by Robert D. Cornwall, Ph.D
What use is God if God can’t or won’t prevent evil from occurring? That’s a question people have been asking for millennia. Theologians and philosophers have done their best to offer answers defending God (the term for this is theodicy), but the question keeps arising. It would be easier if Christian theology allowed for the existence of two equally powerful gods, one good and the other evil (dualism). Then evil could be blamed on the evil god, leaving the God of love untainted. Unfortunately, that solution isn’t available to Christians, for like other traditional monotheistic religions, Christians believe that God has no ultimate rival. Therefore, we must look elsewhere for answers.
A seventeenth-century theologian suggested this is “the best possible world,” and so we should accept things as they are. This solution, however, ultimately failed to gain full support. Either God is capable of keeping evil at bay (omnipotent) and fails to do so, or ‘[God is too weak to address evil. If either is true, then why bother with God?
There might be another option, one offered by Tom Oord. As an advocate of open/relational theology, Oord both affirms God’s full ability to act and God’s inability to prevent evil. It’s not a question of divine power; it’s a question of what takes precedence—power or love. Oord chooses love, declaring that love precludes God from acting coercively. If this is true then a loving God cannot coerce creation into achieving a satisfactory outcome.
Even if God cannot act coercively, this does not mean God does not act in creation. According to Oord, divine agency is marked by God’s partnership with creation itself to achieve healing.
This is why the cross stands at the center of the Christian faith. The cross is the means by which God overcomes evil and brings healing or shalom to creation. As a relational theologian, Oord suggests God works in creation at a deeper level than we usually presume. Indeed, God goes down to the subatomic level to pursue change. At that level of existence, God is busy encouraging the very elements of the universe to work together for the common good.
Oord’s proposal presents a challenge to us. We humans often want God to act directly and visibly in bringing about a desired outcome (overcoming evil). What we want, it seems, is Superman. The God we encounter in Jesus doesn’t appear to work that way. That is troubling! On the other hand Jesus tells Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. Therefore, victory over evil will take a different guise than we traditionally expect.
Tom uses the concept of “essential kenosis” to envision God in terms of the “self-giving, others-empowering nature of love.” Because of this radical love “God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom, agency, self-organizing and law like regularity” (p. 169). In other words, God provides the opportunity to partner in the work of shalom, but because love defines God, God cannot override this freedom. Despite claims to value freedom on the part of many denizens of this world (especially in places like the United States), I would venture to guess a majority wouldn’t mind a bit of intervention once in a while just to rescue us from our own stupidity!
As we ponder these questions, especially in light of such horrific expressions of evil as demonstrated by the Holocaust, how might the biblical story of the cross provide us with answers? How does the cross overcome evil? We could point to the resurrection, of course, which affirms that evil doesn’t have the last word, but with all due respect to God’s love, why must we reject divine coercive intervention as contrary to love? If God has the power to keep evil at bay, why not use it? Isn’t that loving?
I must admit I’m both attracted to and unsure about this proposal. I affirm the primacy of love. It is a principle which informs nonviolent responses to injustice. At the same time, part of me wants God to intervene directly and set things right. I’m not quite as confident as Oord appears to be that we will respond appropriately to God’s invitation. Still, the proposal makes a lot of sense, especially if we can let go of the need for God to foreknow the future. After all, it’s one thing to prevent something bad happening of which you might have foreknowledge. If you know your product will cause cancer, then you likely will be held liable in a court of law. However, if future acts of evil remain unknown to God until they happen, then God can’t be held liable for preventing them from occurring. Open Theism, such as Oord embraces, allows for an open future, while insisting that God is always at work and will not give up on achieving shalom. Therefore, we can take confidence in God’s determination to work in willing partnership with creation to achieve shalom. Love will always serve as the guide to this work of God. That the future remains open and unknown, even to God, is also true; the future contains unknown risks.
The good news is that, in Oord’s words, God is an “omnipresent spirit.” Therefore, as Paul declared: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31 NRSV). I take Paul’s word to mean, in light of Oord’s musings, that God is persistent in pursuing the common good for all creation. Therefore, even in the face of evil, there is reason for God! Indeed, there is reason to be in relationship with this God who seeks to be in relationship with us!