What is theodicy?

Question
What is theodicy?
Answer

"Theodicy" is a term Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz (1646-1716) coined from the Greek words theos meaning "God" and dikaiosune meaning "righteous." It is a branch of philosophy that deals with the issue of evil in light of the sovereignty of God. If God is holy, just and good (which he is, Rom 7:12) then how could evil possibly exist? The pagan Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 BC - 270 BC) puts the question/answer like this:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

What is curious about Epicurus' riddle is that he never defines evil. In addition, he assumes the existence of God as a personal being that interacts to some extent with his Creation before going on to try to disprove that he doesn't exist? You can't have it both ways!

Of course, in my experience all atheists use similar self-defeating arguments! An illustration may help. Cornelius Van Til was once traveling on a train when he noticed a father with his child sitting on his lap. Apparently, the father asked his child to do something and the child slapped his father's face. What is the application? The child's behavior illustrates unbelievers who live in God's world and who are supported by God's common grace (Psa. 24:1). They sit, as it were, on God's lap, and it is precisely because they sit on God's lap that they are able to deliver a slap. Thus, unbelievers who display their own ingratitude by assaults on God's existence are only able to do so as they are supported by God himself (John 19:10-11). So, their denial of God is his very affirmation! Atheism does not invalidate theism, but rather proves it because atheism is only possible given the premise of theism. As the atheist Nikita Khrushchev once described the Soviet Union, 'In Russia, thank God, there is no God.'

What is Evil?

What is evil? One dictionary describes evil as a "profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity." The BDB defines the Hebrew word ra' as meaning "bad or evil." Thayer defines the Greek adjective kakos to refer to things that are "troublesome" or "wicked." Scripture reveals God's relationship to evil in Psalms 5:4 saying, "For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil (ra') may not dwell with you" and James 1:13-14, "Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil (kakos), and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire." Clearly, God is not the author of evil.

God Authored Good and Ordained Evil

The Bible teaches that God is totally sovereign and that he authored good and ordained evil to display his own glory (Rom 9:17, 22). Proverbs 16:4 states, "The LORD works out everything for his own ends - even the wicked for a day of disaster (ra')." "Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad (ra') come?" (Lam 3:38). Amos 3:6 states, "Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster (ra') come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?" Isaiah 45:7 says, "I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster (ra'); I, the LORD, do all these things."

God is sovereign over good and evil! As the WCF 5.4 states:

The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.

God Uses Evil

While not being the author of sin, evil, etc., God ordained the use of evil from the very beginning. In Genesis, we observe:

  • (1) God not only made it a possibility that Adam could sin (Gen. 3)
  • (2) He not only knew Adam would sin (Isa 40:13-14; cf. Job 21:22; Rom 11:33-34, etc.), but
  • (3) He also ordained that Adam would sin (Gen. 3; Rom 5:12-21).

We are absolutely sure of these facts as God ordained for his very own Son to die before the foundation of the world (Acts 2:23-24; 4:27-28; 1 Pet 1:19-20). This reveals that God was anticipating and ordained the existence of evil, et. al. Ordaining that the Fall (Gen. 3) would take place, God also chose his people out of the world before its very foundation (Eph 1:3-12). This reveals that God understood the extent of sin and ordained before time to save his people. The devil, a fallen angel, not understanding God's marvelous redemptive plan of God's people (cf. 1 Pet 1:12) was fooled by the Cross (1 Cor 2:7-8). This was part and parcel of God's strategic plan to ultimately destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).

Why? What could God have possibly been thinking? Why use evil? What was his purpose? Because God's people could not know the absolute fullness of his love - his very own nature (1 John 4:7-8) - unless Jesus "died" for his people. As John wrote, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). So, one purpose in God ordaining sin's very existence is to reveal the fullness of his glorious love to his people. The death of Christ could not have happened without the entrance of sin into the world!

So why is there evil in the world? There is evil in the world because an omnipotent, sovereign, holy, living and loving God ordained it to suit his divine purpose. What is that divine purpose? Redeeming for himself "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his own special people, that [we] may proclaim the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9). These are some of the mysterious, marvelous and wondrous works of the God that loves his chosen people!

Answering Epicurus

So, to answer Epicurus, (1) God is able to prevent evil and in his redemptive plan through Jesus Christ he ultimately destroys it (Psa 115:3; Dan 4:35; Rom 8:18-23; 2 Pet 3:13; 1 John 3:8; Rev. 21-22), (2) God is willing to prevent evil, as in his appointed time (Gal 4:4) he gave his very own Son to die for his people (1 Pet 1:19-20) and destroyed the devil (John 12:31; 2 Cor 2:14; Eph 4:8; Col 2:15), (3) God is both able and willing to destroy evil, but his solution is not immediate but redemptively progressive glorifying him each and every step along the way (2 Pet 3:8-9), (4) God can't sin (Heb 4:15), so his plan is absolutely perfect (Isa 40:8; 45:23; 46:10; 55:11; Jer 23:20; Matt 24:35). So, what Epicurus meant for evil, God's Word explains for good (cf. Gen 50:20).

So, when Scripture is consulted, we learn that Epicurus was in extreme error. The Bible teaches us: (1) God is all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient), (2) God is good (omnibenelovent), (3) while not being the author of evil, God ordained evil, (4) so by God's plan evil presently exists in some form, (5) and in "the already, but not yet" [see below] evil was ultimately overcome on the Cross and one day evil will cease, but good will live on in eternity, so (6) God must exist, as only the good, just, and holy God could and would destroy evil.

If I could meet Epicurus, I would inform him that there is no way to leap from statements about how the world is to how the world ought to be without presupposing an ultimate value system. If an objective morality doesn't exist than there can't be a problem with evil. Thus, since atheists claim there is a problem with evil, an ultimate objective moral value does exist (Rom 2:14-15) and therefore a Lawgiver who is God (see Thomas Aquinas' Fourth Argument for the Existence of God below and C.S. Lewis', Mere Christianity). So:

  • (1) If one protests about evil, they must necessarily believe that evil exists.

  • (2) If evil exists, one must also presuppose an ultimate objective system of universal moral laws.
  • (3) Universal objective moral laws necessarily require a Lawgiver capable of judging everyone by the same measure or standard.
  • (4) This Lawgiver is God (Isa 33:22; Jas 4:12).
  • (5) Therefore, God exists (Psa 14:1; 53:1).

Please see the related notes below.

Related Topics:

Evil and God?
Does God Use Evil to Accomplish His Purposes?
What is Reprobation?
The Already and the Not Yet
Is God pleased with the death of the wicked? - Ezekiel 18:32; 33:11
God sent an evil spirit? 1 Samuel 16:14
What are St. Aquinas Five Proofs of the existence of God?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).