God Is Implicated in Evil [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

Our question this week came from Stan:

Hi Tony, here’s the question haunting me to the point of possibly leaving the faith- In an existence full of such pain and evil, how can we still claim that God is both all-powerful and unwaveringly loving? When I’m given the standard answer that trials exist because “He has a plan we don’t know” that “has a purpose for the greater good”, all I can think is that an all-powerful god ought to have methods that cause less pain for those he loves. I can accept an all-powerful god who doesn’t completely love his creation, or an absolutely loving god who can’t control everything, but not both. Thoughts?

There were many great responses and threads, and they keep coming in. Now it’s my turn.

Stan, my normal response to you would be along the lines of Jürgen Moltmann, who has greatly influenced my theology. It goes like this:

1) God is, by (Aristotelian) definition, that Being of which no higher Being can be thought. God is all-in-all, alpha and omega.

2) Prior to creation, God was all there was. In order for God to have a relationship with a creation that is other than Godself, God withdrew himself enough to make room for creation (zimzum). This was God’s first act of self-limitation.

3) The Hebrew Scriptures record generations of God’s interaction with humans, almost all of which are episodes of God deigning to interact with humans on a relatively human level. These, too, are moments of self-limitation.

4) Failing all other means of relating positively toward humans, God performed the ultimate act of self-limitation by becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. God even went so far as to experience death and, as Jesus cries from the cross, the absence of God. God experienced godlessness.

5) Having truly experienced everything that humanity experiences, God found reunification with all of creation through Jesus the Christ. But as long as creation is still in its pre-eschatological state, God’s self-limitation is in place. God has willingly forsaken omnipotence in order to have a true, mutually voluntary, open relationship with creation. Thus, evil and pain and suffering, bombings and shootings and earthquakes, are a necessary aspect of human and divine existence.

This, I think is a beautiful and intellectually honest answer to the question of theodicy. But a quote I read recently from John D. Caputo deeply challenged me.

In his magnum opus, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the EventCaputo has the following endnote, which is meant to destroy what I have just proposed. He refers to a plan such as mine (and Moltmann’s) as “a more enlightened and progressive version of orthodoxy,” and he continues:

In order to show solidarity with the weak, God voluntarily empties Godself of power, freely chooses not to exercise this power, and this divine kenosis does not contradict omnipotence but manifests it. I do not travel down that path because it smacks of a ruse, a kind of docetism, in which weakness is an even more profound demonstration of power, and because it re-implicates God in evil. Omnipotence cannot simply wash its hands of evil simply on the grounds that it has chosen not to intervene.

I think that’s a damning charge, and I take it seriously. Kenosis — God’s act of self-emptying, as fêted in the hymn of Philippians 2 — is an idea that brings much comfort to many Christians who have left behind the idea of a God who somehow needs to balance “love” and “justice” (as though those were opposing ideas). For Caputo to dismiss kenosis — in an endnote, no less! — is a serious.

First of all, I think that Caputo’s charge of docetism is misplaced. Those of us who embrace the idea of God’s self-limitation do not understand it to be anything less than fully real. God’s inhabitation of the fully human Jesus of Nazareth was neither a phantasm nor a magic trick. It was no ruse, in order to let God off the hook for the pain of the world. It was, instead, God’s active embrace of humanity. It was a learning experience for God.

So, how about Caputo’s charge that kenosis is an attempt to let God off the book, to let omnipotence “simply wash its hands of evil on the grounds that it has chosen not to intervene”? I don’t think it sticks, as long as you come to the conclusion that God is implicated in evil.

You see, Stan, most people pose the question just like you: God is all-good/loving, and God is omnipotent. Yet there is evil, so what gives. Many say that God’s omnipotence doesn’t exist — that what Harold Kushner famously wrote, and it’s basically how some people read Moltmann. But Moltmann and I don’t actually say that God is not omnipotent — we say that God has voluntarily and temporarily abdicated the characteristics of omnipotence in order to have a more equitable relationship with humanity.

But Caputo is right, this still means that God is ultimately liable for the evil in the world. On my theory, God could reclaim omnipotence at any moment, step in, and stop evils and horrors. The fact that God doesn’t, implicates God.

Does this make God less than perfectly benevolent? Maybe. Maybe God also abdicated “benevolence” at creation, or at least perfect benevolence. Or maybe God’s all-in-allness means that our conception of “goodness” and “benevolence” is swallowed up in God’s fullness.

