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David Ray Griffin

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From Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, Stephen T. Davis, ed. Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1981. A revised edition was published in 2001. (See Amazon link in left column.)  Professor Griffin's publications on the problem of evil include two books: God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976; reprinted with a new preface, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991; and Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.  (See Amazon links in left column.) 

A Critique of

Stephen T. Davis' Theodicy

David Ray Griffin

Much of my response to Davis’ essay was given in advance in the second section of my essay: he holds the positions I argue against in points 2, 3, 5, 7, 8 and in the conclusion.

Our most central difference is that Davis believes there to be explicit doctrines vouchsafed by “revelation,” and that the task of the theodicist is to show that the revealed doctrines relevant to the problem of evil are not inconsistent with each other.  Merely showing that they are not necessarily inconsistent completes the job; there is no need to present an account of the world that can be readily perceived by troubled minds to be more probable than other accounts of the world.  Hence, Davis sets an easier task for himself than does Hick, who at least tries to make his view plausible.

Davis examines that the criterion of plausibility might mean and dismisses all the interpretations of it that occur to him.  From this he concludes that the charge that orthodox Christian theism is implausible constitutes no difficulty for it.  However, he does not consider what I would take to be the central meaning of the claim that the Christian view of reality should be plausible: it should be able to provide plausible answers to the various types of questions it arouses.  When Davis does give answers, they have an ad hoc flavor.  For example, after denying Hick’s doctrine of universal salvation on the basis of the Bible’s authority, he rejects the notion that hell is a place of suffering by saying that the biblical statements implying that are mere “metaphors.”  And he defends as highly probable the view that “any free human agent who must make a significant number of moral choices in a world like ours will eventually go wrong,” but in the next paragraph he exempts Jesus from this universal claim.  (Also, I am unclear why he thinks a “highly probably” judgment is possible on this issue, given what he said about probabilistic judgments earlier.)

But for the most part, Davis does not even attempt to give answers to the obvious questions raised by his position; he simply says, “I don’t know,” time and time again.  For example, he feels no need to give even a hint as to why his God, who could have easily prevented the Nazi Holocaust, chose to allow it to occur.

Accordingly, although Davis begins his essay by saying that “people ought to believe what it is rational or them to believe,” his notion of what is “rational” is much too limited for me.  For him, being rational is consistent with simply trusting that God has all the answers and not even trying to discover them.  If I had to choose, I would find Roth’s attitude of protest much more compatible with the full use of our God-given powers to which I believe God calls us.

Davis thinks it is rational to wait until the end of history to see if there are answers to all the questions, and to assume in the meantime that there are. He considers the obvious objection, that we must formulate our beliefs on the basis of evidence that is presently available.  But he argues that it would be “ultimately unfair to try to make . . . a correct judgment about the cost-effectiveness of God’s policy.”  Unfair to whom – to God?  This is to beg the question, which is whether Davis’ kind of God exists.  Furthermore, if it is unfair to make a negative judgment, then is it not equally unfair to make a positive judgment?  Rather than the trust which Davis advocates, the rational position would seem to be (by his argument) to withhold judgment altogether.

There is even a prior problem in Davis’ position.  He begins by saying that he will not accept a theodicy that gives up (among other things) the claim that “evil exists.”  Yet he seems to do just that, if we are talking about genuine evil (anything without which the universe would have been better, all tings considered).  In seemingly denying that it is necessary to say that this is the best of all possible worlds, he illustrates by suggesting that the world would have morally better with the Nazi Holocaust.  But in the next paragraph and elsewhere he seems to say that the Holocaust was necessary for the world to have been better overall than it could have been without it.  in other words, the moral evil was compensated for by the goodness (perhaps moral and non-moral) to which it contributed.  But this is simply to say that the moral evil was not genuinely evil, once its instrumental value is taken into account.  And in his seventh proposition Davis seems to affirm that this is at least one of the best possible worlds, since he says that “no other world which God could have created would have had a better balance of good over evil than the actual world will have.  If “genuine evil” is that which prevents this from being one of the best possible worlds, then Davis is making his three propositions consistent by simply denying one of them. If he does not accept this definition of (genuine) evil, then he is surely giving some definition to the term that would make it puzzling why the “problem of evil” had ever arisen: no one would be disturbed by the doctrine that God is omnipotent and perfectly good if they believed that nothing ever happens that prevents the world from being as good overall as it could have been.

Furthermore, as I suggested in the fifth point in the second part of my essay, the notion that genuine evil occurs is one of the “common notions” which we all accept in practice.  It is because we know that genuine evil occurs that the twin claims about God’s omnipotence and perfect goodness are troubling.  Accordingly, from my point of view, Davis has “solved” the logical problem of evil by denying the one premise of the three that we all know to be true.  This provides another sense in which I cannot accept his view as rational.  And this for me also counts against its being fully Christian, since I believe the Christian God calls us to full rationality.

As a footnote, one can wonder whether Davis, by following Plantinga, has not denied God’s omnipotence, as defined by Davis.  He says it would be a denial of omnipotence to say that God “is simply not able to prevent evil.”  But in endorsing Plantinga’s notion of transworld depravity, he is saying in effect that, since every possible world contains moral evil in it, God simply cannot create an actual world devoid of moral evil.  I wonder why a limitation placed on what God can do by other actualities (my position) is unacceptable to Davis, while a limitation placed on God by possibilities is not.

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