Theodicy and the Problem of Evil: Toward a Christian Theodicy Which Explains all of Evil
Disclaimer: This was a paper I submitted for a Systematic Theology class at Seminary a while back, but I never published it here because it is flawed. It can be verbose, broad-brushing, lacking detail and subtlety, and annoying to anyone currently suffering. And yet, I stand by the thesis. God allows evil in order to have something to redeem, to start a holy war that would reveal His character and glory for all to see. But that is a hard pill to swallow.
The question “If God is omnipotent and good, then why is there evil in the world?” is the most popular formulation of what’s called the problem of evil. It is a philosophical problem about the character of God, a seeming mismatch between His goodness and His sovereignty. Christian theology subsumes this quest underneath the doctrine of the providence of God, since we recognize the question’s tension as being located in the very character of God, while secular philosophy, since 1710, subsumes the quest in humanistic philosophy under the banner of “theodicy”. This particular question is first documented as such by Epicurus (341-270 BC), and it is safe to say it is one of the most enduring, difficult questions we can ask.
This paper seeks to answer the question, as much as possible, and in doing so, form another theodicy which seeks to explain the reason for all of evil. Alvin Plantinga wrote “I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil—theodicies, as we may call them—strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous.”1 Let me tread lightly and write what may be a tepid, shallow, and frivolous paper that seeks to answer the big question this way: evil exists because it is teleologically necessary. God is omnipotent, meaning He has the power to do anything, and He is good, meaning He always prefers good over evil, so if evil exists it is because He made an intentional choice to allow it. Such a choice is far beyond our capability to understand without His help, but since He has chosen to reveal Himself to us humans in the Bible, it is my conviction that we can find the answer to the question of why evil exists by finding the purposes of God for history as He revealed them to us. R. C. Sproul once said the Bible is primarily a teleological book, so if we can not find the purpose of evil in its pages, we may as well give it up completely. But if we can find the purpose of history that makes sense of evil existing, we must accept that purpose, no matter what it says about us humans. In short, I think God allows evil to exist in order to bring about His self-revelatory purposes of history, to have something to defeat and something to redeem.
The approach I intend to take is just as humanistic in its thinking as any other philosophical theodicy, but it will use Biblical revelation, not just human reasoning. The process we will take to prove my thesis is to survey the history of this question, and the popular answers, and compile the true parts into a unified whole, compare that to Scripture, and come away with a viable proof for my frivolous thesis.
Definition of Theodicy and the Problem of Evil
Theodicy, the word, was coined by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in 1710, when he wrote a book with that title, in which he famously argued that God was innocent of guilt of the existence of evil because the world is the best of all possible worlds.2 The discipline of theodicy is just that, philosophically trying to prove God innocent of evil. The word comes from the Greek theos, “God” and dike, “justice”.3 The distinction between theodicy and the problem of evil as such was made by Alvin Plantinga in God, Freedom, and Evil. He said theodicy answers the big question of why, while the problem of evil seeks to make a defense for God’s goodness in light of the presence of evil. In this paper, I will be focusing on the task of theodicy itself, leaving the arguments for the problems of evil to another time.
Theodicy is a pretty self-contained endeavor, since there is only one question of why. There can, theoretically, be an infinite number of answers, but as your ontological commitments begin to limit your possible explanations, there are only so many ways you can answer while maintaining holistic rational integrity to your worldview. However, the problem of evil is not so tidy. There is not just one problem, there are several different kinds of problems. There is the logical problem of evil, the religious problem of evil, the evidential problem of evil, just to name a few. More materialize according to variations in worldviews and philosophical and religious commitments.
Description of Theodicy and the Problem of Evil
In Christian theology, theodicy is frowned upon, mainly because we don’t believe man can start with man and justify God, especially when it comes to why God does what He does. Who is man to ask God why? A valid question. J. Todd Billings, in an interview with David Moore, said, “Instead of a theodicy, scripture gives us a prayer book.”4 He was referring to the Psalms, of course, which (begin with man and) simply express his pain. His point is, the task of theodicy is shirked even by inspired Biblical authors. While he is correct—the Psalmists don’t do deep philosophy—he is ultimately wrong, because the rest of the canon does. The book of Job is almost entirely philosophy, and its whole purpose in the canon is to provide a theodicy (of sorts). So theodicy is definitely present in Christianity; the problem is, most Protestant Calvinists have too high a view of God to question Him.
