The Problem of Evil in Process Theism and Classical Free Will Theism

William Hasker

This article was taken by permission from Process Studies, “The Problem of Evil in Process Theism and Classical Freewill Theism,” Vol. 29, Number 2, Fall-Winter, 2000: pp. 194-208.

No topic in the philosophy of religion seems to be so universally engaging as the problem of evil. This problem can be counted on to hold the attention of practically any audience, regardless of their degree of philosophical sophistication. During the past several decades there has probably been more writing on the problem of evil than on all of the theistic proofs put together, and the flood shows no sign of abating.

This problem is generally regarded as the most powerful weapon wielded by atheists in their attacks on theistic belief. But it also comes into play in the internecine controversies among theists, where different conceptions of God are judged acceptable or otherwise in no small part because of their ability (or lack thereof) to provide a satisfactory solution for the problem of evil. In particular, this is true of the debate between process theists and traditional or “classical” theists. It would be no exaggeration to say that many process theists regard the phenomena of evil as providing the decisive reason why traditional theism should be rejected and their view preferred in its place. Many traditional theists would agree that process theism enjoys a certain advantage at this point, while holding that other benefits of traditional theism are more than sufficient to outweigh the advantage of process theism with respect to the problem of evil.

I have come to see, however, that there is one version of traditional theism that is very much on a par with process theism in its treatment of the problem of evil. The version in question has been described by David Griffin as “classical free will theism”; its adherents usually refer to it as the “open view” of God, or simply as “free will theism.” 1

In what follows I shall begin by briefly characterizing the two views in question; then I shall proceed to examine their respective implications for the problem of evil. For the process approach I shall be relying mainly on the writings of David Ray Griffin, probably the best exponent of the process view of this topic. It is by no means my intention to provide a complete theodicy; but I will be giving special attention to those aspects of the problem where the two types of theism might seem to show major differences.

I. Free Will Theism and Process Theism

We begin with classical free will theism, a view that is closer to the mainstream of the theological tradition. In common with the tradition, this view holds that God is both omnipotent and omniscient. Omnipotence may be defined as God’s power to do anything that is neither logically incoherent nor inconsistent with God’s moral perfection. A singular exercise of divine omnipotence is found in the divine creation of the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing; omnipotence also entails the ability to perform miracles, actions that lie beyond the natural potentialities of created beings. Omniscience, similarly, means that God knows everything that is capable of being known. In contrast with the majority of the tradition, free will theism in its most consistent form holds that contingent future events are inherently unknowable and thus do not fall within the scope of omniscience, any more than it falls within the scope of omnipotence to create a square circle. 2 Chief among the reasons why some future events are inherently unknowable is that they will come about through the free actions of creatures, where freedom is understood in the libertarian sense such that the agent is fully able, under the existing circumstances, to perform some other action in place of the one that is actually done. To be sure, God retains the power to “overrule” creaturely actions, but for the most part he graciously refrains from doing so, preferring to grant to the creatures a genuine, though limited, power of self-determination.

Process theism understands divine omniscience in a way that is similar to that described above, but its conception of divine power and its exercise is very different. The mode of God’s activity is formally the same in each and every event that takes place. God provides the “initial aim” for each momentary “occasion of experience”; this initial aim represents, one might say, God’s “ideal will” for that particular occasion. But the occasion then exercises its inherent power of self-determination in selecting its “subjective aim”; in so doing, it may follow closely the initial aim provided by God but it also may deviate widely from that initial aim. It is particularly important to see that God has no ability to control which of these actually occurs. God’s role in the situation is strictly limited to the provision of the initial aim. This means that the traditional doctrine of creation ex nihilo must be abandoned; the metaphysical structure of reality is such that God is always, and necessarily, confronted with an “other” which he must persuade, shape, and “lure” in the direction which he sees as being best and as leading to the richest fulfillment of experience. Process theists generally do not describe God’s power as “omnipotence,” but they resist vigorously the suggestion that God as they conceive of him is weak or ineffectual. God, they say, does not have all the power that there is, but he has the most power that any being could possibly have, and to see this power as weakness is gravely to underestimate the ability of persuasive love to gain its ends, given sufficient time and patience.

