On Warfare and Weakness: Part 2, A Theology of Revolt

I argued in Part 1 that if progressive Christianity is to have broad appeal it needs to help people see that they are in a real fight. And I think Greg Boyd's book God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict is a great book to help us describe this fight.

To be sure, there are many things in God at War that will make theological progressives and liberals squirm. We'll get to those issues in the next post and try to address them when we turn toward John Caputo's book The Weakness of God. But for now, in this post, we simply want to get a taste of the "warfare worldview" described by Boyd in God at War.

At its heart God at War is a theodicy, an attempt to explain evil in the world. This is important for a progressive to keep in mind when reading the book. Throughout the book Boyd argues for the literal existence of spiritual agents like angels and demons. And again, that might be hard for many progressives to swallow. More on that in the next and coming posts. But the heart of God at War is focused on the problem of evil and how the Kingdom of God is to stand with God in opposition to evil.

A key biblical observation for Boyd is that the problem of evil wasn't a problem for the OT and NT writers. Evil wasn't a theological conundrum. Evil wasn't an intellectual puzzle. Evil was a given, it was taken for granted. Evil was expected, and its existence didn't cause a theological crisis.

That's a stark contrast with our time where evil is the number one theological problem many of use face and wrestle with. So what's the difference between then and now?

According to Boyd, the difference is due to changes in theological worldview. Specifically, there has been a shift away from the warfare worldview of the bible to what Boyd calls the classical-philosophical worldview. According to the warfare worldview of the OT and NT life is experienced as a battle between the good and evil. Much of creation is in revolt, rebelling against the rule of God. Given that perspective, evil is an expected and regular feature of the world. We encounter evil all the time, from moral evil to evil within the created order as seen in disease and death. And given this warfare view--that evil is to be expected--the encounter with evil doesn't create a theological problem for the biblical writers.

By contrast, the existence of evil is a dumbfounding question within the classical-philosophical worldview. This worldview was created in the fusion of Christian theology with Greek categories of thought, where God was defined by categories like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. In light of these Greek categories the problem of evil becomes a real theological puzzle as God is assumed to exercise what Boyd calls "omnicontrol." In the classical-philosophical worldview, where God is believed to be providentially in control of every event, the existence of evil is a real theological problem. God, in this worldview, seems to be the origin, creator and source of evil. Or, at the very least, God uses evil for some higher, providential purpose. Consequently, rather than raging or revolting against evil Christians peer into the tea leaves of tragedy trying to discern "God's plan" for all the pain we are suffering.

But in the warfare worldview there is only rage, resistance, and revolt in the face of pain and suffering. According to the warfare worldview, there is nothing good in the death of a child or a cancer diagnosis. To try to discern "God's plan" in such things gets God very, very wrong.

My hunch is that progressives will thrill to that notion.

Here is Boyd making these contrasts:
In a nutshell, the way in which classical-philosophical Christian theists have approached the problem of evil has generally been to frame evil as a problem of God's providence and thus of God's character. Assuming (rightly) that God is perfectly loving and good, and assuming (wrongly, I hold) that divine omnipotence entails meticulous control, the problem of evil has been formulated within the classical-philosophical theistic tradition as the problem of locating a loving and good purpose behind evil events. [This] represents an impossible task, and hence the problem of evil becomes simply unsolvable within the framework.

By contrast, the warfare worldview is predicated on the assumption that divine goodness does not completely control or in any way will evil; rather, good and evil are at war with one another. This assumption obviously entails that God is not now exercising exhaustive, meticulous control over the world...

In other words, a warfare worldview is inherently pluralistic. There is no single, all-determinative divine will that coercively steers all things, and hence there is here no supposition that evil agents and events have a secret motive behind them. Hence too, one need not agonize over what ultimately good, transcendent divine purpose might be served by any particular evil event.

