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Theodicy

Attempts to solve the Theodicy problem:
Why doesn't an all-good God prevent evil?


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Theodicy: an unsolvable paradox?

The problem of theodicy -- how can such evil and suffering exist in a universe created by a good, loving God -- is a centuries-old, unresolved paradox that is inherent in all religions that include a belief in a personal all-loving, all knowing, all-powerful, and present God.

In Archibald MacLeish's play, "J.B." the title character expresses the theodicy paradox eloquently: "If God is God He is not good, if God is good He is not God; take the even, take the odd..." 1,2

Many Christians and other theists yearn for a understanding of the puzzle. Theologians and philosophers have been debating the theodicy paradox for centuries, without making a great deal of progress.

It may be impossible to solve the puzzle while still believing in a God with all of the traditional characteristics; it may be necessary to abandon belief in one or more of God's attributes. Perhaps God is not (or chooses to not appear to be) omniscient; perhaps he lacks omnipotence; perhaps he is not a loving, caring deity. We do know that God has an amazing ability to hate humans; there are dozens of biblical passages referring to God's wrath, and the torture of unbelievers in Hell. Some Agnostics and Atheists have used the conflict over theodicy as a main indicator that a personal God does not exist. Deists have used theodicy to argue that God exists but is not currently involved in the world. He created the universe, set it in motion, disappeared and has not been seen since.


Attempts to resolve the theodicy paradox:

Some religions have solved or partly solved this problem. Most do it by reducing or abandoning one of the attributes of God. A few religious leaders have admitted that they simply cannot solve the puzzle. This takes courage when faced with multitudes of people who desperately want answers. The 2001 terrorist attack of 9/11 brought the theodicy question to the awareness of many Americans:

  • Fundamentalist Christian leader: R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is considered by many to be a main spiritual leader of the Southern Baptists. He touched on theodicy during an address at the Seminary's Alumni Memorial Chapel on 2001-SEP-13, two days after the 9/11 tragedy. 1 He assigned full responsibility for the attacks on the (then) unknown terrorists.  He said:

"We dare not lack the moral courage to call these acts what they are: murderous acts of mass terror. We dare not dignify the murderers by explaining their cause. No cause, however righteous, can justify such acts. And, no righteous cause could produce such acts."

Earlier in his talk, Dr. Mohler touched on theodicy:

"How could a good God allow this to happen? How can a God of love allow killers to kill, terrorists to terrorize, and the wicked to escape without a trace?"

He acknowledges that God is omnipotent -- infinitely powerful -- and thus could have prevented the tragedy. He said:

"This much we know: we cannot speak of God's decree in a way that would imply Him to be the author of evil, and we cannot fall back to speak of His mere permission, as if this allows a denial of His sovereignty and active will. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, who are the called according to His purpose." 1,3

He admits that humans cannot know the full truth:

"We dare not speak on God's behalf to explain why He allowed these particular acts of evil to happen at this time to these persons and in this manner. Yet, at the same time, we dare not be silent when we should testify to the God of righteousness and love and justice who rules over all in omnipotence. Humility requires that we affirm all that the Bible teaches, and go no further. There is much we do not understand. As Charles Spurgeon explained, when we cannot trace God's hand, we must simply trust His heart." 1

  • Deists believe that God created the universe, set it in motion, and then withdrew from the scene. He hasn't been seen since. They regard God as not having omniscience; he has not chosen to remain aware of what is happening on earth. Most of the writers of the U.S. founding documents were Deists.
  • Zoroastrianism was once the religion of ancient Persia. It remains a small religion whose members live largely in India. Their religion has largely settled the paradox. They promote a cosmic dualism between two more or less equal forces:
    • A powerful, all good God Ahura Mazda, who is the only deity worthy of being worshipped, and
    • An evil spirit of violence and death Angra Mainyu, who opposes Ahura Mazda.

The resulting cosmic conflict involves the entire universe now and until the end of time. Humans must choose which deity to follow. Angra Mainyu can generate great evil, like the terrorist acts during 9/11. Here, Angra Mainyu would be seen as largely responsible for the terrorist attack; Ahura Mazda is powerful, but not all-powerful. Thus, he was unable to stop it. Some religious liberals believe that Judaism (and thus Christianity and Islam) picked up its belief in heaven, hell, the final judgment, and Satan as an all-evil entity, from Zoroastrianism.


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  • Conservative Christians, Muslims and others believe in a personal Satan, an all-evil devil who roams the world seeking whom he might be able to destroy. Most evil occurrences are attributed to Satan. God is often viewed, by Christians, as providing a protective shield around Christian countries. But this is only a partial answer to the problem of theodicy. It begs the question: if God is omniscient and omnipotent, why did he not curtail the activities of Satan and prevent him from succeeding in his plan to cause natural or man-made disasters?. 9/11
    • WTS and Pentagon tragedies, the Reverend Doctor Billy Graham, said that many times, he has asked the question, 'Why does God permit evil?'...he said he has never answered that question fully to his satisfaction. Later, he said that America needs spiritual renewal and revival. He believed that the terrorist attack brought the country to the start of that process. 9/11 did indeed increase church attendance substantially in subsequent weeks. However, the effect soon dissipated and attendance returned to normal by the end of 2001.
    • The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, picked up that theme. 4 He explained that God allowed this evil deed to proceed because it was part of his plan to redeem America. Farrakhan explained that
      "Whenever a nation becomes great and powerful by God's Permission, as America has... and that nation then has a spiritual lapse and begins to sink into moral decline, the Qur'an teaches that Allah (God) raises a messenger, but he raises that messenger from among the poor and the abject to guide and to warn the great and the powerful...the Qur'an teaches that Allah (God) then seizes that nation with distress and affliction, that it might humble itself. For only in humility can the proud and the powerful heed the Guidance of God, which is mercy and grace from Himself. Allah (God) used this tragedy, hopefully, to bring a great nation to Himself."

