Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 2) – Defining the Terms

Before launching into the different theories out there and then proposing my own, it is best to understand the terms I will use and what I mean by them and how many theologians and philosophers define these terms. It is vitally important to understand the definition to some of the key words I will use, otherwise it could prevent someone from understanding the argument.

For instance, if someone sees that I use the term “free will” they could make the argument, “Well he’s saying that nothing can influence us and that our will is absolute, so obviously he’s wrong,” when all the while that’s not what I (or anyone else) means by “free will.” Hence the importance of defining terms. Many of the terms I use can come loaded with presuppositional baggage, so it is important to show how I mean the terms as opposed to how some might perceive the terms.

In defining my terms I also hope to narrow down the types of critiques that could be used against my theodicy. It is my hope that if one is to argue against what I write that one must either directly attack my terms, or assume my terms and go from there; one cannot create a new meaning for the terms and simply move on. This will, I hope, prevent straw man type argumentation or equivocation.


The first term I want to define is “sovereign” or “providence” in relation to God. For God to be sovereign simply means that He has the ultimate power and control over the universe, but does not always exercise that power and control in all possible ways. The literal definition of “sovereign” in English is generally used to refer to a Monarch or a rule of some type, the person who is the supreme ruler of the land.

It should be noted, however, that simply having the power doesn’t mean that one will always act on the power. Just as a king has the power to send his armies against a smaller nation and conquer it doesn’t mean that he will always actualize that power. To quote the Damascene, we read, “And, finally, there is the fact that all that He wills He can do, even though He does not will all the things that He can do – for He can destroy the world, but He does not will to do so.”[1] Thus, while God’s sovereignty allows Him to do as He pleases, He won’t always actualize on His sovereignty (otherwise the world would be destroyed, as He holds the power to accomplish such a task).

Some might point out that the Damascene refers to God doing whatever He wills, however the Damascene is quick to explain what he means by this statement. He writes:

“One should note that God foreknows all things but that He does not predestine them all. Thus, He foreknows the things that depend upon us, but he does not predestine them – because neither does He will evil to be done nor does He force virtue. And so, predestination is the result of divine command made with foreknowledge. Those things which do not depend upon us, however, He predestines in accordance with His foreknowledge.”[2]

When he says that God does all that He wills, the Damascene is not saying that everything that does occur was by the will of God. Rather, God has given man a measure of free will (a term we will get to) and by doing so has relinquished power over some aspects of creation. It should further be noted that the Damascene said that all God wills He can do, but in light of the above quotation we shouldn’t assume that can equates to will. Therefore, God’s sovereignty refers to His power over everything, but does not mean He will actualize this power in all instances or even to achieve His will (for certainly it is God’s will that none of us sin, but He allows this to occur even though it goes against His will).

Likewise, when referring to providence we are referring to God’s governance and guidance of creation, rather than His determination of creation. Since providence refers to God’s care through guidance of creation, by definition it would rule out determinism, for guidance implies a helpful guide rather than a forceful hand. In fact, Bruce Little argues, “If everything, however, is determined, then there is no place for providence. In fact, if everything is determined, there is no need for providence, for what is, is what was determined.”[3]

What Little is referring to is that if everything is determined then there is no reason for God to keep continued watch over His creation or to guide it; everything would be set to move in the exact way He desired it to.

Free Will

The term “free will” comes with many connotations, especially in theological circles where Calvinists or those of a more “reformed” mindset are involved. What is odd in all the debate over whether or not free will exists is that few attempt to define it; each ‘side’ defines it and sticks to that definition without properly addressing the other ‘side’s’ definition. Thus, I find it vitally important to provide a definition to “free will.”

The best definition to free will that I have found comes from Little’s book God, Why this Evil? It is here he expounds on the term “libertarian freedom” (or libertarian free will) to give a more nuanced understanding of what is meant by “free will.” As he explains,

“In general, libertarian freedom as used here means that man has the power to choose to the contrary, and in doing so has the power to cause events. It acknowledges that antecedent choices and events may influence and/or limit present or future choices…His choices may be limited, but not his ability to choose.”[4]

As Little describes it, libertarian freedom is vastly different from autonomous freedom, which is what believers in free will are often accused of accepting. Libertarian freedom essentially says we are free to choose from the choices we are given, but we don’t always have a choice in what our choices are. It acknowledges that our will is not absolute and that it can be worked against. Likewise, it opens the door for influence on our decisions, but that ultimately we are responsible for the choices we make.

Autonomous will would essentially deny that anything influences us, that our choices are limited, and so on. However, no one really believes or ever has believed in an autonomous will. Though some Enlightenment philosophers have approached it on matters of epistemology and ethics, no one has really taught that our will is free from influence. Rather, the libertarian definition of free will seems to be the consensus among those who believe in free will.

– Gratuitous

When speaking of the evidential problem of evil, while many will allow for God and evil to co-exist they often point to the problem of gratuitous evil, that our world contains too much evil to justify a belief in God. But what is meant by gratuitous?

How I will use gratuitous in this essay is to refer to any evil that “seems to be without reason.” It can be used (and will be used) interchangeably with “superfluous,” to refer to an act that is unnecessary or unneeded, or to something that is more than is sufficient or required. An example would be that if a wall requires 70 bricks and we are supplied with 100 bricks, then we have 30 superfluous (unneeded, unnecessary, more than are required) bricks. The argument is the same with evil; even if an evil action is required to bring about a good, certainly we could imagine a smaller evil occurring than what is currently before us.

