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Theodicy for the “Onlookers”

I have spent and continue to spend a good chunk of time thinking and writing about the problem of evil in some form or another. I’ve been told on occasion that this is unhealthy, unproductive, or just plain weird. My thinking about evil has ranged from the purely abstract (the “logical” problem of evil) to the more pastoral (what do you do/say when someone close to you is suffering?) to the theological/philosophical (what is it about human beings and the world that leads us to expect better?) to the sociological (What role does theodicy play in the adoption of and adherence to this or that worldview?). What is notable about all of this thinking/writing is that it has, thus far, been undertaken by one who has remained virtually untouched by suffering.

I was reminded of this while reading Moltmann again last week. At the beginning of one chapter, he spends several pages describing his experience as a sixteen year-old in his war-torn hometown of Hamburg, Germany. Prior to the war, Moltmann had been convinced that his future lay in the study of physics or mathematics and had little interest in theology. But after witnessing one of his teenage friends literally get blown to pieces by a bomb, barely surviving the ordeal himself, and spending two years in a POW camp, Moltmann’s perspective began to change:

But in that catastrophic night, for the first time in my life I cried out to God: ‘God, where are you?’ That was my question in the face of death. It was not the theodicy question we are all familiar with—the question, how can God allow this to happen? That always seems to me like an onlooker’s question. The person who is in the grip of a catastrophe, or is already in the jaws of a mass death, asks differently about God.

As I read these words I recognized myself as an “onlooker”—I “ask differently” about God than those who actually live through evil and suffering. There is something about actually going through suffering that changes the nature of the question. This is not to say that everyone finds God in the midst of hardship—clearly many do not and some are clearly driven away from God by hardship—but clearly the question becomes less abstract when one’s life is immediately threatened. Moltmann’s “asking differently” of God led him to become one of the twentieth century’s most well-known theologians, and to view all theology through the lens of a hope for the future. He lays this out clearly in Theology of Hope:

From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present…. A proper theology would therefore have to be constructed in the light of its future goal. Eschatology should not be its end, but its beginning…. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.

It may be understandable for someone like Moltmann, whose life was profoundly shaped by horrific evil, to structure his entire theological edifice around the future and the category of hope. But what about the rest of us? What about the “onlookers” who wonder about about the relationship between a good God and a world of evil from a position of relative material comfort and freedom from suffering? Is there any good reason to spend so much time thinking about the problem of evil? Life does, after all, contain much that is good, beautiful, delightful, etc. Why waste time dwelling on (or writing a thesis about!) such a negative element of human existence?

The short answer is “I don’t really know.” The longer answer would have something to do with the notion that while we may not currently be forced to deal with suffering at a personal level, many around us are, whether that be on a local or a global level. Whatever worldview one ends up adopting, it must, at a bare minimum, have something to say about the simple fact that a lot of people in a lot of places have undergone a lot of horrific suffering from the dawn of history right down to the present. Basic human solidarity seems to suggest that the question is worth at least a bit of serious thought.

I watched Jesus of Montreal last week (only twenty years or so late!) and my ears perked up during one of the scenes during the first performance of the controversial play. After the audience has been led through the various stations of Christ’s passion, one of the characters—Mireille—has a monologue where she talks about the strength and the courage that characterized Jesus’ followers after his resurrection:

They personified hope, the most irrational and unyielding of emotions. Mysterious hope, that makes life bearable, lost in a bewildering universe.

I suppose whether we’re “onlookers” or currently facing circumstances of immense suffering, we all need hope—that irrational, unyielding, mysterious belief that the ends will, ultimately and not altogether comprehensibly, justify everything that has preceded them.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. A quote from one thesis-slave to another…

    “There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled–in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. The important thing is that neither bitterness nor envy should have gnawed at the heart during this time, that we should have come to look with new eyes at matters great and small, sorrow and joy, strength and weakness, that our perception of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy should have become clearer, freer, less corruptible. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.” [Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 17].

    I believe that this is what Moltmann was referring to, and what you and I are blessed to be naive about…

    God’s peace,

    October 25, 2007
  2. Thanks Eric. Bonhoeffer’s perspective is, as always, a challenging and illuminating one. I find it especially sobering to think that “the view from below” may be the surest way to a “less corruptible” view of the world. I suppose our naivete would be a mixed blessing in that sense…

    October 26, 2007
  3. One concern that has come up for me when considering suffering is the temptation for Christians to “romanticize” suffering. Certainly the gospels are clear that those who are oppressed and those who suffer are great in the kingdom. But I wonder if we, who don’t know suffering to this extent, place those who suffer on a pedestal. Perhaps we may expect them to be more “spiritual”, and are disappointed when we find bitterness and brokenness. I think it’s important to realize that suffering in itself destroys people, but that God through his grace can turn suffering on its head and can use it to his glory.

    October 26, 2007
  4. Dave Chow #


    Thanks for redeeming the phrase, “the end justifies the means.”

    October 27, 2007
  5. Well said Jessica. It’s one of those issues where it’s tough to find the right balance; suffering can’t be an inherently good thing, but in some strange way, it seems to offer some a unique window into the nature of the world and the way God has chosen to redeem it. I suppose when we romanticize suffering we are implicitly (if incorrectly) acknowledging that there is nothing that lies beyond the scope of Christ’s redemptive power.

    October 27, 2007

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