Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Theodicy and a God who is One

Recently several ministerial colleagues of different denominations have shared stories with me about their struggles with the “Theodicy Question”. Theodicy is the big seminarian word for a series of questions that circle around how a God who is good could allow evil to exist in the world. In more interventionist theologies the question is usually formed around why God does not use omnipotent power to destroy evil… for more liberal theological thinkers it often circles around issues of balance and harmony.

It is one of the most common questions victims of tragedy and trauma ask. How could a good God allow such evil to happen? It is one of the hardest questions that many military chaplains face, as they encounter the horror of war. How can a God who is good allow such evil to be?

I have thought in the past that the question or paradox of Theodicy in some ways serves the Christian ministry in the same way a Koan might serve a Zen Buddhist Priest. Don’t ask me to explain what I mean by this… they just seem similar to me.

I struggle with this question, but not for the reason many others might. I struggle to answer questions of theodicy, because in my developing theology it is a moot question on two different levels. My challenge around theodicy is to realize that my answer to the question of good and evil, though it is important and inspiring to me, may not be an answer that works for much of anyone else. It is on questions of good and evil that I most have to sit on my own faith, and allow who I am with to explore what is written on their own heart and life.

There are two levels to my answer on the question of Theodicy, and though they connect they are distinct answers to the question. First, I do not accept any kind of metaphysical nature to the concepts of good and evil. Good and evil are both human judgments, not divine judgments. We humans, through our culture, through our values and principles, through our own prejudices, we decide on an individual basis what it is that we find in-line and uplifting of those values, principles, prejudices, and culture. This we call good. What we find to be abhorrent to our values, principles, prejudices and culture we name evil.

There are perhaps two reasons why we seek to provide a divine imprimatur from God for what we have declared to be good or evil. First, we wish to give weight or authority to our pronouncement, and attributing such to God is certainly one way to do that. However, I think there is a more insidious reason… and that is an attempt to evade responsibility.

If I have decided something is good or something is evil, then I have a responsibility towards it. That valuation calls me to some kind of action, because I have personally recognized that something either supports my values, principles, prejudices and culture or is anathema to it. If God so recognizes something, however, then the responsibility rests not with me, but with God. If I say that genocide is evil, there is a concurrent requirement that I do something about that. If God says genocide is evil, well, that’s God’s problem, and the ways of God are mysterious, mere human understanding cannot fathom such mighty things. Divine valuation of good and evil has passed more bucks in human history than any other theological question.

However, our responsibility for what we name as good or evil is only a part of my answer to the Theodicy question. The second half is that God is one.

The most recurrent theme in my theology is the Oneness of God. “I AM the Great I AM” the Hebrew Scriptures tell us. I AM all there is. For me, there is nothing that is not God. In seminarian language I have called it “totality consisting of eternity inclusive of time conceived as a realm of meaning”, to borrow shamelessly from something a professor of mine once said in class.

For me, God is the rocks, the trees, math equations, evolution, sub-atomic particles, galaxies, human thoughts, singing birds, slithering snakes, and countless variations of everything that human minds have yet to encounter or conceive. We humans and all we do, have done, and will do are a part of God. When I try my best to conceive and give meaning to this immense vastness of everything, that for me is God. It is not that God is everywhere… but that everywhere is God.

Everything that we human beings have decided to value as being good is a part of God. Everything that we human beings have decided to value as being evil is a part of God.

God is neither good nor evil, except as we humans, by our own valuation of our principles, values, prejudices, and culture make it so… and we are responsible for that valuation.

Why does God allow Evil to exist? Because what we value and call evil is a part, an intimate part of God. Because we have chosen to name it evil, the responsibility to do something about it lies upon us, not upon God.

My struggle is learning to express this core aspect of my faith in ways that are respectful of other understandings of God, and learning when such expression is not the role of the Chaplain in a particular moment of someone’s own encounter with evil or good.

Yours in Faith,


4 Thoughts on “Theodicy and a God who is One

  1. Patrick McLaughlin on Tuesday April 7, 2009 at 0:31 +0000 said:

    David, “totality consisting of eternity inclusive of time conceived as a realm of meaning” could be expressed in more accessible terms as \”everything and always.\”

    Not a being but an all-encompassing isness.

    The horror of genocide is that *we*–human beings–do it, and that we permit it, tolerate it, and then permit it and tolerate it again. Not that god permits it. That we imagine that the isness that is god might abrogate itself to tend to that is simply mistaking morality for cosmic law. The not-being that didn\’t stop the entire superorder dinosauria from being exterminated (all of that also being part of the isness, as well as the asteroid that was a major cause…) should have abrogated itself to step in on behalf of a portion of a species?

    Ah, the arrogance and self-centeredness of our species. Insisting that god be what and as we\’d like it, and act like we\’d like it to, for reasons all our own.

  2. Pat,

    There’s a bit that “everything and always” misses… such as how eternity is not the same as time, (rather, they are quite different) and the need for our seeking to find meaning in order to have the ability to recognize God… but I get your point. 🙂

    It is not just the horror of Genocide… it is the very fact of Evil. Humans are entirely responsible for Evil, both in that it comes into existence by our unique ability to name it so, and also in that most of the Evil (perhaps all, but that’s unproven to me yet) that exists in the world does so because we humans are the cause of it. Genocide is just an example.

    By attempting to attribute evil to a supernatural devil, we are attempting to shift that responsibility… but that’s another essay.

    Yours in Faith,


  3. Hi David,

    I recently developed a theodicy that explains why a good, all-powerful God is justified in allowing evil. Addressing evil wouldn’t require mere intervention, but re-making our existence into a kind of utopia. Such an existence would not be an improved one, only a very different one that would be undesirable as it would be fraught with many other imperfections.

    Our ever-present mortality enriches and structures our existence in ways most people simply have failed to realize. If you get the chance, you should read my web article and the q&a that links at the end and see what you think.



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