“Can we talk about theodicies and the problem of evil?”
Sometimes, you couldn’t have scripted the questions any better. Recently, when I started meeting up with two young men in our 14-18s church group, that was their first question when I asked what they’d like to talk about (I think the only better question might have been “what must I do to be saved?”).
So we kicked off there, fresh from them studying it at school. A classic topic to wade through with teenagers, a theodicy (from the Greek theos meaning “God”, and dike meaning “justice”) is a philosophical or theological system which attempts to justify the ways of God to man when it comes to evil. How can an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exist when there is such evil in the world?
I made a point right at the start of saying that this question can be either an armchair question or a wheelchair question. For some (teenage boys and young men, often), it’s a primarily philosophical conundrum; something we can debate dispassionately from the armchair. For others, to whom life hasn’t been kind, it’s a wheelchair question.
Both are valid angles from which to approach the question, and it’s obviously a disastrous move to answer someone in the wheelchair as if they’re in the armchair. But it can also be unwise to try to answer someone in the armchair as if they’re in the wheelchair. You can give the impression that Christianity ultimately won’t stand up to the most rigorous philosophical questioning which, for some, is a big deal. And, it seemed to me, these young guys were very sincerely on the “armchair” side of things.
Some know the problem of evil as “Mackie’s Inconsistent Triad”, after philosopher J.L. Mackie, who had a knack for articulating objections to God’s existence in a way popular with schoolboys ever since. Mackie laid the problem out with three propositions, reasoning that only two could ever be simultaneously true at the expense of the third. You could quickly scribble it down in this diagram form in your school exercise book and remember it for a lifetime:
So we batted around Mackie’s triad for a while, probing how the average non-Christian in our context would define evil, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence (we could have pressed into defining exactly what we mean by saying evil exists, but I thought we’d leave the Augustinian theodicy on the peg for the time being).
That of course leaves one final term in the triad undefined: God.
“What kind of God is it that people think doesn’t exist, thanks to this triad?” I asked.
A pause, with some real thinking.
“One who’s like a person”, replied one of my young interlocutors. And he was right.
The chief issue with Mackie’s triad is that it presumes that we sufficiently understand what it would mean to have, and to put into practice, omnipotence (and, rolled into that, omniscience) and omnibenevolence. In possession of both, we suppose we would act in a certain way. God supposedly possesses both, yet does not act as we believe we would or should. And so we conclude God is either weak, unloving, or (more likely) non-existent.
The problem (obscured by the neat triangular diagram) is that humans can never be omnipotent or omnibenevolent. So how could we presume to dictate how God, who is those things, should act? This is partly the thrust of God’s response to Job in Job 38-40: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” Job is then shown his sheer ignorance of how God formed creation in the past, how he attends minutely to the needs of creation in the present, and even how he governs the wickedness of the Behemoth and Leviathan. We can often take Job 38-40 as God shouting Job down, dwarfing him with his power. That’s certainly part of what’s happening, but God’s reply is at least as much about knowledge or expertise than power. The LORD doesn’t simply say “look how much bigger I am!” but “look at how well I run the universe”. This is part of what lies behind the great promise that the Lord works all things together for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28).
Now, it’s tempting to stop here: God knows things we don’t, and loves in a way that we don’t, and so we are in no position to deny his existence due to the existence of evil. But if we do stop here, we still treat God as if he is like a person, but just one who happens to be omnipotent and omnibenevolent. He’s just a bigger, more knowledgeable, more loving version of us; another player in the moral game of the universe, but who knows he has the best hand and what cards will be dealt next.
If this is the case, then we actually just build a theodicy of our own: God is justified simply by knowing things that we don’t.
But God is, ultimately, totally unlike us. Our ideas of love, goodness, and justice are simply revealed glimmers and hints in creation of what God, the uncreated one, is like. We get a little hint of this when Job finally (and briefly) responds to God:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:2-3)
God’s power and knowledge of course far outstrip Job’s. But they are categorically different from Job’s also. God’s knowledge is not simply too vast, or too complex, but too wonderful for Job to know.
I might say the same of, say, the knowledge of a nuclear physicist – that he knows things too wonderful for me. But of course, I do theoretically have the capacity to know and understand just as much as he does, because we’re both human beings. But it’s not so with God.
Thomas Aquinas described this difference by saying that “no name [and by name he means things we may typically call qualities or attributes] belongs to God in the same sense that it belongs to creatures; for instance, wisdom in creatures is a quality, but not in God” (Summa Theologiae, I.Q13.a5). Human beings have wisdom, but we know we’re not identical with wisdom – wisdom is clearly something bigger than any of us, to which we’re subject. But there’s nothing bigger than God, and nothing to which he’s subject, and so he simply is wisdom. Or, picking up the two points of Mackie’s triangle, we can say he is power and he is love (and 1 John 4:8 of course says the latter). And these are not simply ways of saying he is very or most wise, powerful, or loving. He truly is those things, and they only end up on the corners of our philosophical triangles because we see glimmers of them in what he’s made. So how can we reason God out of existence when our own possession of love and power as creatures is just a shadow of God the creator being those things in himself?
So the God of Mackie’s triangle is a mere man, and a straw man at that. The conundrum supposes that the qualities of power and love belong to God in the same way they belong to us, as qualities or attributes to be exercised as we imagine we would exercise them. But it’s not so with God. He is the definition of power and love, and not simply by being the one who best exercises them, but by himself being the source of our ideas about those things in the first place.
God is not simply more than us. He is other than us. This difference (what we can call “the ontological gap”) has been a foundation of Christian theology for 2000 years. It was key to the aforementioned Aquinas, and to all the church’s great theologians before and since, all sharing the great project which these days gets called “classical theism”.
So when we come to the problem of evil, perhaps with curious teenagers sketching out Mackie’s triangle for us, we do well to remember that we do not have God’s knowledge. Within the mortal span of time and space, his providence leads to things which, if we knew what he knew, we would ultimately recognise are best.
Yet we can go beyond this, and remember that, ultimately, it is an absurdity to think that we can subject God to our definitions of love and power. If there is a God, he must necessarily by his very nature be love and power, and we must necessarily, by our very nature, only see parts of what that means in creation, like light refracted in a crystal.
So is this conclusion an answer for the armchair or the wheelchair? Well, it certainly seemed to help my two teenage conversation partners in their armchairs, and we mustn’t neglect those who ask questions from their armchairs with sincerity. Remembering this ontological gap between man and God can help sincere armchair questioners to see the false premises of things like Mackie’s triad, which presumes a God who does not, in fact, resemble the Christian God. A little puff of classical theism blows the straw man right over.
For those asking from the wheelchair, the greatest balm is, of course, the fact that this God who is totally unlike us in his divinity became totally like us in taking on humanity in the Son, and suffering evil himself. And yet I think the ontological gap does give comfort in the wheelchair. In becoming like us, God doesn’t cease to be unlike us. As God the Son hung at one of the sharp corners of Mackie’s triangle, suffering evil, he still perfectly upheld the truths at the other two corners, his omnipotence and omnibenevolence. He knows our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15) and all that can be too painful for us to speak, and yet retains that knowledge which is too wonderful for us to know.