If the world is indeed caught up in the middle of a real war between good and evil forces, evil is to be expected--including evil that serves no higher end...Only when it is assumed that the world is meticulously controlled by an all-loving God does each particular evil event need a higher, all-loving explanation...
According to Boyd, the great benefit of adopting the warfare worldview is that it creates a posture of revolt and resistance in the face of evil. Evil is simply evil and it is always opposed to God and God's plans. Consequently, the stance of the Christian toward evil is uncompromising hostility and aggression. Evil isn't to be puzzled over. Evil is to be fought and raged against. We are at war.

Boyd describing this:
Once the intelligibility of the war itself is accepted, no other particular evils require explanation. Hence Scripture gives none. This shift away from the classical-philosophical monistic perspective is empowering in terms of confronting evil...Put succinctly, the classical-philosophical assumption that a mysterious, loving, sovereign, divine plan lies behind even evil events in our world encourages an approach to evil that defines it as an intellectual problem to be solved rather than a spiritual opponent to be overcome. If evil is believed to serve a higher purpose, then clearly one's sense of urgency in fighting it is compromised, while one's ability to render it intelligible is diminished...[T]he New Testament exhibits a church that is not intellectually baffled by evil but is more spiritually empowered in vanquishing it, [by contrast] the Western tradition has more frequently exhibited a church that is perpetually baffled by evil but significantly ineffective in and largely apathetic toward combating it.

Within a warfare worldview, however, particular evils are their own ultimate explanation: they flow from the wills of creatures, hence there need be no higher "good" divine reason for their occurring. Thus evil must be understood as being what God is unequivocally against, and thus what God's people must also be unequivocally against. Whereas the classical-philosophical theology of sovereignty encourages a theology of resignation, a theology rooted in a warfare worldview inspires, and requires, a theology of revolt: revolt against all that God revolts against.
Here, with this theology of revolt, is where I think we'll find our real fight mentioned in Part 1. The heart of this idea is that evil is wholly antagonistic to God, is not willed by and has no part of God. God is unequivocally against all forms of evil--from death to disease to violence to oppression--and, thus, God's people must also be unequivocally against these evils. Death is never good. Suffering is never good. Violence is never good. Evil is simply evil. And God's only plan for evil is its ultimate eradication.

This is what I think progressive Christians need: A theology of revolt. Evil, in my estimation, sits at the heart of the liberal theological experience. There is a sense that something is very, very wrong with the world. At deep, structural levels we sense that the world is broken and hostile to goodness.

As so we rage. By gravesides. By hospital beds. By the side of victims of all sorts. The world is a broken, heartless and shitty place. And so we rage.

The point being, I think progressive Christians are itching for a fight. They don't need to give up God for Lent or have church in bars. Though those are great things. What I think progressive Christianity needs is a biblically grounded theology of revolt, a theology to focus, articulate and motivate the fight many are already fighting.

So we start with this: A theology of revolt. We need to see our rage reflected in the life and ministry of Jesus. We need to use our rage as fuel for activism in the Kingdom of God rather than as firewood for doubt, cynicism and ironic distance. We need a rallying cry. We need a real fight. And I think we have one.

And yet, if you are a progressive Christian you likely have a few questions and objections about the warfare worldview in God at War. We'll turn to those questions in the next post.

Part 3

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

19 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Part 2, A Theology of Revolt”

  1. I like where Boyd ends up on, but I don't think he needs to make theodicy and philosophy a casualty along the way. Certainly when someone is suffering, what is called for is not theodicy, but love. Still, quite a few people, including myself, are generally troubled by the problem of evil, in its "philosophical" sense. But by "philosophical" I simply mean that it is an honest question, and I think honest questions deserve honest answers. Fortunately, I think that there is a simple theodicy that does answer the philosophical problem of evil: evil exists to be overcome, because a cosmos in which evil has been overcome is better than one in which it hadn't been overcome. Is this "the right" theodicy? I'm not sure, but I think it is logically coherent, relatively easy to understand, compatible with the book of Job, and, what's better, it gets you very quickly to Greg Boyd's focus. If evil exists to be overcome, then let's get to the work of fighting it, of overcoming it. Oh, and by the way, if you encounter someone who is suffering, they might be comforted by being told this (I know that I would be), but a great many people won't be. It's true that evil calls for resistance, and that suffering calls for love, not a theodicy. But the problem of evil, as an honest question, calls for a theodicy, and not a dodge paired with a call to arms.

