I. The Problem of Evil Defined
Three terms, "the problem of evil," "theodicy," and
"defense" are important to our discussion. The first two are often used as
synonyms, but strictly speaking the problem of evil is the larger issue of which theodicy
is a subset because one can have a secular problem of evil. Evil is understood as a
problem when we seek to explain why it exists and what its
relationship is to the world as a whole. Indeed, something might be considered evil when
it calls into question our basic trust in the order and structure of our world.
II. Theodicy Defined
"Theodicy" is a term that Leibniz coined from the Greek words theos
(God) and dike (righteous). A theodicy is an attempt to justify or defend God in
the face of evil by answering the following problem, which in its most basic form involves
- God is all good and all powerful (and, therefore, all knowing).
- The universe/creation was made by God and/or exists in a contingent relationship to God.
- Evil exists in the world. Why?
Notice what this problem suggests. It begins with the assumption that such a being as
God will want to eliminate evil. If God is all good but not all powerful or knowing, then
perhaps he doesnt have the ability to intervene on every occasion. Likewise, if God
is all powerful and knowing but not all good, then perhaps he has a mean streak. If God is
somehow all these things, but the universe does not exist in a contingent relationship,
then God has little to do with evil (even though Gods design can still be faulted).
However, if God is both good and powerful, then why does evil exist?
III. "Defense" Defined
A "defense differs from a theodicy in that rather than trying to provide an
answer to all of the above, a defense seeks to show that theistic belief in God in the
face of evil is rational. Strictly speaking, a logical defense is not making claims
about how God actually works as much as showing that the atheistic charges can be meet.
Having said this, the insights of the defenders and those of the theodicists often
overlap, and the term "theodicy" is often used to describe defenses as well.
I. The Logical Problem of Evil: The
logical problem of evil is a deductive one. Namely, given the above problem (God is
loving, all powerful and all knowing, yet evil exists), is it rational to believe in the
existence of God?
- God exists, is all good, all knowing, and all powerful.
- Such a being has no limits to its ability.
- A good being will always eliminate all the evil that it can.
- Evil exists, so God must not.
Theists will agree with the first two claims but call into question the third by
qualifying it: "A good being will always eliminate all the evil that it can unless
it has good reason to allow that evil." The crux of the theistic response is to show that indeed God is indeed justified
in permitting evil.
II. The Evidential Problem of Evil:
The evidential problem admits that God and the existence of evil are not logically
incompatible, yet considers if the amount or kinds of evil in the world count as probable
evidence against the existence of God. This approach argues that the large amount of evil
in the world and/or the existence of unjustified evil mitigate against a plausible belief in God because we
assume God would not allow for the existence of evil that appears to have no good purpose.
III. The Existential Problem of Evil:
As often called the "religious," "personal," or "pastoral"
problem of evil, the existential problem is one that asks, "Why my suffering and/or
evil at this time in this way in this place?" The
practical, existential theodicy is more concerned with providing answers for those who
suffer in specific circumstances. Often, the existential problem turns from asking why God
allow such-and-such an evil to what can humans made in the image of God do to alleviate or
make manageable suffering and evil. Likewise, the focus turns more to how believers should
respond to God while suffering.
Classic and Contemporary Christian Responses
I. The Free Will Model: God wanted us to
freely love him, which meant allowing for the possibility that we might choose against
him. And we have--all of us since Adam and Eve. Free will provides a great
goodself-determination--and carries with it significant responsibility, which is
also a great good. This is especially true of relationships involving love: such must be
entered into freely. Evil is an unfortunate result of human free will. If God were to
intervene at every point of our wrongdoing, our free will would be compromised. So evil in
the world is not entirely God's fault; however, this position does not claim that God is
not responsible in any way for evil. If you have the power to intervene and do not, that
II. The Soul Making Model: We are incomplete
souls in need of improvement and growth. Notice that this model also assumes free-will. Evil is a
necessary condition for a world in which we overcome obstacles and struggles in order to
develop. This model
points out that God often allows the condition of suffering to improve us. We become
purified through life's trials. Some versions of this suggest that our purification and
growth will continue in the afterlife.
III. The Great
Design Argument: This suggests that God designed the world in such a way that it
included the possibility of evil, but that if rightly perceived, we would understand that
all of it works together for a greater good. This is a subset of the first two because
both models assume a world in which moral action/ growth is both possible and meaningful.
Namely, a world with free will and the possibility of soul making is a better world than
one with only automatons.
IV. The Eschatological Hope: Granting
all the above, God has also promised that such evil and suffering is only for a finite
time in human history. God will bring an end to it all, and evil will be rightly answered
by its destruction. Furthermore, the future hope that God offers will judge, compensate
and/or at least put into perspective this present worlds evil.
An extension of this is that the Church should be a community that looks to that future
justice by modeling it now: believers are to avoid fatalism and work toward God's promised
shalom, a future of perfect peace and justice that begins in Gods work on
the cross. Resistance to evil and suffering can be a form of obedience to God.
V. The Suffering of God Response:
This response assures us that God has not abstracted himself from the human
situation--that he, too, suffers with us. God weeps for Israel, the Holy Spirit grieves
over sin, and Christ suffered for us that we might have an example of how to undergo
suffering. Strictly speaking, this response isnt about justifying why God allows
evil, as much as affirming that God is involved in the problem.
