Book Review: Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil John C. Peckham

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Book Review: Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil John C. Peckham

The issue of theodicy goes centuries back and has been summarized by Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion as follows:

Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?[i]

It appears, then, that the presence of evil in the world poses serious challenges to either the idea of God’s existence, or the consistency of his classic attributes: omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence.

This problem has been taken up by many scholars who sought to justify God’s existence and his goodness in light of the human experience of evil and suffering. In his introductory chapter, “The Problem of Evil and the Free Will Defense,” Peckham situates this problem of theodicy within the contemporary setting by entering into dialogue with a number of these thinkers, including Alvin Plantinga, Richard Rice, J. L. Mackie, Richard Swinburne, Paul Draper, John K. Roth, Gregory Boyd, Thomas Jay Oord, David Ray Griffin, and John Hick, among others.

 

In conversation with these theologians and philosophers, the author highlights some of the nuances of this complex question and issues arising from some of the explanations offered, such as:

 

  • Is the Bible at odds with itself in the answers it provides to the theodicy problem?
  • Since God could foresee the evil, could he not have created only creatures who choose good?
  • While the free will defense can solve the problem logically, isn’t it an insufficient explanation for the evidential problem of evil? In other words, even if we accept that free will is a reasonable explanation for the presence of evil, it does not automatically justify the kind and amount of evil and suffering in the world.
  • If the free will defense can justify the moral evil caused by humans, what justification can be offered about natural evil, the source of which is presumably non-human?
  • If free will results in so much evil and suffering, wouldn’t a world without free will be better? Related to this is the question of whether humans have more power and freedom than they should.
  • Assuming the premise that God has limited himself, should he not “un-limit” himself to alleviate some horrendous evils?
  • If, as evolutionary theism suggests, evil is instrumentally good, how can we avoid the implication that we can or should propagate evil as a means of achieving some good?

 

Peckham notes that, while some proposals have offered partially helpful explanations, they tend to either do so at the expense of minimizing one of God’s classic attributes, leaving unresolved the evidential problem of evil, or neglect to consider the multifaceted biblical evidence arising from a comprehensive exposition of God and evil in Scripture. His goal, therefore, is to articulate “a constructive proposal for a theodicy of love that is based on a close canonical reading of Scripture [which] “affirms a robust account of God’s omnipotence, providence, and involvement in this world that is consonant with Christian theism, while denying that evil is necessary for some greater good or goods.”[ii]

 

To meet this goal, the author effectively weaves a coherent narrative of God and the presence of evil, based on numerous Bible passages. This narrative is introduced in chapter 2, “Love, Evil, and God’s Unfulfilled Desires,” and elaborated in the following three chapters: “The Cosmic Conflict Framework,” “The Nature of the Conflict and Rules of Engagement,” and “Evil Defeated but Not yet Destroyed.”

 

Peckham’s basic premise is that “love, properly understood within the context of a cosmic conflict, provides a morally sufficient reason for God’s allowance of evil in the world.”[iii] Chapter 2 is centered on the concept of will—both divine and human. As in his introduction, the author brings this particular aspect in conversation with prominent thinkers on both sides of the free will debate, taking into consideration the biblical evidence for God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge, as well as the evidence for God’s unfulfilled desires. He differentiates between God’s “actual and counterfactual desires,”[iv] the former being God’s genuine desire, while the latter being God’s preferred desire in less than ideal circumstances.

 

In the same vein, he distinguishes between God’s ideal will and God’s remedial will:

 

[While] God’s ideal will refers to that which would occur if all agents acted in perfect accordance with God’s desires from any point onward[,] God’s remedial will refers to God’s will that has already taken into account all other factors, including the wills of free creatures, from any point onward.[v]

 

Peckham also establishes that genuine love, which is God’s primary value, “requires epistemic and consequential freedom.”[vi] This love is “not only volitional but also evaluative and emotional; it takes account of, and is affected by, the other.”[vii] The model he proposes, therefore, acknowledges a “minimal account of libertarian free will” as the direct effect of God desiring genuine love relationships with his created beings.

