Human Freedom, Evil, and Theodicy in a Time of Genocide
My sensitivity to evil dates back to the Vietnam atrocities and presidential assassinations that blighted my teenage years. One thought seemed to dominate back then: How can it be that our world is so pervaded such horrific violence and so much monstrous evil? Five decades after Vietnam, the sad truth is that our current predicament may be even more dire than in those difficult times. While it’s true that we’ve seen great advances, for example, in digital technology and in our enlarged understanding of human potential, our very survival is now threatened by the abject failure of crucial institutions on a global scale and our gross overshoot of earth’s capacity to support our burgeoning human species.
As I write in the fall of 2023, we are reeling from war atrocities in Ukraine and the horrific slaughter unfolding (at this moment) in Israel and Palestine. We’re also living in the aftermath of a vast global pandemic, the scary acceleration of climate change, and severe political corruption on every continent. How meaningful can it be to speak of God’s providential care if so much of our world is beset by such a cascading series of maladies? How does this grave dilemma square with ongoing revelations of grace, our elevated awareness of human capacities, and even the worldwide upsurge of spiritual seeking and interreligious awareness?
More than two millennia into the Christian era, we feel overwhelmed by the apparently iniquitous human behavior behind so many threats to our survival, even as we are slowly gliding into the apparent dawn of a worldwide spiritual renaissance. Typically, those of us who are theists are told that the all-wise God must have some unfathomable reason for allowing so much radical evil, while at the same time unleashing so much good will across the face of the earth. How can it be that God’s design of our precarious species encompasses such a vast range of potential for good or evil?
This paradox is perhaps the chief reason why theologians formulate “solutions” to the perennial quandary of evil and the misery that results from it, while also proclaiming the goodness of God and of God’s creatures.
This theological work, this specialized labor we call theodicy, has given rise to generations of “defenders of God” in public spaces. They use rational arguments to uphold faith in the infinite goodness of God, offering a positive account of divine providence and of human nature in their efforts to oppose the negativity of cynicism, skepticism, atheism, and nihilism. And today this endeavor is more taxing than ever before. I proclaim this because the outrageous violence of World War I and World War II, and the technilogically driven brutallity of the wars and genocides in the decades since, now raises the dreadful specter of postmodern horrendous evil, the most difficult of all challenges faced by theodicists.
In the West, the original framing of the issues of theodicy is credited to the Enlightenment-era philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), whose powerful logical challenge to theism set the general parameters of the debate ever since. Hume thought the problem was insoluble on its face. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume puts this formulation into the mouth of an interlocutor named Philo: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
Over two millennia, this inquiry has moved through distinctive phases in its exploration of God’s providential care in the face of unending occurrences of radical evil. What have we learned so far, especially given today’s alarming challenges?
First think of Job, whose extreme woes elicit theodicies that fail to console him. Job’s own friends regale and even traumatize him with a series of theodicies. Finally, and now far past his wits end, Job is graced with a stunning revelatory response from God to his fervent cry for justice.
Traditional Christians addressed Job’s quandary anew, drawing from the revelatory response known to them as Christ’s incarnation. Today’s conservative Christian can now choose from among varied schemes of salvation from sin promulgated from first century Christians on through the proclamations of the Protestant Reformation.
In a chronological survey of such proto-theodicies, we first encounter the so-called biblical cosmic-conflict model, which frames the problem of evil in terms of a cosmos-wide battle of Christ versus Satan and his rebellious angels. This early focus on the “war of heaven” and the tentative solution made possible by Jesus’s confrontation with “the god of this world” was later absorbed into and superseded by the “creature-Creator partnership” approach pioneered in Eastern Orthodox doctrine and practice. In regard to the problem of evil, the ancient patristic method pointed to a co-creative effort of man and God to overcome the believer’s own sinful tendencies or the offending sins of others. This model eventually led to the profound theosis doctrine of human perfectibility, paradoxically coupled with the strict Orthodox injunction to remain anchored in epistemic humility—the practice known as apophasis—while keeping one’s heart ever-vigilant against prideful tendencies and demonic influence. This formulation points to the complex notion I’ve already evoked: our potential for divine illumination and sainthood coexists in us all with unfathomable forms of human depravity.
The most preponderant feature of this pre-modern story of traditional theodicy, at least in the West, has been Augustine’s “free-will defense of God’s goodness.” The benevolent God creates us as good, indeed very good. Evildoing is thus a mere “privation” of this intrinsic goodness, a self-cancelling lack of good will. Such evils are harmful, though not ontologically real. While God allows for human freedom, he is not to blame for our transgressions; evil and sin are pervasive because of Adam’s freely chosen disobedience, now passed down to his progeny. Further, the omnipotent God is able to harvest “greater goods” from any and all apparent evils—at least for the elect he has foreordained. The Augustinian view of evil dominated the Western approach up to and beyond the Protestant Reformation when reformers such as Luther and Calvin heightened the old emphasis on human depravity and highlighted the idea that an omnipotent deity pre-determines each person’s destiny while offering saving grace only to a few.
