|Theodicy: The Problem of Evil
A REASONABLE THEODICY?
TACKLING THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
My book, Yet Will I Trust Him, in reflecting on divine providence and human suffering, hastened to decry the importance we often give to reason. Indeed, reason can blind us to our own limitations. It can set itself up as a god which judges all reality. That kind of reason I have capitalized and called, "Reason." However, we cannot avoid the use of human reason in defending and understanding our faith. Faith should be reasonable even though it cannot be exhausted by reason.
Consequently, I do not react negatively to philosophical or theoretical attempts to deal with the problem of evil, that is, to construct a reasonable theodicy. There is a role for such exercises. However, some of the best attempts of theologians have been shipwrecked on the beaches of Reason itself. Revelation must always function as the sphere of faith's defense and understanding. Such defenses, however, should be reasonable (coherent) in the light of revelation. Thus, a theodicy which seeks to build a reasonable defense in this context is welcome and deserves examination.
This appendix offers a theoretical theodicy contextualized by biblical theology and particularly by the story outlined in this book. It deals with the traditional problem of evil within the context of the discpline called the philosophy of religion. I attempt to integrate the previous discussion of the main text into a reasonable understanding of theodicy. While the argument may seem rather philosophical at times (and I make no apology for this), my goal is always to root this defense in divine revelation. It is a reasoned attempt to understand the implications of biblical theology for theodicy in the context of modern thought.
Why attempt such a thing given the previous discussion in this book? Opponents of theism, and many believers as well, will regard the conclusions of the book as a retreat from reason into mystery. They will attack it as irrational. As a result, there is a need to demonstrate its reasonableness. God has given us reason as a tool to understand his world and his revelation. God does not ask us to believe the irrational or the unreasonable. He does ask us to believe some things which are beyond reason or incomprehensible, but that does not mean he asks to be irrational. Belief of the incomprehensible can be reasonable. Mystery intervenes in all belief systems at some point. No one seriously claims to have all the answers. Even science reaches the outer limits of knowledge and must bow before mystery at some point. But while the ultimate answer to the problem of innocent suffering may be incomprehensible within our finitude, it is not necessarily irrational. Therefore, there is a need to give a reasoned defense of biblical theism. More particularly, there is a need to give a reasoned defense of the perspective outlined in this book in the light of contemporary philosophy of religion.
Two caveats, however, are necessary. First, my discussion of the problem of evil is not the last word. I have no illusions about the limitations of my own rational abilities or anyone's rational abilities. I know that I can never fully justify God. Theodicy is an attempt, as Milton put it, to justify "the ways of God to man." To justify him in an ultimate sense presupposes infinity itself. I cannot put God in a box for inspection and then rationally dismiss the charges against him in the case of evil's existence. My defense seeks only plausibility within the framework of biblical revelation. If the reader will judge my understanding of theodicy as plausible as another, then I will have succeeded. After all, the problem of evil is an attack on the self-consistency of theism. To demonstrate plausibility, or even logical possibility, then, is a sufficient intellectual response to the attack. In the final analysis, however, God does not need my justification. I only offer it for the sake of those whom it might help.
Second, I fully understand that a reasoned understanding of the problem of evil is almost useless in the midst of suffering. Reasoned explanations are often, if not always, emotionally unsatisfying. To reason with a mother at the funeral of her child is not only unwise, but heartless. She needs caring and compassion, not philosophical discussion. She needs to hear the gospel story, a kind of "practical" theodicy and know that God suffers with her. The emotional trauma of suffering is not overcome in the intellectual exercises of philosophical discussion, but in trusting a loving and caring God. Only in the presence of the transcendent God will the emotional and spiritual needs of the individual find genuine comfort and resolution. The needs of the emotions are different from the needs of the intellect. Each of these needs must be met, but usually they are not met the same way. The discussion below addresses the intellect, not the emotions. It is hoped that the previous discussion of the book has addressed some of the practical and theological needs however feeble that attempt may have been.
Introduction: The Problem Stated
The fact of human suffering has been a problem for theists from the beginning. It is reflected in the book of Job. It is discussed in both ancient and medieval literature. The reality of evil in this world has not gone unnoticed by any age. Yet, the flowering of the Enlightenment brought the problem to bear as a major weapon against theism. Set in the age of Reason, the argument regarding the problem of evil became and remains a major stumbling-block for faith in the biblical God. David Hume set the tone for this age of skepticism by the use of the argument. Quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, he states : "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"
However, as twentieth century moderns see it, the problem has become even more acute. The Holocaust coupled together with all the other cruelties and devastations of the twentieth century has forced us to confess the existence of evil, even the existence of radical evil. The Holocaust, as was noted in chapter one, has become the touchstone of theodicy. Whatever we say about the problem of evil must be consistent with the fact of the Holocaust and the extermination or starvation of 15 million people. Irving Greenberg said it best when he set down this fundamental premise for theological thought: "No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children."
