Theodicy: A Brief Overview


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 these assumptions:

  1. God is all good and all powerful (and, therefore, all knowing).
  2. The universe/creation was made by God and/or exists in a contingent relationship to God.
  3. 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 doesn’t 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 God’s 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.

Key Approaches

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?

  1. God exists, is all good, all knowing, and all powerful.
  2. Such a being has no limits to its ability.
  3. A good being will always eliminate all the evil that it can.
  4. 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 good—self-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 implies choices.

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 world’s 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 God’s 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 isn’t 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 God’s 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 Christ’s suffering, for the cross is atonement for, victory over, and judgment upon evil and sin.

VII. Faith and Trust: Sometimes called simple fideism—this 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 life’s trails and difficulities.

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 God’s 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 above.
For others, theodicy is misfounded because one cannot "justify" the supreme being.

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:

  1. 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 beings?
  2. The role of demonic powers in social and national evils. Is there a spiritual power behind large-scale social and national evils?
  3. The control of angelic or demonic powers over the natural world. Do such powers have any responsibility for animal pain or natural disasters?
  4. 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 evil—the 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 these—both 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 God’s 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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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding