Creation, Theodicy, and the Problem of Evil

by Robert F. Fortuin

This essay sets forth the claim that the absolute freedom of God’s act of creation informs the nature and meaning of evil. Because God created the universe without prior constraint or necessity, His moral nature and the destiny of creation are inextricably related — creation will be completed in the eschaton, free from the grip of corruption at the last. The absolute freedom of divine creation denotes that evil is — and the completion of creation will reveal it to be — devoid of divine logos and justification.

Theodicy, and the problem of evil generally, appears by all accounts to be a very important subject as it concerns key concepts about the moral character of God. It also addresses very practical, existential concerns about the senselessness of violence, disease, pain, suffering and other such evils which are a universal reality. Is it possible to provide a rational account of such apparent cosmic absurdity and belief in God? It seems to be unavoidable that questions concerning sin, death and evil relate to and frame our understanding of divine goodness. If evil is of divine intent the claim ‘God is good’ cannot denote that God is goodness itself — the good as such by which all other goodness is measured. Yet much of the Christian tradition seems to lead one to believe there must be unknown (possibly malevo­lent) aspects to the ‘goodness’ of God complicit in his permission and use of evil — for how else are we to understand the perduring existence of pain and suffering in this life and extended without end into hell?1 Theodicy concerns itself with the divine will and its relation to human freedom: how do we perceive God’s intentionality in relation to creation? Is God’s power understood as a ‘zero-sum equation’ in which divine sovereignty necessarily constrains and detracts from creaturely freedom? To question a competitive view of liberty another way — does our freedom ‘to do otherwise’ constrain God’s purposes, into infinity holding out against God’s will? Perhaps divine power and human freedom should be understood, as do Sts Isaac of Nineveh and Gregory of Nyssa, along the lines of a compatibilist model in which divine and personal freedom are not mutually opposed whilst yet not implicating God with the machination of evil.2 Regardless how we answer these questions, and leaving aside methodological and epistemological concerns, theodicy as an exploration of the problem of evil, of God’s moral nature, and of the nature of creaturely freedom is a very important subject. For Christians the riddle of evil is a pressing theological pursuit to make sense of a world held in the grip of corruption whilst maintaining faith in a benevolent creator God. In the crucible of life where faith meets reality the meaning we ascribe to evil affirms the claims we make about the moral attributes of God. Theodicy then is far from a trivial and merely theoretical concern important only to the ivory towers of academia.

Although the term ‘theodicy’ is a relatively modern term (it was coined by the German rationalist philosopher Gottfried Leibniz around the year 1710), the problems it concerns certainly are not exclusive to modernity. We moderns are not the first to ponder the meaning and mystery of evil and death – this is an ancient conundrum having befuddled minds throughout the ages. Yet some notable modern theologians (chief among them Karl Barth) have argued that theodicy is neither a necessary, possible, nor legitimate concern. Human suffering, they claim, pales in comparison to the suffering God, the death of Christ making theodicy unnecessary. However, I believe the questions that theodicy seeks to address regarding human suffering caused by evil both legitimate, necessary and possible. That is not to say that problematic ways of using theodicy do not exist – for instance, theodicy to justify and rationalize evil, or to justify disbelief in God. Given these caveats the ‘theodic’ inquiry as to how faith in a benevolent and omnipotent God can be maintained given the fallen condition of the cosmos is a wholly valid and indeed a very necessary project. The timelessness of theodicy seems quite undeniable — the questions of the moral character of God and the existence of evil have occupied every generation since Adam’s account in the Garden of Eden, ‘The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat’ (Gen. 3:12). Surely ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, as the adage informs. The problem of evil not only spans across time but also across ideological and philosophical persuasions. That is to say that theodicy is not an exclusively religious problem, or a concern only for theists, for moral and natural evil does not discriminate. Regardless of one’s tradition, one’s creed (or lack of one) — without exception we are all confronted with the stark reality of violence, sickness, calamity, suffering, and death. The shadow world of corruption is so ubiquitous and pervasive that we can find it at work (let’s be honest) even within our persons. Here too we see that no one is exempt: moral corruption and physical death holds both theists and atheists equally to account, it does not discriminate. ‘That we shall die we know; ’tis but the time. And drawing days out, that men stand upon’, as Shakespeare put it eloquently.3

Many years ago, around the year 300 BC, the Greek philosopher Epicurus astutely summed up the intractable problem of evil in the form of a riddle:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?4

Even for a convinced philosophical materialist such as Epicurus the problem of evil was an inescapable question. Epicurus likely denied the existence of God based on the undeniable existence of evil — one way to solve the riddle is to eliminate God from the equation. For the theist denial of God is not considered a real solution to the problem (evil qua evil is left unexplained) and so the mystery of evil is especially intractable. We must admit that evil poses a particularly acute problem for those of us who insist on the goodness of God; a God who is infinite love, and Whose will is the only measure of His power. The task for theist then is not merely to make sense of the profound irrationality of evil (a formidable problem in itself); she must also reconcile the reality of evil with the omnipotence and benevolence of God. Why would an omnipotent God allow evil to flourish? What could possibly be the rationale — its logos — (logos in Greek not only means ‘word’, but also ‘reason’ or ‘rationale’ or ‘rational principle’) for God to cause or allow the abuse, torture and death of innocent, helpless infants? The fifth century Christian theologian Pseudo-Dionysius in his indispen­sable treatise Concerning the Divine Names accentuates the problem for the believer as follows: ‘Granted that the Beautiful and Good is something yearned for, wished for, and loved by all – how is it the multitude of demons has no wish for it? … If there is any Providence at all how can it be that there is evil, that it comes to be, that it is not done away with?’5 Dionysius underlines the problem — if God is good, beautiful, lovely, necessary for our existence and omnipotent — how then can we explain that God is in fact rejected; and to make matters worse, evil is permitted to grow and to fester? It would seem then that God cannot be all-good and all-powerful.

