Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 1) – Introduction

As I compose this essay, storms have ravaged the southern United States, Alabama in particular, taking well over three hundred lives. In addition to the lives lost, homes have been destroyed, priceless heirlooms lost forever, and it has been a traumatic experience that will not leave the psyche of the victims anytime soon. As theists, in particular Christians, look to an event such as this we are forced to wonder why God would allow such a tragedy. Why would God allow this particular evil to befall innocent people? This question has been asked for thousands of years and, to date, a satisfactory answer has yet to be given.

The problem of theodicy has been a problem apologists have struggled with almost since the dawn of Christendom. When Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths, the great Christian theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine found himself attempting to address why God has allowed such an evil. In fact, it is Augustine who was one of the first Christians to put together a structured theodicy (though some theodicies did exist prior to Augustine, specifically from some of the homilies by the Cappadocian Fathers)[1] that attempted to justify God’s actions rather than simply say that since He is God, He can do as He pleases.

While Christianity in the East never developed a theodicy justifying God’s actions (though the East does have a type of theodicy), Christianity in the West has never ceased searching for a theodicy to explain why God allows evil. The problem of evil has led many individuals to conclude that either God doesn’t exist, or He does exist and simply doesn’t care about humanity. It is my firm belief, however, that if one were to draw from the Eastern Orthodox “theodicy” (one that looks to man’s free will and God’s answer in the cross) while using some of the philosophical arguments of Western Christianity, one could arrive at a theodicy that helps to avoid an end result of atheism, agnosticism, or deism when confronted with the problem of evil.

Of course, when discussing the problem of evil it would be appropriate to ask, “which problem of evil?” The problem of evil can actually be divided up into three different categories: (1) The logical problem of evil, (2) the evidential problem of evil, and (3) the existential problem of evil. The logical problem of evil is concerned with whether or not a good God can co-exist with an evil world, or if one cancels the other out. The evidential problem of evil grants the idea that God can logically allow for evil, but instead argues that the amount of evil we see in this world leads us to conclude that God doesn’t exist or at least doesn’t care about us. Finally, the existential problem of evil deals with the personal evil we experience in our own lives, sometimes so great that it shakes our faith in God.

To date, no one theodicy has adequately addressed all three problems. While in the West certain theodicies have dealt with a particular category, to my knowledge no theodicy has been offered to work with all three divisions, at least not in a manner that is intellectually and personally satisfying. Thus, my goal with this essay is to provide a cohesive explanation on why God allowed evil in the first place and why He allows specific evils. I plan to accomplish this goal by turning to philosophy, early Christian writers (as viewed through the teachings of Saint John of Damascus)[2], and Scripture. Certainly this is no easy task, but it is a worthy one.

Before providing an introduction to the sections of my essay, I should note first and foremost that I do not accept my Unified Theodicy as complete or without problems. There are some answers and problems with it that I struggle with and I’m unsure about, so do expect my views to change concerning this theodicy. Rather, I am writing it in the hopes of starting a dialogue – or continuing a dialogue begun by Dr. Bruce Little – of finding a better theodicy, one beyond a “greater good” theodicy. While I believe that what I am currently offering is more complete than other alternative theodicies I’ve seen, it is by no means complete in its own right. It is my hope that someone far better than I will build upon what I have composed, or tear it apart and build something better; so long as an answer is found, I do not care.

In providing my Unified Theodicy I will compose seven sections and draw upon the works of three Christian writers (Alvin Plantinga, Bruce Little, and John of Damascus). I use Plantinga to explain the logical problem of evil with his free will defense and Little to address the evidential problem of evil with his Creation-Order Theodicy. In turn, I use John of Damascus (or the Damascene as I will refer to him throughout this essay) to answer the perceived shortcomings in Plantinga’s arguments as well as Little’s. Likewise, I justify my own Unified Theodicy by turning to the Damascene and to Scripture (in particular the book of Job).

In the first section I deal with the terms I will be using and what I mean by specific terms. While the reader is welcome to disagree with the definitions I provide, I provide them as a way to ensure that the disagreement is an actual disagreement and not one over terms.

