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THEODICY . Why do the righteous suffer? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do innocent children experience illness and death? These are ancient questions, but they have been given new poignancy in our day by the events of the European Holocaust. The fact that many who died in the Holocaust were devout Jews or Christians also poses a special problem for the faiths to which these victims belonged. Traditionally, Jews and Christians have affirmed God's goodness and his absolute sovereignty over history. But how can this faith be reconciled with suffering on the scale for which Auschwitz is the symbol?

Theoretical Positions

The effort to answer questions of this sort is commonly referred to as theodicy. The term was apparently coined by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (16461716) and is a compound of the Greek words for God (theos) and justice (dikē). Theodicy may thus be thought of as the effort to defend God's justice and power in the face of suffering. Theodicies result from this effort: they are specific explanations or justifications of suffering in a world believed to be ruled by a morally good God.

The theodicy problem

The "problem of theodicy" arises when the experienced reality of suffering is juxtaposed with two sets of beliefs traditionally associated with ethical monotheism. One is the belief that God is absolutely good and compassionate. The other is the belief that he controls all events in history, that he is both all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient). When combined with some other implicit beliefsfor example, the belief that a good being would try to prevent suffering insofar as he is ablethese various ideas seem contradictory. They appear to form a logical "trilemma," in the sense that, while any two of these sets of ideas can be accepted, the addition of the third renders the whole logically inconsistent. Thus, it seems that it can be affirmed that God is all-good and all-powerful, but not also that there is suffering in the world. Similarly, the fact of suffering can be affirmed along with God's goodness, but the insistence on God's omnipotence appears to render the whole ensemble of beliefs untenable. Theodicy may be thought of as the effort to resist the conclusion that such a logical trilemma exists. It aims to show that traditional claims about God's power and goodness are compatible with the fact of suffering.

Alternative definitions

Some writers have tried to expand the term theodicy beyond its classical Western philosophical and theological usage. The sociologist Max Weber, for example, sought to redefine the term in order to render it applicable to religious traditions that do not involve belief in one just, all-powerful deity. In Weber's usage, the theodicy problem referred to any situation of inexplicable or unmerited suffering, and theodicy itself referred to any rationale for explaining suffering. This wider definition has value for the comparative study of religion. Nevertheless, without neglecting other religious responses to suffering, I shall here be using the term theodicy in its classical sense, as the effort to defend God's justice and power in a world marred by suffering.

Dissolutions of the theodicy problem

One reason for holding to the narrower definition of theodicy is that it allows us to see that theodicy in its classical sense is very much a feature of ethical monotheism. Theodicy in this sense does not arise in traditions that fundamentally deny or reject any one of the three major sets of ideas that form the theodicy problem: the belief in God's goodness, the belief in his power, or the belief in the real occurrence of suffering. Religious positions that fundamentally dissolve the problem may be classified according to which of the three basic beliefs they do not accept.

Denials of God's justice

Some religious positions avoid theodicy by denying that God (or the gods) is morally good. Very few religious traditions openly hold God to be evil, although Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, in her book The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, 1976), has argued that at least one important motif in Hindu mythology traces suffering to the gods' pettiness and fear of human power. More common than an outright denial of the deity's justice, however, is the claim that God's justice is somehow qualitatively different from our ordinary human ideas of right and wrong. Words like justice or goodness when applied to God have no relation to their meaning when applied to human beings. What would be regarded as wickedness on the part of a human beingfor example, the slaughter of childrenmay not be unjust where God is concerned. We shall see that this view has had some currency in Islam and in Calvinist Christianity.

Denials of God's omnipotence

Rather than compromise the divine goodness, some religious traditions have avoided theodicy by qualifying the divine power. This view is especially characteristic of religious dualisms, which explain the fact of suffering by positing a power or principle of disorder that wars incessantly with God for control of the world. In Zoroastrianism, for example, imperfections and suffering in this world are traced to an ongoing cosmic struggle between the good deity, Ahura Mazdā (Ōhrmazd), and his evil antagonist, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman). Similarly, the gnostic religion Manichaeism explained suffering in terms of a struggle between a "spiritual" god of goodness and light and an evil "creator" demon associated with darkness and matter.

Apart from dualism there are other ways by which religions can deny God's omnipotence. One of the most important of these is found in Buddhism, where suffering is traced to the automatic operation of the moral law of retribution known as karman. I shall return to karman in connection with Buddhist teaching as a whole, but for now it may be noted that karman eliminates the need to justify God (or the gods) in a world of suffering because it places that suffering almost wholly beyond divine control.

Denials of the reality of suffering

The final major way by which to avoid the problem of theodicy is to deny the third component in the trilemma, that is, that there really is suffering in the world. This position may seem impossible since unhappiness, illness, and death are all around us. Yet in various ways, religious thinkers and religious traditions have sometimes denied the ultimate reality or significance of suffering. The philosopher Spinoza, for example, affirmed that the world seems filled with evil only because it is regarded from a narrow and erroneous human point of view. From the divine perspective, however, the world forms a necessary and perfect whole. Some Hindu thinkers have also denied the reality of suffering by advocating adoption of the divine point of view. According to the Vedantic tradition, what we call evil or suffering is really an aspect of māyā, the cosmic principle of dynamism and individuation. This principle is not ultimate, and the sage who attains the divine perspective sees māyā as an illusory process that does not really affect the eternal soul. This teaching renders the world of suffering inconsequential.

Classical theodicies

Those familiar with the Western religious traditions may be unpersuaded by these various dissolutions of the theodicy problem. They may find that some of these positions, such as the denial that God is just in humanly understandable terms, seriously jeopardize a religious faith based on belief in God's goodness. Other dissolutions may seem to ignore the importance of the evil that God seeks to overcome or may erode confidence in God's ability to master that evil. Yet we have seen that the alternative positionaffirmation of God's absolute goodness and power in a world of serious sufferingappears to be illogical. Defenders of ethical monotheism, however, have usually refused to accept this apparent illogicality. With varying degrees of self-consciousness, they have maintained that the alleged contradiction between monotheism and suffering does not exist. This view underlies the specific theodicies that have been elaborated to defend belief in a just and all-powerful God.

