The main idea behind this blog post first came to me while I was in the midst of a grad school theology class on the nature of evil and suffering. The question was posed:
Is God culpable for evil in the world?
Most of us (the people in the class) instinctively responded with conviction, “No. Of course not!”
But, why not? When our professor pressed us on the matter, it became sort of difficult for many in the class to give a cogent answer for why God is not to blame for all the evil (and by extension, suffering) in the world. After all, most theists, especially Christians, readily accept that God is all-powerful. And if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He (or She) stop evil as it happens (or better yet before)?
I’ve talked about this a bit elsewhere. But let’s bring it back to an even more fundamental level — if, before He created anything, God knew for certain that mankind would fall and that all sorts of evil would follow, wouldn’t He then be causally guilty of that evil?
Sure, we could say that He intended the evil for some higher (better) purpose. But it’s hard to see what higher purpose could justify the nightmares of Rwanda and Auschwitz, especially when any greater good that one might suggest could arguably also be achieved by much less violent means. Others might argue that God intentionally caused or allowed the “slaughter-bench” of history (as Hegel called it)1 so that He could demonstrate His love by then rescuing us from it. But, quite honestly, I don’t see how this makes God any better than the villain of Disney and Pixar’s 2004 film, The Incredibles, who unleashes a monstrous robot on a city so that he can then save the city from it and be glorified as a hero. Surely God’s motives must be more noble than that of a bad guy in a kids film.
But even if we allowed for these sorts of utilitarian explanations where the ends somehow justify the means, we must still conclude that God is culpable for the world’s evil and suffering. Sure, it may be worth it in the end, but that merely justifies God’s guilt; it doesn’t absolve Him of it.
The way I see it, if God knew for certain that creating mankind would lead to all the world’s woes and still chose to create the world, then God is partially guilty of those woes since, after all, He could have simply not created humans.
Divine Mom Guilt
Now some may argue that just because God created us doesn’t mean that He is culpable for our crimes. We still choose to do wrong out of our own volition. We wouldn’t blame a parent for crimes committed by their children, would we?
I mean, yeah, in some sense we don’t blame Hitler’s mom for the death of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. But is that because she bears no guilt for the monster that her son became, or simply because we don’t know enough about her parenting to feel comfortable laying much blame on her? I mean, it could be that she was the perfect mother and her kid still turned out to be one of the most heinous leaders in world history despite her; however, it could also be that she secretly abused him in vile and manipulative ways, which broke his psyche and made him both charismatic and deranged.
But let’s say it had nothing to do with her parenting. Let’s say she was the paragon of virtuous motherhood, and young Adolf still became evil. Now throw a little foreknowledge in there. What if good ol’ Klara Hitler (goodly a mother as she was) knew for certain in June of 1888 that her son, who would be born the next year, would become one of the most evil people in history, leading to the death of over 60 million people? Would we not then hold her somewhat accountable for all that tragedy if she then knowingly chose to have that child? It’s one thing if she didn’t see it coming; it is something else entirely if she knew for sure it would happen and still chose to go through with it.
We could raise similar questions for parents in all sorts of situations. Should we blame parents who bring a child into a world where in all probability that child will experience great suffering? Should people in places like present-day Syria avoid having children if they can, since they know those kids will be born into hell on earth? At the very least, one would consider such folks irresponsible if they didn’t at least consider the potential ramifications. Moreover, what if potential parents knew as a certainty (rather than merely a strong possibility) that their future daughters would be raped and murdered? Would they not then be partially guilty of those rapes and murders once they were actualized?
It seems to me that, in fact, parents are responsible for their children’s behavior, even if only partially. This is why when a kid acts out in school they call the parents into the principal’s office also, and why courts will often turn their gaze on mom and dad when little junior commits an odious crime like killing a classmate. To be sure, kids have a mind of their own, so we couldn’t (and shouldn’t) blame only the parents. Even the best parents’ kids will throw a fit in the cereal isle at the grocery store from time to time. But neither should we pretend like parents have no influence on the sort of people their children become and (by extension) the sort of behaviors (good or evil) they exhibit.
