The Most Neglected Issue in Explanations of Evil
by Thomas Jay Oord
September 4, 2014
In my current book, I offer a model of providence I call “Essential Kenosis.” One of my main arguments is that this model gives a plausible reason why a loving and powerful God fails to prevent genuine evil. One aspect of my argument, however, addresses what we might call God's "constitution." I find this aspect neglected more than any other by those who address the problem of evil.
My solution is, I believe, novel, because I point to God’s nature of love as the reason God cannot prevent genuine evil caused by random events or free creatures. My work is funded by the Randomness and Divine Providence project, directed by James Bradley.
But there is another, often overlooked, aspect to what I think is a plausible solution to the problem of evil. This aspect addresses an aspect of the problem of evil not directly tied to God's love and power.
God as Omnipresent Spirit
It is important to say God cannot prevent genuine evil because doing so requires nullifying the divine nature of love. This is the heart of the essential kenosis model of providence. But another set of issues remain. We can address these issues by asking this question:
If we creatures sometimes thwart a planned terrorist attack by using our bodies, sending agents, or using various instruments, why can’t God do this?
To ask the question more specifically, if we creatures can step between two combatants and thereby prevent evil, why can’t God do the same? If creatures can use their bodies to prevent evil, why can’t God prevent evil in this way? And if creatures can marshal others to use objects to prevent genuine evil, why doesn’t God do the same?
God is a Loving Spirit
Essential kenosis answers this set of questions by affirming the traditional view that God is a loving spirit and lovingly omnipresent. Unfortunately, those who believe in God often fail to think through the implications of these traditional views.
Believing God is an omnipresent spirit has implications for thinking well about why God cannot unilaterally prevent evil in ways we might sometimes prevent it. Being an omnipresent spirit affords God both unique abilities and unique limitations.
To say God is a loving spirit is to say, in part, God does not have a divine body. God’s essential “being” or “constitution” is spiritual. In fact, because God is spirit, we cannot perceive God with our five senses. Christians have proposed various theories to explain how God’s invisible spiritual life exerts causal influence, and many involve affirming some form of nonsensory causation. The details of these theories deserve fuller explanation than what is possible here.
God is Lovingly Omnipresent
The second divine attribute typically neglected in discussions of evil is God’s universality. God is present to all creation and to each individual entity. God is omnipresent, most believers say. Rather than being localized in a particular place as creatures are localized, the Creator is present to all.
As an omnipresent spirit with no localized divine body, God cannot exert divine bodily influence as a localized corpus. God cannot use a divine body to step between two parties engaged in a fight, for instance. God doesn’t have a wholly divine hand to scoop a rock out of the air, cover a bomb before it explodes, or block a bullet before it projects from a rifle. While we may sometimes be morally culpable for failing to use our localized bodies to prevent such genuine evils, the God without a localized divine body is not culpable.
God cannot prevent evil with a localized divine body, because God is an omnipresent spirit.
God Calls Upon Creatures with Bodies to Love
God can, however, marshal those with localized bodies to exert creaturely bodily impact in various ways. God can call upon a teacher to place her body between a bully and his victim. God can call upon the fire fighter to reach through a burning window to grab a terrified toddler. God can even call upon lesser organisms and entities to use their bodily aspects, in whatever limited way possible, to promote good or prevent evil. We rightly regard the positive responses of less complex organisms, for instance, as instrumental in the physical healings we witness in our world. And we rightly honor humans who respond to God’s calls to use their bodies to prevent genuine evil or do good.
Of course, we with localized bodies do not always respond well to God’s call. God may want to prevent some evil and call upon a creature to use its body for this purpose. But creatures may fail to respond well, disobey, and sin. God is not culpable for the evil that results when we fail to love. God may marshal groups to intercede to help, but these groups may ignore God’s commands. When God calls and we fail to respond well, we are to blame.
Creatures sometimes respond well to God’s call, however. They “listen” to God’s call to prevent some impending tragedy or stop an ongoing conflict. When creatures respond well, we sometimes even say, “God prevented that evil.” This should not mean that God alone prevented it. Creatures cooperated, playing necessary roles by using their bodies to fulfill God’s good purposes. Our saying, “God did it,” simply expresses our belief that God played the primary causal role in the event.
We Can Be God’s Co-Workers
Creaturely cooperation inspired the phrase, “we are God’s hands and feet.” It also inspired the saying “the world is God’s body” and God is the “soul of the universe.” These phrases only make sense, however, if we do not take them literally. We do not literally become divine appendages; the world is not literally a divine corpus. God remains divine; and we and world are God’s creations.
But when creatures respond well to God’s leading, the overall result is that God’s will is done in heaven and on earth. When God’s loving will is done, we might feel provoked to credit, praise, and thank the Creator. And this is appropriate. But when we do so, we can also rightly acknowledge the creaturely cooperation required for establishing what is good. God gets the lion’s share of the credit, but should appreciate creatures who cooperated with their Creator.
We can be God’s co-workers (1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 6:1; 3 Jn 1:8). Hallelujah!