In this episode, Kurt speaks with John Peckham on the problem of evil and suffering and how his theodicy of love secures the sovereignty of God and honors the biblical data on cosmic conflict.
Kurt: Good day to you, and thanks for joining us here for another episode of Veracity Hill, where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. We are continuing our Explore God series weekly today. This is week number three, I believe. Is that right, week number three? In week one, we talked about meaning and purpose in life, and joining us on that episode a couple weeks ago was Dr. Doug Groothuis, and we went through his philosophy in seven sentences, some of the most important sentences in the history of, at least, Western philosophy. He doesn’t get into Eastern philosophy, for he’s just looking at Western. Some of those statements from philosophy over the past two-and-a-half thousand years is (sic) really enlightening about what man’s purpose is in life, and can lead us to not just faith in a creator God, but even the Christian God. Last week, we were joined by Dr. Tyler McNabb as we explored the evidence for God, and really not just offering reasons like the cosmological argument or the teleological or moral argument, but we were talking about methodologies of how we can come to belief in God. Dr. McNabb’s position is that belief in God is properly basic, that there is a part of us that has this belief, and that having that belief is justified and warranted. If you haven’t had the chance, I would encourage you to go back and listen to those episodes, or watch them on our Facebook page. Speaking of watching, our goal is to get all of the—and Chris has been dogging me—to get all of the old episodes up on a YouTube channel. We have a YouTube channel, we just haven’t had the time to get some of those older episodes and bring those up fully. And there’s a little-known fact: YouTube doesn’t allow you to back those episodes. It’s kind of particular in having that be. So we’re working on that this spring. If you want to help us continue to grow our ministry and how we reach people, will you consider supporting us? Go to veracityhill.com and click on that “patron” tab. We need your support to continue our program, growing into places it hasn’t gone before. So please do consider that. On today’s episode, we are going to be talking about the problem of evil and suffering, and this is part of the Explore God series, one of the deep questions of life. This is certainly one of (sic), if not the most thought-of question of the deep questions. Why is it that if God exists, why is it that there is evil, why is there so much evil, and really for a lot of people, “Why is there evil in my life?” This is what’s called the pastoral problem of evil. People really experience and deal with it, whether they know someone or they’ve experienced it themselves: they lose a best friend in a freak accident, a parent passes away, or a person has to go through hardship. Where was God? That’s an important question to ask. The problem of evil is one of the most thought-of questions in the Explore God series that we’re doing. To help us think through this very tricky issue, we have asked onto our program today: Dr. John Peckham. He is a professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University, specifically the Seventh-Day Adventist seminary there in Berrien Springs, Michigan. John, thank you so much for joining us on our program today!
Peckham: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Kurt: So you are the author of a recent book here put out by Baker Academic called “Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil,” and it came out late last year. What drew my attention to it is that, as some of my followers may know, I am sympathetic to a Boydian view of cosmic warfare, though not necessarily his view on divine foreknowledge, since he wasn’t a theist. That drew me to your book here because I see the cosmic conflict which we do read about in the scriptures. But you certainly do take a different approach to divine foreknowledge, and a different view of sovereignty than he did. I’m sure we’re going to get a little technical, but hopefully we’re not going to get too technical on the program today, and we’ll try to simplify things for those that are unfamiliar with this material. So you start off the book by talking about the free-will defense, which, as some people know, was defended by Alvin Plantinga. We’ve done some episodes on it if you go back, so let’s see. Why don’t you give us a brief summary of what the free-will defense is, and why we should give credence (if at all) to it.
Peckham: Yeah, so I’m glad you mentioned Alvin Plantinga’s articulation of the free-will defense in recent decades, but it goes back much further than that, at least all the way back to Augustine. The free-will defense basically just takes the view that the logical problem of evil can be resolved by adding an additional premise, and that additional premise is that creatures have been granted free will, and creatures must use that free will in order to do evil. The logical problem of evil is that if God is all-powerful, and God is all-knowing, and God is entirely good, it appears to some, and some philosophers have argued, that there should be no evil in the world. And some several decades ago argued that there was no way to hold all of those premises together consistently. However, Alvin Plantinga argues that if God gives creatures free will—what he calls significant freedom, which means they have the freedom to depart from what God wants them to do, or free will to do evil—then God can’t give them that kind of freedom, and at the same time determine that they can always do only what is good. So the free-will defense says that creatures have that of free will, and therefore it is not up to God whether creatures introduce evil. Tragically, some creatures did do evil, and that’s why there is evil in the world. It was so successful that even many atheist philosophers have concluded that the logical problem of evil has been defeated by the free-will defense, which is absolutely brilliant.
