Why the Hell…? [1] – Toward a Livable Theodicy

June 19, 2010 § 4 Comments

Dante primarily depicted hell as a place with several stages of suffering meted out in accordance with one's moral life

Why the hell…‘ is often used as a rather rude exclamation to express irritation when one is puzzled or annoyed. Taken on face value however it expresses quite well the profound questions that are are brought up in this new three part series of blogposts. Why is there a hell? Why is there suffering? Why is violence condoned in the Old Testament? ‘Why the hell’ is it so very difficult to wrestle with these issues? For each of these questions I will try to go a little beyond the usual answer and bring to bear some of the thoughts that I have developed over time when reflecting on these and other issues whether in or outside class, whether profound or superfluous.

Toward a Livable Theodicy

In this first short essay I will want to explore some issues facing a livable theodicy. I call it ‘livable’ because the quest for a theodicy should never merely be an intellectual one. It cannot be just that, because suffering touches the heart of our existence. I be- lieve we can only engage the question properly as we wrestle with suffering in our own lives. Secondly I call it livable because I believe the question should only be asked with the express intentionality of being able to live in the face of suffering as well as before the face of God. Too often the question becomes a weapon of defiance against the potential existence of God. When that is the case, the theodicy will never be answered satisfactorily.

First of all we need to address the question of what theodicy is. Traditionally a theodicy is a justification of or an explanation for the existence of evil and suffering in the context of the classical definition of God as good, omnipotent and omniscient. In other words: if God knows everything and is able to accomplish whatever He wants while He is good at the same time, why is there evil? A good God would want to protect his creatures from suffering. A powerful God is able to do so, while an all-knowing God would know where suffering is likely to occur and how to prevent it. Yet evil exists and causes suffering on an unprecedented scale.

For some this evil works as a defeater for God’s existence. But that need not necessarily be the case. Attempts have been made to make the existence of evil compatible with God’s three attributes of goodness, omniscience and omnipotence by modifying any of these three attributes. That’s another way of saying that a proposition is added to the following logical construct that modifies any of the three attributes:

1. A good, omniscient and omnipotent God would prevent evil
2. Evil exists
3. God, if He exists at all, is either not omniscient, omnipotent, or good, or none of these.

Typically such attempts entail a weakening or modification of one of the attributes. Arminianism for instance maintains that God is omnipotent but allows for a greater degree of human freedom. God gets involved ‘after the fact,’ so to speak, of the human free choice. In other words, God’s omnipotence is not as ‘omni’ as we’d like to think. Evil is there because God’s omnipotence is limited in order to allow for people to make real choices: good ones with beneficial effects or bad ones that cause suffering.

Calvinism on the other hand, though maintaining a very high view of God as Sovereign, needs to detract somewhat from the concept of God’s goodness (at least our classical understanding of it so it seems). After all, God is so great that nothing ought to be taken away from his omnipotence. God is the Sovereign, Who ordains all and elects whoever He wants. That being the case, however, we come to the uncomfortable conclusion that God must have ordained evil somehow as something that is purposeful in his plan. Maybe God is not as good as we’d like to think, or good in a different – less attractive – way.

A third way is to de-emphasize the omniscience of God. That is the option Open Theism pursues. God knows a lot, but the future is open to Him just as it is for us. It is part and parcel of this created order that the future simply is not there; there is nothing knowable about it. So God doesn’t know it and needs to work with what He’s got. This idea presupposes that God exists in time not outside of it.

A fourth way, that I’d like to propose, modifies (redefines) God’s omnipotence as well as his goodness, not in a detracting sense but in such a way that they are enhanced. We need to enlarge our concepts of them. This can only be done with an attitude that is willing to submit to God, one that is willing to humbly accept what God reveals about himself and humans. This is partly what I mean by a livable theodicy. It was Plantinga who has done substantial work in this area. He has shown that the logical construct can lead to the opposite conclusion by adding a premise that entails that God’s aim is to create the best of all possible worlds that cannot be reached without a certain degree of suffering. We could also say, God might have reasons for allowing suffering that escape our understanding and apprehension. Our piece of logic might then look like this[1]:

1. A good, omniscient and omnipotent God would prevent evil
2. Evil exists
3. In his goodness God has ulterior motives that necessitate the existence of evil
4. God and the existence of evil are compatible.

