The rhetorical argument from evil begins by rehearsing in exquisite detail excruciating and nauseating accounts of horrendous cruelty and suffering. It does not move to a conclusion by way of inference but ends with a challenge, explicit or implicit: how dare you diminish the horror of human suffering by making it a means to greater good or a higher harmony! Such exclamations are more agonized protest than rational argument. It forces believers to choose between shame-faced silence and playing the role of the cold-hearted theodicist.Ron Highfield, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), p. 332
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I admit I’m not sure how far to go along with what Highfield contends here. I have trouble accepting his distinction between metaphysical and epistemic absurdity (p. 356), because this implies that while we (currently) may not know why something evil happens, we can be sure that that something does have a proper place in God’s providence. How far does this stance simply justify the presence of evil in a world created good? There is surely a distinction to be made between saying that God works all things for good (Rom. 8:28) and that all things are justified or made acceptable by the good that arises from them.
In this context of protest atheism, Highfield also offers a critique of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology:
Moltmann explicitly denies that God is vulnerable to sin, suffering and death by nature. Instead, God voluntarily suffers so that the world might exist and God voluntarily abandons the Son so that sinners might be accepted. But this theory of divine self-limitation is a fiction; it is an all-too-convenient, ad hoc hypothesis designed to secure the benefits of a finite and suffering God without being burdened with its liabilities. If God can suffer willingly, it follows that God’s nature is such that God can suffer, which is to say that God is by nature vulnerable to suffering. Otherwise it would not even be possible for God voluntarily to suffer. I can suffer and die. Hence I can suffer and die willingly or unwillingly. If God can willingly suffer and die, does it not follow that God can suffer and die unwillingly? (p. 359, emphasis original)
No; it doesn’t follow. Highfield is right to point out that Moltmann’s theology means that God’s suffering entails an ability to suffer by nature, but this doesn’t mean that God can suffer unwillingly. In the end, then, while Highfield’s chapter on the rhetorical argument from evil is fascinating and contains a number of insightful perspectives, I cannot help but think the most appropriate response to such an argument is far simpler than he makes out: genuine lament before God.