Theodicy is a theological concept that seeks to vindicate God in the face of the evidentiary issue of evil. The term theodicy is derived from the Greek terms “theos” and “dik,” which mean “trial” or “judgment.”
In the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Nick Trakakis proposed an additional three requirements which must be contained within a theodicy:
- Common sense views of the world
- Widely held historical and scientific opinion
- Plausible moral principles.
As a response to the problem of evil, a theodicy is distinct from a defence. The defence attempts to demonstrate that the occurrence of evil does not contradict God’s existence, but it does not propose that rational beings are able to understand why God permits evil. Theodicy seeks to show that it is reasonable to believe in God despite evidence of evil in the world and offers a framework that can account for why evil exists. A theodicy is often based on a prior natural theology, which attempts to prove the existence of God, and seeks to demonstrate that God’s existence remains probable after the problem of evil is posed by giving a justification for God’s permitting evil to happen. Defences propose solutions to the logical problem of evil, while theodicies attempt to answer the evidential (inductive) problem.
“It is important to note that there are at least two concepts of evil: a broad concept and a narrow concept. The broad concept picks out any bad state of affairs… [and] has been divided into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Natural evils are bad states of affairs that do not result from the intentions or negligence of moral agents. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils. By contrast, moral evils do result from the intentions or negligence of moral agents. Murder and lying are examples of moral evils. Evil in the broad sense, which includes all-natural and moral evils, tends to be the sort of evil referenced in theological contexts… The narrow concept of evil picks out only the most morally despicable… [it] involves moral condemnation, and is appropriately ascribed only to moral agents and their actions.
Philosopher Susan Neiman says “a crime against humanity is something for which we have procedures, … [and it] can be … fit into the rest of our experience. To call an action evil is to suggest that it cannot [be fitted in]…”
Marxism, “selectively elaborating Hegel,” defines evil in terms of its effect. Philosopher John Kekes says the effect of evil must include actual harm “that ‘interferes with the functioning of a person as a full-fledged agent.’ (Kekes 1998, 217).” Christian philosophers and theologians such as Richard Swinburne and N. T. Wright also define evil in terms of effect saying an “…act is objectively good (or bad) if it is good (or bad) in its consequences”.Hinduism defines evil in terms of its effect saying “the evils that afflict people (and indeed animals) in the present life are the effects of wrongs committed in a previous life”.Some contemporary philosophers argue a focus on the effects of evil is inadequate as a definition since evil can observe without actively causing harm, and it is still evil.
Pseudo-Dionysus defines evil by those aspects that show an absence of good. Writers in this tradition saw things as belonging to ‘forms’ and evil as an absence of being a good example of their form: as a deficit of goodness where goodness ought to have been present. In this same line of thinking, St. Augustine also defined evil as an absence of good, as did theologian and monk Thomas Aquinas who said: “… a man is called bad insofar as he lacks a virtue, and an eye is called bad insofar as it lacks the power of sight.” Bad as an absence of good resurfaces in Hegel, Heidegger and Barth. Very similar are the Neoplatonists, such as Plotinus and contemporary philosopher Denis O’Brien, who say evil is a privation.
Immanuel Kant was the first to offer a purely secular theory of evil, giving an evaluative definition of evil based on its cause as having a will that is not fully good. Kant has been an important influence on philosophers like Hanna Arendt, Claudia Card, and Richard Bernstein. “…Hanna Arendt… uses the term [radical evil] to denote a new form of wrongdoing which cannot be captured by other moral concepts.” Claudia Card says evil is excessive wrongdoing; others like Hillel Steiner say evil is qualitatively not quantitatively distinct from mere wrongdoing.
Locke, Hobbes and Leibniz define good and evil in terms of pleasure and pain. Others such as Richard Swinburne find that definition inadequate, saying, “the good of individual humans…consists…in their having free will…the ability to develop …character…, to show courage and loyalty, to love, to be of use, to contemplate the beauty and discover the truth… All that [good]…cannot be achieved without … suffering along the way.”
Most theorists writing about evil believe that evil action requires a certain sort of motivation… the desire to cause harm, or to do wrong,…pleasure (Steiner 2002), the desire to annihilate all being (Eagleton 2010), or the destruction of others for its own sake (Cole 2006). When evil is restricted to actions that follow from these sorts of motivations, theorists sometimes say that their subject is pure, radical, diabolical, or monstrous evil. This suggests that their discussion is restricted to a type, or form, of evil and not to evil per se.
Some theorists define evil by what emotions are connected to it. “For example, Laurence Thomas believes that evildoers take delight in causing harm or feel hatred toward their victims (Thomas 1993, 76–77).” Buddhism defines various types of evil, one type defines it as behaviour resulting from a failure to emotionally detach from the world.
Christian theologians generally define evil in terms of both human responsibility and the nature of God: “If we take the essentialist view of Christian ethics… evil is anything contrary to God’s good nature…(character or attributes).” The Judaic view, while acknowledging the difference between the human and divine perspective of evil, is rooted in the nature of creation itself and the limitation inherent in matter’s capacity to be perfected; the action of free will includes the potential for perfection from individual effort and leaves the responsibility for evil in human hands.
“[It is] deeply central to the whole tradition of Christian (and other western) religion that God is loving toward his creation and that involves him behaving in morally good ways toward it. Within Christianity “God is supposed to be in some way personal… a being who is essentially eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, Creator and sustainer of the universe, and perfectly good. An omnipotent being is one who can do anything logically possible… such a being could not make me exist and not exist at the same time but he could eliminate the stars… An omniscient being is one who knows everything logically possible for him to know… he will not necessarily know everything that will happen [i.e. humans with free will] unless it is predetermined that it will happen. God’s perfect goodness is moral goodness. “Western religion has always held that there is a deep problem about why there is pain and suffering—which there would not be if God were not supposed to be morally good… a personal being who was not morally good would not be the great being God is supposed to be… [Since theodicy is concerned with] the existence (or not) of the sort of God with which Western religion is concerned, this understanding of the definition of God must stand.
IN this Thesis, we will use multiple perspectives to compare theodicy in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. One key goal is to evaluate whether Christianity has a unique theology of suffering that responds more adequately to the human condition. I will also look at what processes occur moving through time from more classical/historical theological positions toward modern/popular and individual views of theodicy. Theodicy is an issue with which all religions wrestle. They do so typically by trying to reconcile the presence of evil and suffering with God‘s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. It is probably no accident that evil and suffering has been and remains one of man‘s great questions. Genesis launches the history of mankind with God stipulating that only one thing was forbidden to man in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.I shall also deal at length with the issue of how each of the religions views the sacred texts of the others. The comparison will focus first on the theodicy of three theologians from a similar time/context of the 12th and 13th centuries. These theologians include Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, and Al Ghazali. This will form our comparative view of classical theological positions. I will then compare three modern popular positions in the writings of Randy Alcorn, Benjamin Blech, and Mohammad Al-Sha’rawi. One final aspect of the thesis research will focus on comparing the classical and popular positions of the three faiths with the individual/personal expressions of those positions in the responses of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to the issue of suffering and evil in the world. One of the greatest challenges the church faces is increasing contact with other religions through globalization. This is especially the case in connection with Islam where the church is largely unprepared to deal with the challenge because of a lack of understanding of Islam. Muslims, however, are generally quite well prepared to give an apologetic rebuttal to the claims of Christianity. In a reformed circle, there is a great need to develop systems for comparing religions that honour our reformed traditions, and at the same time fairly compare and contrast our positions with other religions. The church needs this as it comes into greater contact with Islam and other religions so that the church has an apologetic that can adequately defend and advance our faith without compromise comparison will focus first on three theologians from the similar time/context of the 12th and 13th centuries and their reflections on theodicy coming out of a synthesis of a number of earlier sources. These theologians include Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, and Al Ghazali. I will use several primary texts from each. This will form our comparative For Aquinas, we will primarily use his largest work, Summa Theologiae. As the title indicates, the Summa was to be a “summing up” of all Christian theology. We also use his smaller theological work Suma Contra Gentiles. We will also refer to De rationibus fidei contra Saracenos, Graecos et Armenos ad Cantorem. This is a more personal communication written to the churchman in Antioch during the fall of the Crusader rule in the Middle East. For Al-Ghazali, we will refer mostly to Deliverance from Error, his autobiography that also spells out a great deal of his final matured theology. We will also use a Letter to a Disciple. This is a personal communication where Al-Ghazali is explaining the view of classical/historical positions among the three Abrahamic faiths. I will then compare three modern/popular positions in the writings of Randy Alcorn, Benjamin Blech, and Mohammad Al-Sha’rawi. For Maimonides, we will use Guide for the Perplexed. The guide for the perplexed is his seminal work expounding how the Law and philosophy connect and was written to one of his students to remind him of Maimonides‘ overall teaching. We will also refer to the Letter to Yemen. This was written to a Jewish community in Yemen undergoing considerable stress from outside pressure to convert to Islam and from internal issues raised by a false messianic claimant. Knowing that In any religion, there are the espoused formal or normative positions on various topics and there are the fuzzy boundaries of belief and practice held by groups and individuals within the overall tradition. One final aspect of the research will focus on comparing the classical and popular positions of the three faiths with the individual/personal expressions of those positions in the responses of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to the issue of suffering and evil in the world.
There are several methods for developing comparative studies of religions. These have developed mostly in liberal circles. A basic definition for all of them is the examination, in a unified work, of sources from at least two distinct religious traditions addressing an aspect of religion common to the comparands.
Freidenreich categorized comparative methods into four broad types comparative focus on similarity‘, comparative focus on difference‘, comparative focus on genus-species relationship‘, and the use of comparison to refocus‘. I will take some time to outline and critique the various methods before explaining the methodology that I have decided to use. Comparative studies focusing on similarities can take the form of merely listing similarities between religions or they can go on further to assert some connection of identity, or historical, or conceptual development. These sorts of comparisons often downplay the nuanced differences in similar aspects of different religions. It is also hard to demonstrate that there are conceptual or historical connections between similarities and comparisons tend to rely on simply stating the possibility of such connections using the similarities themselves as a demonstration that there are connections. It is true that religions develop in relation to one another but finding the exact connection between them is often a matter of conjecture. Comparative studies that focus on differences can also take the form of presentations of differences without comment or analysis. This form is often used in efforts to promote interfaith dialogue where the goal is, recognizing that bridges of mutual understanding‘ must be built over a chasm of mutual unintelligibility. Any comparison of this type without some sort of analysis does little to advance understanding. Analysis of differences can also be done against the background of some third element that is similar across religions. Karen Armstrong in The Battle for God follows this form. She uses the concept of fundamentalism as a background for comparison of a variety of religions, including Islam and Christianity. Historical context or root conceptual connections can also serve as a background element. Again, as with comparisons of similarity, it is hard to demonstrate the connections between the differences observed in relation to background elements and a great deal of conjecture comes into play.
Some comparative works explore the relationship of general aspects of religion with similar yet distinct manifestations. This type of comparison is analogous to scientific taxonomy where individual species are placed in larger units such as genus, family, and class. The examination of the individual species is intended to shed light on an entire class of phenomena, including species that are not examined in these works. These studies typically take a bottom-up approach and lump all religions together into a single genus where there are corresponding similarities. Some typical genus divisions are forth practical/ethnic religions . . . along with the orthodox and missionary religions‘. One problem is that there tends to be artificiality in a grouping of species under a certain genus or family simply because of outward similarities. This sort of connection has often proven false in the biological realm as deeper analysis of the grouping of species often reveals surprising connections that outward characteristics belied. This comparative method also relies on a good deal of conjecture about connections and groupings.
There is a fourth methodology, comparison to refocus, which seems better structured to deal with some of the general criticisms of other methods of comparative religion. This method takes another approach to the comparison of religion, one in which the scholarly action‘ takes place outside of the inter-religious space of comparison and is embedded firmly in one religious tradition or another. The comparative study acts as a lens to examine the observer‘s own tradition. The comparison provides a new perspective on the tradition being examined, to raise new questions or offer new possible ways of understanding the target tradition. As a result, scholars can enter into what is termed an imaginative process specifically looking at their own religion using the lens of comparison with other religions. This ―enables the scholar to comprehend what would otherwise be incomprehensible . . . . As in the other methods there can be a degree of conjecture that takes place in the analysis but because the analysis focuses within one tradition the emphasis is weighted toward developing self-reflective questions and is subsequently less prone to conjecture about possible connections.
The assumption underlying most of the methods is that the researcher will set aside his own biases, step out of his own context, and examine the religions in question from a neutral or tolerant perspective. This perspective is described as the space between the religions. Using this neutrality, the researcher is supposed to discover what is good in other religions and what is common between different religions. This idea of objectively examining something as deeply rooted as religion does not seem realistically achievable. Adopting even the required neutral stance would skew the perspective of the observer when encountering the intolerant and non-neutral aspects of religions.
Comparative religious studies have also drawn sharp criticism from postmodernist circles for their association with the colonial enterprises of Western scholarship. Postmodern critics have asserted that the comparison of religion is inherently flawed because of its emphasis on similarity and minimization of differences between religious traditions, as well as its failure to consider religious phenomena in their original contexts. Another issue that one must deal with in all forms of comparison is how much context to take into account. In general, the more context one considers the less similar the compounds become. The history and interactions both within and between religious communities play a critical role in the actual meaning given to what might appear from a distance as a common religious component. Many elements of context impinge on these common components and often result in very different interpretations across religions. For instance, in the context of the Islamic community, there is a principle of abrogation or Naskh that has become an established part of their hermeneutics. Naskh is the principle by which certain [later] verses of the Koran abrogate (or modify) others [earlier], which are then called mansūkh (revoked‘). A comparison between Islam and another religion using verses supporting the comparison only in earlier portions of the Koran, without presenting them in the light of later verses that modify their meaning, would ignore an important aspect of context and lead to erroneous comparisons.
An additional issue in comparative religion analysis from the standpoint of broader academic circles is that protestant/evangelical comparisons have a tendency to focus on differences with a goal to prove the superiority of the protestant/evangelical position. As evangelicals, we do believe our truth to be divine in origin; however, there can be a great difference in the tone and approach of comparison depending on whether one takes his stance as a theological positivist or a theological realist. The theological realist believes he holds absolute truth but not that he has mastered it. There is an inherent humility in his approach. The theological positivist feels he holds and has mastered truth and so he can sit in judgment of others. The realist sees himself and his religious community as moving forward in a dynamic hermeneutical spiral with growth in both his understanding and his application of the absolute truth of God‘s unchanging divine revelation. The positivist sees his position as more static and linear.
Regardless of the limitations and which method one decides to use as the overall template for a comparative study one could at least agree with Freidenreich that, the comparison of religion—whether focused on similarity, difference, or both produces data of interest to the scholar.
My research design will combine aspects of the comparison to refocus method, symphonic theology, and contextual research. The choice of a method embodies a variety of assumptions regarding the nature of knowledge and the methods through which that knowledge can be obtained, as well as a set of root assumptions about the nature of the phenomena to be investigated. I have chosen this combination as those best representing my own assumptions about the nature of religions and truth as well as serving the goals I have for this study.
The comparison to refocus method will provide direction for my study. I will look at things from the Christian perspective, seeking a better understanding of Christianity‘s teachings on the subject of theodicy, and suffering. My goal will be to compare Christianity itself with Islam and Judaism but the focus of my study is actually Christianity with the comparisons to Islam and Judaism serving as the lens to provide different perspectives. This fits well with a presuppositional position. It does not require some sort of contrived impartiality but allows one to operate from the belief over which no other takes precedence… our belief in Him and His Word. Another advantage is that my approach moves away from using conjecture to establish connections or to classify religious phenomena. This method also offers more promise in terms of advances in understanding along the lines of the paradigm shift model of Thomas Kuhn. This type of study would also provide a significant motivation to engage others in the honest dialogue between differing religions. Each participant would enter into the dialogue to gain a better understanding of their own religious position rather than simply seeking similarities and common ground compromise positions. My research design, while cognizant of a number of methods of comparative religion and issues with these methods, rejects the relativistic stance normally taken in the methods. I would also reject the postmodern denial of absolute truth and reliance on a tolerance that embraces all religions because they are merely cultural preferences since no one can know religious truth. I assume that God’s instruction in the Bible, combined with His work to transform us, can be the foundation for a biblically-based critical‘ approach to society. The ultimate focus of my study then is not the space between Christianity and Islam or Judaism, but Christianity itself.
I will use the four-point structure outlined by Poythress in his work on Symphonic Theology,
1. Use of a variety of perspectives to examine a topic or a doctrine.
2. Preemption method of argument (using the other person’s strong point). 3. Dissolution of poorly posed questions and debates that are based ultimately on semantic questions.
4. Enrichment by the reconciliation of opposite emphases.
Two types of comparisons will provide the variety of perspectives from which I will examine theodicy and suffering. Within each religion, I will also be making comparisons between a classical/historical theological position, a modern popular one, and individual positions. Between the religions, I will compare each of the classical/historical positions of three well-known theologians from the 12th and 13th centuries. I will then compare three modern popular authors, one from each religion. I will also compare the individual responses of Jews, Christians from a Jewish background, Christians, Muslims, and Christians from a Muslim background through individual interviews.
I will use Poythress‘ preemptive method of argument by highlighting and using for inter-religious comparison, each religion‘s strongest positions. In terms of dissolution, I will set aside those positions for inter-religious comparison that are similar but simply reworded versions of the same position. For instance, Aquinas, al-Ghazali, and Maimonides were each interacting with and attempting some level of integration with Aristotelian philosophy. In this respect, I expect to find a number of similar positions taken as each one attempt this in reference to the same Greek philosophy.
I will seek to find enrichment of our own Christian perspective by reconciling opposites found especially vertically between the layers of the study within Christianity because:
when multiple perspectives are legitimate, they are intrinsically harmonizable, because there is only one God and one world that God has made. The diversity of languages and diversity of cultures are like perspectives through which people understand God and the world. The differences in language and culture are not merely to be homogenized, as if they were trivial. But neither are they in tension, at least if all the people involved are in contact with the truth. This kind of diversity enriches the body of Christ. What kind of diversity are we talking about? In the body of Christ diversity does not mean a shallow tolerance‘ of all kinds of differences. That is, we do not follow those postmodernists who have given up because they think that no one can know the truth. Rather, because God has blessed us through Christ, and has given us his word and his Spirit, we do know the truth, including the truth about God and about his moral standards. At the same time, we can grow by adding more truths to what we
know and by knowing the truth more deeply. We grow partly through learning from others, as is described in Ephesians 4:11—16:21
I also expect to be able to find some level of reconciliation of opposites not only in the comparisons within Christianity but also in the comparisons of Christianity to Judaism and Islam because of an underlying unity that flows from common grace. As Poythress describes it,
We are to strive through the gospel to bring genuine reconciliation to people groups through cultural unity in diversity and diversity in unity. We replicate in human beings the glory of the unity and diversity in the Godhead. This unity in diversity offers an answer that differs from other common answers abroad today. Our answer differs from forced uniformity, which some people think they can attain through autonomous reason. That hope for uniformity is the answer associated with what has been called modernism. Our answer also differs from the popular recipe of tolerance, which celebrates diversity but gives up on universal truth.
The tone of the comparison will also follow the balance described in Poythress‘ symphonic theology. Love is one of the bonds that create enjoyment of diversity and unifies us in the midst of diversity. If we love, we exercise patience in listening to others and trying to understand them, and then we learn more of the truth that they have grasped. On the other hand, genuine love also implies being willing to protect others from false teaching, which corrupts people’s minds and lives. In this process, the Bible guides us, just as Paul gave inspired guidance to Timothy and expected that he would be able to tell the difference between true and false teaching.
I am also mindful that as a Westerner, I have had to wrestle very little with the issues of suffering and evil compared to many of my brothers and sisters in the majority world. I have a very limited personal perspective on the topic of suffering. Like most Westerners, I have lived a life of safety, comfort, and relative ease that even the wealthiest of Christians in the 12th and 13th centuries could not have imagined. Bringing that perspective into comparison with followers of Christ and fellow human beings across the boundaries of time and culture will help open new perspectives on this topic. Seeing suffering through the eyes of a 12th Century Jewish scholar or a modern Muslim Egyptian scholar or an African Christian pastor will help to begin to see questions on suffering probably not yet acknowledged. In this respect, the comparison, both vertical and horizontal, will allow me to start to see things through another pair of eyes and function as a scholarly lens, not an end unto itself.. The variety of perspectives, both the historical and the individual interviews, will provide a more global perspective to counter the criticism of excessive association with Western scholarship. It also takes seriously the idea that The unity in the body of Christ implies not isolation of various indigenous theologies but cross-cultural appropriation, Europe to Africa, Africa to Asia, Asia to Europe, and so on. Otherwise, we are denying the unity of the one faith (Eph. 4:5).
There are a number of reasons I am making the comparison between Christianity and both Judaism and Islam. One of the reasons is that all three religions come out of a common root in a near Middle Eastern context in that all trace their origins back to Abraham. They all developed historically in interaction, reaction, and conflict with each other. This interaction, reaction, and conflict is part of the historical context important in the development of all three and in many ways, that interaction, reaction and conflict continue through to our present day. In addition, scholarly circles recognize that the three form a unique arena for comparative study. In the area of comparisons, Islam and Judaism together share more similarities than Christianity. They stand closer together than either does to …Christianity… in their conviction that law embodying public policy as much as theology sets forth religious truth. Comparing Christianity to both Judaism and Islam should then put Christianity in more stark contrast and provide a richer field of comparison for a study than comparing only Christianity with one other religion.
The structure of the data collection for my research will use elements from contextual research including A set of levels of analysis . . . a clear description of the processor processes under examination . . . a motor, or theory, or theories to drive the process . . . vertical analysis linked to . . . horizontal analysis. I have identified three levels of analysis. The first is the examination of classical/historical theological positions on theodicy/suffering in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, and al-Ghazali. The second is the examination of three modern popular works including Randy Alcorn‘s If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil. Benjamin Blech‘s If God Is Good, Why Is the World So Bad? and, Mohammad Al-Sha’rawi‘s ―Good and Evil. The third level will be qualitative responses concerning the issues of theodicy/suffering from Christians, Jews, and Muslims as well as Jewish and Muslim-background believers.
My analysis will include both horizontal as well as vertical analyses. I will analyze horizontally by making inter-religious comparisons of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic positions in each level including the classical/historical, the modern/popular, and the individual positions. These horizontal comparisons between the religions are not a dialogue seeking common ground. In comparing Christianity and Islam for instance, I am not seeking a patchwork of partial Qur’anic and Biblical references designed to give an illusion of commonality . . . . My point of reference will not be the space between the three religions. My point of reference and the focus of my comparative analysis will be Christianity, so that I am instead, seeking a dialogue with Islam and Judaism that does not give in to public quiescence but still holds to the recognition of the ‘sacred’ within different‖31 religious communities. I will also analyze each religion vertically comparing their own classical/historical theology with their own modern popular theology and their own individual responses. I will also discuss how these vertical comparisons within each religion compare/connect between the three religions, a sort of horizontal comparison of the vertical comparisons.