  2. Great post. I have been thinking much more in the "classical-philosophical" approach. Perhaps because I was raised in Calvinistic theology.
    Currently, I try to answer the question of evil in the nature of God. The only plausible answer I have wondered is that we don't understand the true mystery. We ask the question "how can a good God allow evil." Perhaps the true mystery is found in the concept of the trinity. How can Jesus be the "eternally begotten" Son. If Gods indivisible and unchangeable attributes are eternal then why did he ever create? I think the answer may be in the trinity. God's eternal and unchangeable qualities require eternal conscious communion with distinct beings. That certainly is a great mystery, but perhaps it is the correct mystery?
    This view has taken me to understand Genesis 3 in a highly figurative way. I think perhaps we came from an unconscious, indistinct communion with God (perhaps like Buddhists views of where we came from and where we are returning to). But God "birthed" us. He cast us out of the "womb", because he set us individually and corporately to be on a journey toward distinct conscious communion (that which Christ prays towards in John 17).
    So this would lead to some pretty bold theological assumptions. First, that we sin because we were separated from God. We weren't separated from God because we sin. Second, that evil is the sufferings that conscious beings create for themselves and for other in the process of distinction from God. The process of coming to conscious communion with God is by distinction and free will. God's sovereignty is such that all this free-will happens within the context of his direct oversight, and his final say of the ultimate impact of our decisions. The only answer I could imagine to why a loving God would allow such horrible atrocities in this life is because there are other lives and ages in which he will make all things right. I also don't believe that when we die, we, even as Christians, don't just "arrive" in utopia. What we do here impacts the nature of our next "aion", or age. Christ is the ultimate image of the fully distinct, fully conscious, fully free-willed person in full communion with God. This is where we are headed. Collectively as humanity, and individually. I am also a universalist, so I believe the end is inevitable. Although the sufferings we create for ourselves and others may be horrific.

  3. Very interesting read. Evil is always going to be a difficult subject. I'm not so sure that I agree that it can never be used for good and that it is completely antagonistic to God. It might just be me finding a way to explain it all away but it seems like the history of evolution has taught us that we stand proud and self-aware today only because we are standing on the peak of millions of years of progress as well as millions of years of death and suffering. I think my theology concerning evil is more in line with the writings of Teilhard de Chardin.

  4. I think I may agree with everything you just said.

    I also think that a lot of progressive types recognize that the problem of evil (and God's role) becomes sort of a theological trap.

    I have close friends who are pentecostal, and while they dismiss notions of a punishing God . . . they also (in my opinion) seem to deify Satan. Every ache and pain; every example of bad human behavior; even destructive weather; are all the work of Satan. Honestly, I'm not necessarily arguing against that. At least not in a metaphorical sense. I have a real problem with Satan as a personal and personified opponent to God. One, because I don't think it's entirely sound theology. And two, because I think it essentially creates and idol of Satan.

    In a theological sense, I think all we really have to work with, is the story of Job. Where we are to understand that bad things are part of our very existence. And that part we are to comprehend, the necessity of a righteous response in these moments (big and small).

    I might see like this Zen parable:

    The old monk sat by the side of the road. With his eyes closed, his legs
    crossed and his hands folded in his lap, he sat. In deep meditation, he sat.

    Suddenly his peace was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a
    samurai warrior. "Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!"

    At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response
    from the monk. But gradually he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint
    of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood
    there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each
    passing second.

    "You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?" replied the monk at
    last. "You who are so unkempt. You whose hands and feet are covered with
    dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is all
    rusty and neglected. You who are ugly and whose mother dresses you funny.
    You would ask me of heaven and hell?"

    The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high
    above his head. His face turned to crimson and the veins on his neck stood
    out in bold relief as he prepared to sever the monk's head from its

    "That is hell," said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent.

    In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement,
    awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared to risk his
    very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-flight
    and his eyes filled with grateful tears.

    "And that," said the monk, "is heaven."

  5. You're so cool! I don't believe I've truly read through something like that before. So good to discover someone with some original thoughts on this issue. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This web site is one thing that is required on the web, someone with a bit of originality!

    Also visit my web page; Nike Trainers

  6. Zoroastrianism is more of an *ultimate dualism*, pitting two *equal* forces of good and evil against each other. It's undeniable that Zoroastrianism deeply affected the writing and final editing of the biblical canon, especially the Apocrypha. But Boyd simply joins in a long litany of Christian theological voices that posits a dualism, yes, but more of a *partial* dualism that is (partially) explained through appeal to free will and the perversion of what is in fact good. So, there's similarities, for sure, but not enough to warrant calling it anything other than Christianity.

  7. Yes! In the right contexts, I describe myself as a "postmodern fundamentalist," and this biblical read of good and evil is a large part of the reason for the "fundamentalist" part of that equation. It is the classical-philisophical worldview that I came to see as dangerously close to, if not, calling evil good and good, evil.

    As well as giving theological grounding and motivating force to progressive Christianity, it would be my hope that owning a theology revolt will create common ground with progressive fundamentalists and conservatives. And I don't think that's actually all that far fetched!

  8. Another problem with some progressives is the tendency to identify evil as "out-there", embodied in impersonal systemic factors and institutional entities. We need to be reminded of the words of Solzhenitsyn that "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being". Essential to the advance of Kingdom realities is the ability to discern our real enemy and expose the subtle schemes and delusions produced by the "principalities and powers". It would seem that the "fight" must begin in the heart of every believer to name and identify our own dark side. Few progressives promote a spiritual formations that enable believers to "demolish arguments that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2Cor. 10:5). Participation in the advance of the Kingdom demands "eyes" that can see and expose the varied forms, patterns, assumptions, values, and narratives, that give shape to our dominant culture. Our challenge is to help the church first name and identify the way promoted by the Evil One (see 2Cor. 2:11), so we might embody and live out new patterns of thinking and acting.

    Keep in mind that while Jesus is emphatic that evil will not have the final word, human efforts to eradicate evil often produce more harm than good, especially when the effort is framed in terms of "good guys" vs. the "bad guys". Jesus' parable of the weeds warns against excessive efforts to weed out evil (Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43). Our effort should be to model an alternative way grounded in the way of the Kingdom, not some illusion of a utopian Empire.

    Thanks Richard for exploring this issue and taking seriously a spiritual warfare proposal. I have a little difficulty with knowing how Kingdom practitioners might fight against a fallen world where natural disasters occur, and cancer and other diseases take the lives of millions. Would we really want to attribute a tornado or heart attack to demonic forces? It may be that Boyd ascribes too much direct power of evil forces over the natural realm. Have we really solved the theodicy issue if Satan not God sent the tornado through Oklahoma? Look forward to reading more.

  9. Hi Richard

    May I take a moment for an emotional, rather than an intellectual response to this series?

    Always, your posts are a pleasure to read. Sometimes, they are a joy. For me, this is when you hit on precisely the right question. The last time I felt this excited and, yes, joyful reading your posts was when you began your breath-taking, world-changing series on the fear of death. I predict book #3 coming out of this series and I for one will have my pre-order in. Part of this experience of joy is predicated on the experience of trust - I just know you're going to get us safely through this journey and I thank God for that.

    By way of an intellectual (or at least cognitive) post-script, I'm hoping you might be tackling verses like Job 2:6 (The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands" and Luke 22:31 ("Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat.")...?

