God, Risk, and Evil
Last night, we had a drama group performing at our church (unenviably, on the same night as game seven of the Canucks/Blackhawks series!). Through a series of sketches, the group skillfully and humorously walked us through the basic contours of the biblical narrative—creation, fall, redemption—climaxing, of course, with the resurrection and the hope of new creation. One of the ideas that stood out to me during the dialogue in an early scene which depicted God deliberating with one of his angels about what and how to create, was that in creating human beings, God took a risk.
Now, it’s one thing to say that God took a risk in creating human beings in a fairly light-hearted sketch about human folly, but it’s quite another to affirm this theologically. Did God really take a genuine risk in creating? Do we appreciate the implications of affirming this? How does risk-taking work with a God who is claimed to be all knowing and powerful? Can a sovereign God even take risks? How? Perhaps most importantly, can a God who left certain things open-ended at the beginning be trusted to guarantee the future?
Of course, these questions are hardly new ones, and Christian responses cover a broad spectrum from positing a limited God who doesn’t know everything about the future (i.e., open theism, process theology) to a God who specifically wills each and every event that has ever and will ever transpire in the cosmos (i.e., some of the more extreme versions of Calvinism). Most, obviously, touch down somewhere in the middle.
There are probably many things that factor into our deliberations about how or if God takes risks, but for me, I lean strongly toward a risk-taking God simply because it’s the only way I can make some kind of sense of evil. To imagine that somehow each and every particular instance of evil and suffering throughout history was weighed and measured (and allowed or approved, apparently) in God’s mind before the creation of the universe is not only difficult to conceptualize, but is almost morally offensive. Our world has witnessed and continues to witness such wasteful, gratuitous, truly horrific suffering. Ivan Karamazov famously declared that no truth or harmony was worth the suffering of even one innocent child. I am perhaps more open to a redemption that can heal, if not justify, suffering than Ivan, but to imagine that each and every instance of evil and suffering that our planet has ever seen is somehow necessary to produce some kind of a precisely calibrated harmonious cosmic package is impossible for me.
Easter Sunday is still in the rearview mirror, and whatever else we say about the death and resurrection of Jesus, somehow Christians affirm that these events are God’s response to sin and death and evil and suffering. Easter is not a theodicy, of course. It does not justify God in the sense of logically demonstrating the compatibility of divine attributes and the existence of some abstraction called “evil.” Rather than explaining evil, God absorbs it. Rather than showing how evil was necessary for the kind of world that God had in mind at creation, God enters and transforms it.
Wherever we come down on the matter of God, risk, and evil, I think this is the hope of Easter.
In many places the Bible says something like: God did not give the promised land to Israel because it deserved it, but because the people who had inhabited it before Israel were evil and because God was keeping a promise made to Israel’s ancestors. It is clear, in passages like these, that God in the Bible opposes evil, and yet, God seems to sanction many things that we consider evil. Psalm 136:1 says, O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. There it is: God is good. And then in verse 10, O give thanks to him who smote the first-born of Egypt, for his steadfast love endures forever. Hold that up against Ivan, who ” famously declared that no truth or harmony was worth the suffering of even one innocent child.” We don’t approve of God in the Bible. This causes much consternation among theologians and apologists.
On one hand, there is the Holy One of Israel, the jealous God, the one who loves Israel and smites her enemies, and even her if she fools around with other gods, and on the other hand there is the God of the theologians, the one who is always right and just, even if unfathomable, the one who loves and never smites unfairly. These are not the same gods. As for me, I choose the Holy One of Israel. I love his passion. This one is the one that I think of as “being.”
So in your choosing of the Holy One of Israel, what do you make of the difficulties you highlight in your comment?
Not sure what you are asking.
I just mean that I like the passionate God of the Bible more than the always right and fair God of the theologians. I hope I am loved like Israel is loved in the Bible.
Does suffering bother me like Ivan? Yes.
I’m simply trying to understand some of the reasons you prefer the God of the Bible to the God of the theologians (as you’ve described them). Does passion make moral ambiguity (i.e., the two statements you highlighted in Psalm 136) more palatable? Do you approve of the God of the Bible?