Kurt: Yes, and Gale Mackie, I think, was one of those on the record. It’s just very—I don’t want to say wildly successful, but it has defeated and put to rest that concern that the two couldn’t coexist at the same time. So we can get into, and we’re going to get into, some philosophical concepts today. One of the concerns you have in your book is about what’s called determinism and indeterminism. Your concern is that most forms (not all, depending on how you label it) of determinism seem to make God out to be morally repugnant, because humans might not retain the type of freedom that would be required for them to be exclusively responsible, that is, God takes responsibility. In certain forms of determinism, if not all, he is the one bringing about evil. Is that an accurate assessment here?
Peckham: I think that’s right. In many forms of determinism (or significant determinism, which is the view that everything that occurs, God positively determines to occur as it does), God would be causally responsible for evil in the world. Now there are some ways that determinists (although I don’t hold that view myself) can contrive to resolve the problem of evil. One of the most popular ways is simply to say, “We don’t know what God’s reasons might be for determining evil, and because we are merely human, we shouldn’t expect to be in a position to be able to know that.” So God has his reasons, and therefore there’s no way to say that God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence could not coexist with the evil that we see in the world. Some say that God caused evil for his own glory, that somehow it would not affect his glory. I have difficulty understanding how evil, particularly the kind of evil that we see in this world could bring God glory, but those are kind of the avenues that they would typically take to try to resolve the problem. But I think that there is a better to resolve the problem, and I think determinism is false, and I think there is biblical reason for thinking determinism is false.
Kurt: In response to this, some determinists might say, “God isn’t sovereign, or doesn’t appear sovereign, on (sic) your view.” A question frequently raised in discussions like these is, “Does God get what he wants? A sovereign God would always get what he wants, and a God which is not sovereign would not get what he wants.” What would you have to say to that?
Peckham: Well I will say two things in response to that. There’s a lot more than that to say!
Kurt: There’s a whole chapter on this in the book!
Peckham: The first thing I would say is that it depends on one’s definition of sovereignty. If you hold the view of exhaustive definite foreknowledge, which means that you believe that God definitively knows everything that will occur, including what will occur in the future, you can have a very robust conception of sovereignty. God is the ruler of the world, and nothing goes beyond his control in a broad sense, without actually claiming determinism. So I think that a very strong view of sovereignty can be upheld with an indeterministic view such as I argue in the book. When it comes to the view that if God is sovereign, he should always get what he wants, or that all of his desires should be fulfilled, again, I think that’s a mistaken view of sovereignty. But I also think if you just read the Bible carefully, you will find example after example after example when God claims that his desires are unfulfilled. He speaks very strongly about things he doesn’t want to happen, and then when they happen (like with people rebelling against him), he laments those occurrences and says things like, “Turn to me and relent.” Or I think it’s in Psalm 81, “Oh how I wish that you would turn to me, and then I would turn to you and rescue you!” So all over scripture, we have instances of what I call God’s unfulfilled desires, and I think indeterminism is just the best way to account for those, without being able to handle this.
Kurt: You also point out that sometimes determinists will say that they recognize these passages in scripture about God’s unfulfilled desires, but they say that there might be a greater good involved, or that some greater desire takes precedence. What would you say in response to that?
Peckham: Yeah, this is a main thing that determinists will say. “I don’t think that what God wants to happen won’t happen, but he determined those things to happen because they are somehow necessary for some greater good.” I think that becomes problematic on (sic) determinism, because if God determines everything to happen the way it does, it’s very difficult to give an account of why there would be anything that God doesn’t want to occur occurring, and it’s also very difficult to argue that there would be some greater good for which God would require some evil to come about to bring that about. There are two ways that that could be the case. It’s possible that some greater good is only possible because God determined it to be the case that some evil has to occur for that greater good, and if that were the case, then presumably God can determine it to be otherwise, if he’s a deterministic God. The other option is to say that it is simply a blue fact, or a necessary fact of reality, that some evil is necessary for this greater good. But in my view, that would be wrong of God himself, because I believe God is the source and grounds of everything that is. It doesn’t make sense to say that God actually doesn’t desire that evil, because to do so would be to desire something that’s not congruent to (sic) his own nature and the nature of reality. So I think it’s much more complicated than that, and I try to unpack it in the book, but basically, I think determinists would really struggle with coherently claiming that there are things God actually desires not to occur that do occur.
Kurt: Maybe we can bring it back a little here and think of an example. So one very popular verse in discussions like these is I Timothy 2:4. “God desires all men to be saved.” Now on (sic) many deterministic views, we typically have something like five-point Calvinism, which by and large says that the vast majority of humans are not saved, are not elect, so how is it that if God is sovereign, but yet desires all men to be saved, why didn’t he just determine all men to be saved?
Peckham: Exactly, yes. And that’s one of the examples that is very difficult for determinists to respond to. Typically we have responses like, “God has his reasons, but we don’t know what they are, or one of the popular responses is that God needed to damn some eternally in order to manifest his wrath, or manifest his justice, which is for his glory. But I don’t think that there’s any intrinsic connection between God’s glory and damning people, and I think God’s wrath is just the appropriate response to evil. There would be no need for a manifestation of God’s wrath if there were no evil.
