A few weeks ago, I reviewed Andrew Root’s four-part series that begins “Taking Theology to Youth Ministry.” He then picks specific theological doctrines to discuss: Atonement (the cross, book two), Revelation (and Scripture, book three), and Eschatology and Mission (book four). These are amazing books, and you can follow the hyperlinks to my two part review. My favorite of the four was by far book two, Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry. It drew me into a conversation of atonement that I had not been exposed to yet, but thankfully I have a seminarian friend who I could dialogue with about Root, who was more familiar with the theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who Root draws from a lot (follow Wes Ellis’ blog here). All this to say, in my review, I did not feel I had enough time to talk about book two in all its complexity.
This post won’t do that either, at least not directly. Instead, I recently wrote a paper on the problem of evil, and I drew from Root and his take on Moltmann near the end. The prompt was, “Is God responsible for the existence of evil? If not, how can he help?” My paper was just over 2,000 words, which is incredibly short for a topic people have been discussing for thousands of years. I will share it with you here, even though a blog format is not conducive to this length, hopefully you’ll stick with me and find this argument convincing. Please share your thoughts with me!! Theology is best done in the context of community.
The problem of evil cannot be discussed without establishing the notion of God’s providence. Evil does not become a “problem” until we assert that God is both omnipotent (sovereign Lord over everything) and good. Providence communicates that notion to us; God is a gracious and good creator of everything. But we also cannot talk about the providence of God without immediately giving rise to theodicy questions. Theodicy means the study of God’s justice. How is it just that a “good” God, in control of everything, allows evil to exist? This is a question that has been asked for thousands of years, so I am not going to be able to do justice to all the complexities of the arguments that have been made. However, I will do my best to succinctly give the arguments that have been most persuasive in my life to prove that God is in no way responsible for evil, and that Christians can be secure in their eschatological hope that one day sin and death will be defeated for good.
First, it is necessary to articulate what is meant by “evil.” Theologians usually separate evil into two categories: “…natural evil—the suffering and evil that human beings experience at the hands of nature—and… moral evil—the suffering and evil that sinful human beings inflict on each other and on the world they inhabit.”
We know that “human life is not the way it’s supposed to be,” when natural disasters kill and devastate large amounts of people, or cancer takes the life of a child. We also see evil that’s explicitly human: when someone is gunned down in the street, or a young woman is kidnapped and raped.
The advent of evil into the world, even natural evil, is believed by Christians to correspond to the advent of human sin into the world. The concept is referred to as “original sin,” and paradoxically “is a universal condition, but it is also a self-chosen act for which we are responsible.” The logic of this argument would be, because human creatures brought sin into the world, they also brought evil, and therefore God is not responsible for the existence of evil: humans are because of their “free will.”
Personally, I do not want to go that route because I do not put as much stake in the notion of “free will” as it is commonly used. Instead, I think it is helpful to draw on Augustine here in his distinction between negative and positive freedom: “freedom is not simply a negative freedom from, but a freedom for, a capacity to achieve certain worthwhile goals” (William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 7-8). Free to “do whatever I want” in the words of the Rolling Stones, is negative in the sense that it is freedom from restrictions. Positive freedom, on the other hand, is when we are directed toward a certain telos (goal) that is in line with our true nature. On Augustine’s view, if we are left to our own devices to “do whatever we want,” that is the opposite of true freedom: “I sighed after such freedom, but was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice” (Confessions, 140).
Granted, Augustine is offering a postlapsarian view of freedom in which sin has tainted our will and desires, but it seems purely speculative to try and imagine prelapsarian reality and lay responsibility solely on humanity because of their original free will.
Even with that said, this argument does not completely get away from culpability of God, since he created humans and their free will, and would be responsible, albeit indirectly. Migliore’s explanation of process theologians’ argument is relevant here: “God is responsible for evil in an indirect sense, because God has persuaded the world to bring forth forms of life that have the potential not only for great good, but also, because the creature is free, for great evil. While indirectly responsible, however, God is not blameworthy.”
