Avoiding the Mystery Card

January 20th, 2016 / 14 Comments

I’ve been reading what great and not so great theologians say about evil. The vast majority believe an almighty God could stop evil. But they don’t know why a loving God doesn’t do so. It’s a mystery, they say.

I’ve recently published a book that solves the problem of evil. The Uncontrolling Love of God offers a variety of proposals, but a primary one offers a solution to why a perfectly loving and powerful God does not prevent genuine evil. And I don’t appeal to mystery.

The Mystery Cardmystery-box-card-2

I don’t claim to know all truth, of course. I have limited understanding, and I see as if looking through a dark glass (1 Cor. 13:12). I haven’t got everything figured out!

To admit to not knowing all truth, however, differs from appeals to mystery I find among most theologians. Most great and not so great thinkers provide partial solutions to the problem of evil and then appeal to mystery on the crucial issue of why God doesn’t prevent all genuine evil. In fact, the vast majority of Christians say God either directly causes or allows evil.

By contrast, I offered a full-orbed solution to the problem of evil, focusing especially on the issue of rethinking God’s power.

When asked why a loving God would cause or allow evil, most theologians play the mystery card. “God’s ways are not our ways,” they say. God’s will is inscrutable. God is hidden, they claim. We must live the question mark.

In my proposal, I do not say God permits or allows evil that God could have prevented. I do not appeal to divine hiddenness.  I don’t play the mystery card. And I think we can find a viable answer to this crucial question.

Unfortunately, the majority of Christian theologians say God either causes or allows evil. Click To Tweet

The Soda Bottle Example

Let me illustrate the difference between how most theologians appeal to mystery and how I do not.

Suppose while hiking the wilderness of Idaho I found a soda bottle with a message inside. Upon reading it, I discover that someone from Nairobi, Kenya wrote the message. I might wonder how the bottle traveled such a great distance – half the globe – to my remote North American location.

Suppose we asked five people unaware of the bottle’s actual journey to speculate how it departed Nairobi and eventually arrived in Idaho. We also decide to assemble a panel of judges to read the speculations of these five people and assess which explanation is most plausible.

The judges read the five explanations and found that each guess differed. One person speculated that the bottle traveled north out of Africa through Israel and eventually to the shores of France. Another speculated that the bottle traversed north and the east through the Asian continent to China’s eastern ocean shores. Others offered their own guesses on how the bottle left Nairobi and traveled to an ocean. In addition, each of the five people differed on how they guessed the bottle traveled to Idaho after it arrived in North America.

In sum, the judges read clever speculations about the routes taken and those who carried the bottle with its message.

Let us also suppose, however, that our judges found something surprising: only one person offered a possible account of how the bottle traversed the oceans on its way to North America. Four explanations completely left out any account of how the bottle traveled this crucial leg – across the earth’s large bodies of water – on its journey to Idaho.

Not accounting for this crucial segment of the bottle’s trip — across the massive waters of separating the continents — seriously undermines the overall plausibility of four of the five explanations!

Soda Bottles and Theologians

Now let me apply my bottle illustration. Most Christian theologians say God causes or allows evil. They think permitting evil is mysteriously consistent with God’s perfect love. They don’t have an explanation for this mystery.

The great and not so great theologians argue this way, because they presuppose that God has the kind of power that makes it possible for God to prevent evils unilaterally. But it’s a mystery to us or hidden from to us why a perfectly loving God permits evil.

As I see it, the failure to give a good answer to why a loving God doesn’t prevent genuine evil is like explaining how a bottle traveled from Nairobi to Idaho without accounting for how the bottle crossed the oceans. Plausible explanation of the bottle’s journey must account for crossing the world’s large bodies of water. Likewise, plausible answers to the problem of evil must account for why a loving God does not prevent genuine evil.

I believe my proposal — my soda bottle explanation, to refer to my illustration — accounts for all of the crucial questions related to the problem of evil. I hope you consider my proposals in The Uncontrolling Love of God.

Unlike most theologians and Christian philosophers, you won’t find me playing the mystery card on the evil question!

A plausible theology must account for why a loving God does not prevent genuine evil. Click To TweetOord - Uncontrolling Love of God

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Juan C. Torres

I bought your book recently. I look forward to begin reading it soon. I’m glad you don’t use the mystery card!


Thanks, Juan. I appreciate your getting the book. When you’ve finished reading it, let me know what you think of my proposals!