Kurt: I thought that was stellar, if I may say. You know, we frequently showcase a number of works by authors on our program, and I don’t have the time to always read through all of them as I would like, but I did have time this week to give yours a good look, and I thought this topic interests me especially. So you had a stellar response to this point that if God’s doing it for maximizing his glory, if he’s so sovereign, then he could put the maximum amount of glory to be understood by all of the humans that are saved. There’s nothing that says sending X amount of people to hell maximizes his glory if God can supposedly do whatever he wants with a disregard for human freedom or something like that.
Peckham: That’s right, because otherwise, if determinists say that God actualizes evil to increase his glory, then they’re saying his glory actually increases, and most Christian theists are not going to want to say that. So when they say it’s for his glory, they usually mean it’s for the manifestation of his glory, so that creatures would recognize his glory in a greater way, or recognize it optimally. I argue in the book that if God determines everything, then he could determine what we are actually aware of, or what we recognize, so he could determine that we immediately recognize his glory in an optimal way, and we wouldn’t need evil as a contingent thing upon the basis of which we come to recognize that glory. He could just make us all recognize his glory immediately.
Kurt: Alright, so you have sort of criticized these deterministic models and said they don’t quite make sense as is in your view, and they don’t seem to fit with the biblical data. So what is the position that you opt for?
Peckham: So in the book, the large sections of the book, the middle section of the book and onward, are dealing with a cosmic-conflict theodicy or defense, which I call a theodicy of love. And I want to be clear that when I use “theodicy,” I’m using it in the weaker sense of a possible explanation with regard to why God would permit evil. I think there is a lot of biblical evidence that there is a cosmic conflict, minimally defined as a conflict between God and celestial creatures that have rebelled against God (the Devil, and fallen angels, and so forth). As I take that view, building on the free-will defense, I think the free-will defense is excellent, but I think that there are questions that the free-will defense doesn’t address, or doesn’t address as much as I think we might be able to with a cosmic-conflict perspective.
Kurt: I know Plantinga himself opts for natural evil as suffering as having a possible explanation of demonic activity, but you’re right, it’s not exactly a thorough treatment of the biblical data on the cosmic warfare that’s available to us.
Peckham: That’s right, Plantinga throws it out there as an option, and I think the move he makes there is excellent, but he doesn’t develop it, doesn’t do very much with it. Part of what I’m doing in the book is developing that.
Kurt: Okay, and I certainly want to spend the bulk of it talking about this, but before we move on to that, what would you say then, while we speak of this cosmic-conflict approach, how is it that God is sovereign on (sic) that view? We’ve sort of dismissed the determinism view, which tries in effect to say, “We’ve got the sovereignty card.” How is it that God is sovereign if there’s a cosmic, demonic warfare going on in the universe?
Peckham: This is a great question, and I think this is the biggest issue, when people first hear about a cosmic conflict that causes some people to dismiss it prematurely because they think, “If God is all-powerful, which of course he is, and the Bible teaches that he is, how can anyone be in conflict with him? How could there be anything like a cosmic conflict?” And this is where it’s very important to very clearly state that in a cosmic-conflict view, as I think is taught in the Bible, and as I hold, Satan and other fallen celestial beings are creatures, and merely creatures. There is a beginning to this conflict, and there is an end to this conflict. Secondly, the nature of this conflict is not one of sheer power. If it was (sic), there could be no conflict. It’s a conflict over character. It’s a conflict over what I call in the book “epistemic conflict,” or a conflict over the weak. Specifically, the enemy, the Devil, has slandered God’s character, and raised charges against God’s character, that can’t be met with sheer force, because you can’t really defend your honor or your character by using power or force. I would argue that if God grants creatures free will, including celestial creatures, and if a conflict arises over character, God could provide parameters, or what I call in the book “rules of engagement,” a framework in which those who have allegations against God’s character can raise them, and actually be in conflict with God—not because God lacks power, not because God ever lacks the power to defeat the Devil as a matter of sheer power, but because he has allowed this kind of freedom because that was necessary for the sake of love and getting the allegations to go away, and necessary for the settling of the conflict in such a way that creatures themselves can all come to know God and love him.
Kurt: Interesting, and I look forward to fleshing this out further on our program today. So on (sic) your view though, you would say God doesn’t always get what God wants in the sort of meticulous details, but in another broader sense, you would say that God does get what he wants because he creates a universe like this. So he does want a sandbox, but he lets other people play in the sandbox. So in that broad sense, he gets what he wants.
