(An excerpt from the memoir I wrote for my kids)
Theodicy is a composite of the Greek words theós (God) and díkē (justice). It means “the justice of God,” “to justify God,” or “the justification of God.” It was coined over three hundred years ago to describe an attempt to give assurance to people that evil and suffering don’t conflict with the goodness of God. But, for many, evil and suffering disprove the idea of an all-loving, all-good, and all-powerful God, and at face value, it seems logical. If God is love and good, it’s reasonable to conclude that he wouldn’t want evil. And if God is all-powerful, then he would prevent it. But evil exists, so either that description of God is invalid, or there isn’t a God… so the argument goes. While it seems logically and morally incoherent to say God directly wills evil, He sure allows for a cosmos where evil exists, and some really horrendous ones at that.
This is the hardest problem in theology. In fact, no other theological problem has occupied more intellectual energy, time, and ink than this one, so I get it if this makes you glaze over. More people refuse to believe or abandon their belief over this apparent contradiction. A closely related issue is the apparent impotence of prayer, which I address in the final chapter, “Never Give Up.” My older brother, your uncle Eddie, has struggled for years with his anguish and deep offense at God regarding evil and suffering, especially the suffering of innocent people. I love that about Eddie. Even when he spits out world-class bursts of profanity, beneath them is a heart of compassion and empathy.
Eddie moves back and forth between Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov, the two brothers discussing God’s character, in Dostoevsky’s classic, “The Brothers Karamazov.” The horrendous and explicit acts of evil in the book come from the Russian newspapers of the time, describing in gory detail the torture and murder of children in the most heinous ways. Ivan Karamazov is an atheist who refuses to believe in a God who permits evil and suffering, and he’s morally obliged not to believe. To my mind, Ivan’s rage is justified but misdirected, and his rejection of God is unnecessary.
One early Church father I’ve come to admire is Origen of Alexandria. For Origen, God didn’t create evil. It arises from the rational mind’s faulty exercise of freedom, apparently shifting responsibility from God to creation, which is an early version of the so-called “free will defense” to explain why God permits evil.
Eastern Orthodox writer and theologian, David Bentley Hart, is of the opinion that “the free will” explanation or theodicy is the most logically incoherent of them all because, he says, it’s based on freedom that could not possibly exist and choices that could not possibly be made. Jesus said it’s the truth that sets us free, so we’re not really free until we know the truth of things.
Hart’s argument is not that we can’t reject God. We can and do. It’s that we can’t reject God with perfect knowledge and with real freedom. So, using the “free will defense” to explain the existence of evil is a logical fiction. He points out that while a lunatic appears to have a much broader range of real options than a sane person, it’s because they actually have less truth and, therefore, less real freedom.
The math is straightforward. Truth equals freedom. Right now, our wills are fallen, encumbered, broken, and they will be until we see the Lord. In our fallen world, so-called “free will” or “choice,” in and of themselves, is not real freedom. To the degree a person’s choices are irrational is the same degree to which they aren’t free. The more truth you have, the more rational your choices become. And the freer people are, the more their choices will be predictable and inevitable. You’ll see this in Dr. Michael Heiser’s theodicy, where he explains how it’s possible that eternity can be filled with free creatures, but evil will be absent forever.
My part-time hero, St. Augustine, offers some interesting ideas about the logic of evil. He said all created things come from the goodness of God and are good. Therefore, evil cannot be a created substance… It’s not a real thing… you can’t just reach down and pick up a lump of evil. Evil is merely the absence of good in the way diseases are the absence of health. But once a cure is introduced, that doesn’t mean the evil packs up and goes elsewhere. Evil ceases to exist once the remedy is applied.
This thinking is problematic and is one of the chief objections Jews have to Jesus being the Messiah because the Messiah was supposed to heal the world and eliminate evil. Since evil still permeates the world, Jesus cannot possibly be the Messiah… or so the argument goes.
The flaw with that view to me is its narrow idea of how The Messiah would heal the world and defeat evil. It doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that it wouldn’t be through external coercion or force but through changing hearts and minds over time. Not to mention the metaphysical and quantum implications of the incarnation. But that’s another subject.
