The Divine Gift-love Theodicy

A position paper for CT515 Philosophical Theology (Williamson College) by Robert L. Solberg

Abstract

This paper seeks to offer a sound theodicy in response to the difficult ancient question, “If God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-wise, why is there evil in the world He created?”  We will examine three modern positions on this issue, starting with the soul-making theodicy of John Hick, which asserts that God allows evil in the world to develop goodness and virtue in man. Second, the approach taken by Rabbi Harold Kushner will be examined, who, rather than seeking a way to reconcile a loving and all-powerful God with evil, concludes that God must not be all-powerful. Lastly, philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense will be reviewed; wherein he argues that the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God is not logically contradictory to the existence of evil.

Plantinga’s position will be used as the foundation for an argument called the Divine Gift-love Theodicy (DGT). To arrive at DGT, scriptural data will be applied to Plantinga’s logical groundwork, and the argument will be expanded from a philosophical defense into a full-orbed theodicy, which offers a possible explanation of how God could be justified in allowing evil and suffering. Two forms of this theodicy will be presented; a moral version built on the premise that love is the highest moral value and a logical version built on the premise that love is a logical necessity. Finally, DGT will be defended against two potential objections.

Introduction

Why does evil exist if an all-loving, all-powerful God created this world? This question is one of the most challenging that a person can ask and, thus, the subject matter needs to be handled with care. The approach one takes when responding to the problem of evil depends on the perspective of the person posing the question. An actuary at a health insurance company may view cancer as a disease category that contains certain financial risks. This perspective is much different from the view held by a young mother whose husband has just died from terminal cancer, leaving her to face the cold reality of raising their children alone. In either case, cancer is viewed as a bad thing. However, it is in the second sense, the experiential perspective of the young mother, that one is most likely to consider cancer truly “evil” and wonder how it could exist in a world created by a loving God.

Many of us have had personal experiences with the kind of pain and suffering that gives rise to the question under consideration. Indeed, mankind has been grappling with the problem of evil since evil first entered the world. Three hundred years before Christ, the Greek philosopher Epicurus framed the question this way:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then He is not omnipotent.
Is He able, but not willing?
Then He is malevolent.
Is He both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is He neither able nor willing?
Then why call Him God?

-Epicurus

While the personal side of the problem of evil must be acknowledged as valid and difficult, the approach taken in this paper is that of academic and logical examination, more analogous to the perspective of the scientist studying cancer than the patient suffering from it. We will begin by examining three modern philosophical positions on this issue.

Soul-Making Theodicy

In his book Evil and the God of Love (Hick, 2010), philosopher John Hick attempts to reconcile a loving God with the existence of evil via a soul-making theodicy. Hick (2010) found the traditional Augustinian theodicy inadequate in its explanation of how beings created by God without moral blemish could somehow fall away from His glory. He argues that if a created being lived so close to God’s infinite love and goodness, “there seems to be an absurdity in the idea of his seeing rebellion as a possibility” (Hick, 2010, p. 278).   

Indeed, in light of the scientific evidence for evolution, Hick finds it difficult to accept any literal interpretation of the fall of Adam and Eve. He instead believes the story in Genesis 3 to be a mythological or allegorical description of the present human condition. Thus, in his theodicy, Hick takes an evolutionary approach toward morality in man. He asserts that humans were not created in a state of perfection but are, instead, on a continual course of development.

Hick (2010) suggests God created a world that contains evil and suffering to serve as a “vale of soul-making” (p. 278) in which humanity can evolve from an immature morality into a perfected morality. He considers it entirely reasonable to conclude that human goodness which has slowly built up through personal moral effort, “has a value in the eyes of the Creator which justifies even the long travail of the soul-making process” (Hick, 2010, p. 256). Through this evolutionary process, Hick (2010) believes God’s will to win all men to Himself in faith and love will be realized (p. 342).

Rabbi Kushner’s God

Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Kushner, 1981), has sold more than four million copies. It was inspired by (and is dedicated to) his son, Aaron, who died in 1977 at the age of 14 after suffering from an incurable genetic disorder called progeria. As a New York Times nonfiction bestseller for many months, this book has undoubtedly influenced our modern cultural understanding of the relationship between God and evil. Kushner’s position is included in this paper as an example of how the genuine and sometimes devastating suffering we experience in life can cause us to abandon sound theology. 

