Incomplete Thoughts on Theodicy

Freedom is constrained by love: it is constrained by myself; it is constrained by other humans; it is constrained by God.

I do not kill you even though it might amuse me to watch you twitch, because I self-constrain out of my love for you. If I do not so self-constrain, those around me will either constrain me when they see me go for your neck; or if they are a bit late, then they will constrain my freedom by putting me in prison or by ultimately taking my life.

The question in theodicy is simple: why there is evil, of why there is random suffering such as a small child being born with a debilitating genetic disorder, of where was God during the Holocaust or any other horrific example of human inhumanity. So why do we have so much freedom? Why does not God constrain our freedom more than he does? Why can we get away with so much? Why does so much happen without God stepping in and stopping it? We wonder if he is unable, unwilling, malicious, or simply not even there. Did he create the universe and then forget about it? Is it too much for him to handle? Or is there no God at all and we are alone with one another in a random, empty universe which cares not a whit for us one way or another.

But then, why are we bothered by suffering? Why do bad things happening surprise us and upset us so? If we eliminate God from the equation, does that make suffering and pain and evil okay? Why do we even have a sense of right and wrong? Why should we feel suffering is unjust? Why should we be concerned with justice?

God constrains primarily mediately, rather than directly. It is the way we usually see him in the Bible when he acts. Consider the book of Esther: God’s name is never mentioned and yet we recognize God’s hand in every event. That is how God is mostly in the world: unseen as he was unseen in the text of Esther. He constrains through self-constraint and through those around us. Sometimes he may intervene directly. But his direct intervention is rare and even then can be explained away. In the biblical record, we know of God’s intervention only because a prophet so told us. Otherwise, it could be explained by happenstance. For instance, notice the attitude of the Philistines when they decided to send the Ark of the Covenant back:

“Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. Take the ark of the LORD and put it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, but keep watching it. If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the LORD has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us but that it happened to us by chance.” (1 Samuel 6:7-9)

What was happening to the Philistines on account of the Ark of the Covenant was recognized by the Philistines—the supposedly primitive, superstition riddled ancients—as potentially being just happenstance. They did not assume that God’s intervention was the only possible explanation for what they were experiencing. This can be said about any divine intervention, even the most spectacular miracles one sees in the Bible. Consider that the Pharisees and other religious leaders in first century Palestine saw and knew of Jesus’ miracles—and still rejected him and did not believe; even Jesus’ family rejected him until after his resurrection. God’s intervention can be explained away.

Freedom is never absolute. But God wants us to be as free as possible, in a world that has the least evil and suffering possible, given the constraint of having human freewill as part of the mix.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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