Theodicy: A Justification of the Justice of God Amidst the Problem of Evil

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Introduction

On November 17, 2013, the date of writing for this opening paragraph, news outlets across the United States have been flooded with reports of tornado outbreaks in the Midwest.[1] Multiple people have been killed, homes have been destroyed, businesses have been greatly affected; perhaps the word “chaos” would be most appropriate. Beyond natural disasters, the world has also been tarnished with unspeakable horrors resulting from immoral and downright evil activities such as murder, rape, extortion, terrorism, and physical abuse. “How is it,” some would ask, “that God would allow such things to happen?” There is a logic frequently assumed in discussions such as these that a good God could not possibly eternally exist while such evils consume the earth. The question itself is understandable, but the answer to that question is one of the most vital reconciliations that a Christian can make. Matters of synthesizing both the existence of evil and the complete goodness of God are often part of a doctrine labeled “theodicy.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary defines theodicy as “The attempt to defend God’s omnipotence and goodness in the face of the problem of evil in the world.”[2] Theodicy comes from two Greek words, θεός and δικέ, to literally mean “divine justice.”[3] Therefore, this research will attempt to reconcile the justice, or more specifically the “justness” or “rightness” of God who has chosen to allow pain and suffering into His sovereign plans. And while many questions will continue to persist on this side of eternity as to why God permitted certain things, the “problem of evil” is answered sufficiently from the Christian perspective, and God’s justice is completely justified.

The Goodness of God

The whole issue of theodicy depends on what evidence one chooses to use for analyzing God’s goodness. If a wholly naturalistic presupposition is adopted, and the Bible is merely treated as a human document, then answers to theodicy will not even matter since God, in the naturalist’s mind, has not revealed Himself (if He exists) in any form of special revelation. However, if one begins his/her analysis on the goodness of God and the “problem of evil” with looking at the natural world as the primary source of investigation, adding occasional glances to Scripture, then one’s view of theodicy will be a never-ending state of frantic cluelessness. When the Bible is put in a secondary position for interpreting the world, whole theologies such as “process theology” and “open theism” arise to account for philosophical conjectures that put God in the position of being less than the sovereign ruler of the universe.[4] Only when the Bible is the lens through which one interprets theodicy can the goodness of God and the problem of evil be reconciled satisfactorily.

Before considering the reality and sheer power of evil present in the world, it is necessary to first seek what Scripture teaches on the goodness of God. After all, if God is not supremely good, then there is no possible way to reconcile the “rightness” of God in the study of theodicy since no true standard of rightness would exist. The Bible, however, is quite clear on the issue. First of all, God cannot sin and will not cause others to sin. James 1:13 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” Secondly, it is noteworthy that God is frequently (over 900 times) described with the attribute of holiness, something of which Jonathan Edwards describes as “the sum of all His attributes, the outshining of all that God is.”[5] Thirdly, authors from Scripture appeal to God’s goodness quite often. The Psalmist David rather clearly declares in song, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!”[6] It is abundantly clear, then, that the Bible presents God to be wholly good and just, a Being fit for providing the moral standard for what constitutes “goodness” and “justness.”

The Evilness of Evil

Where the predicament lies in the discussion of theodicy is in how the presence of evil and suffering seems to contradict the goodness of God. The issue is complex to say the least, and as Daniel Clendenin states, “For some the problem is the fact that God allows any evil in the world, while for others the problem is not simply that evil exists but that too much evil exists.”[7] The existence of evil, although doubted by some, is one of the most verifiable doctrines of the Christian faith.[8] For as John Frame writes, “If evil is an illusion, it is a terribly troublesome illusion, an illusion that brings misery, pain, suffering, and death. If it is said that the pain also is illusory, I reply that there is no difference between illusory pain and real pain so far as the problem of evil is concerned.”[9] Indeed, the reality of evil is a “problem.” All of humanity suffers the ill effects of evil, and Christians particularly are faced with the apparent dilemma that leads back to Epicurus which has been quoted and paraphrased by philosophers in many ages since his time: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”[10] Although there are multiple questions listed, only the second and third questions require a rebuttal. Once again, the assumption is that a good God could not allow evil, and certainly not the degree of evil that infests the present state of humanity. The “problem” with Epicurus’ “problem of evil” is that Bible does not see it as a “problem” towards God’s goodness. On the contrary, the Bible majestically reconciles the goodness of God in the discussion of theodicy.