I know this: No one — not the Jews, not the Romans — was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. God was was ultimately responsible. That blood is ultimately on God’s hands. God could have stopped it; God didn’t. And so we’re all left to wonder about God’s responsibility for that act of evil, and for all acts of evil.

  • Jonnie

    Tony, I gotta say, I did not think you were gonna go old fashioned ontotheology and bite this bullet, claiming the uber-Greek God no less! I very much respect your at least making the reformed implication of God plain in your post, but this has divine child abuse and God to blame for egregious evil all over it. Why is Aristotle’s God brute fact starting point here?

    • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

      Totally agreed Jonnie. Tony’s response is surprising espicially considering that he adimately rejects so many other aspects of Greek cosmology and metaphysics.

    • Ric Shewell

      The idea of divine child abuse doesn’t take the trinity as seriously as Moltmann or Jones does. When he says that God is responsible for the blood on the Cross, he means that the God on the Cross is the God that is responsible for the blood on the Cross.

      • Jonnie

        Sorry, but no. Perichoresis, that interpenetrating relationship within the trinity you mentioned, is an extremely intimate fellowship of persons. Yes whatever happens in the son in turn relates to an penetrates the others, but the son is still the son, personally distinct. The perichoretic God is incollapsable into ‘one,’ always persons in relation. If anything, the fellowship notion exacerbates the issue rather than saving it. Just because the death effects some sort of death int eh father, doesn’t remove the abuse. easily

        • Ric Shewell

          It’s not that the Father is off the hook because the Father feels the cross, it is that Jesus had the ability to say “no more,” yet he continued into death for our sake, of his own volition. When Tony says that God is responsible, he means God, not just the Father.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

            That’s right. God=Trinity. The Trinity is implicated.

          • Jonnie

            Ric, do you have a thinly veiled divine Jesus who could have, in a moment, stopped the whole proceedings? There is nothing in any of the biblical accounts that give me the impression that he could has said “no more” and it changed his impending death. If you’re getting at some model wherein Jesus could have actually ended his cross death if he wanted to, that’s some theologizing I do not see in the gospel accounts.

            • Ric Shewell

              Its the image of the priest that sacrifices himself rather than another, and thereby receives the reward of resurrection for himself and all creation. So, you know, that’s the image of Christ in the Letter the Hebrews.

              But in the narrative forms, the word “betrayed” is a reflexive form meaning “handed over,” but its reflexive, so Jesus “handed himself over.” In the narrative, Jesus is obedient, and gives himself up. No one takes his life from him. That’s the image painted in Scripture, not God’s helpless whipping post.

              The NT seems pretty clear that Jesus’ mind was set on sacrifice. It was his choice, and he was rewarded for it. I assume that if he chose the cross, then he had the true choice of saying “no more,” perhaps a request the Father would also honor.

              I don’t think that’s a very tricky theological dance. I think it’s pretty standard.

              • Ric Shewell

                Oh, I guess I should mention the temptation narratives. When the devil tempts Jesus to do something miraculous, Jesus doesn’t say, “Nope, can’t do it, no God powers,” right? The idea is that Jesus (human but empowered by the Holy Spirit) is able to do more than he chooses to do.

                • Jonnie

                  This presumes so much creedal muck back into the narratives, especially into Jesus’ psyche. Also, developing a blood atonement view out of Hebrews is very dubious, let alone reading it back into the drama of the actual narratives where it IS the Romans that kill Jesus. Yes he knew his death was coming, that he was undeniably ruffling the wrong feathers unto his own doom. Whether its penal or temple cult, taking the sacrifice as the metaphysical magic (with a reward) that makes us right is just too odd for me, or too evangelical, or something…

                  I appreciate your thoughts though Ric. Always well crafted.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Sorry to disappoint you guys. I’m honestly trying to wrestle with a few moving pieces here. For one, almost every human being who believes in God believes that God is strong and that God is active. Caputo’s vision, while compelling for a few of us, is not compelling for very many people. So I am attempting to start with a God who people will recognize — no one recognizes God as event.

      Secondly, just because the starting point is that God is all-in-all does not mean that everything else in ontotheology follows. Like Caputo, I think Aquinas was onto something in his reappropriation of Aristotle. I don’t see how you can read Aristotle and call his God a “brute.”

      Thirdly, I don’t find in the Bible that God wants to be let off the hook. God is implicated in Jesus’ death, and in all evil. Not in the penal substitutionary way. But even Caputo’s “weak God” is a cop-out — it’s yet another way to avoid theodicy, as Tripp even says in his comment below.