There will be two processes under examination. The first is the development of the classical orthodox theological positions of the three religions and the use of these positions in modern popular works. I will describe the combinations of these as the espoused theological position of each religion. The second process examined is the theology in practice as revealed in the interviews with individuals. In their responses, I will be looking for four things: correspondence to the espoused theological positions of their own religion, correspondence to the espoused theological position of another religion, a mixed response combining positions of more than one religion, or an innovative response. In the interview process, I will also expose members of each religious community to the strongest positions of the other religions (without identifying them as such) and see which if any of the positions resonates more with the individual perceived needs. One of the purposes of my conclusion will be to delineate a theory of what drives the processes as found through the comparative study. My theory is that all the religions will present some common positions on the topic of theodicy/suffering. I also assume that there will be some unique positions that find no corresponding similar position between the religions. I believe that there will be gaps between the different levels in each religion, especially between the individual responses and the classical/modern theological positions. I assume that individuals will choose positions not necessarily based on their own religious community traditions but rather positions that correspond to some deeper more universal element in the individual. In other words, I will seek to verify my theory that positions on suffering correspond to some deeper universal element in the individual, rather than just the traditional positions held by their religious communities, using the data from my study. I recognize that I must necessarily limit the scope of my research to only one central theological tradition in each religion. Each religion has a wide diversity of theological positions varying from those that I will consider. For instance, my focus will be on traditional Sunni theology since it represents the largest group of Muslims . . . often known as the orthodox‘. The Shiite branch of Islam would be an interesting addition to the study because it takes a redemptive interpretation of the death of Husayn, in contrast to the Sunni. Shiite tradition takes the paradigm of the Abrahamic sacrifice, applies it to the foundational narrative of Shiite Islam [the death of Husayn], and through a unique innovation equates the martyrdom of Husayn with the sacrifice of the redemptive offering in place of Abraham’s son. This particular aspect has the potential to reveal some interesting interconnections of Islam and Christianity in that it may have also served as a [Muslim] response to the Christian understanding of the crucifixion as the perfected Abrahamic sacrifice. However, in order to maintain a moderate length paper, I will limit my study to the central points of the theology of Sunni Islam, Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism, and Orthodox and Conservative Evangelical Christianity. As a further limit, I assume that each particular author/theologian that I study are representative, not of every position in their respective tradition, but of a significant portion of that religious tradition. In my discussions, therefore, when I speak of the position of a particular religion, I am actually referring solely to the position of the theologians representing those religions in this study.
In the interview process, I am making several assumptions. Those that I interview will answer honestly and validly, and what they tell me is what they intend for me to understand. I limit my direct interviews to those individuals that I can interview in either English or French, both languages that I can use without a translator serving as an intermediary. I will have several colleagues also interview individuals in other languages and provide their responses in English. I include in my interviews at least two individuals in each of the following categories: western Christian, non-western Christian, Christian from a Muslim background, Christian from a Jewish background, Jewish, and Muslim. I record responses in writing with the responses included in the appendix. I followed the Reformed Theological Seminary Protocol for the Protection of Human Rights in Research in the presentation of the individual responses. I identify each individual as to their religion and general location but do not identify them by name or exact location. An example would be, person 1 is a Muslim man from the Middle East. My sampling is not intended to be a statistically random sample. It is a purposeful sampling to provide a spectrum of responses, though not all responses. It is not intended to cover every category of persons in each religious group. For instance, I am not intending to include an equal number of male and female respondents. The responses of the individuals only represent their own personal understanding of their religion‘s positions and their personal reaction to the issue of theodicy/suffering. My questionnaire will be prepared after I complete the review of the classical and modern layers of my study. I will present a short narrative describing a situation of significant suffering. I will ask the respondents open-ended questions such as, What is happening in this story? Based on that response, I will ask further open-ended questions to help the respondent express their understanding of God‘s involvement in the situation and how the respondent would expect a person to respond. After that, I will give each respondent a list of positions from all three religions without identifying the source and ask them to interact with those positions.
In terms of language, my assumption is that language is not a permanent barrier, blocking access to truth and to reality, but rather is a means that provides such access. All peoples and cultures have both good aspects reflective of our creation in the image of God as well as sinful aspects reflective of the fall and corruption. The measure is the Word of God. I recognize that language as a vehicle for communications has become corrupted to a degree . . . [and] that false religion, in particular, corrupts both culture and language. As such, I reject the modern western philosophical reliance on the analysis of natural language to arrive at universal truths. My optimism is in the power of the gospel and the fact that through the power of the gospel both culture and language are capable of redemptive transformation. There is a reality behind all cultures and their religions. They are not merely manifestations of the evolutionary adaption of humans to their environment. I do not hold to an instrumentalist‘s view of non-commensurability that cultures are self-contained and are not judged by others, nor can they judge others. I hold that all cultures stand under the judgment of God.
The reason I am focusing on the topic of theodicy and suffering is that it is a central issue in the area where I minister, in the context of Muslims and Jews. All those coming to Christ in these contexts experience some level of suffering and persecution for their religious faith, in addition to the normal suffering that man experiences simply because we live in a fallen world. There is also an inherent level of suffering in any missionary endeavour and a price has to be paid because of the magnitude of differences in culture and in language, achieving peace between different people groups is not easy. Peace can come through the power of Christ and His gospel. But it comes at a price. The price is the shedding of the precious blood of Christ‖ (1 Pet. 1:19). Followers of Christ also pay a price in their own way, because each one must give up his pride. Even outside the missionary context, one could say that the Bible‘s answer centres on Christ and on his suffering. And Christians must suffer in serving him. It is my assumption that since God used suffering so centrally in redemptive history, that our reaction to suffering is rooted deeply in our creation and transcends cultural and religious boundaries. For this reason, suffering has served throughout history as a primary reference point for all religions in terms of apologetic for the defence of their respective beliefs. Typically, this reference point is the ultimate demonstration of suffering in the martyrdom of individuals for their respective faiths.
My goal in this comparative study then is not to simply list, categorize, or even analyze connections and associations of different aspects of each religion‘s positions in an unbiased fashion. I am an evangelical believer who holds to the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and as such must inform our evaluation and analysis of all aspects of life. My hermeneutical principle is that of atheistic critical realist in that I believe we grow in our understanding and knowledge of the truth of God through a growing understanding of its application to all of life in a progressive process that includes interaction with the Word, our culture, our individual personality, and our community. I believe that our understanding is enriched by our contact with multiple perspectives of those outside our own immediate context. That interaction, even when it is with error and heresy, provides a platform for our better understanding of the truth. In this sense, the whole of God‘s creation can be seen as a lens through which we are brought into reflection on the Word of God and the lens through which the Word of God is focused on creation. In this respect, dialogue with others outside our context helps us better understand God‘s Word. This better understanding of God‘s Word is the ultimate goal of my study.
THE THEODICY OF THREE GREAT THEOLOGIANS FROM THE 12TH AND 13TH
THE CLASSICAL/HISTORICAL CHRISTIAN THEODICY OF THOMAS AQUINAS
Thomas Aquinas was the greatest scholastic theologian. He wrote extensively in his attempt to integrate Christian theology with Aristotelian thought that came to Western Europe through Muslims in Spain. Aquinas sought to bring about a thorough integration of Christian theology and philosophy and show how theologian could be a scientist . . . . He was not, however, merging Christian theology with Greek philosophy, but was using philosophical inquiry to articulate one‘s received faith, and in the process extending the horizons of that inquiry to include topics unsuspected by those bereft of divine revelation.
Aquinas had numerous interactions with the work of Jewish and Muslim theologians. He paid close ―attention to the writings of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), a Jew, and Ibn Sina [Avicenna] (980-1037), a Muslim. Aquinas had a less direct interaction with al Ghazali‘s work. Historians identify Al-Ghazali‘s ―influence upon St. Thomas through his Aquinas respected ―Rabbi Moses and Avicenna as fellow travellers in an arduous intellectual attempt to reconcile the horizons of philosophers of ancient Greece, notably Aristotle, with those reflecting a revelation originating in ancient Israel, articulated initially in the divinely inspired writings of Moses. With Maimonides and Avicenna his relationship was more akin to that among interlocutors, and especially so with ―Rabbi Moses, whose extended dialectical conversations with his student Joseph in his Guide of the Perplexed closely matched Aquinas‘ own project.
In Aquinas‘ effort to integrate Christianity and philosophy, he received help from thinkers in the Jewish and Muslim traditions: from Maimonides, the very strategy itself; and from the Liber de cassis, [an Islamic transformation of Proclus, translated to Latin from Arabic] a philosophical focus on faith in divine unity [tawhîd]. While he respected his Jewish and Muslim counterparts, his interaction with Jews and Muslims was not a dialogue to seek common ground. He pursued interaction without seeking compromise in his own theology, for example, he adopted the position on creation that Avicenna developed, based on Liber de causes, by assimilating creation to processions within a triune God. Aquinas develops much of his theodicy in terms of the philosophical arguments of natural theology. Elements run throughout a number of the sections of his major works. His thought processes are rigorous and he lays out an incredible amount of detail in a systematic way while keeping consistency within major themes. Some major themes in Aquinas are that God exists, that He and all He has created is good, and that He governs all things toward an ultimate end that is also good.
Concerning the nature of evil, Aquinas held that all things were good and that evil was only the privation of good. This is a core Christian concept also seen in Augustine. Evil is not a positive entity and it cannot signify a certain existing being, or a real shaping or positive kind of thing . . . it signifies a certain absence of a good. Aquinas differentiates moral and natural evil and explains how they are both present in what is essentially good by nature of its creation. Moral evil is present in a natural good . . . in the sense of a being in potency. Therefore, there is potential for evil but it always is a potential that exists in something that is good by nature of its creation. Natural evil is the privation of form . . . present in a matter which is good . . . Aquinas states that things are either corruptible or incorruptible and the perfection of the universe requires them both: likewise some that can cease to be good, and in consequence on occasion do. Such a defection from good is precisely what evil is. He also states that good always continues in any being as Evil cannot destroy good altogether.
The operation/cause of evil is likewise always based on a good. According to Aquinas, all things seek after a good natural desire, direction, or appetite. Natural things, without a will, never fail to follow the order to the end which is prearranged for them. An example is a stone that falls when not supported. The stone is following its own natural direction. That falling is natural and good. All things that have a will, always also seek after some good according to their desires. He explains how desires can at times drive voluntary beings toward evil. No one would desire evil, not even indirectly unless the concomitant good were more desired than the good of which the evil is the deprivation. In other words, even when men perpetrate evil on others they are seeking something good for themselves. With these concepts in mind, Aquinas says, evil is caused only by the good because every cause is either matter, or form, or agent, or end and all these are in and of themselves good. ―So evil cannot be the cause of anything. Therefore, if anything is the cause of evil, it must be caused by good. Aquinas speaks even of demons in this fashion saying that they cannot be naturally evil in respect to their creation. They, like fallen men, may choose an evil deprivation of something good and pursue it. They do so like men out of free choice because they seek something, not as evil [directly], but accidentally, as connected with some good. So man and demons are sources of evil by their choices within their own domains. This, however, is not through some essential aspect of their created nature. It is also not through a direct desire for evil but through a distorted desire for something that falls short of a good that is desired. This concept seems a bit counterintuitive but is very much in keeping with the biblical narrative of the fall. The man was deceived and began to desire the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was created by God and was good. The serpent used a subtle twisting of the truth to deceive man. Man ate from it because he believed it was good. In this respect, the man, the tree, and even the direction of the desire were all good. In spite of these all being good, man‘s choice fell short of the good that God had intended for man in prohibiting him from eating from the fruit of the tree and produced evil. This illustrates that evil is a much more pernicious thing than we typically envision. It also explains the capacity for man as the source of increasingly greater evils.
Aquinas states that God knows all things both good and evil. Therefore, since the nature of evil is the privation of good, God through the very fact of knowing good, also knows evils; just as darkness is known through knowing light. God not only knows all things, but He alone governs all things. Aquinas argues very strongly against any idea that there are elements that God does not govern. Foolish therefore was the opinion of those who said that the corruptible lower world, or individual things, or that even human affairs, were not subject to the Divine government. Aquinas clearly posits God as governing all things, but he divides that governance into two elements, the design of government, and the execution of the design. As to the first [design], God governs all things immediately: as to the second [execution], he governs some things through the mediation of others. Aquinas uses this dividing line to explain that God is not the author of evil but also to make it clear that nothing, even the things executed through the mediation of others, is outside the governance of God. There is nothing that either desires or is able to oppose this supreme good. There is, then, a supreme good that rules all things mightily and disposes of them sweetly, as is written of divine wisdom. The direction of God‘s governance flows from His nature, which is good. God‘s wisdom, goodness and sovereignty superintend even evil such that all things work together for good. Because of this, God‘s government is the ―best kind of government.‖28 God‘s means of governance is that He disposes of them sweetly. By this, Aquinas insists that God‘s rule of all things does not negate free will:
It is erroneous to say that God’s foreknowledge and ordination impose necessity on human acts; otherwise, free will would be removed, as well as the value of taking counsel, the usefulness of laws, the care to do what is right and the justice of rewards and punishments… For the orders things the way he acts on things; his ordination does not violate but brings to effect by his power what he planned in his Wisdom.
Aquinas also explains that God‘s rule is carried out in volitional beings in three ways. Some beings in reflection of the image of God are rulers of themselves… they submit to God‘s divine rule in their own ruling…to the achievement of their ultimate end. Other beings that are devoid of understanding do not direct themselves to their end but are directed by others. Other beings are corrupted and suffer some defect in themselves but even here that defect works some other good, and these corruptible bodies are perfectly subject to His power . . . .
On the issue of fate, Aquinas explains how the Christian view of providence is not the same as men‘s belief in fate. He says some refer to fate as the control of things by celestial bodies, and some use fate to describe divine providence. He explains how some use the word fate to describe events that have already happened and appear to be part of some divine plan, and says that we cannot abandon the concept that things happen under the rule of some order, as that would cause us to abandon the idea of providence itself. However, since we should not even have names in common with unbelievers, lest occasion for error could be taken from the association of names, the name fate is not to be used by the faithful lest we appear to agree with those who have held a wrong opinion about fate.
Aquinas saw a special problem in the suffering of innocent or just people.‖ He discusses this in his commentary on Job with a special focus on the issue in chapter 10. Aquinas feels that to deal with this special problem, one must maintain reason. Aquinas states Job‘s presupposition that men are either innocent or unjust and that God is the author of their punishment. He then says that Man must know the cause of his punishment, either to correct himself or to endure the trials with more patience. Aquinas explains that Job‘s suffering is not the result of some evil entity that reigned over the earth. He also says that Job is not suffering unjustly by God persecuting him on a false charge, nor by God looking for a fault, nor by God punishing sins, nor by God enjoying the punishments. Aquinas concludes that the cause of Job‘s suffering still remains in doubt and the ultimate solution is that there has to be another life where the just are ultimately rewarded and the wicked ultimately punished. If this position is posited no cause can be given for the suffering of the just who certainly sometimes are troubled in this world.
The concept of a punitive judgment and reward in a life to come develops in all three monotheistic religions. Both Old and New Testament scriptures support this concept. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Outside the Abrahamic religions, there is no presupposition of one life and then the judgment.
Aquinas presents most of his discussion in terms of philosophical reason interwoven with theology to give a man away to understand evil and suffering. For instance, in his commentary on Job, the whole intention of this book is directed to this: to show that human affairs are ruled by divine providence using probable arguments. Maintaining reasoned perspective is imperative in the face of suffering. But when reason remains rightly ordered amid tribulations, one submits himself to God and expects the cure to come . . . . One of the key points in how man is to face apparent evil and suffering is by a reasoned knowledge that all things are under God‘s providence and all things ultimately reach their providential end. Aquinas explains that this providential end of all things is a good. Aquinas goes on to explain since God himself is the ultimate good, that the other sense of the end of things is God Himself. So, all things are ordered to one good, as their end, and this is God. This he says is in keeping with what Scripture says in Proverbs (16:4): God made all things for Himself . . . .
In part two of Aquinas‘ major work, Summa Theologiae, in question 38 Articles 1-5, he talks about five ordinary remedies of sorrow or pain. He suggests that pleasure, tears, the sympathy of friends, contemplation of the truth, and bodily rest and recovery all help to assuage pain and sorrow. Good pleasures are a natural cure for sorrow and pain, as rest is a cure for weariness. Tears allow us relief because when our sorrows do not find expression outwardly, we tend to focus more on them. We are encouraged and unburdened when we see our friends sharing our sorrows. For Aquinas, the contemplation of the truth is the greatest of all pleasures and it naturally assuages sorrow and pain. Anything that helps the body recover helps us deal with pain and sorrow. Aquinas also suggests that proper perspective is important and that perspective is that, sorrow or pain is not man’s greatest evil. This all flows naturally from his focus on the essential goodness of God and the consequent goodness of creation. A good creation is a natural remedy for sorrow and suffering. Is this reasoned understanding satisfactory? Are we able to say, Now it is clear to me why it is evil in the world; now I have the explanation. Herbert McCabe suggests that it is not satisfactory and that providing a fully satisfactory response to evil was not Aquinas‘ goal. McCabe says, so Saint Thomas‘ account of evil . . . does not seek to explain evil in the world. When we speak of God we do not clear up a puzzle, we draw attention to the mystery. It is in this mystery that Aquinas reaches out beyond philosophical reason to revealed truth. The concept of mystery, here, is the New Testament concept of something hidden from reason alone that is only understandable by God‘s revelation to man. It is not the concept of the mystery religions or of the Gnostics‘ hidden or esoteric knowledge. Aquinas recognizes this limit of reason in the opening of the Summa, certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Both Cornelius Van Till and Francis Schafer have discussed the limits of reason in connection with faith. Faith is not simply rational in the sense that it is a deduction reached by human reason alone. We cannot take credit for having reasoned out all the aspects of our faith. On the other hand, faith is not irrational. It is in Aquinas‘ reaching out to truths of divine revelation that he finds a more satisfactory answer for the problem of evil. But God did give an answer and his answer was Christ.
In De Rationibus Fidei Aquinas writes to an unknown churchman in Antioch who has asked for help in responding to questions from Muslims as well as Greek and Armenian Orthodox. The churchman asks for moral and philosophical reasons which the Muslims can accept. Aquinas explains that he will respond but that the churchman should not try to prove the Faith by necessary reasons . . . as our Faith cannot be proved by necessary reasons, because it exceeds the human mind. Aquinas adds that while it cannot be proved by necessary reasons, that because of its truth it cannot be refuted by any necessary reason. The letter then focuses less on philosophical reasoning and more on things we believe in . . . only because they are revealed by God.
This letter was written in 1264 sometime between the 7th and 8th Crusades when Christendom was losing its foothold in the Middle East and the situation for Christians there was tenuous. While the letter focuses on an apologetic defence, its tone expresses pastoral concern and offers hope for Christians in that precarious context. Our hope is directed to
two things: (1) what we look forward to after death and the help of God which carries us through this life to future happiness merited by works done by free will. In chapter 7 Aquinas responds to Muslim ridicule of the Christians‘ belief in a redemptive aspect in the incarnation and death of Christ. They [Muslims] also ridicule our saying that Christ the Son of God was crucified for the salvation of the human race (Qur’ân 4:157-8), for if almighty God could save the human race without Son’s suffering he could also make man so that he could not sin. Aquinas explains that Christ suffered according to His human nature, not His divine nature. In this God chose the most fitting way of acting, even if he could have acted otherwise . . . . He explains that all he says is based on the presupposition that God‘s providence is controlling and preserving the nature of things and at the same time mercifully providing man with a saving remedy in the incarnation and death of his Son.
The incarnation and suffering of Christ were expressly to repair the fall of man . . . to serve as a remedy for sin. Not only did it do this, but it also confirmed truth by contrasting the power of Christ against a backdrop of Christ‘s suffering and weakness. So to make the work of divine power apparent, he chose everything that was rejected and low in the world . . .
Part of the reparation of the fall of man includes dealing with man‘s tendency toward cleaving to bodily things and neglecting spiritual goods. So the example of Christ‘s suffering allows man to consider temporal goods or evils as nothing, lest a disordered love for them impede them from being dedicated to spiritual things It also allowed them to learn not to trust proudly in themselves, but in God. In this vein, Aquinas explains how Christ,
led a poor life to teach us to despise riches. He lived without titles or office so as to withdraw men from a disordered desire for these things. He underwent labour, thirst, hunger and bodily afflictions so that men would not be fixed on pleasure and delights and be drawn away from the good of virtue because of the hardships of this life. In the end, he underwent death so that no one would desert the truth because of fear of death. And lest anyone fear a shameful death for the sake of the truth, he chose the most horrible kind of death, that of the cross. Thus it was fitting that the Son of God made man should suffer and by his example provoke men to virtue, so as to verify what Peter said (1 Pet 2:21): Christ suffered for you, and left an example for you to follow in his steps.‘
As to the necessity for a remedy for sin, Aquinas explains that all sin is an offence against God and as such is somehow an infinite offence. Because of this, a mere man would not be able to satisfy the just penalty of an infinite offence. Therefore, there had to be a man of infinite dignity who would undergo the penalty for all so as to satisfy fully the sins of the whole world. Therefore the only-begotten Word of God, true God and Son of God, assumed a human nature and willed to suffer death in it so as to purify the whole human race indebted by sin.
So that we understand suffering in a redemptive sense, Aquinas explains that the disciples of Christ should also expect the same elements found in Christ‘s life to be evident in their own. In suffering and following Christ‘s example, the disciples will be encouraged not to cling to temporary things. In order to train his disciples to despise the present goods of this world and to sustain all sorts of adversity even to death, there was no better way than for Christ to suffer and die. Thus, he himself told them (Jn 15:20): “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too. The disciples own sufferings and weaknesses will also confirm the truth by providing a contrast to the power of the Spirit at work in their ministry. Aquinas writes,
The same reason of Providence which led the Son of God made man suffer weakness in himself, led him to desire his disciples, whom he established as ministers of human salvation, to be abject in the world. Sending them to work for the salvation of men, he commanded them to observe poverty, to suffer persecutions and insults, and even to undergo death for the truth; this was so that their preaching might not seem fabricated for the sake of earthly comfort, and that the salvation of the world might not be attributed to human wisdom or power, but only to God’s wisdom and power. Thus they did not lack divine power to work miracles as they appeared abject according to the world.
