More on Bart Ehrman and theodicy

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Since the theological problem of suffering became the subject of some discussion in my previous posting, I wanted to recap the problem as I see it.

I agree with Bart Ehrman that the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God is not compatible with the existence of suffering that we see in the universe. I don't believe that the "free will" defense in this context is credible, for a host of reasons. I can therefore see three solutions to this conundrum, any one of which would solve the problem. They are:

1) God is not benevolent, or
2) God is not omnipotent, or
3) God does not exist.

I would note that option 2, the notion that God is not omnipotent, is not restricted to process theology, although that is one form of panentheism that certainly takes this view (the process theologian Charles Hartshorne once wrote a book titled Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes). Some modern day figures in progressive Christianity who are not process theologians also reject the notion of divine omnipotence. Marcus Borg, for example, who is a panentheist, rejects what he calls "supernatural theism". John Shelby Spong critiques what he calls simply "theism" in favor of some sort of Tillich-inspired theology. And among non-Christians, the Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner has written several books about God that reject the notion of omnipotence. (Many Jews have had a hard time reconciling divine omnipotence with the reality of the Holocaust.) The point is that while I cite process theology as an example of a response to Ehrman, it is hardly the only conceivable way that you can present God as not being omnipotent.

Among those three solutions listed above, the last alternative--that God does not exist--is therefore not the only possible solution to the problem of suffering. Believers in God don't have to resort to what some might consider rather desperate or lame excuses for why an omnipotent and benevolent God allows suffering. You can solve the problem and rescue religious faith by rejecting the view that God is omnipotent. It would not have been necessary for Ehrman to stop believing in God in order for him to reconcile himself to the problem of suffering.

To me, there are compelling arguments against the doctrine of omnipotence, not the least of which is the problem of suffering. I also think that we live in a post-Enlightenment world of physical laws, and the notion of divine intervention from the outside is not consistent with a post-Enlightment world view. Thus I consider non-omnipotence to be almost a kind of starting point for my theology. It both solves the problem of suffering and removes the philosophically untenable "God of the Gaps" who intervenes from the outside only in those circumstances we haven't yet figured out natural explanations for.

Indeed, I lean towards the position that God is not omnipotent but nevertheless benevolent. Now it is true that by accepting as a given that God must be benevolent, I am probably making a leap of faith. In theory, one could consider the existence of a God who exists but is not benevolent. But for me, that cannot serve as the basis for positive religious faith. I do believe that good exists in the world, and if there a supreme and ultimate reality, I think that this good springs forth from it. I could imagine a anthropomorphic demiurge who was not benevolent--but not an infinite presence who invoked life and who stands behind Being itself. This supreme and ultimate reality is what I call God. To me, to borrow a concept from the Ontological argument, God is that than which nothing is greater (or can be conceived to be greater); and I believe that which is greater than anything else must necessarily be defined in terms of love. This may just be my own bias in this matter. So be it. I think that love is greater than evil. Ultimately, as I have argued before, I think that "God" is a meta-narrative that people use to make sense of the universe, and for me, this is the working framework for existence that makes the most sense.

14 comments:

ms. kitty said...

What you said. Boy, do you ever have a good way of explaining what you're thinking, MS. And I thank you for putting what I think into such succinct and clear words.

Andrew said...

Hear, Hear! I have really enjoyed this conversation (I haven't had anything to add, but it has been a great read.)

"Indeed, I lean towards the position that God..."

Thank you for that perspective. So often, people tell you how God IS. I think your phrase shows that, at best, we can only work with our present bit of knowledge from our perspective; realizing that it all may need to shift as new thoughts and perspectives are brought to light.

I have one thought on omnipotence and benevolence. I have a student (I won't go into the details) who is convinced that I pick on him. I realize that at 12, he has a hard time envisioning our interactions any other way. Life experience will probably change how he views our interchanges in his sixth grade year.

Similarly, when I view certain events from earlier in life, I see them differently now that experience has given me different perspectives.

I don't yet reject the thought that God may be omnipotent AND benevolent. Though God may be dealing with us individually, I am pretty convinced that he is dealing with us first and foremost as a people. Though conservatives may argue that humanity is getting worse, I would argue that we are getting much better.

