This is a position paper I wrote on the topic in seminary, 12 years ago.
Nov 4, 2002
Theodicy: The Theology of Suffering
If God is all-powerful and completely good, why does suffering exist? That deceptively simple sounding question has been on the minds of theologians, topic of the arguments of students, and an obstacle for people struggling with faith, for thousands of years. Most philosophers have undertaken the challenge of explaining the answers to this question as they wrestled with logic for understanding of the truth of the world surrounding them. So universal is this question that its very existence has brought about an entire field of study, known as theodicy.
The term theodicy comes from the Greek words Theos, meaning God, and dike’, meaning justice. According to Davis and Cobb in their treatise on the subject, the word theodicy has traditionally been used in Christian theology referring to an argument that seeks to justify the righteousness and justice of God despite the presence of evil and suffering in the world. The arguments mainly dealt with in theodicy revolve around the possibility of one or more statements in the basic question being at odds with each other. Is it possible for an omnipotent and wholly good God to allow suffering, and hence evil, to exist?
In order to pursue this logically, the question can be broken down into a set of statements, which then can be compared for veracity. This approach has been used by many theologians for tackling theodicy and seems to frame the problem in a clear fashion, so I will follow in their footsteps and begin with that model also. Here we have the basic premises that make up the problem:
1) God is omnipotent
2) God is wholly good
3) Suffering exists
The problem presented to theologians is that these three statements seem to contradict each other. One might say, if God is truly omnipotent then He must have the power to prevent suffering. If He is wholly good then He must have the will to prevent suffering. However, suffering and evil plainly exist in this world, therefore God either must not be able to stop evil or He must not want to. This would seem to prove that He is not really omnipotent, not wholly good, or neither. David Hume says of this, “If God is willing but not able then God is impotent. If God is able but not willing then God is corrupt. If God is able and willing: Why is there evil?” Hume’s question is the one that makes this so important for the Christian to answer, because it attacks attributes of God which would make us want to have a relationship with Him, His goodness and His sovereign power!
Many would use this argument to prove that God does not exist, because the nature of the question would seem to disprove Him to be who the bible says He is. They propose that the existence of evil would prove that God cannot exist, at least not within the defined context of being wholly good and omnipotent. The argument claiming the statements are contradictory is based on the premise that there are implicit demands required by the states of omnipotence and goodness. Certainly if God is all-powerful then it is implicitly suggested that He has the ability to prevent suffering, and if God is divinely good then He would not want suffering to exist and He should prevent it if He is able to. That suffering still exists would seem to lead to a set of logical conclusions: if He is not able to prevent suffering, then He is not omnipotent and therefore by definition not God, and God does not exist. If He does not want to prevent suffering, then He cannot be wholly good and therefore by definition not God, and God does not exist.
However, those who would refute the existence of God using this logic also defeat their own argument by the same logic. We encounter the problem of moral relativism and the existence of evil. Can evil exist without the existence of God? Without the existence of a wholly good and just God to define ethics, there are no moral absolutes. If there are no moral absolutes, then nothing can be weighed good or evil, since there is no scale to measure by. Everything is open to subjective review, and therefore one thing is as good as another, since no opinion is absolutely right or wrong. Therefore, since everything is subjectively relative, evil cannot be proven to even exist. What one person may consider suffering may not be by another. An example can be seen on the typical elementary school playground: a bully derives pleasure from exerting force over others, but the others subjected to him derive displeasure from the experience. Is there suffering? Which is more important - the pleasure of the bully or the pain of his victims? With moral relativism, one cannot measure there to be any suffering because the experience is relative to each person involved; in other words, suffering (and ultimately evil) cannot be proven to exist, using that line of logic.
Aside from the moral relativism being self-defeating, this argument is based in the incorrect assumption that the only condition in which God could exist is where He would not want evil to exist. However, if we introduce the concept of free will to the equation, we find that evil is a necessary, well, evil. Commonly known as the free will defense, this approach to answering why suffering exists has been presented by many church fathers and theologians. A simplified presentation of this theodicy is as follows: Evil is seen as a contradiction to the nature of God, since God is wholly good and all-powerful and thus should want to and be able to get rid of all evil. This is a restatement of the classic problem with the existence of suffering. However, we throw into the equation the fact that man has been given free will to make his own moral choices. Most would agree that the ability to make free choices is a good thing. The freedom to make moral choices must include the freedom to choose between good and evil; if one cannot choose one or the other, then that choice is limited and not free. In order for the choice to be truly free, evil has to be an option or there is no genuine moral freedom. So if moral freedom is good, and moral freedom requires that a person be able to choose evil, then in fact the existence of good necessitates the existence of evil.
