Six Dimensions to the Problem of Evil

January 17th, 2022 / 5 Comments

An adequate Christian theology of love offers a plausible solution to the problem of evil. Rather than appealing to mystery, it offers answers to the issue most atheists say prevents them from believing God exists.[1] Those answers also help theists make sense of God’s love in light of personal, systemic, and nonhuman evils.

In my new book, Pluriform Love, I offer an open and relational theology of love. As I see it, any theology of love that does not have satisfying answers to the problem of evil will fail to convince many people. I spend many pages outlining my essential kenosis solution, which I’ve explained in The Uncontrolling Love of God and God Can’t. The God whose love is uncontrolling is not culpable for evil.

I believe God does not want, cause, or permit unnecessary suffering. And God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly.

The problem of evil has multiple dimensions. Rather than just one, many problems surround God’s relation to genuine evil. The uncontrolling love view of essential kenosis addresses the most prominent.[2]

The Prevention Dimension

We might ask the question that animates most discussions of evil this way, “Why doesn’t God prevent genuine evil?”

My answer says God cannot prevent evil singlehandedly. God always loves all creatures and all creation, but divine love is inherently uncontrolling, so God cannot prevent evil by fiat. As essentially kenotic, God cannot control creatures or simpler entities that cause genuine evil. And God cannot interrupt the law-like regularities of the natural world.

Essential kenosis rejects the idea God “won’t” or “doesn’t” stop evil. Those words suggest God deliberately self-limits. To hurting people, this sounds like God could have prevented their unnecessary suffering but freely chose not to do so. Essential kenosis says God is uncontrolling by nature because God’s nature is uncontrolling love.

The Empathy Dimension

Some do not ask why God caused or allowed their pain. Instead, they wonder if God suffers with them. “Does God feel what I feel?”

I join open and relational thinkers who say God suffers with those who suffer. God empathizes. As one affected by all that happens, God feels the pains and joys of all creatures. God is the “fellow-sufferer who understands,” as Alfred North Whitehead put it. To address this dimension of the problem of evil, an adequate theology of love says God empathizes with those in pain.[5]

An increasing number of contemporary theologians embrace the idea that God suffers. Some appeal to it as their primary answer to the problem of evil. But “God suffers with us” does not go far enough. Survivors and victims must also be told God could not have singlehandedly prevented their suffering.[6]

The God who could prevent evil singlehandedly but allows it in order to suffer alongside victims is not a loving God. Divine empathy, as important as it is, must be supplemented by saying the uncontrolling God of love cannot, acting alone, stop evil.

The Healing Dimension

Other victims ask, “Will God heal me? And will God heal all creation?” This dimension of the problem of evil seeks a therapeutic response and wonders about God’s role in recovery and restoration.

My answer says God works to heal all who are hurt from injury and injustice. And God wants the well-being of all creation. But an uncontrolling God cannot heal singlehandedly. For healing to occur, God requires creaturely cooperation or the conditions of creation to be aligned. Healing requires the work of the Great Physician and creation’s cooperation or conducive conditions.

This is good news to those who do not heal quickly and to those who do not heal at all. Knowing God can’t heal singlehandedly means God did not abandon them and is not punishing them. Sometimes those who hurt cooperate with God mentally, but their cells, muscles, organs, or other bodily members simply do not cooperate. Or conditions in their bodies or creation may not be conducive to support divine healing.

When our bodies do not cooperate with God, we need not feel guilty. Other factors and actors are thwarting the healing God wants done. Some healing will not occur until creatures no longer live in their mortal bodies. Some restoration awaits the afterlife.[7]

The Didactic Dimension

Suffering sometimes brings good. Various soul-making theodicies build from this insight to suggest God causes or allows evil with a greater good in mind. We sometimes learn from suffering.

But essential kenosis rejects the idea God wants evil as part of a plan, to build character, teach us lessons, or turn our attention toward God.[8] Instead, it says God works with those who suffer to bring good from bad. God tries to squeeze something positive from the evil God didn’t want in the first place.

To the question, “Did God cause or allow this for our good?” essential kenosis says, “No.” But God works in all circumstances and with all creatures to bring good from bad and wring right from wrong. God does not leave the hurting, but works to transform the situation and those affected by it.[9] An uncontrolling God redeems suffering instead of wanting, causing, or allowing it.[10]

The Synergistic Dimension

When encountering evil, some ask, “Can evil be overcome?” Instead of asking why evil occurs, this dimension of the problem asks about victory over evil. Because essential kenosis says God always loves but can’t prevent evil singlehandedly, it answers by saying God needs creatures in the work of overcoming evil with good. An uncontrolling Lover requires the beloved’s cooperation.

