Good question…Why didn't God stop the process before it started, if He knew of the massive amounts of suffering that would befall many of His creatures??

Draft June 3, 2000 // Last update: July 17/2000 (part one)

Index to the pieces in this response:


Part One: Statement of the Problem, Methodological observations/reservations, and Creating the Criteria for an acceptable "Go Ahead" decision. [this document]

Part Two: Criterion One

Part Three: Pushback about cases of extensive suffering

Part Four: Criterion Two and Three

Part Five: Criterion Four and Summary

Part Six: Additional Pushbacks

Part Seven: Reflection on what this means





In the first (related) part of this question [gutripper.html], we dealt with the issue of the character of God, and more specifically with how one 'builds' a theological understanding of His heart, when starting from the bible. In this piece, we move to one of the more emotionally-laden issues in the Christian worldview, and one that gets attention in the technical (i.e., philosophical) literature, but little in the popular works. [One work that includes a discussion of the topic is Immortality: the Other Side of Death, Habermas and Moreland, Thomas Nelson:1992.]


To try to re-state this issue as succinctly (and starkly) as possible, I need to 'unpack' it a little and lay out the propositions and assumptions which are often stated/implicit in it, or at least seem to be included in it. As far as I can tell, the objection goes something like this:


1. The world is characterized by vast amounts of intensive and extensive suffering and evil.


2. After enduring a life of hardship and pervasive suffering, many (if not most) humans will end up in hell, where they will be actively tortured forever and ever.


3. All of this was known ahead of time by God, before He had even created ANYTHING or ANYONE.


4. For some reason or motive, He "went ahead" with the plan anyway, but could have chosen to not implement it (or to start a different one altogether) or to interrupt it before it "went bad".




Before we begin analyzing the first three of these statements, let me make a methodological observation or two about the fourth one--the actual 'meat' of the issue.



Methodological Observation One:


The first observation is that we normally overstep the limits of the evidence when we think about this problem. By this I mean that we make conclusions, assumptions, or even 'doubts' beyond what the evidence or situation allows us to legitimately make. Consider how the emotional impact of this problem works:


The 'rub' of this argument can be simply stated: we cannot imagine a 'reason or motive' that would be 'big enough' to justify making the trade-off decision that God made to continue with The Plan (assuming that The Plan included the alleged items 1 through 3). And, since we cannot imagine a 'reason or motive' adequate for this, somehow many take a "next step" anyway and :


1. They categorically deny that such a reason could exist.

2. They assume that such a reason could NOT exist.

3. They fear that God's reason might be somehow inadequate (with the result sometimes that those that love Him are deeply troubled, even though they still have experienced God's goodness; and those seeking Him do so with more hesitancy, fearing what they might find).


Notice that the problem itself gives us no clue as to the motive, and hence, we have no way to analyze it. If we cannot analyze it, why would we decide it would be 'inadequate'? As I mentioned in Part One, I cannot move from 'ignorance of the motive' to 'judging an unknown motive' with any level of credibility.


In fact, this problem doesn't often show up in the technical literature (at least not in this form--it shows up in some 'many worlds' theodicy discussions). And part of the reason for this absence  is quite simple: it is just another version of the Problem of Evil, which has, in its traditional and logical form, been all but discarded by most philosophers as a technically sound (and therefore, sustainable or maintainable) argument against the existence of the traditional God.


Indeed, Peter Van Inwagan can go so far as to say [PH:EAE:151]:


"It used to be widely held that evil--which for present purposes we may identify with undeserved pain and suffering--was incompatible with the existence of God: that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able to tell, this thesis is no longer defended." (emphasis mine)



Inwagen (writing in 1991 in this article) is simply noticing a trend in the philosophical literature of the 1980s:


"Although the logical problem of evil marks an important phase in the literature on evil, discussion of it markedly diminished during the 1980s. It is fairly widely agreed by theists and nontehists alike that Alvin Plantinga, Keith Yandell (1938-), and other theistic philosophers have cast serious doubt on the viability of all formulations of theological problem. Critics who still think that evil presents a problem for theistic belief have shifted focus away from the logical version of the problem and have sought to construct a viable evidential version. " [RRB2:122f, and cites Madden, Hare, Martin, Rowe, and Salmon as examples]


But as early as 1979, nontheist William Rowe could point to this same consensus:


"Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God. No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim. Indeed, granted incompatibilism, there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of the theistic God." [Rowe, PH:EAE:10, 1979]


As could agnostic Paul Draper in 1989:


"I agree with most philosophers of religion that theists face no serious logical problem of evil" [Paul Draper, PH:EAE:26, 1989]



And Michael Martin in 1991:


"Atheologians have usually construed this as a deductive argument...However, this approach has generally been regarded as unsuccessful...Because of the failure of deductive arguments from evil, atheologians have developed inductive or probabilistic arguments from evil...In this chapter I distinguish, explicate, and defend two types of such arguments." [M. Martin, PH:APJ:335]


[Someone has pointed out to me that since Inwagen's 1991 quote and the quotes of Rowe/Draper/Martin, a couple of new defenses of the logical argument have appeared in print (e.g., Quentin Smith, O'Connor, Weisberger) in 1998 and 1999. It is too early to tell, of course, if these new formulations will succeed in changing the overall general consensus articulated by Inwagen/Rowe/Draper/Martin above.]