In a 2010 interview, Kushner explained that the grief and pain of losing his son led him to rethink his view of an omnipotent God. He could not accept that his son’s suffering and death were somehow part of God’s plan. He explained, “If that were God’s plan, it’s a bad bargain. I don’t want to have to deal with a God like that” (Rabbi Kushner: An “Accommodation” With God, 2010).

This tragedy led Kushner to question God’s omnipotence. He reasoned that God is either omnipotent but not all-loving, or all-loving but not omnipotent. Kushner ultimately decided he would rather compromise God’s power than His love, concluding, “God could have been all-powerful at the beginning, but He chose to designate two areas of life off-limits to His power. He would not arbitrarily interfere with the laws of nature. And secondly, God would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil” (Rabbi Kushner: An “Accommodation” With God, 2010).

Plantinga’s Free Will Defense

American philosopher Alvin Plantinga took a decidedly different approach to the problem of evil in his book God, Freedom, and Evil (Plantinga, 1977). Rather than presenting a positive theodicy to justify God allowing evil, Plantinga’s Free Will Defense argument is a defense against the logical problem of evil, specifically as philosopher J. L. Mackie framed it in his journal article Evil and Omnipotence (MACKIE, 1955). Plantinga’s position is built on logical argumentation rather than Scripture, and as such, he only seeks to maintain that his Free Will Defense is logically valid, rather than actually true.

According to Plantinga (1977), “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all” (p.30).  He argues that God can create free creatures, but He cannot cause or determine them only to do what is right because then they would not be significantly free, meaning they would not freely be doing what is right (Moreland & Craig, 2003). Plantinga (1977) says, “To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so” (p. 30). Consequently, moral evil is the result of free creatures going wrong in the exercise of their freedom. Plantinga (1977) further argues that we should not count it against God’s goodness or His omnipotence that free creatures sometimes go wrong, “for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good” (p. 30).

And what of natural evil? Plantinga points to “the possibility that natural evil is due to the actions of significantly free but nonhuman persons” (Plantinga, 1977, p. 58). In other words, natural evil could be the result of malevolent spiritual agents. If this is true, then natural evil resembles moral evil, and they would both be special cases of what might be called broadly moral evil (Plantinga, 1977, p. 59). In this way, Plantinga (1977) folds both types of evil into his larger logical premise that “God could not have created a world with a better balance of moral good over moral evil than this one displays” (p. 58).

The Divine Gift-Love Theodicy

Using the logical framework of Plantinga, let us now add another dimension to the discussion. The question under consideration is moral in nature. Its tacit implication is that if God was really all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful, He should have created a universe without evil or suffering. This implication suggests a presupposition that one of the highest moral values must be an absence of evil and suffering. However, Christianity teaches there is an even higher moral value than an absence of evil and suffering: namely, love.

Indeed, Scripture is clear on the preeminence of love, teaching not only that God sent His Son into the world because of love (John 3:16), but that we are to do everything in love (1 Cor 16:14), and that God’s love is better than life (Ps 63:3). We are told to love each other deeply (1 Pet 4:8; 1 John 3:11) because when we love one another, God lives in us (1 John 4:12), and the world will know we follow Jesus (John 13:35). Moreover, Christianity teaches that the ultimate moral virtue of love is even higher than faith or hope (1 Cor 13:13) and that it binds together in perfect unity the other virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness (Col 3:12-14). Indeed, Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love people, adding, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matt 22:35-40).[1] And perhaps most significantly, Holy Scripture teaches that God, Himself, is love (1 John 4:8).

On the Christian worldview, love is the highest moral value. But what kind of love is in view? It is essential to establish what is meant by “love” because those who find it difficult to reconcile an all-loving God with the existence of evil often mistake love for kindness, or sweetness, or a sort of fuzzy, sentimental feeling.[2] Scripture’s view of love is much higher than this. God’s Word teaches, “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This higher form of love—the love that desires what is best for the beloved regardless of the cost to the lover—is what C. S. Lewis called Gift-love (Lewis, 1960/2017, p. 126).[3] This kind of love is not just a cosmic edict issued by God for mankind to follow; He led the way by demonstrating this kind of sacrificial love Himself.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8).

God’s love is Gift-love because in God, “there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give” (Lewis, 1960/2017, p. 126). In so giving, Divine Gift-love always values the ultimate good of the recipient over their present comfort or happiness. We see an example of Divine Gift-love in the way Jesus, as Love Personified, did not shy away from using stern words of rebuke with both religious leaders and His beloved disciples (Matt 23:27-28; Mark 12:38-40; John 8:44). We also see this kind of love expressed in the fact that God did not hold back evil and suffering from those He loved and called to a special role in redemptive history.[4]  But the supreme act of Divine Gift-love is witnessed in Jesus Himself,

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6).