If love is not a sufficient reason, I have no reason. I do think that love makes moral ambiguity more palatable. Love trumps moral approval or disapproval and keeps one from making such judgments or keeps such judgments from prevailing. Love wins. The steadfast love endures forever.
I left something out of my first comment above that I was thinking when I wrote it.
Easter is connected with the Passover and so Easter is connected with smiting the first born of Egypt, with smiting innocents. The hope of Easter is tied up with this. Theologians are unable to hide it or change it or otherwise make it palatable to modern moral sentiments. The steadfast love, such as it is, endures forever.
I absolutely think that love is a sufficient reason. But love is found not only in passages about the jealous God who chooses Israel, but in passages like Acts 10:34-36, Galatians 3:26-29, etc. These, too, are part of the steadfast love of God that endures forever.
You said “I hope that I am loved like Israel is loved in the Bible.” I have a similar hope, although I would say, “I hope I am loved by Christ and in the manner in which loved.”
Certainly. The New Testament claim is that Jesus was, in a sense, the new Israel or the first born of the new Israel. The is that the blessings in the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the promises in the prophecies of Moses and the other prophets are available through Christ to all through faith.
How does one view jealousy as love? Is it not born of insecurity and possessiveness? Our Jewish ancestors are limited to the categories they have available to them when Christ appears. Christ is a new category. Even today we are similarly impoverished. We consign Christ to categories of our understanding.
I like what you had to say about love, Ryan. Perhaps we must lay claim to more. Perhaps we must believe that we are loved like Christ loved.
As a spiritual prescriptive, I like Rob Bell’s book a lot.
I suppose that God’s jealousy, unlike ours, would be free of such contaminants (i.e., insecurity, possessiveness). I’ve always interpreted jealousy language predicated of God as a way of communicating God’s desire for fidelity, commitment, allegiance, etc. from his people
I’m happy to say “believe” in addition to “hope.” I only used the word “hope” to preserve structural similarities with Ken’s statement. Having said that, when I use the word “hope” I consider it to be much more than just something that I wish might happen—I think of it in something like 1 Timothy 4:10 terms (and other biblical references like it).
I don’t think God’s jealousy is different from ours. If jealously is a dark emotion, then God has dark emotions. One might also say, dark behavior, at least by modern moral standards.
Jesus had them too. Consider the less the kind, dark (by modern standards) prophetic oracle that Jesus said to the women of Jerusalem who wept for him (e.g, Luke 23:2731.) The oracle comes from the prophets, and is found again in the Revelation, and refers to the terrors that Jesus says awaits them on the Day of the Lord.
The Christian Jesus is a Jesus theologians have made. He is not the same as the one in the Bible.
God was terribly jealous of the idols people worshipped. Josiah did what was right in God’s eyes, the scripture says. He killed the priests that led the people in worship in a terrifying, dark symbolic way. That is some jealousy.
In John’s vision, Jesus comes drenched in blood, the blood of his enemies – the Edomites, the idolaters, etc. That is the prophecy to which Jesus referred in the Gospels. The gospel was not merely that the kingdom of God was at hand, its was also that the Day of the Lord was imminent. The expression, run for the hills, must come from prophecies of that day. It is a dark day.
I can’t say I disagree with your assessment, Ken. I suppose it is why I stubbornly plod ahead with the notion that our Jewish ancestors misunderstood the nature of YHWH. They lacked the frame of reference that Christ provided.
In your estimation, can the blood Jesus comes drenched in reflect sin. Is it His blood, reflective of our wound upon Him. Or can it only be our blood; Jesus as avenging angel, Son of God.
Paul, the blood in that image in John’s vision seems most likely to be the blood of enemies. The allusions to the Day of the Lord are numerous and pervasive in the New Testament.
If God has dark emotions, this has never been a problem for people. We know them ourselves and we know how to handle them in ourselves and others. We know that sometimes they save us from disaster.
No one can say who is right about God. I love our ancestors from Judah. It is their God that I so enjoy, as did Jesus.
