Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Sin and Evil are Necessary

I don’t know if last year (2014, in case you need reminding) was worse than 2013 or any other year for calamities and atrocities around the world, but a lot of dreadful things happened. In December alone, there was heartbreak in Glasgow; the crash of Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501, resulting in the deaths of all aboard; and, in Australia, a high-profile siege in a Sydney cafĂ©, and the murders of eight children in Cairns. These sorts of events, terrible and tragic, fuel the atheist desire to prove that God doesn’t exist, and cause the Christian to cry out to God in anxiety over God’s ostensible absence.

In the final chapter proper of Divine Providence and Human Agency, Alexander Jensen assures his readers that, at least for the Christian believer, the presence of evil and suffering needn’t be an argument against God’s existence or presence. Indeed, in the medieval period, Christians accepted evil, injustice, and suffering as part of the vicissitudes of daily life and dealt with their pain through petitionary lament. Their eyes were fixed on the age to come, when all present travails would cease. But, says Jensen, people in the early modern period lost this expectation as the present age became more important than the age to come. Jensen writes:

Life before death became more important than life after death in determining the ultimate meaning of life, and the human attitude shifted from the desire for salvation from this world towards the right to live and prosper in this world. The American Declaration of Independence pronounced this famously:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

However, this can cause a significant problem. What happens if the creator does not honour these unalienable rights by permitting or causing suffering in the world? God stands in the dock, accused of not making good the promise of human flourishing in this life.

Alexander S. Jensen, Divine Providence and Human Agency: Trinity, Creation and Freedom (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), p. 155

The shift Jensen identifies here is the movement from the Christian’s ultimate trust in God for deliverance to the Christian’s attempt to defend God from scandal.

Jensen’s answer to the question of theodicy is first to focus on the idea that God is the source of all things. As the source of all things, all suffering is somehow related to God. On this basis, theodicy cannot be an argument about God, but instead concerns a struggle in relationship with God. Lament remains the appropriate response to evil. Moreover, the death of Jesus testifies to the fact that God has taken responsibility for the presence of evil in the world. Christians do not need to construct a theodicy to justify God in this context; all they need to do is point to the cross.

Jensen draws from many theologians to build his case, including Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Following Barth, Jensen distinguishes between creation’s ‘shadow side’ and ‘nothingness’. The shadow side is necessary to creation, in much the same way as music contains harmony and dissonance. Nothingness is not necessary at all; to deem it so would be to tolerate it; and Jensen is certain that God opposes nothingness. However, it must be recognised that somehow nothingness still originates from God, because God is the source of all things. Thus nothingness must originate from God by virtue of the fact that God rejects nothingness; and nothingness, which has no concrete form of its own (that is, nothingness is not intentionally willed by God), takes substantial form in sin, which is overcome by Jesus on the cross.

Jensen’s use of Pannenberg further sharpens his own thought. As the source of all things, God takes responsibility for evil by dealing with it through Jesus’s crucifixion; but the immediate cause of sin and evil is located in creaturely freedom and autonomy. Thus God accepts the place of sin and evil as ‘necessary by-products’ (p. 179) that God uses to establish the kingdom of God. This requires a strong eschatological perspective: in this present age, the world suffers the birth pangs of the age to come. Just as the agony of childbirth is accepted as necessary and tolerable, so, too, will God’s delivery of the new creation through the labour pains of the old be seen as justified. Importantly, while God foreknew that sin and evil would result from creaturely freedom and autonomy and so be part of the created order, God also foreknew that the cross would undo the effects of sin and evil and lead eventually to the age to come. It seems that, for both Pannenberg and Jensen, eschatological perfection is promised for the world, and that this perfection was planned to come through God’s opposition on the cross to sin and evil. Moreover, Jensen perhaps goes further than Pannenberg and contends that ‘the incarnation, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was not a contingency plan after God’s original plan had been thwarted by the fall. They must have been part of the original plan, so that creation is intrinsically linked to redemption, and thus sin and evil are inherently linked to God’s saving action.’ (p. 185). All this must be recognised as a mystery, the content of which will be revealed at the end of time; history must be recognised to bear the shape of the cross and resurrection; and the universe must be recognised as cruciform.