If God had magically snapped his fingers years ago when my wife and I were on the verge of divorce and "fixed" it, I would not have the empathy that I now have for people who are on that edge.

I am willing to consider the possibility that he is doing that on a scale that stretches eons. That humanity is being given a chance to grow, and some of that growth will be pain. Though if my son died today, I would probably still feel pissed at God for not saving him (would that make me like my student?)

I think this leaves me open to the possibility that, on the other side, I may look back and say, "Oh, that is why things had to go that way... now I see it."

As I approach 40, I am realizing more and more what a blip on the radar I really am. I think fairly different from the me of 10 years ago. How much differently might my perspectives be if I existed for centuries or more? Perhaps God just has a radically different view of temporal suffering?

or maybe it doesn't work like that...

or maybe he is just the jerk portrayed in Job....

Just thinking out loud.... I do not really feel invested in any view right now. :)

Gary said...

I'm interested to know the origins of the doctrine of omnipotence. Is this something that is well derived from the scriptures, or is it imposed on them as a lens by which to view the text? I guess it probably comes back to the idea of authority: is the Bible God's word to man, or man's word to God? It seems to me that Christian theology has given us a whole lot of messy ideas that do not reconcile well. Indeed, it is because of this mess that I find approaching the scriptures these days to be extremely challenging.

Rob said...

If God had magically snapped his fingers years ago when my wife and I were on the verge of divorce and "fixed" it, I would not have the empathy that I now have for people who are on that edge.

I am willing to consider the possibility that he is doing that on a scale that stretches eons. That humanity is being given a chance to grow, and some of that growth will be pain.


"Anguish is a quality of experience whose nature could not be communicated by description to someone who had never undergone it; and we cna in fact conceive of personal creatures who have always been entirely free from it. However, we human beings are not of such a breed, and have no great difficulty in communicating with one another about the forms of human misery." (John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, p. 318)

In this simple experiential insight is a profound spiritual truth in my view. The great weakness of Process Theology (PT) is that it fails to fully grasp the cosmic value of Personality, and personal experience, and the full range of new meanings that suffering mortals bring into reality when they realize such new meanings in the discovery of divine values even in the midst of suffering.

We can imagine that God could create perfect worlds populated by beings of perfection, who naturally and inherently are able to grasp the fullness of truth, beauty, and goodness. Such perfect beigns would not require the potential of relative value levels as a choice stimulus; such perfect beings are able to identify and choose the good in the absence of all contrastive and thought-compelling moral situations. But all such perfect beings would be, in moral nature and spiritual status, what they are by virtue of the fact of existence. They would experientially earn advancement only within their inherent status. We mortals, who know suffering, evil by the animal origin nature, earn even our status as an faith son or daughter by our own faith and hope. Everything divine which the human mind grasps and the human soul acquires is an experiential attainment; it is a reality of personal experience and is therefore a unique possession in contrast to the inherent goodness and righteousness of such divinely created inerrant personalities.

Such creatures of perfection would be naturally brave, but they would not be courageous in the human sense. They would be innately kind and considerate, but hardly altruistic in the human way. They would be expectant of a pleasant future, but not hopeful in the exquisite manner of the trusting mortal of the uncertain evolutionary spheres. They would have faith in the stability of the universe, but they are utter strangers to that saving faith whereby mortal man climbs from the status of an animal up to the portals of Paradise. They would love the truth, but they know nothing of its soul-saving qualities. They would be idealists, but they would have been created that way; they would be wholly ignorant of the ecstasy of becoming such by exhilarating choice. They would be loyal, but they would have never experienced the thrill of wholehearted and intelligent devotion to duty in the face of temptation to default. They would be unselfish, but they would never gained such levels of experience by the magnificent conquest of a belligerent self. They would enjoy pleasure, but they would not comprehend the sweetness of the pleasure escape from the pain potential.