I will argue, however, that something being gratuitous does not necessarily mean it is without a purpose. Something might be unneeded or more than is required, but it could still be allowed if there is a purpose in that allowance. For instance, a father might allow his son to get the chick pox at a young age for the purpose of helping the son’s system to build a tolerance to illness. While the allowance isn’t necessary or he could just let his son get a vaccine, he could still allow it to occur naturally and no one would think any less of the father. Thus, though the illness is technically gratuitous, the father has a purpose in allowing it to occur.[5]

– Evil

What is meant by the word evil holds great significance in this essay.  I do hold to the traditional view that evil is not a substance, but the privation of a substance (the lack of something). Turning to the Damascene as my justification, we read, “For evil is not some sort of a substance, nor yet a property of a substance, but an accident, that is to say, a deviation from the natural into the unnatural, which is just what sin is.”[6] When he says that evil is an “accident,” he means that in a philosophical sense.

John of Damascus, in an earlier work, describes an accident as something that can’t exist in itself, but instead is found in a substance.[7] How this would apply to evil, then, is that evil cannot exist on its own (as a substance), but rather “exists” when a substance doesn’t fulfill its purpose or deviates from the good. One can think of darkness, that it only exists when there is no light. Light has properties (it is energy, it has photons, it can be measured, it has a speed, etc). Darkness, on the other hand, can only be determined by the privation of light, thus darkness has no substance. Evil is no different as it can only be described as an absence of good, as something that shocks the natural order of things, which is why we label it evil.

– God

In trying to provide a definition for God, we must realize that God is beyond a definition. To define something means we know what it is, we know its nature, we know its substance, and so on. God, however, is beyond a nature, beyond a substance, beyond our knowledge, therefore we cannot offer a definition of God. We can, however, describe what we know about God (or better, describe what we don’t know about God).

The great Christian theologian and philosopher Anselm of Canterbury described God as the greatest conceivable being. Thus, God is known apophatically, or by negative statements; God is not limited (meaning He is limitless), God is not temporal (meaning He is eternal), God is without evil (meaning God is good), and so on. Or as the Damascene writes, “The Divinity, then, is limitless and incomprehensible, and this His limitlessness and incomprehensibility is all that can be understood about Him.”[8] Through these descriptions of God, we deduce that He knows the future because He is not located within time, that He is good and not evil (a point I shall defend later in this essay), that He is without limits (other than what is logical or according to His nature), and so on.

– Worlds and Possible Worlds

To refer to the world as it is and possible worlds, two things must be kept in mind: (1) the “world” refers to the actual world and the world as a whole (including the Kingdom to come along with the redemption of creation, not just our current point in time) and (2) that “possible worlds” only refers to hypothetical worlds that we can imagine could actually exist (that is, logical worlds).

On the first point, I turn to Little where he writes, “That is, when I use the word world, I do not mean just what is at this time, but what the world was and will be in the Kingdom.”[9] Therefore, “world” refers to the entire history and future of the world, not just to our present time or the time before the Kingdom.

On the second point, I turn to the Damascene where he writes,

“And again, providence is that will of God by which all existing things receive suitable guidance through to their end. But, if providence is God’s will, then, according to right reason, everything that has come about through providence has quite necessarily come about in the best manner and that most befitting God, so that it could not have happened in a better way.”[10]

What the Damascene means is that there are other possible ways this world could have existed or turned out, but God chose the best of all possible worlds (which means that God’s knowledge extends to possible worlds that were never actualized, a key component of middle knowledge). We can turn to Alvin Plantinga who perhaps best explains the idea of possible worlds when he writes,

“But what is really characteristic and central to the Free Will Defense is the claim that God, though omnipotent, could not have actualized just any possible world He pleased.”[11]

We have possible worlds that could exist (worlds with unicorns or where candy is healthy and helps protect your teeth from decay), but God deemed that such worlds weren’t as good as the one we currently exist in. Little draws upon this argument and uses Leibniz to explain, “…that God in His omniscience (middle knowledge) saw all the possible worlds and actualized the best of those worlds. Each of the worlds was, in part, shaped by the free choices of man.”[12]

Thus, when referring to “possible worlds” we’re imagining if a better world could have existed. All three of my sources (John of Damascus, Plantinga, and Little) seem to agree that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds, meaning the evil we see in this world is the least of amount of evil when compared to other possible worlds that God saw.

[1] John of Damascus. An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. In Writings. Translated by Frederic H. Chase. Vol. 37. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1958. 202.

[2] Ibid. 263

[3] Little, Bruce A. God, Why This Evil? Lanham: Hamilton Books, 2010. 17.

[4] Ibid. 14 (Emphasis original)

[5] The question will ultimately be, however, if God allows evil for a purpose knowing a greater good will obtain and what happens if a greater good doesn’t obtain.

[6] An Exposition, 387

[7] John of Damascus. The Fountain of Knowledge or The Philosophical Chapters. In Writings. Translated by Frederic H. Chase. Vol. 37. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1958. 13-14.

[8] An Exposition, 172

[9] Little, 18

[10] An Exposition, 260. Some might argue that this provides a clear example of a denial of free will, however the Damascene dedicates multiple chapters in his work to defending free will and denouncing determinism. Rather, as will be seen later in the essay, the Damascene does not believe that everything that occurs is an act of God’s will or providential actions.

[11] Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1977. 34.

[12] Little, 29