Dionysius brings us closer to what I would like to draw our attention to – the contribution that some of the early Church fathers bring to this question of the moral nature of God as it relates to the problem of evil. I can think of no Church Father whose writings are of greater importance and singular clarity on theodicy than St Gregory of Nyssa. This important fourth century bishop tirelessly worked toward the eventual victory of Nicene orthodoxy at the first council of Constantinople in the late 4th century. In some ways, he represents the theological vision of those who came before him, luminaries such as St Irenaeus of Lyon, St Athanasius, and St Basil the Great; however, in other ways Gregory towers over them in depth and eloquence, advancing theological insights by no small measure. Particularly of interest is Gregory’s splendid work On the Making of Man in which he presents a brilliant eschatological and anthropological vision. What is striking is that on Gregory’s account protology and eschatology comprise a single, unified vision – the beginning is explained, can only be understood, and is justified by the end. The cosmos has been truly created only when ‘the union of all things with the first good’ has been completed, when all at last in Christ, every single soul, is united to God.6 Cosmology then is not an isolated pre-occupation about how the physical universe came to be; rather, for Gregory the genesis of ‘the first things’ receives its true significance and meaning in its relation to the redemptive fulfillment in the completion of Judgment Day in the Eschaton. The God who creates, is the God who redeems, is the God who will be ‘All in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:28). It is perhaps not surprising then that for St Gregory the Christian doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo, God’s creation of everything out of nothing, holds the key to understanding God’s moral nature: for the logos — its rationale — of bringing everything into existence is its fulfillment in the life of God. It is in its end, from the vantage point of its completion,7 that creation’s original truth and meaning is revealed. For Gregory, God’s creative act is not merely an etiological inquiry, a study of causation and origins, but rather primarily an inquiry into the self-revelation of God as to what God is like – Genesis, Pascha (Easter), and the Last Judgment are a single revelatory act of God in whom God reveals himself to be the God who he really is. For God freely creates and does so ‘out of nothing’; He is creation’s First and Final Cause. This for Gregory holds the key to understanding the nature of evil and, I suggest, informs the antinomy of theodicy. The ancient Christian doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo denotes that God has no part in the violence and necessity of evil; and that evil, lacking its own hypostatic subsistence,8 is neither original nor anterior to creation and therefore will be in the end utterly annihilated. In the spirit of ecumenical dialogue,9 it is important to point out that the works of the early church fathers and the theology of Creatio Ex Nihilo are not exclusive to the Christian East nor exclusive to Eastern Orthodoxy. The early church fathers ‘belong’ to the undivided church and as such their theology is the common inheritance of all Christians. This shared tradition makes their voices even more important to contemporary considera­tions of theodicy, and it is imperative that patristic works be carefully considered as they are appropriated and brought into contemporary conversation. Over the centuries Eastern Orthodoxy in her praxis and theology has been keen to be attentive to the patristic witness and this I believe makes Orthodoxy’s contribution to the ongoing conversation (potentially) particularly rewarding.

Let us take a closer look at Creatio Ex Nihilo and how this pivotal early Christian doctrine (nearly universally accepted) may shed light on theodicy. One of the first things to note is that this doctrine, although not explicitly stated in the Bible, is logically coherent with New Testament revelation of the God who brings to new life that which has been demolished by death. It is the Paschal (Easter) account of the resurrection of Christ, the triumph of life over the non-being of sin and death, which forms the foundation to the theology of divine creation of all things out of nothing. As St Paul states in Romans 4:17 God is the One ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.’ It is ‘the power of God, who raised him from the dead’ (Colossians 2:20), and ‘God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power’ (1 Cor. 6:14). In the resurrection, God brings into existence that which is not, that which has been subject to death’s destruction, by creating life through the summons of his power. This is the Easter triumph and promise: that God as creator of life is free and separated from, and thus not subject to the undoing of death. St John in the opening of his Gospel explicitly connects the creative, life-giving power of the resurrection with the creation of Genesis: ‘All things were made through him [Christ, the Logos], and without him was not anything made that was made’ (John 1:3). In situating creation in and through Jesus the Logos (who eternally exists with the Father), St John declares an atemporal theology of creation (this is another way of saying that time itself belongs to the created order, that time had a beginning). This atemporal theology of creation heralded a radical departure from reigning Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics. The first explicit use of Creatio Ex Nihilo on record is attributed to Theophilus of Antioch dated around the middle of the second century (around 150 AD, only a few short decades after John’s passing). Theophilus wrote his response to Greek philosophers who taught that the world is eternal and physical matter the source of evil. Theophilus countered that the cosmos had a beginning, the result of the atemporal creative act of God, who created everything freely by his own power and without need for pre-existing matter and without time. Contrary to the materialist philosophers the world came into being by the gratuitous outpouring of God and as such was created good and not naturally evil. Ex nihilo creation became a central feature of the patristic theology of divine transcendence, or what may be called a theology of alterity, of difference — the absolute ontological difference between God and the world. St Gregory of Nyssa formulated what he coined the ‘ultimate division of being’ — the infinite interval of difference between two fundamental modes of being: the Uncreate and the created.