The key to these positions is an understanding of what it means to say that God is omnipotent. Typically, it is argued that while God can do anything he wills himself to do and anything that is capable of being done, he cannot do what is logically impossible. This is not because his power is limited but only because what is logically impossible cannot really be thought or conceived. Thus, God cannot make a "square circle," and we cannot ask or desire him to do so, because the very idea of a square circle is nonsense. Only the accident of language that makes a "square circle" seem as possible as a "seedless apple" leads us to think that God's inability here represents some limit to his power.

With this as a basis, it is further argued that the claim that God's goodness and power are logically incompatible with suffering is not correct, because it is not true that an all-good, all-powerful being would necessarily eliminate all suffering from the world. What is true is that such a being would want to bring about the greatest state of goodness in the world. But creating such a state may involve the creation of some specific goods whose existence logically entails the possibility of certain evils, and these evils may be the source of the suffering we see around us.

The enterprise of theodicy, therefore, essentially involves the identification of those eminently valuable goods whose existence may entail certain states of suffering or evil. Proponents of specific theodicies usually contend that a world without these goods would be of lesser value than one that contains them, and so God is morally justified in having created a world in which these goods, with their attendant evils, exist.

While those involved in the enterprise of theodicy frequently focus on one good or the other in their defense of God, theodicy is inherently an eclectic activity. A variety of distinct values and arguments are commonly advanced to defend God's goodness. Some of the major theodicies listed here are not even theodicies in the most precise sense since they involve less the identification of specific values whose existence justifies suffering than the assertion that such values might exist. In any case, none of these classical theodicies is necessarily exclusive of the others, and adherents of ethical monotheism usually hold several of the following positions.

The free-will theodicy

One of the most powerful and most frequently adduced explanations of suffering is the free-will theodicy. Those who hold this position maintain that a world containing creatures who freely perform good actions and who freely respond to their creator's goodness is far better than a world of automatons who always do what is right because they cannot do what is wrong. Now, while God can create free creatures, if they are truly free he cannot causally determine what they do. To create a creature freely capable of doing what is morally right, therefore, God must create a creature who is also capable of doing what is morally wrong. As it turned out, some of the free creatures God created have exercised their freedom to do wrong, and this is the source of the suffering we see around us. Some of this suffering is directly caused by these wicked beings, while some results when they are justly punished by God for their conduct.

As easily stated as this theodicy is, it has many complexities, and it has frequently been challenged. Recent debate has been especially vigorous. Philosophers such as Antony Flew and J. L. Mackie, for example, have questioned the link in this argument between free will and the possibility of wrongdoing. Since the conduct of free beings is not unshaped by causal factors, they contend, God might have molded human nature and the physical environment in such a way that free beings never do wrong. Or, they argue, since it is logically possible for any free being never to do wrong, there is nothing illogical in God's having created a whole race of free beings none of whom ever does wrong. However, other philosophers, notably Nelson Pike and Alvin Plantinga, have rejected these arguments, claiming either that they run counter to our commonsense understanding of freedom, which involves essentially an idea of nondetermination by causal forces, or that they mistakenly derive from ambiguities in what it means to say that God can create free beings who never do wrong. While it is true, they would say, that God can create a race of free beings none of whom ever happens to do wrong, it is not true that God can create free beings and bring about their never doing wrong. Whether wrong is done depends on the beings themselves. This leads these philosophers to the conclusion that God must expose the world to the possibility of suffering and evil if he chooses to create beings who are genuinely free.

A more traditional and long-standing objection to the free-will theodicy is that it does not apparently handle the problem of natural (or physical) evil as opposed to moral evil. Moral evil may be thought of as states of suffering traceable to the agency of free beings, such as war, racism, or genocide. Natural evil is that evil or suffering that is not traceable to acts or volitions of free beings, including such things as earthquakes, floods, and pestilence. Even if it is granted that this distinction is not sharp (some of the damage wrought by earthquakes, for example, is the result of shoddy construction techniques and other forms of human ignorance or avarice), clearly there are instances of suffering utterly beyond human control. Because this suffering is not traceable to human abuse of freedom, these critics contend, God must ultimately be held responsible for its existence.

Defenders of the free-will theodicy have responded to this objection in various ways. They have sometimes traced natural evil to the agency of demonic beings (fallen angels or Satan) whose own malevolence results from a perverse exercise of free will. They have also sometimes argued that natural evils are ongoing punishments for wrongful acts by humankind's first parents, so that suffering is a result of Original Sin. Despite occasional efforts at their revival, these responses have little currency today. As a result, many proponents of the free-will theodicy find themselves forced to turn elsewhere to supplement their defense of God. They frequently resort to one of the educative theodicies.

Educative theodicies

The force of the educative theodicies lies in their ability to justify at least some of the suffering experienced by innocent persons. This suffering exists, it is argued, because it serves to enrich human experience, to build moral character, or to develop human capacities.

Within the broad assertion that suffering has educative value, at least several distinct claims can be identified. It is sometimes maintained, for example, that modest suffering enhances our appreciation of life's satisfactions (as separation from loved ones can enrich moments spent with them). On a far deeper level, it is argued that even very serious suffering can toughen us to adversity and can help us develop depth of character, compassion, or new capabilities. Finally, it is common in this connection to stress the value of a world based upon regular laws of nature. Certainly, much suffering results from the operation of natural laws. Had God wished to, he might have created a world in which no regular laws existeda world in which the flames threatening a sleeping family suddenly turned cool. But such a world, it is argued, would be a magical garden with little opportunity for growth in human knowledge. The human race would forever remain in intellectual infancy. This explanation in terms of natural laws is also sometimes advanced to explain the puzzling problem of animal suffering.

