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Problem of Evil

What Are They Saying About God and Evil? (New York: Paulist, 1989)
© Barry Whitney
Chapter 8: Some Theological Theodicies

In this chapter, we continue the discussion of a number of other significant perspectives on the theodicy issue, writings which have been influential especially among non-professional theologians and which are of a far more traditional flavor than those discussed in the previous three chapters. We shall consider the highly influential writings of C. S. Lewis; the theodicy of conservative evangelical theologians; and Rabbi Kushner’s best-selling book which has popularized and dramatically contributed to a general interest in the theodicy issue. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the question of divine power and divine suffering. This latter issue certainly is not to be considered traditional or conservative thinking, but it is an appropriate conclusion to this chapter since the theme of divine power and suffering emanates directly, as we shall see, from the issues discussed in the preceding sections of the chapter.

(a) C. S. Lewis and Conservative Theodicy

C. S. Lewis has proposed a theodicy which is far more conservative (i.e., traditional) than the theodicies discussed in the previous three chapters. His perspective has much in common with the Augustinian tradition (see Chapter 4), yet the fact that his writings have had an extraordinary influence upon Christian laypeople justifies giving them independent consideration here.

Lewis’ writings have been criticized as a “vulgar” popularization of fundamentalism, whose “literalism” and “complete ignorance” of modern biblical scholarship is not only “shocking” but “intellectually subversive.” Yet, Lewis has a host of supporters who have produced a steady stream of literature about him, most of which has lacked serious critical assessment, preferring instead to elevate him to a figure of almost cult status.

Lewis’s theodicy most assuredly is conservative in the sense that he considers not only that the evil and suffering in the world is the result of fallen angels, but that pain is the instrument which God implements to rescue us from our fallen state and inadequate faith in order to bring us to a much more profound faith. As one recent commentator puts it, “God’s task,” for Lewis, “is not only to accept us but to make us acceptable to him. To experience pain forces humanity into a more loving shape-less egoistic, less rebellious, more willing to be loved by someone outside of themselves” (Wall 447). If we reject pain’s remedial influence, we reject God and our heavenly hope, choosing instead eternal separation from God. Pain is “God’s megaphone” (Lewis, Problem 83) then, whereby our rebellious nature and illusory vision of the world is broken.

For Lewis, the fact that the world is filled with pain does not contradict divine benevolence. He argued that just the opposite is the case: pain is evidence of God’s loving care for us. Pain is the only means to salvation. Neither, indeed, is divine omnipotence threatened by the preponderance of evil and suffering in the world: Lewis contends that it was logically impossible for God to have created both free creatures and a world without a fixed structure. Our misuse of free will causes most of the world’s evil; the rest is caused by the necessity of natural laws which support human life. He explains this as follows:

We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment, so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void. (Problem 21)

Lewis, of course, did not argue that all of the pain we suffer is given to us by God deliberately in order to restore us to a healthy spiritual state. We have genuine free will and we ourselves cause most of the world’s evil, the moral evil, certainly. Nature’s fixed laws, to be sure, account for the numerous forms of natural evil, and yet Lewis’ main point was to underscore the fact that we are fallen and depraved creatures which, as such, have an indisputable propensity toward sin. We need to open ourselves to divine grace to be restored to spiritual health.

Lewis was aware that there is considerable theological controversy about the extent to which we human beings contribute freely to our actions, on the one hand, and how much God controls, on the other hand. He pointed out correctly that the Bible speaks both of free will (“Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”) and divine causation (“for it is God who works in you”). Yet whether Lewis has responded adequately to this profound and infamous issue clearly is a serious problem. His position is close to the conservative Christianity which attributes all goods and all evils to God--despite the fact that he has offered alternative reasons for good and evil via his free will account and the natural law argument.

Lewis’ well-known writings on miracles confirm this point: God has the power, he insists, to intervene occasionally in the normal course of natural events. This is most certainly a very controversial point for contemporary liberal theologians with naturalistic biases, yet Lewis believed that there were no convincing arguments against the possibility of such intermittent miracles.

