Open Theology’s Problem with the Problem of Evil

April 30th, 2010 / 18 Comments

Open theology offers an impressive theological framework. But Open theology has a problem with the problem of evil.

In my newly published book, The Nature of Love: A Theology (Chalice), I argue that Open theology’s basic proposals work well for constructing a theology of love. Open theology offers biblically oriented ideas to overcome problems for love in conventional theologies. It helps make sense of love from biblical, rational, and experiential perspectives.

My own theology of love is a form of Open theology.

The Role of Freedom in Love

My theology of love draws some from Clark Pinnock’s theology.  I am indebted to his wisdom and scholarship.  But I disagree with him on an important issue: how we best understand God’s power.

The issue of God’s power is important to solving the problem of evil. Pinnock offers what he calls a “logic of love theodicy” to answer that problem.

Central to his logic of love theodicy is his belief in genuine creaturely freedoma theory sometimes called “libertarian freedom.” “The Bible itself assumes libertarian freedom when it posits personal give-and-take relationships and when it holds people responsible for their actions,” argues Pinnock. “On this matter I am moved by the Bible itself.”

“Forced love is a contradiction in terms,” Pinnock says, “and God does not force his love on us.” “Love woos, it does not compel.” “It is love’s way not to overpower but to be gentle and persuade,” asserts Pinnock. “Grace works mightily but does not override.”

Pinnock summarizes his theodicy with the following brief statements:

1.         God created for the sake of loving relationships.

2.         This required giving real freedom to the creature so that it not be a robot.

3.         Freedom, however, entailed risk in the event that love was not reciprocated.

4.         Herein lays the possibility of moral and certain natural evilsthose which appear irredeemably malicious and demonic.

5.         God does not abandon the world but pledges a victory over the powers of darkness. In such a theodicy, God does not will evil but wills love and, therefore, freedom that opens the door to things going right or wrong.

6.         Though God does not protect us from ourselves, God is there redeeming every situation, though exactly how, we may not yet always know.

Pinnock’s Version of Open Theology is Inconsistent

To the question, “Why do genuine evils occur?” Pinnock offers a strong answer: free creatures, the natural constraints of creation, and/or demonic powers are to blame. God does not cause genuine evil. Because of love, God created others as free agents, and they (and other created agents and forces) are culpable for causing evil.

To the more difficult question, “Why doesn’t God prevent genuine evils from occurring?” – Pinnock’s theodicy breaks down.

Sometimes, Pinnock says God does not act coercively. God’s power is not “the power of a puppeteer, the power to make everything else surrender,” he says. Instead, God “makes free agents as creators and movers in their own right.” God “made a kind of covenant of noncoercion with creatures,” Pinnock decides. “Love and not sheer power overcomes evil,” he explains, and “God does not go in for power tactics.”

Other times, Pinnock believes God is coercive. “God is not bound to persuasion alone,” he claims. “Coercive power is available to God, even if he uses it sparingly.” God sometimes acts coercively, because “God has the power to intervene in the world, interrupting (if need be) the normal causal sequences.”

The typical version of Open theology is inconsistent on this crucial issue. If love acts persuasively by granting freedom and yet God sometimes coerces, God does not love consistently.

Pinnock says that love does not command, does not overpower, does not force, does not compel, and does not override. But this means God does not love when God does command, does overpower, does force, does compel, and does override. We cannot have it both ways.

To account for events in which God seems to express all-controlling power, Pinnock thinks God can coerce and occasionally does so. If God “controls nothing, little room is left for miracles and the final victory,” he says.

God “was uniquely active in that strand of history that culminated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus,” says Pinnock. And the resurrection of Jesus requires more than persuasion.

Accounting for these events is not only admirable. In my opinion, accounting for them is crucial to the Christian witness to the good news.  But believing God must use coercive power to accomplish these things inhibits us from offering a good answer to why a God capable of coercion doesn’t also prevent genuine evil.

God’s Freedom Is Relatively Irrevocable?

Pinnock’s strongestyet still unsatisfyinganswer to why God could prevent genuine evil but doesn’t pertains to God’s freedom-giving activity.

A “relative irrevocability of freedom and the stable natural order God has set in motion,” says Pinnock, means God cannot simply terminate creatures and creation. “To prevent his creatures working evil would be to act against the liberty God gave them and removing the freedom would show God was not serious in giving it in the first place,” declares Pinnock.

