Whitehead’s Rethinking of the Problem of Evil

In introducing his book The Problem of Evil in the Western Tradition, Joseph Kelly comments:

Evil has always presented a unique problem for theists, parti­cularly those of the Western, biblically-centered religions who believe that a good and powerful deity exists and is active in the world. A good god would not want evil to occur and a powerful deity would be able to prevent it, but since evil does happen, obviously the good and powerful God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at least permits it for some reason of his own.[1]

Figuring out what God’s reasons might be for allowing the existence of evil is what has been called since Gottfried Leibniz theodicy, the justification of God’s ways in dealing with creatures. Many people today would argue that this is a fruitless exercise. No human being can read the mind of God. A far better use of one’s time is to figure out how to deal with evil once it happens. As Rabbi Harold Kushner contends in his celebrated book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, people do harm to themselves and others if they blame either God or themselves for what goes wrong in their lives and fail to take effective action to remedy the evil done.[2] After all, some things happen for no reason. Within the overall order of Nature, there are multiple instances of chaos or randomness which cause pain and suffering to those affected. But chaos in its own way is just as natural, i.e., according to Nature, as order.[3]

1. Historical Overview of the Problem of Evil

The human mind, or at least the Western mind, still seeks a further explanation and, as might be expected, Alfred North White­head has his own highly creative answer. But, before I summarize and evaluate his response to the problem of evil, I will offer a brief overview of the multiple ways in which evil has been diagnosed and accepted within the Western tradition. In The Symbol­ism of Evil, Paul Ricoeur claims that the key concept in under­standing moral evil or evil incurred as a result of human responsibility is the notion of the servile will, the will that finds itself enslaved to what is alien to itself and at the same time is powerless to liberate itself from this captivity.[4] Historically, this sense of the servile will developed in three stages: first external defilement in which one became infected through con­sciously or unconsciously violating a community taboo, then sin as an objective violation of a divine commandment, and finally guilt as the subjective awareness of one’s sinfulness. Certainly, these three stages are manifest in the pages of Sacred Scripture. In the Old Testament, for example, God’s striking dead Uzzah as he tried to steady the Ark of the Covenant on its passage to Jerusalem by order of King David (2 Sam. 6: 6-7) is implicit testimony to the fear and anxiety felt by the Israelites in God’s presence. The Hebrew prophets later made clear that social justice was more important to God than ritual purity and thereby introduced the notion of personal sin. But the question of subjective guilt was still unresolved by the time of the writing of the Book of Job. Job ultimately had to admit that he was guilty of questioning God’s justice toward himself and only then was he absolved from his sins and offered a new life of happiness and prosperity.

Likewise, in the New Testament Gospel narratives Jesus refers to the reality of the servile will and the need for divine forgiveness of one’s sins in order to attain salvation, enter the Kingdom of God. But with his numerous healings and exorcisms Jesus also exhibits a strong belief in the existence and activity of demonic spirits. This is a theme carried over from Jewish Apocalyptic which was itself heavily influenced by Persian Zoroastrian­ism with its dualistic conception of a good and evil god in unending combat within human history.[5] For Jesus and his con­temporaries, of course, the ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of the Father was assured. But in this world the awesome power of evil was clearly embodied in the person of Satan and his minions. St. Paul likewise contributed to this same mind-set by contrasting Christ with Adam in Romans 5: 12-21. Adam succumbed to the power of the devil. Jesus resisted the power of Satan even though it eventually cost him his life. By his resurrection Jesus definitively vanquished Satan and opened up the possibility of eternal life for all his followers.

As Ricoeur points out in The Symbolism of Evil, the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise contrasts sharply with other ancient mythical explanations of the origin of evil in this world.[6] Whereas these other myths identify evil with primeval chaos which is only imperfectly subdued by the creative activity of gods and humans throughout history, the story in Genesis depicts a creation already complete and good in itself which is corrupted by the sin of the first human beings. Evil is thus linked with Salva­tion History more than with the cosmic process as such. As Marjorie Suchocki notes with reference to Augustine, evil is then the result of sin and its punishment.[7] At the same time, Augus­tine recognized the finitude of human beings in dealing with the power of Satan. Given his own struggle to remain chaste after converting to Christianity, he laid heavy stress on the body as the proximate occasion for temptation and sin. But, even more fundamentally, he recognized in the role of Satan in the Garden of Eden that the power of evil comes to the human being from the outside as something already there by way of seduction.[8] The human being is ultimately responsible for his or her choice. But a supra-human power is at work in human history to influence that choice.

