Who Rules the World: Divine Providence and the Existence of Evil
I suspect even the most casual observer of current events recognizes the world seems aflame. Not only is there, after more than a year, a deadly pandemic that has killed millions of people in the short time frame, but there are always the recurrent tragedies of wars, coups, genocides, famines, autocratic injustices, and myriad more that fill up gruesome encyclopedias. I do not doubt that earnest believers worldwide look at their surroundings and begin to ask the perennial question: where is God amidst this suffering? Why has the greatest, most loving, sovereign Lord of the Universe decided to seemingly take a leave of absence when his children suffocate from inflamed lungs or brutalized in dehumanizing labor camps? In fact, where was the God of Israel throughout the twentieth century? One hundred years of human savagery on a previously unfathomable scale: holocausts, gulags, mass starvation programs, atomic weaponry. To rephrase the question to its most basic: if God, why and whence evil?
In his new volume, Who Rules the World?: Divine Providence and the Existence of Evil, Hans Schwarz, longtime professor of systematic theology at the University of Regensburg, presents his grappling with the concept of “theodicy” (i.e., the attempt to solve the apparent contradiction between an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity and the reality of evil and suffering). Schwarz notes that the issue of theodicy is “of existential import for virtually everyone whether believer or unbeliever” (1). The problem of evil has been called the “rock of Atheism” (1) and without Christians providing serious, informed, and faithful responses to the issue we risk not adequately proclaiming our faith (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15) or assuming wrongly about God and his deeds.
Schwarz’s text has two major sections. First, which takes up a majority of the book, is a survey of the significant religious and western theological answers to the problem of evil. To Schwarz, no religion, be it Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or even ancient gnostic sects (e.g., Manichaeism) provide satisfactory answers to why evil exists in the world— either they generally ignore theodicy or god(s) are the cause of both good and evil, thus unworthy of worship. Schwarz then discusses the various theological luminaries of the canon— Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz , and even the recent death of God theologies— and finds all their positions wanting. While theologians have long labored to explain why God allows for some evil, suffering, etc., none provide a sufficient answer to why evil even exists at all, as well as the corollary concern: “who is really in control of the affairs of the world” (137). Some, such as the process theologians, unbiblically weaken God to merely a cosmic “persuasive force,” while most from Augustine onward simply avoid the question entirely.
If there is one source for knowing about God that Schwarz holds in highest regards, it is the Holy Scripture (cf. 191). Time and time again, when a theology does not match up to the revealed word of God, it is a defective one. He chastises any theologian for their capitulation to Hellenistic thought (137) and discusses divine attributes only found within the Old and New Testament. This biblicist attitude— coming from a book published by hyper-liberal Fortress Press— is commendable. It gives the Who Rules the World an ecumenical audience rather than a purely Lutheran (Schwarz’s tradition) or academic one.
In the second section, Schwarz provides his, as I term it, threefold theology of providence. God is “the all-preserving power” within the midst of all life. He sustains existence in 1) the natural realm, such as through the consistency in the laws of nature and ordering of natural phenomena (e.g., seasons, planetary movement, etc.); 2) moral discernment, where our inborn moral intuition and ability to make moral decisions “avoids creation’s destruction and human self-annihilation (151); and 3) the historical process, in that God has not only entered through Christ into historical time but is imbuing history with “eschatological significance” (165). Indeed, all of God’s providential care is “ultimately all processes serve to help God’s kingdom triumph” (146). To Schwarz, God is in control, and without his sustaining hand, the entire cosmos would collapse. Yet, Schwarz does not posit God as a mechanistic operator of all contingencies: we have free will and can exercise it independent of God. He has entrusted us as governors of this planet.
Moreover, there is no division between natural and supernatural— God manifests himself in all spiritual and physical phenomena. It is through his grace and faith that believers recognize his miraculous workings in the here and now. Thus, through this threefold providence, God brings all of reality to a point where there will be joyous resurrection and eternal life in the new heaven and new earth. When we look at horrific images on our television or newspaper, we know that this is merely a sign of “creation groaning” and waiting for its final fulfillment.
Yet, why does evil exist? This is the question that Schwarz could not find a satisfactory answer for when scouring history. Indeed, he believes it is impossible: God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). Those who attempt to provide a rational explanation to why God allows for evil or why it exists at all are “both frivolous and futile…often boarding[ing] on speculation. We construct a God according to our imagination and deduce from such projection why God condones the world the way it is” (191). Theodicy, in the vein of the western philosophical-theological tradition, “surpasses the possibility of the human mind” (193). The Bible provides us with an image of a God who is “in control…creator, sustainer, and redeemer” (191), irreducible to intellectual confinement. God’s control does not entail ours is an optimally good reality, however: the world is not the best of all possible ones, and evil is “an actual power…that is destructive” presented by anti-Godly forces, be it our fallen will or demonic powers (192). Thus, while Schwarz does not even answer the question of evil’s origin, he consistently reiterates God’s sovereignty and eventual redemption of the entire universe.
There are two critiques I have with Schwarz’s work. First is the paucity of the survey. Schwarz routinely complains that the theologians of the western canon provide no serious answer to the problem of evil. Yet, Schwarz spends a mere six pages on the patristic era, focusing only on Ireneaus and Augustine. He does not focus on Origen, John Chrysostom, the Cappadocians, or the entirety of the Eastern and Syriac tradition, even as there is now a growing amount of secondary literature on the topic.* Also, Schwarz does not consider the recent Anglo-American analytic revival in philosophical theology, led by Christians Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig and atheists William L. Rowe and Graham Oppy. The so-called “logical problem of evil” (i.e., why would God allow evil to exist if he is all-loving/good/gracious, etc.) has been accepted as “sufficiently rebutted” by Plantinga over fifty years ago!** The most common iteration of the problem of evil today is the evidentiary argument which contends that suffering makes the probability of an omnibenevolent deity extremely low.*** These highly learned voices seriously call into question Schwarz’s point that human reason cannot solve the problem of evil. Thus, Schwarz’s lack of dialogue with ancient and modern theories weakens his book’s relevance and makes his survey inchoate. Second, Schwarz’s critiques feel disingenuous in hindsight. He throws out so many historic theodicies as irredeemably deficient because they do not answer the question of evil’s existence, but he himself does not provide an answer or even attempt one! If Schwarz does not believe that theodicy is possible, then that point should have been the thrust of his historic critiques rather than a position he does not even begin to provide or believe is worthwhile investigating.
Nonetheless, Who Rules the World is a welcome text that provides a biblical, erudite answer to, at least, the question of “where is God amidst the suffering.” To Schwarz, he is actively engaging the upholding of the world until it reaches its perfection, whenever that may be. As recent books on the problem of evil frequently fall into either hyper-philosophical specialization or unorthodox theologizing, Schwarz’s biblically-oriented inquiry, which affirms a trinitarian God in control, is an ironic breath of fresh air in the field. As for the recommended audience, pastors will find this resource valuable in answering the problematic queries of doubting and/or suffering congregants, whether relying on the surveyed theodicies or Schwarz’s view. Students may incorporate Schwarz’s position on providence, evil, suffering, et al. in papers in systematic or philosophical theology. Scholars may also consider Schwarz’s conceptualizations of theodicy and providence even if they, like I, feel his survey is lacking.
*See Nonna Verna Harrison and David G. Hunter, eds., Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought, Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016).
** Chad Meister, Introducing Philosophy of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2009), 134.
***See Daniel Howard-Snyder, ed., The Evidential Argument from Evil (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996).