Boyd, Beck, and God behaving badly

A highway running into the sunset, with dark clouds overheadLet me begin by apologizing for any confusion generated by the titles of this post and my previous one on the same subject. In the course of writing that post, I realized that I needed to break it down into two segments. However, I forgot to change the name of the first post until after I clicked the “Publish” button.

In an earlier post, I reacted to Richard Beck’s still-in-progress series “On Warfare and Weakness” by suggesting that Greg Boyd’s attempt—as seen through the lens of Richard’s posts—to break out of a “classical-philosophical” worldview in favor of a “biblical” worldview fails to actually do that. Rather, I submit, Boyd still operates within the classical-philosophical world of a God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, although Boyd’s definitions of omniscience and omnipotence and his concepts of what those properties entail are attenuated with respect to the mainstream of that classical-philosophical tradition. In short, it seems to me that Boyd wants to maintain a maximal omnibenevolence, and in order to do so he must redefine (“re–” in terms of a Calvinist background) omniscience and omnipotence in order to make all three omnis logically compatible. It’s more of an internal debate within classical-philosophical theism than a challenge from outside. In this post, I want to take a closer look at omnibenevolence, the classical attribute that both Richard and Boyd seem to allow to trump the others.

Richard summarizes Boyd’s prioritization of omnibenevolence as follows (quoting Richard, not Boyd via Richard):

The heart of this idea is that evil is wholly antagonistic to God, is not willed by and has no part of God. God is unequivocally against all forms of evil—from death to disease to violence to oppression—and, thus, God’s people must also be unequivocally against these evils. Death is never good. Suffering is never good. Violence is never good. Evil is simply evil. And God’s only plan for evil is its ultimate eradication.

It’s important to note here that Richard’s definition of “evil” includes (non-exclusively) death, suffering, and violence. Theologians and philosophers often distinguish between “moral evil,” perpetrated by intelligent agents, and “natural evil,” occurring in the world irrespective of any such agents. For example, a murder would be “moral evil,” while mass species extinction in the most recent ice age would be “natural evil” (assuming that neither supernatural powers nor space aliens brought on the most recent ice).

Like Richard’s use of the word “evil” to encompass both “moral evil” and “natural evil,” the Biblical Hebrew word רע (pronounced rah) can name a wide variety of negative judgments. For example,

  • Gen 13:13 describes the people of Sodom as רָעִים וְחַטָּאִים, “evil people and sinners.”
  • Gen 28:8 describes Esau’s Canaanite wives as רָוֹעת … בְּעֵינֵי יִצְחָק, “unacceptable to Isaac.”
  • In Gen 37:20, Joseph’s brothers plan to tell Jacob that a חַיָּה רָעָה, a “dangerous animal,” devoured Joseph.
  • In Gen 41, Pharaoh dreams about פָּרוֹת רָעוֹת הַמַּרְאֶה, “ugly cows.”

That’s just four quick examples from Genesis, but gives us some sense of the range that רע can cover. Now here’s a list of things that Qohelet (the speaking persona in Ecclesiastes 1:2–12:8) considers to be רע:

  • People who are utterly alone (orphaned, friendless, unmarried only children with no children of their own) who work hard without end, never satisfied with their wealth (Eccl 4:8)
  • Fools’ sacrifices (Eccl 4:17 [Heb] = 5:1 [Eng])
  • A venture or investment that loses money (Eccl 5:13 [Heb] = 5:14 [Eng])
  • When a wealthy person can’t enjoy his or her own possessions, but instead a stranger enjoys them (Eccl 6:2)
  • Negative consequences that some people experience when some other people exercise power (Eccl 8:9)
  • The inescapability of mortality (Eccl 9:3)
  • Sudden, random, harmful events (Eccl 9:12)
  • The end result of foolish talk is הוֹלֵלוּת רָעָה, “awful madness” or “complete nonsense” (Eccl 10:13)

The thing is, at least some of the biblical writers did not shy away from ascribing the existence/occurrence of רָע to God. Qohelet, certainly, would not agree that “God is unequivocally against all forms of רָע—from death to disease to violence to oppression—and, thus, God’s people must also be unequivocally against these רָעוֹת.” Some of Qohelet’s רָעוֹת (pronounced like rah-oat, the pural of רָע) can indeed be blamed on people, Qohelet explicitly labels others as acts of God. Ecclesiastes 6:2 is particularly straightforward: “God may give some people plenty of wealth, riches, and glory so that they lack nothing they desire. But God doesn’t enable them to enjoy it; instead, a stranger enjoys it. This is pointless and a sickening tragedy (וָחֳלִי רָע הוּא)” (CEB). Indeed, for Qohelet, all of human life is an “evil task” (עִנְיַן רָע) given by God. So what should humans do? Although Qohelet really hates the fact that such רָעוֹת occur, he does not advocate “unequivocal opposition” to them. How does one “unequivocally oppose” random disasters, anyway? How does one “unequivocally oppose” human mortality? But these questions are mere details and distractions. The bigger point is that, for Qohelet, opposing these רָעוֹת is both fruitless and to some degree impious:

Consider God’s work! Who can straighten what God has made crooked? When times are good (בְּיוֹם טוֹבָה), enjoy the good; when times are bad (בְּיוֹם רָעָה), consider: God has made the former as well as the latter so that people can’t discover anything that will come to be after them. (Eccl 7:13–14)

Even this briefest of glances at Ecclesiastes pokes a pretty big hole in the contention that God is unequivocally opposed to everything that goes under the rubric of רָע in Hebrew or “evil” in English. But this post would not be complete without brief attention to Isaiah 45:7:

I form light and I create darkness,
make prosperity (שָׁלוֹם, shalom) and create doom (רָע);
I am the Lord,
who does all these things.

Let’s make sure a couple of things are perfectly clear. The author of these lines isn’t necessarily asserting that all “doom” (רָע) must have come from God; surely this author can conceive, for example, of the Babylonians inflicting רָע that was not divinely mandated. This author is also not saying that “God is evil,” nor is this author claiming that God must bear ultimate blame for moral evil committed by humans. However, this author very clearly does not regard God as omnibenevolent. This author obviously believes that God could deploy רָע to accomplish divine purposes. And this רָע is the opposite of שָׁלוֹם; it’s not שָׁלוֹם in disguise. One doesn’t have to read very much of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel to perceive these prophets’ belief that death, suffering, and violence could be tools in the divine hand.

Boyd seems to redefine omniscience and omnipotence (without giving up either term) in order to preserve omnibenevolence. Richard seems to be going even farther, in conversation with Caputo, in ratcheting down divine power to preserve omnibenevolence. This move may be theologically satisfying, but I do not think it really qualifies as “biblical,” if by “biblical” you mean “resembling beliefs expressed in the Bible.” Yes, the biblical writers considered God to be good, but not “all-good,” if that term means God doesn’t have the option to use “evils” to get things done. The progressive Christians that Richard has in mind as the chief audience for his series “On Warfare and Weakness” may be willing to make the quasi-Marcionite (or process-theological) move of downplaying “Old Testament testimony” in favor of other considerations. The evangelical Christians that Boyd typically addresses in his books should stumble over such a move, however. Those who wish to adopt “biblical theism” in contrast to “classical-philosophical theism” needs to carefully consider the testimony presented here, plus much more from the Bible that I didn’t include. For those who want to label their Christianity as “biblical,” the question should not be to solve the problem of evil by redefining omniscience, omnipotence, and/or omnibenevolence, but whether those terms really describe God the same way the biblical writers described God.

שָׁלוֹם עָלֵיכֶם