Theodicy: Seeing the Theo in It

Theodicy, a complicated word for an even more complicated question: how can a good and omnipotent God allow the existence of evil in the world? As long as people have believed in God, believers, theologians, and philosophers have tried to explain how this is possible, How, in spite of all the unimaginable suffering that this world produces, there is actually a God and a good one at that. Most of those explanations seek to justify God: God (theo) is just (dikay), hence theodicy.

Letting God Off the Hook

Such attempts mostly try to get God off the hook. It is as if God is in need of absolution. God is dependent, it often seems, on the human effort to come up with a theory that makes God’s goodness plausible. And when it is made plausible in the face of suffering, we can continue to believe in the biblical God.

Without being exhaustive, let me mention a few of these theodicies. A classical explanation is that God created a perfect world, but that humanity, fallen into sin, ruined everything, from the relationship between God and humans and relationships between human beings to the natural order. This hardly explains why there is natural evil though (earthquakes and other natural disasters for instance). So people came up with more sophisticated explanations. C.S. Lewis explained the presence of suffering as God’s last resort to communicate to our hardened hearts. Suffering is God’s megaphone blaring in our ears. Others will point out that God is on track of creating a most perfect world for which this current world of suffering is a necessary intermediate step. Without this world of suffering that more perfect world without suffering can never become a reality. Suffering is then justified because of its conditional necessity and instrumental value.

Facing Suffering in the Real World

But do these efforts work? Sure: I’m suffering because of my sin. God is trying to get through to me. This world is not my home… Does that really let God off the hook? Does that really make suffering acceptable? Well, if you consider the 6 million holocaust victims, do the above answers suffice? Is there some redeeming value in the extermination of Yazidis in the Middle East and the selling of Yazidi girls as sex slaves? A proper assessment of the random, cruel, meaningless, barbaric, dehumanizing suffering around us, whether caused by human action or natural occurrence, remains highly problematic.

When you let God off the hook, you are as it were, taking God out of the equation. You’re taking’ theo’ out of the theodicy. The human solution eliminates a mystery that is not for us to fathom. A better approach, therefore, is to put ‘theo’ back where it belongs; to not let God off the hook as if God is vulnerable and dependent on our critical thinking. Let us imagine God where God is: everywhere, also where suffering takes place. Let us imaginatively and biblically think after the God who was revealed in Jesus Christ and thus entered human suffering. Instead of solving the problem, let us ‘complexify’ it. Human solutions tend to destroy the mystery of God.

Putting God and Suffering Together

Theologian Moltmann went that route. He described the crucifixion as an event in God. The death of Jesus was a trinitarian event that profoundly affected God’s being. The Word not only became flesh, not only did Jesus Christ suffer in his body on the cross on behalf of humanity, rather, God entered the suffering of creation in Christ and got hurt.

This is more satisfying. But here we still have the question of how the suffering of the Son of Man is related to the suffering of a particular person in history. How is such human suffering related to God? Christ may say: “I know your suffering because I suffered as well.” In the end, however, these are still two separate sufferings even when the suffering of Christ has a vicarious (representative) meaning for all of humanity with regard to humanity’s reconciliation with God (as I believe).

Logos-Christology and Suffering

We can go even further and say that God was related and present to the world not only in Christ through the incarnation, but always already as Creator. God is present to creation and therefore, as Creator, always related to creation (and by extention each creature). We incorporate Logos-Christology at this point. Logos-Christology is thinking about Christ but in connection with the Logos (the Word). It is thinking about the pre-existent Christ, the cosmic Christ, the divine force, the second person of the Trinity through whom the world is spoken into reality and upheld by its power (John 1; Colossians 1).

The character of self-giving love of the Christ who walked among us, is at the same time the character of the Word who became flesh. This implies that the relationship between the Word and the World has always been that of self-giving love. When the Word became flesh, this love became exemplified and represented in the life of one man, Jesus Christ. But this long-suffering and self-giving love which in the Gospels leads to the suffering of Christ, has always been—and still is—present in the cosmic Christ, the Word who bears and upholds the world in suffering love. What happened with Christ is, perhaps, an instantiation—the instantiation—of how God is always related to the world.

Does God Suffer All Suffering of the World?

If we thus establish an ontological (i.e. a tangible) connection between world and Creator (Logos) and characterize this relationship as suffering, self-giving love, it becomes imaginable that God as the Logos is present to each and every instance of suffering in this world. It becomes possible to imagine, then, without trying to solve the mystery of God and suffering, that God suffers all suffering. Instead of trying to get God off the hook and out of the equation, we place God in the center of suffering: we must see ‘theo’ in the theodicy.

This way the mystery gets bigger, but such a theodicy is more realistic and honest. We have a God who is for us and with us, who suffers with us and, in Christ, on behalf of us. We still don’t understand why there is suffering, but als long as God journeys with us there is hope behind the horizon.

While this last excursion into Logo-Christology may be too daring and ultimately not withstand the scrutiny of theological analysis, the intention of my argument is clear. When you take God away from suffering in an attempt to protect God (and ultimately the possibility of faith), you come up with shortcuts and human solutions to a mystery that transcends our capacity for comprehension. However, when you bring God and suffering together, as the Bible does when it speaks of the incarnation of the Word, you get a hint of what is going on. You don’t actually answer the theodicy. You learn to live within its mystery.

This approach makes the mystery bigger. What is going on with a God who suffers the suffering of the world? We do not know. But instead of calling God to account for our suffering, the moment we bring up the topic we discover a God who is always already in the midst of it.

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