The problem of evil, on the other hand, is definitely addressed in orthodox Christian theology, because it begins with God (not man) and seeks to explain the different forms of evil which seem to challenge His goodness and good intentions for the world. It is placed under the person of God, under His providence (not under anthropology or cosmogony). We Christians believe that God made things just so, and that His character is unblemished by the sin and evil in the world, and we think it’s our responsibility to defend Him against evil. Rightly so, but that does not mean we skip over hard questions, specifically the question of why.
In Eastern religions, both theodicy and the problem of evil go totally unaddressed, because God is either not responsible for creation (Jains and Buddhists)—or the existence of evil is explained by Karma, which places evil in a cause-and-effect (so-called) Just World where evil is a result of bad human choices, a necessary part of life on earth.5 Secularists shirk the problem as well, because there is either no God to be responsible—or if there is, he is silent. They simply explain away evil in their closed-system as a set of causes and effects, a product of social conditioning, behaviorism, and psychological influences. Evil is the product of societies which, because humanity as such is essentially good, can be diminished by human ingenuity and progress, especially progress in behavioral methods and social conditioning.
Historical Overview of Available Views
History has given us two different paths for making sense of this question of why.6 One path was postulated by second-century theologian Irenaeus, which we will call the “soul-making” theodicy. The second path came from St. Augustine in the 4th century AD. We’ll call his the “free-will” theodicy.
The soul-making theodicy explains that the purpose of evil is to create temptations which result in “a positive and responsible character that comes from the investment of costly personal effort.”7 Evil exists in order to cause mankind to progress, that the progress God intends mankind to make is only possible through the experience of evil. Judaism takes this view and says that suffering is a result of sin, as punishment for sin, “When a man sees he is being chastised let him examine his ways.”8 Evil and suffering are supposedly meant to lift mankind from sin into righteousness, and while that’s a true statement, it’s not a sufficient theodicy because soul-making does not apply to the suffering of infants and animals, and it often occurs that those who need the most soul-making get the least of it.9 Evil visits the innocent and the righteous.
The free-will theodicy explains the existence of evil by saying it is a result of man’s free will. Since God had to create humans with a free will, that opened up the flood gates to let in all sorts of evil He wouldn’t have let in otherwise. Evil, in this view, is a result of sin and the Fall of man, a perversion, not an intended goal of God in His creation. While this view explains moral evil, it can not explain natural evil like natural disasters and diseases. And also, it limits God and assumes that He couldn’t create free agents without also making them impervious to evil.10
Overview of the Current Theodicies
Throughout history, evil has been given these two doors into life, either through God’s teleological purposes of soul-making, or through an ontological limitation inherent in the creation of free-agents. But more doors have appeared. C. S. Lewis put forward the natural law theodicy in his book The Problem of Pain. He argued that evil is a result of the natural laws rebounding on us when we break them, that suffering is caused by the world logically reacting to our wrong actions. This tries to explain natural evil as well as moral evil, but it never gets at God’s intention for its existence. The plenitude theory states that God could have created an infinite number of universes across which He spread out evil, the sum total of which balances out the presence of evil in an equitable way. This one struggles to make sense of the illogical nature of evil in visiting some more than others. The punishment theodicy says that all suffering is justified as punishment of man’s rebellion against God, starting in the garden of Eden.11 None of these answer the fundamental question of why.
My Proposed Theodicy
I believe God allows evil because it’s a necessary part of creation, a necessary part of the drama that would reveal His holy character against the black backdrop of everything else in existence. History is God’s stage and the drama on the stage is only dramatic and useful as a narrative if it has conflict and tragedy and pain and terror. Ultimately, the reason God let evil exist is because it was a vital part of His plan for creation.
The Biblical Evidence
The book of Job is the starting point. Many scholars have pointed out that Job has been misunderstood as being about evil, that it delivers to us a theodicy itself, when in reality it is about vindicating God’s sovereignty—about opening up the need for a theodicy. As one of my professors pointed out, God never answers the question of why in the book. In chapter 38 God comes in a whirlwind and then, at the end of the book, Job dies. He never knows the answer. Some scholars say the answer is given in the end, when Job repents of even asking the question (Job 42:6).12 And yet, they misread the text and miss the purpose of Job, which is to give us the perfect test-case for asking the question of why.
