This last weekend brought the first in a four-week class I’m teaching at our church on “Critiques of Christianity.”
This session was on: “The Problem of Evil.”
And sadly, but appropriately, it came after yet another terrorist attack in England.
THE DANGER WITH APOLOGETICS
Terrorism aside, my worry with some “apologetics” is that Christians often approach objections to the faith with “girded loins” and “sword in hand.”
Indeed, one popular (and quite good) apologetics text even features a sword-fighter on the cover, slashing away at an unseen opponent.
To be fair, the illustration is rooted in a biblical call to “contend for the faith” (Jude 1.3) and “give a defense” for “the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15). And the Bible itself can speak of being armed with the “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6.17).
Still, the optics of “stab-n-slash” apologetics are (shall we say) not the best for winsome dialogue.
After all, few people change their minds because they lost an argument.
Which brings us to the problem of evil.
For some, the very fact that evil exists is seen as disproving an “all-good” and “all-powerful” God. The claim is quite familiar: If God were all-good, he would not want evil. And if God were all-powerful, he could prevent it.
In response, theists have crafted various “theodicies”—which give answers as to why an all-good and powerful God might nonetheless permit evil.
The most common theodicy is termed the “Greater Good Defense.”
In short, this argument says that perhaps some worthy goods can only be achieved with the presence, or at least the possibility, of evil.
Of course, this all sounds quite rational until one is blindsided—experientially—with a form of evil that is hardly academic:
A child facedown in a backyard pool.
A pedophilic camp counselor.
A cheating spouse.
Or perhaps even harder are those things that we (unfortunately) call “acts of God.” My colleague’s son was killed by a lightning strike.
And to amend the words of Ta-Nihisi Coates: “The [storm cloud] cannot be subpoenaed.” Just ask Job.
TWO ATTEMPTED ANSWERS
Nonetheless, the so-called “Greater Good defense” comes in two major forms: Appeals to divine glory, and appeals to human freedom.
- Glory Theodicies.
In so-called “glory theodicies,” the greater good is the glory God receives as he contrasts, judges, and ultimately conquers evil.
From this perspective, God is seen as even more exalted, gracious, and holy when set against the dark backdrop of sin and death.
Unfortunately, in some forms (namely: divine determinism), this view also can impugn God’s good character.
After all, a determinist deity seems willing to ordain all manner of atrocities in pursuit of his renown. And what kind of god is that?
Hence, a second and more popular theodicy is called “The free will defense.”
- Free Will Theodicies.
The greater good here is not “free will,” but something more significant: the possibility of a genuine love relationships between God and humans.
As the story goes, “Love” requires freedom, and for creatures freedom means the possibility of pain.
In the view of C.S. Lewis:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.
And more extensively:
Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.
But there are issues here as well.
One objection is that the human will seems hardly “free” in many instances. Hence Scripture (e.g., Rom. 7) sometimes paints a picture of the will as being bound apart from God’s grace, and the work of the Holy Spirit
(Incidentally, both Calvin and Wesley agreed on this.).
Our liberty is limited in a thousand ways—by genetics, environment, and other actors.
Hence absolute freedom is a pipe dream. You’d have to be high to believe in it.
The options, then, are that humans either had free will and lost it. Or we retain some measure of it only by God’s grace and Spirit.
Either way, the free will defense (which I actually find quite helpful) still presents us with unanswered questions.
And that brings us to the title of this post.
WE DON’T HAVE A THEODICY, YET
The name of the class I’m teaching (“Critiques of Christianity”) is proudly stolen from one taught by one of my old seminary professors: Dr. Rick Lints.
And as I looked over my old handwritten notes, I found scribbled there this phrase:
“We don’t have a theodicy, yet.”
The point here is not that appeals to glory and freedom are useless, but that they do not fully crack the code of monstrous evil.
They too stand silent before Auschwitz.
And they too fall short when we encounter evil personally. As proof, even C.S. Lewis famously repudiated (if only briefly) his earlier theodicies when his wife Joy died of cancer.
Even he—the greatest “apologist” of the last two centuries—did not yet have an adequate theodicy.
As the Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance argued, evil cannot be rationally explained, because evil is not rational. It exists contra ratio and contra Deum.
After all, what is rational about the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London?
What is rational about the repeated decisions of, say, Anthony Weiner?
Come to think of it: What is rational about some my decisions?
For these and many other reasons, we don’t have an adequate theodicy.
But the next word is important also—“Yet.”
The hope of Christians is not that we will explain evil—but that we will “outlast it.”
Hence the Scriptures (and famously, the book of Job) offer no full answer to “Why bad things happen to good people.”
That’s a modern question, not a biblical one.
In Scripture, we learn only that God opposes evil, that he will one-day end it, and that he invites us to be part of the campaign—frail and faulty though we are.
Sword-less but well armed.