Peckham: Right, I make a distinction between what I call God’s ideal will, which is what God would want to be the case if everyone always did what he wants at all times, and then what I call his remedial will, which is God’s will that takes into account the free decisions of creatures, which includes, sadly, bad decisions of creatures. So he sovereignly, providentially guides the universe towards the best outcome while respecting the freedom that he has granted to creatures. So he does ultimately achieve his overarching purpose, but that purpose already includes in it the bad decisions of creatures, and sadly the evil and pain and suffering that comes with it. Sometimes I illustrate this for students with a cooking show that’s very popular where chefs are given one or two ingredients that they have to use, and they can make anything they want, but they have to use that ingredient. It’s a little bit analogous to that, except it’s not that God has to use them, but insofar as he grants creatures free will, and does that consistently, there are going to be factors that affect what occurs in the universe that is not meticulously controlling. So that’s the basic idea.
Kurt: Very nice. Alright, we’ve got a few minutes till our break here. What I want to do is we’ll take a short break actually, and when we come back, we’ll delve more into this cosmic-conflict framework approach that you’ve got here. It’s very fascinating, especially your fourth chapter here on the rules of engagement. I very much look forward to hearing more about that. If you have questions for John, we are keeping tabs on our Facebook livestream right now, and this is the way that we have normally, over the past two and a half years, come to you, but perhaps you are one of the people now listening in Augusta, Georgia. Veracity Hill, at the start of this year, began airing our episodes over there, and we look forward to continuing our partnership with the Wilkins Radio Network, 1050 AM over there in Augusta, Georgia, airing at noontime Eastern on Saturday afternoon. We thank you for our financial supporters who have contributed to making it possible, and look forward to the further blessings of people who have benefited from this program. If you have benefited, will you consider partnering with us? Also, just before the program today, I sent out a text message to our followers, and if you’re not familiar with our texting plan, you can text the word “veracity” to 555888, and then you’ll be signed up to our list, and you’ll get updates on our coming programs. And before today’s program, I quickly shot out details on our episode. So if you watch somewhere, if you’re listening in a car, even, or driving, you could get the text message, typically with a link, and you could be listening to this program right now wherever you might be. So if you haven’t signed up for that, go ahead and just text the word “veracity” to 555888. Alright, we’ll take our short break now, and when we come back, we’re talking with John Peckham. He is the author of “Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil,” a very fascinating topic for today’s show as we continue our Explore God series. So stick with us through this short break from our sponsors.
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Kurt: Thanks for sticking with us through that short break from our sponsors. If you would like to learn how you can become a sponsor, go to our website veracityhill.com, and click on that Patreon tab, and you’ll see some of the sponsorship options. We’d love to put up your company or organization’s logo, or maybe you’d like to play an advertisement during our break. Eventually, we’ll start playing some videos, I think. We’ll have to add that as a new level. That would be great with what we’re doing. Chris is telling me we are having some slight dropped springs (that’s a technical term), and apparently he’s diagnosed it as a problem with our internet provider, Comcast, so it’s nothing on our end. We apologize if you have some images that are freezing up, but the audio is typically still great, so sorry about that. Also, in related technological news, we are now pumping out 1080 to Facebook. Did we start that last week, or is this the first week? We’ve been sort of manipulating it to look awesome because Chris is a magician, but now we have a device that is properly pumping out 1080p high definition to Facebook week after week, so you can expect that henceforth. Alright, today we are joined by John Peckham, author of “Theodicy of Love.” We’re talking about the problem of evil and suffering, and we’re discussing theodicy, a possible way of reconciling what we see here in our world, why we experience evil, why we do suffer. The book has been proclaimed (sic) by Paul Copain, George Wallis, David Baguette, a number of great names out there in the apologetics community and the philosophy-of-religion community, and so I want to encourage people to check that out, published by Baker Academic. We’ve also put a link to the book at our website, if you’re watching along there. Actually, my uncle called me this week to say that he is watching on our website…Alright, John, now is the time of our show where (sic) we do a segment called Rapid Questions. And I didn’t tell you about this, and that’s intentional. So it’s basically sixty seconds, and we’re going to ask you some questions just to learn more about you, totally unrelated to our show today. So if you are ready, I will start the game clock. Are you ready?
Peckham: I guess so.
Kurt: I love that! “I guess so.” Alright, here we go. What is your clothing store of choice?
Peckham: I guess Kohl’s.
Kurt: Taco Bell or KFC?
Peckham: Taco Bell.
Kurt: What is your most hated sports franchise?
Peckham: Between the Red Sox and the Patriots.
Kurt: Okay. When is the last time you swam in a pool?
Peckham: Last time I swam in a pool? I don’t know, I guess it’s been a while.
Kurt: Do you have a garden?
Peckham: I do not.
Kurt: Oh, this one is funny: look at the clock. What is the actual time?
Kurt: Let’s see here. Would you go bungee jumping or skydiving?
Peckham: I think probably, if I had to choose, I’d go skydiving.
