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CHAPTER 9: Theodicy and the Problem of Evil and goodness

Definition and background 

This chapter reviews what scholars from different faiths have said about the question of Theodicy. My sources include literature reviews obtained online through the keywords theodicy and religion. I offer apologies in advance for any misunderstanding or misrepresentation. My discussion here is meant to engage readers with the philosophical aspects of the issue rather than discredit any specific interpretation. Reader responses and corrections are most welcome and will certainly be shared.  

Theodicy is a branch of theology that defends God’s goodness and justice in the face of existing evil; throughout the history of religion it has attempted to address a spiritually and philosophically difficult problem by trying to explain whether evil exists and if so, why. This entails justifying the ways of God in regard to human suffering and facing the perennial question of why a just, loving, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator can permit evil to happen. Theodicy wrestles with reconciling the existence of evil and suffering with the omnipotence and benevolence of God.  â€¨ â€¨History 

The questions Theodicy poses have been asked long before the time of Christ. The ancient Egyptian Book of the Heavenly Cow attributed suffering and imperfection in our world to a rupture in humanity’s relationship with divine power, at that time the sun-god Godra. 

It was the multi-disciplined German academic, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz (1646-1716) who introduced the term Theodicy in 1710 to name a debate that had continued long before there was an official label for it.  Leibnitz argued that what we have now is the best of all possible worlds that God could create, because the co-existence of good and evil could not be disconnected without making the world worse in some other way.  

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was probably the first notable thinker to expand upon the problem of evil in a more logical manner.  He connected pleasure and pain with degrees of good and evil, teaching that we have the potential to live the ideal lives here and now, not in the hereafter. For Epicurus death was the end of both body and soul. God or the gods, if existing at all, neither reward nor punish humans. The physical universe itself is infinite and eternal and events happen at random.  

Christian scholars and apologists have proposed a number of reasons behind the existence of human suffering. Prominent among these is the concept that, having been given free will as part of the divine creative process, we are expected to make choices as to whether we act according to God’s wishes or in opposition to them. 

George A. Boyd claims that it is compatible with God’s power to allow humans to be free agents, even disobedient ones. Boyd argues that love cannot exist without true free will and maintains that God does not plan or will evil to enter people’s lives. Rather, evil results from our combined free choices; that is, collective human sin has caused the world to fall from God’s grace and therefore evil and imperfection will persist until it is redeemed.  Other scholars argue, however, that the free will theory does not directly explain incurable diseases or natural disasters.  

The theory of afterlife Theodicy is also widely supported and appeals to many who can identify with the principle of individual justice. It expresses a strong Islamic relevance as it asserts that every individual will be brought back to justice in the Hereafter, at which time evil will be permanently defeated. The downside of this theory is that it appears to resign us to an earthly life exposed to all sorts of evil. Supporters of afterlife Theodicy maintain that this theory does not necessarily trivialize evil in an absolute sense, but rather in a relative way. Unlike the Qur’anic teaching on individual accountability, afterlife Theodicy in the Christian tradition implies that the secular world is not governed by justice.  

Another stream of reasoning behind the Theodicy question pertains to the concept of “limited” or imperfect human knowledge, since we cannot ever attain to the ultimate wisdom of God: just as little children cannot understand the motives for their parents’ actions, humans cannot comprehend God’s will. This theory suggests that ignorance or incomplete knowledge can result in evil, tragic, or bad events seeming worse than they might be. The increased knowledge that comes with intellectual and spiritual maturity (even though still incomplete) helps us to see beneficial end results. For example, when wildfires burn thousands of hectares of forest and displace many animals and people, it is a major catastrophe as it happens. But scientists have learned that many tree species need the heat and space caused by fires in order for their seeds to germinate and have room to grow. 

The early theologian Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE), so esteemed that he has long been revered as a Father of the Church, was a brilliant academic and linguist whose prolific writings influenced the development of Western Christianity and philosophy. He argued that evil is not created by God but is the result of the willing human perversion of free will. What people choose to do that is contrary to God is therefore inherently evil. 

