Mission and Theodicy, Part I

The Question That Won’t Go Away

“He’s angry with God,” she said, “and has stopped going to church.” I was having a delightful conversation with a relative about a mutual friend who, as it turns out, is bitter toward God.

This sourness towards God is something that I frequently encounter as people wrestle with the question prompted by the problem of evil: “How can God be righteous since there is so much physical and moral evil in his universe?” Philosophers have labeled this issue “theodicy.”

The rubber meets the road in the church and missions when we begin grappling to explain God’s role in a deeply troubled world. And, as one who is engaged in mobilizing the church for mission, I am finding that a wrong view of God can be one source of our paralysis.

The person my relative was referring to had lost a dear friend in a horrific automobile accident. Blaming God for either causing or at least not preventing the accident, our mutual friend had become angry with God…and he is not alone. The senselessness of such events causes many to struggle for explanations for the terrible things that happen.

Interest in theodicy is a reasonable one. After all, if there is a just God, how do we explain the presence of evil (i.e., deaths of innocent people through car accidents and injuries to people in bicycle mishaps and a whole list of other seemingly pointless tragedies) in his world?

As my friend and I talked, the (seeming) absurdity of my recent cycling accident was in the back of my mind. I say my accident was absurd because it did not involve another vehicle, I was not being careless, and I had not attempted anything foolish. Many would describe the back wheel of my bike locking up as a “fluke.”

As I wrote this, my left hand was 3 pins in it and is in a cast. Of course, in the big scheme of things and in light of the truly appalling misery that many experience, my injuries are minor. I will survive. I will regain the use of my hand, and life will go on. But being the curious type, my mind has repeatedly run through ways to biblically explain my accident.

There are a variety of approaches that people take to explain the dreadful occurrences that we daily observe. Each of these ends up holding God in some way responsible for evil:
(1) God does not exist. There is no possibility of an acceptable theodicy.
(2) God is not good. If a good God existed, his nature would require him to prevent evil.
(3) God exists, but he is weak. If he were omnipotent, he would eliminate evil.
(4) God exists, but he is far removed from human suffering. He is indifferent.
(5) And, of course, there is the response to suffering that is fairly popular among evangelicals: God has ordained all suffering for (sometimes) mysterious purposes so that he might get greater glory.

It should be fairly obvious that none of these proposals is without difficulty. It’s too easy to glibly speak of evil as we view it from a distance or speak of relatively minor affliction like my cycling accident. But let me make this issue concrete.

A theologian-philosopher that I read relates the story of an incident which occurred in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. This is an account of a Jewish girl named “Zosia” whose eyes were so beautiful that a Nazi guard decided to remove them (while she was still alive) to make two rings, one for him and one for his wife. This gruesome act is so vile, so contemptible, so utterly depraved, that it staggers the credulity of all who read it. The sheer horror of this malicious wickedness challenges any simplistic explanation for the existence of evil.

Wrestling with theodicy in light of this horrific incident, one might conclude that either God does not exist, or he is not good, or he is weak, or he is apathetic toward human suffering. But who would want to suggest that the God of the Bible ordained (and, thus, approved of) this Nazi’s despicable act? And would anyone present that day when this occurred find such an explanation comforting? And would the mother, driven mad after she watched hideous barbarity, gain solace from any such rationalization?

It seems to me that it is imperative that we must continuously pursue a credible explanation for theodicy if we are to plausibly engage the bitter, angry, or simply confused people that we encounter. If we wish to soften hearts that are hardened toward God or to help others think more clearly about the problem of evil, we must strive to visualize for them a God-picture that will paint for them a portrait of perfect justice alloyed with unfathomable wisdom, indescribable love, immeasurable grace, extraordinary compassion, and generous mercy.