Aquinas ties together his view of providence and evil with his view of Christ‘s redemptive incarnation and suffering. This argument seems to be the point Aquinas turns to in order to provide a foothold of hope for Christians in the face of suffering and evil. You see now, said Thomas, suffering means sharing with Christ. If you love Him . . . how can you renounce suffering? No lover will renounce the pain of his love. The Christian‘s suffering can be seen then as a reflection of Christ‘s suffering in a providential sense in the context of the church‘s mission.
On December 6, 1273, Aquinas had an experience that brought his writing career abruptly to an end. Aquinas died only a few months later in early March 1274, while travelling to the Second Council of Lyon. Little is actually known about the experience. At any rate, he stopped writing, leaving the Summa Theologiae incomplete, in the midst of its Third Part, a discussion of the sacrament of penance. The most common information reported is that during the Feast of Saint Nicholas, something happened during the celebration of Mass. The result was that he decided to write no more. Some scholars conjecture that Aquinas suffered a stroke during the mass. Others simply attribute a vision that he may have had during the mass to his sudden cessation of writing. Unfortunately, there is nothing written by Aquinas between the time of his sudden cessation of work on the Summa in December and his death the following March that sheds much light on this. His secretary Reginald of Piperno, is reported to have asked why he had stopped writing his great Summa Theologiae? The answer Aquinas gave was I cannot do any more . . . Everything I have written seems to me as straw in comparison with what I have seen. Aquinas gave no further information and the actual details remain an intriguing mystery.
THE CLASSICAL/HISTORICAL JEWISH THEODICY OF MAIMONIDES
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon was known by Rambam, his Hebraic acronym, and by the Arabic name Mūsā ibn Maymūn, as well as by his Latinized name Moses Maimonides. He is considered one of the greatest codifiers [of Mosaic Law] and philosophers in Jewish history. He lived from 1135 until 1204. He grew up in Andalusia, immersed in a wide variety of cultural and religious elements including Islam, Arab culture, as well as Greek philosophies. The time in which he lived was at the height of the twelfth-century Andalusian Aristotelianism. It was a time of great depth of learning, cultural sophistication, and comprehensiveness, embracing biblical and Talmudic studies, linguistics, poetry, philosophy, and science. During times of stability, the family lived as courtier rabbis, masters of tradition [even Arab cultural elements such as poetry] and experts in secular knowledge.
fundamentalist Almohad movement. The Almohad movement opposed more open Islamic culture and sought to restore a version of Islam, based on the Qur‘an and Islamic Law in North Africa and Andalusia. Maimonides lived both in harmony and in tension with the Islamic community. One of his earlier works was the Epistle on Forced Conversion, which he wrote after his family was forced to flee Andalusia.
Aristotle, al-Fārābī and the Kalām theologians were among those who had a significant intellectual influence on Maimonides. Maimonides was well acquainted with Arab theologians and wrote classical Arabic for a Muslim audience, as in his medical writings, and used Judeo-Arabic when writing for his coreligionists . . . . Maimonides had significant knowledge of the works of Averroes ―and recommended them to his own pupil Joseph ben Judah. His only son, Abraham was devoted to Sufism, which some scholars suggest may have influenced Maimonides in later life. Al- Fārābī is the Arabic philosopher most cited in The Guide.
Al- Fārābī argued that religion is subordinate to philosophy, seeing the former as a tool or handmaiden‘ for the latter. Maimonides appears to have attempted to apply this theory in detail to Judaism by integrating into his worldview elements of Judaism, Arabic culture, and Greek Philosophy. From the Greeks he took his philosophy, from the Arabs his rhetorical forms, he took from the Bible the knowledge of who he truly was In his introduction to the Guide he explains,
I feel assured that those of my readers, who have not studied philosophy, will still derive profit from many a chapter. But the thinker whose studies have brought him into collision with religion, will, as I have already mentioned, derive much benefit from every chapter.
The most difficult moment of Maimonides‘ life came with the loss of his brother David. His brother had supported the extended family through trading. David along with much of the family fortune was lost at sea. Maimonides suffered a self-described mental and physical breakdown:
the most terrible blow which befell me… was the death of the most perfect and righteous man, who drowned while travelling in the Indian Ocean. For nearly a year after I received the sad news, I lay ill on my bed struggling with fever and despair. Eight years have since passed and I still mourn, for there is no consolation.
This event would be a repeated reference point for Maimonides‘ reflection and writing on the nature of evil and suffering. “Aristotle sees no difference between the falling of a leaf or a stone and the death of the good and noble people in the ship.”
My overview of Maimonides‘ positions is taken largely from two of his works, The Guide for the Perplexed, and the Letter to Yemen. The Guide was written for a former student, Joseph ben Judah who left not having completed his studies. Maimonides also wrote The Guide for a larger audience to show Jews that they should study philosophy to deepen their faith . . . . The Epistle to Yemen was for a besieged population facing threats of forced conversion, a community in crisis, battered by outside forces. The purpose of the letter was to provide hope . . . .
In regards to the nature of evil, Maimonides says that God is not the author of evil, it cannot be said of God that He directly creates evil, or He has the direct intention to produce evil: this is impossible. Maimonides held that evil flowed from two elements. First, a Neoplatonic concept that all corruption, destruction, or defect comes from matter. Second, he then modified this with an added position that “all evils are negations. Maimonides sees all of creation as good, even the material element, ―low as it, in reality, is, because it is the source of death and all evils, is likewise good for the permanence of the Universe and the continuation of the order of things . . . consequently the true work of God is
all good since it is existence.” For Maimonides God‘s connection to evil is only indirect. Since evil is a negation ―the action of an agent cannot be directly connected with a thing that does not exist . . . .
Evil flows out of the negation of good but in man, the negation is primarily a lack of wisdom. “All the great evils which men cause to each other because of certain intentions, desires, opinions, or religious principles, are likewise due to non-existence because they originate in ignorance, which is the absence of wisdom. God‘s providence guides and directs things toward the good but the numerous evils to which individual persons are exposed are due to the defects existing in the persons themselves . . . . We complain and seek relief from our own faults: we suffer from the evils which we, by our own free will, inflict on ourselves and ascribe them to God, who is far from being connected with them. God is not so much punishing man for sin as it is the lack of human perfection that brings evil on the person. Moral virtues such as righteousness turn out to be necessary but not sufficient for human perfection . . . . What is necessary is an intellectual perfection that is an overflow of the
Divine intellect. Man obtains this when focused on God. Evil ―only attends to those who withdraw their attention from God because ―providence withdraws from him during the time when he is occupied with something else.
Maimonides does not see God‘s indirect connection as limiting either God‘s power or God‘s knowledge. I do not ascribe to God ignorance of anything or any kind of weakness. Maimonides bases this on the equivocal nature of the divine, the inability of humans to understand God, and the inadequacy of any comparison between human and divine. He says we cannot compare the manner in which God rules and manages His creatures with the manner in which we rule and manage.
In terms of God‘s omniscience, Maimonides states God knows everything, and that nothing is hidden from Him. He also takes a compatibilist approach to God‘s knowledge saying,
His knowledge, may he be exalted, that a certain possible thing will come into existence, does not in any way make that possible thing quit the nature of the possible. On the contrary, the nature of the possible remains with it, and the knowledge concerning what possible things will be produced, does not entail one of the two possibilities becoming necessary . . . God knows with one knowledge the many and numerous things.
Again Maimonides holds this position in light of the equivocal nature of the divine essence so that the knowledge attributed to this essence has nothing in common with our knowledge, just as that essence is in no way like our essence.
In terms of God‘s omnipotence, Maimonides does limit God‘s power but only in the sense that he does not ascribe to God the power of doing what is impossible.” In part 3.15 of The Guide Maimonides lists five things as impossible. God cannot violate the law of non-contradiction, transmute substances, bring into existence another God, annihilate Himself, or become a body. Maimonides explains that man can imagine things that are not possible and our ability to imagine them does not mean that God should be able to do them or that if God cannot do them that his power is limited. “One imagines a thing and considers it possible, another is at liberty to assert that such a thing is impossible by its very nature . . . [this] does not imply weakness in God or a limit to His power”.
In section 3.15 of The Guide, Maimonides specifies five theories of providence. There is the Epicurean concept that there is no Providence at all for anything in the Universe. There is an Aristotelian providence described as, one part of the Universe owes its existence to Providence and is under the control of a ruler and governor, another part is abandoned and left to chance. There is the Muslim Ashariyah version of total direct providence in which all things are either necessary or impossible. There is the Muslim Mu’tazila theory that Man has [limited] free will… and all acts of God are due to wisdom; no injustice is found in Him, and He does not afflict the good. Then there is the Jewish Mosaic view of man’s perfectly free will . . . [with all suffering and reward] . . . distributed according to justice; they are the result of strict judgment that admits no wrong. Maimonides‘ view is actually a modification of the Mosaic view merged with elements from the Aristotelian view. The higher orders of the universe are under God‘s providential control and in the lower or sublunary portion of the Universe, Divine Providence does not extend to the individual members of species except in the case of mankind. He sees providence and divine intellect as connected:
Divine Providence is connected with Divine intellectual influence, and the same beings which are benefited by the latter so as to become intellectual, and to comprehend things comprehensible to rational beings, are also under the control of Divine Providence, which examines all their deeds in order to reward or punish them…. All other things are “entirely due to chance . . . . It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within; but it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding hold that Divine Providence is related and connected with the intellect because Providence can only proceed from an intelligent being, from a being that is itself the most perfect intellect.
Maimonides finds no special issue in the suffering of the righteous. The book of Job holds no incomprehensibility for him. If you pay to my words the attention which this treatise demands, and examine all that is said in the Book of Job, all will be clear to you, and you will find that I have grasped and taken hold of the whole subject; nothing has been left unnoticed. He sees the book of Job as an allegory that presents the different views of providence. Maimonides sees Satan as representing the principle either of privation or a representative of matter, or both. He identifies each person with one of five positions on providence. Eliphaz represents Epicurean . . . chance . . . . Bildad represents a simplistic reading of the [Mosaic] law . . . Zophar represents the Mu‘tazilite position that God does not afflict the righteous and Job‘s lot will be balanced by reward in the next life Elihu represents Asharite fatalism. And finally, Job represents Maimonides‘
position, which is an amalgam of the Mosaic and Aristotelian positions where man is saved from his suffering by two things, understanding and perseverance. Maimonides‘ concept of providence is then not directly connected to moral standing, but to the degree to which the individual has developed his intellect in connection with the divine intellect. It is remarkable in this account that wisdom is not ascribed to Job. The text does not say he was an intelligent, wise, or clever man; but virtues and uprightness, especially in actions, are ascribed to him. Moral virtues such as righteousness turn out to be necessary but not sufficient for human perfection: intellectual virtue is required as well for human perfection, which leads to providential care. The necessity of human intellectual perfection, the equivocal nature of God, and the inability that this creates for man to understand God allows Maimonides to escape what for most is the perplexing question of the suffering of the righteous. For Maimonides, the main lesson of the book of Job is not God‘s providence, but the error of imagining His knowledge to be similar to ours, or His intention, providence, and rule similar to ours.
Maimonides‘ answer to human suffering and evil then lies in our drawing close to God because it allows us to develop perfection in the intellectual realm. So he explains,
When we see that some men escape plagues and mishaps, whilst others perish by them, we must not attribute this to a difference in the properties of their bodies, or in physical constitution, for by strength shall no man prevail‘; but it must be attributed to their different degrees of perfection, some approaching God, whilst others moving away from Him. Those who approach Him are best protected.
A man who has developed this intellectual perfection only suffers when he turns his focus away from God. Hence it appears to me that it is only in times of such neglect that some of the ordinary evils befall a prophet or a perfect and pious man: and the intensity of the evil is proportional to the duration of those moments, or to the character of the things that thus occupy their mind.
According to Maimonides, men must also realize a certain perspective in order to have peace in this world relative to evil. We must realize we are often the source of our own suffering. We complain and seek relief from our own faults: we suffer from the evils which we, by our own free will, inflict on ourselves and ascribe them to God, who is far from being connected with them! We should also realize that there is not as much suffering in the world as we seem to think there is. “Men frequently think that the evils in the world are more numerous than the good things . . . . This error comes because we focus on just one person or one perspective which is usually our own. Maimonides says, An ignorant man
believes that the whole universe only exists for him; as if nothing else required any consideration.
The main problem that faces a man in the issue of evil and suffering then is the development of his intellect. Divine Providence is proportional to the endowment of intellect, as has been mentioned above. The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. A significant problem in Maimonides view, and one he recognizes, is:
There is a considerable difference between one person and another as regards these faculties, as is well known to philosophers. While one man can discover a certain thing by himself, another is never able to understand it, even if taught by means of all possible expressions and metaphors, and during a long period; his mind can in no way grasp it, his capacity is insufficient for it.
Maimonides concedes that the masses do not have the intellect necessary to access the more esoteric levels of knowledge. In writing The Guide, Maimonides intentionally employs a hermeneutic method to hide his views from those who are not intellectually astute. He believes that like the Scriptures, the Guide contains a multitude of hidden secret meanings and that only the philosophically astute individual will be able to decode
Maimonides‘ true views . . . . This idea of a higher and lower level of meaning is one of Maimonides‘ themes. He believes that the masses can only see and understand the lower level or exoteric meaning in both Scripture and Maimonides‘ own writing. The Epistle to Yemen stands out in contrast, in that Maimonides appears to adopt a different approach from his usual emphasis on intellectual perfection. This may be because Maimonides is offering a more direct encouragement to the Yemenite Jews, because of their dire circumstances, or because he does not feel they are able to attain his normal higher more esoteric views. He first addresses the issue of a false Messiah that has arisen in their midst and then holds out the suffering of the Yemenite Jews as a prefigurement of the coming of the [true] Messiah. This concrete hope of a Messiah is in contrast to his typical Messianic view of a more abstract and natural transition to a Messianic age. He also contradicts his own injunction in the same letter against setting a time for the advent of the Messiah, Our sages have discouraged the calculation of the time of the coming of Mashiach . . . . May people that calculate the final redemption meet with adversity. Despite this injunction, he offers encouragement by sharing his own calculation that the Messiah would appear ―in the year 4976 of Creation. This is about 40 years after the Letter to Yemen was written in 1172. He says, ―This is the most dependable of all calculations that have been made about the coming of Mashiach. He says he is doing this even though he has spoken out against making such calculations in order to keep people from ―falling into despair, thinking that his coming is in the distant future.
To the Yemenite Jews, he offers encouragement and promises in the midst of their suffering rather than pointing them to the possibility of something that would allow them to escape suffering. Don‘t be frightened by the power of our enemy and the helplessness of our people. These trials are meant to test you and to prove your faith and your love [of God]. Rather than say their suffering is because they have taken their eyes off God or have failed to attain some sort of intellectual development, he says they should rejoice in the fact that we have suffered misfortune, lost our wealth and possessions and were driven into exile. All these hardships are a source of distinction and honour. . . . Whatever losses we suffered through these disasters are counted as a burnt offering on the altar. He gives this instruction and promise to those who are under pressure to convert to Islam.
Give no thought of being separated from family and friends or being concerned with loss of income. Such deprivations are only a small sacrifice and a trifle [we can offer] to the King of kings, the Holy One So rather than maintain consistency with his own theodicy, Maimonides sets the Yemeni Jews‘ particular suffering in the context of a cosmic struggle where God is focused on Israel in the midst of nations that are seeking their destruction.
Whether it is divine wisdom attained through closeness to God, or a perspective that places our suffering in the context of a divine cosmic plan, Maimonides‘ solution for man‘s suffering because of evil is a knowledge rooted in man himself. This knowledge produces a certainty in the face of evil. When we know this we shall find everything that may befall us easy to bear; mishaps will create no doubts in our hearts concerning God, whether He knows our affairs or not, whether He provides for us or abandons us.
THE CLASSICAL/HISTORICAL ISLAMIC THEODICY OF AL-GHAZALI Al-Ghazâlî (c.1055–1111 A.D.)
was one of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics of Sunni Islam. He has sometimes been acclaimed in both the East and West as the greatest Muslim after Muhammad. Historians generally divide his life into four periods, the early years 1058-1085, a public decade 1085- 1095 of teaching in Baghdad, crisis and withdrawal 1095-1106, second public period 1106- 1109, final years 1109-1111. He was born in the city of Tus in the Khorasan province of Persia. He and his brother were sent by their uncle, after the death of their father, to the city of Gurgan in present-day northern Azerbaijan to study Islamic jurisprudence. He later studied under Al-Juwayni, a Sunni Shafi’i hadith legal jurist and Ash‘arite theologian. Ghazali‘s career in theology and jurisprudence coincided with the rise of the Seljuq dynasty. This was a time when Sunni theology had just passed through its consolidation and entered a period of intense challenges from Shiite Ismâ‘îlite theology and the Arabic tradition of Aristotelian philosophy (falsafa). Ghazali came under Seljuq patronage and was installed in the newly founded Al-Nizamiyya seminary in Baghdad. In the consolidation
of their empire, the Seljuq dynasty sought to promote a particular ―school of law Shafi‘ite,
and a specific form of orthodox Sunni theology –Ash‘arite . . . Ghazali taught a combination of legal theory and theology while in his post in Bagdad.
The first area that shaped Ghazali‘s thinking was the Shafi‘i position on the law. The Shafi‘i espoused, the rigorous use of analogy (qiyas), arrived at through intellectual effort (ijtihad), and were critical of belief based on authority, or taqlid… [and] also excesses of personal opinion‘ (ra’y) . . . . Shafi‘i were also generally critical of kalam or theological disputes that were also controversial in the larger Islamic context. Muslims that were more traditional believed that Islamic jurisprudence was the proper focus for study. Neither scripture nor sacred tradition, they would say, provides for this mode of discourse [kalam] . . . . They saw the theological debate as presumptuous, if not downright reprehensible. The founder of the Shafi‘i school of law had said, My verdict on the people of kalam is that they should be beaten with whips and the soles of sandals, and then paraded through all the tribes . . . while it is proclaimed of them, Such is the reward of those who forsake the Qur‘an and sunna and give themselves up to the kalam. In his usual style, Ghazali took a more nuanced view of kalam and wrote,
Kalam is not an end in itself and it is an error to think that the mere engagement in it constitutes the experientially religious or that it is always needed for attaining salvation in the hereafter. Its role is very much akin to that of the armed guards protecting the pilgrims‘ caravan against Bedouin marauders. It is needed, but only as a means to an end. Again, it is like medicine, which at times is certainly needed. But when not needed, or when needed, but not properly administered, it can be very harmful.
A second area that shaped Ghazali‘s thinking was the Ash‘arite school of theology, which had developed since 935 into the dominant school of Sunni theology. The Ash‘arite school held to a radical cosmological determinism known as occasionalism where:
in each moment God assigns the accidents to bodies in which they inhere. When one moment ends, God creates new accidents. None of the created accidents in the second moment has any causal relation to the ones in the earlier moment. If a body continues to have a certain attribute from one moment to the next, then God creates two identical accidents inhering in that body in each of the two subsequent moments. Movement and development generate when God decides to change the arrangement of the moment before. A ball is moved, for instance, when in the second moment of two the atoms of the ball happen to be created at a certain distance from the first. The distance determines the speed of the movement . . . . In every moment, God rearranges all the atoms of this world anew and He creates new accidents—thus creating a new world every moment . . . .
In connection with their radical determinism, the Ash‘arite also held to some significant limitations in the area of human reason. They held that God‘s will established all things including moral truths. In this sense,
neither good nor evil could be said to exist objectively. God is the creator of moral values; He defines justice as He wills. What He does is perforce, just and good and right, however questionable it may appear to us. Truthfulness is not intrinsically good nor is lying badly. They are good or bad because God has determined them so.
According to this, the knowledge of moral truths must be obtained through revelation, not through natural reason. Human reason in and by itself was not capable of establishing with absolute certainty any truth claim. While Ghazali does make use of the logical constructions of the human reason he clearly felt that reason could not be regarded as autonomous . . . . both as an Ash‘arite and even extending into his views as a Sufi.
The third aspect that shaped Ghazali was Sufism. Sufism was a fairly well developed eight-century movement of ascetics given to fasting, prayer, meditation and voluntary poverty. Ghazali‘s writings draw on Sufi literature including many pithy anecdotes of these [Sufi] saints. His father and his main teachers in the areas of theology and Islamic jurisprudence were all followers of Sufism.
Ghazali is somewhat different from the typical Sufi mystic though because Sufism, for him, wasn‘t an exclusive course; rather, it provided a method for integrating all significant knowledge under a single overriding concept. That concept was the importance of inner spiritual life. Ghazali‘s specific focus in this was how an ordinary life might be lived in accord with the highest spiritual principles . . . even how an ordinary life must be so lived. He saw no contradiction in his role as a jurist with his Sufism, and in his Sufi treatises, his most persuasive strategy relies neither on emotional appeals nor on appeals to mystical experience, but on logical methods and rational proofs. Ghazali had a complex relationship with Greek philosophy. He is considered by some to have ended philosophical reflection in the Islamic world through his attacks on philosophy such as The Incoherence of the Philosophers. He focused his study on a philosophy that was resolutely Aristotelian, though modified by the Neo-Platonic tradition . . . . Even though he attacked philosophy he also concluded it was useful in some ways and adopted its methods, most especially the reliance on demonstrative proof, in the form of syllogisms. He saw this as offering the possibility of a higher and more compelling discourse than that provided by [methods of] Kalam. He also concluded that if used improperly philosophy could be dangerous. He describes philosophy as containing, “evil and mischief and found it inadequate to satisfy my aim fully . . . [because human] reason alone is incapable of fully grasping all problems or of getting to the heart of all difficulties.
After nearly ten years of teaching at Al-Nizamiyya, Ghazali went through a dramatic crisis. Ghazali had experienced a previous crisis of doubt early in his career. At that point, reliance on reason had led him to a disabling crisis of scepticism. This later crisis was different. Ghazali described it in his autobiography, Deliverance from Error, as a crisis not caused by doubt . . . but by something more devastating: he had discovered the truth but could not act on it. He was effectively paralyzed by the truth.
Ghazali felt that Islam consisted primarily of two linked elements, knowledge and action. In his Letter to a Disciple he makes the often quoted statement, knowledge without work [action] is insanity, and work [action] without knowledge is vanity (literally it cannot be). Following his combined studies of jurisprudence, theology, and philosophy, he had finally come to accept Sufism as the ultimate path to truth. The problem he found was he could not bring himself to act on this knowledge because it would entail the renunciation of his prestige and position. He felt paralyzed and described this time dramatically:
I became certain that I stood on the brink of a crumbling bank and on the verge of falling into the fire [hell] unless I set about mending my ways…One day I would firmly resolve to leave Baghdad…and another day I would revoke my resolution. I would put one foot forward and the other backward. Mundane desires began tugging me with their chains to remain as I was while the herald of faith was crying out; Away! Up and Away! Only a little is left of your life and a long journey lies before you! All the theory and practice in which you are engrossed is eyeservice and fakery. If you do not prepare now for the afterlife when will you do so? And if you do not sever these attachments now, then when will you sever them?
