The Problem with Theodicy

A few months ago I started a discussion on the problem of evil. The classical statement of the problem is attributed to an ancient Greek philosopher called Epicurus which is as follows,

God, he says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?

Basically, the Epicurean paradox basically asks if there is an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, why is there evil in the world? In my first post The problem with the problem of evil I pointed out the difficulties with how Western Christian apologetics tackles the issue. God, good and evil mean different things depending on what worldview you come from. I would also add in this post what you mean by power also differs. If we do not define our terms properly and we try to address the issue from the same worldview as the atheist there is no way the apologist can make any meaningful headway. The biblical understanding of god, power, good and evil is radically different from the atheist paradigm.

Now in theology and the philosophy of religion, the response to this problem is known as theodicy. The term was coined by the German polymath, Gottfried Wilhem von Leibniz. Those of you who have done calculus know his name since his form of notation in calculus is still in use today. Leibniz was also a philosopher. In his book whose short title was Theodicy he outlined his famous “best of all possible worlds”, which is a philosophical response to the problem of evil. The word theodicy is from the Greek words theos, which means god, and dike, justice. Different theodicies try to demonstrate that God is still good and just even though there is evil in the world.

[1]Perhaps the most prominent Christian philosopher in the world, Alvin Plantinga, goes further to distinguish a theodicy from a defence of God’s existence in the face of the problem of evil. The problem is classically used by atheists to say God does not exist. A defence seeks to show that the existence of both God and evil is possible. A theodicy on the other hand tries to tell you why God allows evil in the world. This distinction is very important for the following reason. Even though I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher, I am very aware theodicies are often riddled with philosophical and theological problems themselves. On a philosophical level a defence seems to me to be a far safer bet.

As you would expect, if the problems with how the problem of evil is raised are not resolved, a theodicy would also be crippled. Beyond the questions of meaning and definition, there is a common problem they both face. In my initial post I mentioned the Paris attacks in November last year. Since then there have been many other horrific atrocities, some happening just last week. When Leibniz first came up with his theodicy it was an intellectual response to a philosophical problem. Forty-five years later in 1755 there was the tragedy of the great Lisbon Earthquake where as many as a 100 hundred thousand lives perished. This natural event also shook the ground of the rational certainty of that period. Nothing was secure any more as they thought and devastating irrational events like this could happen without warning. It also drew very visceral responses from atheists like Voltaire who rejected the theodicy of Leibniz. In his mind what had happened could not be a part of the best possible world. Since then the problem of evil has been mainstay of philosophers and theologians in the West. However, this issue is not limited to the intellectual elite. Tremendous, reason defying, acts of evil like the Holocaust or more recently 9/11 disturb the comfort of life in the West and makes the ordinary person wonder. This is where the theory classically faces its limitations, when it encounters the average person who has prematurely lost a loved one or faced other misfortunes in life.

When the problem of evil is treated as a curious intellectual puzzle to be solved, it ultimately disengages evil from real life and any theodicy you come up with ends up being intellectually dissatisfying as well. For the ordinary person evil is experienced. It isn’t an entertaining discussion in the faculty lunch room by members of the Department of Philosophy. When evil only remains as a philosophical riddle it is of little use in the face of grief or torment. Many people would even think of it as a cruel insult if in the face of grief if it should be brought it up this way. Pain and suffering caused by evil touches a raw emotional nerve in people.

Strictly speaking the Bible does not really deal with the “problem” of evil. In the Bible evil is not some philosophical abstraction. It is something to be recognized, pondered, endured, resisted, overcome, judged and defeated. This is not to say addressing the intellectual aspect of our experience of evil is wrong. Leibniz for instance was a devout Christian and from his many, albeit scattered writings, we possess today, the problem of evil seems to be something that really gnawed at him. In fact Theodicy is one of the few complete works of his we have today. Yet there should not be an intellectual disconnect from the existential and lived experience of evil. Our various philosophies and theologies regarding it should have a human face, the face of empathy.