The dilemma is still the same. Whether in the mouth of Epicurus, or Hume, or modern skeptics, the issue boils down to whether the existence of an absolutely good and omnipotent God is consistent with the existence of evil. The twentieth century has simply bolstered the question by coming to an understanding of both the radical nature and the magnitude of evil in this world. Is the existence of an absolutely good and omnipotent God consistent not only with the existence of evil, but is it consistent with the amount and kind of evil that is in the world? One cannot study the Holocaust without contemplating the pointedness of that question.
If God were good, why did he not intervene in the Holocaust and stop the evil of Nazism? Why did he not stop the extermination of a race of people? Could it be that God is not as good as we thought he was? Some have so argued. If God were almighty, why did He not intervene in the Holocaust? Could it be that God could not prevent or act to stop the Holocaust? Could it be that God is not as powerful as we thought he was? Some have so argued. The evil of the Holocaust has called into question the traditional understanding of God. For many, evil has become too obvious and too radical to believe in the biblical God of mercy, justice and power. Admittedly, the force of the argument is strong and practically overwhelming. Its force is illustrated in the book of Job itself as we have seen.
The Holocaust was a moral evil. It was perpetrated by human agents. Hitler along with Himmler, Eichman and the SS chose to exterminate and starve millions. Their acts were acts of free agents. Within theism this is regarded as sin. It is moral evil. However, there is another kind of evil which is not moral. This evil is not perpetrated by human agents. Rather, it comes through natural fortunes. Tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural phenomena maim, destroy and kill. If nature were an human agent, it would be punished most severely for its evils. Yet, nature is impersonal, but the evil (the misfortune and calamity) it creates is real and tragic. Natural evil, then, is also a problem for the theist, especially the theist who understands that God controls nature. For the theist who lives in the world of Job, who prays like a biblical saint, natural evil is a more significant problem than moral evil.
The skeptical attack on theism is first an attack on its logical consistency. But the second attack is an attack on the plausibility of the theistic position. If a belief is inconsistent, or even unreasonable, there is reason to reject it. Consequently, theism is obligated to respond to the skeptical attacks. But the skeptic must not object when the theist responds out of his worldview. The issue is whether the theistic system is internally consistent and plausible with regard to known facts (i.e, the existence and amount of evil). The question is, does the theist have a reason to believe that God has some good reason for the existence of radical evil, and the amount of that evil, in the world? The only requirement is that the theistic worldview with regard to the problem of evil be consistent, plausible and reasonable. I will attempt to set forth such a view.
In summary, my approach is basically this. First, moral evil is the result of the free acts of human agents. God is responsible for creating free beings, but he is not indictable when those free beings choose moral evil. In other words, God is not culpable for moral evil. Moral evil is something that God never intended, but given its existence, he uses it for his purposes. Second, natural evil is the result of natural forces operating in a fallen world. God is responsible for creating the natural world, but he is not culpable for the existence of a fallen world. A fallen world entails natural evil that God never intended in creaton, but given the fact of a fallen world, he uses it for his purposes. In other words, God justly uses natural evil to serve his purposes. Third, God will fully resolve the guilt and misfortunes of evil in the eschaton through Jesus Christ. God has acted in Jesus Christ to destory both moral evil (sin) and natural evil (death). God in Jesus Christ has offered his own self-justification. But theodicy is not limited to this present experience, but ultimately it seeks vindication in the consummation. Only there will evil find its final and full defeat; and only there will God be fully justified in the light of his work in Christ.
Alvin Plantinga has offered a reasonable theodicy for moral evil. He has demonstrated the logical consistency of theism with respect to moral evil. My discussion is, in many ways, indebted to him and what is generally known as the "Free Will Defense".
The "Free Will Defense" depends upon a proper understanding of the goodness and omnipotence of God. If we can demonstrate a meaning of these attributes consistent with the existence of moral evil, then the defense succeeds.
The key issue is omnipotence. Does this mean that God can do anything at all? Omnipotence implies that God can do "all things," but that statement means that God can do all things that can possibly be done. God cannot do what is logically impossible to do. For example, he cannot make a "round square." Such a "thing" is nonsensical. It is, in fact, a non-entity. No such thing can exist. The possibility of its existence is exculded by the definition of its terms. Consequently, God's omnipotence means that God can do anything that is subject to power, that is, he can do anything that can possibly be done.
