With all the recent discussion following the Today’s Word Measure for Measure, I thought it appropriate to post this article I wrote many years ago.
God of the Past
More than 30 years ago, Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote the book that was translated into English as Jesus – God and Man. On page 230 of that work, Pannenberg makes a suggestion about the relationship between Jesus’ proclamation concerning the true nature of the creation and the end of this world age. It reads:
. . . the true nature of creation is revealed for the first time in the light of the approaching end. This has fundamental significance also for the understanding of creation itself. Creation is not to be understood as an act that happened one time, ages ago, the results of which involve us in the present. Rather, the creation of all things, even including things that belong to the past, takes place out of the ultimate future, from the eschaton, insofar as only from the perspective of the end are all things what they truly are. For their real significance becomes clear only when it becomes apparent what ultimately will become of them. Therefore, the nearness of the imminent Kingdom of God puts all things into that relation to God which belonged to them as God’s creatures from the very beginning. It is just this that demonstrates the universal truth of Jesus’ eschatological message: it reveals the “natural” essence of men and things with an urgency nowhere achieved outside of this eschatological light.
It is difficult to grasp the extraordinary significance of this statement on first reading. But with a careful, thoughtful review of the implications of Pannenberg’s insight, we find the key to a puzzle that has baffled professional theologians and common believers alike for many centuries. The implications of Pannenberg’s statement lead us to consider the entire question of God and time. In particular, his articulation about the significance of Jesus’ message concerning the immanence of the Kingdom can help us answer several critical concerns about the apparent intractability of the past – and God’s singular ability to reconstruct it.
If you are a thoughtful believer, at some time you have probably raised the following question for yourself: “Why, oh Lord most high, have You let this tragedy come upon me? If you are truly the God of loving kindness, and all things are possible for You, then why have You not sheltered me from adversity, kept evil from my path, delivered me from this sorrow and suffering? If I were the perfect loving Father, I would do that for my children. And yet, somehow, my world is filled with horrors and pain. Why?”
It is the age-old question of the abiding presence of evil in the creation of a good and loving God. And the age-old answers seem not too comforting despite their ancient origins. How can a good God allow such evil? We have been taught to accept one or more of several suggested solutions.
The first solution deals with the issue of culpability. It begins by asserting that God is not responsible for this mess. This is a very old solution. It comes in many forms, the most current simply says that evil is somehow a result of the Fall of Man. God’s creation was good but it was utterly and permanently corrupted by Man’s desire to become as God. Today’s evil is the result of human divine defiance. There are some ancient variations on this theme. Plotinus, for example, proposed a descending series of lesser creations, each one a bit further removed from the perfect original until, somehow, evil got in the mix. Plato believed that the problem lay in the shadowy replication of the ultimate where the copies were never quite as good as the originals. Some theologians have placed the blame at the foot of Lucifer and his rebellious army. But most of the time, the mess we are in is eventually laid at our own feet. We, in the prototype of Adam, made some pretty bad choices and now we have to live with the consequences. It wasn’t God’s fault. It was ours.
There is an obvious retort to this statement about God’s moral innocence. After all, if it is really His creation, if everything that is is a result of His activity, then the retort is simple: God must have created beings that were capable of defiance and evil. In fact, He created them in spite of knowing that they would defy Him. And His knowing that Man would rebel before He created Man means that He created us knowing full well that we would bring destruction to the perfect moral order through our rebellion. That certainly makes Him responsible, for even though He may not have pulled the trigger, He put the loaded gun in our hands, placed our finger on the trigger and dared us to squeeze. Perhaps this solution isn’t as adequate as it first seems.
Another response attempts to counter this renewed attack on God’s culpability. It invokes the risk-love principle. Yes, God did know that we would rebel. Yes, He created us with the full knowledge that we would defy Him and bring about the Fall. But choice is a prerequisite of true love. God could have made us incapable of defiance, but then we would not have been able to love, for love always involves choosing another instead of myself. God did not want robots. He wanted sons and daughters. So the risk of evil was present in the creation. But risk is not the same as the blame. God created us under the canopy of risk in order that we might choose Him freely and discover love.