“Moral freedom requires that we can freely choose either good or evil; therefore, the possibility of choosing evil is a good thing, because moral freedom is a good thing. The fact that evil is possible is a good thing. Do you see that? Evil isn't good; but the fact that it's possible is a good thing because it means that you have genuine moral freedom.” - Gregory Koukl
So not only is evil required in order for there to be good, it is ultimately good that evil exists. According to J. B. Phillip, evil is a necessary part of free will:
"Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will. God could have made us machines but to do so would have robbed us of our precious freedom of choice, and we would have ceased to be human. Exercise of free choice in the direction of evil in what we call the "fall" of man, is the basic reason for evil and suffering in the world. It is man's responsibility, not God's. He could stop it, but in so doing would destroy us all. It is worth noting that the whole point of real Christianity lies not in interference with the human power to choose, but in producing a willing consent to choose good rather than evil."
Without the willing consent to choose good over evil, good loses meaning and so does free will. God gives people the ability to make their own moral choices, and man chooses to do evil right from the start in the Garden of Eden. The consequences of that choice are the negative results of suffering and evil present in the world. However, free will is necessary because without it, unconditional love cannot exist. God wants us to love Him and have relationship with Him, but if we do not have the ability to freely choose to do so, then that love is not truly mutual but coerced. God wanted us to be able to choose on our own to love Him. The ability to make that choice requires free will, which in turn requires the existence of evil. Therefore, the existence of love, which is a very good thing, requires the existence of evil, showing once again how the existence of evil is ultimately a good thing.
I have what I call The Minority Report example of why God’s omniscience and omnipotence have nothing to do with the existence of evil. In the movie “Minority Report” there is a scene where two men are arguing over whether the ability to change future events is truly possible. To demonstrate that certain things are inevitable even if they are preventable, one man rolls a ball down a table, and the other guy catches it before it falls off. “Why did you catch the ball?” “Because it was going to fall off the table.” “But it didn’t.” “That’s because I caught it and prevented it from happening.” “Because you prevented it from happening does not change the fact that it was going to happen.”
God does not need to shed his omnipotence and omniscience in order to give humans free will. Yes, he knows the outcome of human events, just as the character in the movie knew the outcome of rolling the ball down the table. Because he chooses not to prevent an event from happening does not mean He is unable to prevent it from happening. Allowing the existence of suffering has no bearing on the fact that God is still omnipotent. Allowing men to have free will has no bearing on the fact that God is still omniscient.
Kenneth Cauthen, in his discussion of theodicy, said that questioning divine goodness makes faith difficult since a morally ambiguous God is not totally trustworthy. He felt that questioning omnipotence threatened to undermine hope since a God limited in power would not be able to overcome all evil and guarantee a final victory of justice and goodness. He was on track with his view on how vital the question “is God limited by giving men free will?” is to establishing the foundations of faith. Unfortunately, he later took a heretical perspective on God’s nature as being limited and went on to explain his theodicy in context of his new-age influenced theological views. He saw God as a creative cosmic force, in which God was not a person but a combination of ideals, and certainly not omnipotent. This sad, limited and completely unbiblical perspective is an example of how people have wrestled with the question and come up with an answer that seems wise from a worldly point of view, but sells short the glory and power and goodness of God.
In contrast to that unfortunate viewpoint, a Christian perspective is offered by Louis Goldberg. He engages the issue of whether the free will of man necessitates limitation on God’s power:
“The concept of a finite God is clearly unbiblical. One of His basic attributes is that He is omnipotent. Because He chooses not to act in this world at times to control evil is no sign that He is finite and limited. In order to permit man to be free, God has, in a temporary sense, limited Himself. It is only because of His grace that He does not choose to act in judgment on every evil perpetrated by man. But God is never inherently limited; His limitation is self-imposed... At any time, however, God can enter into the stream of human relationships and, through a number of means, judge men and nations, thereby restraining evil. God can also arrange circumstances so that a man will eventually come to faith, even before the person is aware of it. God is free to act, yet He is also free to limit Himself to let man make his moral choices.”
