Three Theologians on Theodicy: Irenaeus, Augustine, and Moltmann

Whenever tragic events occur and make the national headlines, there always seems to be someone using it as grounds to trot out the question of theodicy –“If there is a good God, then why so much evil?” While some who bring up the problem of evil do so only as an excuse to flaunt it around amid the jeers and onanisms of the hoi polloi, using it simply as a pretext to be able to pontificate that soporific soundbite of “God is dead” (and thinking it is something avante garde), many others do so out of genuine inquisitiveness and qualms about the reconcilability between God and evil. In the same manner as Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, many people reject the existence of a god due to evil and suffering, or at least believe that it cuts against the notion of a benevolent Deity watching over us. After all, if God is good and powerful, then why is human history a never ending conveyor belt of corpses and suffering?

The Irenaean Model of Theodicy

The second-century church father Irenaeus of Lyons believed that humans were created in the image of God but not in his likeness. Thus, God allows evil and suffering in the world in order to develop our moral character (the ‘likeness’ of God). As another write puts it, the world is a “vale of soul-making” (a phrase used by John Hick, though originally coined by John Keats). Yet is it really justifiable to explain away evil with the concept of soul-making? Some might accept this, thinking that suffering is mitigated by the fact that it is only temporary and that, in the end, all will be made right when “God shall wipe away all tears” (Rev. 21.4).

Irenaeus’ ideas were picked up centuries later by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and John Hick (1922-2012). An interesting continuance of the Irenaean theodicy is found in how Hick incorporates evolutionary biology. Hick’s says that the evolutionary process leading up to modern man – the homo sapien – is the first stage of mankind’s creation, making us into God’s image. The second stage of our creation is to be in God’s likeness. Whereas Augustine (and mainstream Christian orthodoxy) views humanity’s beginnings as a story from perfection to fallenness, Hick’s casts it as a story from imperfection developing to perfection. In other words, Hick sees our life as a pilgrimage from a moral and spiritual blank slate into the full likeness of God by being able to respond to the challenges and mayhem of life. Hick also maintains that humans are born without an inherent knowledge of God – we are at an “epistemic distance” from God. This is needed in order for the soul-making process be legit (as we need to be able to freely make our own choices, which would be nigh impossible if we had an immediate consciousness of an infinite Deity). [For further reading on this theodicy by John Hick see his Evil and the God of Love (Harper & Row, 1966), and “The World as a Vale of Soul-Making,” in The Problem of Evil, (Oxford Uni Press, 1990) 168-88.]

An interesting question does arise with this type of theodicy. Why would humans, who end up being perfected through the soul-making concept, be better than humans who were just created perfect in the first place? Is it just not possible for God to make such a being? Furthermore, if one were to answer that by saying that virtue gained as the result of the soul-making process is inherently better than virtue possessed all along, then why doesn’t that apply to God?

The Augustinian Model of Theodicy

Augustine’s approach rests upon an interpretation of Genesis 3 that has the origin of moral evil occurring at the fall of Adam and Eve, subsequently leading to the death and destruction found in nature. The lynchpin of this model is the free-will defense against the problem of evil. Augustine’s theodicy can be summed up by saying that humans (and angels) were created with free-will, yet Adam and Eve sinned, thus bringing discord in creation (i.e. natural evil is the result of their fall). Furthermore, God is righteous in not intervening in our suffering due to it being a consequence of our free will. Another key aspect of Augustine’s theodicy is that he defines evil as the privation of good(ness). In other words, God could not have created evil (or be responsible for it) because evil is not a thing in and of itself, but is rather the absence of good. Augustine also considered every human as being “seminally present in the loins of Adam”, thus all humans are fully deserving of the punishment for Adam’s original sin (thus why Mary needed to be immaculately conceived and why Jesus needed to be virginally conceived). Note that this ‘seminal’ headship view is slightly different from the ‘federal’ headship view (which is the more normal view nowadays). The federal headship view holds that Adam was the representative of the human race who nevertheless sinned, thus God can rightly charge every human with Adam’s guilt (maybe “judicial representation” would be a good descriptor of federal headship).

Alvin Plantinga seems to be a modern day proponent of the Augustinian theodicy and it is the typical theodicy found amongst Christians (whether they be evangelical, reformed, catholic, etc), though there are of course variations on it (e.g. those who reject Young Earth Creationism are fine with death occurring before the fall). Apart from the fact that Augustine’s seminal headship view is biologically incorrect, another problem of his theodicy is that one could argue that a perfect creation developing imperfection is a self-contradiction; a perfect creation could not ever go wrong (regardless of the ‘free-will’ that angels and humans possess). A more pertinent problem with it, in my eyes at least, is that it completely fails in light of what we know about the universe; it is untenable in light of our knowledge about cosmogony, evolution, and so forth.

