This lesson is about what is theodicy, which is an attempt to explain why God allows suffering and evil in the world. The lesson covers different religious and philosophical perspectives on the problem of evil, and some of the common Christian theodicies, such as free will, soul-making, reward in the afterlife, suffering as a mystery, and suffering as a connection to God. The lesson also provides a video lecture, a transcript, and a quiz.
Green, Ronald M. “Theodicy.” Pages 9111–21 in Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by Lindsay Jones, Mircea Eliade, and Charles J. Adams. 2nd ed. Vol. 13 of 15. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.
In the last lesson, we explored the Problem of Evil which asks questions about why suffering exists in the world and if God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, why doesn’t he attempt to lessen the suffering or get rid of it altogether? In this lesson, we will discuss ways people have tried to answer these questions.
A theodicy is an attempt to defend God’s justice when suffering is present, usually without conceding that God is not either all-knowing, all-loving, or all-powerful. The term was first coined by the late 17th / early 18th century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. It comes from the Greek words for God (theo) and justice (dike).
In this lesson, we will look at how some other religions handle the problem of evil, then turn our attention to Judeo-Christian theodicies. So let’s first start by questioning each of the premises that make up the problem of evil.
One of the premises of the problem of evil is that God is morally good. Few religions deny this outright. However, they may frame the premise a bit differently. For instance, they may say that yes, God is morally good and just, but God’s understanding of what is “good” or “just” is different from our limited human perspective of “goodness” or “justice.” Hence what we perceive as “unjust” or “evil,” is no such thing from God’s perspective.
A second premise is that God is all-powerful. Here, we find a few different religious takes on this. For instance, within Zoroastrianism, two gods, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are engaged in a cosmic battle for the fate of the world. Ahura Mazda is considered the good, moral god, while Angra Mainyu is considered the evil god. So we have what we call “dualism” – one god is good and represented by light. The other is evil and represented by darkness.
Manichaeism, which is a type of Gnosticism, also sees suffering as a result of two gods locked in cosmic struggle. On one side, you have a “spiritual” god of goodness and light, and on the other side, you have an evil “creator” demon who is associated with darkness and matter.
A third example is how Buddhism understands the concept of karma. In this worldview, Karma is an action driven by intent. Because the world has a moral law of retribution, the consequences of that action happen automatically, without the deity’s involvement. Therefore, God sits outside the world where suffering occurs and has little control over when it does happen.
So these three examples are ways to explain that God isn’t all-powerful and thus can’t intervene to remove suffering, whether that is because another god or demon is responsible for it, or because it’s just a law that was built into the universe that is beyond God’s control.
A final way some try to explain this tension between God and suffering is to say that suffering isn’t what it seems. For instance, the philosopher Spinoza argued that what humans see as “suffering” and “evil” may only appear as such because of their limited view. If they were to view the world as God sees it, it would seem perfect and whole.
Similarly, Vedic traditions have a concept called maya that means illusion, it’s like a magic show where things appear to be real but end up being not what they seem. Suffering may seem real, but when viewed from a divine perspective, it isn’t real.
These types of arguments tend to be less persuasive in Judeo-Christian worldviews where they don’t want to accept that God may not be all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, nor are they willing to discount suffering so much. Here, we will talk a bit about a few of the popular Christian theodicies.
The free will theodicy posits that God created humans as beings who are capable of doing both good and evil actions. God would prefer humans aspire to do good, but because he gave them free will, he allows them to choose for themselves rather than decide for them whether they will do good or evil. Some do choose evil, and this is one source of suffering. Another source is when God justly punishes the wicked for misdeeds.
This has been challenged in a few ways. The first is whether free will has to be linked to wrong doing. Couldn’t God have created both human nature and our world in a way where free beings would never want to do evil? Proponents of the free will theodicy counter by saying that while it may be possible for God to have created free beings, none of whom do wrong, it is not possible that God could have created free beings and also made it so that they never did any kind of wrongdoing. In other words, yes, God could have created free beings who never did wrong. However, he can’t create free beings and then when given a choice between doing good and evil, he can’t make them do only good. So it comes down to the being’s choice. If they choose to do harm, it’s because they were free to make that choice. So, this is an explanation for moral evil.
The question becomes more nuanced when you ask about natural evil like earthquakes, floods and disease. Here, it seems God is responsible for suffering. Proponents of free will sometimes argue that these natural evils are not in fact caused by God, but Satan and his demons who also have free will. Others see natural evil as continued punishment for Adam and Eve’s Original Sin.
This theodicy explains that people must suffer to grow and develop as humans. Suffering is required for humans to build moral character or feel compassion. To explain natural evil, proponents say that God created natural laws that govern how events play out, and they can’t just be stopped once they are set in motion.
Opponents argue that many things don’t require suffering to be appreciated. You don’t need to survive a deadly illness or lose a limb to appreciate having good health. Also, many types of suffering are traumatizing, leaving people fearful and diminished. Some are killed. It seems that God’s attempts to educate his children through suffering are overly cruel when so many die before they learn whatever God wants them to learn.
A third theodicy explains that human life is sometimes too short to fully realize one’s just reward or punishment. Yes, this world may seem unjust, but because life transcends death, in the end, each will get what he or she deserves.
Opponents argue first, that it’s not proven that there is live after death, and if life does transcend death, it’s impossible to say with any conviction that in the afterlife, the righteous will be rewarded. They also argue that if they’ve lived such a terrible life of suffering, won’t some memories of the trauma linger? Can a future reward fully compensate for present horrors?
Some people choose to sidestep the purpose of suffering altogether and chalk it up to being a “mystery.” Humans can’t know what it means. They can only have faith that it serves God’s purpose for this world.
Opponents might argue if there’s no logical purpose to suffering, are humans just pawns in God’s cosmic game? Is God so indifferent, he inflicts suffering on people and doesn’t bother to let them know why?
Finally, some people see suffering as a way to understand Jesus’s suffering on the cross, and, perhaps, better understand the magnitude of suffering Jesus endured for humans. They argue that rather than God being distant, he is compassionate and stays with the sufferer in the midst of their anguish. He may also suffer with his creatures. Believers can see this as an opportunity to imitate their creator.
So to recap, we’ve looked at how different people have tried to solve the problem of evil with theodicies. We will see aspects of these come up as we discuss how the Bible presents evil.
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