      I’m trying to deal with real-world questions and talk about a God that people can actually recognize.

      Why do you so badly want to make apologia for God?

      • Jonnie

        I more than respect your goals here Tony, and your thoughtful engagement here. I hope my “!” marks had the smile I intended to go with them. A couple things.

        First, by “brute” I meant brute fact in terms of a a base line, unquestionable starting point for defining God. The assumption of God’s nature and being as (ultimately) responsibility for everything, IS the impetus for the problem. The Bible has such a diverse set of presumptions in this regard, at times working in a mode that shows God as a power struggling (legitimately struggling!) against others, not nearly as a metaphysical ground of all, etc. Still a real God and recognizable, just not complicit, directly or indirectly in every event in the cosmos.

        Second, I take the apologia for God charge. That’s a good critique. I don’t want to “show partiality towards God” like Job charges his friends with. But the presumed apoliga inherent in this model (if you are going to keep believing in a good God as I assume most who make it are) is that the love and the responsibility have to coexist. That’s the article you take on faith, and that article disallows the most basic categories and experiential understanding of those terms (love, all power, and responsbility) from being in play for all the people we’re talking about. In other words, this apologia necessitates a complete re-framing of the meaning of those words, of God, and of God’s character. This I think is a more painful, more alienating apologia.

        Again, you know I respect and admire your commitments here.

      • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

        I don’t want to so badly make an apologia, more like a denunciation! HA! Based on my understanding of God, this question is no longer applicable (see my response below).

        Asking why there is suffering in the world is akin to asking why I keep having to put oil in my car. Because if I don’t the engine temperature will rise, carbonizing the existing oil. The added viscosity then slows the flow of oil and the temperature begins to rise more rapidly. Friction continuously increases, creating more heat which causes more overheating of the engine, and finally seizing or extreme wear of the metal components occurs.

        Maybe one day we won’t need to use oil in our cars anymore. Maybe we’ll evolve to that point, with God’s help and guidance of course, but until then I just have to use oil in my car. At least I know why I have to, and what will happen if I don’t, and I can I try to explain it to others.

    • http://benhammond.wordpress.com Ben Hammond

      I’ve always thought that the “divine child abuse” claim was silly and misunderstood, even when used against penal substitution (which I’m not a fan of) — God’s son is… God (hence God experiences the loss of God). Besides, to even use that claim the way that people usually use it you need a certain notion of the atonement to cast it against. Tony doesn’t even mention much about atonement theory in this post — and from the context (this is his blog + what he has written in his ebook about the topic) it should be clear that the sort of atonement theory that “divine child abuse” is used against is not in play here.

      Plus I feel that all of the other talk in the comments about Greek cosmology and metaphysics is creating an either/or dichotomy, that may not necessarily be true in regards to the way that it is talked about above. I.e., Moltmann often asks us to reframe the way we are talking about all of it in the first place. Here is a good example from “Theology of Hope”:

      “When they speak of Yahweh’s plan, they are not thinking of insight into the divine determination of the world, but mean the constancy of his historic faithfulness. They see judgment and history in the light of the freedom of Yahweh, not an immutable fate. Hence the plans of Yahweh can be ‘repented of’ by Yahweh, and the proclamation of them leads the present into decisions which have an influence on the future of the divine action also. As distinct from any fatalistic apocalyptic view of history, the mobility of history as the prophets see it, and as they stand in it with their own witnesses, can therefore be called ‘a purposeful conversation of the Lord of the future with Israel’. It could thus be said that while the prophetic message in its breadth and in its existential depth does reach the utmost bounds of reality and thereby become eschatological, yet those bounds are not predetermined but are themselves flexible.” (120)

      On the other hand, I know where Tony is coming from with this: “On my theory, God could reclaim omnipotence at any moment, step in, and stop evils and horrors.” — but, honestly, I’m still not sure what to do with that. I feel like Moltmann may just not really answer that question as straight forward as Tony did (I’ve read most of his work, but correct me if I missed something here). I’m sure, in some ways, this statement from Tony is also in the context of his, “Just answer the god damn question!” Attempting to answer questions in a very straight forward manner, while clearly opening oneself up to critique and criticism, is quite a brave thing to do.

      • http://benhammond.wordpress.com Ben Hammond

        Well, apparently Tony responded (better *and* differently) to some of what I was responding to before me — I was writing this over a period of time without refreshing while working on other things.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

          I like your response, too, Ben!