We must add one further point to this definition of omnipotence. God cannot act contrary to his nature. If God is absolutely good, then he cannot commit moral evil. He cannot, for example, lie. It is impossible for God to sin. Thus, God is omnipotent only in the sense that he can do anything that is logically possible and at the same time is not contrary to his absolutely good nature.
With this understanding of God, the theist can construct a defense which renders his system self-consistent. God created human beings for his own glory. He created them with the freedom of contrary choice. He created them so that they could freely love or not love God; so that they could freely give God glory or glorify themselves. With this freedom, human beings may choose either good or evil. God is responsible for the freedom, that is, he created humanity with it, but God is not guilty when they abuse that freedom by choosing moral evil. Only human agents culpable when they choose moral evil.
Two questions arise at this point. First, why did not God create an agent who always and freely chooses good? God cannot do what is logically impossible. To guarantee the "always," God would have to implant some necessity in the agent. Is it possible to create a free agent who necessarily chooses good? Necessity and freedom are exclusives. A free agent does not necessarily choose anything; he freely chooses. He has the power to choose either good or evil. If the power to choose evil is lost, so is the freedom. Since God wanted agents who would freely love him, and not love him by some compulsion or necessity, he created them with the power of contrary choice. The power of contrary choice, then, implies the possibility of moral evil which, alas, we have so often exercised. God could not create an agent who necessarily but freely chooses good, or at the very least God decided to create free beings because he values the genuine relationship which freedom yields.
Second, why does not God intervene in history to prevent humanity from choosing evil? This question is more complicated. As it stands, it is ambiguous. What does the word "prevent" mean? If it means that God would coerce the exercise of an individual's will, then the reason why God does not act in this way is due to his creative act. When God created humanity he created them with an inherent freedom. By so creating God bound himself to his own purposes. Consequently, God does not undermine the freedom he gave in creation by forcibly imposing his prevention upon the agent. God does not stop the buglar from pulling the trigger by a sheer act of fiat. God respects, by virtue of his creative act -- or, to say it another way, by a covenant of creation with humanity -- the freedom of his human creatures. Otherwise, why would not God, by fiat, stop all moral evil and force all creatures to act righteously? He could not and at the same time maintain the integrity of human freedom. God cannot prevent moral evil in this sense without destroying human freedom. Here again we return to the issue of logical possibility.
However, if "prevent" means to hinder, alter circumstances and channel energy through a different means, then this is a different question. The question is not, "Why does not God forcibly stop the burglar from pulling the trigger by preventing the free exercise of his will?," but "Why did not God hinder the burglar, deter him or otherwise alter the circumstances so that the buglar would have no opportunity to pull the trigger?" God does not coerce the internal movements of the will because that would destroy human freedom, and he cannot undermine human freedom without undermining his purposes in creation. However, may not God alter the external circumstances so that it hinders, even prevents, moral evil? Why could not have, for instance, the burglar had a flat tire on the way to the store? Or, perhaps, God could have created a problem so that the store manager closed early that evening? If God is in control of natural forces and events, could not he have acted in such away to hinder the known intention of the burglar? This problem is much more complicated. It raises the issue of how involved God is in the world. Does God do things like this? Does he cause flat tires in the present world?
Here the issues of moral and natural evil overlap. Whatever we might say about natural evil will have an effect on how we answer the question about preventing moral evil. If God does not or cannot do things like cause a flat tire or prevent one for that matter, then the answer to the question is simple. No, God cannot prevent (hinder) moral evil by external circumstances since God does not or cannot act to change those circumstances. On the other hand, if the theist argues that God can, and sometimes does, do such things, then he must explain why God does them in some instances and not others. Why, for instance, did he hinder the extermination of the Jews in the time of Esther and yet he did not hinder it in the time of Hitler? Is there some reason to believe that God has a good reason for this distinction? That is the crux of theodicy, and I will return to it under the heading of "natural evil" below.
To summarize my points on moral evil, it is important to remember items. God is responsible for the existence of moral freedom. He created humanity with the ability to choose between good and evil. God is responsible, then, for the potential existence of moral evil. But God is not culpable for moral evil. God cannot be blamed for its actuality. Only human agents may be blamed for its presence since they, through their own freedom, bring it into existence.
