February 29, 2016 / Theology
This essay considers James Cone’s affect on thought through messing up and messing with the conceptual field of theology.
April 7, 2003
Terrence Tilley, in The Evils of Theodicy, argues against the adequacy of highly abstract theodicies which intentionally distance themselves from pastoral and practice-oriented questions.1 Instead of constructing theodicies, Christians should be prepared to give a “defense” against the problem of evil. What is the difference between a “theodicy” and a “defense?” For Tilley, a defense argues for the coherence of Christian belief in God as “omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and that evil exists.”2 Its goal is to answer the attack of a nonbeliever who claims that it is irrational to hold those beliefs together. It does not seek to establish the truth of the beliefs, or to speculate upon what reason there may be for the existence of suffering, but simply that it is possible (and not irrational) that such beliefs about God and the world can logically coexist.3 A theodicy, in contrast, “seeks to show that the warrants for her or his own beliefs are reliable” and not simply logically compatible.4 Tilley’s sharp distinction follows Alvin Plantinga in his classic book, God, Freedom and Evil. In describing a paradigmatic free will theodicy, Plantinga claims that it seeks to tell “what God’s reason is for permitting evil” such that “God can create a more perfect universe by permitting evil.”5 In contrast, a defense does not claim to know God’s specific reason(s) for evil, but gives a more modest defense of the coherence of Christian beliefs.
While I agree that there is a legitimate role for the apologetic defense against the problem of evil, following Tilley and Plantinga, one is still left with the question: how are Christians to think theologically and practically about this question to which we have no definitive answer? This paper seeks to describe the space opened up by an unanswered theodicy question. I intend to show how the question of suffering becomes a lived question in compassionate action toward the sufferer, which implicitly claims that ‘this is not the way things are supposed to be.’ This is an action of protest–both against evil and against the delay of God’s full reign. Yet, I contend that essential to this protest is the affirmation of trust–like in the biblical Psalms–of God’s power and goodness.
My strategy for explaining this proposal is through giving a critical examination of John K. Roth’s provocative essay, “A Theodicy of Protest.” 6 Roth’s passionate, existentially sensitive piece has established the dubious distinction since its 1981 publication of being one of the only representatives of the position in theodicy discussions in which God is omnipotent, but God is not good. Although I do not agree with Roth’s final conclusion, Roth’s concern for the notion of protest and for discussing theodicy in a concrete sense make him a fruitful partner for dialogue in expositing my proposal. Roth has a relentless sense that any appropriate discussion of theodicy must be honest about actual historical evils. Giving examples from the Holocaust in which suffering demeans and destroys, Roth quotes Hegel affirmingly that “history is ‘the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of people, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been sacrificed.’”7 How does one account for God permitting such horrors? The key word here is “permitting,” because Roth feels that preventing the horrors is exactly what God could have done. Roth quotes Mark 10:27 where Jesus claims that “everything is possible for God.” Roth points to the Exodus and the Resurrection as ways in which God has interrupted the course of history for redemptive purposes. Yet, “God’s saving acts in the world are too few and far between.” For “if God raised Jesus from the dead, he had the might to thwart the Holocaust long before it ended.”8
As one might suspect from these comments, Roth is not tempted to look toward Process Theology for a solution. For Roth, the process God is not the scriptural one who is genuinely portrayed as almighty, and even though process theologians can explain the problem of evil (there is evil because God is not omnipotent), the God they are left with “is hardly worth bothering about.”9 Rather, Roth’s protest is against a God who is almighty and is fully able to intervene against evil, but does not make that choice. Of course, the traditional response to Roth’s concern is that God limits himself by endowing human beings with free will. Thus, God is not responsible for the evil that humans cause. But this ‘free will’ argument does not release God from culpability. To the contrary, Roth argues that when one considers the concrete byproducts of free will, there are terrible things for which God is responsible. Roth writes:
Richard L. Rubstein’s penetrating study of the Holocaust, The Cunning of History, makes the following observation: “Until ethical theorists and theologians are prepared to face without sentimentality the kind of action it is possible freely to perpetrate under conditions of utter respectability in an advanced, contemporary society, none of their assertions about the existence of moral norms will have much credibility.” The inference I want to draw from Rubenstein’s assertion is this: human freedom has been used as God’s defense; in fact, it is crucial in his offense.10
In other words, for Roth God’s gift of freedom is none other than the gift of his absence, of leaving humanity behind precisely when divine intervention is needed. God is thus morally culpable for this terrible gift’s consequences. God is guilty. Roth asserts that no matter what transformation takes place in paradise, the cost of human freedom is simply too high. God should not have given it if it were to result in the crushing suffering and death of horrific events.
