The above question was recently posed to me by a friend and it made me stop and think for a bit. Is there something inherent in Kingdom Theology that accounts for the problem of evil (i.e. theodicy)? And if so, what is it? It was – and is – a very good question.
(For those unfamiliar with the term ‘theodicy,’ I’ve included a brief overview at the bottom of this post)
If we are talking about generic kingdom of God theology (i.e. inaugurated eschatology), then I would have to say that there isn’t any one theodicy inherit to that theological system. This is because inaugurated eschatology is primary focused on answering the question of when the end-time promises of God will be fulfilled (i.e. is God’s rule and reign here today? Is it delayed? When is it coming, etc.?).
The definition of Kingdom Theology promoted by myself and others within the Vineyard worldwide movement (e.g. John Wimber, Derek Morphew, Don Williams, Bill Jackson, etc.) is one of ‘enacted inaugurated eschatology.’ This is a theological worldview that starts with the life and ministry of historical Jesus before building out other theological concepts. Meaning that everything is seen through a lens of the here and not yet of the ages. Being ‘enacted’, it is a worldview that requiring one to live out the inaugurated eschatology of the kingdom in every area of life rather than intellectual belief.
Under this definition of Kingdom Theology, I would say that there is a cosmic conflict (or warfare) theodicy presupposition that sees the age to come breaking into this evil age through Jesus’ defeat of sin, evil and death at the cross. As such, the followers of Jesus living in-between the ages are engaged in a war between God and Satan with suffering happening as a result of sin, death, and evil.
With that said, it is possible to layer theodicies on top of one another. For example, one could say that the cosmic conflict seen throughout the ages is part of God’s perfect plan or is exacerbated by free will. Greg Boyd, one of the top openness of God (i.e. Open Theism) proponents, combines the cosmic conflict with the openness of the future to the point they seem inseparable. The Vineyard being the Vineyard, you can find folks within the movement who hold to any of these theodicies along with a few others.
On a personal level, I combine the cosmic conflict theodicy with the consent and participation (i.e. God consents to free will and natural laws while staying personally involved in the world), suffering of God (i.e. Jesus suffers and weeps with us), and faith and trust (i.e. it’s a mystery so just trust Jesus) theodicies.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘theodicy’, here is a quick primer of some of the more famous answers to the problem of evil. Note that are lots of others theodicies and a TON of philosophical presuppositions behind the question of evil that I cannot get into here. Some of these overlap each other with folks (like myself) holding to a new of different theodicies at the same time.
Perfect Plan – Suffering and evil is all part of God’s perfect plan though he is not directly causing any of it. This theodicy is largely held by Calvinist which places a huge emphasis on the complete sovereignty of God (i.e. every action in the world was determined by God before the beginning of the world). However some branches of Arminianism will hold to this theodicy as they see suffering as part as a bigger, larger plan that only God can see.
Free Will – This view sees suffering as the result of the free will of humanity though God is still in control of the future. Largely held by Arminian believers who places an emphasis on the free choices of humanity.
Cosmic Conflict – There is a war happening in the cosmic realm that affects the physical world in which we live. Also called the “Warfare Theodicy”, this view sees suffering and evil as the result of the battle between Satan and God. As in, bad things happen because of Satan and his demons actively seeking to hurt people.
Soul Making – Suffering is seen as a way to grow one’s soul. As in, God allows suffering so that humanity overcome obstacles and improve our souls (e.g. endurance, courage, compassion, etc.). Some version will include the purging of sin from our lives within this theodicy.
Openness of God – The future is open with God allowing things to develop according to the actions of created beings. Since the future is open, suffering and evil is the result of free agents interacting with the world. Open Theists would be the primary proponents of this view.
Consent and Participation – God consents to free will and natural laws while staying personally involved in the world. I don’t know if “consent and participation” is the scholarly term for this view…but it is the one I’m using. =) The core of this theodicy comes from the Eastern Orthodox Church which has a different view of the fall, original sin, free will and divine omnipotence.
Suffering of God – The view that God suffers and weeps with us rather than standing above pain and suffering.
Faith and Trust – Suffering in the world is a mystery with no real answer so we are just to trust Jesus. I see the book of Job as a backdrop to this view in that at the very end of the book, God tells Job to trust in him and not to all the other theodicies proposed by his friends. (Granted, the book of Job can also be used to support other theodicies like the cosmic conflict view).
Theology for theology sake is worthless. The reason we ponder the mysteries of the cosmos is so that we can live life better. Nowhere is this concept more applicable that when dealing with the great Sovereignty of God/Free Will dilemma.
To some, this dilemma is so huge and so crazy that they will walk away from it with their fingers in their ears. However I would say that we need to think about this issue for it affects how we act when sh*t happens in our lives. Pastors especially need to ponder this issue as they will be called upon by others in the middle of some sh*tty events and how they answer this question will color their interactions.
Over the last few weeks, I have talked about some alternatives to the typical Arminianism/Calvinism option given to folks. Namely I brief discussed Open Theism and the Eastern Orthodox’s consent and participation view of God’s rule. Today I’m going to try to think through how these views would color one’s interactions with folks who are in the middle of pain and suffering. In doing this, I fully note that I will most likely misrepresent one or more of these groups….and for that I will apologize in advance and ask for your help via the comment section below.
There are five major points within Calvinism that dictate how they view the world. These five points (also known as TULIP) are listed below:
Perseverance of the Saints
Because of Calvinism’s position of Total Depravity (i.e. original sin; everyone is born a sinner), Irresistible Grace and Unconditional Election, Calvinist have the hardest position to defend when it comes to the problem of evil. Since God is in charge of everything (either directly or allowing it), the sh*t that happens to people is all part of God’s plan.
Therefore when a two-year old child is murdered, a Calvinist has to hold on to the belief that God caused/allowed it to happen for some reason (typically to teach someone something or because of some unknown ‘good’ reason which we human can never know). As a pastor and a Jesus follower, I think this mentality is harmful and does not draw people to Jesus. (yeah, I’m fairly biased against this viewpoint…) 😛
Arminianism, why held by a large portion of the Protestant church, isn’t always understood or acknowledged due to the vocal criticism of influential Calvinists. Roger Olson, a leading Arminian theologian, once described Arminianism has holding onto the following items (all words are his, I just split his sentence into bullet points):
Total depravity (in the sense of helplessness to save himself or contribute meritoriously to his salvation such that a sinner is totally dependent on prevenient grace for even the first movement of the will toward God)
Conditional election and predestination based on foreknowledge
Grace is always resistible
Affirms that God is in no way and by no means the author of sin and evil but affirms that these are only permitted by God’s consequent will.
The outworking of this view holds that that humanity can resist God’s grace and choose their own actions, which will sometimes lead to negative consequences for themselves and others. Arminianism also holds that while God has foreknowledge of the future without actually dictating and controlling the future. (Granted there are some Arminianism who hold a stronger view of God control things similar to their Calvinist cousin.)
Typically an Arminianist would say that God has two wills: antecedent and consequent. God’s antecedent will states that he wants everyone to be saved while his consequent will acknowledges that only those who believe will be saved (i.e. “God reluctantly permits sin and enables it” – to quote Olson).
This means that the sh*t that happens isn’t the divine will of God acting upon this world. Rather it is the consequences of sin, death, and evil being played out in a world with free agents (i.e. humanity). In the case of a two-year old being murdered, an Arminianism would comfort the parents with the knowledge that the death of their child was not in God’s plan. It was something contrary to the antecedent will of God that happened because of the sin, death, and evil in the world.
This view of Sovereignty of God is similar to Arminianism (in fact, Roger Olson considers it as a variation of Arminianism) in that highlights the free moral agents of humanity. As in, humans are free to make choices that may or may not be within line with God’s plan. The major difference between Open Theism and classic Arminianism is that Open Theism pushes the free will boundaries of humanity to the limits without going into Pelagianism (i.e. humanity still need God to rescue them from evil due to original sin).
In other words, an Open Theist would say that humanity has complete control over the future with God working within creation and with humanity to guide the overall direction of history towards his overarching conclusion. Because of this, the timeline of God’s plans can, and are, subject to change according to the actions of humanity. This is not to say that God’s plans and/or promises will fail to happen, rather it is the timing of those plans/promises that can be changed. Just like the people of Israel delayed God’s plan for them to go enter into the Promise Land by 40 years, so can we delay God’s plans/promises.