A Philosophical Understanding of Natural Evil
Several philosophers of religion have argued that the natural world is God's arena for "soul-making." God created us and placed us in a neutral world where we could choose to love God or to hate Him. The world's neutrality applies to those natural forces which bring both "good" and "evil." Rain, wind, etc. are often forces for good in the world, but they can also create havoc, injury and destruction. The forces themselves, however, are morally neutral. They provide the environment that permits humanity to exercise its freedom. This provides the ideal environment for human freedom. It provides a testing ground, or a place to build the character of his people. It is the best possible world that God could have created to accomplish his purpose, e.g., for humanity to freely choose to love God and mature into the likeness of God.
This neutral view of nature envisions all natural events as the result of forces which God created or placed within the world. Sometimes they work for good, and other times they will result in "natural evil." Consequently, such things as tornadoes will occur and cause human pain, suffering and even death. However, God is not culpable for such "natural evil" because he did not directly cause it. Rather, it is part of the "ideal environment" which is necessary for our probation, for "soul-making." The environment is necessary to fulfill God's purposes for us. The "natural good" of rain for crops, for instance, is the counter-balance of "natural evil." Nature, then, remains morally neutral. Natural events occur arbitrarily and randomly according to the laws of nature. They are not the outworkings of a particular will of God.
According to this perspective, God is responsible for the world as it is. He created a world where natural forces will inevitably work both "natural good" and "natural evil." However, God is not culpable for the "natural evil" because he does not directly cause any particular event. It was not the will of God that Mr. Anderson's son die in the tornado. God did not will that event into existence. He did not cause it. God designed his natural world to conduct its affairs without his intervention . Consequently, he permits natural evil because he has decided to not intervene. The natural world functions independently of God's specific will, and the natural evil in the world serves God's grander purpose of maturing his people. Yet, God did create a world in which such "evil" takes place, but he did so to create the ideal environment for "soul-making."
There is some truth in this position. First, there is a sense in which we live in a neutral world. Natural events are the result of natural forces that may work good or evil in communities. A tornado, after all, is a natural -- as opposed to a miraculous -- event. But so is rain for crops. Both natural events may have both good and bad consequences. Rain may water crops in one region, but that same rain may cause flash floods in another. Second, there is a sense in which we are living in a probationary period. We live in a world that tries us and refines us. No theist would deny that in some sense we are undergoing a process of "soul-making" which will bear fruit in the eschaton.
However, there are some serious difficulties with the position described above. Its inadequacy lies both in its philosophy and in its inconsistency with biblical theology. Ultimately, it does not remove culpability from God for natural evil and it is inconsistent with the biblical story because it removes God from causation and activity in his world.
The philosophical inadequacy lies in the fact that it does not escape the essential problem of God's culpability for natural evil. "God", it is argued, "permits Tornadoes to inflict pain and suffering, but he does not cause them." How does the concept of permission remove culpability? If I permit John to kill Joe (when I could have prevented it), how do I escape culpability? Am I not culpable for what I can prevent? If I could prevent my son from drowning in the bath tub, am I not culpable if I do not?
Perhaps "permission" is used in the sense that God created the environment in which natural evil occurs but that God has bound himself to the principle of an ideal environment so that he will not act to intervene. He will not act to prevent "natural evil." Thus, these philosophers argue, God does not or cannot intervene in natural occurrences. They may envision some kind of "covenant of creation" by which God determines not to intervene in the natural course of events. However, this is to deny the biblical God who constantly acts on behalf of his people in history and nature. The God of the Bible is the God of healing, of the Exodus, of the Incarnation and Resurrection. Even if this philosophical approach to natural evil has merit, it cannot be said to be biblical.
The inconsistency of this approach arises when one acknowledges that God does, on occasions, perhaps only in special circumstances, intervene in nature. In other words, there is no "covenant of creation" which God would violate if he worked a miracle or turned the course of a tornado. God has it within his ability and has, in fact, actually acted to redirect natural events. But this admission is fatal to this approach to natural evil. If God intervenes in nature at all, then why does he not intervene to prevent natural evil? If he prevents some natural evil, why does he not prevent all natural evil? If God can act in nature to work his will, why does he not will to protect humanity from natural evil?
The answer, according to this tradition, lies in the "soul-making" ability of natural evil. Pain and suffering are a refining tool God uses to build character. This answer, however, renders God not only responsible for the potential of natural evil, but renders him culpable for its existence since he often uses natural evil to accomplish a good end, i.e., "soul-making." One might even say that God designed natural evil, or even intended from the beginning to use natural evil. Natural evil, then, might even be a good in this scheme. At the very least natural evil is used by God to serve a good purpose. Yet, this admission gains nothing for theodicy but the point that God does use natural evil for his own purposes. It does not justify God's use of those means. Does the end justify the means? Indeed, Warren in particular wants to avoid the idea that God "uses-evil means-natural calamities, animal pain, and human suffering -- to attain good ends".