Let's be clear on why this is the case. Part of this problem--that God should not allow foreseen suffering to occur at all--can be seen as a variant of the logical-form Problem of Evil (PoE). From a technical standpoint, this POE has not been able to stand as an argument against God's existence (as a "good" god).


The standard form of the PoE (a non-technical statement) looks like this:


a. God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, and therefore should have the will and the ability to eliminate evil and/or suffering.

b. Such a god would be obligated by His/Her/Its/Their ethics to eliminate evil and suffering (i.e. there is no adequate reason for it to be allowed to eventuate/continue);

c. Evil and suffering ostensibly occur.


Therefore, the god described in proposition A does not, in fact, exist.


It is now well known in philosophy that this argument is considered by the majority to be unsustainable, especially its logical form [cf. RRB, chapter 6; and Howard-Snyder's intro in his book TH:EAE, noting that the logical argument "has found its way to the dustbin of philosophical fashions" (p.xiii)] due to the inability (logically) to demonstrate the truthfulness of the parenthetical clause in Step B. Since we cannot even conceive of all the possible "permissible reasons" that would render evil "justifiable", we cannot therefore show that there are no such reasons. We can perhaps show that all historical proposed "reasons" are inadequate so far, but this is a far cry from showing that any future conceivable one would likewise fail.


Even Peterson's very even-handed work can state:


"In the final analysis, the logical problem of evil does not seem to be a promising avenue of attack against Christian theism. Ironically, the atheistic challenger begins by accusing the theist of committing a logical mistake and ends up embroiled in logical fallacies herself. Although Version I is by far the most popular formulation of the problem it appears no more effective than the other two formulations. All of the formulations of the argument are now thought to exhibit certain  syndromatic errors." [PH:GAE:43]



But this argument from evil is not the only form, for critics of theism developed a less rigorous version of the argument called the Evidential Argument from Evil (see TH:EAE). In this version, the existence of actual evil is not advanced as being logically incompatible with the existence of a good god, but rather it is advanced as evidence against the probability of God's existence.


The two main forms of the EAE focus on different types of evil:


q       Case One argues from the extent, intensity, and perplexing distribution of evil, including horrendous evils

q       Case Two  argues from the existence of gratuitous/pointless evil



Evans introduces the logic of this argument for us (Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith, IVP, p.137):


"The charge that Mackie and others bring [in the logical form of the AE] is a strong one, and the burden of proof is on them to show exactly what the contradiction is. No one has so far been able to do this...Many atheists at this point retreat to a weaker position, but one which is nonetheless potentially damaging to the theist. They admit that theism is logically consistent and that the existence of evil does not in itself disprove the existence of God. The charge which they make is that the occurrence of evil constitutes powerful evidence against God's existence. Evil, or at least the amounts of evil and kinds of evil which occur in our world, provides us with good reasons for not believing in God."




Apart from the intuitive appeal of this claim, the whole argument of Case One  is strangely difficult to see how it can be maintained. Peterson describes how some theists make this point [PH:GAE:71-72]:


"it is not the sheer existence of evil per se that counts against the existence of God but the fact that there are so many evils that are very severe and present in patterns defying comprehension...Formulating a reply to this version of the problem is difficult but not impossible for theists. Some theists have pointed out that this argument rests on an assumption that the theistic deity would allow only certain amounts, kinds, and distributions of evil. Yet it is hard to know how to establish how much evil is too much for God to allow. How , in principle, could we establish this? The logic of theism itself does not seem to generate any clear limit on the amount, type, and proportions of evil in the world. It also does not appear that the teachings of Christian theology, which expand upon restricted theism, contain some limit. We could obviously apply one theistic response to Version V here [tn: argument from extent/intensity/pattern of evil], saying that God could allow quite a lot of evil, even very extreme evil, as long as it serves good purposes that God could not otherwise achieve. A second question that theists often raise regards how any finite person could ascertain that the preset amount of evil in the world far exceeds the divinely set limit.  These and other perplexing questions make it difficult to imagine how the atheists could ever establish such claims."


Apart from pointing to the lack of rigor, clarity, and precision of the anti-theist's argument, the theist has generally attempted to show that various types of evils are contributory to 'greater goods', and thus 'justify' their inclusion in God's plan. Evans (p.134) gives a very simple example:


"There seems to be quite a few circumstances in which a good being allows evil which could be eliminated to occur, because eliminating the evil would also eliminate a good which is great enough to 'outweigh' the evil which is allowed. For example, a heroic soldier might fall on a live grenade to save his comrades. His death is surely an evil, yet his action in bringing about this evil is nonetheless the action of a good person. Perhaps by diving into a trench the soldier could save his own life and prevent that evil, but to do so would result in a greater evil. So the good which is brought about by his action outweighs the evil."