Kurt: Okay. Do you drink Dr. Pepper?
Kurt: I’m sorry. What’s one thing you would keep with you if you were stranded on an island?
Kurt: Pick a fictional character you’d like to meet.
Peckham: Sam Gamgee.
Kurt: Sam Gamgee! Nice! You know, that was actually pretty quick, that answer. We’ve asked that one. That’s been a newer question on the program, and some people have had to take some time. Why Sam Gamgee?
Peckham: I love Sam in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” at least in the movie version, when Frodo says, “I’m leaving, I have to go alone,” and he says, “No, I’m coming with you.” So the friendship aspect and the way that he supports his friends I’ve just always loved.
Kurt: What a faithful friend. To me, he is the iconic Christian in “The Lord of the Rings” series. He is faithful to the end, he carries the burden. Oh my gosh! I think a lot of people underestimate the power of Sam as a character in that work of fiction, a great testament to cultural apologetics and the need for great narrative for a lot of people. I’ve been actually talking to someone. We’re hoping to get moving with views on one of our websites, Apologetics 315, and trying to work with him and encourage him to think, “What does it mean to have great film, great art? What does that look like?” So, if you’re just joining us, we’re talking about theodicy, and we’re talking about the problem of evil and suffering, and why God would allow those things. Now John, in your book, you defend a cosmic conflict, what you call a cosmic conflict. Maybe you would distinguish that from cosmic warfare, which is Boyd’s terminology, Doug Boyd. As we mentioned at the beginning of the show, Boyd holds to an open-theist position on divine foreknowledge. That’s not your view, and you’ve also dismissed the more deterministic approaches to understanding divine sovereignty and why God would allow evil and suffering. On (sic) deterministic models, it seems that God is responsible in some ways for the evil and suffering in the world, which is very unpalatable for many people. We want to say, “No, God is all-loving, and he’s not at fault for these things. It’s the creatures. It’s the rebellion.” So before we took our break, you talked about how the warfare is not about power and might. It’s not so much about that, but it’s about honor, and that—well, I’ll let you tell us more about it again. It’s about his name, and if people want to bring a case before him, right? So it’s not about shifts in power, it’s about something else. Tell us again.
Peckham: This is a theme that many Old Testament and New Testament scholars have seen, something like a cosmic courtroom drama, or a cosmic covenant lawsuit. So the enemy, the Devil, his MO is to slander. He’s called the accuser, the veteran. “Diabolos,” some New Testament scholars say, just is translated “slanderer.” We see him slandering already in the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden. We see him slandering, all the way from the beginning to the end, the character of God and the name of God. So the conflict is really a conflict of character, an epistemic conflict, and at the center of that is love. In that conflict, God is meeting those allegations in a kind of cosmic courtroom by a demonstration, because you can’t really resolve a question of your character, if somebody alleges that you are corrupt, you can’t exercise power to defeat that allegation. You have to have some kind of evidence, some kind of demonstration, and that’s what happens in the history of redemption, ultimately at the cross, where God demonstrates his righteousness, and demonstrates his love in a way that really defeats the enemy’s allegations in the heavenly court. So that is kind of the basic idea of the nature of the controversy. And it’s very interesting that in this conflict, Jesus himself refers to the Devil as the ruler of this world. This language, if it is to make any sense, means that he has some jurisdiction, some rulership.
Kurt: I was going to ask, if I could, what are some of the biblical data on this approach? I know in the book of Daniel, we have a fascinating passage on fighting between angels. Tell us about that.
Peckham: Yeah, Daniel has one of the best examples of what I call “rules of engagement.” We see this kind of cosmic conflict, or heavenly conflict, or heavenly courtroom kind of theme, in the book of Daniel, and in Daniel 7 as well. What you’re referring to is in Daniel chapter 10, when Daniel is praying to God for understanding for some of the problems that he comes against (sic). The passage says he prayed and fasted for three weeks, and at the end of the three weeks, an angel comes and says that he was sent from God, and that from the first time Daniel’s words were heard, he was checked, but he was delayed by the prince of the kingdom of Persia, which many Old Testament scholars believe is a celestial ruler behind an earthly ruler of Persia. When you look back, and you realize what is happening in the narrative in Daniel 10, you say, “How could it be possible that an angel of God could be delayed for three weeks if God wants him to be there immediately? He could exercise his power and make him be there immediately. This must mean that God is not exercising all of his power all of the time, and it must mean further that God and the kingdom of God, God’s agents, his angels, are not exercising all of God’s power either. They’re working within some parameters. There’s some real jurisdiction and real authority for the enemy to antagonize God and his kingdom. Daniel is just one of many many examples that we see of this, even if you just look in the book of Matthew, you see examples all the way through. You have the temptation narrative in Matthew 4 (and Luke contains that), when the Devil attempts to tempt Jesus to bow down and worship him. He showed him all of the kingdoms of the Earth and said, “All of this has been given over to me, and I can give it over to whomever I want.” He’s claiming jurisdiction. As I mentioned, Jesus already calls him the ruler of this world, and Jesus himself, when he tells the parable of the wheat and the tares, when he gives an explanation as to why there are tares (or weeds) in the landowner’s field (which is an analogy for the evil in the world), he says, “An enemy has done this!” And he clearly identifies this enemy as the Devil. So once you see this cosmic-conflict theme, which is just all the way through the gospels, and it’s a red letter in the Old Testament as well, you can’t unsee it; you kind of see it everywhere once you’re aware of it.
