Discipleship as Theodicy: Following Jesus as God’s Answer to the Problem of Evil
I’m going to lay out a syllogism.
1.) Jesus’ Death on the Cross is God’s Answer to the Problem of Evil in the world.
2.) Discipleship to Jesus means participation in His cross in all aspects of life (Matthew 16:24).
3.) Discipleship to Jesus is thus part of God’s Answer to the Problem of Evil in the world.
This is a really tricky, little-loved part of theology called “theodicy,” or the defense of God’s goodness in the face of a world that is clearly defined by evil. For my first ever real post here on aia, we’re going to tackle it. Because dive in, right?
First off, we would do well to define what “the problem of evil” actually is. The problem of evil is an intellectual and theological problem that gained prominence during the Enlightenment, which questions the existence of an omni-benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God with the existence of evil in the world. This, of course, is too vague to have meaning for specifically Christian theology, for a few reasons. One, we do not worship any generic God, but specifically, Israel’s God, revealed in His Son Jesus, the Messiah, and thus the problem of evil becomes grounded in the distinctly Christian worldview in the problem of sin–i.e., if God is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful, a.) why has he permitted human beings to sin and thus b.) why does evil exist in the world?
This problem gets defined different ways by different people, usually based off of what constitutes evil. Generally, these are separated into the problem of sin, the problem of suffering, and the problem of hell, each of them questioning God’s goodness in light of these apparent realities. Today, my intention is simply to focus on the first two.
Before I unpack my syllogism, there have been various articulations of theodicy throughout the history of the church that deserve our attention. I will briefly list a few.
- The Irenaean Theodicy: Irenaeus (2nd century-AD 202) postulated that evil existed of necessity to develop human beings as moral entities. Irenaeus grounded this in a more literal exposition of Genesis 1:26-28: man was first made in God’s image, with the potential to be like God, followed by His likeness, the latter of the two referring to the means by which the potential was realized. Thus, free will, the resultant sin and suffering are all necessary to God’s ultimate plan for humanity.
- The Augustinian Theodicy: The Augustinian answer to the problem of evil follows an evolution, as it was established by three theologians–Augustine, for whom it was named, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin. Augustine rationalized that evil was a corruption of the fundamentally good created order, and that it was human moral evil that brought death and disorder to the creation, thus corrupting the world itself. Aquinas picked up on and affirmed Augustine’s refusal to see God as directly responsible for evil, remarking that God Himself was good, and that there was no evil within him, arguing instead that sin was a necessary possibility for the creation God made. Calvin developed the doctrine of predestination on these grounds, making two fundamental tweaks: one, that God did in fact create evil, but could not be held accountable for it; two, that mankind was corrupted to the point at which nothing save God’s grace could redeem them, thus necessitating predestination theologically.
- The Leibniz Proposition: Gottfried Leibniz proposed, in his 1710 book Theodicée, something similar to both the proposals of Irenaeus and Aquinas: namely, that this was “the best of all possible worlds,” a theory that more recently has been popularized by John Piper.
As is hinted at above, the Problem of Evil ultimately involves some sort of view to origins, and God’s purposes and methods in creation. Those who hold to an Augustinian view of creation–of creation as a flawless, perfect place later ruined by a perfect human being–will inevitably favor Augustine’s view of the Problem of Evil, because it is necessary to that theological construct. Those who subscribe to Irenaeus’ position–which see creation as a process God engages in–will inevitably come to some sort of place of seeing evil as a necessary part of creation. [Shoutout: Pete Enns has a great little article on this in which he references another great article about this, which can be found here].
Let me start by saying, I agree with Irenaeus, and I promise to devote the next blog post to explaining why. However, with regards to the subject of this post, Irenaeus seems to model the original creation on the new creation: i.e., just as God recreates us in His Image once upon initially coming to Jesus, and then continues the process daily as we are sanctified to be like Him as we meet Him in Christ, so Irenaeus seems to imagine that God created man for this very capacity, firstly with the ability to reflect God in the world and then the calling to cultivate that ability. This also seems to be in line with the very nature of God Himself: in Genesis 1, the verb used for creation is bara, a verb which refers to “ordering” that which was previously chaotic; thus it is that when God “began to create the heavens and the earth,” as the JPS Tanakh has it, the earth was already “formless and void” (1:1-2). In other words, God is a Creator who is defined in scripture not primarily as the person who made the raw stuff of creation ex nihilo (though that is a fair and logical implication of the biblical narrative), but rather as the person who took the raw material of creation and imposed order on it in spite of its chaotic nature.
Irenaeus’ problem of evil, then, seems to match up with the reality of Christian life as portrayed in the New Testament, and seems to be consistent with the actual call of Christ on His followers: namely, to become like Him through participating in His Death and Resurrection in every element of their lives (Michael J. Gorman’s book Inhabiting the Cruciform God is a brilliant manifesto on this subject).
Regardless of this issue, which we will deal with next time, the far more relevant element of this discussion is how God intends to deal with evil now that it is in the world. (This of course forms part of the answer to the question as how God and evil coexist, but again, wait till next week). This being said, it’s time to unpack my syllogism, and to answer the question as to how discipleship to Jesus is actually part of God’s answer to the problem of evil, with regard specifically to the problems of sin and suffering.
- Discipleship to Jesus is freedom from the Power of Sin. Sanctification–the process of becoming more and more like Christ–is also, in turn, the process of becoming free from sin in every area of our thoughts, hearts, and lives. In the same way that Jesus, by dying on the Cross, frees us at once from the infection, penalty, and claim of sin upon us, it is by participating in that Cross and applying it to our hearts, minds, and actions that we ultimately become free from sin’s continued strongholds over us. The process of death to self that happens in following Jesus is, in fact, the application of the death to sin that each of us undergo when we identify with Jesus’ death and resurrection in faith, baptism, and the breaking of bread.
- Discipleship to Jesus frees us from the Problem of Suffering by Redeeming Suffering. It was Timothy C. Tennent, in his book Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, who offered that the Christian answer to the problem of suffering was that Jesus of Nazareth was the only innocent sufferer. The qualification I would make of this claim is that Jesus’ suffering performs two key functions. One, it purposely ends the cycle of suffering by absorbing it rather than perpetuating it. This is the brilliance of Jesus’ teachings on non-retaliation, and the reason why they work in real life: choosing to take the suffering that someone imposes on you is a means of preventing that suffering from spreading to other hosts. Secondly, Jesus’ suffering causes him to identify with those who suffer, such that through this mutual identification he is able to show them compassion, love, and assistance and alleviate their suffering. Following Jesus, then, and participating in His Cross emphatically means choosing not merely to absorb suffering and be a point at which the cycle of violence abruptly ends, but furthermore to identify with those who suffer in order to participate in the “groan of creation” in which they are trapped (Romans 8). One might even say, furthermore, that all Christian suffering should in fact have this one purpose in mind, such that any risk of suffering for the Christian should be seen as an opportunity to identify with all who suffer, Christian and non-Christian alike, and thus to bless them through it. This matches up with the kenotic nature of Christ Himself, who “emptied Himself and took the form of a slave” in order to participate in our suffering and humanity, in “every way” that we ourselves face (Philippians 2, Hebrews 4:15).
A discussion on how God is justified despite the existence of evil in the world will be the subject of our next post. Please, discuss!