As an aside, although Hell is not the subject here, it does have common borders with theodicy, evil, and suffering. Throughout historic Christian theology, two options for eradicating evil are taught. You can either imprison it or annihilate it. And there are two very different ways to annihilate evil. One can eliminate the substance corrupted by evil or heal it, thereby annihilating it. This is where the three basic options for understanding the purpose of Hell originate. Eternal conscious torment (The Prison: advocated for by most evangelicals), Annihilation (The Guillotine), and Universalism (The Hospital).
The ancient and Orthodox view, “Apokatastasis,” ultimate reconciliation, or Orthodox Universalism, offers what many consider the best and only theodicy consistent with the Gospel. David Bentley Hart says, “There is nothing of greater weight than what simple moral intelligence should tell you; that eternal torture, or any torture for that matter, are acts of infinite malice and spite and cannot possibly be included in the will of a good, infinite, omnipotent God who is love.”
THEODICY #1: GOD ORDAINED EVIL FOR HIS GLORY
Beginning on the obscene end of the theodicy spectrum, I’ll start with Reformed (5-point Calvinist) Pastor and Theologian John MacArthur. MacArthur and his ilk boldly state that God ordained evil for His Glory and that evil’s chief purpose is to contrast with God’s righteousness and holiness for all eternity (Romans 3:5). He claims that without being responsible for evil, God designed it into the fabric of the universe. Besides giving a sampling of scriptures that, at face value, seem to support his thesis, MacArthur quotes from the magisterial playbook of the Reformation, The Westminster Confession: “God, from all eternity, did, by the wisest and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” (Deuteronomy 32:39 (The Song of Moses); Exodus 4:11; 2 Kings 17:25; Lamentations 3:38; 1 Samuel 2:6-8; Amos 3:6; Isaiah 45:5-7.
God not only ordains evil but will hold it in existence forever in Hell’s torture chamber. MacArthur says the wicked will suffer the natural consequences of rejecting God and his goodness toward them. They will experience the pain of complete abandonment and remorse unmingled with comfort and the relentless torments of their consciences, which will burn forever and never consume them. They will drink to the full from this cup of suffering, experiencing unmitigated pain in body and soul. Once these evil sinners have terminally hardened themselves against all offers to repent, God will no longer yearn for their salvation but will give them over to their desires because of their persistent unwillingness to acknowledge him (Rom. 1:28). As a result, evil human and angelic beings will cease to be objects of pity but make themselves objects of wrath. Therefore, the appropriate emotion toward such individuals is no longer sorrow for their lack of repentance but pure anger and wrath for their final, total, and irrevocable spurning of grace. Once these evil, wicked individuals have hardened themselves beyond any possibility of salvation, we will rejoice in their punishment, for in this, God sets matters aright in his moral universe. (Collected from various Calvinists like MacArthur, Jonathan Edwards, and Alan W. Gomes)
Suppose the tradition that MacArthur and his ilk vomit up is legitimate Christian Dogma. If so, as David Bentley Hart puts it… both morally and self-evidently, Christianity is false, and there is no reason to believe it. That’s pretty strong… but to me, it is logically incoherent to say that although God ordains evil to exist for his glory and that He even designed it into the fabric of the universe, God is not responsible for it. Even though I find some Reformed theology utterly breathtaking (Karl Barth, TF Torrance, et al.), to borrow again from Hart, much of it is “morally diseased, deeply evil, deeply depraved, and deeply psychotic.” Again, that’s pretty strong… but I do agree with him on this assessment, “One can only believe in it through chronic spiritual, moral, and mental abuse and from being raised in or trapped in an evil tradition of thought.” Ouch… John MacArthur comes from that tradition, and I’d like to punch him in the nose and then remind him God ordained it.
Next up is Greg Boyd, a former Reformed Pastor and Theologian. The arc of Greg’s journey has been similar to mine. I think he is one of the best teaching pastors I’ve ever encountered, and he offers a much more compelling theodicy.
THEODICY #2: THE TRINITARIAN WARFARE WORLDVIEW
“… These things you have done… I kept silent, and you thought I was just like you…” (Psalm 50:21)
Several years ago, I heard Greg Boyd tell a story about an American missionary couple that beautifully illustrates Psalm 50:21. This couple had been called to an isolated tribe deep in the jungles of central Africa who, among other pagan practices, performed the ritual of female circumcision. Although they knew ahead of time the tribe engaged in that ceremony, it was emotionally devastating to stand by while young girls they’d bonded with were mutilated. Of course, they had no other choice and were in no position to demand that it be stopped because it had been deeply embedded in their culture for centuries. So, making the best of a horrific situation, they provided anesthesia, other medications, and better surgical knives for those who performed it. Beyond this, they kept their mouths shut for three gut-wrenching years while the girls suffered, and the tribe no doubt confused their silence for consent or approval. But they weren’t quiet about everything. They loved them and taught the word of God to help them gradually discover why girls should never be subjected to such cruelty.
