Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Theodicy & the need for eschatology I

Patrik has a post on 'The need for eschatology'. It is worth a read. He explores the necessity of some kind personal eschatology in the face of death. I agree, but would like to take his thought further. I believe that any biblical theodicy (defence of God in the face of manifest evil and suffering) must at some point be eschatological, that is, it must refer to the future for which Christians hope. Let me clarify. I begin with three biblical characters who each acutely faced the problem of evil in their experience, not simply as an intellectual puzzle.

Joseph, for being an arrogant prat to his brothers, is sold into slavery. Twenty years later, he ends up being in the position to take revenge and humiliate, enslave or kill them. Apart from a little test to see whether they'd learnt anything from their years to reflect on their actions, he rescues them from their peril (and ends up enslaving their descendents in the long run - poetic justice? or not...). As he reflects on his suffering caused by their overreaction to his youthful boasting, he says 'You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.' There was no mention of God's activity in the narrative during this account, but Joseph could see above or behind or through the seemingly random nastiness of his brothers (and others later in the narrative), that God was at work to create the conditions under which his family of promise would be rescued from famine. Paul says 'We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.' One of the most quoted (and misunderstood) verses in the Bible. This, though a response to suffering, is not a theodicy.

Job faces the question of suffering. He wants to take God to court and argue his case, to accuse God of injustice for the evil he experiences. God's response takes the form of a counter-offensive against Job, silencing his questions with more of his own. Job ends up placing his hand over his mouth. This, though a response to suffering, is not a theodicy.

Jesus' suffering and death pose the problem of evil in an acute form. Pilate's wife, a Roman centurion, and Judas all testify that he was innocent (Matt 27.4, 19; Luke 23.47), yet he was betrayed, condemned on the testimony of 'false witnesses' (Matt 26.60), and brutally tortured and executed. If, as Christians claim, his identity was included in that of the one true God, then suffering is not unknown to God. He's been there and experienced it from the inside. As we groan about a world where things fall apart painfully, God's Spirit is groaning too (Rom 8.18-25). God is with the one who suffers. No one suffers alone: even where we cry 'my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?', Jesus is there too. This, though a response to suffering, is not a theodicy.(next)
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.


Unknown said...

Hi Byron,

I want to thank you for your response to this question, and for discussing it here. The problem of evil and suffering has certainly been personally applicable to my life, and trying to find God's purpose in it, and resting in God's goodness, I admit, has been a challenge.

I've recently befriended your brother, Murray (I'm new to his church), he told me about your blog and told me you also have studied philosophy? I'm really interested in epistemology and ethics, and forming a philosophical framework of these from a Theistic worldview! I look forward to exploring the rest of your blog website!

warmest regards,

Nick Cassim

byron smith said...

Hi Nick,

I'm glad you've met Murray. Sorry to hear that this problem has "come home" for you, though on the other hand, if it remains purely theoretical, it probably means you're not paying attention.

As Murray may have told you, this series came before a period in my life where I was very sick with cancer. Although that experience provoked many further thoughts (which you can read about from about December 2006 onwards, which is when I was diagnosed), I stand by this series as a short summary of my thinking. I've written a few other slightly longer pieces on suffering and the problem of evil which take a similar approach but which don't really depart from the perspective here.

byron smith said...

PS Yes, I studied undergraduate philosophy as part of an Arts degree a while ago. I've since studied theology and am currently working on a PhD in theological ethics, in some sense focussed on one particular manifestation of the problem of evil at a social level.

byron smith said...

SMBC: Theodicy made easy.