More opposition to theodicy from the Protestant mainline. Why?

June 7, 2017

Drew McIntyre, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, reflects on a book by William Placher, who says, like so many others in the Protestant mainline, that we Christians ought to avoid traditional theodicies. The answers we give, in our well-intentioned efforts to reconcile a good and loving God with this world of evil and suffering, are worse than simply living with the tension.

Placher writes:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

Needless to say (if you’ve been reading my blog for a while), I disagree. I wrote the following in comments section of McIntyre’s post:

I disagree with the author’s overall point. I can happily affirm his two points (in bold) above—that God is always fully active in events yet is not the cause of irrational (by which he means evil?) events. But assuming that’s true, I don’t believe there is tension between them, logically if not experientially.

The Book of Job, after all, says much more than Brueggemann says that it says (go figure!) when it comes to theodicy. At the very least, Job affirms that Job’s suffering is not meaningless: As we’re explicitly told in chapter 1-2, God has a reason for allowing Job to suffer. Right? Job doesn’t know the reason, and his friends don’t know the reason, but we the readers do know.

And you may say, “Yes, but that’s an unsatsifying reason!” But Satan is real, and God clearly uses him to accomplish his purposes. Remember Paul’s thorn? It is both a “messenger of Satan” and something that “was given” (divine passive) in order to keep Paul humble. Paul inderstood that this suffering was deeply meaningful. Of course, there are many more scriptures I could cite. But the very fact that God transformed the greatest evil the world has known (the crucifixion of God’s Son) into the greatest good the world has known (the means of our atonement) proves that God can do this with all “lesser” versions of evil and suffering in our world.

My point is, we can say that God allows evil and suffering for a good reason, even if we often don’t know what that reason is. (How could we know in most cases? The ripple effect of even one insignificant event in time could have consequences centuries later. A historical “butterfly effect” is easy to imagine.)

Of course, to say this at a hospital bedside or graveside probably won’t be pastorally helpful, but that doesn’t mean it never needs to be said.

This “greater good” theodicy, to which I fully subscribe, was accepted by Wesley and Arminius—if that matters to anyone.

Regardless, I find this theodicy immensely comforting—the squeamishness of the Protestant mainline notwithstanding.

8 Responses to “More opposition to theodicy from the Protestant mainline. Why?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    The question of why God allows evil in the world is not easy to answer. Yes, man disobeyed God and ate from the tree, but that was after Satan tempted Eve. Why did God allow Satan’s rebellion? Why did the most powerful and beautiful of all the angels turn against God? Why was he allowed to continue on and draw 1/3 of the angels away as well. Why was he given/allowed dominion over the Earth? I can only wonder at the complexity of God’s ways and God’s plans…..

    • brentwhite Says:

      To make his glory that much greater. This world, and God’s way of saving it through Christ, is better than any alternative.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    But, there will be a new heaven, a new Earth and a new Jerusalem. The old will pass away. The new wlll be perfect. If anyone says they “understand” all of that, they must be smarter than me. 🙂

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    I think I would go further than to simply say that God “allows” evil (or, “tragic”) events for his ultimate good purposes (which, as such, and at a minimum is hardly possible to challenge from a scriptural position). I note that when talking to Moses, God says, “Who made the blind and dumb? Have not I, the Lord?” And in the NT, when his disciples say, “Who did sin?”, Jesus responded that nobody did, but that this dire circumstance existed so that God’s glory could be manifested. There are often “intermediaries” for the events (such as Satan), but the ultimate “planner” behind them is God. (Thus, in one OT account about Israel under David, it says, “Satan stood up,” whereas in the parallel version the same event is attributed to God.)

    So, how is this view consistent with my simultaneous view of free choice? I fall back on my position that God planned based on what God “foreknew.” (Don’t know why so many predestination advocates seem to overlook that term.) Thus, God knew what type of people we would turn out to be (including Satan, Hitler, et al., along with the saints), and “planned history” accordingly. The only thing that God did not “control” is “how we would turn out to be”; rather, based on what he foreknew in that regard, he created the “game plan” of what would happen to “bring that out” of us (as well as, of course, any number of other things God also wanted to do, such as create the heavens which “declare the glory of God”). Every single thing that happens, good or bad, lies as God’s feet, but we are not “off the hook” for them, not due to some “oh, what a mystery” fallback, but because we, indeed, are acting according to our own “personality,” the very thing which God chose not to control, for his ultimate glory in being able to create “independent” moral agents which he could interact with.