These educative theodicies are important, but their limits are apparent. Many of life's satisfactions do not require suffering to be enjoyed. Good health can be appreciated without the experience of disease. It is true, and perhaps profoundly true, that serious suffering can stimulate the development of our capacities and character. But this is not always so. Sometimes suffering embitters, diminishes, or destroys people. Finally, while growth in our understanding of nature's laws is valuable, we must ask whether this knowledge can be justified if its price has been the wasting of lives down through countless generations. What kind of education is it, some ask, that kills so many of the students?

Eschatological (or recompense) theodicies

Many of the difficulties of the educative theodicies derive from the brevity of human life. If an individual's existence were to continue beyond death, some of these problems might be overcome. Then, unmerited or unproductive suffering might be placed in a larger context of experience and meaning. Eschatological theodicies are based on the conviction that human life transcends personal death and that the righteous eventually receive their full reward. (It is also frequently maintained that the wicked receive appropriate punishment.) These theodicies differ from one another on the question of just when or how such recompense occurs. The eschaton ("last thing") can be envisioned as a historical epoch that begins at the end of history, a time when the righteous are resurrected in renewed bodies. Or it can be understood as an eternal heavenly realm that one enters after death. In either case, eschatological theodicies assume that the blissful future life more than compensates for present suffering.

Eschatological theodicies clearly play an important part in reconciling many religious believers to the fact of suffering. Nevertheless, this kind of theodicy faces many difficulties today. Some persons regard the idea of an afterlife as incredible. Others reject the idea that future bliss can compensate for present misery. They point out that while suffering may come to an end, the painful memory of suffering endures. Such novelists as Dostoevskii, Camus, and Elie Wiesel have also asked whether anything can compensate for the massive suffering inflicted on children during the persecutions of recent times.

Theodicy deferred: The mystery of suffering

Long before Auschwitz, religious believers recognized that any effort to justify severe suffering in terms of identifiable values risks trivializing the enormity of human anguish. Rather than renounce their faith in God's justice and power, however, some of these believers have chosen to deny that the mystery of suffering can be fully understood. They have preferred to defer comprehension and to trust in God's ultimate goodness and sovereignty. Frequently they have connected this with their eschatological expectations and have looked forward, not just to recompense but to a final understanding of God's purposes in the world.

Very often, those who stress the mystery of suffering also emphasize the limited nature of human understanding and the enormous differences that exist between God and humans. This position should not be confused, however, with the view that God's justice is somehow qualitatively different from our own. The latter perspective dissolves the problem of theodicy by placing God beyond moral accountability, whereas the view discussed here insists that God's justice will ultimately be vindicated. Faith is not the belief in a God beyond justice but the belief that God's justice will finally be upheld.

Communion theodicies

Emphasis on the mystery of suffering and the need to defer our understanding of it may help to sustain religious faith in the face of evil; but it also imposes new burdens on that faith, because human beings may come to regard themselves as pawns in a cosmic game, and God may come to be viewed as distant and indifferent. To offset this, religious traditions have sometimes presented suffering itself as an occasion for direct relationship, collaboration, and even communion with God.

Several related positions may be identified here. One refuses to accept the seeming distance of God in the mystery of suffering by insisting on God's presence with the sufferer in the midst of anguish. God is a compassionate God, who suffers with his creatures and who is most intensely present when he seems farthest away. This position may not explain why God allows suffering in the first place, but it comforts and sustains the believer in the moment of trial. Moreover, since God is a suffering God, suffering also affords the believer a unique opportunity to obey and to imitate his creator. Those who suffer for a righteous purpose do God's will and make known his presence in the world. Suffering thus provides the most intense opportunity for collaboration and communion between God and humankind.

With this emphasis on communion, the enterprise of theodicy comes full circle. That which first threw open to question God's goodness and power, the bitter suffering of innocent persons, now becomes the supreme expression of love between God and humans. Unlike the mystical dissolutions of the theodicy problem that were looked at earlier, the fact of suffering is not here denied. Instead, the reality of suffering and its importance in human life are heightened. But suffering itself is transvalued: what is usually viewed as an experience to be avoided is now seen as an opportunity for intense religious fulfillment.

Teachings on Theodicy in the History of Religions

These theoretical positions on suffering and theodicy are not just abstract logical possibilities. They find concrete expression in the life and teachings of historical religious communities. Religions may even be characterized in terms of which of these theoretical positions they favor. While all of these positions may have some presence in a tradition, one or another is usually emphasized and serves as a distinguishing trait. Even closely related traditions like Judaism and Christianity evidence their uniqueness by subtle preferences among these different theodicies.


In Jewish tradition, the theodicy problem is addressed not only in Hebrew scriptures but in rabbinic teachings.

Biblical foundations

The Hebrew scriptures provide the basis for both Jewish and Christian theodicies. With varying degrees of emphasis, they contain many of the positions we have reviewed. However, the free-will theodicy is probably to the fore. This view is firmly anchored in the account of history given in Genesis, where a world created as "good" or "very good" by God is viewed as corrupted by human sinfulness. From the first deliberate but unnecessary transgression of the divine commandment by Adam and Eve, we follow a process of recurrent and accelerating wrongdoing that vitiates the goodness of nature and that pits person against person. While the account in Genesis does not answer all the questions that troubled later thinkers (why, for example, God chose to create human beings in the first place), it does place primary blame for both natural and moral evil on humankind's abuse of freedom.

Much the same view is conveyed in the portions of the Bible that were influenced by the Deuteronomic writer and the early prophets. Here, suffering is explained in simple retributive terms: loyalty to the moral and religious conditions of the covenant brings prosperity and peace; wickedness brings plague, famine, and war. Since the prophetic literature often aims to summon the sinful nation to covenantal obedience, it is recognized that the connection between conduct and its consequences is not always immediate. The result is an immanent eschatological theodicy based on confidence in a prompt, future balancing of moral accounts. Thus said Isaiah (Is. 3:1011):

Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds. Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for what his hands have done shall be done to him.

