I’ve started reading Greg Boyd’s God At War, which I checked out of the local seminary library at the recommendation of a friend. In it, Boyd suggests that there are two basic ways of understanding the presence of evil in the world: the warfare worldview in which good and evil are locked in a cosmic conflict and classical philosophical theism which is derived from Greek metaphysics in which the attributes given to God require Him to be in direct control of everything so that all good and evil are a part of God’s will. Boyd suggests that Christianity had a warfare worldview prior to Augustine and classical philosophical theism after Augustine corrupted Christianity with Greek metaphysics. I’m only sixty pages into the book and I’m not sure what I think, so I thought I would think aloud for a little bit.
Boyd’s first chapter provides the example of Zosia, a Jewish girl in the Warsaw ghetto who had her eyeballs ripped out by Nazi soldiers. He juxtaposes this story of radical, senseless evil with Augustine’s account in City of God for how God providentially uses evil:
God would never have created any… whose wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He would turn him, thus embellishing the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses. For what are called antitheses are among the most elegant of the ornaments of speech… As, then, these oppositions of contraries lend beauty to the language, so the beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries. [City of God 5.10, quoted on Boyd, 45]
It is a bit tone-deaf to call a little girl’s ripped-out eyeballs “antitheses in an exquisite poem.” I’ve read elsewhere in Augustine where he uses the analogy of the painting with dark spaces and light spaces; if it were all one color, it wouldn’t be beautiful, which is why God includes evil and tragedy as part of His plan for the poetry of creation. Now a fair question would be whether what Augustine is saying here could be reappropriated by someone taking Boyd’s position to support an argument for why God has chosen not to be a meticulous puppet-master.
An important distinction that needs to be made is the difference between what God actively causes and what God allows. Do Augustine and the inheritors of his tradition, particularly among the reformed branch of Christianity, really argue that God actively causes evil for providential purposes or would they ultimately say that God just allows it while retaining His ultimate sovereignty? How much distance is there really between Boyd’s stance and the Augustinian tradition?
What Augustine was reacting to, by the way, was a philosophy/religion called Manichaeism which had a very rigid view of what Boyd calls the warfare worldview, basically saying that the world was locked into a struggle between good and evil forces that had always been fighting each other with neither one being stronger than the other and neither one ever being guaranteed the victory. In the Manichean worldview, God and Satan would have equal strength and an equal likelihood of winning. Boyd objects to this extreme. He says that God is omnipotent and sovereign, but that He deliberately allows a lot of freedom within creation:
The cosmos is, by divine choice, more of a democracy than it is a monarchy. The warfare worldview thus presupposes the reality of relatively autonomous free creatures, human and angelic, who can and do act genuinely on their own, and who can and do sometimes go against God’s will. It thus presupposes the reality of radical contingency and of genuine risk. It further presupposes that this risk has sometimes gone bad, even on a cosmic scale, and that this has turned the earth into a veritable war zone. 
So I suppose Boyd’s modification to Augustine’s metaphor would be to say that instead of creation being an intricately planned painting in which God has plotted out carefully exactly where evil will cause beauty in its harmonious balance with good, God has pulled a Jackson Pollock and handed out a billion paintbrushes to His creatures to make a chaotic, messy painting, letting the dark and light colors fall where they may.
The thing about it though is I’m not sure it makes a difference to Zosia’s mother whether God actively willed that her daughter’s eyeballs were ripped out or they got ripped out because God chose to renounce meticulous control over His creation. Isn’t the same problem of theodicy applicable either way? Either God is a sadist who burns the village to save the village or God is the bureaucrat who says, “I’m sorry I couldn’t jump in and save the day, I agreed to tie my own hands.”
One of the places where Manichaeism seems to infiltrate Boyd’s otherwise carefully staked commitment to God’s full sovereignty is the question of whether the cosmic war between good and evil is a “genuine” war or not: “For a war that meticulously follows a blueprint that has been drawn up by one of the parties involved in the war (God) is hardly a real war” (67). If God doesn’t control the outcome and it is in fact a “real war,” doesn’t that mean definitively that God is one of two competing deities neither of whom is a certain victor?
I don’t mean to quibble so much. One thing I will say is that the Augustinian shift in Christianity is reflected in the shift in understanding of Jesus’ atonement from the patristic to medieval era in the West. When Satan and the forces of evil were taken seriously as real combatants and not just illusive “non-beings,” then Jesus’ purpose in coming to Earth was “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). His blood on the cross “bought” the captives of Satan in a sort of trick ransom payment that resulted in Satan’s defeat.
In a world of meticulous divine sovereignty, the cross pays a penalty rather than a ransom. Satan’s role in the equation of atonement is replaced by Jesus’ infinitely offended Father (which is a bit disturbing to think about). The problem is not that Satan has sinners enslaved; it is the fact that they’ve pissed off their Creator.
I find myself in the middle on all of these questions. I think there is a lot of legitimacy to seeing evil in Augustinian terms as the privation of good, or choosing a lesser good over a greater good. Many people do evil things without being wholly irrational and malicious. It’s dangerous to assume that our opponents are wholly irrational and malicious. I’ve argued before that Christianity is supposed to teach us the humility to avoid a Manichean demonization of our enemies.
Additionally, I am wary of putting too much stock into hidden realms of angels and demons because this can be abused so easily. Schizophrenics have legitimate brain chemical issues that can be addressed with the right medication; they don’t just need a good exorcism. I’ve had the first-hand experience of overconfident spiritual “discernment” last fall when I went through my personal Asuza Street awakening and started calling out “anti-Christs” that I supposedly “saw” which were really my own predilections hypercharged with a sense of “spiritual” certainty. I really hope that God (and/or any angels that exist as such) are not dependent upon my naming things in the “right way” when I pray before He/they act on whatever petitions I throw before them. That’s an abdication of divine sovereignty that I would have a big problem with.
At the same time, I also disagree with an interpretation of our world in which all morality is strictly divided between autonomous individual moral agents. When our behavior patterns synergize into street mobs, stock markets, or other sociological forces, we are creating demonic beings that take on a life of their own and turn back around to dictate our actions. Jean Baudrillard writes a lot about how the “real world” is actually the world inside the screen (TV, internet, etc) that we may have created at some point, but which now creates us.
I do think that we need Jesus to rescue us from Satan, rather than just the abstract violation of God’s honor. There are real chains that God didn’t put on us and that we didn’t entirely put on ourselves which need to be broken. There is something or somebody greater than my own distorted appetites and inclinations that ensnares me in sin and opposes God’s work in my life.
I’ve experienced this recently with an unusual degree of paralysis and anxiety I’ve felt facing my interim role with the youth ministry at our church this summer (and possibly fall). Perhaps it just feels better to view this as a spiritual battle in which I can cry to God to deliver me from a real enemy who is seeking to deceive me, rather than just seeing it as a personal existential struggle in which I self-talk my way into taming my passions and following my reason. In any case, part of me will always be the son of a scientist, but I’m still going to pray like a Pentecostal.