Theistic Evolution Pt. 7 – The Suffering God


The Suffering God

Platonic formulations insist that God must be unmovable in order to be self-determining and constant. The God of the Bible is a God who is spoken of as being responsive. God grieves, delights, and experiences anger. Alfred Whitehead develops the concept of a “dipolar deity,” which entails that God is affected by the experience of other beings, but that God is also constant as the ground of order and novelty in the universe. Bram van de Beek adds a Christological meaning to God as the ground of all that is by saying that the Logos is the ground of all that is.

Terence Nichols states that Christianity has more resources than other religions to make sense of the suffering in evolutionary history: “theologically, the tragedy, death, and subsequent creative transcendence of evolutionary history is the same pattern that is manifested in the life and death of Jesus: cross, death, and resurrection.” Arthur Peacocke states that “for any concept of God to be morally acceptable and coherent … we can not but tentatively propose that God suffers in, with, and under the creative processes of the world with their costly unfolding in time.” This calls to the mind the passage in Romans 8:19-22 where Paul speaks of the whole of creation groaning as if in labour pains. The suffering of God is an active suffering with all of creation, not a passive suffering, which cannot really be called suffering at all. Here it is imperative to mention what Bram van de Beek also emphatically states: We cannot speak about God as if we have knowledge of the full extent of the mystery of God, but we can speak in symbolic language about how God is revealed primarily through Scripture and secondarily through the world and our experiences.

Gloria Schaab states that in the context of God suffering with the cosmos, one can think of God in terms of female imagery (which is not alien to the Bible), where God nurtures new life within Godself. Elizabeth Johnson continues with the female imagery when she speaks of God as “She Who Is” and describes the creative suffering as “the pain of childbirth … accompanied by a powerful sense of creativity and … joy.” Through the pain and suffering there is joy when things go well. In creativity itself joy is to be found and with the wonders of nature there is also much joy in simply taking in the myriad of forms of life. The labour of creation is an ongoing labour, for the whole process will only be completed in eschatological time, with the new creation in which there will be no suffering. The term Shekhinah (שכינה), which is a feminine form derived from the Hebrew shakan, which means presence, can be used for the divine suffering in the cosmos. It is interesting to note what Schaab shares regarding the history of this term: “Countless tracts from the rabbinic and kabbalist traditions affirm that Shekhinah shares the joys and afflictions of both the community and the individual person of Israel to the extent that the Divine feels the pain of the human.” Thus the idea of God being present and suffering with creation is not just a modern Christian notion.

After Shekinah, Schaab turns to the term Sophia (σοφία), which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew hokmah (חָכְמָה) and the Latin sapientia, meaning “wisdom.” Sophia is a feminine form in all three these languages and although Sophia means “wisdom,” the purview is that of creativity. Wisdom was there since the beginning and delighted in the cosmos and the creatures of the earth, as is written in Prov 8: 27-31. “Nonetheless, the processes through which such creativity is accomplished do not always manifest power, order, and delight. The continuous creativity of the cosmos identified with the immanent creativity of Sophia involves fits and starts, cul-de-sacs and dead ends, trials and error, pain and death” (Schaab). This is also the picture we gain from science. Peacocke notes that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is “’peculiarly consonant’ with that scientific perspective of the cosmos as emergent, that is, ‘of a cosmos in which creativity is ever-present’ through a ‘directing agency’ that leads to the emergence of humanity. In addition to creativity, there is also hope, as the message of Sophia is one of life: “life that endures in the face of suffering, that emerges through the travail of suffering, and that wells up in the midst of suffering through the creative dynamism of Sophia-God.” Schaab identifies three distinctions within the experiential reality of human suffering: sympathetic, empathetic, and protopathetic. When one distinguishes these three modes of suffering within the triune God, human beings can identify their own suffering with the distinctive sufferings of God. For Peacocke, God not only suffers with humans, but also “in, with and under every element of the evolutionary process.”

