Against Theodicy

By Wettstein, Howard | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Against Theodicy


Wettstein, Howard, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


The Classical Problem of Evil

IT HAS LONG BEEN URGED AGAINST TRADITIONAL THEISM, very long indeed, that God's perfections-specifically in the domains of goodness, knowledge and power-are logically incompatible with the existence of unwarranted human suffering. It has almost equally long been urged that the problem is illusory-or at least surmountable; the tradition of theodicy must be only moments younger than the problem. The debate is a philosophical classic, with many ingenious moves on both sides, and epicycles galore. But whatever one's view on the details of the debate, it is difficult-and I think unwise-to resist the sense that evil presents a real and indeed substantial problem for the Western religious tradition.

With respect to theodicy, a talmudic refrain springs to mind: the question seems better than the answer(s). Such an intuitive sense should never be taken lightly. But in the present case, there is more to be said against the tradition of theodicy. God, at the end of the Book of Job, strongly reproaches Job's would-be comforters while He praises Job. What was the mistake of the Comforters? Perhaps their greatest sin was a moral one-to talk so strongly and at times insensitively to the suffering victim. But God's rebuke-and his related praise for Job-had quite a different emphasis: They, as opposed to job, did not speak the truth about Him. The truth in question is not specified in the text. But what is most salient about their speeches, what they insisted upon, and what Job denied, was the just reality behind the unjust appearances. We have it on the best authority, then, that their standard theodicy-like responses to evil were mistaken, something we knew from Chapter 1 of Job in any case. [1] Unwarranted suff ering is no mere surface appearance, but a ground floor phenomenon, not to be explained away.

My suspicion, though, is that it is not only the answers to the problem of evil that are suspect. The question itself is problematic. It presupposes a conception of divinity that does not go without saying. Imagine a dramatic presentation in which the personae are God and a medieval philosopher. The philosopher carefully formulates the problem of evil and the Master of the Universe yawns. "That should be my worst problem," says God. "After what I revealed about myself in the Hebrew Bible, it is nothing less than amazing that they persist in conceiving me as ethically impeccable, and able to do literally anything. This is beyond me--a tribute to the power of philosophy."

My dramatic fantasy (to be continued below) reflects my sense of a substantial conceptual distance between the perfect-being theology that dominates from the time of the medievals and the religious sensibility of the Hebrew Bible and its development in Talmudic thought (first six centuries C.E.) [2] This gulf suggests a dissolution of the classical puzzle. Perhaps God simply lacks some or all of the relevant perfections.

The Problem of Evil: The Theoretical Side

As one who favors the more ancient conception, dissolution of the classical problem is attractive to me. But to leave matters there is at least as dissatisfying as classical theodicy. For as I said, the sense that evil presents a substantial problem for traditional religion runs deep. The classical problem of evil reflects--in a classical philosophical idiom--a worry (or two) that is (or are) indeed fundamental.

Imagine an episode of "Star Trek" in which the protagonists are about to arrive at a galaxy created and ruled by a just, loving, beneficent deity. We need not assume the perfections, just a good dose of the classical divine virtues. The protagonists arrive and shudder at a glimpse of the horrors that characterize human history.

The perfections are not the real problem, I want to suggest. It's rather the sheer dissonance of what every plain-thinking person knows to be true about the world and what one would naturally expect from a fundamentally just, benevolent, powerful, creator/ruler. …

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