Theodicy is a specific branch of theology and philosophy, which attempts to solve The Problem of Evil—the problem that arises when trying to reconcile the observed existence of evil in the world with the assumption of the existence of a God who is fully good (or benevolent) and who is also all-powerful (omnipotent). A "theodicy" also refers to any attempted solution to this conundrum.
Almost all traditional theodicies have attempted to logically solve the contradiction amongst the three points—the omnipotence of God, the goodness of God, and the real existence of evil—by negating or qualifying one or another of them. Hence, traditional theodicies are of three types:
In recent years, new theodicies have appeared which take a different approach: Rather than trying to eliminate an uncomfortable contradiction, one can accept the contradiction between the reality of evil and a God who is both omnipotent and good, and view it as pointing to a path toward the actual removal of evil, or as revealing a deeper understanding of the nature of God, or both. For example, one might theorize that God, because of his love, has given humans free will through which they could make wrong choices and create evil, but has also given them, out of his omnipotence, the ability to use their free will to overcome evil, and that this path to grow to maturity through such a life of overcoming evil is the ultimate expression of God's goodness.
The term theodicy comes from the Greek θεός (theós, "god") and δίκη (díkē, "justice"), meaning literally "the justice of God." The term was coined in 1710 by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in a work entitled Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal ("Essay of theodicy about the benevolence of God, the free will of man and the origin of evil"). The purpose of the essay was to show that the evil in the world does not conflict with the goodness of God, and that notwithstanding its many evils, the world is the best of all possible worlds.
The problem of evil for theists consists in the existence of a contradiction amongst the following three statements or claims integral and central to them:
For how can an omnipotent and fully good God create such an evil world?
If it can be shown that one or another of those statements is false, however, then the "problem" of contradiction disappears. Consequently, nearly all traditionally received theistic theodicies can be understood as attempts to reconcile those statements, arguing that one or another of those statements is false in some essential or important way. Therefore, there are three major types of traditional theodicies: 1) A first type, which denies or qualifies the omnipotence of God; 2) a second one, which denies or qualifies the goodness of God; and 3) a third type, denying or qualifying the reality of evil.
But, these received theodicies have been criticized more recently by some insightful thinkers. There are two points of criticism. First, these traditional theodicies are merely logical attempts to solve the contradiction of the three statements, without offering any real solution for the actual removal of evil; evil is still there. Second, when they merely attempt to logically solve the contradiction, their treatments of the omnipotence and goodness of God, whether they affirm or deny either of these divine attributes, are rather simplistic, external, and superficial, without being able to understand the nature of God any further. So, those who are critical towards the traditional types of theodicies go beyond the logical level of addressing the contradiction of the three statements; without even seeing any contradiction amongst the three statements, they rather attempt to find a solution on a different horizon, and their new solutions tend to be more insightful.
The three major types of traditional theodicies are: 1) Finitism, which denies or qualifies the omnipotence of God in the context of dualism; 2) despotism, which denies or qualifies the goodness of God, because of its belief that God's absolute sovereignty lets him do evil things in the eyes of humans; and 3) a third kind, denying or qualifying the reality of evil.
Finitism denies or qualifies the omnipotence of God and says that the finite God cannot avoid evil. It takes various forms of dualism. Some religions, such as Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism presented the cosmic dualism of God and Satan. Plato and Aristotle were of the metaphysical dualism of God (or Demiurge) and prime matter (or Receptacle), where God is finite because he must have recourse to prime matter for the constitution of the world. Nikolai Berdyaev and Alfred North Whitehead suggested the mystical dualism of God and Uncreated Freedom (or Creativity), where God is finite because of the pre-existent principle of Uncreated Freedom. The American Methodist philosopher Edgar Brightman suggested a unique kind of finitism with his internal dualism of form and matter within God, where his power is restrained because of form. Finitism sometimes entails the so-called "free will defense" of God (as in Berdyaev and Whitehead) because it gives free will to humans in the context of God's finitude. But this free will defense based on finitism is not the same as the more insightful free will defense proposed by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga to be treated below.
This type of theodicy can be seen in staunch Calvinism, and it presupposes the absolute sovereignty of God. God is so sovereign that although he may be a good God in principle, he does not look fully good in actuality. For God is the active creator and instigator of all sin and evil, including the fall, using these as instruments to accomplish his plan. Satan, thus, is considered to have no power of his own but is merely God's puppet. An important part of staunch Calvinism is the belief in the absolute predestination of all things by God, that is, that nothing happens unless God actively makes something happen. Whatever is is right, as long as God wills it. So, there can be no such thing as a problem of evil. In this view, humans have no free will. But, they will still be held responsible for whatever sins they commit because God has decided to judge them by his laws.
