The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Creation, Chaos, and Suffering

Theological Suffering


In the last post of this series, I talked about the Problem of Evil, and the two categories of evil which philosophers and theologians usually talk about: moral evil and natural evil. Generally speaking, moral evil refers to the evil acts that people choose to commit which lead to the suffering of others, while natural evil refers to those seemingly random (or, chaotic) things which occur as a result of the way the world works which bring about suffering. A man killing his wife would be classified as moral evil, while a tornado destroying a house and killing the family inside would be natural evil.

If you take the idea of free will seriously (which I certainly do), moral evil is pretty easy to explain: bad things happen because people abuse the freedom of will which they have been given. We might not like it when a terrorist blows up a building, and we might even wish that God would have taken the terrorist’s free will away in order to prevent the horrific act, but ultimately, we know that people should be blamed for the bad things to do.

Natural evil is tougher to explain away, though. It is clear that we live in a world where chaotic things occur and leave great destruction in their wake: hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, cancer, genetic diseases. They question is, Why does our world work like this? People do not cause these things to happen—did God design the world to be like this? And if so, why?

There are, I think, four basic perspectives on the idea of creation, chaos, and suffering:

Chaos as the Result of Sin

The traditional view (also called the Augustinian view) is that God created the world perfect, without sin or chaos anywhere. Living in a perfect garden, eating from the Tree of Life, Adam and Eve did not have to worry about tornados or skin cancer (which is a good thing, since they didn’t wear any clothes).

But then sin entered the world through their disobedience, and as a result, creation itself was cursed (Genesis 3.17-19). No longer was the earth the ideal home for mankind which God had intended it to be. Sin had far-reaching consequences, including death and chaotic destruction.

Until very recently, this was the view I held, but as you’ll see below, I think it needs to be nuanced a little.

Chaos as part of the Design of Creation

At the opposite extreme from the Augustinian perspective is the argument that chaos (and suffering) were always present, and were simply a part of the way God made the world. This is the argument set forth by Terence E. Fretheim in Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters.

Fretheim points out that God created the world good; He did not create it perfect. In other words, God created an earth that suited His purposes; not one that was necessarily flawless or without chaos present in any way.

Furthermore, man is given the task of keeping and tending the garden (Genesis 2.15). This suggests that creation was not a perfect, finished product, but something which required the keeping and ordering of Adam. Is that not a suggestion of a certain level of chaos?

And finally, what is the presence of the serpent in the garden if not an element of chaos? If creation was absolutely perfect, why would it contain a tempter? Instead, the doorway to sin which the serpent provided and the possible ramifications of that sin strongly suggest a chaotic element in creation even from the beginning.

Having said that, I think Fretheim goes to far. In my mind, it is a big leap from the hints of chaos listed above to the claim that volcanoes, tsunamis, and genetic conditions were present from the beginning (a claim that Fretheim makes many times in the book).

Chaos Outside of the Garden

The last two perspectives are basically hybrids; midpoints between the two viewpoints already described above.

It is possible that the Garden of Eden was an environment free from chaos, but that the rest of creation was not. When Adam and Even sinned, they were cast out of the Garden (Genesis 3.23-24) and forced to live in the “real world.” Outside of the special haven God had prepared for them, Adam and Eve and their descendants had to live with the harsh realities of the world which included natural disasters and disease.

This perspective is intriguing because it marks a clear distinction between the Garden and the rest of creation (and Scriptures seems to do that as well), but I think it has the same problems as the first viewpoint because as Fretheim points out, there do seem to be some elements of chaos in the description of the Garden

Chaos in Creation but Intensified by Sin

This last option is also somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and best describes my current understanding of the relationship between creation and chaos.

It seems to me that chaos was always present to an extent, but was intensified and multiplied after Adam and Eve sinned. As the “Chaos as Result of Sin” view accurately points out, creation itself was cursed because of Adam and Eve’s sin, and that fundamentally altered the way things worked.

Water is a chaotic thing, and always had the potential for danger (I would suggest that even in the Garden, if Adam’s lungs filled with water he would have drowned), but after the Fall, hurricanes and tsunamis and the true destructive power of water was unleashed. In the Garden, Adam and Eve grew hungry, and if they had refused to eat, they would have died. But after the Fall, they had to grow their food by the sweat of their brow, and sometimes the ground would fail to yield properly. Famine and suffering result.

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t think it is wise to be too dogmatic about this, because the Bible doesn’t explicitly lay out the relationship between chaos and creation. There is a lot we don’t know and thus, our conclusions can never be certain.

Still, it seems to me that there are a few conclusions that we can draw with relative certainty:

(1) From the beginning, there was a degree of chaos. Creation was good, not perfect. Satan slithered around. The Garden needed to be tended and kept.

(2) That chaos was intensified by the Fall. After Adam and Eve sinned, a curse was placed on creation. It is only logical that this made conditions worse. I do not see natural disasters and devastating illness in the chaos of the Garden, but it is easy for me to see them in a chaos intensified and magnified by the Fall.

(3) Outside of the Garden, life involved suffering. Regardless of the amount of chaos that occurred in the Garden, the Garden also possessed the Tree of Life, and presumably, the fruit of that tree would counteract any illness. In fact, it was access to this tree and the immortality to offered which directly led God to banish Adam and Eve from the Garden (Genesis 3.22).

For us, the reality is that we have to navigate life in a world which is filled with chaos. Outside of the Garden, we suffer. Modern technology has revolutionized health care, and yet there are illnesses and diseases against which we are powerless. Modern technology has allowed us to predict dangerous storms with increasing accuracy, and yet people still die.

As Christians, we look forward to when suffering ceases, chaos is conquered, and Christ returns.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Moral Evil and Natural Evil

Theological SufferingIn this series, I am attempting to approach the topic of suffering from a variety of different angles. As I mentioned in the first post, I am using the term “suffering” to sum up the famous Problem of Evil. I talk about the Problem of Evil at length in this post on Alexander Campbell, but perhaps it would be beneficial to state the problem outright, the original statement of which is generally credited to Epicurus:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?”

So basically the issue is, if God is good and powerful, why does He allow evil and suffering to exist in the world?

Now, it’s a fair question to ask if all suffering is evil or the result of evil. As humans we admittedly have very limited perspectives, and sometimes things which are good for us certainly don’t seem good at the time they occur (think about an infant getting a vaccine, for example). Regardless, evil certainly exists in the world, and a lot of suffering occurs because of it.

Philosophers and theologians and people who discuss this topic will often distinguish between two kinds of evil: moral evil and natural evil.

Moral Evil

Generally speaking, moral evil refers to the evil acts that people choose to commit. A lot of the suffering which occurs in the world happens because people choose to do things which cause harm to one another. Fatal car accidents caused by alcohol consumption, child molestation, ISIS beheadings, and the Holocaust are all examples of moral evil. People do foolish and terrible things which cause a great deal of suffering for others.

Really, this type of evil is easier to explain, at least, if you have a robust view of human free will. As I discussed a little in this post, I think a theology which embraces the idea that God created humans with free will is important and makes the most sense of the teachings of Scripture. The basic idea is that God created people out of His love and desires that we love Him in return. Certainly God could have created us like robots who had no choice but to “love” Him, but a coerced feeling like that wouldn’t really be love at all. To enable us to choose to love Him, God also gives us the ability to reject Him, and when we abuse our freedom of will, all sorts of bad things can happen.

When it comes to moral evil, you can blame God for the way He made the world (though, based on the previous paragraph, what other options were available?), but really, the blame lies with people who make bad or evil choices.

Natural Evil

Natural evil generally refers to those “random” things which occur, not because of the actions of people, but as a result of the world “naturally” operates (I put those two words in quotations because they are loaded with some major assumptions). Hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, genetic conditions and human decay and death in general are examples of natural evil.

Now, human choices can still exacerbate natural evils and make the suffering greater than it would be otherwise (certain behaviors can make illness more likely, social problems like poverty can increase the amount of suffering which comes from natural disasters, etc.), but for the most part, people have no control over natural evil—we suffer simply because we live in a world where these types of things occur.

Because of this, I think natural evil is a little harder to explain away. We can understand when negative things happen to people who deserve them, and we can understand, as horrible as it is, when people suffer because other people choose to do evil. But why do we live in a world where natural disasters kill so many unsuspecting people? Why do children get cancer and die? Did God design the world this way, and if so, why? If God didn’t design the world this way, what happened to it for everything to get so messed up?

In the next post, I’ll try to take a closer look at natural evil, and specifically, the idea of chaos: the element of randomness in life which we can’t control which has potential for unleashing great suffering. For me, as the parent of a little girl with a genetic condition, this is one of the really tough areas of examining suffering theologically.

Alexander Campbell and the Problem of Evil

Theological Suffering

This is another installment in a loosely-united series called A Theological View of Suffering. See more here.


The problem of evil[1] has long bothered both believers and those who remain skeptical of the existence of God: how can the idea of a loving and powerful God be reconciled with the undeniable reality of evil and suffering in the world?[2]


Alexander Campbell

Within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, no single individual has been more influential than Alexander Campbell. Campbell thought deeply on a wide variety of subjects, and as editor of popular brotherhood papers and also as a famous writer and debater, his thoughts were widely disseminated in his day and continue to influence his spiritual descendants in the 21st century.

Interestingly though, Campbell’s views on the problem of evil have not been studied significantly[3] and are not widely known. Campbell never developed a comprehensive theodicy,[4] but he did write significantly on the subject of evil and suffering in the world. In addition to being an influential thinker and a prolific writer, Campbell was also a man who was frequently battered by personal tragedy: prior to his death in 1866, Campbell buried ten of his children including his favorite son Wickliffe, who drowned at the age of ten and whose death left him devastated.[5] Through an examination of his writings and his reaction to the death of his beloved son, this paper will seek to describe the ways in which Campbell reconciled his views of God’s good governance of the world with the very real presence of evil and suffering within it.

Campbell’s Views on the Providence of God

 Any discussion of Alexander Campbell’s understanding of evil and suffering must be grounded in his views on how God governs the world and providentially directs the lives of mankind. Generally speaking, Campbell’s perspective on providence is characterized by a high view of God’s involvement in the world balanced with a heavy emphasis on human freedom. This middle-ground approach is illustrative of the fact that Campbell desired to distance himself on the one hand from a pervasive Calvinism which denied the reality of human freedom,[6] and a Deistic or Skeptical perspective on the other, which denied the active involvement of God in the world.[7]

In 1833, Campbell published a series of excerpts from William Sherlock’s A Discourse Concerning the Divine Providence.[8] As this work was applauded by Campbell[9] and the excerpts were chosen and published by him, they, along with his own articles, can help us understand his views on providence.