With these thumbnail sketches in place, we are in a position to consider the implications of the two views for the problem of evil. That problem may be simply stated by asking, How can we reconcile the supposed existence of a loving God with the many and grievous evils that afflict the world God has created? On the face of it, it would seem that this problem is far less acute for process theism, simply because God’s control over the events of the world is so much less. God provides the initial aim for each occasion, and that aim, we are assured, is for the best that is attainable in the given situation. If however the subjective aim pursued by the occasion deviates from the initial aim, resulting in pain and suffering, this is not God’s fault, and God can do nothing about it except to continue the process of loving persuasion in the hope of a better future.

Classical free will theism, in contrast, attributes to God a far greater degree of control over worldly events. God created the world ex nihilo, with no prior constraints apart from those of logical consistency. Creation, to be sure, need not take the form of the instantaneous production of a universe such as we see today. But even if the creation involved a very long and gradual developmental process, God has the power to control such a process and to assure its resulting in the very sort of world he intended to produce. It appears, then, that God carries a much greater share of responsibility for the evils of the world than would be the case on the assumptions of process theism. Process theists, to be sure, welcome the emphasis on libertarian free will for creatures, and consider this a major advance over the theological determinism that is characteristic of such classical theologians as Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. In spite of this, however, they maintain that God’s assumed ability to intervene supernaturally, and to exercise unilateral control over the course of events when necessary, leaves the free will theist with an intractable problem of evil.

We can see, then, why it has seemed plausible to process theists that their view is less troubled by the problem of evil than is any variety of classical theism, and why many classical theists have tended to agree with this assessment. Nevertheless, I shall maintain that, where the alternative view in question is classical free will theism, the perception of an advantage for process theism is largely an illusion. In order to see this, we must review in detail specific aspects of the problem of evil. 3

II. Moral Evil

Charles Hartshorne once wrote that the “only solution to the problem of evil ‘worth writing home about’. . . uses the idea of freedom, but generalizes it” (13). About the generalization (to natural as well as moral evil) we will be speaking shortly. But the reference to freedom points to an important area of commonality between process and free will theism. Both views agree that a vast amount of the world’s evil and suffering is traceable to the morally wrong actions of human beings. Both views hold that these actions are free in the libertarian sense, meaning that they are not predetermined by any prior circumstances. Both views agree, then, that the primary responsibility for these actions lies with their human perpetrators and not with God, who has in some way provided the circumstances in which the decisions are made but does not control the decisions themselves.

So far, then, there is agreement, but process theists are likely to think that their view still holds an advantage in dealing with moral evil. One possible line here is to point out that, on the assumptions of classical theism, God has deliberately chosen to endow his creatures with this kind of freedom; thus God, even though not directly responsible for the individual choices, bears a heavy responsibility for turning loose upon the world a freedom that has had such devastating consequences. For process theism, on the other hand, freedom is not the result of a divine choice; it is rather an essential component in the metaphysical structure of the world.

The argument in this form cannot succeed. Freedom in some form or other may be necessary according to process theism, but the complex and sophisticated variety of freedom involved in human agency is not; God could have refrained from “luring” the world in the direction that led to the development of such freedom. Or, freedom in this form having entered the world and having proved too costly, God could simply allow the world to revert to its earlier, less highly evolved state. So the existence of human beings possessing both free will and the capacity to use this to create great goods and great evils is indeed the result of a divine decision. Free will theists will agree with David Griffin, and with other process theists, that “God’s purpose . . . is to bring forth creatures with ever-greater capacities for realizing and influencing others in terms of the higher forms of positive value,” and that “this purpose necessarily means evoking into existence beings with ever-greater capacities for using their power in ways that are contrary to the will of God” (Cobb and Griffin 34). Which is to say: both in free will theism and in process theism it is God who is responsible for the existence of creatures who have the freedom and power to bring about great evils.

A more subtle form of this same argument is deployed by David Griffin when he points to a “serious objection” to the standard free will theodicy:

This objection takes the form of doubt that freedom is really such an inherently great thing that it is worth running the risk of having creatures such as Hitler. If it were possible to have creatures who could enjoy all the same values which we human beings enjoy, except that they would not really he free, should God not have brought into existence such creatures instead? In other words, if God could have created beings who were like us in every way, except that (a) they always did the best things, and (b) they thought they were only doing this freely, should God not have created those beings instead?