How does this look for God’s goodness, omnipotence and omniscience? First of all God’s goodness is enhanced in that we see that in His goodness God has created a plan that, though it cannot be reached unless there is a degree of evil in this world, will result in the best of all possible worlds. One could for instance think of God wanting to have a love relationship with us. For a love relationship to be real, there must be free will and thus the possibility of rejection and thus suffering. Also suffering might play a role in the testing of our faith, which is nothing else but a loving decision on our part to regard God as the Loving Trustworthy One in spite of the circumstances. At the same time God’s omnipotence is enhanced in that the existence of evil is not able to thwart God’s plan, that our free will is not able to detract from His loving intentions. God allows for consequences of evil choices and yet works out his plan. In other words, rather than developing a concept of the muscular God, we see His omnipotence played out in His mysterious inroads to our heart, in the willingness of Christ to suffer on the Cross, His ability to take detours and achieve His loving objections in apparent weakness rather than show of strength. Also God’s omniscience is enhanced as clearly God is not only ex- haustively aware of facts, but rather is able to see facts contrary to His will as potential elements for a better plan.

Does this answer each and every instance of suffering? No, we are still faced with the reality of gratuitous suffering and natural evil. One could ask though, whether there is a degree of intentionality here on God’s part. Could it be possible that the question appears baffling simply because God wants it to be so? What if the answer to suffering was very clear cut? Wouldn’t that minimize our challenge to wrestle with life, with God, with our suffering? Clear answers minimize existential challenges and limit our opportunities for growth, mentally, spiritually but especially relationally (i.e. in relation to God). It might well be that God has deliberately limited himself to allow for genuine human free will and responsibility. A similar self-limitation might be in place in God allowing natural evil to exist so humans can feel themselves alone in the universe if for whatever reason they so desire.

And that’s what brings us to the livable theodicy. It is crucial from what perspective one engages the question of theodicy. If it is purely intellectual, one will come away disappointed or even frustrated. One needs to be in touch with life itself as well as the suffering it brings in order to be able to participate in the debate. Intellectual satisfaction, though attainable to some degree, can never be exhaustively reached on this subject. There remains something enigmatic about suffering. It is especially apparent in the lives of some who have suffered a lot and have come away transformed, renewed, full of deep joy and love. The debate can also not be entered with the intent of debunking the Christian God. Again for the same reason. One may even succeed in making oneself believe that one has been successful in refuting God. Such is the Christian God, vulnerable, willing to be attacked, willing not to defend Himself. And the answer will elude such a person. God’s answer is only available to those who are willing to humble themselves before the Living God, who are willing to be transformed through the process of wrestling with their own suffering in the light of ‘the suffering of God‘ (Hall, 16). The problem is not merely logical and mental satisfaction should hardly be the sole goal. As we encounter the living God, whose existence seems to be called into question by the existence of evil, we are filled with hope. As Hasker says ‘the claim of Christianity is not merely that God can coexist with the evil in the world. The claim rather is that in the end God will not coexist with evil but will be gloriously triumphant over it‘ (Hasker, 200).


[1] Mine is a very crude and rough attempt. In his Free Will defense Plantinga argues as follows: (1) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good. (2) It was not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing moral evil. (3) God created a world containing moral good. (4) There is evil. (See Plantinga, 54.)


Hall, Douglas John. God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986.

Hasker, William. The Triumph of God over Evil: Theodicy for a World of Suffering. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology:  An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1995.

Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1977.

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