For Schaab, it is the suffering of God, which “characterizes the Divine as trustworthy and efficacious in the face of the existential reality of suffering in human and nonhuman creation. Such a theology of the suffering triune God does not leave the sufferer with theodicy’s dilemma of whether God can arbitrarily intervene but refuses to do so for some reason known only to God.” Thus God is not seen as the source of suffering, but rather as a co-sufferer. Schaab concludes by saying that “By sharing the suffering of creation, the triune God demonstrates that suffering itself is not redemptive and salvific. Rather, it is the love, creativity, and infinite possibility within the Divine that is redemptive through continuous creativity, unconditional presence, and freely offered grace.”

In process theology, God experiences what happens in the world and lures it towards love, creativity, and fulfillment. Evil results from different entities longing for self-actualization and God allows this, while retaining “their experiences in God’s eternal memory.” One of the biggest questions regarding this train of thought is whether memory is enough. Is it enough to know that everything is contained within the vast memory of God? Southgate goes further and asks what it matters to the suffering creature that God suffers with it. Even if God suffers, that does not take away the suffering of creatures, nor the fact that countless creatures seem to know little else than suffering. Here, the suggestion of Ann Pederson is important: “We must reject universal categories of suffering that wipe out the pain of individuals who suffer.” Southgate states that “[i]t is from the love of the Father for the world, and for the glory of the Son, that other selves gain their existence, beauty, and meaning, that which prevents them from reverting to nothingness.” To “selve” is to be perfectly oneself, not just as a member of a certain species, but also as an individual. This can be seen as creaturely praise of God, which is a concept known from Scripture. In the course of evolution, many creatures never selve. One might think of the turtle hatchlings scrambling to reach the ocean, but instead are pecked up by birds and never even reach the sea. Southgate mentions different states of living creatures in regard to selving:

  • Fulfilled: when the creature is fully being itself, in an ecosystem in which it flourishes.
  • Growing toward fulfillment: the creature still has the possibility to attain fulfillment.
  • Frustrated: the creature is held back from reaching fulfillment. Factors include predation, sickness, old age, and disability.
  • Transcending itself: this happens when the creature transcends itself through some new pattern of behaviour.




Nichols, T L. 2002. Evolution: Journey or random walk? Zygon 37(1): 193-210.

Schaab, G L 2006. A procreative paradigm of the creative suffering of the Triune God:     Implications of Arthur Peacocke’s evolutionary theology. Theological Studies 67: 542-      566.

Pederson, A M. 2009. All God’s critters: A feminist reflection on Darwin and species. Word & World 29(1): 47-55.

Southgate, C. 2008. The groaning of creation: God, evolution, and the problem of evil. London: Westminster John Knox Press.

Van de Beek, B. 2005. Toeval of schepping? Scheppingstheologie in de context van het modern denken. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.




Theistic Evolution Pt. 5 – The Role of God

In this post the role of God in relation to evolution will be examined. Firstly, the question of evolution as atheistic and godless will be addressed. Secondly, an untraditional view of God is delved into in light of what we have come to know about the universe. Thirdly, the concept of panentheism is explored.


Atheistic, godless evolution?

Paul Zimmerman states that pure chance has replaced the Creator. From this it may be concluded that, since there is no more need for a creator, then there is no more need for God and that the idea of God can, and perhaps should, be discarded.

Biochemist Thomas Gray counters this view: “Evolutionary explanations of natural history are no more necessarily atheistic than are physical explanations of planetary motions or physical-chemical explanations of atomic and molecular structure.” It is not just the theory of evolution that excludes God as the cause of what it describes. Many other sciences also do not include God in their theories and explanations. Philosopher Robert Pennock brings the argument closer to home with more everyday examples: “It is misleading for creationists to characterise science in general and to define evolution in particular as ‘godless.’ Science is godless in the same way that plumbing is godless. Evolutionary science is no more or less based on a ‘dogmatic philosophy’ of naturalism than are medicine and farming.” Is farming godless because we don’t include God as one of the factors in the growth of crops or because we understand weather phenomena and don’t see it as God micromanaging the weather?

