Theodicy: God & righteousness

A Personal and Practical Theodicy

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Introduction

The question of evil, suffering, and God’s virtue in the world is perplexing and tough to briefly answer. Most responses to this problem of evil in the world need chapter upon chapter to expound and extrapolate philosophical or theological complexities; however, a more succinct conclusion can be drawn by pointing to certain fallacies within the question itself. This subject is often termed theodicy, which basically means God and righteousness.[1] That begs the question; why does a righteous God allow evil at all?

The following essay will address the question of why, according to a sound biblical understanding of the Christian worldview and the right conception of God, God allows the amount of evil in the world that does exist. This will address the philosophical problem of evil, the theological problem of evil, and a practical understanding of wedding the two perspectives into a sound theodicy that is both helpful to the Christian worldview and aids in a just walk toward sanctification. 

Philosophical Reflection

There are two basic forms of evil in the world that most philosophers and theologians agree upon. These are natural evils and moral evils. Natural evil consists of earthquakes, tidal waves, and virulent diseases and moral evils are evils that result from human stupidity, arrogance, and cruelty.[2] In contrast, God is righteous, good, and loving. Therefore, the philosophical problem of evil is based on the hypothesis that all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God could not allow such evil to exist in the world of His creation. There are many problems with the premises of this problem that undermine its efficacy.

The first problem is the question itself. Man/woman must first know God and have the right biblical conception of who God is and His immutable characteristics before they can practically tackle the philosophical problem of evil. N.T. Wright expounds on this principle; “Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared that the primal sin of humanity consisted in putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God.”[3] One cannot plausibly argue for God’s righteousness, evil, and suffering without knowing what those are from a theological perspective, otherwise one could ask why evil, suffering, and righteousness exist at all. Moreover, God need not create anything at all and therefore nothing, but God, would exist; “Even though God has reasons for whatever he chooses to do, it would be perfectly acceptable for him not to create at all.”[4] If there were no creation, no such questions of good and evil would ever allow themselves. This is important to understand that the philosophical problem of evil presents itself with a pretentious standpoint of questions the goodness of God without the proper humility needed to understand such theological answers.

Without knowing who God is and what His attributes are, the problem is unexplainable. For example, the word evil does not really exist in a secular world without a moral lawgiver. Evil is not evil without God defining what evil is.[5] Without good and evil, given to humanity by God, there is no good or evil, it is just subjective opinion. Therefore, one could not make an argument from the problem of evil without presupposing that God defines the evil that He allows in the world. This being said, it would conclude that His other attributes give an explanation as to why evil does exist, and God allows it.

Besides, the philosophical problem of evil presupposes that God should not allow evil in a world He perfectly creates. Evil is in the world and this is evident, the scripture is clear that God is omnipotent (Luke 1:37), omnibenevolent (Psalm 145:17), and omniscient (1 John 3:20); it might seem that this is a paradox, which it is not. What the philosophical problem of evil misses is clear definitions of these characteristics and how they pertain to God’s sovereignty of the world.

Omnipotence presupposes that because evil exists, God could vanquish said evil and prevent it from plaguing the world. This is only partially true. Scripture speaks of a world without evil (Revelation 24:4) where evil is no more and the righteous live in eternity without sin (Matthew 25:46). This is the promise of the afterlife, the promise of salvation. God does not allow evil and suffering in the afterlife to those who believe. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that God allows evil and suffering and is not outside His omnipotence. The question then becomes why the theological problem of evil addresses. God knows that evil exists, and He allows it.

Lastly, the philosophical problem of evil presupposes that omnibenevolent means that an all-loving God could not allow for such evil. This is a semantic and definitional fallacy. The problem here what does love mean? Unfortunately, the secular world both now and historically has a selfish and ego-centric meaning of love. To humanity, love is a feeling, something that only good can come from. This is a mistake. “This word ‘love’ is applied to both human and divine relationships in the Bible. Although love tends to connote spontaneous feeling given its emotive nature, love is also a deliberate and carefully measured choice based upon the duration and depth of a relationship.”[6] There is no love without decisions and consequences. Does a parent not love a child when he/she disciplines that child? Does a husband or wife not love their spouse when they castigate for wrongdoing? Biblical love is a choice, a choice that has severe consequences when that covenant is broken. Love, without justice, is not love, it is emotional, spiritual, and psychological lust and hedonism. It could be postulated that God could not both love the world and give free will without the presence of evil and suffering. Both require choice and consequence.

In conclusion, “God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil to exist and manifest itself ubiquitously throughout history.”[7] God’s love, power, and omniscient not only allow for such evil to exist but suggest that evil and suffering may have a purpose in God’s divine providential care.   

Theological Problem of Evil

Once the philosophical problem of evil is solved, for the theist, the question then arises as to how Christians reconcile this to sound theology. To many of the faith, this is profoundly more difficult than that philosophical problem of evil in that it is both experiential and theoretical.  

Theologically and practically, all people of faith acknowledge that evil and suffering do exist throughout history. The Bible explicitly states that God is sovereign in all matters in the world; “For by him, all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him, all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17).[8] Therefore if evil exists, and God is in control of all things, God allows evil to exist. This is complex and perplexing to most.

