No, this isn’t a post about the Odyssey (though I can understand the confusion; one’s an ancient epic that heavily features gods being jerks and the other’s the theological problem of why God seems to be a jerk). One of my favorite subjects when I’m studying spiritual matters is the question about the existence of evil. It’s one that I wondered about long before I became a Christian, and I still feel it’s useful to tackle the question as an exercise in seeing where my reason and faith meet. I don’t think I have it figured out, and I’m not going to suggest that anything I write here will be especially profound. I just want to float my understanding of the issue and see if it’s seaworthy.
So, theodicy is more commonly known in the form of the question, “If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does he allow suffering?”
One answer that I’ve commonly heard is, “It all makes sense according to God’s plan.” I suppose that’s not a bad answer, but it’s not a particularly good one either. What this answer suggests is that God’s concept of good is so far beyond our own that what we perceive as evil in the world is actually good from God’s perspective. It sidesteps the question of omnipotence by claiming that omnibenevolence is something beyond our understanding. It’s so grand that it incorporates things that we see as evil, like rape, murder, and rock’n’roll (Just kidding about the rock’n’roll). The problem is that suggesting that God’s sense of good is not parallel with our own throws into question whether morally speaking we should be worshiping him.
Another answer takes a different tack and suggests that God’s goodness isn’t in question, but his omnipotence is. Maybe he just can’t fix everything that’s wrong with the world. Christians tend to dislike this answer because if God isn’t capable of fixing what’s wrong with the world, then he isn’t the ultimate force in the universe, so is he worth worshiping?
So we have a dilemma. We want God to be all good, but we also want him to be all powerful, and we’re not really sure how we can reasonably get there.
I’ll be upfront; I think it’s a baffling question.
Now, I’ve had to spend some time thinking about this issue in the past few months not just for fun, but as part of an examination of my larger frame of beliefs. I freely admit that after I became a Christian I went to a place intellectually where I had to deny certain scientific facts to hold my faith together. It was uncomfortable. Eventually, through various conversations with fellow Christians who had been in a similar position, I had to make a decision about the relationship between faith and science, and I decided that they are not irreconcilable. The purview of science is a material one, and I don’t take its failure to intersect with the spiritual as a sign of its denial of the same. Consequently, I’ve come to accept certain scientific facts about the universe as part of what I think of as objective Truth (that process should probably be its own post, since this one’s already running long). The long and short of this tangent is that I accept the theory of evolution as true, and I’ve had to incorporate it into my understanding of Christian theology, which has introduced me to a concept called kenosis.
Kenosis is a Greek word that roughly translates as “self emptying.” Within Christian theology we best understand the concept through the example of Christ submitting himself to a humiliating death on a cross for the redemption of Creation. That the Creator of the universe would deign to incarnate as a human being and then die in such a painful and tortured way speaks poetically to the idea of self emptying.
Okay, so what does all that have to do with theodicy?
Well, if you start with the premise that God created a universe that operates on an evolutionary model, with all of the missteps and false starts that go with such a model, you first need to answer the question, “Why?” It goes back to the concept of kenosis. When we say that God is perfectly good, Christians generally mean that he embodies perfect love. Though love is a complicated thing, I think it can at least be understood as wanting someone outside yourself to be the best possible version of themselves. God wants that for every part of Creation, but he has to allow Creation to grow into itself. If he intervenes by correcting the inevitable evils that come with the system, then he disrupts that growth by imposing his will in place of his love. Kenosis happens not just on the cross, but throughout all of Creation where God holds back his omnipotence in order to foster the growth that he wants for it.
So there you have it. Like I said, theodicy is a difficult problem to tackle, and I know there are multiple ways to the look at it. What do you guys think? Can we reconcile God being all-good and all-powerful with the presence of evil in the world, or do we need a different model for understanding how he works?