The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Divine Love, the Problem of Evil, and Theodicy

Advocating belief in God tends to draw criticism about the problem of evil. The contemporary philosophical problem of evil is an argument that supposedly disproves the existence of God who possesses the attributes of omnibenevolence (all goodness and all lovingness), omnipotence (all powerfulness), and omniscience (knowledge of all reality) in a world with extensive evil such as the moral evil of Hitler’s Holocaust and the natural evil of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. [1] For example, in the case of Hitler’s Holocaust, God could have disabled Hitler in 1934 instead of permitting him to progress into extensive horrific evil, so the problem of evil concludes that Hitler’s Holocaust indicates that God does not exist. Or perhaps deity possesses the power and knowledge that could have disabled Hitler in 1934 but did not care to disable Hitler, so the deity lacked omnibenevolence. Or deity possesses omnibenevolence but lacked the power and knowledge to disable Hitler. However, the philosophical concept of theodicy supports belief in God who coexists with temporary extensive horrific evil.

Christian theodicy asserts that God’s love and providence temporarily permits horrific evil in a fallen world for the purpose of a glorious long-term plan. Two primary approaches to Christian theodicy are meticulous providence and general providence. Meticulous providence means that God completely determines the outcome of all events while humans nonetheless freely carry out their plans, which is also called compatibilism and soft determinism. Notable Christian proponents of meticulous providence are Augustine, Aquinas, and John Calvin. Alternatively, general providence means that God determines general plans without completely determining the outcome of all contingencies such as stochastic processes and free will choices that could go in more than one direction. Notable proponents of general providence are Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Jacobus Arminius. This paper assumes general providence and asserts that God’s love temporarily permits unendorsed horrific evil in a fallen world while God develops free will agents and literally never gives up his loving pursuit for every agent. The following sections define omnipotence, God’s love while temporarily permitting extensive horrific evil, and universal reconciliation.

  1. Michael Tooley, “The Problem of Evil,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012,

One might object to the concept of omnipotence because of the law of non-contradiction. For example, one might ask if God can or cannot make an indestructible object that God cannot destroy. This tricky question limits God to an inability to make an indestructible object or the inability to destroy an indestructible object. However, Christian tradition accepts that divine omnipotence works within the context of non-contradiction. For example, Aquinas said that God Almighty could not possible change the past because the past no longer exists, which is an example of Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction that applies to God. [2] Likewise, this Christian tradition rejects the validity of challenges that say omnipotence is impossible because of consistency with non-contradiction.

One might also reject the possibility of various divine miracles recorded in the Bible by holding that God cannot contradict the laws of nature that God created. However, every miracle recorded in the Bible may have involved a non-contradictory divine or angelic manipulation of natural phenomena such as gravitational dilation of time and space, microreversibility, and nuclear transmutation. For example, New Testament miracles such as walking on water, calming a potentially deadly storm, the instant multiplication of bread, and the resurrection of Lazarus after four days of death could happen without absolutely contradicting the laws of nature.

Therein lies the challenge of theodicy. Why does God allow extensive horrific evil while such miracles could disable most or all horrific evil?

  1. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1:25:4.

The first step in understanding why God temporarily permits extensive horrific evil begins with understanding why God permits any evil. Why would omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God permit evil? A major part of the answer to this question is that God permits evil because the moral development of finite free will agents necessitates the possibility of evil responses from the agents. God wanted loving relationships with morally developing agents, which risked the existence of moral evil. Another major part of understanding why God permits evil is that finite agents develop character and abilities while they face evil, which works with God’s long-term plan for the development of agents. For example, heroes develop and arise in the face of evil.

As indicated above, God’s loving risk of creating morally developing agents and the developmental process of the agents are excellent reasons for the divine permission of evil. God could have meticulously determined the outcome of all events in the world, but God chose to execute divine prerogative that permits limited freedom for evil because of loving anticipation for creaturely agents such as humans. God never endorses evil but God permits limited freedom for evil while pursuing loving relationships with developing agents.

One might argue that God could have originated all agents with incorruptible morality and no need for moral development. That might be true but, but a world of agents who never needed moral development would have limited the diversity of the agents and disregarded the benefits of moral development. Such a world would have excluded the existence of humans apart from incarnations of incorruptible agents, which means no typical humans. The long-term goal of heaven populated by agents who no longer need moral development is extraordinarily wonderful and glorious, but heaven without morally developed agents would exclude typical humanity with their glorious pleasures and relationships.

One might also agree with the benefits of God temporarily permitting evil as outlined in this paper but object that an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God would permit the magnitude of evil in this world. For example, Christianity teaches that God delineates the boundaries of evil. But considering the most heinous crimes against children and all humanity makes believers tearfully wonder why God would permit the magnitude of evil in this world. However, one weakness of this objection is that nobody can pinpoint real categories in the possible boundaries of evil, but all possible boundaries of evil involve a progressive continuum of evil. Also, the boundary of evil corresponds with the human potential for moral development and moral responsibility.