Psalms 50 provides a deep insight into the mystery of God’s ways and our sometimes limited field of vision. What happened with those two missionaries was that for three years, out of their love for the tribe, they beguiled them to build relationships by accommodating their pagan ritual. In other words, they were willing to appear guilty of approving a ritual they hated so they could slowly help the tribe be free from it. This is one of the great themes of the Bible and it has helped me when considering the question of trusting God in the face of evil, pain, and suffering. God created us with a certain amount of freedom, and He won’t simply barge in and force us to stop our evil practices. Although deeply grieved and anguished, God prefers to use patient, loving, and gradual influence over time rather than coercion, accommodating our fallen state while eroding our resistance and eventually delivering us from evil. I think this explanation is beautiful, much more beautiful than MacArthur’s vision.
(Breadcrumb: Read Greg Boyd’s “Cross Vision” or “Crucifixion of the Warrior God.”)
With that analogy as a pattern, you can look back through the inspired record in the Old Testament at God’s missionary activity and discern the many ways He stooped to accommodate fallen and culturally conditioned beliefs and practices. The most profound accommodation is how God adapted and even intensified the pagan ritual of animal sacrifice, seemingly to appease and satisfy himself, however, God hated it the whole time. (Psalm 40:6; Hosea 6:6; Isaiah 1:11-31; Jeremiah 7:21; Hebrews 10:4-10)
It bears repeating: Out of pure love and goodness, The Father, Son & Holy Spirit have always been “incarnational,” that is, they’ve always been willing to be humiliated and to humble themselves, even for their character and ways of being misunderstood and conflated with evil. This is the act of a loving parent.
The warfare worldview is based on the conviction that our world is engaged in a cosmic war between human and angelic agents who have aligned themselves with God or Satan. This worldview assumes that all creation has fallen, reflecting a consistent response to evil and suffering throughout the Bible. For example, Jesus unequivocally opposed evil by confronting demons, and the people locked in their grip by casting out demons, healing diseases, and rebuking natural forces (a storm.)
The scriptures clearly teach that the Principalities and Powers would not have crucified the Lord of glory if they’d known the plot. (1 Corinthians 2:8) Are the powers stupid? Does Satan believe he can still win? No, he and his imps hate the Father, Son & Holy Spirit, and their continued efforts to steal, kill & destroy give us another insight into wickedness.
Toward the end of World War II, the tide turned in the war in the Pacific, and, similar to how a chess master can see the game is over long before the final moves are made, the Japanese knew their fate was sealed one full year before surrendering. Why did they continue to fight?
The Samurai code was deeply entrenched in Japan’s military culture, and loyalty to the emperor, honor, and even death were preferred over the shame of defeat, capture, and surrender. So, their strategy and tactics shifted to serve those priorities, and to inflict as much damage as possible on their advancing enemy, a special unit called “Kamakazi” was formed for suicide attacks. The Kamakazis inflicted a lot of damage but they did not change the inevitable outcome. The warfare worldview theodicy suggests that Satan and his forces of fallen angels and even the disembodied spirits of the mutant Nephilim are fully aware that Jesus struck the decisive blows through his death, resurrection, and ascension. Still, they are determined to thwart, delay, frustrate, and inflict as much damage as possible until the end.
In the warfare worldview, evil and suffering are understood to result from the evil intentions and activity of human and angelic agents, so we don’t speculate about God’s reason for allowing evil to exist, except to say a universe full of semi-free moral agents is better than one filled with robots. And that the possibility or even likelihood of evil was worth the risk for our triune God, who wanted to share their trinitarian life with us. When evil and suffering happen, we think of those things as “casualties of war” and blame the human or demonic beings who oppose God’s will. We work to advance the kingdom of God and take back the ground stolen by the enemy.