Seen in that light, Job is the question the rest of the Bible answers. It functions like a philosophical prologue to the rest of the canon. It sets up the theodicy that is given in the rest of the Bible. That is why my proposed theodicy isn’t a tidy little product of a few proof texts, or even a summary of the best of Job’s sayings. It’s the message of the whole other 65 books of the Bible.
To summarize that message, let’s look at it in three ways. One, what God’s stated purpose is for the creation. Two, God’s method of accomplishing that purpose. Three, God’s commentary upon accomplishing it.
God’s Stated Purpose for Creation
Job questioned why God even created him, because to him, life was not worth living (Job 3:11). God created man as the climax of His creation, to rule over the earth as He rules over the heavens, and He placed that authority on man, making him the center stage for his redemption. He created man to be for Himself, to have value in their existence far beyond their own pleasure and experience. He created man to be central: through a woman His redeemer would come (as a man). He allowed sin into the world in order to overcome it (Gen 3:15), and He chose to defeat sin in a progressive way, which caused each act of history to build on the previous one with more and more revelation and detail.
His purpose for letting evil exist was to have something to redeem. Moses said that God chose to redeem Israel for a shocking reason, “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of the peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath with which He swore to your forefathers” (Deut 7:7-8). God chose them to prove something about Himself. Lesson learned: God acts in self-referential ways. God doesn’t allow anything to happen that doesn’t in some way benefit His mission—which is self-revelation. He destroyed the Egyptians so that they would know who He is (Ex 7:5). He made Nebuchadnezzar eat grass like a cow for seven years until he would recognize the sovereignty and majesty of God (Dan 4:32).
In the same way, God did not create everything to put His creation in a glass box, but to drag it through the mud. Not to torture it, or because He enjoys torturing it, but in order to express Himself. He would rather weep over the tragedy than miss out on expressing His full character. He would rather enter that world and suffer and die Himself than create an eternal perfection with no propensity for falling.
God knew that no hero looks like a hero without an enemy or a foil. Character is only displayed in drama and conflict, and so God created with the express intent of causing drama and conflict so that His character (in Christ’s person) and His redemption of our character (in Christ’s work) would be manifest to everyone in heaven and on earth.
The way God went about accomplishing His purpose for creation was first, to plan, and then, to execute. In God’s planning, He chose to allow evil for the purposes already mentioned. In his execution of that plan, He allowed evil, not by causing evil, but by withdrawing His restraining grace. The first sin happened in the mind of Lucifer, who decided God wasn’t enough for him to worship. His pride existed because God removed His hand and allowed his heart to long for more than God already was to Him.
God’s method of self-revelation is to drag this redemption out in history in what is called progressive revelation so that while He begins with a promise of a seed to one couple (Gen 3:15), He progresses into a covenant with one man, promising him a nation (Gen 12). From there He chooses a nation among nations to use to fight evil, promising their king (David) an eternal kingdom. But Israel fails, and the eternal kingdom seems to hang in the balance of chaos as the narrative seems to fall apart—and we are left wondering how far God will let evil go to show His character. Nations are destroyed in His wake. Epics of history pass in seeming tragedy and meaninglessness. Often God turns on His people and destroys them because of their sin. During the trauma of the exile, the prophet Isaiah asks, “‘How long?’ And [God] answered, ‘Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, Houses are without people and the land is utterly desolate’” (Isa 6:11). But not two chapters later, Isaiah prophecies a coming light, a prince of peace who will bring peace between God and men. Without tragedy, there would be no need for peace. God’s method is tragedy. His redemption only comes through judgment (evil).
But God does not leave us to ourselves trying to figure out these events. He condescended to us and wrote His intentions in a book that explains everything. He also condescended in the person of Christ, writing Himself into our story, taking His place within our tragedy. And He opens up and tells us that He does it primarily for Himself: “For the sake of My name I delay My wrath…For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; For how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another” (Isa 48:9-11). The very reason God does anything is for His glory, including creation, including allowing the presence and power of evil.
We often wonder why God allows evil to happen, but we never ask why good happens. For example, why did God say that He chose Israel, among all the nations of the earth? “You are My Servant, Israel, in Whom I will show my glory” (Isa 49:3). Manifesting (or showing) His glory is God’s reason for everything He does, and there is no way to manifest that kind of glory without a black backdrop. His holiness would be incommunicable otherwise. He says “To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare with Him?” (Isa 40:18). Without evil we wouldn’t know God; we wouldn’t be able to.