Such is the case with human parents; and, I believe, so too is the case with God.
Divine Culpability and Double Effect
When thinking through whether or not we should blame God for the world’s pain, I think it is worth employing the principle of Double Effect. This principle was first introduced by Thomas Aquinas in his work Summa Theologica,2 and it argues that the justification of one’s actions depends largely on one’s intentions.
According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, there are four conditions required:3
In brief, if God did not intend the fall of humanity which He knew would happen, as long as the good that He did intend (eternal life of loving relationship with Him and all creation) outweighed the bad (temporal existence of partial pain and suffering), He is justified for having been causally responsible for the bad. Now, like I mentioned above, this does not absolve God of partial blame for the world’s evil; rather, it simply justifies it.
As an open theist, however, I believe we can build on the principle of Double Effect to create an even stronger case.
Without getting too far down the rabbit trail, it’s worth mentioning that open theology claims that the future consists of genuine possibilities, not only for creation but even for God. Now, in order for God to be truly omniscient (all-knowing) His knowledge must be identical to reality. And, if in reality there are parts of the future that are genuinely open (contingent), then God must know those parts of the future as contingencies, not certainties. He may know all of the factors going into each future event, and so may be able to predict the outcome with mind-boggling precision. But He cannot know those future contingencies as certainties, otherwise He would not have true knowledge and would not be omniscient.4
Now factor this into our consideration of God’s culpability in the world’s fallen state, and we can see why open theology actually removes God’s guilt, not merely justifies it. God, I would argue, did not know for certain that humanity would fall. In fact, given an ideal setup, the odds may have actually been stacked against the possibility that we would fall. God may very well have created the world knowing that it was possible that everything would go south, but also equally (or more so) possible that it wouldn’t. If this is the case—and I would argue that an omnibenevolent God would only create our world if it were—then God not only meets all four of the criteria for Double Effect, but unlike someone who committed an action knowing for certain there would be bad side effects (but that the good would outweigh the bad), God committed the action of creating the world knowing that it was very possible there would be no bad side effects. Had it not been for human wickedness, we might have had a world without the Holocaust!
Does God Owe Us?
One thing that pondering all this has revealed to me is that none of this gets God entirely off the hook. I have often heard from passionate and charismatic preachers that God could very well have left us to wallow in our sin and die. The rhetoric goes like this:
We sinned and are wicked scum. And God could have left us to our own destruction! He didn’t have to save us. But thank God He did! How noble of Him to go above and beyond to help us out of a mess we completely deserved to be in.
I find this way of thinking problematic. You see, just as parents bear a responsibility to take care of their children, regardless of whether or not the child is well behaved, so too does God bear a responsibility to His children (humanity). By creating the world, God shouldered a degree of accountability for how things turned out. He could not have simply created, watched us fall, and then left us alone, at least not if He created us knowing it was at least possible that we might fall, and not if He was an even marginally (much less ultimately) moral Being.
This is not to say that God had to fix it all by Himself, since I struggle to imagine any sort of carte blanche “fixing” that wouldn’t in some way violate the power of potentiality embedded in human freewill. Even so, I am saying that by choosing to create us with the possibility that we might fall, God is somewhat responsible for providing us with a solution.
Enter the Christ event.
So there you have it. God is responsible for us and our fallen state, though I wouldn’t say He is guilty of it.
1: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History (Dover Publications, 2004), 21.
2: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Qu. 64, Art.7.
3: F.J. Connell, “Double Effect, Principle of,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4 (New York: McGraw-Hill,1967), 1020–2.
4: As many open theists will tell you, open theology really has less to do with God's knowledge and more to do with the nature of the future. Additionally, open theology presupposes an A-Theory of time, as well as the idea that while God may be omnitemporal (eternal throughout time) He is not atemporal (outside of time).