Now if the Bible does not really deal with the “problem of evil” then it also does not really address the question of theodicy. Not only does the Bible have a radically different texture, it also has completely different assumptions and starting points. Even though Western theology and philosophy have been indelibly shaped and influenced by Christianity we must recognize it is not the same as the biblical worldview. The Epicurean trilemma I quoted earlier are simply not the options on the table as far as Holy Writ is concerned. For one the presence of evil is never used as an argument against the existence of God. For example, the go-to book when the issue of theodicy is brought up is Job. However, Job is not really a theodicy. Belief in God’s existence is never in jeopardy throughout the book. God’s goodness and justice is also not up for debate but rather Job’s innocence, at least in the discourse among the friends. Even though God does finally respond he does not directly answer any of Job’s problems but ends up questioning his would-be questioner. The Lord does not defend himself or why the world is in the state it is. Like the rest of scripture Job assumes an all-powerful God, who is good and just, whose wisdom is unfathomable. Needless to say the Bible’s conception of God and his attributes is unique.

These assumptions about God’s existence and nature must necessarily be traced back to Genesis. There is a good God who creates a good world. Again we must be careful to distinguish the goodness of God from the goodness of creation because though they are obviously related they are not the same. [2]John Walton notes that “good” in Genesis 1 is a functional term not a moral pronouncement. The creator is saying what he has made is good because it functions according to his intended purpose for it. As it was noted in another post, this understanding of goodness does not preclude the existence of natural evil. Even before the first couple sinned if you fell awkwardly it would still hurt. So within the first three chapters we have different, layered meanings of both good and evil at work in the narrative. There is a complex, nuanced understanding of these things. The Bible treats the topic with sensitivity. Irrespective of the kind of evil in question it still remains an event within a functionally good creation. Evil is something that happens in the world but nowhere in scripture does it tell us why it ultimately exists in the first place.

This great conundrum stares down the face of any attempt at a comprehensive or satisfying theodicy. It is a true mystery. Though there are some evils whose causes and reasons can be traced but the phenomenon of evil itself is something that I think is humanly impossible to fully comprehend. I have myself been trying to tackle the issue for a while now and I have come to the following conclusion. The best we can come to is something similar to but not the same as Alvin Plantinga’s free-will defence. That is to say, we can only appreciate to a limited extent the presence and purpose of evil in the original creation. When it comes to its ultimate origin or purpose we simply do not know.

In the Book of Job the one of the main points of debate is the retribution principle. It basically means that good people are rewarded for their goodness and the wicked are punished for their crimes. Job’s friends accused him of being a sinner based on the retribution principle. No one could endure such suffering unless they had sinned in some way. Job on the other hand protested against this verdict because he saw no evidence to support it. Job was the most upright man in the world and also the richest but still evil befell him. In the end Job was vindicated but the retribution principle was not completely thrown out either. There are somethings evil that can be traced to human agency. However there are some events that cannot. In the face of such a mystery the book of Job concludes that we should rather trust in an all-wise Creator who cares for us. This may seem like a cop out but it really isn’t.

If evil is a mystery of creation then the only one qualified to handle it is the Creator. If you have a device that develops a problem you try to contact the manufacturer. When God interrogates Job he points out there are so many things that happen in the world that happens without his knowledge or understanding yet he does not question. With these things he feels God is not obliged to give him an explanation. No matter what since we did not make the world, there are going to be things which are impenetrable to human understanding. God has absolute sovereignty over these mysteries and if he does not feel inclined to share it’s completely up to him. Since he is powerful, just, wise and good, we can be certain that God is not “out to get us.” We therefore can trust him unwaveringly when the going gets really tough, even when we do not understand everything or anything. The classic response to evil, pain and suffering in this world is not to resist God. It is rather to throw yourself whole heartedly into his strong and loving embrace.

