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Sunday, 31 January 2010

Polkinghorne Quotes #13: Divine Action, Evil, and Slandering God

This is the 13th post in a series on the writings of John Polkinghorne.

Last Sunday morning Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, was interviewed by our pastor. Dave had just returned from Haiti and was providing us with some first hand accounts of the devastation caused by the earthquake that had rocked Haiti a couple of weeks earlier. The stories were heartrending.

The first song we sang that morning was Indescribable. Now, this isn’t my favourite worship song and I usually simply stop singing when the second verse starts with “Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go …”. I’m always surprised that more people don’t find this line a little uncomfortable (Anyone here been hit by lightening? Anyone have someone they love killed by lightening?), but given current events, I was sure others must also see the problem.

Apparently not. The song continued without even a hint of irony. Ok, how about we change that line to “Who has told every tectonic plate when is should slide …”. Does that help illustrate the problem? Maybe we need to be a little blunter: “Did God kill all those people in Port-au-Prince?”

Divine Action and Evil
Polkinghorne is acutely aware of the problem of Divine action and evil. As he indicates:

The more strongly one is able to speak of God’s particular action in the world, the more firmly one asserts that world to be subject to his purposive will, so much the more forceful becomes the problem of the widespread evil within it. (Science and Providence, page 59)
As orthodox Christians (and in opposition to those who hold to process theology), we believe that God acts: he upholds his creation, he is continually creating, and he has acted in very particular ways in history (most notably the incarnation). But must we speak of particular “natural” disasters as “acts of God”? Was it “God’s will” that all those Haitians died? If God is good, why is there “natural” evil?

Free-Process Theodicy
I doubt that the “Problem of Evil” will ever fully make sense to us, at least this side of paradise. However, I do think that Polkinghorne’s free-process defence is the closest we may get. As he says:
I think the only possible solution lies in a variation of the free-will defence, applied to the whole created world. One might call it ‘the free-process defence’. In his great act of creation I believe that God allows the physical world to be itself, not in Manichaean opposition to him, but in that independence which is Love’s gift of freedom to the one beloved.

The Cosmos is given the opportunity to be itself. (Science and Providence, page 66)
Just as God gives humanity the freedom to be itself and to make choices (even when those choices are not the one’s God wishes his children would make), so too God gives the whole of his creation the freedom to be itself. And the evil in this world (both moral and natural), is the price of this freedom. I suspect the same reasoning that applies to the free-will defence (See Plantinga's “God, Freedom, and Evil” ) applies for the most part to the free-process defence.

Actually, that is NOT God’s Will
When evil occurs, Christians often say “It must be God’s will”. But I am not sure this is necessarily true. In fact, I am sure that many of the choices that God’s creatures make are not the choices God would make. As Polkinghorne notes:
God no more expressly wills the growth of a cancer than he expressly wills the act of a murderer, but he allows both to happen. He is not puppetmaster of either men or matter. (Science and Providence, page 68)
So in the face of tragedy, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to opine “It must be God’s will”. And just as we shouldn’t accuse God of causing the genocide in Rawanda, neither should we accuse him of causing the earthquake in Haiti.

And while we are at it, maybe we should make sure our worship songs do not slander God.


MarkC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MarkC said...

I agree with almost all of what you said here... but not quite all.

Before you accuse that worship song of blasphemy, you might want to take into consideration what God said about himself in Job 38. Verses 24, 25, and 35 seem particularly applicable, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the author of that song had something like those verses in mind when writing the song.

It may be a difficult question to understand how God could make such claims about himself... but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't repeat those statements back to him in worship, however limited our understanding might be.


(previous post removed so I could fix a rather significant typographical error!)

Steve Martin said...

Hi Mark,
Welcome. You make a good point re: God’s claims about himself. In fact, Isaiah 45:7 might be even more appropriate:

I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things.

There are a few things to be said here – (actually, there is probably a few libraries worth of points that could be made here :-) ).

1)God’s revelation of himself in the OT needs to be complemented with the revelation of himself in the NT and Jesus Christ. The OT wasn’t wrong or revealing a different God (Marcion’s claim), but we get a better understanding of God later on (particularly the focus on him being a God of Love). We can (need to) reinterpret the OT in light of the NT.

2) I think there is a difference between saying “God directly causes each specific natural disaster” (implication of the worship song) and what the passages from Job and the one above from Isaiah are saying.

3) I think there is a difference between blasphemy and slander; I used the latter – but maybe even that was somewhat harsh.

Re: worship songs, I’m not sure we should necessarily be repeating God’s statements back in worship – particularly if we don’t understand them. We are his children, and I believe God wants us to ask questions (and maybe even get angry at times) – that is what makes for a good relationship.

Brent said...

I am not so much bothered by crediting God with what seem to be evil acts as I am by the huge disparity this raises between God and the person of Jesus. Nothing in Jesus' character suggests to me that God is a God who would do something like that. Indeed, quite the opposite. And since, as a Christian, i believe Jesus to be the fullest possible vision of God's character there is, I cannot accept that God would (or, by implication, that the OT verses cites above should be interpreted to mean that God does such things).

