The Poisoned Cup of Theodicy

The world has seen and heard enough about the misery and destruction in Haiti this past week that I don’t think I need to dwell on it. But I do want to take some time to address the perennial question of theodicy, which comes up in the aftermath of every disaster like this.

To an atheist, for whom the Haiti quake was nothing more than the result of tectonic plates slipping – a disaster caused by impersonal natural forces and random chance – there is nothing to explain. The laws of the cosmos are not conscious of human beings and don’t take our needs into account. No human action caused this disaster to occur, and no one bears responsibility for it. If we want to live comfortably and safely in this world, it’s up to us to learn its rules so that we can mitigate their worst consequences through science and technology, and when disaster does strike, it’s up to us to care for each other.

Such is the atheist’s view, and it is comforting, in a sense. But to people who believe in a personal deity who set these laws in motion and foresaw their consequences, there’s a much more glaring problem. In a post titled Why Did God Allow Haiti’s Earthquake?, Christian pastor Dave Schmelzer reflects on the topic.

Schmelzer does have a dead-on and even, dare I say it, scriptural response to Pat Robertson’s vile mouth:

The heart of the great biblical book on suffering—Job—critiques Job’s false friends who are determined to figure out why Job is suffering. It’s as if they can’t live in the tension of seeing someone else suffer without establishing that somehow the sufferer deserved their suffering, so we, the onlookers, are safe.

I have no argument with that. But there’s another section of Schmelzer’s post that caught my attention:

The best thing I’ve read on this subject is Gregory Boyd’s God at War. Boyd says that it’s our Greek influence that makes us need answers to suffering and evil. The issue, he says, isn’t intellectually figuring out evil. That will lead to two bad outcomes: torment (as Bart Ehrmann discovered) and complacency. To Boyd, the world is a thick spiritual battle. When we confront suffering and evil, our task is not to analyze the suffering and evil, it’s to fight it.

What I find most interesting about this is Boyd’s claim that we shouldn’t try to find an explanation for evil that’s compatible with Christianity. Attempting this, he says, can have only two outcomes, both of them bad: either we become convinced that God is malevolent or indifferent, which plunges one into despair (or leads to deconversion, as happened with Bart Ehrman), or we become convinced that God is justified in causing it, which leads to the Robertson-like callousness which believes that only evil people suffer.

Now, I’m not denying the logic of this argument. Those do seem to be the most common outcomes when Christians contemplate the problem of evil. But what I want to point out is his conclusion: therefore, Christians should stop trying to find an explanation for evil. They should just stop thinking about the topic, because it does damage to their faith if they dwell on it too closely.

Schmelzer endorses this conclusion himself:

“Why” never offered anyone any comfort, any power or any answers… So let’s not over-analyze “why God allowed” Haiti’s earthquake.

This is a rather surprising view, inasmuch as it categorically dismisses the possibility that apologists’ attempts to justify evil and suffering could ever assist faith. It seems he agrees with us atheists that conventional Christian explanations for evil are insufficient.

But it’s not just evangelical Christians who take this view. A Mormon blog calls the project of theodicy a “poisoned cup”, and says:

I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the whole project of theodicy. On one hand, I want to reject a fideism that insists on belief in the irrational as a mark of true faith. Hence, I want a religion that at least holds out the possibility of increasing my understanding of the ways of God and the nature of the universe through the use of reason. We shouldn’t have to crucify our brains in order to believe. And yet there is also a part of me that wants to maintain the mystery of evil… Ultimately… the most important reaction to suffering is its alleviation rather than its explanation.

This blogger, obviously an intelligent person, doesn’t want to have to shut off his mind in order to believe. And to his credit, he rejects the Robertsonian argument that black people were justly excluded from the Mormon priesthood as punishment for sins they committed in a previous life:

I would much rather ascribe the priesthood ban to the tragic failings and racism of good and great men like Brigham Young rather than warp the cosmic narrative of the plan of salvation to make an injustice just.

This is an eloquent and laudable honesty, far superior to the usual apologists’ approach of enshrining contingent historical prejudices as eternal truths. And yet he, too, counsels fellow believers to cease trying to explain evil and “simply let the mystery be” – as though the project of theodicy was a blister, or an unhealed wound: something that we only make worse by picking at it.

What’s remarkable is that both these writers, in their own ways, implicitly acknowledge that the argument from evil is irrefutable. There is simply no moral way to reconcile belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving deity with the fact of evil and suffering in our world. This is just what atheists have been saying since the time of Epicurus. But rather than take the obvious next step – that the argument from evil is unanswerable because the atheists are correct – they instead advise their fellow believers to stop thinking about it.

Is this not remarkable? It’s as though, for people in these religious traditions, an entire continent of their inner mental world has to be cordoned off and declared a forbidden zone. Their mental landscape is littered with locked doors, fences of barbed wire, and sternly worded “Keep Out” signs – all delimiting the sphere of dangerous ideas which they’re advised never to examine.

Can anyone dispute that atheists have nothing like this? Is there any idea we place off-limits for examination, any question we deem too dangerous to ask? Is there any place where we say the free mind must never travel? And if your answer is “no”, as it inevitably must be, then I have a followup question: Which kind of belief would need to be protected from scrutiny: a true belief, or a false one?

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