If anyone is qualified to say who is right about God, maybe it is Jesus:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat. 5:48)
Paul wrote, “I suppose it is why I stubbornly plod ahead with the notion that our Jewish ancestors misunderstood the nature of YHWH.”
It was with respect to this that I wrote, “No one can say who is right about God. I love our ancestors from Judah. It is their God that I so enjoy, as did Jesus.”
Are you saying that you agree with Paul here that “our Jewish ancestors misunderstood the nature of YHWH?”
I wasn’t saying anything about our Jewish ancestors. I was simply responding to what sounded like a fairly comprehensive claim about God’s behaviour/emotions: “No one can say who is right about God.”
Like all good Mennonites, I suppose, I go straight to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount :). Whatever we might think about the matter, Jesus seems to have a fairly clear view of God’s character.
And I wasn’t saying anything about what Jesus said or making a comprehensive claim in opposition to what he said or including him among “no one.”
In your assessment, are dark emotions part of God’s perfection, or does God’s perfection exclude dark emotions?
I would say that dark emotions are part of God’s character and do not represent a flaw. Jesus has them too.
I don’t see why Jesus ought to be exempt from the “no one” who could say what is right about God, but I’ve never denied that “dark emotions” could be part of God’s perfection.
Not saying he is exempt.
If evil is a consequence of mans free will and the influence of Satan, why is God held accountable?
Well, Ivan Karamazov would probably say something like this: Because God created a world where freedom, evil, and suffering could in any sense be necessary for the ends God desired. I think he holds God accountable for opening the door to suffering. He doesn’t deem freedom to be worth the price.
Well for me, I’ll take your response that God absorbs and transforms suffering; takes it upon himself over Dostoevsky’s accusation that it was somehow necessary. His is a perverse assessment. It was never necessary, just unavoidable. The consequence of an imperfect creature with perfect freedom.
I can’t explain it other than to say that the creator bore on the cross an agony that actually left Him feeling impotent and abandoned by Himself. I would say he suffered on behalf of every innocent child. Exponentially so.
Ryan, if God is taking risk, as we would understand it to be, chance based on the uncertainty of outcome. How do we say he is Omniscient? You ask the question yourself and I’m wondering if you have any answer.
Not surprisingly, I do not have anything like a comprehensive answer to this question. I think that the act of creating free human beings was an exercise in profound self-limitation for God, even if I’m not comfortable speculating upon exactly what that implies about the scope of God’s knowledge. Some people appeal to “middle knowledge,” some figure that God being outside time gets us out of the problem… Maybe. In my younger years, I flirted with the idea that God might now know everything, but I don’t find that as compelling as I once did.
Short answer: I dunno. But as I alluded to in the post, I find the idea of a self-limiting God—whether with respect to power or knowledge—much more palatable because of the problem evil. The idea that God somehow specifically ordained each and every evil our world has ever seen is more than I can even consider.
No God could never ordain suffering. That is the response of the cynic, the liar. God endures it and asks that those who love Him to share in that endurance.
Rationally speaking, I can “live” with some of the seemingly horrific outcomes of a self limiting God. If God doesn’t self limit how can we ever be free to choose or not to choose His love. If we are to be ” perfect as our Father is perfect” we must also choose to lovingly self limit.
Still I can easily imagine someone in the throes of great suffering reading what I have just written and telling me to go f myself and get a heart.
Open theism is a theology of love and sees God’s love as unconditional, others centred, self giving, community forming love and this is how we see God in Jesus Christ. In such a theology the omniscient God takes risks.
God knows everything that can be known. he knows the past and present exhaustively. He knows what he will do in the future but he limited his knowledge when he gave humans freedom of choice. Although God knows what we are likely to do, he does not know for certain because the future has not happened yet. He takes risks as you well point out.
So I agree with you that God has not predestined everything that comes to pass. I find it unthinkable that God could predestine all the rapes and murders in the world.
I find it difficult to agree with Ken. I do not believe that Jesus was violent if we accept the bulk of the teachings of the gospels, though we can all find verses that suggest otherwise. Moreover, I do not believe that God was ever violent. Jesus is the express image of the invisible God.
Since I come from a neo-orthodox Neo-Anabaptist position, different points of view in the bible are not as problematic for me as they would be for say Conservative Evangelicals.
Thanks for your well thought out post,
Thanks for your comment, John.
There are many things that I find compelling about open theism, and thinkers such as Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Greg Boyd, etc—many of which you allude to here. For me, it is most helpful in ameliorating, if not solving some of the questions around the problem of evil. My only reservations around open theism have typically had to do with how a God with more limited foreknowledge can guarantee the eschatological future. I have read some good answers from open theists, but I’m still reserving judgment :).
Like you, I absolutely think that Jesus gives us the clearest picture of God we can get. Thank you for articulating this here.
How does a God with a limited foreknowledge guarantee anything? How can the infinite be made fundamentally finite? I understand and appreciate your “amelioration” objective, frankly I share it, but if we place any kind of limitation on God’s authority and understanding the whole thing falls apart for me. By default that limitation, whatever it might be, becomes God. It has power over Him, a power He doesn’t have. In John’s scenario then, man’s freedom trumps God’s understanding.
I’m more afraid of that being true than I am of a wrathful God.
I think if we’re prepared to accept that the act of creating free human beings represented any kind of a self-limitation on God’s part, we already believe (or at least are primed to believe) that God can guarantee the future without controlling everything in between.
I don’t think it’s necessarily about limiting God’s authority in any way, nor is it about exalting human freedom—at least not any more than God already seems to have. It’s about trying to understand, honour, and reflect how God has chosen to work in the world.
I don’t like being the critic in this discussion. I want to be able to consider a God not controlling every outcome as a way of coming to terms with the volume of human suffering, particularly the millions of lives where no hope of amelioration seemed or seems possible. And yet if God is omnipotent, his “limits” are subjective to his will and self imposed. They aren’t limits our risks as I would understand those words to mean, they are prerogatives.
So Tyler’s point from a previous thread regarding what do we say about a God that could have interceded but didn’t, comes to bear.
I want to accept the implications of your perspective but in it I hear Martin Brashir’s question to Rob Bell…”are we creating a “Jesus” who is more culturally palatable but different from the Jesus of scripture?”… (Ok, maybe I misunderstand you. Help me if I am.)
Ken, is right to confront us with the jealous, wrathful God who smites. If scripture is to be believed this God is unavoidable.
We are culturally concerned right now with a better and more expansive understanding of God’s love. This is a good thing and yet it seems in the process we are neglecting God’s judgment; God’s punishment. What does the phrase ” fear of God” even mean to the modern ear?
As a Roman Catholic, I have always subscribed to the broad understanding that sin has consequences. The less I sin, the less I and others suffer. The galling part is that sometimes whole nations of peoples suffer terribly. Not always for their sins though but as a consequence of the sins of others. People like me and you.
I share many of your concerns here, Paul. I, too, wonder if a God whose limits are self-imposed is any better when it comes to living with the problem of evil… Doesn’t it just push the question back one step further (i.e., God knew what was possible when he imposed the limitation, and one day he will, presumably, lift the limitation, so the logical problems don’t change, just the time frame). I, too, wonder about the God who smites… I don’t have definitive answers to these questions… The longer I think about them, the more I wonder if we were ever meant to.
Re: whether or not we are making a more culturally palatable Jesus, I think this is something we should always be asking ourselves, as Christians. At some level, every cultural presentation of Jesus tends to make him in their image—we often can’t see the ways in which our context shapes our understanding of Jesus. It’s good to at least be aware of this, even if it’s not always easy to correct it… For myself, I don’t think an expansive understanding of God’s love is in any way incompatible with judgment. I think they go together necessarily.
…”I don’t have definitive answers to these questions… The longer I think about them, the more I wonder if we were ever meant to”…. How true that sounds.
Sometimes I find comfort in not knowing. Supposing then that love must sustain what reason cannot. Only to often be discouraged by what I manifest as love, how little I sometimes show.
So the Eucharist becomes absolute truth for me. God’s love; His ongoing grace. Most days, that is enough.
Yes, indeed, the Eucharist is absolute truth, grace. Even sweeter than truth, one might say, for in it we taste eternity and the love of God.