    • Theodore Seeber

      Why are we considering divine child abuse when we should really be considering human abuse of the divine parent?

  • http://thinkingpacifism.net Ted Grimsrud

    I found Caputo utterly convincing on this point. It seems like the issue ultimately is about how thoroughly we want to say that God is love. Can God be utterly loving and have the kind of omnipotence you attribute to God? I think not. It seems that we ultimately have to choose between omnipotence and love. A God of love seems much more worth worshiping and imitating—and more like the God of Jesus.

  • Boston

    Not now, you idiot.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      If not now, when?

  • http://twitter.com/trippfuller trippfuller (@trippfuller)

    What’s the logic of keeping every moment as a moment where God’s omnipotent intervention is a possibility? That is more hardcore than Moltmann! At least he thought that the nature\character of God made it impossible for God to be the God who is love and have arbitrary intervention as a possibility in each moment. The reason for Moltmann (I think it is in his lectures on Creation) is that should the arbitrariness of life correspond to God’s determination then God is not worthy of worship.

    Personally I would think the ‘not-even-once’ principle is necessary for kenotic thinkers who want to preserve divine omnipotence as something God possessed before creating. Of course creatio ex nihilo is a non-biblical idea that creates more problems than it solves…. like your questioners formulation.

    As for Caputo’s charge it may be important to put the quote in his project. His weak theology avoids to even engage in the conversation about God that theodicy comes from, it may even reject it as a consequence of metaphysical hubris. So when he turns to attack kenosis he is attacking the best or most popular way progressive theologians preserve a discourse about God (that is for Caputo a strong discourse). Tony, Moltmann, and other kenotic friends have yet (or thankfully) not abandoned talk about a real God who does real things in a real world. If you have those strong-yet-kenoitc convos about God, it may be better than Piper’s nonsense but it’s still in that game. Caputo wants leave that conversation behind. Caputo wants to talk of ‘events’ harbored in the name of God which (methodologically for a weak theologian) could never be ‘acts’ of God.

    Interestingly Caputo’s big conversation partner in the book is Process Theologian Catherine Keller. She still talks about God.

    • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

      Tripp, I cam honestly say that process response to this question is by far the best Ive ever heard, viz. the early HBC cast with Robert Mesle was huge for me!

      • Ric Shewell

        I agree that process has a response that satisfies theodicy, but at what cost? They propose a God who is co-eternal with creation and ultimately impotent, a description of a God that’s not found in either Scripture or Greek metaphysics that influenced NT writers.

        Process philosophy has come and gone. Process theology sticks around because it does answer theodicy, but all the other implications of process theology leave it dead in the water.

        • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

          Ric, not sure which books you’re reading.

          Co-eternal with creation? Yes, but also timelessly extends beyond it (panentheism).

          Impotent? Maybe, if compared to Zeus or Marduk.

          Not found in scripture? I’d say just as much as the Calvinist god is.

          Come and gone? I’d say it’s more popular than ever, especially since it’s the only theology sophisticated enough to converse with science in a coherent, helpful way.

          Answers theodicy? See my comment below.

          • Ric Shewell

            Well, I’m a Methodist, never have been a Calvinist and probably won’t every be one. I studied under Tom Oord, and have read up on plenty of Whitehead, Hartshorne and Suchocki.

            I haven’t spoken with Oord in a few years, but recently his books seem more open to open theism than he has in the past. Anyway, I think process brings a host of problems.

            Impotence. So not in compared to Zeus, but impotent compared to me. I can always thwart God’s will. If it comes down to what I want vs. what God wants, I always win. And not just me, but every iota of creation. Every atom or smaller has the necessary ability to reject God’s persuasion. Process relies on the freedom of all of creation, which brings up another problem:

            what makes a thing? If every atom has freewill, does a collection of atoms have one will or millions?

            I get that God is in all things, but not deciding coercively for anything. Here is where the World transcends God as Whitehead says. God does not decide for anything because God is unable to. Process relies on that.

            I also don’t really like the rejection of eschatology, Jesus’ divinity, and the Trinity. But the two things that hang me up the most are the ultimate and necessary impotence of God (though many process theologians are in denial of this) and the free will of all things (and the inability to define a thing).

            • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

              Ric,

              The Calvinist remark was in response to your claim that process thought isn’t “biblical.” I wasn’t accusing you of being a Calvinist, just pointing out that both theologies can be equally “biblical.”