The best book I have read on this topic is Greg Boyd's 'Satan and the Problem of Evil.' Boyd takes the spirit realm much more seriously than Polkinghorne would, I think. However, both agree on the idea of God's creation being 'open,' a creation that has the freedom to come into being on its own and into a future that has not been exhaustively pre-determined. Boyd is one of the foremost proponents of Open Theism, a system that takes libertarian freedom of creation seriously and contends that the future cannot be known fully (even by God). It seems that theistic evolution and open theism fit together really well, perhaps the reason Polkinghorne gave the keynote address at the Science and Open Theology conference a year or so back.

MarkC said...


Thanks for your response.

I picked the Job passage primarily because it referred specifically to lightning, and therefore applied most directly to the worship song in question. But, the NT does not contradict that view of God, but supports it.

A key passage here is John 9. A man was born blind, and Jesus' disciples asked him if the man was being punished for sin (the Pat Robertson theory). Jesus said that he was not... but Jesus also did not say "These sorts of things just happen", or "he's suffering from a random genetic defect that God had no control over". Jesus said, "this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life".

Now, I grant that that is not a definitive statement that we should build a complicated theology on... but it certainly gives reason for pause. It is not the sort of response that our modern scientific sensibilities would expect. It seems to state that the man was born blind at God's purposeful intention.

The Bible gives us a clear picture of God as being the one in complete control, with a purpose and intent behind everything that happens. The Bible also gives us a clear picture of humans with freedom, responsibility, and true choices with true consequences.

How can those two truths co-exist? I can't understand it. I certainly can't explain it.

But that won't stop me from praising God for his power and authority, nor will it stop me from examining my life and taking responsibility for my choices.


Jordan said...

These issues have been weighing on my mind, particularly lately, and it's nice to see my own thoughts put to words here, Mark and Steve. I'm enjoying following your conversation. Mark, Denis Lamoureux appears to profess a theodicy similar to yours in his Evolutionary Creation book.
Is God really at work behind all of nature? Is He directly responsible for good and bad design in nature? I don't have a good answer for that yet.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Brent,
Putting my own cards on the table, I must say I am intrigued by Open Theism (OT) – and was before I found Polkinghorne (or got into the whole science / faith discussion for that matter). I really liked Pinnock’s “Most Moved Mover” - IMHO, Pinnock is the best open theist apologist. That being said, I’m not completely convinced by the OT argument (but that is a longer topic for another day). Summary is: I strongly disagree with those who call OT a heresy that must be vigourously opposed, but also disagree with those who say OT is a requirement to “fix” orthodox theology. To both camps I say: Let’s hear some more. Maybe that is sitting on the fence, but it is where I am at.

I do agree that TE & OT can fit together really well, but I wouldn’t say that TE and traditional theology can NOT fit together well (I’m sure all those great reformed thinkers that have come out of for eg. Calvin would be quick to say amen to that).

Re: Boyd’s ideas, I did read some of his thoughts on Satan and the problem of natural evil a year or so ago on his blog. My first thought was “That is so Manichaean” – something Polkinghorne warns against (see OP). I haven’t read Boyd’s book. Do you know if he responds to the criticism that his ideas might be somewhat Manichaean?

Mark, Jordan: Got to run ... will try to get to your comments later tonight.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Mark,
Re: the story in John, my view is that we don’t have mutually exclusive choices. Both “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” and “he is suffering from a genetic disorder that God allowed to happen” can both be true.

Just because something in God’s creation is influenced by “random” processes, does not negate God’s ability to control. One of the key messages in the bible is that God can bring good from bad (eg. Joseph in Egypt as a result of his brothers’ betrayal, Christ’s crucifixion).

Was God the cause of the evil that resulted from the freedom he gave his creatures? No, but he brought good from it anyways and in fact his purposes are always fulfilled even when his creation turns against his ways. If God is in control of human history, even when his most intelligent creature, the one he made in his own image, is working against him, what is the big problem with allowing the rest of his creation to act in the way they have been created, even when some of those acts are based on random processes? God is in control even when randomness is involved. (Bartholomew’s “God, Chance, and Purpose” has a good discussion on this).

Re: Is God directly responsible for good and bad design in nature? Depends on your definition of direct. He has given his creatures freedom, and as a result of this freedom, bad designs occur.

Now, I suspect someone could point out that human freedom is very different than the ‘freedom’ of genetic mutations, or the freedom of atoms, or the freedom of planets. I would even agree with that. My point is that I believe the argument that reconciles human freedom with God’s control in human history (the free-will defence is part of this argument) is a superset of the problem of God’s sovereignty and control of cosmic history without him directly causing every “natural” act. Since most Christians are comfortable with the first argument, I think we should also be comfortable with the second.

Do I think this argument is a logical slam dunk? No, but it seems coherent to me. Are there passages in the bible that at first blush seem troublesome to reconcile with this? Probably. But, there are lots of biblical passages that at first blush seem very difficult to reconcile with other biblical passages (ie. It doesn’t always seem even internally consistent). But that doesn’t mean we give up on the Word of God.