Besides this Calvinist despotism, so-called "maltheism," the view that God is evil, also solves the problem of evil by attributing evil to God. But, maltheism is quite different from Calvinism because it says that God is simply evil himself without being necessarily despotic.
The non-being theme of evil started from St. Augustine, who as a Neoplatonic Christian regarded all being as good, thus referring to evil as non-being. Critiquing the Manichean dualism, which he used to adhere to, he asserted that the universe, including matter and its unique creator, God, are unambiguously good. Evil, therefore, is non-being (non esse). It is the privation, corruption, or perversion of something that was previously or otherwise good. Evil has no substantial being in itself, but is always parasitic upon good. Evil entered the universe through the culpable free actions of otherwise good beings—angels and humans. Sin consisted not in choosing evil (because there was no evil to choose) but in turning away from the higher good of God to a lower good. Natural evils were held by Augustine to be consequences of the fall too, and thus also consequences of human or angelic free will. When one asks what caused man to fall, Augustine answers through his doctrine of "deficient" causation. In his view, there is no positive cause of evil will, but rather a negation of deficiency. Augustine seems to mean by this that free volitions are, in principle, inexplicable—free willing is itself an originating cause, with no prior cause or explanation.
This Augustinian definition of evil as the privation of good (privatio boni) can be seen also in St. Thomas Aquinas. It constitutes much of the Christian tradition on the subject of evil.
There are other ways of saying that evil is non-existent. According to Spinoza's pantheism, there is no evil in the world which is divine. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, regarded evil simply as illusion, echoing Hinduism and Buddhism. Using relational logic and not theology, Canadian Baha’i mathematician William Hatcher has argued that evil is not absolute but simply "less good" than good.
Augustine additionally held to what we can call the aesthetic conception of evil, and it can be still another important way of saying that evil is not real. It is a view derived from the principle of plenitude in Plato's Timaeus 41 b-c. That principle holds that a universe in which all possibilities are being realized—a universe containing lower and lesser, as well as higher and greater things—is greater than a universe that contains only the highest type(s) of things. Lower beings thus are not evil as such, but merely different and lesser goods. According to that view, what appears to be evil is such only when seen in an isolated or limited context, but when viewed in the context of the totality of the universe it is good because it is a necessary element in that good universe.
This was held less philosophically by many believers and theologians, such as John Calvin, who asserted that all events are part of God's righteous plan, and therefore although they may involve evil in themselves, they are intended by God for morally justified purposes.
The above three types of received theodicies are merely logical attempts to solve the contradiction amongst the three statements of the omnipotence of God, the goodness of God, and the reality of evil, by denying or qualifying one or another of them. But these theodicies cannot offer any real solution for the actual removal of evil; evil is still there. Also, they seem to treat God's attributes, such as divine omnipotence and goodness, rather simplistically and superficially, without being able to have any deeper insights into God's nature. All this is due to the logical nature of these theodicies.
Thinkers who do not want to stay with the logical level of removing the contradiction of the three basic statements, have attempted to find a solution at a different level. To them, the logical contradiction does not matter. They do not even see it. On a different horizon, they seem to be able to better understand the nature of God and seem to be able to better explain how evil is eventually removed.
The theodicy of the Book of Job is a good start because it suggests that the apparent contradiction between evil and an omnipotent and good God should not be handled logically but faithfully. In spite of his initial complaint to the Lord and to his "comforters" that his sufferings have been inflicted on him unjustly, Job finally accepted the difficult situation by repentance and faith, when he was confronted by the overwhelming greatness and wisdom of God. This attitude of faithfully accepting it and not logically explaining it away can at least help open a new possibility of knowing the nature of God deeply, although the nature of God may yet to be revealed in Book of Job. Also, evil somehow disappears in the end: "And the Lord restored the fortune of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before" (Job 42:10).
The British philosopher of religion John Hick is not interested in any logical solution of the contradiction between evil and an omnipotent and good God. Instead, his starting point is his deeper understanding and conviction of God's love of agape expressed in the life and work of Jesus Christ. This love of God, says Hick, is supposed to be completely realized in our personal relationships with him eventually. The reality of evil should be interpreted in view of this eschatological realization of God's love. If so, the world in which people really experience moral and natural evil can help them to grow to reach a point at which the enjoy their personal relationships with God. Thus, the world is vale for "soul-making."