The Eastern or Oriental theory of Yin and Yang regards good and evil as two intersecting and complementary forces (often shown symbolically as two interlocked black and white commas). If one is removed, the other disappears also because the universe is no longer in balance.  Thus, we cannot properly understand confession and forgiveness in the absence of suffering. Similarly, security and safety have little meaning if we do not also understand the threat and disruption of facing danger. This theory is limited, however, by not offering a satisfying description of why suffering happens otherwise. British scholar and renowned lay theologian C.S. Lewis (author of the popular youth series Chronicles of Narnia, an extended Christian metaphor) adapted some aspects of Eastern philosophy to assert that evil exists to establish an ethical standard against which goodness can be defined.  

Other scholars have argued that spiritual development actually requires suffering to have meaning and reality. Free will is accepted as being necessary in learning to make decisions, and even if some choices cause us hardship, we become spiritually stronger as a result. But others have countered that evil does not always cause spiritual growth. 

The gospels, letters and stories of the Christian New Testament consistently describe this life as being essentially a training ground and test for spiritual advancement.  The book of Revelation and portions of the Pauline epistles state categorically that the better one’s performance on earth, the greater the reward in heaven. In fact, the Mormons (an offshoot sect with Christian origins, but different theology) believe that they will individually become demigods of sorts after death.  Thus for them, personal sufferings in present-day life are as nothing compared to the potential of everlasting rewards in eternity. 

Those who embrace the just-world hypothesis believe that evil exists because people deserve it as a consequence of their actions and decisions. But this theory does not answer why God would allow evil to begin with. The 16th-century Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin suggested that humanity was born inherently sinful due to the original disobedience of Adam and Eve.  Opponents of Original Sin have argued that it serves only to rationalize the principal that the ends justify the means.  

Non-interference, or open theism, is another theory used to explain the Theodicy question. This concept is widely embraced by adherents of the Unitarian Universalist faith as well as some segments of Reform Judaism. The non-interference idea proposes that in addition to giving humans free will, God created universal laws such as physics and chemistry and that within their forms and patterns of movement evil (as humans perceive it) can happen. Therefore, evil is not a direct consequence of human choices or failures. Proponents of the theory maintain that the fundamental laws of the cosmos are constant and cannot be changed. 

Another major and historically rooted theory is that of “dualism” which identifies two rival and opposing powers or agents at work in creation.  In the Christian context, Christ is the emissary from God, sent to redeem the world from his rival, the Devil (Shaitan in Islam). A modified, more secular version of dualism  suggests that the war between good and bad forces will eventually end with the victory of goodness and the termination of evil. 

Jewish Rabbi Harold Kushner, who has written some of the 20th century’s most influential and widely read books on grief, pain and suffering, embraces the ecumenical (inter-faith) theory of process theology, which argues that some things exist which cannot be overridden by God – and that God intentionally designed the universe that way. Natural disasters are a case in point. 

In the Old Testament (Jewish Torah) book of Isaiah, the prophet records the voice of God (Yahweh) saying, “I bring prosperity and create disaster: I, Yahweh, do all the things.” The writer of Isaiah (there were at least three over several generations) does not attempt to explain any divine motivation behind the creation of evil. 

The book of Job, also in the Old Testament, formulates a concept of evil (especially as undeserved misfortune) that has received much debate in Western religious culture. The story relates how God gives Satan permission to plague Job, an upstanding and devout family man who had always fulfilled his religious duty. Job patiently endured one mishap after another but finally questioned God about the injustice of what was happening to him and his innocent family. God decided that Satan’s cruel game had gone on long enough and intervened to restore Job’s  health, wealth and family to greater abundance than before. The extended allegory of Job’s suffering presents two specific answers for the existence of evil. First, “bad things that happen to good people” (the title phrase for one of Rabbi Kushner’s most popular books) are a test of faith that lead to a later reward.  Secondly, evil exists for reasons that only God fully knows and has chosen not to reveal to us. 

End-times, or eschatological theology, made a powerful resurgence in the wake of the World War II Holocaust that cost the lives of more than 6,000,000 Jews in Nazi Germany. This stream of theology approaches the Theodicy issue by suggesting that God places the captive Messiah with the souls of the dead. While both Christian and Jewish scholars embrace this concept, it is of particular significance to orthodox Jews who still await God’s promised Messiah who they believe will appear on earth after a great cataclysm of evil forces. 