This response initially sounds promising — until one realizes Pinnock believes God’s gift of freedom is relatively irrevocable. Relative irrevocability means God retains the ability to coerce.

Sometimes God exercises coercive power, says Pinnock. His version of Open theology “does not recognize inherent limitations in God.” God has become voluntarily self-limited when giving freedom to others. This self-limitationbecause it is voluntaryis not absolute. Nothing could stop God from becoming un-self-limited to prevent any genuinely evil event.

Because Pinnock’s version of Open theology says God occasionally coerces, he cannot solve the most important obstacle to constructing an adequate theology of love: the problem of evil. A perfectly loving and voluntarily self-limited God should interrupt creation’s causal sequences to prevent genuine evil.

As Pinnock sees it, God is able to prevent evil but not always willing.

God’s Love Must be Steadfast

Part of what it means to love steadfastly, I argue, is to act continually to promote overall well-being. The God whom Pinnock describes possesses coercive power but sometimes fails to thwart genuinely evil tragedies, holocausts, catastrophes, and horrors. This is not steadfast love.

To his credit, Pinnock admits his proposal cannot solve the problem of evil. He “laments God’s inaction in respect to evil.” He believes “God could be doing more than he is doing and wonders why [God] isn’t doing it.”

Those who point out that his version of Open theology fails to solve the problem of evil, admits Pinnock, “make a good and, to me, painful point.”

We Need a Different Doctrine of God’s Power

When it comes to conceiving of God’s love and power, we should look for an Open theology option other than the one Pinnock proposes. We should agree with him “it is love’s way not to overpower but to … persuade.” To present God as consistently loving, however, we must deny God can totally control others.

The doctrine of divine power we affirm should support Christian doctrines of miracles. It should support the resurrection of Jesus and a victory at the end of history. It should support a biblically oriented doctrine of creation.

But a more adequate view of God’s love and power should account for these important Christian events while denying God ever coerces.

My Own Proposal

One of the main reasons I wrote The Nature of Love: A Theology was to offer a theology of love that combines God’s power and love adequately. I call my proposal “Essential Kenosis.” My proposal overcomes the problem of evil and presents God as steadfastly loving.

Essential Kenosis offers a way of understanding God’s power, while affirming the occurrence of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, hope for a final victory at the end of history, and a biblically supported doctrine of creation.

I look forward to dialoguing with readers now that the book is finally published!

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Comments

Hans Deventer

Tom,

Clark Pinnock “laments God’s inaction in respect to evil.” He believes “God could be doing more than he is doing and wonders why [God] isn’t doing it.”

Perhaps it says something that he is in rather good company. So do the Psalmists. In fact, no Biblical author has solved the problem of theodicy. That should say something too.

And as you know, my biggest problem with the way out of this dilemma that you offer, that is leaves us basically dependent on the good in humans. For obviously, God is trying to persuade us to do the right thing ever since the very beginning of creation, and surely never ceased doing so, nor ever will. That means that, since the best prediction for the future is past behaviour, we actually have no hope, for all our hope for change is in mankind. God has become the constant factor, almost the Aristotelian unmoved mover, for if at any moment He is doing what He did not do before in order to love, He could be blamed for not loving consistently and thus not really loving.

So all of the Biblical hope for God to act in a way He hasn’t done up till now, is wiped away. All that is left is you and me standing in the cold. Understanding a persuasively loving God, who is actually precious little more than that.

When I have to choose between understanding without hope, or hoping without understanding, the choice is easy. I can live without understanding God. Millions of Christians have been able to do that. But where will I be without hope?


Steve Carroll

Tom Great memory of Singing “Our God is a Wimpy God” to you with Ray Walters as you walk into a classroom… Hahaha

Does this new book present a the same ideas you were developing 10 years ago, a growth/ adaptation or something completely new?

You always had me until we started discussing miracles, and other key issues where God needs to excersize power on a level that would over come creaturely freedom.

interested in the new book


Curtis

It may be that we need a wider notion of “evil.” It may be true that God can intervene when it comes to particular acts but that is not dealing with or overcoming evil. Evil, at its nature, is personal. Evil has to do with the will, emotions, intentions, feelings, desires, etc. This is the heart of evil and this is what God cannot overcome unilaterally. Yes, there is pain and suffering in nature but I am still leery of calling these events “evil.” From our perspective they often seem pointless and unnecessary, but that may not be the case in the bigger picture. Also, because these events might be necessary that does not mean they are good either.

