The Theodicy Problem [michael]

While I was working on my undergraduate degree at Missouri State University, I was required to pick a minor to accompany my B.S. in psychology.  For as long as I could remember, I had been a regular attendee at church, so naturally I thought that a minor in religious studies would be a good fit for me.  As I progressed in my pursuit of obtaining my degree, I was able to start taking electives that interested me, instead of simply having to take required courses for my degree program.  My last semester of my undergraduate career, I was fortunate enough to have my schedule work out to allow me to take a class called “suffering and meaning” as my last elective for my religious studies minor.  Little did I know that as I registered for this class that it would leave me with a question that I still think about on a regular basis.

The question that I left that class with was, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  While this was a new question that I was going to begin thinking about, tons of people have thought about this and wrote about this in the past.  Harold Kushner is one of those people. Kushner was a Rabbi when he had a son diagnosed with a degenerative disease at the age of 3 that would eventually lead to his death in his early teens.  These devastating events in the life of Kushner led to his writing about Theodicy.  Theodicy is simply a fancy sounding word that means, “An attempt to explain the presence of evil”.  Kushner in particular explored this question from a religious angle.  He thought to himself, “If God is all loving and all powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world?”

[If you have any desire to further explore the works of Harold Kushner here is a link to his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”.]

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Bear with me, as I try to summarize an entire book rich with details and examples into groups of bullet points.  I fear that my summary won’t do Kushner or his book justice, but here is my attempt.

The theodicy problem as stated by Kushner follows this line of progression:

  • God is all powerful
  • God is all loving, all good
  • If there is an all powerful God, then God would be able to diminish or put an end to suffering
  • If there is an all loving God, then God could not bear to simply watch His children suffer
  • So, why is there so much suffering in the world today?

Before I explain and discuss Kushner’s responses to the Theodicy problem, I feel that it would be beneficial to list the four kinds of suffering that Kushner discusses in his book.  The four kinds of suffering are:

    1. Suffering caused by moral choice/decision
    2. Physical suffering
    3. Suffering caused due to nature/natural events
    4. Death and finitude

Kushner is able to identify six responses to the Theodicy Problem:

    1. God gives us suffering as a punishment for sin
    2. God gives us suffering as a test of faith
    3. God gives us suffering to teach us a lesson
    4. We are creature of free will, thus we will make choices that cause suffering for ourselves and others
    5. Suffering operates according to the laws of nature
    6. God suffers with us

Kushner goes on to explain how each of his six responses has its own unique problem.  Each of his problems refer back to his explanation of his struggle to believe that God can be all loving, all powerful, and allow evil to exist.  The problems for each of his responses are as followed:

  1. If God gives us suffering as a punishment for sin it’s unfair and infers that God is not all loving
  2. If God gives us suffering as a test of faith it’s unfair and infers that God is not all loving
  3. If God gives us suffering to teach us a lesson it’s unfair and infers that God is not all loving
  4. If we are creatures of free will, and make choices that cause suffering for ourselves and others, suffering can only be applied to moral choices and infers that God is not all powerful
  5. If suffering operates according to the laws of nature, suffering can only be applied to physical suffering, nature/natural events, and death/finitude as well as inferring that God is not all powerful
  6. If God suffers with us it infers that God is not all powerful

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Kushner believes in a God who is all powerful and all loving, but as he begins to explore the presence and role of suffering, he appears to struggle to see how this God and evil can coexist.  He can’t seem to wrap his mind around how an all loving God would allow his children to experience the suffering that they do.  I can say that as I read this book and began to examine this question myself, I was right there with him.  I struggled for quite some time to find my own answer to this question.

When I was enrolled in this class I came to the conclusion that all of Kushner’s responses that inferred that God was not all powerful were much easier for me to stomach than the conclusions inferring that God was not all loving.  It seemed much easier for me to believe in and follow the teachings of a God who suffered along side me rather than a God who was punishing me for my sins or testing my faith.  To me, it seemed to bring a new level of intimacy to a relationship with God thinking that he could be there alongside you suffering and struggling just the same.

When I look at the Theodicy Problem from my life and eyes today, I can see that I never truly understood what being all loving from the eyes of God meant.  I think that with God’s love, there is a consistency and unconditional quality that I completely missed when I examined this problem some years ago.

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I can’t truly tell you where I stand on this problem right now, as I feel everyday my beliefs and views are maturing and changing.  I feel that this is a question that might never truly have an answer, but instead be a question that leads to a much more complex understanding of what it means for God to be all powerful and all loving.

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4 thoughts on “The Theodicy Problem [michael]

  1. The most difficult thing about questions like this is that we often don’t have a way of viewing the question from anything other than a human-based perspective (which, being that we are human, makes sense). So we find ourselves stuck in a box with certain limits based on our capacity to understand concepts like ‘love’ and ‘suffering,’ or God being ‘all-loving’ and ‘all-powerful,’ and how any one thing we experience or analyze can contradict one of the other things.

    But I think the key to getting ‘unstuck’ from this box is in your second-to-last paragraph: “I can see that I never truly understood what being all-loving from the eyes of God meant.” God is actually outside of the box, but He has also revealed Himself to us within the limitations of our box to be of certain qualities (good, loving, all-powerful, etc.).

    Rather than trying to find a logical answer to a problem within our scope of understanding (i.e., trying to make God make sense to us), I think maybe we can start by trusting that He is who He says He is, and asking HIM what it means to be ‘all-powerful,’ what HIS definition for ‘all-loving’ is. Like you said: how does GOD see it? Otherwise we’ll just keep coming up with a human answer to a human problem, whether it satisfies us or not.

  2. I read this, coincidentally, right after reading about theodicy in my Theo101 course work. random.

    How do you think the God (Jesus) who enters into the pain and suffering of the creation speaks another layer to this? Not necessarily in resolution, but in compounding…

    • You know, that’s a good question. Like I said, I think I’m still trying to figure a lot of this out for myself, but I think the reason I am so drawn to that conclusion is because it seems to make God more comprehendible to me. I know that this is something within me needed comfort and understanding, which often times we cannot achieve when we examine or discuss God or aspects of Him.

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