The Odd is Sea

Part of specializing in any profession is the creation of particular vocabulary to more quickly express complex ideas that normal people would normally otherwise recognize. One such theological vocabulary word is "theodicy," which encapsulates for theologians the question of why God allows bad things to happen. There are other phrasings of the question, but that's the most technical statement of it I know. Most people who believe in some kind of god usually end up asking this question at some point in their lives. The problem for theologians, however, is that its actually a pretty boring question.

A Logical Failing

Analytical theology has shown, using the best-possible-world argument, that the world we have is the best possible if one assumes that the god who created that world has the normal set of omni's and positive characteristics normally associated with the concept of god. Dealing with theodicy questions by a best-possible-world argument is, therefore, illogical. Oh, and most theodicy questions can be logically reduced to a best-possible-world argument within some perspective.

If you're a normal person, however, this argument--logical though it is--probably seems unhelpful because theodicy questions aren't normally asked by people in calm, rational states of mind. More often, issues of theodicy come from those moments in life when we cry with the psalmist and Jesus, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34) And the last thing we want to hear at those times is that we're being illogical.

Yet, the way we respond to those who are asking such theodicy questions can build up the body of Christ or place stumbling blocks before people. Pious platitudes are as hollow as they sound. Claims of our inability to understand the mind of God push people away from any kind of relationship with God--a relationship assumed by the psalmist and Jesus. 

Other Ways of Calling the Sea Odd

Before I get too far along, I should list off some of my replies to common restatements of the theodicy question, although I wouldn't actually give these to people asking the question in the midst of crises.

  • Q: Why do bad things happen to good people? A1: There are no good people. -or- A2: There's only been one good person, and we executed him through a miscarriage of the justice system.
  • Q: (She or he was such a good person,) why did God let this happen (to her or him)? A: We follow a God who who allowed himself to be killed. What did you expect?
  • Q: Why doesn't God just show up and do something about it? A1: God has. (Meaningful look at the person who asked the question.) -or- A2: Why don't you show up and do something about it?

Please note what I wrote earlier: DON'T USE THESE RESPONSES FOR THOSE IN THE MIDST OF CRISES! These lines are for helping people to see their own assumptions about how God relates to the world and what that means for those who follow Christ. 

The Odds We Expect at Sea

Theodicy questions normally reflect an experience that runs contrary to our assumptions about God.

The most common pairing of assumptions is that God is good and that God has the power to do whatever God wants. With this pair of assumptions, the logical question is why God allows bad things to happen. From anyone who doesn't claim to be a Christian, this pair of assumptions makes sense and leads to some challenging reflection. For Christians however, this pair of assumptions forgets the relationship God established with us in Christ crucified--the revelation we have received of a God whose power is in weakness, whose victory is through death.

The next assumption is that you're a good person. This flies in the face of Jesus' own words: "No one is good but God alone." (Mark 10:18 and parallels) Such an assumption reveals our own captivity to the opinio legis--another example of particular theological vocabulary. Opinio legis is the thought that there exists some universal rule that if we follow will keep bad things from happening to us and make us successful, but if we break will bring down heaps of evil on us. In relation to theodicy, the opinio legis shows our own attempts at self-righteousness and self-justification, assuming that God does nothing more than weigh our actions against this universal rule and mete out reward and punishment according to that rule. In this assumption, God does not relate to us, but only serves as the top of some hierarchical view of creation. Said differently, this view assumes that Jesus' death doesn't matter, because its really all about our works.

Another set of assumptions contradict each other, but can be dealt with together. Wondering why God doesn't show up in the midst of crises can reveal our feelings of helplessness, assuming that God is the only one who can deal with the situation. Alternatively such wondering can also reveal our unwillingness to become directly involved, assuming that God works in an unmediated way--that what God wills doesn't need people or any of creation to participate in God's will for it to come about--and yes, this is a direct contradiction of the Lord's Prayer.

All of these assumptions point to the challenge behind theodicy--ignoring or forgetting the relationship God has established with us. This is theologically interesting because it forgets the heart of the gospel. 


The words of the psalmist and Jesus assume a relationship with God, addressing God personally and calling God to attend, particularly because the supplicant has used all the resources God has given and is still at the end of his rope--hanging on a cross, surrounded by enemies, ready to die.

Theodicy questions are crises of faith, so how we respond to them matters. can't, however, give you any formula or method for responding to them, because a faithful response depends on the relationships present. Those going through a crisis may need someone to cry out with them, or remind them of Christ crucified, or help them see the resources God has placed around them.

When you hear a theodicy question, what would it look like for you to respond to Christ in that person and attend to the relationships God has created between you and those asking the question, between God and you, and between God and those asking the question? How are you God's response to theodicy questions?

Some other thoughts on theodicy can be found in Christ and Horrors by Marilyn McCord Adams and in Chapter 10, "Theology, Philosophy, and Evil," written by Keith E. Yandell in For Faith and Clarity edited by James K. Beilby.