But why is it that God does not step in to end this suffering and human acts of violence? Because doing so would be counter to God’s fullest plan, which I believe, is not to simply end evil, but to foster good.  That is, God’s plan is to work in concert with humans to bring about more good which would, in turn, reduce and eliminate evil.  This means free will must be a part of the solution, but as we know it is also a problem. WE may be looking for God to intervene to eliminate an evil when in fact we need to be looking for God’s acts of bring good. The solution to the problem of evil is not its end but the overcoming of evil with God. Thus, in order for God to reach the telos intended, God cannot intervene and step on free will to curtail evil acts. Not because God does not have the power to act unilaterally but because God does not have the power to act unilaterally AND achieve the telos of a truly good creation. So, the evil that has to be overcome cannot be overcome by coercively stopping act of violence or pain and suffering but only by the overflow of goodness, love and faith. Evil cannot be overcome unilaterally but only in concert with creation and that may be why God cannot end evil even if God can act miraculously in nature.


Hans Deventer

Tom,

I could not let go of this and felt we were actually closer than it looked. So I’m sharing some thoughts here.

* Coercion and persuasion.

As I understand, within your theology, God, in order to be loving, cannot be coercive but has to be persuasive. Last night I wondered, “so what”? Do I really care HOW God does what He did, does and will do?
Frankly, no. If He raises the dead by persuasion, I’m cool with that. If He calms the sea and storms by persuasion, that’s fine with me too. My personal concern is not with the how, but with the fact that He can. As long as we agree that God can do what we find Him doing and promising He will do in
the Bible, I should no be so hang up on the how. I understand how it is vital to your concern though.

* God sometimes delays His actions.

Another issue is that in the Scriptures, we find God doing things at a certain point in time, that He didn’t do before. In short, He delayed His actions. Let’s for instance take Genesis 15:

13 Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

So God, because He wanted to act lovingly towards the Amorites, kept the children of Israel in bondage for a longer time than otherwise would have been the case. Consistently, He is moved by love, but love towards one, may look less loving towards others. I think we all, in dealing with people, have found this to be the case at times.

This led me towards a verse I usually don’t like, but in this case may hold more promise than I generally give it credit for:

2 Peter 3:9 – “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

Again, the Lord delays His actions out of love.

In both cases, He could have acted earlier but did not, out of love towards people that would otherwise perish.

Would this take be compatible with your theology?


Billie

An exciting book Tom, I look forward to reading it.  One statement in this article I would like to look into a little deeper is your statement:

“Part of what it means to love steadfastly, I argue, is to act continually to promote overall well-being. The God whom Pinnock describes possesses coercive power but sometimes fails to thwart genuinely evil tragedies, holocausts, catastrophes, and horrors. This is not steadfast love.”

One of the issues I think that emerges from your statement is an omniscient view of events.  What I mean is that we often see events as evil based on the human experience.  But, we seem horribly short sided within that view.  We are using criteria that may not be significant to God, or may be ignoring the impact of an alternate series of events.

We usually see the loss of life and view it as a horrific event.  That is based upon our own limited knowledge.  While I type this, I tend to argue with myself, yet, I feel that while I would view the WWII Holocaust as horrific and perhaps one of the best demonstrations of pure evil, I am also left with a few realizations. 

Millions died, as a human, I cannot look at a loss of life on that scale and not be moved.  However, God has seen all deaths.  Not that any of them don’t move them, scripture says he is aware of each sparrow that falls.  I think the difference is that God has a view that so extends beyond ours that perhaps in his view, there was something even more evil that was thwarted by the series of events that led to the Holocaust. 

It seems that our desire that he would act coercively to thwart the actions is an example of where we often want to be judged at our best while others (especially those we view as “evil”) should be judged at their worst.  We want grace in our own actions, yet would not see grace extended toward others as a loving act of an all powerful creator.

Because of these points, I wonder if too high a standard is being applied in saying that Pinnock’s view must solve the problem of evil.  That being said, I am eager to read how you apply Essential Kenosis to this problem. 