The fallacy of Process Theology (PT) in my view is the belief that there is some higher value in an omnipotent God creating the best of all worlds in which there is an environment that provides the maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. This view fails to understand the logical paradox that it is impossible to create a truly evolutionary world populated by finite evolutionary creatures that are evolving into free-will personhood as we mortals know it, and not allow for evil, sin, and even iniquity to exit in such a finite evolutionary universe. The purpose of the evolutionary universe and the evolving finite creatures therein is not to create a pleasure palace for immature chidlren but to provide a "vale of soul-making" designed as an environment for finite persons to develop the more valuable qualities of moral personality able to recognize by faith the divine affection and in a free-will gift return that affection to God through worship and one another in loving service.

The only evolutionary world without error (the possibility of unwise judgment) would be a world without free intelligence. Free and inexperienced intelligence cannot possibly at first be uniformly wise.

Rob said...

Is courage--strength of character--desirable? Then must man be reared in an environment which necessitates grappling with hardships and reacting to disappointments.

Is altruism--service of one's fellows--desirable? Then must life experience provide for encountering situations of social inequality.

Is hope--the grandeur of trust--desirable? Then human existence must constantly be confronted with insecurities and recurrent uncertainties.

Is faith--the supreme assertion of human thought--desirable? Then must the mind of man find itself in that troublesome predicament where it ever knows less than it can believe.

Is the love of truth and the willingness to go wherever it leads, desirable? Then must man grow up in a world where error is present and falsehood always possible.

Is idealism--the approaching concept of the divine--desirable? Then must man struggle in an environment of relative goodness and beauty, surroundings stimulative of the irrepressible reach for better things.

Is loyalty--devotion to highest duty--desirable? Then must man carry on amid the possibilities of betrayal and desertion. The valor of devotion to duty consists in the implied danger of default.

Is unselfishness--the spirit of self-forgetfulness--desirable? Then must mortal man live face to face with the incessant clamoring of an inescapable self for recognition and honor. Man could not dynamically choose the divine life if there were no self-life to forsake. Man could never lay saving hold on righteousness if there were no potential evil to exalt and differentiate the good by contrast.

Is pleasure--the satisfaction of happiness--desirable? Then must man live in a world where the alternative of pain and the likelihood of suffering are ever-present experiential possibilities.

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks, Ms. Kitty!

Mystical Seeker said...

Andrew,

It's interesting to note that Bart Ehrman reports that had he not gotten hepatitus as a teenager, he would not have ended up in his current academic career. So it is true that sometimes bad things bring on ultimately positive consequences that we later come to see. But on the other hand, I do think that that some evils that the world faces are just senseless and can't really be justified as having any good purpose. The classic example of this would be the Nazi Holocaust. So I don't think I can accept this idea that every bad thing has a purpose (and despite the postive out come of Bart Ehrman's hepatitus, neither does he.)

Mystical Seeker said...

The fallacy of Process Theology (PT) in my view is the belief that there is some higher value in an omnipotent God creating the best of all worlds in which there is an environment that provides the maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain.

Rob, I don't see this as the viewpoint of process theology. As an aside, I would say that Process Theology doesn't believe that God creates the best of all worlds. Process theology doesn't believe that God has the power to create the best of all possible world--instead it views the world as being unpredictable, even from God's own perspective. What it does believe is that God has an overall understanding of what the best possible course of evolution is, and that at each moment God tries to lure the universe in that direction, adjusting his/her lure at each moment based on whatever transpired up to that time.

But, more to the point, I don't see process theology arguing that maximum pain and minimum pleasure is God's goal. In fact, my guess is that most process theologians, including John Cobb, would agree with you, Rob, when you say the following:

The purpose of the evolutionary universe and the evolving finite creatures therein is not to create a pleasure palace for immature children but to provide a "vale of soul-making" designed as an environment for finite persons to develop the more valuable qualities of moral personality able to recognize by faith the divine affection and in a free-will gift return that affection to God through worship and one another in loving service.