Of course, there are rebuttals to this excursion as well. We may be left feeling a little uncomfortable about the smoothness of this answer when we face the immensity of evil in the world. At the personal level, I might be inclined, with some mental gymnastics, to say, “All right. I see that love must be a choice. And for that choice, I must have the freedom to do otherwise. So my personal evil is my fault, a result of my choices. And yes, I also see that some of the evil that I endure at the hands of others is also the result of personal choices. I acknowledge human culpability for choices that are passed down through their consequences from generation to generation. All of this I can rationally justify. I recognize that I am at fault for many things. I see that God is not to blame for the actions of my evil choices. Even though He may have created me knowing my potential for evil, in some sense I can acknowledge that He didn’t actually make me do it. But what about Job?”
Job is a real problem for this particular answer. Here is a man who loved God, who was blessed by God, who was chosen by God. Job, of all people, is not personally responsible for the terrible evil that befalls him. He is God’s pawn, in the worst sort of game. God simply allows the Devil to take Job’s life apart. And for what? Theologians answer: so that we might see the power of God, so that Job would learn humility, so that the very depth of our souls will experience the insidious nature of defiance. It sounds academic, correct, even rational. But it is not very comforting, especially when we consider that even though Job’s fortune is restored and he begets a new family, his old life cannot be more than undeserved, unremitting heartache. His children are dead, his friends forsake him, and he sees a side of his wife he might just as soon forget. Pain in the past is his watchword. Memories are not easily erased in this world. Time does not heal all wounds. Job will shed tears for his past as long as he lives. How could he not? Who among us would easily forget the death of all our children? The answer may be academically sound, but it is of little comfort to Job, and to us. If God plays this sort of game, then our tragic existence must be His fault, no matter who says otherwise.
So what about Job? Is the divine prerogative to play dice with his life recompensed by multiple blessings after tragic endurance? How many head of cattle does it take to pay back the death of a child? How many acres of land make up for the loss of faith by one’s mate? How much treasure is needed to erase a memory? The story of Job is remarkable not for its difficult interpretation but for its very presence in the holy text. If we were going to write about our interaction with other sentient beings, and we wanted to avoid the knotty problem of divine culpability, we would certainly not have included Job’s story in the mix. And yet there it is. Standing in utter defiance of all that we would like to say about God’s innocence is this story that recounts the full disclosure of His hand in Job’s misery. It is as though God were saying, “Look. I am the Creator and you are the creature. What I have in mind is not for you to judge. Understand who is the boss here and stop complaining.”
In fact, this sort of response opens another passageway out of the maze we are in. Sometimes we hear references to this approach when someone proposes the “potter and clay” analogy. We are the created. He is the Creator. Who are we to object to how we are treated? He’s the Boss, with a capital ‘B’. But this is not an explanation as much as it is a capitulation. It implies that we, as created, have no rights, even to an explanation. And some would argue that is really the case. But the sting of this rebuttal does not evaporate so easily. If He made us rational, sensitive, inquisitive, we may not deserve an answer but we certainly long for one. To say that the only answer is He doesn’t have to tell us is not very helpful.
Some theologians have taken a flanking position claiming that God as the creator of all, really is responsible for evil, but in a sort of “I couldn’t help it” way. We see this in the argument of Augustine that we will examine in a moment. Other theologians have been bold enough to assert that our very conception of freedom is ultimately illusory and the real truth is that we are predestined by causal connection to either good or evil. God is responsible, they assert, but we can’t know why He does what He does and so we cannot rightly judge what is moral or fair. This is a little like the corrupted Golden Rule – He who has the gold makes the rules. The implication is that what is moral is not up to us to decide. It is up to God. And since God is always righteous, whatever He does must be moral. Sort of a solution by definition. This is a version of the “I’m the Boss” position. Let us examine these two arguments a little more carefully.
