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Theodicies are a big deal. Whether you know the term “theodicy” or not, you probably know a theodicy or two if you’re a Christian. It’s pretty much required, as remaining a Christian without knowing a few theodicies would be intellectually difficult. Whether you yourself have struggled with doubt about God and his goodness, or whether someone you know has struggled with tragic loss and God’s seeming silence, the problem of evil is an issue we must all face and attempt to answer. In fact, the problem of evil seems to me to be one of the biggest hindrances to the faith for many today. A theodicy, then, is just our attempt at providing a possible explanation for the evil we experience and see, as well as the seeming silence of God and his goodness through such evil.

Theodicies have been weighing heavily on my heart recently. It’s hard not to dwell on the problem of evil when evil so apparently abounds in the violence, racism, and abuse we see throughout the world, and even more despairingly, in the church. And it’s hard not to address the problem of evil daily when it seems to be on everyone else’s mind, especially on the minds of those who aren’t Christians. We live in a nation where so many claim to believe in God, his goodness, and the power of prayer despite mounting evidence that those things are impotent and ineffectual in the face of evil and tragedy. Thoughts and prayers are too often given without any indication of their effectual merit, as evidenced by the next tragedy which inevitably comes. Beyond the man-made tragedies which weigh on us all, there are also those tragedies which seem inexplicable. I was talking to a former Christian just the other day and he told me that he didn’t want to deal with any other Christian apologetics if I couldn’t answer the problem of natural evil. I can pin moral evil on free creatures, but how can I possibly explain how a good God could exist when creation is so clearly fashioned in such a way that requires pain and death (e.g. 2nd law of thermodynamics and entropy, plate tectonics and volcanoes, storms and winds/lightning/floods, bacteria and viruses, animals clearly created to prey on other animals, gravity and our fragile bodies, etc)? 

I have written a number of pieces in an attempt to think through the problem of evil. While some of those pieces have slightly unique angles, most of them have, at their core, one of the two major theodicies: evil is allowed in order to build our souls for eternity, or evil is allowed due to free will. I certainly think those theodicies have merit and strong explanatory power, though I have to say, they have felt less and less compelling to me over time, at least as stand-alone explanations. See, I can understand God wanting free creatures, but I obviously don’t believe that God never intervenes in human freedom. If I did, how could I pray for my friend to get that new job (as it would require his future boss’s will to be manipulated to some extent), or how could I explain how God manipulates the will of some for good (e.g. Saul on the Road to Damascus), some for bad (e.g. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened), and most, not at all (many on remote islands who’ve never heard the name of Christ and will die in such a state without significant intervention by God). That, of course, brings up the big question of why God chooses to intervene in the wills of some and not others. Why would he intervene in humanity’s will so my friend can get a new job, while at the same time, he fails to intervene in the will of the one trafficking and raping children? If he obviously manipulates the will at times and doesn’t see free will as an immovable standard withholding his hand, then how can I explain God’s seeming indifference to egregious suffering, while I somehow believe he cares about my friend maintaining a high standard of living?  On top of all this, when you throw in that I am from a Reformed perspective, the free will theodicy seems at best, largely incomplete. 

But the soul building theodicy is lacking as well. If God allows evil so that our souls can be formed for the New Heavens and Earth – for the life after this one – then how are babies who have died going to be in that Kingdom? In fact, how am I going to be in that Kingdom? How is it that my soul will be immediately ready for the new Kingdom upon my death – the same state in which the much holier St. Francis’s soul left this Earth?  If our experiences here are to shape and prepare our souls for new life, unless you believe in a purgatory of sorts, then it seems like God’s allowance of evil is relatively pointless. If the infants didn’t need their souls shaped, and if I’m as well off as St. Francis despite the disparity of our suffering, then in what way does the soul-building theodicy have explanatory power? If my relatively undisciplined life will prepare my soul for heaven, then who needs to live as St. Francis did? It’s pretty clear that nobody leaves this world with the same amount of shaping, yet at least on Protestant tradition, our deaths are all equal and we’re all immediately heaven bound when we die. 