I call this indispensable love synergy, because both Creator and creatures are indispensable for overcoming evil. God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly, and creatures can’t prevent it without God’s help. But with creaturely cooperation, God can stop evil. God’s desire that love reign – what Jesus called the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven – can be fully realized in this symbiosis of love.[11] For love to win, a loving Creator needs creation’s loving responses.

The Origination Dimension

The final dimension to the problem of evil asks about evil’s origin. We might pose the question this way: “Why would God create the world in such a way that evil might occur?” This question asks about the manner of God’s creating, now and at the beginning of our universe.[12]

I will offer my answer in depth in the next chapter. But briefly, I will say God does not create evil, and God did not singlehandedly determine the conditions for it to occur. Rather than creating the universe from nothing, God everlastingly, in love, creates in relation to what God previously created.[13] This answers this otherwise thorny problem.

Essential kenosis answers other questions an adequate theology of love must address. It explains, for instance, why a loving God does not guarantee the fair distribution of goods among creatures. God can’t do so singlehandedly. It explains why God didn’t provide the crystal-clear, unambiguous, and error-free revelation necessary for full salvation.[14] If this was so important, why didn’t God do it? The answer is that God can’t do so singlehandedly.[15] Essential kenosis provides a framework for explaining why creaturely action is necessary to address the climate crisis and why God doesn’t fix it.[16] God can’t do so singlehandedly.

A theology of love oriented around essential kenosis overcomes many obstacles to affirming God’s love in a world of crises, inequity, confusion, and evil.


[1] The main counterargument to why a loving and powerful God does not prevent evil is not really an argument at all. It’s an appeal to mystery. Implicitly or explicitly, many say we cannot know whether events we consider evil are actually so. Some say God has an immediate reason or future plan that requires pain and suffering. In some mysterious way, God’s preventing evil would be worse than God’s allowing it. But appeals to mystery cannot provide satisfying answers to questions about God’s love in light of evil. The mystery card spoils the deck. One can find sophisticated but unsatisfying appeals to mystery in the skeptical theism literature. For instance, Trent Doughtery and Justin McBrayer, Skeptical Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] I’ve explained the dimensions to my solution to evil in God Can’t. See also “An Essential Kenosis Solution to the Problem of Evil,” and “Response to Others” in God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views, James K. Dew, Jr. and Chad Meister, eds. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2017); “Championing Divine Love and Solving the Problem of Evil,” in The Many Facets of Love: Philosophical Explorations, Thomas Jay Oord, ed.(Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2007).

[3] On divine action and the laws of nature, see Jeffrey Koperski, Divine Action, Determinism, and the Laws of Nature (London: Routledge, 2020).

[4] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected edition by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free, 1978 [1929]), 351.

[5] I address divine empathy and the problem of evil in God Can’t, ch. 2. See also Anna Case-Winters, God Will Be All in All: Theology Through the Lens of Incarnation (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2021); Edward Farley, Divine Empathy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1996); Paul Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Terryl and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps (Crawfordsville, Ind.: Ensign Peak, 2012); Paul Joseph Greene, The End of Divine Truthiness (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock, 2017);

[6] Many theologians argue the oppressed can find comfort in a passible God. For one example, see James Cone, God of the Oppressed (London: SPCK, 1977); Adam Hamilton, Why? Making Sense of God’s Will (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011). See Roberto Sirvent for a lengthy argument for the cogency of imitatio dei and divine passibility (Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine [Eugene, Or.: Pickwick, 2014]).

[7] I address questions of healing in God Can’t, ch. 3 and Questions and Answers for God Can’t, ch. 2-3.

[8] Some biblical writers appeal to the didactic dimension of evil. For analyses of their fruitfulness, see James L. Crenshaw, Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer (New York: HarperCollins, 2008);

[9] On transformation, see Sheri D. Kling, A Process Spirituality (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2020).

[10] I address this question in God Can’t, ch. 4. The most influential form of the argument that God uses suffering to build our characters is probably John Hick’s Evil and the God of Love (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1966). One of the best criticisms of this view from an open and relational perspective comes from C. Robert Mesle, John Hick’s Theodicy: A Process Humanist Critique (London: MacMillan, 1991).

[11] I explain indispensable love synergy in God Can’t, ch. 5.