MarkC said...


I completely agree with you... I think!

I never intended to suggest that the two options were mutually exclusive... I thought that's what YOU were suggesting. If God is in control even of random processes, then what is your dispute with the worship song that you said was theologically inaccurate? If God is in control even of the movement of tectonic plates, then isn't it true to say that God was in control of the earthquake in Haiti, and that God is in control of each lightning strike?

I'm not suggesting that natural processes don't exist. I'm suggesting that the Bible consistently uses the language of control and intent when it discusses those things, and that it is appropriate for us to use that language as well.

Given what you just wrote... what is your argument with the language of the worship song?


Kent said...

Free-process theodicy is a nice way to put it. (Is that yours or Polkinghorn's phrase?) In any case Polkinghorn has a winning way with words that helps to crystallize my amorphous thoughts on the matter.

Certainly God's will is for earthquakes to occur as they are necessary part of renewing the surface if the earth. But I also believe it is God's will that we build homes that will withstand quakes (or what ever natural threats are common in an area). Ignorance, poverty and neglect for one's neighbors are the evils here. No the quake is not a punishment for sin, but the exceeding human death toll is a result of human sin

One other observation. These periodic reminders of the dangers of the world seem to bring out the best in humanity. We seem to come together especially in the face natural catastrophes. Could not God be using this in a redemptive way to His glory and our common good?

Rob Mitchell said...

@Steve M. "So in the face of tragedy, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to opine “It must be God’s will”...

You have already taken some pains to clarify your view of divine volition, but in case there is any ambiguity, "God's will" isn't always a univocal concept.

In my own Reformed tradition, it is often noted that God's decretive will (providence) is inviolate, that his preceptive will (God's law) can be and often is violated, that his dispositional will (what pleases him) is also often violated.

Just as Leibniz struggled intellectually with the theodicistic implications of a great earthquake in Lisbon, so also we struggle with theodicy in the face of the Haiti earthquake. But rather than presume upon the doctrine of theology proper, or to presume upon God's will, I think the proper approach in the face of suffering is to join with Job in saying, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him."
There will be times when to our human perspective the providence of God will appear to be cruel or unjust. In these times, we have to trust our knowledge of God's goodness and grace.
It's not intellectually satisfying, I know. It evokes charges of fideism, I know.
We are reminded of the old joke:
Rule 1: The boss is always right.
Rule 2: When the boss is wrong, refer to rule 1.
(Plato wrote about this joke in the Euthyphro)
But remember that is a joke - we should tremble before we set ourselves up to judge God. Theodicy is, and will always be, a serious challenge to orthodox Christian doctrine. Sometimes there simply will not be a satisfying answer to our human perspective this side of eternity, and perhaps not even then.

Cliff Martin said...


As you know, my views are similar to Polkinhorn’s, but more in alignment with Boyd’s. So I take seriously your charge that Boyd’s views (and by implication mine) are Manichaeist, a dualistic philosophy which posits that both good and evil emanate from the same transcendent being. Boyd would surely deny such a position, and so would I.

Polkinghorn’s position ultimately fails as a theodicy for me. Saying that the Creator set his cosmos free, and thereafter does not specifically control events, especially tragic events (Tsunamis, Earthquakes, etc.) simply replaces a Poseidon-like all-controlling purveyor of directed evil and harm with a God who, rather capriciously, sets loose such devastation indiscriminately, permitting his creation to wreck untold misery randomly upon itself for no other reason than to give it freedom to be. God is no less culpable in such a scenario. Perhaps more so. At least we might presume that a controlling God would have some justifiable purpose for inflicting suffering. A designer of a system that results in indiscriminate suffering might be worse.

What Boyd (and I) suggest is that there is in this outplay of natural and moral evil a necessary element of warfare, a battle of cosmic scale, overriding all of history. We may not yet fully understand the reasons for, nor the history of, this conflict. But the Bible reader can be assured that good wins in the end. And we can presume, as I do, that no suffering is pointless, but that all suffering plays some significant role in the ultimate undoing of evil.

Without such an overriding purpose which necessitates suffering, all disasters, and what appears to be a free reign of evil, such phenomena remain an inexplicable blight upon the moral character of God.

Brent said...

Hi, Steve. Not Manichean at all. Boyd responds to some of those criticisms (which have also been leveled against Pinnock and anyone who take the idea that there are evil agents in the cosmos with real libertarian freedom) here on a beliefnet post though the quotes are second hand:


Briefly, he points out that the idea that world belongs to Satan isn't heretic, but Biblical and that this doesn't in any way mean that the world itself is evil - it is good, but corrupted. This actually leads to the opposite position of manicheanism in that Boyd takes this situation as a challenge to partner with God in fighting these forces right now here on earth through prayer and action. If every action of every agent were simply carrying out God's will to the letter, he argues, there would be no need for such partnership and the actions it requires.

Kent said...

How can you say this?

...a God who, rather capriciously, sets loose such devastation indiscriminately, permitting his creation to wreck untold misery randomly upon itself for no other reason than to give it freedom to be.