If you read what Cobb had to say two years ago about theodicy, he argued that in evoking the evolution of conscious creatures, God weighed the trade-offs between the possibilities of greater suffering caused by this greater consciousness, versus the greater value in having conscious, experiencing creatures in the universe. And part of what process theology sees as God's goals in this process includes goes way beyond pain and pleasure and extends into justice and morality. As Cobb puts it,

the evidence is that God supports the rise of conscious reflection and complex emotions that humanity brought into the biosphere. But that does not mean God simply observes it from a distance. God has always worked to direct the activities of this new species, through each of its members, away from mutual destruction and toward the broadening of horizons. The pressure on individuals to conform to norms derived from the survival needs of the communities in which they exist is very great. God also supports the aim at survival. But God has called human beings to think of others, even those outside their own communities, even others not yet born. God has had some success. Hundreds of millions now subscribe to teachings of those who have invited them to live out of this wider vision. These official beliefs do have some influence on the lives of many. Sometimes this wider vision breaks through to substantial historical influence as in Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. But as Jesus noted, the established authorities, the rich, and the powerful find it particularly difficult to listen to this call when, as is usual, it threatens the status quo. Children and prostitutes are more likely to do so.

This very different from a theology of God creating a pleasure palace for immature children. It is really about God calling us forward to be the best humans beings that we can be.

Rob said...

It is true that sometimes bad things bring on ultimately positive consequences that we later come to see. But on the other hand, I do think that that some evils that the world faces are just senseless and can't really be justified as having any good purpose. The classic example of this would be the Nazi Holocaust. So I don't think I can accept this idea that every bad thing has a purpose.

It is not evil which is somehow inherently "good"; that is a contradiction of philosophical terms. But how conscious personalities choose to respond to evil can lead to a higher good despite the evil acts of others. Viktor E. Frankl lived through the Nazi holocaust and internment in Auschwitz. He went on to write Man's Search for Meaning, The Will to Meaning, and The Unconscious God, all of which witness to the fact that a higher good can come to those who realized, chose, and actualized certain attitudinal meanings and values in the midst of such suffering. He states:

To all appearances, religion is not dying, and insofar as this is true, God is not dead either, not even “after Auschwitz,” to quote the title of a book. For either belief in God is unconditional or it is not belief at all. If it is unconditional it will stand and face the fact that six million died in the Nazi holocaust; if it is not unconditional it will fall away if only a single innocent child has to die—to resort to an argument once advanced by Dostoevski. There is no point in bargaining with God, say, by arguing: “Up to six thousand or even one million victims of the holocaust I maintained my belief in Thee; but from one million upward nothing can be done any longer, and I am sorry but I must renounce my belief in Thee.” The truth is that among those who actually went through the experience of Auschwitz, the number whose religious life was deepened—in spite, not to say because, of this experience—by far exceeds the number of those who gave up their belief. To paraphrase what La Rochefoucauld once remarked with regard to love, one might say that just as the small fire is extinguishable by the storm whereas a large fire is enhanced by it—likewise a weak faith is weakened by predicaments and catastrophes whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them.

If this evolutionary creation is a “vale of soul-making,” as John Hick argues, then the questions I posted above take on relevance and meaning, and shed light on Fankl’s statement above. While it is all too true that good cannot come of evil to the one who contemplates and performs evil, it is equally true that all things (including evil, potential and manifest) work together for good to all beings who know God, love to do his will, and are ascending spiritually towards his likeness according to his eternal plan and divine purpose.

Mystical Seeker said...

I'm interested to know the origins of the doctrine of omnipotence. Is this something that is well derived from the scriptures, or is it imposed on them as a lens by which to view the text? I guess it probably comes back to the idea of authority: is the Bible God's word to man, or man's word to God?

Gary,

Good question. I can't help but wonder if this was a process of extension from human cultural and political experience. People who live in hierarchical cultures with powerful monarchical rulers may just take for granted that the ultimate source of being in the universe is the therefore just like the rulers of the world, only more so. In a world deeply informed by power relations, God would naturally be perceived as all-powerful.

It is true, of course, that for a while, if the Bible is to believed, the people of Israel did not have have monarchical rule, and there were elements of social justice built into their society; but then, there were monarchies all around them and eventually they were seduced by the prevailing ideology of their surrounding cultures and established a monarchy for themselves. Hierarchy and power seemed to be seductive realities of the world at the time.

Rob said...

