A Providential Trade-Off with Respect to the Retrospective and Prospective Problems of Evil

By | September 24, 2021

There are two sides to the problem of evil:

  1. God’s responsibility for evil
  2. God’s response to evil.

(1) is retrospective; it has to do with God’s complicity in past occurrences of evil. (2) is prospective; it has to do with God’s ability to respond to evil moving forward—to eliminate evil, to bring good out of evil, etc.

I’d like to consider these two aspects of the problem of evil with respect to four different models of divine providence:

  • Theistic determinism (TD): God is the ultimate sufficient cause of all things. He specifically ordains, and causally ensures, everything that comes to pass.
  • Molinism (MOL): God specifically ordains, but does not cause, everything that comes to pass. In particular, God does not cause moral evil.
  • Open theism (OT): God neither specifically ordains nor causes everything that comes to pass. In particular, God does not specifically ordain (or cause) the outcomes (good or bad) of creaturely free moral decisions.
  • Process theism (PT): God does not specifically ordain or cause anything that comes to pass. God can influence creaturely events, but cannot guarantee that any particular event occurs.

What I want to show is that there’s a trade off with respect to (1) and (2). Models of providence that fare with respect to one aspect of the problem of evil position them poorly with respect to the other aspect. There are, of course, many other relevant issues for evaluating these different models of providence (metaphysical adequacy, internal coherence, consonance to Scripture, etc.), but I’m not speaking to any of those issues right now. My focus right now is only on the problem of evil.

The retrospective problem of evil. With respect to (1), open theism (OT) fares clearly better than either theistic determinism (TD) or Molinism (MOL), while somewhat worse than process theism (PT). It fares better than the first two because on OT God can merely permit moral evil whereas on MOL and TD God specifically ordains (and on TD ultimately causes) every instance of moral evil. It fares worse than PT because OT (along with MOL and TD) affirms that God could have prevented any instance of evil, whereas PT claims that God can’t even do that. So the spectrum here runs from TD (God specifically causes moral evil) to MOL (God specifically intends moral evil) to OT (God permits moral evil, but could have prevented it) to PT (God tries to avert, but cannot prevent any moral evil).

The prospective problem of evil. With respect to (2), matters are reversed. TD and MOL arguably have an edge here because God can in principle guarantee an overall positive outcome. On OT God can guarantee whatever He wants to guarantee, but He also takes significant (though arguably warranted) risks for the sake of creaturely freedom. PT clearly fares the worst here because on PT God can’t guarantee anything, much less that any good comes out of the bad things that happen. On PT God can’t even guarantee that evil will ever ultimately be done away with. So the spectrum here runs from TD (All moral evil is ultimately for the best overall outcome) to MOL (all moral evil is ultimately for the best feasible outcome) to OT (God’s permission of moral evil is the best means, albeit somewhat risky, to the best possible *type* of outcome) to PT (God is stuck having to deal with moral evil).

Along these two dimensions, TD and PT are the extremes. Each fares very well on one dimension of the PoE and very poorly on the other. MOL and OT are moderating positions, with OT faring somewhat better with respect to (1) and MOL faring somewhat better with respect to (2).

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