First, Campbell argued strongly for a special providence which interacts with the lives of individuals. He was frustrated by those who believed in providence but denied the individual manifestations of it:

“They who admit a general providence, and, at the same time, deny a special providence, are feeble and perverted reasoners and thinkers. A general, or universal supervision or providence, necessarily implies a special or particular providence.”[10]

For Campbell, a God who created all things but then showed interest in only a few of them would be supremely irresponsible.[11] Instead, God is directly involved in the lives of all his creatures: he governs them in a particular sense rather than simply permitting the events of their lives in a general sense.[12] In fact, “God’s government of all events is indeed so absolute and uncontrollable, that no good or evil can befall any man, but what God pleases, what he orders and appoints for him.”[13] From this perspective, “chance” simply does not exist, as seemingly random events are actually governed by God’s unseen providential hand.[14] For Campbell, a prime biblical example of this is Joseph, whose life is comprised of repeated occurrences of “fortunate” and “unfortunate” events which were actually God’s continual providential workings in his life.[15] Indeed, even the death of infants and good men, “the purest and best of our race”, do not occur outside of the providence of God, but rather happen according to his purposes.[16] In his providence, God is intricately involved in his creation, both in a general and special sense.

However, a second major component of Campbell’s understanding of providence is that none of God’s providential action impinges upon human freedom. Despite God’s providential oversight,

“…yet he lays no necessity upon human actions: men will and choose freely, pursue their own interests and inclinations, just as they would do if there were no Providence to govern them….”[17]

 As free moral agents, humans have the ability to make choices for themselves; at the same time, God can use those choices to bring about his own purposes.[18] Out of this free will, men and women at times choose to commit evil. God does not order that they do so; in fact, he expressly forbids it. But, since God honors them as free moral creatures, he does permit their evil choices.[19]

Although Campbell is confident that God meticulously governs the world, he admits that there are things which simply do not make sense from a human perspective: sinful men often live full lives, while some of the purest and best are cut down in the prime of life. But Campbell is willing to chalk this up to the mysterious nature of God, asking “…why should not the scheme of a superintending Providence, or of a righteous moral government, also have its peculiar and incomprehensible mysteries?”[20]

Regardless, Campbell is content to rely on the wisdom, care, and blessing of the God who is firmly in control of his creation:

“… our lives, and all our conditions of life, are of his superintending care and providence, and not of “blind chance” or “good luck,” but of his own direction and blessing; for, indeed, in this life, many of our so-called misfortunes are the choicest blessings, and all things do work together for good to them who love God and keep his commandments.”[21]

Reconciling Evil and Suffering with a Good and Powerful God

Alexander Campbell affirmed the three components of the problem of evil—the benevolence of God, the omnipotence of God, and the existence of evil—but he did not consider those components to be mutually exclusive. In fact, as we shall see, from Campbell’s perspective it was because of God’s goodness that he created a world in which evil exists.

In The Christian System, Campbell explicitly affirms the goodness and power of God as part of his infinite and eternal qualities:

“God appears before the universe of intellectuals in the threefold attitude of Creator, Lawgiver, and Redeemer; and, although each of these involves and reveals many of his excellencies, still in each department three are most conspicuous. As Creator, wisdom, power, and goodness; as Lawgiver, justice, truth, and holiness; as Redeemer, mercy, condescension, and love. In each and all of which departments he is infinite, immutable, and eternal.”[22]

To Campbell, it was also clear that evil and suffering occur in the world. “Moral evil exists as sure as we exist,”[23] he states, and because of that evil, “We have frequently requested such reasoners to reflect that animal and mental pain existed to a very great extent.”[24]

Acknowledging the benevolence and omnipotence of God as well as the existence of evil and suffering in the world, Campbell’s primary response to the tension between these realities was his emphasis on human freedom. For Campbell, God created humanity to be free moral creatures, and he did so out of his goodness. God’s loving goal in creation was to bring about the “diffusion of bliss on the largest possible scale”,[25] and this goal could only be achieved with God functioning as the governor of the universe and his creatures choosing to obey his moral laws:

“…the knowledge of God is essential to the happiness of a rational creature, and if God had given birth to a system which in its very nature excluded the possibility of evil, it would have also excluded the possibility of his being a governor. A creator he might have been, but a governor he could not have been; and unless exhibited as a governor, no rational creature ever could have known him in that way essential to happiness.“[26]

 Campbell reasoned that in order for creatures to have the ability to genuinely choose to obey God’s laws, they must also have the ability to choose to disregard them and to rebel against the divine governor.[27] When human freedom is abused in this way, evil and suffering is the inevitable result, but indeed, God could not have achieved his goals for creation without endowing humans with free will and the subsequent ability to bring evil into the world.[28]

In his view that a humanity endowed with free will provided the best option for God’s creation—indeed, the only option which would enable God to achieve his goals for creation—Campbell approximates a version of Leibnitz’s theodicy that this is the best of all possible worlds.[29] And in fact, Campbell uses similar terminology:

“…the actual state of things now existing was the best possible state in which they could exist with a reference to all final results. It may, then, in the sprit of true devotion, and genuine humility be affirmed that God could not, with a reference to all final results, give birth to a more perfect system of things than the present.”[30]

While Campbell sees moral evil as an obvious result of human freedom, he sees natural or cosmic evil as a result of the fall which occurred at the beginning of time in the Garden of Eden:

“At its birth all was good, and therefore all was happy. Before the rebellion in Eden, all was good, all was very good. In the world not a groan, not a sigh was heard, till sin was born. No gloom, no pain, no sorrow any where. But the instant man rebelled, the heavens were overcast, the Sun lost his brightness, the earth its fertility, the air its salubrity, Eden its bloom, woman her beauty, and man his crown. Nature was immediately diseased in all her members.”[31]

Adam and Eve’s sin in Eden negatively affected human nature,[32] and indeed, tainted all of creation. As explained by Thomas Campbell, Alexander’s father, in The Christian Baptist, “…physical evils are the just and proper results and consequences of the moral,” and they are used by God “…as punishments, preventives, or correctives.”[33] Thus, moral evil is made possible by free will, and cosmic evil resulted when free creatures chose to sin.[34]

Another significant aspect of Alexander Campbell’s response to the problem of evil is his insistence on humanity’s limited ability to perceive the providential purpose behind evil events. For Campbell, many of the events and happenings in life which we consider to be pointless evil may actually reflect more upon our inability to accurately perceive what is going on rather than a flaw in the way God is governing the world. Campbell was frustrated with those who argued that God should have ordered world history in such a way that seemingly gratuitous evil would not have occurred. He compared them with children who asked why ripe ears of corn did not immediately spring forth from the earth as soon as the seed was planted:

“Could not an almighty, and benevolent being, have produced the ripe ear without waiting for a sprout, stalk, leaves, blossoms, and all the other preparations of nature to form an ear of corn? We are, even in the common concerns of life, but poor judges of propriety; and it is extreme arrogance for us to arraign Omniscience at the tribunal of our reason when we cannot tell the reason why the blossom precedes the fruit.”[35]

Campbell’s point is clear: if God, in his omniscient wisdom has a reason, indecipherable by humans, for making corn grow in the way it does, it is quite possible that he also has reasons for permitting those evil events which we would rather avoid. Campbell concludes that, ultimately, speculation on the origin and purpose of evil is inessential to the Christian life: “It is not necessary that we should analyze and comprehend the origin and nature of darkness in order to enjoy the light of the sun.”[36]

 A Case Study in Suffering: The Death of Wickliffe Campbell

 For Alexander Campbell, the issue of evil and suffering in the world was not simply an academic one, as he was touched deeply by suffering in his personal life. Death was a frequent visitor to the Campbell home, and Alexander witnessed the deaths of his first wife and ten of his fourteen children prior to his own passing in 1866.

The death of young children was common in the nineteenth century, but of the ten children whose deaths Campbell witnessed, only three were infants. Six died of illness in their 20’s, and one, Wickliffe, drowned at the age of ten.[37]


Wickliffe Campbell

By all accounts, Wickliffe was a special child. Described in his obituary as “a boy of remarkable and peculiar character” who had “given many evidences of a precocious piety,”[38] Wickliffe’s mother, Selina, said that he was a “remarkably polite, obedient and affectionate child—always serene, always happy.”[39] Though young, Wickliffe would carry his Bible with him daily and eagerly worked to memorize scripture.[40] He enjoyed studying academic books, and also kept a scrapbook filled with poetry he had cut out of religious newspapers.[41]

Alexander was devoted to his young son, referring to him as the “choicest lamb from my flock,”[42] and it is clear that he had high hopes for Wickliffe’s future, calling him a “child of much more than ordinary promise,” and one “on whom clustered many a hope of eminent usefulness to society in coming years.”[43] Reading between the lines, many interpreters have suggested that Alexander had tabbed Wickliffe to follow in his footsteps and succeed him as a leader within the Stone-Campbell Movement.[44]

But sadly, it was not to be. In May 1847, Alexander embarked on a tour of the British Isles which lasted several months.[45] On the afternoon of September 4, while his father was still overseas, Wickliffe went swimming with two of his cousins in a creek near his home. The boys had been diving off a small skiff near a mill dam, swimming under it, and emerging on the other side. This had been done previously without incident several times, but on one attempt, Wickliffe dove underneath but failed to emerge. His cousins raised the alarm and help arrived quickly, but it took half an hour to locate Wickliffe, who had become trapped underneath the apron of the dam, and remove his lifeless body from the water. W.K. Pendleton and Robert Richardson, Alexander Campbell’s sons-in-law, worked for hours to attempt to resuscitate Wickliffe using the medical techniques of the day, but to no avail.

The death of such an exceptional child was met with exceptional grief. Pendleton wrote Wickliffe’s original obituary, mentioning the “more than ordinary bereavement” and asked the brotherhood to unite together in beseeching God to provide Alexander and Selina “both strength to bear and resignation to suffer the calamity that has befallen them.”[46]

Still traveling overseas, Alexander Campbell was unaware of the tragedy which had befallen his favorite son. Campbell experienced a “dark, troubled night” on the night of Wickliffe’s death, and the next morning at breakfast he remarked to his host that “he had been greatly troubled in his sleep, and that he was conscious that something sad had happened at home.”[47] Regardless of whatever premonitions Campbell may have felt, he did not learn the details of his son’s passing until his return to Boston on October 19, where he received a letter from home informing him of Wickliffe’s death.[48]

Although Campbell dealt with the loss with resignation,[49] it is clear that Wickliffe’s death deeply affected him. Writing to a Brother Wallis more than a month after the tragedy, Campbell states, “I could not bring myself to write to any one for some time,” and goes on to describe how despite the loss of several other children, Wickliffe’s death was particularly distressing because of the suddenness of it and the universal admiration which people felt toward him.[50] Later, Campbell states that the loss of Wickliffe “has been more oppressive than any one case or trial through which I had passed,”[51] and even confesses that he struggles to put his grief into words, saying, “My emotions may be by a few more easily imagined than I could express them.”[52] Richardson, who in addition to being Campbell’s son-in-law also served as his personal physician, remarked that Campbell appeared to Bethany “much worn and jaded” after receiving the news of Wickliffe’s death, and that it was “a number of months” before “he could be said to have regained his health.”[53]