During the Middle Ages and the early modern period of Western history, belief in the preternatural power of the devil and demonic spirits was very widespread.[9] The demonic was all too often attributed simply to individuals whom one did not understand or trust (pagans, Muslims, Jews, women and heretics). The witchcraft craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Western Europe and North America was the climax of this fear of the Other in the Western mind-set. By way of reaction, at least among European intellectuals there arose over time a tendency to dismiss moral responsibility for evil in the name of finitude.[10] First Leibniz argued that natural and moral evil are paradoxically necessary within divine providence so as to achieve the best possible world­.[11] But the prodigious growth of the natural and social sciences in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries likewise contributed significantly to a gradual naturalizing of evil as something due largely to natural causes with diminished moral responsibility as a result rather than to superna­tural powers and/or personal accountability.

To consider just three examples, Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century with his theory of natural selection established the link between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom. This effectively “killed off the classical notion of original sin […] Violence, illness, and death did not enter the world because of a prehistoric human sin but had been around long before humans existed.”[12] Then in the early twentieth century Sig­mund Freud with his practice of psychoanalysis introduced the notion of repression of illicit desire as part of the workings of the unconscious mind. Thus any discussion of human evil now had to include how people are moved by forces of which they were not normally aware. Finally, in mid-twentieth century, the new science of sociobiology was initiated by Edward O. Wilson with his ground-breaking work Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.[13] Here group activity as well as individual human behavior was studied in terms of evolutionary practices so that good and evil were to be judged primar­ily in terms of their effect on group reproduction and survival rather than as a matter of obedience to divine authority or super­natural revelation. In brief, then, recognition of human finitude in the face of various forms of causal determinism within Nature has over time become far more prominent in the analysis of the causes of evil in the Western world than belief in personal freedom and moral responsibility.

2. Whitehead’s Approach to the Problem of Evil

Turning now to Whitehead’s understanding of the problem of evil, I note first of all how he dealt with it in an early philo­sophical work Science and the Modern World. In the chapter on “God,” he distinguishes between what he calls the underlying substantial activity which is actual only in its various modes or instantia­tions and a principle of limitation of that same activity which he calls God (SMW 177-79). In this way, Creativity (as he later termed this substantial acti­vity) is not a being or an agent in its own right. Rather it is a dynamic principle of potentiality, an unending activity which empowers actual occasions to become themselves by their own self-constituting “decisions.” God as the principle of limitation for the activity of Creativity is indeed an agent. Yet, unlike God in Thomistic thought, God does not determine what happens in this world; God only acts as an influence on the way in which Creativity is operative within actual occasions. God’s role in the cosmic process is “to divide the Good from the Evil, and to establish Reason ‘within her dominions supreme’” (SMW 179).

On the one hand, this was a brilliant move on Whitehead’s part. For God is as a result no longer responsible for the evil that happens in this world. Actual occasions as self-constituting subjects of experience are responsible for evil insofar as they misuse the power of Creativity to bring disorder rather than order into the world. God, on the contrary, is supremely ethical since God never abuses the power of creativity for evil ends but instead works to minimize the effects of evil “decisions” on the part of actual occasions. Furthermore, since actual occasions are the ultimate constituents of reality at all levels of existence and activity in the world, whether inanimate or inanimate, Whitehead has thereby an explanation for the existence not only of moral evil among human beings but for natural evil, unexpected disorder within the world of Nature. In every case without exception God is free of responsibility for what goes wrong in this world.

But, on the other hand, Whitehead thereby created an enormous problem for Biblical belief in God as Creator of Heaven and Earth. The power of Creativity is independent of God. God, in fact, is a “creature” of Creativity as Whitehead himself conceded in Process and Reality (PR 88). God may be the Ethical Ultimate but not the Metaphysical Ultimate within the cosmic process. Whiteheadians like John Cobb have struggled to remain faithful to classical Christian belief in God as Creator. Cobb argues in an early work, for example, that pace White­head “­God must be conceived as being the reason that entities occur at all as well as determining the limits within which they can achieve their own forms”[14]; later he urges that the divine Logos not only became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth but is at the same time the “Christ” in an extended sense, namely, the principle of creative transformation in human history.[15] My own solution, to be spelled out in more detail below, is to propose that Creativity as an unending activity is in the first place the nature or inner principle of being and activity for God understood as a community of divine persons and only by the free decision of those same divine persons is it also the principle of existence and activity for all finite actual occasions in this world. In this way, God can be both the Metaphysical and the Ethical Ultimate at the same time since, as Thomas Aquinas claimed in the Summa Theologiae, “nature” and “person” are only rational distinct within God.[16] Beforehand, however, I will review how Whitehead further deals with the problem of evil in Process and Reality and in Adventures of Ideas.

In Process and Reality, for example, Whitehead nicely balances freedom and finitude as metaphysical explanations of the existence of evil. Freedom (or at the subhuman level, spontaneity) is groun­ded in the self-constituting “decision” of the finite actual occa­sion (PR 272-78). Finitude is present both in what conditions that decision—namely, the environment out of which the actual occasion is arising—and in the fact that the actual occasion perishes as soon as its process of becoming is completed. In this way it must leave to successor actual occasions in the same society the perpetuation of the value which it has achieved. “An actual entity arises from decisions for it and by its very existence provides decisions for other actual entities which supersede it” (PR 43).[17] Thus, unlike other philosophers like Augustine and Leibniz who evidently give priority to freedom over finitude or vice-versa, Whitehead maintains a creative tension between these alternatives for the rational explanation of evil.

In the concluding chapters of Process and Reality, however, Whitehead seems to favor finitude as the root cause of evil: “The ultimate evil in the temporal world is deeper than any specific evil. It lies in the fact that the past fades, that time is a ‘perpetual perishing.’ Objectification involves elimination. The present fact has not the past fact with it in any full immediacy” (PR 340).22 What allows for the continual emergence of novelty within the cosmic process, namely, the ongoing succession of self-constituting actual occasions, is paradoxically at the same time the cause of evil understood as the “perpetual perishing” of what has already become. Similarly, in Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead notes:

The intermingling of Beauty and Evil arises from the conjoint operation of three metaphysical principles: (1) That all actualization is finite; (2) That finitude involves the exclusion of alternative possibility; (3) That mental functioning introduces into realization subjective forms conformal to relevant alternatives excluded from the completeness of physi­cal realization (AI 259).

With that third metaphysical principle Whitehead has in mind novel possibilities which the concrescing subject of experience realizes are incapable of realization here and now. As a result they can be a source of pain and distress for the individual, classic examples of what might have been and what might never be available again.

Whitehead’s solution to the evil presented by finitude or “perpetual perishing” is, of course, the notion of the consequent nature of God: “The consequent nature of God is his judgment on the world. He saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own life. It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved. It is also the judgment of a wisdom which uses what in the temporal world is mere wreckage” (PR 346). Hence, nothing of any value ever perishes; it is preserved forever within the memory of God. But is this enough to satisfy the human heart? As Marjorie Suchocki comments, “there are those whose lives are permanently distorted through societal or personal evil, such that they do not or cannot benefit from the good which is accomplished despite their suffering.”[18] To remedy this tragic situation, there must be a way to allow for subjective immortality within Whitehead’s cosmological scheme.

