Introducing Theodicy. What on earth is a Theodicy?!

Loosely speaking, a theodicy is an attempt to explain why God allows evil in the world. More particularly, it’s an attempt to answer The Problem of Evil; that is, to give an account of how the existence of God and of evil are not incompatible. So the problem is just this:

1) God is omnipotent (all powerful).

2) God is omnibenevolent (all loving).

3) An omnipotent being could eradicate evil.

4) An omnibenevolent being would eradicate evil as far as he could.

5) Evil exists.

6)Therefore, God cannot be both omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

(For a more thoroughgoing argument, read J.L. Mackie’s 1955 paper, Evil and Omnipotence– the standard contemporary paper on the Problem of Evil.)

Note that a theodicy is not about whether God exists or not. Rather what’s on the table is that since we know evil exists, then if God exists, what kind of God is He?

Let’s get a little terminology out of the way before we carry on.

By evil is meant that which is the source or cause of suffering, injury, or destruction. (Although some, like St. Augustine, define evil as the absence of good.) A distinction is usually made between two kinds of evil,

Natural evil, which includes volcanoes, storms, and other such natural phenomena, and human-authored evil, which is evil due to the voluntary actions of human beings,  including all manner of murder and mayhem, treachery, and deceit.

Note that Satanic Realists would collapse all natural evil to human-authored evil by postulating a malevolent entity, the devil. The devil intentionally causes all manner of evil, from a crop-destroying hailstorm, to cancer, to an unanticipated lay-off.

At this point you might think, Wait a minute. Aren’t humans natural, and so just part of the natural world? And so, is human-authored evil also natural?! This is an excellent observation, and one that poses a problem for the Free Will Defense which requires, as you’ll see, a distinction between natural and human-authored evil. If humans are natural, then an additional account is required to explain what makes human-authored evil distinct from natural evil.

Another term you need to know is theology. Theology is the formal study of the nature of the divine (God, gods) and religious beliefs, and is taught at universities and seminaries (where clergy members study). One needn’t believe in the divine to study theology, and in fact many professors in the religion departments of universities are atheists (do not believe in God). Why would an atheist study theology? Because theology is fascinating. And given that the majority of people on this planet hold some kind of religious beliefs, it seems more than a tad important to investigate what these beliefs are, why we have them, and how they play out in our world. As such are the kinds of questions that interest philosophers. And it should be no surprise that a number of those who study philosophy go on to become theologians.

Theologians and philosophers both endeavour to answer the “Big Questions,” e.g. why are we here, what is good, what can we know, and how shall we live? These questions can have very different answers depending on whether one holds that God exists or that He doesn’t. For example, an approach to ethics that holds God exists is called Divine Command Theory. On this theory, our morals come from what God wants us to do. Other approaches to morality are indifferent to whether God exists or not; i.e. they don’t need God in order to explain morality. For example, our morals might come from agreements that we make with each other in order to live peaceably together.

Answers to why we have pain and suffering, or evil, in the world also look very different whether one holds that God exists or whether he doesn’t. And this is where theodicy comes in. If God exists, why does He allow evil in the world? To answer this question, we have to say something about God, namely, who is this God and what do we know about Him?

Attempts to account for evil in the world have been made by all faith traditions in one way or another. But I confine myself here to the Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.* And specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition. I’m not being exclusive. I know little about the eastern traditions, and not much more about Islam. When one hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about, it’s good practice to say so and shut up.

*The Abrahamic traditions are so called because each are descendants in common of Abraham, an Old Testament patriarch.

But there’s another reason for my confinement to the Abrahamic religions. Western analytic philosophy has its origins in the works of the ancient Greeks, such as Plato, and Aristotle.* However, the discipline became modern within cultures who adhere to the Abrahamic traditions. In fact, it was the literate clergy within these traditions who laid the modern foundations of western philosophy, first Islamic scholars such as Al-Farabi and, later, medieval Catholic scholars such as Thomas Aquinas. Since Abrahamic scholars kept alive the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, it is unsurprising that the Abrahamic God looms large in western philosophy.

