Evil and Persuasive Power

by Peter H. Hare and Edward H. Madden

Peter H. Hare (philosophy, State University of New York at Buffalo) and Edward H. Madden (philosophy, State University of New York at Binghamton) have collaborated on several articles concerning God and the problem of evil, including the book, Evil and the Concept of God.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 44-48, Vol. 2, Number 1, Spring , 1972. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The writers approach the problem of evil from the stance of process thought. Basic to their position is the view that God’s power is persuasive, not coercive.

Although they have exercised much influence on Protestant theology, process theists have had disappointingly little influence on philosophical discussions of the problem of evil. Despite the fact that leading process theists have devoted a substantial part of their writings to the discussion of evil, we find publication after publication by philosophers on the problem of evil with hardly a mention of process theism. Nelson Pike’s widely used anthology, God and Evil (6), contains no discussion of process theism and John Hick’s Evil and the God of Love (4), generally considered the most comprehensive treatment of the problem of evil to date. virtually ignores process theism. Although we might have hoped for a change of attitude, M. B. Ahern, the author of the latest philosophical book devoted to the problem of evil, persists in ignoring process theism. In our book, Evil and the Concept of God (5:104-36). we seem to have been the exception in taking nontraditional as well as traditional forms of theism seriously.

In this paper we shall not attempt a full-scale reply to critics of our discussion of nontraditional theism. Instead we hope to make a further contribution to the philosophical discussion of nontraditional theism by examining in more detail than we did in our book one strand of thought that plays a crucial, and philosophically fascinating, role in process theism’s treatment of the problem of evil. Basic to this strand is the view that God’s power is persuasive, not coercive.

Our argument will proceed as follows: (1) we accept many of the metaphysical and moral reasons given for supposing that God’s power is in some degree, and in some respects, persuasive rather than coercive, but we do not find that any good reason has been given why God’s power must and should be exclusively persuasive; (2) even in those contexts where persuasive and not coercive power is appropriate we find that process theists have made no attempt to provide a theodicy that explains how the high proportion remaining unpersuaded is compatible with the exercise of great persuasive power; (3) if it is replied that a persuasive God can be expected to maximize only creativity and freedom, and not good acts and experiences, we point out that process theists have no more produced a theodicy that shows that the limitations of creativity and freedom in this world are compatible with the exercise of great persuasive power than they have produced a theodicy showing that the extent and distribution of evil acts and experiences are compatible with great persuasive power; (4) if no theodicy is produced to explain these purported compatibilities, then we may as reasonably believe that great evil persuasive power is being exercised as that great persuasive power for the good is being exercised; and (5) if the process theist wishes to circumvent this need for a theodicy by claiming that process theism, like any metaphysics, can never be disproved by experiential findings but only by a demonstration of its conceptual incoherence, then we insist that the notion of persuasive power as used by process theists must be shown to be, contrary to appearances, a coherent concept. If, as we believe, such a conceptual theodicy can only succeed by modifying the concept of persuasive power in such a way that an experiential theodicy is again needed, then there is no way of circumventing the need for an experiential theodicy, a theodicy that, as we have already indicated, no process theist has produced.

(1) The arguments, both metaphysical and moral, given for supposing that God’s power is persuasive rather than coercive are too well known to readers of process philosophy to need repeating in detail here, Let us begin by granting that the idea of God’s power as totally coercive is morally repugnant as well as conceptually incoherent, Process theists make a useful point when they insist that such coercive power is incompatible with divine goodness. They are also right in claiming that it is "double talk" to say that "God decides my decisions . . . yet they are truly mine" (3:203). However, process theists fail to notice that while totally coercive power may be objectionable, solely persuasive power may also be objectionable. Why must we suppose that God’s power is solely coercive or solely persuasive? ‘Why must we consider coerciveness and persuasiveness to be mutually exclusive?

