I want to start with what I consider to be the most convincing theodicy, recently developed by a talented Ph. D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, Gregory Boyd. I’ve encountered no other theodicy that absolved God of moral guilt better. Let me lay out Boyd’s six theses first, and then I will unpack each a bit.
Thesis 1: Love must be chosen, Thesis 2: Freedom implies risk, Thesis 3: Risk entails moral responsibility, Thesis 4: Moral responsibility is proportionate to the potential to influence others, Thesis 5: The power to influence is irrevocable, and Thesis 6: the power to influence is finite.
Thesis 1: That love must be chosen, that is, that love requires freedom is experientially and intuitively clear; if someone forces me to love them, then morality and genuineness of that love is transformed into a matter of necessity and survival. Love, however, is about morality and relationship, not about survival and obligation.
Thesis 2: Freedom entailed in love implies risk. This is a non-compatalistic freedom framed within a future of partial possibilities and partial certainties. Non-compatalistic means that there is no coercion with God or “mysterious” freedom that God somehow controls. Moral agents are free, not controlled or coerced. It should not be missed here that traditional theology from Augustine forward (4 – 5 century c.e.) has assumed either determinism (meticulous control) by God or exhaustive definite foreknowledge. The problem with either of these is that moral responsibility with either traces back to God. I am persuaded that the Calvinists’ grounding principle is sound and forces any position of exhaustive definite foreknowledge to become determinism. The grounding principle states that there is always a necessary cause for every effect; if the effect is known by God, then the cause is guaranteed — I think Jonathan Edwards showed this in his dissertation on freewill. With this said, either simple foreknowledge (adapted Molinism, where God knows what will happen but cannot respond to it before it arrives in the present; I am unconvinced by this view) or a partial open future, where God knows all things perfectly, and so knows all possibilities, but not with certainty as to what truly free creatures will choose (non-compatabilistic). Many have confused this thesis thinking it an attack on God’s omniscience when it really is a revision of how time and the world is understood. Omniscience is about God’s knowing all things, including all possibilities (per middle knowledge), not about Him knowing what is yet non-existent like the outcomes of the choices free agents make.
Thesis 3: Risk entails moral responsibility for creatures with the capacity to love. Love itself is inherently relational, especially of the Christian worldview based on the doctrine of God the Trinity. Should God choose to create contingent agents with the ability to freely (non-compatabilitic) choose love, then such creatures have moral responsibility for how they operate as moral creatures. Thesis 3 here is intimately connected to Thesis 4, which is that these creatures’ morally responsible operation is proportionate to their potential influence. Thus a human’s moral responsibility is raised the greater their influence. For instance, a short tempered aunt can do more damage to her nieces than a friend of the family with the same temper because the aunt’s influence is greater. Because her influence is greater, so likewise is her moral responsibility. A powerful demon has greater moral responsibility because his ability to influence is greater than any human, and so forth, assuming Michael the archangel and Satan to be the two highest ranking moral contingent creatures.
Thesis 5 states that God’s giving moral agents the ability to influence is irrevocable. In other words, God does not say, “Here you go,” and then, taking it away when you step out of line, “Gotcha, you should not be doing that.” I know our philosophical naturalist friends will want to know why God sometimes intervenes then in Scripture. It is an acute question, but poses a question no creature can answer. When you walk out your front door today, and walk into a to-go mart, or what have you, why is the spacing between you and the next person in line the space that it is? Or between you and the cashier? To know the answer to this question we would need to know about sleep cycles, colds, alarm clocks, foot injuries, hang nails, and the list could go on, and not just for that day, but for many days, even months, even years before. Simply, the number of variables to calculate and explain this simple occurrence are so vast the it would require an omniscient mind. Important to note, however, is that the difficulty with the scenario is not with the mystery of God, but with the mystery or inscrutability of creation, at least to finite minds like ours. Thus for our philosophical naturalist friends to expect an answer to all the variables that goes into why or when God intervenes is unreasonable at least to the extent that they cannot explain simple events like the space between me and another person in line. Both answers require omniscience, and neither have it. Back to thesis 5, though, and we should add thesis 6 to it: freedom to influence (T5) is irrevocable, but it is also finite and limited (Thesis 6). God sets limits both in scope and time to all moral agents’ influence. Obviously, we do not have epistemic access (“know”) to these delimitations besides the rather plain exception of death. Let me go back to T5, freedom to influence: if God intervened more often than perhaps he does, then the world would no longer be a neutral environment for reality, but would become an environment charged with angst over God popping in. If this happens too much, natural laws would become regular anomalies: a frightful thought for sure. Further, if God did this often enough, the choice to be for God would become one of survival, not morality. We would choose God because it was necessary, not because we loved Him.
