Friday, March 16, 2007


Theodicy (thE-'ä-d&-sE): A vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil.

For those of you who haven't encountered theodicy before: it's generally depressing. In fact, it could be magnificently depressing. So if you haven't already been wondering about God, and evil, and all that, you may want to go read something more pleasant. Like cute overload or something.

Still with me? Great.

Let's start this mess with a few observations about how Christians answer Big Philosophical Questions.

1. When answering the question, "What is God like?", Christians generally make several claims about the attributes of God, among them that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. The Bible seems to support these claims.

2. When answering the question, "How does God interact with the creation?", Christians generally endorse an idea of a God who is intimately involved with the creation, particularly with human beings. Christians also usually endorse special providence, wherein God occasionally interrupts the natural order to do something helpful for people. The Bible seems to support these claims.

3. When answering the question, "Is there evil?", Christians generally say, "yes." Sometimes people say that evil is illusory, or that evil is merely an absence of good, or that all evil is constructive and eventually has positive results, but sane people generally acknowledge that the world is full of evil - sometimes perpetrated by people (murder, rape, genocide), and sometimes perpetrated at random by nature (disease, earthquake, tsunami). Most sane people also acknowledge that often, this evil is so egregious that it destroys people, and it seems patently ridiculous to insist that these sorts of evil (called "Horrors", in a recent related discussion) could ever be constructive.

From the perspective of Western philosophers, this slice of worldview is fraught with peril. More specifically, it is internally contradictory. The answers to the questions can't all be right ... one or more of them must be wrong. This is where theodicy starts to show up. People - both Christians and non-Christians - notice what appear to be contradictions in the standard Christian story about the world, and so someone has to resolve the contradictions.

In general, there seem to be three ways that people go about doing this.

1. People deny the question has any validity, whether because it is immoral to question God in this way, or because God's ways are mysterious and incomprehensible, or what have you. Really, no discussion can be had after this point.

2. People try to define terms in such a way to dissolve the contradiction. So, for example, someone might claim that all-good does not mean that God ought to rescue children trapped under the rubble of a building collapsed by an earthquake. Or they might claim that all-powerful does not mean that God can do things that are inherently contradictory, and then show that intervening on behalf of abused children would raise an inherent contradiction.

3. People try to find a leg of the argument that they can let go. So, for example, process theologians might claim that God does not really fit the traditional descriptions: that God's moral character is developing just like a person's does, so the claim that God is all-good is simply inaccurate. People who are unwilling to deviate from the traditional description of God might try to give up a different leg, perhaps claiming that evil does not really exist, or if it does, God is not responsible for creating it or intervening to fix it.

Now, a few final observations:

First, the "problem of evil", as it has often been called, raises for atheists no analogous "problem of good". The problem of evil arises specifically because theists claim that a certain kind of God exists, and that this God has a certain kind of relationship with the world, which seems incompatible with the existence of evil. On the other hand, people who claim that there is no God need not explain why God allows evil, and they also need not explain why, if God does not exist, there is good. The painfully simple atheistic answer to that question is that good is not contingent on a God.

Second, in my estimation, the problem of evil is the strongest single argument against worshiping God. If God does not exist at all, it's ridiculous to worship. If God does not provide for followers, why worship? If God is not good, why worship? In fact, if God is not good, we may have a moral obligation *not* to worship. To make matters worse, this is a visceral argument. People can brush off a claim like "the ontological argument for the existence of God is invalid", but it's harder, rhetorically, to brush off the suffering of millions of people over millions of years.

Some people manage to do it, but it's harder.

As a result, it is absolutely necessary that Christians do good theodicy, theodicy that not only can be accepted by those in the Christian community, but those outside as well. And as others have said before, people outside the community can't take you seriously if your answers won't stand up to Auschwitz.

I've recently decided that, for me, the moral contradictions in the problem of evil trump all the other problems. I absolutely accept the claim that special providence is incompatible with perfect divine goodness: A god who delivers money to American churches but fails to rescue children from Indonesian tsunamis cannot be a good god.