This simple equation between suffering and punishment was not unchallenged in biblical thinking, and the disasters of the period from the Babylonian exile onward, when the Israelites were often most intensely loyal to the covenant, forced an explanation of seemingly innocent suffering. In wisdom literature, especially the Book of Job, the older theodicy is rejected. Job is an innocent man, blameless and righteous in every way; yet he suffers (Jb. 12). The prose epilogue, apparently appended at a later date, seeks to maintain the retributive schema by suggesting that Job is eventually more than compensated for his trials (42:1017), but the book's most decisive response to suffering borders on a radical dissolution of the theodicy problem. Answering Job out of a whirlwind, God asks, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" (38:4). A litany of God's mighty deeds in nature and history follows, with the suggestion that man is too puny a creature to question his maker's justice. Job repents his presumption: "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (42:3).

The Book of Job may be read as an abandonment of the very effort to comprehend God's justice, as an assertion that a creature cannot ask its maker to render account. Or, less radically, it may be read as a deferred theodicynot the claim that God is unjust or beyond justice but that we are unprepared here and now to fathom God's righteous ways. The repeated assertions of God's control of the wicked support this interpretation. In any case, the more radical stance, amounting to a dissolution of the theodicy problem, finds expression elsewhere in the wisdom literature. Ecclesiastes, for example, repeatedly emphasizes the obscurity of God's ways in dealing with humans. Occasionally the text despairs of there being any justice in the world: "one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil" (Eccl. 9:2).

These dramatic responses of the wisdom tradition are not the only positions of the exilic and postexilic period. In some of the later prophetic writings, especially in "Second Isaiah," a complex, new theodicy appears: the idea of the suffering servant. This is the innocent "man of sorrows," an "offering for sin" who bears the sins of others and is "wounded for our transgressions" (Is. 53:310). Just who this figure is remains unclear. Is he the prophet himself or some other charismatic figure? Is he the nation as a whole or a righteous remnant? Whatever the answer, this idea embodies a new theodicy, combining the freewill theodicy with elements of the educative and communion theodicies. Suffering is still produced by sin, but the servant suffers vicariously. He bears his stripes to absorb the punishment of others, to highlight and communicate the consequence of sin and God's wrath against it. His suffering teaches others and is also a unique form of service to God. Finally, in a bid to the eschatological theodicy, it is promised that this servant will ultimately have his reward. He will be given a "portion with the great" and will "divide the spoil with the strong" (Is. 53:12).

In the latest texts of the Hebrew Bible, as well as in many writings of the intertestamental period, these eschatological and recompense themes move to the fore with the appearance of apocalyptic writings, such as the Book of Daniel. In these, history is viewed as moving toward a final cosmic resolution, when God will smash the empires of the wicked and raise the righteous dead to "everlasting life" (Dn. 12:2). The Hebrew scriptures thus draw to a close with a reassertion of the ultimate connection between suffering and sin.

Rabbinic teaching

Many of the motifs found in the Hebrew scriptures are continued in rabbinic thinking. Foremost once again is the freewill theodicy and the link between suffering and sin: "If a man sees that painful suffering visits him," says the Talmud, "let him examine his conduct" (B.T., Ber. 5a). Or again, more radically, "There is no suffering without sin" (B.T., Shab. 55a). It follows from this that any apparent discrepancy between conduct and its reward must be overcome or denied. Eschatology becomes acutely important. The righteous may look forward to the world to come ('olam ha-ba'), where all inequities will be overcome and the wicked must fear hell (Gehenna). Whatever observable suffering one experiences may be regarded as expiation of those inevitable sins that all human beings commit. Suffering thus prepares one for final reward: "Beloved are sufferings, for as sacrifices are atoning so is suffering atoning" (Mekilta' de Rabbi Yishmaʿe'l 2. 280).

This stress on the positive value of suffering is emphasized in a series of rabbinic teachings that go beyond the view of suffering as retribution and emphasize its educative dimensions or the opportunity it provides for obedience to God and communion with him. Sometimes, for example, suffering is seen as having disciplinary value. Frequently alluded to is Proverbs 3:11, which teaches that God is like a father who chastises a well-loved son. ʿAqiva' ben Yosef, martyred by the Romans in the Bar Kokhba Revolt, is said to have laughed during his torture. When asked by his tormentor why he did this, ʿAqiva' replied that all his life he had been reciting the Shemaʿ, the ritual formula in which the pious Jew is commanded to love God with all his heart, soul, and might, and now, amidst his tortures, he realized that he had finally been given the opportunity to fulfill this commandment. For ʿAqiva', as well as for many Jews who looked to him, suffering becomes an occasion for divine grace. Amidst suffering, these Jews came to see the presence of a God whose purpose, at a price in suffering to himself and to his people, was to render Israel a holy community.


The crucifixion of Jesus clearly forms the focal point for all Christian thinking about suffering. But the interpretation of this event varies widely in Christian thinking, as do the theodicies that it brings forth.

The New Testament

Although the problem of suffering is everywhere present in the earliest Christian writings, what theodicies we can identify in the New Testament writings are largely implicit. Expectedly, many of the theodicies we examined in the context of biblical and rabbinic thought are clearly assumed. Particular emphasis, for example, is given to aspects of the free-will theodicy. It is true that the crucifixion provides for Christians decisive evidence that not all who suffer are guilty. Nevertheless, the death of Jesus is also the result of almost every form of human wickedness. Factionalism, nationalism, militarism, religious hypocrisy, greed, personal disloyalty, and pride all conspire here to effect the death of an innocent man.