3. Suchocki’s Rethinking of Whitehead’s Approach

Suchocki’s ingenious solution to this problem was to rethink the way in which actual occasions are constituted and Whiteheadian creativity is passed on from one actual occasion to another. Whereas Whitehead himself had stipulated that an actual occasion is first engaged in its own process of self-constitution and then becomes a “super­ject,” an objective datum for the prehen­sion of subsequent actual occasions (PR 27-28), Suchocki proposed that at the climax of the process of concrescence ­­there should be a moment of “enjoyment” when the subject achieves “satisfaction” as a fully determined subject of experience.[19] Precisely at that fleeting moment God can prehend the finite actual occasion in its completed subjectivity and incorporate it as such into the divine consequent nature.[20] Thus, whereas Whitehead had ­stipulated that “no actual entity can be conscious of its own satisfac­tion” without thereby altering the character of the satisfaction (PR 85), Suchocki insisted that the actual entity must sub­jectively experience that satisfaction in order to become a super­ject, that is, to pass on its moment of creativity to successor actual entities. “Enjoyment generates transition, giving­ness” for the becoming of those future actual occasions.[21]

Granted the persuasiveness of Suchocki’s argument here, how does it contribute to a more satisfying solution to the problem of evil, especially for individuals who have suffered unjustly in this life and have died without feeling in any way vindicated? For that matter, how does it guarantee that those who are the perpe­trators of injus­tice in their lifetime will be brought to acknowledge that fact and repent of their misdeeds before God and their fellow human beings? Suchocki’s response is to stipulate that when an actual occasion is subjectively incorporated into the divine consequent nature, it sees itself in an entirely new light because it is now “linked into the concrescence of God even while remaining itself.”[22] It experiences God’s evaluation of itself within the context of the divine consequent nature. In effect, it has an experience of divine judgment:

The judgment is multiple: it is a judgment of the occasion as it could have been relative to what it in fact became; it is a judgment of the occasion as a single satisfaction in relation to the communities in which it participated, such as the totality of a living person; it is a judgment of the occasion and, if applicable, its personhood, in relation to the increasingly wider communities of the whole universe; and it is throughout, of course, a judgment of the occasion in relation to God.[23]

This judgment will be largely negative or positive, depending upon the “decision” of the actual entity in question. But, in any case, if the actual occasion accepts the truth about itself in terms of this comprehensive judgment, it will experience “trans­formation, redemp­tion and peace.”[24] It will participate fully in the divine consequent nature from that moment onwards.

Since the ultimate solution to the problem of evil within Judaism, Christianity and Islam has always been seen in terms of the Last Judgment when God will reward the just and punish the wicked in accord with the pattern of their lives on earth, it would seem that Suchocki has here provided a Whiteheadian version of the Last Judgment but without the prospect of eternal damnation or hell for the wicked. Every actual occasion will be “saved” once it accepts the role which it played within the societies to which it belongs and ultimately within the cosmic process as a whole. There will indeed be something like purgatory as the occa­sion is obliged to come to terms with the truth about itself in the context of the divine consequent nature. But within this scheme divine judgment is never condemnation but instead “transformation which moves from the experiential knowledge of one’s effects to the inexorably required and purgative participation in God’s own life.”[25]

Appealing as the prospect of universal salvation might be, there are still other inconsistencies with the Jewish, Christian and Islamic understanding of the Last Judgment which remain unreconciled. By her own admission, the stress in Suchocki’s scheme is on the redemption of the individual actual occasion, not on the society to which it belongs.[26] Accordingly, with respect to human beings she has to stipulate what she calls a “transcendence of the personality into God”: “first a transcendence of seriality into the fullness of the self; second, a transcendence of selfhood through the mutuality of feeling with all other selves and occasions, and third and most deeply, a transcendence of selves into the Selfhood of God.”[27] This move, however, carries with it the risk of blurring the distinction between God and human beings and among human beings in their relations with one another. Suchocki has clearly introduced intersubjectivity into process-relational metaphysics with her insistence that actual occasions are subjectively immortal within the divine consequent nature, but it seems also clear that this is a new idea for her which needs further development.[28] Still another inconsistency with the classical understanding of the Last Judgment is that history never really comes to an end and so evil is never definitively vanquished. The redemption of an individual actual occasion in God here and now becomes just one more factor in the ongoing redemption of the temporal world.[29] This is, of course, consistent with Whitehead’s own description of “the four creative phases in which the universe accomplishes its actuality” at the end of Process and Reality (350-51). But it does postpone indefinitely a final solu­tion to the problem of evil since the twin sources for the existence of evil, freedom and finitude, always remain in play within this world.