Thus, Roth is very similar to Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan argues that the cost of an innocent child suffering “to buy eternal harmony” for others is too high a price to pay for free will.11 Ivan claims that his problem is not with God per se, but with God’s creation. “It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept.”12
For Ivan, the horrors happening in creation simply cannot be justified. If horrors are to be used in the end to create a higher harmony in heaven, then that is “too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket.”13 For Ivan to ‘return his ticket’ means that he rejects the whole theistic framework which he feels is belittling to horrors. Roth, struggling with a similar problem, rejects the goodness of God, while still affirming God’s existence and power.
Some of the reason that Roth clings to his God, though morally tarnished, is that God continues to provide the rationale for protest against evil in the world. In The Rebel, Camus develops how Ivan moves from rejecting God for the sake of justice, to asserting that “everything is permitted.” “The same man [Ivan] who so violently took the part of innocence, who trembled at the suffering of a child, from the moment that he rejects divine coherence and tries to discover his own rule of life, recognizes the legitimacy of murder. If all is permitted, he can kill his father or at least allow him to be killed.”14 At least in Dostoevsky’s narrative, Ivan is unable to sustain his high standard of justice—his rationale for protest against evil—after he rejects theism. Roth does not want this deterioration to happen. With Roth’s proposal, the protest is both vertical and horizontal and the two directions nurture each other.
Having an almighty God who promises good gifts assures that when evil happens, it will be seen as a scandal, something deeply out of place. A compassionate response to the sufferer is a way of protesting to God that the evil is happening—and of course, that same compassionate response is a protest against the perpetrators of the evil. Roth wants to avoid both Ivan’s atheism and a Christian theodicy because both undermine his ground for double-protest. With Ivan’s atheism, one can no longer protest against God about evil, and evil faces the danger of being normalized rather than treated as a scandal. For a Christian theodicy that proposes a morally sufficient reason for God to permit evil, the grounds for protest against God and potentially against evil are threatened. In this type of theodicy, the Psalmic cry of lament over evil can be silenced as an explanation is given of how evil functions to provide a greater good.
Roth frames his proposal by using the language of putting God on trial. Like Job, Roth has asked for his day in court with God to make his case against the divine. Yet, before the case is over, Roth has declared God guilty. The evidence is sufficiently clear that, as far as he can tell, God is in the wrong. But Roth does not leave the courtroom and does not stop setting his case against God. Why persist? It seems that Roth has the sneaking suspicion, or perhaps the hope that he is wrong about his assessment of God’s ‘moral life.’ In describing the sort of protest we should give, Roth says that we have a “mandate to say what we feel [to God], and we must…so long as we speak for the sake of human well-being. When dissent is raised in that spirit, its rebellious care may grip God’s heart.”15
Roth’s comment here is reminiscent of another courtroom situation in the New Testament. In the eighteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a Judge who “neither feared God nor had respect for the people” (18:2, NRSV). There was a widow who was calling for justice against her opponent, but the judge was not responsive. The widow was persistent, not leaving the judge alone. So finally “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (18:5). In this way, Roth is right in thinking that God desires our complaint and our protest, and that it may “grip God’s heart.” However, even in encouraging complaints, Jesus means to highlight the difference between the “unjust judge” and the Father—that if an unjust judge will respond to persistence by giving justice, how much more will God give justice to those who are persistent! (18:6-8)
There is a question, however, about whether Roth has really established a rationale to continue protesting and complaining to God. Why should one be persistent in complaining like the widow? Why not leave the courtroom? For the sake of those who have suffered horrifically, Roth feels he must be strong in his declaration that God has a dark side—one that will never appear as light. For Roth, faith is risky business not only because God “stays hidden, absent” but also because God is not “wholly good.” 16
My sense is that Roth is right in saying that believers often experience the absence and hiddenness of God. Roth is also right in saying that the God of the Bible wants humans to struggle and even fight with the divine—from Moses to the widow in Luke, scripture indicates that it is not only permissible but advisable to argue and protest with God. But what makes persons who experience God’s absence cry out for the divine presence? Is it not necessary to have a measure of trust in divine goodness? I sense that it is not accident that Psalms of lament conventionally conclude with an affirmation of trust in God’s goodness and power. The Psalms bitterly complain about God’s absence—about God’s lack of intervention—and the way in which God’s promises do not appear to be coming true. But they are held together by the affirmations of trust—trust that God is able to do something about the troubles and that God would be responsive to the human plea.17
