Anguish and the Almighty: Theodicy 2007

The governor of Virginia had it right when he alluded to Job at the memorial gathering for the victims of the shootings at Virginia Tech. How could such things happen in the world of an almighty and all-good God? For the Reformed tradition, which accents the divine sovereignty over histor y, such a question is particularly insistent. As with Job’s struggle, we are dealing with theodicy, “the justification of God in the face of evil.”

In the wake of a another major misery–this time a natural disaster, the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia–David Bentley Hart was asked by the Wall Street Journal to write an article on this question. The response to his column was so over whelming that Hart wrote a small book on it, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Eerdmans, 2005) In it he addresses the “triumphalist atheist who feels compelled to leap at once into the breach and stridently to proclaim that… here we have an instance of empirical horrors too vast to be reconciled with belief in a loving and omnipotent God, and upon this rock the ship of faith must founder and sink…” (7). Hart then goes on to say:

Considering the scope of the catastrophe…we should probably have remained silent for a while. The claim to discern some greater meaning–or, for that matter, meaninglessness–behind the contingencies of history and nature is both cruel and presumptuous at such times. Pious platitudes and words of comfort seem not only futile and banal, but almost blasphemous. …There are moments…when we probably ought not to speak. But, of course, we must speak (6-7).

To whom? For one, to the confident secularist who naively believes that:

Christianity has never at any point during the two millennia of its intellectual tradition considered the problem of evil, or confronted the reality of suffering and death…that Christians down through the centuries simply failed to notice every single instance of flood, earthquake, or tempest, pestilence, famine or fire, war, genocide or slaughter; or that every Christian who has been crippled, or contracted a terminal illness, or has watched his wife die of cancer, or has stood at the graveside of his child has somehow remained inexplicably insensitive to the depths of his own pain and to the dark metaphysical enigmas haunting every moment of his grief (9-10).

Speak we must as well to all the simplistic answers offered by Christians as solace or attempted explanations for what they believe are the ways of God, in justifying these horrendous occurrences.

Well, what are we to say? Christians hold three non-negotiable beliefs: that God is almighty, that God is all-loving, and that evil is utterly real. Is there any way to reconcile these convictions, to hold them together?

The governor was right to turn to Job. The book of Job tells the story of a father whose children are killed, whose livelihood is wiped out, and whose body is wracked with a painful disease: “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7). His initial reaction? “Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth” (3:1). As remarkable as that statement seems in Scripture, so is the way that the book proceeds to recite the conventional answers that religious people give to the question of evil. And an unconventional answer too. Let’s consider them.

One response comes from Bildad the Shuhite: “If your children have sinned against him [God], he has delivered them into the power of their transgression… .

  Eliphaz the Temanite expatiates on the Evil-is-Good response, featuring God as teacher, artist, or Pollyanna.  [T]he hope of the godless shall perish” (8:4, 13). Bildad is here espousing a form of the “God’s will” argument. God causes evil, brings on suffering, premature death, disaster. In this particular version of the theory we have to do with a Divine Avenger. Calamity happened because you and your dead children deser ved it! Evil is punishment for sin. “You brought it on yourself.”

There are other versions of this view. For example, some would say that miser y descended on its victims because God is evil as well as good–a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deity. Others would say, God willed it but isn’t telling you why. Evil is sheer mystery. God is an Inscrutable Sage.

What do we make of this first notion in its assorted versions? Give credit where credit is due. All of them are attempting to protect one of the biblical non-negotiables–the divine omnipotence. God who is truly God must, in some sense, be almighty. This view also takes seriously a second non-negotiable: evil is absolutely real. Further, it is true that some evil that overtakes us can be traced to our own fault. As to the matter of mystery? Yes, every attempted answer is shadowed by it. “For now see in a mirror, dimly…” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Yet, if a response to the problem of evil is to meet the conditions of Christian faith, it must hold firmly to all three affirmations: to the love of God as well as the power of God and the reality of evil. This first response casts doubt on the love of God. The book of Job rejects the position of Bildad. Indeed, his view flies in the face of the omnipresent biblical Word that God is mercy-filled compassion. Such is not compatible with the “slaughter of innocents” that takes place in monstrous events like tsunamis, Katrina, the Holocaust, or the indiscriminate killings at Virginia Tech. Nor is God a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deity–sometimes good and sometimes evil–but always and everywhere Good. Finally, while there must be a proper reserve about our claim to know the purposes of God, Christian faith is not the bad news of a stony-faced inscrutability but the Good News of revelation and redemption.