Warren would argue that only moral evil (sin) is genuinely evil. Natural calamities are only impersonal environmental factors in the process of "soul-making." However, when God is factored into the equation as one who can intervene and has on occasion intervened in nature, then why God did not prevent the natural evil in every particular instance. This is a moral question for God. The issue is: can God morally decide as a free agent not to act to prevent a natural calamity which would result in the death of a two year old child? If it is immoral for human beings to fail to act, why is moral for God to fail to act?
With respect to the biblical traditions, this approach will not stand the test. The Bible does regard at least some specific natural events as the specific acts of God. Instead of removing God from the natural course of things, the Bible overwhelms us with the immanence of God in the world. Natural law may best defined as the ordinary way in which God works. Providence is the work of God through natural laws according to which the natural forces operate. Those natural laws are discernible through science in a descriptive manner, but the divine operation is revealed in Scripture. This is the world of Job. Job saw clearly the direct responsibility and causation of God for events in the nature. The modern view of nature removes God from nature by giving nature its own autonomous independence. The world no longer needs God. The world will run on its own just fine. But that is not the biblical worldview. God is intimately involved in his world, actively working through nature and sometimes beyond the natural limits.
If God is unable to act in his world, if he no longer will or can intervene with respect to natural evils, then prayer has lost its fundamental premise. Prayer cannot play the role it has in Scripture. We could not pray for safety in a tornado, or pray for rain to end the drought, or pray for the health of our children. These prayers assume that God is active and that God can intervene. These prayers assume that God is actively controlling the course of natural events in this world. These are the prayers of the Bible.
Further, to absolve God of responsibility for natural evil is to absolve God of responsibility for natural good. If I cannot expect God to act to bring rain to a dry region, can I expect to thank him when the rain comes? If God does not bear the responsibility for the tornado that killed the two year old child, how can God receive the credit for the rain that came with the tornado? God must share the same responsibility for both. If has nothing to do with any specific acts of nature other than creating the environment, then he can receive neither praise or blame for those acts. If he can receive praise for specific acts of nature, then he can also receive blame.
I believe that the "soul-making" approach to natural evil has much merit. It reminds us that natural evils often have redeeming value in that they build character. Scripture acknowledges this. However, when this view removes God from active involvement in his world and bars him from either preventing or causing natural evils, it finds itself in conflict with the biblical tradition. I believe the biblical tradition does embrace a "soul-making" concept, but it is subservient to a more fundamental view of natural evils. It is, philosophically, a helpful starting-point. But it is inadequate as a solution within the framework of biblical revelation.
A Biblical Understanding of Natural Evil
My understanding of the biblical tradition regarding natural evil hinges on two key principles. First, natural evils are not properly called "natural." Second, natural evils are not properly called "evils." An understanding of these two principles will provide the framework in which we may see how God may morally use "natural evils" in his world for his own purposes.
First, natural evils are not properly called "natural." They are, of course, natural in the sense that they are the result of observable physical causes. But they are not natural in the sense that they were part of the order originally created and intended by God. According to the biblical tradition, God created a world without pain, without suffering and without death. It was a world where the environment had the potential of natural evil, but it was an environment where humanity was protected from all natural harm, including death. The symbol of the "Tree of Life" in the Garden of Eden was the essence of this protection. Humanity was to come to no harm, no sorrow, no pain and no death as long as they lived in the presence of this "Tree of Life." God, at this initial stage of human history, prevented natural evil.
Natural evil came as a result of the introduction of moral evil. When humanity sinned, death entered the world (Romans 5:12). Death was an unnatural event to Adam -- it was not what God intended in creating Adam. Death is the consequence and punishment for sin. As a result of sin, the world was subjected to frustration, to a curse. That curse involved pain, sorrow and death (compare Revelation 21:4 with 22:3).
In the aftermath of sin, God no longer prevented the natural workings of the environment from causing human calamities. The "Tree of Life" was removed from the human presence. Now death comes "naturally," but it was never intended by God. Death exists in the world by virtue of the existence of moral evil. It exists as a consequence and punishment for sin. The present world is a fallen world. It groans for release from its corruption and decay (Romans 8:22). Human beings groan for redemption in both spirit and body (Romans 8:23).