This argument seems convincing, given its premises. But process theology rejects its premises. (Cobb and Griffin 74) 4

Griffin goes on to point out that the correlation, noted previously, between a creature’s capacity “for realizing and influencing others in terms of the higher forms of positive value” and that same creature’s capacity “for using [its] power in ways that are contrary to the will of God” is on his view necessary rather than contingent, so that the process God could not have brought into existence beings with the positive capacities of human beings but lacking their potential destructiveness. A God endowed with classical omnipotence, however, would not have been limited by such a necessary correlation; such a God could — and, Griffin implies, should — have created rather the beings described in the quotation above, able to enjoy the positive values we now experience but endowed with a freedom which is illusory rather than real.

This argument abounds in problems. If it is acceptable to substitute the illusion of freedom for actual freedom, why not the illusion of knowledge for actual knowledge, and the illusion of love for actual love? Why, for that matter, shouldn’t God take on the role of a beneficent Cartesian demon, and create for each one of us an illusionary paradise within the recesses of our own minds? Descartes, it will be recalled, introduced the demon precisely because he was unable to suppose that God, who is “most good and the fountain of truth” should be capable of such deception. It seems to many of us (but not, apparently, to Griffin!) that Descartes was right in holding it impossible for God to engage in a policy of massive deception. 5

Perhaps, however, Griffin’s argument could be modified so as to dispense with the notion that created persons are to be deceived about the sort of freedom they enjoy Perhaps rather than being given the illusion that they enjoy libertarian freedom, created persons could be content with the possession of “compatibilist freedom,” freedom which consists in the ability to act upon one’s own inclinations, without being compelled by external forces. (After all, there are a good many people who even now persuade themselves that this is all the freedom we have, and all we really need.) So the argument would go as follows: The God of process theism, who is constrained by the inherent metaphysical structure of the world, could not create beings possessing the positive capacities of human beings but lacking in libertarian freedom. But God as conceived in classical theism, not being limited by such metaphysical necessities, could have done just that, and morally ought to have done so. So there is indeed a moral objection — a problem of evil — for classical free will theism that process theism is not subject to.

This version of the argument is more plausible than those canvassed previously, but it is still far from unproblematic. For one thing, free will theists would not endorse the view that all of the higher values enjoyed by human beings could be available to creatures lacking libertarian freedom. For example, all free will theists hold that libertarian freedom is essential for moral responsibility. Many would also assert that there could not be a genuinely personal relationship between God and human beings, if God were to exercise the sort of unilateral control over human actions postulated by Griffin’s argument. Thus, one of the crucial premises needed for the argument is not available.

It is also noteworthy that the process theist, if she espouses the argument just described, is in effect putting herself in the position of a disappointed Calvinist! That is to say: she thinks it would be better, all things considered, if God had been able to exercise complete, unilateral control over the world, exactly as postulated by Calvin and other theological determinists. In fact, however, God (the process God) is unable to do this, so she (and God!?) are obliged to settle for second best — for a universe containing the potential for all of these positive values, but also containing the peril and potential destructiveness of libertarian freedom. I suspect that very few process theists will upon reflection find themselves comfortable with such a stance.

In order to test this claim, I invite the reader to join me in a thought experiment. Imagine yourself then, as a prospective parent shortly before the birth of your first child. And suppose that someone has offered you the following choice: On the one hand, the child will be one that, without any effort on your part, will always and automatically do and be exactly what you want it to do and be, no more and no less. The child will have no feeling of being constrained or controlled; nevertheless, it will spontaneously carry out your wishes on any and every occasion. Or on the other hand, you can choose to have a child in the normal fashion, a child that is fulls’ capable of having a will of its own and of resisting your wishes for it, and even of acting against its own best interests. You will have to invest a great deal of effort in its education, with good hopes to be sure, but without any advance guarantee of success. And there is the risk, indeed the near-certainty that the child will inflict on you considerable pain and suffering, as you strive to help the child become all that he or she can be and ought to be. Which do you choose?