Per this ultimate division, God’s existence is absolutely different from that of creaturely existence. God is the source of his own existence; He does not come into being, he does not progress from potentiality to actuality — for God is ‘always already’ perfect beyond every measure. He is without limit in will or power, without necessity, and without compulsion. God is infinite in His existence, immeasurably complete in knowledge, goodness, love, or any other divine attribute. God’s nature is simple and is without parts or fragments; He is therefore without extension in space and time. God is, in short, without need of anything or anyone: himself the only source and measure of all. For God to be, is to know, is to do – which is to say, that there is no difference between his existence (who God is, his act of being), and his essence or nature (what God is). For God to be is His nature. He is the ‘I Am that I Am’ of Exodus 3:14 and the ‘I AM’ of John 8:58; and ‘he who is’, ‘the being one,’ the ‘Ho ‘n’ (traditionally inscribed on Christ’s halo on many icons of Christ). Whatever God does he does in complete freedom, without necessity, ignorance or external restraints. God does not need the world to complete himself, for it can add nothing to God. In creating the cosmos — God summons non-being into existence ‘out of nothing’ freely and without need for it — an utterly unnecessary and gratuitous gift called forth from the abundant plenitude of God’s own life. Following Creatio Ex Nihilo God’s creative power then is a timeless act of love and disclosure: self-diffusive, self-donative, peaceful, and good. On this account, the creative act of calling forth the universe freely and out of nothing God reveals himself truly.

On the other side of the division of being is creaturely existence (which according to the fathers includes things seen and unseen, the entire created order). Creation is infinitely dissimilar to divinity in that it is not the source of its own life. It is derivative in nature, receiving its being by participation, wholly contingent in its dependency on the creative act of God. It is marked by becoming and imperfection, always in a state of change, moving from potentiality to actuality. It is incomplete, finite, composite, and limited in time and space. Created life is marked by a responsive openness, ever needful for that which it lacks, finding its subsistence and completion only in the God who has called it out of nothing. Creaturely existence is a sort of ‘in between’ or metaxu as the Greek fathers call it — a reality precari­ously held between being and non-being. God is the beginning and end of all things, and he alone is creation’s proper end and fulfillment.

The theology of divine transcendence and ex nihilo creation thus affirm a principle about the moral nature of God: namely that God has no part in the creation and machination of evil, the senselessness of suffering and death. God’s creative act is outside of time, whereas the advent of evil is situated within time, as a departure from its original goodness.10 According to the understanding that the universe came to be without divine constraint or need, evil is without original intent, being or necessity; God requires it not to accomplish his good purposes, for it plays no role in God’s revelation of himself and in his eternal intentions for creation.

What is striking is that for Gregory as for all the Nicene fathers of the Christian east and west the ontological difference between God and creation, God’s transcendence, is not understood in a contrastive or competitive manner. Because God is not part of creation, His presence, and power and agency is not at the expense or in competition with creaturely freedom. God, in other words is not an oppositional reality. Primary causality, God’s putting everything into motion and sustaining every moment, is not in conflict with secondary causality, creaturely intention and freedom. Rather God’s creative will enfolds and makes possible and sustains creaturely agency and freedom. This is quite significant for it indicates that divine transcen­dence grounds and is the condition for true creaturely freedom — God’s power is not one of domination and constraint. This is quite different from modern theologies in which God’s will and power are construed along the lines of predestination, determinism, and eternal damnation; a zero-sum equation in which God’s sovereignty and intention comes at the cost of creaturely freedom. The absurdity of such construals is demonstrated in that God is the ‘efficient cause of the sinful actions that he punishes!’11

But if God’s will is the ground for, sustains, makes possible and enfolds our will and freedom — how are we to understand the existence of evil and death? Does God will evil because He wills and sustains our freedom? On St Gregory’s understanding evil is the privation of good — it is devoid of hypostatic subsistence; a ‘non-being,’ as he calls it, that is parasitic in its dependence on the powers of created will. (This definition is another shared conviction between the Christian East and West — recall St Augustine’s evil as ‘privatio bonum‘ or the absence of good). Evil per Gregory has its ‘being in non-being’ whose ‘ousia [or nature] has its hypostasis not in being, but in not being good’ and ‘not as existing in itself but in the absence of the other.’ Evil does not have a true existence, and is thus not necessary to creation — it is neither original nor anterior to it; which is to say that it exists only as a scandalous rupture of goodness, situated historically in the metaxu, the ‘in between’ of created existence. Sin, on this account, is understood as an assertion of the nothingness from which it arose, and as such a departure from God’s intention for creation. Evil is not necessary, and not a necessary consequence of creation. Although God wills and sustains our freedom, He neither wishes for evil, nor predetermines or is frustrated by it. On this view, death is an anti-Christ, or an ‘anti-logos’ if you will, the enemy who is against Christ the Logos (who himself is the source of Life, the Logos of existence). We can think of death as a type of and resulting from ‘non-logos’ — an absurdity without logos, without rationale, without a rational principle, absent of the good, parasitic and lacking its own being. Evil is purely accidental, wholly unneccessary.12 Is there then a reasonable explanation to evil, some rational way that we can account and provide justification for it? Gregory answers this question with a resounding ‘no’: as the non-logos evil has no rational explanation; it cannot be justified, as it is entirely bereft of meaning and purpose. There is therefore no justifica­tion, no purpose whatsoever and no meaning for the innocent suffering and death of a child, for such malice is utterly without explanation and logos.