Natural evils, then, are not the sort of things God intended to use in the "soul-making" of humanity. His original intent is displayed in the Garden of Eden. God intended to enjoy fellowship with his imagers in the peace and harmony of a good creation. But their sin brought God's curse upon the world, and suffering, pain and death have enveloped it. Thus, while God created "the best of all possible worlds" (if I may use a philosophical phrase) in Genesis 1-2, the introduction of sin corrupted and defaced it. The world we presently live in is not "the best of all possible worlds" or the "ideal environment." On the contrary, it is full of natural evils which God could prevent and sometimes does prevent. If it were not for God's grace, the fallen world would disintegrate and life would end. We live in a fallen world.
Second, natural evils are not properly called evils. Strictly speaking, "evil" is a moral category which cannot be applied to impersonal forces. However, since God is in control of nature, and he works his will in it, the term "evil" applies because God does decide whether to permit a tornado to kill a two-year old child. Nature itself is neutral; it is amoral. But the effects of nature on humankind are a moral question if God is the Sovereign Lord of nature.
But we use the term "evil" with regard to natural events only because of the analogy with moral evil. If a tornado causes the death of a person, then the tornado was a natural evil. If a rainstorm caused flooding in which several persons were drowned, then the rainstorm was a natural evil. It is evil in that it caused harm or hurt to human beings. If nothing had been harmed by the rainstorm, then we might have been grateful for the needed water. The point is this: we call natural events "evil" when they parallel the harmful effects of moral evil. For example, if Joe kills John with a gun, then Joe committed a moral evil; as a free agent he freely chose to sin. If a tornado kills John, then nature committed a natural evil; as an impersonal object it killed John by virtue of natural forces. Yet, if we put God into the equation, it comes out like this: God killed John with a tornado, or at least allowed the tornado to kill John. Now the act of nature has become a moral evil. Just as Joe used a gun, so God used nature -- both with the same effect. Joe committed a moral evil. What did God do?
I believe that the biblical tradition is that what we call "natural evils" are the just consequences and punishments for sin. While Joe used the gun with malicious intent and murdered John, God exercises justice upon a fallen world through nature. God, as the governor of the universe, is morally justified in punishing or disciplining a fallen world through natural evils. He is not morally liable, he is not culpable for these natural evils because they are just consequences of sin. These natural evils are universally applied in a fallen world. This was announced to Adam in the Garden of Eden, "The day you eat of this tree, you will surely die." Death is the ultimate punishment for sin, and in a fallen world, through our solidarity with Adam, it is universally applied.
However, this raises a more specific issue. Given the fact that natural evil is the just and moral consequence of sin, why does God prevent natural evil in some cases and not in others? It is here where I think the "soul-making" philosophers are at their best. Though they would not set the discussion in the framework I have outlined, they are correct in seeing that God has good ends for the use of natural evils. My difference with them is that I see God as the cause of or at least sovereign over specific "natural evils," that is, just consequences of sin in a fallen world.
This brings us to a further question which "soul-making" theodicists must answer as well. What purpose would justify the use of natural evil -- whether or not those natural evils are directly caused by God (he certainly created the environment in which they might occur, or at least might be able to prevent them)? Indeed, it is another form of the question asked above: Why does not God use natural events to hinder the exercise of moral evil? We may offer a multitude of provisional answers. These might range from punishment for personal sin, testing of faith, or others we could mention. My difference with the "soul-making" theodicists is that I see each individual case as the result of some specific purpose of God. Others see a broad "soul-making" principle that does not apply to specific acts. Indeed, for some of them, God does not act in nature. In their view, humanity must live with the randomness and luck of nature.
But I argue that suffering -- and natural evil in particular -- is neither accidental nor random. It has a specific purpose. For example, when Jeroboam's child died (a natural evil), Scripture attributes it to the direct action of God who did it as a matter of grace to spare the child from the family's humiliating end. This natural evil was God's act. Death functions as a principle of judgment in the fallen world which applies to everyone, but here God used this "evil" for gracious purposes. Those purposes are not always discernible, but they are there.
Given the power, wisdom and goodness of God revealed in Scripture, there is reason to believe that specific natural evils do not occur randomly nor without purpose. God's purposes may be varied, such as to punish or to give grace or to test. They may not always be discernible, but there is reason to believe that they are there. While we may be left to wonder like Job about the real reason for our suffering, we have reason to believe in God's gracious purposes (ultimately revealed in the cross). In the same way, God could act to hinder the burglar, or the drunk driver, but why he does or does not is not always discernible. That God can so act makes sense out of my prayers and his sovereignty, but why he sometimes does and sometimes does not is not within my abilities to grasp. Here, like Job, I must bow before the mystery of the transcendent God.