Such a choice is admittedly deeply subjective, and it may well be that some readers will choose the first alternative, to have a child that is always and automatically in compliance with their wishes for it. It is my hope, however, that many readers will agree with me in saying that it is far better to accept the challenge of parenting a child with a will of its own, even at the price of pain and possible heartbreak, than to opt for an arrangement in which the child’s choices will all really be my choices made for it, its life a pale reflection of mine lived through the child. I will hazard the conjecture, furthermore, that almost all process theists will End themselves in this latter group: if their preferences were otherwise, they would most likely have been Calvinists all along.

I conclude, then, that none of the arguments we have considered concerning moral evil affords process theism any advantage over free will theism. In both versions of theism it is God who is responsible for the existence of creatures who have the freedom and power to bring about great evils, and both versions of theism must hold that this choice of God’s is worth the risk it entails.

III. Natural Evil

Critics of theism often take the view that natural evil presents an even more intractable problem for theism’s defenders than does moral evil. David Griffin agrees with this: he asserts that classical free will theism “is even less able to explain natural evil, in the sense of evil produced by nonhuman nature than to explain humanly caused evil. The free will defense, he goes on to say, “provides no help with the problem of animal suffering, at least insofar as this suffering has not been due to human agency. [Free will theists] have not, therefore, given any explanation for the vast majority of the suffering that has occurred during the history of our planet” (“Process” 16-17).

What is the right way to view animal suffering? 6 My own view is that the world of nature, human depredations aside, is indeed the good creation of God, and that animal suffering, an inescapable part of a world so constituted, does not negate the world’s goodness overall. Griffin evidently disagrees with this, but what is the precise nature of his complaint? One possible view is that the world of nature as we know it is a bad thing, so bad that its existence is worse than its non-existence, and a good person would never have brought it into being. This, however, is profoundly inconsistent with the ecological consciousness, involving a celebration of the world of nature, that Griffin, along with John B. Cobb Jr., and many other process thinkers, thinks we should cultivate. It is also inconsistent with the process idea that God has “elicited” the existence of this very world by his guidance of the evolutionary process.

Griffin’s view, then, must be a different one. The most plausible alternative is that the world of nature, though not bad overall, is nevertheless distinctly inferior to alternative worlds we can envisage which a God endowed with classical omnipotence would have brought into existence in preference to the present one. Such a perspective is often thought to be plausible, but I believe it faces at least two serious objections, one derived specifically from process theism and the other quite general in its application. From the standpoint of Griffin’s process theism, it is hard to see why the world of nature should not have come out very much as God wanted it to be. In the chaos preceding the present cosmic epoch, according to Griffin, “the divine influence, in seeking to implant a set of contingent principles in the universe, would have no competition from any other contingent principles,” and would thus be able to “produce quasi-coercive effects” (“Process” 30). And what this means is that the fundamental laws of nature, established in the first moments of this cosmic epoch, will be exactly as God desires them to be. 7 Subsequent to this, evolution takes over, but an evolution that is not explainable along exclusively Darwinian lines. (About that, at least, Griffin and I are very much in agreement!) The “saltations,” or major advances in the evolutionary process, are brought about by “a specific form of divine creative-providential activity” (“Process” 29). Since it is these evolutionary “jumps” that determine the new types of creatures that appear, and these jumps are the direct result of special divine activity, it seems likely that the new forms are very much as God wanted them to be. And it is, of course, these new forms that determine the future lines of evolutionary development and thus, ultimately, the overall shape of the natural world God is luring into existence. It is conceivable, to be sure, that in some instances the creaturely response to the divine initiative was not what God desired, and things went awry as a result. It seems implausible, however, that the major sources of natural evil can be accounted for in this way. Consider, for instance, the origin of predators: Perhaps God was trying to produce a super-antelope, and a saber-toothed tiger emerged instead! But how plausible is this? I conclude that, on process assumptions, it is quite unlikely that the world of nature is radically different than God intended it to be. 8