God and Evil: A Biblical Reconciliation

Pain and suffering are agonizing realities in the world today. However, if theodicy itself is as big of a problem as skeptics believe, then why does the Bible speak about the reality of evil so frequently? Far from being a concealed secret of Christianity, the Bible is actually unashamedly honest on the reality and purposes that God has for permitting evil. To demonstrate this proposition, three examples will be introduced from Scripture: Job, Joseph, and Jesus Christ.

The book of Job is possibly the oldest book of the Bible which, for purposes of the topic of theodicy, ironically is all about the reality of evil, pain, and suffering. In it, “Satan, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and to some extent Job wrongly assumed that punishment of the wicked and reward of the righteous in this life is a fixed doctrine.”[11] Out of all people in the world, the least likely candidate for enduring suffering was Job, described as being a man who “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”[12] Yet God in his sovereign wisdom permits Satan to cause intense pain and suffering to Job, Job is accused of being blameworthy for his own troubles, but then in the final chapter God has the closing rebuke of the false accusers after Job repents of his questioning of God. And according to what has been revealed in Scripture, Job is never even given the answer as to why he had to suffer so brutally. But what is known is that God must have had a purpose for this seemingly senseless trial (even if not explicitly revealed in Scripture). After observing both Joseph and Jesus Christ, principles found elsewhere in Scripture for theodicy will help bring to light some of what can be known about theodicy.

Joseph is another example of a man who would be an unlikely recipient of pain and suffering, especially in regards to the goodness of God and what He sovereignly wills. Not only is he sold into slavery by his own family (Genesis 37) but also is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife for attempted rape, and is subsequently imprisoned (Genesis 39). Nevertheless, this story does have a happy ending, and unlike the story of Job, God’s purpose for Joseph’s suffering is included. In the final chapter of Genesis, Joseph reunites with his brothers, speaking these words to them concerning what had occurred: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”[13] There are many who would still accuse God of being unloving towards Joseph by allowing him to suffer. But as stated by the very sufferer himself, “God meant it for good.”

In moving on to the third example, Jesus Christ, it must be mentioned that the first two examples were certainly what most would call “good” people. The truth is, however, that the Bible is clear that all have sinned and are deserving of God’s wrath, including Job and Joseph. What sets apart Jesus Christ so distinctly is that He never sinned (Hebrews 4:15) and was wholly undeserving of His suffering, both in human and in God’s standards. R.C. Sproul, Jr. once stated this humbling fact: “No matter what we are suffering, we are living in the lap of God’s grace. None of us ever gets worse than we deserve. What God owes us is death and destruction. Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, that only happened once, and He volunteered.”[14] Jesus Christ not only endured a grueling death via crucifixion, but it was on that very cross in which He endured the wrath of God for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). If anyone had a reason to accuse God of fault in what He allows, it was Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, He submitted to the will of His Father because His suffering was not in vain. Likewise, those who trust in the Word of God can trust that their own forms of suffering serve a mysterious yet genuine purpose.

Moving beyond examples of the Bible, there are whole “systems” of theodicy views that need to be briefly investigated.[15] Some philosophers/theologians would resort to a “free will” argument of sin and its relation to the world, as well as God’s goodness. Norman Geisler states, “The answer [for theodicy] is found in one of God’s good gifts: free will. While freedom is good in itself, it also allowed the potential for evil. Hence, free will made evil possible.”[16] But a major problem with this view is that “Scripture never uses the free-will defense in any passage where the problem of evil is up for discussion.”[17] On the contrary, the Bible is clear that God is not simply a passive onlooker of the world’s events, allowing humans to do as they please, but that He is sovereign over all actions, even in matters of evil.[18]

Another proposed solution is in Jay Adams’s doxological view of theodicy, that the problem of evil is thoroughly summarized in Romans 9:17, God’s purposeful raising up of Pharoah to declare His own glory.[19] Certainly this is a helpful part of the theodicy question, but there are other biblical applications to consider as well. Hebrews chapter twelve, for example, speaks of God’s discipline to believers which could certainly include pain and suffering. Therefore, instead of narrowing down one’s view of theodicy to one locus classicus passage, a proposed solution would be an “eclectic” view of theodicy: doxological (Romans 9), sanctifying (Hebrews 12), for a greater purpose (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28), etc. That is, taking a variety of Scripture passage together, as pieces of a puzzle that slowly fit together, to reveal a more substantial understanding of God’s reasoning for allowing evil and suffering in the world. Not everything about theodicy is revealed in Scripture, some things have been and will remain to be a mystery (Deuteronomy 29:29; First Corinthians 13:12), but there are sufficient foundational principles that speak life into the darkness of pain and suffering. They may not be all one wants to know, but they are sufficient for what one needs to know for “life and godliness.”[20]

