Against Theodicy

Against Theodicy May 6, 2014

Since I wrote “Against Justification” yesterday, I thought it would be fitting today to talk about one of my hobbyhorses, which is the way people talk about theodicy, or the problem of squaring the presence of evil in the world with a good God.

It seems to me that we get this completely backwards. I mean, yes, at the intellectual level it’s an important topic to think about, and it’s good that these arguments are there (for myself, I’m completely convinced by “free will” theodicy and I can write more about that if you want), and it’s good that we think about this stuff.

But the problem is that to even try to answer the question of theodicy is, it seems to me, to take the Gospel backwards.

The Jesus of the Gospel is utterly uninterested in giving explanations of why people suffer. He’s just interested in healing people’s sufferings. The entire logic of the Gospel is not about explaining evil, but crushing it and saving us from it.

It seems to me that we shouldn’t ask ourselves the question “Why does a good God let suffering and evil happen?”

I think we need to instead ask something like this question: “There is suffering and evil in the world–now what are you going to do about it?”

Christianity not only says that there is a (albeit mysterious) reason for the suffering and evil in the world, it says that all of this suffering and evil in the world has been taken by God Himself and utterly destroyed, so that when the Universe is finally realized all will be radiant and glorious and every tear will be wiped from every eye. It says that all suffering and evil is born by the only one who can bear it, who helps you bear it, and can even help you turn it into good. It says that suffering and evil in the world is, indeed, a grievous injustice that cries out for all men of good will to combat it, and it enrolls you in God’s Army in this cosmic battle against evil, a battle where victory is certain.

The reason why I think this is important is not just because I think it’s better apologetics (though I do), it’s because it matches up with the way Christianity is actually properly experienced. When people suffer, they become more religious, not less. Christianity is a salve for people who are broken down and beaten and despairing and crying out for justice. When we let suffering and evil become an obstacle to our Christianity rather than a reason for it, I think we might be entering into the realm of a bourgeois, natural religion, where everything is just fine in your life, and religion is a part of your life that’s over there, and a thing you do in order to placate the gods and check metaphysical boxes so that your bourgeois life can keep humming on its merry way, such that when suffering and evil happens it’s God who’s somehow to blame because he didn’t fulfill His end of the bargain.

Christianity is not an explanation for why things are. It is an encounter with the man on the Cross, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Behold this broken form, crowned with thorns, and kneel at the altar of his mighty Cross, and kiss his pierced, bloody feet. That’s your theodicy.


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  • NicholasBeriah Cotta

    It’s very simple – you have to believe in God to understand Jesus and you have to understand who we think God is to believe in God. Have you not spoken with a new atheist? One of our biggest chasms with them is our definition that God is not a “thing” in the universe, but He is being itself, an entity outside the universe that sustains its existence and sustains it through love. The logical next step for them is to say, “Why is there evil then?”
    If you would like to switch the evangelical notes to , “Jesus stamps out evil,” how would you expect any logical thinking atheist not to question the fact that we believe in a God who allows it? It may be a more beautiful message but it ignores the signs of our times. In the areopagus, the great question mark was the “unkown God”; no one even doubted the existence of a higher power. Evangelism today has to start from the beginning (with Adam, Eve, and I AM) unlike in the year 30 AD. People had a hard time accepting the son – and that was when they accepted the idea of the father…

    • I don’t care about the Dawkinses of the world. I care about people who might listen to them, but might also listen to us.

      • NicholasBeriah Cotta

        You should care about Dawkins because Dawkins and his ilk are growing and Aquinas even noted that there really are only two really good arguments against God: the natural world explains everything and there is evil. This is EXACTLY the two-headed monster that is Dawkins.
        While I appreciate not setting up a purely adversarial relationship with the New Atheist crowd (thus equivocating our positions) and just boldly proclaiming Jesus and his saving power (I absolutely think charismatic movements centering on this are good and should be tools in the tool belt), it would be crazy to think that our primary battle is not on the terms that Aquinas identified 700 years ago. They are gaining traction and they are gaining traction fast.
        Fact is that we were given an entire story to tell these people, ask Fr. Barron –
        “…But there is something haywire in presenting Jesus without the Old Testament. He is an Israelite. If we forget Israel, we forget who we are. The fulfillment of the story of salvation needs to have the story told from the beginning. Jesus can’t be understood without placing him within the history of Israel and the Messiah that all of Israel has always waited for. He is the new Adam, Moses, Abraham, David, etc. The New Eden is now established in the person of Jesus. If you de-Judaize Jesus, He becomes just another spiritual teacher. Evangelization is a subversive message that there is a new King in town!”–Barron-s-7-Keys-to-the-New-Evangelization.aspx

        • Mike

          Agree with everything you say but ultimately people change, open their minds to new ideas not by arguments and neat logically expositions but by experiencing a change of heart. We do have to equip ourselves with the best that history, science, logic, philos. has to offer but mostly we must present a better way of living of being human of being alive.

    • cajaquarius

      [Evangelism today has to start from the beginning (with Adam, Eve, and I AM) unlike in the year 30 AD.]