The other objection to the theory in question (that the world of nature, though not bad overall, is less good than other worlds we can see to be possible) is that we just do not know anything like enough about possible alternative systems of nature to have any reliable views about what is and is not possible and/or desirable. Science-fictional fantasies and idyllic paintings of the “peaceable kingdom” just aren’t enough to go on here. In fact, our best present knowledge strongly suggests that even minor modifications in the fundamental laws of nature would result in a universe in which human life, and any form of carbon-based life, simply could not exist. 9

While Griffin’s assault on free will theism seems unsuccessful, Hartshorne’s suggestion about generalizing the free will defense to include natural evil may have considerable merit, and its sphere of application need not be limited to process theism. (the physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne has made a similar suggestion, quite apart from any commitment to process thought.) There is good evidence from physics that natural processes are inherently indeterministic, and our experience of living creatures certainly suggests to us that they exercise a genuine spontaneity rather than being deterministically controlled. If we add to this (as free will theists should) that God generally refrains from exerting direct control over such indeterministic natural processes, we arrive at the view that non-human nature does operate to a significant degree without being immediately controlled, though to be sure it does not exhibit moral agency as such. Thus we need not hold (for example) that God directly decreed the existence of the AIDS virus; no doubt viruses, like higher-level organisms, evolve so as to occupy an available ecological niche. The full development of these thoughts, however, must await another occasion.

With respect to all these considerations, process theism and free will theism seem to be very much on all fours with each other. (And both of them, let it be said, enjoy major advantages compared with other views such as Calvinism and Molinism.) If we are to find any distinct advantage for process theism, we must look farther.

IV. Divine Intervention

The most promising topic in this regard is undoubtedly divine intervention. According to process theism divine intervention, in the sense of God’s bringing about events that lie beyond the inherent powers of natural agents, is an impossibility. God’s role in the world is strictly limited to the provision of the “initial aim” for each occasion of experience, and in doing this God always selects the best possible aim for the occasion. Quite literally, God is doing all he can; the rest is up to us and to our fellow-creatures. That this is so is not, perhaps, in all respects a ground for rejoicing. It has often been pointed out, for example, that on this view any future triumph of God and of goodness is at best a conjectural possibility, resting on the hope that at some time in the future the overall response to God’s lure may be a great deal more favorable than has been the case up to the present. But it does mean that, with no possibility for God to do more, there is also no remaining question as to why he does not do more; on this topic, then, there is no problem of evil for process theism. 10

With classical free will theism, things are much different. God’s modality of acting in the world is not limited as it is for process theism. God can do anything that is logically coherent and consistent with his own moral perfection — and to our eyes, at least, there is a great deal that could use doing. So, why does God not intervene, or do so more frequently, to prevent great evils? Let us call this the problem of divine non-intervention.

On this point, then, a distinct difference emerges between process and free will theism. And it is clear that there is an initial advantage for process theism, in that there is a question that free will theism needs to answer whereas for process theism there is no such question. Whether this initial advantage turns into a permanent advantage will depend on whether an effective answer is forthcoming. In order to focus the discussion I shall proceed by stating and defending four propositions which together constitute an answer to the question on behalf of free will theism.