The atheist generally tries to argue that surely in all this evil, there must be some unnecessary (gratuitous) evil, and that this would therefore be evidence against a god (who theoretically should eliminate purely gratuitous evil)...which leads us to Case Two.


Case Two (argument from gratuitous evil), is a bit different, for gratuitous by definition means 'pointless' or 'useless' or 'non-contributory'. But the theist is quick to point out that the atheist might be begging the question in the use of the word 'gratuitous'. Typical philosophical responses argue that the "apparently gratuitous" description of specific evils is overstepping the data--that all that is warranted to say about such evils is that they are "inscrutable."


The atheist then has to argue from 'inscrutability' to 'gratuitousness', while the theist attempts to show that that argument is either (a) highly questionable or (b) simply wrong.


[For the technicalities of this argument, especially in the interchanges between Rowe and Wykstra, see PH:GAE:73-79; and their articles in TH:EAE and PH:POER. In a nutshell, Rowe argues that inscrutability--in the context of human moral judgment and capability--is a positive indication of gratuity; and Wykstra argues that we would actually expect justifications of large complex evils to be 'beyond us' and only apparent to God. For Daniel Howard-Snyder's responses to Rowe, see PH:RHW:101-115.]


For myself, I have had too many personal experiences in which something 'inscrutable' later became 'obvious' as to what greater good came out of the evil. And this forms a pattern of experience that provides an inductive warrant to deny that "inscrutable implies gratuitous".


Much suffering, pain, and even evil (in its painful consequences) can be seen to contribute to good outcomes. Physiological pain is largely preventative; natural disasters often provoke positive community responses and integration; heinous moral evil often challenges us to stronger moral stances; painful consequences of evil choices often serve to lead us to change our patterns of choices, and/or inspires those "watching us" to do so, for more extensive impact. The fact that much suffering can be clearly related to a good outcome creates a prima facie case for believing that all suffering might eventually be seen to be non-gratuitous (contributory) to some greater good. Hence, we have positive evidence to dispute the inscrutability/gratuity connection.


And, to be complete, even the existence of gratuitous evil is beginning to be seen as not necessarily counter-evidence against theism:


It may not be necessary at all to demonstrate (or believe) that all evil is non-gratuitous. God, in his creation of a world in which gratuitous good can occur, may have created in the process a world in which gratuitous evil can occur. So, RRB:100, in discussing the evidential version of this:


"But some theists are beginning to think that the assumption that God allows no gratuity is very questionable. If theists can convincingly argue that there is a place for pointless evils within atheistic conception of the world, then they stop the evidential argument from going through."


"Now, if the range of free choices available to free creatures is to be really significant rather than trivial, then creatures must be capable of the highest goods as well as the most terrible evils. For God to limit the possibility of very serious evils is to limit the range of free choice. Carrying this thinking further, it would seem that significant freedom involves the ability to bring about utterly meaningless evil, a risk inherent in God's program for humanity. For God to narrow the scope of free choice is necessarily for him to rob the moral enterprise of much of its importance."


This tight interplay between gratuitous goods and evils is described clearly in PH:RHW:88f, under the heading "But Why Not Block Harm to Others?" (selected quotes):


"What other goods, then, would be lost if God were to give us the freedom only to affect ourselves? Well, as indicated in the last reply, we would have no responsibility for each other and we would not be able to enter into the most meaningful relationships; for we are deeply responsible for others and can enter into relationships of love only if we can both benefit and harm others.


"This point deserves development. We are deeply responsible for others only if our choices actually make a big difference to their well-being, and that cannot happen unless we can benefit them as well as harm them. This seems obvious enough. Frequently missed, however, is the fact that a similar point applies to love relationships, as contrasted with loving attitudes and feelings. "


"Since those love relationships we cherish most are those in which we are most deeply vested, in light of love's freedom they are also those from which we can suffer most. It simply is not possible, therefore, for us to be in relationships of love without (at some time) having it within our power to harm and be harmed in a serious fashion."


"Deep responsibility for others, relationships of love with our fellows and with God: if these were worthless or even meagerly good things, God would not be justified in permitting evil in order that we might be capable of them. But these are goods of tremendous--perhaps unsurpassable--value. And they are impossible in a world where our choices only have an effect on ourselves."



Where I come out on this:


q       The logical argument from evil fails, and has been abandoned.

q       The evidential argument from evil (ie amount and distribution) lacks adequate rigor and clarity to create some compelling force.

q       The evidential argument from gratuitous evil (a) begs the question by assuming that inscrutability entails gratuity;  (b) runs counter to our persistent experience of "inscrutable evils later understood"; and (c) fails in the face of the surpassing goods involved in gratuitous personal choices and relationships.