Furthermore, God is morally justified in using "natural evils" in a fallen world for his purposes. In a fallen world, what do we deserve? Life itself after the Garden of Eden, after the fall of Adam and Eve, is a matter of grace. We do not deserve wealth or health. We deserve death. Is God culpable if he permits or even causes us to receive what we deserve?
This approach to natural evil will not find support within a strictly philosophical community. I recognize that. However, those who affirm a faith in the biblical God should give it careful consideration. It affirms that every natural event is, in some sense, an expression of God's will. It affirms that God may use and does use such events for his own righteous purposes, whether to test, refine, punish, even redeem, or any other number of reasons. It also affirms a certain incomprehensibility in God's handling of nature in relationship to humanity -- God has not given us an exhaustive explanation any more than he has given us an exhaustive revelation of himself so that he is no longer hidden in any sense.
This, I believe, is the "solution" of the book of Job. Job himself recognized the hand of God in the evils which befell him. He knew that it was God that had done these things. He also knew that God had his purposes even though they were incomprehensible to him. It is this very incomprehensibility that yields the questions and the doubts that plague the sufferer or the one who reflects on suffering. Here we will find no final solution since all the evidence is not available to us. We cannot grasp God's wisdom. We simply understand what we can, and accept what we cannot. Here we trust the God in whom we have reason to believe.
But "natural evil" is not an ultimate. Death is not the end. God will destory death through the resurrection. The Incarnate Son of God has acted to redeem us from death, and through his resurrection he is empowered to bring redemption to all who believe in him. The effects of Adam's fall will be reversed in the eschaton, and in the new heaven and new earth, God will restore the Garden of Eden in glory. There righteousness will be vindicated, and evil will be fully overcome.
Indeed, in the incarnation, God fully empathizes with us in our experience of natural evil. God does not remain distant and pity us from afar. Rather, through his Son, God shares our suffering, experiences it, and understands its full existential impact. God has not removed himself from natural evil, but has experienced it. The cross is God's ultimate identification with us in our suffering and our experience of death. There God worked through death to destroy death. The subsequent resurrection ushers in eschatological hope where evil is finally and fully defeated, both moral and natural. God shared our death with us in the cross, and we share his life in the resurrection.
In summary, then, I think we need to remember several things. God is responsible for creating the natural world. But the initial environment he created protected humanity from natural evils, particularly death. Moral evil introduced the punishment and consequences of sin, including death. The consequences of sin come to all universally (though more to some than others) irrespective of personal sin. Infants die, but they are not guilty of any actual sin. Death, however, like sin, is not what God intended nor created. The world fell and death came through sin.
Since God is not culpable for the actual introduction of moral evil, he is not culpable for the resultant just consequences. Natural evils occur because the world is now fallen. Because natural evils are just consequences of sin, God is justified in lovingly using them in the process of "soul-making". Therefore, while natural evils produce unpleasant and painful effects, it is moral for God to use them to accomplish his purposes in the context of a fallen world. Since we now deserve death, God uses all moral means at his disposal to save and preserve those who love him. God uses natural evil, even causes natural evil, to serve his ultimate goal, to serve his ultimate good. God's goal is fellowship with his creatures, and he will use natural evil as a means to accomplish that goal. It is not immoral for God to use natural evil because natural evil is a just response to moral evil, and God has good reasons for using natural evil.
Therefore, God is responsible for natural evils, but he is not culpable. In the eschaton, however, God will reverse the effects of Adam's fall and restore full relationship and fellowship with him in the eschaton. Then, and only then, will there no longer be any pain, mourning or death; there will be no more curse (Revelation 21:4; 22:3).
No one disputes the fact that evil seems to outweigh good in this world. Death itself is an evil that comes to everyone and overwhelms them. Certainly the death of so many in the Holocaust seems incomprehensible. The world seems chaotic. It appears out of control with respect to evil's dominance. But this is exactly how it appeared to Job. He could not make sense out of his world either until he came face to face with God himself.