One of the primary reasons Christ’s sacrifice is considered the highest act of love in human history is that His life was not taken from Him; rather He chose to lay it down of His own free will (John 10:18). Indeed, love is not love at all if it is not given freely. For love to be authentic, it must be a voluntary expression made by a free moral agent. Consider the alternative. Imagine a robot programmed to confess undying love for its maker. Such a pre-programmed confession of love would certainly not be considered genuine, nor would it be indicative of authentic love.

Therefore, free will[5] is a precondition for Gift-love. And here we begin to see the rub. Moral agents with free will necessarily have the ability to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate. Indeed, the very free will that affords a man the ability to love also gives him the ability to choose evil. And because mankind is a morally flawed and fallen race (Rom 5:12), we will inevitably actualize the possibility of evil. Consequently, the ultimate source of moral evil is man’s misuse of his free will.

The Moral Argument for the Divine Gift-love Theodicy

Thus, the moral argument for the Divine Gift-love Theodicy (DGT) can be stated as follows:

  1. Love is the highest moral value.
  2. Because God is love, love must exist in any world He creates.
  3. In any world where love exists, free will must exist.
  4. Where free will exists, evil is logically possible.
  5. Therefore, any world God creates must necessarily include at least the possibility of evil.

The conclusion (5) may seem at first blush to be a paradox, but it enjoys abundant Scriptural support. The apostle Paul taught that sin was in the world before the law (Rom 5:13). This idea is consistent with the presence of the serpent in the garden (Gen 3:1-5), which shows that Satan had fallen sometime before he tempted Eve. Indeed, when Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18), He was likely referring to Isaiah 14:12-15, which describes Satan being cast down to earth. Thus, Satan’s fall presumably happened sometime after the universe was created, but before sin entered the world through man (Rom 5:12). Therefore, it is plausible to conclude that our universe contained the possibility of evil from its creation.

The Logical Argument for the Divine Gift-love Theodicy

There is another way to look at DGT, which is built on the premise that love is a logical necessity. It is expressed as follows:

  1. God exists necessarily.
  2. God is love.
  3. Therefore, love exists necessarily.
  4. In a world where love exists, free will must exist.
  5. Where free will exists, evil is possible.
  6. Therefore, it is logically impossible for any world to exist that does not include both God and at least the logical possibility of evil.

Premise (1) is based on two factors: (a.) the well-known Ontological argument and (b.) the Scriptural case for God as the Creator of the physical universe. Both factors support the conclusion that God is a necessary being whose nonexistence is not possible. Scripture is also clear that (2) God is the ultimate source of love and is Himself, love (1 John 4:7-8). The transitive property of equality says that (3) if God exists necessarily, then love must exist necessarily. Hence, it is logically impossible that God, who is love, could have created a universe in which He/love does not exist. In the moral version of DGT, we established that free will is a precondition for love, which means (4) it is logically impossible that God could have created a universe without free will. We also established earlier that (5) where free will exists, moral evil is at least possible. Thus, the conclusion (6) flows naturally; it is logically impossible for God to have created a universe that did not include the possibility of evil. In other words, on DGT, the answer to the question “If God is all-good, all-powerful and all-wise, why is there evil in the world He created?” is that it could have been no other way.

Possible Objections

What about Heaven?

In a debate with Dinesh D’Souza (Gordon College, 2010), Dr. Bart Ehrman reasoned that if Heaven is a place where free will exists and there is no suffering, “why can’t (or didn’t) God create an entire world in which free will exists, and there is no suffering?” In other words, couldn’t God have chosen to make us all morally perfect beings, thereby filling the universe with love and no evil? Ehrman’s line of reasoning could be raised against DGT, which argues that evil is a necessary possibility given free will.

Indeed, God could have chosen to make a world of morally perfect humans,[6] so it is not a question of God’s ability to do so. The salient version of Ehrman’s question is why God did not create a world without suffering in which free will exists. While this is an interesting line of thinking to explicate, it is unrelated to the question before us, which is why does evil exist if an all-loving, all-powerful God created this world? In other words, rather than examining all possible worlds, DGT seeks the best explanation for the actual world, which already includes suffering and evil.