4. A Neo-Whiteheadian Solution to the Problem of Evil

Are we then to conclude that Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme even with Marjorie Suchocki’s emendations is still unable to come to terms with the problem of evil, at least in a way which would be satisfactory to classical Jewish, Christian and Muslim belief in Eschatology, the “four last things”? My own suggestion would be that there is much in Whitehead’s world view which is very helpful in dealing with the problem of evil. As noted above, with his understanding of creativity Whitehead effectively solved the classical problem of theodicy, namely, how to reconcile the existence of evil in this world with belief in a just and loving Creator God. Likewise, his description of the self-constitution of actual occasions makes clear how finitude is necessarily at work in the free decisions of human beings and in the spontaneous “decisions” of non-human creatures. Thereby he nicely reconciles with one another freedom and finitude as the theoretical sources for the existence of evil. Yet, as noted above, there are still ways in which Whitehead’s (and Suchocki’s) solution to the problem of evil creates a new set of problems for traditionally oriented Jews, Christian­s and Muslims.

Admittedly, there will probably never be a fully satisfactory rational explanation for the existence of evil in this world. The “problem” of evil is in this sense really more a mystery to the human mind than something capable of rational analysis. Yet in the remaining pages of this article, I will offer my own emendation of Whitehead’s metaphysics which goes beyond what Suchocki envis­ioned and which, as I see it, offers a better chance of staying within the parameters marked out by classical Jewish, Christian and Muslim belief both in God as Creator and in the possibility of eternal life for all God’s creatures after their time in this world has come to an end. Since I will be using material laid out in much greater detail else­where, I will simply state my position and not present supporting arguments except as needed to make my position clear. Like Suchocki, I will be rethinking Whitehead’s notion of creativity; but, unlike Suchocki, I will focus on the role of creativity in the formation of societies rather than in the self-constitution of individual actual occasions.

As noted earlier in this article, I believe that the problem generated by distinguishing between Whiteheadian creativity as the Metaphysi­cal Ultimate and God as the Ethical Ultimate can be resolved if one thinks of creativity as the nature or inner principle of existence and activity for God conceived as a community of three divine persons. For, since there is only a rational distinction between “nature” and “person” within God, the Metaphysical Ultimate and the Ethical Ultimate refer in the end to one and the same reality. But, over and above this merging of what Whitehead distinguished as separate realities, one may also argue that creativity thereby takes on a new role. It is active not only in the self-constitution of individual actual entities but in the formation of the societies into which they combine. Whitehead’s dictum that creativity is the principle whereby “the many become one, and are increased by one” (PR 21) is then applicable to the formation of a new kind of reality, the reality of a society as distinct from the reality of its constituent actual occasions. For, otherwise, a Whitehead­ian society is reductively nothing more than an aggregate of actual occasions with analogously the same pattern of self-constitution; the society itself has no objective status or intrinsic ontological identity of its own.[30] Yet what is this further ontological identity of a society? I propose that it is the reality of an enduring environment or structured field of activity for successive sets of constituent actual occasions. In one moment the current set of actual occasions by their dynamic interrelation give shape or pattern to their common field of activity. But in the next moment that same shape or pattern is a key formative element in the self-constitution of the next set of actual occasions.[31]

Given this field-oriented interpretation of Whiteheadian societies, one can rethink the God-World relationship in a way which allows for classical belief in God as freely choosing to create in order to share eternal life with creatures both now and, above all, in eternity. For, if the three divine persons are one God in virtue of a shared field of activity proper to themselves in their dynamic interrelation from moment to moment, then they are free to create or not to create the world of creation. But, if they choose to create and thereby share with creatures their own communitarian life, then creation must exist within this divine field of activity. The divine field of activity, after all, is infinite or strictly unlimited; hence, creation can only exist within the divine field of activity ­as a hierarchically ordered set of subfields of activity. These sub­fields of activity together with their constituent actual occasions have, to be sure, ontological integrity both with respect to one another and with respect to the divine persons. Yet the divine persons and all created actual occasions still share one and the same all-comprehen­sive field of activity from moment to moment, what may suitably be called the Kingdom of God in Biblical language.