The fact that Christ is clearly blameless provokes the further question of why he should be allowed to suffer at all. At least several answers appear throughout the New Testament, some of which are also applicable to other innocent victims. On one level, in many New Testament texts a qualified dualism makes its appearance. Evil and suffering are traced to the agency of demonic forces or to Satan (e.g., Mk. 5:113; Mt. 9:3234, 12:2224). On another level, the eschatological theodicy is vigorously reasserted, with Christ's resurrection furnishing proof that the righteous are able to vanquish all the forces of wickedness and to surmount suffering and death. The apostle Paul typically insists that the Resurrection is a source of personal hope and confidence for all who follow Christ (1 Cor. 5:1519; 2 Cor. 4:14). Side by side with this, and found everywhere from the Gospels to Revelation, is a vivid apocalyptic expectation. Christ is the "Son of man" whose life (and death) will usher in the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, worldly hierarchies of reward will be overturned: "Many that are first will be last and the last will be first" (Mk. 10:31; Mt. 5:19).

Also running through many texts are elements of the educative theodicy. The letter to the Hebrews and the letter of James sound the note that suffering is sent by God as a test and a discipline of those he loves (Heb. 12:313; Jas. 1:24, 12). Paul continues this theme, adding to it elements of a communion theodicy. Christians should rejoice in suffering because it produces endurance, character, and hope (Rom. 5:35). Suffering also presents the opportunity to imitate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), who has shown that power is made perfect not in strength but in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). This emphasis on Christ's fellow-suffering is a constant theme in Paul's letters.

Finally, in Paul's writings we find an important extrapolation from the free-will theodicy: emphasis on the universality of sin and the universal deservedness of suffering. This theme is not altogether newit has deep roots in biblical and Jewish thoughtbut it is radicalized by Paul, especially in his Letter to the Romans (3:910, 23). The implications of this teaching for the theodicy problem are dramatic. Since all are sinners, what is extraordinary is not that some suffer in a world ruled by God, but that anyone is spared the divine wrath (Rom. 9:2224). The fact that not all are punished is explained in terms of God's grace being manifest in Christ's vicarious suffering and in God's willingness to suspend the punishment for sin (Rom. 3:24). This teaching clearly builds on dimensions of theodicy encountered in the Hebrew scriptures, including the suffering servant motif (now applied singularly to Christ). Nevertheless, it has the effect of revolutionizing Christian thinking about theodicy by converting the mystery of suffering into the mystery of divine grace.

Subsequent developments

It is impossible to review briefly all the contributions of later Christian thinking to theodicy. Suffice it to say that the major lines of thought build upon those established in the New Testament. Paul's ideas, especially, play a major role. Augustine (354430) developed Paul's suggestions into a fully elaborated doctrine of original sin. According to Augustine, Adam and Eve's transgression and punishment, "sin and its penalty," are to be viewed as passed on to their descendants through sexual reproduction. Because everyone thus "merits" punishment, emphasis is on God's grace and his election of those who are spared a just fate. Election itself is explained in terms of divine predestination, in accordance with which God has eternally decreed who shall be spared the punishment merited by all.

This position clearly does not solve the theodicy problem entirely, and in some respects the problem is sharpened in a new way. The question becomes not why human beings have incurred suffering but why God, in his foreknowledge and power, should have allowed the whole disastrous course of events proceeding from the Fall to have occurred in the first place. Sometimes the legitimacy of this question is denied. In Calvinism, for example, Paul's admonitions against questioning the creator (Rom. 9:1921) are expanded to a doctrine that places God altogether beyond measurement by human justice. With this denial of God's accountability, the theodicy problem is dissolved. Not all Christians, however, have accepted this extreme view, and repeated efforts have been made to explain and to justify God's creation of beings capable of sin.

In his book Evil and the God of Love (London, 1977), John Hick argues that at least two major responses to this question may be identified in the Christian tradition. One is traceable to Augustine and constitutes the historically dominant line of thinking about the problem. (A similar view, for example, is taken by Thomas Aquinas and many other Catholic theologians.) It begins by explaining evil in creation not as a substantial reality in itself (as the Manichaeans had contended) but as an aspect of nonbeing. Thus, evil does not stem from God but represents the unavoidable and nonculpable absence of his goodness or presence in mere "created" things (the doctrine of evil as a privatio boni ). Why God should have created free human beings is explained aesthetically in terms of the desirability of his creating a graded hierarchy of being. Once created and given every inducement for obedience, however, human beings nevertheless inexplicably turned away from God toward nonbeing. As a result, they have been justly punished, and the suffering that results (within a retributive theory of punishment) is fitting, as is the eternal damnation of those not rescued by God's grace. Indeed, the whole outcome is sometimes justified by Augustine in terms of its overall moral balance and aesthetic perfection.

Contrasted with this view is a position that Hick associates with Irenaeus (c. 130202) but that also has resonance in the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) and F. R. Tennant (18661957). It, too, traces suffering to the abuse of freedom. But its explanation of the place of both freedom and transgression in the divine plan is quite different from that of the Augustinian tradition. Here the Fall is fully within God's intention. God has knowingly created imperfect beings who are distanced from the divine splendor and destined to fall, but he is justified in doing this because he has the moral purpose of affording these beings the opportunity for growth and free development so that they may establish a mature personal relationship with him. In this view, the world is a "vale of soul making" and it is possible to apply to the Fall the words of the Easter liturgy: "O felix Culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem" ("O fortunate crime, which merited such and so great a redeemer!"). A further implication of the Irenaean theodicy, in Hick's view, is that it casts doubt on older retributive theories of punishment that may justify the consignment of some persons to eternal suffering in hell. The Irenaean theodicy suggests a more generous "universalist" eschatology, which sees all who have lived as eventually becoming "children of God."

Hick himself expresses a strong preference for this view. While not all contemporary Christian thinkers share this preference, it is reasonable to say that there exists among contemporary Christian theologians a predilection to stress God's moral purpose in creating free beings and to see God himself as personally involved in the venture and risk of human freedom.