              I get what you’re saying about impotence. God, in process thought, is impotent in your eyes because we (and all of creation) can choose to reject God’s persuasion. True. I can see that being a hang up for many people. I too wish things were pre-ordained sometimes. I wish that we knew the future was going to be OK, but we don’t. Lets be honest, don’t you truly experience reality in this way? This is precisely how things are. Yes, it is indeed possible that we can destroy our planet, and in fact, we’re actually doing a pretty good job it.

              Free will

              Process theology affirms self-determination but not “free will.” The idea of the “will” comes from faculty psychology and is something process rejects. Faculty psychology depicts the human psyche as divided into quasi-substantial parts, for example, passion, reason, and will. Freud’s analysis of the psyche in terms of id, ego, and superego is another example.

              Process theologians understand the psyche to be a succession of occasions of experience. Each occasion derives from God an aim that guides its integration of its past. But the aim is also adjusted during this process. The exact outcome is not determined until it happens. Of course there are multiple determinants. Whitehead says that every occasion is in part a cause of itself.

              Self-determination provides a meaningful understanding of “freedom.” The problem with “freedom” is that it can be understood negatively. It is often understood to mean only not determined. Then it seems to be a matter of sheer chance. What is self-determined is not determined by the past or by God, but it is determined by the occasion itself. If freedom means simply not determined at all, then neither the occasion nor the person of whom it is a part is responsible for the outcome. If the outcome is determined by the occasion itself, then there is responsibility.

              Trinity & Christology

              Traditionally, thinking in these two areas of interest is infested with classical substance metaphysics. So you’re right to say that process thinkers have a different take. However, there is too much to address here. I’ll just point you to some helpful articles from Cobb.

              http://processandfaith.org/writings/ask-dr-cobb/2005-07/trinity

              http://processandfaith.org/writings/ask-dr-cobb/2004-08/jesus

              http://processandfaith.org/writings/ask-dr-cobb/2006-05/free-will

              • Ric Shewell

                I don’t want to post links to theologians’ work. Let’s just work it out here, and trust the other person to do their homework. I studied under several people from Claremont. I’ve read this stuff. I think Cobb goes too far away from mystery of the New Testament, and writes-off too easily the early fathers’ theology because they hold to an outdated metaphysic in his opinion. His argument is very ad hominem. Cobb goes on to explain that his metaphysic is self-evident. You alluded to this when you said, “This is precisely how things are.” But be honest, we don’t know how things are, and no metaphysic is self-evident.

                What critiques of process are you reading?

                There are some serious problems with process, but their work is very intellectual stimulating and interesting, I’ll give you that. But the only way process will enjoy broad acceptance is if a sweeping amount of Christians agree to free themselves of the driving forces that have given Christians their identity throughout history, namely Scripture and Tradition. I just don’t see that happening.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      I want a God who is real, a God who acts, a God who changes, a God who is recognizable to the majority of people who believe in God, and a God who accords with the Bible. How is the Process God not just another way to let God off the hook by saying that God is “in the moment” and can’t do the things that Jesus clearly thought God could do?

      • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

        Interested to hear what kind of things Jesus thought God could do.

        Process Thought doesn’t “let God off the hook” Tony, it actually does away with the hook completely. This question is no longer applicable. The cup cannot be passed. There is suffering in the world.

        Why is there suffering?

        Cobb says it best: “if God is to bring an ordered world out of a chaos of finite actualities, any development that God can promote will have to conform to these correlations.The positive correlation between the capacity for intrinsic good and intrinsic evil means that the increased complexity that makes greater enjoyment possible also makes greater suffering possible. Greater complexity of experience overcomes triviality, but it does not guarantee bliss, for it may open the door to discord so great that the positive enjoyment of experience will be virtually eliminated. The reason is that the condition for great enjoyment is the capacity to receive the feelings of others into oneself. This is good if the feelings the others contribute are by and large harmonious. But if they are not–if one’s body is wracked with pain, if loved ones are mutilated–then the sympathetic appropriation of their feelings becomes the source of great suffering. In fact, the suffering can be so great that sympathetic appropriation can seem more a curse than a blessing, and practices can be undertaken to seek to eliminate or at least minimize this capacity. One can choose harmony over intensity, thus reverting to a more trivial existence in order to advert discord.</b?"