It is also clear that Alexander Campbell’s great grief following the death of Wickliffe did not shake his trust in God’s good governance of the world. He still held that God directed the ways of man, even if he did so in ways which were difficult to understand:

“God’s ways cannot be traced….But in this case he thought good to take to himself the choicest lamb from my flock, and has not revealed to me the reason why. But he is too wise to err, and too kind causelessly to afflict the children of men.”[54]

Elsewhere, Campbell stated that the incident “has been a most afflictive, as well as a most mysterious Providence,” but maintained that “the Lord has done it for some wise and kind, though to us mysterious, purpose.”[55] Although Campbell did not claim to understand God’s purposes, he did pray that God would use the bereavement to turn his heart from the things of earth and make him more devoted to the glory of the Savior.[56] Further, he took consolation in the thought that Wickliffe “was destined for another field of action, and the Lord has taken him to himself,”[57] and that his deceased children were now with God:

“This, to us is a sovereign balm—a blest relief. Though dead to us, they live with God. May the kind Redeemer raise us up with them in his own time, and reunite us in the inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away!”[58]


In the course of Alexander Campbell’s long and illustrious career as an editor, writer, and debater, he discussed a wide array of subjects, including the problem of evil. Campbell’s views on evil and suffering are rooted in his understanding of a God who functions as a universal governor, using his providential power both in a general sense, and also to effect the specific events of the lives of individual men and women, though never in a way which inhibits their free will.

For Campbell, that free will is a crucial and necessary ingredient in God’s creation of the world. Unfortunately, its abuse leads to moral evil, and through the fall in the Garden of Eden, natural evil as well. Still, Campbell argues that without human freedom, there can be no true obedience to God, no relationship with him, and thus, no good or happiness.

Indeed, in his providence, God has a purpose for even those events which cause great suffering, although this purpose can be difficult to discern. This is clearly evident in Campbell’s reaction to the tragic death of his son Wickliffe: despite his great grief, Campbell clinged to his belief that God is still firmly in control, that there are aspects of the providential plan which are a great mystery to us, and that ultimately, Christian hope is grounded in the resurrection and eternal life in God’s presence.


[1]The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus is generally credited to be the first to state the problem of evil: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” John Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 1990), 310.

[2]“Evil” and “suffering” are not synonyms, but they are related. For the sake of this paper, “suffering” will refer to the physical and emotional pain experienced as a result of the moral and natural evil which exists in the world.

[3]Two exceptions to this statement are John Mark Hicks, “Theodicy in Early Stone-Campbell Perspectives,” in Restoring the First-Century Church in the Twenty-First Century: Essays on the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, ed. Warren Lewis and Hans Rollman (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005): 287-303, and J. Caleb Clanton, The Philosophy of Religion of Alexander Campbell (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2013), 89-117. Hicks examines Campbell’s response to evil in the context of a survey of early restoration views on the topic. Clanton looks at Campbell’s interactions with skeptics related to the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness.

[4]In fact, Campbell would have had great reservations about the very idea of developing a comprehensive theodicy, as he preferred to focus on the specific teachings of scripture rather than philosophical or metaphysical speculation. See Hicks, 287, 290-91.

[5]Joseph R. Jeter, Jr. and Hiram J. Lester, “The Tragedy of Wickliffe Campbell,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 22 (July 1987): 87-89.

[6]Raised in the Scottish Presbyterian church, Campbell grew up in a Reformed context, but would come to refute aspects of this later. In Alexander Campbell, “Editor’s Reply,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (July 1833): 336, Campbell refers to his “former Calvinism”.

[7]As discussed in Richard J. Cherok, Debating for God: Alexander Campbell’s Challenge to Skepticism in Antebellum America (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008), 37ff., Campbell exercised considerable energy refuting the arguments of Skeptics and Deists. The prime example of this is Campbell’s famous debate with skeptic Robert Owen. See Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen, The Evidences of Christianity: A Debate Between Robert Owen, of New Lanark, Scotland and Alexander Campbell, President of Bethany College, Va. Containing an Examination of the “Social System” and all the Systems of Skepticism of Ancient and Modern Times, Held in the City of Cincinnati, Ohio, in April, 1829 (Bethany, VA: Alexander Campbell, 1829; reprint, Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1946).

[8]William Sherlock, A Discourse Concerning the Divine Providence (London: William Rogers, 1694; Reprint, Pittsburgh: J. L. Read, 1849). See the excerpts Campbell published in Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (May 1833): 205-12, 4 (June 1833): 247-51, 4 (July 1833): 296-300, 4 (August 1833): 389-95, 4 (September 1833): 435-39.

[9]Alexander Campbell, “Reply to J.A. Waterman,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (June 1833): 243, “Your commendations of Sherlock I think are well deserved. They are not exaggerated. He is a writer of good sense….It would be well if our philosophists, who disbelieve the superintending care of the Almighty Father, would give Sherlock a candid hearing.”

[10]Alexander Campbell, “Providence, General and Special,” Millennial Harbinger 26 (November 1855): 602.

[11]Ibid., 602.

[12]Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (May 1833): 206-07.

[13]Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (September 1833): 437.