Ghazali entered into such a deep state of anxiety over this situation that eventually in July 1095 . . . he experienced a sudden breakdown. He could neither eat nor sleep . . . and eventually he lost the power of speech. This actually became a breakthrough for Ghazali and he felt that God had brought about paralysis of his tongue so he could not teach and said this made it easy for my heart to turn away from fame and fortune, family, children, and associates. He left Baghdad on the premise he was going on pilgrimage to Mecca. He instead visited Jerusalem, Syria and eventually Mecca before returning to his home in Tus where he spent nearly ten years largely in isolation except for small groups of students/disciples. He later returned to teaching in a more public role in a seminary for two years but again left and returned to his home in Tus where he died two years later in 1111. Ghazali describes himself as an adventurous soul in search of truth where he found it and daring in mounting from the lowland of servile conformism to the highlands of independent investigation. Throughout his life, he demonstrated a willingness to explore, and then reject, as well as integrate, aspects of positions that differed from his own. While he largely rejected Mutazilite theology, which placed greater confidence in human reason, he accepted and applied their principle of drawing inferences about the invisible from the visible. While he rejected reliance on human reason, in philosophy he found the intellectual structure and framework of his mystical treatises, and especially of the Ihya [considered his most significant work], but theology supplied the foundations. In his integration of theology, jurisprudence, philosophy, and Sufism Al-Ghazali aspired to be the Renewer of Religion‘ for his own century.
He spent time countering the Ismâ‘îlites who ―openly challenged the authority of Sunni theology, claiming its religious speculation and its interpretation of scripture was arbitrary.‖30 The Ismâ‘îlites claimed that ―no rational argument is more convincing than any of its opposing rational arguments, [and only] the divinely guided word of the Shiite Imam conveys certainty. While rejecting this form of guidance from a divinely inspired Imamate, Ghazali accepted guidance beyond reason from gnosis:
To the objection [Ismâ‘îlite] that this position where the determinist, the follower of free will and the believer in acquisition hold doctrines that are true in one respect, yet fall short of the truth is contradictory, Ghazali gives a version of the story of the blind men of Hindustan who sought to know the elephant and could do so only through touch. Each described the elephant in terms of the part he touches. All described what is partially true. Only the seeing can give a more comprehensive account. Similarly, the truth [according to Ghazali] of the question of human choice in relation to divine power can only be known fully through gnosis.
In this mixture of elements from different systems, Ghazali sought to define the boundaries of belief and unbelief and what should and should not be tolerated. He clarifies that only teachings that violate certain ‗fundamental doctrines‘ (usûl al-‘aqâ’id) should be deemed unbelief and apostasy. These doctrines are limited to three: monotheism, Muhammad’s prophecy, and the Qur‘anic descriptions of life after death.
His position on the nature of evil is reflective of the Ash‘arite position, though he slightly modifies it. The Ash‘arite position was that ―neither good nor evil could be said to exist objectively. God is the creator of moral values; He defines justice as He wills. What He does is perforce, just, good, and right, however questionable it may appear to us. Truthfulness is not intrinsically good nor is lying badly. They are good or bad because God has determined them so. The Ash‘arite position stood in contrast to the Mu‘tazilite position which held that everything that existed had some raison d’être . . . ultimately beneficial for human beings. Each thing on earth is fundamentally good in some way though we may not recognize it. The Ghazalian position offers no such assurance. The good is good, the imperfect is imperfect, to be sure, and there may be reasons for this, but the reasons are, finally, provisional. Good and evil, perfect and imperfect, depend upon God‘s will. We have no assurance that they will remain as they are at this moment, or that they will be ultimately explicable to human reason.
In terms of the Ash‘arite view, in the final analysis, the cause of evil is simply an outworking of the will of God. Ghazali agrees with this but also integrates the Sufi concept of the self in the cause of sin. For Ghazali, as for earlier Sufis, the self is the seat of lust and greed and rage. It craves only satisfaction of its appetites, yet remains insatiable, But it also gives us courage, energy, and audacity. The self then is not bad in an absolute sense and includes a mix of good and evil qualities. ―In every man there is a mixture of these four principles I mean the divine and the diabolical and the feral and the beastly . . . . He explains that a divine is a wise man . . . repelling the craftiness and cunning of the devil. The feral is a pig [that] is appetite . . . The beastly is a dog [that] is anger. The diabolical is a devil that stirs up the desire of the pig and the anger of the beast. Desire plays a significant role in the cause of evil as well as the solution for it: We do evil because our desire gets the better of us.‘ In men of true learning though, evil is done only by way of a slip…for true learning is that which leads to the knowledge that sin is a deadly poison and that the afterlife is better than this life. And anyone who knows that will not barter the better for something inferior.
In terms of the relationship of evil to God‘s knowledge and governance, we have already stated that the Ash‘arites posited occasionalism as a frank ascription to God of evil as well as of good . . . . They did this because they would affirm no limitations in terms of God‘s knowledge or governance. It seems that for the most part, Ghazali accepted this including the occasionalist cosmology. He clearly rejected any limits to God‘s knowledge and was adamant that the philosophical position that God‘s knowledge included universals but not particulars were one of the top three heresies that flowed from philosophy. The problem in pinning down Ghazali‘s position is in his writing about secondary causality where he seems to reject it in certain passages [as did the Ash‘arites] and in others, slyly, to admit it. In Deliverance from Error, he states that nature is totally subject to God Most High: it does not act of itself but is used as an instrument by its Creator. The sun, moon, stars, and the elements are subject to God‘s command: none of them affects any act by and of itself. But in Incoherence of the Philosophers, he sarcastically writes, If one denies that the effects follow necessarily from their causes and relates them to the will of their Creator, the will have no specific designated course but capable of varying and changing in kind, then let each of us allow . . . if someone leaves a book in the house, let him allow it as possible it’s changed on his returning home into a beardless slave boy.
Overall, Ghazali seems to support the occasionalist idea that rejects secondary causality but with some nuances. Ormsby provides a plausible explanation that resolves the apparent contradictions in his writing by saying that Ghazali is speaking to two positions. One is the Ash‘arite position that what we think of as causality is nothing but God‘s habit (or custom‘). The other position is that of the philosophers‘ causality where effects occur because they emanate from the bestower of forms‘ and those who maintain that they come about necessarily and by nature. The resolution is: [Ghazali is not trying] to disprove secondary causality definitively, nor to prove the operation of God‘s habit,‘ but to demonstrate that neither can be established with complete certainty. His object is to upset confident assumptions, to startle lazy thinking, to shatter conformism. It represents a strategic deployment of doubt in the search for what can be known. In other words, it isn‘t so much causality that Ghazali finds problematic as the element of indwelling necessity in the presumption.
In general, it is hard to find any special issue that Ghazali wrestles with in his theodicy. He does not for instance find the question of why the righteous suffer to be a troubling issue. If anything is an issue for him, it seems to be that he strongly opposes any implied necessity that impacts the freedom of God‘s will. His theodicy and his overall theology can be summed up in one of his famous dictums, What He wills, is; what He does not will, is not. This central focus of God‘s will carries over into his view of spirituality and how a man can deal with life, including facing the suffering in the world that arises from apparent evil.
Ghazali‘s prescription for man follows several steps and represents the integration of his overall experiences and understanding of Islamic jurisprudence, theology, philosophy, and his view of the way of Sufism. Elements of this prescription run consistently through his works but their integration occupies his later works and is especially evident in Ayyuha ‘L Walad, A Letter to a Disciple. This is one of his last books, written to a learned disciple, himself fully informed in the various disciplines of learning. This disciple is now old and facing his approaching death. Ghazali‘s letter to this disciple reveals his convictions as to wherein lies the value of knowledge . . . his interpretation of the meaning of Sufism . . . his conclusions as to the superiority of the practice of the way, rather than indulgence in ecstasy . . . . It explains Ghazali‘s ideal for an inner religious life issuing in the fruitage of good works . . . far removed from formalism in worship and the acceptance of a stereotyped creed. It presents the thought of al-Ghazali in its maturity . . . religion as the expression of man’s inner being, more than Law and more than Doctrine: it is the Soul’s experience.
The first step for Ghazali is acquiring true knowledge of God‘s will in both commands and prohibitions. However, knowledge alone is not sufficient and it has to be combined with doing (action) God‘s will. He describes this combination:
O youth, so it is essential that your word and deed be in agreement with the law since knowledge and work without emulation of the law-giver is a delusion. And it is essential that you be not deceived by the ecstatic utterances and vehement cries of the Sufis, because walking this road is by struggle and cutting off the lusts of the soul and killing its desires with the sword of discipline, not by vehement cries and idle words. And know that the loosened tongue and the veiled heart filed with negligence and lust is the sign of misery so that if you do not kill the fleshly soul with sincere struggle, you will not quicken your heart by the lights of knowledge.
The second step is developing trust in God (tawakkul). This comes out of acting on true knowledge and is even more critical in the face of misfortune. Even if I can‘t believe that God intends all that befalls me, if I act as if I believed that, I may come to find myself on the first precarious rung of that infinite ladder of trust which leads ultimately to love. Ghazali explains that acting as if I trusted God in the face of misfortune is an opportunity for the development of more trust:
And you asked me about trust: it is that you seek to fortify your belief in Allah the Exalted as to what he has promised: that is, that you believe that what he has fated for you will come to you without fail, although anyone in the world endeavours to prevent it; and what is not written for you, you shall not attain, though all the world help you.
Through acting on knowledge, trust develops to the point that one can say there is nothing in possibility more wonderful than what is. Trust grows to the point where it cuts off my covetousness of all else except He.
In this way, trust eventually develops into love, which is a heart that seeks God above all else. It is the heart that knows God, which draws near to God, which strives for God, which speeds toward God and which discloses what is in and with God. This is the highest stage of spiritual development . . . [where] the lover realizes that only one true Beloved exists . . . . To reach this realization, the sly self must be outwitted and brought to heel; this is the proper function of the intellect. Ghazali teaches that all love amounts to selfish love but he says, The object of striving must be to realize a love that is not self-interested. Through knowledge and practice of the virtues, we may come to this realization, but the way is complicated, not only by our own faults, hesitations, and failures but by the very nature of love. Love is an experiential thing similar to the sense of taste, which is beyond human capacity to explain. Love is one of the things that Ghazali says has to be experienced to be understood:
And know that certain of your questions which you asked me cannot be answered in writing and in speech: if you attain that state you will know what they are; and if not, knowing them is impossible; for they are known by experience, and whatever is known by experience cannot be described in words, as the sweetness of the sweet or the bitterness of the bitter cannot be known except by experience.
For Ghazali, the evil and suffering of the world were a fact of God‘s will. God‘s will was to be unimpeded by any sort of necessity. This left no recourse other than that evil and suffering would be a place for the Muslim to press forward in obedience to God‘s will toward the development of trust and eventually love. This acceptance of evil as directly part of God‘s will intriguingly also created for Ghazali the idea of a best of all possible worlds:
Though Ghazali opposes the suggestion of any necessity at work within the divine nature, such that He must be generous, nevertheless, he adopts certain key points here and employs them in his way: not only the concept of divine generosity itself but even certain turns of phrase, such as the imputation of hoarding. By this is meant that if God had not produced the best world possible, He could be accused of hoarding a better one.
In this best possible world, the sum of happiness is that man makes a meeting with God Most High his goal, and the House of the afterlife his abode, and this life his inn [stopping place], and the body his mount, and the members his servants.
REASONS FOR THEODICY AND TYPES OF THEODICY:
The German philosopher Max Weber interpreted theodicy as a social problem and viewed theodicy as a “problem of meaning”. Weber argued that, as human society became increasingly rational, the need to explain why good people suffered and evil people prospered became more important because religion casts the world as a “meaningful cosmos”. Weber framed the problem of evil as the dilemma that the good can suffer and the evil can prosper, which became more important as religion became more sophisticated. He identified two purposes of theodicy: to explain why good people suffer (a theodicy of suffering), and why people prosper (a theodicy of good fortune). A theodicy of good fortune seeks to justify the good fortune of people in society; Weber believed that those who are successful are not satisfied unless they can justify why they deserve to be successful. For theodicies of suffering, Weber argued that three different kinds of theodicy emerged—predestination, dualism, and karma—all of which attempt to satisfy the human need for meaning, and he believed that the quest for meaning, when considered in light of suffering, becomes the problem of suffering. The sociologist Peter L. Berger characterised religion as the human attempt to build order out of a chaotic world. He believed that humans could not accept that anything in the world was meaningless and saw theodicy as an assertion that the cosmos has meaning and order, despite evidence to the contrary. Berger presented an argument similar to that of Weber but suggested that the need for theodicy arose primarily out of the situation of human society. He believed that theodicies existed to allow individuals to transcend themselves, denying the individual in favour of the social order. The philosopher Richard Swinburne says “most theists need a theodicy, [they need] an account of reasons why God might allow evil to occur. Without a theodicy evil count against the existence of God.”
The term theodicy was coined by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in his 1710 work, written in French, Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal (Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil). Leibniz’s Théodicée was a response to sceptical Protestant philosopher Pierre Bayle, who wrote in his work Dictionnaire Historique et Critique that, after rejecting three attempts to solve it, he saw no rational solution to the problem of evil. Bayle argued that because the Bible asserts the coexistence of God and evil, this state of affairs must simply be accepted.
The French philosopher Voltaire criticised Leibniz’s concept of theodicy in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (Poem on the Lisbon disaster), suggesting that the massive destruction of innocent lives caused by the Lisbon earthquake demonstrated that God was not providing the “best of all possible worlds”. Voltaire also includes the earthquake/theodicy theme in his novel Candide.
In The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914), Constantine Kempf argued that, following Leibniz’s work, philosophers called their works on the problem of evil “theodicies”, and philosophy about God was brought under the discipline of theodicy. He argued that theodicy began to include all of natural theology, meaning that theodicy came to consist of the human knowledge of God through the systematic use of reason.
In 1966, British philosopher John Hick published Evil and the God of Love, in which he surveyed various Christian responses to the problem of evil, before developing his own. In his work, Hick identified and distinguished between three types of theodicy: Plotinian, which was named after Plotinus, Augustinian, which had dominated Western Christianity for many centuries, and Irenaean, which was developed by the Eastern Church Father Irenaeus, a version of which Hick subscribed to himself.
In his dialogue “Is God a Taoist?”, published in 1977 in his book The Tao is Silent, Raymond Smullyan claims to prove that it is logically impossible to have sentient beings without allowing “evil”, even for God, just as he can’t create a triangle in the Euclidean plane having an angular sum other than 180°. So the capability of feeling implies free will, which in turn may produce “evil”, understood here as hurting other sentient beings. The problem of evil happening to good or innocent people is not addressed directly here, but both reincarnation and karma are hinted at.
Ancient religions“Writings and discourses on theodicy by Jews, Greeks, Christians, and Eastern religions have graced our planet for thousands of years.” In the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2000 BC to 1700 BC) as “in Ancient Mesopotamian and Israelite literature,” theodicy was an important issue. Philip Irving Mitchell of the Dallas Baptist University notes that some philosophers have cast the pursuit of theodicy as a modern one, as earlier scholars used the problem of evil to support the existence of one particular god over another, explain wisdom, or explain a conversion, rather than to justify God’s goodness. Sarah Iles Johnston argues that ancient civilizations, such as the ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians held polytheistic beliefs that may have enabled them to deal with the concept of theodicy differently.
These religions taught the existence of many gods and goddesses who controlled various aspects of daily life. These early religions may have avoided the question of theodicy by endowing their deities with the same flaws and jealousies that plagued humanity. No one god or goddess was fundamentally good or evil; this explained that bad things could happen to good people if they angered a deity because the gods could exercise the same free will that humankind possesses. Such religions taught that some gods were more inclined to be helpful and benevolent, while others were more likely to be spiteful and aggressive. In this sense, the evil gods could be blamed for misfortune, while the good gods could be petitioned with prayer and sacrifices to make things right.
There was still a sense of justice in that individual who was right with the gods could avoid punishment. The “Epicurean trilemma” however was already raised c. 300 BC by Epicurus: according to David Hume in 1779. According to Hume, the trilemma describe the problem of reconciling an omnipotent deity with their benevolence and the existence of evil. However, if Epicurus did write a discussion on the specific problems that Hume attributes to him, it would not have been tied with the question of an omnibenevolent and omniscient God, as Hume assumes (for Hume does not cite, nor make any implication that he knew Epicurus’s writings on this matter that held any greater weight than academic hearsay or legend).
Theodicy and the BibleThe biblical account of the justification of evil and suffering in the presence of God have both similarities and contrasts in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. For the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Job is often quoted as the authoritative source of discussion.
The Book of Job
Brueggemann treats the biblical Book of Job as the prime example of the “newly voiced theodic challenges” to the “old [Deuteronomic] theodic settlement” Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil,”[Job 1:1] but nonetheless he suffered “all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.”[Job 42:11] In the midst of his suffering, Job explicitly contradicted the Deuteronomic theodic settlement: “it is all one; therefore I say, [God] destroys both the blameless and the wicked.”[Job 9:22]
Not only did Job challenge the Deuteronomic theodic settlement by the fact of his own innocent suffering and by explicit contradiction of the old settlement, but he also interrogated God, “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?”[Job 21:7] Brueggemann judges the fact that God had no answer to Job’s why? to be so important that “the Book of Job turns on the refusal, unwillingness, or inability of [God] to answer” Job’s query. Even worse, God says of himself: “… you [Satan] incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”[Job 2:3]
Brueggemann explains that the “turn” he sees in the Book of Job is a turn from seeing the ‘right’ as accepting the old theodic settlement. Now, he continues, “perhaps what is ‘right’ is Job’s refusal to concede, and therefore what is celebrated is his entire defiant argument … That is, what Yahweh intends as ‘right’ is that Job (Israel, humankind) should make a legitimate case” before God “without timidity or cowardice” to “carry the human question of justice into the danger zone of God’s holiness.”
Chapter 3:JobThe author of Job seeks to expand the understanding of divine justice… beyond mere retribution, to include a system of divine sovereignty [showing] the King has the right to test His subject’s loyalty… The book of Job corrects the rigid and overly simplistic doctrine of retribution in attributing suffering to sin and punishment. It closes with a focus on the bond between creator and creation, on placing one in that, and on hope rooted in the belief that God is in ultimate control. It is generally accepted that God’s responsive speeches in Job do not directly answer Job’s complaints; God does not attempt to justify himself or reveal the reason for Job’s suffering to him; instead, Yahweh’s speeches focus on increasing Job’s overall understanding of his relationship with God.
This exemplifies Biblical theodicy. There is general agreement among Bible scholars that the Bible “does not admit of a singular perspective on evil… Instead, we encounter a variety of perspectives… Consequently [the Bible focuses on] moral and spiritual remedies, not rational or logical [justifications]… It is simply that the Bible operates within a cosmic, moral and spiritual landscape rather than within a rationalist, abstract, ontological landscape.”
This is in evidence in Yahweh’s first and second speech in Job. Yahweh’s first speech concerns human ignorance and God’s authority. Job had seen himself at the centre of events, lamenting that God has singled him out to oppress; Yahweh responds that Job is not the centre, God is; his kingdom is complex, he governs on a large scale. Since Yahweh is in dominion over all the earth, Job cannot conceivably condemn him, unless Job were to prove that he can do all the things God can.
Chapter 3:Job Yahweh’s second speech is against human self-righteousness. Job has vehemently accused God of thwarting justice as “the omnipotent tyrant, the cosmic thug”. Some scholars interpret Yahweh’s response as an admission of failure on his part, but he goes on to say he has the power and in his own timing will bring justice in the end.
Chapter 3:Job”Isaiah is generally recognized as one of the most progressive books of the prophetic corpus.” Hebrew Bible scholar Marvin A. Sweeney says “…a unified reading of [Isaiah] places the question of theodicy at the forefront… [with] three major dimensions of the question…: Yahweh’s identification with the conqueror, Yahweh’s decree of judgment against Israel without the possibility of repentance, and the failure of Yahweh’s program to be realized by the end of the book.” Christian theologians read some passages in Isaiah differently. “In either case, suffering is understood as having transcendent meaning… human agency can give particular instances of suffering a mystical significance that transforms it into something productive.”
Theodicy in the book of Ezekiel (and also in Jeremiah 31:29-30) confronts the concept of personal moral responsibility. “The main point is stated at the beginning and at the end—”the soul that sins shall die”—and is explicated by a case history of a family traced through three generations.” It is not about heredity but is about understanding divine justice in a world under divine governance.”Theodicy in the Minor Prophets differs little from that in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.”For example, the first chapter of Habakkuk raises questions about Yahweh’s justice, laments God’s inaction in punishing injustice, and looks for God’s action in response—then objects to what God chooses.
Chapter 1 Instead of engaging in debate, God gives Habakkuk a vision of the future which includes five oracles that form a theodicy:
(1) God has a plan and has appointed a time for judgment. It may be slow in coming as humans see things, but it will come.
(2) The woe oracles confront the prevalence of evil in the world and the justice those acts have earned
(3) The vision of the manifestation of God is a recognition of God’s power to address these issues
(4) God as a warrior will fight for his people
(5) The song of triumph says the faithful will prevail by holding to trust and hope.
Chapter 3 Joel and the other minor prophets demonstrate that theodicy and eschatology are connected in the Bible. Psalm 73 presents the internal struggle created by personal suffering and the prosperity of the wicked. The writer gains perspective when he “enters the sanctuary of God (16-17)” seeing that God’s justice will eventually prevail. He reaffirms his relationship with Yahweh, is ashamed of his resentment, and chooses trust.
Chapter 3 of Psalm 73 Psalm 77 contains real outspokenness to God as well as determination to hold onto faith and trust. Chapter 3:Psalm 77 For the Christian, the Scriptures assure him or her that the allowance of evil is for a good purpose based on a relationship with God. “Some of the good … cannot be achieved without delay and suffering, and the evil of this world is indeed necessary for the achievement of those good purposes.
God has the right to allow such evils to occur, so long as the ‘goods’ are facilitated and the ‘evils’ are limited and compensated in the way that various other Christian doctrines (of human free will, life after death, the end of the world, etc.) affirm…. the ‘good states’ which (according to Christian doctrine) God seeks are so good that they outweigh the accompanying evils.”This is somewhat illustrated in the Book of Exodus when Pharaoh is described as being raised that God’s name is known in all the earth Exodus 9:16.
This is mirrored in Romans’ ninth chapter, where Paul appeals to God’s sovereignty as a sufficient explanation, with God’s goodness experientially known to the Christian.