The random chance in evolution is necessary for creativity and regarding the kind chance found in evolution, Pennock explains that “it is not that mutation has no cause (deterministic or indeterministic) but that the cause is not aimed at producing a particular desirable or advantageous result.” Furthermore, this chance is governed by statistical and deterministic laws. Therefore, chance is not completely random. The scientific understanding of chance events are slightly different from the colloquial understanding. Geologist Keith Miller states that “[c]hance or random processes are often seen as antithetical to God’s action. Many people understand “chance” as implying a purposeless, meaningless, and accidental event. However, scientifically, chance events are simply those whose occurrence cannot be predicted based on initial conditions and known natural laws.” Chance occurrences were not caused by the organism itself and the term has more to do with predictability (or in this case, unpredictability) than with causation.

Evolution has not and cannot disprove the existence of God. Science has shown that the creation narratives in Genesis are not factual, but the activity of God within the world is something that has to be thought of theologically and not scientifically. Leaving God out of scientific exploits does not deny the existence of God, but the fields of science are aimed toward that which can be measured, examined, experimented with, and described in concrete ways.


An Untraditional God

An evolutionary understanding of the universe calls for a shift from the traditional Christian ideas of God as omnipotent, unchangeable, and unaffected by anything that happens. Theologian and biochemist Arthur Peacocke inferred several characteristics of the being of God in light of what is known about the cosmos:

  • The presence of unity and diversity points to a God who is both one and “unfathomably rich.”
  • The inherent order and regularity of natural laws points to rationality.
  • The continuous change inherent in the life of the universe means that God is active and ever-creating.
  • The vast diversity suggests a God “at play in the universe who takes joy and delight in creation.”
  • In view of human beings, God “must be at least personal or suprapersonal in nature.”
  • The presence of both natural law and chance suggests that God is the Source of both.
  • Perhaps the most important characteristic with regard to the traditional views of God is that, since chance is unpredictable, God is not unconditionally omnipotent, but self-limited.

These untraditional views of Peacocke find resonance in what is called process theology. John Haught explains process theology as follows:

In reaction to a God considered supreme, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, totally perfect, immutable, and infinite in all the divine attributes, and as such immune to any possibility of change, which was the classical Christian view of God that owed much to Greek reflection as it influenced scholastic philosophy and theology, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) viewed all of reality as in the process of becoming and in tension between what has been and what could come to be; it envisaged that process as shared in some respects by God too. … It stresses the immanence of God involved in the continuing process of the world and in loving interaction with creatures, as distinct from the divine omnipotence and timeless transcendence and impassability of a traditional Hellenistic deity.

For Peacocke, God can be considered in Being (who God is in Godself) and also in becoming, which is God expressing the divine purpose in the cosmos. God’s self-limitation implies that God is “a vulnerable God who is self-emptying and self-giving in love. …the attributes associated with God in Divine Becoming – self-limitation, vulnerability, and temporality – stand in contrast to classical theology and require a model of God more in keeping with a dynamic worldview” (Schaab). God’s self-limitation is not just in terms of power, but also in terms of knowledge. This self-limitation or self-emptying of God is called kenotic theology, or kenosis, after the text in Philippians 6-7 where Christ is said to have emptied Himself (ἐκένωσεν (ekénōsen).



Peacocke adopted the model of panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism). Gloria Schaab summarises Peacocke’s definition of panentheism as “the belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole of creation, so that every part of creation exists in God, but that God’s Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, creation.” God is greater than creation, yet the cosmos exists within the unity of God. In a panentheistic view, there is no distance between the aspects of God and the relationship of God with the world. Traditional theism sees God as existing in a different place than the world and this implies a sense of detachment.


Rudolph Brun argues against the panentheist view, his reason being that the biblical revelation regarding God’s relationship with creation states that God is not dependent upon creation. He continues to say that the world cannot exist in God and that God is not immanent in nor transcending over the world, because “God is essentially other.  The relationship between God and creation is not one of immanence or transcendence but of absolute otherness.” He continues to say that the relationship between God and creation is one of “unity in diversity” with the “analogy of love” at the centre. This analogy of love is mutual affirmation and enjoyment of the otherness that exists between God and creation. Here, one can think of the term perichoresis, as mentioned in Reading Genesis 1-3 Pt. 5 – Imago Dei and Conclusion.