But in the irrationality of evil also lies our hope and the good news of the Easter tiding – because God freely created all things the meaning of creation (thus also its fulfillment) and the moral nature of God are inseparable. For St Gregory, this is a matter of theological coherence and consistency: evil is not original to creation for the good God freely created the cosmos from nothing but the divine will, and therefore evil and death and even Hell itself will come to an end. This means then, not only is evil not conditionally enfolded in God’s designs, it also is not the inevitable and necessary cost of creaturely free-will, the price of God’s self-revelation the unending suffering of souls in an eternal Hell. Eternal damnation has no place in the divine consummation of creation: every rational soul will find its proper end in God as her first and final cause. This, I should point out, is a marked contrast to St Augustine’s eschatological vision of two cities in which the most populous city is destined for eternal misery. The two cities are eternally locked having been sealed by God’s foreknowl­edge and predestination. Not so for St Gregory: an eternally persisting dualism — evil allowed to exist forever alongside the Good — has no part in his eschatological vision. Evil is not allowed to persist into eternity in the form of an eternal hell. In Gregory’s words, ‘evil does not extend to infinity, but is comprehended by necessary limits.’13 Perdition and suffering and torment of the damned — this too will come to end. Were evil to persist into infinity, it would denote that God is less than the Good, that the madness of evil somehow has the power to eternally change God. God is infinite love and creation is good, and therefore God loves all creation. For Gregory divine punishment is not retributive but reformatory and restorative in nature, for God aims for the good of all humanity. Hell will come to an end because divine restorative punishment will ultimately be successful; Hell will cease and God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28).

Death itself will be annihilated, Hell and eternal torment will be no more.14 Only when all of creation finds its completion in God will the cosmos have been truly created. Humanity, the image of God, will have been truly created when ‘the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last – some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards … been healed by the Fire.’

O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.15

 

References and Further Reading

Burrell, David. Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective. Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA. 2004
_____. Aquinas, God and Action. Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR. 2016.
Davies, Brian. Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. Continuum, London. 2006
Hart, David Bentley. “God, Creation, and Evil.” Radical Orthodoxy. Vol. 3, No. 1, 2015.
_____. “Providence and Causality: On Divine Innocence,” in The Providence of God. Murphy & Ziegler 2009.
Ladner, Gerhard B. The Philosophical Anthropology of Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library. 1956
Ludlow, Morwenna. Universal Salvation: Eschatology in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2000.
Mosshammer, Alden A. Non-Being and Evil in Gregory of Nyssa. Vigiliae Christianae. Brill Leiden. 1990.
Nyssa, Gregory of. Contra Eunomium, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. T & T Clark, Edinburgh.
_____. On the Making of Man, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. T & T Clark, Edinburgh.
_____. Contra Eunomium, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. T & T Clark, Edinburgh.
_____. On the Soul and Resurrection, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. T & T Clark, Edinburgh.
Robinette, Brian D. “The Difference Nothing Makes: Creatio Ex Nihilo, Resurrection, and Divine Gratuity.” Theological Studies V. 72. 2011
Sokolowski, Robert. The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology. Catholic University Press, 1995
Tanner, Kathryn. God and Creation in Christian Theology. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN. 1988.

Endnotes

[1] As I have argued elsewhere, the difficulty with carrying hell into infinity is staggering, theologically, philosophically, metaphysically: the sheer disproportion of temporal offense to infinite punishment; the absurdity of a never-ending good vs. evil dualism in which God remains powerless and frustrated (into infinity no less!) and in which creaturely free-will holds the ultimate power; the equivocal nonsense of punishment as torture forever perpetuated by a ‘good’ God; and the cost of His revelation the punishment of those chosen to unending perdition. For further reading on this subject I suggest David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil.” Radical Orthodoxy. Vol. 3, No. 1, 2015.

[2] On the relation between first and secondary causality I recommend David Burrell’s Aquinas, God and Action. (Wipf Stock, Eugene, 2016) and David Bentley Hart’s essay “Providence and Causality” in The Providence of God (Murphy Ziegler 2009).

[3] William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Act III, scene 1, line 99

[4] Lactantius attributes this passage to Epicurus in chapter 13 of De Ira Dei.

[5] Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology. Tr. C.E.Rolt. SPCK: London, 1979. Chapter IV, Section 18, pp. 109-111. On the subject of the nature of evil the entire Chapter IV of The Divine Names is a must read.