A second view comes in the voice of another of Job’s counselors, Eliphaz the Temanite: “Happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty” (5:17). Eliphaz here expatiates on the “Evil is Good” response, at least one version of it. That is, what appears to be evil is really for Job’s benefit. Involuntary suffering is a much-to-be-desired learning experience. God teaches us in the school of suffering. When we see our plight in retrospect, we can accept it as God disciplining us, a training course in being better persons–“soul-making,” as theodicist John Hick would have it.

Another version of this second view portrays God less as a teacher and more as an artist. Just as in a chiaroscuro painting we need the dark shadows to show up the light features, so in life we need bad experiences to make us appreciate the good ones. Yet another version is represented by Pollyanna: things are not so bad after all, and, in fact, they are getting better. Still another variation treats evil as illusory. It is a misperception corrigible by an act of the mind. Christian Science takes this tack.

There is something to be said for this theory in its various forms. Suffering may indeed “produce character;” we can learn from tragedy. Further, in Christian faith, God’s purposes do ultimately triumph. True, good can be seen more clearly against the backdrop of evil. Yes, evil has no lasting status as reality.

But there is something radically wrong here. “The Lord says to Eliphaz, ‘My wrath is kindled against you… .'” (42:7) Why is that? Because his response eliminates one of the three necessary biblical beliefs. His view does not take the malignancy of evil with the seriousness it is due.

  The most popular view today favors the Limited God: either a Righteous Warrior, Great Builder, or Great Scientist, but always constrained by the materials at hand.  How can one justify the destruction of six million Jews in the Holocaust as a “character-building exercise” for the rest of us? Or the death of a quarter of a million in Indonesia as not so bad after all? Are these matters, whether large scale or small, just a misperception? Scandalous notions–and not only for suffering Jews or murdered Virginia Tech students and faculty, but also for Christians who know that the death of Christ on Calvary was no illusion. The utter reality of the crucifixion is the measure of the world’s hate of what is good and pure, an assault on God–real blood, real suffering, real death.

A third view is very popular these days. Rabbi Harold Kushner, writing on his son Aaron’s premature and painful death in When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Schocken, 1981), has given us one version of a “Limited God” response to evil. A hint of it comes in Job’s own puzzlement: “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?… Their houses are safe and no rod of God is on them” (21:7, 9). Here is a suggestion of the divine absence or impotence. This approach assumes the existence of God but harbors the question: what can a well-intentioned but finite Deity do about bad things?

This view comes in different versions as well. One of them conceives of God as a Righteous Warrior. Yet the forces on the other side are powerful too, often defeating Deity in the battle for good. Variation II portrays God as a Great Builder. Evil is the yet-to-be-worked-over raw materials that will be crafted into a better world. In another version God is the Great Scientist who must respect the laws of nature: colliding tectonic plates and cancer cells are either givens or things necessary in the long run for human benefit. All these versions have a common theme: we cannot blame God for evil since evil is simply present as a circumstance that restrains God’s potency. God is limited in capacity, not unlimited; finite, not infinite.

This theory too makes a true point. God is perfectly good, and evil is absolutely real. God does resist the powers inimical to the divine intentions. The Creator does seek an orderly world through scientific regularities. The nagging problem is the picture of a God who does not have the power to fulfill the divine purposes. God may be mighty but not almighty. No justice for the oppressed here. Light does not overcome Night. Yet the resurrection faith is central to Christian faith. With it comes the confidence that God will mend every flaw, defeat every foe, right every wrong.

If these standard answers fail us, where does that leave us? It leaves us where God leaves the problem: at the foot of the cross. As Jurgen Moltmann put it in the title of one of his books, Golgotha discloses “the crucified God” (SCM Press, 1974). God does not inflict the miseries described but enters into them. God does not cause malign events but shares in the agony of those beset by them. God suffers with and for the sufferers.1

The implications of this divine vulnerability are vast. It not only conveys the comfort that God is in the solidarity of suffering with the victim; it gives a Word that takes us to the beginning of time. What happens at the center of history in Jesus Christ as discloser of the patience and pathos of God signals what has been the case since creation. When the world was brought to be, it was not forced to conform to God’s will but given the freedom to respond “Yes” or “No” to the divine invitation.

