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The Challenge to Monotheism

Both evil in the world of nature and man-made evil illustrate "the problem of suffering."  The problem is how to reconcile the existence of such evil with the concept of Ultimate Reality - especially if Ultimately Reality is conceived of in monotheistic terms.
The matter was put simply by the 18th Century British philosopher David Hume: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent.  Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing? why then evil?"
     In other words, if God is all-powerful and completely good, why does he not use his power to prevent suffering and evil? If God has the power to prevent suffering, but does not do so, can we conclude that God is really good?  On the other hand, if God is truly good, how can we explain evil and suffering without concluding that God is not able to prevent them?

Theodicy is the attempt to answer these questions.  The word theodicy is derived from two Greek words: theos (god) and dike (justice).  Theodicy thus refers to the problem of justifying the goodness and power of God in view of the evil in the world.

Attempts to answer these questions are at least as old as the book of Job. This book probably assumed its present form after 587 BCE, although parts of it may well be much older.   It approaches the question of theodicy through the form of a story.  According to the story, God permits the "accuser" (the Satan) to bring about the destruction of Job's property and family and to inflict sickness upon Job himself. The purpose of the Satan's actions is to test whether Job's faithfulness will be shaken by adversity.  Hearing of Job's misfortune,  three of his friends visit him and engage in a long discussion of why these evil events have taken place. The climax of the book occurs when God appears to Job and emphatically demonstrates His divine sovereignty. Before God, Job admits his own ignorance and submits to the Divine will.  The story ends with God's restoration of Job's fortune.
Contained in this story are at least four explanations of suffering.
1. Suffering as recompense for sin.  
     Your text points out  that some have concluded that at least some suffering and "evil" serve God's purpose.  In particular, some would argue that suffering may have a penal purpose: it is sent or permitted as punishment for sins. Job's friends argue that the evil that has befallen Job must be God's punishment for Job's own sins.  Indeed, at the time Job was written it was commonly believed that suffering and disasters must be God's punishment for sin.  For example, the historians of the books of Kings sought to demonstrate that the misfortune of conquest and exile that overtook Israel were actually the result of the sins of the people in general and the king in particular.

        Two problems are immediately apparent with using this approach to explain all suffering.  On the one hand, we often find that the evil seem to prosper and go unpunished while the innocent and good face a multitude of injustices.  Even the historians who wrote Kings had to gloss over the fact that some of the worst kings had the longest, most prosperous reigns while the best King, Josiah, reigned only a short while and suffered a tragic death.  On the other hand, how does one explain punishments that seem to outweigh the sin?  This is Job's protest: the enormity of his affliction is completely out of proportion to any sin he may have committed.


2. Suffering as a Test and a Necessary Condition of "Soul Making"
        A second explanation that is offered for suffering is that it is pedagogical; that is, its purpose is to each and correct. This is the understanding of suffering that is assumed in the Prologue to the book of Job. The accuser wants to inflict suffering upon Job in order to test the strength of Job's faith. That God allows such terrible events to befall Job raises questions about God's motives.  Nevertheless, several religious traditions have held to the idea that suffering may be necessary to achieve a greater good of shaping character through the teaching of patience, humility and compassion.  This understanding suggests that there is nothing contradictory between the goodness and omnipotence of God and the existence of suffering. In other words, the all-powerful God allows suffering because it brings about the moral growth of human beings. 

        The most common objection to this  explanation of suffering is stated well by James Livingston (Anatomy of the Sacred, 294): Speaking of the terrible genocides witnessed by the Twentieth Century, he asks,  "Can God's purpose include such unspeakable, large-scale suffering? Or even the innocent suffering of a single infant?"  Put another way, does the notion that suffering can somehow bring about moral growth justify  the annihilation of six million Jews in the Holocaust, the death of up to 20 million Africans in the middle passage, or the rape and murder of one seven year old girl?  Again, the means seems to be out of proportion to the desired goal.


Closely related to the pedagogical explanation is the idea that suffering can be redemptive. In other words, the suffering of the innocent helps to redeem or bring meaning to others.  The Christian tradition in particular stresses the idea that the suffering of Jesus was redemptive (purifying) for others. There is some notion of this concept of  redemptive suffering in early Judaism and among Shiite Muslims. In these cases, the religious tradition finds meaning in the suffering of a small group or an individual.