[6] Gregory of Nyssa. On the Making of Man, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. T T Clark, Edinburgh.

[7] On the Nyssen’s account the universe in its current state is in a state of incompletion – it has not been fully created as of yet. For more the completion of creation as well as Gregory’s notion of a ‘double’ creation, see chapters 16-24 of On the Making of Man.

[8] ‘No evil exits in its own substance’ and ‘non-subsistent [anupartxos] nature of evil’. See Mosshammer, Non-Being and Evil in Gregory of Nyssa for an excellent exposition of Nyssa’s understanding of evil as non-being. Evil as non-being was a widely-held understanding among pro-Nicene fathers.

[9] This essay is an adaptation of a presentation made at the Ecumenical Patristics Seminar at the University of St Katherine (San Marcos, CA) in April 2017.

[10] Describing the fall of the angels, Dionysius comments that the departure from their original good state is a ‘warping, a declension from their right condition.’ The Divine Names, IV, section 23.

[11] David Bentley Hart, ‘Providence and Causality’, p. 50. Hart explicates the nature of divine/human relation of freedom and causality, along compatibilist lines. The chief weakness of analytical theologians espousing an incompatibilist view is the failure to understand divine transcendence; God is reduced to an agent among agents whose will detracts from creaturely freedom. On account of Alvin Plantinga, for instance, evil is necessary for the existence of free moral agents. It is not possible for God to create free human beings without also creating evil; freedom is defined in its opposition to the divine will. The logic of the incompatible model is demonstrated as follows, ‘Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so…’ Divine causality detracts from secondary, creaturely causality. Evil for Plantinga thus becomes a divine necessity and implicitly becomes the author of evil. It is self-evident that such a take on the nature of evil, and the moral character of God, is radically at odds with patristics on the subject. Plantinga, Alvin (1974). The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 166-167.

[12] Dionysius The Divine Names IV Sec 32 ‘Unto evil we can attribute but an accidental kind of existence. It exists for the of something else, and is not self-originating. And hence our action appears to be right (for it has Good as its object) while yet it is not really right (because we mistake for good that which is not good).’

[13] Nyssa, On the Making of Man, Chapter 21, Sec. 2.

[14] The annihilation that Gregory refers to is the annihilation of hell itself, not the annihilation of people and creatures. That is to say that hell comes to an end because it is completely emptied out: it is marks the absolute end of death, suffering, pain, punishment. This position I hold to be the only one that is consistent with God’s unconditional love and the Paschal triumph wrought by Christ as attested to in the Gospels, the scriptures and the Orthodox tradition.

[15] Closing paragraph of the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom.

(11 July 2017)

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Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine College in San Diego, California. He holds an MLitt Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and a BA in Religious Studies from Vanguard University. 

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34 Responses to Creation, Theodicy, and the Problem of Evil

  1. Tom says:

    Your endnotes are displaying a funky “OBJ” note in front of each number.

    Like

  2. Tom says:

    Robert, speaking of the Problem of Evil, do you see any OBJs?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robert, this question may be a bit obscure without more background, but where, on your view, does St Gregory of Nyssa “locate” evil, in terms of the distinction between nature and hypostasis. Of course, given its privative character, it cannot be positively located in either, but I’m still wondering whether he thinks of the consequences of the fall and appearance of evil as more strongly marking the shared universal human nature or the individual human hypostasis. I ask, because—unless I have completely misunderstood his view about the creation of human beings—if one assumes that the “true” human person is only revealed at the end, it is not clear how the human person in the full sense can be said to have fallen or been redeemed (at least, in a sense that presupposes fallenness). Rather, especially if one thinks of original sin as affecting the whole shared human nature, it seems more plausible to say that human nature fell and was redeemed, and thus, that the Fall was not a fully “personal” event. I say this because seeing it as fully personal would seem to require a view according to which at least some human persons are created as already complete and perfect at the beginning, then fall away from this perfection, to later be restored to a perfection they previously already occupied. Whereas Gregory of Nyssa’s view, unless I am very much mistaken, seems to imply that the eschatological creation, including human persons, which will be complete at the end, is something new, and not merely a return to a state of prelapsarian perfection.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Good question, worthwhile to consider as the implications are not unimportant. What was lost in the fall – a loss of perfection that has to be restored, or a loss innocence that has yet to be fulfilled? The latter would indicate some sort of detour – a missed opportunity perhaps? The former would seem to point to a more catastrophic alteration of the human constitution. But I could be wrong, I would to hear what others have to say about this.

      At any rate, I share your intuition. My reading of Gregory indicates that he views the fall not to have been from a perfected, completed condition. To be sure, he is not alone in this, it may well have been the majority position among his peers. For Gregory the human condition was never yet completed – even without the lapse in Eden there would remain the need for the incarnation.