[13] See also Thomas Jay Oord, “Eternal Creation and Essential Love” in T&T Handbook on Suffering and the Problem of Evil, Johannes Grossel and Matthias Grebe, eds. (London: T&T Clark, 2022).

[14] On inspiration and uncontrolling love in biblical inspiration, see Gabriel Gordon, God Speaks: A Participatory Theology of Inspiration (Glen Oak, Ca.: Quoir, 2021); on inerrancy, see Gregory Boyd, Inspired Imperfection (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2020); and essays in Thomas Jay Oord and Richard Thompsons, eds. Rethinking the Bible (Grasmere, ID: SacraSage, 2018).

[15] The idea God cannot control creatures overcomes J. L. Schellenberg’s worries about divine hiddenness. The uncontrolling God of love always communicates but cannot do so unambiguously. Instead of voluntarily hiding, which is what classical theists often claim about God, the uncontrolling God of love never voluntarily hides. For Schellenberg’s arguments, see Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); The Hiddenness Argument (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[16] On this issue, see Philip Clayton and Wm. Andrew Schwartz, What is Ecological Civilization? (Anoka, Minn.: Process Century, 2019); Sharon Delgado, Love in a Time of Climate Change (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017); Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home: Laudato Si (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2015); Thomas Jay Oord, “A Loving Civilization: A Political Ecology that Promotes Overall Well-Being,” The Kenarchy Journal Vol. 2 (2021).

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Steven Hoyt

On prevention:

We can accept God cannot singlehandedly prevent evil because it would lead to a logical contradiction.

However, just like Kant’s ethics, what has pure logic to do with what is actually possible? It’s at least metaphysically possible for God to do things singlehanded, such as create any creation without the participation of anything created. God restricts every creation for his own purpose.

Too, the logic might be granted but not apply to what sorts of creation are created in the first place.

It’s possible for God to know that genuine evil is more or less likely in some world versus another.

It’s possible for God to create a world without evil but with freedom (Heaven).

On empathy:

God either selects among possible worlds or God indiscriminately actualizes some possible worlds but not others.

A God who selects among possible worlds is not a loving God because our world exists and so does genuine evil.

A God who creates indiscriminately does not have an ultimate plan for anyone.

If God’s empathy has no instrumental value other than our not feeling alone and we can genuinely doubt God exists, what’s the value of thinking such a thing is valuable because it’s true?

On healing:

God cannot cure cancer under this rubric. It’s a category mistake. Bodies don’t will. They do or don’t.

On the didactic dimension:

Either God selects among possible worlds which to actualize or God actualizes possible world indiscriminately.

If the former, God is evil if genuine evil exists in any world he selected.

If the latter, God can only been seen as apologizing to creation for the suffering his creation entailed.

On the synergistic dimension:

Supposing God’s creations are not indiscriminate and God loves and God can’t singlehandely stop evil.

It does not follow that God can stop evil at all. That is, if and only if we ourselves act to stop evil and succeed, then would we say “God can stop evil (and did by helping us).” But this would be a complete tautology. Empty air. As I quipped with my Philosophy of Religion professor whose pet peave are arguments with nothing at stake, this is the hight of a Thad-Botham-Bad-Argument.

On the origination dimension:

“God everlastingly, in love, creates in relation to what God previously created” … which is either himself (creatio ex se) or de novo (creatio ex nihilo).

Even granting this proposition, how does it possibly suggest whether a God selects what to actualize or indiscriminately creates worlds?

John Sobert Sylvest

Aspects like eternal creation, essential kenosis & indispensable synergy seem to dovetail quite neatly with such as Neo-Chalcedonian Christology & Maximian Cosmology. Rather than a creatio ex nihilo, could your approach still hold together with a tehomic, creatio ex profundis, which would more so follow a creatio ex chaos consistent with Griffin’s prevenient co-eternal chaos., i.e not a full-fledged Manichean dualism, just a primal formless void or even multiversal voids, all incipiently telic?


I love your question, John. And you’re going to like my full response in the book! My view is very close to Griffin’s. I say God everlastingly, in love, creates out of that which God previously created.


Thanks for chiming in, Steven.

stephen Finlan

Steven, I think you use some very rigid logic at points, such as when you say “A God who selects among possible worlds is not a loving God because our world exists and so does genuine evil.” This is the “logic” that atheists use to reject God out of hand. Undoubtedly the potential for evil is one of the conditions of this world. This does not mean that God is indifferent to evil or unwilling to help us overcome it.

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