      That is the problem. We have scientific and archaeological evidence against much of the more classical interpretations of the older Bible stories. If you try to fight skeptics on that front then you will lose because the evidence simply isn’t on your side (and there are whole websites designed to rebutting Creationist and Literalists claims). If your faith gets caught in what is perceived as a lie you will lose the support of many people. That keeps happening again and again today (Ken Ham getting completely destroyed by Bill Nye, being the more recent example).

      Faith is intuitive and not rational. Dawkins is right about that. It is something children understand but we forget as we get older. I doubt most see it that way, though. Most will proceed to keep trying to rebuild the Tower of Babel in the hopes of plucking some of God’s hair and showing the evidence to the world. They will squander time that could be better spent serving their fellow man and showing love to the least of these in their pursuit. As before, they will ultimately fail.

      • NicholasBeriah Cotta

        Faith is indeed rational and the “classic” interpretation of the Bible is not the creationist/literal one; the “literal sense” of the Bible is not to think that the Bible is a historical document like we think of one. Also: to believe in the entire story of the Bible (Or the story of Christ) is not the same as believing the earth was literally created in six days or being against evolution.
        Speaking with you right now is what I’m talking about – you have separated the spiritual and the scientific, there is a dichotomy that cannot be reconciled until we explain our entire story. What would you propose? Do you believe Jesus Christ died and rose again from the dead to set right what Adam set wrong?

        • cajaquarius

          [Speaking with you right now is what I’m talking about – you have separated the spiritual and the scientific, there is a dichotomy that cannot be reconciled until we explain our entire story.]

          Why does it need to be reconciled? Does faith become stronger or better when it is married to the unnecessary and cumbersome machinations of legalism, explanation, and endless debate? I like the teaching of Christ because it is simple. Take the Good Samaritan parable – it is so ubiquitous we still use that phrase today for when a stranger does good for another stranger – a story even a child can understand on an intuitive level. It is the difference between a computer and a simple axe; the more complicated the item, the more fragile it becomes and the more ways it can break down. Perhaps I am misunderstanding what you mean so I will digress.

          [What would you propose?]

          Me personally? Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Leave the rational mind and the spiritual mind separate from one another.

          [Do you believe Jesus Christ died and rose again from the dead…]

          I suspect so. A number of writers seem to mention the event so that leads me to believe that he did make good on that particular promise in one way or another. I have had a near death experience of sorts myself so the concept doesn’t strike me as far fetched as it might others. I have a hard time believing so many men would be martyred if Christ had not appeared to them somehow post mortem. That said, the teachings of Christ and the example he set when he lived interests me more than His death.

          [… to set right what Adam set wrong?]

          No. Adam and Eve are clearly myths likely explaining the joining of the earliest two tribes that would eventually form the singular Israel of old. Not dissimilar to the myth of Hammurabi and Ekidnu, I suspect.

          Corroboration for this connection comes from the dubious Apostle Paul. My own study has led me to conclude Paul was a false apostle who added nothing of value to the teaching of Christ. He served, in my mind, a similar role to Alexander the Great who paved the way for Christianity into Asia. I do not attribute to him special status beyond gormless agent. Certainly not the status of authoratative teacher.

          • Kasoy

            If you want to have clearer idea about the creation (and the whole life including the untold or hidden life of Mary and Jesus), you may want to read the revelation of God to Venerable Mary Agreda (The Mystical City of God – free download from the internet). It can be found in Volume I Book I ( – easy to read version OR the original version in

          • cajaquarius

            Thank you for the link. I had not heard of this so I will check it out.

  • I wanted to agree with this, if for no other reason than I am so very tired of theodicies (while I have not experienced it all personally, we’ve been having the exact same derpy argument for 2000+ years) and I feel that they distract from things that matter more. I do, however, have to take issue with your statement that “Christianity is not an explanation for why things are. ” Christianity is not just an encounter, it is a religion, and it is the business of religions to give you whys and hows and explain why a seemingly meaningless universe is in fact a meaningful one, however random it may also still be. Through that encounter with Christ, Christianity (to me anyway) explains that certain things matter (love, people) and certain things do not (worldly power), and that down down down at the bedrock of all, it is a transcendent sort of Love.

    So, I think you’ve got it half right – or maybe three quarters depending on how you count. Christianity starts with an encounter, yes. It primarily about that encounter, yes. But if the world is the thing we observe, Christianity goes from encounter to lens from which we make sense of the world, much as a schoolteacher gives us the lens with which we understand that which is outside of the classroom. So I am more interesting in theodicy in reverse – not to use it as proof or defense, but as a tool with which I can understand God. Maybe this is my own deficiency, but I certainly end up using logic and argument to learn about the mere mortals with which I have a relationship

    • When I reread the post, the sentence “Christianity is not an explanation for why things are” made me twitch a little bit. Yes, you’re right, it is a religion and it does provide Big Answers to Big Questions. But that is not what it is *fundamentally* about (at least in its own self-understanding), and more importantly it should not be confused with a philosophical system. Paul didn’t have Aquinas’ Five Ways, but he knew Jesus Christ was risen from the dead, and that was enough for him–in every sense of that word.

