One of the perennial questions asked of theologians and ministers is the “why” of theodicy. Interestingly, when a significant tragedy or crisis occurs, people are often inclined to raise what seems to be on first blush a theological question: Why did God allow this to happen? Or: How could God allow such awful things to take place if God is ultimately good? The reason one could argue that these kinds of questions are only seemingly theological is because they are theologically reactionary. For many, God is apparently only interesting to consider seriously when things do not go according to plan or when they do not make sense. Otherwise, God is uninteresting or irrelevant to the way things are. As such, the “why” of theodicy may not be seriously theological at all.
This line of consideration is not offered so as to be harsh or insensitive to honest and earnest inquiry. But the difficulty of the “why” of theodicy is that it could be raised from a multitude of concerns or modes. “Why?” could be an expression of sheer pain and anguish, ultimately not seeking an answer. It could be raised as a taunting gesture in a sparring debate for the non-viability of a good God in the face of horrendous evil and suffering. It could be sounded at the precipice of a faith crisis. And so on. The question is not illegitimate by any means, but it does have to be situated within a broader context so as to be dealt with in a critical, constructive, and sensitive manner.
When the “why” of theodicy is raised to seminarians, pastors, and theological leaders, it can potentially be a trying event on several levels. First, the question can unsettle at the personal level. When confronted with this question, people can have many different kinds of reactions. They may feel compelled to defend God or they may feel challenged or put on the spot in a way they have not experienced before. The stakes in such conversations are often quite high given the circumstances that prompt them, and these can take a personal toll. Second, the question can be difficult to consider from a pastoral point of view. Anyone truly called to Christian ministry does so out of love for God and God’s people, and when these people are genuinely and severely hurting, it is hard to watch and stand by. What can a pastor/theologian offer to those who are suffering and dying? Third, the question is demanding at an intellectual level. Usually, formal discussions of theodicy emphasize this point, but just what counts as “intellectual” is deeply disputed and contested, both in the academy and parish.
Theodicy is essentially an activity of making sense of God’s righteousness or goodness in the face of evil and suffering. The term’s origins are oftentimes associated with Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, an intellectual of the 17th and early-18th centuries. Leibniz and those who followed in his wake are often prone to “make sense” of theodicy’s concerns through forms of thinking and reasoning that were privileged at the time of Leibniz’s writing and that have continued to be prominent in certain schools of philosophical thought. For instance, Leibniz is famous for his “best of all possible worlds” theodicy. Take a quick look at his reasoning: God’s handiwork is as good as it can be, this world has both good and evil in it, and so this world must be the best of all possible worlds God could have created; as such, evil must have some good role to play in this world’s happenings since this world is ultimately God’s best. Notice the deductive logic. The reasoning moves from God and the character of God’s handiwork to how the world must be evaluated. From one angle, the reasoning is water-tight and compelling, but this is true only if one accepts Leibniz’s premises and moves to be compelled by the deductive logic at work. From another point of view, this approach to God, evil, and suffering is disastrous at a number of registers, including the ones highlighted so far, namely, the personal, pastoral, and intellectual levels.
When framed in a Leibnizian or similarly rationalistic fashion, theodicy is personally difficult because it allows the one venturing this activity to pursue what ultimately are moral matters in abstraction devoid of the contexts of suffering and pain. If any critique from liberation theology continues to stand in relation to European modes of thought, surely it is the latter’s penchant to pursue thought devoid of particularity. How can one speak of the ultimate good that can come from evil when standing in the middle of Dachau? Or how can one talk of “the poor” when the one using the phrase knows no people who are poor or has not felt and seen the plight of the poor firsthand? These questions are not aimed to create sentimental responses. They are serious concerns that reckon with the morality of knowledge. When public figures make such claims as “those people deserved to die because God was judging them for their sin” or “ultimately, this act was necessary so that these other good things could happen,” one wonders what is lost and corrupted at the personal level so that this kind of abstraction is found to be both possible and compelling.
Pastorally, typical forms of theodicy are of little-to-no help for the suffering faithful. The “why” of theodicy is sometimes asked by earnest and God-loving people trying to make sense of their experience in light of their faith. If this is the mode in which the question is raised, a rationalistic proof or explanation is the last thing people need. What prompted the question was a life-struggle. What is needed in turn is a life-response by those called to care for them. Oftentimes, what typically go as theodical formulations create closures and reductions when used in times of crisis. Rather than opening the door for healing, theodical reasoning can sometimes inflict deeper wounds. Therefore, pastors should resist forms of Leibniz’s reasoning when offering their care for others. Cruciform servanthood is incompatible with cold and calculated reasoning.