I personally have to agree with D. Howard-Snyder's conclusion:


"No argument from evil I am aware of makes it likely or even reasonable to believe there is no God. Evil cannot carry that evidential load" [PH:RHW:114]



[Notice that this Tank argument only addresses the first two of the three possible 'next steps': the categorical denial and the assumption. It doesn't solve the emotional issue, of course, or actually even some of the theological ones, but it does show that we are not warranted in using this argument against the existence of a "good" God, and hence, against the beauty of the character of the existent God. The foreknowledge point actually brings up a different problem for the philosopher and theologian (i.e., free choice), but it is not that of God's goodness.]



The 'foreknowledge version' suffers from the same problem as other versions of the problem of evil, of course. All the foreknowledge formulation of this problem changes is the tense, from present to future. So, instead the argument would look like this:


a. God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, and therefore should have the will and the ability to prohibit or preclude evil and/or suffering from ever eventuating.

b. Such a god would be obligated by His/Her/Its/Their ethics to prohibit or preclude evil and suffering from ever eventuating (i.e. there is no adequate reason for it to be allowed to eventuate/continue);

c. Evil and suffering ostensibly occur.


Therefore, the god described in proposition A does not, in fact, exist.


And this is prey to the same criticisms that render the "present-tense versions" of PoE ineffective.


Now, a common-language paraphrase of this would be: "since we have no reason to believe that there is not a good explanation for how God could let this happen, then we have no reason to doubt the compassionate, good, and fair heart of our God." [This assumes, of course, that we already have some reason to believe in the compassionate, good, and fair heart of our God (and that this data is not overwhelmed by contrary data), and this could be derived from a number of more concrete items than our speculations in this area--such as the Cross, our personal experiences, known cases of deliverance and/or protection from suffering, etc.--see our earlier discussion in part one on the methodology of constructing a portrait of the heart of God.]




And strictly speaking, we could stop the discussion here, for we have pointed out above (from the area of rather rigorous logical philosophical standpoint) that our ignorance (e.g., of God's rationale) is no reason to act like we are not ignorant (e.g., able to pontificate that our morality and compassion is definitely superior to the deity's)!


Given this, this foreknowledge scenario gives us absolutely no grounds for doubting God's unknown motive (since we have no way of inferring that motive from the situation itself), and hence, we have no additional data from it which could cause us to "lower or raise our estimate" of God's love, affection, commitment to, and care for all of His created beings.




Methodological Observation Two:


The second observation is that it is methodologically flawed to draw strong conclusions from highly questionable models of God's pre-creation decision process.


In other words, I simply do not trust our arguments to really represent adequately "what went on" before time originated. All models of pre-time "stuff" have obvious major difficulties, and my confidence in any of them is incredibly lower than what I can glean from revelation within history (for example, the character of Jesus or the event of the Cross).


For example, consider these hypotheticals:


Case One: God decides to create 100 people. He knows 53 of them will "chose bad" consistently, and 47 will "choose good" consistently. So, in order to keep the 53 from being punished, he decides not to create them at all--He only creates the 47 good ones. So, did the 47 good-choosers  really have "free will"? Did the bad-choosers really have "free choice"?


Case Two: God generates 100 "sample plans" for the universe and history. In 53 of those plans, I am a "bad chooser", and in 47 I am a "good chooser".  In the plan that gets chosen, I am a "good chooser". So, did I really have "free choice"?


Case Three: God "has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith" (Jas 2.5), but this would imply that they were “chosen” to be poor before they were chosen to be "rich in faith" (i.e., believers). And, although obviously not meritorious(!), being poor would have been an antecedent condition to becoming a 'good chooser'.


Case Four: Joan is the daughter of a Christian couple who met in Bible college. She enters into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ later in life. Since she would not have even existed without the prior salvation of her parents, her being chosen to be saved could not have occurred "at the same logical time as" the decision to save her parents. [Remember, the classical Christian position is that human souls do NOT pre-exist their time on earth.]


Case Five: Before God creates the Plan, He has foreknowledge of what He will subsequently create, so does God have free-choice/will, or does His foreknowledge force Him to do that specific Plan?


There are many, many more of these that can be constructed, of course, but these should suffice to show the instability and doubtfulness of speculative arguments about 'before creation event one'... 



[By way of personal note, I began to doubt our logical penetrative powers in this extra-creation area early in my graduate theological education. I remember vividly the epistemological angst I experienced at the arguments between the various "lapsarian" positions within Reformed theology. As I write this, I have in front of me a chart by the Puritan divine William Perkins, on the 'order of salvation'. It is a veritable flowchart of the various events that take place in the plan of God from eternity past to eternity future, and although I would be the first to happily admit of this precious man's wonderful love for God, I simply have no reason whatsoever to have confidence in his construction of the "sequences" of God's decisions and actions. I know the proof-texts and I know the arguments, but my personal biblical exegesis over the past decade or two has simply invalidated the use of those texts for such sweeping theological extensions...]  