One might also agree with the benefits of God temporarily permitting evil as outlined in this paper but nonetheless disputes that God is guilty for not preventing evil when God could have prevented the evil. God asks humans to prevent evil when possible, so God should prevent evil when possible. However, such judgment rejects that God could permit the development of typical humans, which includes any such disputants. In any case, God took full responsibility for evil when he incarnated and died on his cross.

Regardless of the above logical arguments that support theodicy, many find theodicy a hard pill to swallow if God’s judgment sends multitudes of humans to irrevocable everlasting torment. However, that was but one view of hell in the ancient universal church. For example, Augustine and his colleague Evodius said that many believers in the church asserted the reality of postmortem conversions as taught by Peter the Apostle. [3] Augustine also said that some versions of eventual salvation for lost souls in hell were an amicable controversy in the church. [4] Besides, Augustine and the later Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned Origenist versions of universal reconciliation, but they never addressed Gregory of Nyssa’s version of universal reconciliation in The Great Catechism. [5] Furthermore, Emperor Justinian in the Fifth Ecumenical Council honored Gregory of Nyssa side by side with Augustine as holy fathers of the church. Moreover, Gregory saw no conflict between his version of universal reconciliation and the Nicene Creed’s doctrine of judgment.

My Conditional Futurism supports that Peter the Apostle and John the Revelator taught about postmortem conversions. [6] For example, John’s apocalyptic imagery shows kings dying while opposing the Lord at Armageddon and eventually entering the pearly gates of the New Jerusalem. These biblical teachings by Peter and John support the doctrine that God never gives up loving pursuit of any human regardless of hell or high water. God’s endless pursuit also facilitates the eventual glorious reconciliation between all perpetrators and victims with no hardship but pleasure for the victims. This theodicy envisions the eventual glorious reconciliation of all enemies, ethnic groups, and social classes to God and each other.

  1. Augustine, “Letter 163”; “Letter 164.”
  2. Augustine, City of God, 21:17.
  3. Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, 26.
  4. James Goetz, Conditional Futurism: New Perspectives of End-Time Prophecy, (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2012), chapters 13—15.

My mind comprehends an outline of why God permits evil; my philosophical studies indicate the necessary Creator; my decades of practicing Charismatic Christianity include observations of divine intervention. Nonetheless, the question of why God permits extensive horrific evil challenges me when I consider world history and current events. Every day, devout believers and disbelievers alike suffer pain from experiences of heinous crimes and natural evil. God could say “Peace! Be still!” to every potentially devastating storm and tsunami. God could disable all evil people who plan horrific evil. God could prevent all horrific evil at its roots so that heroic deeds are unnecessary, but God does not do that while he develops human agents. No human completely understands the omnibenevolence of all divine responses, but believers ultimately accept that God has a loving and glorious long-term plan. Human development occurs during earthly life and the afterlife. Christians cling to the words of Paul in Romans 8:18:

Copyright © 2013 James Edward Goetz

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.[/size]

I read your article and think I know what you mean—that it’s necessary not to force people to act or refrain from acting in particular ways in order that they learn to act in righteous ways, such as loving God and people and serving them.

But at first, I was going to oppose the quoted statement above, but then reread the article until I understood what you were saying.

The above quote if taken in isolation could be grossly misunderstood. One could think it means these heinous acts are in themselves necessary in order for God to bring about a higher good, that God is impotent to bring about these higher goods without “allowing” horrific acts to take place.

But when we consider God’s over-all plan to reconcile all to Himself of their own free wills, we understand that it is necessary to allow people to exercise their free wills, whether for good or for evil.

It’s definitely a hard pill for me to swallow. No matter how hard I try I just can’t seem to force myself into believing that this loving and compassionate Christ would torment people forever. The doctrine of eternal suffering has caused me a lot of unnecessary heartache and torment in my life. I wanted to believe it in the past because I was told that if I didn’t then I was outside of Christianity. Well, if I’m outside of Christianity then so be it. I will not believe that the Christ that I have found would torment people forever. My future is in the hands of a sovereign God of holy love. I don’t understand why He allows what He does but I know when I let Go and trust that He brings beauty out of ashes I have hope. I don’t really try to concern myself with God’s sovereign will or try to figure out what He is up to or why. That way leads to problems. I need to stay out of my head when it comes to God. I just have faith that He is in control. His sovereign will is not my business. My job is to trust Him, clean house, and help others.

Good for you, Michael! Trusting Him is of paramount importance.

Come, every soul by sin oppressed;
There’s mercy with the Lord,
And He will surely give you rest
By trusting in His Word.

Only trust Him, only trust Him,
Only trust Him now;
He will save you, He will save you,
He will save you now.

For Jesus shed His precious blood
Rich blessings to bestow;
Plunge now into the crimson flood
That washes white as snow.

Yes, Jesus is the truth, the way,
That leads you into rest;
Believe in Him without delay
And you are fully blessed.

Come, then, and join this holy band,
And on to glory go
To dwell in that celestial land
Where joys immortal flow.

Beautiful Paidion!