God’s Theodicy Problem

By some strange twist of life, I’ve been to a lot of funerals and memorial services, most of them for children, but I’ve never met a single one of the people for whom they were held.

As a reporter, especially working the night shift over the first two years, my job was essentially to cover tragedy. The young boy killed in a house fire. The teenager racing – too fast – into town to see his newborn son. A teenage girl accidentally shot in the chest by her boyfriend.

I’ve heard the wailing from a mother who could not contain her grief. I’ve heard the bitterness of a father who lost his son in a war he opposed. I’ve been lied to by a dead girl’s drug-addicted parents, who used the support offered to them to buy more meth. I’ve seen bodies on dirt roads and highways covered with blood-stained sheets amid the wreckage of automobiles and motorcycles.

I’ve watched two men die, one protesting his innocence with his final breaths, the other apologizing to the family of the little girl he had raped and murdered.

I’ve never known any of them, yet each has changed my life in ways I’ll never fully understand or appreciate. Being around that much death and suffering changes a person; it has to.

Somehow, I’d never really thought much about the theology of death. But in recent months, and certainly since Liam’s death two weeks ago, that has changed. It’s become clear that God has a theodicy problem.

I’m not sure how a person can spend years around death and not think more deeply about its existence in the face of a supposedly benevolent and omnipotent God – it’s probably an indication of how near death my faith was, as well as evidence of the survival tactics reporters use to shield themselves from thinking or feeling too much about the things they cover. That’s certainly changed now.

So here are some statements about death and God that seem like they must be true:

  • God is good, and he cares about his creation, which includes all people.
  • God does not routinely intervene to prevent suffering or death
  • Therefore, either death and suffering must be attributes of goodness …
  • … or God is not omnipotent – or chooses to limit his omnipotence, which is pretty much the same thing as far as humanity is concerned.

There are some other points to be made here:

I think I freaked out my wife when I posted I might not believe God is actually omnipotent. Yet no Christian I know truly acts as if he is. Yes, we all pray for healing, and sometimes that seems to work, and sometimes it doesn’t. In truth, it doesn’t actually seem to matter much (scientific studies indicate prayer makes no difference in whether someone is healed). But why doesn’t anyone pray for resurrection when the prayers for healing go unanswered? God is nothing if not a God of resurrection, yet no one asks him to exercise his omnipotence and rule over death. Because, though we all know someone whose body has been healed, we don’t know anyone who’s been raised from the dead. It just doesn’t seem to happen in the modern world, so we don’t pray for it. Either no one has enough faith … or God just doesn’t – or can’t – do that sort of thing.

Further, we know God created the world, and the revelation of his world through scientific study indicates he created it with death built in – trillions upon trillions of animals, including whole species as small as the microscopic and as large as the dinosaurs, lived and died before humanity was even on the scene. Death and suffering are older than we are; in fact, we wouldn’t be here without them. They are essential to the evolutionary process, as well as crucial to preventing the overpopulation of our planet. (Even a literal reading of Genesis implies the pre-existence of death, given the tree of life and Adam and Eve’s unquestioning acceptance and use of the concept in conversation with God and the serpent.)

How do we deal with a God we are taught is omnipotent but who seems to do little or nothing about the death and suffering in the world he created and deemed good? This is the heart of theodicy. The thing I appreciated most about the memorial service last weekend for Liam – another person I’d never met – was that it was the only service I had attended in which theodicy was front and center.

Thousands of people had prayed for Liam for 14 months, seemingly to no avail. Randy Harris, who delivered the eulogy, said he had asked Liam’s parents whether they felt God “had sat this one out,” their response was, “Not at all.”

God didn’t swoop down with “cancer magic,” Randy related, but he was there in the countless friends, neighbors and strangers who provided money, lodging, food, phone calls, texts and emotional support. He was there in the medical professionals who made Liam feel comfortable and soothed his anxiety and took extra time to minister to him. He was there in the amazing resilience and empathy of Liam himself, who carried his parents through 14 horrible months more than they carried him.

God doesn’t work the way we do. Questions of omnipotence aside, he simply does not often – if ever – wave fairy dust over the suffering and grief of this world and make it go away. I certainly wish he would; it would make faith a whole lot easier. But then it would stop being faith and start being something else much more mundane.

I’m not giving up on this subject just yet. I think it’s important, and it deserves more than simply a blog post here and there . I may not ever fully understand, but I owe it to myself – and, more importantly, my children – to try to grasp as much of it as I can.