Let me say a few words in summary about these issues. First, since humans are free, and the future is not understood on the exhaustive definite foreknowledge or deterministic models, God does not know with certainty what a free creature will choose before he chooses it precisely because it is non-existent prior to this. Thus God’s omniscience is not threatened. God, on this model, is not responsible for making people go to hell (some forms of Calvinism; determinism) or for actualizing a world in which He knows beforehand that actualizing just that world will result in x amount of people in flames (exhaustive definite foreknowledge). The buck stops with the free moral agent’s choice because before they make that choice it is indeterminate (not-decided) what will happen. I agree with Alvin Plantinga that non-compatabilistic freedom requires significantly free creatures, that is, creatures who are influenced by foregoing causes and contemporary situations but their choices are not determined by those causes and situations. Thus, the only person ultimately responsible for his damnation is himself, not God.
Another point in Boyd’s Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy is that God’ gift of irrevocable freedom is a demonstration of God’s omnipotence, not a threat to it. God decided to give it; He was neither forced nor necessitated to give it. God’s omnipotence is illustrated by such a move, upholding its true marvel. As a Christian Theist, following Plantinga’s overtures at the end of God, Freedom, and Evil, Satan and demons constitute a real opposition to God, who can truly fight God by virtue of Boyd’s Thesis 2 (freedom implies risk) and Thesis 5 (power to influence for better or worse is irrevocable). The cosmic battle is real, not a dramatization; again, God’s power is not brought into question because He gave the gift and decided to offer the world the possibility to love (Thesis 1).
Is God’s goodness upheld through all of this? It seems to me that it is. God does not make or create people for hell, but for the possibility of fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit. God does not make a world knowing that certain persons will go to hell, and then actualize that world. God sometimes intervenes in evil action (as testified in Scripture), but knowing when and why is beyond the scope of any human. Given the real battle, however, between God and Satan — not in a dualistic fashion mind you — and the irrevocability of freedom to influence, real monsters, demons and devils, do influence for harm and evil on humanity, even to the opposition and interference with God’s will: as Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If God’s will were always done on earth, why would Jesus teach us to pray in this fashion? Why is a child raped? On this theodicy, because of the evil of man against man or because of the underlying — or overarching if you prefer — cosmic powers of evil, both using their irrevocable power to influence for ill. Evil then is always traced back to humans or to Satan, but never to God. Likewise, God cannot be faulted for creating a risky creation because its creation includes as much potential for good as for evil (thesis 4), and, on this theodicy, what free creatures would do is indeterminate until they do it. The possibilities of what Satan or Adam or Eve might do with the ability to love God gave them is known to God, but what they will do is up to them, their “say-so,” not God’s, and so the outcomes are non-existent (unknowable) beforehand.
Christianity’s schema of spiritual warfare allows natural evil to be traced to Satan — except for cases where God makes it known that He has caused it, like the great flood. Boyd’s treatment of natural evil is exhaustive and illuminating. A read through this section of his book is well worth the time (Chaps. 8, 9, & 10, Satan and the Problem of Evil).