Every time I am questioned about my faith and theological views, the conversation that follows my response is almost certainly, always full of challenge and scepticism surrounding my idea of Christianity and God. This is an understandable outcome. It is no secret that the problem of evil, theodicy, is one of the greatest challenges posed to belief in God not merely in the contemporary world, but throughout the history of humanity’s relationship with the divine. How can one justify the belief in and ultimately the existence of, an all-loving God that is described to us in the Old and New Testaments? The answer has evaded all theologians that have sought a response to this age-old problem; I am no exception! I wrote a piece not too long ago attempting to suggest a possible answer to the question, but I feel even that fell short of providing satisfaction to not only those who read it, but to myself also. So as I sit here pondering potential PhD ideas I find myself asking the question: is the problem of evil really as great an issue as theologians have made out?
Without fail, the majority of theodicies that have been posited by scholars have somewhere at their core, an eschatological dimension; that is, something concerned with the events of post-life (death if you will). The most convincing to me being that of John Hick, which claims that the evil endured throughout life is a ‘means to an end’. It is part of a ‘soul-making’ process in which humans are eventually perfected in unison with their creator. Hick concedes himself that this soul-making process cannot be hoped to be completed within a human lifetime, and thus the process continues into the escahton (the state of being after death). An immediate confession into the belief of the importance of some form of ‘after-life’. I ask, why is it as Christians, or indeed any person of strong religious conviction, that we are seemingly obsessed with our post-life experience? Should we not be concentrating on our lives now? After all, no matter how strictly one clings to their religious or spiritual beliefs of the eschaton, the conditions of the physical existence in which we all reside is perhaps the only thing we as humans can be 100% certain of.
One of the issues with existing theodicies is that they either a) appear to try and justify the existence of evil which, as John Roth quite rightly argues, cannot and should not be accepted. How can the evils of, for example, the Holocaust ever rightly be justified? Point b) is that no theodicy either past or present, that I have come across, can make the evils of the world appear justifiable in an embodied earthly existence. As discussed above, the resolution of evil and the ‘reward’ for enduring suffering is obtained once one has died. I feel this is no longer a relevant proposition for those living in a modern world, where scientific discovery is ever-decreasing the belief in and/or the need for a possible eschaton to exist.
The problem is, if we remove the eschaton from the consideration then we dramatically alter the orthodox Christian belief entirely. But I argue, for theology to remain consistent for the context in which it is being done, then it must move along with the changes of time. I have already expressed the seemingly decreasing need and belief in the eschaton; a new outlook is needed.
The previous piece I wrote concerned a changing theology of God. In summary: the traditional ideas of God held by those prescribing themselves to orthodox streams of Christianity are no longer viable if one is to answer the problem of evil in any satisfactory manner – a new idea of God is required, and I suggested a deist model. But if we leave out this consideration in this instance, then what becomes clear is what is needed, is not a theodicy – a justification of belief – but a way of dealing with and coming to terms with the evils of the world.
The Church already has chaplaincies and missionaries and clergymen and women who aid those who are enduring difficult times; this should be the focus of current theological practice. The question surrounding God’s part to play in evil’s existence is, I feel, redundant. God is so-named for the sole reason that it resides outside the realm of human understanding and comprehension. No manner of theology, philosophy, sociology or any other human method of critical analysis will point us to an overtly clear understanding of what God is. And so like Hick, ultimately, we must retreat to the realms of mystery when considering God’s role in the existence of evil.
Many people have a problem with this conclusion; why? The fact of evil’s existence does not shake the belief I have in God, nor does it for many other people. There is a large group of God-believing people who endured through the most horrific of all evils not too long ago; they’re called the Jews. Although the Jewish understanding of God is so tightly centered on the Covenant (and the events of the Holocaust appear to completely destabalise this doctrine), they still exist as a religious group, obedient to their God. This does not mean that the question of evil does not ever enter their consciousness, quite the opposite I imagine; the point here being that when one is so strongly convicted of one’s own belief in God, then evil does not appear to leave a scar.
So the claim that theodicy is theology’s biggest problem is not entirely accurate. It is the biggest weapon used by atheists and non-believers to scourge those who have faith in the divine, but for those who have already come to terms with the existence of God, then it does not appear to matter as much as people with whom I converse, appear to think. Instead, Christians’ efforts are placed in the care and charity of those who are suffering, as per Jesus’ example; for me, the true meaning of being a Christian.