 

The next three chapters portray a concise and comprehensive picture of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan as described in Scripture. Building on the parable of the “Wheat and Weeds”, the story of Job’s afflictions and restoration, the temptations of Christ, relevant key passages in Genesis, Daniel, and Revelation referencing the fall of humankind and the identity, actions, and goals of the serpent/dragon in the cosmic conflict, recurrent biblical depictions of celestial rulers, heavenly councils, and cosmic lawsuits, as well as numerous supporting texts throughout both the Old and New Testament that fill in the contours of a supernatural evil being deemed unreal since the Enlightenment, Peckham builds what I consider to be a most comprehensive and coherent account of the biblical conflict between good and evil to date. It is impossible, I dare say, to read this exposition, and come to the end of it without one’s skepticism about the reality of supernatural evil forces unassuaged—assuming, of course, the reader’s confidence in the biblical narrative as a whole.

 

Perhaps the central aspect of this model is what Peckham calls the “Rules of Engagement.” In essence, he argues that, since the cosmic conflict derives from Satan slandering God’s character, sheer power cannot settle it, just as “no show of executive power could clear the name of a president accused of corruption.”[viii] Instead, the conflict must be resolved by a demonstration of God’s character. Thus, even though God possesses the power to destroy evil, to use his power for this end would be ineffective at best and vastly detrimental at worst. The demonstration of God’s character is public and requires a transparent process that implicates negotiations of boundaries and jurisdictions.

 

In other words, God and Satan have publicly agreed on the rules of engagement in this conflict, which entails some self-limiting on the part of God in order for the demonstration of his character to be carried out effectively. These limitations are not revealed in full or even to a significant degree to human beings, therefore, in specific circumstances of actualized evil and suffering, we must rely on trusting God and avoid speculations about the source and purpose of evil that may in fact further damage the character of God (as can be seen in the story of Job). Such trust is warranted by God’s demonstration of love through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Because these rules are “covenantal,” God cannot morally break them. To be clear, this inability is not intrinsic, but self-imposed for the sake of the greater good—the effective resolving of this cosmic conflict, which involves both the salvation of humankind and the vindication of his character, so that the universe can move on with its existence in peace.

 

This cosmic conflict framework is, of course, familiar to many Adventists, but the way it is portrayed in Peckham’s book brings three significant new contributions to the table:

 

Firstly, it is based on the Bible only. As a church, we have tended to rely significantly on Ellen White’s writings for our understanding of the problem of evil and the character of God. Yet she herself repeatedly stated that we would not need her writings if we studied the Bible. Peckham does just that, and I must admit, as someone fairly familiar with this topic, I was amazed to realize how pervasive this topic is in Scripture. The problem of evil seems rather obscure since there is no systematic treatment of it in the Bible, yet the author shows that the texts addressing it are actually integrated in the metanarrative of Scripture in such a way that it would be impossible to maintain the coherence of the canon if removed or neglected. They are too pervasive and too central to the Bible story.

 

Secondly, Peckham put this cosmic conflict framework theodicy model in conversation with other models and, in doing so, articulate the advantages of the theodicy of love over other theodicies, even providing preliminary answers to some anticipated questions in the final chapter, “Evaluating the Theodicy of Love” (including answers to some of the issues listed above in reference to the introductory chapter). The significance of this conversation remains to be seen in time, but the potential is vast. This book, I believe, will long be read in Adventism (and hopefully Christianity), for it would be difficult to surpass the treatment offered in just 170 pages.

 

Thirdly, the model is both logically coherent (that is, it is internally coherent) and biblically coherent (that is, it is coherent with all biblical data, including the seemingly paradoxical data). This does not mean that there are no questions left, but if we acknowledge that questions about an infinite God will always persist in finite minds, and that truth is progressive, we reason that no model can be final or perfect. All this considered, the model Peckham contoured so masterfully in his Theodicy of Love is a great working model, effective in our understanding of God and the problem of evil not just theoretically, but also practically, in how we experience our suffering and the suffering of those around us.

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Notes

[i] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, cited in Peckham, p. 4.

[ii] Ibid., p. 4.

[iii] Ibid., p. 27.

[iv] Ibid., p. 35.

[v] Ibid., p. 45

[vi] Ibid., p. 43.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., p. 91.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.