Theodicy and What the Bible Says
Relating theodicy and the Bible is crucial to understanding Abrahamic theodicy because the Bible “has been, both in theory and in fact, the dominant influence upon ideas about God and evil in the Western world” Theodicy, in its most common form, is the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil. Theodicy attempts to resolve the evidential problem of evil by reconciling the traditional divine characteristics of omnibenevolence and omnipotence, in either their absolute or relative form, with the occurrence of evil or suffering in the world.
Theodicy is an “intensely urgent” and “constant concern” of “the entire Bible”. The Bible raises the issue of theodicy by its portrayals of God as inflicting evil and by its accounts of people who question God’s goodness by their angry indictments. However, the Bible “contains no comprehensive theodicy”.
The most common theodicy is free will theodicy, which lays the blame for all moral evil and some natural evil on humanity’s misuse of its.
God and evil in the Bible
Barry Whitney gives the reason why a theodicy is important for those who believe in the biblical God when he observes that “it is the believer in God, more so than the sceptic, who is forced to come to terms with the problem of evil.”
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann observes that “theodicy is a constant concern of the entire Bible” and he describes theodicy, from the biblical perspective, as a subject that “concerns the question of God’s goodness and power in a world that is manifestly marked by disorder and evil.” The Bible evokes a need for a theodicy by its indictments of God coupled with expressions of anger at God, both of which question God’s righteousness.
The Bible contains numerous examples of God inflicting evil, both in the form of moral evil resulting from “man’s sinful inclinations” and the physical evil of suffering. These two biblical uses of the word evil parallel the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definitions of the word as (a) “morally evil” and (b) “discomfort, pain, or trouble.” The Bible sometimes portrays God as inflicting evil in the generic sense.
In other cases, the word evil refers to suffering. Suffering results from either (a) “‘moral’ evil, due to human volition” or (b) “‘physical’ evil, directly due to nature.” The Bible portrays God as inflicting evil in both senses because its writers “regarded God as the ultimate cause of evil.” The Bible contains examples of suffering caused by nature that is attributed to God, as well as examples of suffering caused by humans that are attributed to God.
Biblical responses to evils
Tyron Inbody avers that “there is no biblical theodicy.” However, Inbody observes that the Bible proffers “various solutions” to questions about God and the evil of human suffering. These “various solutions” to the why of suffering and other evils are delineated in the Bible’s “responses” (James Crenshaw) or “approaches” (Daniel J. Harrington) or “answers” (Bart Ehrman) to the evil that these biblical scholars have identified. These scholars see a range of responses including punishment for sin, teaching or testing, or the means to some greater good.
Gregory Boyd, while appreciating “expositions of various biblical motifs that explain why we suffer, goes on to warn that “none of these motifs claims to be a comprehensive theodicy.” In agreement with Boyd, Milton Crum comments that although such biblical passages might lessen the weight of suffering, ad hoc interpretations of evils do not provide a blanket theodicy. N. T. Wright “reminds us” that “the scriptures are frustratingly indirect and incomplete in answering questions of theodicy.”
Deuteronomic “theodic settlement”
Brueggemann observes that, while the various biblical books do not agree on a theodicy, there was a temporary “theodic settlement” in the biblical Book of Deuteronomy.
The “theodic settlement” in the Book of Deuteronomy interprets all afflictions as just punishment for sin, that is, as retribution. Brueggemann defines “the theological notion of retribution” as “the assumption or conviction that the world is ordered by God so that everyone receives a fair outcome of reward or punishment commensurate with his or her conduct.” Brueggemann points to Psalm One as a succinct summary of this retribution theodicy: “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish” (Psalm 1:6).
Deuteronomy elaborates its “theodic settlement” in Chapter 28. Verse two promises that “blessings shall come upon you and overtake you if you obey the Lord your God.” This general promise of blessings is followed by a lengthy list of fourteen specific blessings. But, on the other hand, verse fifteen warns that “if you will not obey the Lord your God …, curses shall come upon you.” This general warning of curses is followed by a list of fifty-four specific curses, all of which would fit into the biblical use of the word evil.
The Deuteronomic retribution theodic settlement interpreted whatever evils (“curses”) people suffered as just retribution meted out by a just God. However, at least as early as the early 6th century BC, Jeremiah was asserting that the retribution theodicy was contrary to fact. Jeremiah upbraided God for endowing the wicked with prosperity: “Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? You plant them, and they take root.” [Jeremiah 12:1–2]
In John 9:1–34, Jesus dismisses this “theodic settlement” by explaining that “It was neither that [a blind] man sinned, nor his parents [that caused his infirmity]; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Bible and free-will theodicy
A theodicy is an attempt “to reconcile the power and goodness attributed to God with the presence of evil in the human experience.”The Bible attributes both “power” and “goodness” to God.
The free-will theodicy, first developed by Augustine, defends God by placing all the blame for evil on “the misuse of free will by human beings.” This free-will theodicy is “perhaps the most influential theodicy ever constructed,” and it is currently “the most common theodicy”
Explaining the free-will theodicy, Nick Trakakis writes that “the free will theodicies proceeds to explain the existence of moral evil as a consequence of the misuse of our freedom.” Then “the free will theodicies adds, however, that the value of free will (and the goods it makes possible) is so great as to outweigh the risk that it may be misused in various ways.”
In parallel with the free-will theodicy, The New Bible Dictionary finds that the Bible attributes evil “to the abuse of free-will.” Others have noted the free-will theodicy’s “compatibility with and reliance upon the Genesis account of creation” and the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. Because of the compatibility between the free-will theodicy and the Genesis account of the Creation and Fall of humanity, “the Fall-doctrine” has been characterized as “fundamentally an exercise in theodicy-making.”
Free will and freedom: definition problems
The two terms, “freedom” and “free will,” are treated together (a) because, by definition, a “free will” means a “will” that possesses “freedom” and (b) because “free will” is “commonly used” as synonymous with “freedom.” Likewise, Robert Kane, writing about “what is often called the free will issue or the problem of free will,” says that it “is really a cluster of problems or questions revolving around the conception of human freedom”
In writing about free will, R. C. Sproul points out that “at the heart of the problem is the question of the definition of free will.”Manual Vargas adds that “it is not clear that there is any single thing that people have had in mind by the term ‘free will’.” Because of the confusion created when “definitions of free will are assumed without being stated,” Randy Alcorn urges, “be sure to define terms.”
Adler’s kinds of freedom
Further information: Mortimer Adler § Freedom and free
Mortimer Adler recognized the confusion resulting from the fact that there are “several different objects men have in mind when they use the word freedom.” In The Idea of Freedom, Adler resolved this confusion by distinguishing the “three kinds of freedom” that various writers have in mind when they use the word. He calls these three kinds of freedom (1) “circumstantial freedom,” (2) “natural freedom,” and (3) “acquired freedom.” Natural freedom” and “acquired freedom” are germane to the Bible in relation to the free-will theodicy.
“Natural freedom” and the Bible
“Natural freedom”, in Adler’s terminology, is the freedom of “self-determination” regarding one’s “decisions or plans.” Natural freedom is “(i) inherent in all men, (ii) regardless of the circumstances under which they live and (iii) without regard to any state of mind or character which they may or may not acquire in the course of their lives”
Biblical scholars find that the Bible views all humanity as possessing the “natural freedom” of the will that enables “self-determination.” In this sense of the term, biblical scholars say that, although the Bible does not use the term, it assumes human “free will.” For example, what Adler calls “natural freedom” matches the definition of the biblical concept of “free will” in the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, namely, “the free choice of the will that all persons possess.” Other scholars describe free will in the Bible as follows:
- If the phrase “free will” be taken morally and psychologically, as meaning the power of unconstrained, spontaneous, voluntary, and therefore responsible, choice, the Bible everywhere assumes that all men, as such, possess it, unregenerate and regenerate alike. The New Bible Dictionary.
- “Free will is clearly taught in such Scripture passages as Matthew 23:37 … and in Revelation 22:17.” Archaeology and Bible History.
- The Bible assumes that all human beings have “free will” in the sense of “the ability to make meaningful choices,” that is, “the ability to have voluntary choices that have real effects.” If God Is Good.
- We make willing choices, choices that have a real effect… In this sense, it is certainly consistent with Scripture to say that we have “free will.” Bible Doctrine.
Debate on “natural freedom”
The proper interpretation of biblical passages relating to the freedom of the human will has been the subject of debate for most of the Christian era. The Pelagius versus Augustine of Hippo debate over free will took place in the 5th century. The Erasmus versus Martin Luther arguments in the 16th century included disagreements about free will, as did the Arminians versus Calvinists debates in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
There is still no resolution of the free will debate because as Robert Kane observes, “debates about free will are more alive than ever today.”
“Acquired freedom” and the Bible
“Acquired freedom,” in Adler’s terminology, is the freedom “to live as [one] ought to live,” and to live as one ought requires “a change or development” whereby a person acquires “a state of mind, or character, or personality” that can be described by such qualities as “good, wise, virtuous, righteous, holy, healthy, sound, flexible, etc.”
Thus, while Adler ascribes the “natural freedom” of “self-determination” to everyone, he asserts that the freedom “to live as [one] ought to live” must be acquired by “a change or development” in a person. The New Bible Dictionary finds these two distinct freedoms in the Bible:
(i) “The Bible everywhere assumes” that, by nature, everyone possesses the freedom of “unconstrained, spontaneous, voluntary, and therefore responsible, choice.” The New Bible Dictionary calls this natural freedom “free will” in a moral and psychological sense of the term. (ii) At the same time, the Bible seems “to indicate that no man is free for obedience and faith till he is freed from sin’s dominion.” He still possesses “free will” in the sense of voluntary choices, but “all his voluntary choices are in one way or another act of serving sin” until he acquires freedom from “sin’s dominion.” The New Bible Dictionary denotes this acquired freedom for “obedience and faith” as “free will” in a theological sense.
The Bible gives a basic reason why a person must acquire a freedom “to live as [one] ought to live” when it applies Adam and Eve’s sin to all humanity: “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Or, in Paul’s view, “by the one man’s disobedience, the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19). Thus, the Bible describes humanity as connaturally “enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6; John 8:34). Therefore, in biblical thinking, a freedom from being “enslaved to sin” in order to “live as one ought” must be acquired because “sin” is “the failure to live up to Jesus’ commandments to love God and love neighbour.”
Jesus on acquired freedom
Jesus told his hearers that they needed to be made free: “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). But Jesus’ hearers did not understand that he was not talking about freedom from “economic or social slavery,” so they responded, “we are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?” (John 8:33).”
To clarify what he meant by being “made free,” Jesus answered them, “very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). By his words being “made free,” Jesus meant being “made free” from “bondage to sin.” Continuing his reply, Jesus added, “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). “Free indeed [ontós]” can be more literally translated “truly free” or “really free,” as it is in the following translations.
- “If the Son makes you free, you will be truly free” (John 8:36 New Century Bible).
- “If therefore the Son shall set you free, ye shall be really free” (John 8:36 Darby Translation).
In the John 8:32–36 passage, Jesus taught that “those who sin are slaves to their sin whether they realize it or not” and “they cannot break away from their sin.” The freedom of being “truly free” or “really free” had to be acquired by being made free by “the truth,” John’s name for Jesus in 14:6. Thus, Jesus characterized being made “truly free” as freedom from being a “slave to sin.” At the same time, the Bible holds that it is freedom for righteous living because “from the very beginning God’s people were taught that the alternative to servitude was not freedom in some abstract sense, but rather freedom to serve the Lord.”
Paul on acquired freedom
When the New Bible Dictionary says of humanity’s connatural condition that “all his voluntary choices are in one way or another act of serving sin,” it references Romans 6:17–22. In this passage, Paul depicts the connatural human condition as being “slaves of sin.” To be “set free from sin,” Paul told his readers that they must “become slaves of righteousness.”
Regarding the transformation from being “slaves of sin” to being “slaves of righteousness,” Douglas J. Moo comments that Paul uses the image of slavery to say that “being bound to God and his will enables the person to become ‘free'” – in the sense of being free “to be what God wants that person to be.” The slavery image underscores, as Moo says, that what Paul has in mind “is not freedom to do what one wants, but freedom to obey God” and that the obedience is done “willingly, joyfully, naturally,” and not by coercion as with literal slaves.
The Fall and freedom of the will
The Fall (sometimes lowercase) in its theological use refers to “the lapse of human beings into a state of natural or innate sinfulness through the sin of Adam and Eve.” The story of the Fall is narrated in Genesis 3:1–7.
Nelson’s Student Bible Dictionary describes “the fall” as “the disobedience and sin of Adam and Eve that caused them to lose the state of innocence in which they had been created. This event plunged them and all mankind into a state of sin and corruption.” A Concise Dictionary of Theology provides a similar description of the Fall. In their fall, Adam and Eve “disobeyed God and so lost their innocent, ideal existence” and “brought moral evil into the world.”
The Bible testifies to the deleterious impact of the Fall on all humanity. Shortly after the Fall, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Or, in Paul’s view, “sin came into the world through one man,” and “by the one man’s disobedience, the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:12, 19).
Freedom of will given at creation
Writing about God’s creation and Adam and Eve, Baker’s Dictionary of Biblical Theology says that “creation is climaxed by persons who possess wills that can choose to either obey or disobey.” The Book of Ecclesiasticus, which pre-Protestant Reformation churches consider part of the Bible but which Protestants classify among the Apocrypha, explicitly names freedom of the will as an element in God’s creation: God “created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice” (Ecclesiasticus 15:14).
Freedom of will not given at creation
Adam and Eve were created with “free will,” that is, “the ability to choose either good or evil.” The Fall evidence that Adam and Eve were not created with the freedom that Paul calls being “slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18): a phrase that denotes “freedom to obey God – willingly, joyfully, naturally.”
Critics of the free-will theodicy believe that it “fails” because “God could have created free agents without risking bringing moral evil into the world. There is nothing logically inconsistent about a free agent that always chooses the good.” Relating God’s creation of Adam and Eve and the Fall to theodicy, J. L. Mackie argues “there was open to [God] the obviously better possibility of making beings who would freely act but always do right.” And, Mackie adds, “clearly, [God’s] failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.”
God and moral evil
The free-will theodicy justifies God by ascribing all evil to “the evil acts of human free will.”At the same time, the Bible teaches that God “rules the hearts and actions of all men.”The Bible contains many portrayals of God as ruling “hearts and actions” for evil. Following are a few examples
- God said, “I will harden [Pharaoh’s] heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21).
- Isaiah asked, “Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our he so that we do not fear you?” (Isaiah 63:17).
- God said, “If a prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet” (Ezekiel 14:9).
- John writes that those who “did not believe in [Jesus] could not believe,” because, quoting Isaiah 6:10, “[God] has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart” (John 12:37–40 abr).
- God “hardens the heart of whomever he chooses” (Romans 9:18).
- “God sends [those who are perishing] a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so [they] will be condemned” (2 Thessalonians 2:11–12).
- “Those who do not believe … stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined [by God] to do” (1 Peter 2:7–8).
The existence of evil in the world, in the view of Raymond Lam, “presents the gravest challenge to the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God.” Lam also observes that “no theodicy is easy.”
Regarding theodicy and the Bible, Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology concludes that “the Bible does not answer the oft-posed problem of how a just, omnipotent, and loving God could permit evil to exist in a universe he had created.”
With no “definitive answer” to the theodic question, “debates about theodicy continue among believers and unbelievers alike,” observes Robert F. Brown. Therefore, Brown adds, “theodicy remains a perennial concern for thoughtful religious commitment.” Theodicy remains a “perennial concern” because, Brown reports, “how the divine can be compatible with the existence of evil in the world has perplexed profound thinkers and ordinary people right down to the present day.”
Augustinian theodicy Protestant and Reformed reading of Augustinian theodicy, as promoted primarily by John Hick, is based on the writings of Augustine of Hippo, a Christian philosopher and theologian who lived from AD 354 to 430. The Catholic (pre-reformation) formulation of the same issue is substantially different and is outlined below. In Hick’s approach, this form of theodicy argues that evil does not exist except as a privation—or corruption—of goodness, and therefore God did not create evil.
Augustinian scholars have argued that God created the world perfectly, with no evil or human suffering. Evil entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the theodicy casts the existence of evil as a just punishment for this original sin The theodicy argues that humans have an evil nature in as much as it is deprived of its original goodness, form, order, and measure due to the inherited original sin of Adam and Eve, but still ultimately remains good due to existence coming from God, for if a nature was completely evil (deprived of the good), it would cease to exist.
It maintains that God remains blameless and good. In the Roman Catholic reading of Augustine, the issue of just war as developed in his book The City of God substantially established his position concerning the positive justification of killing, suffering and pain as inflicted upon an enemy when encountered in the war for a just cause.
Augustine asserted that peacefulness in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a sin. Defence of one’s self or others could be a necessity, especially when authorized by a legitimate authority. While not elaborating the conditions necessary for war to be just, Augustine nonetheless originated the very phrase, itself, in his work The City of God. In essence, the pursuit of peace must include the option of fighting with all of its eventualities to preserve peace in the long term. Such a war could not be pre-emptive, but defensive, to restore peace.
Thomas Aquinas, centuries later, used the authority of Augustine’s arguments in an attempt to define the conditions under which a war could be just.
Irenaean theodicyIrenaeus (died c. 202), born in the early second century, expressed ideas that explained the existence of evil as necessary for human development. Irenaeus argued that human creation comprised two parts: humans were made first in the image, then in God’s likeness. The image of God consists of having the potential to achieve moral perfection, whereas the likeness of God is the achievement of that perfection. To achieve moral perfection, Irenaeus suggested that humans must have free will. To achieve such free will, humans must experience suffering and God must be at an epistemic distance (a distance of knowledge) from humanity. Therefore, evil exists to allow humans to develop as moral agents. In the twentieth century, John Hick collated the ideas of Irenaeus into a distinct theodicy. He argued that the world exists as a “vale of soul-making” (a phrase that he drew from John Keats), and that suffering and evil must therefore occur. He argued that human goodness develops through the experience of evil and suffering.
In direct response to John Hick’s description of theodicy, Mark Scott has indicated that neither Augustine of Hippo nor Irenaeus of Lyons provide an appropriate context for the discussion of Hick’s theistic version of theodicy. As a theologian among the Church Fathers who articulated a theory of apokatastasis (or universal reconciliation), Origen of Alexandria provides a more direct theological comparison for the discussion of Hick’s presentation of universal salvation and theodicy. Neither Irenaeus nor Augustine endorsed a theology of universal salvation in any form comparable to that of John Hick.
At an academic level, theodicies provide complex philosophical and theological arguments to justify and sustain the idea of a loving, all-powerful God in the face of the human experience of pain and suffering. However, at a personal level they serve to provide a variety of powerful explanatory frameworks. This tension between the general and the personal is important. Recently, scholars and practitioners have begun to recognize that the questions that theodicy raises have practical as well as philosophical and theological importance (Swinton, 2007). Anecdotal reports from pastors and chaplains alongside the limited research that has been done on the pastoral implications of theodical beliefs indicate that the ways in which such questions are answered by individuals in times of suffering can significantly impact their mental health and well-being at the end of life. This, combined with observations from psychology that it is the particularities of religious belief that brings health and healing (see Pargament, 2002), makes theodicy a particularly relevant set of theological beliefs which can be identified and explored.
To date, the work examining theodicy in end-of-life care is limited. In a study of caregivers of terminally ill patients, Mickley, Pargament, Brant, and Hipp (1998) found that caregivers of patients with cancer who appraised their situation as part of God’s plan or as a means of gaining strength or understanding from God reported positive outcomes while those who viewed their situation as unjust, as an unfair punishment from God, or desertion from God had low scores on mental and spiritual outcomes. Francoeur, Payne, Raveis, and Shim (2007) suggest that patients who believe suffering to be redemptive might also be receptive to trusted clergy and pastoral counsellors from their faith tradition who encourage them to consider acceptance of caregiving from family members and health professionals. This may also be another means for acceptance of God’s will and mercy, not only for the patient, but perhaps as well, or even more so, for other family members who are provided with an opportunity to atone for their own sins by providing care and relieving suffering in a loved one. Thus there is evidence that theoretical issues impact well-being at end of life.
The focus of this article is on the clinical implications of theodicy; what does theodicy actually look like in this practical mode? In what follows we will offer a brief overview of theodicy as it relates to three religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and offer some potential pastoral insights that will help locate the theoretical discussion within clinical practice. Otherworld religions must also explain the presence of evil in the world, but the problem is particularly complex for Judeo-Christian traditions because of the assertion that God is both all-powerful and all-loving. We emphasize that although there is a potential diversity in interpretations of suffering possible within each religion, we cannot assume that all adherents of these three religions are likely to see the world in this way. Furthermore, the question of how to explain evil is not limited to the theistic religions. It can be equally challenging to explain evil in the context of evolutionary theory and other spiritual or faith-based traditions that do not believe in a theistic god. We shall begin with Judaism.
RELATIVELY MINOR THEODICIES
Michael Martin summarizes what he calls “relatively minor” theodicies. The Finite God Theodicy maintains that God is all-good (omnibenevolent) but not all-powerful (omnipotent). The Best of all Possible Worlds Theodicy, a traditional theology, argues that creation is the best of all possible worlds. The Original Sin Theodicy holds that evil came into the world because of humanity’s original sin. The Ultimate Harmony Theodicy justifies evil as leading to “good long-range consequences”.The Degree of Desirability of a Conscious State Theodicy has been reckoned a “complex theodicy.” It argues that a person’s state is deemed evil only when it is undesirable to the person. However, because God is unable to make a person’s state desirable to the person, the theodicy problem does not exist. The Reincarnation Theodicy believes that people suffer evil because of their wrong-doing in a previous life. The Contrast Theodicy holds that evil is needed to enable people to appreciate or understand good. The Warning Theodicy rationalizes evil as God’s warning to people to mend their ways.
Mu’tazila theologians approached the problem of theodicy within a framework of moral realism, according to which the moral value of acts is accessible to unaided reason so that humans can make moral judgments about divine acts. They argued that the divine act of creation is good despite the existence of suffering because it allows humans a compensation of greater reward in the afterlife. They posited that individuals have free will to commit evil and absolved God of responsibility for such acts. God’s justice thus consists of punishing wrongdoers. Following the demise of Mu’tazila as a school, their theodicy was adopted in the Zaydi and Twelver branches of Shia Islam. Most Sunni theologians analyzed theodicy from an anti-realist metaethical standpoint. Ash’ari theologians argued that ordinary moral judgments stem from emotion and social convention, which are inadequate to either condemn or justify divine actions. Ash’arites hold that God creates everything, including human actions, but distinguish creation (khalq) from acquisition (kasb) of actions. They allow individuals the latter ability, though they do not posit the existence of free will in a fuller sense of the term. In the words of Al-Shahrastani (1086–1153): God creates, in man, the power, ability, choice, and will to perform an act, and man, endowed with this derived power, chooses freely one of the alternatives and intends or wills to do the action, and, corresponding to this intention, God creates and completes the action. Ash’ari theology, which dominated Sunni Islam from the tenth to the nineteenth century, also insists on ultimate divine transcendence and teaches that human knowledge regarding it is limited to what has been revealed through the prophets, so that on the question of God’s creation of evil, revelation has to accepted bila kayfa (without [asking] how).
