Cliff's Edge

The Agnostic Episcopalian

If God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all powerful, why evil, and so much of it, too?

Clifford Goldstein

As an aficionado of The Great Courses, produced by the Teaching Company, I’ve been lectured to, hour after hour, on history, philosophy, science, music, literature, and theology by some of North America’s best professors. Whole new vistas of thought have been opened up to me, including—by enduring just a few Teaching Company courses on the Bible—why higher criticism is a sure path to hell (but that’s another column).

One of my favorite series was by James Hall, who taught for 40 years at the University of Richmond, in Virginia. Early on in the course Hall confessed that, though raised in a devoutly Christian home, “I’m not there anymore.” He was now, to quote him directly, “an agnostic Episcopalian.”

If God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, why evil, and so much of it, too?

His course was “The Philosophy of Religion,” the religion being the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In 36 lectures he explored, not the philosophy of each faith, but the philosophical assumptions behind them. It was essentially a course on the arguments for or against the God of traditional monotheism.

At times I’d disagree with an assumption he made and the conclusion he extracted from it; or I’d agree with a conclusion but not the assumption behind it. Or, agreeing with an assumption, I didn’t derive the conclusion from it that he did. Yet agreeing or disagreeing, I never detected any sophistry, casuistry, or sleight of hand in his logic, and the hours listening were well worth it, especially because of one lecture on theodicy.

Theodicy deals with the ever-present question that haunts traditional theists: if God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, why evil, and so much of it, too? Hall looked at various theodicies, and, after each one, explained why it didn’t work. Without exception, I agreed: none that he described worked.

He then mentioned one more theodicy.

“No one,” he stressed, “takes this seriously anymore,” then in about 10 minutes Hall depicted what we call “the great controversy”: free will, not only on earth, but in heaven; a fallen being, Lucifer; a conflict between good and evil being waged here that explains not only human but natural evil as well.

This theodicy, the professor claimed, worked. That is, it showed that the God of traditional theism could exist while evil did as well. If you could believe in the existence of demonic forces (which, he said, one could rationally derive from looking at the world), you had a theodicy that would, well, do the trick.

Hall was explicit: he didn’t believe in this theodicy (or any, for that matter). But that’s not my point. My point is that here was a self-professed skeptic even about God’s existence. Yet he nevertheless affirmed that what we Seventh-day Adventists believe regarding the great controversy was the only theodicy that could explain the existence of an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God, the God of the Bible, and evil as well.

Hall’s words don’t prove our view correct. Of course not. But coming from an agnostic Episcopalian, I thought them fascinating and affirming, one of the many enlightening moments from The Great Courses.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.

Clifford Goldstein