When Ehrman began wrestling with the difficult task of reconciling an all-loving God with a universe that contains evil and suffering, his ultimate response was to renounce his faith in God (Ehrman, 2014). While removing God from the equation may have solved Ehrman’s personal problem, it did nothing to solve the actual problem of evil. Indeed, one could argue that he made the problem worse for himself in two ways.

First, without God, there is no possibility of finding significance in suffering or justice for evil. In a purely naturalistic universe, all suffering is meaningless, and there is no ultimate justice for evil. Secondly, with God removed from the equation, all morality becomes relative and, therefore, nothing can be considered objectively “evil.” Suffering might be distasteful or unpleasant, but on moral relativism, it ultimately cannot be labeled morally evil, or even wrong. Richard Dawkins sums up both of these problems nicely in his book River Out of Eden:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

(Dawkins, 2001, p. 133)

Dawkins essentially admits that without God there is no good, no evil, and no justice. And, I might add, no love.

To fully consider this objection, we also need to look at the Christian understanding of Heaven. While Heaven may be a place where there is free will and no suffering, Scripture tells us that every human will have endured suffering and evil on their way in (John 16:33). As established in DGT, evil and suffering exist because man’s moral fallenness leads to him abusing his free will (Gal 5:13). Nevertheless, God redeems even the evil and suffering caused by man (Gen 50:20). Scripture reveals that our suffering is not without purpose. It can produce character and hope (Rom 5:3-4; Jas 1:2-4), draw us to God (2 Cor 1:9), teach us to love (2 Cor 1:4-5), and play an important role in our sanctification (Heb 12:6-10; Eph 5:26-27).

Our own human experience also demonstrates how good things can come from suffering. Consider the pain and suffering endured while recovering from life-saving surgery. Or on a much grander scale, the suffering willingly endured by the Allies during World War II, which ultimately led to the defeat of an evil empire and the saving of millions of more people. Thus, it is not hard to imagine that, on an even grander scale, an all-powerful, all-loving God could have morally sound reasons for allowing evil and suffering.

Additional support for the ideas that (a.) there can be a purpose for suffering that gives it meaning, and (b.) suffering is not inconsistent with an all-loving God is the fact that God, who is love, chose to enter into humanity’s suffering with us (Isa 53:3-5; Heb 2:9-10). Indeed, suffering plays a critical role in our very salvation (1 Pet 4:12-16). Perhaps our salvation is the reason Heaven can contain love and free will without the existence of evil. Through a saving faith in Jesus Christ, every citizen of Heaven has been washed clean (Isa 1:18) and made morally righteous (2 Cor 5:21) and, consequently, is able to always rightly use their free will for love rather than for evil.

What about Natural Evil?

The Divine Gift-love Theodicy may explain moral evil, but what about natural evil? How can this theodicy account for the human suffering caused by events of nature? Let us consider two points about the nature of natural evil.

First, forces of nature are typically only categorized as “natural evil” when they inflict suffering on human beings. A hurricane that rages across a remote island damaging trees and beaches is not said to be evil; it is merely nature being nature. Where the problem of natural evil arises is when hurricanes, forest fires, disease, and other natural forces cause human suffering. That is when we might join Epicurus in asking whence cometh evil

Second, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines natural evil as “bad states of affairs which do not result from the intentions or negligence of moral agents” (Calder, 2013). One could argue that this definition does not include God’s moral agency because He not only has the power to alleviate these states of affairs, but they also cannot happen without His providential permission.

Given the two points above, let us define natural evil as “bad states of affairs which happen to humans that are not the result of the intentions or negligence of human moral agents and are allowed by God.” The objection can thus be stated as follows: If, as DGT asserts, love is the highest moral value and it exists necessarily, how can we account for a loving God allowing natural evil to occur?

We have already established one possible good reason for such a state of affairs. Namely, that human suffering—whether from moral evil or natural evil—is not meaningless and can be (and is) redeemed and used by God to fulfill a purpose in our lives. Another possible good reason is how the highest moral value of love becomes manifest in the aftermath of natural evil. The suffering produced by natural disasters presents an opportunity for humans to experience Gift-love as givers, receivers, and observers. In fact, it could be argued that by definition, Gift-love—love that desires what is best for the beloved regardless of the cost to the lover—is experienced in the face of natural evil to a higher degree than in any other set of circumstances. During natural disasters, humanity witnesses the highest form of love writ large through the sacrificial acts of first-responders, rescuers, and volunteers helping total strangers, even to the point of putting their own lives at risk.

