Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 100: The Theodicy Problem: God and Evil
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 100: The Theodicy Problem: God and Evil

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

Part 17 (Job) raised the theodicy problem, which has challenged theologians since the time of the ancient Hebrews. At most, only two of the following premises can be true:

God is righteous.

God is all-powerful.

There is injustice.

In other words, if there is injustice in the world, then God cannot be both righteous and all-powerful. Let us briefly consider how theologians have resolved this dilemma.

One approach has been to deny that the world is unjust. Even though there is suffering, this is nonetheless the best of all possible worlds. It is impossible to prove or disprove this theory, but I don’t think it is reasonable. There is so much suffering in the world, so much of it seemingly meaningless, that it is hard to believe that a righteous, all-powerful God could not have done better. Is it really necessary that children should die? Must so many older people suffer chronic pain? Does the widespread pain, hunger, and early death of animals in nature really serve a greater good?

A related approach to the problem is to posit that we often regard suffering and death as unnecessary and undesirable only because we have such a limited view.

However, if we had God’s much broader view of time and space, we would recognize that it is good. While such a view is plausible, I do not find it compelling. The degree of suffering for which there is no discernible benefit raises doubts in my mind. Also, this theory suggests that God’s notion of good is very different from our own, which raises another problem: How should we behave? If God’s views differ so much from our own, how do we direct our lives? If we are relatively clueless as to what constitutes “the good,” how do we discern what to do? The ancient Hebrews had the Law, but Jesus fulfilled the law and, most Christians agree, Christians are not bound by the Hebraic Law. Many Christians seem certain that they know God’s wishes for nearly every facet of life, including sexual conduct, gender relationships, and human domination and exploitation of animals and nature. However, their views often seem grounded on selective and dubious interpretations of Scripture that, to my reading, often involve taking specific verses out of context. I think it is more reasonable to live according to the principles of love, compassion, and mercy that Jesus illustrated through his actions and teachings. This approach can work, as long as what we regard as love, compassion, and mercy resembles God’s notion of these principles. If we only have a vague and often mistaken notion of what God regards as good, then we are ill-equipped to make good moral decisions.

Some have maintained that God is not necessarily righteous. There is no reason, they assert, to assume that God had benevolent reasons for creating the universe. Maybe the creator God derives pleasure from watching us struggle and suffer. Again, this is theoretically possible but, Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, has asserted that he would not praise such a God. One might perform rituals to appease such a malevolent deity, but one would not love and respect such a God.

Rather than arguing that God is totally in charge of this often tragic world, Kushner has held that God is not all-powerful. For example, when a place crashes, God is unable to save the kind and decent people who perish along with hateful people. Some people have pointed out that, if God directly intervened in human affairs and violated the physical laws of nature, this would deprive humans of free will. Our praising God, and our receiving God’s calling, are meaningful only insofar as we have free will. However, if God permitted such massive suffering in the world primarily in order to receive meaningful praise from humans, I would question God’s righteousness. I also find unsatisfactory the position that human free will makes this “best of all possible worlds.” While human free will may be necessary for human existence to be meaningful, this strikes me as an insufficient reason to justify the massive suffering of fellow humans and animals at human hands. Furthermore, countless humans and animals suffer for reasons that have little, if anything, to do with human free will, including natural disasters and the commonplace suffering of animals in nature.

I think that, if God were to intervene in any human affairs, it would raise doubts about God’s righteousness. Let us say that God miraculously saved a child who had climbed out a 10th story window and fallen onto the sidewalk. The reason this would be a miracle is that people don’t survive such falls. In other words, it is only because God does not save all the other people (including good people) who fall 10 stories that we would recognize this intervention as miraculous. Here’s another example. After an airplane crash, the TV news often features a stunned airline passenger who missed the plane. That person often concludes that God has a special plan for him or her. However, nearly every flight has at least one person who changed plans or missed the flight, and that is the survivor who ends up before the television camera if the plane crashes. If God had really spared that person for a reason, then one must also conclude that God chose to allow the rest of the passengers to die for God’s reasons. Since many of those people were probably good, caring people who played important and valuable roles in others’ lives, God’s allowing them to die would raise real doubts about God’s righteousness.

I don’t know why God created the universe. By faith, I believe that God cares about it. The alternative to this faith, I think, is nihilism and despair. Perhaps, God created a universe full of possibility that, once created, was beyond God’s power to change. However, we do have the capacity to choose, and our faith suggests that God has the power to help guide us. Next week, we will explore the passage “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Addendum: Concerning the Theodicy Problem, in which I suggested that evil exists because God is unable to stop suffering and death:

This theology helps resolve a paradox associated with God seeming to “will” the tragic plights of the Suffering Servant and Jesus. According to a Girardian reading of the Bible, God had desired to end scapegoating violence, but it would have made no sense to do this via scapegoating. In other words, if it were wrong to sacrifice one innocent individual for the benefit of the mob (which was innocent to the degree that they “know not what they do”), then it would be wrong to sacrifice the innocent Suffering Servant or Jesus to prevent future innocent victims of scapegoating. However, I think the biblical accounts show that God willed that the Suffering Servant and Jesus would become victims of mob violence and, by their obvious innocence, expose the scandal of “sacred” violence, but God did not force this to happen. Their sacrifices were self-sacrifices, not divine injunctions.

Go on to: Part 101: “For God So Loved the World”
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