A common criticism of theodicy is that often times, the response boils down to a point where the answer often is written off as a mystery. How God can be infinitely powerful and yet allow man to have free will is something that is often written off to being such a mystery, but Goldberg explains it quite simply here. He is not finite, but chooses to limit Himself in order to allow man to have free choice. Self-imposed limitation is not a limit on his omnipotence as an attribute. Free choice of men necessitates the existence of evil. Therefore, God can be omnipotent without the existence of evil being in logical conflict.
The free will defense has one major flaw, and it’s not a logical one but instead a practical one. When a person is in the midst of suffering and wants to know why he is suffering, he does not want to hear an apologetic explaining how God gave men free will and that necessitates the presence of evil. While this explanation is certainly true, it does not help minister to the suffering person, so from a pastoral care perspective it is necessary to look at other possible answers to how suffering fits into the Christian worldview. The question “why does God allow suffering?” is one that keeps people from having faith in God, and that obstacle to faith is far more important to deal with than a philosophical logic debate for the sake of academia.
There are a number of practical reasons for the allowing of suffering, especially useful for ministering to Christians in turmoil. Mark Copeland offers this insight, that suffering keeps this world from being too attractive. Christians are prone to forget that this earth is only a temporary home, and that our true place is elsewhere. In the midst of “doing life”, we tend to fall in love with our material possessions, our earthly treasures. We get comfortable with our lives here. God uses suffering to redirect our focus toward the real prize, which is an everlasting home He has prepared for us with Him. Copeland says that if the world had no suffering, no one would ever want to leave this temporary home nor would they prepare themselves for their permanent one.
Suffering also offers the opportunity for us to develop character, and to “bring out our best.” We see this in our church body around us... when someone is in need, it is an opportunity for us to reach out and comfort them. It feels good to help someone who is hurting physically, emotionally, or even financially. It brings us closer as Christians, and in the case of a regional or national catastrophe, it gives us a chance to share God’s love with a suffering world around us. The pastoral care teams that responded at the scenes of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks had tremendous opportunities to comfort and share experiences with the suffering people there. Thousands of families were negatively impacted by the tragic losses there, but those same thousands were positively affected by the loving care of Christian ministers who were there to care for them. Tremendous suffering makes room for tremendous healing and growth.
When we’ve gone through a painful trial, it leaves us with the ability to empathize with others who experience the same thing later on. We know the pain because we’ve been there. We know what to say and what not to, and how to help, because we remember what other people did for us when we were in the midst of it ourselves. Thus each experience of suffering prepares us for ministering later on down the road.
Often suffering can be the result of our own poor choices. God allows us to learn from our mistakes and to come away as better people for having had the experience. Our lowest points in our lives are often seen in retrospect as turning points where God did some of His best work in us, refining our character and molding us into better people. “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)
Another spiritual reality is that we suffer because there is an enemy who hates God and all who belong to God, and he wants to prevent more people from coming to know God. Similar to the free will defense, this may not always be a welcome explanation in times of crisis, but it is still a true one and one worth mentioning. A certain amount of suffering can be attributed to the spiritual warfare between Satan and all those who serve God. One must be wary of the presence of spiritual battles, but at the same time not jump to find a demon behind every bush. Evil itself cannot be attributed to Satan as the source of all malfeasance in the world, according to Goldberg:
“The presence of evil in the universe became apparent when Lucifer and his followers revolted against God. Although the fallen angels were corrupted because of moral evil, Scripture does not indicate any maladjustments in, or curse upon the universe as a result of the rebellion. The description of Lucifer's revolt is in Isaiah 14:12-14 and Ezekiel 28:11-15. At this point, Lucifer became Satan (or the opposer of the purposes of God). The rest of the fallen angels were placed in chains in outer darkness (2 Peter 2:4), awaiting judgment by believers (1 Corinthians 6:3).”
