Updated: Apr 23, 2022
Following any catastrophe – a tsunami in the Pacific, a mass shooting at a shopping mall…or the death of a young child – you’re certain to hear a chorus of voices assuring us that “it was God’s will” and “part of his master plan”.
Such reassurance requires us either to…
Deny the objective evil inherent in such events; or
Admit that God can will evil to occur; or
Accept that God’s ability to prevent evil is limited at best.
On the surface, all three propositions seem indefensible. First, who can deny the existence of evil in our world? Sadly, it is all around us. And, while folks might disagree about exactly which events are evil and which are not, almost no one denies that there is evil in the world.
(Some folks might attribute the occurrence of evil to sins committed by human beings, but not all ‘evil’ can be so easily explained. For example, human sinfulness is not normally the cause of natural disasters, horrific accidents or deadly diseases.)
Second, how can we reconcile the notion of God as a source of evil with our understanding of God as ‘all-good’, the source of all goodness, Good itself?
Finally, we understand God as ‘the almighty’ who ‘created the heavens and the earth’ ex nihilo. Can we reconcile that with the idea that he is unable to eradicate evil from a world that he himself created?
17th century German philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, proposed an ingenious escape. He suggested that the world we live in is simply the best of all possible worlds. That preserves the notion of God as ‘all good’ and as ‘omnipotent’. After all, even God cannot do what is impossible. Even God cannot make a square circle.
This ‘hack’ allows for objective evil but turns that evil into relative good – not absolute good (the best conceivable outcome) but relative good (the best possible outcome). God ‘wills’, or tolerates, evil only in pursuit of a greater good.
Does this formula work? Yes, in the sense that it certainly can’t be disproven; but no, in the sense that it does not resonate with our deepest intuitions about the nature of reality. (The only truth test for unverifiable propositions like Leibniz’ is the way such propositions account for our experience of the world.)
For centuries, philosophers, theologians and to some extent even scientists have wrestled with two basic conundrums: the very familiar ‘problem of evil’ and the very unfamiliar ‘problem of good’.
The Problem of Evil asks: How can it be that God is good and ‘the creator of heaven and earth’ while the universe God created is nonetheless riddled with evil?
The Problem of Good, on the other hand, asks: If there is no God or if God is not all-good (which is the same thing), how is it that we experience and recognize objective good in our world? What makes subjective good objective good? More generally, where do values come from if not from a transcendent source in which they inhere, essentially? Psalm 16 refers to God as “my only good” and a medieval Irish poem asserts, “Naught is all else to me save that Thou art.”
Even Friedrich Nietzsche understood that the world cannot be the source of its own objective values (and Ludwig Wittgenstein agreed with him). Nietzsche chose to reject the idea of objective value rather than accept the notion that reality might have a transcendent dimension.
Leibniz’ formula relativizes good and evil. Events are relatively good (or evil), not absolutely (or objectively) so. Likewise, God is only relatively good, not perfectly good, and certainly not ‘goodness’ per se. We can, in fact, imagine a ‘goodness’ greater that God’s. (This directly contradicts Thomas Aquinas’ 4th proof of the existence of God.)
Leibniz’ hack reduces God to a Machiavellian actor who tolerates relatively evil means in pursuit of relatively good ends. So, where does this leave us?
I suggest that this apparently unresolvable nexus of problems is really the result of two fundamental errors: (1) a misunderstanding of the nature of creation and (2) an under-appreciation of the role of redemption. I propose that God is both the creator and the redeemer of this world and that this fact, properly understood, resolves all the apparent dilemmas regarding good and evil…and values generally.
First, creation. For starters, let’s examine the Genesis account:
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…God said, let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good.” (Gen 1: 1-4)
Genesis does not say that God ‘dreamed the heavens and the earth’ or that God ‘imagined the heavens and the earth’ or that God ‘fabricated the heavens and the earth’; it says that God ‘created the heavens and the earth’. When you create something, if that something is real, it takes on an existence independent of yourself. Otherwise, you’ve created nothing.
The universe is not God’s toy. The Lego Movie notwithstanding, an artificial world cannot be an independent world.
A great work of art, on the other hand, always transcends its author, painter or composer. People who try to understand such a work in terms of the life experiences of its creator are doomed to failure.
Likewise, when you give birth to a child, you eventually realize, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, that “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command”.
And this is exactly as it should be! If you create something that does not transcend you, that is not independent of you, you have merely projected yourself into another space or another time or another medium.
Sadly, this is how many people view life. They see works of art as mere reflections of the experiences (even prejudices) of the artists. They see their children as extensions of themselves, a chance to make up for their own mistakes, a desperate attempt to cheat death and grab onto some species of immortality.
It follows that these same people see the created world as God’s sandbox where God can play to his heart’s content with his ‘action figures’…or in more modern terms, as God’s video game where he can freely program his avatars.
But that is not creation and that is certainly not what we mean when we say, “God created the heavens and the earth”. Nor is it even remotely consistent with the rest of the Genesis account:
“Thus, the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. On the seventh day God completed the work that he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.” (Gen 2: 1 – 3)
The creative process results in a real and independent world; but God does not abandon that world. He does not leave it entirely to its own devices. As we shall see later, he continues to play a role, albeit a non-deterministic role, in the unfolding of every event.
God created the world and he infused that world with his essential goodness (“God saw that it was good” – Genesis 1: 10), i.e. his values: beauty, truth, justice, etc. This is the solution to ‘the problem of good’.
But God also infused the world with his existential freedom. Yes, events are informed by God’s values, but they are also the product of their own inherent freedom. This is the solution to ‘the problem of evil’.