Thereupon, theological discussion of evil was fairly much frozen in place until we arrive at the post-Enlightenment era in theodicy, a period we can call evolutionary theodicy. While it is true that the great logician Gottfried Leibniz coined the term “theodicy,” his idiosyncratic ideas about “the best of all possible worlds” seemed to defy common sense and ordinary logic.
After Leibniz and other early rationalists, we enter a succeeding period of modernist and later postmodernist efforts that grow out of Kantian and Hegelian philosophies of religion conjoined with the scientific evolutionary paradigm that takes hold in the nineteenth century.
In this very different atmosphere, an innovative and deconstructive modernist strain grew out of the new discipline of biblical criticism. Now having jettisoned the myths and illusions of the pre-modern model of salvation, many went on to minimize the issue of individual sin and the old teaching of personal regeneration through belief in the efficacy of the Christ’s sacrifice. Instead, they more often assigned the cause of radical evil to corrupt social structures, calling Christians to a new gospel of social justice premised on human perfectibility that would one day obliterate evildoing from the face of the earth.
Sadly, the unparalleled shock of two successive world wars put an end to this overly hopeful prognosis. Mid-century theologians such as Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr rehabilitated the ancient idea of pervasive sin in their attacks on liberal Protestant “optimism” and social-gospel theology, which according to Niebuhr had “grievously overestimated human virtue.”
Any look at post-WWII twentieth-century theodicy must also include a very different but essential rendition of theodicy, philosopher John Hick’s soul-making theodicy explicated in his Evil and the God of Love (1977). Hard-scrabble decisions forced upon us in the face of adversity, said Hick, drive our souls to evolve and adapt in response to daily indignities and grim predicaments. God’s purposeful design allows each willing individual to co-create greater goods through their pursuit of soul growth, culminating in the evolution of a robust immortal soul that survives death. But Hick never solved the grave problem of “dysteleological evils,” as he calls it, those horrific occurrences that provide no conceivable soul-making value.
In our quest for a suitable theodicy for our time, we must also turn to the process theology associated with Alfred North Whitehead, and later David Ray Griffin, along with their intellectual descendants such the “open theists.” In Griffin’s able hands, process theodicy argues that the confrontation with evil constitutes an existential battle with actual dark forces, rather than a “mock battle” with only apparent evil (as in Augustine). Rather than a pre-determined outcome controlled by an all-powerful deity acting from eternity, Whitehead’s evolving deity of time and space is not yet omnipotent. And while this diety is able to gently guide her children from within by providing lures to seek truth, beauty, and goodness, this God is not yet able to prevail against perpetrators. Many forms of immoral behavior and even demonic evil, like those we face today, cannot be prevented—except through fervent human cooperation with this “finite God-in-the-making.”
Process theology set the stage for the refinements offered by the open theists, who return to the old premise of divine omnipotence but depict God as willing to take risks for the sake of love, yet unwilling or unable to fully determine favorable outcomes against evil threats forced upon unfortunate individuals or groups.
All this is a preface to what I believe marks our own era: The anxious search for what I would call an integrative theodicy, one that assumes an evolutionary cosmology but reaches out for a multi-perspectival integration of the best insights of all previous theodicies, including certain features of traditional theology. An “integral theodicy,” as I define it, provides an advanced synthesis of the previous theodicies briefly examined above but fleshed out in my book Truths About Evil, Sin, and the Demonic. Why do I insist on a developing a transdisciplinary postmodern theodicy suitable for the coming century? I believe this work is especially called forth by the our post-Holocaust and post-Hiroshima era now blighted by the ominous planetary predicament staring us down as we speak.
In light of our species' crisis of survival and possible genocide, I believe it is no longer fruitful to focus on any one truth highlighted by previous theodicies such as the biblical cosmic-conflict model, the Orthodox theosis teaching, Augustine’s “free-will defense” and ancillary concept of greater-goods production, Hick’s soul-making scheme, or Whitehead’s evolving deity incapable of determining positive outcomes; any given argument or perspective may indeed be necessary but may not alone be sufficient.
We instead need to marshal and organize the most explanatory elements of all the previous “classic” and modern theodicies—and then drive toward a creative synthesis that enables us to address the postmoden issue of horrendous evil from multiple perspectives.