In his book The House of Islam (1975), Kenneth Cragg observes that because of its emphasis on God's transcendence, Islam "does not find a theodicy necessary either for its theology or its worship" (p. 16). With one or two important qualifications, this is a reasonably accurate assessment of the state of theodicy in a tradition that insists on surrender to the divine will (one meaning of islām ) and finds it blasphemous to hold that God is accountable to human moral judgments. Nevertheless, while theodicy has not been a major preoccupation of Muslims, there are, especially in the earliest texts, implicit efforts to understand the sources of suffering and why God might allow it to exist.

The Qurʾān

We know that one of the most persistent explanations and justifications of human suffering traces that suffering to free creatures' abuse of their freedom. At first sight, this free-will theodicy seems to have little footing in the Qurʾān because of its repeated emphasis on God's sovereignty and his absolute control over human behavior. In sūrah 6:125, for example, we read:

Whomsoever God desires to guide, He expands his breast to Islam; whomsoever he desires to lead astray, He makes his breast narrow, tight.

Or again, in 61:5:

When they swerved, God caused their hearts to swerve; and God guides never the people of the ungodly.

Although passages like these shape the later emphasis on predestination in Islamic thought, they may not have this meaning in the Qurʾān. For one thing, these utterances are frequently used to explain the recalcitrance of Muammad's opponents, and thus are more properly understood as affirmations of God's ultimate control of the wicked than as philosophical disquisitions on freedom. In addition, these passages are offset by many others in which a substantial measure of human freedom, initiative, and accountability is assumed. "He leads none astray save the ungodly," says surah 2:24, while sūrah 4:80 makes what seems to be an explicit statement of the free-will theodicy:

Whatever good visits thee, it is of God; whatever evil visits thee is of thyself.

In addition, the Qurʾān displays two other themes associated with the free-will theodicy. One is a view of suffering as a test of righteousness. More than once the question is asked, "Do the people reckon that they will be left to say 'We believe,' and will not be tried?" (29:1; 3:135; cf. 14:6; 2:46). Because such testing can sometimes lead to martyrdom and death, the Qurʾān also supports a vivid eschatological expectation. Those who withstand the test shall have their reward. All human deeds are said to be recorded in books kept by the angels. These will be opened following the general resurrection on the day of judgment (yawm al-dīn). Those whose record is wanting shall descend to the Fire, while the righteous shall dwell in the Garden (al-jannah) where their bliss is depicted in spiritual as well as vividly material terms (surah 9:74; 75:23; 52:24; 56:17f.; 76:1121).

Later developments

If the Qurʾān's perspective on suffering and its implicit theodicy display substantial similarity to some familiar positions in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, subsequent Islamic thought strikes off on a path of its own. From the eighth century ce onward, the free-will position becomes involved in a series of bitter disputes between the Muʿtazilī school of "rationalists," or "humanists," and more orthodox defenders of God's sovereignty (including his role as sole creator of human acts). Entangled in extraneous political conflicts, this debate continued for several centuries, until the victory of the orthodox position through the work of Abū al-asan al-Ashʿarī (d. 935 ce) and others. What emerged was an extreme predestinarian position, according to which not only suffering or blessedness but the acts and volitions that lead to them are totally in the hands of God. Al-Ashʿarī himself tried to secure some limited room for human responsibility through a doctrine of "acquisition," according to which acts proceed from God but attach themselves to the will of the individual. Nevertheless, this teaching remains overwhelmingly deterministic. An oft-quoted tale presenting an imaginary conversation in heaven between God, an adult, and a child captures the resulting orthodox view. The child asks God, "Why did you give that man a higher place than myself?" God replies, "He has done many good works." The child then asks, "Why did you let me die so young that I was prevented from doing good?" God responds, "I knew that you would grow up to be a sinner; therefore, it was better that you should die a child." At that instant a cry arises from all those condemned to the depths of hell, "Why, O Lord! did you not let us die before we became sinners."

In the context of such determinism, all responsibility for good and evil devolves upon God himself. Lest it be thought, however, that God may legitimately be accused of injustice, Islamic orthodoxy hastens to add that in his sovereignty, God may not be subjected to human moral judgment. God's command is itself the defining feature of right, and what God wills can never be morally impugned. The great medieval theologian Abū āmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) affirms that "there is no analogy between his justice and the justice of creatures. He never encounters any right in another besides himself so that his dealing with it might be a doing of any wrong."

This emphasis on God's omnipotence does not mean that Muslims (any more than Calvinists) view God as a capricious despot. On the contrary, their constant affirmation is that God is "merciful and compassionate." Yet in the encounter with suffering, a human's response must not be to complain, to question, or even to try to defend God. Hence, for Islamic orthodoxy at least, theodicy remains an undeveloped dimension of the religious life. Its place is taken by the sentiment conveyed by the Qurʾānic formula "asbunā Allāh" ("God is sufficient unto us").

Hinduism and Buddhism

It would ordinarily not be advisable to lump together any treatment of such complex traditions as Hinduism and Buddhism. But where the issue of theodicy is concerned, this approach has much to recommend it since it emphasizes the fact, already mentioned, that both traditions share a common perspective on suffering. This is the view that suffering derives from the operation of the automatic law of moral retribution known as karman working in conjunction with a process of reincarnation. In his Sociology of Religion (Boston, 1963), Max Weber characterized karman as "the most radical solution of the problem of theodicy" (p. 147), but this reflects Weber's own broader use of the term theodicy to cover any explanation of suffering. In fact, because karman traces suffering to one's own thoughts and deeds, and because it denies the gods any involvement in or control over the process of suffering, it is not a theodicy in our sense at all. Rather, it is a fundamental dissolution of the theodicy problem as we encounter it in ethical monotheism.