Process theists excuse God of evil by saying that he quite properly respects the freedom 0f his creatures and only tries to persuade them to do good-Although we agree that it would be morally repugnant for God to take all freedom from his creatures, we fail to see why there are not many situations in which a certain amount of coercive power is morally required. We cannot agree with John Cobb when he says that "[t]he only power capable of any worthwhile result is the power of persuasion" (2:90). Consider an analogy. It would not do to excuse a mother for the grossly evil habits of her child by appealing to her use of persuasion only, when sometimes there have been situations in which some coercion was morally required. To be sure, a mother who uses coercion frequently destroys the child’s individuality and, in so doing, destroys, in a sense, her power over him. However, no reasonable person is asking for the frequent use of coercion. Rather the reasonable person asks for whatever mixture of coercion and persuasion is appropriate to a particular situation. The reasonable person asks of God also the same appropriate mixture of coercion and persuasion. Consequently, it is not enough to show that this or that evil in the world is compatible with divine persuasive power for the good; it must also be shown that this or that situation is one in which the exercise 0f only persuasive power is morally appropriate. If it is not a situation in which only persuasive power is appropriate, then it must be asked why God did not use a degree of coercion. Once one recognizes that it is not a question of whether God’s power is to be conceived of as either totally coercive or totally persuasive, one must ask the crucial question whether the extent and distribution of evil in the world are compatible with the existence of a God who always exercises the mixture of coercion and persuasion that is morally required.

We recognize that in a metaphysics of social process "coercive power" is considered a self-contradictory term and existence of any kind, sentient or non-sentient, entails freedom. However, choice of terminology is unimportant. Surely in any plausible metaphysics it is possible to distinguish degrees of creativity, freedom, etc. Hartshorne admits as much when he says that "all creatures have some [our emphasis] freedom" (3:205). When such distinctions are made, something equivalent to degrees of coercion are recognized and one can meaningfully ask whether the morally appropriate degree of coercive power is being exercised in a particular situation.

(2) Persuasive power alone is appropriate, however. in at least some contexts. But even in those situations process theists have left important questions unanswered. Is the extent and distribution of evil in those contexts compatible with the exercise of great persuasive power for the good? We cannot be satisfied with Lewis Ford’s assertion that any evil is "compatible with unlimited persuasive power" (PPCT 289). In ordinary contexts we quite reasonably cease to believe that great persuasive power is being exercised if we find that a high proportion of those who should be persuaded remain unpersuaded. We all recognize that a high enough proportion remaining unpersuaded makes unlikely the exercise of great persuasive power and no reason is given why this isn’t also the case with God. It is hardly adequate to answer. as Ford does, that the "measure of persuasion . . . is not how many people are actually persuaded at any given time, but the intrinsic value of the goal proposed" (PPCT 298n13). We agree that the intrinsic merit of unselfishness, for example, is very great and we applaud a mother who tries strenuously to convince her child to be unselfish, but if she generally fails, then we think that she does not have much persuasive power in spite of the excellence of her goals.

Our point is simply that process theists have not taken the problem of the large number that remain unpersuaded seriously. Any process theodicy that pretends to be adequate must provide an answer to this question and not content itself with saying that the exercise of persuasive power entails the existence of at least some who are unpersuaded. Clearly we agree to that. John Hick in his theodicy has attempted to explain in detail in terms of soul-making how the existence of traditional theistic power is compatible, not just with any evil, but with the extent and distribution of actual evil in the world, but process theists have made no parallel attempt to explain how the very high proportion remaining unpersuaded is compatible with the exercise of great persuasive power by God, though they have shown with little difficulty how the existence of some who are unpersuaded is compatible with great persuasive power.