*Analytic philosophy is characterized (ideally) by the use of clear language and reasons to analyze concepts, often using the rules of logic to do so. I’ll say more about analytic methodology in future posts.

Now that we’ve identified our God as the Abrahamic God, our next step is to say something about Him; i.e. to describe Him.* Why? If God exists and if God is answerable for evil, then we need to say how (give reasons). And we can’t say how without saying something about what God is like. Once we say what God is like, then we can tell some story about the kinds of things God wants; e.g. the things God is capable of doing and why he does or doesn’t do these things. If God is an all-powerful and all-loving god, then the reasons for His allowing suffering in the world has to make sense with this characterization.

Think of it this way. Many theists (those who believe in God) describe the God of the Omnis as morally perfect. In our everyday lives, we hold people accountable to different moral expectations depending on who we believe them to be. Hence expressions like With greater power comes greater responsibility. And we make moral exceptions for people with diminished capacity such as, Because of Johnny’s brain injury, he didn’t realize dropping the kitten down the well was bad. Sadly, he meant well. Johnny thought kitty was thirsty. Johnny is wrong, but not morally culpable. Likewise, we have different kinds of moral expectations for a God we believe morally perfect (unable to err) than for another we believe morally imperfect (fallible, can make errors). So our next move is to make a cut between that perfect-in-every-way God by way of a high theology, and the not-so-perfect-but-still-worth-having-a relationship-with God by way of a low theology.

*Note that ‘God’ is capitalized because God is a name. Hi God! like Hi Joe! Versus, Oh look Mabel, there’s a god standing in that field. Or: Which god? God the god. Just like some cats are named Cat.

To hold a High Theology is to believe both that God exists, and that He is the God of the Omnis. Omni just means all. So by God of the Omnis is meant all-powerful, all-benevolent, and all-knowing. There are a number of other attributes ascribed to the God of the Omnis, but for our purposes these will do,  though you should note that classical theology holds that the God of the Omnis is i) impassible, which means He doesn’t suffer pain or emotion; and, ii) immutable, which means unchanging. What this means is that the God of the Omnis is not a God with whom you can have a personal relationship. The moment you have a friend in Jesus, you have lowered your theology.

To hold a Low Theology is to believe that God exists, but He is not the God of the Omnis; i.e. He lacks one or more of the Omni-properties ascribed to Him, for example that God is all good, but not omnipotent. This is the God found in Rabbi S. Kushner’s 1981 book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner’s son, Aaron, died in his early teens from a disease that causes premature aging. And it is through this personal tragedy that Rabbi Kushner tells the story of a God who is perfectly loving, but unable to prevent all suffering.

Theodicies answering to either a High Theology or a Low Theology will reflect the moral expectations we have for each characterization of God, respectively. So let’s take a cursory look at some common theodicies, including a common objection (counter-argument, challenge) to each. For those unfamiliar, in philosophy giving reasons for why something is, or might be, true is every bit as important as giving reasons for why that same thing is, or might be, false. This backing and forthing of giving reasons and giving objections to those reasons is one way philosophers, in as much as we are able, can together get clear on our concepts within a scholarly community. Disagreeing with each other is a good way to get clear on what we believe and why.

High Theology:

The Best of All Possible Worlds Defense (BAPW). Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). It is Leibniz who coined the word Theodicy, which literally means ‘God’s Justice’.

The BAPW defense is the theodicy most compatible with our post-Darwinian understanding of the world. God was under some design constraints given His conception of what counts as “best.” For example, God could have made us spiritual (non-material) beings, but then we wouldn’t be able to give each other hugs. In order that we can hug each other, God had to give us extended bodies. But since we have extended bodies, we can also get hurt. So clearly God thought that it’s better to have a world in which we can hug each other, even if it means we sometimes get hurt.