The story of Job creates a kind of moral dyslexia. In order to understand its meaning, theologians usually ask us to read it in a rather odd way. Until we have been “theologically trained” otherwise, we are not very happy with the implications of Job’s story for two reasons. The first is the moral impact of an attitude that says “I am the boss, I can do what I want”. While we might acknowledge that this is true, that God is the potter and we are the clay, it just doesn’t help very much when we think about fairness. Even if our concept of “fair” is humanly myopic, it still seems pretty certain that “fair” has something to do with “moral”. If God creates other sentient beings only to go around allowing them to have pain and suffering, even if He is the Creator, it just doesn’t seem very moral. Wouldn’t those creatures be better off not being created at all? Moreover, this picture of God seems in conflict with the picture of a loving Father. Nevertheless, one historical theological camp has used this approach as the last word about evil. Their argument goes like this: God is God. His ways are not our ways. He may do as He pleases and we are assured that what He pleases to do is consistent with His holy character. So, if He chooses to make us agents who are capable of evil, and even if He seems to act in ways that promote this evil, we must simply accept this apparent contradiction as an example of our inability to understand the ways of a Holy God.
We might label this the a priori approach. Its fundamental tenant is that God is holy and therefore, whatever actions He takes are holy. This is the a priori condition of trying to understand what God does. And if for some reason we are not able to see how such actions of God are holy (that is, if these acts appear to be less than holy), then we must fall back on our presupposition that they are holy no matter how they appear to us. This certainly solves the problem about culpability, but it does so by dismissing the problem as a non-issue. Clever, efficient, but not entirely satisfying. It is somewhat equivalent to the parent answering the child’s inquiry with the reproach, “Because I say so, that’s why!”
The second reason for our discomfort with this moral dyslexia also depends on the a priori condition of God’s holiness. It attempts to redefine the notion of freedom. This solution is not so brash as the first declaration, although ultimately it amounts to the same thing. This solution begins with the assumption of God’s foreknowledge of our evil acts. Since God is infallible in His knowing (that is, He can never be mistaken about what He knows), then it seems to follow that if God knows we will commit evil acts before we actually commit those acts, the very fact that He knows this to be the case predestines us to commit those acts. To counter the implied divine culpability, this solution takes the more gentle approach by suggesting that what God knows in His infallible foreknowledge is that we would freely choose to do evil. It is not the case that God’s knowledge of our acts before we do them preconditions us to do only what He knows to be the case. It is rather that God knows what we will in fact freely choose to do. We still make the free choice, but God knows what that choice will be.
St. Augustine may have been the first to suggest such a wonderfully constructed semantic solution. Theological tradition has passed this answer down for centuries in the form of foreknowledge and predestination. But this solution does not remove the discomfort of imagining that God knows I will sin before I actually do sin, and that His knowing it means that I will (freely?) sin. The final line of the argument must still rely on the a priori holiness of God. When I respond that I cannot for the life of me understand how God could be moral and actually know that some of His created beings will sin in such a way that He will in fact send them to eternal punishment, when my mind cannot fathom how a good God can relegate beings to everlasting punishment for choices that they somehow were predestined to make no matter what adjective I use to describe the condition of their predestination, then theology comforts (?) me by saying that God is holy and I am human and I just can’t understand because I am not built for such knowledge. As Kierkegaard would say, it is believable precisely because it does not seem to be rational. It requires the wonderfully escapist “leap of faith”.
In the end, by these arguments we are reduced to a sort of determinism. It may not be the hardened form of determinism claiming some direct causality between God’s actions and ours. Nevertheless, our free acts are finally not free in the usual sense of the word. They are rather technically free; that is, they are not to be ascribed to some causal chain that begins with God. But in every other sense, they are caused. Our evil choices are free only in the sense that they cannot be ultimately explained – that there is no chain of causation which ultimately accounts for the action – only because the final link in the chain, the link to our very existence, is a priori forbidden as a violation of the holiness of God.
Where does all of this leave us? We seem to have inherited a single, although somewhat convoluted, stream of theological thought regarding God’s relationship to evil. That stream basically says:
1. A priori God cannot do evil, be evil or be culpable for evil
2. A large majority of evil acts are the direct result of human choices for which human beings, individually and collectively, are to blame
3. Those choices are either particularly (specifically) or corporately (collaboratively) free choices
4. God’s (fore)knowledge of these free choices does not logically determine the choices although His (fore)knowledge does imply their actual occurrence
5. Catastrophes, disasters or unexplainable evil befalling the world both corporately and individually which do not appear to be caused by any known direct or indirect consequence of free human evil choices do not imply that God is therefore culpable for such acts for there are also spiritual and other invisible forces perpetrating evil upon the creation
6. Finally, since God created the present existence, and since God sustains the present existence in all its forms, we may confidently conclude (based on statement 1 above) that God created all present existence good and that whatever evil has befallen creation is not of His doing and is sustained only because His plan for the ultimate goodness requires this present existence even in its current fallen form.
