Alright, I’ve avoided the question for long enough. And whether I knew it or not, my articles the past couple of weeks have really been building up to this. We’ve talked about what we ask after a tragedy, and we’ve talked about what we don’t ask after a tragedy. Now it’s time to address the question that keeps coming back time after time, whether we’re ready for it or not. Let’s talk about theodicy.
In a nutshell, theodicy means the question of evil: How is it that evil exists in a world ruled by a loving, all-powerful God? Why do bad things happen?
As I said last week, this question is worth exploring, but only under the right circumstances. The types of conversations that this question produces are intellectual, theological, and philosophical in nature. The point isn’t to make someone feel better, but rather to explain a very difficult truth. Which is why I left this question out of the discussion up to this point: It’s not the type of question one should be discussing while still reeling from a tragedy.
When we talk about theodicy, we’re entering the world of apologetics, which focuses on defending the logic of the Christian faith. I know a lot of people are enamored by this topic. I personally don’t focus on it much, and I’m by no means an expert, but this question in particular came up in nearly every class I took in seminary. It’s one that is inescapable in the life of faith, and so it’s one that we each must have an answer for.
What follows is my approach to the question. It’s one (informed) take, but it’s not necessarily the universal answer for everyone. I hope that you find it compelling and helpful, but if not, please know that there are other perspectives out there that I would invite you to explore.
Why do we exist?
When we ask the theodicy question, we tend to take an anthropocentric view, focusing on the bad things that happen to human beings. Of course, this isn’t the only way of thinking about the question of evil, but it’s the most common one, so it’s the one that I’ll address here. If we want to understand why bad things happen to people—and specifically to us as individuals—we have to first take a step back and understand the purpose of human existence in the first place.
Why did God create us? After all, God was perfectly complete on his own. He didn’t even need us in order to have relationship. The Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit exist in perfect union as the Trinity. And he didn’t need us to rule over because he was already the lord of the universe. No, God didn’t need us for anything. Rather, he created us because he wanted us.
We serve a God who wants to know others and to be known by them. We serve a God who wants to share life with others. And ultimately, we serve a God who wants to love others and to be loved by others. And guess who those “others” are? Us.
That’s our purpose for existing: to know God, to live life with God, and above all, to love God. Of course, we use other words to describe these sorts of things. We say we’re meant to enjoy God, honor God, glorify God, worship God, obey God, and on and on. All of these things are true, but I think they can all be summed up in these three actions: knowing God, living life with him, and loving him. That’s what God made us to do.
What does it take?
But in order for that to happen, some things have to happen first. Love has some prerequisites in order for it to be real. And the most important of those prerequisites is free will. Love cannot be compelled. God does not want a planet full of robots saying, “I love you, God,” on cue. No, he wants people to choose to love him of their own will. Anything less would be meaningless.
But of course, having the free will to love God necessarily requires the option to not love God. To turn away from him. Even to despise him. And so, when God gave human beings the capacity for love, he inevitably gave us the capacity for rebellion. And that’s where sin and evil come into play. When we turn away from God and his plan for our lives, we commit sin, and sin has consequences.
And what are the consequences of sin? Well, we call them “evil.” We call them that because we don’t like them, and they cause us immense suffering. Things like death, heartbreak, and pain are all natural consequences of sin. But these consequences aren’t limited to just the personal, individual level. Larger-scale evil like disease, natural disasters, systemic injustice, and acts of terror are also just as much results of sin as instances of evil that are more easily traced to individual human actions.
Because for almost as long as we’ve been in existence, humans have been committing sin and rebelling against God. We’ve used the free will that God gave us for our own selfish purposes, and the evil that we see around us is simply the natural result of that. God did not create evil; we did, through our evil actions. And when we point the finger at God for terrible things that happen, we’re simply trying to distract ourselves from the fact that all of the bad things that take place ultimately point back to us.
Evil is nothing more than the consequence of the sins committed by human beings on a personal, societal, and global level throughout history. Our world, nature, society, and the universe itself are ravaged by the results of our centuries-long rebellion against God, and so when bad things happen, we really have no one to blame but ourselves.
I want to be clear here: I am not saying that any individual instance of evil can be tied to any individual sin, whether it be personal or collective. There is a tendency to look for a group to blame whenever a natural disaster hits or a mass shooting takes place. This impulse is natural but misguided. The relationship between sin and evil is deep; it’s complex, and it goes back farther than even our history books. It’s not that any particular decision causes any particular evil result, but that our continual acts of rebellion against God continue to keep the world in a state where these sorts of evil things can and do happen.
So God gave us free will in order that we may love him, and we instead used that free will to turn our backs on him, with the ultimate consequence of that rebellion being the evil that we see in the world today. What are we supposed to do about it?
I think the most obvious thing is to turn back to God and live out his purpose for our lives. If we’re meant to know God, to do life with him, and to love him, then doing those things will by definition lead to a good life. We’ll still live in a fallen world, and we’ll still feel the effects of evil, but we won’t have to live under the oppression of our own sin. God became a human being in Jesus, and he overcame sin and death, giving us an opportunity to forsake sin and return to him. This is the most important way that we can combat evil in our world.
We must also pray. God set up the world in such a way that our prayers have an effect on the world around us. Prayer changes things. It can lead to healing, both of people and of societies. It can lead to reconciliation. It can lead to safety. It can combat evil in so many ways that we don’t even understand, and that’s OK. We don’t necessarily have to understand it all. We just have to be faithful to pray and ask God to intervene for us against evil.
We also have an opportunity to combat evil by resisting it when we see it in the world and when we’re tempted to participate in it ourselves. Hatred, bigotry, selfishness, violence, and so many other forms of evil are all around us (and sometimes, tragically, inside of us). We cannot simply stand by and allow it to take place. When we see it in the world, we are called to speak out against it, to resist it with the influence that we’ve been given. And when we see it in ourselves, we are called to repent of it and to do better.
And finally, we have no other choice but to trust in God’s ultimate plan for the world. Evil has free reign for now, but we know that in the end, God will one day overcome evil once and for all. He will remove it from the world and cast it into utter destruction. His plan for the world—the way that he always intended for it to be—will one day become a reality, and when we trust in that truth and live with it as a reality in our lives, we are fighting evil in our own way.
The world is broken; no one can deny that. We broke it, and we see the consequences all the time. But ultimately, God is on our side. He wants to know us and to be known by us. He wants to walk through life with us. And he wants to share in a loving relationship with us. When we choose to say yes to God, we see just how good he is. And he is good. He’s the only source of good we can turn to in a world overrun by evil. In the end, good will prevail over the evil that currently oppresses us, and if we choose to be on the side of good, then we will prevail over it, too.