The process of growth might involve moral evil because humans are imperfect. But from its undesirable outcomes they can learn about becoming better through their more responsible decisions. They can eventually become perfect creatures without moral evil only by going through "a hazardous adventure in individual freedom." And this freedom was given them because of God's love. Even the natural harshness of the environment apart from human sin was given to humans out of the love of God, so that they may be able to grow through hunting, agriculture, construction of shelter, and so on. This way, natural evil also will be gradually overcome. What is interesting is Hick's suggestion that if the eschatological goal of experiencing a personal relationship with God is not realized on earth, then it should be realized in the other world eventually.
According to Hick, his theodicy is of the "Irenaean" type, given the view of St. Irenaeus (c. 125-202 C.E.) that the pre-fall Adam was more like a child than a mature and responsible adult; that is, that Adam stood at the beginning of a long process of development because although he had been created in the "image" of God, he had to develop into the "likeness" of God.
According to the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga, it has never been shown logically impossible that God allows evil for a good purpose. So, there is no contradiction between evil and an omnipotent and good God. Plantinga thus accepts the omnipotence of God in his treatment of the problem of evil. Therefore, his free will defense, which says that God has endowed humans with free will, not only defends God from being held responsible for their evil choices; it also defends the omnipotence of God. So, Plantinga's position is to be distinguished from some versions of finitism (such as Whitehead's finitism) which give free will to humans to the neglect of divine omnipotence. What is important is his belief that there may conceivably be a good long-term purpose of God for which the evil choices of free humans are temporarily permitted. The purpose of God is to have "the greater good of having created persons with free will with whom he could have relationships and who are able to love one another and do good deeds," although there may possibly be their evil choices. This seems to be a profound insight.
Plantinga's free will defense has been criticized by Antony Flew and J. L. Mackie, who argue that such a God is still responsible because he has not created the world in which free human beings always in fact freely make right choices, and that such a God, therefore, is not omnipotent. To this, Plantinga has responded that although there may be such a fantastic world as a possibility, there also may not possibly be any such world. For what happens in this world in terms of choosing evil would happen in any other possible world. Thus, humans suffer from what he calls "transworld depravity." Also, God is still omnipotent, because divine omnipotence does not include the power to do what is logically impossible.
Perhaps Plantinga's position may not give much hope for the eventual removal of evil. Hence, one recent, friendly response from Daniel Howard-Snyder and John O'Leary-Hawthorne regarding this, claiming that the possibility of all persons being transworld depraved cannot be supported. After all, there is another prima facie possibility that all persons are in fact transworld sanctified (and so would do no wrong). So, Plantinga's argument should be repaired in order to incorporate this other possibility as well. Even so, Plantinga's original understanding of the reason why God has given humans free will in spite of possible evil can be appreciated.
Somewhat similar to Hick's position is the American Roman Catholic priest Richard Kropf's treatment of evil in the context of evolution, although Kropf adds at least two more things in the discussion: the suffering of God during the process of growth in the world and the eventual redemption of non-human parts of the world as well as humans. Kropf specifically criticizes the traditional theodicies, by saying that they failed because they "simplified the problem" by trying to only address the logical contradiction between evil and an omnipotent and good God. He, therefore, maintained four "stubborn factors" that cannot be denied:
These can all be related to one another without contradiction, if they are centered on a key notion: The process of evolution. This approach, according to him, helps to "unlock the secrets of reality, including the problem of evil, on a much broader scale." It is in this context that he suggests a newer understanding of God, which is that the God of compassionate love suffers over the miseries humans go through as a result of their evil choices in their revolutionary process of growth. He also suggests to include non-human creatures as part of the eventual redemption of the whole cosmos through Christ.
The British theologian Kenneth Surin is still another thinker to stay away from the traditional theodicies that merely "theoretically" explain away evil without being able to make "practical" efforts to remove it. The traditional theodicies are usually based on their adherence to classical theism, and they use it to theoretically justify God in face of evil. Surin, however, follows the theologies of the cross of Dorothee Soelle, Jürgen Moltmann, and so on, and believes that the suffering of the God of love is revealed through the crucifixion of Christ and experienced by those who suffer from evil, and that this God is available not as an object of theodicy discussion but rather as a real help for the removal of evil. This does not mean that God is finite, but rather that Surin is suggesting a new definition of divine omnipotence that can also explain God's accessibility for people. Through inner conversion, people are encouraged to become like Christ who shows the suffering love of God. We should accomplish the practical task of overcoming evil through our Christ-like commitment to, presence in, and solidarity with, the victim of evil. Surin's approach is so advanced in a practical direction that it even criticizes the quite innovative theodicies of John Hick and Alvin Plantinga among others of being still very theoretical; and Surin specifically makes use of Ivan Karamazov's moral frustration in Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov to criticize Hick's theodicy of theoretically justifying evil for the purpose of "soul-making," although Hick's intention has been to emphasize the love of God.
