Denys Turner: How Could a Good God Allow Evil?

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8 Responses to Denys Turner: How Could a Good God Allow Evil?

  1. William says:

    This is a challenging aspect of Theology that has been haunting my soul for years, but especially as of late. If God is really “good” in any real sense and if He is all-powerful, whence evil? The standard “free-will” defenses carry some water, but not enough. As Turner says, atheists tend to understand this problem more than most theists will admit to, because, in their minds, if they admitted the problem, they would have to become atheists.

    The crux of Julian’s understanding is that God could have made a world in which all men were totally free and yet never chose to sin, but He didn’t. He didn’t, not because this world is “better” than that world would have been (any created order is infinitely less than God and therefore can in no wise be considered better or worse in ultimate terms), but simply that it is “behovely” or “more fitting.” What exactly this means, we cannot know on this side of eternity, but we are invited to hope in the God of love, that “all will be well.” Such a line of reasoning makes you want to pull out all you hair, curse the day in which you were born, scream at God, to seriously entertain atheism, and then respectfully return your ticket (ala Vanya in Brothers Karamazov). But, frustratingly enough, David Bentley Hart makes the same point as Julian in his essay, “God, Creation, and Evil.” He says: “Thus every evil that times comprises, natural or moral–a worthless distinction, really, since human nature is a natural phenomenon–is an arraignment of God’s goodness: every death of a child, every chance calamity, every act of malice; everything diseased, thwarted, pitiless, purposeless, or cruel…” One must grant a great deal of patience to those who would struggle with such a statement. Of course, Hart says that the universal bliss, the unending participation in the divine nature which, in the ages, awaits every human creature will someday, somehow, make all of this make sense. However, until then, Harts says that the Gospels paradoxically invite us to rage against and detest all such evil and to fight it tenaciously. Tuner argues that Julian says the same thing in his essay. This isn’t some bland wishy-washy “evil isn’t really evil” naivete. Neither of them say that if you stare hard enough at Auschwitz or the sexual abuse of children, you will eventually magically see that it is good. Only in the Beatific Vision will one eventually see why God allowed his enemies so much slack and why this was good. Again, this is not emotionally convincing in the least, but the intellectual possibility remains open. But turning from finite suffering, we see that this bears even more on the problem of Hell.

    Julian is famous for saying that “all will be well.” This is essentially what Hart says. Of course, Julian also qualified this by saying “all will be well for those who are saved.” Her universalism is often disputed. She certainly had a wider view of salvation then most Catholics of her times, allowing for the possibility of the salvation of Jews and other unbaptized people. She spoke of “an event” to come in the future that would help to clarify what the Church could have meant by such seemingly exclusivist teachings (as found in the Medieval Catholic councils), and still let people maintain their hope for all. Perhaps this is a self-disclosure of God to non-Christian souls before the moment of death, a possibility allowed for by orthodox Catholic theology and attested to by saints such as Padre Pio and Faustina. Although she was not a universalist, she perhaps hoped for universalism. When she asked to know if there were any in Hell, she received the answer that she was not to know this.

    This consideration of Hell and universalism is important, because as Hart admits, without universal salvation, the “economics of the exchange becomes monstrous.” The seeming indifference of God to Auschwitz may be reconcilable to a God who loves all men, but indifference to Gehenna is not. That would put us in a Calvinist, Banezian, Thomist, Augustinian, Jansenist ooze in which God has determined not to save all (though he could without effecting their freedom), not because it is “better,” but because it is “fitting” that He not do so. In other writings, Hart calls this conception of “god” a “pure engine of self-expressive power.” Harts says that he is “a monstrous god” to whom atheism is preferable. I agree with Hart’s assessment. Any god who requires the eternal screams of the damned in order to be fully glorified or to be fittingly revealed causes me physical, emotional, and spiritual sickness. This is not the God of self-emptying love revealed in Christ, it is a pure abyss of pitiless power. I’m still not a universalist myself, for whatever reason, but I will say that I will not countenance the arguments of those who believe in an eternal Hell unless they honestly frame the terms of the debate correctly. Something that the vast majority of Christians do not do according to Hart, Julian, and Turner.

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    • Dots says:

      WE choose. Not God. All will be ushered into the presence of God. For those who love Him, it will be bliss For those who hate Him, it will be torment.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thank you, Dots, for the link to Frederica’s article. Frederica there describes what has, I think, become the dominant position within Orthodoxy. It’s a view in which all the retributive elements have been drained out and may be categorized as a form of free-will perdition (see “What is Orthodox Hell?“). I have expressed my objections to this model in my article “Hell and the Torturous Vision of Christ.”


