The Evil in This World: Divine Power, Freewill & Evil
Editor’s Note: FāVS has launched a new series on The Evil in this World. We see it every day in the murder and mayhem that trouble our lives. The world’s great religions have an explanation for this and different ways to describe the battle between good and evil. Those who do not subscribe to a religious tradition have their own perceptions of evil and good. How does your belief system describe both forces and how does it help you cope with the notion that evil exists in this world? Has your faith ever been shaken by the evil around you?
Commentary by Nick Gier
In his book “Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes,” process theologian Charles Hartshorne argues that the doctrine that God causes all things and events is a projection of the worship of all-powerful rulers. Alfred North Whitehead, the other great process philosopher agrees: “The deeper idolatry, of fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”
Hartshorne contends that divine omnipotence undermines our power to choose and be morally responsible for our actions. If God has all the power, then we have none. In his book “The Problem of Pain,” C. S. Lewis agrees: “Our life is, at every moment supplied by him, our tiny, miraculous power of free‑will only operates on bodies which his continual energy keeps in existence. Our very power to think is his power communicated to us.” Note that Lewis implicitly concedes that divine omnicausality and human free-will exclude one another.
Most important, however, is that divine omnipotence makes God the direct cause of evil. There are several biblical passages that support this view: Jeremiah 18:11; Amos 3:6; Micah 1:12, 2:3; 1 Kings 22:20‑23; and Job 42:11. The most explicit is this verse from Second Isaiah: “I form light, and I create darkness: I produce well‑being, and I create evil, I Yahweh do all these things” (45:7, Anchor Bible).
A careful reading of the Book of Job reveals the actions of an omnicausal God. The traditional reading of this story assumes that God delegates power to Satan and allows him to freely persecute Job. However, Job, his wife and his friends all clearly acknowledge God as the source of Job’s woes. They seem to be unaware of the existence of Satan and the wager he and God have made. At the end of the story the author explicitly speaks of “all the evil that the Lord had brought upon Job” (42:11).
In the “City of God,” Augustine argues that evil came into the world because Adam and Eve had “deficit wills.” The question to ask, however, is who is responsible for this defect? Many early Church Fathers were neo-Platonists, who believe that evil is defined as privation — non-being ontologically speaking.
The orthodox view of creation is creatio ex nihilo—creation out of nothing (non-being). God could not create out of himself because that would imply that all things are divine — the heresy of pantheism. But that means that God is responsible for any and all deficiencies in the world. It is certainly not Adam and Eve’s fault that they had defective wills.
Luther is the only major Christian theologian who embraced the logic of Isaiah 45:7. Luther’s position is clear: “God works all in all. God even works what is evil in the impious. Judas’ will was the work of God; God by his almighty power moved his will as he does all that is in the world.” He also states: “Evil things are done with God himself setting them in motion.”
Applying This Theology into Modern Life and Why It Doesn’t Work
People are surprised that Great Britain has the most surveillance cameras per capita in the world. The security firm Calipsa boasts that “when combined with other security measures, such as improved lighting, perimeter fences and signaling, video surveillance was shown to reduce crime by an impressive 34%.”
Facial recognition technology is now used in many countries, most widely in China. It is certainly conceivable that a huge database of faces and advanced surveillance systems could identify any criminal. Furthermore, it will soon be possible to disable such a person (with a powerful taser perhaps) until police could arrive.
The most obvious theological question presents itself: Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent evil acts? God certainly has the power to do so, but does he desist out of respect for human freedom? If they are able, especially with such a surveillance system, police would not hesitate to act and put the person in handcuffs. It would be morally irresponsible of them not to do so.
The only logical answer is that God cannot intervene. This is why I support process theology, whose deity rules the cosmos by persuasion not coercion. This means that God has all the power necessary to be God, but every person has also sufficient power to choose and take full responsibility for her or his actions. Significantly, this shifts the source of evil from God to autonomous beings making their own decisions for good or ill.
Nick Gier lives in Moscow, Idaho. He holds a doctorate in philosophical theology from the Claremont Graduate University. His major professors were James M. Robinson, New Testament scholar and editor of the Gnostic Gospels, and John B. Cobb, the world’s foremost process theologian. He taught in the philosophy department at the University of Idaho for 31 years. He was coordinator of religious studies from 1980-2003. He has written five books and over 70 articles and book chapters. Read his articles on religion at nfgier.com/religion. He’s enjoyed two sabbaticals and one research leave in India for a total of 22 months in that country. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.