The Problem of the Divine Micromanager, Part 2 (sin, suffering, and freedom)

I’m still working my way through Hugh McCann’s book Creation and the Sovereignty of God. McCann is interested in developing an account of God as creator that respects his absolute sovereignty and overwhelming love of creation, while preserving the status of rational creatures as truly free and in command of their destinies. This is a difficult project, one that philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with for 2,000 years. As I mentioned in my last post, if God’s creative activity is alone responsible for the existence of the world in its entire history, God is the ultimate micromanager. There is no aspect of creation that exists apart from his absolute will. A problem, the Problem of the Divine Micromanager arises with respect to sin and suffering on this view. For it seems God is blameworthy for willing sin and suffering. But then, it seems God is not morally perfect.

McCann’s solution to the Problem of the Divine Micromanager with respect to sin, suffering, and human freedom is novel, and there is much to commend in it, but I think that it is ultimately unsatisfying. I’ll summarize McCann’s treatment in this post, interested readings can consult his chapter’s 4 to 7.

McCann rejects the most common response to the problem of sin and suffering, the free-will defense (ably defended by Alvin Plantinga), which places God at a distance from sin by making our (libertarian) will ontologically independent of his. McCann argues that the free-will defense limits God’s power, since there are possible worlds that he cannot create; it limits God sovereignty since there are libertarian free creatures that he cannot keep from sinning; and it poses a problem for divine omniscience, since God has no way of knowing contingent acts of free creatures. Still, there is a version of libertarian freedom, one that rejects the idea of agent-causation, which is compatible with God’s absolute sovereignty over our willings. God is creatively responsible for our willings, but not through some mechanistic relation where he issues a command and our wills are violently overridden. “He does not operate upon us, or from without; he operates in our very willing, so that his will is done through ours, but without any kind of forcing” (106). Thus, God is the author of sin in the sense that he is the “First Cause” of those acts of will in which we sin, but he is so without incurring guilt, for it is free creatures who commit sinful acts, not God. Perhaps we can think of it this way. On the standard free-will defense, God creates free creatures who will to sin, whereas on McCann’s story, God will’s the sin of free creatures. As long as God is justified in allowing sin, then God cannot be found morally at fault for our wrongdoing—we are in need of a theodicy of sin. We are also in need of a theodicy of suffering, for God too wills the harm done as a result of sin and the evil that arises from the normal operations of the world.

I find McCann’s proffered theodicies of sin and suffering plausible save one problem—they entail the annihilation of the damned, a doctrine many traditional theists think unorthodox, hence its appeal is limited. The theodicies run as follow. Meaningful friendship with God requires that we are in a position to choose responsibly to accept or reject God’s offer of love, and such a position can only be accomplished from a stance of sinfulness. Furthermore, the acceptance and overcoming of suffering contributes to our “soul making,” thus securing the basis for true fellowship with God. The salvation and moral development of sinners, as well as the ultimate defeat of evil are great goods, hence God is justified in willing sin and suffering.

But, what about the unsaved? McCann rejects the idea that all sinners will eventually be saved, even as he admits God could bring all sinners to repentance simply by operating in his role as creator. Once admitted, I wonder, why is that scenario not the best possible world instead of our actual situation, where God consigns some sinners to damnation? McCann has no answer. Instead, we are to hold that unrepentant sinners are effectively cut off from the sustaining power of his creative will upon death, and cease to exist. Still, McCann thinks every instance of suffering a rational agent faces is ultimately part of some good to that agent. I find this hard to reconcile with annihilationism, for the cessation of existence seems to be a great evil, and it is hard to square this reality with the “overwhelming love” (154) of God. McCann seems forced to this position given his particular understanding of sovereignty, and one begins to wonder if the costs of such an extreme conception begin to outweigh the benefits.

For my money, I’d revisit the standard free will defense. I think it works. Further, I think that Molinism is an attractive account of how God knows (via his “middle knowledge”) future free acts of creatures, hence divine omniscience is secure. Undoubtedly, neither McCann’s nor the Molinist’s solution to the “God’s sovereignty vs. human freedom conundrum” are the last word on this topic. Still I applaud McCann for taking seriously God’s sovereignty and legitimate human freedom, even if I think his account is ultimately unsatisfying.


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