To me, making this differentiation is splitting hairs. If we just admitted God is responsible, albeit indirectly, why is he not also blameworthy? The very definition of the term responsible is, “being the primary cause of something and so able to be blamed or credited for it.” We could argue over primary and secondary causation, and that could be persuasive to some people. But ultimately, here is the argument I want to make: God is not responsible for the existence of evil because evil does not exist.
To say that evil does not exist does not lessen the reality of a world affected by evil. I am not saying that evil is an illusion. I agree with Migliore: “As that which opposes the will of God and distorts the good creation, evil is neither illusion nor mere appearance nor a gradually disappearing force in the world.” Instead, I am making an ontological claim. Instead of viewing good and evil as two equally ontologically powerful forces, Augustine instead adopts from the neoplatonists the concept of the hierarchy of being. The concepts of being and non-being are not like an on-off switch, but instead are like a spectrum: God is the ultimate being, and created things fall somewhere on the spectrum. Angels are closer to God than humans in reference to their being, and saints are closer than sinners. A literary example from C.S. Lewis is especially helpful in articulating this. In The Great Divorce, Lewis has a bus full of passengers from the “grey town” (purgatory or hell, depending on how long you stay) arrive in heaven, but there is a journey each passenger must goes on. When the passengers first arrive, they are ghosts—and heaven is unyieldingly solid. Walking on the grass is unbelievably painful as their unreality meets the reality of heaven. But, as the narrator continues the journey, he finds himself getting more and more solid, or more and more real. His nonbeing gives way to being.
On this model of a hierarchy of being, then, evil does not have its own positive ontological power, but is instead only absence, privation, distortion. Just like darkness has no physical presence and is only the absence of light, so evil is only the absence of good. It is a parasite, and can only take what was already created by God and twist it; if the good were to cease to exist, the parasite could not exist on its own. So far, I’ve just been paraphrasing Augustine:
For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the diseases and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance,—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents.
This is a persuasive argument because it does not compromise God’s sovereignty, nor does it make him responsible for the existence of evil because, as I said before, evil does not exist. Migliore similarly discusses Barth’s notion of evil: “Evil for Barth is the alien power of ‘nothingness’ (das Nichtige) that arises mysteriously from what God does not will in the act of creation.” Barth does permit that evil has power, and his critics have accused him of allowing humans to be passive in the face of evil, since “evil is viewed as an alien sphere of power within the creation that God alone can overcome,” leaving us to sit and twiddle our thumbs and hope God does something about it. Migliore’s response is spot on: “For Barth it is precisely confidence in the superiority of God’s grace that empowers believers to fight against evil and suffering in the world against seemingly impossible odds.” Evil certainly seems very powerful from our vantage point. But because it is not ontologically primary, and because it only distorts the good, that means, through the power of redemption, the good can be fully restored and evil cast off. Cornelius Plantinga says it this way:
Given its source in God, goodness is original, normal, constructive. Evil is secondary, abnormal, destructive. In fact, evil needs good in order to be evil… evil is a kind of parasite on goodness… Badness can’t be very bad without tapping deeply into goodness. Badness is twisted goodness, polluted goodness, divided goodness. But even after the twisting, polluting, and dividing have happened, the goodness is still there. 
Can we be confident that God will, in fact, fully eradicate evil? We have established it is possible. It is not like the world of Star Wars where the force has a good and evil side, and either have the same chance of being victorious, so we are therefore left on the edge of our seat hoping good will win because that would make it a good story. In the real world, we can be confident in The Story, that good has the primacy, clearly, and therefore has the capacity for overcoming evil. But can we trust that God will eradicate evil, once and for all? For Christians, the answer is yes, and we know this because of scriptural witness of God’s work through Christ in the cross and resurrection.