The natural processes are neither "capricious" nor without reason. As I state above tsunamis, earthquakes, etc., are part of natural systems that are necessary for life on earth to exist. However they do make the world not a perfectly safe place to live.

People's misery is due in part to
a) ignorance of local dangers,
b) poverty, so they are without means to do anything about it, and
c) cultural, economic, political, and religious structures that keep people in one or both of the above states. In addition there is personal negligence, such as when one prefers present pleasures over looking to the future, or presuming on God rather then using means to make oneself and ones family safe.

Building unsafe structures in an earthquake zone and saying it was "God's will" when they are destroyed is not Christian. The God of the Bible calls us to be wise and take measures to prevent tragedy in dangerous situations.

When you build a new house, you must build a railing around the edge of its flat roof. That way you will not be considered guilty of murder if someone falls from the roof. Deut. 22:8

Cliff Martin said...


How can you say this? ...

I agree that the effect of natural disasters can be mitigated by responsible human activity, and that the death toll in Haiti says more about poverty than natural phenomena. However, you can hardly say the same about the Indonesian tsunami, at least not to the same degree. Nor countless other unavoidable deaths and devastations in the history of man.

But the suffering I refer to goes far beyond such natural catastrophes. What about the pre-human history of this planet? What about the mass extinctions? What of predation? What of diseases such as malaria which strikes down thousands of children every single day?

Paul tells us that all of creation has been subject to suffering from the effects of entropy, and that God intended things to be this way.

It may satisfy Reformed thinkers like Rob to merely accept this as the way things are, claiming that God needs no explaining. I believe we have been given tools to look more deeply into this question, and arrive at some possible answers that make sense of suffering, and make our Lord out to be something other than an ogre. It is my intent to do just that.

Kent said...

I must be brief so...

Sorry if I was a bit glib. the problem of pain is very difficult to reconcile with a loving and good God. It may defy human logic, yet I think it is important to correctly identify the crux of the problem. Many if not most instances of tragic human suffering or death can be traced to human sin. And those that are unavoidably due to natural causes God promises to redeem in the end

RE the Tsunami in Ache: this is the most seismically active area of the world. Everyone knows about Krakatoa. It is a very dangerous place to live, period. In general though, I do agree some deaths are going to be unavoidable. But we do need to learn from experience, God expects us to learn from them.

RE deaths over the millennia: Where did all the fossil fuels and limestone and marble come from? Dead plants and animals. God did use their deaths to prepare a habitat for us. The evidence is clear, death has been around long before man come on the scene. Sorry, we cannot take Genesis literally even if Paul apparently did when he said Death came by the Fall. This is accurate as far as Genesis is concerned so I do not discount at all what Paul is teaching from a theological point of view. We just need to separate the theological truths from scientific truths. All truth is God's truth and God cannot contradict Himself. If the is an apparent contradiction it is not God's Word but pur interpretation of the Word that is faulty.

I am afraid I am being rather blunt. There is more nuance to my position perhaps. However I post here because I desire to do my theologizing in community, not in isolation. I appreciate your comments and replies.

Cliff Martin said...


However I post here because I desire to do my theologizing in community, not in isolation. I appreciate your comments and replies.

Ditto, and ditto!

I find little in this last comment to disagree with. With you, I believe in a God who redeems marvelously! But your example of death being necessary to prepare fossil fuels for our use ~ Hmm. Is that an example of Divine pre-planning? or after-the-fact redemption? Or is it either? If God intended to pack the earth full of fuel for man's very late (and short-lived) comforts, do you really think he orchestrated hundreds of millions of years of animal deaths and species extinctions to give us a couple centuries of coal and oil? Does this really make sense to you?

Both Old and New Testaments make some interesting statements about the value of suffering, though these statements are often somewhat mysterious. What if all suffering plays into a long-range plan to annihilate evil? And can we find some Biblical hints that this is exactly what is happening?

Argon said...

I've been following an recap of moral arguments on the "Philosophical Disquisitions" blog. Check out the series on 'Oppy on Moral Arguments'


Steve Martin said...


I don’t think that for someone to be in control of a situation requires them to directly cause every action. A good leader can be in control even when giving quite a bit of latitude to the people that are led. God can be in control even when giving freedom to his creatures. But one shouldn’t say “God controlled the murderer to fire the gun” or “God controlled the lightening so it would strike exactly where it did”. For people, God allows them to have free will and (at least most of the time) does not seem to intervene when they are going to cause harm. God also created the physical laws of the universe that govern things like lightening, and continually allows these laws to exist the way they are. I believe that without God’s governance of creation, these laws & the universe would instantly cease to exist (God upholds & sustains creation - Col 1:17; Heb 1:3) . At least most of the time, he does not intervene (for example to tweak these laws or to cause a specific part of creation to act in a way outside of those laws) even if the lightening will cause harm.