Accordingly, an Open Theist would respond to a young child’s murder similar to that of an Arminianism in that they would both hold that the death of the child was not something sanctioned by God. Rather it was the consequences of sin, death, and evil being played out in a world. Jesus, rather than saying away from this pain, is there in the middle of the pain, holding the family tight and walking with them through pain. At its root, Open Theism is a warfare worldview that sees the world through a lens of a spiritual battle between God and sin/death/evil/satan. This, I might add, doesn’t mean that Calvinism and Arminianism doesn’t contain a warfare mentality. Rather this is to say that Open Theism places this warfare view at the forefront of their worldview along with the free will of humanity.
The Eastern Orthodox’s view of the Sovereignty of God is one of God’s consent and participation (as mentioned last time). This means that God consent (i.e. gives up his authority to rule) to natural law (gravity, weather patterns, etc.) and human freedom. However rather than walking away and letting things go, God also participates within creation to rescue us (i.e. Jesus).
In addition, Eastern Orthodox rejects the total depravity of humanity embraced by the other views. This may sound like a heresy to some of you as total depravity is something that has been drilled into Western Christianity to the point that it is taken for granted. However if you study church history, you will find that the concept of total depravity didn’t come into the church until St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD).
The background of the concept being St. Augustine’s debate with Pelagius on whether or not humanity could save themselves without God’s help. St. Augustine held that all of humanity was sinful with each of us being condemned for Adam’s sin. This sin was passed down throughout the ages through the human seed – a view that helped get sex labeled as sinful rather than beautiful (i.e. sin was passed generationally through the father’s semen to their children). Because of the total depravity of humanity, we need God to rescue us. Pelagius, on the other hand, held that we were born good and could rescued ourselves. While the church at large (Western and Eastern) rejected Pelagius view of sin and salvation, the Western half (i.e. Roman Catholic and then Protestantism) adopt St. Augustine’s view of original sin and total depravity while the Eastern half of the church, now known as the Eastern Orthodox Churches, did not.
Instead the Eastern Orthodox Churches adopted the view that humanity is, and was, created in the image of God and is by nature pure and innocent. Sin, however, has entered into the world through Adam and Eve as a sickness that effects every generation. Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it this way in his book The Orthodox Way:
“Original sin is not to be interpreted in juridical or quasi-biological terms, as if it were some physical ‘taint’ of guilt, transmitted through sexual intercourse. This picture, which normally passes for the Augustinian view, is unacceptable to Orthodoxy. The doctrine of original sin means rather that we are born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good; easy to hurt others, and hard to heal their wounds; easy to arouse men’s suspicions, and hard to win their trust. It means that we are each of us conditioned by the solidarity of the human race in its accumulated wrong-doing and wrong-thinking, and hence wrong-being. And to this accumulation of wrong we have ourselves added by our own deliberated acts of sin. The gulf grows wider and wider. No man is an island. We are ‘members one of another’ (Eph. 4:24), and so any action, performed by any member of the human race, inevitably affects all the other members of the human race. Even though we are not, in the strict sense, guilty of the sins of others, yet we are somehow always involved.”
I mention all this because when it comes dealing with the sh*t of this crazy, messed up world, it really helps to know that we, humanity, are made the image of God. This means that when God grants us the freedom to reject or accept him, we aren’t automatically going to reject him. Rather there is a part of us, no matter how buried or small, that desires to be close to our Creator King. Humanity was created to be in a loving relationship with God and being outside of that relationship is an unnatural state not a natural state.
Practically this means that a pastor or Jesus follower can comfort the parents of a murdered toddler with the understanding that not only is Jesus there within the pain, but that this child who died was loved and embraced by the Creator King. Yes, sh*t happened due to the war that ranges around us. Yet the pain wasn’t from the hand of God nor was it his will that allowed/created the pain. Rather Jesus loves the child and was/is with them/us – in pain and death.