It seems Mystical you are ignoring the real issue; PT because of evil and suffering in the world drops the concept of an omnipotent God because it views this concept as mutually exclusive with a world of suffering as we know it and a truly compassionate and benevolent God. This philosophical position that the “existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God is not compatible with the existence of suffering” overlooks the option that it may well be that there is a higher long-term eternal purpose yielding a far higher good in creating finite evolutionary creatures endowed with free will.

Evolutionary animals may be evil (i.e., imperfect, immature, selfish and ignorant) by nature, but only morally conscious creatures make moral choices between right and wrong (sin being the choosing of that which the creature knows is morally wrong); one only needs to look at the holocaust and Hitler to see the consequences of mortal mind that habitually chooses sin, thereby evolving into a form of cosmic insanity—iniquity. But as Viktor Fankl shows, even in the face of iniquity and cosmic insanity, mortals can and do realize higher meanings and attain spiritual insight into divine values, which when they choose to act upon those values and meanings they are then actualizing God’s inner leading/lure as symbolized in the teachings of Jesus as the doing of God’s will. And that is the spiritual process of soul-making.

Indeed, there is another option than the one you present, and John Hick in his work on theodicy lays it out very cogently. Yet, you insist on ignoring it. PT may be right; God is not omnipotent; but PT may be wrong too. The point is that many of the arguments put forth for abandoning a the concept of an omnipotent God are setting up straw men and then knocking them down, whilst ignoring philosophical positions that are not based upon or question the premises of such an argument. This is the same criticism you had for the either or arguments put forth by Bart Ehrman.

It is possible that God is both omnipotent and benevolent and has chosen to create the evolutionary universe as we know it, and the evolutionary creatures therein, for a higher purpose which apparently eludes PT, but which John Hick articulates rather cogently.

Hick states:

When we compare the way in which man has in fact, so far as we know, appeared on this earthly scene, emerging out of apedom with only dim rudimentary notions of his Creator, with the epistemological conditions presupposed by man’s status as a free and responsible agent in relation to his Maker, we find a remarkable agreement between them. For human freedom vis-a-vis God presupposes an initial separateness and consequent degree of independence on man’s part. In creating finite persons to love and be loved by Him God must endow them with a certain relative autonomy over against Himself. But how can a finite creature, dependent upon the infinite Creator for its very existence and for every power and quality of its being, posses any significant autonomy in relation to that Creator? The only way we can conceive is that suggested by our actual situation. God must set man at a distance from Himself, from which he can then voluntarily come to know God. But how can anything be set at a distance from One who is infinite and omnipotent? Clearly spatial distance means nothing in this case. The kind of distance between God and man that would make room for a degree of human autonomy is epistemic distance. In other words, the reality and presence of God must not be borne in upon men in the coercive way in which their natural environment forces itself upon their attention. The world must be to man, to some extent at least, etsi deus non daretur, 'as if there were no God'. God must be a hidden deity, veiled by His creation. He must be knowable, but only by a mode of knowledge that involves a free personal response on man's part, this response consisting in an uncompelled interpretative activity whereby we experience the world mediating the divine presence. Such a need for a human faith-response will secure for man the only kind of freedom that is possible for him in relation to God, namely cognitive freedom, carrying with it the momentous possibility of being either aware or unaware of his Maker. (Hick 2007: 281)

A human environment in which these conditions are fulfilled may be expected by its apparently atheous character to require religious faith if man is ever to know God and yet also, by its fitness to mediate the divine presence and activity, to be such as to make faith possible. On the one hand, then, we should expect the reality of God to be other than automatically and undeniably evident to us; it will, on the contrary, be possible for our minds to rest in the world itself without passing beyond it to its Maker. But we should also expect the reality of God to become evident to men in so far as they are willing to live as creatures in the presence of an infinitely perfect Being whose very existence sets them under a sovereign claim of worship and obedience. We should expect the world to be such that, given this willingness (which is the volitional element in religious faith), we become able to recognize all around us the signs of a divine presence and activity. Men of faith will then see the heavens as declaring the glory of God and will discern His hand moving amidst the events of human history. Thus the world, as the environment of man's life, will be religiously ambiguous, both veiling God and revealing Him -- veiling Him to ensure man's freedom and revealing Him to men as they rightly exercise that freedom. (Hick 2007: 281-282)

