Theodicy is a relatively interesting thing, and I’m really going to discuss a popular aberration, so those of you who have real backgrounds in theology can tune out, or critique me for oversimplifications.
One basic way of stating the entry point for Christian theodicy is that there are three key things we believe about God and the world: 1) He is good, 2) He is all-powerful, and 3) Evil exists. These three cannot be reconciled as normally defined, and thus much ink is spilled in trying to work with them. No, that’s not the whole of theodicy, nor does it always have to be stated that way, or derived from this irreconcilable (or more commonly inconsistent) triad.
In popular discussions the details are often bypassed, and we get a simple argument against the existence of God because there is evil. “I don’t believe in God because so many people suffer,” someone announces. Believers often fail to look behind the statement in response.
The argument from suffering really doesn’t go to the existence of God as such, but rather to the nature of God. I recall having this discussion in a philosophy of religion class in which I said simply, “What if God is evil?” I think now I would use “indifferent” as an example, but I used evil. “That would be too horrible to contemplate,” said one of my fellow students. But the fact is that “too horrible to contemplate” does nothing to establish that something isn’t true.
This particular form of theodicy has to occur within a framework of religious views. The triad is only inconsistent because Christians believe that God is both good and omniscient. One possible way to reconcile these is by simply saying that God isn’t one thing or the other. For example, a dualist has no difficulty reconciling these points. God is good, but he isn’t all-powerful. He’s in conflict with an evil power.
I encountered this the other day in discussing the book of Joshua. How can I question the command to kill all the Canaanites if it is a command given by God? It’s a good question. Is there some standard of good that is above God, and if so who made it? If God is the creator of everything, doesn’t he get to say what’s good? There’s a whole new can of worms! But the more direct question here is how do you reconcile God’s action here as recorded in scripture with God’s actions or statements elsewhere in scripture?
That’s why it’s so important not to interpret scripture based on any narrow selection of passages. For example, what do I learn about God by reading Ezekiel 18:32 (for I have no pleasure in the death of anyone) and then comparing it to God’s action in the flood when God is sorry he made humanity and decided to wipe them all out except for eight people and start over. You may say that they were all wicked and deserved to die, which is indeed what the story says, but the action still seems extreme.
If we turn then to Job, whose children are killed along with many of his servants, because God allows the adversary (the satan, but don’t read a Christian concept of “Devil” here) suggests that Job can’t take it. They may not be 100% innocent, yet the only reason given in the story for them to die is to help God prove a point.
I’m not going to dig into these stories much right now, but this leads me to a point I feel I can discuss with more confidence than a philosophical question. How does one reconcile Biblical statements, stories, and their implications in such a way as to present God as just and good? Can this be done? When I’ve looked at a few incidents, I’m going to return to the question of whether evolution actually presents a more serious issue for theodicy than do many standard Biblical stories.
In conclusion let me give one warning. As Christians we need to beware of answering one objection to God’s justice by making God look bad in another way. For example, if one suggests that God was simply carrying out justice in the flood because everyone other than Noah and his family was irredeemably evil, we should also ask why God didn’t intervene in a more successful way earlier. When dealing with a classroom, for example, I found that when one intervenes early, one will have greater success, whereas if one ignores a problem long enough, one loses control of the classroom. Is it not possible here to answer God’s justice problem by portraying God as inept?