We Don’t Get to Hold God Accountable: Theodicy as a Problem

As creatures made in God’s image, we are given many gifts, broad freedom, and power to represent Him with boldness in the world, but we are never given the right to hold God accountable.

William Placher’s The Domestication of Transcendence ends with a thoughtful chapter on what is usually called theodicy, the theological discipline that examines the justice of God.  Placher’s project in this work is to show how 17th century thinkers “domesticated” God, emphasizing via human reason God’s immanence (knowablility) to the detriment of God’s transcendence, particularly in classic Christian categories.  Given that focus, it should be no surprise that he finds theodicy exemplifies the worst of this trend.

Classic theodicies, in dealing with a basic (yet difficult!) question of innocent suffering, might pose a question like this: “If God is all-powerful, all-loving, and all knowing, why do children get cancer and die?”  This limits the answers, naturally, to compromising some part of God’s character: God either must not be omnipotent, benevolent, or omniscient.  The only other alternative is that either the supposedly innocent sufferer is not really that innocent, or that the suffering serves some higher purpose to which we do not have access.

All of these miss the mark, of course, if one is committed to the Trinity of Christian belief and worship.  Placher cites John Hick as an example of the spiritual gymnastics one must do to resolve the tensions inherent in traditional theodicies, by which we [read: theologians] seek to hold God accountable:

…in Evil and the God of Love, John Hick proposes that a world without pain “would lack the stimuli to hunting, agriculture, building, social organization, and the development of the sciences and technologies, which have been essential foci of human civilization and culture.” Like right-wing politicians urging reductions in welfare benefits to force people back to work, such a theodicy seeks to justify God in the face of starving children by pointing out that their hunger constitutes a stimulus to agriculture and hunting. This seems to manifest a kind of moral tone-deafness. My point is not to launch personal attacks on particular writers of theodicy, but to suggest that something about the enterprise of theodicy itself drives even thoughtful, decent folk to morally unacceptable conclusions. (204, emphasis added)

As Hauerwas argues in his magnificent God, Medicine, and Suffering (first published as Naming the Silences), it is the entire practice of theodicy that must be rethought, not simply this or that variety thereof.  Theodicy as normally undertaken inevitably results in compromising some critical facet of our understanding of God or humanity.  The quest to hold God accountable is thus bankrupt from the jump.  What is needed is a way of honestly confronting evil and suffering while holding on to God’s character revealed in the self-giving love of Christ.  This results in its own difficulty, but a difficulty that is altogether better than the kind of alternatives represented by John Hick and others in the tradition of theodicy.  As Placher has written before in regards to the Trinity, Christians must hold on to, rather than attempt to resolve, an inherent tension that we run up against:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

To sum up, it is not our job to hold God accountable. We are mere creatures, and so our search for God will always carry with it some degree of mystery. And our efforts to do so, however humble, pastoral, and well-intentioned, result only in alternatives that are worse than living with the tension Placher names above.  As Brueggemann and others point out, the Bible nowhere offers a “theodicy” in the traditional sense. The only answer Job gets is, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

The Bible treats evil as a reality to be confronted rather than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. The laments of the Psalms are the finest example of this, teaching us to call out to God in the raw reality of agony, not wax philosophically over our predicament.  Laments hold together the goodness of God with the incomprehensibility – what Hannah Arendt called the “banality” of evil – that mars so much of life on this side of the eschaton.

We don’t get to hold God accountable. It is not ours to justify the ways of God to us.  But neither can we be deaf to the cries of innocent suffering or blind to the raw evil in our midst. That tension is precarious, but it is better than the alternatives.

Is theodicy by nature a bankrupt discipline? Should we seek better alternatives, rather than abandoning it altogether? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to enter your email at to the right of the title and subscribe to get these blogs in your inbox weekly!

Comments ( 5 )

  1. ReplyAndrew
    I would tend to disagree - theodicy is not (or rather should not be) about holding God accountable. Theodicy is "the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil." In other words not us saying to God, "what you have done is just," but us saying to man, "Look, God is just and not even you can deny it." Yes, when misused it can lead to weird things like open theism or outright determinism, because sometimes people value their logic and definitions over the biblical narrative. And yes, we don't have all the answers (one can defend against the logical problem of evil, but not the evidential problem of evil), so there is still mystery. There is nothing inherently wrong with (from the basis of orthodoxy) trying to figure out where it fits together, but one must realise that not all answers are available and there are boundaries one should not cross. Theodicy at its heart is about explaining God to man. And sometimes that explanation is "we don't know." Should theodicy become about "holding God to account", it is no longer theodicy, but man setting himself up as above God. That is my ZW$0.02. YMMV, batteries not included.
  2. ReplyTerry
    Each time I teach Disciple Bible Study, difficult issues of the place of prayer regarding pain and death come up. I came up with a short saying that I believe to be based on a biblical understanding: We're all going to die. It's going to hurt. God will be with us. If we allow. (I added this line more recently.)
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  4. ReplyBrent White
    I disagree with the author's overall point. I can happily affirm his two points (in bold) above—that God is always fully active in events yet is not the cause of irrational (by which he means evil?) events. But assuming that's true, I don't believe there _is_ tension between them, logically if not experientially. Even Job, after all, says much more than Brueggemann says that it says (go figure!): At the very least, Job affirms that Job's suffering is not meaningless: God, we're explicitly told in chapter 1, has a reason for allowing Job to suffer. Right? Job doesn't know the reason, and his friends don't know the reason, but we the readers do know. And you may say, "Yes, but that's an unsatsifying reason!" But Satan is real, and God clearly uses him to accomplish his purposes. Remember Paul's thorn? It is both a "messenger of Satan" and something that "was given" (divine passive) in order to keep Paul humble. Paul inderstood that this suffering was deeply meaningful. Of course, there are many more scriptures I could cite. But the very fact that God transformed the greatest evil the world has ever known (the crucifixion of God's Son) in to the greatest good the world has known (the means of our atonement) proves that God can do this with all "lesser" versions of evil and suffering in our world. My point is, we can say that God allows evil and suffering for a good reason, even if we often don't know what that reason is. (How could we in most cases? The ripple effect of even one insignificant event in time could have consequences centuries later. A historical "butterfly effect" is easy to imagine.) To say this at a hospital bedside or graveside may not be pastorally helpful, but that doesn't mean it never needs to be said. This "greater good" theodicy was accepted by Wesley and Arminius—if that matters to anyone. Regardless, I find it immensely comforting—the squeamishness of the Protestant mainline notwithstanding.
  5. ReplyJim
    I am not up to opining on the theodicy project. I have, however, encountered the objection ("How can a good God allow _____________________") frequently. In the pews, my humble opinion is that it's just another excuse for those unwilling to bow the knee. God is God. I am not God, and in fact I owe my very being to the One who is God. We must look to Jesus, and ask: Why are we executing this good man?

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