Methodological Observation Three:


Related to this 'loose foundation' character of this pre-creation event, and adding to the uncertainty of our work in this area, is the "spectrum of anthropomorphism" that we have to operate within, in some areas of theology. By this I refer to the range over which we go to in 'imaging God'. God is a conscious agent, and thus can be addressed as "Thou", and the Scripture is filled with personal descriptions that range from pure anthropomorphics (e.g., God has hands, feet, nose) to apparently pure-metaphors (e.g., a wet-nurse) to apparent pure-descriptions (e.g., He lives) to  things in-between (e.g., He grieves that He created humans, His anger rises and subsides, He 'repents/relents', He tests Hezekiah to ‘see’ what was in his heart). I have no doubt in my mind that God grieves or rejoices, but I do have a problem delimiting the boundaries of such statements. I know that the 'core' of that grieving/rejoicing image is marvelously true, but when I try to extrapolate from that, or draw long implicative chains, I run into skepticism and doubt quickly. [Part of this problem is related to the nature of predications about ‘other minds’ of course.]


Creating models of God's pre-time thinking process and decision sequences reeks of questionable anthropomorphics, since we have an exceptionally difficult time trying to conceptualize eternity (not to mention the Divine Mind and 'how' it knows things!!!). We can also see this illustrated in the theology of God's 'being in or out of time'. There has been a debate for millennia as to whether God is 'in time' or 'outside of time'. [Notice the metaphor of time as a container, by the way--this always drives me back to the semi-pragmatics of my Linguistic Wall series.] Consider this statement in the introduction to a careful book on the subject [PH:EG:xii-xiii], defending the view of God in "timeless eternity"):


"The classical Christian theologians, Augustine of Hippo, say, or Aquinas or John Calvin, each took it for granted that God exists as a timelessly eternal being. They accepted it as an axiom of Christian theology that God has no memory, and no conception of his own future, and that he does not change, although he eternally wills all changes, even becoming, when incarnate in the Son, subject to humiliation and degradation."


Now the notion of no memory and no knowledge of a self's future is quite an alien concept to us, and one that sounds suspiciously a-personal, but which is not altogether incomprehensible. But, it must be noted, it cannot shed much light on our question here, for implicative chains off this will be highly suspect.


And the alternate position of God's temporality  (God is in all or some moments of history) runs into the problem cases we mentioned above, and has to contend with the issues of  God's ‘simplicity’ and immutability.  [For the point counterpoint exchanges between atemporalists and temporalists, I refer the reader to Thomas Morris' Our Idea of God (IVP:1991).]


In philosophical theology, the simplicity of God is an implicate from (1) the ‘changelessness’ of God and (2) the ‘ultimacy’ of God. Since anything with ‘parts’ can change, and since God ‘cannot change,’ God must therefore have no ‘parts’ in His essence (so the argument goes, at a very basic level). And, since God is ultimate (read: ‘farthest back’), there could be no principle “behind Him” that would differentiate His ‘parts’ (so the argument goes, at a basic level).


But notice the problem with this—the model is backwards. The model for an ‘essence’ is that of Newtonian billiard-ball mechanics. The starting point is non-volitional , non-biotic, non-sentient matter—NOT that of ‘other minds’! If you start with non-life, you simply cannot get to divinity! If you start with divinity, you can easily sub-set out matter! [Non-linear systems are great at evidencing more-than-we-suspected-was-there, but it would be a little bit of a stretch to get a non-linear system that designed and created itself to start with…Tankchuckle.]


Its difficult to consistently stay with the central understanding of God as Person, but it is critical to the theological enterprise. When God was still an Aristotelian or Classical Matter "thing", we had HUGE problems both with the reference and truth-value of religious language, and with reasoning "to" God from 'a-personal' effects. When the paradigm changed, and we began seeing God as a Person/Mind, religious and theological language became 'personal' language, and we could construct understandings of theological discourse based on that (with a welcome and healthy, IMO, loss of precision in theological discourse!). And, when the paradigm of God as Person/Mind, we could all of a sudden apply 'other minds' philosophical arguments/tools to God's 'existence' as an "other Mind".


But the difficulty is thinking consistently from a "Perfect Person" theology, rather than the old "Perfect Being" theology. We lost God's intensely passionate love for his creatures as a Perfect Being, but as Perfect Person, He wrestles with His kids on the carpet and delights to hear us squeal with delight and cries with us when we get our feelings hurt at school...


Too much of the discussion of what "was going on in God's mind" in some pre-decretal non-conceptualizable "situation"(?) proceeds along 'causal/being' lines, with God lining the dominoes up, for when He knocks over (only) the first one--and the rest fall nicely and neatly...


So, on one extreme we have rarified philosophical theology (not all of it, of course) moving God toward a model of Classical inert matter, and on the other hand we have systematic theology moving God toward a model of a creator of Rube Goldberg machines…I just don’t get a comfortable feeling here, methodologically speaking.




Methodological Observation Four:


The issue of trying to stand 'outside of time' ourselves to look at the relation of God to time (and hence, any type of plan) is intrinsic to the problem, in my opinion. Our vantage point is simply too limited. C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, reports this conversation between his "Teacher" George McDonald and the narrator:


“…all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. In is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) t that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. “ (end of chapter 13).