David Hume shows his celebrated antitheistic response in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). According to him, the reality of evil is undeniable because in the world, one can see "four circumstances" on which evil depends: 1) That pain motivates creatures to action; 2) that laws of nature cause collision, drowning, burning, and so on; 3) that humankind is so fragile for perseverance; and 4) that rain, wind, heat, and so on, in nature are excessive. This is logically "incomaptible" with an omnipotent and fully good God. So, one has to believe that God does not exist, instead of securing the justice of God. This is usually called the "logical argument from evil." It has been followed by philosophers such as J.L. Mackie and H.J. McCloskey, who reject all traditional theodicies.
A little less straightforward than the logical argument is the "evidential argument from evil," which contends that evil is evidence against the likelihood of God's existence. According to William Rowe, for example, the fact of gratuitous evil, which is more than the necessary level of evil which is potentially useful for a good purpose, makes it unlikely that God exists.
Some have argued that the predetermined goal of theodicy (that of justifying the existence of God with the existence of evil) tarnishes any aspirations it might have to be a serious philosophical discipline because an intellectual pursuit having a predefined goal and pre-assumed conclusions cannot be deemed in any reasonable way to be methodical, scientific, or rational. Should one respect an inquiry whose goal is not to find out the truth, but to prove by any means possible that a particular thing reasonably doubted is true? Proceeding from the proposition to be shown to find a proof of that proposition invites confirmation bias on the part of the theorist.
One argument that has been raised against theodicy is that if theodicy were true, it would completely nullify morality. If theodicy were true, then all evil events, including human actions, can be somehow rationalized as permitted or affected by God, and therefore there can no longer be such a thing as "evil" values, even for a murderer. Indeed, this is the basis of the "moral argument from evil" by Dean Stretton.
In Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan vehemently challenges the legitimacy of theodicy by pointing out a number of cases of extreme and excessive cruelty in the world. Ivan accepts God's existence, purpose, and wisdom and understands the eternal harmony God plans to bring about eventually. But, he cannot accept the reality of too much cruelty and evil in the world: "I refuse to accept this world of God's… Please understand, it is not God that I do not accept, but the world he has created. I do not accept God's world and I refuse to accept it." One particular case of intolerable cruelty which Ivan mentions is that an army general let his hounds eat an eight-year old boy because the child had injured his favorite dog a little bit with a stone. Ivan's complaint is that if people including innocent children have to go through this kind of torturous suffering in the world so as to purchase eternal harmony in the future, it is entirely incomprehensible. Ivan concludes:
I don't want harmony… too high a price has been placed on harmony. We cannot afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket of admission… It's not Go that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.
The devastating nature of Ivan's challenge for theodicy cannot be neglected. According to A. Boyce Gibson, "Henceforward, no justification of evil, by its outcome or its context, has been possible; Ivan Karamazov has seen to that."
Ivan is not an atheist in the sense of being a person who finds it impossible to believe that there is a God. His real problem is the moral question of why people, including very cruel people, are content with the belief that God expects such an unthinkably terrible price to be paid for humanity's final salvation: "And what is so strange… is not that God actually exist, but that such an idea—the idea of the necessity of God—should have entered the head of such a savage and vicious animal as man."
In his comments, Albert Camus has noted that Ivan's rebellion goes beyond that of previous more-or-less individualistic rebels against God, goes beyond reverential blasphemy, and puts God himself on trial. Camus writes, "If evil is essential to divine creation, then creation is unacceptable. Ivan will no longer have recourse to this mysterious God, but to a higher principle—namely, justice. He launches the essential undertaking of rebellion, which is that of replacing the reign of grace by the reign of justice."
Dostoyevsky's own response to Ivan's indictments is not a direct philosophical or theological argument, but occurs primarily in the contrast between the two priests in the novel: Father Ferapont and Father Zosima. In fact, Dostoyevsky himself saw Ivan's indictments and the accounts of the two monks as pro and contra on this issue of divine goodness or evil. Father Ferapont possesses the trappings of genuine religion and spirituality—fierce asceticism, fervent prayer, wearing chains under his robes to mortify his flesh—but nevertheless spreads discord and dissension among the monks. However, Father Zosima, although he does not exhibit those signs of spirituality of Ferapont, nevertheless spreads dignity, blessings, counsel to the ordinary people, and well-being to all. He has a strong sense of the mystery of faith, as well as good humor and good feeling for all. He recommends to Alyosha that he leave the monastery and marry, suggesting that he realizes that intimacy is one of the primary paths to good faith and true spirituality. Ivan goes mad in the end, but those who follow the way of life of Father Zosima undergo inner transformation to a higher state of consciousness and way of life.
