October 21, 2008

I’ve been thinking lately about Theodicy. Essentially, theodicy is the problem of pain.

Of course, it’s comical for me to aspire to understand the myriad theodicies already conceived, much less to conceive of a newer, better theodicy. C.S. Lewis, Kant, Calvin, Voltaire, and many many more, have spent lifetimes trying, to paraphrase Milton, to justify the ways of God to man.

But, while I soldier on, I am unconvinced. I am a mostly believing Christian. I attend church every Sunday. I pray, I read, I even teach. And while religious belief requires a leap of faith, like fiction sometimes requires a suspension of disbelief, this chasm seems awfully wide and deep. Maybe the leap and the suspension are the same. Like Pi, I desperately want the better story to be true.

But as I watch Elden and his family, I think back to pain and loss in my own family, and I can’t help but then gradually expand that circle, to the abused child, to the slums of big cities, to the still thriving slave trade, to tsunamis, to Rwanda and Darfur, to the fact that the we live in an oasis of good and plenty while the world is still generally struggling with starvation, disease, poverty, and genocide.

I sing to myself XTC:

I have these same questions and doubts.

Here are some ways thinkers have tried to do it (from Wikipedia, the repository of all knowledge):

Resolutions to the problem of evil generally entail one of the following:

  • What people consider evil or suffering is an illusion or unimportant.
  • Events thought to be evil are not really so (such as deaths by natural disaster).
  • God’s divine plan is good. What we see as evil is not really evil; rather, it is part of a divine design that is actually good. Our limitations prevent us from seeing the big picture.
  • A related posture holds that no theodicy is needed or even appropriate. God, if he exists, is so far superior to man, that he cannot be judged by man. Man’s assumption that he can tell God what a benevolent and all-powerful god can or cannot do, is mere arrogance.
  • A perfect God is not only good but also evil, since perfection implies no lacking, including not lacking that which is evil. A lacking of evil would imply that there is something external to his all-encompassing perfection. This is related to monistic philosophies such as advaita, or pantheism.
  • Evil is the consequence of God giving people free will, or God may intend evil and suffering as a test for humanity. Without the possibility to choose to do good or evil acts humans would lack moral content.
  • Evil is the consequence, not cause, of people not observing God’s revealed will. Universal reciprocated love would solve most of the problems that lead to the evils discussed here.
  • Evil is propagated by the Devil in opposition to God.
  • God’s ultimate purpose is to glorify himself (which, by definition, he alone is infinitely entitled to, without vanity). He allows evil to exist so that humanity will appreciate goodness all the more, in the same way that the blind man healed by Jesus appreciated his sight more so than those around him who had never experienced blindness.
  • God created perfect angels and humans with free will. Some of them began to sin and lost their perfection, which resulted in evil doing and death. For a while God will allow this to continue, so that it can be shown that his creations can not be happy while independent from God. In due time God will restore the people who choose to depend on God to perfection and so bring an end to sin and with it an end to evil.
  • God is a righteous judge; people get what they deserve. If someone suffers or falls ill, that is because they committed a sin that merits such punishment. (This is also known as the just world hypothesis.)
  • Evil is one way that God tests humanity, to see if we are worthy of His grace.
  • Evil and pain exist in this world only. This world is only a prelude to the afterlife, where no pain will exist. The scales of justice are balanced in the afterlife.
  • The world is corrupt and of itself shouldn’t have been created, but the work of Christ (or some savior figure) redeems the world and thus God’s creation of it.
  • Absolute evil is not actually real. Rather, it is only the condition of lack of goodness.
  • Evil is relative to good; neither good nor evil could exist without both existing simultaneously.
  • Karma: Evil is caused by past bad deeds, either in one’s current life or one’s previous lives. It is only when this karmic chain of causation is broken that reincarnation ends. This explains why an infant may be born into misery, due to actions that may have been perpetrated in previous lives.
  • One of the conflicting assumptions is wrong: Drop either the assumption that God is omniscient, or omnipotent, or perfectly good. See the entry on the subject of God and omnipotence for more details on this point.
  • Religions such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism dispense with the issue by embracing various forms of dualism, in which God is opposed by an evil counterpart, and is therefore not omnipotent.
  • Dystheism is a theoretical position that claims that God simply is not entirely good himself. This resolves the problem of evil by acknowledging that an omnipotent all-benevolent God would not create a world in which there was evil, concluding that God, assuming he exists, is not all-benevolent.
  • Evolutionary theodicy, suggests that the plan that God has involves the elimination of all evil at the end of time, but that the means by which creation occurs always leads to the presence of evil in the interim. This theory is linked to the evolution of God himself as present in the cosmos.
  • Nontheists claim that statements about God are unimportant or meaningless. E.g., the book, “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchins.
  • Atheists resolve the apparent contradiction by rejecting the hypothesized existence of God (possibly for reasons other than the problem of evil). Some atheists think that the problem of evil can be used to prove that no gods exist by the method of reductio ad absurdum (proof by contradiction). This method does not prove the non-existence of all gods, rather it is an argument that if such a god exists then he is not both omnipotent and benevolent.
  • Agnostics believe that no answer to the question of religion will ever be found (or can not be discovered with the present level of human knowledge).
  • The contraction hypothesis holds that god has withdrawn himself so that creation could exist. That creation lacks full exposure to god’s all good nature.