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  4. Jeff says:

    Yes , one can take all in all literally , but the either or of it seems to miss the paradox of basic issuantism say in Q Thal 59

    “ By ‘against nature’, I mean the unspeakable anguish which is involved in the deprivation of this (joy), which God naturally creates when. he is united with the unworthy against grace. For God is united with all, according to the quality of the fundamental state of each person; in a way that he understands, he supplies sensation to each one, corresponding to the way each is made by him to receive the one who is completely united to all, at the end of the ages“,

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Jeff, I am not sure exactly what your point is, but at any rate issuantism presumes a very modern (i.e. libertarian, indeterminate) view of free will which will be hard to find in the works of Gregory of Nyssa (nor any of the church fathers, to be sure). David Bentley Hart has made what I consider to be decisive arguments against such a defense of everlasting hell. I strongly recommend reading Meditation Four of That All Shall Be Saved as a most excellent introduction to the ancient Christian understanding of determinate free will.

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      • Jeff says:

        Issuance just means same source one that portrays hell as flowing from the same divine character from which heaven flows, typical EO view , as hart says “ there is that school of thought that wisely makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, …, Maximus and others have the All in All part encompassing those against grace too ,

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  5. DBH says:

    Grand stuff, Robert. May I though beg one favor of you? Instead of “metaxu” could you write the word as “metaxy”? Until recently, even among scholars who used the horrid Erasmian pronunciation, an ypsilon was properly rendered as a “y”. I mean, unless you think that might alter the metaphusics.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Thank you David for the positive feedback and the ypsilon correction is duly noted. Chalk it up to my Germanic linguistic predisposition as a lazy fall-back to my Dutch native tongue. Consequently I reflexively prefer the “u” over the xenophonic “i grec” – so it is that “uper” is more instinctively more meaningful to me than “hyper”. But it is hyper of course, and metaxy!

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      • Robert and DBH,

        I come away from this piece having the same feeling I had after reading Doors of the Sea. It’s the one Hart book I just don’t “get.” Perhaps Hart has responded to this criticism before, but let me try to explain my issue. Here is your quote Robert:

        “Gregory answers this question with a resounding ‘no’: as the non-logos evil has no rational explanation; it cannot be justified, as it is entirely bereft of meaning and purpose. There is therefore no justifica­tion, no purpose whatsoever and no meaning for the innocent suffering and death of a child, for such malice is utterly without explanation and logos.”

        If evil cannot be justified, if it is entirely bereft of meaning and purpose, then why in the world does God permit its existence at all?I have seen Hart say on a couple occasions that God can bring good out of evil and suffering, but if we’re using the adjectives “unjustified,” “unnecessary,” etc., then to me, this means that God COULD have made this world without any suffering or evil but chose not to. Unless you want to go Greg Boyd’s route and deny God’s foreknowledge, or go Rabbi Kushner’s route and say that God simply can’t put a stop to evils even if he wanted to, then how is God not evil for allowing ANY evil?

        I agree that evil is not an inevitable result of God creating free creatures but given that it exists, wouldn’t we have to say that God sees it as somehow a terribly unfortunate stop on the way to the deification of all creatures, at least for OUR WORLD? Upon creating a world that God foreknew would contain horrendous evils, if he didn’t believe they were somehow and unfortunately “necessary” for the deification of all the creatures he created, then he should have created a world with less evil or no evil if possible. Could we say that evil is not hypothetically “necessary” for the deification of a creature in the abstract, but in the world that God created, he saw that unless he allowed some evil and suffering, the world would not be able to reach its deification? And so in that sense, suffering was “necessary”?

        I agree with what Hart writes here:

        “These are not arbitrary rules that God could change without abolishing the spiritual nature of his creatures. They do not, however, imply that a passage through evil is somehow a necessary phase in the growth of spiritual natures. It merely means that, as spirit must move toward its divine end freely, out of and away from the utter moral and ontological poverty of nonbeing, the possibility of temporary but often tragic divergences from the true path are intrinsic to its nature until such time as that nature has grown into what Gregory of Nyssa calls stability in the Good.”

        If what we mean by evil being “purposeless” is an ontological statement meaning that it has no real existence or telos, I agree. But if we mean evil has no purpose within God’s larger economy, I don’t see how that can be true.

        If Plantinga, Craig and Swinburne were universalists, would you both still have such a big problem with their theodicies? After-all, what is so different from what Hart says in the quote above from the “soul-making” theodicy of John Hick, who WAS a Christian universalist before he became a pluralist?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Mark,

          I do not think there’s a completely satisfying answer to the good question you pose; the elusiveness of the answer I believe to be partly attributable to the intrinsic irrationality of evil as the absence of beauty. But the privation of beauty does not explain much, for the absence of beauty means the withdrawal of God, and this does not lead us very far. Imagine that, the absence of God.

          However, perhaps it is helpful if we can think of the mystery of secondary causation, and all that springs from it – the beautiful and the ugle – as a work of art. I am thinking specifically of “spontaneous” art such as the acrylic pour. There’s a truly uncontrolled and autonomous role the elements of the art take in the creation of the artwork. To be sure the artist sets the stage for the acrylic and silicon oil in their initial composition of mixture and method of application – but once poured, in making this composition the elements really do take over the control and direction from the artist’s initial and primary work. The components together can become a beautiful symphony, and palette of contrasts between their elemental characteristics and the reaction between them, of colors and lines in seemingly endless forms, arrays, shapes and cells – or perhaps a not-so beautiful piece in which one color dominates, or in which the cells do not take shape and bleed out into shapeless ugliness. There are many ways the pour can go wrong.

