Thomas G. Long is Bandy Professor of Preaching and coordinator of the Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. In this excerpt from his new book What Shall We Say: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, he introduces and defines the often-stupefying “theodicy problem” of reconciling the presence of a loving God with senseless human suffering and shares why pastors need to be prepared to address urgent theodicy-related questions from the pews.
In Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer prize-winning play J.B., two workers at a fleabag circus, a “Mr. Zuss,” who sells balloons, and “Nickles,” who is a popcorn vendor, mount a deserted sideshow stage and, after some hesitation, decide to act out the biblical story of Job. Zuss will play the part of God; Nickles will be Satan. What about the character of Job, the agonized sufferer? The two men observe wryly that there is always some human being to play Job.
Nickles begins to recite a little poem, naming the theme that will serve as the main challenge of the play:
I heard upon his dry dung heap
That man cry out who could not sleep:
“If God is God He is not good;
If God is good He is not God.”
MacLeish wrote J.B. in the mid-1950s, in response to the devastations of two world wars and the other horrors of the twentieth century, and his play sparked a conversation among playgoers and in the popular media about the character of God. Is God good? If so, given the scope of suffering, can we think of God as all-powerful?
These questions, taken together, have been called the “theodicy problem.” As theological terms go, theodicy is a relative newcomer, having been invented by the philosopher Leibniz only three hundred years ago. Etymologically, the word theodicy is formed by gluing together two Greek words, theos (God) and dike (justice), and in its original sense it meant “the justification of God.” In a world where terrible catastrophes happen and where people suffer out of all proportion to any sense of deserving, God, it was felt, had some explaining to do. The ways of God needed to be justified. God needed a good defense, and theodicy was the enterprise of coming up with one.
This book is about what preachers can and should say regarding the theodicy problem. Engaging theodicy in the older sense of the word is not my goal, and providing a justification for the actions of God is not what I imagine myself to be doing in these pages. Indeed, to think that one could somehow defend God is theologically an act of extreme hubris. If God needs to be defended, God will need a better attorney than I.
More recently, though, theodicy has come to have a somewhat different meaning, one that is less about putting God on trial and more about putting our faith to the test. In this newer sense, which is the concern of this book, theodicy is about how believers can hold together important faith claims that seem, on the surface anyway, to be incompatible: that there is a God, that God is loving and just, that God is powerful, and that there is undeserved suffering in the world. Understood this way, theodicy is not about coming up with excuses for God’s behavior in a world of evil but about how faith in a loving God is plausible, given what we know and experience about suffering.
It is no accident that the term theodicy is of more recent coinage than other theological concepts, such as “hope” and “salvation” and “sin.” Only under the intellectual conditions of the modern (and now, perhaps, postmodern) world could the question of theodicy arise in its current forms. With the advent of modern science and of the idea of human reason as a counterforce to “revealed religion,” new ways of thinking developed about such questions as how the universe is built and why natural disasters occur. If a volcano erupts, is this an act of God or simply the consequence of the buildup of gasses? If people are killed by the flow of lava, is this divine punishment, the operation of the indifferent laws of nature, or something else? After the Enlightenment, wondering why God doesn’t intervene to stop suffering led inevitably to wondering if there even was a God to intervene at all.
Bishop Berkeley famously said that philosophers are people who kick up dust and then complain that they cannot see. Indeed, some suggest that worrying about the theodicy question is not a proper activity for Christian theology because the very issues at stake have been corrupted from the outset by Enlightenment philosophers. To ask “How could there be a God who is loving and just in a world of evil and suffering?” in the way that the problem has been posed for the last three centuries is already to be working with conceptions of “God,” “love,” “justice,” and all the rest that are foreign to Christian faith. If Voltaire or David Hume couldn’t see how it was possible for a good God to exist in a world of such evil, then perhaps it was because they had kicked up a load of dust and were working with the wrong ideas about “God,” “good,” and “evil.”
Maybe so, but for many intellectually alert Christians today, the theodicy problem poses a deep challenge to their faith, and preachers do not have the luxury of dismissing in the pulpit a serious question that arises from the pews. It is not easy to understand how it is possible to say “I believe in God, the maker of heaven and earth” and “God is love” while, at the same time, having to say “My neighbor’s daughter was born with severe brain damage” or “Over 200,000 people lost their lives in the earthquake in Haiti.” This book, then, is a work of homiletical pastoral care. It is an attempt to stand with preachers, who then will stand with their parishioners, in thinking through how faith in a loving God holds together with the facts of life in a suffering world.