Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor

Chapter 8
Finitist Theology and the Problem of Evil 
Peter C. Appleby
revised by Gary James Bergera

[p.83]The challenge we confront in addressing the problem of evil is demonstrating that faith in a good and benevolent god is not irrational in a world filled with injustice, suffering, and tragic death. The Lord rules over all, we are told, and is merciful; his providence extends to the least of his creatures. Yet a child is brutally decapitated, a young girl is raped, an old women is burned alive by terrorists, nearly half the people on earth never know a full and satisfying meal, and tens of thousands die each year of starvation and disease or otherwise suffer terribly in those natural disasters known as “acts of God.” Under these circumstances, we must find some way of reconciling the existence of such evil with God’s compassion and justice. As Boethius, the Roman philosopher, asked, “If there be a God, from whence proceed so many evils?” 

Men and women of the orthodox Christian traditions have always been troubled by this question because their conception of God makes him a party to every event in the universe, including evil. This is not because he causes evil (though he has been so regarded by some people) but because he knows of every evil occurrence (since he is omniscient), because he has the power to prevent evil (since he is omnipotent), and because he is responsible for the overall structure and order of the universe (since he is its sole creator and sovereign). And since God’s divine nature is unlimited, excuses such as [p.84]ignorance, incompetence, or conflicting obligations, which sometimes pardon ordinary persons, do not apply. In virtually every civilization, individuals who do not render aid when they can are condemned as accessories to the evil they allow to occur. Thus God would appear to be guilty under the principle that a moral agent is at least partially responsible for any evil which he or she can knowingly prevent without causing a greater evil or seriously damaging his or her own legitimate interests.

Believing Christians have responded to this with a variety of arguments: some refuse to deal with the issue on theological grounds, others attempt to show that God has sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist, and still others modify traditional teachings about God to accommodate the observable facts. The first group develops a line of thought suggested in the Book of Job that the ways of God are not our ways, that divine goodness is unlike human goodness, since the human mind can neither comprehend nor evaluate the divine character. Just as young children are unable to understand the motives of their parents, so human beings cannot comprehend the ways of God. And since we must accept, as an article of faith, that God is perfectly good, he must have reasons for what he does and permits, even though we cannot know what those reasons are.

On the surface, this response seems plausible since God’s concerns and responsibilities must exceed ours and since honest reflection requires us to admit that our mortal wisdom is severely limited at best. But this response to the problem of evil is available only at a price we cannot consistently pay, that of complete ignorance of God’s values. In other contexts (prayer and preaching, for example), we have definite beliefs about God, describing him as just, merciful, and benevolent, and regard him and as worthy of our love and devotion. But if these positive qualities are to make sense, we must, as John Stuart Mill and others have shown, attribute to God precisely the same values—both positive and negative—that we accept ourselves. For if God’s goodness is radically different from human goodness, there is little reason for calling it goodness at all and still less for praising and glorifying it. The child who is totally ignorant of his parents’ values has no reason to admire or emulate them. Thus, the problem of evil cannot be rationally evaded by pleading ignorance of God’s goodness.

[p.85]A second and more promising response has been developed by a number of thoughtful writers, beginning with St. Augustine, who confront the issue directly, admitting its importance but arguing that God has sufficient reasons for creating a world filled with evil and allowing that evil to exist. Within this approach, the two most significant lines of thought are free will and eschatology, both of which attempt to show that divine ends can justify the means necessary for their realization, including a world of unrelieved tears for many of its inhabitants. Free will argues that the divine plan consists of developing a community of morally good persons who live in love and peace with one another and with God. But this can only emerge from the refining fires of temptation and free choice. This means that God must allow people to decide between good and evil, even though he knows that many of them will choose the latter. Innocence could be maintained without freedom, since a person who is unable to choose can do no wrong. But innocence is not goodness. And if real moral worth is the goal, freedom and the risk of disaster are the inescapable price. For even omnipotence cannot guarantee that true freedom will always be used constructively. Thus, in order to develop a moral community, God allows us to decide freely despite the tragic consequences of many of our decisions.

Free will is complemented by eschatology, which attempts to account for suffering in this world by invoking heavenly rewards and compensations. Ours is a world in which innocence suffers and evil prospers, and accident, disease, and disaster fall upon the just as well as the unjust. But all will be made right in the divine kingdom beyond the grave. There the righteous will be rewarded, the innocent compensated, and the celestial community will be forever free from misery, travail, and death. Mortal life is a period of trial and testing, while life in the world to come sees the realization of justice, benevolence, and abundance promised to those who suffer undeservedly. The goodness of God is vindicated by the nobility of his purpose in the present world and the justice of the next.

Once again this seems plausible, but as soon as we recall that God presumably originated the entire arrangement, it is no longer clear that either argument supports the claim that he is just. Eschatology portrays him as generous with those who have suffered through no fault of their own but does not justify their being [p.86]victimized in the first place. Nor does it suggest what could be fair and just compensation for the evils of this life. It does predict that the lion will finally lie down with the lamb, but it gives no hint as to how the lamb could find justice in such an arrangement. If God allowed people to suffer at all, the fact that he rewarded them later might show him to be generous or ultimately compassionate, but it would not show him to be just and good always.

