I believe the problem of evil or suffering is the most challenging issue for theology. It’s probably the biggest reason why people reject the existence of God. Even for those who have believed in God, when something very terrible happens to them or their loved ones that belief can be shaken or even abandoned. The problem goes something like this: If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all beneficent then why is there evil and suffering in the world? It’s a tough one. Now one issue that could be addressed is “what is evil” but I won’t get into that here and instead just go with our intuitive sense about it.
If this is such a serious problem then how is it to be tackled? There have been a number of different theodicies, which are basically a defense of God. Some try to limit God, saying that one of the three commonly described divine features (i.e. omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence) is incorrect. In this approach usually it means that God is not all-knowing or all-powerful. In process theology, God can’t actualize anything in the universe. Instead, God “lures” or tries to influence how things transpire but not in an overt way. As such God doesn’t really know what will happen or have the power to control it. In some ways, this is similar to the “free will” approach.
One of the most common theodicies is found in the Abrahamic traditions where God allows humans to have the free will to decide for themselves. God creates them but endows them with the capability to rebel against what God would want. The idea here is to provide some mitigating factor to offset the evil and suffering that is present. I think the need for some mitigation is correct.
There are other attempts at resolving the problem of evil but now I’ll focus on the options and then the Divine Life Communion approach.
Free will. Probably the most prominent mitigating factor cited is free will. In the free will approach, the greater good is the freedom of humans. The way this theodicy goes is that God is all beneficent but allowed human beings to have free choice where they could act contrary to what God wants. Free will is supposed to be the good that mitigates the presence of evil. Does this, in fact, absolve God from the evil in the world? I don’t think so. While there is certainly much evil done by free agents, one could also argue that there is perhaps even more that occurs without humans being involved. Think of a tsunami or a horrible disease. These events kill and maim not only individuals but also destroy families and cultures. History is replete with all sorts of natural disasters that show no mercy toward both adults and children, families, and communities. If God is responsible for the creation of nature then how is that evil is not God’s responsibility? Metaphorically, the artisan is responsible for the artifact.
Secondly, if humans were created with the ability to not create evil, then surely there are individuals who completely made that choice. These would be “pure” individuals who chose that path. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Everyone is a mixture of good and evil. Everyone leads an ambiguous life where they act both for the good and for the bad. Now one argument that is supposed to resolve this problem is original sin. According to this the first humans (in the garden of Eden) made the wrong choice and that spoiled the whole of the world from the possibility of a purely good existence. But does this make any sense today given what we know about evolution? Given the long history of the development of modern humans from early hominids, there isn’t any place to find these “first” humans. While I believe humans do have free will (On Free Will), I don’t see how this argument is compelling today.
Other theodicies like that of the great philosopher Gottfried Leibniz claimed that evil is present so we can become sensitive to what is good and create it. Without evil, we wouldn’t know what the good is and strive for it. While from a slightly different perspective, this might provide some level of mitigation, I don’t think it is sufficient. Others can decide if these mitigating factors are sufficiently compelling.
The Divine Life Communion proposes some different mitigating factors. The first is that life itself is worth having the potential for evil. The second is complicated but in an aspect monism and divine idealism ontology, it is literally God who both does the evil and suffers its consequences. Let’s take a look at these.
What is life? This is a controversial question. Does life require metabolism, replication, use of energy, etc? From a theological perspective, however, I would like to focus on a broad feature — constrained being. However life may be defined, it occurs within constraints. There is a structure to the universe and it is within that structure that beings exist. There are fundamental constraints like space and time, polarities of positive/negative, fundamental forces, properties, as well as things such as chemistry, heat, entropy, etc. The bottom line is that these constraints make life, as we know it, possible. They allow for dynamic processes to occur that support things like energy flow and consumption, information transfer, and stability as well as change. The processes both create and destroy. There is growth and decay. Evolution itself shows how complexity can be created and destroyed but life moves on. To be alive means being but being within those life-giving constraints. Much has been said about how fine-tuned the universe is such that life is even possible. Life is possible because the constraints are just right for life forms. Change something just a little bit and there would be no life (as we know it). Constrained being.
So, what does this have to do with the problem of evil? What it means is that the very same structures and processes that make life possible also make what we call evil possible. These constraints both create and destroy. There is growth and decay. In growth, what came before is destroyed to some extent and the new takes its place. Even things like learning both create and destroy. The old is destroyed in some sense and the new takes its place. Hence, both the “good” and the “evil” participate in these same processes. If this is the case, then for there to be life, the potential for evil must also be present. Without the structures and processes that make evil possible, life would not be possible either.