So, here’s the argument. i) God exists; ii) The world could have been other than it is. That is, there are other worlds God could have chosen to make; iii) The God of the Omnis would have only chosen the best possible world. Conclusion: This is the best possible world.

Objection: ‘Best’ by whose lights? God’s? Or ours? Certainly not by the lights of the mother whose child died of inoperable throat cancer!

Trivia: Voltaire satirized Leibniz’s Best of All Possible Worlds defense in the novel, Candide (1759).

The Free Will Defense (FWD). The FWD is the most common theodicy. One version is found in Descartes’ 4th Meditation (1641). Another in Alvin Plantinga’s paper aptly named, The Free Will Defense (1971). The FWD is a variation of the Best of All Possible Worlds defense. God judged that a world which allows us free will is better than a world in which we are all automatons – even though He knew that evil would be produced by the exercise of our free will.

Objection: The FWD accounts for human-authored evil but not for natural evil. In order to account for natural evil, the FWD would have to be supplemented with something like Satanic Realism. But there is another problem here. Recall the worry I raised earlier, that the Free Will Defense applies only to human-authored evil. If humans are natural, then the Free Will Defense doesn’t apply to human-authored evil, unless one can give some plausible account of what makes humans special and distinct in the natural world.

Note: Recall that J.L. Mackie wrote the standard contemporary paper on the Problem of Evil. Mackie and Plantinga have gone back and forth about the FWD. Mackie objects to Plantinga’s Free Will Defense by asking why God couldn’t have created a world where everyone freely chose to do good. And Plantinga responds to Mackie’s criticism with an argument for Transworld Depravity, which simply means that there is no possible world in which someone didn’t commit at least one morally depraved act. These arguments are beyond the scope of my primer, but I mention them just in case you’re interested in doing some further reading. Here I’ll just say that neither Mackie nor Plantinga are intellectual slouches.

Soul-Making Defense. John Hick. The soul-making defense holds that evil is required to forge our souls. Some versions hold that the individual sufferer is perfected by pain and suffering, e.g. becoming more compassionate or worthy of an afterlife. Other versions hold a collective narrative, that we all suffer so the human race is perfected.

Objection: Our souls are being forged for what purpose? And, if we are being made to join God eternally, what kind of virtues are required where there is no suffering?

Even if you’ve never heard of a theodicy, you’ll surely have heard some version of the soul-making defense. For example, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This sentiment is as likely to be expressed by an atheist as a theist. While the phrase is commonly used as encouragement, and sometimes has that effect, it’s often false. Adversity might build resilience, but in others it can be debilitating. Pain and suffering might build empathy in some but turn others’ hearts to stone. Worse, what doesn’t kill you might leave you wishing it had. Pain and suffering can be intense and prolonged. Even life-long. Or life ending. An abused child might become an addicted adult, and an addict might overdose. Or freeze to death in a dumpster. And for an infant born, shrieking in pain, and who dies just hours after birth, just whose soul is supposed to be perfected? Mom’s or baby’s?

Still, some find comfort believing this pain and suffering has a purpose. Others find this belief obscene. But one who finds this belief obscene might not need to give up on God, rather only a particular conception of God, in order to find comfort in the face of pain and suffering. Which brings us to a,

Low theology.

Since the Liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945, and the emergence of feminism (God the Mother), contemporary theodicies are prepared to lower our conception of God’s powers. Recall my mention of Rabbi Kushner’s book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People in which he recounted a perfectly loving God who is not all powerful. A God with these properties is one conceived of by feminists who put forward a Solidarity Defense. While God is not able to prevent all of our pain and suffering, She suffers with us. Note that this God is passible, meaning She does suffer pain and feel emotion. And She is mutable, meaning changeable. This God is a responsive God with Whom one can have a relationship. In many ways, the God of the Solidarity Defense is a mother. A mother can’t prevent all of her child’s hurts, but she deeply feels her pain and would never abandon her child through times of need.