But I also am incapable of dropping the claim that God is all-good. I am simply incapable of releasing that belief. So I have to drop something else ... and to me, the thing that seems most droppable is the doctrine of special providence. So I have to claim that when money arrives in the mail, or when I get a good parking place, or when a friend's cancer disappears, God hasn't intervened or done anything out of the ordinary.

Obviously, this move puts a new burden on me, first to explain how I can understand the Bible to be true in light of this doctrine, and second to explain some other way that God might relate to the world. And it also doesn't solve the problem of how God could be morally justified in having created a world that allows for so much horror. I'll talk about those things in a later post.


shane said...

Then what do you do about Jesus?

Cody said...

I agree. I've dropped the idea of special providence (or whatever you called it) long ago, realizing that if the divine is good, the divine would not give a church $1-$2 million for a church building and leave children starving in Africa, etc.

I also find it easier to work it all out now that I don't have the view of scripture that I used to have.

We just discussed Augustine's doctrine of Misplaced Love. Have you heard of it? What do you think of it in regards to your post?

Matthew said...


Jesus, right, good question.
With Jesus, I try to address the divinity question first.

I think the way I answer the divinity question is going to depend on how I answer the question about how God interacts with the world. What I think I'm going to end up with is: it's perfectly fine to say Jesus is God's son, but how a person understands the *meaning* of that statement depends entirely on his worldview. I think in the panentheistic cosmology that I'm gravitating toward, I would describe it in terms of Jesus' participation in the divine nature, rather than in the language of virgin birth, or dualistic physical/spiritual language.

What do you think?

Matthew said...


Augustine. Bleh. I don't like Augustine.

As I understand Augustine on misplaced love, he says something like our suffering is caused by our attachment to earthly things and is eased by our attachment to God.

I, on the other hand, suspect it's very difficult to separate one's attachment to God from one's attachment to "earthly things." And in terms of theodicy, Augustine seems to be trying to say that evil doesn't exist. So again, Bleh.

But tell me if I'm remembering Augustine wrong.

shane said...

Matthew on Augustine:

I think a lot of your understanding (which, as I admittedly fumbled through philosophy, I may not be the best resource) reflects a middle platonic understanding of cosmology, which I believe is common in the West during Augustine's life. But it almost sounds Buddhist to me, rather than Christian.

Matthew on Shane:

You ought to deal with atonement on some level as well. My guess is God's apparent action and inaction in light of goodness or horror (are these opposites here? I'm not 100% on the definitions) changes why God might have become incarnate. I imagine your hang ups on divinity are based more in philosophical categories (or lack thereof) which may also be why you don't like Augustine.

Not to get you ahead of yourself, how does a pantheistic understanding of God interact with an apparent evil/horror/general tendency for things to hurt things in the cosmos? Does this create a divine dualism, or are you beyond these categories too?

I grew up next to the neighborhood around DU (and Iliff.) I went to high school at South, with the big tower you can see from I-25. Congrats on living in Denver and all that.

Matthew said...

"Not to get you ahead of yourself, how does a pantheistic understanding of God interact with an apparent evil/horror/general tendency for things to hurt things in the cosmos? Does this create a divine dualism, or are you beyond these categories too?"

I don't think it means God has a "split personality", or that the evil part of god is duking it out with the good part. Pantheism would probably require this, but panentheism allows for a consciousness or "part" of God that exists above and beyond the physical world.

If we think of the divine consciousness as arising from the ebb and flow of the universe itself (maybe this is part of what it means to be made in God's image), we might suspect that what hurts the world (especially people) hurts God. Or you could think of God as being the substance from which the universe is made, and arrive at similar conclusions.

Connor said...

Could you say a little more about dropping special providence, but sticking with God is good. It seems to me that most people, at least at the gut level, claim God to be good because of special providence, i.e. Jesus (as God) dies for my sins so I'm saved, yanks me out of Egypt, whatever.

crystal said...

in my estimation, the problem of evil is the strongest single argument against worshiping God.