So the question is, is life worth the potential for evil to exist? What would be an alternative? Enter heaven. To resolve the problem of evil, some sort of ultimate bliss is postulated. No evil, no pain, etc. At first blush this might sound appealing but would it really be? I don’t think so. If there is no possibility of failure, would there be any satisfaction in success? Could there be any joy without the opposite of pain? Without tension where is the satisfaction of release? There would also be no joy in learning where the old is destroyed and the new created. If one thinks long enough about an existence without possible negatives, I don’t think it would be that appealing. Perhaps then having life is worth having evil.
So, in this scenario, is it necessary to shield God from evil and is a resolution to evil necessary? If life (and with it the potential for evil) is actually a worthwhile thing, then God as creator needs no defense.
Now here is a tough one for many people to accept. Wouldn’t it be unfair that although creation with evil being present is necessary, God in God’s perfection doesn’t have to experience it? Only if there is no evil within God. In an aspect monism this isn’t the case. God is a living God, God has a Life. If there is only the One then evil resides in the One and, in fact, is created by the One. But such is life, and if there is a Divine Life then the divine also includes evil. From a moral point of view, since aspects of God both create and experience evil, so does God. The Author is responsible for both life and the evil within it. What this means is that God is not in some pure state, untouched by evil. Rather, the Living God is in the midst of the struggle of life both causing the good and evil and experiencing their effects as well.
In an aspect monism, God chose to live in the most challenging forms. God chose to be in the most oppositional positions relative to what God in God’s depth would want in this reality. This means that even in what we might consider the most depraved individuals there is a spark of the divine transcendent depth that tries to come forward. As an example, often we see in even serial killers a spark of humanity. They may be cold-blooded killers but often they break down when talking about their families. No one is without the divine transcendent depth. It is there exerting its influence even in those who commit horrible evils. God chose to live and experience life in all its forms. This is God embracing all aspects of living, from the greatest noble lives to those we most detest.
Certainly, we should oppose evil in the most vigorous way. This is also God opposing the evil tendencies in life. But there are factors that should be considered. Psychology tells us that the most evil among us have often experienced significant trials. This may include nature and nurture. In the most evil of individuals there may be genetic predispositions that are an influence. Or there may be environmental issues in play: parenting, cultural situations, etc. Life imposes these on individuals. But within all that there is still the divine transcendent depth within. It is ever present and tries to exert its influence. However, there is a freedom to embrace it or reject it. Thus is life. In each aspect, God struggles with this dichotomy in each individual. This is the courage of being, as Paul Tillich talked about in his “The Courage to Be”. It is God embracing what it means to be a constrained being, with all its ambiguity and challenges. I think we need to take life more seriously. It is a gift. It recognizes that the stasis of perfection is not something to wish for. Life is dynamic. It is not perfection. It embraces what it means to live, to struggle, to strive for the good and at times fail.
Now, this scenario doesn’t suggest complacency toward evil. To the contrary. Intuitional revelation as encoded in wisdom literature resoundingly calls for a struggle against evil. So the Divine Life entails a struggle for good over evil and if there is no resolution in the offing (Rejecting World Rejection) then this struggle is eternal.
One of the starkest examples of the problem of evil is when children are affected. Why should children, who are so innocent, have to suffer and die. How could a loving God allow that? This seems especially cruel if God is seen as some passive bystander. But who is it that suffers and dies? In an aspect monism, it is literally God. In an aspect monism, it is God, as the child, who suffers and dies. It is God both as the Author and in each aspect who suffers the vicissitudes of life and the horrors it sometimes presents. As the Author of Life, a part of God suffers and dies. For anyone who has lost a child or someone they love, it is like losing part of oneself. A deep, deep pain. This is the pain that God experiences in every instance of suffering and death throughout creation. There must be something so valuable and wonderful about life and living it that God would choose to take it on. God is not some detached sovereign watching from afar but rather is right in the midst of all the ambiguity, conflict, pain, and death, literally. Perhaps this is a mitigating factor worth considering.
Virtues are something we admire and hold up as exemplars for how life should be lived. Now, the thing about virtues is that they can only occur when their opposite is present. In Eastern thought there is a yin/yang dynamic to everything — a continual dialog/tension between the opposite poles. We even see this in scientific characterizations such as positive and negative charges, matter and antimatter, attraction and repulsion in magnetic fields, etc.