To underline the importance of this complex project, let us now enter into the valley of lamentation, there to become humble witnesses to the ultimate challenge to any theodicy, including integral theodicy: those perpetrations that are incomprehensibly bestial beyond all reason—especially those visited upon innocent youth. It was this particularly inhuman form of iniquity that led the tortured character of Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov to declare himself an implacably embittered rebel in the face of such immeasurable barbarities.
Eastern Orthodox theology holds that God’s essence is beyond all cognition and indescribably sublime, a dazzling darkness only approached in the silence and reverence of worship. This conception also allows that God’s infinite energies may be directly known and experienced by the faithful as manifestations of grace. Through the practices of hesychia (abiding stillness) and the liberty-loving performance of service to others according to the Golden Rule, this Eastern Christian methodology teaches that—through the process of theosis—we can mobilize these energies so that we grow in virtue and wisdom. In fact, we may with due humility use God’s energia to bring about our eventual deification.
But we can also use energy in the wrong direction. For example, sorcerers and occultists of the black arts have for millennia engaged in practices that invoke sublime monstrosities. They deliberately mobilize and abuse powerful, evil energies for self-aggrandizing ends, consciously bringing into being the sort of demonic occurrences sternly warned about in multiple texts throughout history.
Understood in this light (or darkness), such evil is not merely “apparent.” A skilled human will, infused with malicious intent, converts an evil intention into a energetic reality—albeit only as long as the malign intention is upheld and sustained. It can subsist even if such a thought-form is not technically classified as an ontological reality. The “field effect” of this vortex will eventually spin itself out of existence. But in the worst case, enfolded into this field can be weaponized features that, for example, might induce an unsuspecting population to wage war upon false premises. Even worse is the fact that unleashed demonic power, as it begins to feed on itself, will destroy its human host.
The Holocaust is surely the classic example of an appalling iniquity that took on historic existence as an energetic reality of this sort. How might an integrative theodicy help us understand and prevent such hideous calamities in the future?
Allow me to conclude by turning for help to Kathryn Tanner’s apophatic anthropology. The Yale theologian uses this odd phrase to characterize the apparently unlimited plasticity of human nature implied by our creation in the “image of God.” This flexibility lends itself to the bewildering display of very wide ranges of good and evil behavior that we now call human history.
The biblical idea of the imago dei, Tanner argues, can’t be referring to some bounded and particular entity. God’s image can’t be limited to some discrete unit of “God-ness.” For, as Tanner points out, if the image of God did refer to a “clearly delimited nature”—say, like the nature of a tree or a lion—we would have no chance of being conformed to the likeness of God, who is clearly unlimited. And while God is unbounded and infinite, we are also related to this God by virtue of the fact that deity enfolds all things and beings in divine infinitude.
The tip-off, says Tanner, is that we have a natural eros that drives us toward the infinite, as seen for example in those mystics who aspire through love to be like the one loved, who they understand as infinite. This God beckons us to be “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect,” a perfection portrayed by the life of Christ. Like Jesus, we have a natural love and attraction to that which not only radically exceeds our own being but exceeds all being, and whose nature is unlimited.
But again, our divinely ordained ability to choose also has ominous implications. “People turn out in wildly different ways, for better or worse,” Tanner observes. Our divinely given free-will prerogatives, joined with an almost infinitely malleable nature, make the human enterprise an incredibly open-ended affair. As Tanner puts it, “Their unusual power of self-determination means humans can become anything along the continuum of ontological ranks, from the top to the bottom.”
In other words, if we can become like the incomprehensible divine nature, we can become incomprehensibly iniquitous as well. As C.S. Lewis notes, there are “no ordinary people . . . it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” We need a rational theodicy that attempts to encompass these daunting realities.
The mere act of aiming for a multi-perspectival theodicy, a new meta-narrative that encompasses even the most horrendous evils, can only increase our likelihood of success at mobilizing in the right direction. Meanwhile, we should expect and prepare for more cases of unfathomable evil, more forms of demonic power once thought to be impossible even as we pray and hope such atrocities do not happen. If we are to face these next few decades with courage, then we will need be honest about what deeds we are all capable of—ranging from sublime goodness to demonic evil. And we will need all the philosophic tools and all the bold theologizing we can possibly bring to bear on our current crisis.
Byron Belitsos holds a BA (Honors) in history of ideas from the University of Chicago and an MA in systematic theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. For several decades Belitsos has been an independent scholar and an award-winning book publisher, editor, and author. His most recent book is Truths About Evil, Sin, and the Demonic (Wipf & Stock, 2023). His previous acclaimed works include Your Evolving Soul (2017), Healing a Broken World (2014), A Return to Healing (2009), and One World Democracy (2005). He can be reached at: email@example.com.