Evils and the Limits of Theology
In perhaps the best theological piece on theodicy I have ever encountered Karen Kilby shows that “Christian theology ought neither construct theodicies, nor ignore the kinds of problems theodicies try to address” in ‘Evils and the Limits of Theology’. Theodicy, the problem of evil and suffering, deals with the quandary of how/why evil exists if God is loving and all-powerful. It happens to be a leading argument against theism, even if a relatively new one (a product of the Enlightenment when God-talk became abstracted and separable from tradition). Her basic thesis, even though not a “particularly gratifying one”, is to recognize theological questions regarding evil and suffering as legitimate ones but also recognize that we have no legitimate answers. Her reasoning behind this is due to the influence of Theology and the Problem of Evil and The Evils of Theodicy written by Kenneth Surin and Terrence Tilley respectively. Their argument is that by constructing theodicies we are essentially explaining evil away (reconciling ourselves to it) rather than deal with particular evils in their fullness. By shifting our gaze to the abstract theoretical level we are ignoring particular kinds of evils – explaining it makes it not so bad – especially if we think God permits it for the greater good (best of all possible worlds argument). The “moral dimension” to this is that we become complacent and apathetic towards particular sufferings and evil.
Kilby goes on to elucidate the uncomfortable argument of Marilyn McCord Adams in her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God who states that there are some evils that are so horrendous that they cannot conceivably be for a greater good of the individual or the globe; such as the suffering and death of children, genocide, rape, disfigurement, mutilation, torture, betrayal, incest, cannibalism, and the use of nuclear weapons on innocent populations. (We might also add that those who go through the “furnace of discipleship” don’t always come out with improved characters. Soul-making goes both ways). Even justifying evil by citing that at least the creator is suffering along with us is unhelpful for those who are actually suffering. It is just another theory attempting to get God off the hook and “diminish the scandal of evil”. Provocatively put by Kilby,
If I mistreat my children, then the fact that I mistreat myself as well does nothing to make it acceptable
As Christians we believe God will ultimately redeem evil and that good can come out of it, but this does not work as an explanation – primarily because it doesn’t always work that way. As shown, the mystery of God and the mystery of evil reveals how limiting and pathetic our explanations are. Why there are ‘answers’ out there, they end up doing more harm than help.