  • Mike

    “The Jesus of the Gospel is utterly uninterested in giving explanations of why people suffer. He’s just interested in healing people’s sufferings. The entire logic of the Gospel is not about explaining evil, but crushing it and saving us from it.”

    Brilliant! Short, sweet, brilliant.

  • mochalite

    Well, you’ve nailed it again! I love this line “… check metaphysical boxes so that your bourgeois life can keep humming on its merry way, such that when suffering and evil happens it’s God who’s somehow to blame because he didn’t fulfill His end of the bargain.”

    Guilty, too often, until God reminds me that the question isn’t “why me?” It’s “why not me?” Suffering, evil, decay, death, weeds are the reality in a world still under the sway of the “prince of the power of the air.”

    And Jesus: there’s that nearly humorous scene in John 9 where the rabbis, confronted with a blind man, only want to know whose sin caused the blindness. You can almost hear Jesus sigh. We just don’t get it. God heal our blindness and kick our butts till we get to work in the world!

    I do disagree with one word: born should be borne. Now, will you write posts on the rest of the Solas? On the five points of TULIP?

    • I wrote something titled #TrollaScriptura but it’s probably bad for my karma to post it.

      And “you’ve nailed it”–I hope that’s not a pun.

      • mochalite

        Oh come on, your karma can stand it! And that wasn’t intentional, but it is pretty punny, now that you mention it.

  • Kasoy

    If the world is so perfect that there is no suffering and death, everyone is so happy and contented, will man think of thanking a God who created them? Will he even ponder on the concept of God the Creator? Will man need to share anything to his fellowman who is so perfectly happy as he is? What can one give to one who is perfectly happy already?

    Perhaps suffering is intended to make us realize that we need others and others need us. Suffering urges us to search for a God (ponder on the concept of God) who can ultimately deliver us from the evil of suffering.

    Suffering makes us realize our need for one another and for God.

    Acts 17: 26-28 He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For In him we live and move and have our being…

    • Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? Suffering, in any case, and sin, and death, have been destroyed in Christ Jesus. *This* I know.

  • ahermit

    “It seems to me that we shouldn’t ask ourselves the question “Why does a good God let suffering and evil happen?””

    Well that may be the most honest theodicy, since all theodicies I’ve encountered just seem like desperate attempts to avoid that question amyway…

  • rogerwmbennett

    “I should like balls infinitely better,” she replied, “if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”
    “Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”

    (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
    Charity may be far better spiritually, but it is not a better way of talking about theodicy than is — talking about theodicy.

    • Talking about theodicy sounds a lot more like a discussion party than the inebriating ball of faith in Jesus Christ.

  • Julie


  • Robert Landbeck

    “But the problem is that to even try to answer the question of theodicy” could leave one, like myself, to conclude that religious understanding of the Incarnation is incomplete or even in error. so it’s best not to think about it!

  • Gail Finke

    I came here via a link and I’m very glad I did. YES! when I came back to the Church, I was mystified why people would lose their faith over terrible things happening. It was quite obvious to me that bad things happened all the time, everywhere, and to everyone. Why did they think God would save them from that? It was the human condition. Faith didn’t save you from that, I thought — it helped you through that. This piece reminded me of those long-ago days and discussions. It’s all well to and good to figure out theological reasons for evil existing, but have them or not, it does. I am older now, and I understand other people a lot more than I did then — including how terrible “bad things” can really be, and how much they can devastate people’s lives. The presence of God in the midst of these things, whatever reason they happen, is what’s important.

  • john smith

    It’s just such a childish question, and I mean ‘childish’ in the rare negative sense here: “Why would a loving God allow evil and suffering?”

    I am quite attached to my capability for doing evil. I can make other people suffer, and have done it often. Why would a loving God NOT allow me the option of committing evil acts and inflicting suffering on my fellow humans?

    Evil exists because people choose to commit evil acts. Blame God if you must, but be sure to kill yourself afterward, because you have an insoluble problem with life and what it means to be a living creature with choices, and that problem will remain even if you dismiss and ignore any ideas about God or religion.

    The only suffering that occurs not due to human agency seems to result from natural disasters and (possibly) disease. But these tragic aspects of our natural world provide a strong motivation for the study of science, and so it seems that they actually provide a net benefit to humanity from a utilitarian perspective.

    After all, natural disasters and disease don’t seem to have prevented the human species from vastly increasing our numbers while arguably improving our quality of life. Perhaps this precise “punishment-and-reward” dynamic is even playing a role in some teleological scheme that we cannot yet fully discern. For example, establishing human existence in another place outside our current solar system before it no longer exists.

  • Darren

    “for myself, I’m completely convinced by “free will” theodicy and I can write more about that if you want”

    Please do, especially the part about how Free Will in The Best of All Possible Worlds requires Plasmodium.

  • Gordon –

    Where can I find a good article on “Free Will” Theodicy?