    Eagerly looking forward to Pt III.

  10. I agree with the comments left here and on the first post of the series: this has all the fixins for something really exciting. I'm also wondering if I can predict when/how you'll bring Wink into the equation. Nonetheless, I'm excited.

    I see a continual stream between your Slavery of Death series and this, as well. However, one thing does have me a little unsettled. It seems to me that the OT especially in its wisdom literature is really concerned with people being able to learn the difference between good and evil. I think even a simple phenomenological account of the world around us would yield a similar picture that the difference between the two is not immediately perspicuous, especially in the present and for how would should respond/prevent evil.

    Barring the extremes of obviousness about what is/isn't evil, there is, in my mind, the question of defining and labeling particular action and events as evil. Thus, how do we take care of the epistemological problem (how do we know what is evil) as well as the power dynamic contained therein (who gets to decide)? Any thoughts on this problem? Perhaps you'll address it later?

  11. I would very much appreciate a source for the Zen parable, as I have seen it discussed on a TV program, with claims of being western as opposed to Zen because of its use of terms like hell and heaven that appear to be quite specifically Christian.

  12. It's possible, maybe even likely, that it goes back only as far as Fr. John W. Groff Jr., an Episcopal priest and Zen practitioner. That would certainly explain the use of more western terminology.

  13. I'm on board with this (admittedly broad) reading of Scripture as assuming evil as a given and taking the posture of revolt, but I would urge resistance to any and all narratives like Boyd's that read "biblical worldview" and "Greek-influenced philosophical theology" as two diametrically opposed positions where the latter supersedes the former, and "we" need to reclaim it back. It's bad history and bad theology. Keep the gist of Boyd—OT and NT straightforwardly assume evil and align themselves with God against it—but ditch the rest.

  14. Though "heaven" and "hell" are not concepts foreign to Buddhist thought. In Buddhist teachings there are multiple higher/lower realms. But in this case of this story, the reference is more to states of being (obviously) and those concepts would (regardless of the nouns used) would still apply.

  15. So I am very sympathetic of Karen Armstong's discussion of logos v. mythos and how the broad acceptance of logos as the primary way of knowing has contributed to the decline of religion in the West. If I am reading it correctly, this post seems to follow similar thinking. The problem is trying to create some sort of systematic theology that explains everything from the ontology of G*d to the problem of evil. If the bible is a work of mythos, then ultimate causes would not be as important as how we react to (or in the case of evil, stand against) them. I recently read Reza Aslan's book Zealot and one thing I took from it above all is the radical nature of Jesus' message. It was really eye opening (like you Piss Christ post!) Raised in a conservative fundamentalist church this seemed to be missing somehow. Jesus message seemed less radical and more of the 'natural order of things'

  16. It takes a paradox to keep a person sane...?

    If what each person does weren't caused by our wishes and our intentions, what sort of 'freedom' would that be?

    If our actions were totally constrained by habitual emotional reactions ["felts" aka 'things we've felt in the past' -- analogous to: "thoughts" aka 'things we've thought in the past'] that would be no sort of 'freedom' -- nor would we want to live entirely without emotional connection and continuity either. We can truly say that "We do what we want to do" and that "We are not compelled to do what we think we want" and that "Whatever we do will probably be considered 'in character' to anybody who knows us well enough."

    In another true perspective: God is acting freely through everything we do, and in everything that comes as a result [ie, Sweat not lest thou be caught in a tizzy...]

  17. What 'exists to be overcome' is 'immaturity.' Humans start out more helpless than any other creature I know of, develop more slowly -- and over a longer time. The greater the potential of a species, the more play and learning goes into reaching it.

    Over that time, people do many things we would rather not have done; much of what happens to us in that process is not as we would want it. Much of the time we find that difficulties can noticably serve our development. Over sufficient time, from the right perspective I believe, all our troubles do... Being crucified could be a real setback; yet by a major Christian doctrine it turned out to be a means to transcendence.

Leave a Reply