I am reminded that while we look to a solution for evil in the world, God has provided the solution for the evil that is within each of our own hearts.  I am also left to wonder which of those two evils is greater.


Austin

I am so intrigued by this post, Tom!  In fact, I just went over to amazon and ordered your new book, “the nature of love”.  I am very excited to see how you integrate “essential kenosis” with miracles,  the resurrection and a final eschatological victory.  Speaking personally, I really struggle with the problem of evil while maintaining belief in miracles.  It sounds to me like your approach is the middle-path that I have been digging for.  Can’t wait to read it!


Martijn

“To present God as consistently loving, however, we must deny God can totally control others.”

It all comes down to our choice to let Him in.  Our hearts, guided by the H.S. can be then an instrument of divine Love even though we might not understand it nor likely can we always comprihend. Even so, it comes down to giving up our lives(every day). And then God is able to use us and build His Kingdom.
That does stil mean that people who are not willing to surrender or willingly don’t want to do good are still creating death and grief on the cost of others, nature and God.


Eric

At the risk of creating a rabbit trail (I will try not to), have you considered how the theory of evolution and sociobiology may aid in dealing with the problem of evil?  I am still unsure myself, but natural selection and sociobiology’s explanation of human altruism seem to offer good explanations for the presence of evil in creation.  I am generalizing right now, but only consider myself a newborn in these matters and so generalizations are where I have to stay at the present time.


martijn

@Eric: Can you elaborate more on your ideas connecting natural selection plus sociobiology and evil in creation? And what does this mean for original sin(constructionwise)?


Todd Barker

Tom,

Thanks for taking some time to shed some light on this issue.  Theodicy is probably one of the most challenging issues out there for any theology.  Open theism may have the most logical answers to deal with evil.  Yet there are a few questions that linger.  Most notably in Pinnocks understanding, if God retains the right to act coercively and does not stop evil all the time, it makes God’s actions arbitrary. 

In your understanding of ‘steadfast love’ and God’s working towards the overall good – is this only by persuasion?  If it is, I would take that to mean that God can only act when we (as humans or the human community) or nature (the rest of reality) are/is submitting to God’s persuasive plan.  Thus miracles of God’s direct intervention are not an option.  Instead, miracles happen when reality is in harmony with God’s order and we are listening to the wooing from the Spirit. 

I like this idea because it still leaves room for Jesus to be God – fully submitting to the Father’s will and accepting of his role in reality.  The kingdom of God then, is consistent with people and nature that are in the process of submitting to God’s love and power and reciprocating it, ushering in reconciliation to the world in the mean time.

However, how would you overcome this scenario: someone who believes that they are ‘following after Christ’ does not see the power of God in their actions?  Has God failed to act, or are we the culpable beings not in line with God’s loving actions?


Scott

I found this article fascinating because I think it addresses one of the main problems that many “nonbelievers” and “believers” alike ask in regards to the Christian faith.  The problem of evil and suffering sticks out like a sore thumb, and I personally still struggle with finding a solution. 

Yes, I believe that God has given us the liberty to make good and bad choices- it is clear through the Biblical account.  Like Pinnock, I would agree that the majority of the time God does not intervene when evil is happening.  But I think there are examples of God using coercion.  The Apostle Paul never made “a decision to follow Jesus,” he literally got knocked off of his horse and was blinded by God.  God also used a storm and a whale to literally get Jonah to jump ship.  So I think there are times when God steps in and literally uses coercion to achieve certain purposes.

You do bring up a good point.  Why doesn’t God always step in to prevent evil and suffering from happening?  If God is steadfast love we need a better explanation than mystery.  If a parent sees his 4-year old walking out onto a busy street, you can bet that they will step in and literally grab them out of harms way.  That is love; no parent would be crazy enough to just let the child die needlessly just to give the child “freedom” to make their own choices.  So if God has the power, why isn’t God consistently stepping in to intervene and prevent these tragedies from happening?

I am curious to read this book where you propose a different solution to the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  It is crucial if people in our contemporary culture are constantly asking these types of questions.


Josh Myers

Tom,
This post highlights one of the main issues i have had this week as we discuss open theology. I have struggled as Pinnock says, Clark Pinnock “laments God’s inaction in respect to evil.” He believes “God could be doing more than he is doing and wonders why [God] isn’t doing it.” The idea that God has the power to persuade and step in and do miracles yet does not prevent all sin is one of the biggest things i have found lacking in open theology. I look forward to reading your book to see how you reconcile this issue.


