Theodicy (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
A theodicy is an argument for the justice of God in the face of evil and suffering in the world. The word theodicy is derived from the Greek words theos (god) and dike (justice). It was first used by the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) in the early eighteenth century. It is common to talk about the theodicy problem, or the problem of evil, as created by the tension, found mainly in monotheistic religions, between the belief that the world is created by a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good, and the observation that there exists immense evil and suffering in the world. Critics argue that such a religious belief is either contradictory or morally unacceptable, and, consequently, can not be true.
Theodicy in world religions
The actuality of evil is a concern in many religions. In Buddhism and Hinduism it is a principal goal to be released from the suffering in the world. In these religions, however, the question of divine justice and its possible conflict with suffering has not been a main concern. For Buddhists and Hindus, individual suffering is the result of each individual's karma; suffering can not be blamed on the gods, for even the gods are submitted to karma.
The problem of evil has mainly challenged Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In Judaism, the incomprehensibleness of God and of God's justice is stressed. The rabbinical discussion contains several approaches to the theodicy problem. According to a frequent interpretation, suffering is the consequence of human disobedience to God. Jewish teaching also stresses the educational and disciplinary value of suffering. This interpretation is often based on the Old Testament book of Job, in which a righteous man endures immense suffering. In Islamic tradition there is a strong emphasis on the omnipotence of God. This applies not only to the strong tradition of divine predestination, but also to the belief that human beings must obey and surrender to the will of God and that God is not accountable to human moral judgement.
A solution to the theodicy problem presented in classic Christian theology is the idea that evil is a kind of nonexistence or a lack of completeness. Another classic effort is the idea presented by Leibniz that evil is bad only from a limited perspective, and may be necessary for the goodness of reality as a whole. Leibniz used an aesthetic metaphor to illustrate this view: The dark parts in a painting are necessary for the beauty of the whole.
Varieties of theodicy
The nature of God's omnipotence is widely discussed within Christianity. One influential theodicy is to deny that God has the capacity to carry out anything God wants to do. According to this view, the Christian understanding of God as almighty is not identical to the philosophical idea of a capacity to predetermine everything that happens. A modern version of this interpretation can be found in process theology. However, in other Christian traditions, predestination is seen as an important capacity of God.
Another form of theodicy is the claim that suffering is an unavoidable means to a greater end. God's main goal is not to create a paradise on earth, but rather this world is a kind of school to prepare for heaven. Christian teaching often goes beyond the harmonious vision of Leibniz. Not only is suffering seen as an integral part of life, but God is also described as engaging in human misery by taking suffering upon himself through Jesus Christ. Within Christianity there are divergent interpretations of why Christ assumes this vicarious suffering and what function it has.
A frequent argument is the idea that evil is a consequence of human free will. What is commonly called the free will defense is the contention that evil in the world can be explained and justified by the free will of human beings. The main idea is that God has granted human beings a kind of independence. The goal of this freedom is to give humans the possibility to become like God and thereby achieve a communion with God, which would be impossible without such freedom. As a consequence, humans may not always act in accordance with the will of God, and they may cause evil and suffering in the world. The free will defense, if accepted, seems to explain only evil caused by humans, but it does not explain natural evil, not caused by humans.
All these efforts to defend the goodness of God in the face of the evil continue to be widely debated, but many give only partial explanations of evil. However, a theodicy must not only provide an intellectually satisfying explanation for evil, the explanation must be morally convincing.
Scientific perspectives on theodicy
Developments in science have interesting consequences for the traditional discussion on the theodicy problem. One important development in biology is the understanding of the role of the nervous system and the possibility of pain in living beings. Physical pain is part of a complex and life-sustaining system for organisms that helps them avoid dangerous situations in which they may be hurt. Pain helps living beings survive by warning them to avoid what causes pain. Individuals whose pain signal system does not work properly have difficulty orienting themselves in the world and avoiding dangers. Similarly, anxiety can be regarded as a by-product or as an integral part of consciousness and imagination, which is highly developed in humans. Consciousness helps people foresee and calculate the future, but it also leads to anxiety.
Another aspect of current biology is the understanding of death as a prerequisite for evolution. From the perspective of evolutionary biology, reproduction of the individual is an instrument for evolution because it facilitates recombination of genes. Thus, the death of the individual is a necessary aspect of life. An individual life is only a link in a series of generations, where the reproduction and extinction of individuals and generations are necessary for evolution.
These scientific insights have inspired new approaches to the theodicy problem because they encourage an understanding of suffering and death as integral parts of reality, hardly to be explained by human disobedience or freedom.
See also EVIL AND SUFFERING; FREE PROCESS DEFENSE; FREE WILL DEFENSE
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