The key point here is not that God creates evil but ordains it. Scripture is very clear on this, God hates evil and is incapable of creating, partaking in, or progenerating evil i.e. Proverbs 6:16-16, Proverbs 8:13; Zechariah 8:17; James 4:4; Psalm 119:128, etc. Evil is an abomination to God and demands just wrath for its presence.

The presence of evil in the world is laid at the ash heap of humanity. The irony is that mankind constantly asks why God allows evil without taking responsibility for the presence of it. Mankind introduces sin (evil) into the world (Romans 5:12) and all humanity has suffered (and will continue to suffer) for it. With the fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), the flood (Genesis 6), and the Babel event (Genesis 11), a great evil was introduced and spread throughout the world in a terraforming scenario where massive amounts of sin, corruption, and evil now pervades humanity and the world that was cursed by God (Isiah 24:6).

The real question is not how to reconcile great evil with a good, righteous God, but how is it possible that God does not punish all humanity for the great sins we commit daily. The problem with theodicy is not the why but the who. Mankind is constantly trying to justify his/her critique of God and His justice and grace without truly coming to grips with the damage we do to each other, the world around us, and our disobedience to the will of our creator. It is a very selfish view to wonder why God allows evil, it is more practical to wonder why He allows no evil to utterly destroy us all.

Synthesis

Evil exists, God allows evil to exist, humanity is the progenerate and purveyor of such evil; therefore, how do people of faith reconcile this to daily living? The answer is Jesus Christ! This has always been the plan from the beginning (Ephesians 1:11). God tests the righteous (Psalm 11), teaches us in our pain (Jeremiah 32:33), and allows evil to fall on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45). These are the realities of living in a fallen world. The prize, for the Christian, is not in the current secular world that humans possess at this moment, this is a rehearsal for what is to come. The Christian prize is an eternal one.    

God never promises a life without pain and suffering. This is what the Old and New Testament shows. The righteous live by faith (Romans 1:17). No such guarantee of a life free from pain and suffering is ever given to the faithful. It is more sufficient to say that the New Testament (and Old) prepare believers for a life of pain and evil that will befall on all who follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ; “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:12-13).

Practically this means that God has a purpose in suffering. This is seen, again, in both Testaments. One example is at the closing of the book of Genesis where Joseph appeals to his brothers; “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20-21). This is echoed throughout the book of Job and the prophets. God uses evil to bring glory to Himself and establish His divine providence throughout the history of mankind.

No narrative is more evidence of the use of evil for the glory of God than the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The great evil was committed at the hands of the Romans, the Israelites, the disciples, etc. No one deserved this great evil less than Jesus and yet great pain and suffering were committed for the purposes of eternal salvation freely given to a human race that was not deserving of such a sacrifice. The apostle Paul explains this in the book of Romans:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).

If Christ, who was perfect and blameless in all matters requiring God’s justified wrath, could suffer through death on a cross, faithful followers of Jesus Christ could find purpose and meaning in the suffering we experience in our walk toward sanctification. Like fire in the Old Testament, pain and suffering work as a sanctifying agent to bring Christians closer to God.

Conclusion

The subject of theodicy poses several obstacles to those people who misunderstand who God is the creation. It mainly misses the notion of justice amid His love, power, and knowledge.

“God’s justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice because the God to whom justice belongs is the Creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation and whose justice is designed not simply to restore balance to a world out of kilter but to bring to glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility, that he made in the first place.”[9] Without knowing God philosophy cannot truly answer the problem of evil in the world. By understanding the Christian worldview and having the right conception of God it leads to a natural and logical answer to the philosophical problem of evil. Lastly, the theological problem of evil is not really a problem at all if the believer has a right understanding of where God is concerning where humanity is with sin, evil, and suffering. Biblical truth leads Christians to find purpose in pain, grace in God, and redemption in Christ’s work on the cross that points to an eternal reward, not in this world but, in a world to come that exists free of wickedness, without anguish, and void of misery.

Bibliography

Carpenter, Eugene E., and Philip Wesley Comfort. Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained. Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2000.

Feinberg, John S. “The Many Faces of Evil.” Lifeway. Liberty University, 2018. https://www.lifeway.com/en/product/the-many-faces-of-evil-P001243768.

Geisler, Norman L., and Frank Turek. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.

Martin, Ed. “Free Will Defense – Exposition, Definitions.” Module 4. Lecture. Accessed April 17, 2021. https://libertyuniversity.instructure.com/courses/67571/pages/watch-free-will-defense-exposition-definitions?module_item_id=7007864.

Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008.

Wright, N. T. Evil and the Justice of God. Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Footnotes:

[1] Ed Martin, accessed April 17, 2021, https://libertyuniversity.instructure.com/courses/67571/pages/watch-free-will-defense-exposition-definitions?module_item_id=7007864.

[2] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 8.

[3] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 58.

[4] John S. Feinberg, “The Many Faces of Evil,” Lifeway (Liberty University, 2018), https://www.lifeway.com/en/product/the-many-faces-of-evil-P001243768, 67.

[5] Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 171.

[6] Eugene E. Carpenter and Philip Wesley Comfort, Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2000), 120.

[7] Ed Martin, accessed April 17, 2021, https://libertyuniversity.instructure.com/courses/67571/pages/watch-free-will-defense-exposition-definitions?module_item_id=7007864.

[8] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. .

[9] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 63.

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