Ibn Sina, the most influential Muslim philosopher, analyzed theodicy from a purely ontological, Neoplatonic standpoint, aiming to prove that God, as the absolutely good First Cause, created a good world. Ibn Sina argued that evil refers either to a cause of an entity (such as burning in a fire), being a quality of another entity or to its imperfection (such as blindness), in which case it does not exist as an entity.
According to Ibn Sina, such qualities are necessary attributes of the best possible order of things, so that the good they serve is greater than the harm they cause. Philosophical Sufi theologians such as Ibn Arabi were influenced by the Neoplatonic theodicy of Ibn Sina.
Al-Ghazali anticipated the optimistic theodicy of Leibniz in his dictum “There is nothing in possibility more wonderful than what is.” Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, who represented the mainstream Sunni view, challenged Ibn Sina’s analysis and argued that it merely sidesteps the real problem of evil, rooted in the human experience of suffering in a world that contains more pain than pleasure.
The Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya, whose writings became influential in Wahhabism, argued that, while God creates human acts, humans are responsible for their deeds as the agents of their acts. He held that divine creation is good from a causal standpoint, as God creates all things for wise purposes. Thus apparent evil is in actuality good because of its purpose, and pure evil does not exist. This analysis was developed further with practical illustrations by Ibn al-Qayyim.
Alternatives Jewish anti-theodicy
Holocaust theology 1998, Jewish theologian Zachary Braiterman coined the term anti-theodicy in his book (God) After Auschwitz to describe Jews, both in a biblical and post-Holocaust context, whose response to the problem of evil is protest and refusal to investigate the relationship between God and suffering. Anti-theodicy acts in opposition to a theodicy and places full blame for all experience of evil onto God, but must arise from an individual’s belief in and love of God. Anti-theodicy has been likened to Job’s protests in the Book of Job.
Braiterman wrote that an anti-theodicy rejects the idea that there is a meaningful relationship between God and evil or that God could be justified for the experience of evil. The Holocaust prompted a reconsideration of theodicy in some Jewish circles. French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who had himself been a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, declared theodicy to be “blasphemous”, arguing that it is the “source of all immorality”, and demanded that the project of theodicy be ended. Levinas asked whether the idea of absolutism survived after the Holocaust, which he proposed it did.
He argued that humans are not called to justify God in the face of evil, but to attempt to live godly lives; rather than considering whether God was present during the Holocaust, the duty of humans is to build a world where good will prevail. Professor of theology David R. Blumenthal, in his book Facing the Abusing God, supports the “theology of protest”, which he saw as presented in the play, The Trial of God. He supports the view that survivors of the Holocaust cannot forgive God and so must protest about it. Blumenthal believes that a similar theology is presented in the book of Job, in which Job does not question God’s existence or power, but his morality and justice.
Other prominent voices in the Jewish tradition commenting on the justification of God in the presence of the Holocaust have been the Nobel prize-winning author Elie Wiesel and Richard L. Rubinstein in his book The Cunning of History. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch, sought to elucidate how faith (or trust, Emunah) in God defines the full, transcendental preconditions of anti-theodicy.
Endorsing the attitude of “holy protest” found in the stories of Job and Jeremiah, but also those of Abraham (Genesis 18) and Moses (Exodus 33), Rabbi Schneerson argued that a phenomenology of protest, when carried through to its logical limits, reveals a profound conviction in cosmic justice such, as we first find in Abraham’s question: “Will the Judge of the whole earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18:25). Recalling Kant’s 1791 essay on the failure of all theoretical attempts in theodicy, a viable practical theodicy is identified with messianism. This faithful anti-theodicy is worked out in a long letter of 26 April 1965 to Elie Wiesel.
Christian alternatives to theodicy
A number of Christian writers oppose theodicies. Todd Billings deems constructing theodicies to be a “destructive practice”. In the same vein, Nick Trakakis observes that “theodicy discourse can only add to the world’s evils, not remove or illuminate them.” As an alternative to theodicy, some theologians have advocated “reflection on tragedy” as a more befitting reply to evil. For example, Wendy Farley believes that “a desire for justice” and “anger and pity at suffering” should replace “theodicy’s cool justifications of evil”.
Sarah K. Pinnock opposes abstract theodicies that would legitimize evil and suffering. However, she endorses theodicy discussions in which people ponder God, evil, and suffering from a practical faith perspective. Karl Barth viewed the evil of human suffering as ultimately in the “control of divine providence”. Given this view, Barth deemed it impossible for humans to devise a theodicy that establishes “the idea of the goodness of God”. For Barth, only the crucifixion could establish the goodness of God. In the crucifixion, God bears and suffers what humanity suffers. This suffering by God Himself makes human theodicies anticlimactic. Barth found a “twofold justification” in the crucifixion: the justification of sinful humanity and “the justification in which God justifies Himself”.Christian Science offers a rational, though widely unacceptable, the solution to the problem by denying that evil ultimately exists. Mary Baker Eddy and Mark Twain had some contrasting views on theodicy and suffering, which are well-described by Stephen Gottschalk. Redemptive suffering based on Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body embraces suffering as having a value in and of itself. Eleonore Stump in “Wandering in Darkness” uses psychology, narrative and exegesis to demonstrate that redemptive suffering, as found in Thomistic theodicy, can constitute a consistent and cogent defence for the problem of suffering.
See also: Theodicy and the Bible § Bible and free-will theodicy an alternative to a theodicy, a defence may be offered as a response to the problem of evil. The defence attempts to show that God’s existence is not made logically impossible by the existence of evil; it does not need to be true or plausible, merely logically possible.[according to whom?] American philosopher Alvin Plantinga offers a free-will defence that argues that human free will sufficiently explain the existence of evil while maintaining that God’s existence remains logically possible. He argues that, if God’s existence and the existence of evil are to be logically inconsistent, a premise must be provided which, if true, would make them inconsistent; as none has been provided, the existence of God and evil must be consistent. Free will furthers this argument by providing a premise which, in conjunction with the existence of evil, entails that God’s existence remains consistent. Opponents have argued this defence is discredited by the existence of non-human-related evil such as droughts, tsunamis, and malaria.
Cosmodicy and anthropodicy.
A cosmodicy attempts to justify the fundamental goodness of the universe in the face of evil, and an anthropodicy attempts to justify the fundamental goodness of human nature in the face of the evils produced by humans. Considering the relationship between theodicy and cosmodicy, Johannes van der Ven argued that the choice between theodicy and cosmodicy is a false dilemma. Philip E. Devenish proposed what he described as “a nuanced view in which theodicy and cosmodicy are rendered complementary, rather than alternative concepts”. Theologian J. Matthew Ashley described the relationship between theodicy, cosmodicy, and anthropodicy: In classical terms, this is to broach the problem of theodicy: how to think about God in the face of the presence of suffering in God’s creation. After God’s dethronement as the subject of history, the question rebounds to the new subject of history: the human being. As a consequence, theodicy becomes anthropodicy – justifications of our faith in humanity as the subject of history, in the face of the suffering that is so inextricably woven into the history that humanity makes. An essential kenosis is a form of process theology (related to “open theism”) that allows one to affirm that God is almighty, while simultaneously affirming that God cannot prevent genuine evil. Because out of love God necessarily gives freedom, agency, self-organization, natural processes, and law-like regularities to creation, God cannot override, withdraw, or fail to provide such capacities. Consequently, God is not culpable for failing to prevent genuine evil. The work of Thomas Jay Oord explains this view most fully. Gijsbert van den Brink effectively refutes any view that says God has restricted His power because of his love saying it creates a “metaphysical dualism”. It would not alleviate God’s responsibility for evil because God could have prevented evil by not restricting himself. Van den Brink goes on to elaborate an explanation of power and love within the Trinitarian view which equates power and love, and what he calls “the power of love” as representative of God’s involvement in the struggle against evil.
THE QUESTION OF THEODICY
The term theodicy was introduced into philosophy by Leibniz, who, in 1710, published a work entitled: Essais de Théodicée sur la bonte de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal (Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil), often shortened to Théodicée. The book was written after the horrors of the Lisbon earthquake. However, while Leibniz introduced the term theodicy, the issues that he wrestled with are much older. David Hume traces the fundamental question of theodicy back to the philosopher Epicurus: “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (Hume, 1980, p. 198). Translated into a clinical context: “How could a God of power and love allow this to happen to me?”
Suffering raises profound questions about the role of God in human affairs and for believers can create a state of cognitive dissonance. Religious believers seek to answer such questions by turning to their traditions. So, for example, the person might attribute only goodness to God in which case the suffering may be attributed to other causes such as evil, sin, or something that the person feels he/she has done wrong to deserve such punishment. Similarly, the illness might be attributed to a lack of faith or a testing of their faith, original sin; atonement for individual sin; character building; the result of free will, illusory; God’s unknown purposes; educational and increasing faith and so forth. The key point is that the person’s religious tradition provides the interpretative lens through which is worked out personal theodicy. This may sit within established theodical understandings as laid down by religious traditions or it may sit outside of such theodicies. For the practitioner, the issue is to ensure that she has enough knowledge of the particularities of theodicy to enable her to recognize and support the wrestling of the patient. Through a deeper understanding of the particular meaning of patients’ theodical beliefs, empathy, compassion, and understanding will be increased and patient care enhanced at a fundamental level.
IMPORTANCE OF THEODICY
Put simply, theodicy is the intellectual defence of God in the face of evil and suffering. Theodicies are designed to provide explanations for evil and to enable people to hold on to the possibility of God in the midst of pain and suffering and seek to provide complex philosophical and theological arguments to justify and sustain the idea that there is logic in believing in a God who is perfectly good, all-loving, and an all-powerful God, even in the face of the reality of the world’s pain. Two influential Christian theodical arguments that have been deeply influential in shaping how Western religious traditions have come to understand evil and suffering come from the theologians Augustine and Irenaeus.
What are the implications of theodicy for health practitioners? Theoretical issues may cause anxiety and distress for believers, but they can also potentially be a source of relief and release. Patients with a religious worldview often struggle with whether God cares about, or has sent, their pain. How clinicians respond to such questions will have a great impact on how patients express themselves and use their religious beliefs to cope with their situations. For patients holding religious/spiritual perspectives, discussion of theodicy may facilitate closer relationships between patients and their caregivers and result in more compassionate care. However, it is not only those who profess religious/spiritual beliefs who have to deal with suffering. Atheistic patients also search for meaning in their lives but reject the answers offered by traditional authorities. It is interesting to note that within secular Britain, the phenomenon of anthropodicy—an attempt, or argument attempting, to justify the existence of humanity as good—is not uncommon: “What did I do for this to happen? Was it my diet? My lack of exercise? My mother’s genes?” (Swinton, Bain, Ingram, & Heys, 2011). While our focus here has been on religious beliefs, the basic psychological dynamic is present in many different kinds of situations with patients with diverse beliefs.
The implications of theodicy are both contextual and multifaceted. Social workers and other health professionals should work together in sharing or respecting these theoretical possibilities/perspectives with patients and families. This type of coordinated care could especially be important for Muslim patients and family members who may feel the need to refuse palliative care to relieve symptoms such as pain because they consider their suffering to be God’s will. In other situations, patients may not feel comfortable with clergy or pastoral care counsellors, especially patients who feel alienated from, or who no longer believe in, the faith tradition of their earlier life, as well as agnostic patients. Social workers may need to draw on theodicy perspectives from all three of these faith traditions, and perhaps other traditions, in order to help these patients (and family members) who may be “spiritual but not religious.” Sometimes health professionals may lack knowledge of working with these issues and referral to chaplains is appropriate in these situations. Indeed, some health professionals, including clinical social workers, might rightly reply that their “correct response” is to refer the patient to a spiritual care professional in recognition that their expertise is limited in this field.
There has been recent interest in the ways in which health professionals can work with theoretical issues in therapy with patients with life-threatening illnesses. One of the most important reasons for therapists to have training in religious and spiritual issues is to avoid unintentionally imposing their values on their clients through misunderstanding or not being familiar with the client’s belief system. It is important to be aware of the different approaches that individuals take to resolve these issues. While it is unrealistic for professionals to gain knowledge of all the issues that clients are dealing with, it is important to gain some awareness of theodicy especially if psychotherapeutic work with clients is contemplated. Although most social workers do not conduct psychotherapy with dying patients, preferring short-term work, some may choose to further train in this area.
Hoffman, Grimes, and Mitchell (2010) describe a psychological intervention for clients struggling with issues of theodicy and other forms of suffering and loss which involves working with images of God and facilitating patients’ expression of anger toward him. They utilize Ana-Maria Rizzuto’s (1979) object relations framework for understanding representations of God. This framework differentiates between one’s concepts of God and one’s images of God. The God Concept, defined as a person’s cognitive beliefs about God or a transcendent other, is contrasted with the God-Image, a person’s emotional or relational experience of God. Both can be powerful sources of sustenance and healing when they are internally consistent and healthy. However, when there are unresolved discrepancies between them, or when they entail negative experiences of God, these psychological processes often further complicate the healing and growth processes. Through therapy, individuals are helped to resolve these discrepancies. In this framework, theodicies are seen as defences that may facilitate coping but can also lead to greater suffering.
Although religious groups have traditionally discouraged the expression of anger toward God and other people, often associating anger with sin, in the Jewish and Christian scriptures anger is commonplace: God is angry, Jesus displays anger, and anger expressed toward God is commonplace among the prophets. This is to be contrasted with Islam where expression of anger to God is unacceptable. A critical and foundational issue in dealing with theodicy, evil, and suffering in therapy is the ability to be able to tolerate the client’s anger. It is important to provide a safe space for patients to express their anger toward God and to question his actions. However, it is not the therapist’s responsibility to find or create the answers. It is becoming increasingly common for therapists to embrace ideas such as mystery, questioning, and spiritual journeying as healthy spirituality (Moore, 2002; Schneider, 2004).
This thesis also examines theodicy—the vindication of God’s goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil from the perspectives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We focus on the thought processes that chaplains, social workers, and other professionals may use in their care interventions to address issues of theodicy for patients. Theoretical issues may cause anxiety and distress for believers, but they can also potentially be a source of relief and release. Palliative care patients with a religious worldview often struggle with whether God cares about, or has sent, their pain. How social workers and other clinicians respond to such questions will have a great impact on how patients express themselves and use their religious beliefs to cope with their situations. For patients holding religious/spiritual perspectives, discussion of theodicy may facilitate closer relationships between patients and their caregivers and result in more compassionate and empathic care.
COMPARISON OF AQUINAS, MAIMONIDES, AND AL-GHAZALI
The comparison of Aquinas, al-Ghazali, and Maimonides is the first horizontal level of comparison in my thesis. As I have stated in the methodology section, the comparisons serve
as a lens to help us explore Christianity‘s view of theodicy. My purpose is not to find flaws in the other religious positions, but to use their positions to gain new perspectives that we can apply to help deepen and broaden our Christian theodicy. This would of course include our overall apologetic. I will largely keep my comparisons to those between Christianity and the other two religions. I will at times point out comparisons between Judaism and Islam only when they add additional perspective on something relative to Christianity. As stated before, when I speak of comparisons of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, I am referring to comparisons of the positions of the theologians examined, not all positions of these religions. I am using elements from Poythress‘ Symphonic Theology as I make these comparisons. This includes the variety of perspectives . . . the other person’s strong point . . . the dissolution of poorly posed questions and debates that are based ultimately on semantic questions . . . [and] enrichment by the reconciliation of opposite emphases. As I walk through each topic, I will structure the comparison to look at areas where Christianity seems or is similar to, Judaism and Islam, but will look deeper at how they are or are not similar. I will bring up any unique points that each religion has offered in an area of theodicy. Finally, I will look at areas where Christianity is in opposition to Islam and Judaism.
QUESTIONS OF THEODICY
Why do the righteous suffer? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do innocent children experience illness and death?
Why do godly people suffer? Why do tyrants harm the helpless with apparent impunity? Why is there evil in a world created by a good God? Is the God who created such a world really morally good? These are questions often posed by readers of the Bible, and indeed, some are questions addressed within the Bible itself. THOUGH IN SOME CASES have been given new poignancy in our day by the events of the European Holocaust. The fact that many who died in the Holocaust were devout Jews or Christians also poses a special problem for the faiths to which these victims belonged. Traditionally, Jews and Christians have affirmed God’s goodness and his absolute sovereignty over history. But how can this faith be reconciled with suffering on the scale for which Auschwitz is the symbol?
The effort to answer questions of this sort is commonly referred to as theodicy. The term was apparently coined by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) and is a compound of the Greek words for God (theos) and justice (dikē). Theodicy may thus be thought of as the effort to defend God’s justice and power in the face of suffering. Theodicies result from this effort: they are specific explanations or justifications of suffering in a world believed to be ruled by a morally good God.
The theodicy problem
The “problem of theodicy” arises when the experienced reality of suffering is juxtaposed with two sets of beliefs traditionally associated with ethical monotheism. One is the belief that God is absolutely good and compassionate. The other is the belief that he controls all events in history, that he is both all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient). When combined with some other implicit beliefs—for example, the belief that a good being would try to prevent suffering insofar as he is able—these various ideas seem contradictory. They appear to form a logical “trilemma,” in the sense that, while any two of these sets of ideas can be accepted, the addition of the third renders the whole logically inconsistent. Thus, it seems that it can be affirmed that God is all-good and all-powerful, but note also that there is suffering in the world. Similarly, the fact of suffering can be affirmed along with God’s goodness, but the insistence on God’s omnipotence appears to render the whole ensemble of beliefs untenable. Theodicy may be thought of as the effort to resist the conclusion that such a logical trilemma exists. It aims to show that traditional claims about God’s power and goodness are compatible with the fact of suffering.
Some writers have tried to expand the term theodicy beyond its classical Western philosophical and theological usage. The sociologist Max Weber, for example, sought to redefine the term in order to render it applicable to religious traditions that do not involve belief in one just, all-powerful deity. In Weber’s usage, the theodicy problem referred to any situation of inexplicable or unmerited suffering, and theodicy itself referred to any rationale for explaining suffering. This wider definition has value for the comparative study of religion. Nevertheless, without neglecting other religious responses to suffering, I shall here be using the term theodicy in its classical sense, as the effort to defend God’s justice and power in a world marred by suffering.
Dissolutions of the theodicy problem
One reason for holding to the narrower definition of theodicy is that it allows us to see that theodicy in its classical sense is very much a feature of ethical monotheism. Theodicy in this sense does not arise in traditions that fundamentally deny or reject any one of the three major sets of ideas that form the theodicy problem: the belief in God’s goodness, the belief in his power, or the belief in the real occurrence of suffering. Religious positions that fundamentally dissolve the problem may be classified according to which of the three basic beliefs they do not accept.
Denials of God’s justice
Some religious positions avoid theodicy by denying that God (or the gods) is morally good. Very few religious traditions openly hold God to be evil, although Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, in her book The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, 1976), has argued that at least one important motif in Hindu mythology traces suffering to the gods’ pettiness and fear of human power. More common than an outright denial of the deity’s justice, however, is the claim that God’s justice is somehow qualitatively different from our ordinary human ideas of right and wrong. Words like justice or goodness, when applied to God, have no relation to their meaning when applied to human beings. What would be regarded as wickedness on the part of a human being—for example, the slaughter of children—may not be unjust where God is concerned. We shall see that this view has had some currency in Islam and in Calvinist Christianity.
Denials of God’s omnipotence
Rather than compromise the divine goodness, some religious traditions have avoided theodicy by qualifying the divine power. This view is especially characteristic of religious dualisms, which explain the fact of suffering by positing a power or principle of disorder that wars incessantly with God for control of the world. In Zoroastrianism, for example, imperfections and suffering in this world are traced to an ongoing cosmic struggle between the good deity, Ahura Mazdā (Ōhrmazd), and his evil antagonist, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman). Similarly, the gnostic religion Manichaeism explained suffering in terms of a struggle between a “spiritual” god of goodness and light and an evil “creator” demon associated with darkness and matter.
Apart from dualism, there are other ways by which religions can deny God’s omnipotence. One of the most important of these is found in Buddhism, where suffering is traced to the automatic operation of the moral law of retribution known as karma. I shall return to Karma in connection with Buddhist teaching as a whole, but for now, it may be noted that karma eliminates the need to justify God (or the gods) in a world of suffering because it places that suffering almost wholly beyond divine control.
Denials of the reality of suffering
The final major way by which to avoid the problem of theodicy is to deny the third component in the trilemma, that is, that there really is suffering in the world. This position may seem impossible since unhappiness, illness, and death are all around us. Yet in various ways, religious thinkers and religious traditions have sometimes denied the ultimate reality or significance of suffering. The philosopher Spinoza, for example, affirmed that the world seems filled with evil only because it is regarded from a narrow and erroneous human point of view. From the divine perspective, however, the world forms a necessary and perfect whole. Some Hindu thinkers have also denied the reality of suffering by advocating the adoption of the divine point of view. According to the Vedantic tradition, what we call evil or suffering is really an aspect of māyā, the cosmic principle of dynamism and individuation. This principle is not ultimate, and the sage who attains the divine perspective sees māyā as an illusory process that does not really affect the eternal soul. This teaching renders the world of suffering inconsequential.
Those familiar with the Western religious traditions may be unpersuaded by these various dissolutions of the theodicy problem. They may find that some of these positions, such as the denial that God is just in humanly understandable terms, seriously jeopardize a religious faith based on belief in God’s goodness. Other dissolutions may seem to ignore the importance of the evil that God seeks to overcome or may erode confidence in God’s ability to master that evil. Yet we have seen that the alternative position—affirmation of God’s absolute goodness and power in a world of serious suffering—appears to be illogical. Defenders of ethical monotheism, however, have usually refused to accept this apparent illogicality. With varying degrees of self-consciousness, they have maintained that the alleged contradiction between monotheism and suffering does not exist. This view underlies the specific theodicies that have been elaborated to defend belief in a just and all-powerful God.
The key to these positions is an understanding of what it means to say that God is omnipotent. Typically, it is argued that while God can do anything he wills himself to do and anything that is capable of being done, he cannot do what is logically impossible. This is not because his power is limited but only because what is logically impossible cannot really be thought or conceived. Thus, God cannot make a “square circle,” and we cannot ask or desire him to do so, because the very idea of a square circle is nonsense. Only the accident of language that makes a “square circle” seem as possible as a “seedless apple” leads us to think that God’s inability here represents some limit to his power.