Kurt: Jeffrey from Nicaragua is here. Jeffrey, you’ve got a question that I think we’ll ask a little bit later, so Jeffrey, thank you for your question. We see it here. Let me ask you, John, about these rules of engagement that we’ve talked about in Daniel 10. What’s that about? What do we mean “rules of engagement?”
Peckham: I use the phrase “rules of engagement” for lack of a better term for the parameters within which the Devil and his domain of darkness, as it’s called in the New Testament—some parameters within which they can operate in opposition to God. If God is all-powerful, then obviously no one could do anything against him unless he gave them room to oppose him, and the rules of engagement are some non-arbitrary parameters in which the enemy can antagonize God and war against God’s kingdom. We see examples of these all across scripture, but one of the most striking examples is in the story of Job. In Job chapter 1 and Job chapter 2, we have two instances that are almost identical to each other in the way they’re introduced, where the Satan comes to present himself before God, and the sons of God are there. We saw before the sons of God. This is language of that heavenly council, or cosmic courtroom drama. Satan raises a number of allegations against Job, and indirectly against God’s judgment and treatment of Job, and one of the things that he says is, “You have set a hedge around Job and anything that belongs to him, and you have put a fence around him.” This tells us two things: Satan was trying to harm Job, but he couldn’t, and there was some existing limit on what Satan could do. One of the things that Satan argues for before the heavenly court (it’s not just him speaking to God; this is in kind of a cosmic courtroom)—he argues, “If you would just let me have more room to bring more calamities onto Job, then I could prove my point that Job isn’t really who he says he is. He isn’t really blameless, he isn’t really upright, he’s not really serving you or fearing you as he should.” So those fences and that hedge around him are existing rules of engagement that apparently Satan is lobbying to have changed a bit.
Kurt: Alright, so what you’re saying here is that God’s not allowing rebellious forces to just be willy-nilly, as Hardaway teaches. There are boundaries to what they can do, and that’s maybe a distinction to (sic) other approaches to the topic we’re looking at, which say that God can’t stop these people, or at least can’t stop them right now. I can think of a number of other names out there who dissent from this cosmic-warfare view, but just say that this stuff happens gratuitously. You say no, there are boundaries, there are rules to the war that God allows, and even in stories like Job, it sounds as if God is willing to stretch the rules a little to accommodate whether Job was really faithful to him.
Peckham: It seems to me that God takes into account the other celestial beings, whoever they are in the heavenly council, and he agrees that the parameters be modified in order to settle the claim that’s being made. And I think he is doing this because he knows that that is the best way to settle the conflict for all concerned. It’s very important here to consider that those rules are not arbitrary. They’re not arbitrarily set by God; that’s another courtroom concept that’s very important, and even though they are ontologically restricting Satan (that is to say, Satan doesn’t have the power to go beyond the limits that God sets up because God is omnipotent), given that God grants him some jurisdiction, that morally limits what God will do in the future. This part is non-controversial. I think every Christian theist would agree that if God makes a promise, he’ll always keep his promises. He’ll never go back on his word. So if he says, “This is within your jurisdiction,” and even if it is part of an important conflict, then that also limits what God can morally do, without in any way restricting his power. So there are some parameters in which Satan can work temporarily, but God still retains the power to finally put an end to this, and he will. Revelation tells us that Satan knows that there are these limits, that they’re temporary, and Revelation says that he knows that the time is short. There are many other indications that there are some parameters. We’re not really told what they are, but Satan does seem to know what they are, God knows what they are, and both parties respect those boundaries in the cosmic conflict. That’s important for the question of why God allows evil, because if that’s the case, then maybe there are many evils that God would otherwise prevent, and indeed does want to prevent, but to do so would require him to contravene the rules of engagement, and that’s just something that goes against his very character, which would just play into the hands of the allegations.
Kurt: Fascinating! We’ve got this language of courtroom allegations and legal language. Tell me more about the heavenly-courtroom picture here, or what some other scholars would call the divine council.