Some contemporary Christian philosophers have distilled key points of historical thought into a series of proposed answers to the problem of suffering: 

 â€¨a)    God created the possibility of evil, but not evil itself; free will is necessary to achieve higher goodness.   â€¨b)    God uses short-term evil to bring about long-term good. â€¨c)    God uses suffering to bring about corrective change in human behavior. â€¨d)    Suffering brings people closer to God. â€¨e)    The ultimate answer to suffering is the event of Jesus himself, whose crucifixion becomes the atoning sacrifice (for Christians) and whose rescue back to heaven (for Muslims) becomes a promise of merciful return on the Last Day. 

In Hinduism it is suggested that all souls are eternal and not directly created by God.  Souls are bound at first by ignorance (Avidya), which causes them to misidentify with the substance and attractions of the physical world (body, wealth, power, etc.) and with these sensory and emotional elements comes inevitable suffering. Thus Hinduism identifies ignorance not merely as a lack of knowledge but as a cause of evil; and ignorance itself is uncaused. Suffering from natural causes is explained as occurrences resulting from previous births and lifetimes. 

Agnostics (often mistakenly confused with atheists) believe that the world was brought into being by an imperfect creator, not the superior entity revered by monotheists such Jews, Christians and Muslims. Atheists do not recognize a superior being of any kind, believing that creation was and is governed by processes that can be wholly explained by science, even if we do not yet know all the facts. 

Theodicy in Islam 

In Islam, Theodicy is rarely spoken of as such because the reasons behind it are deeply implicit in the Islamic doctrine of expected experiences. A related concept which embraces the paradigm of ongoing human tragedies in full sight of a most merciful God is called Fitna, which in a religious context means a trial or test, often through adversities.  

The literal Arabic meaning of Fitna refers to smelting or refining ore, such as gold or silver, in order to separate the pure metal from impurities. Similarly, it is the process in Islam by which we separate what is valuable in a spiritual sense from what is not and therefore identify the pure and impure elements in our lives. In fact, any test whose purpose is to identify and separate contrasting results, such right and wrong or success and failure, is simply called Fitna. It is the means by which humans are tested under various circumstances to determine the quality of their response to God’s will and serves in Islam as one of the main premises of life. By extension, believers can consider life itself as a period of Fitna, the process by which we are continually tried, tested and strengthened for the “final exam” of the Last Day. 

As we’ve read earlier, God’s perfection has given us the potential to do good, or otherwise, because we are endowed with the gift and burden of individual free will. Along with the options of choice, we are admonished to attend to God’s commands, which serve to perfect not only our human relationships, but also our bonds of respect and care for all that exists in creation. Additionally, God’s voice in the Qur’an repeatedly cautions that our natural inclination to self-absorption will gain the upper hand whenever we lapse and ignore our covenant of faith. God reminds us as well that humans can easily become trapped in their own web of evil-doing and that we should not use religion as a means to achieving selfish agendas of political or economic advantage over the meek and weak. 

Thus it is a core doctrine of Islam that defines life as a time to test our ability to make the right choices and we have ample capability to accept or refuse this challenge. We know from early youth that it is our choice, duty and responsibility to adhere to God’s directives. Children, wealth, talents, intellect, position, etc. are all tools of Fitna to us. A person has the choice of stealing to meet a family’s needs, or working harder to honestly attain a better standard of living. War is also Fitna, in which one may choose to flee, or fight bravely to defend one’s home and community. Peace is Fitna too, because we can choose to make sacrifices and compromises for the good of all, or remain separate from our adversaries in a perpetual state of tense ceasefire. A stronger nation may decide to invade another for wealth, power, or other worldly gains; but it could choose instead to develop trade and diplomatic relations. To admit the truth, even against your own wishes, is also Fitna. 

In short, Fitna extends to include numerous forms of contrasting experiences in which we are presented with continual opportunities to choose between the transient pleasures of quick gains and pleasure, or sacrifice some of our comfort to serve others. It is our attitude and reaction to times of misery and happiness, right and wrong, easy and difficult, or sin and virtue that count. As the Qur’an says: 

Do the people think that they will be left to say, ‘We believe’ and they will not be tried? But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars. Or do those who do evil deeds think they can outrun Us? Evil is what they judge. Whoever should hope for the meeting with Allah – indeed, the term decreed by Allah is coming. And He is the Hearing, the Knowing. And whoever strives only strives for [the benefit of] himself. Indeed, Allah is free from need of the worlds. 

(The Spider, Surah  29; 2-6) 

This passage opens with a rebuke in the form of a question, meaning that Allah will inevitably test believers according to their level of faith. 