[14]Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger (June 1833): 248-49.

[15]Campbell recounts the story of Joseph as an example of God’s providential care in both Alexander Campbell, “Chance,” Millennial Harbinger 22 (November 1851): 618-21, and Campbell, “Providence, General and Special,” 604-07.

[16]Alexander Campbell, “Mysteries of Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 18 (December 1847): 708. Campbell, 707-08, argues that God uses these departed virtuous persons to serve as his ministers in “other fields of labor.”

[17]Campbell, “Sherlock,” (September 1833): 436.

[18]Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (July 1833): 300.

[19]Alexander Campbell, “Sherlock on Providence,” Millennial Harbinger 4 (August 1833): 392. Interestingly, Campbell, “Sherlock,” 393, argues that “though God orders and appoints what evils every man shall suffer, he orders and appoints no man to do the evil….And therefore we must necessarily distinguish between the evils men do and the evils they suffer. The first God permits and directs; the second he orders and appoints.”

[20]Alexander Campbell, “Mysteries of Providence,” 705.

[21]Campbell, “Chance,” 620-21.

[22]Alexander Campbell, The Christian System (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1839; reprint, Cincinnati: Bosworth, Chase & Hall, 1871), 20.

[23]Alexander Campbell, “To Mr. D.—A Skeptic.—Replication.—No. III,” The Christian Baptist 4 (November 6, 1826): 24.

[24]Campbell and Owen, The Evidences of Christianity, 140.

[25]Campbell, The Christian System, 30.

[26]Alexander Campbell, “Replication.—No. 1,” The Christian Baptist 4 (August 7, 1826): 14. See also the discussion in Clanton, 92-93, and Mark Wiebe, “Letters to a Skeptic: Alexander Campbell on Rationality, Religious Belief, and Evil,” Stone-Campbell Journal 15 (Spring 2012): 32: “A world of creatures lacking the capacity to make significant moral choices would also lack this type of continuous guiding relationship with its Creator. Such a world, Campbell asserts, would be missing something vital.”

[27]Campbell, “To Mr. D.—A Skeptic.—Replication.—No. III,” 24, “Please consider, that if a rational being was created incapable of disobeying, he must, on that very account, be incapable of obeying….There are some things impossible to Omnipotence. Hills cannot be made without vallies; shadows, without substances; nor rational beings, without free agency….It is impossible to create a being that shall be capable of obeying, and at the same time, incapable of disobeying.” Emphasis in the original.

[28]Wiebe, 31, argues that Campbell here anticipates the theodicy arguments which Alvin Plantinga would make over one hundred years later.

[29]For an introduction to Leibnitz’s famous response to the problem of evil, see Susan Neiman, Evil In Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 21-23.

[30]Campbell, “Replication.—No. 1,” 14. Emphasis in the original.

[31]Alexander Campbell, “History of Sin, Including the Outlines of Ancient History—No. I,” Millennial Harbinger 1 (March 1830): 108.

[32]Campbell, The Christian System, 29, describes mankind as possessing “…a fallen, consequently a sinful nature” and as “…greatly fallen and depraved in our whole moral constitution.” Emphasis in the original.

[33]Thomas Campbell, “To Mr. D, a Sceptic.—Replication No. V,” The Christian Baptist 4 (January 1, 1827): 39.

[34]The resulting human sinful nature leads to additional moral evil, which in turn leads to additional natural evil as part of a vicious cycle. For a fuller discussion of Campbell’s Augustinian understanding of evil, see Hicks, 291.

[35]Campbell and Owen, The Evidences of Christianity, 391; Clanton, 102-03.

[36]Campbell, The Christian System, 30.

[37]Jeter and Lester, 87, present a helpful chart detailing the birth and death dates of Campbell’s children.

[38]W. K. Pendleton, “Death of Wickliffe E. Campbell,” Millennial Harbinger 18 (October 1847): 596.

[39]Selina Huntington Campbell, Home Life and Reminiscences of Alexander Campbell (St. Louis: John Burns, 1882), 28.


[41]Ibid., 32.

[42]Alexander Campbell, “Letters from Europe.—No. XXXVI,” Millennial Harbinger 19 (December 1848): 679.

[43]Alexander Campbell, “Obituary,” Millennial Harbinger 18 (December 1847): 713. See also Pendleton, 596, who calls Wickliffe “the object of special hope.”

[44]Todd M. Brenneman, “Prophet and Priest: The Redefining of Alexander Campbell’s Identity,” (master’s thesis, The Florida State University, 2005), 39-40. Jeter and Lester, 85-96, suggest that Wickliffe, exhibiting the intellectual brilliance and personable character of his father, possibly would have been able to prevent the division within the movement that happened in the early 20th century.

[45]The accounts of Wickliffe’s death are found in Selina Campbell, 27-30, and Pendleton, 595-96.

[46]Pendleton, 596.

[47]Selina Campbell, 35. Emphasis in the original.

[48]Campbell, “Letters from Europe,” 679.

[49]Thomas W. Grafton, Alexander Campbell, Leader of the Great Reformation of the Nineteenth Century (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Company, 1897), 199. Douglas B. Skinner, “Restoration Church History and a Theology of Suffering,” Leaven 10 no. 3 (2002): 130, refers to Campbell’s “theologically controlled grief,” and argues that he “seems to skirt the edges of grief.” It is hard to be certain so many years after the fact, but I would argue that for a man like Campbell who was considerably more comfortable with reason and logic than emotion, the degree to which he shares his emotions and disappointments following Wickliffe’s death indicates the extent to which he grieved.