At the moment, here’s where I am:

As with Elijah, God does not seem to have much interest in making his presence known via hurricane or earthquake or thunderstorm – he seems to prefer the still, small voice of a phone call or a hot meal or a hug. Which means I’d better get on that.

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5 comments on “God’s Theodicy Problem

  1. The four points you work through seem to presuppose that omnipotence equates with omnibenevolence. I’m not sure that God’s decision to allow suffering to exist in the world is a limiting of his power, but rather, a decision on his part to include pain and suffering as part of the very complicated journey that makes us human. Theodicy’s the one we all struggle with for all our lives, and I can’t claim to have any special knowledge or insight into the matter. I work on it daily. I’m just not quite with you that power and goodness have to be tied.

    • Paul says:

      You raise a good point. I know I grew up with the argument that evil existed because without it, how would we know what good is? And there’s something to that, I think. How do we know what love is if we don’t have risk? How can we appreciate having something or someone if we can never lose them?

      On the other hand, there’s death and there’s *suffering,* which I neglected in my post. Things like the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, the endless starvation of children in the Third World. It’s hard to explain how suffering on that scale helps understand or appreciate goodness or love any better. The pat answer has always been fall of man + free will = horrible things. I think that’s too pat, but perhaps there are some nuggets of truth to be gleaned from that, too. Hmmm.

      I might be working toward some sort of answer (at least one that makes me feel better) if I can get a couple of uninterrupted hours to write stuff down. We’ll see. I appreciate the feedback, as always!

      • Jon Fuller says:

        This was one of the stickier theological points that I wrestled with in my own attempts to understand God, and I found some solid perspective from an Eastern Orthodox priest, whom I wrote via email fairly regularly for around 3 years, If God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, then why are there moments like 1 Sam 15:11, when God expresses disappointment in His own choices? How can an omniscient God have Regret?

        The suggestion that my friend proposed was that God never claims Omnipotence or Omniscience. All of these terms are ascribed to God by Paul, in an attempt to minister to an audience, based around Greek philosophy. According to the narrative of Job, God claims to be immensely powerful, but never ALL-powerful. God doesn’t need to be. He is powerful enough to create the Leviathan, wise enough to know more than we can ever understand, and that is sufficient reason for our worship. God doesn’t have to be so powerful He can create a rock that even He can’t lift; He just has to be powerful enough to create rocks WE can’t lift.

        God also makes a somewhat contentious point about the nature of Good and Evil in Job. When Job can finally take no more, he questions God’s Goodness. God’s response is less of the “I am here for you, my child” that we have been taught to expect, and much more “Who are you to question me, little man?” God defines what is Good… and if Job’s pain is Good, then that’s God’s prerogative. I think that we, as Christians, often we take a human concept of “Good” and attempt to shoehorn God’s words and action in order to support our own definition. It makes us feel better about our own morality, or justify our actions when we sin, and I don’t know if it’s possible to really ever break from that mentality.

        Thanks for a thought-inspiring update. It’s always a good exercise to take these issues out and examine them again.

        -Jon.

  2. goliah says:

    The problem has never been God. Yet so easy is it to project failure elsewhere to avoid a closer self scrutiny or our own beliefs. “The Existence of God and the Problem of Evil” presupposes four elements. One, that human nature itself has a limited, even corrupted moral/spiritual conception and potential, therefore allowing evil to exists. Two, that there is a God, three, the Incarnation was intended to provide the remedy to defeat evil and four, that those religions, mainly the christian tradition that interprets and claims to represent that event are in some way true. The first is self evident, the next two may be true if yet unproved but if the last is false, that would explain why evil has yet to be conquered.

    So long as evil exists, then religious traditions cannot reflect the true will of God. That is probably why a second coming is immanent, to correct two thousand years of theological counterfeit pretending to be the word of God. Theology only exists because nothing has been revealed!
    http://www.energon.org.uk

  3. Matthew says:

    > he seems to prefer the still, small voice of a phone call or a hot meal or a hug. Which means I’d better get on that.

    Well said. =)

    > The pat answer has always been fall of man + free will = horrible things.

    Which essentially resolves the tension between omnipotence and goodness by compromising the plain meaning of the word “good”. There’s no way we would affirm the goodness of a father who stood by and let his child be tortured when he had the power to stop it, regardless of how it impacted Free Will in the Universe. Similarly, if you want to posit a God who is good and also complicit in the sorts of horrors that happen in the world every day, you have to redefine “good”. Which seems a bit problematic.

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