Editor's Note: This article was written about three years ago but speaks to suffering in light of the events in Connecticut last week. —John T. Pless
“But who can supply the reason for the things that he sees the Divine Majesty has permitted to happen? Why do we not rather learn with Job that God cannot be called to account and cannot be compelled to give us the reason for everything He does or permits to happen?” –Luther on Genesis 3:1 in Luther’s Works, Volume I:144.
Preparing to write this article on Easter Monday, 2009, I heard the news of a fire in Prague that claimed over twenty lives as it swept through a shelter for the homeless. Recent memories of 9/11, the tsunami, and 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, his argument was ridiculed but the term remained. Its use indicated something of a reversal. Werner Elert writes “We try to ensnare God in our moral categories, and we do it with the best of intentions because we wish to rationalize our assertion that he is just and kind." ((Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos. Trans. Carl J. Schindler (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957): 156.)) But as Elert goes on to explain, there is a reversal going on. 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.
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 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.” ((Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008): 206-207; Also see Oswald Bayer, “God’s Omnipotence” Lutheran Quarterly (Spring 2009): 85-102.)) 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.
Rather than try to construct a philosophical theodicy that assigns 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).
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 eighteen 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. The theologian Oswald 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. ((Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003): 1–8)) What happens when you are confronted with wrongdoing? 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” (Genesis 3:12) 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.
Unexplainable tragedies bring pain and chaos. God leaves the wound open to use the words of Bayer. ((Oswald Bayer, “Poetological Doctrine of the Trinity” Lutheran Quarterly (Spring 2001), 56. Also see Oswald Bayer, “Toward a Theology of Lament” in Caritas et Reformatio: Essays on Church and Society in Honor of Carter Lindberg. Edited by David M. Whitford (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2002): 211–220.)) 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 (Romans 8:28). Living in repentance and faith, we are freed from the inward turn of speculation that seeks to investigate the hidden God, and 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.
Prof. John T. Pless teaches practical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary Fort Wayne, Indiana.