Drew McIntyre, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, reflects on a book by William Placher, who says, like so many others in the Protestant mainline, that we Christians ought to avoid traditional theodicies. The answers we give, in our well-intentioned efforts to reconcile a good and loving God with this world of evil and suffering, are worse than simply living with the tension.
Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)
Needless to say (if you’ve been reading my blog for a while), I disagree. I wrote the following in comments section of McIntyre’s post:
I disagree with the author’s overall point. I can happily affirm his two points (in bold) above—that God is always fully active in events yet is not the cause of irrational (by which he means evil?) events. But assuming that’s true, I don’t believe there is tension between them, logically if not experientially.
The Book of Job, after all, says much more than Brueggemann says that it says (go figure!) when it comes to theodicy. At the very least, Job affirms that Job’s suffering is not meaningless: As we’re explicitly told in chapter 1-2, God has a reason for allowing Job to suffer. Right? Job doesn’t know the reason, and his friends don’t know the reason, but we the readers do know.
And you may say, “Yes, but that’s an unsatsifying reason!” But Satan is real, and God clearly uses him to accomplish his purposes. Remember Paul’s thorn? It is both a “messenger of Satan” and something that “was given” (divine passive) in order to keep Paul humble. Paul inderstood that this suffering was deeply meaningful. Of course, there are many more scriptures I could cite. But the very fact that God transformed the greatest evil the world has known (the crucifixion of God’s Son) into the greatest good the world has known (the means of our atonement) proves that God can do this with all “lesser” versions of evil and suffering in our world.
My point is, we can say that God allows evil and suffering for a good reason, even if we often don’t know what that reason is. (How could we know in most cases? The ripple effect of even one insignificant event in time could have consequences centuries later. A historical “butterfly effect” is easy to imagine.)
Of course, to say this at a hospital bedside or graveside probably won’t be pastorally helpful, but that doesn’t mean it never needs to be said.
This “greater good” theodicy, to which I fully subscribe, was accepted by Wesley and Arminius—if that matters to anyone.
Regardless, I find this theodicy immensely comforting—the squeamishness of the Protestant mainline notwithstanding.