There are two extremes: The hyper-calvinist who believes God micro-manages every single act (this person could belt out Indescribable with no hesitation & might even celebrate the earthquake in Haiti) or the hyper-Manichaean who believes that Satan causes each and every “natural evil” action. The vast majority of people who believe in God lie somewhere in between this. And I think Polkinghorne strikes the perfect balance. He discusses how tectonic plate movement and earthquakes are also “good” because they are allow the distribution of minerals to allow life as we know it to exist. In his words:

The more we learn scientifically how the world works, the more clearly we see that this is just not possible, for fruitfulness and destructiveness, order and chaos, are inextricably intertwined.

Check out his Q&A on his website particularly the answer to “Was the Tsunami an Act of God?”.

Steve Martin said...

Rob: Thanks for your brief overview of the different aspects of God’s will. That is helpful. Regarding Job’s saying “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”, I think some would say of this that “Those Christians are stupid to trust such a sadistic God”. My take is, that God continually brings good out of bad, in fact the unbelievably good out of what seems to be hopelessly bad (eg. Again Joseph’s betrayal & Christ’s crucifixion). Since we know he is a God of love (and has our best interests at heart), and we have evidence of his faithfulness in the past, our trust in him is not blind faith at all – it is wise faith. We may never know the totally right answer to theodicy’s riddle, but we know that there is a right answer.

Steve Martin said...

Sorry. I didn’t mean to “charge” Boyd (or by implication you) of heresy. I was curious how Boyd would respond to these types of queries since, my quick (and maybe simplistic) review of some of his blog writings seemed to indicate this. (Brent, thanks for the quick review & pointers. Maybe I should actually read the book before I comment next time :-) ).

I am interested in your view “that all suffering plays some significant role in the ultimate undoing of evil” and have followed your posts with interest over the last few years. But I can’t say I completely “get” your argument. And given your reason’s why you believe Polkinghorne’s is a “failed theodicy”, I suspect you don’t get what he is saying. Frankly, that is completely fine with me – loving our sisters and brothers in Christ does not require us to completely agree with each other. So keep blogging I might one day get it enough to start a “Cliff’s Quotes” series :-).

Steve Martin said...


Free-Process Theodicy is Polkinghorne's term.

Re: your “desire to do my theologizing in community, not in isolation” – I second Cliff's amen. In fact, I wonder if it is even possible to good theologizing outside of community. The Christian God is a relational God (within the Godhead – trinity – and with his creation); theology can not be an intellectual discipline removed from the object of its study.

Cliff Martin said...


Writing has its limitations. I could not begin to deal with the relation of suffering to defeating evil in a comment thread. I struggle to it in full posts. If you and I could ever sit down with a Bible for about two hours or so ...

Consider a few concepts:
Jesus "bought" the church with his blood (with his suffering). (Acts 20:28)
We can participate in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13, Phil 3:10), even filling up what was incomplete in his sufferings (Col 1:24).
Study what Paul says about the significance of suffering in Romans 8. Study what Peter teaches us about the significance of suffering in 1 Peter 4. Consider that the Jews have always seen themselves as serving the purposes of God through suffering ("The suffering servant"). Consider the role of suffering in defeating evil in the microcosm of our lives (Matthew 5) (remember the strategy of MLKJr when he said "We will wear you down with our capacity to suffer"), and expand that to the macrocosm of all creation. Consider how Jesus defeated Satan by nonresistance and suffering. Expand the thought from the Cross to the Cosmos. That might get you started.

MarkC said...


I don't know the nuances of what you mean by "control" in contrast to "directly cause". From the John passage, it seems that the man was born blind because God had a purposeful intent for him to be born blind. I'll stick with that phrase "purposeful intent", since I know what it means, and I'm not clear on how you differentiate between "control" and "directly cause".

My point, from the John passage, is that it does not seem to be accurate to say that God simply takes what happens to happen, and makes something good out of it. God doesn't sit around, wait to see what transpires, then say, "Ah, I can do something good with that." It appears, from Jesus' words, that God had a purposeful intent in what happened... it happened because God purposefully intended for it to happen. (Is that the same as direct causation? I don't know.)

It also seems to me that if the Bible itself (both the words of Jesus, and even more explicitly words uttered by God himself in the Old Testament) uses that sort of language, it is appropriate for us to sing that back to Him in worship, even if we don't understand all the implications of those words. We can believe them to be true, without believing less the other things God says about himself and the world that seem contradictory to us. The first step in realizing that we are not God, I think, is accepting apparent contradictions in God's character as areas of our limited understanding.

Does God tell every lightning bolt where to strike, even the ones that kill people? In some sense, I think the Bible says yes, though that is far from the only thing the Bible has to say on the topic. The Bible uses that language when it is communicating God's power, authority, sovereignty, and control. When we are praising God for those attributes, it is completely appropriate for us to use that same language. Does that mean that God rejoices in random death, that God is capricious, or any of the other apparent conclusions we could draw from a human perspective? No... God is far enough above our human abilities to understand, that none of our words or thoughts can ever fully capture him; the grace and love and goodness that he communicates about Himself we must believe just as fully.


Kent said...


RE the redemptive aspect of suffering: I really feel you are on the right track in making sense of why evil exists in God's good creation, even apart from the Fall.

RE: do you really think he orchestrated hundreds of millions of years of animal deaths and species extinctions to give us a couple centuries of coal and oil?