Now this is a very odd philosophical conclusion. It implies that there are two ultimately uncaused things in the universe. The first, of course, is God’s existence. There is no answer for the question, “Who made God?” because God was not created. God is. He is, as Aristotle pointed out centuries ago, the uncaused cause. There is no explanation for His existence. He is rather the explanation for everything else.
But now we see that tracing the causal chain of our own free will evil acts leads us to the conclusion that those acts must also be uncaused. They cannot be ascribed to God since God is not the author of evil. And yet they exist. So if God is not their source, what (who) is? And for this we have no answer. For everything depends on God for its existence. Yet God cannot be the cause of evil. We have reached the NO EXIT sign. Is that Kierkegaard in the shadows whispering, “Only believe”?
Is it any wonder that theologians have reiterated time and again the intractability of God’s wisdom?
In summary: We are quite uncomfortable suggesting that God is responsible for evil. We would like to understand (explain) the existence of such evil and at the same time show God’s moral righteousness. No one is really happy with the suggestion that God really is responsible and we just are too stupid to see how He is blameless. And no one wants to really live life with the conviction that what I freely chose to do is either predestined in some way or else a ubiquitous human illusion. Where are we to go?
Pannenberg’s statement about the creation may offer the hidden exit out of this dilemma.
The first thing to see is that Pannenberg asks us to abandon completely the defective Cartesian model of existence – the clock model. God is not the clock maker, putting the thing called creation together; winding up the springs, and letting it run. Every model that postulates the entry of evil into a perfect creation assumes this “clock” model. Somewhere along the way, something happened to the mechanism and bad things got into the works. Maybe it was human beings that mucked up the machinery. Maybe it was the Devil and his minions. Maybe it was “fate” or “chance” or whatever we cannot explain. But the model is the same. God made it once, a long time ago, and now it runs, rather imperfectly. Evil got in the oil.
Pannenberg asks us to put all this mechanical modeling aside. He says something entirely different. Suppose for the sake of argument, that the creation is not complete, that creation is not a noun but rather a verb, an activity begun in the past but continuing unabated in the present. God creates. Continuous action in the present. Not “God created” or “the creation” as though something once came into being and now is as a result of the causal chain stretching forward from its previous state, but rather, that what is (present tense) is at this moment because it is being at this very moment created ever anew. Existence is not the result of activity in the past that perpetuates itself into the present but rather, God sustains this present existence through His moment by moment creating. The immanence of God is not limited to His singular presence among us. The immanence of God is an ontological statement, expressing the utter dependence of the entire creation on His sustaining power and will at this precise moment of existence, and at the next, and the next. “In Him we live and move and have our being” takes on a much deeper, and awesome, meaning. Right now God is creating what is.
Of course, what is being created right now is a very mixed bag. Some good, some evil, some we’re not so sure about. So how does this view of immanence relieve God of the culpability for evil, you ask? Pannenberg has suggested that the true meaning of the creation (since it is in the process of being created every single moment) cannot be known for what it really is while it is in process. You must wait until the end to see how each moment of the creating renewal finally takes shape. It is sort of like trying to imagine the taste of a fine burgundy while the grapes are ripening on the vine, or while they are being mashed, or put in casks, or bottled, or aged. The true taste of the wine depends on all these things, and many, many more, each of which determine its final character. But only at the very end can we pull the cork, pour the red liquid, put it to our lips and say, “Now I know what a great burgundy is”. This was worth waiting for”. And if something as simple (or complex) as the taste of wine can take 20 years before we know the true results, the real meaning, just imagine how long the wait must be to see the true results of the process of creating all that is.
