The Problem with Theodicy

The question is whether God is good, considering the evil in the world. If the focus of our answer is us defending God on paper, instead of God defending us in the real world, then we’ve already conceded the most essential point, and unnecessarily. Here I’ll visit the traditional definitions-and-syllogisms approach to theodicy in passing briefness, then move on to the worth of life, to hope, and to the goodness of God, which are the real essence of the matter.

Mention and Critique of Definitions-and-Syllogisms Method

The usual argument goes that if God is omnipotent, then he can do anything which is not self-contradictory. Self-contradictory is something along the lines of A = ~A.

So is it possible for a human to exist who is capable of love, but who is not capable of turning love of self against God and neighbor? Here “love” is not specifically the romantic-variety love, but more broadly any valuing, appreciating, or desiring that we do. Is it inherently impossible to misuse love, or for self-love to become selfishness? If our love goes astray, can our reason set us straight? If our reasoning ability pursues “what is good” – and “what is good” is perceived along lines of love and desire – then when love goes astray, it necessarily takes reason along with it. Reason is the compass, but then it no longer points true north. For my part, I cannot see how God could have made us otherwise than we are without losing the very things that made humans worth creating in the first place, as opposed to the beasts of the field and the birds of the air.

While an approach to theodicy using tools of logic – definitions and propositions and syllogisms – has been a mainstay of the discussion, I think the approach itself is suspect on a few counts. First, a clean and well-reasoned approach runs an intrinsic risk of missing the whole point: that the world is not a clean and well-reasoned place. It begs the question of the extent to which logic matters. It is a basic question of theodicy whether logic can successfully come to terms with evil. One essential question of theodicy is whether being orderly and well-reasoned has enough potency to matter in this world. The logical approach to evil leaves open the possibility that someone will claim to solve the problem on paper (or, worse yet, “succeed”) but leave a person no better equipped to face life and no more disposed to honor God – as if the purpose of theodicy were to merely acquit him of the charge of negligence, which stops a great chasm short of actually demonstrating his goodness. At the end of the conversation, God’s reputation is often a bit like O.J. Simpson’s – the lawyers were clever and the charges didn’t stick, but it’s a far sight from clearing his name. It’s further still from restoring him to a place of honor. We do God a disservice with no better a defense than that. It’s a smaller point whether careful analysis is up to the job of defeating horrors; the larger issue is this: in the case of theodicy, either God does the job or the argument fails, no matter how logical.

The Worth of Life

Is God justified in having made the world the way it is? Would it be better that he had not made it? Is there “morally sufficient reason” to allow the world to continue in light of the suffering that we endure? The question really boils down to this: given pain and suffering, is life worth it?

Those of us who have ever been overwhelmed by the various evils we have endured – and I number myself among these – may come to question the value of life. Back during the years when I was overwhelmed and out of my depth by the evil that had come my way, I asked the question that many of us ask: given the evil, is life worth it? But isn’t that a large part of what theodicy is about? I questioned life’s value regularly for years, and yet – every time I questioned it, every time I pondered it, I kept reaching this one conclusion: that my life was still worth living. Despite the evils that had come my way and despite the fact that I didn’t know how to deal with them, in fact was overwhelmed by them, I thought life was worth it. And if I thought that my life was still worth living, how could I fault God for reaching the same conclusion?

To be sure, there are people who decide that life is not worth living. But for the main part, the testimony of human history is that we fight to stay alive even when we have endured incredible losses. People fight to stay alive even in the midst of horrors. After the worst of atrocities, we humans still cling to life and still think life is worth living. Again, since it is the overwhelming consensus of humanity that life, for all its troubles, is still worth living, we have overreached ourselves if we ask whether God is justified in having made us. To visit the biography section of the library – or to learn the life stories of our neighbors – is to see that there are a great many people who have been glad of their lives even when life was not easy, and who made much of their lives even despite much adversity. I think the “morally sufficient reason” to allow things to go on, even though there is evil, is very simple: that life is still worth it.


There are a series of big questions about our lives that point back to the question of hope. Will despair overcome us? Will our suffering undo us? Will someone’s evil destroy everything I have worked for? Will all I have done come to nothing? We experience them as a battle. We answer with our lives, to see what kindness and meaning and beauty we may produce.

And so religion enters. But too often it enters only with words. A sage with a safe life, telling us how to live good and well-ordered lives. No fault to the sages, many wise words have come from them. They each speak to this battle in some way. But for all that many give instructions, they do not always give hope. Some would say that the instructions are the thing, the instructions give us hope that we may follow them. If we were to seriously follow the simplest and most basic of moral teachings, for example “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” – the world would be changed. No doubt it would, if only. The problem is we’re so caught up in selfishness, despair, envy, bitterness, rage, and all the different poisons of the soul – that it is a slim hope, impossible as we now are. And it does nothing to address the main problem we’re facing: getting along here and now without being overcome by it all. Just as the problem of evil calls into question the power of logic, it also calls into question the power of wisdom and morality. Next to a grave, wisdom can say “I’m sorry for your loss” at best; morality has nothing to say at all. Outside of their own areas of competence, they fail for words.