        I'd say the God of process thought is definitely real Tony. God's imminence is restored, more-so than in the deistic self-limiting version you propose. But I can't blame you for wanting that Zeus god, I find myself wishing things were preordained to sometimes…

        • http://benhammond.wordpress.com Ben Hammond

          The Zeus god? That seems to fall into the realm of false dichotomies again. Not that it’s the idea/nature of god is supposed to be a “both/and” sort of thing, but it’s over simplifying it to say that Tony just wants a “greek metaphysical” god. Again, read Moltmann. I think there are far more than two “options.”

          • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

            By Zeus god I mean a God who is omnipotent in the traditional sense.

            • http://benhammond.wordpress.com Ben Hammond

              “omnipotent in the traditional sense” — Makes sense. For me, it would be helpful to just say that, since “Zeus god” borders on being a bit insulting. It oversimplifies the subject. Would you call the Hebrew God a Zeus god?

              Tony is Multmannian — read what Multmann says about the idea of things being “preordained.” I tend to think that words like “omnipotent” aren’t very useful, so when people try to differentiate what they think from me by pushing back against those sorts of words they tend to not understand where I’m coming from (obviously, here you are pushing back against Tony, not me, and Tony did use that sort of word in his post).

              Clearly critiquing language, or how things are worded, is not an argument for or against something in and of itself, but I think it’s hard to have effective/useful dialogue if people are just talking past each other like two ships in the fog. To me, it feels like there is a decent about of that going on in these comments – not blatantly, but very subtly.

              • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

                Ben, I don’t mean to offend. Just trying to be funny and irreverent.

                I’m only familiar with Moltmann’s theology through Tony’s and other peoples writing, but here’s the thing. When I say “Zeus god,” I’m basically taking on the role/perspective of someone who is critical of religion, someone who would dismiss all religion and “god talk” as fanciful myth, someone with a purely modern, naturalistic, scientific worldview if you will.

                Can you now see, for a person who is a non-theist, or a naturalist, how silly the question of theodicy is? In my eyes, this question pre-supposes a super-natural Zeus-like god, thus, why I used the term. But again, I didn’t mean to offend.

                • http://benhammond.wordpress.com Ben Hammond

                  No worries at all. You didn’t offend — Sorry if I gave that impression.

                  When you say, “non-theist, or a naturalist” — are you referring to what those terms popularly mean, or are ideas of radical theology included as well?

      • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

        It just occurred to me Tony that your charge that process thinkers are attempting to get “God off the hook,” is misplaced, here is why:

        The question of theodicy itself implies that God is on the hook, which essentially means that whoever poses this question is not facing the reality of death honestly. This can’t be faulted, no one wants there to be suffering and death in this world. So, ultimately, the question of theodicy is about the human fear of death.

        If the reality of death was being taken seriously though, as something must happen one way or another, it’s easy to see why this particular theological problem is silly. Indeed it so, to encounter God in the fullness of love is to encounter God alongside and through death. There is no other way. The cup cannot be passed.

  • Si Lee

    My question here would be, what would be the real value of this type of Kenosis in relation to the problem of evil if it could be suspended at any moment? To be fair, Tony says God is ‘still on the hook’, but it seems this Kenosis doesn’t really offer much of a theodicy.

    • Ric Shewell

      You are right. Kenosis does not satisfy theodicy. That’s the point Tony is making. God is still responsible, and that calls God’s benevolence into question. So, given that Jesus and the Apostles testify that God is Love, do we believe that even in spite of the evil in this world?

      • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

        Amen, Ric. That’s the question of faith.

      • Dan Hauge

        I think that Tony’s move to (potentially) split off the idea of ‘benevolence’ from love when we talk about God is a really interesting one. The fundamental assumption of those who challenge Tony’s position seems to be that if God is love, and if God does have power to take (coercive) action, then God has a moral obligation to control creation and control us so completely that all suffering would be prevented. It must be either 100% benevolent control over all creation, or no power to control at all, or else God isn’t worthy of worship. I’ve always just found this to be unconvincing. I guess this is just my version of the ‘free will defense’, which I gather is unsatisfying to a lot of people, but for me it just makes sense that creating a universe with a certain amount of autonomy has great value in itself. But this autonomy is not completely compromised if God does act more dramatically in certain instances. So if we are defining ‘benevolence’ as “using God’s power to prevent all suffering”, then yes, in that particular sense God is not benevolent. What I would then be interested in is the argument that only this kind of benevolence is compatible with love.