The second section is dedicated to defining the problem of evil. Sadly, many Christians, either through true ignorance or false piety, act as though the problem of evil isn’t an actual problem. In many seminaries some future pastors forget the implications of the problem of evil and that many Christians can go astray in their theology in order to answer it.[3]

After addressing the severity and seriousness of finding a proper theodicy, in the third section I move on to deal with the logical problem of evil. I show the problem as displayed by Hume and Plantinga’s response to this problem. While I show great appreciation for Plantinga’s explanation, I also show how it comes up short and is incomplete in the bigger picture.

Moving on from the logical problem of evil, in the fourth section, which is the biggest section, I explain the evidential problem of evil. I explain the two attempts to solve it – greater-good theodicies and Creation-Order theodicy – and how these are applied to the problem of evil. It will be obvious that I’m biased in favor of a Creation-Order theodicy as I think greater-good theodicies tend to oversimplify the problem and bring about unforeseen implications with their arguments. However, I do point out the perceived shortcomings of Creation-Order theodicy as well, showing that the evidential argument of evil has yet to be properly addressed by theistic philosophers and theologians.[4]

In the fifth section I handle the existential problem of evil, namely that it essentially eradicates all theodicies. While this is one of the smaller sections, it is only small because everyone has faced the existential problem of evil, so it shouldn’t take much explanation. I attempt to explain why such evil seems to be beyond a rational explanation, which sets me up for a presentation of my Unified Theodicy.

The sixth section is dedicated to my Unified Theodicy and how it is best applied to the logical, evidential, and existential problems of evil. It is here where I point out that when dealing with the problem of evil (specifically gratuitous evil) we must constantly look to the love of God, specifically His gratuitous love. This is central to Eastern theodicies, but is seemingly lacking in the West. My Unified Theodicy eventually allows for the existence of evil, even gratuitous evil, as a counterbalance to God’s love. While such reasoning may be confusing now, I do go into great detail showing how love has to be central to any further theodicies.

Also within the sixth section I deal with possible objections that people would have to my theory. I know these objections because they are objections I initially had while working my way through the problem of evil and a possible solution. I do my best to present these in a Thomistic style (as found in his Summa Theologica, pointing out the objection and then offering answers to the objection) and this will hopefully satisfy the reader’s skepticism.

I conclude the essay with the seventh section, which focuses on the suffering Savior. While many Christian philosophers are quick to dismiss the cross as the ultimate explanation for evil, it is my belief that this is often to our own detriment. It is here that I will argue that the cross and the resurrection act as God’s answer to man’s folly, that God meets gratuitous evil with gratuitous love, and that the ultimate solution to the problem of evil is found in an empty tomb.

As a final note, I should point out that I am assuming some things in my arguments. For instance, I take on the traditional view of God as unlimited in all logical ways, meaning He is not limited in His knowledge of past, present, or future, or even of what could have been. Likewise, I am assuming that man has free will. I do give a brief address to both of these issues in the second section, but I don’t camp out there. I would rather deal with the traditional elements of the faith than to argue against what are potentially heretical beliefs that have only been formed as responses to the problem of evil.

[1] It should be noted that their theodicy simply consisted of the idea that God created humans free and, as such, sin entered into the world through our free choice. That God allowed specific evils wasn’t a problem for the Cappadocian Fathers as sin was a result of human free will; for God to prevent most specific evils would require God to stamp out all human free will, which would defeat the purpose of the cross and therefore the purpose of creation. This is a point that I will bring up later in this essay, as it is central to my Unified Theodicy.

[2] My reason for choosing John of Damascus is that he is one of the last Church Fathers. Likewise, his book An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith is a summary of what the Church had taught up to that point in history.

[3] One can look to John Caputo’s Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana University Press, 2006) where he explains that God is a force, not a person, that is weak. That is, God isn’t omnipresent, isn’t omniscient, isn’t omnipotent, and is limited; and thus Caputo eradicates the problem of evil by subsequently eradicating God.

[4] My critique of Little’s C-O Theodicy may be unfair or wrong. It could be that all I am doing is adding to the C-O Theodicy, though I suspect that I am still differing from it on some major points. However, there is much more work required on the C-O Theodicy before it can be ruled out as a legitimate answer.