Conservative Christians would reply, no doubt, that this concession is far too timid, that miracles occur on a regular basis, in fact. Conservative evangelical theology and, of course, stroing Calvinists, have emphasized divine determinism far more unequivocally. This dimension of Christianity is not far removed from the traditional, Augustinian tradition, yet (as was the case with C. S. Lewis) it merits independent discussion here because of its immense popularity. One of its major proponents, Carl Henry, has argued that on the basis of scripture and experience, “all history reveals the certainty of events decreed by God” (459). Arthur Pink, moreover, defines divine sovereignty as implying that God has “all power in heaven and earth, so that none can defeat his council, thwart his purpose, or resist his will” (20-21). August Strong (Systematic Theology), Andrew Rule (“Providence”), J. I. Packer (Knowing God), and a host of other evangelical writers agree: God is responsible for the good and evil in the world. Yet the common conservative view is not only that “God is sovereign,” but also that “we are responsible” (Pink 9).

There are, interestingly, a minority of evangelical writers who have begun to question this age-old and rather troublesome view. John Claypool, Richard Foster, Anthony Campolo, among others, for example, have been reconsidering the paradox of divine power in its relationship to human freedom. The compromise most often suggested by such writers is that God’s power has been self-limited to permit meaningful human freedom, a view consistent with Hick and many other non-evangelical Christian theologians.

(b) Kushner’s Popularization of Theodicy

Rabbi Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has had an enormous influence upon laypeople since its publication in 1981. It is a non-technical book, written by a religious man whose child died after a terrible ten year ordeal with a terminal illness. The theodicy question, aptly reflected in the title of Kushner’s book, is the “only question which really matters: why do bad things happen to good people?”(6). “Can I,” Kushner queries, “continue to teach people that the world is good, and that a kind and loving God is responsible for what happens in it,” when we are assaulted daily with tragedies: senseless murders, young people killed in automobile accidents, and an endless list of other incredibly horrible and demoralizing calamities?

Kushner rejects the more traditional views which have been proposed to explain suffering; in particular, he questions the predominant view that God does all things for a good reason. Our suffering and pain is not, he insists, the direct result of divine punishment, nor divine manipulation in any other manner (evil, for example, as aspects of a divine tapestry, or a means for educational discipline, etc.). “Such answers are thought up by people,” he insists, “who believe very strongly that God is a loving parent who controls what happens to us, and on the basis of that belief adjust and interpret the facts to fit their assumption” (Kushner 23). “If God is testing us,” he continues, then “He must know by now that many of us fail the test. If He is only giving burdens we [supposedly] can bear, I have seen Him miscalculate far too often” (26).

Kushner’s non-traditional response is to argue that God is limited in power, but not in goodness. God does not cause our suffering, despite the conventional teachings which (as we have seen) are sponsored still by evangelical theology and the Augustinian-Thomistic theodicy and which are endorsed by millions of Christians. Many people have found Kushner’s answer less than reassuring, to be sure, but the fact that his book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies is testimony to the fact that, perhaps, the taking for granted of the traditional theodicy is no longer as simple for many people as it once was. It certainly has been questioned by professional theologians, and now by everyday Christians and Jews.

What is important to note here is that with the very real possibility of the collapse (if this is not too strong a word) of the traditional theodicy, the age-old solace and reassurance that everything happens for a divinely appointed reason also is at stake. This implies that a strange but genuine sense of comfort will be lost, despite the fact that the traditional understanding of God as fully in control of all events seemed to imply the disturbing conviction that God is less than loving in causing so much suffering, suffering which so often appears purely gratuitous, undeserved, and greatly out of proportion to the moral nature of the people who suffer. Without a God upon whom to attribute all evils, or at least who controls all events in order to ensure their meaningfulness in the ultimate scheme of things, people will have to take far more seriously personal responsibility for much of the world’s evil, and may well be left wondering whether God can do much about it.

In focusing upon this question, the publication of Kushner’s book has caused a theological furor, not so much among professional theologians (who have been familiar with the issue), but among media personnel and the masses of everyday Christians and Jews. As one recent commentator explains, Kushner’s book “struck two deep but conflicting chords in our society. On the one hand . . . he has articulated a felt need in our time to dissociate God’s hand not only from the massive forms of historical and social evil, but also from the personal tragedies that afflict individuals and families” (Cooper 71). Kushner’s central thesis, that (as he puts it) “I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die” (134), has exonerated God from being the cause of evil, and yet at the same time it has left an empty feeling in the hearts of a good many people who have been left wondering whether a God who is less than almighty is worthy of worship and whether the world is doomed to devour itself in evil.