Actually, we have already been told what the true results will be. God’s kingdom will prevail. God’s children will rejoice. Fellowship will be re-established. Jesus’ message makes clear that we need not fear the results. But we’ll have to wait because the process of creating is not yet complete.
So what about evil acts? What about Job? Plotinus, a theologian of sorts who lived after Plato and before Augustine, postulated that evil resulted from mistakes made by demi-gods that were responsible for producing the creation as it passed through ten layers of preparation. Much of Plotinus’ thought has been dismissed today. But perhaps it is worth rescuing one critical idea – that creation is a process passing through stages which, along the way, entail events and actions that at that particular stage take on the appearance of the character of evil. This may not get God off the hook for ultimate culpability (we have one more card to play in that arena), but it does force us to look beyond our current assessment for the evaluation of evil.
“What do you mean?” you might ask. “You can’t possible be suggesting that what we consider evil is somehow just a development on the way to good? That rape, murder, genocide, environmental destruction, mass disasters are just stages of creative good? This is no better that saying that freedom is an illusion. Are you suggesting that evil is an illusion?”
No, evil is real. Sin is real. And God recognizes it for what it is. It is not an illusion. But what it means is not altogether clear to us now even though its hideousness is apparent. Do you suppose that the Devil is so stupid that he would deliberately incite the crowds to call for Jesus’ crucifixion if he knew in advance that the crucifixion was the very event that would bring about his downfall? Isn’t it much more plausible that the Devil did not know the true meaning of this evil act? That he pushed for the death of God’s only Son because he believed that it was to his advantage, to his victory. And yet, God had the final say in even this most hideous of all evil acts. The true meaning of this evil act was unspeakable good. God knew. Neither the Devil nor we had a clue. Our moment of interpretive evaluation was limited by the temporal conditions of our existence. And when Jesus said, “It is finished”, we all believed that he meant he had failed. He died. Everyone knew he died. It was over. No one thought that God could make anything out of this tragedy. But He did. He created anew the entire realm of existence, providing us with insight into its ultimate meaning, in that moment three days later when God created Jesus alive. Evil became the platform for creative good.
Does that excuse the evil? No, and God as judge says “No”. Does that justify the evil? No, again. Evil acts are not justified simply because God can make something good out of their consequences. What it does is cause a change in our perspective in terms of understanding and explanation. And this is why Pannenberg’s insight can help us solve the riddle of the past.
We often say that the past is fixed, the present fluid and the future undetermined. The logic of our concept of free choice rests on this ordinary understanding about the connection between time and action. How often do we lament that we cannot undo the past? The framework of law, the idea of consequences and punishment, the structure of historical research are all predicated on the static nature of the past. Of course, science fiction authors have exploited the desire to change our own histories by inventing the somewhat illogical notion of a time machine. But philosophers and theologians should reject such a concept as self contradictory since it carries such impossible implications as the ability to move through time to a point where I could prevent the birth of my paternal grandfather (which of course would mean that I would not have been born in the first place). So we are confined at least on one side of the time division by the inflexibility of the past. What is done, is done and cannot be undone. And yet Pannenberg is suggesting that in at least one sense this is not true. The past can be undone. Perhaps not re-made but rather re-connected. For in at least one sense, God can re-new the past by connecting the fixed actions of past events to new, and sometimes rather startling, future consequences – consequences that were not at all obvious when the action in the past was consummated. God does have a time machine, but it is not one that allows Him to travel along a continuum of events. That image of time, as a linear sequence of causal events, must be abandoned. The Greek view of time as a river is wrong. God’s time machine is located solidly here, in the present, but it is able to weave a future fabric from the strands of the past in gloriously unexpected ways.