  1. The problem of divine non-intervention is a serious difficulty for free will theism only if it is clear that there are situations in which God ought to intervene but fails to do so. This should be evident, but it needs saving because we may tend to assume the opposite. The mere fact that there are cases in which we might wish for divine intervention but none is forthcoming is not evidence that something is amiss in the government of the world, any more than the fact that we are shocked by some instances of predation shows that there is something wrong with the constitution of the natural world. What is needed here is a sober argument, one which is compelling after mature reflection, showing that a powerful and morally good being would of necessity intervene.
  2. Frequent or routine divine intervention would negate many of the purposes for which the world was created in the first place. Clearly this is a very large topic, and a full discussion would go far beyond the scope of the present essay, But a little reflection will show the plausibility of this contention. If part of the purpose of creation was to bring about a rich, intricate, closely-interrelated natural order, then it would be a sign of failure if that order required frequent interference in order to function properly (Consider in this regard Newton’s conjecture that God must intervene frequently in order to maintain the stability of the planetary system.) Furthermore, some of the natural occurrences we might think most in need of restraint are demonstrably essential to the functioning of the system as a whole. There could be nothing like the ecosystem as we know it without extensive predation. Monsoons and hurricanes cause destruction, but also deposit much-needed rainfall in what would otherwise he regions of perpetual drought. Natural selection, an essential part of the process by which organisms evolve into richer and more complex forms, inevitably involves a great deal of suffering, death, and general failure of organisms to flourish.It should not be forgotten that we are directing this answer, in the first instance, to the process theist. It would be intelligible that someone might think that the world of nature as we know it is bad overall — that a good God would not have created such a world, and would certainly not have used an evolutionary process involving natural selection. Such a challenge, if made, would require to be answered. But the challenge cannot sensibly be made by a process theist who believes that God has in fact lured into existence the present system of nature, using an evolutionary process in order to do so. One might, to be sure, suppose otherwise — could the process theist not maintain that, while an evolutionary process was the only option available for the process God, a God endowed with classical omnipotence would rather have chosen to short-circuit the process by instantaneously bringing about the universe in its present state? This, however, would be in effect to maintain that the world of nature is a bad thing — one whose existence at present must perhaps be tolerated as instrumental to the existence of moral agents, but whose past existence during the vast epochs of evolutionary development (both cosmic and biological) is on balance a bad thing which had better have been eliminated. But this, let me say once more, is profoundly at odds with the advocacy of an ecological consciousness, and of love and reverence for nature, which forms an integral part of the process perspective.The point is if anything even more clear where moral evil is concerned. If it is of great inherent value for persons to exercise free moral choice (as the free will defense postulates), then that value — and free will itself — would be negated if God were to interfere each time a wrong action is about to be performed. Furthermore, were God routinely to intervene to prevent evil from being done, there would be far less incentive to form effective human communities, a large part of whose function is to encourage good behavior and to restrain evil. Much more could be said, but it really should not be necessary to belabor the point further.

    It is, however, important to stress what has not been said here. It is not claimed that the observations in this section constitute by themselves a complete answer to the problem of divine non-intervention. Much less is it claimed that, in view of these considerations, no divine intervention in the world’s affairs is possible. But it does seem that frequent and routine intervention — the sort that would be needed to substantially reduce the world’s evil overall — would not be consistent with what we reasonably assume to be God’s creative purposes.

  3. In order for the problem of divine non-intervention to be an effective objection, we must be able to identify specific kinds of cases in which God morally ought to intervene but does not. That this is so may not be immediately evident, but a little reflection shows it to be correct. We have a situation in which a great many serious evils are constantly occurring, and God is believed to have it in his power to prevent any or all of them. It is clear, however, that for God to do this on a routine basis would undermine God’s purposes in creation. In fact, it seems that the amount of special intervention that could occur consistent with those purposes maybe rather small; almost certainly far less than would be needed to materially affect the overall balance of good and evil in the world. Now, it still might be the case that we can identify certain specific evils, or certain classes of evils, such that a wise and good God could not permit those particular evils to occur. But if not, we must remember that we are (by hypothesis) dealing with a God of infinite wisdom, and we must be prepared to defer to that wisdom concerning the suitable occasions for special intervention. So the principle stated above holds, and those who would employ the problem of divine non-intervention as an argument against traditional theism need to be looking for a strongly supported criterion by which to discern the situations in which intervention would be mandatory.
  4. The needed criterion cannot be provided by supposing that God must prevent all “gratuitous” evils. At this point our argument departs from the conventional wisdom on this topic. It is often supposed that we can define a category of evils that are “gratuitous” in the sense that God could prevent them without incurring any equal or greater evils and without losing any goods that would be sufficient to outweigh them. It then seems reasonable to assume that a good God would of necessity prevent all such gratuitous evils, while allowing those evils that could not be prevented without either incurring some equal or greater evil, or losing some commensurate good. Given these assumptions, opponents of theism will point to instances of evil that give every appearance of being gratuitous in the sense specified, while defenders must maintain that all of the evils that actually exist are non-gratuitous. The initial advantage in this argument pretty clearly lies with the critics; defenders of theism are left with a tough defensive battle. 11