        • Dots says:

          Thank you, Fr. Kimel. I will read and study your words. I am surely not smart enough or educated enough to debate you on the topic and won’t try. But I’m curious.

          This — “Love cannot justify the imposition of eternal suffering. Only justice can.” — sounds an awful lot like the juridicial Protestant doctrines I walked away from some years ago. I’m recalling Kalistos Ware’s words in “The Orthodox Church” about Western vs. Eastern views of what Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished — payment for my sin (very Protestant) vs. defeat of death out of love — but perhaps I misunderstood him.

          My readings actually have not much included Kh. Frederica. I used the link because it was handy for online posting. But what do you make, then, of “Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades”? That book, on the advice of my priest, is what I read, and included mostly patristic writings, church tradition and chants, and scripture. Also, some parts of “The Mountain of Silence” (admittedly not dating to the church fathers) includes some interesting accounts of the possibility of change or growth in the life after death, and even, frankly, rising out of hell.


          • Dots says:

            I am way out of my league, but I enjoy reading the brilliance of others.🙂


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            I do not disagree at all with the faith that death has been destroyed and hades emptied by the death and resurrection of Christ. I’m simply not content with the claim that God will eternally inflict himself upon anyone to their eternal torment–hence my hope in the ultimate salvation of all. But mine is a minority position within Orthodoxy and many within Orthodoxy would condemn this hope as heterodox.


  2. brian says:

    So many of these Thomists, and very good ones like McCabe and Turner, have a pragmatic, unperturbed sensibility when it comes to the suffering of animals. Well, I have a large picture in my house depicting the lion and the lamb at peace, though the closest biblical prophecy in Isaiah actually talks of the wolf lying down with the lamb (Isa 65:25). Granted, it is an eschatological picture, and many exegetes dismiss any literal meaning as cogent. Rather, the animal symbolism used throughout Scripture is taken as proof that metaphor alone is properly involved. Yet I am loath to dismiss the letter; God has a way of fulfilling that is inclusive — both/and, rather than either/or. So I continue to wonder what the good Thomist makes of Isaiah.

    My friends know that I maintain a feral colony of cats. For close to a decade now, I have been trying to feed and care for the vagabond beggars that come to my door. Some of them stay. In ten years, I have seen many short lives and some longer. All who stay eventually obtain names, which is hard on one’s heart as risk is great for these creatures of the Good God. I will not belabor efforts to spay and neuter or the few favorites I was able to take to a vet when ill. I am poor and poorer now, so mainly I feed and offer sympathy. One of my longstanding colonists is slowly dying. I do not know what is wrong with him, but he is sick. It does not appear to be the wasting disease that kills many over time. I don’t believe he was hit by a car. But he is surely on the mortal path we all tread. Every day, I wonder if he will still be with us . . . and for several weeks now, he continues. For the Thomist who merely follows Aristotle here, the life of this cat is an instance of a species. He has no unique importance. If he passed on a genetic inheritance, his destiny is fulfilled. If a poor creature dies as a babe, it is the cost of nature’s mechanism, perhaps sad, but ultimately nugatory.

    I cannot abide such a callous dismissal. I am not persuaded by those who speak of the limitations of irrational, brutish life. I am not impressed by arguments regarding duration and consciousness and the differences of awareness between creatures that inhabit an environment and those that encompass a world. I grant the differences, but deny that such precludes more limited participation or analogous forms of sensibility that make compassion eschatologically meaningful. I do not believe even an inanimate grain of sand is unimportant in God’s creation. No thing exists apart from God’s call. No-thing persists apart from the loving, sustaining care of the NoThing, the agapeic Generosity that gifts being to us all. The unremarked flower blooming in the desert is adored by seraphim, is a unique song of the Divine. It doesn’t matter that uniqueness is much more manifest in personal, rational being; all of creation bears some uniqueness because all is gift bearing the trace of the utterly Unique.

    So I do not accept that the sorrow I feel for a dying beggar cat is a greater compassion than that of the Tender God known by Julian. I do not accept that God’s maternal love for creation (Lk 13:34) is limited in any way, not to a limited Elect, not to rational creatures. It is a mistake to reduce a lion to a lamb-eating machine. This is precisely the kind of univocal comprehension the artist refuses. We do not know the last word on the lion or the lamb. This is not sentimentality. In this world, the lion does indeed devour the lamb, but to circumscribe the meaning of any creature to a world driven by a necessary engine of death is to exhibit a complacency the prophets were called to resist. The creature adapted to the world suffused with the cost of privative evil is not the last word. None of us can imagine the fullness of God’s gift, the reality of a healed Cosmos, the Eighth Day whereby the Sixth is graced to a nuptial glory, to the joy of communion in theosis, but I do believe one will see the lion laying down with the lamb.


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