        This leaves wide open, of course the question of why God appears to be acting in a more interventionist way in some cases, while not in the majority of cases. And no, I don’t have an answer for that, certainly not on any case-by-case basis. But this view seems to correlate most closely with the biblical view of God, and with lived experience, and I personally don’t feel the need for specific answers to why God acts differently in different situations to still believe in a God who is love. I totally understand that many feel differently.

        • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

          Great thoughts, Dan.

        • http://thinkingpacifism.net Ted Grimsrud

          I would suggest, Dan, that “love,” by definition cannot be controlling. It seems like the clear evidence indicates that the world does not operate in the control of a supreme being who is loving—it’s too messy, there is way too much evil and brokenness.

          So, one could imagine, either the deity is loving and not able to control or the deity is not consistently loving (either controlling the world in its broken ways or for some inscrutable reason choosing most of the time voluntarily not to control).

          It seems to fit the evidence best to posit a loving but not controlling or all-powerful God. The quantity of non-redemptive brokenness is simply too great to imagine God can be controlling and loving at the same time. But we do know that love is real and wonderful, that is, divine. A God who is not consistently loving is deeply problematic for humanity’s and creation’s well-being.

          What I fail to understand is why someone would want to believe that God is (even potentially) all-powerful. If you can’t answer “why God appears to be acting in a more interventionist way in some cases, while not in the majority of cases” (and I’d be interested in examples of any examples at all of how God has acted in an “interventionist way” in the past 2,000 years), why do you want a God who acts this way? That is, why would you want a God who is not consistently loving?

          • Dan Hauge

            I guess for me the option of a deity voluntarily not controlling everything is not so ‘inscrutable’–it makes sense if there is inherent value in an autonomous creation (i.e. people with genuine agency, able to make genuine choices). In this way I’d say that God voluntarily chooses not to control us for precisely the reason you start out with–that love cannot be controlling.

            In terms of ‘intervention’ I’m basically saying that I accept many accounts of divine healing–both in the last 2000 years and in the Gospels (and including the resurrection). I mean, if we say that a God who heals sometimes and not at other times is inherently not loving, wouldn’t we then have to insist that Jesus was not loving? He healed many, but also spent time doing things besides healing, so you could argue that he didn’t heal as many as he possibly could. Which, by your definition as I understand it, means that Jesus was not consistently loving.

            Now, you may account for this by not accepting the accounts of Jesus’ healing, which I would understand, though I don’t agree.

  • Mary

    Old Book:”Why do bad things happen to good people?”… still has a few relevant points…. generally that God is not constantly omnipotent but ultimately omnipotent (as in an on-going process) … I don’t know if I buy that either but when I read it many years ago, I did let God off the hook because it resonated with me and obviously still does.
    Why? Isn’t it a little naive to expect God to create a fairy tale existence for us incomplete creatures? I still do not see the problem with God learning i.e. changing. I think God is continually becoming/creating… creation is still on. Isn’t that the point of existing?
    I think God actively and on-goingly “suffers” in continually giving of himself daily, for us. Jesus was the uber statement of that solidarity. Yes that is ass-backwards from the whole withdrawal of God self thing (which I used to believe, btw).
    I think suffering is the price for existing… including God’s suffering (I know that isn’t popular but it is biblical. Check it.). Anything else is gravy and therein lies more abundant grace than I deserve.
    Saying God is complicit with evil as the reason for suffering is just whining to me. You can’t have free will without evil. God works with every mess we and the universe can make.

  • nick jackson

    Didn’t see that coming. Gave me a lot to think about. I keep going back and forth between kenosis and process (are they mutually exclusive?).

    Question, Tony. When you say the responsibility of the crucifixion doesn’t fall on the Jews nor the Romans, but it falls on God, I am assuming you are implying that the responsibility doesn’t fall on anyone, non-Jew and non-Roman included, but falls solely on God. If not that, then maybe your saying it falls a little on others, but mostly on God. If so, how do you fit that with Girard’s scapegoat theory?

  • Kien

    First, a preliminary point. the times hen I most believe in God are there times when I am suffering most. It’s only from the comfort of an arm chair that I have the luxury of wondering how there can be a God in the face if suffering. Maybe this is related to Jesus’ point that he came to seek and save the lost. The rich, the powerful, the comfortable, have no need of God. The weak and poor look to a benign God for hope and rescue. The alternative is not atheism, but some other form of spirituality. I heard that the early Christians were known as atheists because they did not believe in the Roman and Greek gods. Christianity is actually a very reasonable religion.

    Second, in the deeper question of how God can allow suffering, my answer is to the effect that suffering and evil is really manifestation of the human capacity to imagine a better alternative to our current environment. We are imaginative beings. Our capacity to imagine a better world is, I would argue, a gift from God. Otherwise we might be like an ant colony, enslaved to an unreflective life, not bring able to imagine something better. We see inequality in society and call that unjust. Not all societies see inequality as a problem. I understand that in many societies, the subordination of women, of slaves, of aliens, of the poor, are considered “normal”. During Plato’s time, infanticide was common and the phisolosphers could see nothing wrong with it. Christianity came along and (over time) changed the way we see the world.

    This is not a complete answer of how God can permit suffering. But that would be my best answer. Fine to debate these theological issues, but don’t forget that the real suffering that surrounds us and how we best overcome this. Personally, my faith in a loving God who will one day put all things right enables me to persevere in the face of suffering, injustice and evil.

  • http://gravatar.com/petergoforth petergoforth

    In some ways I believe that Isaiah 45.7 is dispositive on this. We can call this damning or not. I prefer not to, in much the same way I don’t believe God’s response to Job, “Where were you,” etc.” is damning. Both are simply there. (It is interesting how many commentaries on this passage from Isaiah seem to take the form of, “Stand back, God. I’ll take care of this one for you.”) While fides may always be quaerens-ing intellectum, intellectum may forever be retreating in front of us. Moreover, in much the way the same way that the modern world (west) has reversed “work to live” into a more perverse “live to work,” in what I read here it appears that it is not so much faith seeking understanding, as using understanding seeking to make sense of faith, perhaps even to define it. Does God want us at our desks or on our knees? At times, I am not sure.

  • Brenton Reading

    I just finished Kester Brewin’s new book After Magic. I think his concept of the need to move beyond magic/power in order to express and experience love is helpful.

    I resonate with Multmann’s theology and because I believe God prioritizes love and relationships then God must relinquish divine power in order to become a part of the process of creation.

    This move has far reaching implications; but, one interesting way to think about this comes from Kester’s book where he describes the choice Bruce Wayne makes to give up Batman. Batman brings Bane and Gotham will forever be embroiled in a great controversy between the powers of good and evil as long as Batman exists. It is only in giving up the powerful figure of Batman that the people of Gotham are free of this external conflict imposed in them.

    The problem or promise then is that after Batman, after the power of the divine is relinquished, the people of Gotham now have the possibility and responsibility of becoming angels or demons themselves.

    I think this simplistic illustration offers a way to approach the necessity of the kenosis of God and the ultimate death of God, the lamb slain since the foundation of the world, as inseparable from and necessary for free will, relationship, and love.

  • Mark Kirschieper

    The concept of God’s implication, in evil, shouldn’t be offensive. It’s really a sort of hypothetical presupposition…Humanity is still choosing to “sin”. The creature, is in actuality, the causative agent, of evil, not the creator. Perhaps middle knowlege, might be the best mediator between God’s sovereignty, and creaturely free will. Even, the Roman church, doesn’t label it heresy.

    • http://benhammond.wordpress.com Ben Hammond

      Middle knowledge is certainly compelling to me. I believe that is the view that Scott McKnight holds.

  • http://gravatar.com/rumitoid rumitoid

    Very interesting blog and responses. Let me begin with this: nothing happens to me or for me; it all happens within me. Reality is only in the heart, the life I get is there. There will be pain and sometimes great pain but suffering is optional. I have the responsibility of dying to self. In doing so, nothing can harm my peace of mind. This is achieved by grace and the Holy Spirit and my willing surrender. I can live on earth as if already iin heaven no matter what the circumstances and conditions. Paradise. Jesus gave us the keys, principles, to live such a life.

    We have been given the omnipotence, so to speak, to make this world what we want it to be. God does not interfere with our free will. All the things that I sought to avoid at almost any cost–humiliation, loss, failure–were my finest teachers. What do we expect life to be? That’s part of the problem: expectations and entitlement. Worldliness, of which we are to avoid, is attachment to anything of the world. This does not mean people. We are to love them like unto loving God: with all of our heart, mmind, soul, and strength. Sorrow and compassion are part of the richness and beauty of love. To experience sorrow is to witness to love; it is suffering only if we take it as a loss of some possession. If we are not compassionate to all, we cultivate selfishness and self-centeredness that corrupts all our actions.

    What many expect of God is similar to blaming Satan for their sins.


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