Can God be both good and almighty?

The question listed above is as old as the Bible is. It is the very question that Job wrestles with in the oldest book of the Bible. To graduate it beyond the level of theological discourse, and make it personal, I offer two stories.

Michael was 21 when he killed himself. He suffered from paranoia, and it had gotten very bad. The health insurance and medical system in the United States did him no favors. He could only be admitted when he was vocally a threat to himself. And he was released once he said he wasn’t. Michael, like many others, believed the hospital and the medication were all part of the elaborate system of control, manipulation, and conspiracy that he thought many of us were subject to. Michael, in order to free his parents and friends from this shadow system, killed himself and made it seem like he drowned in his parents’ pool. It is a tragic story.

I couldn’t say no when Alice, his mother, asked me to preside over his funeral. I was a family friend and even though I was early on in my life as a pastor, I took on the challenge. Alice struggled with her faith after being faced with this tragedy. She needed to be reassured that her son was in heaven, and furthermore, she needed to be assured that not only did God not will this to happen, God had no knowledge that it might, and had no power to intervene. Such a theology is an explicit violation of Christian theology surrounding God’s sovereignty, and what are sometimes referred to as the “omnis.” That God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. For Alice though, a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing, cannot also be all-good. So she was faced with a predicament, lose her faith in God as she knows God, or succumb to a confusing God that killed her son, seemingly, or at least knew of her son’s choice and withheld from stopping his death for some other-worldly reason.

On the other hand, Rachel was suffering when her husband John, an Arab immigrant physician, was accused of sexual assault by a few patients. It is not unlike the stories that are coming out now about celebrities and politicians. Her husband said he had done nothing wrong, but took a “no-contest” plea, to avoid the pain of a trial for his family (and also to not put his patients through a rigorous trial bent on denying them their experience). He spent six months in the county jail.

One of the refrains that comforted Rachel during this time is that “God is in control.” She cited Romans 8:28 as an anthem of comfort: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” In her mind, her husband was suffering in jail for no reason, except for the abject racism against immigrants in her predominantly white rural Pennsylvania county. She could not imagine any reason that God would allow this to happen besides working toward some ultimate good (the answer to which she does not currently have).

But for her, it was elemental that God be in control of the situation, which allowed her to act peaceably about it. Her violence and anger against the women who accused him, his expensive lawyer, and the justice system, was curbed by her belief in the sovereignty of God. She trusted that God has bigger plans, so she was able to respond with some peace and receive some comfort. Her theology was important to that response.

And therein lies the mystery of considering God’s power and goodness. Two different cases, two different needs, both deeply personal and not simply subject to an abstract summary of God. I will begin then, the way that I will conclude: God is mysterious, and so not subject to our terms about God. It is helpful to consider the historical variation of perspective on God and to put God in God’s time and place. For an oppressed Arab immigrant with no power on her own, an all-powerful God is elemental; for a grieving mother, a victim of senseless violence and systemic injustice, an all-powerful and all-good God is not one she wants to follow.

The answer to the question, in my opinion, is delicate. And as a pastor, I want to equip the people I influence with the options to sort through theology in a way that makes keeping their faith in 21st Century Philadelphia possible. That may mean we all do not need the Johne answer. It is the height of arrogance to assume we are correct about God’s goodness and power. I think we can express a perspective, but I am hesitant to be very prescriptive about it. That vantage point, alone, puts me at odds with certainty regarding meticulous sovereignty.

I appreciated the two perspectives listed in Placher’s anthology. Using two theologians’ perspectives, he concludes that, “we inevitably get caught in arguments about who has the most power and who is most responsible for evil.”[1] Those extreme ends simply lack the nuance required to satisfy the real-world problems of these two women. One could argue that using God to satisfy our problems is blasphemy; I am not sure what the use of theology that is not practically helpful is. Especially if one wants to convert someone in the postmodern intellectual political economy.

