Evil—it’s a problem that asks, demands, cries out for explanation. The psalmist grasps the nettle when he asks, “How long, O Lord?” In the Western philosophical tradition, the question has been, “Why?” If there is a God who is all-powerful and all-loving, then presumably he’d make sure there is no evil. Yet a quick Google search shows you that evil is there all the same.
Of course, the sensible atheistic option is to admit there is no God. Historically, Christian thinkers have tried to reconcile these tensions by appealing to the existence of free will or divine wisdom, or clarifying the nature of goodness and power. Some, though, have opted to radically redefine the terms of debate.
That’s what theologian Thomas Jay Oord does in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. Coming from the stream of recent theology called “open” or “relational” theism (which holds that God cannot predict or predetermine the choices we make), he’s not satisfied with traditional accounts of God’s providence. They don’t help him make sense out of life, especially the problem of “genuine” (purposeless, gratuitous) evil. At some point, they all have to appeal to mystery, and so they offer no “explanatory consistency.” In their place, Oord offers a winsome, clear, and charitable exposition of his own providential framework, drawing on philosophy, the sciences, and biblical wisdom to fill the gap.
In a nutshell, his thesis is that evil exists, quite simply, because “God cannot unilaterally prevent genuine evil.” Theologians have long recognized that God can’t do all sorts of things—like create a round square, or lie, or be faithless. Oord simply expands the list of divine “cannots” to the reality of controlling evil.
Building on his particular reading of the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2, he “considers the self-giving [kenotic], other-empowering love of God revealed in Jesus Christ to be logically primary in God’s eternal essence.” And that sort of love is, by its nature, uncontrolling. Putting those two claims together, he draws two conclusions: first, that “God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control”; and second, that it also prevents him from interrupting the “law-like regularities” of the natural world.
This means that while God can influence, persuade, call, and creatively work within the order he has made, he cannot stop the evil actions freely undertaken by human beings (murder, rape, warmongering, etc.). Nor can he halt natural processes that randomly result in pain and suffering (genetic mutations, rock slides, tsunamis, etc.). In either case, interfering with the way the world is would amount to revoking the gifts he has given.
And if we don’t hold people responsible for things they can’t stop, then God’s off the hook for evil and suffering.
Whatever you think of Oord’s proposal, you have to admire his consistency, at least compared to some other “open theology” advocates. He rejects their view that God doesn’t “decree, cause, or will” evil, but merely “permits” it. Because if this is true, then God is still, in some sense, to blame for those evils he could have stopped by his power but voluntarily chose to allow. Why prefer a God who permits pointless evil to a God who only decrees evil for good—if unfathomable—purposes? He’s still responsible on either account. Here, Oord sensibly agrees with John Calvin, who asks, “What else is the permission of him who has the power of preventing and in whose hand the whole matter is placed but his will?”