“We should not try to explain suffering or construct theories about the reasons for suffering in the world and systematic explanations that seek to reconcile innocent suffering with belief in a good and all powerful God. The pervading presence of senseless suffering in the world falls outside the bounds of every rational system. Remember how Dostoyevsky in his book Brothers Karamazov was seized with horror in contemplating the picture of suffering throughout the world, especially the suffering of the innocent and of the little children. The only answer, which Aliosha (representing Dostoyevsky’s own faith and attitude) can give is the image of the Crucified: He can pardon all; He can reconcile all, for He has measured the depth of our afflictions, of our loneliness, and of our pain. In the Crucified Christ, God does not remain a distant spectator of the undeserving suffering of the innocent but He participates in their suffering through the Cross and plants hope in the life of all afflicted persons through the Resurrection. When faced with the mystery of evil and suffering, the story of Jesus as the story of God is the only adequate response. The human quest for meaning and hope in tragic situations of affliction, draw from Christ’s death and Resurrection the power of life needed for sustenance. Thus, as Christians we do not argue against suffering, but tell a story…”
“God does not intervene to save Jesus, but neither does God abandon Jesus. Jesus’ life ends with an open question to God, “God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God answers to the crucified Jesus by raising Him from the dead and glorifying Him. The resurrection signifies that God is present in the suffering of Jesus and of every human person. If we speak of Jesus’ real abandonment by God at Calvary, this could lead to the mistaken impression that suffering human beings are also forsaken by God. Instead, we must speak of God as silently present to Jesus at this terrifying moment, just as God is silently present to all those who suffer. This silent presence of God to Jesus becomes manifest in the Resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus confirms and completes all that Jesus was about in His life. The bottom line of the Christian faith is that God will be victorious over evil and suffering, as exhibited and effected in the death and resurrection of Jesus.”(emphasis added)
Throughout this post, I have sought to highlight how one’s view on the Sovereignty of God affects how one interacts with pain and suffering. I know that I most likely left out bits and pieces of this view or that. Yet my goal wasn’t to detailed out everything; rather I was trying to give you all a taste of what each view looked like. At the end of the day there are great Jesus followers who hold to all these views and I would gladly worship the Living King with them!
However I must also admit that when it comes down to pastoring and dealing with people in the trenches, I would rather deal with someone who hold to an Eastern Orthodox, Open Theism or Arminianism view of the Sovereignty of God. Calvinism, as I understand it, just doesn’t lend itself very well to compassion and mercy… so yeah, sorry my 5-point friends. :/
I would also say that on a personal level, I am leaning more and more towards the Eastern Orthodox view of consent and participation (as if that was’t obvious!). There is just something there that I love. Something that fits well with the mystery of the here and not yet that I see throughout the Scripture. Good stuff worth pondering. 😀
This, I might add, is a VERY rare thing for me as I typically only read a book once. And those books which I do re-read, I usually re-read them after a few years. So to say that I read Brad Jersak’s book “A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel” twice within three months is saying a lot.
Granted if I’m being completed honest, I must admit that it was the prospect of meeting Brad in person that prompted me to re-read the book. Brad was scheduled to be my one of my professors at St. Stephen’s University this past October and I wanted to be able to ask him some questions about his book. And yes, the books was required reading by Brad along with N.T. Wright’s “Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.” (You HAVE to love classes that require you to read the books you would read on your on! No more self-justifications of the cost – instead it is all wrapped up in the “education” bucket of the budget!!) 😀
Before talking about the book itself, it is helpful to know a bit more about Dr. Brad Jersak. As mentioned already, Brad is an adjunct faculty member at St. Stephen’s University in Canada. He also teaches New Testament and Patristics classes at Westminster Theological Centre in the United Kingdom in addition to serving as the senior editor of Plain Truth Ministries. His faith journey includes growing up within the Baptist General Conference before becoming a church planter/pastor within the Conference of Mennonites in BC, Canada. After years hanging out with the Mennonites, Brad shifted gears and joined the Eastern Orthodox Church where he has been chrismated and ordained as a Reader in the Orthodox Church (OCA) for the All Saints Monastery in Dewdney (Canada).
Brad’s Eastern Orthodox connections are very important as his book “A More Christlike God” is packed full of concepts gleaned from our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. The book was also, as I found out talking to him this past October, was reviewed and approved by several Eastern Orthodox theologians. The book also received endorsements from a surprising wide range of Protestant and Roman Catholic Church authors, ministers, and priests including Father Richard Rohr, Eugene Peterson, Brian McLaren, William Paul Young, Frank Schaeffer, and Brian Zahnd.
