by Rev. John T. Pless
As I write these lines, the world reels with the news of a devastating earthquake in Haiti that has left a death toll numbering in the thousands. In this impoverished nation, the magnitude of suffering cannot be measured.
Closer to home, senseless workplace murders, seemingly random violence, and cases of child abduction and sexual assault culminating in murder have become an all too common feature of the daily news. Recent memories of 9/11, the tsunami in Asia, and Hurricane Katrina are compounded with countless personal tragedies that press people to ask the ancient question, “Why is there suffering?” More existentially put, “What did I do to deserve this?”
In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The book is an anguish-laden attempt of the rabbi to come to terms with a painful illness that claimed the life of his young son. Struggling with issues of God’s providence and mercy, creation and chaos, the rabbi can finally only conclude that those who suffer must “forgive God.” God’s intentions might be good but His power is limited seems to be a better solution than calling into question His goodness.
If a Lutheran were to do a re-write of Kushner’s book, it would have a different title, When Good Things Happen to Bad People. In the Divine Service, we confess that “we justly deserve” God’s “present and eternal punishment,” but times of calamity call into question whether we really believe it. In defiance or moaning resignation, we cry out, “Why me?” as though God had to explain Himself. In this role reversal, God becomes the defendant and man the judge.
“Theodicy” is a term coined from two Greek words theos (God) and dike (judgment), literally meaning a judgment of, or justification of, God. The term became the title of a book by G.W. Leibnitz (1646–1716) in which he argued optimistically that this is the best of all possible worlds. After the destructive All Saints’ Day earthquake of 1755 killed thousands in Lisbon, Portugal, his argument was ridiculed, but the term remained. We attempt to make the Almighty fit into our categories of good and evil, right and wrong. The Creator who is the judge now becomes the defendant, while the creature now becomes judge over the Creator. Rather than God justifying man, man now attempts to justify God.
Recent attempts at theodicy often attempt to excuse God. After the tsunami, one North American clergyman, when interviewed on a national television broadcast, claimed “that God had nothing to do with it.” In a futile effort to protect the Lord God from anything that might cause human beings to fear Him, this cleric tried to extract God from the picture altogether. The attempt falters, leaving a God who is remodeled according to human imagination. This is hardly the God known by Job and Jonah in the Old Testament. Jeremiah and Isaiah would not recognize such a deity, nor would Jesus or Paul.
Others would suggest that God is not the cause of suffering but He merely allows it. If God is almighty, then it is of little comfort to assert that this all-powerful God allowed evil when He could have stopped it. To this argument, Oswald Bayer, in Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Eerdmans, 2008, translated by Thomas H. Trapp) responds: “The first attempt is an effort to soften or give up completely on the concept of omnipotence. It is thus often said that God does not cause evil, but simply lets it happen. But such talk about the bland ‘permitting’ (permissio) of evil is too harmless. It assumes the possibility of a power vacuum or even that there is an independent power that is in opposition. At the very least, it assumes that the human being has the power to stand up against God.” But God is not impotent. He is “God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” as we confess in the Creed. Attempts to get God off the hook, to defend Him by limited or weakening His omnipotence, end up with an idol.
Listening to Jesus’ Words
Rather than try to construct a philosophical theodicy that would assign human beings the impossible task of justifying God, we do better to listen to Jesus as He responds to the “why” question in Luke 13:1–9. Whether it is Pilate’s slaughter of the pious as he mingles their blood with the blood of sacrificial animals, the engineering failure of the Tower of Siloam, or more contemporary examples of seemingly unjust suffering, such stories prompt us also to inquire of God, “Why?” Yet, the words of Jesus preempt the question with a stark warning: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3 ESV).
Jesus does not offer a philosophical explanation for the religious massacre in the temple or the random toppling of Siloam’s tower upon the heads of 18 innocent bystanders. The Lord wastes no time with theoretical distinctions between the malicious banality of the butchery done by the human will of Pilate and catastrophic collapse of stone and mortar. Jesus’ words will not let us go there. His words call for repentance, not speculation.
Repentance lets go of the silly questions that we would use to hold on to life on our own terms, to try to protect ourselves against the God who kills and makes alive. Bayer observes that the world is forensically structured, arranged in such a way as to demand justification. We find evidence of this, Bayer says, in the way we defend our own words and deeds. What happens when we are confronted with wrong-doing? We attempt to justify our behavior. It is a rerun of Eden: “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12 ESV).
Adam blames Eve. But behind his accusation of Eve is the accusation of his Creator. To repent is to die to self-justification and turn to the God who justifies the ungodly by faith alone. He is the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but instead has sent forth His own Son to pour out His blood in atonement for the world’s sin, to be crushed by the weight of God’s wrath that in His righteousness sinners might not perish but have life in His name.
Repentance and Faith
Unexplainable tragedies bring pain and chaos. God leaves the wound open, to use the words of Bayer. We cry out to God in lamentation in the face of events that defy our capacities for understanding. But the anguished lament ascends from the crucible of faith, not unbelief. It is a confession of trust in the God who works all things for the good of those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). Living in repentance and faith, we are freed from the inward turn of speculation that seeks to investigate the hidden God. Instead, we trust in the kindness and mercy of God revealed in Christ Jesus.
With such a freedom, we are liberated to rely on God’s promises and turn our attention to works of mercy to bring compassion and relief to those who suffer in this sinful world. God does not give us explanations that will satisfy our nagging questions, but He does give us sure and certain promises of unflinching mercy and unfailing faithfulness in His Son handed over to death and raised again for our justification.
About the Author: Rev. John T. Pless is assistant professor of pastoral ministry and missions and director of field education at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. He is a regular contributor to The Lutheran Witness.