      Thus, God caused the tragedy, and worked through the terrorists to accomplish mass murder. But God did this in order to create a greater good: to cause the entire nation to come close to him.

  • Mainline Christian leader: Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the 213th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church discussed the terrorist attacks with members of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fruit Heights, UT. He said that the church as well as the world will never be the same. He said:
    "It has been asked that if God is good why do evil things happen to good people? We don't know the answer to that but we know that we belong to God and he will give us hope and enable us to go on." 5
  • Jewish leader: Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," concluded in his book that the theodicy paradox can only be solved only by limiting the traditional attributes of God. 6 Viewing God as all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful leads to internal contradictions. At least one attribute has to be abandoned. He suggests that we reject the omnipotence of God. One can then believe in a deity with only finite powers to influence people's actions, but who remains all-knowing and all-loving. Kushner's God didn't prevent the terrorists because he didn't have the power to do so. God can only cry with the victims.
  • Atheists have no problem with the theodicy paradox for the simply reason that they have no belief in the existence of God. Strong Atheists positively deny that God exists. Atheists are generally moral relativists and conclude that a given act may be considered immoral by some people, morally neutral by others, and moral by still others. Within the terrorists' personal belief system, murdering thousands of people was a moral act because it strikes back against America -- a country that they often refer to as Satan. If they had a feasible way to kill 60,000 people instead of 6,000, they probably would have taken it. They were so motivated by this belief that they were willing to sacrifice their lives to accomplish their goal. Bad things happen simply because people want to do them in order to accomplish what they feel is a great moral good. God does not intervene because, according to Atheists, there is no evidence that he exists.
  • Process thought was originally promoted the early 1900s by a French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson. Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne developed it further. It deals with the interrelationships of all entities in the universe.
    "It has been utilized to provide insights into aesthetics, biology, economics, education, interpersonal relations, physics, physiology, political theory, psychology, the relationship among the world's religions, social law, and theology." 7
    One of the three main areas of process thought is process theology. It teaches that that God affects history indirectly through gentle persuasion and not directly by coercion. He does not intrude directly in human activities; he does not violate the laws of nature by creating a miracle. Rather:
    "God gently persuades all entities towards this perfection by providing each of them with a glimpse of the divine vision of a better future. And yet all entities retain the freedom to depart from that vision." 7
    Individuals retain the freedom to reject God's messages and to engage in mass murder, genocide and other evils.
  • Open theism, also called Free Will Theism is an alternative understanding of the nature of the Christian God. According to Dr. John Sanders:

"God, in grace, grants humans significant freedom to cooperate with or work against God's will for their lives, and he enters into dynamic, give and take relationships with us....God takes risks in this give-and-take relationship, yet he is endlessly resourceful and competent in working toward his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. On other occasions, God works with human decisions, adapting his own plans to fit the changing situation. God does not control everything that happens. Rather, he is open to receiving input from his creatures. In loving dialogue, God invites us to participate with him to bring the future into being." 8

In his talk referred to above, Dr. Mohler refers to "openness theists" who "argue that God is always ready with Plan B when Plan A fails. He is infinitely resourceful, they stress, just not really sovereign" in the conventional sense of the term.

In this belief system, humans are ultimately responsible for many of their deeds -- good and bad. When faced with a terrible tragedy, God accepts it and attempts to make positive results come out of the evil. God is not omniscient in the normal meaning of that word; he cannot foretell the future in detail because so much of the future is up to a complex interaction of countless decisions by individual humans, all of whom possess free will. God is only able to adapt to events and nudge the future along in what he feels is the correct direction. Openness theism is supported by more than 30 biblical passages in which God indicates that he does not control the future. In these passages, he repented of his previous decisions. Openness theism is also negated by many other biblical passages.

  • Limited human perception: Some theologians and philosophers argue that Theodicy does not exist. There is ultimately no conflict between evil and an omnibeneficient, omnipotent and omniscient deity. They would argue that from our limited human viewpoint, we cannot see the broad picture. God is beyond time and is capable of seeing the past, present and future. If humans had the wisdom of God, we would not be arguing about theodicy; we would realize that God always works in a moral manner.

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. R.A. Mohler, Jr., "Truth-telling in a time of tragedy: What words dare we speak, when we dare not be silent?," Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, at: http://www.sbts.edu/
  2. Archibald MacLeish, "J.B.: A Play in Verse," Houghton Mifflin, (1956), Page 11. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  3. From Romans 8:28.
  4. "World Press Conference from Mosque Maryam: The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan responds to the ATTACK on AMERICA," 2001-SEP-16, at: http://www.noi.org/
  5. Jamie Lampros, "Church faces controversial issues," at: http://www.standard.net/
  6. Harold S. Kushner, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," Schoken Books, (1981). Read reviews or order this book
  7. Sheela Pawar, "Basis Synopsis of Process Thought," Center for Process Studies, at: http://www.ctr4process.org/
  8. Excerpt from Dr. John Sanders, "The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God," Intervarsity Press, (1994). The book includes writings from five scholars. Read reviews or order this book

Copyright © 2001 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-SEP-15
Latest update: 2008-SEP-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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