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Theodicy

Scope of the problem of theodicy:
Why doesn't an all-good God prevent evil?


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Quotations:

  • "If God does not judge America, He is going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah." Billy Graham.
  • "Yet they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit. So He turned and became their enemy and He Himself fought against them." Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), Isaiah 63:10.
  • "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." Sheela Pawar,  Center for Process Studies. 1
  • "...God is so transcendent that he creates room for others to exist and maintains a relationship with them...God is so powerful as to be able to stoop down and humble Himself...(and) God is so stable and secure as to be able to risk suffering and change." Clark H. Pinnock, proponent of Open Theism. 2,3
  • "In God we trust." The most recent American national motto.

Why do terrible things happen in the presence of a loving, omnipotent God?

When a child is run over and killed by a drunk driver, the parents ask why it happened. They are not asking for an engineering analysis of masses, velocities, and forces. They are asking a moral question.

When an immense national tragedy happens, as in the case of the 2001-SEP-11 terrorist attack on New York City and the Pentagon, the whole nation and hundreds of millions of people in other countries ask why. Again, they are not seeking a description of the fireball temperature, the speed and mass of the airplane, failure mode of the buildings' steel I-beams, etc. They are again asking a moral question.

This question leads us to examine our basic beliefs about the nature of the God. Most North Americas believe in the existence of God or some other supernatural entity variously called Allah, God, the Trinity, Yahweh, Jehovah, and by thousands of other names.

Most of the major theistic religions teach that God has a number of attributes. The major ones are:

  • Omniscience: God is all-knowing, continuously aware of every movement and thought of every person on earth. Thus God is aware of events, including tragedies, before they happen.
  • Omnipotence: God is all-powerful; capable of performing any act, even those which violate the laws of nature. The first few chapters of Genesis tell how God created an entire universe by simply speaking it into existence. Thus God is certainly able intrude into the world and prevent a tragedy.
  • Omnipresent: God is present everywhere, except -- according to some passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) -- in Sheol, the land of the dead.
  • Omnibeneficient: God is a loving deity, who cares for the world, human beings and other life forms that he created. "God is absolute righteousness, love, goodness, and justice." 4

Humans naturally expect their God to prevent tragedy. The most recent American national motto says: "In God we trust." But he didn't prevent many tragedies in the past and cannot be expected to prevent them in the future:

  • About 3,000 lives were snuffed out in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania field by terrorist attacks on 2001-SEP-11; this caused massive grief and pain to tens of thousands of spouses, partners, family members and friends; it shocked the nation and much of the rest of the world.
  • In 1998, tropical storm Mitch killed more than 130 people and made a half a million people homeless in Honduras and Nicaragua.
  • Over 1,450 people died in 1999 during a earthquake in Taiwan.
  • The death toll from the South Asian tsunami of 2004-DEC was about 230,000 persons of whom a substantial percentage were children. 5
  • Hurricane Katrinia during 2005-AUG caused the death of over 1,800 people.
  • About 25,000 people a year are murdered in the U.S.
  • On the order of 19,000 Americans die yearly because of lack of universal health insurance.

All of these events could be prevented, by an omnipotent, omniscient, caring God. But he chose to not act to prevent any of them.


Comparing the actions/inactions of humans with those of God:

If the scientists had sat on their information and made no attempts to warn people, their lack of action would have been considered profoundly immoral. They might have been accused or even charged with depraved indifference to human life. But God did nothing; he gets away scot free.

What might humans do?

  • A person who sees a child about to run into the path of a truck would be considered as extremely uncaring and immoral if they didn't try to prevent the fatal accident.
  • When Earth scientists detected a massive earthquake in Indonesia and realized that a tsunami would inevitably spread death and destruction over thousands of miles, they tried desperately with all of the resources available to them to inform emergency services in the countries that were likely to be affected.

What might God do? 

  • God could have prevented the truck accident in a thousand ways. For example, he might have induced an irresistible urge for the truck driver to stop at a donut shop for a break and thus not be in the neighborhood when the child ran onto the street.
  • There are thousands of ways in which an omnipotent God could have terminated the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks before they started. He could have sent the hearts of the approximately 18 terrorists into ventricular fibrillation; he could have struck them blind; he could have created an anxiety attack in each terrorist that would have prevented him from taking action.
  • God could have deflected the very destructive storm Mitch away from land.
  • God could have dissipated the energy released by the earthquake that generated the South Asian tsunami by spreading it among many smaller earthquakes -- none of which would have been strong enough to induce an ocean surge.
  • He could have similarly replaced one large earthquake in Taiwan with a few non-destructive quakes.
  • He could have diverted Hurricane Katrina away from populated areas in the U.S. mainland.

What did/does God do?

  • An omniscient God, would presumably knew well in advance of the magnitude of tragedies. Being omnipotent, he has access to TV, Email, radio, telex, prayer, telephone, postal services. Yet, he did nothing to warn anyone in advance of either the coming earthquake or tsunami.

There are endless possibilities. But God let the tragedies all happen. Why? This question has been tackled by theologians and philosophers for millennia.


Consequences of the debate over theodicy:

Major tragedies can cause some people to become angry at, and disillusioned with, God. Some lose their faith. However, it drives others to:

  • Examine their religious beliefs, and perhaps mature spiritually to a deeper understanding of God.
  • Adopt a belief in open theism (a.k.a. openness theology or Free Will theism). This is the concept that "... God chose to create a universe in which the future is not entirely knowable, even for God." 6
  • Conclude that God does not exist, or may not exist. They become Atheists or Agnostics.
  • Conclude that God exists, but is no longer involved in the affairs of the world. They become Deists.

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References used:

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

  1. Sheela Pawar, "Basis Synopsis of Process Thought," Center for Process Studies, at: http://www.ctr4process.org/
  2. 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
  3. "Open Theism Information Site." This quote no longer exists on this site at: http://www.opentheism.info/
  4. 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
  5. Anup Shah, "Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster," 2005-JAN-05, at: http://www.globalissues.org/

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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