With this as a basis, it is further argued that the claim that God’s goodness and power are logically incompatible with suffering is not correct, because it is not true that an all-good, all-powerful being would necessarily eliminate all suffering from the world. What is true is that such a being would want to bring about the greatest state of goodness in the world. But creating such a state may involve the creation of some specific goods whose existence logically entails the possibility of certain evils, and these evils may be the source of the suffering we see around us.
The enterprise of theodicy, therefore, essentially involves the identification of those eminently valuable goods whose existence may entail certain states of suffering or evil. Proponents of specific theodicies usually contend that a world without these goods would be of lesser value than one that contains them, and so God is morally justified in having created a world in which these goods, with their attendant evils, exist.
While those involved in the enterprise of theodicy frequently focus on one good or the other in their defence of God, theodicy is inherently an eclectic activity. A variety of distinct values and arguments are commonly advanced to defend God’s goodness. Some of the major theodicies listed here are not even theodicies in the most precise sense since they involve less the identification of specific values whose existence justifies suffering than the assertion that such values might exist. In any case, none of these classical theodicies is necessarily exclusive of the others, and adherents of ethical monotheism usually hold several of the following positions.
The free-will theodicy
One of the most powerful and most frequently adduced explanations of suffering is the free-will theodicy. Those who hold this position maintain that a world containing creatures who freely perform good actions and who freely respond to their creator’s goodness is far better than a world of automatons who always do what is right because they cannot do what is wrong. Now, while God can create free creatures, if they are truly free he cannot causally determine what they do. To create a creature freely capable of doing what is morally right, therefore, God must create a creature who is also capable of doing what is morally wrong. As it turned out, some of the free creatures God created have exercised their freedom to do wrong, and this is the source of the suffering we see around us. Some of this suffering is directly caused by these wicked beings, while some result when they are justly punished by God for their conduct.
As easily stated as this theodicy is, it has many complexities, and it has frequently been challenged. Recent debate has been especially vigorous. Philosophers such as Antony Flew and J. L. Mackie, for example, have questioned the link in this argument between free will and the possibility of wrongdoing. Since the conduct of free beings is not unshaped by causal factors, they contend, God might have moulded human nature and the physical environment in such a way that free beings never do wrong. Or, they argue, since it is logically possible for any free being never to do wrong, there is nothing illogical in God’s having created a whole race of free beings none of whoever does wrong. However, other philosophers, notably Nelson Pike and Alvin Plantinga, have rejected these arguments, claiming either that they run counter to our commonsense understanding of freedom, which involves essentially an idea of non-determination by causal forces, or that they mistakenly derive from ambiguities in what it means to say that God can create free beings who never do wrong. While it is true, they would say, that God can create a race of free beings none of whoever happens to do wrong, it is not true that God can create free beings and bring about their never doing wrong. Whether wrong is done depends on the beings themselves. This leads these philosophers to the conclusion that God must expose the world to the possibility of suffering and evil if he chooses to create beings who are genuinely free.
A more traditional and long-standing objection to the free-will theodicy is that it does not apparently handle the problem of natural (or physical) evil as opposed to moral evil. Moral evil may be thought of as states of suffering traceable to the agency of free beings, such as war, racism, or genocide. Natural evil is that evil or suffering that is not traceable to acts or volitions of free beings, including such things as earthquakes, floods, and pestilence. Even if it is granted that this distinction is not sharp (some of the damage wrought by earthquakes, for example, is the result of shoddy construction techniques and other forms of human ignorance or avarice), clearly there are instances of suffering utterly beyond human control. Because this suffering is not traceable to human abuse of freedom, these critics contend, God must ultimately be held responsible for its existence.
Defenders of the free-will theodicy have responded to this objection in various ways. They have sometimes traced natural evil to the agency of demonic beings (fallen angels or Satan) whose own malevolence results from a perverse exercise of free will. They have also sometimes argued that natural evils are ongoing punishments for wrongful acts by humankind’s first parents so that suffering is a result of Original Sin. Despite occasional efforts at their revival, these responses have little currency today. As a result, many proponents of the free-will theodicy find themselves forced to turn elsewhere to supplement their defence of God. They frequently resort to one of the educative theodicies.
The force of the educative theodicies lies in their ability to justify at least some of the suffering experienced by innocent persons. This suffering exists, it is argued because it serves to enrich the human experience, to build moral character, or to develop human capacities.
Within the broad assertion that suffering has educative value, at least several distinct claims can be identified. It is sometimes maintained, for example, that modest suffering enhances our appreciation of life’s satisfaction (as separation from loved ones can enrich moments spent with them). On a far deeper level, it is argued that even very serious suffering can toughen us to adversity and can help us develop depth of character, compassion, or new capabilities. Finally, it is common in this connection to stress the value of a world based upon regular laws of nature. Certainly, much suffering results from the operation of natural laws. Had God wished to, he might have created a world in which no regular laws existed—a world in which the flames threatening a sleeping family suddenly turned cool. But such a world, it is argued, would be a magical garden with little opportunity for growth in human knowledge. The human race would forever remain in intellectual infancy. This explanation in terms of natural laws is also sometimes advanced to explain the puzzling problem of animal suffering.
These educative theodicies are important, but their limits are apparent. Many of life’s satisfaction does not require suffering to be enjoyed. Good health can be appreciated without the experience of the disease. It is true, and perhaps profoundly true, that serious suffering can stimulate the development of our capacities and character. But this is not always so. Sometimes suffering embitters, diminishes, or destroys people. Finally, while growth in our understanding of nature’s laws is valuable, we must ask whether this knowledge can be justified if its price has been the wasting of lives down through countless generations. What kind of education is it, some ask, that kills so many of the students?
Eschatological (or recompense) theodicies
Many of the difficulties of the educative theodicies derive from the brevity of human life. If an individual’s existence were to continue beyond death, some of these problems might be overcome. Then, unmerited or unproductive suffering might be placed in a larger context of experience and meaning. Eschatological theodicies are based on the conviction that human life transcends personal death and that the righteous eventually receive their full reward. (It is also frequently maintained that the wicked receive appropriate punishment.) These theodicies differ from one another on the question of just when or how such recompense occurs. The eschaton (“last thing”) can be envisioned as a historical epoch that begins at the end of history, a time when the righteous are resurrected in renewed bodies. Or it can be understood as an eternal heavenly realm that one enters after death. In either case, eschatological theodicies assume that the blissful future life more than compensates for present suffering.
Eschatological theodicies clearly play an important part in reconciling many religious believers to the fact of suffering. Nevertheless, this kind of theodicy faces many difficulties today. Some persons regard the idea of an afterlife as incredible. Others reject the idea that future bliss can compensate for present misery. They point out that while suffering may come to an end, the painful memory of suffering endures. Such novelists as Dostoevskii, Camus, and Elie Wiesel have also asked whether anything can compensate for the massive suffering inflicted on children during the persecutions of recent times.
Theodicy deferred: The mystery of suffering
Long before Auschwitz, religious believers recognized that any effort to justify severe suffering in terms of identifiable values risks trivializing the enormity of human anguish. Rather than renounce their faith in God’s justice and power, however, some of these believers have chosen to deny that the mystery of suffering can be fully understood. They have preferred to defer comprehension and to trust in God’s ultimate goodness and sovereignty. Frequently they have connected this with their eschatological expectations and have looked forward, not just to recompense but to a final understanding of God’s purposes in the world.
Very often, those who stress the mystery of suffering also emphasize the limited nature of human understanding and the enormous differences that exist between God and humans. This position should not be confused, however, with the view that God’s justice is somehow qualitatively different from our own. The latter perspective dissolves the problem of theodicy by placing God beyond moral accountability, whereas the view discussed here insists that God’s justice will ultimately be vindicated. Faith is not the belief in a God beyond justice but the belief that God’s justice will finally be upheld.
Emphasis on the mystery of suffering and the need to defer our understanding of it may help to sustain religious faith in the face of evil; but it also imposes new burdens on that faith, because human beings may come to regard themselves as pawns in a cosmic game, and God may come to be viewed as distant and indifferent. To offset this, religious traditions have sometimes presented suffering itself as an occasion for a direct relationship, collaboration, and even communion with God.
Several related positions may be identified here. One refuses to accept the seeming distance of God in the mystery of suffering by insisting on God’s presence with the sufferer in the midst of anguish. God is a compassionate God, who suffers from his creatures and who is most intensely present when he seems farthest away. This position may not explain why God allows suffering in the first place, but it comforts and sustains the believer in the moment of trial. Moreover, since God is a suffering God, suffering also affords the believer a unique opportunity to obey and to imitate his creator. Those who suffer for a righteous purpose do God’s will and make known his presence in the world. Suffering thus provides the most intense opportunity for collaboration and communion between God and humankind.
With this emphasis on communion, the enterprise of theodicy comes full circle. That which first threw open to question God’s goodness and power, the bitter suffering of innocent persons, now becomes the supreme expression of love between God and humans. Unlike the mystical dissolutions of the theodicy problem that were looked at earlier, the fact of suffering is not here denied. Instead, the reality of suffering and its importance in human life is heightened. But suffering itself is transvalued: what is usually viewed as an experience to be avoided is now seen as an opportunity for intense religious fulfilment.
Teachings On Theodicy In The History Of Religions
These theoretical positions on suffering and theodicy are not just abstract logical possibilities. They find concrete expression in the life and teachings of historical religious communities. Religions may even be characterized in terms of which of these theoretical positions they favour. While all of these positions may have some presence in a tradition, one or another is usually emphasized and serves as a distinguishing trait. Even closely related traditions like Judaism and Christianity evidence their uniqueness by subtle preferences among these different theodicies.
In Jewish tradition, the theodicy problem is addressed not only in Hebrew scriptures but in rabbinic teachings.
The Hebrew scriptures provide the basis for both Jewish and Christian theodicies. With varying degrees of emphasis, they contain many of the positions we have reviewed. However, the free-will theodicy is probably to the fore. This view is firmly anchored in the account of history given in Genesis, where a world created as “good” or “very good” by God is viewed as corrupted by human sinfulness. From the first deliberate but unnecessary transgression of the divine commandment by Adam and Eve, we follow a process of recurrent and accelerating wrongdoing that vitiates the goodness of nature and that pits person against person. While the account in Genesis does not answer all the questions that troubled later thinkers (why, for example, God chose to create human beings in the first place), it does place primary blame for both natural and moral evil on humankind’s abuse of freedom.
Much the same view is conveyed in the portions of the Bible that were influenced by the Deuteronomic writer and the early prophets. Here, suffering is explained in simple retributive terms: loyalty to the moral and religious conditions of the covenant brings prosperity and peace; wickedness brings plague, famine, and war. Since the prophetic literature often aims to summon the sinful nation to covenantal obedience, it is recognized that the connection between the conduct and its consequences is not always immediate. The result is an immanent eschatological theodicy based on confidence in a prompt, future balancing of moral accounts. Thus said Isaiah (Is. 3:10–11):
Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds. Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for what his hands have done shall be done to him.
This simple equation between suffering and punishment was not unchallenged in biblical thinking, and the disasters of the period from the Babylonian exile onward, when the Israelites were often most intensely loyal to the covenant, forced an explanation of seemingly innocent suffering. In wisdom literature, especially the Book of Job, the older theodicy is rejected. A job is an innocent man, blameless and righteous in every way; yet he suffers (Jb. 1–2). The prose epilogue apparently appended at a later date, seeks to maintain the retributive schema by suggesting that Job is eventually more than compensated for his trials (42:10–17), but the book’s most decisive response to suffering borders on a radical dissolution of the theodicy problem. Answering Job out of a whirlwind, God asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (38:4). A litany of God’s mighty deeds in nature and history follows, with the suggestion that man is too puny a creature to question his maker’s justice. Job repents his presumption: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3).
The Book of Job may be read as an abandonment of the very effort to comprehend God’s justice, as an assertion that a creature cannot ask its maker to render an account. Or, less radically, it may be read as a deferred theodicy—not the claim that God is unjust or beyond justice but that we are unprepared here and now to fathom God’s righteous ways. The repeated assertions of God’s control of the wicked support this interpretation. In any case, the more radical stance, amounting to a dissolution of the theodicy problem, finds expression elsewhere in the wisdom literature. Ecclesiastes, for example, repeatedly emphasizes the obscurity of God’s ways in dealing with humans. Occasionally the text despairs of there is any justice in the world: “one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil” (Eccl. 9:2).
These dramatic responses of the wisdom tradition are not the only positions of the exilic and postexilic periods. In some of the later prophetic writings, especially in “Second Isaiah,” a complex, new theodicy appears the idea of the suffering servant. This is the innocent “man of sorrows,” an “offering for sin” who bears the sins of others and is “wounded for our transgressions” (Is. 53:3–10). Just who this figure remains unclear. Is he the prophet himself or some other charismatic figure? Is he the nation as a whole or a righteous remnant? Whatever the answer, this idea embodies a new theodicy, combining the free–will theodicy with elements of the educative and communion theodicies. Suffering is still produced by sin, but the servant suffers vicariously. He bears his stripes to absorb the punishment of others, to highlight and communicate the consequence of sin and God’s wrath against it. His suffering teaches others and is also a unique form of service to God. Finally, in a bid to the eschatological theodicy, it is promised that this servant will ultimately have his reward. He will be given a “portion with the great” and will “divide the spoil with the strong” (Is. 53:12).
In the latest texts of the Hebrew Bible, as well as in many writings of the intertestamental period, these eschatological and recompense themes move to the fore with the appearance of apocalyptic writings, such as the Book of Daniel. In these, history is viewed as moving toward a final cosmic resolution, when God will smash the empires of the wicked and raise the righteous dead to “everlasting life” (Dn. 12:2). The Hebrew scriptures thus draw to a close with a reassertion of the ultimate connection between suffering and sin.
Many of the motifs found in the Hebrew scriptures are continued in rabbinic thinking. Foremost once again is the free–will theodicy and the link between suffering and sin: “If a man sees that painful suffering visits him,” says the Talmud, “let him examine his conduct” (B.T., Ber. 5a). Or again, more radically, “There is no suffering without sin” (B.T., Shab. 55a). It follows from this that any apparent discrepancy between conduct and its reward must be overcome or denied. Eschatology becomes acutely important. The righteous may look forward to the world to come (‘Olam ha-ba’), where all inequities will be overcome and the wicked must fear hell (Gehenna). Whatever observable suffering one experiences may be regarded as an expiation of those inevitable sins that all human beings commit. Suffering thus prepares one for final reward: “Beloved are sufferings, for as sacrifices are atoning so is suffering atoning” (Mekilta’ de-Rabbi Yishmaʿe’l 2. 280).
This stress on the positive value of suffering is emphasized in a series of rabbinic teachings that go beyond the view of suffering as retribution and emphasize its educative dimensions or the opportunity it provides for obedience to God and communion with him. Sometimes, for example, suffering is seen as having disciplinary value. Frequently alluded to is Proverbs 3:11, which teaches that God is like a father who chastises a well-loved son. ʿAqiva’ ben Yosef, martyred by the Romans in the Bar Kokhba Revolt, is said to have laughed during his torture. When asked by his tormentor why he did this, ʿAqiva’ replied that all his life he had been reciting the Shemaʿ, the ritual formula in which the pious Jew is commanded to love God with all his heart, soul, and might, and now, amidst his tortures, he realized that he had finally been given the opportunity to fulfil this commandment. For ʿAqiva’, as well as for many Jews who looked to him, suffering becomes an occasion for divine grace. Amidst suffering, these Jews came to see the presence of a God whose purpose, at a price in suffering to himself and to his people, was to render Israel a holy community.
The crucifixion of Jesus clearly forms the focal point for all Christian thinking about suffering. But the interpretation of this event varies widely in Christian thinking, as do the theodicies that it brings forth.
The New Testament
Although the problem of suffering is everywhere present in the earliest Christian writings, what theodicies we can identify in the New Testament writings are largely implicit. Expectedly, many of the theodicies we examined in the context of biblical and rabbinic thought are clearly assumed. Particular emphasis, for example, is given to aspects of the free-will theodicy. It is true that the crucifixion provides for Christians decisive evidence that not all who suffer are guilty. Nevertheless, the death of Jesus is also the result of almost every form of human wickedness. Factionalism, nationalism, militarism, religious hypocrisy, greed, personal disloyalty, and pride all conspire here to affect the death of an innocent man.
The fact that Christ is clearly blameless provokes the further question of why he should be allowed to suffer at all. At least several answers appear throughout the New Testament, some of which are also applicable to other innocent victims. On one level, in many New Testament texts, a qualified dualism makes its appearance. Evil and suffering are traced to the agency of demonic forces or to Satan (e.g., Mk. 5:1–13; Mt. 9:32–34, 12:22–24). On another level, the eschatological theodicy is vigorously reasserted, with Christ’s resurrection furnishing proof that the righteous are able to vanquish all the forces of wickedness and to surmount suffering and death. The apostle Paul typically insists that the Resurrection is a source of personal hope and confidence for all who follow Christ (1 Cor. 5:15–19; 2 Cor. 4:14). Side by side with this, and found everywhere from the Gospels to Revelation, is a vivid apocalyptic expectation. Christ is the “Son of man” whose life (and death) will usher in the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, worldly hierarchies of reward will be overturned: “Many that are first will be last and the last will be first” (Mk. 10:31; Mt. 5:19).
Also running through many texts are elements of the educative theodicy. The letter to the Hebrews and the letter of James sound the note that suffering is sent by God as a test and a discipline of those he loves (Heb. 12:3–13; Jas. 1:2–4, 12). Paul continues this theme, adding to it elements of a communion theodicy. Christians should rejoice in suffering because it produces endurance, character, and hope (Rom. 5:3–5). Suffering also presents the opportunity to imitate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), who has shown that power is made perfect not in strength but in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). This emphasis on Christ’s fellow-suffering is a constant theme in Paul’s letters.
Finally, in Paul’s writings, we find an important extrapolation from the free-will theodicy: emphasis on the universality of sin and the universal deservedness of suffering. This theme is not altogether new—it has deep roots in biblical and Jewish thought—but it is radicalized by Paul, especially in his Letter to the Romans (3:9–10, 23). The implications of this teaching for the theodicy problem are dramatic. Since all are sinners, what is extraordinary is not that some suffer in a world ruled by God, but that anyone is spared the divine wrath (Rom. 9:22–24). The fact that not all are punished is explained in terms of God’s grace is manifest in Christ’s vicarious suffering and in God’s willingness to suspend the punishment for sin (Rom. 3:24). This teaching clearly builds on dimensions of theodicy encountered in the Hebrew scriptures, including the suffering servant motif (now applied singularly to Christ). Nevertheless, it has the effect of revolutionizing Christian thinking about theodicy by converting the mystery of suffering into the mystery of divine grace.
It is impossible to review briefly all the contributions of later Christian thinking to theodicy. Suffice it to say that the major lines of thought build upon those established in the New Testament. Paul’s ideas, especially, play a major role. Augustine (354–430) developed Paul’s suggestions into a fully elaborated doctrine of original sin. According to Augustine, Adam and Eve’s transgression and punishment, “sin and its penalty,” are to be viewed as passed on to their descendants through sexual reproduction. Because everyone thus “merits” punishment, emphasis is on God’s grace and his election of those who are spared a just fate. The election itself is explained in terms of divine predestination, in accordance with which God has eternally decreed who shall be spared the punishment merited by all.
This position clearly does not solve the theodicy problem entirely, and in some respects, the problem is sharpened in a new way. The question becomes not why human beings have incurred suffering but why God, in His foreknowledge and power, should have allowed the whole disastrous course of events proceeding from the Fall to have occurred in the first place. Sometimes the legitimacy of this question is denied. In Calvinism, for example, Paul’s admonitions against questioning the creator (Rom. 9:19–21) are expanded to a doctrine that places God altogether beyond measurement by human justice. With this denial of God’s accountability, the theodicy problem is dissolved. Not all Christians, however, have accepted this extreme view, and repeated efforts have been made to explain and justify God’s creation of beings capable of sin.
In his book Evil and the God of Love (London, 1977), John Hick argues that at least two major responses to this question may be identified in the Christian tradition. One is traceable to Augustine and constitutes the historically dominant line of thinking about the problem. (A similar view, for example, is taken by Thomas Aquinas and many other Catholic theologians.) It begins by explaining evil in creation not as a substantial reality in itself (as the Manichaeans had contended) but as an aspect of nonbeing. Thus, evil does not stem from God but represents the unavoidable and nonculpable absence of his goodness or presence in mere “created” things (the doctrine of evil as a privatio Boni ). Why God should have created free human beings is explained aesthetically in terms of the desirability of his creating a graded hierarchy of being. Once created and given every inducement for obedience, however, human beings nevertheless inexplicably turned away from God toward nonbeing. As a result, they have been justly punished, and the suffering that results (within a retributive theory of punishment) is fitting, as is the eternal damnation of those not rescued by God’s grace. Indeed, the whole outcome is sometimes justified by Augustine in terms of its overall moral balance and aesthetic perfection.
Contrasted with this view is a position that Hick associates with Irenaeus (c. 130–202) but that also has resonance in the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and F. R. Tennant (1866–1957). It, too, traces suffering to the abuse of freedom. But its explanation of the place of both freedom and transgression in the divine plan is quite different from that of the Augustinian tradition. Here the Fall is fully within God’s intention. God has knowingly created imperfect beings who are distanced from the divine splendour and destined to fall, but he is justified in doing this because he has the moral purpose of affording these beings the opportunity for growth and free development so that they may establish a mature personal relationship with him. In this view, the world is a “vale of soul-making” and it is possible to apply to the Fall the words of the Easter liturgy: “O Felix Culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem” (“O fortunate crime, which merited such and so great a redeemer!”). A further implication of the Irenaean theodicy, in Hick’s view, is that it casts doubt on older retributive theories of punishment that may justify the consignment of some persons to eternal suffering in hell. The Irenaean theodicy suggests a more generous “universalist” eschatology, which sees all who have lived as eventually becoming “children of God.”
Hick himself expresses a strong preference for this view. While not all contemporary Christian thinkers share this preference, it is reasonable to say that there exists among contemporary Christian theologians a predilection to stress God’s moral purpose in creating free beings and to see God himself as personally involved in the venture and risk of human freedom.
In his book The House of Islam (1975), Kenneth Cragg observes that because of its emphasis on God’s transcendence, Islam “does not find a theodicy necessary either for its theology or its worship” (p. 16). With one or two important qualifications, this is a reasonably accurate assessment of the state of theodicy in a tradition that insists on surrender to the divine will (one meaning of islām ) and finds it blasphemous to hold that God is accountable to human moral judgments. Nevertheless, while theodicy has not been a major preoccupation of Muslims, there are, especially in the earliest texts, implicit efforts to understand the sources of suffering and why God might allow it to exist.