Barth’s distinction between creation’s shadow side and the nothingness God opposes is a useful one for me; and I very much appreciate Pannenberg’s clarity in asserting that God has taken responsibility for the presence of evil in a world over which God is sovereign. But, in the end, I can’t help but wonder if Jensen’s own case is weakened by his insistence that sin and evil have a legitimate part in God’s plans. There is a certain kind of theo-logic behind this assertion, I’ll admit, and the emphasis on the need to lament grants the position a proper place for emotion, too. But there’s a further emotional angle to the problem of evil that isn’t satisfied at all by this approach. I needn’t sketch this angle in any great depth; it’s surely enough for me to say that any divine plan that involves the apparently senseless murders of eight children – among all the other evils in the world – not only has to allow for lament, but must also be questioned. The pain of childbirth is acceptable; but murder, rape, slavery, corruption, perversion – surely these are not necessary to bring about the age to come. And it’s one thing to use parturition as an analogy to explain the delivery of the new creation from the old, but quite another to press the analogy and insist that this is how all things were planned to unfold.

These kinds of objections have been raised by others who are far more articulate than me. But I still have these questions:

First, if Jensen is right to follow Barth and distinguish between nothingness and creation’s shadow side, is it possible to distinguish precisely between what constitutes an instantiation of nothingness and what amounts to no more than a shadow? Are the murders of eight children macabre instantiations of nothingness, or merely shadows to highlight, say, the flourishing life of children elsewhere?

Secondly, if sin and evil are necessary within God’s plan for the world, then is there really a distinction to be made between creation’s shadow side and the nothingness God opposes? The shadow side might be intrinsic to the world in the same way that dissonance adds to the aesthetic complexity of a breathtaking piece of music, but a case could be made, I’m sure, that such a piece needn’t include dissonance to be beautiful. And if this is the case, then creation needn’t have a shadow side and needn’t be threatened by nothingness. Conversely, if creation must have a shadow side, isn’t it at least plausible that creation must also be threatened by nothingness, suggesting that nothingness perhaps has a bizarrely positive role to play in God’s creation?

And finally, while I recognise the pedigree of the idea that Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and so on, were foreknown, I have to question its sense. Assuming that God’s foreknowing is no different from God’s forewilling; and appreciating that what I’m about to say may make little sense from within the western metaphysical tradition; could it not have been possible for God to have foreknown and so forewilled an entirely different creation, one in which the incarnation and even resurrection of Christ would still be central, but without the need for the presence of sin and evil in the world? On the assumption that pain itself is not necessarily a bad thing, could there still be painful birth pangs for a new creation that arise from transition and not from transgression?

Jensen’s Divine Agency and Providence is a very provocative book – in a good way! I’d be interested to hear your comments about his thoughts on theodicy, or on my response to them.


  1. Sin, or the always present time active denial of the Living Divine Reality is the worst cancer in the universe. It is the worst sickness. It is the most horrific disease. Its implications cover the entirety of everyone's life. The world is filled with its symptoms and reeks with its torments and potentials, coming from all directions, most of which people cannot even see.

    There is no truly human life until sin has been transcended and the feeling-heart is restored to Divine-Communion, or the surrender of the entire conscious and functional being to the Absolute Divine Reality within which it appears, on which it depends - even for the next breath. Without such Divine-Communion, there is no true humanity, no real responsibility, and no true freedom. Without such Divine-Communion the individual is simply a functional entity living out an unconscious pre-programmed adventure of functional relations. There is no Sacred or Divine plane to his or her awareness.

    There is no real existence or even its possibility until sin is transcended. All actions, all states of experience and presumed knowledge are empty, painful, problematic, and sinful until the presumption of separation from the Living Divine Being is utterly transcended.

    Sin, or the fiction of separateness, and the denial of the universal characteristic of prior unity, is a mind-based illusion, a lie, a terribly deluding force, and a profoundly and darkly negative act.
    The individual and collective denial, and active refusal of the Universal Condition and Intrinsic Law of Prior Unity is the root and substance of a perpetual and self-perpetuating universal crime against humanity, performed by every one and all of humankind itself.

    If you begin with the presumption of sin (or separation) you will inevitably create a world that is saturated with sin.

    1. You know, I probably wouldn't disagree with too much of that, though I wouldn't use the same language. For me, sin isn't a fiction of separateness, but a power that somehow causes separateness as part of its overall effect. And this is what God in Christ overcomes on the cross.