In this series of posts, I’ll be unpacking, and then deconstructing, theodicy. Where do you land on this issue? Perhaps you’ve struggled to reconcile your views of God with that of the biblical text, and observable evils that take place in our world virtually every day.
The doctrine of “theodicy,” in its most formal definition, means “a defense of God”–in other words, an attempt to vindicate him in the face of the existence of evil. This would include two categories of evil: what is termed “natural evil” (or “acts of God” as defined by insurance companies)–things like floods, fires, lightning strikes, tsunamis, storms, volcanoes, etc.
The second category is termed “human evil” and covers “man’s inhumanity to man” types of evils: the Holocaust, Stalinist purges, atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge regime and Pol Pot, Assad of Syria using chemical weapons against civilians, serial killers, mass shootings, acts of terror, and so on.
The obvious question posed regarding natural evil is this: if God is truly all-powerful, and all-knowing, and indeed merciful and loving toward his creation, then why does he allow such evil to exist? If he truly cares for humanity (and the environment too), then why doesn’t he step in to stop these things from happening over and over again?
Historically, there are two basic possibilities posed by thinkers who have pondered this subject deeply. The first option is this: God is indeed all-powerful and all-knowing, and could prevent these disasters from happening, but he does not want to do so. In this case, it makes him an uncaring monster or even a cruel fiend. The second possibility is this: God is not all-powerful or all-knowing, and is thus incapable of preventing these types of disasters. In this case, the God as presented in the Bible is not the same God as the real one; he isn’t omniscient or omnipresent, and simply doesn’t have the ability to stop evil from taking place.
Theodicy, as mentioned above, involves a robust defense of God as posed by these problems. There are two basic lines of defense: one, a defense of the person of God that involves an appeal to his other attributes (love, mercy, longsuffering, allowing humanity free will; God the wise father teaching his people a lesson by allowing suffering; God allowing evil as a means of judgement on a particular people group or nation; and so on).
Another possibility, it is argued, is this: God does know about the evil, and he cares, and could technically do something about it; it’s just that he’s not choosing to act–at the moment. The future judgement of the good and the evil, it is believed, will one day sort everything out, and everything will be put to rights in the future.
The second line of defense involves the wider use of Scripture. When dealing with passages in the Old Testament, for example, where God commanded the nation of Israel to commit genocide of entire people groups, other texts are brought in to justify such behavior. In the case of the occupation of Canaan, as an example, scholars will point to statements made in Genesis where God told Abraham that “the sin of the Canaanites has not yet reached its limits.” By the time of Joshua, and the command to commit genocide of these same peoples, it is pointed out that God allowed them over 400 years to repent. They didn’t, and persisted in their sin, so God was entirely justified in wiping them out–down to the last man, woman, and child.
Other options include balancing out the judgement/justice views of God as presented in Scripture. God, the righteous judge, has to judge sin; to overlook it would be for him to go against his own character and nature. Therefore, to wipe out the evil Canaanites was the correct thing for God to do, because if they had been allowed to coexist alongside Israel, these evil people would have led Israel astray into idolatry and wickedness, and would influence them to commit violations of their covenant with God.
The fact that this very type of thing happened numerous times in the book of Judges, Kings and Chronicles, it is pointed out, is proof positive that such people groups shouldn’t have been allowed to live in order to maintain Israel’s status as a “holy and chosen nation” that had a missional role for the wider world. These lofty goals were constantly compromised by Israel’s syncretistic tendencies, so the best decision on God’s behalf was to wipe out these evil influences surrounding the nation.
It seems to me, though, that we need to step back and look at this issue from a wider perspective. If a Christian reads the Bible from an inerrantist point of view, then he or she is forced to accept the characterization of God that the text presents to its readers. Simply a straight reading of texts involving genocide, for example, demonstrates that God himself commanded his followers to carry out this action.
That’s what the text states unequivocally: God told his people to do it. But since this view of God is incompatible with the apparently loving and merciful God presented elsewhere in Scripture, thus the inerrantist (or biblical literalist) is forced to adopt a position whereby he or she must defend this seemingly aberrant, “two-faced Janus” God.
Therefore, for the person who still wants to retain a view of God, but cannot reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable Gods, what can she do?
There are two basic options available: one, changing your views of God; or two, changing your view of the text (hermeneutic, or lens through which you interpret the Bible).
In Part 2, I’ll be delving into these two basic options available for a person who still wants to hang on to some form of belief in God. How might that work? Check back for the next installment, coming soon!