The approach to Theodicy I have proposed attempts at three things: 1) honesty, 2) humanity, 3) faithfulness to a Scriptural understanding of Jesus of Nazareth as revealed in the Gospels.
I think this one is most vital in our age. One of the main tasks of the Church in this upcoming generation is rebuilding trust. Christians have done a dismal job at presenting themselves and their faith in a trust-worthy manner. And I believe most of this comes down to a lack of honesty. I don’t think I need to go into details of examples, but I will use theology as one example. In witnessing approaches to suffering there is a notable lack of honesty, particularly when we try to come up with answers (in other words, when we try to theologize ourselves out of the pain). We have to explain it! But why? For whom? What are we trying to prove?
Common approaches to the problem of the Theodicy are a Calvinist approach stating that God is sovereign, and all things are predestined. Humans are utterly depraved, and capable of no good on their own. If humans are absolutely evil (which they are in Calvinism), it is because they are simply acting in their nature (like wild beasts). Plagues, genocide, child abuse are all in God’s sovereign plan of salvation. Thus, they compromise the goodness of God. God is absolutely in control, therefore God is ultimately the cause of suffering and evil, but ultimately all for His Glory. So not only is God not good, God is apparently a sadistic-egoist. And good riddance to human free-will or relationship; God has plans!
Arminians attempt to argue that God is sovereign, but self-limiting to maintain free-will. This, I would think is the healthiest version, but still falls short. They maintain the Devil is real, and is a real enemy of God and humans (not an issue in Christian theology), and God is waiting for the final victory to wipe away them and their followers for good. Why wait? Well, we are in this period where God is sort of active, but not too much. God is giving us time to repent before the final axe is cut. Natural “evil” (such as earthquakes and disease) is due to the fall of creation, and inevitably bad things happen, not because God is unable to help, but unwilling in order to maintain the proper balance. They believe that creation is ultimately flawed because of the fall, and in my opinion denies the absolute goodness of creation. Also, God can help, but won’t. Suffering is seen as ultimately bad and not a part of the plan, or the intention of God, but God allows it for now.
Gregory Boyd’s “Open Theism” approach is an extension of this. Boyd attempts to devise a series of theorems that ultimately lead to God initiating a “zero-sum” game between good and evil, which reads more like a Zoroastrian Theology than a Christian one. God is intentionally self-limiting, so God may want to help, but can’t/won’t in most cases because He limits Himself to maintain freedom of all creation. Huge in Boyd’s Theodicy is the concept of Spiritual Warfare, where all suffering and evil happen because of the involvement of demons (and angels). Natural catastrophes are because of demons interacting with nature to cause suffering for humans. Diseases I suppose are from demons manipulating the genomes of bacteria, or am I going too far in my assumptions? Again, one must ask after reading these three theorems (out of many), what are these persons trying to prove and to what end? Surely not for apologetics?!?
Honesty requires a very real and empirical look at our world before, during, and after we read Scripture. Honesty requires as certain epistemology in which the sensory world takes primacy over Scripture; that is how the stories of our faith and of other religions came into existence in the first place. The world was observed, and stories were developed and recorded. A dishonest theology is one that looks at Scripture and attempts to contort and rationalize the world to fit. The three theologies above in my opinion are dishonest theology. Arminianism coming closest to honesty. Because in all honesty, we do not know why suffering and evil happen all the time. We know that evil is the result of humanity’s free-will, and that we are collectively responsible for systematic injustice, but we do not know how the victims of abuse or war or disease are ultimately chosen. And, that is not our job (though we can and should advocate for the victims).
Incarnation theodicy, does not explain away suffering, it permits one to “sit in” the suffering without having to explain it away. It also commends one, like Jesus, to both suffer with people, and to advocate for people who are suffering or are victims. The theodicy I propose is honest, but not comfortable. Life is not comfortable, but the Christian Confession is that it is good, and can be redeemed.
Of all the books on theodicy I have ever read, C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed was by the far the best. I would recommend it to anyone who is suffering grief, and to any theologian about to get an M.Div. One of the things that cannot be lost in our search for answers is our humanity. I fear that when we offer formulas or try to theologize our way out of our suffering we become like Job’s friends. We attempt to offer comfort, but end up denying the suffering of others by trying to explain it away.