Just to name a few, with virtues we have the polarities of love/hate, courage/cowardice, self-interest/other-interest, hope/despair, honesty/dishonesty, and so on. What this means, in the broad sense, is that there is an inextricable link between good and evil. Without evil, there can be no virtues. So, if virtues are of profound importance, we must accept that a powerful, beneficent God would create a reality where evil is present and virtues are possible.
A Metaphor – Author/Story
Perhaps to understand better how God lives in each aspect, I’ll offer a metaphor. Now, I don’t mean to trivialize the situation, but I think metaphors can help with understanding. The metaphor I’ll use here is Author/Story. I also have dedicated posts of metaphors that can be found in the menu on the left part of the screen.
The Author/Story metaphor alludes to a foundational concept in TDLC theology and that is a divine idealism where reality is essentially a construct in the mind of God.
So, think about how a story or narrative is created. The author imagines a world, environments, settings, and characters. That imagining is in the mind of the author. It’s all the author but also somewhat distinct from the full range of the author’s being. It’s a creation. The author has an idea about the plot and what will happen broadly but as the author writes, the story unfolds often in ways the author didn’t expect in the beginning. Now, a key point here is that all the characters are part of the author – an aspect of the author’s mind. In creating the narrative, the author “becomes” each character, taking on their attributes and limitations. In essence, the author adopts the role of that character. Like in role-playing games. The author sheds their own particular knowledge, proclivities, personality, etc. to become that role, acting out that role within the givens of that being. In other words, the author lives that life, with all its constraints, limitations, flaws, and problems. Now, from a theological perspective, this idea is nothing new. There is a concept in Greek thought called kenosis — self-emptying. It shows up in Christianity with the incarnation, in the avatars in Hinduism, as well as in Greek mythology. Essentially it is the divine, being instantiated in the world in some limited form.
Now in the TDLC ontology, an aspect monism, this doesn’t just apply to human characters. It applies to everything – the environment, elementary components, bacteria, plants, insects, animals, all the way to human animals. Each has its own constraints and levels of sentience. Some aspects of the Divine Life behave stereotypically like chemical elements, cells, plants, etc. with very limited complexity whereas in others there is great complexity and more options available. So God takes on each role (a divine aspect) and lives that life.
What this means for the problem of evil is that God adopts all the aspects (characters and settings) of narrative and the constraints in play for them. These include natural aspects like weather, oceans, rain, wind, etc. as well as all living organisms. So with respect to natural disasters, God honors the situations and constraints that apply. This is a commitment to the life-giving order in nature.
With regard to agents, God also honors the situations and constraints the aspects (characters) find themselves in. These constraints include many things — the environment, personal history, genetic makeup, the situation, limited knowledge, psychological proclivities, etc. Also as agent aspects of the divine, they also inherit a level of freedom, somewhat independent from God, the Author. So, each aspect has a choice whether or not to discover and embrace the divine transcendent depth within and choose what God would want for them and the world or not. All this represents a commitment of God to live within the constraints that make life possible where courage, resolve, and all the most laudable characteristics can emerge but also where there is a potential for evil to arise.
And so the grand narrative unfolds as God lives each life and struggles with the limitations and challenges of what it means to be a finite creature with frailties as well as strengths.
So to summarize. However one approaches theology, God is responsible for evil. If this is so, then there should be mitigating factors. One mitigating factor in this approach is life itself. Life entails constraints. The forces that create the good also create the evil. The complementary and opposing forces (yin/yang) make life possible. This is life and the alternative is perfection, which means an abhorrent stasis. If life is worth it, then we have to accept that there is an inherent potential for both good and evil. Not only that but God creates both and also feels the effects of both. In an aspect monism, God takes on the constraints of each being and acts within those constraints. God, in God’s depth, has a goal or teleology for reality so each aspect of God has that purposefulness also in their depth. There is a freedom to embrace that depth or not. Often we do not but sometimes we do. What this means is that life is an eternal struggle between embracing the good in our depth or rejecting it. This means risk. Both for God and each aspect. The problem of evil really addresses the question of whether to live or not to live. If the choice is to live then it forces acting out of courage and resolve. This is what God chose to do in living a Divine Life. God emptied God’s self for this Life to enter into the eternal struggle to create love, beauty, and meaning in the midst of all the ambiguities and vicissitudes of life.