To attempt to justify God is ultimately futile though it may have its helpful aspects. We can only reach the outer edges of any genuine theodicy. However, that is not to say that all such attempts are worthless. It is only to say that none of them will be ultimately comprehensive and exhaustive, and neither will they be ultimately satisfying. I believe we can reasonably understand why evil is present in the world. I believe that we can reasonably understand why God has not eradicated it in the present world. If I am self-consistent with these beliefs, then my theodicy is successful. But that does not mean that all my questions are answered, and no further doubts enter my mind. On the contrary, the problem of evil itself is one of the struggles of faith; it is part of the process of "soul-making" itself. If righteous Job had to struggle and wrestle with the issue, we cannot hope to escape it. Indeed, the struggle with the problem is God's way of forcing us to admit our own finitude and recognize his transcendence. That is the resolution found at the end of the book of Job. We cannot climb into God's chair and make final judgments. Rather, we enter into his presence and are assured of his love, wisdom and ultimate victory. It is not our rational solution that yields comfort, but God's transforming presence. Consequently, we will either humble ourselves in the presence of God or arrogantly protest that our human reason stands in judgment over God's intentions. When we enter God's presence -- when we see his face in the sancturary -- we will will either assert our arrogant wisdom or we will confess our finitude in humility. Theodicy does not rationally remove the difficulty of that choice. Indeed, theodicy can only get us so far, and it is not very far at all.
The existence of radical evil calls for justice. The death of millions in the Holocaust calls for explanation. But evil continues without ultimate explanantion in this world. The hope of the believer is that God will fully eradicate and finally punish evil in the eschaton. There righteousness will be vindicated, and God fully justified. We will introduce, explain and critique one theodicy after another, but none, including mine, will fully satisfy. Consequently, Davis is correct when he says that "eschatology is crucial to theodicy" for it is "the only way an orthodox view of God can rationally be held in the light of evil."
And yet, in Christ, God has revealed to us what the eschaton is like and what his victory entails. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the final answer to the problem of evil because it proclaims God's love and it proclaims God's victory over sin and death. God has already given us a revelation of the eschaton in the resurrection of Jesus, and he has already demonstrated his love for us in the cross. Therefore, we neither doubt God's love nor his victory though the fallenness of the world sorely tempts us. God has given us an anchor for the soul, and he has moored our hope to his loving and powerful act in Jesus Christ.
The real solution to the problem of evil is not the Free Will Defense, "Soul-Making," or a theory about natural evil, but it is God's eschatological act of grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In that mighty act we already have the victory even as we still await its ultimate consummation. Christology is God's answer to the problem of evil.
See Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) for this distinction between "theoretical" and "practical" theodicy.
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (New York: Social Sciences Publishers, 1948), 198.
Irving Greenberg, "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity After the Holocaust," in Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era?, ed. by Eva Fleischner (New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1977), 23. Darrel J. Fasching, "Can Christian Faith Surive Auschwitz?", Horizons 12.1 (1985), 7-26, argues that Greenberg's statement is "the hermeneutical principle that must guide Christian theology in a post-Holocaust world" (p. 21). For Fasching "the book of Job virtually leaps forward as the central text in a post-Holocaust world" (p. 18), and in this he is certainly correct.
See John K. Roth, "A Theodicy of Protest," in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, ed. by Stephen T. Davis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981).
See Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon, 1981); and David Griffin, God, Power,and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976).
The proposed theodicies of both Roth and Griffin are reviewed by Stephen T. Davis, "The Problem of Evil in Recent Philosophy," Review and Expositor 82.4 (1985), 535-548.
See Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), and "The Free Will Defence," in The Philosophy of Religion, ed. by Basil Mitchell (Oxford: University Press, 1971), 105-20. There are many defenders of this viewpoint, but each of them with some sort of variation. However, the defense, I think, remains philosophically and theologically sound.
The most prominent has been John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1966). This is also an important element in the theodicy of Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1961), S. Paul Schilling, God and Human Anguish (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977) and Thomas B. Warren, "God and Evil: Does Judeo-Christian Theism Involve a Logical Contradiction?" (Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1970). Warren's Ph.D. dissertation was published as Sin, Suffering and God (Jonesboro, Ark: National Christian Press, Inc., 1980), and a popular version was published as Have Atheists Proved There is no God? (Jonesboro, Ark: National Christian Press, 1972). The position represented in the text above is primarily that of Warren even though he draws heavily from both Hick and Farrer.
Warren, Sin, Suffering and God, 385.
But neither is it without support. See, for example, the writings of Eleanor Stump, and in particular, "The Problem of Evil," Faith and Philosohpy 2 (1985), 392-423.
Davis, "Problem of Evil in Recent Philosophy," 547.
Al Truesdale, If God is God, then Why? Letters from Oklahoma City (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1997), surveys the various options in theodicy and concludes that only Christology can provide the final solution.