David Bentley Hart’s Boldest Claim: An Online Chat with Eric Evans About Natural Evil

Although my comments here are hasty and brief, I was flattered recently in an online chat with the thoughtful Eric Evans (see his blog here and his YouTube channel here), and I share our comment chat below (along with a little more information at the end).

I appreciate Eric giving permission to share this unpolished exchange and hope that we might be able to develop these thoughts more together some time. In allowing me to share, Eric adds: “I should note that I ultimately accept some of Hart’s arguments along with the entire eschatological horizon of the Christian message, but nevertheless, his arguments for natural evil still lack strength for me (as I show in my exchange with Jesse Hake). Ultimately, though, every argument made for natural evil lacks strength.”

This was originally from a social media group post on December 30, 2021:

Eric: I have earnestly been thinking quite deeply about the problem of evil. I think, at the end of the day, it becomes inscrutable. I can understand why God may allow for some suffering – suffering that is instrumental and contributes to soul building. After all, what would courage, temperance, patience, justice, and sacrifice mean if the world was devoid of all suffering? Simply put, we couldn’t become virtuous creatures. That being said, however, it’s natural evil that overwhelms me by a significant degree. When we look at the entire picture, God allows tremendous—and I want to press this—absolutely tremendous suffering upon the creation  he supposedly loves. Many of you are parents, and just imagine if you subjected your children to say, bone cancer at the precious age of five. Or what about a child who is born with Craniopagus parasiticus (two heads)? Or what about a child who is in the grips of mental illness? Or what about a child who has Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome? How is this not utterly gratuitous? What is the purpose? Some will heinously remark, “we deserve this, since we are sinners.” In any event, presumably, you would not allow for your child to be subjected to any of these horrors. If you, in your finite love, would not allow for such, how can God allow it in his love, that is beyond all measure? I believe that most evil and suffering in this world is so monstrously wicked, that God must understand our anger, doubt, and suspicion. It seems that, at times, God has placed far too heavy of a weight upon his creation. How does he feel? All we are left with is profound wonder, confusion, and heinous attempts to defend such evil due to human sin. And of course, some theodicies.

Jesse: Kenogaia is the most aggressively “complete” answer that David Bentley Hart has given to date. It’s not a coincidence that it’s in the form of fiction, because natural evil really is an inscrutable problem.

Eric: Can you briefly unpack the gist of his argument? I haven’t read Kenogaia.

Jesse: Warning for others of major spoilers below regarding Kenogaia as I try to explain my comment above a little.

The craziest thing that David Bentley Hart says in The Doors of the Sea is that natural disasters are the result of a cosmos that is broken and subjected to diabolical powers. In Kenogaia, Hart imagines an entire cosmos that is the creation of a selfish sorcerer who takes advantage of the life source that composes all human spirits and uses it to create a layered series of false worlds—all of them full of oppression and suffering and elemental dysfunctions.

This idea that the natural laws of our entire universe might not be so natural is pretty unintelligible to any modern intellectuals, and it is a kind of intellectual suicide to talk about. However, Hart seems to believe something along these lines. Natural evil is not actually natural. It’s a result of a disorder sub-creation that does not fully participate in the eternal creative work of God.

Eric: Interesting, thanks for sharing. However, I am not sure I find Hart’s argument convincing. I don’t even see how we can remotely demonstrate that natural disasters occur due to diabolical powers. What are those powers up to at this very moment? Are they up to no good right now? It reminds me of Plantinga, who I hold tremendous reverence for, by the way. But he says in God, Freedom & Evil, that natural evil, like disasters, occur due to demons moving tectonic plates around. I mean, while writing that, I feel like laughing to be honest. Are we to seriously believe that? It seems like an utterly desperate attempt to explain the inscrutable. While I appreciate their attempts, they don’t suffice for me. God, after all, has orchestrated this game – we must not forget this.

Jesse: The point DBH is making is that this game is not orchestrated by God. It’s a sham that we (in another and more real world) entered into of our own free will. As for how it could be “demonstrated”—there is no way. It’s a purely metaphysical or theological argument with no possible way to investigate it empirically.

Eric: What is your view on God’s knowledge? Do you think God knew that natural evil would occur prior to creation? And right, I agree, it cannot be empirically investigated, of course. My point was that I appreciate their attempts, but don’t find them fulfilling.

Jesse: I think that all creation of rational free spirits involves the potential for any degree of suffering (but not the necessity of it). I’d say that God knows which acts of creation will result in suffering and which will not but creates in all cases nonetheless because God knows that all rational spirits will eventually achieve freedom and gain the capacity to rewrite their own histories in the good end (of infinite growth) that God has in store for them all.

Eric: That was a great response, Jesse. However, when you say, “but not the necessity of it,” are you suggesting that certain suffering is not necessary? If so, what kind of suffering is not necessary? I’d imagine the gratuitous suffering I’ve listed, perhaps?

Jesse: David Bentley Hart (and I follow him in this) makes the case that creation of free rational spirits is possible without any suffering at all. It is not possible without the sacrifice or self-renunciation that is necessary for any participation in divine life. However, some spirits choose their own existence and accept their own participation in the self-giving life of God without resistance or efforts at false creation.