That's true for me too. I'm not willing to give up on the God is good part, or the God is all poweful part either. I like David Hart's theodicy in part because he doesn't really resolve the problem, and doesn't give up on any of the "legs". It remains a big problem for me. I kind of like your solution.

Matthew said...

"I like David Hart's theodicy in part because he doesn't really resolve the problem"

There's a lot to be said for not attempting to resolve the problem; lots of theodicies gloss over the reality of suffering in a desperate effort to protect a particular view of God.

While I don't really expect to resolve the problem, I do hope to end up with something that is livable.

crystal said...

Me too. Working on it :-)

Jennifer said...

My theodicy ended up dropping the "God is good" presupposition, or rather modifying it to "God is, and is all-powerful."

There are two problems with the presupposition:

- First, that if God is "good" (whatever good means, but typically seen in terms of his not being responsible for Things We Don't Like) there must be another force at least equal to God responsible for evil (again, typically seen in terms of being responsible for/the source of Things We Don't Like) in order for it to exist if God is good. The "God is all powerful" would have to be rejected.

- Second, I tend to be a bit more literalist than not in interpretation. Dropping the "God is good" supposition saves me trying to explain away Isaiah's "I am the LORD, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things." or Jeremiah's lament: "Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and evil go forth?"

I ended up coming down on the side of some of the Rabbis, who hold that God will do what he chooses with the world and sometimes that includes suffering/Horrors, but there are some types of worship that can only occur in suffering.

Fun with theodicy.

Matthew said...


I suppose giving up on "good" is your perogative, but as I mention in my following post, I don't think it's morally justifiable to worship a God who is not good. This has actually forced me to take a lower view of the Biblical text, but in my opinion this is necessary; Christians simply cannot claim that Might makes Right.

Jennifer said...

I should have written more carefully. Not "good" but "all-good"... according to our definition of "good."

Of course, it may be that it's our definition that's flawed. Speaking generally Christians define "Good" as things-which-we-like... and adopt a corresponding view of an all-good-God as God-who-perpetrates-all-things-which-we-like. Consequently we like the God who gives us parking spaces, or money for new church buildings, or whatever else it is that we're wanting at the time... but do our best at ignoring the God who does things like, say, allow someone's children to all be killed, their flocks be stolen, and their health destroyed. Of course, we can take Job and apply it to our time... we also don't talk about the God who allows planes to crash into buildings, or children to be killed in tsunamis, or whatever else we're appalled by.

So perhaps the answer is really to find a way of redefining "good" in a less egocentric manner... but considering the current definition of "good" and the evil that undeniably exists in our world, something has to go. It's not philosophically sound to accept a God who is all-powerful and all-good in a world which has evil... either he isn't all-powerful, and there's an at-least-equal-to-God force responsible for the evil (in which case we might need to consider which of the two at-least-equal forces we ought to be worshipping) or God is all-powerful, but is also responsible for everything (which would include that-which-we-define-as-good AND that-which-we-define-as-evil).

You could reject special providence, but I find it hard to reject the special providence if you're going to hold that the Scriptures contain anything that resembles truth regarding the nature of God... God is just too present, too active in the world he created for that. At least to me...

Matthew said...

@Jennifer -

I think we have a pretty clear idea of what "good" is. A "good" being simply does not enrich white people while allowing cars to run over babies. I'm not willing to stand evil on its head and call it good.

As a consequence, I'm unwilling to allow that the conquest of Canaan (kill everybody except for the virgins, etc.), and other biblical decrees attributed to God, can be understood as "good". And this leads me to a view of scripture as a source of truth, but certainly not unequivocally true.

I do agree that the presence of God is an important theme in most all religious traditions, but the presence of God is different than the action of God. I'm hoping that a panentheistic understanding of God will allow me to describe God as present, but not require that God act.

Jennifer said...

Any good, or all-good? I believe in a good being, but not an all-good being as we define good.

I'm not saying evil is good... but rather that some things-which-we-dislike/evil can be purposeful and enriching, if not good/things-which-we-like in and of themselves. I've just worked with too many trauma survivors who wouldn't trade their experiences for a trauma-free existence to totally discount good coming of evil, at least some of the time.