          The analogy breaks down of course. Why did God not create the perfect acrylic pour? What in God’s creative pour is leading towards ugliness, and from whence?

          Still, if we can understand creation as an “incomplete pour” with the basic elements in place, but not yet complete in its composition, a composition of beauty which it has yet to realize on its own; as a not-yet-actualized artistic pour with the potential to creatively find its destiny, in discovering its own beauty in the eye of its Beholder, for whom and by whom it was composed for beauty? And, can we understand the opposite – the actualization of the absence of beauty, the destructive of its creative purposes, as contrary to the will and desire of its Beholder, as contrary to its own beauty? The pour is not going as desired, it requires the intervening touch of the artist to make it a work of beauty, to bring the not-yet-finished creative piece to its completion, as it was intended to be from the very beginning.

          Is it a satisfying analogy, providing the answers we are looking for? Does it solve the conundrum of the absence of God? No, not really, but perhaps life is a risk, like art.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            and the risk of writing, with typos…..

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          • JBG says:

            Robert Fortuin: “… absence of beauty means the withdrawal of God, and this does not lead us very far. Imagine that, the absence of God.”

            This is why the problem of evil/suffering is so frustratingly impenetrable. The absence of God is but the absence of the Infinite. It is the limitation of the illimitable, the binding of the boundless.

            Frankly, it seems as though evil—as “the absence of God”, as the limitation of the Infinite—shouldn’t even be possible.

            We are admonished to remember that God cannot do what is logically impossible. The quintessential example: God cannot create a circular square.

            But God can withdraw its Infinite Being? God can limit the illimitable?

            It is not entirely clear to me how this too doesn’t constitute a logical impossibility. Is this not God, in some sense, working against its own nature? Negating itself? Doing the impossible?

            Is generating an absence of what is inherently limitless not equivalent to creating a circular square? An impossible contradiction?

            Even considering the “end state” in which perfect Being granted to all sentient being(s), I just can’t shake the gnawing feeling that this stage in the process involves an impossibility.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            JBG,

            Yes, I hear you. But can we think of the absence not as a complete void (which we both agree is a logical impossibility as far as God goes) but rather, to continue my analogy, as the artist standing back to let the acrylic paint do its work, a voluntary “standing back” to let the secondary causation do what it was created for, even when in its not-so-beautiful operation it errs and turns from the beautiful?

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          • Grant says:

            I don’t think there is any actual absence of God afterall in Him we live, move and have our being, if God were not present we would not be, it’s our particpation in Him that gives us existence and brings all things into being and holds them together.

            But God is understood to give ‘space’ ontologically to bring things into being that are distinct from Himself, that can truly be, so creation can truly be in it’s unity and diversity something that truly exists, and that you and I can truly exist and have being and participate in Being and Existence that is God. He provides the ‘space’ for us to be and truly donates existence to us, and to all things, from quantum fields to angels to have true life and existence.

            Now since that comes from non-existence, called from nothing into being, what is seen is a possibility of that call to twist and stumble back somewhat towards that nothingness in our movement ever more into the horizon of divinity before us, around us, within us twisting back towards ourselves and to nothing, to being stuck and suffering dislocation and ‘falling’ away from the call and vision. Collectively we loss sight of God all around us, we become blind and deaf to His Presence so it seems hidden, and we are by that movement both have thus held of and retreat from full participation and movement in the dance of the Trinity and mistake what we see. We become trapped in that movement and the disslocation and damage that it produces on all of us, on all beings and all things, as with the OT rendering of the story of Israel loss the active Presence of God, yet of course God is still always there.

            It is on our side, and of creation that has lost sight of Sun present, we are plants who can’t fully unfurl our leaves and have grown down into the ground and become thick and choking and cannot see much of the Sun, only shadow and a twisted half-life. Yet it is ever there, not a perfect anology but it gets the idea.

            Part of giving us true existence and the be something that truly is and rises to take part in the Life and Existence of God is giving us the full space to be, with the possibility of a stumble, confusion and resulting resistance and withdrawn into ourselves, of creation towards the nothing we are called from. And to be choked and caught up with the warping, twisted dislocation and chaos and destructive power of that movement and discord that results, of a power that keeps us then captive to our own movement.

            To simply abolish what we collectively realise in the state or aeon we fall into is to abolish ourselves and the free creation rising into it’s full nature (essentially simply re-creating it, rather than healing it) or forcing creation from stumbling would be to prevent it having true life and being and true partipation into the divine and true free response and realization.

            While unlike Mark I see nothing good in evil, no soul making can come from it in itself. Otherwise evil is an intention of God as part of His means of bringing about the result He wants, eternalizing every evil and in fact resulting in God as author of evil, it being the forge to produce the beings He wishes, the torture to make Paradise with at least for Christianity all the damage that, and making evil part of the revelation of God, and is then directly responsible for and intends. It is the heart of Paradise even if all eventually get there, they and creation would have been tortured to get there, much suffering inflicted to bring it about, and God either dependant on that suffering (and thereby not God) or it is His nature and He would not be Love nor the Good. So no, evil has no positive, and has no true part in any ‘soul-making’, only God’s healing and dileverance from evil, which is rescue and restoration in and from the affliction of death.

