Theodicy Then and Now

 

Theodicy might seem a modern notion, since Leibniz coined the term in the seventeenth century to address a particular Enlightenment concern: how to harmonize God’s goodness and sovereignty with evil in the world. Certainly it is a modern enterprise to attempt to explain the ways of God to humans. And it is a philosophical inquiry, since the God it hypothesizes is transcendent but abstract, full of divine attributes (omnipotence and righteousness) but empty of personality.

Yet theodicies can be helpful. They may provide some intellectual comfort to those who suffer and assuage those who wonder about occurrences of evil. They may give us a reason to think we can trust God (again), despite what has happened.

This modern quest is akin to something that troubled biblical writers. Everyday misfortune didn’t cause them to question God’s goodness or sovereignty; life was hard and no one would reasonably have expected to enjoy the comforts and protections of modern life. Instead, certain world-shattering events occurred, such as the conquering of the Northern Kingdom of Israel or the fall of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Babylonian Exile, and these occasioned profound questioning of God’s faithfulness to his promises and his people.

How can we trust an allegedly gracious God if he doesn’t honor his promises? In Psalm 44, for example, the psalmist bemoans the suffering of the Israelites, despite their faithfulness, and demands that God awake from sleep and redress their circumstances. Psalm 74 offers a similar indictment of God. These questions are more pointed than a theodicy since they are directed to a God the anguished thought they knew, rather than an abstract God of the philosophers.

One of Martin Luther’s daughters died in his arms. His grief was overwhelming since the only God he knew was the one who took his child. He quoted Psalm 116 as a description of the Christian life: “I believed, therefore I was greatly afflicted.” Not that a Christian suffers more from a loss than anyone else, since losing a daughter could overwhelm anyone. Yet the sting may be worse for a Christian since the God you loved and worshipped and thought you knew let this happen.

Does our suffering mean that God has abandoned us? Can we still trust him with our welfare and our lives? These questions may not have satisfactory answers or, indeed, answers at all except as we live into them. Yet we may find responses to these questions in the writings in the Bible that address the theodicy of old.

For example, the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans is ultimately addressing the question whether God can be trusted, as he asks whether God has abandoned his chosen people who apparently have rejected God’s Messiah. In chapters 9 through 11, the Apostle insists the word of God hasn’t failed and God hasn’t rejected his people. He concludes that finally Israel will be saved, since God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable, confessing that the riches and wisdom of God are deep and his ways inscrutable.

So, if you are suffering, you are not alone. God’s people have always suffered and with God’s grace have endured. Listen to that history and rest in God’s assurance. He is faithful even if his ways are inscrutable. Amen.

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