God can re-new (create anew) anything. There is no element of the present that is not created anew in the next moment. That is what it means to say that God is the ontological ground of being – not once in the past at Creation, but right now, in the present as He holds, sustains and renews all that is, moment by moment. God’s immanent domain makes anything possible, including the re-connection of causal consequences from past actions. If God’s immanent domain is the actual sustaining power of this realm of existence from one moment to the next, then the causal connections which proceed from the past into the present are also directly dependent on the divine will. Effects follow from causes not due to their inevitable causal connection, not because they are self-propelling, but because the sustaining will of the Father precipitates them. In this model, a miracle is nothing more than God choosing not to sustain the expected causal connection, but rather to re-distribute the cause of the past to a new effect in the present. The raising of Lazarus is miraculous because it is not the expected consequence of dying. But it is nothing more than completely ordinary if we view it as the re-connection between past causes and present consequences (effects). It is no more or less miraculous than the moment by moment continuance of gravity or the motion of electrons in an atom’s nucleus. In fact, as modern theoretical physicists are becoming more accustomed to say, the regular continuance of the universe from one second to the next is nothing short of a miracle of the highest magnitude. Anyone with the slightest appreciation of sub-atomic physics is quite likely to believe in the unseen power of a sustaining God. Electrons “show up” only when you look for them. The largest component of everything that is is empty space. Explanations of the universe depend on build-in “uncertainty”. Martin Heidegger expressed it well with his fundamental question of all philosophy and science, “Why is there anything rather than nothing at all?”
So what about free choices? Are the causal connections between our free choices and the resulting effects any less miraculous – or less ordinary? If the existence of everything is renewed moment by moment through the immanent domain of the Father, and this is considered perfectly ordinary in spite of the fact that it is entirely an act of will, why should our choices be any less an act of will that connects the strands of the past to undetermined effects in the present?
In order to appreciate the full impact of this revelation, we need to spend a moment considering the nature of time. Just suppose that there is no ex-temporal existence; that the essential quality of existing is being temporal. Certainly we have no difficulty with this view when it comes to our existence and the existence of everything in the universe. If fact, the only place where we even try to contemplate ex-temporal existence is when we think about God. How we came to ascribe ex-temporal existence to God is a long story. But for the moment, let us put that history aside and ask what it would mean if God were also a temporally existing being. The first consequence would be an end to the rhetoric about foreknowledge and predetermination. God certainly knows a lot more than we do. He knows everything that can be known (this is what omniscience means). But if my free choice contains the possibility of unexpected connections between past determinants and future consequences, then the actual outcome of the choice cannot be known until the choice is made, until it becomes real. Of course, I might anticipate all the possible effects but that does not make them real. They are only hypothetical possibilities.
Since God knows everything that can be known, God knows all the hypothetical possibilities. He holds all the strands of the past in His hands, waiting to connect them through immanent domain to the effects in the present. But until I act, those strands in at least one crucial sense, are not real. They are only possible realities, not actual reality. In this sense, time is more like a branching tree rather than a flowing river. It is not a single stream of events flowing toward me, moving from the future to the present and into the past. It is rather that I stand at a growth node on a branch. There are many, many possible directions for the branch to grow. Out of all those possibilities, my act will initiate one direction as opposed to many other possible directions and the branch will grow in that direction until I come to the next node. The direction of growth is not fixed in advance. The branch does not exist out there in the future. It is growing as I choose. Just like Alice in Wonderland, the path unfolds before me as I take the steps forward. In this regard, my choices are truly free since the shape of the future is actually created through my choices. God, of course, can anticipate all the possible directions. My own past actions and the past actions of all creation, incline me in some directions. I am in that sense pre-determined. Not all logical possibilities are real possibilities. I cannot decide in the next moment to fly. For example, I am highly likely to make choices that will do me harm if I have been pre-determined by growing up in an alcoholic family. I am conditioned by my color, my economic status, my place of birth. From the Christian perspective, sin plays a dominant role in circumscribing my choices. And the results of the cumulative effects of sinful acts throughout human history are the context of any choice that I might make today. But while these pre-determining conditions affect my choices, they do not eliminate my choices. And insofar as I have some options left to me, those options are possibilities that I create as realities when and only when I exercise them.
Once exercised, my choices form the fabric called reality. They become real, a part of the past, a strand in God’s hand. Then they are available to, and dependent upon, His will to connect them to the next moment of creation. In this sense, I too am a creator. While God alone creates ex nihilo, I have true creative power (the image of God?) to bring into existence something that did not exist before, namely, the consequence of my freely chosen act. That the conditions of my existence and the nature of my humanity circumscribe this act does not make it any less free or any less creative. It is the one arena of the miraculous that I initiate every moment. And it is perfectly ordinary to do so. If we had the time here, we might give some consideration to what this new model of creating means for the traditional notion of ex nihilo. The Greeks stumbled over this because they could not imagine making something out of nothing. But perhaps ex nihilo has more to do with the absence of past pre-determinants than is does with the physical nothingness.
