Southgate’s “only way” the Wrong Way: God’s Omnipotence and Benevolence in the Problem of Natural Evil

The Problem of Evil

Christopher Southgate, author of The Groaning of Creation, denies a cosmic fall on the grounds that suffering, pain, predation, extinction, etc., (P) is instrumental in the Darwinian process for producing values, such as consciousness, rationality and the “range, beauty, complexity, and diversity of creatures the Earth has produced.”[1] Here is where the major plank in his compound evolutionary theodicy enters the picture: his “only way” argument–really just an assertion.[2] It is that for God, the P intrinsic to the Darwinian process was the only way in which God could bring about the many good values that have arisen in nature. In the Problem of Evil: Part Two, I offered three reasons why this major plank in Southgate’s argument is rotten. First, it presupposes natural evil is morally evil.[3] Second, a world without P may indeed be unimaginable, but that does not make P untenable. Third, his solution is successful in protecting God’s benevolence, but unfortunately at the expense of divine omnipotence.

On this third criticism Southgate does note Michael Lloyd’s unwillingness to accept such a solution specifically because it limits the power of God. All he offers is an assertion that fails to address the point. He states,

“I fully accept that we can never be sure that this was God’s only way to give rise to creatures such as stem from the 3.8-billion-year-long evolution of the Earth’s biosphere. We can only say that given what we know about creatures, especially what we know about the role of evolution in refining their characteristics, and the sheer length of time the process has required to give rise to sophisticated sentience, it is eminently plausible and coherent to suppose that this was the only way open to God.”[4]

But if God is omnipotent (can do anything that is logically possible), it is incoherent to suggest he could not have achieved the same values that have arisen by acting in such a way as to avoid the disvalues of P.  Hence Southgate’s solution to the problem of evil then is to favour a benevolent God to an omnipotent one.

To preserve God’s omnipotence a preferable argument would be that the actual world was the only feasible world for God to actualize given specific purposes, such as to bring a maximal amount of free creatures into relationship with him. Such a world may be filled with all types of natural and moral evil, even in the animal world. Since it is logically impossible to make someone freely do something, this does not subvert the traditional understanding of divine omnipotence. Southgate acknowledges creaturely freedom may be one of God’s purposes that could explain all the natural evil in the world, but shies away from saying this purpose is the reason why P characterizes the actual world.

Different divine purposes could apply in other specific situations. For instance, the spread of the gospel is in large part dependant on the fossil fuels that resulted from mass extinction events.


Footnotes

[1] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 29.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] I have argued in The Problem of Evil: Part Two that this is dubious with three reasons that could assume animal suffering is similar in type and intensity to human suffering, and with one reason that argues animal suffering is not similar.

[4] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 30.

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