Finally, how can approaches to theodicy be disastrous intellectually? Part of the difficulty with the “why” of theodicy as it is raised today is that it is symptomatic of a certain intellectual condition. We are living in a current moment of Western intellectual history in which the “God-question” is joined to the “why” of theodicy, so that many people reject belief in God on the basis of the evil and suffering they see around them. Put another way, atheism is often deemed as a more intellectually responsible approach today than theism in light of one’s lived reality. This condition is no accident. In fact, one can narrate the West’s disenchantment with rationalistic approaches to theodicy so that atheism was the natural result. The counterpoint to Leibniz in this tale of European intellectual history is Voltaire. Today, when people reject belief in “God” because of the evil and suffering they see around them, they are functionally the progeny of Voltaire. That is, they are reacting (as Voltaire largely did) to Leibniz’s “God,” who at the end of the day was not so much the God of Christian confession as a deistic placeholder within a 17th and 18th century philosophical construct.
What is required in this case is a form of critical inquiry, one that strives to contextualize present circumstances, possibilities, and expectations in light of past alternatives and proposals. In other words, what is needed is an intellectual archeological narration that can help situate the current context in a larger matrix of meaning so as to show both its limits and possibilities moving forward. Put whimsically, we need to know how we got here so that we know where to go next. Of course, what is involved is intellectually demanding work because it requires calling into question and gaining some distance from what is familiar. In one sense, it is one philosophical approach (a postmodern undertaking aided by the likes of Michel Foucault, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, and others) calling into question another philosophical approach (a modern approach developed most forcefully in the 17th and 18th centuries). But in another sense, the question is thoroughly theological, for it pushes to the fore not only questions about God and suffering but also the nature of theological knowledge and its role for the life of faith. Precisely these theological concerns have led people to use the language of “anti-theodicy” (so that the “anti” stands against the older theodical approaches) or “practical theodicy” (in which pastoral concerns are hailed as primary in such endeavoring).
The following works are especially helpful for students, pastors, and theologians as they make the transition from modern sensibilities to postmodern ones in a way that may not only be intellectually robust but also theologically (and dare we say doxologically?) compelling.
- David Burrell, Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering (Brazos, 2008): Whenever biblical considerations of theodicy are mentioned, Job usually figures prominently. Burrell lends his incisive intellect to a close reading of Job, arguing ultimately that Job is best understood as an “anti-theodicy” that counters canonically the deuteronomistic transactional logic of covenantal obedience-blessing. Burrell helps the church see that Job helps reorient our hearts and minds rather than giving us easy explanations and formulations in the longstanding worry of why the righteous suffer.
- Daniel Castelo, Theological Theodicy (Cascade, 2012): This work documents some of the theodical transitions of the last few centuries so as to show the need for thinking of the God of theodicy as the God of Christian confession, that is, the Trinity. As such, it aims to demonstrate some of the dogmatic purchase and possibilities stemming from this kind of reorientation, which would include a re-enchantment with the Creator-creation interface, a sobering and teased out treatment of such terms as “evil” “suffering,” and “sin” as well as a recalibration of expectations and possibilities for the church this side of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
- David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Eerdmans, 2005): Originally prompted by the tsunami that hit several Asian countries in 2004, Hart draws from the Orthodox heritage to reorient discussions related to theodicy that have been overly determined by certain Augustinian and Protestant-evangelical tendencies. He employs a number of themes, including apophaticism, the mystery and goodness of God, and free-will logics.
- Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Blackwell, 1986): Surin’s work is an exercise in disciplining theodical discourse by taking into account both its precedents and the seriousness and ambiguity of its key terms. This remains a landmark work for its penetrating analysis into the intellectual tradition that is immediately prior and concurrent to our own.
- John Swinton, Raging with Compassion (Eerdmans, 2007): Swinton writes as a practical theologian who has at the forefront of his mind the pastoral concerns facing theological leaders. His style is accessible and his illustrations compelling for why theodicy needs to be reconfigured first and foremost as a pastoral matter of concern.
- Terrence Tilley, The Evils of Theodicy (Wipf & Stock, 2000): This is one of the most philosophically demanding on this list, but those willing to venture into its sophisticated presentation will be richly rewarded. Tilley ultimately argues that theodicy was wrong-headed from its very beginnings, that its pursuit has created more difficulties than possibilities in the life of faith. He makes the bold claim that theodical undertakings, as they are typically pursued, can themselves be expressions and conduits of evil, a move that represents a kind of “twist” in the discussion that when taken seriously has significant merit.