Phil Anderson

Tom
I just read your blog, Open Theology’s Problem with the Problem of Evil and I am still a bit confused about how either theological viewpoint in Open Theology answers the question of Evil.
If evil was committed by the first persons Adam and Eve and this started the chain of sin events in the world, than wouldn’t it stand to reason that God created man with an intent toward sin?  I know the story says Eve was coerced by the lies of the serpent, which means the serpent created by God already had sin as a nature.  If the serpent is the devil and the devil has been loosed on the earth than there has to be a divine plan for this evil being loosed. 
I just think of the issues surrounding evil throughout human history and see not only evil coming from it but also good.  Christianity has continued to grow despite the sin surrounding the intentions of the church and the secular world.
Does this mean God is using the evil in some way to bring about the recognition of His sovereignty?  I have to say that I am with Mr. Hans Deventer on this one, (He responded to this blog first).  Does it really matter?  But then I think; there is sin in the world but also there is love in the world.  God loves and asks for us to love in return.  If we loved because God coerces than it is not truly love and if, He persuades through actions of love than we recognize love and can choose to follow the example and love God and people back.  I think persuasion is most like what we as humans do to have someone love us.  When we date we do all of the things that persuade someone to like us and then hopefully love us.  Our actions and the things we say are meant to be persuasive and help someone to recognize us as someone they can love. 
Persuasion to love Christ through both grace and through human influence changed my life. The responsibility I have as a Christian to that love may be the reason there is evil.  It is not God’s responsibility to stop it but ours. 
There are still bad things that happen to good people but the understanding and recognition of why it does, I think, is usually different than the person with no hope for a heavenly future.
Phil


Ava Moore

I look forward to reading your book! As I read your blog and the responses posted so far, I kept wondering if evil was necessary for people to have a choice or free will.  When God created the world, He called it “good” so God did not create evil.  However, the serpent was evil and tempted Eve to sin. If there had been no evil tempting her to sin, would she really have had a choice? If there were no evil today, would we actually have a choice? If God prevented evil from ever hurting anyone, would there be any evil?


Cheryl M. Haney

How can a God who knows all and able to reveal to human beings that evil is not in God’s nature or character? It is easy to say that God created all of creations, but God said it was Good, not bad.

I agree if God is love, God cannot force every human being to love God. But through love one could open their eyes and hearts to what is good and what is bad. I believe that is why God gave human beings “free-will”.

Does that mean that God lacks authority or power over evil? No, we see through reading the Bible that God does step into history and faces evil, with God’s own Son Jesus Christ the Lord, and then sends the Holy Spirit to guide the lives of those who open up their hearts, to hear what God would have to say, in the loving relationship God first created human beings to be in.

We are not at a point on this planet to be able to reach the high standards that God had at one point at the beginning of creation. That does not mean God loves us less. It means that we as human beings need to better understand that God has not given up on us for we know in the end who wins the victory of good and evil. 

I believe that God is still calling human beings to respond and turn from their own personal ways and agendas as seek the hope that is in the victory.

Maybe this Open Theology is just what the church needs to wake up and take action to what is occur in and through human beings today that have given up on God when they see all the suffering and violence that is all around the world today. Where is the love, peace and joy?


Derek

I’m not sure if it was your class, but I took a class on many different theologies.  What I found during and after the class is that any theology that limits God is not a good theology.  I remember writing about negative theology, not agreeing at all with it, and not even really understanding it at all.  That was my best score on a paper all class.  I wonder if that says something for negative theology.
Open theology (if I remember correctly) states God does not know the future.  I had to dismiss it immediately.  God knows everything.  To have a theology that says God is not all knowing is heretical, in my opinion. 
God is limited only by his character or his nature, not our theologies.  Just because someone really smart said “this is so about God” does not make it so.


Ben

Does Open Theism teach that the future is ‘not settled’?
Did Jesus ever teach about ‘future decisions’ that people would make concerning his death and resurrection? How did he know what would take place in the future?


Ben

“I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life.”- Jesus
Jesus spoke of future decisions that people will make, and future events. Where did this ontology come from?..where did this knowledge come from?


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