Furthermore, as societies of actual occasions come to an end in the temporal order either through death in the case of individual organisms or dissolution in the case of inanimate things or social realities like human communities, they remain preserved in their basic structure and pattern within the divine field of activity. In this sense, they achieve objective immortality as societies much as Whitehead prescribed for individual actual occasions within the consequent nature of God. But these societies also enjoy subjective immortality in proportion to the degree of self-awareness of their constituent actual occasions in the temporal order. Here I seem to be saying the same thing as Suchocki with one major exception. Whereas Suchocki stipulates that every individual actual occasion without exception enjoys subjective immortality within the divine consequent nature, I propose that only the final actual occasion or set of actual occasions within a given society is granted subjective immortality by the three divine persons at the moment of death or dissolution of component parts. As Whitehead himself comments in Adventures of Ideas, individual actual occasions come and go; societies endure (AI 204). Hence, all that is needed for the subjective immortality of a Whiteheadian society within eternal life, the divine field of activity, is that there be a final actual occasion or set of actual occasions to take full possession of the field of activity proper to itself and its predecessors in the same society. Only the final actual occasion or set of actual occasions will thus achieve “trans­formation, redemption and peace”[32] both for itself and for the society of which it is the latest member. This is not to imply that animals, plants, and even the component parts of inanimate things will experience transformation, redemption and peace in the same way as human beings, but only that there will be a “new heaven and a new earth” as promised in the Book of Revelation (21: 1-4).

Granted the plausibility of this reconception of Whitehead’s and Suchocki’s vision for the redemption of the temporal order and therefore in some sense for the “end” or termination of evil, I believe that it is superior to theirs for several reasons. In the first place, it provides for a distinction between life in this world and eternal life. Only in eternal life is evil definitively overcome; in this world all victories over evil are partial and incomplete. Because Suchocki follows Whitehead in stipulating the total interdependence of God and the world, she cannot claim that evil is ever fully overcome. Redeemed actual occasions within God share in the divine subjectivity which is itself preoccupied with the trials and vicissitudes of life in this world, the constant battle with the forces of evil. Within my own scheme, on the contrary, the three divine persons and all their redeemed creatures are involved with this world but not totally. There is a dimension of eternal life which is distinct from this world and can be enjoyed for its own sake, both by the divine persons and by all their creatures. There is an end to evil within the depths of the divine life.

Likewise, my approach to the problem of evil accounts for the workings of evil even in this world better than do the theories of Whitehead and Suchocki. That is, because both Whitehead and Suchocki focus on the role of individual actual occasions within the cosmic process and pay correspondingly less attention to the enduring role of societies within that same process, they underestimate one of the key insights from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures into the reality of evil, namely, that evil is a supra-human power at work in this world which transcends the decisions of individuals here and now even as it is continually sustained and augmented by them. As noted earlier, the image of the devil and his minions figured prominently in the late Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament. In the Gospel narratives, Jesus is represented as engaged in mortal combat with the forces of darkness through his healing miracles and exorcisms. He predicts the eventual triumph of the Kingdom of God but warns his followers that they must continually be on guard against the tactics of the devil who effectively symbolizes a supra-human malicious power at work in the world.

Many Scripture scholars, to be sure, dismiss the “myth” of Satan and his minions as angels who fell from heaven as a result of a primordial sin before the creation of Adam and Eve.[33] But like so many other myths, it contains a deep religious truth that should not be overlooked. Evil and Good originate in the decisions of individuals but are perpetrated within human history and indeed within the entire cosmic process as rival powers for the allegiance of creatures. Elsewhere I have carefully analyzed how one can integrate this primordial religious truth into a Neo-Whiteheadian metaphysical scheme such as I have sketched above.[34] Here it suf­fices to note that if Whiteheadian societies are interpreted as structured fields of activity for their constituent actual occasions rather than simply as aggregates of actual occasions with a “common element of form,” then the collective power of both good and evil can be understood at the societal level in structural terms. ­A Whiteheadian society, in other words, embodies at any given moment both the collective power of good and the collective power of evil within its inherited structure. With the decision of its concurrent actual occasion or set of actual occasions, it will either add to or subtract from the collective power of both good and evil in this world but inevitably not in equal measure. The struggle between good and evil, therefore, is grounded in the decisions of individual actual occa­sions but the enduring results of the struggle are inscribed in the ongoing structure of the societies to which they belong.