  If these standard answers fail us, where does that leave us? It leaves us where God leaves the problem: at the foot of the cross.  

The “mystery of iniquity” is that the response to that beckoning was a “No!” Thus the profound tale of perfidy in the Garden. It tells us that the world has stumbled and fallen. The consequences range throughout creation. Nature, as well as human nature, is no paradise, but plagued with flaw and fault. So are we. So too corruption is to be found even in the realm of supernature’s “principalities and powers.” The biblical story from beginning to end is the narrative of God’s “long-suffering” Love in dealing with this triple foe.

But the cross of the bloody God is an empty one. The resurrection announces the mysterious triumph by God in Christ over evil and death as well as sin. The victory is seen by the eyes of faith in spite of what the eyes of human sight perceive. In this fallen world, evil is much with us and mortality is our common lot. Yet faith, as it bears on this malignity, is a trust that the armies of evil and death are already on the run, and Christ even now rules. So Karl Barth’s powerful message to British Christians as the bombs fell on London in 1941:

The world in which we live is the place where Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and the present age is the time of God’s long-suffering until the day when the same Jesus Christ shall come again in his glory…. It is indeed true that the whole creation groans with us…as the place where Jesus suffered and died… . But it is also true that the same creation is also consecrated through the resurrection of Jesus Christ… . For just as Christ, according to the whole of the New Testament, has already borne away sin and destroyed death, so has He already (according to Col. 2:15) completely disarmed those “principalities and powers” and made a spectacle of them in His own triumph in order finally to tread them down under His feet on the day of his coming again (1 Cor. 15:15). It is only as shadows without real substance and power that they can still beset us. We Christians…have no right whatsoever to fear or respect them or resign ourselves to the fact that they are spreading throughout the world as though they know neither bounds nor lord. We should be slighting the resurrection of Jesus Christ and denying His reign on the right hand of the Father, if we forget that the world in which we live is already consecrated, and if we did not, for Christ’s sake, come to grips spiritedly and resolutely with these evil spirits.2

The Eastern Orthodox Hart joins the Reformed Barth in a strikingly similar declaration:

…the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God… .[Yet] at the heart of the gospel, of course, is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the will of God cannot ultimately be defeated and that the victory over evil and death has already been won. “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8); “having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them, openly triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15). But it is also a victory, we are assured, that is yet to come [Doors of the Sea, 62, 66].

Love is tough as well as tender, victory as well as vulnerability–victorious vulnerability announced and achieved in Jesus Christ that patiently, persistently, implacably contests the evil and death we experience in this fallen world until, at the End of the Story, the kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as well as in heaven. Thus the Creed’s echo of that final Good News in the resurrection of the dead, the glorified Christ, the final judgment and everlasting life. How and when this promise will be fulfilled is not given to us to know; hence an element of mystery always attends the Christian hope. But that it will be so is our confident trust in the empty cross and the now reigning Christ.

Notice what has happened in this fourth response to the problem of evil. The almighty power of God has been redefined christologically. Gone is the world’s definition of power as that of a grand potentate who demands absolute control. Here is the omnipotent God who is powerful enough to hold back divine power, to leave room for the world to respond freely to the divine love–and thus the “No!” that eventuates. Yet that Love never lets us go, entering our moil and toil, dying and rising to a rule that assures us that, although “Th’old Dragon under ground, in straiter limits bound,” still “Swinges the scaly Horror of his folded tail,”3 he has sustained a mortal wound and the End will come. Almighty power, therefore, is, ultimately, in the future tense.

Notice too, that because it is a real struggle in the time between the times of Easter and eschaton, wherever we can “resist the powers of evil” (United Church of Christ Statement of Faith) we are driven to do so. Instead of passively assuming every evil that happens t
o be God’s will, we “come to grips spiritedly and resolutely” (Barth, op. cit.) with it, in the confidence that it is in its own dying days with the End in sight. Or, to put it in the context of the divine pathos, we are called to “share in God’s sufferings” in the world.4

This is the faith that Job, finally, declared when he said, “I know that my Redeemer lives and at the last he will stand on the earth” (19:25). How right for this affirmation to appear in Handel’s Messiah. How right too that this is the faith we express at the service of Christian burial. Thus, its future tense:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39).