Anti-theodicy and Religious Legitimacy by Colin Eckstein

The apparent existence of evil, maintains atheist philosopher David Hume, is irreconcilable with the assertion of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.[1] A Deity who cares for humanity, is able to protect each individual without qualification, and yet permits unconscionable evil is without justification (and therefore unlikely to exist). In an attempt to retain both God’s perfect goodness and all-powerfulness, some theists have attempted to provide critics with a theodicy, or “argument that attempts to show that God is righteous or just despite the presence of evil in the world.”[2]

In the tradition of Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga, philosopher of religion and evangelical Christian Steven T. Davis defines theodicy as such with the expectation that God’s vindication is a requisite of religious faith. Davis’ colleague and fellow Christian John Roth, however, rejects outright the very idea of theodicy.[3] Outraged by God’s inaction in the face of evil (and Davis’ subsequent rationalizations), Roth proposes a condemnatory anti-theodicy. His position can be summarized as follows:[4]

(1)   Human affairs are far worse than any good reason can justify or than our powers alone can alter.

(2)   Humans must refuse to settle for the despair that the first feeling generates.

Roth’s “theodicy of protest” is a radical call for justice—an utter refusal to minimize felt sufferings or excuse God’s role in them. Consequently, Davis’ response is swift and forceful: “[Roth’s anti-theodicy] involves giving up on something that I regard as [I] religiously essential, [II] central to scripture and Christian tradition, and [III] personally precious: the notion that God is perfectly morally good.”[5] While I have nothing to offer Davis in terms of personal comfort, I intend to demonstrate that Roth’s anti-theodicy is both [I] religiously valid and [II] consistent with Christian scripture.

While Roth points to post-Holocaust Jewish theology as an exemplar of anti-theodicy, I will use as my reference point the satirical Broadway musical Book of Mormon. The scene is a rural Ugandan village plagued with drought, disease, and a gaggle of self-deceived missionaries:[6]

MAFALA [villager]: In this part of Africa, we all have a saying—whenever something bad happens, we just throw our hands up to the sky and say “Hasa Diga Eebowai!” […] There isn't enough food to eat! / Hasa Diga Eebowai! / People are starving in the street!

UGANDANS and MAFALA: Hasa Diga Eebowai! / Hasa Diga Eebowai! / Hasa Diga Eebowai! […]

ELDER PRICE [missionary]: Excuse me sir, but what exactly does that phrase mean?

MAFALA: Well, let's see. “Eebowai” means “God” and “Hasa Diga” means “Fuck you.” So I guess in English it would be “Fuck you, God!” […]

ELDER PRICE: Excuse me, sir, but you should really not be saying that. Things aren't always as bad as they seem!

MAFALA: Oh really? Well take this fucking asshole, Mutumbo. He got caught last week trying to rape a baby.

Confronted with this stark example of evil run rampant, Elder Price has no ready reply. The villagers’ cries of genuine sorrow, confusion, and pain are not something to be explained away. Rather, they constitute an expression of inherent spiritual value—an honest, albeit grim, dialogue with the God who ordained their suffering.

To satisfy Davis and more orthodox critics, a robust theophilosophical justification of anti-theodicy must appeal to Christian scripture for legitimacy. Although Davis fails to outline a criterion for “Biblical” theology, he elsewhere affirms the full canon as “inspired by God”[7] and useful for Christian faith and practice.[8] As such, my argument presupposes the religious authority of both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Notwithstanding this strict definition of scriptural congruency, I contend that a Biblical human-divine relational paradigm:

(3)   Acknowledges God’s perpetration of evil

(4)   Endorses human protests against divine injustice

In his epigraph, Roth alludes to (3) with a quotation from Exodus: “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.”[9] While most other translations sanitize this and similar passages by replacing “evil” with “disaster” or “harm,” the RSV (above) retains the word “evil” as a matter of consistency.[10] All major English translations define the Hebrew word “ra’ah” as “evil” in the context of human transgression, but most prefer benign alternatives like “difficulty” when describing God’s actions.[11] Only a select few rightly reject this theodicy of redaction as intellectually dishonest. A self-proclaimed proponent of Biblical infallibility, Davis’ impassioned defense of a whitewashed God becomes hermeneutically unnecessary (and perhaps even untenable) in light of this evidence.[12]

Having established a Biblical basis for (3), I nonetheless intend to continue justifying this premise while building a case for (4). A retelling of the Job narrative is my first occasion to do so. On account of a wager with Satan, God attempts to prove the loyalty of God’s servant Job by taking away all he holds dear: his children, his livelihood, his health.[13] Short of renouncing God, Job demands an explanation for his unjust suffering. Job’s wife ridicules his question as futile; “Curse God and die!” she sneers.[14] Job’s friends dismiss his question as disingenuous; “God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” they admonish.[15] God rebuffs Job’s question as improper; “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God retorts.[16]

Job “refuses theodicy right to the end.”[17] Notwithstanding an inexplicable and unconvincing final scene of human and divine reconciliation, Job’s question remains unresolved.[18] Moreover, God’s capricious motives are exposed and found wanting.[19] As such, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel asserts that “[Job] did not suffer in vain; thanks to him, we know that it is given to man to transform divine injustice into human justice and compassion.”[20] A tale of pointless suffering and persistent questioning, the Biblical narrative of Job affirms both (3) and (4).[21]

Note that it is Job’s author, not its God character, who is understood to subscribe to (4). In challenging God’s innocence while maintaining Job’s integrity, the narrative favors the latter. The same can be said of Abraham’s rebuke of God in Genesis 18. Upon learning that God plans to destroy the wicked city of Sodom, Abraham demands that God desist:

Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?[22]

Amazingly, God relents at Abraham’s request. The Israelite patriarch, honored in the Christian “Hall of Faith,” comfortably argues with God over the just course of action.[23] This depiction of divine-human relationship, a textbook instance of (4) and compelling response to (3), is far more appealing to me than Davis’ stated alternative:[24]

(5)   Trust that the afterlife will be so blissful that “all previous sufferings will pale into insignificance.”

