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.
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
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.
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.