Kushner argues that evil “happens for no reason” (47), that it is the result of randomness and bad luck, the callousness of other people, and the laws of nature which “treat everyone alike . . . [and which] do not make exceptions for good people or for useful people” (58). God has not created a perfect world, but a world wherein we are evolving slowly, with the pain and suffering we must endure as an inevitable consequence both of natural laws which we cannot control and also of human free will which itself causes much misery and anguish. God “will not intervene to take away our freedom, including our freedom to hurt ourselves and others around us” (Kushner 81). Kushner’s proposal is that the theodicy question is not, “why has God done this to me?” but, as Soelle and others have suggested, “how can I respond to this pain and tragedy?”

The fact that Kushner’s theodicy was written without the benefit of an informed academic exposure to other historical and contemporary theodicies mars his undeniably significant contribution. The book’s main weakness clearly is a direct consequence of this unfamiliarity with professional scholarship. Kushner’s insight that God is not all-powerful has been addressed in contemporary theological literature, and in comparison with these sophicated discussions, Kushner’s seems very deficient. He does not tell us much about what God does do, i.e., how God acts in the world, except for a few brief comments about how God inspires us to act creatively and courageously.

(c) Divine Power and a God who Suffers

The writings on theodicy by many contemporary, professional theologians fill in this serious lacuna in Kushner’s book. Process theism, in particular, as we have seen (in Chapter 6), has argued for a drastic reinterpretation of divine omnipotence and has presented theological and metaphysical reasons for its necessity. Kushner’s critics, who reject his God as too weak to be worthy of worship, seem unaware (or, in some cases, unconvinced) of the process theists’ arguments that the conventional understanding of God as the sole, absolute power is problematic. The alternative concept of a “limited God” certainly seems offensive and psychologically threatening to traditional ears, yet process theists offer what many others consider to be substantial reasons against the viability of any other view.

Moltmann, moreover (see Chapter 2), and growing numbers of contemporary theologians of diverse backgrounds, have argued for a revised understanding of God which depicts the deity as far more compassionate than does the more traditional, conservative conception of an immutable and all-causative deity.

The biblical testimony, as we have seen (in Chapter 3), is ambivalent on this question, although early Christian theologians gradually came to agree that divine impassibility was to be the official and appropriate doctrine. This opinion was sanctioned by such historical giants as Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, all of whom argued the point with great passion. The need among the common people, moreover, for such an impassive God seems undeniable, since it still seems unthinkable for most people to conceive of God in any other way.

The diverse and important arguments for and against the “suffering God” concept have been documented precisely in a recent book by Warren McWilliams, The Passion of God’s Divine Suffering in Contemporary Protestant Theology. He points out that there clearly is a strong and growing acknowledgment of the perception of God as a suffering companion, although many writers still resist the enticement to revise their conception of God from an all-powerful and immutable being to this suffering companion of the world’s suffering creatures.

Richard Bauckham, among many others, also has pointed out this fact quite concisely in his useful analysis of the issue: “The idea that God cannot suffer, accepted virtually as axiomatic in Christian theology from the early Greek Fathers until the nineteenth century,” he writes, has “in this century been progressively abandoned” (6). Ronald Goetz has affirmed much the same, although perhaps overstating the case: the “age-old dogma that God is impassible and immutable, incapable of suffering,” he argues, “is for many no longer tenable. The ancient theopaschite heresy that God suffers has, in fact, become the new orthodoxy” (385).

H. M. Relton, moreover, fortuitously predicted as long ago as 1917 that there “are many indications that the doctrine of the suffering God is going to play a very prominent part in the theology of the age in which we live.” The historical background of this doctrine was surveyed in J. K. Mozley’s 1926 work, The Impassibility of God, and it is prominent in the writings of others like Nicholas Berdyaev, Kazoh Kitamori and Emil Brunner.

There are a significant number of others (Schilling’s research cites fifty theological exponents in addition to Mozley’s twenty-two references), including theologians of such diverse backgrounds and perspectives as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Cone (and liberation theology in general), Hans Kung, Rosemary Ruether (and feminist theology in general), William Temple, Daniel Day Williams, and Geddes MacGreggor.