To illustrate this point, Migliore directs us to Jürgen Moltmann. “Moltmann’s intention is clearly to couple emphasis on the suffering of the triune God with hope in the eschatological victory of divine love over all evil and the participation of creation in God’s eternal joy.” This statement deserves some unpacking. Classical theology wanted to shy away from talking about God as “suffering”: to suffer means that God would change, and change would threaten God’s eternality, therefore he is impassible. Creatures change, God does not. However, orthodox Christianity asserts that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, so we then have to talk about the suffering of God: “…what Jesus does and suffers is at the same time the doing and suffering of God… Jesus’ passion and death for us is not just the martyrdom of another innocent victim in an unjust world; it is also God’s suffering, God’s taking death into the being of God and overcoming it there for our salvation.” Not to mention, the scriptural witness is certainly one of a suffering God, which Bonhoeffer points out: “The Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.” The suffering God can help his people because he shows solidarity with them by entering the nothingness of the cross.
Youth ministry theologian Andrew Root, drawing extensively from Moltmann, wants to argue that the suffering God on the cross is not an accidental occurrence; the cross is central for understanding who God is. “The cross is God’s very way of being and acting in the world. The cross reveals who God is; this is what makes the cross foolish.” But how precisely does the suffering God overcome evil and suffering on the cross? Root argues:
The mystery of Christian faith is that in losing to death, in being overcome by it, God acts to overcome death.… How is the cross that penetrates and separates God from Godself good news? It is good news because God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has taken on nothingness, abandonment, and hell, and has made such realities the location of God’s presence and action (revelation). It is from the nothingness of death that the good news of the gospel breaks open. From nothingness springs new possibility; from death comes life. God has taken nothingness, abandonment, and hell into Godself as Trinity and, by overcoming them in the power of the resurrection… has brought forth a new reality where from death comes life. 
Ultimately, the cross cannot be understood without the lens of the resurrection. If Jesus had stayed dead, death itself would have triumphed. But Jesus did not stay dead, and through his sacrificial love offers us eternal life as well. Migliore says, “The power of sacrificial love… is stronger than death…. Only a love that moves through the suffering of the cross to the promise of new life confirmed in the resurrection of Christ can be the basis of hope that does not despair.”
Christians who are in the midst of suffering because of the forces of evil can cling to the hope that God has defeated death and evil in the cross and resurrection. But because the cross gives us insight at who God is, we know that God is in solidarity with us in our suffering. Root talks about our “existential ontological state” as being the struggle between possibility and nothingness. As we said earlier, the fall goes all the way down. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” If we are to have any hope of redemption, of the eradication of evil, Root argues that humans need:
a God who in Godself ha[s] entered this struggle, overcoming nothingness with the ultimate possibility of living in the relational love of God—a love that would give them their humanity, give them the dignity and freedom to be human. Because this love has entered death, it provides God’s very presence to all who honestly wrestle with their own impossibility.
God’s triune presence is with us whenever we encounter evil, whether in ourselves or the world around us. The cross and resurrection and the promise of God’s coming kingdom give us the foundation for an eschatological hope that one day we will live in a new heavens and a new earth where evil will disappear from the world for good. It has already been completed: Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished.” Now, with the presence of God in solidarity with us, we can live in hope until the kingdom fully arrives.
 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 118-9.
 Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Engaging God’s World: A Reformed Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 49.
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 156.
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 129.
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 118.
 Ontology is the study of being, what is real, what exists.
 Lewis, C.S., The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001).
 St. Augustine of Hippo, “On the Holy Trinity; Doctrinal Treatises; Moral Treatises,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994). http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf103.iv.ii.xiii.html (Accessed March 12, 2013).
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 127.
 Ibid, emphasis mine.
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 128.
 Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, 52.
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 133.
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 177.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 361. Quoted by Migliore in Faith Seeking Understanding, 132.
 Andrew Root, Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 65.
 Root, Taking the Cross, 67, 79.
 Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 135.
 Root, Taking the Cross, 51.
 Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, 49.
 Root, Taking the Cross, 80.