I personally have to agree with this type of ‘reverent agnosticism’—we run into problems as soon as we try to conceptualize something/someOne ‘outside’ space and time. We are forced (in the Epistemic Bubble) to use metaphors as we approach the ‘edges’. Consider this simple diagram:




In this ‘view’ of the relationship between God and time, God is ‘outside’ time, and indeed ‘surrounds’ it. All events in history are both ‘foreknown’ (from the left) and ‘postknown’ (from the right). A person standing, for example, at Event B would know the ‘future’ of those standing at Event A, just as I “know the future” of when my newlywed mother will give birth to glenn, her firstborn son.  For such a view of God—in which all events of history are perceived in some ‘Eternal Now’ (as the philosophers call it)—concepts such as ‘foreknowledge’ become much less useful for discussing this problem of ‘foreknowledge and the Plan’.



Now, I need to mention here that there is a HUGE philosophical question about what can be foreknown at all. A growing number of Christian philosophers (e.g., Swinburne, Hasker) have argued that foreknowledge can only apply to what is  'logically possible' to be known. Just as omnipotence does not suffer when God cannot make a "square circle," so also omniscience does not suffer when God cannot foreknow what the diameter of that square circle would be (as opposed to the foreknowledge of a great Zen In other words, it might be logically impossible to foreknow what a free creature would 'freely' choose to do (except in the cases in which said freedom was 'over-ruled' for some specific purpose), for this would imply some type of causal determinism which mitigates the 'freely' word.  Swinburne’s popular formulation of this can be found in Is there a God? (Oxford, 1996, p.7-9):


“It seems to me that the same considerations require that we understand God being omniscient in a similarly careful way. Just as God cannot be required to do what is logically impossible to do, so God cannot be required to know what is logically impossible to know. It seems to me that it is logically impossible to know (without the possibility of mistake) what someone will do freely tomorrow. If I am really free to choose tomorrow whether I will go to London or stay at home, then if anyone today has some belief about what I will do (e.g. that I will go to London), I have it in my power tomorrow to make that belief false (e.g. by staying at home). So no one (not even God) can know today (without the possibility of mistake) what I will choose to do tomorrow. So I suggest that we understand God being omniscient as God knowing at any time all that is logically possible to know at that time. That will not include knowledge, before they have done it, of what human persons will do freely. Since God is omnipotent, it will only be because God allows there to be free persons that there will be any free persons. So this limit to divine omniscience arises from the consequences (which God could foresee) of his own choice to create free agents. I must, however, warn the reader that this view of mine that God does not know (without the possibility of mistake) what free agents will do until they do it is not the normal Christian (or Jewish or Islamic) view. My view is, however, implied, I believe, by certain biblical passages; it seems, for example, the natural interpretation of the book of Jonah that, when God told Jonah to preach to Nineveh that it would be destroyed, he believed that probably he would need to destroy it, but that fortunately, since the people of Nineveh repented, God saw no need to carry out his prophecy. In advocating this refinement of our understanding of omniscience, I am simply carrying further the process of internal clarification of the basic Christian understanding of God which other Christian philosophers such as Aquinas pursued in earlier days.


“All this does of course assume that human beings have some limited free will, in the sense that no causes (whether brain states or God) determine fully how they will choose. That is the way it often seems to us that we have such a power. Even the inanimate world, scientists now realize, is not a fully deterministic world—and the world of thought and choice is even less obviously a predictable world.”



There are many passages and situations in the bible which would seem to support this ‘open future’ view:


1. The whole Flood deal looks like a veritable surprise to God (cf. Also the kingship of Saul):


Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. (Gen 6)


Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not carried out My commands.” (1 Sam 15.10)



2. Various ‘testing’ passages:


And even in the matter of the envoys of the rulers of Babylon, who sent to him to inquire of the wonder that had happened in the land, God left him alone only to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart. (2 Chron 32.21)


And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. (Deut 8.2)


Yet, O Lord of hosts, Thou who dost test the righteous, Who seest the mind and the heart; (Jer 20.12)



[These are commonly ‘explained away’ by appeal to anthropomorphism: “When Moses said that God tested the Israelites in order to know what was in their hearts he was using an anthropomorphism. God, of course, already knew what was in their hearts. The point is that their obedience or disobedience had to be proven in history.” I do NOT mean to imply that this answer from a popular bible commentary is an evasive answer, but merely to point out that this area is not that simple to deal with…]


3. Various ‘disobedience’ or “I did not intend that” passages:


And he said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people.’” (1 Kings 20.42)


If anyone fiercely assails you it will not be from Me. Whoever assails you will fall because of you.  16 “Behold, I Myself have created the smith who blows the fire of coals, And brings out a weapon for its work; And I have created the destroyer to ruin. 17 “No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper; (Is 54.15f)



4. Various “what more could I have done”  and "in vain" passages:


And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Judge between Me and My vineyard. 4 “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones? (Is 5.3ff)


In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction. (Jer 2.30)



5. Various ‘moral outrage’ passages (outrage makes more sense in an ‘open future’ view)


6. Various ‘conditional’ present or ‘conditional’ futures:


And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.  (Matt 11.14)


Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation  which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; 17 let him who is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house; 18 and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak. 19 “But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days! 20 “But pray that your flight may not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath; (Matt 25.14ff)


7. Various "maybe" passages:


And it shall come about that if they will not believe you or heed the witness of the first sign, they may believe the witness of the last sign (Ex 4.8) [Notice the "may" instead of "will".]