No. The deaths of trillions or organisms over billions of years resulted in the conditions where humans could evolve from a scientific perspective. From a Biblical perspective the same facts are God preparing a place for Man Imago Dei.

I do not think that God just gave us oil to burn and provide for our material comfort. Science is now showing us that it is dangerous to release the carbon sequestered in the rocks into the atmosphere at the current rates. Fossil fuels have helped human civilization develop, but now we realize they are but a stepping stone to other ways of providing our needs.

In light of this and the previous discussion: Our responsibility as individuals and as societies is to acknowledge the dangers around us. We must not make excuses and deny truth. We must not presume upon God. We must therefore take measures to protect our lives and the lives of others around us lest we be guilty of murder. With wisdom comes responsibility.

My definition of science:
The glory of God is to keep things hidden,
but the glory of kings is to fathom them.
Prov 25:2 REB

Cliff Martin said...


I love your Proverbs def. of science. It is mine as well, and I quote it frequently in the context of scientific investigations.

Yes! most of the history of life on this planet (2 billion years plus) consists only of one-celled organisms, whose sole purpose seems to be to oxygenate the planet, preparing it for more complex life forms. Are you familiar with the work of Simon Conway Morris, and "convergent evolution". British paleontologist Conway Morris (who is a Christian) posits that human beings are the necessary and predictable pinnacle of life on this planet, and would result on any planet in the cosmos if it matched the ecological potential of earth. And all this the result of random, Darwinian evolution without the need for direct divine guidance. Fascinating. The Imago Dei might well have been the result of random (but not so random!) evolution!

And I totally agree about man's responsibility to learn all we can and care for this planet as best we can. A major problem here is the low regard in which many Christians hold science. Many Christians carry a deep distrust for science. This is something we must work hard to correct, imo.

I appreciate your comments!

Daniel O said...

Hi all,
It seems that everytime I visit this blog I learn something new. For this I thank you all.
If I could simply put my two cents regarding two topics that i picked up in this thread. The first is the commonly held belief that all things even evil events will in the end be for the best, or to quote a post "will undue evil". Somehow we understand God to be behind this and uses these for a final all knowing and all loving purpose. However, I think we must read the context to passages that might hint at this belief. We must be aware that such passages (especially in the OT) were written during or shortly after the fall of Jerusalem and the begining of the exile of Judah. The passages are intended to be a message of comfort for people who have literally lost evrything.
The second point, is relating to the actual earthquake in Haiti. It was surely one of the biggest in recorded history, but, not many people know that Lima Peru had a similar quake (7.9 rs)over 30 years ago. I know cause my parents were present there (my father was actually in charge of the distribution of food afterwards). However Lima was not destroyed nearly as bad as Port au Prince because they knew of the fault and bulti buildings designed to absorve the quake. That was over 30 years ago. My point is that the real evil is not the quake but the institutionalized corruption and poverty in the Haitian government and the fact that the international community didn't give a shit until something like this happened. Those evils are man made and not an act of God. I am not denying the problem that suffering or evil creates for the christian, but if we generalize the problem we lose sight of the cause. As my sociology teacher use to say: anything that affects the humans is caused by humans.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,

Yes writing has its limitations. So does human thinking, particularly my own :-) . But maybe that’s what makes it fun …

I don’t discount that suffering can have its benefits or that it is an important aspect in God’s Kingdom (as you’ve noted above); in fact my very first “Polkinghorne Quotes” post was on God the Fellow-Sufferer. However, I’m reluctant to assign suffering some central (rather than important) role in the cosmic struggle. I believe the primary message of scripture is that God is Love. As Polkinghorne notes somewhere (don’t remember where right now), creation was an act of a loving Creator that allowed space for the Other (creation) to be. God created us for relationship, with both himself and with each other. Love is both the end and the means; suffering on the other hand is a necessary (and unpleasant) part of the means. I think John Hicks makes suffering central in his “soul-making theodicy”, but I’m not even sure I’m on board with that. The Free-Process theodicy on the other hand does make Love central. The only way to have true love and a true relationship is to allow true freedom. “Evil” and suffering are necessary costs to that freedom.

BTW, have you read any of Thomas Oord’s stuff? I think he is one of the newer Evangelical open theists and one that has done some thinking on science. You may want to check out his blog. In particular, take a look at his three part series “A Theologian evaluates Intelligent Design”. Here is a zinger of a quote from his third post in the series

As far as I can tell, the notion of irreducible complexity and the lack of creaturely causation it implies undermine a coherent view of God’s love

Interesting stuff.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Mark,

By control I mean, God will achieve his purposes, even if the pathway to those purposes is not necessarily the pathway he would have chosen. (eg. A flawed analogy, but maybe helpful, is that a chess grandmaster is always in “control” of the game when playing the neophyte even though the neophyte has perfect freedom to make many different moves to try to beat the grandmaster). Causation is a little trickier to define. One model of divine action (Murphy in his Zygon article “The Theology of the Cross and God’s Works in the World” discusses 8 of them) is the “Workman / Tool” model where God (the primary cause) works through secondary causes. This is helpful in the scientific context, as we can provide good scientific explanations for many natural phenomenon (including lightning), but maintain that God is still creator. (eg. God knits us in our mothers wombs (Ps 139) – even though embryo development is well understood & one can speak of many “causes” during this development). So, yes, in one sense God does “cause everything” or maybe more accurately, concurs with his creatures action in all instances. But, I wouldn’t say that “God tells the murderer to fire the gun” anymore than I would say that “God tells the lightning bolt where it should go”.