Phil Michaels

This is one of the best parts of this book – you challenge us to take into account a plausible explanation for the problem of evil. Even if one doesn’t arrive at the same conclusions as you do, it’s just not acceptable to leave a huge, gaping hole in the middle of our theological understanding and say “I don’t know, it’s just a mystery.” Even an appeal to mystery ought to have good reasons for such an appeal!

That we fail to do the hard work necessary to arrive at a plausible explanation is not a good enough reason to leave such an important matter to “I don’t know.” As you say, we don’t know everything – but that doesn’t mean that we don’t know something. People want answers to this question – why does evil exist? I hear this from people in one form or another *all the time*. We need to do better than “I don’t know, it’s a mystery.” Your book helps us look at some plausible answers to this important question that can open up important conversations with those seeking to understand God and the presence of evil in our world.

Merv Friberg

On the broader conversation regarding the uncontrolling love of God, I have taken to saying over the last couple of years that the love of God is the essence of the essence of God. It’s the core of his character and nature–and God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13), as you note in your book. That has been my way of saying it is ahead of God’s power. And regarding mystery, why would the self-revealing Word hide behind mystery. Revelation is centered in the person and work of Christ. It seems an oxymoron to say that the Logos is all about an almost incognito action plan.


Thanks, Phil. I agree.


I’m glad we think similarly, Merv!


I’m neither a philosopher nor theologian and haven’t been a scientist since college, 40 years ago. I have thought long and hard about these things and am rewarded to encounter another with whom I resonate. Your book’s important and eminently readable. Our differences might only be nuanced.

I intuit a vague panentheistic reality, where a creatio ex profundus brings coeternal kenotic and tehomic fields into relationship, each field a dynamic, open, relational reality of ever-emergent novelties, which participate in an eternal fugue of peircean 1ns, 2ns and 3ns, each with its own inviolable logic of in/determinables and/or in/determined realities.

Where these tehomic and kenotic fields overlap a creatio ex nihilo presents as a cosmic reality, wherein we participate.

In my view, the tehomic logic accounts for emergent teloi, which include the teleomatic, ententional regularities (pansemiotic), the teleonomic purposive realities (biosemiotic sentience) and teleodynamic purposeful realities (sapience). Tehomic emergence, then, would account for free (enough) will and anthroposemiotic value-realizations.

The triadic (trinitarian) kenotic field (erotic, philic, agapic) with that divine logic you described, variously constrained (exactly how & to what degree remaining a mystery) by the tehomic logic, co-participates in the cosmic field, eternalizing every trace of emergent truth, beauty, goodness and unity in a way that, eschatologically, will be utterly efficacious, while ineluctably unobtrustive, cosmically. Proleptically, we witness these kenotic influences in various degrees.

Suffering can be transformed, agapically, good soteriologically harvested, but is otherwise part of a tehomic logic. What the kenotic field, God, can do to eliminate or alleviate it, without violating tehomic or agapic logics, God does do, invariably. THAT this is so is a vague creedal stance; HOW & WHY otherwise properly invites both metaphysical and theological skepticism.

Patterns that we encounter in both tehomic and kenotic fields, as well as the cosmic field, where they interpenetrate, reveal both high and low, frequencies and amplitudes of interactivity such that 1) low frequency, low amplitude a-pathetic indifference and 2) high frquency, high amplitude pathetic interference yield, instead, to 3) low frequency, high amplitude interventions and, more the predominant pattern, 4) high frequency, low amplitude influence. This pattern predominates in nature, such as throughout evolution, in human relationships, such as in codependency, and in divine interactivity, such as in kenotic dynamics, the agapic Spirit, coaxing, luring, inviting, seducing but never coercing the emergence and eternalization of truth, beauty, goodness, unity and freedom.

Well, that’s hard to set forth in a Reader’s Digest condensed version, but I hope you intuit the resonances. My stance is, more succinctly, a polydoxic, tehomic, pan-semio-entheism, which affirms both a creatio ex profundus, the kenotic initiative, and ex nihilo, the cosmic emergent.

Be well. Carry on. Many thanks!


BTW, the interventions, above, are sym-pathetic, the influences, em-pathetic. Reality, generally eschews a-pathetic indifference or co-dependent, pathetic interference. Influence and intervention present on a continuum of the axis of co-creativity. Indifference and interference present on the axis of codependency. What’s coaxed forward is human authenticity (Lonergan’s conversions).


Regarding your discussion of regularities and invocation of Peirce:

Successful references, metaphysically, remain — not only necessary, but — sufficient for human value-realizations even as we aspire to and strive for ever more successful descriptions, whether in science, philosophy or theology. 