[50]This letter is quoted in Selina Campbell, 37-38.

[51]Quoted in Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, vol. 2. (Cincinnati: R. W. Carroll & Co. Publishers, 1872), 575.

[52]Campbell, “Letters from Europe,” 679.

[53]Richardson, 573. Indeed, some interpreters question if Campbell ever truly recovered from the tragedy, and trace a supposed decline in his mental capacity to this event. See Grafton, 222, Jeter and Lester, 92, and Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 44.

[54]Campbell, “Letters from Europe,” 679.

[55]Campbell, quoted in Selina Campbell, 37-38.

[56]Richardson, 574-75.

[57]Ibid., 575. When Campbell wrote in “Mysteries of Providence,” 708, that God often takes the purest and best to use in his service in other arenas of his “vast dominion,” it seems very likely that he specifically had Wickliffe in mind. “Mysteries of Providence” appears in the Milliennial Harbinger only a few pages before Campbell’s own obituary for Wickliffe, and it would only be natural for him to think of the latter while writing the former.

[58]Alexander Campbell, “Conclusion of Volume V.—Series III,” Millennial Harbinger 19 (December 1848): 717.


Suffering and God’s Knowledge of the Future

Theological Suffering

This is the first post in a loosely-united series called A Theological View of Suffering.

As a grad student, I do a lot of fairly technical theological reading and study. As a minister, one of the things I try to do is talk about theology in an understandable way. Because, after all, no one really likes trying to wade through technical jargon, but anything that helps us to understand God better is a good thing.

When it comes to looking at suffering from a theological perspective, and specifically what God’s role in suffering is, it is important that we first have some understanding of how God interacts with the world. Put in a different way, does God determine all of the “bad” things that happen to us, or does He simply allow them? Or, is God surprised by some of the things which happen to us and unable to do anything about them ahead of time?

All of these questions are related to the nature of God’s providence, or how He interacts with the world. In this post, I want to look specifically at the issue of foreknowledge, or, God’s relationship to the future. To what extent does God possess knowledge of the future? Is His foreknowledge exhaustive, or does He only possess knowledge of those particular events which have been settled as part of His divine plan? And, does God know the events of the future because they will happen, or will they happen because God has determined they will happen?

These questions help to introduce some of the differences between the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives on God’s foreknowledge.[1] To be clear, thousands upon thousands of pages of ink have been spilt on this topic, so this post will, by necessity, abbreviate and oversimplify at times. But my hope is that I will still be able to do an adequate job of summarizing the different perspectives.[2]


The Calvinist/Reformed perspective of God’s foreknowledge suggests that God himself determines everything that will happen, decrees every event, and thus, is the cause of all things. In other words, nothing that happens in life happens without God explicitly determining that it will happen. He directly causes all things by virtue of his decrees.

From this perspective, God’s exhaustive knowledge of future events is grounded in his determination of what those events will be. God knows everything that will happen in the future, not because He “observes” those events ahead of time; rather what will happen only happens because God has determined that it be so. As part of this idea, God specifically chooses which individuals will be saved and which will be lost.

Reformed thinkers generally acknowledge that there is tension between God’s foreknowledge and human free will, but ultimately hold that the relationship between these two things is mysterious, and they subordinate the idea of free will to the (in their minds) clear biblical teaching on God’s exhaustive foreknowledge based on His determination of all things.

Calvinist thinkers hold that this view of God’s foreknowledge provides great comfort for the sufferer: we may not know why God chooses the tragic events which unfold during life, but because He causes all things, we can trust that there is some divine purpose which is being worked out. Personally, I’m not so sure.

I think the Calvinist suggestion that God decrees every single event which happens is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it seems to necessarily make God the author of all evil in the world. God doesn’t just allow evil actions to occur; he actively causes them to happen. To be sure, the scriptures present God as someone who uses events which cause great suffering (the flood, for example) to bring about His purposes, but a Calvinist understanding of God’s determinism goes beyond this, and even places God as the cause for the evil actions of individual humans. To me, this raises serious questions about God’s love.

Secondly, the New Testament repeatedly depicts the results of final judgment being contingent upon the things we do (or don’t do) in this life. If ultimately we have no ability to choose what we do because God has ordained every single event of our lives, then the judgment is a sham. Why should we be held accountable for decisions we did not make? So, the Calvinist perspective also seems to raise serious questions about God’s justice.

Open Theism

On the opposite side of the debate is the Open Theist perspective, which holds that God does not possess exhaustive knowledge of the future. Two key arguments lie beneath this perspective.

First, as opposed to Calvinism, Open Theism affirms the reality and importance of human freedom. For Open Theists, God created out of love, and the only way that human beings could genuinely love God in return was for that love to be freely chosen. So, out of his love, God gives humans the ability to choose for themselves, and He honors those choices which we make. One popular Open Theist metaphor is that God’s providence is something like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where the future is partly settled and partly open: God determines the overall structure of the story, the different possible story lines, and even certain events which will follow if certain human choices are made. But within this framework, humans are given the ability to make choices which drastically effect the story. Compared to the Calvinist perspective, in Open Theism, God determines very little, as much of what happens occurs because of the choices of free creatures.

This leads to the second key argument, which is that divine foreknowledge inherently involves a determinism which undermines human freedom. In other words, Open Theists argue that if God were to know ahead of time which choices you would make, then you wouldn’t really be free to choose something else. Thus, Open Theists deny that God knows which free will choices we will make until we make them.