Terrence Fretheim, in his study, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, has explored this significant issue from the perspective of biblical theology, making it clear that suffering irrefutably is part of the nature of purpose of God. Claus Westermann (Elements 138-49) and Abraham Heschel, likewise, have made a similar point: “the most exalted idea applied to God” by the Hebrew prophets, Heschel argues, “is not infinite wisdom, infinite power, but infinite concern” (Prophets 241). It is not “self-sufficiency,” but rather “concern and involvement” which characterize God’s relationship with the world (257).

Process philosopher Lewis Ford has argued a similar point in his book, The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism, contending that divine suffering and persuasive power are legitimate biblical themes, albeit themes which long have been overshadowed by the Hellenistic view of God as impassive and all-determining of earthly events. It is process theology, more so than any other contemporary perspective, which has given weight to this new understanding of God. With it, we are witnessing an entirely new dimension of the theodicy issue, a dimension which has yet to be thoroughly exploited or fully appreciated.

What concerns us here, most of all, of course, are the implications of this suffering God for the theodicy issue. It is no accident, as Richard Bauckham has pointed out, that the contemporary “concern with the question of divine suffering has frequently arisen out of situations in which suffering was acute”(9): English theologians responded to the devastation of the First World War, Japan’s Kitamori responded to his experience of Hiroshima, Moltmann responded to Auschwitz, and the liberation movements (black liberation, feminism, etc.) are responding to the evil and suffering caused by social oppression and injustice.

It is incontrovertible that the denial of absolute, all-controlling power by God absolves the deity of responsibility for the evil and misery in the world. But the obvious question which arises is whether such a God can guarantee salvation and redemption. Goetz has addressed this question negatively: “[t]he doctrine that God is limited in power solves the problem [of evil] by sacrificing God’s omnipotence,” he contends, and the “concept of a limited deity finally entails a denial of the capacity of God to redeem the world, and thus, ironically, raises the question of whether God is in the last analysis even love” (388). Since God’s ability to control the world is limited, Goetz insists, “then inescapably any other realm of being, any eschatological reality, would be similarly flawed” (388).

Moltmann’s answer to this legitimate concern, however, has been to point out that while the suffering of God cannot prevent the world’s misery and evil, it can and does help to transform the suffering: it heals the deepest aspect of human suffering: “godforsakenness” (Crucified God 46). Moltmann, moreover, has insisted that we cannot isolate the cross of Christ (the ultimate Christian symbol of divine suffering) from the resurrection, for the resurrection is God’s promise of liberation from suffering. A suffering God who is “vulnerable, takes suffering and death on himself in order to heal, to liberate and to confer new life,” he insists. “The history of God’s suffering in the passion of the Son and the sighings of the Spirit serves the history of God’s joy in the Spirit and his completed felicity at the end. That is the ultimate goal of God’s history of suffering in the world” (Moltmann, Church 64).

Process theists, furthermore, argue that while God cannot coerce human events and hence cannot control in any absolute manner the goods and evils which befall us, the deity, nevertheless, is not to be perceived as helpless or any less worthy of worship. God’s role, it is suggested, is to “lure” and persuade us all to seek value and meaning in every event, to actualize what is best for us at each impasse.

Schilling concurs: “God is constantly exploring and finding new ways of advance and creating new possibilities of value.” God’s power “reaches its apex in the compassionate love that takes to itself the agony and tragedy of the world and thereby heals and transforms it. It works primarily, not through fiat or the application of superior physical force, but through the anguished love that seeks the well-being even of those who oppose it” (Schilling 258).

The suggestion put forth here is that we must learn to think of God’s power as other than all-determining. The fact that we have been taught for centuries that God is all-powerful does not automatically and without debate render this understanding of God as the only valid interpretation of how God acts in the world. Indeed, the question of how God acts in the world is one of the most notoriously complex and enigmatic of theological problems. The newly proposed understanding of God as less than all-determining and indeed as a suffering companion, to be sure, is a radical shift in theological thinking, to say the least; it will not be accepted by the masses of Christian believers easily, accustomed as they are to a very different definition of God. Yet if the proponents of this newly proposed, revised theism are correct, a satisfactory solution to theodicy (or something like it) may be impossible without this alternative understanding of God.

The endnotes have not been inserted yet into this abridged web version of the original Paulist book, What Are They Saying About God and Evil? Excerpts from other chapters in the book are available on this website.

© BARRY WHITNEY, 1994, 2005. Please request permission from the author at DrBarryWhitney.com to use this publication in whole or in part in web publications or in other forms of publication and dissemination.