For me... if Scripture's not true (unequivocally, that is), then why bother? If it's a source of truth, how do we distinguish that-which-is-true from that-which-isn't within Scripture, and what is the basis for the distinction? I have no more use for a Scripture that's not true than for a God who doesn't act. How can an inactive/panentheistic God be worthy of praise, much less of giving one's life to/for?

Matthew said...

"I'm not saying evil is good... but rather that some things-which-we-dislike/evil can be purposeful and enriching"

Sure, but you still have to deal with the evil that is *not* purposeful or enriching. The things that obliterate people. The things that fall into the category of "Horrors".

"If it's a source of truth, how do we distinguish that-which-is-true from that-which-isn't within Scripture"

How do we distinguish that-which-is-true in any other setting? What made you decide the Bible is true in the first place?

"How can an inactive/panentheistic God be worthy of praise, much less of giving one's life to/for?"

I suppose there's room for God's action so long as it is not interventionist - that is, as long as God doesn't intervene to provide me with healing from a disease and lets the kid in sub-saharan Africa die of AIDS. Perhaps God only interacts with our minds. And perhaps God does so quietly.

Worthy of praise, I dunno. I'm more interested in a God who's not morally responsible for horrors.

Jennifer said...

bI just now got around to reading your post on "Horrors." I think we view them fairly differently. For you, they create doubt about meaning (tell me if I'm reading you wrong). For me, they're a showcase for human resiliency, for demonstrating the goodness people are capable of.

I'm a trauma therapist... I've just seen too much of the magnificence of survival, resilience, and human response to suffering to think otherwise. As Frankl pointed out, it is in the horrific events that meaning-making becomes significant. And this is what I see in my work: that it is in the face of horrors that people create meaning, form meaning-making bonds, and show their full potential. It is hard, perhaps impossible, for me to separate the horrors from a concept that's becoming known as "posttraumatic growth"-- the positive outcomes that occur in trauma survivors, a growth that is significantly above and beyond that experienced by the non-trauma-exposed population.

How do you reconcile the God of Scripture with a non-interventionist God, given that his actions within Scripture are largely interventionist: creation, leading Abraham to Cana'an, the Israelites out of Egypt, etc etc etc, and then Christ. It seems to me that if you're going to take Scripture as any kind of truth, you're presented with this God who does an awful lot of intervening. What do you do with that?

If God is not responsible for horrors, who/what is and how does it figure into your cosmogeny?

I'm glad you're having this discussion. I think it's one Christians need to have more often, whatever answers we come to. We've traditionally done such a poor job of answering the theodicy-question, and done a disservice to those around us as a result... and we owe it to the Christian community and the world at large to come up with some better answers. So take my questions in that spirit, and thank you.

Jennifer said...

Not your post, but Richard's post. The post you linked to. bleh.

Matthew said...

"For me, [horrors are] a showcase for human resiliency, for demonstrating the goodness people are capable of."

That's all fine and good, but you're talking about recovery and growth after the fact. The question for me is: if you could head off the horrors that your clients experienced, would you? If you could stop the rape and dismemberment of a friend, would you? And if you didn't stop the evil when you had the power to, would you feel like you were complicit in it?

I think you would, and I think you would be right in feeling that way. I think we ought to hold God to ethical standards that are at least as high as the standards we make for humans.

"If God is not responsible for horrors, who/what is and how does it figure into your cosmogeny?"

Right now, I'm thinking that no one is responsible for horrors. That they are just a side effect of the world being ordered in the way it is ordered. The other possibility, I guess, is that everyone is responsible for horrors. But those may be the same thing.

"It seems to me that if you're going to take Scripture as any kind of truth, you're presented with this God who does an awful lot of intervening."

I just can't imagine a scenario where an interventionist God is good. I have to give up a literal reading of scripture because I am unwilling to give up my belief that God is good.

I can make my next post about reading the Bible, if you like.