While I freely grant Davis’ personal preference for (5) over (4), his above objections to Roth demand that I defend my own—that I demonstrate the religious (specifically Christian) validity of anti-theodicy. How can I worship a God with whom I oft disagree? Begging Davis’ permission to respond with a question: How can you worship a God with whom you are theologically forbidden from disagreeing? Elder McKinley’s tortured soliloquy, again from Book of Mormon, illustrates my point:[25]

ELDER MCKINLEY: When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head / Don’t feel those feelings! / Hold them in instead. / Turn it off, like a light switch. / Just go click! / It’s a cool little Mormon trick! / We do it all the time. / When you’re feeling certain feelings that just don’t feel right / Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light / And turn ‘em off.

Afraid to question God’s authority and thus compromise his faith, McKinley attempts to suppress feelings of anger and despair. Forced silence, however, is not a genuine alternative to honest expression of hurt or doubt. Indeed, passive acceptance of violence and idealization of violent partners are both characteristic of Battered Person Syndrome.[26] Healthy relationships, therefore, must afford all participants a means of authentic self-expression. As long as at least one of these participants is human (i.e. whether the relationship is human-human or human-divine), indignation at unexplained suffering must have some religious validity.

I am not suggesting that humanity live in a perpetual state of protest against God. As Roth asserts, “Confrontation is rooted not so much in rejection of God but rather in recognition that such defiance is crucial in struggles against despair.”[27] Rather, I insist on a human-divine relational paradigm that is three-dimensional, that rings experientially true both in times of joy and despair. Praise must sometimes give way to Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”[28]

As the God-man (and my final example), Jesus lives into the fundamental paradox of anti-theodicy: human-divine relationship must coexist with human solidarity in God-ordained suffering. God, by incorporating humanhood into Godself, experiences in Jesus Christ the overwhelming futility of evil. So much so that God condemns Godself to death and accepts God’s own blood as payment for sin. By suffering alongside us, God restores relationship with humankind. This Gospel calls not for cowed silence, but a human-divine partnership to eradicate the very evil we create.

In demonstrating (3) and (4), I outline a distinctly Christian approach to evil that also staunchly maintains (1). Moreover, my discussion of the Incarnation addresses (2) in such a way that affirms both human-divine relationship and human-human solidarity. Therefore, I assert that Davis can reject anti-theodicy only on the basis of personal preference—a rejection which I am happy to grant, but am in no way religiously, scripturally, or otherwise obligated to adopt myself. Meanwhile, (5) remains a live option; subscribers to anti-theodicy may logically accept it alongside (4) if so inclined. Even those who await the redemption of human suffering may join me in denying its justification.

[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1979); London: Longmans Green, 1878.

[2] Stephen T. Davis (Ed.). (2001). Encountering Evil, A New Edition: Live Options in Theodicy. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press. xi.

[3] Roth is not alone in this. For a review, see McWilliams, Warren. 1992. Review of The Evils of TheodicyJournal of the American Academy of Religion 60 (3). [Oxford University Press, American Academy of Religion]: 570–72. 

[4] Ibid. 18.

[5] Stephen T. Davis (Ed.). (2001). Encountering Evil, A New Edition: Live Options in Theodicy. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press. 20.

[6] Parker, T., Lopez, R., & Stone, M. (2011). The Book of Mormon Script Book: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical (First Edition edition). New York: Newmarket Press.

[7] 1 Timothy 2:16, Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

[8] Stephen T. Davis (1984). Debate About the Bible: Inerrancy Versus Infallibility. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press.

[9] Exodus 32:14, Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version. New York: International Council of Religious Education, 1952.

[10] See Exodus 2:15 (RSV): Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for evil…”

[11] Anderson, Craig, “Death of Joshua.” (Class lecture, Prophets, Kings, and Politics in the Hebrew Bible RLST 088, Pomona College, Crookshank 001, October 6, 2015).

[12] Stephen T. Davis (1984). Debate About the Bible: Inerrancy Versus Infallibility. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press.

[13] Job 1, Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

[14] Job 2:9.

[15] Job 11:6.

[16] Job 38:4.

[17] Bernasconi, Robert, and David Wood, eds. (2014). The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other. Reissue edition. Routledge.

[18] Many scholars reject these last few chapters as a later addition to the text to “undermine the truth value of all [previous] theological statements.” Alan Cooper (1997) “The Sense of the Book of Job”. Prooftexts 17 (3). Indiana University Press: 240.

[19] Ibid. 230.

[20] Elie Wiesel (1985). Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends (Reissue edition). New York: Simon & Schuster.

[21] For an example of (3), see Job 2:10 (RSV): “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”

[22] Genesis 18:24-25, Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

[23] An evangelical moniker for Hebrews 11.

[24] Stephen T. Davis (Ed.). (2001). Encountering Evil, A New Edition: Live Options in Theodicy. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press. 85.

[25] Parker, T., Lopez, R., & Stone, M. (2011). The Book of Mormon Script Book: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical (First Edition edition). New York: Newmarket Press.

[26] Mega, L. T., Mega, J. L., Mega, B. T., & Harris, B. M. (2000). Brainwashing and battering fatigue. Psychological abuse in domestic violence. North Carolina Medical Journal61(5), 260–265.

[27] Stephen T. Davis (Ed.). (2001). Encountering Evil, A New Edition: Live Options in Theodicy. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press. 4.

[28] Matthew 27:46, Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

Posted on July 3, 2016 .