Our chat ended there. As some background, here is a key passage from The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005) where David Bentley Hart first brought up many of these points in print:

Perhaps no doctrine strikes non-Christians as more insufferably fabulous than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe: that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, that the universe verse languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward ward the Kingdom of God. Such language, of course, can strike even many Christians as mythological and dualistic. Some, certainly, seem to fear that if they lend too much credence to the idea of a fallen order actively opposed to God, they will thereby commit themselves to a form of fundamentalist literalism. Alternatively, there are those who suffer from a palpably acute anxiety regarding the honor due the divine sovereignty. Certainly many Christians over the centuries have hastened to resituate the New Testament imagery of spiritual warfare securely within the one all-determining will of God, fearing that to deny that evil and death are the “left hand” of God’s goodness ness in creation or the necessary “shadow” of his righteousness would be to deny divine omnipotence as well.

Nevertheless, and disturbing as it may be, it is clearly the case that there is a kind of “provisional” cosmic dualism ism within the New Testament: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles; but certainly a conflict between a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God on the one hand and the saving love of God in time on the other. It is a patristic notion (developed oped with extraordinary profundity by Maximus the Confessor) that humanity was created as the methorios (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms, or as the priesthood of creation that unites earth to heaven, and that thus, in the fall of man, all of material existence was made subject to the dominion of death. To say that God elects to fashion rational creatures in his image, and so grants them the freedom to bind themselves and the greater physical order to another master—to say that he who sealed up the doors of the sea might permit them to be opened again by another, more reckless hand—is not to say that God’s ultimate design for his creatures can be thwarted. It is to acknowledge, however, that his will can be resisted by a real and (by his grace) autonomous force of defiance, or can be hidden from us by the history of cosmic corruption, and that the final realization of the good he intends in all things has the form (not simply as a dramatic fiction, for our edification or his glory, nor simply as a paedagogical device on his part, but in truth) of a divine victory.

The very word “world” (kosmos) appears in the New Testament with two quite distinct and even opposed meanings (this is especially the case in John’s Gospel). At times it is a synonym for “creation” (ktisis) and so signifies merely the handiwork of God and the object of his redemptive care. …Even in its bondage to death, the “cosmos” (in this sense of the word) bears glorious testimony to the power and righteousness of God. …But “world” is also used to indicate the present “order” (the proper meaning of kosmos) that enslaves creation and that strives incessantly against God, jealous of its plunder. When the incarnate God appears within this “cosmos, it is to rescue the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature, but it is also an act of judgment and of conquest. Christ enters our reality as, of course, the universal Logos through whom “all things consist” (Col. 1:17), but also as the stranger God who comes “from above” (John 3:31; 8:23).

…Nowhere does Voltaire address the Christian belief in an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy vestige of the world God truly intends, and enslaved creation to spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God; nor certainly does he concern himself with the biblical narrative of redemption. His poem is an artifact of a particular moment in Western intellectual history—post-Christian but not yet post-theist—and as such represents a debate not between atheism and faith but between two opposing schools of deism.

More recently, David Bentley Hart has posted a series of seven essays on gnosticism between September 3 and October 1, 2021 on his subscription page Leaves in the Wind. Some of these are helpful background. I also had in mind a note by Al Kimel (from November 14, 2020) clarifying that Hart considers evil in our cosmos to begin with an atemporal human fall: “Yesterday I learned that contrary to what I had believed for several years, David Hart does not locate the origin of evil in the angelic fall. I don’t know why I thought he did. I probably misinterpreted a line or two in Doors of the Sea. So I wrote David and asked him to clarify. He wrote back: ‘I think Origen was right. And I think John Behr is right about Origen.’”

Finally, several of my comments above had this passage in mind (originally from a comment posted by Hart here):

Creation is not the magical conjuration into existence of something that possesses all the attributes of the past without actually possessing a past. Surely that must be true, right? If it were, then there would be no such thing as free rational creatures, but only fictional characters summoned into existence in a preordained state of character.

So, the issue of evil isn’t a utilitarian calculus, it’s a matter of the process whereby nothingness and every possibility of evil inherent in the conditions of finite freedom is conquered while actually bringing free spiritual natures into existence. But spirit can exist only under the conditions of those rational conditions that logically define it. To ask why God did not create spiritual beings already wholly divinized without any prior history in the ambiguities of sin—or of sin’s possibility—is to pose a question no more interesting or solvent than one of those village atheist’s dilemmas: can God create a square circle, or a rock he is unable to lift? A finite created spirit must have the structure of, precisely, the finite, the created, and spirit. It must have an actual absolute past in nonbeing and an absolute future in the divine infinity, and the continuous successive ordering of its existence out of the former and into the latter is what it is to be a spiritual creature. Every spiritual creature as spirit is a pure act of rational and free intentionality away from the utter poverty of nonbeing and toward infinite union with God. This “temporal” or “diastematic” structure is no less intrinsic to it than is its dynamic synthesis of essence and existence, or of stability and change. And that means that even the first stirring of a created spiritual nature’s existence must be a kind of free assent to existence on the part of the creature.

…Yet again, to say that evil is not necessary in itself does not mean that the possibility of evil–possibility, not necessity–is not present in the “venture” of creation. To say that a negative possibility is entailed in something is not to say that there is any intrinsic necessity for or positive value in the actualization of that possibility. When surgery is performed to remove a tumor, it is possible that there will be nerve damage. That does not mean that nerve damage is an intrinsically good or necessary aspect of surgery. The possibility of a falling back toward evil and nothingness is entailed in the creation of a free finite spiritual being, almost by definition. That does not mean that the actual falling back toward evil and nothingness is in itself a necessary or good “part of the journey.” But, in the course of God overcoming evil and nothingness in finite free spiritual creatures, it may happen. Happily, one would like to believe, God does not cease to conquer that evil, in this age or the age to come.

The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise. 1445. Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia.

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