When somebody is arrested and their Miranda rights are read to them, they are informed they have the right to remain silent. Especially in the West people are very concerned about their rights. When tragedy strikes people angrily demand an answer from God on the threat they will turn away from him. Doesn’t the creator of the universe also have the right to be silent? Not only that, he has the right to shut all our mouths since he made them. (In a sense he already has done that through the truth of the Gospel.) One of the lessons from the Book of Job when we confront the mystery of evil is humility. When God asks Job questions he cannot possibly answer, God is not trying to show of how smart he is and how Job is such an idiot. The point of that conversation is to highlight the unfathomable awesomeness of God. When you think about it, as uncomfortable and frustrating as it sometimes can be, I think it is a good thing that out theodicies ultimately fail. It is to our benefit that we cannot ultimately explain evil. Would anyone want to serve a God you can threaten or coerce into giving an answer? I want to serve a Creator who does and says what he wants without having to consult his creation. Imagine your toaster telling you what to do. The prophet Jeremiah rather sarcastically describes Israel as the clay while being moulded by the potter asks what on earth he is up to. Furthermore if I did not make this world there are bound to be somethings that I cannot understand. There have to be somethings that are beyond the best of human intelligence and ingenuity.

There is an old joke about a conversation between a scientist and God. The scientist tells God that they have figured out how to make human beings from dirt just like he did so they don’t need him anymore. God is intrigued and asks the scientist to show him. The plucky scientist bends down to pick up some dirt but God interrupts him promptly saying, “Use your own dirt.” It is his world so we got to play by his rules. For instance, nobody asks why a particular sport is played in the way that it is with its peculiar objectives and rules. It is simply a part of its fundamental nature. You cannot participate in that activity without abiding by those laws. Similarly the world is simply a certain way. There are existential realities that we cannot explain or resist and the only one who truly knows why is God. The fact there are such impenetrable mysteries in the world, including one as inconvenient and irksome as evil, tells us that we are the creatures and not the creator. There is an insurmountable gap between his wisdom and ours. This is something the scriptures declare and celebrate on several occasions.

Since we have now landed on the firm ground of biblical theology we need to consider another area that is largely ignored: demonology.  Most theodicies do not really address the agency of the devil and demons. Even though the devil does not feature explicitly in the Old Testament we find hints of his presence. By the time we get to the New Testament we find evil has a cosmic, metapersonal, metaphysical, diabolical face known as the satan. There are certain malevolent forces who are responsible for evil. Some times they subtly manipulate those in power without their knowledge. Other times they are as obvious as a demoniac. We should not forget the presence of these evil entities in our dealings with evil yet we should also not think their is a devil lurking behind every bush.

The book of Revelation describes the devil as a many headed dragon. The face of evil is the face of a monster. Now the ultimate origin of the forces of darkness is not given in the Bible. It is actually in the Gospel accounts that we get a clear characterization of the evil one even though it too does not answer all our questions about him or his hordes. In fact it is impossible to properly understand the mission of Jesus without dealing with devils since exorcism was an essential and significant portion of his ministry. Jesus explained his exorcisms were a sign of the kingdom. He did not come to only deal with the worldly manifestations of evil. He came to confront the cosmic powers that are behind them, manipulating things from the shadows.

Earlier on I said theodicy needs a human face. Jesus is the one God has equipped to face the monster called evil. Unlike St. George he doesn’t slay the dragon. He rather sacrifices himself and is killed by the monster, the lamb that was slain. Through the resurrection his own death blow became the final nail in the coffin of evil. Evil had been overthrown by its most potent weapon, death, being beaten. The Cross of Christ is unique when it comes the experience of evil, pain and suffering. In the crucified Messiah we have YHWH, the creator of the ends of the earth, in his supreme wisdom fully participating and embodying the pain that the creation so dearly wants to escape. The one who hears the cries of affliction from his people cried out in supreme agony as his own persecuted him. Jesus suffering evil as the God-shaped man tells me my Maker not only understands evil but it experiences in a more profound sense than any of us could us. God is not aloof or distant from the problem of evil but has paid the ultimate price for its remedy.

When it comes to theodicy the Bible does not have the same premises as Western philosophy or theology neither does it ask the same questions. We have to let the Bible speak for itself and answer the questions that most concern it. Like Job instead of demanding answers from scripture perhaps it is time to let scripture examine our own desires and motivations when we face evil in our lives or in the lives of loved ones.

[1] William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, The Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview, p. 538.

[2] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 50.

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