Would it be too horrible here to mention one way we wrestle with life’s big questions? Through stories – these days, through movies. I hope it’s not too wrong of me to borrow an illustration from one of those awful zombie movies. In that type of movie, a zombie bites a living soul – which takes a poisoned wound and, as the person is defeated it becomes one of them, dead inside but still walking around, wounding others. I’m not saying it’s going to win an Academy Award, I’m saying it strikes a nerve about how evil spreads. That’s the power of the slasher movies too. Freddie. Jason. The modern myth to tell the ancient truth: death is coming. You can’t run, it will catch you. You can’t hide, it will find you. You can’t lock the door, it will get inside. For all the critics’ dismissal of these films, they speak to a corner of our minds that understands them all too well.

Is the world a horror movie, told in slow motion? Is death the final answer? That is where Jesus matters in a way that merely “great teachers” do not. What if death could be undone so that the person was whole and healthy again? What if someone could be resurrected and be truly alive again? What if death could be defeated for keeps, and we were free of the dread of its coming? What if the crippled could be made whole? What if the defiled and sin-stained could be made clean? What if guilt could be washed away? Jesus brought more than words; he brought the power to defeat evil. That is where he brings hope. “The Light, the Way, the Door, the Shepherd” – traditional titles of Jesus; they are all titles of hope.

Sometimes I wish I had an eraser that could undo parts of my life, even undo parts of who I am, parts of my heart and mind and soul. I could hardly trust myself to do the right erasing. It’s not just whether I’d know good from bad. But would cowardice or self-interested neglect cause me to erase too little? Or, in the case of despair, too much? What if it was done by the loving hand of the one who made me? Then, when I was finished, I would be who I was meant to be, my image restored.

As much as it misgives me to hit this next note, it still must be said. In a way, the earth cries out for that vision of the apocalypse: the earth itself passing away, then being made new. Why? Wouldn’t it be merely ghastly? No, I think it would not. Look at our history. The names of too many places have become symbols of horror. Even the stones are stained with innocent blood. The hills are filled with hidden graves. What place has never seen an atrocity? The world itself must be purged, purified. I suspect that, when the day comes, even that part will be a welcome relief and cleansing from a world that is tired of all the ills it has inflicted on itself.

Some would say, “Distrust that story about a larger context for this world. No meta-stories! No over-arching narratives!” Some would say that the hope Jesus gives is just a story, not reality. Others say that all the religions’ “grand stories” lead only to fights. I’m not condoning the fights. But it’s folly to try to stop fights by making it so there’s nothing worth fighting for. If there’s nothing left that, if it were lost we would miss it, and if it were attacked we would defend it, then there is nothing of worth at all. In that case, hope is gone and our minds melt in despair.

So we come back to the hope that Jesus gives: is it real? Is everybody who closely knew Jesus completely wrong about him when they told of what he said and did? I think those who knew him best were right. They had an unstoppable desire to tell as many as they could the reason for their hope. They said it was born out of what they saw and heard, what they knew themselves. It was why they themselves were glad. Their decision to let neither hostile government nor harsh punishment nor prison cell stop them from telling people what they had seen and heard – this they did gladly, knowing how much the world needed healing. Those who knew Jesus had more than stubborn perseverance. They had watched with their own eyes as evil was defeated – even death – and, in their reckoning, atonement made for the sins of the world. That is good reason to hope.

The goodness of God

We have talked of the nightmares of life in previous sections – about the worth of life even when overwhelmed by evils, about the rational basis for hope even in face of certain death. We’ve talked about the goodness of God even in the face of these nightmares. But if we stop there, we leave a wrong impression. Most of life is not lived as a nightmare.

In a conversation on theodicy, it is worth noticing that at most times a belief that “God, if he exists, must be an evil monster” cannot sustain itself in the face of a sunny day outdoors or a walk in the woods; it has to content itself raging against lesser opponents such as human arguments. More convincing than any words about good and evil is a helping of a simple food or watching the sunset. Human friendship testifies to the goodness of life. The love between husband and wife testifies of the goodness of God. Evil has not destroyed the value of life or the rationality of hope. If life is good, it is impossible that the author of life should be evil.

The world is a beautiful and fascinating place. All of us put together have not yet exhausted all there is to appreciate and understand, much less any single one of us. And the world is full of many people who would rightly inspire our love, compassion, or admiration. We belong here. Even in the face of evil, these things console us. To state the obvious, Christians see the hand of God in that. In particular, we see Christ's redemption of a fallen and broken world being the bedrock proof that God is good.

Closing notes

Sometimes our logical cleverness leads us to pretentiousness, and our pretentiousness by a very short step to foolishness. The ancient but simple “Taste and see that the Lord is good” has more power to sustain and nourish us than many a lengthy treatise on the subject of good and evil. I would not sweep all philosophical or logical theodicies under the rug; some have made appreciable points in declaring the goodness of God. My hope is to reclaim that aim as the goal of true theodicy: declaring the goodness, honor, and trustworthiness of God. Such a theodicy is not one that simply considers an intellectual puzzle, but one that aims to show the value of life and the rationality of hope for us all. This post is, at best, a first step. It is a blog-length piece and will leave much room on the table for expansion and extension, but if I have nudged the conversation past the “paper solution” stage, that will do for today.


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