In Process and Reality Whitehead represented the consequent nature of God as the way in which God employs the unrestricted vision of possibilities within the divine primordial nature so as to convert contradictories, apparently irreconcilable events, into needed contrasts for the overall richness of the cosmic process (PR 346). Harmony rather than conflict characterizes the enduring reality of the consequent nature of God according to Whitehead. On the contrary, I would once again appeal to a distinction between eternal life and life in this world which is admittedly not Whitehead­ian but which seems to be demanded by traditional Jewish, Christian and Muslim belief in salvation, God’s plan for the redemption of this world. The conse­quent nature of God, insofar as it simply reflects what is happening in this world, is not characterized by harmony but by deep and enduring conflict. It reflects the ongoing struggle between the collective powers of good and evil in this world. Only in eternal life which is related to but distinct from life in this world will the harmony envisioned by Whitehead for the divine consequent nature become a reality. On this point also, in my judgment, the metaphysical scheme which I have sketched in these pages works better than the proposals of Whitehead and Suchocki to provide a workable solution to the problem of evil (insofar as the latter is indeed capable of a consistent rational explanation rather than being written off as a humanly unfathomable mystery).


[1] Joseph F. Kelly, The Problem of Evil in the Western Tradition: From the Book of Job to Modern Genetics (Collegeville MN, Liturgi­cal Press, 2002), 2.

[2] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York, Anchor Books, 2004), 97-124.

[3] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York, Anchor Books, 2004), 53-63.

[4] Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, translated by Emerson Buchanan (Boston, Beacon Press, 1969), 151-57.

[5] Kelly, The Problem of Evil, 21.

[6] Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, 172-73.

[7] Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, The End of Evil: Process Eschatology in Historical Context (Albany, State University of New York Press Press, 1988), 5. See also Augustine, On True Religion, X, ii, 23; The City of God, XXII, 14.

[8] Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, 155.

[9] Kelly, The Problem of Evil, 62-118.

[10] Kelly, The Problem of Evil, 119-32.

[11] Suchocki, The End of Evil, 21.

[12] Kelly, The Problem of Evil, 176.

[13] Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1975); also by the same author On Human Nature (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1978).

[14] John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1965), 211-12. Cf., however, Michel Weber, ­La dialectique de l’intuition chez Alfred North Whitehead (Frankfurt, Ontos Verlag, 2004), 211-14. Weber agrees with Whitehead that crea­tivity is simply a metaphysical “given” which should not be groun­ded in God or any other entity in virtue of the so-called ontological principle (see also 273).

[15] John B. Cobb, Jr., Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia, Westminster, 1975), 31-87. This means, of course, that the classical Christian understanding of God as three persons and yet one God is significantly changed; see on this latter point Cobb’s Postscript, 259-64, where he attributes functions to the divine persons rather than personal names.

[16] S. Thomae Aquinatis, Summa Theologiae (Madrid, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1951), I, Q. 39, art. 1 resp.

[17] Cf. PR 110: “The character of an actual entity is finally governed by its datum; whatever be the feeling of freedom in the concrescence, there can be no transgression of the limitations of capacity inherent in the datum.”

[18] Suchocki, End of Evil, 81.

[19] Suchocki, End of Evil, 88.

[20] Suchocki, End of Evil, 91.

[21] Suchocki, End of Evil, 89.

[22] Suchocki, End of Evil, 102.

[23] Suchocki, End of Evil, 106.

[24] Suchocki, End of Evil, 109.

[25] Suchocki, End of Evil, 113.

[26] Suchocki, End of Evil, 107-108.

[27] Suchocki, End of Evil, 108.

