omnipotence, he will see that it also must contain

the unique qualification of being able to withdraw itself again in a manifestation of omnipotence

in such a way that precisely for this reason that which has been originated through omnipotence

can be independent. This is why one human being cannot make another person wholly free,

because the one who has power is himself captive in having it and therefore continually has a

wrong relationship to the one whom he wants to make free. Moreover, there is a finite self-love

in all finite power (talent, etc.). Only omnipotence can withdraw itself at the same time it gives

itself away, and this relationship is the very independence of the receiver. God’s omnipotence is

therefore his goodness. For goodness is to give oneself away completely, but in such a way that

by omnipotently taking oneself back one makes the recipient independent. All finite power

makes [a being] dependent; only omnipotence can make [a being] independent, can form from

nothing something which has its continuity in itself through the continual withdrawing of

omnipotence. Omnipotence is not ensconced in a relationship to an other, for there is no other

to which it is comparable–no, it can give without giving up the least of its power, i.e., it can

make [a being] independent. It is incomprehensible that omnipotence is not only able to create

the most impressive of all things–the whole visible world–but is able to create the most fragile

of all things–a being independent of that very omnipotence. Omnipotence, which can handle

the world so toughly and with such a heavy hand, can also make itself so light that what it has

brought into existence receives independence. Only a wretched and mundane conception of

the dialectic of power holds that it is greater and greater in proportion to its ability to compel

and to make dependent. No, Socrates had a sounder understanding; he knew that the art of

power lies precisely in making another free. But in the relationship between man and man this

can never be done, even though it needs to be emphasized again and again that this is the

highest; only omnipotence can truly succeed in this. Therefore if man had the slightest

independent existence over against God (with regard to materia), then God could not make him

free. Creation out of nothing is once again the Almighty’s expression for being able to make [a

being] independent. He to whom I owe absolutely everything, although he still absolutely

controls everything, has in fact made me independent. If in creating man God himself lost a

little of his power, then precisely what he could not do would be to make man independent.

In this text by Kierkegaard omnipotence is understood enhancing and not thwarting the created otherness as independent and autonomous. I think it’s an important step in the direction towards an understanding of love as kenotic and self-giving. I do agree with you on this point. My difficulties arises in the further articulation of the divine love with divine action. You presume that God loves in various possible ways in order to justify that creation responds differently to the creative love. I quote from p. 162: “God necessarily loves (I do agree with you, God cannot but love), but God freely chooses how to love in each emerging moment.” Or at p. 165: “God’s expression of love takes may forms.” At p 166: “Divine love is pluriform. […] the way God loves varies from moment to moment, creature to creature, […] Divine love is tailor-made for each creature in each instant.”

What I guess from here it’s that you ascribe to God’s love a pluriformity which relates to the variety of createdness. However, I think that the pluriformity and variety, the temporarily (from moment to moment) and the created differentiation (one thing is different from another) does not reside on God’s side but rather on the createdness’ side. As you say further at p. 166 “all creatures are recipients of divine love.” The one uncreated love in its essential kenotic form is received by the created otherness according to the created features of being created. As God’s nature cannot but love, and love means self-giving and let the created otherness be, so being-created means: multiplicity, becoming, temporality, perfectibility, vulnerability, fallibility and peccability. Such further expansion of God’s creative love has important consequence for the question of evil. Not only because of God’s essential love, God does not “intervene” or “thwarts” human freedom (and the whole nature in its lawfulness and randomness) and therefore it’s right to say that God cannot stop evil (and not God chose not to stop evil!), but it’s necessary to add that the possibility of evil is a necessary consequence of having God created a reality which is not God and therefore imperfect. The alternative would have been not to create anything.
Both the nature of God’s love (self-giving and kenotic) and the nature of being-created (=imperfect) define the correct framework in order to posit the question of evil beyond the solution given by the omnipotent sovereignty’s scheme and the deistic scheme.

Paolo Gamberini SJ


Mick Collins

Is it fair to say in your view that Kenosis depends on Evil?


thomasjayoord

No, it doesn’t depend on evil. God is essentially kenotic in relation to good as well.


Bill McCracken

Thomas, my struggle with what you are asserting here is the view that love does not control. I would agree with you that in a perfect world, love would not control. But we live in a world where love, in order to be love, in order to have the best interest of other’s put first, does sometimes control. Because I love my son, I will control whether or not he plays in the street. Because we put the welfare of human rights first, we have laws that attempt to control how people act toward one another. So I’m not convinced that we can make a blanket statement that love NEVER controls, that God, if God is love, would never control people or things. Do you have any thoughts on this?


thomasjayoord

Thanks for your post, Bill. Your good comment points to an important difference between God and we creatures. I agree with the majority in the Christian tradition who say God is an omnipresent spirit without a localized physical body. So the kind of “control” you rightly say we ought to do with our bodies is not possible for a God without a localized divine body. I address this issue in my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. Send me a note, and I’ll see that you get a copy of the book if you want one.


Bill McCracken

I actually already have your book, Thomas. Your kenosis model of God’s interaction with the world, for the most part, makes a lot of sense to me. I, too, being a panentheist, tend to see God as an ever-present spirit. As I’m sure you know, the root word for ‘spirit’ implies breath or wind. But just because God is spirit should not rule out his ability to act in the world. After all, both breath and spirit are non-corporeal, they are not physical. But breath gives us physical life. And there is no denying the good and bad that wind can do, even though it does not have a body. I do find myself agreeing with you that God does not control. I just don’t agree that love can never act, that it is passive. The kind of kenosis I see in Jesus certainly didn’t cause him to control people. But he did influence them, he persuaded at least some of them. So I guess what I’m getting at is that before I could say that God does not control or intervene because he is “uncontrolling love”, I would first have to define what love is and what love does and does not do. And in the incarnation model of God in Christ found in the NT, Jesus is able to control the molecules of water into wine, multiply loaves and fishes, walk on water, still a storm, etc. I do think that love would generally not be coercive. But I’m concerned about a love that can do nothing, that is impotent in the face of suffering and death. Thanks for any thoughts.


thomasjayoord

Thanks for your good note, Bill. It sounds like we share a lot in common!

I think love is the most powerful force in the universe, in part because I think God is almighty without being controlling. I explain this some in my book, chapter 8.

I like that you see the importance of defining love. I agree. I’ve written much about this, including a book called “Defining Love” (Brazos 2010). I define love as acting intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.

Again, thanks for your note and comments!


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