The freedom God gives his creation is indeed troubling & some maintain “it can’t be worth it” – because of, for eg., the holocaust. Maybe God should not have created anything at all. But, that is the argument of for eg. Plantinga’s book. Who are we to say it is not worth it? Only God has seen the endgame and can make that calculation.

So, in John 9, I’m not sure we need to interpret this as “God intervened to make the man sick”. I believe the clearer message here is that sickness in people is not a result of specific sins (something many of the people in Jesus' day believed).

I’m not sure we are going to reach consensus here, but I wholeheartedly agree that God is so far above our capacity to fully understand. But we don’t need to fully understand him. As his children, we understand that God is love and thus we can trust him.

Steve Martin said...

Good to hear from you again. Excellent point about the context of some of those OT passages. The Hebrew / Christian God was indeed very different from the other deities worshiped in ancient times. He wasn’t simply a God who when angry caused bad things to happen, and when happy, caused good things to happen. Our God actually has a long-term plan to make things right.

MarkC said...


Thanks for the explanation.

I would never say "God intervened to make the man sick", at least not without saying something else at the same time. That is, clearly and obviously, not the whole story, and may not even be part of the story.

But I also don't think we can say that God says "oh, yikes, they shouldn't have done that... but I'll get creative and figure out some way to make good out of it." That's the way WE respond, to our kids for example... but I don't see that the Bible describes God responding in that way.

Did God "intervene" to make the man sick? Possibly... God certainly has the right to do that, and the power. But, at the least, God purposefully allowed the man to become sick... and there's very little difference between the two alternatives. An all-powerful God who purposefully allows something unpleasant to happen may as well have caused it, I think.

And again, that can never be the whole story. We can hear that, and jump to logical and ethical and moral conclusions about God that are clearly unwarranted... because God is not like us, and what is impossibly contradictory for us is not necessarily impossibly contradictory for Him.

Thanks for this lively and fascinating discussion!


Cliff Martin said...


Without desiring to prolong our side discussion, I must offer this clarification ...

When I wrote, "no suffering is pointless, but that all suffering plays some significant role in the ultimate undoing of evil', I did not mean to assign a "central role" to suffering. It is hardly central, in my mind. I would agree with Polkinghorne (and you) that love is the overriding theme of all creation. I often say that creation exists as a demonstration of the superiority of love over hatred, goodness over evil, and life over death. But I would suggest that love (think Sermon on the Mount) expresses itself through suffering, especially when it is confronting (or being confronted by) evil. I do not elevate suffering to the place of highest importance. But I do suggest that suffering is noble and of irreplaceable value in the overriding purpose of God: to destroy evil through his unconquerable love.

Moses said...

My theodicy is very simple: Lord knows sh-t happens!
Trying to balance freewill and providence is mind boggling. From what I gather of the worldview of the ancient near east, everything is an act of God. There is no distinct "natural" and "supernatural". It's all the same. Compared to the cosmology/cosmogony back then, Abraham and Job would think we modern theists are practically deists with our concept of physical and metaphysical. I think we need to keep that in mind when we read passages from Job and Isaiah. I would read it as more of man's philosophizing - working out (as are we) a reasonable theodicy within their context and worldview. There is progression in the theology of the Old Testament - where the characters begin to see God as more merciful than judgmental. And we begin to see hints to a coming Messiah when the hope of unbroken succession in Jerusalem is dashed by the exile to Babylon. Ancient religions had Gods who spoke to kings, established dynasties and patriarchs. The OT is also very much this way...most of the stories are about kings, rulers...important people. But after people get smacked around and their big nationalist dreams are crushed, you start to read about caring for the poor, widows and orphans. Then Jesus comes on the scene and heals lepers, makes disciples out of outcasts, uneducated fishermen and tax collectors. He lets' children climb on his lap, he makes heros out of Samaritans, and forgives people's sins. Jesus is different from the God described in the OT. It will take us an eternity to figure out what God really is like. Jesus, Paul and other NT characters are quite liberal in their "quotes" ( changing the wording to suit their point, making obscure passages appear to have a messianic meaning, referencing non canonical writings and traditions etc.) from OT, so it suggests that there is a progression in the theology ( and thus theodicy ) Jesus and Paul did not protest slavery - or even make it terribly easy on women - yet the wheels were set in motion by Christ for us to eventually abolish slavery, and begin to show equality and fairness to women. If you read portions of the OT in isolation, there's seems to be God given justification for human trafficking, slavery, genocide, and cruel and unusual punishments ( stoning, eye for an eye, punishing children for the sins of their fathers etc.) but today these things are abhorrent to most of us. Perhaps, for whatever reason evil and suffering is prevalent, God's will is that we recognize it as such, and pray for wisdom and strength to set it right.