As we thus deduce the basic character of a world in which man can exist as a free and responsible person in the presence of God, have we not found that the description fits the world in which we are living? For we are not set in the direct, unmistakable, divine presence, in which we should be unable to come to God freely, of our own creaturely choice, but instead we are set in a situation in which we may, by our own personal responses, either allow the knowledge of God to dawn upon us, or hold it at bay as a mere intellectual hypothesis.... That is to say, when God summoned man out of the dust of the evolutionary process He did not place him in the immediate consciousness of His own presence but in a situation from which man could, if he would, freely enter into the divine Kingdom and presence. (Hick 2007: 282-283)

(Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. Reissued ed. New York: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN; 2007; c1966 p. 281.)

I do not find the idea that an omnipotent God who is benevolent, chose to create an evolving universe populated with evolutionary creatures who because of the epistemic distance from the Creator are fully endowed with free-will, and are thereby enabled in a free-will faith response to the divine indwelling lure of the spirit to respond to this calling, and following the leading of the spirit, evolving and growing spiritually in God-consciousness and God-likeness, as somehow not internally philosophically consistent as PT does.

I also find that the idea of God entering into this process in a co-creative partnership with such evolving creatures is part of God's own experiential reality; God is intimately experiencing finite reality in and through and with us. We literally live, move, and have our very being in God. We have been allowed to actualize, in partnership with the divine indwelling spirit, God's living will, thereby participating in the process of actualizing God's will on earth. And for those who hope for more than the empty philosophical concept of “objective immortality,” there is the faith-hope of the gift of eternal life and the adventure of doing God/Amida’s will throughout eternity.

Rob said...

Arg, need and edit ;-)

I would add one important point that supports PT; I think there needs to be the recognition that there is such a thing as an evolutionary Deity that is the consequence of this co-creative partnership between man and God.

But this evolving experiential Deity is part of the eternal plan and purpose of God's creatiing evolutionary universes, wherein evolutionary creatures can choose to become one with the indwelling spirit, thereby bringing into existence new universe realities; faith-sons and daughters of the living God.

The great challenge that has been given to mortal man is this: Will we decide to personalize the experiencible value meanings of the cosmos revealed by the indwelling spirit into our own evolving selfhood? or by rejecting the divine leading/lure, and refusing to choose, remain loyal to, and actualize such divine vlaues, will we allow these secrets of the Infinite and Supreme to lie dormant (potential), awaiting the action of another creature at some other time who will in his way attempt a creature contribution to the evolution of the finite God?

Don't mistake my critique of PT for not recognizing its great contribution to the idea of an evolutionary process in which Deity and mortal evolutionary creatures enter into a co-creative process ;-)

I agree, It is really about God calling us forward to be the best humans beings that we can be.

And this reality is not inconsistent with an omnipotent Deity that is benevolent. There are other frameworks, or models than PT.

One, which I find interesting, is Shin Buddhism. The other, and the only one which I have ever seen intergrate all these various frameworks, is The Urantia Book.

Mystical Seeker said...

PT because of evil and suffering in the world drops the concept of an omnipotent God because it views this concept as mutually exclusive with a world of suffering as we know it and a truly compassionate and benevolent God.

I disagree that this is why process theology "drops" the the concept of an omnipotent. I think you are putting the cart before the horse, and perhaps using my offer of process theology as an example of how to solve the problem of theodicy with the reasons why process theology as conceived. Whitehead came up with process thought during a time when quantum physics was first emerging, and my guess that he was inspired more by science than by any need to explain away theological problems. The point is that, as a an additional benefit of this theology, it happens to solve the problem of theodicy; that does mean that it is one possible way around the conundrum that Ehrman identifies. But that is not in an of itself the reason, as far as I know, why process theology was conceived.

This philosophical position that the “existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God is not compatible with the existence of suffering” overlooks the option that it may well be that there is a higher long-term eternal purpose yielding a far higher good in creating finite evolutionary creatures endowed with free will.