How decisive a resolution of the problem of suffering are the combined teachings of karman and reincarnation may be illustrated by a famous tale concerning the assassination of Mahāmoggallāna, a respected disciple of the Buddha. When the Buddha was asked to explain Moggallāna's brutal death, he replied that, while undeserved in terms of his present life, it was altogether suited to his conduct in a previous existence. In that life, said the Buddha, Moggallāna had been guilty of cruelly killing his elderly parents. (This tale is reprinted in Henry Clarke Warren's Buddhism in Translation, New York, 1963, pp. 221226.) The implication of this tale is that in a world ruled by karman there is no such thing as "innocent suffering." All suffering (even animal suffering) is deserved. We have seen that the free-will theodicy has sometimes tended toward this same conclusion, but in all the Western traditions where this theodicy has been espoused, there have always been voices affirming the reality of innocent suffering. In Hinduism and Buddhism, however, these voices have been silenced by a drive toward the total and lucid explanation of worldly suffering afforded by karman.

A further implication of this teaching is that the gods may be neither blamed nor appealed to when suffering occurs. In Buddhism, belief in karman helps explain the subordinate place of God or the gods in the schema of salvation. Not only may divinity be attained by any righteous individual, but the gods themselves, through sins that create bad karman, may plunge from their lofty state. As a result, it makes no sense to look to the gods for release from suffering, since they are as subject to suffering as anyone else. Nor can they be held responsible for what suffering occurs.

Hinduism appears somewhat less certain about these conclusions. In the earlier Vedic texts, the gods are sometimes presented as powerful, righteous figures who reward and punish human beings and to whose compassion one may appeal. Varua, in particular, bears many of the marks of a supreme deity, and it is possible to see here an implicit free-will theodicy with human suffering traced to transgression of God's righteous law. Nevertheless, these lines of thought are not developed in later Hindu thinking, and in the post-Vedic period, when karman moves to the fore, even the gods are subordinated to it. According to one tradition of Hindu mythology, for example, the god Indra slays a wicked brahman, but, in so doing, he becomes subject to the moral penalty for brahmanicide. In an effort to free himself of this burden, Indra ends by inflicting suffering on human beings. Thus, even the goodness of the gods is compromised as they find themselves powerless before the operation of this moral law of cause and effect. It is true that in popular and mythological traditions the gods are frequently seen as able to free themselves from the effects of karman. They are also viewed as able to benefit their devotees. But what power they have in this regard does not usually extend, within the world of karman, to helping human beings escape automatic punishment for serious sin.

Neither can the gods be held responsible in these traditions for the shape of reality. Buddhism explicitly denies the gods any role in creation. The universe is conceived of as an ongoing, eternal, and cyclical process of becoming, and only an error on the part of the first-born god Brahma allows him to think himself its creator. Hinduism gives a more active role to the gods in this cyclic process of evolution and devolution. The world proceeds from Viu and is actively brought forth by Brahmā. But this process is not understood in moral terms. Instead, creation is a process whereby every potentiality within the great God is allowed to manifest itself in the world of differentiation. This means that everything in creation, blessings and suffering, the gods and the demons, all good and all evil, represent the working out of the divine plenitude. If creation is conceived in anthropomorphic terms at all, it is not a morally intentioned act for which God is accountable but an expression of the deity's spontaneous creativity or play (līlā).

There is, therefore, in neither of these traditions any question of morally justifying the gods, and there is no real theodicy. Instead, the paramount religious questions become how (in popular Hinduism especially) one can procure some favor from the gods, how one can produce good karman, and how, finally, one can altogether escape sasāra, the world of karmicly determined becoming. This latter question becomes particularly important when it is realized that within sasāra suffering is virtually inescapable. While deeds that generate good karman may lead to prosperity or bliss in some future life, it is almost certain that such a state will not endure. Because every transgression brings its penalty, and because those who are spiritually or materially well placed are more likely to transgress, existence in sasāra is an endless shuttle between momentary respite and prolonged misery.

We need not review in detail here the various Hindu and Buddhist answers to the question of how one may escape sasāra. These answers constitute the core teachings of their traditions. They range from Hinduism's stress on the profound recognition that one's soul (ātman) is identical with Being-itself (brahman), and hence basically unaffected by the flux of becoming, to Buddhism's opposing insistence that there is no eternal soul capable of being affected by sasāra (the doctrine of anātman ). Despite the enormous differences between these teachings, they have much in common: suffering is viewed as endemic to the world process, and the goal is extrication from this process. Suffering is not a reason for praising or blaming God. The legacy of karman thus colors Indian thought from beginning to end, from its conception of the problem of suffering to that problem's resolution. Within this intellectual context, theodicy in its classic sense finds little room for development.


Along with the corrosive effect of modern scientific knowledge, the problem of innocent suffering poses one of the greatest challenges to ethical monotheism in our day. In the wake of the mass suffering of this epoch, some have rejected such monotheism, agreeing with the remark by Stendahl that "the only excuse for God is that he does not exist." Others have been drawn to various dissolutions of the theodicy problem, ranging from the Eastern stress on karman to an extreme fideism that abandons the insistence on God's justice.

Before rejecting ethical monotheism or the theodicies it has stimulated, however, it is worth keeping in mind that both spring from a profound moral intentionality. Ethical monotheism expresses the conviction that a supreme power guides reality and that this power is characterized by righteousness and love. Theodicy is the effort to sustain this conviction in the face of innocent suffering. Theodicy, therefore, is often less an effort to provide an account of the immediate facts of experience than an expression of hope and confidence that despite worldly reverses or human resistance, goodness and righteousness will triumph. Theodicy may not violate the requirements of logic, nor may it ignore the experienced reality of suffering. Theodicy's deepest impulse, however, is not to report the bitter facts of life but to overcome and transform them.

This essentially moral motivation should be kept in mind as we evaluate theodicies and their alternatives. Various dissolutions of the theodicy problem, from denials of God's power or justice to denials of the reality of suffering, may seem intellectually satisfying, but they may have moral implications we hesitate to accept. Theodicies, too, are subject to a moral test. If some older theodicies, such as reliance on the harsh idea of original sin, are no longer widely held, this may reflect their moral inadequacy. Conversely, theodicies that still attract attention are those that draw upon and deepen our moral self-understanding. The idea that God is committed to the perilous enterprise of creating free, mature human beings exemplifies this approach. This theodicy draws on certain aspects of our deepest moral experiencefor example, the experienced relationship between parents and childrenand uses these to illuminate the relationship between God and his creatures. Unless this ultimate moral basis and intention is kept in mind, neither theodicy's purpose nor its persistence will be well understood.