Not all theists accept the idea that God suffers, pointing to what has been called the
impassability of God, that God being an eternal, infinite, perfect being is without change
and, therefore, without suffering. And there is something to be said for this. If we hold
that God suffers, it must be on a completely different level than ourselves. The question,
then, becomes how does God suffer for us and with us and because of us.
VI. A Theology of the Cross: Contained in
each view of the suffering of God above is a suggestion that in some fundamental way the
work of the cross is Gods answer (or one of his answers) to the problem of evil,
even that the cross is the only justification God gives of his responsibility for the
existence of evil. In this sense, the work of redemption transcends the role of
Christs suffering, for the cross is atonement for, victory over, and judgment upon
evil and sin.
VII. Faith and Trust: Sometimes called simple
fideismthis position is one that seeks not to answer the question in any complex way
but rather affirm basic Christian truths, such as God is ultimately good; God has
everything under the divine control; God is to be trusted despite lifes trails and
VIII. A Theodicy of Protest: This position
is one that complains to God, objecting that God could have and on the surface should
have intervened in any number of horrific circumstances. The sheer weight of atrocity is
often cited. The believer
says to God, "As best I can understand from my limited position you appear to have
allowed horrible things to happen. Why? Should you do such a thing?" Then, rather
than walk away in disgust or disbelief, the believer waits on God. This position at its best seeks to continue to affirm Gods mystery
and goodness even amidst confusion and doubt.
IX. Disavowal of Theodicy: This position
argues from a number of different directions that the theodicy project is misfounded. Some
suggest that theodical language tends to deny, trivialize, or downplay the suffering of
others. Or theodicy is seen as a mistaken approach to the problem because it results in
closing down what only God can truly answer. For some theodicy, if done at all, must be
done within the praxis of sufferers, while theoretical discussions are guilty of the
For others, theodicy is misfounded because one cannot "justify" the supreme
X. Sapiential Theodicy: This practice explores the
skeptical limitations of human understanding. Following the Hebraic stance of wisdom as
dialectical, sapiential thought recognizes God is both the giver and taker of wisdom.
The goal is both to see what can be known about the problem of evil, but
also to recognize what cannot be known. The problem of evil becomes a puzzle that one
explores in order to reach one's limits and, thus, respond to God in trust, awe, and fear.
XI. Mystical Theodicy: Some in the Christian monastic traditions believe that one can experience
Christ's own suffering in moments of spiritual awareness and that this awareness allows
one to transcend one's own misery, thus answering the problem of evil not in a rational
way but in a moment of intuitive apprehension that is experienced at a higher level.
Another version of this holds that the Christian's suffering participates in some way in
Christ's own anguish.
Related Issues and Problems
In addition, there are related problems and emphases within these three approaches.
They include some of the following:
I. Natural Evil: The problem of natural evil involves
pain and suffering that results from natural disasters, diseases, or genetic defects,
including that of animal pain and suffering. Like the problem of moral evil, the problem
of natural evil examines whether the existence of natural evil is compatible with an
all-perfect, all-knowing, loving, and powerful being.
II. Evil and the Demonic: Given the belief in
supernatural powers among all three monotheistic faiths, what role does the demonic (and
the angelic) have to do with evil? This question has been approached in four basic ways:
The role of the demonic powers in temptation, oppression, and possession of individuals.
What kind of power to control, hinder, or seduce do non-physical powers have over human
The role of demonic powers in social and national evils. Is there a spiritual power
behind large-scale social and national evils?
The control of angelic or demonic powers over the natural world. Do such powers have any
responsibility for animal pain or natural disasters?
The moral logic of postulating the demonic to explain certain radical evils, such as
serial killers or genocides.
III. The Experience of Suffering: Likewise,
in what way does the experience of suffering among peoples and individuals speak to issues
of theodicy? What does the bodily experience of suffering have to say about imagination,
resistance, and/or psychological damage? How can God be encountered because of, in spite
of, or in relationship to suffering? Is suffering ultimately mysterious? Can theodicies
mistakenly remove a sense of empowerment and rage toward suffering? The experiences of
women have been vital to understanding in this area.
IV. Horrific Evil: Sometimes called
"horrendous" evil, this focuses on the most horrible and intense forms of
evilthe Holocaust, child abuse and rape, extreme schizophrenia, torture, mass
genocide, etc. Can God be said to be justified in allowing these? Should one even speak of
justification before such atrocities? Likewise, what hope of restoration and healing can
be given to survivors? What role do purity and defilement, honor and shame, and beauty and
ugliness play in such matters?
V. The Judgment of God: Many theodicy
discussions tend to focus on "innocent" suffering and experiences of profound
evil while ignoring the profound sinfulness embedded in individuals, in ideas and belief
systems, and in social structures. God acts to judge theseboth in this life and in
the next. Thus, one has to ask the question as to whether a certain experience for an
individual, group, or nation is a judgment upon their sin. Alternately, one can take some
comfort in knowing that the oppressor will be judged eventually by God. Likewise, how can
the present experience of evil be understood as a kind of battlefield in which Gods
judgment upon sin and evil is even now being carried out?
VI. Metaphysical Evil: What exactly is evil in
anyway? What is its origin and essence? One standard response is that evil is the
privation or negation of the good or being, so that evil only exists as the absence of the
good. Evil is a form of corruption, chaos, even literally "nothing," a weakened
or incomplete good. Others suggest that evil must have some positive or actual existence
because evil seems to act and destroy in deliberate ways in the world.
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