How does this help us to deal with the problem of evil? It should be obvious that evil, as a possibility, is one of the directions that my branching choices can take. My creative acts can be evil and, in fact, often are. Human culpability is not exculpated because of the determining conditions of my choices for I could always choose otherwise. Evil is not the only possibility. And because my choices are in this crucial sense truly free, because they are creations of new reality, I am culpable for their consequences. The problem of evil certainly rests on the shoulders of Man.
If we reflect on the implications of this statement for a moment, we see that the weight of my evil choices (my sins) is far, far greater than I usually consider. The adage, “If it doesn’t harm anyone else, why not do it?” can no longer be a moral guide. Every one of my choices creates a new beginning, a radically different future than other possible futures. The repercussions of my acts will be passed down from generation to generation. They will spill out into the farthest reaches of the Universe. They will alter forever the direction of reality. My choices matter, not just to me, not just to my circle of influence, but to everyone and everything that will ever exist. The entire world rests on my shoulders now, in this moment of decision. And this is a weight that none of us can bear. Is it any wonder that God hates sin? Do you now appreciate the magnitude of our guilt and the depth of God’s solution to our guilt?
But what about those “other” evil events? What about those evil events which seem not to be connected to human choices? Natural disasters, global tragedies, cosmic disarray? What is God’s role in these?
In some sense, the present universe is out of control. Deliberately. I believe that the Bible teaches that the ultimate responsibility for this present chaos rests on the collective actions of finite beings, both human and non-human, who made choices that introduced the accumulating effects of chaos into this reality. Not all of those choices were made by Man, but Man certainly played a major role. Today we live with the advancing results of centuries of compounded deliberate evil choices. The range of our possibilities is narrowing as these cumulative effects shape the future. As an illustration, we might consider for a moment the cumulative effects of deforestation, now hundreds of years after the events of cutting down trees. Who would have imagined that cutting trees would put the entire planet in peril when the forests stretched beyond sight? Yet it was true then, just as we see the truth now. Still, we burn the rainforest at astounding rates, pushing the cataclysm ahead of us, faster and faster. If we knew all of the ramifications of the centuries of sins committed by Mankind and other finite beings, I believe we would be aghast at the scope of the effects. I believe we would find more than adequate explanation for much of what we now consider “natural” evils. Clearly, evil is unnatural. It is not what God created (creates) or intended. That His immanent domain carries the consequences of past evil acts forward with each moment of re-creation can only be understood if we see what Pannenberg suggests. The game is not up yet. God is steering this ship in spite of our collective efforts to sink it into the depths. But how God steers this leaking craft is not obvious to those of us who are concerned only with opening another hole in the hull. Our perspective is myopically human. Paul suggests so in Romans where he hints that “all creation groans” in expectation of salvation. This game is not just about humanity. It is about reality.
If this is an adequate, although somewhat truncated, explanation for the evils of our existence, then we seem to still be left with one crucial question. Didn’t God know that creating beings like us would lead to all this chaos? And if He did know, and He created us anyway, isn’t He still responsible?
If God is temporal, then His choices are also temporal. The difference between created beings and God, the uncreated Being, is not the difference between time and timelessness but rather the difference between limited time and unlimited time (eternity). God gets to deal with temporal reality forever. That includes the temporal reality before any created existence came into being; the time when only God existed. Sometime during that temporal existence when only God existed, He created other existing things. Of course, He knew all of the possibilities that could occur once those beings were created. He could hypothesize about every contingency. But those possibilities were not real since they did not exist at that point in time. God, in His infinite wisdom, must have concluded that creating, as opposed to not creating, was the correct righteous action to take, since God did create. He must have decided that this was the correct action in spite of His hypothesizing about the possible outcomes of His action. Perhaps this is what it means to say that God provided a means of salvation through His Son “before the foundations of the Universe”. He always knew that this present state was a possibility, and He planned His own contingent actions in light of that possibility. But that does not make it reality. It only becomes reality when those possibilities are exercised into existence.