In contrast with these widely held views, I believe the attempt to construct an atheological argument from evil on the basis of gratuitous evil is doomed to failure: A strong argument can be made that a theist should not accept the claim that a good God would necessarily prevent all gratuitous evil in the sense defined. Unfortunately, the full argument for this conclusion is complex and cannot be reproduced here in its entirety, so for the present the following sketch must suffice. 12 We have already seen that, if God were to prevent all evils whatsoever, almost all of our own incentive and motivation to deal constructively with situations conducive to such evils would disappear. But what would be the consequence if, instead, God were known to prevent all gratuitous evils — all those evils whose occurrence would not lead to any greater good? If we knew that this was God’s policy, would not our own motivation to prevent or alleviate the world’s evils be greatly reduced? For whatever the evil in question, we could be certain that, if the evil in fact occurs, it has been allowed to occur by God only because its occurrence will lead to some greater good, or to the prevention of some other equal or greater evil. By preventing some evil that would otherwise have occurred, we are most certainly not increasing the total goodness of the world, and may very well be causing the world overall to be worse than it otherwise would be! Thus, the claim that God does and must prevent all genuinely gratuitous evils runs counter to God’s intention to make of us responsible moral individuals; such a claim should not, then, be endorsed by any Christian believer. 13

It has not been shown that the requirement stated in (3) above could be met only by supposing that God must prevent all gratuitous evils. To my knowledge, however, this is the only plausible candidate for such a criterion that has been put forward, so that its failure leaves a very large hole in the argument based on the problem of divine non-intervention. And since that problem marked the only remaining significant difference between process theism and free will theism with respect to the problem of evil, I conclude that the two positions stand roughly at parity in their ability to deal with that problem.

Almost certainly, Griffin would not agree. Even if the points just made are successful on their own terms, he would contend that the essentially defensive nature of the strategy employed leaves the free will theist with a position that is psychologically unsatisfying and thus at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis process theism. He writes:

But surely “psychological appeal” is what theodicy is all about! The question is: Can the ways of God he justified to human beings? And that is a psychological question. If theodicy does not have psychological appeal, it has failed In any case, theodicy is not primarily a game played by philosophers of religion, in which one wins simply by showing that no rigorous disproof of one’s idea of God has been produced. The question is whether that idea of God lends itself to an explanation of the world, including its evils, that is psychologically convincing to thoughtful men and women. (Evil79)

Perhaps this is correct. If so, then may I respectfully suggest that we should consider which view of God, and God’s relationship with the world, has in fact proved most convincing to the vast majority of Christian believers? It is unquestionably true that there are some who find the explanation of evil given by process theism more satisfying than those that are given by more traditional versions of theism, including free will theism. But it is also true that a very large majority of Christians are unconvinced and unsatisfied by the process doctrine of God. The advantage in terms of pastoral and evangelistic effectiveness does not lie on the side of process theism.

To be sure, such considerations by no means settle the issue in favor of free will theism. One may hold (and Griffin clearly does hold) that the widespread preference for a more traditional concept of God is merely a product of the religious conditioning to which many in our culture have been subjected, 14 and one may hope that a future generation of believers will be more enlightened in their conceptions of the divine. What one cannot do, however, is invoke psychological appeal as a criterion for validating a theological position, and then disregard the actual track record of practical success for the positions being compared. 15

[1] Representative books presenting this position include Pinnock et al, The Openness of God; Pinnock and Brow, Unbounded Love; Basinger, The Case for Freewill Theism; Boyd, God at War, Sanders, The God Who Risks, and Cobb and Pinnock, eds. Searching for an Adequate God.

[2] There is however a definitional question here: David Basinger has used “freewill theism” in such a way that “the sole defining characteristic is that God cannot unilaterally control free choice” (Basinger, private communication), the nature of God’s knowledge being left open. In my view however, it is important to exclude Molinism, since divine middle knowledge, if it existed, would make a significant difference to God’s providential governance of the world. But this issue does not surface explicitly in the present discussion.

[3] I am indebted for some of the points that follow to David Basinger, “Process Theism Versus Free-Will Theism,” as well to his earlier discussion in Divine Power in Process Theism. Griffin discusses Basinger’s critique extensively in Evil Revisited.