            Soul-making, or any fulness of being for all of us and all things, is by free calling into God, and in the face of our fall and the sickness and disaster that emerges, God must hold it in being and prevent full devestation, must make the healing part of His creation and His entering into and bringing that creation to Himself and in unity with Himself.

            We can of couse look that the vast array of suffering and believe that it is too much, to far, yet we don’t know the full contrast, and in Christianity at least of Christ in His Incarnation at the heart of creation taking all that stumbling and fall into Himself. Of God knowing the fullness of all that pain and agony, of being a slave, of starving and being thought nothing, of pain, sufferring, rejection, abuse, hate and death and fragile half-life mortality. Of uniting us to Him in all our weakness and of all creation, it is of God as part of creation entering in, taking responsiblity for calling us into being and the stumble that was therefore always possible and facing it. Of making sure whether we sense Him or not He is there with us, and all things at the deepest level and has broken the hold this discord and self-twisting has, and will deliver, heal and transigure all things.

            Of course looking out at everything that can still be hard to belief, and the reality of pain, suffering and face of pitiless death can make this feel unlikely that God is nothing like this (due to such things as the contingency argument, consciousness, beauty and such and the logical impossibility of materalism I don’t think atheism is tenable, but it is Christianity and a few similar traditions that the problem of evil really threatens, other traditions weren’t and aren’t, which is why the problem of evil never a real issue, chaos was part of the world, the gods didn’t serve humans in that way, or would be defeated or God was far beyond and little concerned or paid mind to us, even serving God’s purpose far below at our level of being). It can make the Christian idea of reality hard to by, but then often those in the worst trials seem to have the strongest faith in it, and if wrong then we are in a cold and indifferent place, and of God who is equally cold and incomprehensible to us, and the reality that fall out from that, would be that of strong over the weak as the natural and divine order (as for long it was thought to be). There are less terrible alternatives but perhaps as a result the problem of evil would become still present in such views to some extent as well.

            Of course if true, it would be true, though terrible, where even suicide could offer no escape from such a horror of reality. But I guess for me, my confidence seeing that in the Resurrection and Christ’s Incarnation revealing that God and reality is not like that, is against that, gives me confidence it is not so, and that we are and all will be brought and deilvered from the depths of our fall to see and partipate fully in God free from our own blinding and crippling.

            The problem of evil will always remain for Christians the greatest challenge, and sttruggle with that when facing some new terror, such as say COVID or cancer and lossing some to it, to see them torn apart in pain and suffering brings that terrible question and blind, meaningless of it all. I think Christians trying to give it meaning do a great diservice and end up making God look somewhat malevolent or at least cruel, or incompotent (if He requires such things to bring about what He wants), instead as with St Paul it is an enemy plain and simple, Nothing from Him, opposed to Him and trapping and deforming creation, which He has defeated and taken responsiblity for it’s potential and overcome and will heal, deliver, save and bring all things into the full and free being. But to know this and stare it honestly in the face, an enemy, but also to rightly see the yawing abyss it can bring, the desolation, the cry Jesus makes on the torture rack of the Cross crying ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me,’ to know and experience that cold suffering and not give platitudes or suggest there something good to searched for. It is the mystery of inquitity we are to hate it with a perfect hatred, and to feel the terrible and mocking challenge it gives, it isn’t the suffering of the Cross that makes it holy, it’s Christ’s outpowering love and HIs overcoming of it, defeating death by death and God freeing and reconciling all things in it, challenging our stumble and it’s disaster with the power of love and Life.

            And sometimes perhaps we can’t truly believe, perhaps it crushes us, in the end God is greater than that, and in the eschaton we can only then hope to understand, and hold onto that hope beyond our dispair, even if we fear God and reality are in fact something terrible. Perhaps we can hope as Julian of Norwich did in her suffering and wonder to hold onto the hope that not knowing fully how or why, or how suffering can be so extensive, that because of Christ and what He reveals of God all things will be well, and all manner of things will be well, and with full knowledge in the light of God, we will judge our creation to be fully good even with the possibility of the fall that is realized with God’s commitment to go to all lengths and beyond to save and heal all things and all aspects of our nature and of creation.

            Often that hope can seem foolish, but then the Gospel always does seem that in our current world, the stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks 🙂 .

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Grant – the incarnation is what “tips the scales” for me in favor of faith in the goodness of God: that God “takes on” in his person, personally experiences, the consequences of evil, of innocent suffering, humiliation, death. God, that is, ventures into the abyss, the absence of himself, to overcome it not by simply declaring an end to it, but by triumphing over the distance by bridging it personally. He becomes the abyss-dispelling span by way of his personal embrace of that abyss. Redemption is for all – for it is for all that venture’s risk was undertaken from God’s initial creative impulse.

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  6. ben kalish says:

    Sorry I’m relatively new here and haven’t had time to look through every post but I’m wondering if anyone has critiqued William lane Craigs response to talbotts universalism

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  7. ben kalish says:

    This article does not focus so much on universalism but more on Craig’s misconceptions of D.B.H philosophical school of thought as being Thomistic rather than platonic and of stuff like theistic personalism which sadly isn’t what I’m looking for but thanks anyway.

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