One may argue that God knows what we can and cannot do. Therefore, what is the point of testing us if the results of our actions are known anyway?  Scholars of Islam offer several answers to this question. 

First, we are judged according to our human knowledge, not according to that of God. Through divine mercy, we are allowed to go through tests so as to be the judge of our own actions in the Hereafter. If we were judged solely on God’s knowledge, we could certainly ask: “Why, God, do you judge us on something that we have not committed?”  

Secondly, God gives us abundant opportunity to earn  as many rewards as possible by forming the right intentions and engaging in positive actions.  After all, God wants us to enjoy the human-made successes we achieve through mindfully doing the right thing. 

Thus in Islamic Theodicy, the creation of the potential for evil should be seen as proof of God’s supremacy and a serious reminder that our Creator has punitive tools at the ready for those who oppress fellow humans or any part of creation. God created Evil so that we can freely use our God-given virtues to avoid it and choose to follow goodness. God does not want us to make the wrong choices, which ultimately lead to permanent failure.  

Divine perfection demonstrates that God creates potential for good and evil because opposites maintain balance. But we are clearly admonished to adhere  to the agenda of goodness which promises rewards, despite the internal capacity we all possess to choose evil. 

God created many tools for dealing with good and evil and has given us many stories to illustrate their consequences. The better we do, the higher the reward; in fact, God’s rewards are limitless. Moreover, divine justice will ensure compensation for those who suffer unduly in this life.  

Some people, however, believe that obedience to a religion – especially in the knowledge that suffering is a part of faith and life – imposes constraints on human excellence.  Quite the opposite is true: God’s mercy allows suffering and hardship to happen as a means of strengthening our ability to build better societies. 

Short-sighted views claiming that religions are restrictive and rigid neglect the experiences humanity must go through, which provide vast opportunities to invent, excel and solve the problems that accompany our trials. A world without challenges would be boring; many trials present exciting new horizons for innovation. God’s orders are simply the framework, within which we promise to remain faithful and maintain healthy parameters under stressful circumstances. Such opportunities build personal character, establish societal laws and create international standards of civility among people of diverse circumstances. 

God’s parameters give us trustworthy boundaries against deviation from the right path, especially when we are under stress. Honesty, social trust, respect for others’ lives, protection of animals, observing equality and taking care of the needy are classical examples of principals to preserve at all times, whether during peace or war, abundance or need. These divine parameters also belong in the constitutional documents humans write in the interests of good governance for states and nations. Otherwise, who would care if there was no recompense for atrocities? How would governments formulate humane policies? Here is a Qur’anic illustration of such parameters: 

Verily, Allah enjoins justice and goodness and giving help to the kin and forbids all evil deeds, all that is prohibited by Islam and all kind of oppression. He admonishes you, that you may take heed.  

(The Bees, Surah 16; 90) 

Between making things right or blatantly wrong, many of us chose a wide range of decisions and we need the parameters imposed on humanity by an impartial, supreme, and all-knowing power.  

Another the example is the contrast between the super-rich and desperately poor. The right decision is to establish channels to better support the collection of poor dues (zakat), encourage charity, and for the rich to remain humble, for we know these actions will be rewarded by God. On the other hand, a poor person may prefer to endure in patience and accept the limitations life has brought; he or she does not despise rich people and believes that virtue is gained through being steadfast and not succumbing to illegal means of meeting material needs. A balanced society requires those with more than their needs to share the excess with those who lack enough. The strong fabric of society requires honesty, even at personal sacrifice. Necessity is the mother of invention and therefore trials of life are the best conduits to spark our innate human intelligence to discover and invent. Trials give us the energy and motivation to produce.  

As such, the problem of suffering in Islam is seen as a series of transient problems in need of human solutions, drawn from a strong framework of divine principals. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) reminded us that the best truth is that which is offered before being asked, even if it means giving evidence against one’s own family and kin.  

In the authentic Hadith it is recorded that the Prophet said,  “And We indeed tested those who were before them so that Allah will know those who are true, and will know those who are liars.” This means that God will make known and identify those who are sincere in their claim to be believers from those who are hesitant; the purpose is to elevate the reward of those who genuinely withstand the trials of life. Allah (May He be glorified and exalted) knows what has happened in the past and what is yet to come, and even how that which will not happen would have  happened.  “Or think those who do evil deeds that they can outstrip Us! Evil is that which they judge!” which means; those who are not believers should not think they will escape life’s trials and tests, for ahead of them lies a greater and more severe punishment. Even though Allah has no need of creatures, we are all treated with divine kindness and generosity. God not only gives blessings and rewards to those who believe and do righteous deeds, but also forgives them who express remorse. In fact God multiples the rewards as much as ten times for even a few good deeds while returning only a single evil strike for one bad deed, or overlooking it entirely.  