And when they had approached Jerusalem and had come to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them, and bring them to Me. 3 “And if anyone says something to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” (Matt 21.1f) [ Notice the "if" instead of "when".]


This is what the LORD says: Stand in the courtyard of the LORD’s house and speak to all the people of the towns of Judah who come to worship in the house of the LORD. Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word.  3 Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from his evil way. Then I will relent and not bring on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done. (Jer 26.2ff)


Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, each of them will turn from his wicked way; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin.” (Jer 36.3)


Therefore, son of man, pack your belongings for exile and in the daytime, as they watch, set out and go from where you are to another place. Perhaps they will understand, though they are a rebellious house. (Ezek 12.3f)


8. The "I thought"  passage:


During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it.  (Jer 3.6f)



On the other hand, other theologians would be quick to point out that it might be equally "logically impossible" for God to create a free creature who could "surprise" an omniscient God with an actual unforeseen choice.


And, on the middle hand  (are you counting the hands here?), there is the middle knowledge approach of Ockham and Molina (and William Lane Craig, more recently). God knows all possible 'free choices' of all free creatures in all possible situations and in all possible worlds. He cannot be surprised, but what actual choice gets made is still the creature's actual choice.


It should be obvious that all these views of God's knowledge are hampered with considerable difficulties, when attempts are made to delineate them more precisely and when they are examined for implications for human (or divine, I might add) freedom and action. It is obvious that God has knowledge of the future (cf. Gen 15.12ff) and a “plan” (cf. Acts 2.23), that this “plan” includes agents who do evil (cf. Proverbs 16.5), but the passages above seem to indicate that there is some ‘flex’ or ‘play’ in this, that the timing of when the plan is created is not clear (e.g., the 'changes' in God's plans, such as Saul and David), and that the plan may be more structural than a timeline.  Some have argued that all foreknowledge passages are such because they refer to something God has pledged to do as agent (e.g., move Cyrus to release the Jews from captivity), or to some future, "negotiated" with adversaries in the heavenly arena (cf. Job's case, Acts 2.23; Luke 22.31). [For a discussion of this subject, see TH:TGWR and the biblio used there.]



Accordingly, I hold to the core understanding that God can declare 'the end from the beginning' but I cannot go too much deeper into God's pre-time or extra-time process of knowing and planning. I consider it fun philosophical theology, but too methodologically uncertain for constructing scenarios about God's motive in this case…


[Needless to say, in the "God cannot foreknow the future" position, the "why did He go ahead with the plan?" problem does not even arise. Instead, a different set of questions are spawned about God and His relation to the world.]




Now, with all those disclaimers, personal uncertainties, and boundary conditions in place…


Before we go through the individual propositions in the beginning statement, let’s try to construct a model of what kind of scenario might constitute a ‘good reason to go ahead with the plan ANYWAY’.


For starters, let's use our OWN practical "governance" notions. Many of our problems with theodicy arise because of a mismatch between our creaturely moral notions and those allegedly reflected in what we think God is doing or has done, and so let's try to create a commonly-agreed-upon "starter morality".


One such 'starter morality' would be our "innate plus acquired" creaturely morality, which, in Western culture, attempts to be a more 'enlightened' and more 'humane' morality.  For example, a skeptic (Christian or non) might form an impression of God that He is belligerent, arrogant, unkind, unfair, and power-hungry. With this impression, the skeptic will 'judge God' by their human morality, which professes that those traits are unworthy of humans (in most cases), let alone a God. Since both the Christian and non-Christian could agree that those traits are reprehensible, that view of God could not be judged as worthy of 'consideration for relationship'.


There is, of course, a clear danger with starting with our moral notions, but unless our moral notions have SOME correspondence with God's, much of the "emulation-ethics" of the OT/NT make no sense. There are times, obviously, where we might construct self-justifying moralities, for convenience and license reasons, but we will be able to avoid this level of detail rather easily in this piece.


What we need to do at this point is to come up with a set of criteria which would warrant the continuance of a plan that included foreknown suffering.


In the real world, executives and organizational leaders are faced with this problem at a practical level every day. They constantly have to make "go/no go" decisions on large-scale projects that are certain to have adverse effects on at least some of the people affected thereby. In some cases, they know EXACTLY who will be negatively affected and in what ways. And in some cases, we (the public) judge them as to the moral correctness or culpability of their decision.


And the criteria we use--hopefully--deals with the overall outcome of "more good than bad". Sometimes we are not as egalitarian as this, with perhaps more personal and/or regional and/or 'special interests', but the majority involved still tend to evaluate the decision in terms of "was there more good than bad produced?". [There will always be the "they could have done better" and the "they should not have gotten into that situation to begin with", but to reasonable people, a "more good than bad" outcome generally satisfies the demand for 'moral governance'.]