Conclusion

It would be truly convenient for the Christian apologist to have every single “problem” of evil answered by direct revelation from God, but the simple fact is that God has not chosen to reveal all that is questioned. Nevertheless, based on what has been revealed in Scripture, there is ample evidence to be convinced of the proposition that: (1) God is good, (2) evil exists, and (3) God has a purpose for the permitting evil and will ultimately and comprehensively defeat the effects of evil. But until that day comes, there are questions that address legitimate concerns. As Al Mohler reflects on theodicy, “We cannot explain why God has allowed sin, but we understand that God’s glory is more perfectly demonstrated through the victory of Christ over sin. We cannot understand why God would allow sickness and suffering, but we must affirm that even these realities are rooted in sin and its cosmic effects.”[21] For all that is possible to be answered in this present age, the Bible is the source of authority on theodicy. But for all that the Bible is not explicit such as personal traumas, natural disasters, death, and disease, there are at least underlying glimpses of hope found in what is revealed. And it is in these passages of revelation that God’s justice is justifiable, even when one is in the midst of a world filled with pain, suffering, and evil.


[1] Steve Almasy, Ted Rowlands, and Catherine E. Shoichet, “Midwest Tornadoes, Winds Slam Towns and Trucks; 5 Killed in Illinois,” http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/17/us/weather/ [accessed November 17, 2013].

 

[2] D. A. Neal, “Theodicy” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).

 

[3] Ibid.

[4] See for example, Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1981). See also John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 157, for a brief overview of the “Divine-Weakness Defense” theodicy view, as well as a concise rebuttal.

[5] Quoted in John H. Armstrong, “What Makes God So Totally Different?” Reformation and Revival 4:2 (Spring 1995), 9. See also pages 11-14 of the article for an overview of God’s holiness.

 

[6] Psalm 34:8. Also, it is interesting to note that the prophet Habakkuk, in his distress of considering the evils in the world, appeals to God’s good nature by questioning, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13)

 

[7] Daniel Clendenin, “Security But No Certainty: Toward A Christian Theodicy” JETS 31:3 (September 1988), 321-322.

 

[8] G.K. Chesterton once even noted that the doctrine of original sin was the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith. See Orthodoxy (Image Books, 1959), 15.

 

[9] Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 156.

 

[10] Quoted in Michael Houdmann, “What is Theodicy?” http://www.gotquestions.org/theodicy.html [accessed November 10, 2013].

[11] Larry J. Waters, “Reflections on Suffering From the Book of Job,” Bibliotecha Sacra 154:616 (Oct 1997), 448.

 

[12] Job 1:1

 

[13] Genesis 50:19-20

 

[14] R.C. Sproul, Jr., “2011 Ligonier National Conference – Session 6 (R.C. Sproul Jr.)” http://www.ligonier.org/blog/2011-ligonier-national-conference-session-6-rc-sproul-jr/ [accessed December 1, 2013].

 

[15] The following views are propagated by orthodox, evangelical Christians to keep the discussion concise. There is an assortment of other possible views, so only a selected few were mentioned. Out of all views, the most common view among philosophers is the “free will” defense. See Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 159.

 

[16] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Three: Sin and Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 98.

 

[17] John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 162.

 

[18] One could look back to the life of Joseph and observe the quotation of Genesis 50:20. Likewise, even Christ’s own crucifixion was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). It should be also noted that God is not the “cause” of evil by any means, but that He superintends evil plans of man for producing an even greater and glorious outcome.

 

[19] See John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 151-152, for a brief summary and mild critique of this view.

[20] Second Peter 1:3

 

[21] Albert Mohler, “The Goodness of God and the Reality of Evil,” http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/05/21/the-goodness-of-god-and-the-reality-of-evil-4/ [accessed November 29, 2013].

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