[4] The volume is co-authored, but Griffin has informed me that he is primarily responsible for the sections dealing with the problem of evil.

[5] It is noteworthy that Griffin repeated this argument as recently as 1991; see Evil Revisited 83-84. It is clear, furthermore, that Griffin is still thinking of God as exercising deception: “[T]hey would not really be free to act contrary to God’s will, . . . [but] they could feel and believe that they were really free” (83).

[6] Some of the material in the remainder of this essay is taken from my “In Response to David Ray Griffin.”

[7] Griffin needs to hold this in order to account for the “fine tuning” which, according to the best current physics, was required for the production of a cosmos that would be friendly to carbon-based life.

[8] James Keller has pointed out to me that process theists recognize the possibility of deviations from God’s intention in situations where, given the assumptions of free will theism, God would be able to prevent these deviations. He asks us to “assume for the same of argument that God wanted to allow the dinosaurs to continue to evolve and work with their descendants rather than the descendants of the mammals who existed 65 million years ago. Process theists would hold that there was nothing God could do to prevent the extinction of the dinosaurs [as the result of an asteroid impact], but free will theists would hold that God could have prevented the object from striking the earth” (private communication). My response is that the process God would have been lucky to lose the dinosaurs, whose potential for evolution into intelligent forms was arguably a great deal less than that of the primitive mammals! In any case, a world inhabited by intelligent dinosaurs would not have been one without disease, or predation, or floods, or earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions.

[9] For an extensive discussion, see John Leslie, Universes.

[10] Note, however, that these considerations by no means dispose of the problem of evil as a concern for process thought. There remain all the questions, alluded to in the previous sections.

[11] An excellent collection of articles discussing the problem of evil from this perspective will be found in Daniel Howard-Snyder, ed., The Evidential Argument from Evil.

[12] For a more extensive discussion of this argument, see my “The Necessity of Gratuitous Evil”; David O’Connor, “Hasker on Gratuitous Natural Evil”; and my “O’Connor on Gratuitous Natural Evil.” An additional paper, “Can God Permit ‘Just Enough’ Evil?,” is now in preparation.

[13] I must, however, emphasize that the argument encounters complications that cannot be pursued here; interested readers should consult the articles referenced in the previous note.

[14] See Griffin’s God, Power, and Evil 258-59.

[15] My thanks to David Basinger and James Keller for their extremely helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Works Cited

  • Basinger, David. The Case for Freewill Theism: A Philosophical Assessment. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
    • Divine Power in Process Theism: A Philosophical Critique. Albany: State U of New York P, 1991.
    • “Process Theism Versus Free-Will Theism: A Response to Griffin.” Process Studies 20 (1991): 204-20.
  • Boyd, Gregory. God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
  • Cobb, John B, Jr., and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.
  • Cobb, John B., Jr., and Clark H. Pinnock, eds. Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue Between Process and Free Will Theists. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
  • Descartes, René. Meditations on the First Philosophy, I.
    • Principles of Philosophy.
  • Griffin, David Ray Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations. Albany: State U of New York P, 1991.
    • God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976. Process Theology and the Christian Good News: A Response to Classical Free-Will Theism.” Cobb and Pinnock 1-38.
  • Hartshorne, Charles. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. Albany: State U of New York P 1984.
  • Hasker, William. “In Response to David Ray Griffin.” Cobb and Pinnock 39-52.
    • The Necessity of Gratuitous Evil.” Faith and Philosophy 9.1 (1992):23-44.
    • O’Connor on Gratuitous Natural Evil.” Faith and Philosophy 14.3 (1997): 388-94.
  • Howard-Snyder, Daniel, ed. The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.
  • Leslie, John. Universes. London: Routledge, 1989.
  • O’Connor, David. “Hasker on Gratuitous Natural Evil.” Faith and Philosophy 12.3 (1995): 380-92.
  • Pinnock, Clark, and Robert Brow Unbounded Love. A Good News Theology for the 21st Century. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
  • Pinnock, Clark, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger. The Openness of God. A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994.
  • Sanders, John. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998.

William Hasker

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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