Why do evil and suffering exist if the world is presided over by a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly loving? That is the “problem of evil” in a nutshell. In an earlier post (and in the comments) I explained and argued against two common theistic responses to the problem of evil. Now I’ll tackle a third response from Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart.
In the aftermath of the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, Hart addressed the problem of evil in a widely-read Wall Street Journal article, Tremors of Doubt: What kind of God would allow a deadly tsunami? He later expanded his argument into a second article, Tsunami and Theodicy, and a short book entitled The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Because so many Christians have quoted Hart with enthusiasm (including Barry Arrington and Vincent Torley of UD in recent posts), it’s worth taking a closer look at his argument.
Hart emphatically rejects the idea that God sets out to use evil or suffering as necessary means to a greater good:
There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.
He sees evil and suffering as things that God works around, not through. They emanate entirely from the “powers” and “principalities” to which our fallen world is in thrall:
The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities”–spiritual and terrestrial–alien to God.
In the New Testament, our condition as fallen creatures is explicitly portrayed as a subjugation to the subsidiary and often mutinous authority of angelic and demonic “powers;’ which are not able to defeat God’s transcendent and providential governance of all things, but which certainly are able to act against him within the limits of cosmic time.
This raises an obvious question: why would God create a world in which the Fall, and the resulting evil and suffering, are possible? Hart says:
God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills.
But if God chooses to permit evil and suffering, how does he evade responsibility for them? Hart writes:
But there is no contradiction in saying that, in his omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time, God can both allow created freedom its scope and yet so constitute the world that nothing can prevent him from bringing about the beatitude of his Kingdom.
In other words, as long everything ends well, God is off the hook for permitting temporary evil and suffering. Yet Hart also wants us to believe that God hates evil and suffering, even of the temporary variety:
…when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.
So in Hart’s bizarre world, we have a God who supposedly hates evil and suffering, yet chooses to permit them — and somehow this is all okay because it’s only temporary. Good will triumph in the end.
Hart continues in this bizarre vein:
And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death;
What sort of omnipotent and loving God, having already “won the victory”, would fail to end evil and suffering immediately? It makes no sense, and neither does Hart’s argument.
The problem of evil remains as much of a problem as ever for Christians. Yet there are obvious solutions to the problem that fit the evidence and are perfectly reasonable: a) accept that God doesn’t exist, or b) accept that God isn’t omnipotent, or c) accept that God isn’t perfectly benevolent. Despite the availability of these obvious solutions, most Christians will choose to cling to a view of God that has long since been falsified.