The primary focus of the book is fairly simple – mainly that the best picture we have of God is Jesus and, as such, we should allow Jesus to influence the way in which we see God and read the Bible. While this premise sounds simple, the sad reality is that a lot of us have based our view of God on things other than Jesus. Whereas St. Paul says that Jesus is the “the image of the invisible God” [Co 1:15], we tend to split the Triune God up into three parts with a different image for each part. We have the punishing judge Father God, the nice Son (Jesus) and the crazy unknown Spirit…or we have the deadbeat dad God or perhaps the genie in the bottle God who we can influence through doing or praying the right things.
Writing from an Eastern Orthodox viewpoint, Brad challenges these different misconceptions of God while offering a picture of a loving God based upon the person of Jesus. This focus on the cruciform God (i.e. God on the cross) effectually challenges the a lot of the common theological concepts we in the Protestant world take for granted. For example, whereas the Protestant world is focused on the Calvinism/Arminianism debate of sovereignty of God and human participation, Brad offers a uniquely Eastern Orthodox viewpoint in which God consents to freedom but also engages in participation within creation.
Reading – and later talking to Brad – about this alternative to the dualism of the Protestant world was a breath of fresh air for me. A few years ago I came to the conclusion that the Calvinism/Arminianism debate had outlived its usefulness and was no longer helpful. However I was having troubles coming up with a theological alternative that I could fully embrace. And why I’m fine with living in the mystery of not knowing, I knew that my position as a pastor/teacher would require a deeper understanding of the issue so that I could help others walk the path. While I was able to find an alternative in the writings of Greg Boyd (i.e. open theism), I was having a hard time finding anything on the topic from the Eastern Orthodox side of the family (a group with which I have had a longtime love affair). The book “A More Christlike God” filled that vacuum for me – and taught me that I had in fact already been exposed to the Eastern Orthodox view on the matter, I just didn’t recognize the argument as it was buried under implicit language typical of those from the East. 😕
Connected with the sovereignty of God and human participation topic are the issues of the atonement (i.e. what happened on the cross?) and the wrath of God. While anyone of these topics could have been a book within itself, Brad seamlessly weaves all three issues into his book while keeping the focus on Jesus and the cruciform God. I especially liked his selection on the atonement as breaks down the weakness with the penal substitutionary atonement view of most Protestants while highlighting the value of the victory of God over satan, evil, sin and death. But then again I’ve been a proponent of the Christus Victor atonement view for quite some time. 🙂
The part of the book that I have the hardest time with is when Brad seeks to un-wrath God in the both the Old and New Testament. For those who have read the Scriptures know that there are some parts of the Bible (mostly in the Old Testament) that are extremely hard to understand. Why and how could a God who claims to be love (1 John 4:8) command the total genocide of various people groups? It doesn’t make sense… which is why one of the first heresies in the church was the view that the God of the OT is different than Jesus and the God of the NT. However the early church mothers and fathers were quite clear that the God of the OT is the same God of the NT – and this God is seen the most clear in the person of Jesus. Brad puts it this way in his book:
“[T]he Bible itself takes us on a progressive, cruciform pilgrimage from primitive literal understandings of wrath, where God appears to burn with anger and react violently, to a metaphorical reading of wrath, in which God consents – gives us over – to the self-destructive consequences of our own willful defiance. The cruciform God will not and cannot, by love’s nature, coerce us to obey. God grants us the dignity (and discomfort) of ‘finding our own bottom’ (to use 12-step recovery terminology), the end of which is willing surrender to the arms of grace. In the Bible, the shorthand for this process is ‘wrath.’” [page 185]
I must admit I’m still pondering about the full ramification of this definition of wrath as the concept has some very powerful consequences in how we read the Scriptures, see God and live life. Yet I think it is an issue we need to think about as we live in an age of war, fear and revenge. Regardless of the consequences, the one thing I do know is that if we are going to error in how we see God, let us let us error on the side of Jesus and love.
“I [Jesus] say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” –Luke 6:27-31