See Also

Afterlife; Evil; Free Will and Predestination; Holocaust, The, article on Jewish Theological Responses; Karman; Līlā; Sasāra; Suffering.


Useful surveys of classic Western philosophical and theological discussions of theodicy can be found in John Hick's Evil and the God of Love, 2d ed. (London, 1977), S. Paul Schilling's God and Human Anguish (Nashville, 1977), and David Ray Griffin's God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia, 1976).

Some of the most important classic discussions of this problem include Augustine's treatment of the issue in his Confessions, bk. 7, chaps. 35 and 1216, in his Enchridion, chaps. 35, and in The City of God, bk. 11, chaps. 1618, and bk. 12, chaps. 19. Thomas Aquinas has a very similar discussion in his Summa theologiae, first part, questions 4749, as does John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 1, chaps. 15 and 1418, bk. 2, chaps. 15, and bk. 3, chaps. 2125. The great medieval Jewish philosopher Mosheh ben Maimon (Maimonides) also advances a theodicy in his Guide of the Perplexed, pt. 3, chaps. 11 and 12, which relies heavily on the connection between wrongdoing and suffering.

Modern philosophical discussion of theodicy has its start with Leibniz's Essais de théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme, et l'origine du mal (1710), translated by E. M. Huggard as Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil (London, 1952). On the other side, penetrating criticisms of theism and theodicy are offered by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) and by John Stuart Mill in his Three Essays on Religion (1874).

In this century, debate in this area has been especially vigorous. Important theological discussions include Nels Ferré's Evil and the Christian Faith (New York, 1947), Austin Farrer's Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (Garden City, N. Y., 1961), and the works by Hick, Schilling, and Griffin mentioned above. A critique of these and other efforts at theodicy is offered by Edward H. Madden and Peter H. Hare in their Evil and the Concept of God (Springfield, Ill., 1968).

Influential criticisms of theism and the free-will theodicy have been advanced by Antony Flew in his essays "Theology and Falsification" and "Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom," in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (London, 1955), and by J. L. Mackie in his article "Evil and Omnipotence," Mind, n. s. 64 (1955): 200212. This last essay is reprinted along with rejoinders by Nelson Pike and Ninian Smart in God and Evil (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1964), edited by Pike. Responding to these discussions, Alvin Plantinga provides a powerful defense of theodicy in general and of the free-will theodicy in particular in his God and Other Minds (Ithaca, N. Y., 1967), chaps. 5 and 6, and in his God, Freedom and Evil (London, 1975).

The problem of evil and the issue of theodicy has also had an important place in fictional writing during the modern period. Particularly noteworthy are Fedor Dostoevskii's The Brothers Karamazov, translated by David Magarshack (London, 1964), esp. bk. 5, chap. 4; Albert Camus's The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert (New York, 1948); and Elie Wiesel's Night, translated by Stella Rodway (London, 1960).

A sign of how much the problem of theodicy is a Western concern is that no comparable body of literature exists on the theodicy problem in Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Nevertheless, there are some discussions worth noting. Max Weber's treatment of theodicy in his Religionssoziologie (Tübingen, 1922) is a pioneering effort to look at the problem of suffering and theodicy in a comparative context. This essay is translated as "Theodicy, Salvation, and Rebirth" in Weber's Sociology of Religion, translated by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston, 1963). Weber's view is critically examined and developed by Gananath Obeyesekere in his article "Theodicy, Sin, and Salvation in a Sociology of Buddhism," in Dialectic in Practical Religion, edited by E. R. Leach (Cambridge, 1968).

A good survey of the problem of suffering in diverse religious traditions (and in Marxism) is provided by John Bowker's Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World (Cambridge, 1970). Both Arthur L. Herman's The Problem of Evil and Indian Thought (Delhi, 1976) and Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, 1976) contain useful information on the diversity of responses to suffering in Indian religious traditions.

Unfortunately, there is less explicit discussion of this issue in Islamic writings or in writings about Islam, and what sources do exist are largely in Arabic. The best available review of this issue is the doctoral dissertation of Eric Lynn Ormsby, An Islamic Version of Theodicy: The Dispute over Al-Ghazālī's "Best of All Possible Worlds" (Princeton University, 1981). Brief mentions of this problem may also be found in Kenneth Cragg's The House of Islam, 2d ed. (Encino, Calif., 1975) and W. Montgomery Watt's What Is Islam (London, 1968). Watt's Free Will and Predestination in Early Islam (London, 1948) is an influential discussion of the deterministic themes that have tended to minimize the presence of theodicy in this tradition. On the other side of the issue, Jane I. Smith and Yvonne Haddad's The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection (Albany, N. Y., 1981) provides a useful review of the themes of accountability and recompense that form an implicit theodicy in this tradition.

New Sources

Adams, Marilyn McCord. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Ithaca, N.Y., 1999.

Adams, Marilyn McCord, and Robert Merihew Adams. The Problem of Evil. New York, 1990.

Alford, C. Fred. What Evil Means to Us. Ithaca, N.Y., 1997.

Basinger, David. "The Problem with the 'Problem of Evil.'" Religious Studies 30 (1994): 8997.

Boyd, Gregory. God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict. Downers Grove, Ill., 1997.

Leaman, Oliver. Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy. New York, 1995.

Pinn, Anthony. Why Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology. 1995; rpt. New York, 1999.

Rowe, William, ed. God and the Problem of Evil. Blackwell Readings in Philosophy. Malden, Mass., 2002.

Sands, Kathleen. Escape from Paradise: Evil and Tragedy in Feminist Theology. New York, 1998.

Swinburne, Richard. Providence and the Power of Evil. New York, 1998.

Ronald M. Green (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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