Because natural events are only judged to be “evil” from the perspective of persons (a.) affected by such an event and (b.) who perceive the event as an affliction, the problem of natural evil is really an alternate version of the problem of moral evil. It falls under what Plantinga calls broadly moral evil (Plantinga, 1977, p. 59). In the case of natural evil, the moral agent held responsible is God, rather than a human. Ironically, it is on these grounds that atheists argue that the existence of natural evil undermines belief in the goodness or power (or even existence) of God (Martin, 1990).[7]

Conclusion

On the Christian worldview, there is a higher moral value than the absence of evil and suffering, namely, love. Furthermore, the concept of love in view is of a higher form than mere affection or romantic love. It is what C. S. Lewis calls Gift-love (Lewis, 1960/2017, p. 126)—a love that desires what is best for the beloved regardless of the cost to the lover. Gift-love, by its very nature, must be freely given. Therefore, for a world to contain this highest moral value, that world must also include free will. And where free will exists, the logical possibility of evil necessarily also exists.

Moreover, if one were to reject the existence of God based on the existence of evil and suffering, they would gain nothing. And they would lose the possibility of finding significance in suffering and justice for evil. In fact, the converse is true: the existence of evil is evidence for God. As Ravi Zacharias has argued,

When you say there’s too much evil in this world you assume there’s good. When you assume there’s good, you assume there’s such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But if you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral Law Giver, but that’s Who you’re trying to disprove and not prove. Because if there’s no moral Law Giver, there’s no moral law. If there’s no moral law, there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil (Zacharias, 2012).

We can’t claim to know the mind of God or why He chose to make the universe this way (Isa 55:8-9). But we know He is perfect (Ps 18:30) and He is love (1 John 4:8). Therefore, anything He allows or ordains is done for the ultimate good of the beloved. What we see in the universe is, as Lewis described, a God Who “needs nothing, choosing to love into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them” (Lewis, 1960/2017, p. 127). And in the Divine Gift-love Theodicy, we find an explanation for the existence of evil that is logically consistent with an all-loving, all-powerful God who gives meaning to suffering and dispenses justice for evil.


Footnotes

[1] This teaching was, itself, based on foundational teachings that God had handed down to Israel centuries earlier (Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:17-18).  See also Romans 13:8-10.

[2] If that were the kind of love Jesus demonstrated during His earthly ministry, He surely would have lived to be a wise old rabbi.

[3] This same kind of love is echoed in the benevolence model of God’s goodness, as presented by Thomas Morris in his book Our Idea of God. Morris (2002) explains that God, “goes beyond the call of duty, graciously and benevolently doing good that need not have been done” (p. 51).

[4] See the stories of Abraham, Noah, Jacob, David, Job, John, Mary Magdalene, and Paul (among many other heroes of the faith) whom God loved and yet allowed to endure travail and sorrow.

[5] Insofar as it pertains to the Divine Gift-love Theodicy, a simple understanding of free will as “the ability to choose” is all that is required.

[6] One could, perhaps, argue that He did initially create mankind morally perfect and then we fell.

[7] The existence of a category called “natural evil” would require the existence of an objective moral standard against which one judges events to be either “good” or “evil.” This objective moral standard, in turn, opens a Pandora’s box of logical difficulties for the atheist. However, that is a discussion best reserved for another paper.


References

Calder, T. (2013). The Concept of Evil (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.Edu.

College, G. (2010). Theodicy, God and Suffering – A debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Bart Ehrman [YouTube Video].

Dawkins, R. (2001). River out of Eden : a Darwinian view of life. Phoenix.

Ehrman, B. D. (2014). Bart Ehrman’s Personal Beliefs Interview [YouTube Video]. In YouTube.

Hick, J. (2010). Evil and the god of love. Basingstoke Palgrave Macmillan.

Kushner, H. S. (1981). When bad things happen to good people. Random House.

Lewis, C. S. (2017). The four loves. Harperone. (Original work published 1960)

MACKIE, J. L. (1955). IV.—EVIL AND OMNIPOTENCE. MindLXIV(254), 200–212.

Martin, M. (1990). Atheism : a philosophical justification. Temple University Press.

Moreland, J.P., Craig, W. L. (2003). Philosophical foundations for a Christian worldview. Intervarsity Press.

Morris, T. V. (2002). Our idea of God : an introduction to philosophical theology. Regent College Pub.

Plantinga, A. (1977). God, freedom, and evil. Eerdmans.

Rabbi Kushner: An “Accommodation” With God. (2010, March 12). NPR.Org.

Zacharias, R. (2012, March 18). Think again: One question. www.rzim.org.

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