In the Incarnation, we believe God experiences our humanity in Jesus. In fact, as Christians we believe God made it a specific point, not only to be human, but to suffer as a human. When we offer ways out of that suffering, we deny the intention of the Incarnation. We also risk not being faithful to our calling to be Christ to those who suffer. Jesus never offered an answer to the “why,” but he did show us a way to approach suffering. So too, I think we are not to offer answers, but to be with people who suffer. It is in presence we are most faithful to being Christ in suffering situations, not in explanations or elaborate theologies
Faithfulness to Scripture
Ultimately, in any theology we must be faithful to Scripture. While the Anglican understanding of revelation also includes tradition and reason, Scripture is always held as having primacy. And if we approach Theodicy in the light of Jesus we see that Incarnation Theodicy is the most faithful. The Christian Messiah is disturbing. Disturbing because he does not wipe away the suffering and evil of the world, but approaches it, bears it, and in doing so conquerors it in His own particular way. The Christian Messiah does not offer an easy way out, but a redemptive way through. While I have no doubt that the various theodicies offered are based on certain readings of Scripture, I find they must inevitably neglect the Gospels. I am going off a hermeneutic that holds the Gospels as having primacy over the rest of Scripture, much like the Jewish people hold Torah as having primacy over the other books. Some may disagree, but I believe Jesus is the ultimate litmus test, not Paul’s letters, nor Apocryphal literature. And if that is the case, then Incarnation Theodicy is the only viable, albeit uncomfortable theodicy.
Also, if I may protest Calvinism in particular here. To me, it appears John Calvin attempts to apply too much logic to the Scriptures. Meaning, ultimately I believe for him it is reason, not Jesus that holds the key to his theology. Calvin cannot hold the tension of mystery… many western theologians can’t. And yet, Scripture and Creation both allude to mystery as trumping our reason. The reader must decide. What I will say is that Incarnation allows for mystery, allows God to be God, offers mortals to be mortals, and asks for a radical trust of the participant, and a faithfulness in suffering that the other theodicies attempt to evade. Let me make my point: Christian Scripture is very very clear…suffering IS a part of the Christian life. To deny that is in essence to deny Christ, to deny God’s salvific act.
What About Job?
I want to end with some final thoughts on the man who started it all: Job. In the encounter with God there are some things that come to light: 1) God does not fault Job for the protest. The wrestling with God is permitted (encouraged?). 2) Job did sin… Job ultimately lacked that radical trust. Job had a formula which he followed expecting blessing, and it failed. Job’s anger towards God is that God did not behave the way God was supposed to behave. God broke out of Job’s expectation, and Job reacted. However, in the speech of God, God makes it clear that there is so much beyond Job’s life and Job’s suffering, and that ultimately God is good, God is bigger than Job’s expectations and comprehension, and God is also free.
We Are All in This Together
In closing, I will say that we see all around us suffering in this world, and we look for answers. We see that in many cases evil seems to triumph and we ask: Is God silent? To the outward appearance, and to a non-Christian perspective the answer is a despairing “yes.” But I offer that to the Christian, it is a resounding and triumphant, “NO.” God is not silent, God is here in this mess with us. Incarnational Theology claims that God dwells in us, so when we are present to those who suffer, God is with them and us. God has not abandoned us, nor will He. It is in our suffering and in our brokenness we have the opportunity to see God’s love and grace in its most terrifying colors. Any god or non-god will do when joy and prosperity abound… but what of the times when suffering abounds and seems to triumph? In those times we quickly understand how much of our faith is ash, how much of our belief was not in God, but in idols, and we see how naïve and fragile we really are. I believe it is in those times we are ready to see Jesus’ death on the cross as something more powerful than anything. In Jesus, God has suffered with us, is suffering with us, and will see it through until He wipes every tear from our eyes. And so the Christian Confession of Suffering I think is: God suffers with us, we suffer with God, and hand-in-hand we suffer with each other. And so the Great Reconciliation begins and continues to change us forever.