While the God of the Omnis is out of reach if we want a relational God, the God of a low theology might come a little too close, become a little too human. Or, as the song goes, What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us…. By which I mean, how far can one lower her theology until she no longer has a God worth worshipping?

Reverend Gretta Vosper of the United Church of Canada has lowered her theology all the way to atheism. Even without a belief in God, Vosper, who remains a minister after some controversy surrounding her position, stands in solidarity with her congregation. And she also stands in solidarity with those who suffer in the name of religion. In fact, Vosper “told a church review panel that she identified as an atheist as a sign of solidarity with those who were persecuted for challenging religious fundamentalism or extremism.”

So some people lower their theology so far that they no longer believe in God. But there’s also a movement afoot that holds one shouldn’t do a theodicy. Call it an anti-theodicy movement. The name movement is misleading, since anti-theodicy is really a broad range of objections to the practice rather than some unified position. Some find theodicy morally objectionable. There are some who believe that God should not be let off the hook for unconscionable pain and suffering, such as occurred in the Nazi concentration camps. Others believe that the cool, detached reasoning of theodicies discourages empathy for the sufferers.

Aside from these psychological objections, some believe that theodicies are conceptually misguided. God is a metaphysical (supernatural) being and can’t be analyzed using material world criteria. That is, God is made of one kind of stuff and the world is made of a completely different kind of stuff, so it doesn’t make any sense to talk about God and the world in a theodicy as though they are the same kind of stuff.

Whether scholars and clergy members think one ought to do theodicy or not is unlikely to deter regular people from entertaining theodicy, whether they be theists or atheists. Pain and suffering are ongoing things in our lives and in our world and so call for ongoing questions and responses. What’s more, the Problem of Evil brings out some pretty strong emotions and impassioned opinions. Some are comforted by believing God wanted it this way, and others find it abhorrent that God would want it this way. Some believers lose their faith because of pain and suffering, others turn to faith because of pain and suffering. Some think religion is itself an evil at the root of much human caused pain and suffering. Others think religion is the only way to conquer evil, and thereby abolish pain and suffering. Some think atheists are morally bankrupt, others think theists are morally bankrupt.

With all of these strong and often conflicting views and emotions, it can be very hard to have a conversation about the Problem of Evil. Philosophy provides one platform where a conversation can occur. But what for the greatest numbers of people who don’t have such a platform, is there any hope for dialogue?

A conversation cannot be had unless people are willing to come to the table and talk to each other. But can it be done? Once a week, for 20 years, atheists and theists, some of other faith traditions, some students, others members of the community, sat our table (mine and my husband, Paul’s) for a Theology Reading Group hosted by an atheist Jew (Paul) and an Anglican minister (our dear friend). So, the short answer is yes. It can be done. But apart from an intellectually stimulating book club, what might bring us to the table? The answer is that pain and suffering are common to all of us. And no matter what our beliefs, or lack thereof, most of us want a lot less of it in our lives, and in our world.

Perhaps the best response to the Problem of Evil is to not wait around for God to do something about it, but to do something about it ourselves.

Recommended viewing. A made for TV movie entitled God on Trial. .

A group of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz hold court with prosecution and defense to determine whether God has broken his Holy Covenant: “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and of the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall posses the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessings for themselves, because you have gained my voice.” Genesis 24: 17-18.

In this movieyou will recognize the theodicies I have sketched in this post.

Categories: Philosophy

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6 replies

  1. It sounds to me that your definition of G-d is the defect


  2. Hi Robert. Thank you for your comment. What do you mean?


  3. The Jews when confronted with a reality that contradicts their Tenak simply reinterpret the Tenak. You need to redefine your concept of G-d to account for the incongruities



  1. Editing. Please wait. –
  2. Five Human Commonalities. Intro by Thomas Hobbes. –
  3. Thoughtlets. XV. Theodicy revisited. –

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