We thus describe, in moments of poetic kataphasis, that which has been, provisionally, ontologically “suggested” by our various axiological realizations. Then, in moments of apophatic negation, we thus prescind from these specific descriptions back to our vague references, knowing in this moment of unknowing, saying in this moment of unsaying, that nothing has been, finally, ontologically “decided.”

This was philosophically intuited in Scotus’ formal distinction and in Peirce’s thirdness, where our modal ontology prescinds from the possible, actual and “necessay” to the possible, actual and “probable.”

What’s going on here is a holding of tension or a certain ontological agnosticism regarding reality’s regularities, between stochasticity and nomicity, between patterns and paradox, order and chaos, symmetry and asymmetry, chance and necessity, random and systematic, whereby our epistemic in/determinacies aren’t a priori interpreted, ontologically, as necessarily due to either indetermined or determined realities (or various degrees or blends thereof). 

This is to recognize that an in/determinate epistemic state might suggest an in/determined ontic state but not in a decisive metaphysical fashion, thus a plurality of interpretations is invited, poetically. A reality that remains utterly incomprehensible, apophatically, nevertheless presents as eminently and infinitely and richly intelligible, kataphatically.

Our kataphatic descriptions serve, then, as conceptual and axiological placeholders, as fecund heuristic devices, marking those epistemic states that confront us at given ontological junctures, where explanatory adequacy eludes us. For example, whether quantum origins, cosmic origins, biogenic origins, sentient origins (consciouness) or sapient origins (symbolic language), our descriptive modeling attempts and phenomenological taxonomies must not be mistaken for explanations. Quantum mechanics invites a plurality of interpretations. Cosmological data invite a plurality of cosmogonies. A/biogenesis posits a plurality of interpretations of how the robustly biosemiotic emerged from the merely physiosemiotic. Neuroscience invites a number of philosophies of mind. If the origins of sentience remain problematic, the so-called hard problem, how much more problematic are the origins of sapience and anthroposemiotic symbolic language?

Thus the epistemic humility of Scotus’ formal distinction and Peirce’s modal phenomenology instructs us in science and, if there, how much more in metaphysics and, if there, how much more in theology?

Sorry for the length and digressions but your musings are terribly evocative!

Travis Keller

Perhaps “that someone” from Nairobi, Kenya is living in Idaho and had been out on a photo shoot in the wilderness when an idea was birthed to conduct a non-response-necessary human experiment on human assumptions simply because he or she has a great sense of humor.


I like the way you think!

Bill Chipman

God stepped back to allow us to see what the independence we want looks like, pain, suffering, evil. Some of us get the point. Most don’t. Maybe for their sake God should step back more. Or more likely, what we see is just right.

Bill Chipman

God cannot override our free will without destroying any possibility of His having with us the free will love relationship He created us for. (Matthew 22:37)

Bruce Clark

Hi Tom
I don’t know but maybe this may be a response partially to something I wrote in another of your posts and what others have written similar to me. (Forgive me if I give myself more importance than I should!) I’ve been listening to stuff you say on Youtube and having studied Process stuff over the last five years or so I find your approach most favourable in that you do take your evangelical roots seriously and seek also to maintain credibility in that circle. I as involved in Religious education in schools on behalf of the church am in a similar position. So keep up the good work!
We are in the process of discussing same sex marriage in the Methodist Church. Protagonists against are fine on clear cut issues but I think “what about, for instance, people born bi-sexual?” Of course this is where the mystery card is played. This seems to happen so often – any grey areas are are couched in “We are right and the rest is a mystery which we shall know in the ‘by and by'”.
Theologians use the word paradox. Charles Hartshorne put it perfectly when he said (Divine Relativity) “A theological paradox, it appears, is what a contradiction becomes when it is about God rather than something else”.
Sure there are mysteries but so often they are an excuse for burying our heads in the sand in order to keep our point of view in tact. The best we can do is as you say be the “loving best moment by moment” being present and listening to the other. In that context the Truth will be revealed through relationship.
(Raimon Panikkar puts truth as this: When, during his trial, Jesus is asked “What is truth?” he does not answer. Or he leaves the answer in silence. In fact, truth does not allow itself to be conceptualized. It is never purely objective, absolute. To talk about absolute truth is really a contradiction in terms. Truth is always relational, and the Absolute (absolutus, untied) is that which has no relation. …. When Jesus says “I am the truth,” he is not asking me to absolutise my doctrinal system but to enter upon the way that leads to life.)

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