Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Why I Study Theodicy and Difficult Topics

Some Christians and even pastors shy away from the difficult topics in theology such as evil, suffering, reprobation, and hell. They say we shouldn't think about such awful things, and should focus on the positive parts of Christianity.

However, I am drawn to the challenge of these areas, all of which relate in one way or another to how we understand God's goodness. I don't want to deal with these topics just because it's intellectually challenging, or out of some morbid fascination with evil or suffering, but because I'm convinced that the issue of theodicy is one that theology must adequately deal with in order to make Christianity plausible and acceptable to many people today.

Theodicy is a word invented by the 17th century German thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who combined the Greek words for God (theos) and justify (dikaioo). So theodicy means an attempt to justify or defend God's goodness despite all the evil and suffering in the world.1

The fundamental question of theodicy is: why do evil and suffering still exist if God is both all-good and all-powerful? For wouldn't such a God want to eliminate these, and also have the ability to do so?

I am convinced that our Christian theology is only as good as our theodicy is.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga says the argument that because evil exists, therefore, an all-good and all-powerful God must not exist, is a serious one that must be dealt with.2 David and Randall Basinger argue that theodicy is one of the most important factors to consider when discerning the superiority of rival theological systems.3 Based on these statements, I am persuaded that whichever system of Christian theology is able to present God as the most good and the most loving is the best one (provided it is not contrary to Scripture).

For examples of some issues in theodicy, many theologians insist that God is good, despite:

  • Setting up Adam and Eve for the first sin, then punishing them and the rest of their descendants for it.
  • Leaving all people in such a state that they can't help sinning, and then punishing them for it.
  • Randomly choosing a small number of people for eternal life while condemning most of humanity to unimaginable eternal torture - even those who never had a chance to hear the gospel.
  • Secretly wanting (and predestining or arranging) all the evil and sin that has ever occurred and will ever occur, because it's all somehow a necessary part of God's plan for greater good.
  • Controlling everyone's decisions so that whatever they do is what God wants, and then punishing them for their sins that they were made to do and could not avoid.
  • The fact that God might just smite me with illness or some other tragedy or loss, for my own spiritual good, even if I've been praying for health and safety, because God knows what is best for me.
  • God not offering any guarantee that I am even actually saved and will remain saved, because I might actually be just a deceived reprobate who is predestined to burn in hell for all eternity. Thus making me live in a constant state of fear.
  • Or alternatively, God not offering any guarantee that I will remain saved, because it's up to my free will to never turn away or fall away from faith, and to continue showing my faith is real by constant effort in doing good works to stay on God's good side.

But still, God is supposedly good, even perfect, and I am expected to love, worship, and praise him, and trust him with all of my life. Because if I don't then this good and loving God will send me to hell. Also, because God sets the standard for goodness, and so if all this is considered to be good by him, well, then it is, and who am I to argue against God?

While I never openly acknowledged or even consciously recognized that some of these ideas are what I had been taught about God, when I look back, many of the above twisted beliefs were subtly there. As a result, my spiritual life from the earliest I can remember was primarily driven by fear of hell, and thus, fear of God who might send me there.

While I tried to put on the happy Christian face of joy and peace, and for some periods of time was able to ignore or minimize the implications of the above beliefs, underneath there was a subtle terror and anxiety to continually obey (or else!).

This psychological suffering that I was put through by this bad theology was so awful that at times I wished God would just kill me so that at least I would know for sure if I was saved or not.

Therefore, I know first-hand the negative impacts that bad theology can cause. I can relate to Clark Pinnock's experience, who said that when he identified as a Calvinist he would "slip into [his] reading of the Bible dark assumptions about the nature of God's decrees and intentions".4 This is why theodicy has become such an obsession for me. I simply don't see how anyone could fully love God while holding beliefs such as listed above.

Good theology will make God far more glorious, praiseworthy, and trustworthy than any of the above bad theology ever could. And so I will fight against all of these distortions of God's character and behavior, because that's the only way I can genuinely love God.

Everyone has acquired biases or preferences from their past experience which influence their theology. I admit this need to believe in God's perfect goodness is one of mine, but I think, for very good reason. I think it's far more honoring to God for Christian theologians to struggle with these issues and find ways to understand how God operates in the world which portray him as the absolutely perfect, beautiful, pure, good, and wonderful God that He is, rather than justifying bad theology by appeals to tradition, authority, or the lazy claim "whatever God does is good because God defines goodness".

So that's what drives me to deal with all these challenging topics in my research. It's not some twisted obsession with evil or suffering or hell, but because I believe God is being horribly misrepresented by some theologians, thus making evangelism and personal love for God much more difficult for many people than it should be (if not altogether impossible).

Footnotes:

  • 1. Richard Rice, Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2014), 20.
  • 2. ibid., 16.
  • 3. David Basinger and Randall Basinger, "Theodicy: A Comparative Analysis," in Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honour of Clark H. Pinnock, eds. Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 2003), 144.
  • 4. Clark H. Pinnock, "From Augustine to Arminius," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1995), 21.