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Chapter 10: Theodicy
 Encountering Evil Part One: Making Suffering Bearable


This unit gives a brief overview of the ways that religion have wrestled with the complex questions of evil, suffering and justice. We will organize our discussion around two basic questions. First, how have religious traditions accepted suffering as a part of life? Second, how have the monotheistic faiths reconciled their belief in a good, all-powerful God with the reality of suffering? Technically, the term theodicy only applies to this second question. Theodicy is derived from the Greek words for "God: and "justify." It was first used in a theological attempt to explain how a good, all-powerful God can allow suffering and evil. Obviously, these two questions are interrelated. The answer you give to one question will have implications for how you answer the second.

How have religious traditions accepted suffering as a part of life? It might be argued that we are troubled not by suffering itself, but by the possibility that suffering is meaningless. The reality is that suffering appears to be meaningless if it has no positive purpose, if there is no reward for those who suffer or if there is no cause for the suffering. Consequently, various religious traditions have set forth four different interpretations that derive meaning out of suffering.


A. Mystical participation.

The individual with his/her sufferings is less important than the well-being and continuity of the larger community or the ideals of the community. What matters is that through your life and its trials you have participated in the ongoing life of the family, community, nation or nature itself. In mystic participation, the "corporate personality" is more important than the individual. In fact, the individual has no identity apart from the community. While Livingston notes that such a mystical participation was a part of primal societies and ancient Israelite society, it should be noted that it is still a part of modern societies. For example, a soldier who dies defending his country or the ideals of the country has died for a meaningful purpose. The sacrifice is honored and memorialized by the community. In a sense, anyone who makes a positive contribution to the continuation of the family or larger group achieves an "objective immortality:" they live on in the ongoing life of the family or group.

 B. A future, this-worldly reward for those who suffer.

 In numerous religious traditions, there has arisen a belief that those who suffer will be rewarded when the Deity, accompanied by human cooperation, establishes a radically new, just order in this world. The first important concept of this belief is that it is "this worldly:" a new order will be established in this world. The second important concept here is the notion that the establishment of this order will require Divine intervention along with some form of human cooperation. It may be argued that the notion of the establishment of a this-worldly just order first arose in ancient Israel. During times of social chaos, oppression and threatened loss of religious identity, the prophets of Israel called on people to "stand fast" because Yahweh, the God of Israel, would soon intervene to defeat Israel's enemies, establish justice for the oppressed and transform the natural realm so that the "lion and lamb will lie down together." Suffering thus become bearable because those who suffer will soon be rewarded.

Livingston cites several examples of such an approach to the question of the meaning of suffering. One classic example that should not be overlooked is the religious movement among Native Americans that became known as the Ghost Dance. A Paiute leader named Wavoka had a religious experience in the 1870's that led him to teach that if the Native Americans would adopt a pacifism and participate in the sacred Ghost Dance, the earth would open up and swallow their white oppressors, freeing Native Americans from death, disease, and misery. Moreover, the natural order would be transformed: the world would return to the state it was in before the coming of whites to North America, the buffalo would return and the ancestors slain by white conquerors would live again. Ironically, the fear and hysteria this movement caused among whites led to the events which culminated in the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890.

C. The innocent or faithful who suffer will be rewarded in life after death.

This acceptance of suffering teaches that those who endure sufferings in this world will be rewarded after death in a way that far exceeds the suffering they must endure. This explanation is most common among Christianity and Islam. In particular, the Shi'i sect of Islam emphasizes compensation for present suffering, and especially for martyrdom, in Paradise. One should also note that the part of the Christian scripture known as the Book of Revelation also emphasizes an other-worldly reward for those who are faithful in the face of suffering and persecution.

D. Suffering can be explained as something human beings have brought upon themselves.

A final way explanation that makes suffering acceptable is the classical Hindu belief that one's suffering is a result of one's own deeds either in the present life or in one's previous lives. In classical Hinduism, the doctrine of karma teaches that each person's thoughts and actions have their effect. The doctrine of samsara holds that each soul passes through a sequence of bodies. Consequently, the nature of one's current incarnation is the result of previous deeds. Moreover, the way one lives in the current incarnation will determine the nature of the next incarnation of the soul. Individuals have the ability to make progress to a better incarnation or to complete freedom from rebirth through fulfilling the dharma (dutiful action without regard to its consequence) appropriate to their current condition. This explanation holds that the individual alone is responsible for his/her suffering since such suffering must be the result of previous actions. Similar notions of  karma and samsara are also held by Buddhism.