Everything happens only at the will or permission of God, who creates all potential, including that for goodness and evil. Even the existence of potential evil is a proof of God’s supremacy as the arbiter of perfect balance. Thus we need only to preoccupy ourselves with avoiding sin rather than obsess over why God lets evil happen. As we are taught many times over, God creates what we do not even know. If we consider the analogy of driving on a highway, the highway of life, we are advised to keep an eye on how close the cars ahead are, rather than being so concerned about the vehicles traveling alongside us.  

In Islam, humans are created with the inclination toward perfection and imperfection. Pain reminds us of our weakness and continuous need for God’s help; it also gives us a foretaste of what can happen in the Hereafter, reminding us to remain humble because all are vulnerable. God makes it clear that arrogance will not get you into paradise. â€¨Trials and hardships are also a reminder to keep up with our homework in life; after all, sweat is only felt after endurance. As with athletic training, there is no gain without pain. Hardships give us that extra boost of reality to help us form disciplined habits and prevent us from lapsing into laziness. In the big picture, suffering refines us like precious metal, removing our bad credit and sins and leaving our souls with greater purity. This gives us a chance to meet God in the Hereafter with a clean slates. 

  1. In view of the regenerative mercy of God to all creatures, every kind of suffering in this lower and comparatively short life will be completely forgotten in the Hereafter. Trials, both terrible and restorative, are simply tests and not rewards or punishments. This lower life is too short for either complete joy or punishment. It is a short probationary time in which to enjoy what our limitations permit, while remaining vigilant in facing the trials God sends. 

In the Hadith, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) paradoxically reminded us to enjoy life as if we will never die, yet prepare for the Hereafter as if we will die tomorrow. The hereafter is the time and place to harvest what we have built up in goodness and righteousness as mortal beings. 

A basic tenant in Islam is that God is oft-forgiving and most merciful – two of the most frequently used divine attributes. God has self-proclaimed many times that divine mercy has preceded divine anger. No other power has ever, or will ever, influence or dictate God’s will. Muslims believe that God’s mercy is so vast as to be far beyond our comprehension; and it is present even within our sufferings. Acting out of wisdom, love and compassion, God sometimes makes life hard as a way of guiding back to the right track, just as a caring mother will safeguard her infant against touching a hot flame or picking up a sharp knife. So the mercy of God is the basis of guidance and our trials are a manifestation of divine wisdom. 

In summary, this earthy life is no cake-walk, no romp in the meadow. In the succession of our daily experiences, reversals of fate can happen without warning, moving us from charming events, delights, and happiness, to failure, misfortune and even catastrophe. We are not yet in the Hereafter; the ups and downs of earthly are the normal we know for the time being. But these experiences of contrasting emotions and events have major significance, for they remind us of God’s absolute governance over us.  They remind us of our human weakness and our need to seek divine guidance.  Happiness and success come with a parallel duty to serve and help others less fortunate. In times of need and distress, we are expected to maintain our patience and integrity; in times of abundance and strength, we are expected to help and protect others. When compared to the Hereafter, both the pain and delight of earthly experience are of trivial weight and will be forgotten once we leave this life, but because they are all we know at present, our response to their impact is significant. It is our measured and mindful responses to what we face, good and bad, in the here-and-now that counts. Giving in to arrogance and complacency during periods of abundance, or succumbing to despair and distrust during suffering and need, both result in a failing grade in the school of life. Humbleness and patience in all things are what define true success. 


 

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Al-Zaytuna Mosque (literally meaning the Mosque of Olive) is a major mosque in Tunis, Tunisia.The mosque is the oldest in the Capital of Tunisia. It has 160 authentic columns brought originally from the ruins of the old city of Carthage.The mosque is known to host one of the first and greatest universities in the history of Islam. Many Muslim scholars were graduated from the Al-Zaytuna for over a thousand years.Ibn 'Arafa, one of the greatest scholars of Islam taught there.

 

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