Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy

Gregory A. Boyd IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL October 22, 2001
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This book by the senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and former professor of theology at Bethel College, is the sequel to his God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (InterVarsity, 1997). Here Boyd offers a renewed defense of open theism and offers a theodicy in keeping with his controversial view of God. (For a summary and critique see Robert A. Pyne and Stephen R. Spencer, “A Critique of Free-Will Theism, Part One,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 [July–September 2001]: 259–86; and idem, “A Critique of Free-Will Theism, Part Two,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 [October-December 2001]: 387–405.)  The basic elements of his system remain unchanged from earlier writings. However, Boyd advances the discussion in this work by offering constructive proposals regarding the problem of evil and the nature of eternal judgment. This review focuses on those proposals.

Open theists have tried to maintain a tenuous middle ground between classical theism and process theism, arguing that God has the ability to intervene directly in the world but that He does not normally overturn free choices or their consequences. Both classical and process theists have argued that Boyd and other open theists fail to avoid the traditional problem of evil—if God has the capacity to prevent specific acts of evil, why does He not do so? (For a statement of this argument see the review of Boyd’s God at War in Bibliotheca Sacra 155 [April–June 1998]: 234–36.) In this book Boyd addresses that question by contending that God has given each moral agent a predetermined degree of irrevocable freedom. Given this decision, He “cannot immediately terminate their existence” (p. 181, italics his) and must instead tolerate the consequences of their free actions for a period of time. However, when individuals exceed God’s appointed boundaries (known only to Him), and solidify their character through free choice, God is no longer bound to His self-imposed “covenant of non-coercion.” At that point He can and does freely intervene.

Boyd’s argument is creative and extensive, but it remains vulnerable to several criticisms. First, his view does not more adequately resolve the traditional problem of evil. By acknowledging that God has the sheer power to intervene but for the sake of human freedom chooses not to, Boyd invites the same critique he levels against traditional theism. What “greater good” could possibly justify acts of cruelty? In the end Boyd’s answer is not that different. Like the theologians he criticizes, Boyd believes that God accomplishes a “greater good” by allowing specific acts of evil to proceed unhindered.

Second, for a theodicy that intends to emphasize human responsibility for evil, Boyd’s approach seems remarkably optimistic about human nature. After all, if God does not foresee free choices, He cannot foresee even the existence of particular persons. If He is to establish personalized boundaries within which each individual exercises libertarian freedom, He must make such determinations in time, reacting to changing human circumstances, and those boundaries must reflect God’s expectations for each individual. Yet He continues to grant each generation enough freedom to commit genocide. Does experience really point to an all-wise God who learns from observation about human nature? Again Boyd’s theodicy seems inconsistent with his own theology.

With regard to eternal punishment Boyd disagrees with both annihilationists and those who believe in a literal hell. Drawing on Barth’s concept of das Nichtige (“nothingness”) and frequently citing C. S. Lewis, Boyd argues that the condemned experience hell as a state between being and nonbeing. They exist only to themselves, completely turned inward on themselves and closed off from the love of God by their own free choice. “Only the fact of their choice has reality, for only this is consistent with God’s love. They endure, to be sure, but only as infinitely small points that do not interact with those who are real. Indeed, since the only real thing about these wills who say no to God’s yes is their negatively defined choice, they could be real to people in the eschatological kingdom only in a way similar to the way antimatter is real to people today. They theoretically exist but are never experienced” (p. 346). This approach is creative, and its emphasis on the lasting character of freedom coheres well with Boyd’s theology. However, it does not adequately address the Scriptures that speak of eternal bodily punishment (John 5:29; Rev. 20:10).

Readers who choose this book by its title may be disappointed by Boyd’s limited discussion of Satan. However, they will find a careful (though deeply flawed) treatment of the problem of evil from an open theistic perspective, and Boyd’s extensive research will provide helpful resources for further study.

—David Piske with Robert A. Pyne

January 1, 2004
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2004 vol. 161 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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