Like I said, parts of each of these theodicies seem relevant. The Bible is very clear that our experience here on earth does shape us and conform us, and Paul talks about how our works will be tried by fire after death. Perhaps the more fire endured here, the better off our experience of the next life will be. And it does seem clear that God is not directly intervening in everyone’s free will choice. While God has an ultimate plan which will certainly be accomplished, he allows humanity to do its thing much of the time without direct or overt intervention. But even combined, there are many days when these theodicies seem weightless in comparison to the great evil perpetuated by humanity: wars, genocides, sex trafficking, child molestation, murder, rape, torture, racism, injustice, you name it. As Dr. Clay Jones says about all these horrors, “it’s not inhuman, it’s what humans do.” So in all honesty, the current theodicies just don’t cut it for me. 

As I have thought about theodicies over the years, one aspect has stuck out to me more recently. Nearly all, if not all the theodicies of which I am aware center around humanity. Why is evil permitted? To build the souls of humans. Why does God allow evil? So as not to violate humanity’s free will. Why has evil come into the world? As a punishment on humanity for their disobedience. Why is evil allowed? To ensure the best possible world where the most humans will be saved. Every theodicy focuses on humanity. While there might be certain characteristics of God at work in the background of each theodicy, the emphasis is always humanity. 

In this light, I have begun wondering what a theodicy might look like if it instead brought the character of God to the foreground. I don’t at all claim to have any insight which will solidify with certainty why God allows evil, especially the natural sort. But I do want to add a new theodicy to a picture which I believe needs to be painted and filled on a continuing basis. I want to add a theodicy which, as far as I can tell, is either non-existent (as I’ve never heard it presented before), or one that is severely undervalued. Before I get into this theodicy, take a look at the following passage from Luke 6: 

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

I’m going to argue here that one part of the explanation as to why God allows evil is that he loves the wicked. I know, you can go find your psalm which tells me that God coincidentally hates the same people David hates, and the same ones you hate too, but I’m going to take Jesus’s word for it here. God loves the wicked. If you’re like me, I’m sure you didn’t get to that part of the text above because you were already arguing against the first half and coming up with excuses as to why those commandments don’t apply to us. That’s a natural thing we all seem to do with Jesus’s words. But forget, for a moment, the implications of Christ’s commands for our lives (which should be an easy thing for most of us), and just focus on why he commands these things. He commands that we love the wicked and do good to them because that’s what God is like. In fact, for us to be children of God, we are to do these same things. This title, “children of God,” is the same title Matthew gives to the peacemakers in Matthew 5. God loves the wicked, and God’s children will too, because they are like him.

It’s a shame to me that such a concept seems foreign to Christians. “Can God really love the wicked?” we ask ourselves. Thankfully he can, and he does. Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners and while we were at enmity with God. If that doesn’t qualify as loving the wicked, I don’t know what does. But God’s love goes beyond a love for you and me. I think God loved the Canaanites – the child sacrificing, beastiality loving, violent Canaanites. He must have loved them quite a bit to require 400 years of their horrendous, egregious sin in order to justly punish them, and to accept, through faith, the prostitute Rahab, the basest of Canaanites, if one can judge her by her profession. Perhaps Rahab and her family were the only proselytes who came to know God in Canaan’s 400 years of sin, and perhaps God waited that long just so she alone from among the Canaanites would reciprocate his love. I don’t know.

The same goes for Egypt. God allowed Egypt to keep his people enslaved for 400 years. And what about Nineveh and Assyria? Assyria was one of the most violent cultures in ancient times, depicting their violence in images – violence such as ripping babies out of mothers’ wombs and dashing their heads on the ground. Yet God loved them so much as to withhold his judgment, and he even sent a missionary to preach repentance. God’s specific love for his people did not cause him to withhold his love from the wicked Assyrians. God’s people spent 400 years in slavery, children died for 400 years as sacrifices in Canaan, and God’s prophets, missionaries, and emissaries died bringing God’s message to both foreigners and to their fellow, wicked, Jewish leaders who murdered them. 

I know it’s hard to stomach that God loves the wicked because we see ourselves as categorically distinct from the truly wicked. We may call ourselves “sinners,” but we don’t think we’re wicked. We all love movies where the bad guys get their comeuppance and we can’t stand to see the unjust go unpunished. I can’t even stand seeing a speeder pass me on the highway without fantasizing about the police pulling him over. All I know – all we know – is that they, whoever they are, deserve death, while we do not. But that’s not who God is.

One of the most interesting verses to me right now in relation to this topic is Isaiah 55:8-9: 

8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.  

