Having your theological cake and eating it too

A basic argument used against the existence of the Christian God is the problem of evil, and in particular natural evil (resulting not from a person’s choice but natural forces). If God could stop these things, why wouldn’t He?

One conclusion from this problem is to say that God doesn’t exist. Therefore, there’s no seeming contradiction that requires explanation between a benevolent, omnipotent God and the existence of natural evil.

A second conclusion is to say that natural evil doesn’t (really) exist, but rather what seems sub-optimal is actually ’the best of possible worlds’ (the Panglossian response).

A third conclusion is to say that we simply don’t understand how to reconcile these because we don’t understand things well enough, but in the end an omnipotent-in-the-classical-sense, benevolent God can be reconciled with natural evil (perhaps by considerations following from the introduction of indeterminacy into the universe, related to the good of free will).

The obvious response to the third conclusion is that it is mysterianism – not an answer but a shrug.

The obvious response to the second conclusion is that it’s banal.

In both of these, the theologian tries to have his cake and eat it too. “Sure, there seems like an obvious contradiction in what I’m saying, but we can just shuffle along, and ignore it.” I hope that modernity, and especially an invigorated religious marketplace of ideas (that includes atheism), doesn’t allow this response to continue.

This is because the obvious response to the first (atheistic) conclusion is that it’s overreach. What is shown, rather, is that God isn’t omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent in the classical sense of these words.

I think the appropriate response to the problem of natural evil is to say that, whatever God’s omnipotence is, what people see in the everyday world, or in the Biblical stories for that matter, is a God who works through things, people, and time in order to achieve results. He is a designer who doesn’t ‘wave a magic wand’, but rather crafts a vessel – He works with the material of the universe.

What is important here for Christians is that the argument from natural evil isn’t about the existence of God unless they make it so! This, the premier atheistic argument, is really a self-inflicted theological wound on the part of Christian theologians, because the argument is so obvious and the responses are almost always weak.

So, this leads us back a step. Why have Christians posited an omnipotent-in-the-classical-sense God in the first place? It doesn’t seem to do with everyday experience, or with the Bible (unless you count a few occurrences of a term translated as ‘almighty’, which is not the same as saying God is omnipotent in the classical sense).

The answer is that it comes from ancient Greek philosophy, which in turn seems to rely on a certain kind of line of reasoning. I want to suggest that the reasoning in question is weak, and indeed one of the chief weaknesses of ancient philosophers in the Platonic Greek mould was an in-appreciation of how tenuous human reasoning is. Even Aristotle, who sought to reform the practice of logic because he could see how often it went astray, underestimated its weakness (as some of his results show). Aquinas also underestimated it.

What can we do instead of basing our conception of God on a tenuous line of philosophical reasoning? The obvious answer is to build a conception of God’s omnipotence up out of everyday experience. From the Christian perspective, we know He has an incredible (literally, ‘miraculous’) power to coordinate events on an everyday basis. We can get a better idea of this by simply observing how things work. This is the same idea that motivated many scientists, who thought they could better understand God by observing how the universe worked.

There are some who say anything less than an omnipotent God in the classical sense isn’t worthy of worship. I don’t think these people understand what worship is supposed to do in a Christian context. The goal of Christianity is friendship and prince-ship (as sons or daughters of God – if God is a ‘King’ and you are a spiritual son of God, that makes you a Prince). The point of ‘worship’ is to establish a relationship with God, start to become more like Him, and (if we so choose) to love Him. There’s nothing about the classical concept of omnipotence that is required for this.

Having said this, there is something to the third response outlined above. We don’t know everything about God, so it’s probably a good idea to have some humility about how it all works, and have as our first response an openness to the evidence which can inform it. In other words, we’re probably closer to the beginning of our knowledge about the universe and God, than near the end – i.e., there is probably much to learn, and do.

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