THEODICY #3: THE GREATER GOOD DEFENSE
Of all theodicies I’ve encountered, the most common are variations of the “Greater Good Defense,” introduced by Augustine and later augmented by Aquinas in which the darkness of evil (natural and moral) serves as the necessary condition for the good that God wills to bring into this world. Boiled down, this defense basically says the ends justify the means. One variation of this theodicy that I do like says that in the councils known only to the Holy Trinity, God knew that the creatures bearing his image would never fully enjoy Him or be at peace in his creation if we remained ignorant of evil as we could be and would be after eventually being delivered from it. The late Dr. Michael Heiser advanced this idea. This current, temporary reality, and possibly a post-mortem period of undetermined length, are necessary environments or ecosystems to allow our free wills and characters to be gradually hardened to the point where they will be impenetrable by evil thereby eliminating the possibility of evil forever. This theodicy incorporates the rebuttal to the “free will” theodicy. Our free wills are currently corrupted, but the freer people become, the more their choices will be predictable and inevitable. I like this at face value… we get to participate while our characters are being perfected. How do you make a Navy SEAL? Put them through Hell.
This solution sounds rational and even challenging and gives you something to shoot for. But everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. This sort of thing isn’t easy to hold onto when you get blindsided in real life, like finding a child facedown in a backyard swimming pool or when your baby is born with Harlequin-type ichthyosis. Or how about the devastation of an unfaithful spouse or childhood encounters with pedophiles? It’s even harder to explain random, so-called “acts of God,” like a tsunami that drowns 250,000 people in minutes. Men like John MacArthur would consider an event like that as an oblique reminder… an echo of something God has done before on a much larger scale (Noah’s Flood), and similar to something he’ll do in the future on an even larger scale when he consigns the bulk of humanity to writhe in Hell forever.
Regarding natural disasters, or “acts of God,” in his book, “God, Freedom & Evil,” Philosopher Alvin Plantinga says that all of those things occur because demons mess around with natural resources and can move tectonic plates. While that might sound bizarre, Plantinga says that since all of creation is fallen, including nature, the consequences play out through natural disasters.
(Breadcrumb: Read “The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart.)
The Greater Good theodicy and its variants have some problematic implications. What it gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. The comfort found in the idea that the end (eternal bliss) justifies the means (evil & suffering) dissolves when you take a long hard look at the cost. That kind of theodicy requires us to believe in, love, and obey a God whose good ends can only be realized entirely through every cruelty, misery, catastrophe, and betrayal… literally every sin the world has ever known. It requires us to believe in, for instance, the absolute, eternal necessity of a child dying an agonizing death or millions tortured and murdered in death camps and gulags, etc.
This is Ivan Karamazov’s dilemma and why he refused the ticket to heaven because it’s not worth the cost. As I’ve said, Ivan’s rage is justified, but his rejection of God is unnecessary. David Bentley Hart observes, “How bizarre it is to try and find peace of mind in a universe rendered morally intelligible only at the expense of a God who is morally loathsome. No! (He says), God is utterly good, and goodness itself. His work in Jesus Christ is a work of judgment and victory, and the end of history will be the same. God will NOT bring every historical event into one grand synthesis. He will judge much of history as false and damnable. He will remove the shackles in which all creation languishes, wipe every tear from our eyes and His, and make everything new.”
It’s worthwhile to understand the various approaches to this difficult question. Overall, I think David Bentley Hart’s vision is the most persuasive and controversial, although Greg Boyd and Michael Heiser have excellent perspectives. I especially like and have adopted their warfare worldview. Hart recommends we reject any attempt to explain evil and suffering, that in our attempt at explaining it, we diminish and betray the victims of evil and suffering. I like that perspective. Ivan’s younger brother, Alyosha, is a great example by his relentless demonstration of unconditional love, empathy, and forgiveness.
Evil remains evil, and we can hate it with perfect hatred. Jesus Christ is God fully revealed to us within human history and we must take our queue from Jesus and learn how God relates Himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death. There is little evidence of anything other than His regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity towards it.
Sin He forgives, Suffering He heals, Evil He casts out, and Death He conquers.
There it is… Jesus sums up everything. Even when I don’t understand things, which is often, I choose to trust Him and love Him. I’m all in. God does not partner with sin, suffering, evil, or death. You have to decide to believe in the Gospel despite evil and suffering… and either find the solution in the death and resurrection of Jesus … or not.