Cliff Martin said...


Excellent thoughts, and well expressed. You need to write more. Four blog posts a year (on your blog) is not enough. Give us more, please!

I have friends in Vanderhoof, and so drive through your fair city from time to time. Beautiful place to live!

Thanks again for your comment.

Moses said...

Thanks Cliff,

I'm doing a lot of reading right now, which I need to digest and then I'm sure there will be more writing. I'm on a bit of a journey from fundamentalist-creationist roots to what I hope will be a wider, balanced view of God, faith, religion etc. Finally giving up on young earth creationism resolves many issues for me, but opens up another host of questions and concerns with theology, biblical inerrancy and such. It's encouraging to read blogs like this where others with similar experiences share their journey.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Mark,
I agree that God doesn’t respond with an “Oh Yikes” – he is not somehow caught off-guard by our sin. In fact, his ultimate response to sin was to become human flesh – and that is something that was planned from before creation (see Eph 1:4-10). In other words, the incarnation was not some type of plan B; we didn’t “earn” the right to have God become flesh with us – I believe the incarnation was his plan from the beginning.

Re: the statement that:
An all-powerful God who purposefully allows something unpleasant to happen may as well have caused it

This is probably true in a limited sense but the key is that a greater good is achieved by allowing it to happen (allowing creation to act in the way it chooses or the way it was made). This is the heart of the Free-will defence and the Free-process defence.

But I understand that many do not agree with this, including many who share my faith. And I’m fine with that.

Thanks. That was a very helpful clarification for me.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Moses,

Welcome. Agree with Cliff. Excellent comments. The idea of “progressive revelation” is very important. For those unfamiliar with the context of the OT, it can be very confusing. Re: Jesus and other NT writers use of the OT, have you read Enns Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it.

Moses said...

Yes, I just read "I & I". Found it quite helpful. Right now I am working through "Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible" by John Walton. It has a wealth of info about the literature and culture of the ancient near east. And before that I read "Who Wrote The Bible" by Richard Elliot Friedman - a case for the documentary hypothesis.

I am wondering how to effectively engage "average Joe - six pack" Evangelicals like me in healthy conversation about this. I suspect most people "free-think" more than they let on...but are afraid to come out of the closet. For me it was a long process that started by a good Christian friend telling me he leaned toward the Gap Theory, and then a news report that a "conservative" Christian college in Texas had biology professors who believed in evolution, and they still believed in Jesus... I had been pre-programmed to believed that was not possible. Evolution = Atheism. Then a few years past and a CMI fellow preached at our church, and his biggest defense was that there was no death before the fall ( in Eden). But that was hard to wrap my head around. Poisonous spiders and snakes, carnivorous animals, Blue Whales that swallow huge mouthfuls of plankton, microbes and germs...Life on earth as we know it relies on death. Without death, we would have no life. Then there was the problem of the vast universe, speed of light, supernovae. And then I counted my ribs, and discovered that I have the same number as my wife...and I was pretty sure I was a man...and she was definitely a woman...so that YEC argument was bogus...along with a list of others that I had heartily believed and argued before. So, now there are plenty of books to read, and ideas to consider...

Steve Martin said...

Re: How to engage your average Evangelical in healthy conversation, well that is the $6M question that many of us are still struggling to answer, but things are definitely starting to get better (eg. Recent launch of both Biologos and Test of Faith). My personal answer three years ago was to start this blog – and I recently collated what I thought were the core articles into a free ebook. You may also be interested in our past discussion Factors involved in the shift to Evolutionary Creationism: My story and Yours - some good stories in the comments.

Also, in the next week I’ll be announcing the next guest-post series call “Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church” to be published over the next couple of months. This will include posts from eight other Evangelicals (scientists, church leaders, “in the pew” Evangelicals, and pastors) who will offer their perspective on this conversation – and how they are contributing positively to this conversation.

Rob Mitchell said...

Cliff M:
"It may satisfy Reformed thinkers like Rob to merely accept this as the way things are, claiming that God needs no explaining."

I guess I should have boldfaced this sentence:
"It's not intellectually satisfying, I know."
It wasn't my intent to advocate non-reflective fideism. I'm right there with you in wanting to investigate and reflect, and I also appreciate your intent to do so in a way that preserves the goodness of God. Providence also should be preserved.

Moses said...


Thanks for the links. I was aware of biologos - I have read both Collins and Falk. But Test of Faith is a new one for me. I will look into your other links as well.

Lenzi said...

Evil? No. Disaster? Yes, in human term.

Why do we consider the perishing of thousands, ten thousands or millions by a natural occurance an evil act. If one person get killed by another person, that is evil. However when thousands or millions, perish due to a natural occurance, that is not evil but it is a disaster.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Lenzi,
Yes, moral evil and natural evil are somewhat different catagories. But both beg the question: Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God permit either to happen? My take (as discussed above) is that the Free-will & the free-process defense arguments are a good approach.

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