What is at stake here is not just the rationale for repeatedly complaining to God, but whether it is sustainable for Roth to have any protest at all. Roth wants to be in the posture of struggling with God and fighting against evil—and in both proclaiming that ‘this [present state of the world] is not the way things are supposed to be.’ But Roth has already answered the theodicy question. He has already handed in his verdict as guilty. In a sense, he reverses Paul’s logic in Romans 8:18 to say that whatever eschatological goods are to come are not worthy to be compared with the suffering which has befallen us. If this is the case, it is not clear why one would turn to this morally insufficient God, particularly when one is in need. As one critic says, if God becomes “a grossly negligent murderer” as in Roth’s account, that God is unworthy of trust and worship.18
I sense that Roth’s mistake is in saying too much in the mysterious space of the theodicy question. In the midst of suffering, God may seem absent and evil exercises a tyrannical reign. The sufferer, and persons around her need to cry out the Psalmic lament, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Psalms of lament are brutally honest about suffering and evil. They do not deny it, or lessen it by looking for causes, with the occasional exception of one’s own sin as a cause. When God’s fidelity to his promises seem to be in question because of evil, the response is to cry out to God in protest (as Roth states), but also in trust. For one who prays with the Psalms, having an ‘answer’ to ‘why’ calamity has come is not as important as asking God to intervene, to be faithful, to show God’s presence amidst the sufferer’s own experience of the hiddenness of God.
Several biblical scholars have developed an approach to the Psalms of Lament which highlights its practical relevance to questions of evil and suffering. Johann Baptist Metz finds the lament in “the prayer traditions of Israel: in the Psalms, in Job, in the Lamentations, and not least in many passages of the books of the prophets. This prayer language is itself a language of suffering, a language of crisis, a language of dispute and of radical danger, a language of complaint and accusation….”19 The lament asks about the problem of suffering—repeatedly bringing it before God in the form of a complaint. Yet, Richard Middleton emphasizes that while the lament has “uncompromising honesty about evil—including the suspicion that God, because God is sovereign, might be at fault,” the believer nevertheless “addresses God” and maintains “trust in that same God.” 20 Thus, the voice of the Psalmist in the lament does not suffer and hence abandon God, but suffers evil and persistently holds God responsible. She keeps bringing her burden to God, a move which requires trust in both God’s goodness and power.
In this way, as one keeps the problem of evil ‘open,’ one can discern a theological shape with ‘boundaries’ set by the biblical lament: lament encourages the sufferer to protest against evil, crying out with the Psalmist and the Messiah, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ If one is the sufferer, she speaks this for herself; if one is responding to evil harming another person, she protests against the evil—and the delay of God’s reign—by empathetically identifying with the sufferer in compassionate action. With this rendering of lament, it is not only possible, but essential to keep the problem of evil an open question rather than an answered one. If the sufferer found a reason by which the world is a better place because of the evil, then, if one were utterly consistent, there would be no place left for a cry of protest against God. The lament points to an eschatological way to frame the problem of evil: in a world in which it is easy to become desensitized to suffering and evil, one protests against evil and implicitly says ‘this is not the way things are supposed to be.’ The world which is promised and hoped for is not this way. Thus, evil is a scandal, evoking a response in protest against the present way of the world and against the evil itself. In this way, the biblical lament points a way beyond Roth’s proposal in which one is tempted to leave the “courtroom” and stop the double-protest against evil and the delay of God’s full reign. Instead, the biblical lament points toward a theological rendering of the problem of evil which leaves the question open as a mystery, and yet simultaneously provides the theological rationale for complaining against God for allowing evil, and acting against that evil while still affirming divine goodness and omnipotence. The open space of the theodicy question is one in which the Christian lives: by prayer and compassionate action.
J. Todd Billings
J. Todd Billings (Th.D. Harvard) is Assistant Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary. Billings has published articles for a wide range of journals and periodicals, including Modern Theology, Christianity and Literature, Missiology, and Christianity Today. He lives with his wife Rachel and their dog Max in Holland, MI.