Theodicy (Against the Problem of Evil)
Kenneth Cauthen

Theodicy deals with the problem of evil. Usually it is an attempt to show that it is possible to affirm the omnipotence of God, the love of God, and the reality of evil without contradiction. The skeptic's argument generally is that given the reality of evil, we must sacrifice either the power (omnipotence) or the love (goodness) of God. A dilemma arises. If we give up the omnipotence of God, it appears that God cannot prevent or overcome evil. If we forego the goodness of God, it seems that God will not prevent or overcome evil. Most theodicies attempt to show that this dilemma is only apparent and that it is possible to affirm both that God is all-powerful and perfectly loving, despite the presence of real evil in the world.

Before we proceed, we must note that some Christian theologians refuse to accept the definition of the problem in these terms. They argue that evil is a practical reality that requires resources that enable us to deal with it and overcome it. This the Gospel provides to those who have faith and seek to love God and one another. These theologians contend that to define evil as a theoretical question that poses difficulties regarding either the existence or the character of God is to take a false step and one that leads to no good consequences. Hence, this solution to the theodicy question is to deny that it is a theoretical problem in the first instance and therefore does not require a solution in these terms. Another way to put it is to say that they are quite willing to let the question of reconciling the reality of evil with the power and goodness of God remain as pure MYSTERY and to devote their full attention to the question of coping with evil in good faith.

Everyone would agree that evil is a practical concern. We do need resources that enable us to cope with it. However, many theologians contend that suffering also has a theoretical dimension. Faith must seek understanding as well as victory over evil. These thinkers typically proceed to offer a number of "appeals" that lessen if not eliminate the apparent contradiction . Some of the "appeals" most often made are:

1. Suffering is a punishment for sin.
2. We are creatures of flesh and blood who are vulnerable to accident, disease, and other destructive assaults upon our existence and well-being.
3. We are free moral beings and can misuse our freedom to cause harm to ourselves or others.
4. Suffering is designed by God to be a part of the world so that by facing the challenge evil poses, we can freely move toward moral perfection, which is God's aim for us.
5. We live in a law-abiding world containing many beings interacting with each other. Destructive interactions and consequence are bound to follow. Yet it is the law-abiding character of the world that enables us to learn and to carry out our purposes.
6. The world has an excellent design within the limits of what is actually possible. Any other design would likely have produced a less favorable ratio of good in relation to evil. The strongest version of this argument insists that this is the best of all possible worlds.
7. Satan (a superhuman being with free will who went wrong) is the cause of much suffering and evil in the world.

From such appeals one can argue that the factors that make evil likely are essential to there being a world at all and/or to the excellence of its design. For example, the fact that God made us free is a good feature of the world that we would not want to change. But it means that human beings and Satan who misuse that freedom can cause great misery. In short, any good world would carry with it the possibility of evil. Therefore, if there is to be a world at all and a good world, evil is a likely feature of it, but this does not at all impugn either the power or the goodness of God.

While those who make them believe that these "appeals" go a long way toward providing an answer to the question as to why there is so much evil in the world that an all-powerful, loving God created, most admit that we are still far from a complete solution. Hence, the final "appeal" is usually to MYSTERY. At this point, they join with those who refuse to see evil as a theoretical issue in the first place. Not everyone uses all these "appeals," and there may be others. Many modern theologians, e. g., would have difficulty referring to suffering as a punishment for sin, and many do not believe in a literal Satan.

All of the above proposals assume all three elements in the basic framework: omnipotence, perfect goodness, and the reality of gratuitous evil. Another set of proposals modifies one or more of these factors. A few question God's goodness. Others qualify or reject omnipotence in favor of a limited God. Still others insist that what appears to us as purely evil serves a justifying purpose known only to God or is the necessary means to a larger and compensating good that could not be had otherwise. Along these lines a strong tradition in classical theology insisted that God permitted evil as a means toward a greater good. The advantage of these approaches is that they make a rational solution to the theodicy problem much easier. Moreover, one can still make the same appeals that have already been listed, if they prove useful. The disadvantages, however, are considerable. Obviously, questioning either omnipotence or perfect goodness in God puts one outside the mainstream of Christian tradition. Moreover, each non-orthodox alternative comes with a cost. Questioning divine goodness makes faith difficult since a morally ambigous God is not totally trustworthy. Questioning omnipotence threatens to undermine hope since a God limited in power may not be able to overcome all evil and guarantee a final victory of justice and goodness.

My own conclusion is that the traditional responses are inadequate. I propose that we must limit the power of God in order to preserve the goodness of God and reluctantly accept the consequences of compromising omnipotence. I believe that the reason that God does not prevent or overcome some evil is that God cannot. Only a Suffering, Struggling, Limited God will do. I have developed a doctrine of God along these lines.

© 1997

About the author...
Kenneth Cauthen is the John Price Crozer Griffith emeritus Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. He is the author of twenty books, including The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, which was the standard text in the field for a quarter of a century. Born in Georgia, he was educated at Mercer, Yale, Emory, and Vanderbilt, receiving a BA, BD, MA and PhD. He has served as Baptist pastor, college professor at Mercer University, and as a professor of theology for forty years.

Cauthen is dedicated to defending liberal Christianity. To this end, he runs a web site and a regularly updated blog. He welcomes e-mails responding to his perspective.


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