It doesn't overlook the point; it just believes that it is not a very credible position. To be honest, I consider the "free will" argument to be rather lame and full of holes. To begin with, it doesn't explain the existence of suffering induced by nature; it presupposes that all free decisions have moral implications; it naively ignores senseless evil that serves no purpose and has no long term benefits; it assumes that long term benefits are more important than the immediate suffering of those who are victimized by evil; I could go on, but I think that the "free will" argument just doesn't hold a drop of water.

Your citing of Viktor Frankl is fine as far as it goes. I have no disagreement whatsoever that many people can obtain value out of suffering. Even Bart Ehrman accepts this. Unfortunately, those poeple who were killed in the Holocaust were not able to benefit from their own suffering, were they? Some evils are just plain evil. They serve no greater purpose. And it is the height of naivite to suggest otherwise. I think that lots of Holocaust victims correctly would conclude that it would be the height of insensitivity to claim that their suffering served a greater purpose. Sorry, but it just plain didn't. That doesn't mean that people can't derive good things out of evil that is completely unnecessary and which should not have happened, but to conclude from this that therefore it served a greater good is just something I do not accept.

There is a subtle distinction here that is being missed, I think. Process theology would argue that God decided it was worth the cost of having a world in which evil and suffering was possible, because the greater benefit of having conscious beings outweighs what would be lost by not having us around. So in that sense, process theology would agree that there is overall benefit in having a world in which evil is possible. But the difference here is by recognizing the overall benefit in the possibility of evil that God cannot prevent (the position of process theology), versus the naive idea that all individual evil acts that do take place always happen because God wanted them to(either explicitly because he caused them to, or implicitly because he had the power to prevent them but chose not to) because each such act serves a better long term purpose. It is this latter point of view that I reject categorically.

Yes, evoking into being a world in which evil was possible does serve a greater purpose. But that is not to say that each evil act that takes place serves a greater purpose. I believe that God does not wish for any single person to suffer, and that one cannot possibly attribute responsibility to God for every act of evil that takes place in order to serve some greater purpose.

The problem with believers in omnipotence who trump out the "free will" argument is that they want to have it both ways. They assert on the one hand that God does or has intervened in the world in some way, at the very least by bringing the world into being, the use of Divine fiat in some way serves divine purposes--after all that is kind of the point of God being omnipotent. But then suddenly they trumpet "free will" to explain when God doesn't intervene. Well, which is it? Does God intervene as a theistic outsider on the world, or doesn't he?

Ehrman identified correctly that the doctrine of divine omnipotence is incompatible with divine benevolence, but where he went wrong was in falsely concluding that God by definition is omnipotent.

Frank said...

MS-

Concerning discussions in this thread and the last about Theodicy in Job. Not all people read an omnipotent God in the Book of Job. Gerald Janzen ("Job" in the Interpretation series) writes: "In a manner which eludes propositional statement, but which works to invite reader participation, both the divine questions to Job and his own questions to God are resolved in a covenanting convergence which implies transformed perspectives on the character of God and on the status and vocation of humankind in the world."

That is actually quoted in Rosemary Hubble's "Conversation on the Dung Heap", and she interprets this saying that Job "has challenged the Israelite tradition's view of an omnipotent and transcendent God.... Women, men and children must now see themselves, as Job came to see himself, as integral parts of the universe working with God to bring order and justice to all.... acknowledg[ing] the interdependence of all of creation."

Of course, there are the "fable" sections which mark the beginning and endcaps of Job where God makes the deal with Satan to torture a poor soul to test him. Not only is that not anywhere near Process Theology, but those scenes are perhaps outside of orthodox theology as well! But there are many layers to the Book of Job, and most likely a number of traditions that had their mark on the book.

In a lot of ways, the question of who and what God is remains unanswered in Job. Going back to Janzen's quote, ths book invites the reader to the questions and to "active participation". In that sense, the book of Job is not a description of God but rather functions more like a set of reflection questions as the reader becomes engaged in Job's own questions and conversations. Job demands the opportunity to ask questions of God, and God speaks to him... but how is God speaking? Really, Job experiences the wind and the "answer" he gets is not much of an answer... he sees Creation. Somehow that's the answer.