Morality and the Christian account of God

So how does the God revealed in Scripture and worshipped by Christians do when it comes to the morality question? Once again we are back to the question of evil and suffering and why a good God can permit these things to happen.  Now, there are two charges to respond to here. The first, is that if there is a sovereign God, supreme over everything then he is the cause of evil and suffering.  That’s the kind of big or meta philosophical question. The second one is that when you look at the bible and the description of what God says and does then he doesn’t actually come out of it too well that his actions are immoral and unloving against the very standards that the Bible sets.

I want to spend a little bit of time exploring the first question a little bit further.  It is something that we will need to come back to again and again as we explore the big questions about who God is, who were are and why we are here.  So, there will be other bites of the cherry if we don’t get to grips with everything here. At the same time, we won’t want to deny that this is a big and a difficult question. Theodicy is the big question that theologians and philosophers have wrestled with down through the ages. So, it would be slightly arrogant of us to think we’ll get this one done and dusted in one article here.  I also think that it’s a good thing to say “I don’t know” some, if not a lot of the time. 

Attempts to explain evil and suffering

In Evil and the Cross, Henri Blocher identifies three categories of explanation for suffering.  These are “The solution by universal order”[1],  “The solution by autonomous freedom”[2] and “The solution by dialectical reasoning” [3]. Let’s take each in turn.

By “The solution by universal order”, Blocher means those theodicies[4] where evil is seen to have a place in the progress of creation and humanity. 

“To the angry or anguished question, ‘Why?’, asked by human beings confronted with evil, Christian thinkers had to find an answer. The one most often put forward, at least in ancient times and in the great periods in the history of the church, is closely related to optimism. Moreover it reflect the influence of philosophies that we have classified under the heading ‘optimism’, such as Stoicism and the Neoplatonism of Plotinus.  The strategy consists of erasing or blurring the most scandalous aspects of evil, and choosing a perspective which appears to diminish the anomaly.  It is rather as if the existence of evil and the goodness of God are the two lips of a wound that have to be brought together, and you must find as many clips as possible – the clips being in this case the rational considerations that suggest harmony.”[5]

From this perspective, the seriousness and extent of evil is in effect played down. In fact, it is literally reduced down to nothingness or ‘non-being.’

This “explanation of the origin and the function of evil rests on an interpretation of the nature of evil that roots it in finitude. Every creature is finite, it does not possess being in all its fullness; therefore there may be detected in it a lack of being, the mark of non-being.”[6]

The point here is that God did not cause or create evil, at least not in the same way as he created the heavens and the earth and formed animals and people.  Evil is the absence of goodness, the absence or limit of the things God has created.  For example, “Blindness is the absence of sight, injustice is the absence of justice, lies or error are the absence of truth.”[7] One proponent of such a position, Teillard De Chardin treats evil as “the waste product of evolution”[8]

We have already met the idea that evils existence has its roots in autonomous freedom because it is the position of open theists. Indeed, this is probably the best known and widely used of all the arguments.  As well as open theism, variants of this approach are found in the writings of CS Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and Rob Bell.  Blocher comments that “This explanation of the problem of evil through freedom is presented in a wide variety of forms, some highly speculative, others commonplace and popular.”[9]

In autonomous freedom based arguments,

“Evil is considered as a possibility that is inherent in freedom: it would make no sense to call a creature free if it were not a priori possible for it to do evil. Secondly, the free choice of a personal agent, human or angelic, could not (for defenders of this solution) be determined in advance by God. It goes without saying that, if my choice is free, no-one, not even God,, has made a decision about it ahead of me.  Lastly, since freedom is held as an extremely high, if not the highest, value, being essential to any relationship of love, it was good for God to ‘take the risk’ of creating free agents. God had to do so, if he wished to be loved, for that is not possible except where there is freedom.”[10]

The third approach treats evil and good as somehow in tension and necessary to each other. They are in effect two sides of the same coin. There is an element of dualism in the thought process. Blocher explains that:

“The thinkers in the third category probably differ among themselves even more than the advocates of the solutions we have already discussed. Using reason in a very free and speculative manner and enjoying the delights of paradox, they have two principal affirmations in common.  First, thy consider that evil has been present from the very origin of the world, as a qualified power which opposes Good. This evil is often called non-being or nothingness….but it is given actual reality, either in God or with God.”[11]

We also see as we look at these different approaches that attempts to explain evil either fulfil some form of purpose in God’s overall plan[12]Such as the manufacture souls,[13] negate or lay down its place, extent or horror, treat good and evil as equals in tension and/or in conflict (dualism) or take a fatalistic approach to evil and suffering as an unavoidable aspect of existence.[14]

Evaluation

Now, I want to suggest, carefully, that each of the main accounts of evil have something to say to us.  For example, those accounts that describe evil as negation are picking up on something vital as they consider its ontological nature.  As a number of people throughout history have argued including, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and in modern times CS Lewis.  Evil is not a substance that God made, rather, evil is the negation of the good. Evil is parasitical on goodness.[15] That is to say that we want to put it in its right context. The bigger picture is of God’s infinite glory and beauty, the goodness of creation and the future joy of eternity.

Secondly, there is a sense in which the evil of suffering is formative.  This is Paul’s point in Romans 5, the argument even of some secular psychiatrists and psychologists and the experience of many believers through history and around the world. One of the privileges of pastoral ministry is hearing the testimony of people who have grown in godliness and closer to God through suffering. To hear someone who has suffered terribly through a long, debilitating, terminal illness say “God has been good to me” is truly humbling.

Thirdly – and we will come to this in more detail shortly, unless we are fatalists, then we do need to give an account for human freedom and this will have something to say about evil and its causes.  A reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty and a strong denial of open theism does not exclude the place of free will. 


[1] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 19.

[2] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 36.

[3] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 65.

[4] A theodicy is a theory or explanation for suffering and evil. 

[5] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 19.

[6] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 19.

[7] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 20.

[8] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 22.

[9] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 37.

[10]  Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 37. I wonder if there is a little truth in this not god’s need for love but giving us the experience of freedom enables us to love others freely.  I need to experience the choice to experience love. It’s not though that God needs my love and so in a sense he can still predestine from the eternal angle.  I also learn to trust. 

[11] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 65.

[12] See Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 18 & 89-90.

[13] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 89.

[14] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 18.

[15] Augustine, Answer to an enemy of the Law and the Prophets, 1.5.7. Cited in Shapers of Christian Orthodoxoy, 246-7.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: