Theodicy (And The-Illiad?)

Rampant sexual harassment, terrorist attacks, terminal illnesses, natural disasters, murder, rape, corruption…

The list of evil acts in our world could fill this entire post, and no one can deny that evil exists. The point of this blog post is not to offer all the answers, or to discuss the fallout from these evil acts (although that second piece is an important thing). Rather, I want to discuss how we think about God and evil. How do we reconcile a good God with evil? And what does this have to do with youth ministry?

What is theodicy all about?

We can phrase the question many different ways: Why does a good God allow suffering? How can a good God permit evil? If God is all-powerful and all-good, why doesn’t he stop evil? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? All of these questions boil down to a supposed injustice we see – God not stopping the evil in the world. For millennia, theologians have been wrapping their minds around this “problem”, and this attempt to reconcile God and evil is called theodicy. Crafting a biblical theodicy is essential for all Christians, so that when we are struck by the questions above, we can offer more than a “eh, I don’t know.” We all will ask ourselves these questions (or at least we should, if our heart is actually breaking for the world around us) and we will be asked these questions. So here’s my contribution to the discussion, and I pray that it challenges you to continue thinking it through.

For the most part, I resonate with a Reformed theology framework, which means I place a high value on the sovereignty of God (among meaning many other things). So when I think about how God and evil fit together, I have to begin with the sovereignty and omnipotence of God. I believe that God is all-powerful, able to do anything within his nature. That last part is key – for example, simply because God cannot lie does not mean he is not all-powerful. Often, a challenge to the existence or character of God will say that if he does not prevent evil, either he is not all-good or he is not all-powerful. So if I believe that God is all-powerful, then how is he all-good? In order to answer that, I believe we have to consider God’s relationship to his creation. I believe that God is sovereign over all creation, and as the king (the “sovereign”), he has established standards of good and evil. If God is all-good, then he cannot allow disobedience to his standards to go unpunished.

In Romans 5, Paul is comparing and contrasting Adam and Jesus, and writes this about sin: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”[1]. Adam, the first man, sinned and in the punishment God gave him, he brought death into the world. More so, we are all culpable as Paul declares that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”[2] a few chapters before that. That well-known statement is the icing on the cake he was putting together at the beginning of chapter 3, when he strings together several Old Testament quotations about how there is no one who is righteous. There is no one who is good.

If we want to understand how God can permit evil while being all-powerful and all-good, we really have to understand that we are not good. We deserve the evil we receive, and an infinitely greater amount still. Thanks be to God that he withholds evil from us, and that he has provided a way for us to be saved from eternal punishment! When we ask how God and evil can coexist, we are really working from a foundation that says humanity is generally good. We do not deserve the bad things that happen to us. But that is just plain wrong! We are held responsible for our sin, both individually and collectively, and every evil thing that happens can be attributed to that.

I recognize that the theodicy I’ve just explained is not very comforting. In fact, it’s a pretty bleak picture. We are not good, and God is entirely justified in allowing evil. In fact, if God did not permit evil, he would be going against his nature. He would not be punishing the sin we commit. At a deeper level, if God did not permit evil, he would have to start with me. Because I have the ability to make free choices, I do things that are evil, and if God did not allow that, I would not have a free will (that’s a topic to dive into a lot more in a future blog post, so stay tuned). But beyond the necessity of evil, and the uncomfortable truth that we cannot blame God for it, there’s one aspect I want you to consider. In my preparation for this post, I came across two quotes that are wrecking my understanding of God and evil:

“The most evil deed of all history, the crucifixion of Christ, was ordained by God.”[3]

“One man certainly chose to suffer. Jesus Christ volunteered to suffer so that you and I could be reconciled to God. It has been the only real case of a bad thing happening to a truly good person. So we can complain to God about pain and suffering, but we have to admit that he did not exempt himself from it.”[4]

Holy cow. Have you ever considered this, that the only time God allowed a bad thing to happen to a good person, it was to save us, who don’t deserve it? Maybe we need to change the question from “why does God allow bad things to happen to good people” to “why did God allow a bad thing to happen to the only good person”. This is the most comforting theodicy I think I will ever arrive at. While God is just in allowing evil, for none of us are good and we all deserve it, God does not stand at a distance hurling evil at us. Rather, he “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[5] There’s a Christmas reflection for you.

What does this have to do with youth ministry?

I’m finding it true that my blog posts are less organized than I intend, and my brain goes all over the place, but I hope you see that I’m really hoping for a discussion between us, not a lecture. I do want to answer the question I posed near the top, “what does this have to do with youth ministry?” If you’ve been around teenagers for any length of time, I hope you’ve seen the pain, suffering, and evil in and around them. I don’t hope at all that they are experiencing any of it, but I recognize that pain, suffering, and evil are absolutely in their lives, and when we see that, we’re actually doing real ministry. So the first need for theodicy in youth ministry is practical. We are dealing with pain, suffering, and evil, and we have to understand how we reconcile those things with what we believe to be true about God. To give a half-baked answer like, “I haven’t really thought about it” or “oh, I’m sure God would never allow anything bad to happen” is inexcusable. We have to be seriously thinking about it, while allowing ourselves to express uncertainty. I’m not advocating for having the answers 100% of the time. I’m just saying we need to be working hard towards having answers and knowing why we have them.

Another reason that a good theodicy is necessary in youth ministry is because we need to see how we can spur our teenagers on to greater godliness in the suffering they are experiencing. A good theodicy does not simply say, “God is just in allowing evil, because we are not good, but Christ experienced evil on the cross, so be comforted by that.” It goes even further to say, “As pain, suffering, and evil are a part of your life, how can you become more like Jesus through those things?” We need to be able to help teenagers (and ourselves!) have the mindset of Paul, who wrote, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[6] Or to look for how God is working amidst the evil, as Joseph told his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”[7]

There is no doubt that our world is full of pain, suffering, and evil. I also believe there is no doubt that none of us are exempt from the blame for that. But how amazing is it, that we serve a God who understands pain, suffering, and evil, and who was willing to experience an unjust punishment on our behalf. I pray that as you wrestle with theodicy, you will come to know why you believe what you believe. And I pray that you will come to a greater understanding of the tremendous love of our God.


P.S. I want to be clear that I am not saying that all pain, suffering, or evil a person experiences is a punishment for their sin. For example, someone who is sexually abused is not getting that as a punishment. That is entirely wrong and unjust, on an individual level. Rather, I am saying that on a grand level, the existence of pain, suffering, and evil should not shock us when we consider our true nature. So in that example, the sexual abuse is a consequence of the fallen world we live in and of sinful nature. I also want to emphasize the role that our trust in God plays into this issue. While we can construct some understanding of his relation to evil, we may never fully understand why he permits it. And we have to trust him, that his ways are better than our ways. There’s a lot that could be said about that, but this post was getting long enough already, so let’s discuss that more in the comments!

[1] Romans 5:12 (ESV)

[2] Romans 3:23 (ESV)

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 326

[4] Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 401

[5] Philippians 2:7-8 (ESV)

[6] Romans 5:3-5 (ESV)

[7] Genesis 50:20 (ESV)

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