I like these, many of them (some of them I don’t like at all), although I don’t have the time or energy or patience to go through all of them. What I do know is, I watch what Elden (and numerous other friends in similar situations) is going through, and I wonder. Kant said “This can easily be demonstrated and will put an end once and for all to the trial.” Clearly I am not as smart as Kant.

What I wonder is, What the Hell?

I want the better story. I choose the better story. But sometimes the better story is only SLIGHTLY better.


10 Responses to “theodicy”

  1. bikemike Says:


  2. Jeff Says:

    I appreciate the humble tone you took addressing this. I like when someone refrains from calling others stupid or ignorant. I think there are several explanations you listed that I’d agree with in part or in whole.

    I’m a bit surprised by your blog’s sudden, serious turn (although understandable when you consider Elden’s current circumstances). I expect to see a hilarious bathroom story posted tomorrow.

  3. KanyonKris Says:

    dug, heavy but good thoughts.

    Suffering of the innocent is an inescapable theological conundrum. I don’t agree with XTC, but I respect their forceful asking of the question. I don’t have it figured out, but I have some beliefs which help me cope. Suffering makes me sad.

  4. Rich Says:

    Being a social worker dealing with abuse and neglect has often prompted me to consider a lot of those things. Thanks for the references and insights. The only way to stay sane for me is to keep things on the light side and I appreciate the humor of your blog, thanks!

  5. Anonymous Says:

    I thought you would have a post like this today. I know that I have thought a lot about Elden and family recently. I assumed that as a good friend you would be feeling from their pain.

    It’s tought to explain things like this. Even for those of us (me, you, and many others) who consider ourselves “religious”. My thoughts are that God knows why things like this happen. While we struggle to know why stuff happens (and I think it no sin to wonder why), we should do our best to alleviate as much suffering as we can, and to “mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort”.

    Tough times for people. I feel for Elden and his family. I hope you who are close will know what to say and do to help

  6. Mocougfan Says:

    I thought you might have a post like this today. I know you and Elden are friends. I figured you would be feeling his pain.

    I have thought about this recently. As with many of us that are “religious” (me, you, and many others), we struggle to know why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know the answer to this. I also don’t think it is a sin to wonder why. I do know that God knows why. He knows all things. I think as we struggle to know and understand these things we need to do our best to “mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort”.

    Having said that… I really wish I understood it better, and I wish it didn’t have to happen so much. It hurts.

  7. Mocougfan Says:

    Sorry for the double post. I’m an idiot. I don’t understand computers either.

  8. Steve Says:

    This guy

    is a fairly good thinker. You might consider some of his thoughts on the problem of evil. It is a short read.

    I am thinking your Wiki Reason #9 is part of the answer. Not that understanding is always satisfying.

  9. Firm and Undaunted Says:


    It was a triple post. But that’s ok. If the Cougars would do a triple post then maybe they could beat TCU.

    Dug, I always think you are serious. I don’t think you are kidding about your toilets.

    I think the Devil is in the details.

    These are for sure crazy times. We are all in it together. Thank goodness we get to ride our bikes.

    Flyin’ Ute

  10. mark Says:

    Dug, thanks for making me pause and think. Usually yours is the last feed I read in my reader (let’s call it dessert), but today I read it first. Set an interesting tone.

    I’ve been struggling with many of the same thoughts lately as a result of my own circumstances as well as those of others I care about, including Elden. I came to a point where I was angry and wanted desperately not to believe anymore, thinking it would be easier that way.

    I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it. The non-rational part of me that believes is simply more compelling than the rational part of me that can’t make sense of it. It provides little comfort other than “be still and know that I am God.”

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