Although Dostoyevsky himself may have felt much more comfortable with the position of Father Zozima, nevertheless he was able to successfully have Ivan show a moral rebellion.
The late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder wrote an unfinished essay entitled, "Trinity Versus Theodicy: Hebraic Realism And The Temptation To Judge God" (1996). This can be understood as a subtle version of the ad hominem attack upon the problem of theodicy. He argues that "if God be God," then theodicy is an oxymoron and idolatry.
Yoder is not opposed to attempts to reconcile the existence of a God with the existence of evil; rather, he is against a particular approach to the problem. He does not deny that "there are ways in which forms of discourse in the mode of theodicy may have a function, subject to the discipline of a wider setting." He is deeply concerned and engaged with the problem of evil; specifically, the evil of violence and war and how people resist it. Yoder's "case [is] against garden variety 'theodicy'"—in particular, theodicy as a judgment or defense of God.
Yoder's argument is against theodicy, strictly speaking. This is the narrow sense Zachary Braiterman mentions in his (God) After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (1998). In this book, Braiterman coins the term "antitheodicy" meaning "refusing to justify, explain, or accept" the relationship between "God (or some other form of ultimate reality), evil, and suffering." He uses the term "in order to account for a particular religious sensibility, based (in part) on fragments selectively culled from classical Jewish texts, that dominates post-Holocaust Jewish thought." Braiterman asserts, "Although it often borders on blasphemy, antitheodicy does not constitute atheism; it might even express stubborn love that human persons have for God. After all, the author of a genuine antitheodic statement must believe that an actual relationship subsists between God and evil in order to reject it; and they must love God in order to be offended by that relationship."
Two of the Jewish post-Shoah thinkers that Braiterman cites as antitheodicists (Emil Fackenheim and Richard Rubinstein) are also cited by Yoder. Yoder describes their approach as "the Jewish complaint against God, dramatically updated (and philosophically unfolded) since Auschwitz … The faithful under the pogrom proceed with their prayers, after denouncing JHWH/Adonai for what He has let happen." Yoder sees this as a valid form of discourse in the mode of theodicy but he claims it is "the opposite of theodicy."
Unlike the three types of traditional theodicies: 1) finitism, 2) despotism, and 3) the position that denies the reality of evil, theodocies such as those of the Book of Job, John Hick, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Kopf, and Kenneth Surin see no logical contradiction between evil and a God of omnipotence and goodness, and shift the problem of evil to a different horizon. They still believe that God is omnipotent and good, while evil really exists. But, they seem to be able to address the problem evil more effectively because they come up with a path towards the eventual removal of evil and a more insightful understanding of the nature of God in terms of his love. Among them, however, Surin's approach is the most advanced one in the "practical" direction perhaps because Surin has taken Ivan Karamazov's moral opposition to theodicy most seriously. To explain his move, Surin refers to the following comment from A. Boyce Gobson's The Religion of Dostoevsky:
Theoretically, Ivan's criticisms are unanswered: Alyosha, in particular, simply agrees with him: And Dostoevsky himself held them to be "irrefutable." The answer is to go forward from theory to practice: and Dostoevsky distinguished in the end between the yearning love which does nothing and submits, and the active love which has power to save.
Richard Kropf is another theodicist who takes Ivan Karamazov's moral opposition seriously. This illustrates how important it is for any theodicist to understand the agony and rebellion of opponents to theodicy. Any superficial theory might be blasted by those opponents. Interestingly, Surin and Kropf both speak of the suffering of God over the misery of humans in the world in which evil and suffering have emerged from their wrong choices of the will. God suffers because of his love. Hick and Plantinga may not talk about the suffering of God, but they at least speak of God's love, because of which God has given free will to humans, thinking that it is a greater alternative for the happiness of humans. All these seem to constitute new insights into the nature of God. Also, for Hick, Plantinga, Kropf, and Surin, the free will of humans does not mean that God is finite. God is still unquestionably omnipotent, although he may not be able to violate his own principle of love by which he has decided to give free will to humans. Alan Richardson, who served as the Dean of York in Northern England, greatly supports this point, when he says: "God is not limited by anything external to himself (as in dualism or pluralism)," although "God's power is limited by his own character of righteousness, truth and love."
Despite opposition to theodicy, there are arguments for the resolution of its core challenge. Humans are endowed with the free will required for the arising of genuine creativity and genuine love. This condition for an infinite horizon of joy has the shadow of "wrong choice" possibility. The prospect of "redemption" and full self-realization (sanctification) recreates the arising of freedom and joy. There are systems that reasonably envision an end to evil.
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