Teresa of Ávila once fell off a horse while crossing a cold stream. The current was so strong that it almost carried her away. She cried out to God and heard this reply, “Do not complain, daughter, for it is ever thus that I treat My friends.” Witty Teresa responded with her typical humor, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
Evil surrounds us at all times. And so we ask, “How can a good and all-powerful God create a world with evil in it?” Either God—it seems—is not good and does not care or is powerless to change the situation. Responding to this question produces a theodicy, which comes from two Greek words, theos for God, and dike for justice. A theodicy must respond to two forms of evil, moral and natural. I’ll focus on the former here. It also has to grapple with regularity and freedom.
Evil, Sin, and Freedom
Scripture tells us that “evil” is anything that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity, including moral evil in which we choose to hurt one another or any part of creation. Evil seeks to thwart the life-giving power of God and thus God’s will. The Old Testament does not distinguish between moral evil and calamity in its terminology for evil. Some basic meanings for evil are sadness (Gen 44:34), grievous ill (Ecc 6:2), and wickedness (1 Sam 12:17).
Sin is closely related. Sin is the human condition of separation from God, particularly breaking God’s law (Deut 4:25; 1 Kings 11:6; Heb 3:12) or actively rebelling against God (Gen 4:4-7; Rom 3:23; James 4:17-21). The ultimate sin is idolatry: to reject the one, true, living God and to put anything in God’s place. Sin also has a “directional” quality. Sin effects evil. Whereas natural processes may result in evil as a byproduct (rain causes both crops to grow and rivers to flood), sin is directed toward producing harm. In many cases, “sin” and human “moral evil” can be used interchangeably, except in the instances where the New Testament personifies sin (such as Rom 7:13-25). There sin encompasses the cosmic, demonic structures and powers that promote evil.
There is no extended discussion in the Bible for why evil exists. Nonetheless, freedom—the gift that offers us the potential for true relationships—plays a significant part in the entrance of evil into the Garden in Genesis. In Genesis 2:16-17, God commands the man to eat from any tree, except that “which gives the knowledge of good and evil.” Theologians have long debated the meaning of this tree, but to understand evil, we have to grasp that human beings are given freedom of choice. We can select from many good alternatives and an ability to disobey—freedom to enter into relationships and freedom to break them. So, when the woman and man ate from this tree, they abused their freedom and severed their relationship with God, resulting in God’s chilling question: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9), as Adam is found hiding from God. Put simply, Genesis 3 teaches that evil enters from an abuse of freedom.
Moral evil represents the price for human freedom. And though this isn’t the spotlight here, natural evil is the price for the regularity of nature. The same wood that burns and warms us cannot suddenly stop burning if it is part of a house. For God to create a world that is ordered and not chaotic, there must be natural law. For there to be the possibility of good and ethical behavior—especially to love God and neighbor—there must be freedom.
- Several theologians and philosophers grapple with natural evil.
- John Polkinghorne considers suffering and divine action (pdf or video).
- Robert John Russell fleshes out a divine action through quantum physics.
- Another look at the Bible and evil.
- A Presbyterian pastor who uses jazz in his church ministry.
- Robert Gelinas talks about his “Jazz-Shaped Faith.”
- The former dean of the Duke Chapel on improvising leadership.
- MaryAnn McKibben Dana on the theology of improvisation.
- Greg Cootsona’s book, Creation and Last Things.
- We’ve written other newsletters expanding on the topic of theodicy.
A Quantum Theodicy of Jazz
Is there any way to respond to the fact that everything’s not right with the world? Let me suggest this as a different image for a theodicy: God and the world play together in a cosmic jazz improvisation.
In a deterministic model of, let’s say, 18th century science, the natural world is a closed box of cause-and-effect. This means that God must intervene to act in the natural world to answer prayers, to respond to cries for conversion, and to raise Jesus from the dead. In contrast, after the quantum revolution of 1900-30, physics implies an open, non-deterministic reality. Christian faith teaches us that God continuously interacts with creation, and therefore God does not have to intervene to act in the world. God is always interacting with nature. We may not know the mechanism, but perhaps it is at the quantum level.
God truly interacts with and sustains the created world, and yet the world has freedom. Thoughtful scientists and theologians all remind us that nature is both consistent and yet its processes are open. This regularity allows for free action. And yet, the Lord also speaks of the surprise in continually creating what has never been before. “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs up, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Is 43:19). And when God comes in Jesus Christ—the crucial place for understanding Christian theology and therefore its dialogue with science—there is not just a fixed plan, but also room for a responsive interchange (see Mark 7:24-30). Even more, when the Holy Spirit comes and guides us, our lives are full of dynamic interaction with God … even improvisation.
I’ve played jazz for four decades, and when I say “jazz” many think of “improv,” which signifies the spontaneous and unique molding of musical form. Miles Davis could solo on “Kind of Blue” a thousand times, and it was never exactly the same. Similarly, Presbyterian pastor and pianist Bill Carter speaks of two elements in jazz—composition (what has been written or “decreed”) and performance (what happens in the moment)—both fusing in improvisation. God’s plan and laws of nature fuse in an ongoing interaction with creatures to form something truly creative. The structure and plan are already in place—there is no random chaos—and yet God can still achieve particular ends. It is not altogether fixed. That’s what makes jazz invigorating to play. That’s also what I love about following Christ.
God the Improviser’s creativity takes the components of what the created order contributes, and then freely improvises with them. God is even able to take our bad and horrific notes and form something beautiful and good. Through this, God can make all things, even evil, work together for good (Rom 8:28). That’s music to my ears—and at least a partial response to what to do with evil in the world.