God created beings that were capable of acting with free choice. One of the possible outcomes of creating beings like this is that they choose in ways that are not consistent with the wishes of the Creator. If those choices are not pre-determined (either by creative fiat, divine omniscience or divine infallibility), but are rather the exercise of genuine creativity, bringing into being something that did not exist beforehand, then the only culpability that God has for the results of such actions is that God created the fabric that made such possibilities possible. That is to say, God created beings that could chose. Does this make God responsible for the choices they make? When my children make choices that bring evil consequences into existence, am I responsible? The answer to that question is “Yes” and “No”. I am responsible for their existence since my actions brought them into existence. I am responsible for their development since I am the parent. And insofar as their existence and their development provide the backdrop for the choices that they make, I am responsible for their choices. But parents usually are not put on trial for the sins of their adult children. We recognize that culpability usually belongs to the perpetrator, not to the progenitor. So while I am responsible as a parent for my role in the sins of my offspring, I am not responsible for the creative acts they choose to bring such sins into existence. Sins are individual matters, with both individual and corporate consequences, performed within a fabric that is both individual and corporate. I share in the blame if I have failed to perform my actions of generation and development correctly, but that it not the same as personal moral culpability for the evil choice of my offspring. It seems no different for God the Father.
He is the creator. His creation, in all its aspects, has chosen to rebel. If He had been imperfect in His creation or His development or His love or His patience with the rebellious creation, then He would share in the blame, just as I would share in the blame for my children’s sins. But unlike me, God is the perfect Father. His creation was Good; His development was perfect, His love unchanging, and His patience everlasting. Yet, in spite of all that, His children, both human and non-human, rebelled. And they carried with them in those acts of rebellion all of the creation into chaos.
Today, God sustains the creation through His immanent domain in a sort of voluntary chaos. It is chaotic because evil exists as a reality. Choices have been made and will continue to be made that bring evil consequences into existence. This is the epitome of chaos, since sin itself is the most illogical thing in the universe. But this present existence is voluntary chaos. It is not chaos run amuck. It is not out of control. God is still the sustainer of existence. He is finally, ultimately in control. At the moment, His method seems to be to voluntarily allow the consequences of the accumulation of evil creative acts to be perpetuated. Of course, we have no idea how much His hand has restrained the actual possibilities of evil. We only know that evil is with us now. And God has voluntarily chosen to let it run its course, to let us have our way and the results of our way, until such time as He chooses not to renew the connections between the past and the future. God is in charge. We just can’t see quite how. But we have glimpses, hints, and intuitions about His control. Our task is to bring into existence a reality that is more in line with His direction for the future than with our current course. Pannenberg’s suggestion that we will not see how the pieces all fit together until the end helps us to muster the courage to make one more choice for Good and propel reality in God’s direction. We are co-creators of the future. Fortunately, He will prevail. The ultimate end is not in doubt. Therefore, the real question of responsibility lies ahead of us. God has asked us to join Him in creating something that has never before existed.
 There is another step usually attached to this solution. It is the commitment to “timelessness”. Very simply, the position is that God is not “in time” but rather somehow stands outside the temporal schema so that He does not literally see (know) my freely chosen evil act “before” I commit it but rather He knows a-temporally (from outside time) my decisions. This spatialization of time allows the theologian to assert that God’s knowledge was neither “before” nor “after” my action and therefore cannot have pre-determined my action. I am not predestined by God’s knowing since His knowing is not temporally conditioned. There are a great number of problems with this solution despite its lengthy history. I have examined those problems in a much longer work. Suffice it to say here that I am convinced that this solution neither provides an adequate explanation of God’s immanent domain nor addresses the knot of freedom and determinism.
 The history of this idea begins with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and finds its way through Plato into the medieval theologian Boethius who influenced Aquinas. The idea is thoroughly Greek, not Biblical. But it has had sway for centuries because it is so firmly tied to an entire methodology of dealing with God’s attributes, the via negativa.