Now, when we apply this to the question before us--what could possible warrant God going ahead with such a plan--we can delineate and test the same criteria.




Accordingly, we might set up criteria for such a motive to include at least these elements:


1.        There must be more ‘good’ than ‘bad’ (for the creatures, that is, "us")

[In the executive world, this the same--"more good than bad" for the organization as a whole, NOT just the executives, and, for that matter, not just the employees--everyone is a part of the organization]


2.        The lives of the good and the evil intertwine inseparably; or that history is “of one piece” (that in the existing history, you cannot “rip out” those who "will end up in hell", without “tearing up” the others in the process, cf. Matt 13.24ff)

[In the executive world, this amounts to the unity of the organization--ALL changes to individuals (as a result of the plan) impact ALL other individuals in the organization somehow. At the point of decision, relationships are full blown and process interactions are occurring and the organization is 'alive'. Without those people who will later be adversely affected by the decision, the organization would NOT be what it is--it would not be working, producing jobs and incomes and products for consumers, etc. The organization's life is "all of one piece".]


3.        No one is discriminated against—that all are treated at least “fairly” (whatever that means)


[This is a bit vague, of course, but our general moral notion here is that 'unwarranted partiality' does not affect who will be adversely affected. In the case of an organizational decision, for example, this would be violated if an executive 'protected' his kinfolk in the organization, or took 'bribes' to protect others, or allowed personal vindictiveness or prejudices to affect who would be adversely affected. There may be 'warranted partiality' in which key managers or employees are shielded from negative effects, but only on the assumption that they add superior value to the organization, and therefore allow the resultant organization to continue to produce good going forward. This is simply a matter of who can contribute the most to the organizational health, and thereby allow the organization to provide jobs for as many employees as possible, and make contributions to the society as much as possible.]



4.        That evil does not ultimately thwart God’s intention to bless those who choose the good.


[In the case of the organization, this would show up as making sure that the adverse affects that will happen to a smaller number will not stop the initiative, which will bring greater goods to the larger number. In other words, this principle allows the executive to achieve more and more widespread "net good", even when offset by some "bad". For example, if a company made compensation based solely on performance (a seemingly impossible to achieve ideal, btw), in an effort to increase the compensation to those making higher levels of contribution, there would likely be sub-performers, in the same job class, whose pay would be negatively affected. Management knows this, but should not decide to let the sub-performance of some penalize the good-performance of the others.]



This is all it basically takes for most folk to feel that a large-scale project would be okay to "go ahead on", but we might add another wrinkle to it, from a Christian worldview:



So, if life in its totality (temporal and eternal) is somehow more "pleasant" (broadly considered, encompassing mental and physical aspects) than torturous, and everyone is treated “at least” fairly, and if history is a ‘unit’ and cannot be divided up and pieces discarded anyway, then it would seem very reasonable (almost imperative?) for God to ‘go ahead with the plan’…


Notice that  this is a "Poor man's" theodicy. I don't need to argue for the universe to be "the best of all possible worlds", under some questionable philosophical-theological argument that a "perfect God can ONLY create the best of all possible worlds." I have pointed out elsewhere, dependent on Swinburne, that the notion of "best of all possible worlds" is rather meaningless (and certainly too imprecise to be useful for us):


"Take for starters, the notion of the '"best possible world." Philosophers know this to be a meaningless and vacuous phrase, like "square circle" or "infinite rock." If (as most people agree) human beings are "good", then any world God created could have been improved ("made into a better possible world") by the addition of ONE MORE PERSON! And then THAT world could have been improved yet farther by the addition of another person...etc...etc...etc. (And if one objects that other constraints such as space limitations would have started 'subtracting goodness' from the overall 'pool', then we could simply have had God make a bigger universe--"finite, but unbounded" remember!)"


So, in this "poor man's theodicy" all I have to show is the world is in the "top half" of the candidates...(smile)...I don't have to argue that it is the "most good possible," but that it is "more good than bad" to satisfy our criteria for "going ahead with the project"...



One additional issue we will have later concerns the word "pleasant" or "good" in the criteria above...I will start the discussion with a more 'hedonistic' understanding of "pleasant," but will later add nuances of "greater goods" to the mix. Philosophers in this area (both Christian and non) recognize and accept this distinction. Some goods may be "great" (e.g., grieving in compassion and support with a loved one who recently lost a family member in death), but not "pleasurable".  So, although I will try to make sure our "goods" have a general/majority grounding in our experiences of happiness/suffering, I will occasionally bring in these other, "higher" goods.


Needless to say, this is admittedly a 'creature-centered' set of criteria, which does not factor in the 'feelings' or values of God. Accordingly, there should be other/hybrid models which would be useful and imperative to explore. However, the above set of criteria is an 'at least' approach, and since it certainly makes sense to our intuitive moral notions (esp. those of kindness to others), we will start with it.


So, let's move on the Criterion One (in Part Two, gr5part2.html)...




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