Defense Against the Objections
One might say that this narrative- and drama-focused theodicy makes people out to be pawns in God’s big system, as if He is some sociopath, allowing evil and all the tremendous pain that comes with it to affect real people for no other reason than His own selfish glory—that He does not truly love us. This objection is humanistic, forcing God to give an account of His dealings with humans—from a human perspective, defining love by our own definitions. But my response would be, if “you break it, you bought it” describes the obligation of our actions, then “you bought it, you break it” describes God’s. He created everything, so He has the authority to do whatever He wants. But this question isn’t one of authority as much as it is of emotional anger at God’s misusing His sovereignty. And that is a valid point.
That is the problem Job addresses: that if God is sovereign, He can not possibly be good, because His sovereignty often seems irrational at best or sadistic at worst. But the answer God gives to Job is one of perspective. God comes in a whirlwind and challenges Job and causes him to fear God for who He is (Job 38). From our perspective, this question makes sense, but from God’s it does not. There are some questions we have no authority to ask.
Another objection may be that conflict is not in fact necessary for drama and redemption; that God could have communicated Himself without the use of foils and tragedy. But here are three good responses: “The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat's mat is a story” (John le Carré).13 “All drama is conflict. Without conflict, there is no action. Without action, there is no character. Without character, there is no story” (Syd Field).14 And this conflict can not be fake or weak. It must be real and convincing, overcoming all hopes of survival. And it must be logical. “For the climax to be persuasive, we must be shown dramatically why each character believes what he does and why each cannot sympathize with the values of his antagonist; and we must be shown dramatically why the conflicting characters cannot or do not simply avoid each other, as in real life even tigers ordinarily do. For the climax to be not only persuasive but interesting, it must come about in a way that seems both inevitable and surprising. (In a form as standard as the feud story, this last is exceedingly important.) Needless to say, no surprise will be convincing if it rests on chance, however common chance may be in life.”15
At the end of the day, we can not ultimately know the answer to the question of why in every instance. But it has been the attempt of this paper to convince you that while we can not know specifics, we can know generalities. We know why God allows evil, and if we truly understand the humility and grace of His gospel, we do not balk at that. But we are human. And we are emotionally invested in our selves and our kind (humans). The final duty of a good Christian theodicy is to make sure the question mark lands at the feet of God. He is good and love and just and wrath. And His purposes are perfect for the world. And if you have experienced His sweet grace in the face of tragedy, you’ll be able to say, experientially, that what Satan meant for evil, God meant for good. And it is that enlightening truth that leads us to worship God with Paul: “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
Bowker, John, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. First Printing edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Cleland, Jane. Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats, Blue Ash, Ohio: F+W Media, 2016.
Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, New York, New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction, Kindle edition.
Keller, Timothy. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York: Dutton, 2013.
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. 1 edition. HarperCollins e-books, 2009.
Harrison, Everett F., Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Carl F. Henry, eds. Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. 2nd edition. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.
Moore, David, “J. Todd Billings –– An Interview (by David Moore)” Jesus Creed, March 7, 2015. Accessed March 11, 2016.
- Alvin Plantinga, “Self-Profile,” in Alving Plantinga, egs. James E. Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen (Reidel, 1985), p. 35. Cited in Keller, Timothy. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York: Dutton, 2013, pg. 95. ↩︎
- Bowker, John, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. First Printing edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pg. 968. ↩︎
- Harrison, Everett F., Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Carl F. Henry, eds. Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. 2nd edition. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999, pg. 517. ↩︎
- Moore, David, “J. Todd Billings –– An Interview (by David Moore)” Jesus Creed, March 7, 2015. Accessed March 11, 2016. ↩︎
- Bowker, John, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. First Printing edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pg. 968. ↩︎
- Formulated in John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (1966). ↩︎
- John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, pgs. 255-256, cited in Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, pg. 90. ↩︎
- B. Sanh. 27b, cited in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, pg. 968. As an example, see the blind man in John 9. ↩︎
- Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, pg. 90. ↩︎
- Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, pg. 91. ↩︎
- Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, pg. 94. ↩︎
- I am indebted to Abner Chou’s lectures on Job for this insight. ↩︎
- Cited by Jane Cleland in Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats, pg. 208. ↩︎
- Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, pg. 132. ↩︎
- John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, Kindle edition. loc 2499. ↩︎