We know that one of the most persistent explanations and justifications of human suffering traces that suffering to free creatures’ abuse of their freedom. At first sight, this free-will theodicy seems to have a little footing in the Qurʾān because of its repeated emphasis on God’s sovereignty and his absolute control over human behaviour. In sūrah 6:125, for example, we read:
Whomsoever God desires to guide, He expands his breast to Islam; whomsoever he desires to lead astray, He makes his breast narrow, tight.…
Or again, in 61:5:
When they swerved, God caused their hearts to swerve; and God guides never the people of the ungodly.
Although passages like these shape the later emphasis on predestination in Islamic thought, they may not have this meaning in the Qurʾān. For one thing, these utterances are frequently used to explain the recalcitrance of Muḥammad’s opponents, and thus are more properly understood as affirmations of God’s ultimate control of the wicked than as philosophical disquisitions on freedom. In addition, these passages are offset by many others in which a substantial measure of human freedom, initiative, and accountability is assumed. “He leads none astray save the ungodly,” says surah 2:24, while sūrah 4:80 makes what seems to be an explicit statement of the free-will theodicy:
Whatever good visits thee, it is of God; whatever evil visits thee is of thyself.
In addition, the Qurʾān displays two other themes associated with the free-will theodicy. One is a view of suffering as a test of righteousness. More than once the question is asked, “Do the people reckon that they will be left to say ‘We believe,’ and will not be tried?” (29:1; 3:135; cf. 14:6; 2:46). Because such testing can sometimes lead to martyrdom and death, the Qurʾān also supports a vivid eschatological expectation. Those who withstand the test shall have their reward. All human deeds are said to be recorded in books kept by the angels. These will be opened following the general resurrection on the day of judgment (yawm al-dīn). Those whose record is wanting shall descend to the Fire, while the righteous shall dwell in the Garden (al-Jannah) where their bliss is depicted in spiritual as well as vividly material terms (surah 9:74; 75:23; 52:24; 56:17f.; 76:11–21).
If the Qurʾān’s perspective on suffering and its implicit theodicy display substantial similarity to some familiar positions in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, subsequent Islamic thought strikes off on a path of its own. From the eighth century CE onward, the free-will position becomes involved in a series of bitter disputes between the Muʿtazilī school of “rationalists,” or “humanists,” and more orthodox defenders of God’s sovereignty (including his role as the sole creator of human acts). Entangled in extraneous political conflicts, this debate continued for several centuries, until the victory of the orthodox position through the work of Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 935 CE) and others. What emerged was an extreme predestinarian position, according to which not only suffering or blessedness but the acts and volitions that lead to them are totally in the hands of God. Al-Ashʿarī himself tried to secure some limited room for human responsibility through a doctrine of “acquisition,” according to which acts proceed from God but attach themselves to the will of the individual. Nevertheless, this teaching remains overwhelmingly deterministic. An oft-quoted tale presenting an imaginary conversation in heaven between God, an adult, and a child captures the resulting orthodox view. The child asks God, “Why did you give that man a higher place than myself?” God replies, “He has done many good works.” The child then asks, “Why did you let me die so young that I was prevented from doing good?” God responds, “I knew that you would grow up to be a sinner; therefore, it was better that you should die a child.” At that instant, a cry arises from all those condemned to the depths of hell, “Why, O Lord! did you not let us die before we became sinners.”
In the context of such determinism, all responsibility for good and evil devolves upon God himself. Lest it is thought, however, that God may legitimately be accused of injustice, Islamic orthodoxy hastens to add that in his sovereignty, God may not be subjected to human moral judgment. God’s command is itself the defining feature of right, and what God wills can never be morally impugned. The great medieval theologian Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) affirms that “there is no analogy between his justice and the justice of creatures.… He never encounters any right in another besides himself so that he’s dealing with it might be a doing of any wrong.”
This emphasis on God’s omnipotence does not mean that Muslims (any more than Calvinists) view God as a capricious despot. On the contrary, their constant affirmation is that God is “merciful and compassionate.” Yet in the encounter with suffering, a human’s response must not be to complain, to question, or even to try to defend God. Hence, for Islamic orthodoxy at least, theodicy remains an undeveloped dimension of religious life. Its place is taken by the sentiment conveyed by the Qurʾānic formula “Ḥasbunā Allāh” (“God is sufficient unto us”).
Hinduism and Buddhism
It would ordinarily not be advisable to lump together any treatment of such complex traditions as Hinduism and Buddhism. But where the issue of theodicy is concerned, this approach has much to recommend since it emphasizes the fact, already mentioned, that both traditions share a common perspective on suffering. This is the view that suffering derives from the operation of the automatic law of moral retribution known as karma working in conjunction with a process of reincarnation. In his Sociology of Religion (Boston, 1963), Max Weber characterized karma as “the most radical solution of the problem of theodicy” (p. 147), but this reflects Weber’s own broader use of the term theodicy to cover any explanation of suffering. In fact, because karma traces suffering to one’s own thoughts and deeds, and because it denies the gods any involvement in or control over the process of suffering, it is not a theodicy in our sense at all. Rather, it is a fundamental dissolution of the theodicy problem as we encounter it in ethical monotheism.
How decisive a resolution of the problem of suffering are the combined teachings of karma and reincarnation may be illustrated by a famous tale concerning the assassination of Mahāmoggallāna, a respected disciple of the Buddha. When the Buddha was asked to explain Moggallāna’s brutal death, he replied that, while underserved in terms of his present life, it was altogether suited to his conduct in a previous existence. In that life, said the Buddha, Moggallāna had been guilty of cruelly killing his elderly parents. (This tale is reprinted in Henry Clarke Warren’s Buddhism in Translation, New York, 1963, pp. 221–226.) The implication of this tale is that in a world ruled by karma there is no such thing as “innocent suffering.” All suffering (even animal suffering) is deserved. We have seen that the free-will theodicy has sometimes tended toward this same conclusion, but in all the Western traditions where this theodicy has been espoused, there have always been voices affirming the reality of innocent suffering. In Hinduism and Buddhism, however, these voices have been silenced by a drive toward the total and lucid explanation of worldly suffering afforded by karma.
A further implication of this teaching is that the gods may be neither blamed nor appealed to when suffering occurs. In Buddhism, belief in karma helps explain the subordinate place of God or the gods in the schema of salvation. Not only may divinity be attained by any righteous individual, but the gods themselves, through sins that create bad karma, may plunge from their lofty state. As a result, it makes no sense to look to the gods for release from suffering, since they are as subject to suffering as anyone else. Nor can they be held responsible for what suffering occurs.
Hinduism appears somewhat less certain about these conclusions. In the earlier Vedic texts, the gods are sometimes presented as powerful, righteous figures who reward and punish human beings and to whose compassion one may appeal. Varuṇa, in particular, bears many of the marks of a supreme deity, and it is possible to see here an implicit free-will theodicy with human suffering traced to the transgression of God’s righteous law. Nevertheless, these lines of thought are not developed in later Hindu thinking, and in the post-Vedic period, when karma moves to the fore, even the gods are subordinated to it. According to one tradition of Hindu mythology, for example, the god Indra slays a wicked brahman, but, in so doing, he becomes subject to the moral penalty for the Brahmanic idea. In an effort to free himself of this burden, Indra ends by inflicting suffering on human beings. Thus, even the goodness of the gods is compromised as they find themselves powerless before the operation of this moral law of cause and effect. It is true that in popular and mythological traditions the gods are frequently seen as able to free themselves from the effects of karma. They are also viewed as able to benefit their devotees. But what power they have in this regard does not usually extend, within the world of karma, to helping human beings escape automatic punishment for serious sin.
Neither can the gods be held responsible in these traditions for the shape of reality. Buddhism explicitly denies the gods any role in creation. The universe is conceived of as an ongoing, eternal, and cyclical process of becoming, and only an error on the part of the first-born god Brahma allows him to think of himself as to its creator. Hinduism gives a more active role to the gods in this cyclic process of evolution and devolution. The world proceeds from Viṣṇu and is actively brought forth by Brahmā. But this process is not understood in moral terms. Instead, creation is a process whereby every potentiality within the great God is allowed to manifest itself in the world of differentiation. This means that everything in creation, blessings and suffering, the gods and the demons, all good and all evil, represent the working out of the divine plenitude. If creation is conceived in anthropomorphic terms at all, it is not a morally intentioned act for which God is accountable but an expression of the deity’s spontaneous creativity or play (līlā).
There is, therefore, in neither of these traditions any question of morally justifying the gods, and there is no real theodicy. Instead, the paramount religious questions become how (in popular Hinduism especially) one can procure some favour from the gods, how one can produce good karma, and how, finally, one can altogether escape saṃsāra, the world of karmicly determined becoming. This latter question becomes particularly important when it is realized that within saṃsāra suffering is virtually inescapable. While deeds that generate good karma may lead to prosperity or bliss in some future life, it is almost certain that such a state will not endure. Because every transgression brings its penalty, and because those who are spiritually or materially well placed are more likely to transgress, existence in saṃsāra is an endless shuttle between momentary respite and prolonged misery.
We need not review in detail here the various Hindu and Buddhist answers to the question of how one may escape saṃsāra. These answers constitute the core teachings of their traditions. They range from Hinduism’s stress on the profound recognition that one’s soul (ātman) is identical with Being-itself (brahman), and hence basically unaffected by the flux of becoming, to Buddhism’s opposing insistence that there is no eternal soul capable of being affected by saṃsāra (the doctrine of anātman ). Despite the enormous differences between these teachings, they have much in common: suffering is viewed as endemic to the world process, and the goal is extrication from this process. Suffering is not a reason for praising or blaming God. The legacy of karman thus colours Indian thought from beginning to end, from its conception of the problem of suffering to that problem’s resolution. Within this intellectual context, theodicy in its classic sense finds little room for development.
Along with the corrosive effect of modern scientific knowledge, the problem of innocent suffering poses one of the greatest challenges to ethical monotheism in our day. In the wake of the mass suffering of this epoch, some have rejected such monotheism, agreeing with the remark by Stendahl that “the only excuse for God is that he does not exist.” Others have been drawn to various dissolutions of the theodicy problem, ranging from the Eastern stress on karma to an extreme fideism that abandons the insistence on God’s justice.
Before rejecting ethical monotheism or the theodicies it has stimulated, however, it is worth keeping in mind that both spring from a profound moral intentionality. Ethical monotheism expresses the conviction that a supreme power guides reality and that this power is characterized by righteousness and love. Theodicy is the effort to sustain this conviction in the face of innocent suffering. Theodicy, therefore, is often less an effort to provide an account of the immediate facts of experience than an expression of hope and confidence that despite worldly reverses or human resistance, goodness and righteousness will triumph. Theodicy may not violate the requirements of logic, nor may it ignore the experienced reality of suffering. Theodicy’s deepest impulse, however, is not to report the bitter facts of life but to overcome and transform them.
This essentially moral motivation should be kept in mind as we evaluate theodicies and their alternatives. Various dissolutions of the theodicy problem, from denials of God’s power or justice to denials of the reality of suffering, may seem intellectually satisfying, but they may have moral implications we hesitate to accept. Theodicies, too, are subject to a moral test. If some older theodicies, such as reliance on the harsh idea of original sin, are no longer widely held, this may reflect their moral inadequacy. Conversely, theodicies that still attract attention are those that draw upon and deepen our moral self-understanding. The idea that God is committed to the perilous enterprise of creating free, mature human beings exemplifies this approach. This theodicy draws on certain aspects of our deepest moral experience—for example, the experienced relationship between parents and children—and uses these to illuminate the relationship between God and his creatures. Unless this ultimate moral basis and intention is kept in mind, neither theodicy’s purpose nor its persistence will be well understood
Focus on Theodicy
Written by leading scholars, the Focus On essays are designed to stimulate thought and to explore in-depth topics of interest in the field of Biblical studies. New essays on specific themes, with links to related content within the site for further reading, are published throughout the year. All visitors to Oxford Biblical Studies Online can access these essays, but related content links in Previous Features are available to subscribers only. Please visit the full collection of Focus On essays.
At least on one level, Job suffered as a consequence of a bet between God and Satan (the Adversary within the divine council of God itself). As parents of stillborn babies or victims of brutality or natural catastrophes will affirm, the issue of theodicy is too important for the biblical religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to ignore. John M. Frame states the issue of theodicy logically:
- 1. If God is omnipotent, [God] is able to prevent evil.
- 2. If God is good, [God] wants to prevent evil.
- 3. But evil exists.
Conclusion: either God is not omnipotent, or [God] is not good Of course, it should be pointed out—logically speaking—that either or both of the two premises of this syllogism might be wrong (i.e., some good might come from evil), but the syllogism has its force for readers of the Bible nevertheless.
The word “theodicy” is derived from two Greek words, theos (god) and dikē (justice). It has come to be used in two ways that pertain to this discussion: to designate the philosophical problem of the existence of evil, and (2) to defend the justice of God in an unjust world. The two understandings of theodicy are often collapsed into this question: how/why could a good God either cause or allow “bad things” to happen to “good people”?
Historical and contemporary thinkers often supply one or more of six basic explanations.
- God’s power and knowledge are limited in some ways, even if only by God’s own choice, so humans are free to disobey.
- Evil may be punishment for sin.
- God is both just and merciful, even to sinners.
- Evil may be part of God’s justice.
- Evil may be part of the atonement.
- Justice may lie beyond the grave.
Rather than developing each of these six explanations, however, this essay will examine four specific issues highlighted in key biblical texts: undeserved suffering in the books of Numbers, 2 Samuel, and the book of Job; redemptive suffering in the book of Isaiah; the suffering of Jesus in the gospels; and martyrdom in Daniel and Revelation.
Suffering in Numbers and 2 Samuel
Some suffering is simply the result of unwise or immoral choices and might not raise the issue of theodicy. In other cases, however, the suffering endured seems excessive for the offence committed or even directed against innocent parties. Two texts, one in Numbers and the other in 2 Samuel, involve such apparently undeserved pain: the Korahite rebellion and the death of the firstborn son of David and Bathsheba.
The Korahite Rebellion
Korah was the ancestor of a clan of Levites, who, according to Numbers 16, led a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. How might groups settle such issues? One way was by means of a sign designating the deity’s wishes. In this account, the narrator stood wholeheartedly on the side of Moses and Aaron. He described a trial by ordeal in which Moses directed the people of Israel to separate themselves from the Korahites and await God’s action. The contest was one-sided; either way, the Korahites were going to die. If they died a natural death, that is, if “a natural fate” (e.g., a disease or an armed conflict) were to come upon them (Num 16:29, NRSV), that event would be a sign to the people that Moses was a fake. If, however, they died by some unusual means, their death would show that Moses was God’s leader for the people. (Modern readers would surely object that Moses would win either way. Even if the Korahites died of natural causes, Moses would be rid of them and the dispute would be over.) In the biblical account, the Korahites died when the ground opened up and swallowed them—an event the Bible understood as an act of God on behalf of Moses. Readers may well ask whether the death was justifiable in a disagreement over which side of a dispute was correct. Were there no means other than the death of the Korahites to settle the issue?
The death of the first-born son of David and Bathsheba
If the death of one group of priests in a dispute over leadership is ethically and theologically disturbing (what kind of a God would behave like that?), the death of a child for the misbehaviour of its parents seems even more so. After describing David’s ascent to the throne of Saul, his defeat of the Philistines, his capture of Jerusalem and relocation of the Ark of the Covenant there, and his war against the Arameans, the narrator tells of David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his warriors named Uriah. Compounding the sin further, he arranged for Uriah to be placed in the thick of battle where he would be killed. The narrator clearly depicts David as guilty of adultery and second-hand murder. He then reports David’s bringing the widow to his house and marrying her. One may, perhaps, ask how guilty Bathsheba was in this sordid affair (could she have refused the king?), but there is no doubt that the narrator thought David was in charge of it all and guilty of adultery and murder. David’s punishment was that God caused the child to become ill and die. The sins of the father were visited on the son! One can agree that David deserved to be punished, but what about the child? Did it deserve to die for the conditions of its conception? The answer is clearly negative, but the Bible does not even raise the issue of fairness to the infant. In a community that saw such matters in terms of families and not individuals, the death of the child seems to have been construed as a fitting punishment for a sinful father.
Suffering and the book of Job
It is clear that bad conduct sometimes, maybe even often, results in just recompense. People may regret their actions, rebel at justice, or just whimper, but recompense for many such persons hardly justifies a complaint. Two-packs-a-day cigarette smokers might or might not develop lung cancer, but if they do they may merely reap what they have sown. If some do and some do not, one might look for reasons—usually natural—why some smokers avoid cancer. When a non-smoker develops lung cancer, moderns seek some other explanation, such as heredity, work environment, or diet. Sometimes an affected person might note that “it just does not seem right” that so-and-so, who never smoked a day of her life died of cancer, while a given, over-weight smoker lived a long and healthy life. We would probably seek an explanation in genetics. We probably would not say that God was responsible.
Such seemingly unjustified punishment is just the type of situation presented in Job. He was afflicted at the prime of his life. His friends said he must have been a terrible sinner for God to punish him. (See Job 4:7–9; 5:8–16; 8:2–3 in the first cycle of speeches alone.) He responded that God was punishing him, but without cause (Job 9:32–35; 10:1–22). The book resolves the issue this way. Job served God for no ulterior reason other than awe of the Almighty (Job 42:1–6), and God wound up rewarding Job (Job 42:10–7) even though God did not need to do so. The book of Job does not so much answer the question of theodicy as depict it and stare it down. It is the responsibility of humans to revere God no matter what happens. If humans do so, God might restore them.
Redemptive suffering and the book of Isaiah
Ancient Israelite prophets also did not shrink from saying God would punish sinful nations, including God’s children Israel/Judah. The disaster that fell upon both Israel and Judah was justified as punishment for their conduct. Many of the prophets excoriated selfish individuals or nations as a whole for the sins of the wealthy or of the government. Amos, in particular, comes to mind, but Micah and Jeremiah were equally judgmental. Isaiah 40–55, though, depicts a worthy Servant who suffered for no apparent reason. The so-called “Second Isaiah” (likely not just one writer) suggested that suffering could be redemptive for other people: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises, we are made whole” (Isa 53:5). These verses do not justify such a means of atonement; they merely recognize its possibility. In other words, gratuitous suffering can have positive results even in the worst of circumstances.
The identity of that service is an issue of concern to both Jewish and Christian readers. It has received so much attention, in fact, that only a brief summary of that thinking is possible here. Simply stated, scholars have suggested that the Servant might have been Israel itself, an identification made elsewhere in Isaiah 40–55 (see Isa 41:8–9; 44:1–2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3); Jeremiah the “wailing prophet’; the author of Isaiah 40–55; the Persian ruler Cyrus (who is called God’s shepherd in Isa 44:28); and Jesus. No resolution of this issue is possible here.
The Suffering of Jesus
In the Hebrew Bible, sacrifice atoned for ritual and intentional sins. According to Lev 6:1–7 sins like theft could be forgiven if restitution was made and a sacrifice was offered. Sins like murder and adultery were deemed to be punishable by death. (How often death sentences were carried out is impossible to determine. Rabbinic Judaism in any case was loath to endorse such punishment.) The gravity of sin, moreover, was that it was directed against God, so only God could forgive sin. One human might or might not forgive another for a perceived offence, but only God could forgive an affront against God. To be sure, the human who receives God’s forgiveness is both expected and empowered thereby to forgive other humans. Any offended party, whether divine or human, is always free to forgive on the basis of retribution, restitution, or grace, but the New Testament makes grace mediated through the death of Jesus and based on contrition the means of receiving God’s forgiveness.
Jesus was crucified by the Romans as just another “messiah” (one who intended or tried to mount an insurrection), and the New Testament authors went to great lengths to deny any political ambition on his part. Thus they turned an act of Roman political self-preservation or savagery into the greatest sacrifice imaginable: God’s own sacrifice to fulfil all righteousness. In the Hebrew Bible, God had tied the forgiveness of sins to sacrifices, the Christian Testament claimed that God had bought salvation through the price of Jesus’ death (1 Cor 6:20, 7:23). That is, God took human injustice upon God’s own self and dealt with it. That understanding appears outside the gospels as well, specifically in Rom 5:6–15; 6:10; 1 Cor 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14–15; 1 Thess 5:10; and especially Hebrews 9–10.
The question is sometimes asked if Jesus died as a martyr. The answer partly depends on how one understands the meaning of the word itself. Generally, the Greek word martus means “witness.” Anyone, therefore, who bore witness to something was a “martyr,” and the NT uses the word in its general sense in various places. It also appears in the NT in the specialized sense of one or those who died for bearing witness unto death, i.e., what moderns call “martyrs.” The term martyr in this sense is appropriate for Jesus, though it is not used of him in the gospels; see further the discussion of the book of Revelation below. More importantly for this discussion, in Christian thinking suffering was incorporated into God’s own experience and understood to be salvific.
Suffering and Martyrdom in Daniel and Revelation
Not only Jesus, but Jewish and Christian individuals and communities experienced death for their convictions, and the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation address that ultimate form of unjustified suffering. The book of Daniel opens with the fall of Jerusalem and its temple to Babylonia and the exile of pious Judeans. A question raised by these events was one of survival: how could one live rightly and sing the songs of Zion in a foreign, pagan land? The answer for Daniel and his fellows was to follow the law, including avoiding “impure” Babylonian foods and eating only “seeds” (Dan 1:12; NRSV “vegetables”) They were also not to worship Babylonian gods, which the book lampoons. Daniel 2 and 7 anticipate the fall of the Babylonian Empire and those of the Persians, Medes, and Greeks as well. In Daniel 3 and 6, the heroes faced martyrdom but were delivered by God. Those tales of deliverance may rightly be called “broken martyr stories.” Daniel 7:25–27 has in view the tumultuous years under the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes and the restoration of the “people of the Highest” to their rightful kingdom, and Daniel 12:2–4 anticipates the earthly resurrection of those martyred by the Greeks and their participation in the new day for Jerusalem and Judah.
The book of Revelation calls Jesus a “martyr” (Rev 1:5; NRSV “witness”) and celebrates him as the “Lamb that was slain” (Rev 5:12). It goes on to depict a “new heaven and a new earth,” i.e., a new creation (cf. Genesis 1) and expects perpetual life in a new Jerusalem where God will dwell among God’s people (Rev 21:1–3).
Thus both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments deal with the issue of evil, within individual human beings and human societies, and with the eschatological end of evil. Its end was a hope rooted in the conviction of the goodness of God, realistic about evil in human hearts and history, and convinced of the ultimate triumph of good over evil.