Theodicy: The problem of evil – for beginners

Theodicy: The problem of evil – for beginners

Below are four excellent introductory pictoral videos that introduce the problem of theodicy, and how we can begin to think about it theologically.

No doubt we’ve all heard people say, (rather dismissively as though this is their lifetime study project):  “I don’t believe in God because of all the evil and suffering in the world!”

Heard it all before mate!  If I had a £1 for every time I’d heard this!  As though it’s the Ace in the pack!  “Oh, yep, you got me!  I’m just another delusional Christian living in denial of the evidence!”

As if the absense of evil and suffering would create humble worshippers in their millions!  Hardly.

‘The odd I see’ all around me is the evidence of evil everywhere, not least that which originates in me.  The-od-i-cy or ‘theodicy’ is the way in which theologians have engaged with all this ‘odd’ as they sought to integrate a comprehensive Christian worldview.  To not engage is to not theologise.  Disengagement creates a feeble Christianity that ‘won’t go there’, when Christian theology insists:  Go there you must; there are no off-limits, no out-of-bounds, no secrets, no dirty laundry, no skeletons in the closet of Christian Theology.

P. T. Forsyth’s theodicy is masterful and you can read a brilliant introductory series to it here  or read a comprehensive treatment of it here.

As an aside, though not at all unconnected, in Forsyth’s 1896 book ‘The Charter of the Church’, he writes,

“Culture, aesthetic or even religious, is now the most deadly and subtle enemy of spiritual freedom.  It is the growth of culture in the decay of Gospel that the soul’s freedom has increasingly to dread.  It is there that our Noncomformity is in most danger of being untrue to itself and its mission.  We are suffering.  But it is less from grievance now than from success.  We share a prosperity which is passing through variety of interest, refinement of taste, aesthetic emotion, tender pity, kindly careless catholicity, and over-sweet reasonableness, to leanness of soul.  It is more at home in literature than in Scripture, and in journals more than either.  And it tends to substitute charity and its sympathies for grace and its faith.”

(pg. v-vi)

Here, Forsyth likens suffering as it relates to Christian faith with not suffering, as we would typically understand it.  It is a strange irony that human prosperity inevitably leads to a “leanness of soul”that proves quite deadly to actual biblical faith.  Elsewhere, in Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, he states with his usual eloquent genius, “[Another] vice of the Christian hour is spiritual self-satisfaction, well-to-do-ness, comfort.  The voice of the turtle is heard in the land.”

The Bible is ultra-realistic, even brutal in not allowing humanity to escape to our man-made utopian fantasies of a pain-free future.  This seems to me to prove the point:  Sin is unreality.  The Bible will not let us get away with sloppy thinking or cheap living.  In this way, God uses suffering to force us to face evil and suffering’s reality in Him.

Anyway, I suspect this one subject alone is the greatest need of our time, and possibly the most misunderstood and not-understood.

  1. Evangelism without a working paradigm of theodicy will be just ‘ism’ without the evangel;
  2. Mission that does not articulate theodicy will be superficial;
  3. Preaching that doesn’t begin to adumbrate theodicy is going to be a pleasant time of jokes and story telling that will be forgotten by the time the lukewarm coffee is served;
  4. And ministry that does not address theodicy in the lives of all people will likely lead to a sentimental avoidance of all things nasty (i.e. the stuff we don’t talk about in polite society), in thought, word and deed, a theological dissonance of sophomoric proportions!

People will suffer, and unjustly at that, so it is the task of a robust theodicy to speak into this great big gaping abyss.  For it was of course, into the great big gaping abyss of human sin and rebellion that the Son of God did hang on a tree until all of humanity had been reconciled to him.  Our salvation is the way of suffering.  “Picking up your cross” is not the same as picking up your socks!

These four excellent videos will introduce you to this complex discussion.  They are the creations of a superb educator, and you can visit his YouTube channel here.

Die sin must or God

Christmas isn’t usually the time to talk about evil, or of Satan’s ultimate destruction, but that is precisely what Christmas, the coming of God in Christ, means.  Evil encompases all the chaos and dysfunction in the world, all the rebellion against God; and God’s salvation means an end to all that, and the return to a new heavenly order of holiness.

The coming of Jesus is God meeting His own requirements for not only sin’s penalty, but the whole moral order of the universe.  It is, in the end, God working to satisfy His own holy Name; and Jesus is the only One who can do that.

P. T. Forsyth wrote in Work of Christ that “An unsatisfied God, a dissatisfied God, would be no God.  He would but reflect the distraction of the world, and so succumb to it.”  Yet holiness must be satisfied, and nothing created can possibly do that.  Similarly, neither can God’s holiness be satisfied whilst any vestiges of unholiness, namely evil (i.e. hell), remain.  The destruction of evil is the fulfilment of God’s unsurpassing reign and joy of His holiness in all the New Creation for all people, everywhere. Isn’t that what 1 Corinthians 15:28 means?  That God will be all in all?  Thus if evil exists, what else does “all in all” mean?

Evil has no future because God is holy.

That means, as we remember the incarnation of the Son of God into the world, we remember and partake of God’s renewing of the whole cosmos to put an end to evil, but not to put an end to rebels, such as we, the human race, are.

Forsyth wrote in a brilliant sermon entitled The Bible Doctrine of Hell and the Unseen,

“If evil is to be permanent in any part of the universe, then God is there foiled and the Cross of Christ of none effect . . . . .So long as evil lasts there will be Hell.  If evil should cease Hell would be burned out.  Now if Christ’s Cross means anything it means the destruction of evil everywhere and forever.  The work of the Cross is not done while there is a single soul unwon to the mastery of Christ and uninfected by His Spirit. . . . If we believe in the Cross then we believe there will come a time when evil shall everywhere cease and sin no longer be.”

Evil has no future because Jesus has come, and remains by His Spirit.

Evil has no future because Jesus has satisfied God’s own holiness.

Evil has no future because God will be all in all.

“Die sin must or God.”  When Jesus was born, sin’s fate was sealed.  When Jesus died, sin was defeated forever.  When Jesus rose from the dead, sin was left behind in the tomb.  When He returns, sin will be erradicated forever.  The New Heaven and New Earth will know no sin.

That’s why we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas time.

DSC_0082A sunset in South Devon.

Note:  This post was spurred by my reading of the excellent chapter on P. T. Forsyth by Jason Goroncy in ‘All Shall Be Well’ entitled ‘The Final Sanity is Complete Sanctity.’ And also the brilliant collection of Forsyth sermons in Goroncy’s ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’, which has been mentioned on this blog before.

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