Peckham: That’s right, yeah, “divine council” is another term for it. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there are a number of scenes. One of them is in Job. We see it in Psalm 82. Some people think Isaiah 6 is an example. Revelation 4 and 5 has this heavenly court under the wings of this heavenly or divine council. Many Old Testament scholars believe that this is a kind of court of celestial agencies that have some say-so or some kind of government in (sic) what takes place in the world, but all under the sovereignty of God, who is the Most High. I call it “heavenly council” because I prefer to avoid the word “divine” for God, the only necessarily existing creator of all, but there are other celestial beings that we typically associate with angels and celestial creatures, and this council appears to be made up of those kinds of beings. Prior to the cross event, it’s very interesting (and for those that will take a bit of time to look forward to it, there’s much more to read about this in the book) that many New Testament scholars think that Satan has some license as the ruler of this world (probably, he is given rulership by the five of us). He claims rulership of this world, and he is given some license before this heavenly council, until the cross, and then he is banished from the council. He’s unmasked and excommunicated from the heavenly council. After that point, he appears to be here antagonizing us. Revelation calls him “the accuser of the brethren.” There are other celestial creatures there as well. We just don’t know much about them.
Kurt: You say “up until the cross” here. So what you’re suggesting for the problem of evil and suffering is that evil has been defeated, but that we’re still fighting the skirmishes (that might be NT Wright that uses that). So evil is defeated, you’re saying, but it’s not yet destroyed. Tell us about that.
Peckham: Satan is defeated, but not yet destroyed. He is defeated at the cross, and by the way, this is just one of the things the New Testament says that Christ came to do. I would in no way reduce the atonement for this, but one of the things he came to do was to destroy the works of the Devil (that’s in I John), and to destroy the power of the Devil (from Hebrews). This is what he does, and this is the already/not yet of the kingdom of God. God’s is the kingdom. He has defeated the Devil in the heavenly court, the allegation has been defeated, but the conflict still continues on the Earth for some limited, finite period of time.
Kurt: This really brings to light the life and ministry of Jesus. You can see the work that he does in healing people. It presents a picture of Jesus as doing very important renowned works. It’s not just, “Hey, let me die on the cross so that I can save you in thousands of years’ time on the day of judgment.” It really manifests itself in the world. We as Christians are called to do what he did, so we need to care for the poor, heal the sick, and we have our ways of doing that, of course. Am I on the right track here?
Peckham: Absolutely! I think this is one of the classical advantages of the cosmic-conflict approach, which is not to say others can’t also hold this, but one of those things is if you really say that there are things happening in the world that God doesn’t want to have happen, there are reasons why God morally can’t prevent them. Maybe it would contravene the kind of free will that he gave, or maybe it would go against the rules of engagement. But we in our own way can prevent a lot of evil, or bring a lot of good into the universe that God wants us to do. So everything that we do actually plays a role in this cosmic conflict as well as servants of God. I think we should be very motivated to do this, and recognize that this world is under enemy jurisdiction. I think CS Lewis calls it “enemy territory,” and we’re part of the rebellion. I think that’s right. I think that’s the way the New Testament speaks of it. We’re also called to be witnesses. This legal language isn’t just a metaphor. Jesus says he came to testify to the truth, and he also calls us witnesses. We’re supposed to witness to the world about the character of our God, and one of the ways we do that is by proclamation, but another way we do it is by living the way someone who is a Christ-follower would and should live.
Kurt: Theology is frequently a pick-your-poison game. Every position, it seems, has some weakness to it, so sometimes, one of the questions I like to ask people is, “Given your model, what are some of the weaknesses of your approach here?
Peckham: I think one of the biggest weaknesses of a cosmic-conflict perspective is the perceived plausibility in this holistic world, and larger Western secular culture that we’re in. Many people don’t believe in celestial beings, devils, demons. Getting them to consider one supreme God is difficult in and of itself. Some of this may be taken out of hand just because of that, but I don’t think it’s anything like a defeater. Plantinga again argues that plausibility is in the ear of the hearer, as it were. A lot of plausibility comes down to background belief, and I think if we take scripture seriously, or even if we just take the gospels seriously, we see there (really at every turn) cosmic conflict, and a real Devil, and real demonic agency that works. To me, a Christian worldview needs to be a worldview that is congruent with the Bible, and I don’t think we are at liberty to cast that aside. I think for anyone who is willing to entertain a biblical kind of Christianity, the cosmic conflict is just going to come with it, and I don’t think it’s implausible at all. I think most of the implausibility is because of the lies of the Enlightenment, a very secular, disenchanted view of the world. But still, most of the cultures of the world believe in celestial beings, and the vast majority of human beings that have ever lived believed in celestial agency. It’s really a very small section of supposedly enlightened people that have adopted a different worldview that I think we shouldn’t capitulate to.
Kurt: I like that, “supposedly enlightened people.” We’ve got Steve Morton here who is sitting here watching this stuff. It’s kind of interesting having this happen here today. “Immediately before tuning in here, I was listening to a song called ‘Alone Again at Mastery,’ and contemplating a line in it that says, ‘If he (God) really does exist, why did he desert me in my hour of need?’” There certainly are some people who feel that they are deserted. Let me ask you this: how is it that your approach to the problem of evil and suffering provide comfort for those that are suffering?
Peckham: This is so important. There’s much more to say about this that my book doesn’t even get into because I’m dealing mostly with the philosophical problem. But two things that I think are certainly very comforting are, firstly, God is a God who becomes human in the Incarnation (the second person of the Trinity), and gives himself for us, and dies and suffers on the cross for us. All of that suffering on the cross, I believe he suffers with immanent suffering. So God is a transcendent God, but he is not only a transcendent, but an immanent God. If there had been any other way for him to ensure the eternal salvation of the universe, he would have chosen it to spare his son from the cross event. Secondly, I think when we see things happening in the world, and we wonder where God is, I think it’s helpful to realize that God is not operating arbitrarily, and we do not need to think that when evils occur, and God does not prevent some evil from occurring, that it was because he allowed those things to occur, or because specific events in themselves are needed to bring about something better. It might be that God desperately wants to prevent those incidences of evil, but to do so would actually undermine the free will necessary for love, or go against the rules of engagement, or for all we know, would actually lead to adverse outcomes because God, in his infinite wisdom, knows the end from the beginning. So I think we can look to the cross, and recognize that the God of the cross can be trusted, and when God appears distant, it might be because of that limited and temporary jurisdiction of the enemy. But Christ has defeated Satan, and he will, in the end, usher in a kingdom where there will be no more suffering, no more tears, no more pain, no more death.
Kurt: Let me ask you a final question. It comes from Jeffrey from Nicaragua here. He says, “We know that God created everything, and there is no darkness in him, so how can we think about evil and suffering as part of reality, with God being the creator of everything?”
Peckham: I think of evil as a parasite. God created everything, and he created everything good. I think that particular freedom we were given requires freedom to reject love. I have an argument devoted to that in the book, but I won’t try to extrapolate that now. But if love requires the freedom to reject love, then love requires that creatures have the ability to choose evil. That means that God is love, and God granted creatures the freedom to love, and this requires the possibility—it doesn’t require the actuality of evil. So God didn’t create evil, or try to cause evil to be created. Evil was actualized by creatures’ rebellion against God. The possibility of evil isn’t something that is a created thing, but something intrinsic to the nature of the kind of freedom that love requires. But no one ever needed to actualize evil, therefore God did not bring evil into the world, and he is not culpable for evil—its possibility or its actuality.
Kurt: Very good, and that’s a summary to (sic) the episode, really, and your position. Again, for those that are interested, we will put a link to the book “Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil” on our website so that you can check that out. John, I know sometimes, writing projects overlap each other. What’s the next thing you’re working on?
Peckham: The next thing I’m working on is a book on divine attributes, a constructive treatment of the attributes of God.
Kurt: That is related here. Very nice! Keep me posted on that, and we’ll have to bring you on our program again.
Peckham: Great, I’d love to come back.
Kurt: Thank you, John! Again, this is John Peckham from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Now John, the weather here in Chicago is just crazily cold right now. Do you get the same blast? Is it below zero?
Peckham: Yeah, it’s going to be worsening this coming week.
Kurt: Yeah, a high of -7 on Wednesday, I think. I’d rather be in Alaska right now; it’s warmer there! Well thanks for coming on our program, and God bless you.
Peckham: Thanks, and God bless you too.
Kurt: Alright, well that does it for our program today. Next week, as we continue our Explore God series, I will be presenting some thoughts on whether Christianity is too narrow. As I’ve been thinking through this, I’ve been talking to my wife about that question, and it really depends on what we mean by “narrow” and by “too.” What is too narrow? So I’ll be talking about that. I’ve got three main points going through my mind right now: the nature of truth, the futility of relativism, and the human condition, and how these three factors will help us to answer that question. I look forward to bringing those thoughts to you on next week’s episode, which will be episode 134! We have been doing this program now for two and a half years every Saturday. So I would love to have you consider becoming one of our supporters to keep us going. Chris, I think I was joking with you maybe two weeks ago about a thousand episodes. If we did this program for, what is it, ten years or something like that—more than that, twenty years! That’s a thousand episodes! That would be crazy, but it would be great. I love doing this, and having this program here week after week. Alright, well I’m grateful for the continued support of our patrons, and the partnership that we have with our sponsors. They are: Defenders Media, Consult Kevin, The Sky Floor, Rethinking Hell, the Illinois Family Institute, and Fox Restoration. I want to thank our technical producer Chris Yaisli, for all the great, wonderful work that he does in our tech room, and our guest today, John Peckham. And last, but not least, I want to thank you for listening in, and for striving for truth on faith, politics, and society.