This might seem to undercut God’s omniscience, but Open Theists argue that God is omniscient in that he knows all things that can be known; God has exhaustive knowledge of the past and present, and knows those parts of the future which are settled. What He does not know are those parts of the future which are still open, because they are inherently unknowable. Unlike Back to the Future or all of those crazy Star Trek time-traveling episodes suggest, Open Theists argue that the unsettled future has no true existence; until free creatures make choices which bring the future into existence, there is simply nothing to know. Interesting stuff, right?

I should mention that the Open Theist perspective was largely developed as a response to the Problem of Evil (How can God be powerful and good and permit the existence of evil in the world?). From an Open perspective, suffering occurs because of the evil choices that people make from their own free will, and God does not know that these things will happen until they do. He is disappointed in them just as we are.

There are aspects of the Open Theist perspective which are appealing to me: I appreciate the emphasis on God’s love and the freedom of humans. I find the Open Theist understanding of the future (it is not a “thing” which exists) and the resulting understanding of the nature of God’s omniscience to be interesting, and even possible.

But ultimately, I think Open Theism fails to take seriously the degree to which the bible indicates that God does, in fact, know the events of the future (think for example, of Jesus predicting Peter’s denial and Judas’s betrayal). And in many ways, this seems to me to be indicative of the entire Open Theist approach: rather than starting with the text of Scripture and then determining how God acts providentially in the world, it begins with the desire to save God from the blame for suffering in the world and tries to shoehorn that desire into Scripture. For sure, that is questionable biblical interpretation but more than that, I’m not sure it works, either: if God is limited to the point that He is surprised by the bad choices we make and legitimately cannot do anything about them, how can we be certain that He will ultimately “win” in the end and defeat evil and death?


Between the Calvinist and Open Theist points of view is the Arminian perspective, which upholds both the foreknowledge of God (unlike Open Theism) and the ability of humanity to make free moral decisions (unlike Calvinism). Arminians hold that God does possess exhaustive foreknowledge, but that God knows the future because it will happen. God’s foreknowledge of the future actions of people does not somehow mean that He causes those things to happen. For Arminians, God is not bound by time, and is simply able to see the future decisions that humans will freely make without determining those decisions in any way.

Reformed, Open, Arminian

Related to the issue of suffering, Arminians (like Open Theists) emphasize the importance of human freedom and argue that much of the suffering which occurs in our world is related to the bad choices that people make. However, since Arminians (like Calvinists) believe that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and that He is not caught off guard by the decisions we make, they can also believe that God can plan around the bad decisions that people make and work through those things to bring out good (Romans 8.28 comes to mind).

I think that the Arminian idea of simple foreknowledge makes the most sense and also best reconciles the biblical tension between God’s omniscience and human freedom. I struggle to understand the arguments which suggest that God’s foreknowledge necessarily implies determinism. In my own very limited foreknowledge, I can occasionally predict future events without somehow determining that those events take place. If I see a child take an egg out of a carton and drop it on the concrete floor, I can be confident that the egg will break without that “foreknowledge” somehow causing the egg to break. Based on my limited knowledge and experience, I can almost “see” it happen. How much more would an omniscient God who is not bound by time be able to look into the future and see the events which free creatures freely choose without that knowledge somehow determining the choice?

There are some questions which we simply cannot answer this side of eternity, and each of these perspectives have their weak points, but to me, Arminianism supplies the best response to God’s knowledge of the future, and also His relationship with suffering. God does not specifically cause every bad thing which happens (but certainly He causes some: the Flood), but He knows that they will happen, and is thus, best equipped to work through those things in order to bring about our good and His glory.


[1]To be clear, the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives are not the only options, and we could talk about the ideas of Deism or Process Theology as well. Generally speaking though, those last two options are considered to be outside the confines of orthodox Christianity, and are not covered here.

[2]If you are interested in reading more, a couple of good resources are Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views, edited by Bruce A. Ware, and Four Views on Divine Providence, edited by Dennis W. Jowers. The essays presented in those books largely comprised the sources for the material I present in this post.

A Theological View of Suffering

Theological SufferingThe topic of suffering (and I use the word “suffering” as a shorthand for the well-known “problem of evil” as well as the existence of undeserved pain and suffering in the world) is one I think about a lot.

Though certainly not a new issue, it is one which I hadn’t thought about or studied much until it touched me personally. Which perhaps is a little selfish, but I guess also is human nature. I’ve written before about struggling with the grief of miscarriage, as well as the heartbreak of my daughter Kinsley being diagnosed with a devastating genetic condition.

In addition to these personal concerns, I also took a class on Providence and Suffering last fall, and as I did a lot of reading on the subject and reflected on those readings, some of my thoughts were further developed and refined.

So what I would like to do intermittently over the next several weeks and months (I’ll be posting other stuff too, unrelated to this topic) is to share some of those thoughts. It will in no way be a systematic coverage of suffering, but it will be a reflection of my efforts to work through some of the difficult questions surrounding this issue (How can a loving God allow pain and suffering? Why do tornados and tsunamis kill innocent people? What is God’s response to the pain and suffering which is present in the world?). I do not claim to have definitive answers to these questions, but I do want to share some ideas and resources which have been helpful to me and have aided my understanding to this point.

I’ll use the end of this post as a Table of Contents for the series:

“Suffering and God’s Knowledge of the Future”

“Alexander Campbell and the Problem of Evil”

“Moral Evil and Natural Evil”

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