Whilst keeping Brun’s concerns in mind, it does seem that panentheism is the best paradigm to use. The otherness of the world is not lost within panentheism and this model deals with suffering with adequate seriousness and concern. Schaab states that this panentheist concept “of a God who is familiar with suffering and who bears cosmic grief challenges a classical theology that envisions God as unrelated, unaffected, and unmoved by creation and its creatures. Nevertheless, it is entirely consistent with a Christian theology of cross and resurrection.” Within this panentheism, God has restricted His/Her omnipotence in order to let the universe truly be an Other. Arthur Peacocke stated poetically how God created the universe as an Other: “There was God. And God was All-That-Was. God’s Love overflowed and God said: ‘Let Other be. And let it have the capacity to become what it might be – and let it explore its potentialities.’ And there was Other in God, a field of energy … and with one intensely hot surge of energy – a hot Big bang – this Other exploded as the universe.”  Schaab explains it as follows: “For Peacocke, the panentheistic paradigm effectively integrates into one cohesive model the evolutionary and quantum insights disclosed through the sciences and the Christian concept of the trinity of God as transcendent, incarnate, and immanent.” Theologian, philosopher, and environmentalist John Cobb also accepts a panentheistic view of God, where God is present in all things, but yet God transcends all things.

In his Hymn of the Universe, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin puts into poetic form the view of panentheism:

Glorious lord Christ: the divine influence secretly diffused and active in the depths of matter, and the dazzling centre where all the innumerable fibres of the manifold meet; power as implacable as the world and as warm as life; you whose forehead is of the whiteness of snow, whose eyes are of fire, and whose feet are brighter than molten gold; you whose hands imprison the stars; you who are the first and the last, the living and the dead and the risen again; you who gather into your exuberant unity every beauty, every affinity, every energy, every mode of existence; it is you to whom my being cried out with a desire as vast as the universe, “In truth you are my Lord and my God”.

Nothing, Lord Jesus, can subsist outside of your flesh; so that even those who have been cast out from your love are still, unhappily for them, the beneficiaries of your presence upholding them in existence. All of us, inescapably, exist in you, the universal milieu in which and through which all things live and have their being.


And on that note, we end this post.

The next one will return to theodicy, or the question of suffering.



Brun, R B. 2002. Cosmology, cosmic evolution, and sacramental reality: A Christian         contribution. Zygon 37(1): 175-192.

de Chardin, P T. 1961. Hymn of the universe. New York: Harper & Row.

Gray, T M. 2003. Biochemistry and evolution. In: Miller, K B (ed). Perspectives on an     evolving creation. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans: 256-287.

Haarsma, L. 2003. Does science exclude God? In: Miller, K B. (ed). Perspectives on an    evolving creation. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans: 72-94.

Haught, J F. 2010. Making sense of evolution: Darwin, God, and the drama of life. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Mahoney, J. 2011. Christianity in evolution: An exploration. Washington: Georgetown     University Press.

Miller, K B. (ed.) 2003a. Perspectives on an evolving creation. Grand Rapids: William B  Eerdmans.

Pennock, R T. 2002. Tower of Babel: The evidence against the new creationism. Cambridge:       MIT Press.

Russell, R J. 2003. Special providence and genetic mutation: A new defence of theistic     evolution. In: Miller, K B (ed). Perspectives on an evolving creation. Grand Rapids:        William B. Eerdmans: 335-369.

Schaab, G L 2006. A procreative paradigm of the creative suffering of the Triune God:     Implications of Arthur Peacocke’s evolutionary theology. Theological Studies 67: 542-      566.

______2008. Honoring Arthur Peacocke: 1924-2006. Evolutionary theory and theology: A    mutually illuminative dialogue. Zygon 43(1): 9-18.

Van de Beek, B. 2005. Toeval of schepping? Scheppingstheologie in de context van het modern denken. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.

Zimmerman, P A. 2009. Darwin at 200 and the challenge of intelligent design. CTQ 73: 61-75.