Sally McFague’s theology is rooted largely in the incarnation, a favorite perspective of mine, where God’s power and goodness is known through God’s creation and God’s body (what Paul would call the church, in his famous analogy in 1 Corinthians 12). As an aside, Paul’s image may allow for varying theology as a way to showcase the “diversity” of the body. Nevertheless, God places trust in who God incarnates to: the church. McFague contrasts this incarnational model with the deistic one (the clockmaker), the dialogic model (“God speaks and we respond”[2]), the monarchical model (the traditional model, the one that names God as the all-powerful King), and the agential model (where God’s purpose is realized throughout the course of time).[3] This deeply incarnational approach, McFague writes, is not “substitute” for tradition, rather a “corrective.”[4] In it, we need to know who we are, that God is still the source of life and love in the world, and that both God and us are “in charge” of the world.[5] Is this “satisfying” to the aforementioned women? Perhaps. Perhaps more for Alice than for Rachel though.

Kathryn Tanner does not want to sacrifice the notion of the all-powerful God, but can make God all-good by making God other worldly, essentially by making God outside of the confines and constructs of the world. God is not subject to God’s creation’s actions, which are free, but simultaneously they are at “another level of God’s doing.” The convoluted argumentation rests on the fact that the complete providence and sovereignty of God is essential, but since it paints an unethical and hypocritical God, Tanner does some good theological work to make both possible. She supports this conclusion with a heavily Christocentric theology, naming Christ as the sort of perfect expression of human freedom and God’s providence. She concludes, “It is by that death, worked in that way, that Jesus saved. If then, this Johne God holds up into existence a whole world with these flaws of both finitude and deliberate failing, it must be as an act of beneficent mercy, in which we may trust.”[6] This perspective may be more satisfying to Rachel, than to Alice.

I am sorry to say that, for me, both fall short. I honor both, though, and may offer them as “options” for people struggling. The problem of evil, which is really at the heart of the question at hand, is truly a barrier for faith for many people looking to discover their own expression of faith. For many people, the idea of an all-powerful God in a world that is full of evil is understandably an intellectual conundrum. Rather than elevate God to a level of incomprehensibility, I think it makes sense to offer many variations of theology. I will offer one more before I conclude.

Mesle is free to question classical theology that offers us the aforementioned predicament because he plainly states it was largely influenced by “Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle” who “have had a profound impact on Christian theology.” He offers process theology as an answer to the question, “How does God act?” Mesle notes that Process theology may be true because it “makes sense,” but also, it deserves serious consideration because the very thought makes the world better. It provides a utilitarian good that abstract theology alone cannot and does not.[7]

The foundational idea behind process theology is that God is good. But contrasting with this freedom is not God’s might, but humanity’s freedom. Even Jesus had freedom. God can only reveal Godself invitationally, as a matter of persuasion, not coercion. This is how Mesle avoids directly contradicting the idea of omnipotence. God “awaits our response” and seeks to create the best from our own choices. God knows everything (omniscient), but does not know the future or our choice. God is not outside of time, but “co-eternal.” God makes freedom possible, and “works in the world by continual and universal self-revelation.” God moves in us and we enact with God’s goodness and love in the world.[8]

Does process theology replace classical theology? I am not sure, and I am not sure if it is helpful to dichotomize it. Sometimes the two are polemically posed against each other, but I do not know if they need to be. Even McFague’s “correction” seems to be overstepping. I think process theology works alongside classic theology and offers it a necessary adjustment when faced with postmodern problems. Our theology needs to be flexible enough to keep Jesus relevant and accessible today, especially in an era where we have many philosophical choices and wide access to information. We are far from the European imperial faith and Christendom in general, and we are much more educated and even literate than they were. So it is not surprising that the theology coerced on the people then does not work now. Perhaps if the Church had acted more like God does as process theology describes God, we would be in less of a dilemma.

With that said, rather than condemn the church of old and praise a neo-orthodoxy today, I think it is safer to assume that theology formed around cultural norms in the Patristic age and in the Middle Ages. We should then be free to re-interpret the theology and apply it today. Rather than rigid theology shoehorned into a variety of contexts, why not develop a flexible theology that can adapt to a variety of contexts? I think this helps answer Alice and Rachel’s question, too. If theology cannot be effectively applied it is useless.

[1] William C. Placher, “Essentials of Christian Theology,” ed. William C. Placher, (Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press: 2003), 100.

[2] Ibid., 106.

[3] Ibid.,105-108.

[4] Ibid., 116.

[5] Ibid., 111.

[6] Ibid., 130.

[7] C. Robert Mesle, “Process Theology: A Basic Introduction,” (St. Louis, Chalice Press: 1993), p. 4-5.

[8] Ibid., 8-9.