(3) Process theists are sometimes inclined to minimize the problem of explaining the large number that remain unpersuaded by emphasizing the intrinsic value of the creativity and freedom that God promotes, albeit entailing risk of evil. Let us grant that God may have set up the laws of nature for the development of the intrinsic values of creativity and freedom, and that he may do many other things to promote these values. However, if this is the case, an adequate theodicy must show that creativity and freedom are being maximized In this world by a great persuasive power. It is not sufficient to point to the fact that all process involves emergent novelty in some degree and infer from such emergent novelty a God exercising great persuasive power to foster creativity and freedom. Nor is it sufficient to pronounce creativity the ultimate metaphysical principle and say: "To be is to create" (CSPM 1). In ordinary contexts we would find unacceptable an analysis of a society which pointed to the fact that even men in solitary confinement exercise some freedom of choice and inferred from that freedom that this is a society In which creativity and freedom are being fostered by a great persuasive power. An adequate analysis of a society must take seriously the question of whether more creativity and freedom are feasible. While it is clear that there is genuine creativity and freedom everywhere in this world, it would seem to us that there are many situations in which we would like to see a great deal more creativity and freedom, and an adequate theodicy must show that this additional creativity and freedom cannot be achieved by even unlimited persuasive power. If the process theist is right in supposing that God’s power is the power to inspire freedom in others, then he must answer the question of whether more freedom could be inspired -- or whether the maximum amount has been achieved.

(4) One cannot avoid answering the above questions with impunity. If such questions are not answered, then we do not know that there is not a great persuasive power for evil. How do we know that the good acts in the world are not acts of resistance to an evil persuasive power? If we do not take the trouble to estimate on the basis of good and evil in the world the degree and kind of persuasive power being exercised, we may as reasonably believe that unlimited and evil persuasive power is being exercised as that great persuasive power for good is being exercised.

(5) Some process theists appear to be inclined to circumvent all these questions by insisting that process theism, like any metaphysics, cannot be disproved by the experiential facts of evil or by any other experiential findings. A metaphysics, Hartshorne argues, is to be judged on the basis of its conceptual coherence. The metaphysics of traditional theism he criticizes not on the grounds that empirical facts are incompatible with it but instead on the grounds that, e.g., the concept of omnipotence in traditional theism is incoherent:

Who could want anyone, even God, to make all his decisions for him? And if this occurred, how could the decisions be "his" at all? The difficulty here is logical, does not depend on the facts. . . . My conclusion is: the idea of omnipotence, as it figures in the classical problem 0f evil, is a pseudo-idea; it would not make sense no matter what the empirical world happened to be like. (3:202f)

Let us suppose that we accept this account of how a metaphysics is to be judged. The important question is then whether such concepts as persuasive power in theism are coherent. It is by no means clear to us that the concept of persuasive power as used by Hartshorne is coherent. Does it make conceptual sense to speak of a sort of power whose nature and extent is in principle impossible to estimate experientially? In ordinary contexts power is always something that can be, at least indirectly and roughly, measured experientially. To speak of completely unmeasurable power appears to be as much a "pseudo-idea" as to speak of weight that can never require force to lift.

If the concept of persuasive power in process theism is incoherent, then the metaphysics of process theism fails to pass the very test that Hartshorne proposes. If, on the other hand, persuasive power is made coherent by making such power experientially measurable, then the process theist is obliged to produce a theodicy in which it is shown that the proportion of goods to evils in the world is compatible with the exercise of great persuasive power for the good, and, as we have seen, no such theodicy has been produced.



CSPM -- Charles Hartshorne. Creative Synthesis & Philosophic Method. LaSalle, Ill.: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1970.

PPCT -- Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr., and Gene Reeves (eds.). Process Philosophy and Christian Thought. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971, for the essay by Lewis S. Ford, "Divine Persuasion and the Triumph of Good," pp. 287-304.

1. M. B. Ahern. The Problem of Evil. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.

2. John B. Cobb, Jr. God and the World. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969.

3. Charles Hartshorne. "A New Look at the Problem of Evil," in Frederick C. Dommeyer (ed.). Current Philosophical Issues: Essays in Honor of Curt John Ducasse. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1966.

4. John Hick. Evil and the God of Love. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

5. Edward H. Madden and Peter H, Hare. Evil and the Concept of God. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1968.

6. Nelson Pike (ed.). God and Evil. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.