According to the Word, Satan has been given dominion over this world for a time, and his demons and principalities are a real source of suffering in the lives of Christians. Ultimately, we have victory in Christ over this enemy and his minions, but to deny his presence in this world is to ignore a very real source of suffering.
God allows suffering because it makes us appreciate how blessed we are! Everyone is guilty at some point or another of taking things for granted. In the USA, we take almost everything for granted because we have grown so accustomed to it. From what we think are “basics” such as running water, flushing toilets, electricity, cars, houses, clothes, to our truly extravagant possessions like DVD players, cell phones, personal computers, and yes - fast food restaurants, we are incredibly rich as a nation, and incredibly spoiled. Why does God allow suffering? Why not start with a better question - what did I do to deserve being born in the richest nation in the world, being so blessed? Anyone who thinks they actually deserve such opulent blessing needs to visit an orphanage in Tijuana for a few hours, and then they can explain to me why those kids there don’t deserve what they have. I’d really like to hear their answer. My answer is the example Christ gives us of the servants entrusted with the talents. We haven’t done anything to deserve being entrusted with such riches, but God has given us stewardship of them for a time to see how we take care of them and invest them. We take it completely for granted. I know I do, all too often. God brings suffering into our lives to reintroduce us to the fact that we are spoiled and to give us the chance to take an honest inventory of our blessings. Not only materially... we can take physical health, our education, our family and friends, even our church for granted. Suffering cuts us to the quick and reminds us of our character, and it gives us a wake up call to readjust our priorities.
Where should our priorities be? Certainly not relying on our own strength, on our own accomplishments, or on our own material possessions, lest we be reminded forcibly of the example of Job. He lost all these things yet had the wisdom to recognize that none of them belonged to him, giving credit to God for all good things in his life. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21) We are only stewards of what God places in our lives; we get emotionally attached to things that don’t really belong to us, and then we’re hurt when we lose those things. God wants us to depend on him rather than on ourselves, and suffering always makes us do so! We always turn to Him in prayer more often when we’re suffering, pleading for His help; when things are going as we think they should, we’re not as diligent about our prayer lives.
It is helpful for a person in suffering to know that God has suffered. God has known pain, in every significant aspect of ways people experience pain. “Only a suffering God can help.” Those words, written by theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer in World War II while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, speak to the ability of God to empathize with our pain. We can find examples throughout the history of the Israelites of God being grieved in spirit and suffering on account of His people turning away or making bad decisions, but there is also the wonderful example we have of Jesus Christ experiencing our exact trials as a man. In Mark 14:34 we see that Jesus experienced emotional suffering; in Matthew 17:12 he experienced physical suffering; in John 11:14 he experienced the pain of losing a loved one to death. God became human in Jesus Christ, and in doing so he experienced pain in all the same manners as we do. No one forced God to do this, He willingly took on human form and subjected Himself to the rules He set in motion, including pain and suffering. He wanted us to know that He understands us and can comfort us because He knows our trials from firsthand experience. In suffering there is hope, and the eternal hope we have in Christ Jesus is beyond comparison to any temporary suffering we experience in this world.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble, or hardship, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword? As it is written, “For Your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, neither things present nor things to come, nor powers, neither height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)
Mystery of Suffering, Downers Grove, III: InterVarsity Press, 1959 in J. S. Mill, Nature and Utility of Religion: Two Essays, ed. George Nakhnikian, Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs, 1958, p. 38, by Hugh Evan Hopkins.
The Problem of Pain, Chapter VI, New York: Macmillan, 1978, by C. S. Lewis.
Where Is God When It Hurts?, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977, by Philip Yancy.
Mere Christianity, Book I, Chapter 1, A Touchstone Book, Macmillan Inc., 1996 Edition, by C.S. Lewis.
Apologetics, Lesson 17, Moody Bible Institute, 1990, by Louis Goldberg.
Sixty Second Theodicy, Stand To Reason, radio broadcast, 3/15/1996, Gregory Koukl.
Encountering Evil, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1 July, 1981, edited by Stephen T. Davis and John B. Cobb.
The Executable Outlines Series, Wheaton College Press, 1999, by Mark A. Copeland,
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative, Mercer University Press, 1991, by Kenneth Cauthen