Free will portrays God as engaging in a noble experiment, setting us free to determine our own moral destinies and allowing us real opportunities to make decision. But it does not show why it is necessary to allow us to commit horrendous crimes against one another or to perpetuate gross injustices from generation to generation. Nor does it explain the inequitable distribution of trials and temptations, which leaves some lives in relative peace and prosperity, while others are permanently scarred and disfigured. Christians sometimes say that the Lord requires no one to carry a cross which is heavier than he or she can bear. Even if this were true, it would not be clear why some crosses are so much heavier than others or why some especially terrible crosses must be borne at all. The ends of this divine experiment may thus be noble and elevating, but the means by which they are realized are in no sense just and good.

In view of these and other difficulties, we seem unable to modify traditional teachings about God to accommodate the obvious facts of the case. For if God is just and good, he is not responsible for the specific conditions in which we work out our moral destinies and he is not morally involved with the evils afflicting human life. I would argue that theological finitism, which challenges orthodox claims of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and status as cosmic architect, can accomplish this but only by “demythologizing” much that is said in the Bible and elsewhere about the activities of God. Finitism can, I believe, maintain a religiously adequate conception of God, holding him to be the ultimate locus and example of love and creativity, but requires that we abandon the stories of mighty acts, which form much of the core of orthodox Christianity.

First, we must deny that God is solely or primarily responsible for the design and creation of our world, since that world is so unjust and unmerciful to many, if not most, of its inhabitants. There are independent reasons for rejecting the notion of a divine architect, as David Hume and others have shown. But if we were to insist [p.87]upon the idea of a designer, we might hold that God is one of a cluster of coequal powers responsible for the organization of the universe under conditions which precluded any one of them from achieving dominance over the others. In this way, the desirable features of the universe could be attributed to God, while the rest could be placed at the door of forces he could not control. Or finitism might see God simply as the source of spirituality, love, and creativity and maintain that there are signs of God’s influence throughout the structure and history of the world, wherever positive values prevail over the forces of darkness. Here, with the literal doctrine of creation being given up, the ancient idea of “man in the image of God” might be reinterpreted to mean that humans reflect the divine nature to the extent that they are capable of intelligence, creativity, and love.

The second finitist requirement involves the curtailment of traditional claims about divine power, denying omnipotence and insisting that God has none of the miraculous powers attributed to him in Christian literature. For the problem of evil is incompatible with any deity possessing such powers. There are simply too many avoidable agonies in our world to allow that a just and benevolent God has the ability to intervene but refrains from doing so except on rare and unpredictable occasions. Accordingly, finitist theology argues that God has only those powers which are inherent in the perfect love and creative intelligence that are his essential characteristics. God’s way is not that of forceful and dramatic moving and shaking but of subtle attraction and gentle persuasion. And there is more than a little biblical support for the belief that loving, non-resistance to evil is ultimately the greatest power in the world.

Finally, with respect to omniscience, finitism need not deny that God knows all that can be known but rather that the range of possible knowledge is more restricted than orthodoxy admits. Thus, we may well accept the idea that God is comprehensively aware of all that takes place in the world. But we deny that God has infallible knowledge of every future occurrence, because this conflicts with the view that moral agents are free in their decisions. And we may well believe that God possesses a perfect understanding of the laws governing the behavior of everything which moves, changes, or acts. But we reject the tendency to cast God in the role of a cosmic forecaster who could, and therefore should, warn victims of [p.88]impending misfortune. Whatever the content of God’s mind and however that content might be assembled, its contents cannot be available to human minds on pain of reintroducing the problem of evil. Nor can it include full knowledge of the future on pain of denying freedom. But if these qualifications are allowed, there is no reason for denying it the name of omniscience.

These revisions, of course, would affect some familiar religious discourse. They would deny the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Creation and Fall in order to avoid the charge that God deliberately condemned half of humanity as a means of teaching moral lessons to the other half. They would eliminate stories of supernatural miracles because such power otherwise breeds responsibility for such apparent divine omissions as God’s failure to turn away the wrath of Adolf Hitler before the holocaust. And they would reject the view of the divine mind as a limitless repository of information to be dealt out at random intervals to a few individuals, since this idea of omniscience cannot explain why more than two dozen boys and young men had to die before the Atlanta, Georgia, police were able to find their murderer. In short, these revisions would sacrifice divine power to defend divine goodness, revering the ancient vision which saw God as love.

I know of no theologian or philosopher today—Mormon or otherwise—who actually espouses the precise finitist doctrine I have proposed here. The virtues I claim for it are just two: it avoids the problem of evil and it responds to some of the sensibilities of religious tradition. If we conceive of God as that being which is uniquely worthy of worship, it might well be worth considering how loyal we should remain to the adoration of sheer power.