The Theodicy of Jürgen Moltmann

The question of theodicy is central to Moltmann’s theological project and, in fact, it was the suffering that he experienced in World War II that caused him to enter the world of theology. Moltmann nicely lays out the theodicy problem as follows:

It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises; for incomprehensible suffering calls the God of men and women in question. The suffering of a single innocent child is an irrefutable rebuttal of the notion of the almighty and kindly God in heaven. For a God who lets the innocent suffer and who permits senseless death is not worthy to be called God at all. (The Trinity and the Kingdom of God)

Moltmann then goes on to mention the biblical character of Job and asks: “Does Job have any real theological friend except the crucified Jesus on Golgotha?” That is the crux of Moltmann’s theodicy. For instead of focusing upon the traditional theodicy question of “Why does God allow evil”, Moltmann instead concentrates on a corollary: “Where is God in the midst of all this suffering?” He finds the answer in Jesus’ death cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34).

Following in the steps of Balthasar, Moltmann views the cross of Christ as a profound revelation as to who God actually is:

‘God’ is not another nature or a heavenly person or a moral authority, but in fact an ‘event’. However, it is not the event of co-humanity, but the event of Golgotha, the event of the love of the Son and the grief of the Father from which the Spirit who opens up the future and creates life in fact derives. (The Crucified God)

Note that Moltmann includes God the Father in the suffering that happens in the crucifixion. Moltmann is not a fan of traditional theodicies which maintain the notion of an impassible deity. Furthermore, in Moltmann’s theodicy, the cross is not just the suffering of the man Jesus, nor merely the ‘death of God’, but it is also death in God. God takes up suffering and death into himself and then overcomes it on Resurrection Sunday through the limitless divine life.

One criticism of Moltmann’s theodicy that I can envisage someone raising is that by pointing to Jesus’ experience of god-forsakenness and suffering as an answer to the problem of evil, one is (in a sense) arguing that God isn’t a sadist because God is actually a masochist. Another criticism is that while Moltmann’s focus upon God’s solidarity in human suffering (and the subsequent hope for resurrection) may indeed afford comfort to some, it nevertheless does not advance an understanding as to the question of ‘why’ there is evil. While I can’t remember Moltmann specifically answering the question of ‘why’ God allows evil and suffering, I think that his answer to this is found in his reliance upon the Kabalistic doctrine of zimzum. This is the idea that God self-contracted in order for the universe to come into being. In other words, the god-forsakenness of the world and of all creation is an inherent part of it, but will disappear when “God is all in all” (1 Cor. 15.23).

I will finish with two of my favorite quotes from Moltmann on theodicy:

The question of theodicy is not a speculative question; it is a critical one. It is the all-embracing eschatological question. It is not purely theoretical, for it cannot be answered with any new theory about the existing world. It is a practical question which will only be answered through  experience of the new world in which ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes’. It is not really a question at all, in the sense of something we can ask or not ask, like other questions. It is the open wound of life in this world. It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound. The person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world, and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation. (The Trinity and the Kingdom of God)

I love how Moltmann dismisses the typical theodicies by calling them “slickly explanatory answers”. Moltmann does not think that the problem of evil and suffering can simply be dismissed with a waving of the hand and an appeal to the sophomoric apologetic tripe of the ‘free-will’ defense. Ultimately, as a Christian, all one can do is contemplate the Crucified One and the new creation.

The theodicy question, born of suffering and pain, negatively mirrors the positive hope for God’s future. We begin to suffer from the conditions of our world if we begin to love the world. And we begin to love the world if we are able to discover hope for it. And we can discover hope for this world if we hear the promise of a future which stands against frustration, transiency, and death. (Religion, Revolution and the Future)

4 responses

  1. Bauckham’s interpretation of Moltmann’s theodicy argues that Moltmann rejects traditional approaches to the problem of evil (soul-making theodicy, free-will defense) because such things remove the revulsion and ugliness we rightly feel in the face of horrendous suffering. One can’t justify God’s allowance of evil without justifying evil itself. Thus the problem with theodicy is deeper than the fact that any explanation we’ve proposed so far has failed to adequately justify or explain the presence of evil and suffering in the world, but by the mere act of attempting to justify evil, one is removing the “spirit of protest” in man against suffering. How can one struggle and fight against innocent suffering, if it all in fact contributes to some necessary greater good?Thus Moltmann in CG not only aligns himself with the protest atheisms of Ivan Karamazov and Camus, but the most provocative part of his interpretation of the cross is that he places the protest-cry of these atheists against God into the mouth of Jesus himself (“God against God”).

  2. This is the idea that God self-contracted
    in order for the universe to come into being. In other words, the
    god-forsakenness of the world and of all creation is an inherent
    part of it, but will disappear when “God is all in all” (1 Cor.
    15.23).

    Which would go no way at all towards
    justifying the act of creation ethically. The quadrillions of
    sentient beings that have suffered agonies over the last few
    hundred million years were not asked for their consent.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 99 other followers

%d bloggers like this: