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John Peckham, professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University, is the author of Theodicy of Love. Here’s part of our discussion, edited for brevity and flow.
The Enlightenment philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined the term theodicy. What’s a theodicy? Here’s the problem: God is entirely good—omnibenevolent—and entirely powerful, omnipotent. Why, then, should evil exist? Doesn’t God have enough power to prevent or determine that there’s no evil? If He’s entirely good, He would want to do that. Theodicy is an attempt to defend God against accusations that He’s either cruel or weak. Leibniz developed “greater good theodicy,” arguing that evil is in the world to bring about a greater good. He even argued that this world is the best possible world, because he thought God, being perfect, would only create the perfect world, which would have to be maximally good.
Others disagree. Many philosophers and theologians have questioned this approach. Couldn’t other worlds be better than this one? Even a world that has one less instance of evil or one more instance of good would be better than this one. Leibniz’s theory has fallen on hard times.
When Leibniz talked about the best of all possible worlds, did he mean it’s perfect, or, given what God wants to accomplish, is it a better world than other worlds He could have created to bring about His objectives? Yeah, he meant given all the factors, not every single instance is good, but in an overarching way this world is the best possible one. Some philosophers, like Alvin Plantinga, have said we should think in terms of “feasible worlds” that are both logically possible and ones God can bring about given His other commitments.
How did Plantinga, a contemporary theologian, advance this discussion? Plantinga has led a renaissance of Christian philosophy since the 1960s. His “free will” defense goes all the way back at least to Augustine, but Plantinga has articulated it so well that even the vast majority of atheist and agnostic philosophers recognize his defense defeats the logical problem of evil. If human free will is so valuable that God is good in granting it to creatures even if they misuse that freedom, or if free will is necessary to honor some other value, like love, then for God to grant free will still leaves Him morally good. He can still be omnipotent even with evil in the world, not because He causes it but because creatures misuse their free will.
How does that understanding fit in with traditional Christian doctrines of our sinfulness and our sinful tendencies? Because of the Fall, creatures have an inherited sinful nature and an inherited depravity that inclines us toward evil decisions. But given God’s grace, given God’s reaching out to us, humans can still have the freedom to make some decisions. Freedom is always limited freedom, by definition. For instance, I can’t flap my arms and fly. Not because I don’t have moral freedom, but because I don’t have the ability. The only being in the universe with unlimited freedom would have to be omnipotent: That’s God. Anyone else has limited freedom, and sin is one of those limits.
What is so valuable to God that He’s willing to allow so much sin? You write about cosmic conflict. Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares illustrates that. The landowner sows good seed in his field, but time passes and tares—noxious weeds—are in the field. His servants ask the landowner, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed? Why then does it have tares?” People today ask, “God, didn’t You create a good world? Aren’t You a good God? Why then is there evil in the world?” The landowner says, “An enemy has done this.” Christ then identifies this enemy as the devil, who with his minions wreaks havoc on the world.
So that’s cosmic conflict. People sometimes say that since God is omnipotent, there shouldn’t be a conflict between Him and any creature, including Satan. But the Biblical narratives suggest this conflict is one of character, not of sheer power.
‘God has to defeat Satan by demonstrating His own character, not His power.’
What is Satan’s character? In Greek, the word devil means slanderer. Satan raises allegations against the character of God. God cannot meet these allegations with brute force. Say the mayor of a town faces accusations that he is corrupt. There’s no amount of power he can exercise to prove the allegations false: Using certain kinds of power could reinforce the allegation that he’s a brute. God has to defeat Satan by demonstrating His own character, not His power.
How does God demonstrate His character not only to humans but to angels? Scripture tells us that this world is a spectacle or a theater. Another motif: what some Biblical scholars call “the divine council.” In Job, Daniel 7, 1 Kings 22, and elsewhere, God appears as the ruler and sovereign judge, but celestial creatures referred to as the “sons of God” are also in this heavenly council. Satan raises questions about God’s character and makes allegations against Job, and indirectly against God. God could use all His power to squash those allegations, but that would raise more questions: Is God unfair?
That’s where you bring in God’s “rules of engagement.” These are parameters within which God allows Satan to operate temporarily with restrictions, to manifest his claims so those claims will be defeated. The beginning of Job shows the heavenly council where Satan tries to undermine God’s statement that Job is blameless and upright. Satan claims Job does not really fear God, and he can prove it: “If You allow me to afflict him, I could prove he’s not really who You say that he is. I could prove Your judgment isn’t really just.” God says go for it and gives Satan limits.
So, let’s say, a child dies in horrible pain. That death gives Satan pleasure and allows him to raise doubts about God’s justice and kindness. Ever since the Enlightenment, many philosophers have ignored Satan. How can Christians bring back Satan into our consideration of tragedy? It would seem that God could prevent a plane crash without contravening anyone’s free will: He could warn pilots or engineers that this plane will crash so they could take particular steps to prevent it. A simple free will defense may not be enough, but here’s where the three-dimensional Biblical worldview is helpful. God does some things, human creatures do some things, and then celestial agencies are also doing some things. If God, for reasons we’re not entirely informed about, has given Satan and his minions limited jurisdiction, then God can’t both grant that jurisdiction and unilaterally take it back. Satan can bring about evils God could have prevented but cannot, given the rules of engagement in a cosmic conflict.
So evil doesn’t mean God’s not omnipotent. It means He has set up certain rules and His word is good. But all of this may seem like an academic discussion. How does it work in real life to help us cope with suffering? When people are going through acute suffering, either their own or someone else’s, usually the last thing they need or desire is a kind of theoretical explanation. The best thing you can do is what Job’s friends initially did. They sat with him for a week without saying anything. Then they opened their mouths and got themselves into a lot of trouble. The best thing you can do for someone who’s suffering is show you care for them and have compassion for them.
And in the end, we look to the cross. And we can trust the One who is willing to go to the cross for us. Even if we don’t understand why God is doing this or not doing this, we can ask: If God is willing to suffer and die for us in the person of Christ, what more could He do that He has not done? We can trust a God like that, even if we don’t understand. That’s pastorally where I want to start and end—with Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.
—Read Part 2 of this Q&A here: “Trusting God’s purposes”