3.  A Theodicy of submission: The Mystery of God's sovereignty.   
        Although your text does not fully develop this idea it notes (p 164) that many simply accept natural disasters or even moral evil as something that just happens. There are no "reasons" for suffering. Others have argued that while there are reasons for suffering, those reasons are shrouded in mystery.

This notion that God's reasons are cloaked in mystery is also found in the book of Job. As noted above, the climax of the Book of Job is when God appears to Job. God's appearance and response to Job are recorded in Job 38-42. Note as you read these chapters that God does not answer Job's questions.  Instead, God contrasts His own might and wisdom with Job's weakness and ignorance. In response, Job acknowledges that he is incapable of comprehending the Divine will: "I have spoken of great things which I have not understood, things to wonderful for me to know. . . . Therefore I melt away, I repent in dust and ashes."   It is important to note that Job does not confess any sin that may justify his suffering.  Rather, he recognizes and submits to God's sovereignty and the mystery of God's will.

        The notion that mortals must ultimately acknowledge the mystery of God's will is prevalent in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  It is significant that the very word "Islam" means "to submit."  A Muslim is one who "submits" to the will of Allah; not one who fully understands Allah's will.  Allah controls all things; thus we must accept that whatever happens is Allah's will.  Even when one cannot understand how Allah's will is good, one must submit to it.

    In Christianity, John Calvin's doctrine of predestination is based on the mystery of the sovereignty of God.  According to the doctrine of predestination, God has ordained that everythingGod's justice surpasses human understanding and, in the final analysis must simply be accepted.  One can only have faith that God's purposes, though mysterious, are good.  Pain and suffering are real, but are in mysterious ways used by God for His good purposes.


4. A Theodicy of Protest
It is difficult to critique a theodicy of submission for one simple reason: it assumes that God's notion of justice and goodness are beyond what human beings can comprehend.  Consequently, any question that asks "How can a good, loving God allow evil and suffering?" will be met with the response, "Mortals cannot understand divine goodness or love."  Nevertheless, a number of theologians fail to find a theodicy of submission fully satisfactory. Instead, they have held to the mystery of God's purpose while at the same time refusing to accept that God's will must include the suffering of innocent men, women and children.

    This theodicy of protest is exemplified in the writings of Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the death camps of the Nazis.  Wiesel  rejects all the traditional attempts to reconcile the horrors of the holocaust with God's purposes.  In fact, Wiesel implies that true faithfulness and trust may actually take the form of contending with God.  The true believer is drawn into an angry, yet faithful quarrel with God.  Wiesel expresses this type of protest in his description of commemorating the New Year in a concentration camp:

This day I had ceased to plead.  I was no longer capable of lamentation.  On the contrary, I felt very strong.  I was the accuser, God the accused.  My eyes were open and I was alone -- terribly alone in a world without God and without man.  Without love or mercy.  I had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to be stronger than the Almighty, to whom my life had been tied for so long.  I stood amid that praying congregation, observing it like a stranger. 

Elie Wiesel

  It is Wiesel's contention that the Jew "may oppose God as long as he does so in defense of God's creation." 

    The book of Job itself assumes such  theodicy of protest. Job is encouraged to "curse God and die;"  that is, to give up his faith in God and cease expecting God to answer him.  Job refuses to be consoled by simplistic explanation that he simply cannot accept.  Nevertheless, Job does not renounce his faith in God.  In fact, Job declares, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him."  Thus, Job himself demonstrates the idea that faithfulness may actually require a refusal to accept quietly any explanation that justifies apparent senseless suffering as God's will.

A revised monotheism?

     Finally, it should be noted that instead of settling for these explanations, some have suggested that the facts of suffering and evil cannot be reconciled to the concept of an all-powerful and benevolent Deity.  In other words, the concept of Ultimate Reality needs to be revised. In light of the Holocaust, many people did revise their understanding of the nature of God.  In his  popular book  When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner rejects the traditional notion of an all-powerful God in favor of the concept of a  God that is good but not all-powerful. The remarkable response to Kushner's book suggests that a number of people accept this revised monotheism as a possible solution to the questions of theodicy.