[28] See, e.g., Suchocki’s response to her critics in World Without End: Christian Eschatology from a Process Perspective, edited by Joseph A. Bracken, S.J. (Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 2005), 202-208.

[29] Suchocki, End of Evil, 115-34.

[30] Charles Hartshorne saw this problem and tried to remedy it many years ago in “The Compound Individual,” Philosophical Essays for Alfred North Whitehead (New York, Russell & Russell, 1936),193-220. Therein he distinguished between composite individuals (democratically organized societies of non-living actual occasions) which are virtual aggregates and compound individuals (societies of actual occasions with a “regnant” actual occasion giving unity and coherence to its contemporaries) which have an objective unity. For many years now I have contested that argument as insufficient to account for the objective reality both of inanimate things and of communities and environments as likewise composed of societies of actual occasions but not organized monarchically in terms of a regnant subsociety as in organic compounds. See, e.g., Society and Spirit: A Trinitarian Cosmology (Toronto, Associated University Presses, 1991), 39-56; The One in the Many: A Contemporary Reconstruction of the God-World Relationship (Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 2001), 99-100, 135-37. At the same time, I am aware that my own position remains a somewhat unorthodox interpretation of Whitehead’s notion of society. For a recent more conventional presentation, see Michel Weber, La dialectique, 152-68.

[31] PR 90-91: “The causal laws which dominate a social environment are the product of the defining characteristic of that society. But the society is only efficient through its individual members. Thus in a society, the members can only exist by reason of the laws which dominate the society, and the laws only come into being by reason of the analogous characters of the members of the society.” See also Bracken, Society and Spirit, 39-56; The One in the Many, 131-55.

[32] Suchocki, End of Evil, 109.

[33] For a brief summary of the origin of this myth in Christian circles, see Kelly, The Problem of Evil, 38-39, 44-45.

[34] Cf. here Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., Christianity and Process Thought: Spirituality for a Changing World (West Conshohocken PA, Templeton Foundation Press, 2006), Chapters 3-5.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Aquinatis, S. Thomae. 1951. Summa Theologiae (Madrid, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos).

Bracken, S.J., Joseph A. 1991. Society and Spirit: A Trinitarian Cosmology (Cranbury NJ, Associated University Presses).

Bracken, S.J., Joseph A. 2001. The One in the Many: A Contemporary Reconstruction of the God-World Relationship (Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans).

Bracken, S.J., Joseph A. 2005. World Without End: Christian Eschatology from a Process Perspective (Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans).

Bracken, S.J., Joseph A. 2006. Christianity and Process Thought: Spirituality for a Changing World (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press).

Cobb, Jr., John B. 1965. A Christian Natural Theology, Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia, Westminster Press).

Cobb, Jr., John B. 1975. Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia, Westminster Press).

Hartshorne, Charles. 1936. “The Compound Individual,” Philosophical Essays for Alfred North Whitehead (New York, Russell & Russell).

Kelly, Joseph F. 2002. The Problem of Evil in the Western Tradition: From the Book of Job to Modern Genetics (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press).

Kushner, Harold S. 2004. When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Anchor Books).

Ricoeur, Paul. 1969. The Symbolism of Evil, translated by Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon Press) [Philosophie de la volonté. II Finitude et culpabilité. ii La symbolique du mal, Paris, Aubier. Éditions Montaigne, 1960].

Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt. 1988. The End of Evil: Process Eschatology in Historical Context (Albany, State University of New York Press). See also Augustine, On True Religion, X, ii, 23; The City of God, XXII, 14.

Weber, Michel. 2004.  ­La dialectique de l’intuition chez Alfred North Whitehead (Frankfurt, Ontos Verlag).

Wilson, Edward O. 1975. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press); also by the same author On Human Nature (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1978).

Author Information

Joseph A. Bracken, S.J.
Emeritus Professor, Department of Theology
Xavier University, Cincinnnati, Ohio/USA 45207

How to Cite this Article

Bracken, Joseph A., “Whitehead’s Rethinking of the Problem of Evil”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/thematic/theology-and-religion/whiteheads-rethinking-of-the-problem-of-evil/>.