Those are beautiful verses which I’m sure we all know. We use those verses all the time when bad things happen to us or to those around us for some unknown purpose, or when we can’t figure out how to explain some deep theological mystery, like the trinity. That’s all well and good, but that isn’t the context in which God invoked his mysterious supremacy and incomprehensibility. He invoked it specifically in regard to his open-handed love to nations outside Israel, and his open invitation and desire for the wicked to repent and be forgiven. Read the passage again in context. 

6 Seek the Lord while He may be found;
Call upon Him while He is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake his way
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the Lord,
And He will have compassion on him,
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon.
8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.  

One of the hardest things for the Jews to comprehend was the inclusion in God’s Kingdom of the wicked Gentiles and the wicked within their society (e.g. prostitutes and tax collectors in Jesus’s day). But Jesus, the true representation of God, came to save the sick and the lost. In this light, you might be able to call Jesus’s whole life one big theodicy of enemy love. He wasn’t willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance, including the wicked and the Gentiles. The patient, enemy love of God calls us to pray for all humanity (I Tim. 2), and it is why God sometimes seems slow in fulfilling his promises (2 Pet. 3). We modern Christians are often no different than the exclusivist Jews of Jesus’s day. We don’t understand how God can save them, – the wicked and those who are our enemies. God just cannot be as he has revealed himself to be in the person and teachings of Jesus. That’s where Isaiah comes in. I have to ask why it is that when it comes to enemy love and forgiveness we don’t invoke the same mystery which Isaiah 55 invokes? Rather than invoke mystery and give honor to God’s command to be his children in our love for the wicked and for our enemy, we instead invoke metaphor. We explain away what God must really mean rather than abiding in his teaching and standing in awe of his work – the very work we have ourselves experienced while standing in opposition to God.

It’s hard for the wicked and the world to imagine a God who is good because there is little God-like resemblance of him in the ones who call themselves his children. How can they taste and see that the Lord is really good when there is no salt and no light?

Derek kreider

Perhaps that’s one reason why the problem of evil is as big of a problem as it is today. It’s hard for the wicked and the world to imagine a God who is good because there is little God-like resemblance of him in the ones who call themselves his children. How can they taste and see that the Lord is really good when there is no salt and no light? Who can possibly see God if his self-proclaimed “children” are really just bastards, neither fashioned nor fathered in his image of enemy love?

Of course God’s patience and enemy love don’t solve all the problems and arguments which arise from the existence of evil, but they do change the outlook. If we were to show our enemies the agape love of God through all circumstances, what would that do to them? What excuse would our enemies have in bellowing out at the injustice of a God who allows evil to happen to them, if they would experience God’s love, emanating from his children, who endure and forgive the evil suffered at the hands of their own enemies? We love God because he first loved us in our enmity. The servant is not greater than his master, and just as Jesus suffered from the depths of his enemy loving nature, so it ought to be with his body today. We are “little Christs,” and it is enemy love which transforms the heart, it is not a change of heart which earns God’s love. But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves. Our problem is almost always that we focus on the need others have for change. So perhaps before we ask what such love might do for them- the wicked – we ought to first ask what such enemy love might do to us. Maybe, just maybe, it would prepare our souls for the Kingdom and make us true children of God.  

We hate the man just because we are prevented from loving him. We push over the verge of the creation-we damn-just because we cannot embrace. For to embrace is the necessity of our deepest being. That foiled, we hate. Instead of admonishing ourselves that there is our enchained brother, that there lies our enchanted, disfigured, scarce recognizable sister, captive of the devil, to break, how much sooner, from their bonds, that we love them!-we recoil into the hate which would fix them there; and the dearly lovable reality of them we sacrifice to the outer falsehood of Satan’s incantations, thus leaving them to perish. Nay, we murder them to get rid of them, we hate them. Yet within the most obnoxious to our hate, lies that which, could it but show itself as it is, and as it will show itself one day, would compel from our hearts a devotion of love. It is not the unfriendly, the unlovely, that we are told to love, but the brother, the sister, who is unkind, who is unlovely. Shall we leave our brother to his desolate fate? Shall we not rather say, “With my love at least shalt thou be compassed about, for thou hast not thy own lovingness to infold thee; love shall come as near thee as it may; and when thine comes forth to meet mine, we shall be one in the indwelling God.”

Excerpt from: “Unspoken Sermons Series I, II, and III” by George Macdonald.

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