In the words of Deuteronomy, God says: “I set before you life and death…therefore choose life.” (Deut. 30: 19)
But the world does not always choose life…and neither do we. In fact, to be honest, we rarely make the best possible choices. Sure, we are influenced by our sense of right and wrong and we want to make the world a better place, but we are also distracted by our various attachments. (These ‘attachments’ are roughly summarized as the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Scary words! But who among us has not fallen prey to every single one of these vices at one time or another?)
When we are distracted from God’s values and begin to pursue other ends, we are guilty of idolatry – we are worshiping a false God. So, in fact, all ‘sin’ is one sin: idolatry, the worship of something that is not God, the substitution of worldly ‘pseudo-values’ for the real, transcendent values that come into the world through God.
Therefore, the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) begins, “I am the Lord, your God…you shall not have other gods beside me.” (Ex. 20: 1 – 3) Likewise, the Great Commandment (Matt. 22: 35-40) begins, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
God is the world’s creator and the world’s redeemer; but he is not the world’s micro-manager. He is “our father” but not a helicopter parent.
So, what about redemption? While the concept of creation can be challenging, the concept of redemption (or salvation) can be downright difficult. To understand either, we need to understand some basic things about the nature of the world.
First, the world consists of events and only events. It does not consist of subjects and objects, nouns and verbs, etc. These verbal categories are abstractions from actual events. They are categories imposed on our thought process by our language; and not all languages impose the same artificial categories.
The language of the Hopi, for example, is more event centric. Likewise, ancient Indo-European (IE) languages included a robust “middle voice’ (vs. our active and passive voices); the middle voice forms the foundation of an event centric syntax. But today, most of us do not speak Hopi…or proto-IE.
Because of our language, we imagine that the world consists of syntactic elements that somehow come together to form events; but the reverse is true: the world consists of events and we abstract syntactic elements from those events.
Second, events in the world not only incorporate God’s essential nature, eternal values, but they also incorporate God’s existential nature, radical freedom. Without those values, the world could not be ‘good’; but without that freedom, the world could not be ‘real’.
Third, because God is “the maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible” and because “through him all things were made” (Nicene Creed), God must be present to every other event. Conversely, every other event must be present to God. Presence is reciprocal. A cannot be present to B if B is not present to A.
Fourth, every event arises in the context of its own ‘actual world’, i.e. the unique constellation (nexus) of events out of which, and in response to which, the novel event emerges. Every event necessarily incorporates an inheritance from its actual world. Every event judges its actual world in light of the eternal values that inspire it. Guided by those values, every event seeks to transform (i.e. improve) the actual world it inherits. Transformation of the actual world is what an event is!
Fifth, since God is present to every other event and since every other event is present to God, God is an element in the actual world of every other event and every other event is an element in God’s actual world (i.e. the nexus of all other events).
Like all unique events, God judges his actual world in light of the eternal values and seeks to improve that world accordingly. But, you may ask, “How can God improve his actual world without compromising its existential freedom?” Stay tuned!
Traditionally, philosophers have understood events either as the product of past events (mechanical determinism, e.g. cause and effect) or as the product of future events (teleological determinism, e.g. God’s will or plan). It is hard to believe that these models could have held sway for so many centuries. They do not even begin to account for the novelty or variety of the events we encounter in the course of everyday living.
(As mentioned above, the ‘truth value’ of an unverifiable proposition is the extent to which it resonates with our life experience. Neither mechanical determinism nor teleological determinism resonates very deeply.)
We propose a different model: every novel event is shaped by the eternal values that inspire it, the actual world that informs it, and its own existential freedom. Only a non-linear, non-deterministic model like this can hope to account for novelty and variety on the scale we experience.
So how does any of this help explain the role of redemption in the world?
God is an event…an unusual event to be sure…but an event nonetheless. (Remember: the world consists of events and only of events. Everything that is real is an ‘event’ and God is real. Therefore, God is an event.)
God is present to every event and every event is present to God. What we refer to as ‘time’ (or spacetime) is merely an artificial way of ordering the events that constitute the world. Since God is present to every event and every event is present to God, God cannot be ‘ordered’ with respect to any other event. In fact, because they are co-present with God, events ultimately cannot be ordered, even with respect to one another.
God simply cannot be understood in terms of time…and therefore neither can the world. Like the values that constitute God’s essence, God must be a-temporal, i.e. eternal. Therefore, since all events are ‘present’ to the eternal God, the events that constitute God’s actual world must be also be a-temporal, eternal.
So, God is the context in which all other events arise (Creation) and at the same time, those other events are the context (actual world) in which God arises (Incarnation/Eucharist/Parousia). Therefore, God embodies both the eternal values that inspire all other events and the actual world that consists of those other events.
Now remember what we said earlier about events: “every novel event seeks to improve the actual world it inherits.” God is an event and so God too seeks to improve his actual world; but how does ‘improving the actual world’ translate into ‘redeeming the actual world’…without compromising the existential freedom that characterizes that world?
To understand this, we need to turn briefly to Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine). Augustine noted that because God is Being and God is Good, Being must be Good and if Being is Good, non-Being must be not-Good. Therefore, what is ‘not-Good’, i.e. what is evil, must be a deprivation of Being, a hole in the ‘donut’ that is the world.
Therefore, as God embodies his actual world, he seeks to harmonize that world with the eternal values and in so doing, he ‘redeems’ that portion of every event that is good, i.e. that is real. However, it turns out that that is 100% of the event itself since the aspect of an event that is ‘not-good’ is ‘not-real’ and therefore not part of the event in the first place.