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    I don’t see how the view that God can look forward in time and “foreknow” what one will choose to do helps the case for “free will”. If God can see the outcome, then by definition there could be no other outcome (once He sees it). The idea seems no different than saying that God has “predestined” the outcome. He created us, and all the circumstances of our lives, and He knows how we will react in any situation. That doesn’t sound like freedom of choice to me. It sounds like God in control of every conceivable event and outcome. Of course we do make choices, and feel the burden of those choice, because God wanted for us to “have to choose”. Certainly, it feels like a choice to us, because it is. But, could we make any other choice, given the above? What am I missing here?

  5. Tom Harkins Says:

    I am not saying that any “outcome” can be different. Obviously the very fact that God can foresee dispenses with that. The question is, what about WHY God chose in the first place? In other words, why did he foreordain as he did? Predestination advocates say, this is mysterious and cannot be really analyzed by us. I say, to the contrary, God foreordained precisely because he “knew our hears” in advance, without making our hearts be that way.

    As a weak illustration, consider a coach organizing his team. He puts whomever he chooses as pitcher, catcher, etc. But does he do so arbitrarily? No, not if he is a good and competent coach. He puts whom he does where he does based on his knowledge of the abilities of each. And if he were an omniscient coach, he would do so perfectly and his team would perform to its maximum potential. But in that illustration, the coach is not making his team members have the abilities that they have. He just “ordains” based on what he knows about the players to start with.

    In the much more serious and important sense, God also knows all about us before he puts whomever on his team where he wishes them to be, and similarly with those on the devil’s team. But, he is not making those selections and placements based on arbitrary grounds (sorry, I don’t know of any better word to use than arbitrary–help me out on that one if you have a better word choice). Rather, he did so based on the hearts of those he selects which he foreknew how they would be. But, he did not make those hearts be as they are. And because of God’s omniscience, he “perfectly” puts everyone where he does to accomplish his plan of history (and any other purpose that he has). We are hampered in trying to grasp this “foreknowledge” because we only see things as they actually unfold, but that was not any problem for God to know in advance BEFORE he planned any events (speaking anthropomorphically). Christ was “slain before the foundation of the world.” Likewise, God, knowing the heart that Tom Harkins would have, put me in the role of a lawyer who likes to argue about theology, in the year 2017, etc. He did not make my heart of “Yes to God” be that. Instead, he made me as he did because he knew I would have a “Yes to God” heart.

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    Your last two sentences make my point. At least, I see it as “God in control”. You on the other hand, say that it’s “God allowing you to control”. I can’t wrap my mind around your reasoning, but then you probably don’t see my point either.

  7. Tom Harkins Says:

    (I am not sure if my last comment got posted. I have something further to add, so I will “repost” my last and then add my further point.)

    I think my point ultimately comes down to this: Can God create a being which has some aspect of it that God allows that being to “choose for itself,” or not? I don’t believe that there is anything that God cannot do if he wants to do it, which is part of what it means for him to be omnipotent. “Is there anything too hard for God?” At the same time, God obviously does not let things “get out of control.” What this means to me is that God allowed for that most vital thing of all, whether a person would choose “for or against God,” to be each person’s “choice,” and then God wove together history around those “pre-known” choices. Love cannot be coerced and still exist. Therefore, the lover must allow the beloved the option to reject the overture. As it turns out, many have rejected but the “few” that Christ spoke of have said “yes.” That is the ultimate point of the created universe, in my estimation.

    What I would add to this is, how does this square with that most-relied-upon “predestination” passage in scripture, Romans 9? “For whom he will he hardens.” “No, but, oh man, who are you, the creature, to reply or complain against God, the Creator?” Here is what I think about that (in a brief nutshell): Did anyone have a choice about being created? Did anyone have a choice about being created in a “love universe”? Did anyone have a choice about ending of in hell forever if he chose “No” to God? “No” is the answer to all those questions. So, I could imagine Paul’s hypothetical inquirer as meaning, “Why do you punish me for something I never would have selected for the nature of the universe and my role in it to start with?” That is up to the Creator to decide. We can’t insist on a “friendly grandfather” universe (per C.S. Lewis’ suggestion: “And a good time was had by all.”). All we can do is respond to God according to God’s own rules. And for those whom God “foreknew” would say, “No” to the option, it is, indeed, as if God “hated” them from the very outset: “Before anyone did anything, either good or bad, Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated.” So, we both do and don’t get a “choice.” Our only choice is for or against God, which God already knows about, but we don’t. Indeed, “as things play out,” we do actually and in reality make that “foreknown” choice–God is not, in fact, condemning anyone to hell regardless of their choice. But God made the universe according to his own rules, and as to that we can have no legitimate complaint.


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