God, Evil, and Innocent Suffering

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God, Evil, and Innocent Suffering

A Theological Reflection

Do people suffer only because they deserve to suffer? According to classical Christian belief, yes. John Thiel, however, insists that some people who suffer are truly innocent.  Innocent suffering suggests a different way of thinking about God’s presence, including how God is not directly involved in human suffering and death.

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The modern project known as “theodicy” has been with us a long time—at least since Leibniz’s book of that title published in 1710. The theological appeal of this project is undeniable. No religious person wants to believe that his or her God is a monster who sends planes crashing into buildings or wills a child’s death by cancer. On the other hand, theodicy’s critics—and they have been many—have wondered if the price to be paid is too great. Is not the God of theodicy a rationalized deity, constructed according to human needs and purposes? Don’t pious attempts to make sense of evil tend toward rendering it tolerable? It is understandable if some prefer to endure the mystery of evil in faith, rather than offering blasphemous explanations for its existence.

John Thiel’s God, Evil, and Innocent Suffering is one long, determined effort to resist the temptations of theodicy. Thiel seeks to offer a theological account of evil and suffering that “move[s] within the language of scripture and tradition,” its rationality governed by “the most basic Christian claims of faith” (3). At the same time, Thiel is not entirely happy with the ways in which the classical tradition has approached these issues. His book seeks to chart an alternative course within the tradition that can better address the mystery of evil.

The key term of his inquiry is found in the book’s title: innocent suffering. Thiel argues that for much of the tradition, there is really no such thing as innocent suffering. Augustine believed that most human suffering could be accounted for on the basis of the Fall. This theological answer reflects a deep religious urge to see God as just and loving. If innocent suffering exists, then God is indeed a monster; so if God has the character we attribute to him, then suffering cannot be innocent. As Thiel rightly says, “the denial of innocent suffering lets the Christian God be the Christian God” (12). But this orthodox explanation does not sit well with our experience. We know there is innocent suffering in the world. From the Book of job to Eli Wiesel’s The Trial of God, the protest rises that some suffer all out of proportion to their supposed guilt. The usual example brought forward in modernity is the suffering of children—those we tellingly refer to as “innocents.”

Yet it is not only the Augustinian tradition that has problems acknowledging innocent suffering. Thiel argues that modern theologians who construe suffering as educative, such as John Hick or Richard Swinburne, likewise evade the issue. While Hick certainly does not think people deserve to suffer, he does see them as responsible for “transforming” suffering into meaning. Here is the familiar free-will defense: a world of suffering is better than a world without, because it is better to be free than to be determined. Thiel correctly sees a problem here. Doesn’t Hick’s view reduce horrendous evil to an opportunity for personal growth? A different version of this problem is found in process theology, whose finite God is capable of turning the caprices of nature and history into a joyous future. Here, too, scandal dissolves within a scheme of evolutionary progress.

If both modern and premodern approaches to suffering fail, what is the alternative? Thiel’s own constructive proposal seeks to hold together three assumptions: (1) traditional Christian beliefs in God’s absolute goodness, omnipotence, and omnipresence are to be affirmed; (2) innocent suffering is real, and must not be softened in an attempt to render it “meaningful”; and (3) God neither permits nor wills evil in any form. This third point is crucial. More specifically, Thiel’s account seeks to “reject the view that God is the cause of suffering either by permitting the evil victimization of some by others, or by willing suffering through natural means, including the limitations of the human condition such as disease, old age, and death. Indeed, I shall argue that God neither permits, nor wills, nor causes any kind of suffering and death” (59).

Against what he sees as the tradition’s tendency to make God an agent of death, Thiel simply denies that this is so. Key texts within the canon portray God as the author of life, and therefore as the enemy and overcomer of death (“he will swallow up death forever” [Isa 25:7]; “Death will be no more” [Rev 21:4]). A consistent understanding God as life-giver means that there is no “place” for suffering, even in the sense of God’s permissive will. Death and suffering are simply what God resists with every power at his disposal. Thiel holsters his case by highlighting the biblical theme of promise and by appealing to the Christus victor motif in the Fathers. Far more so than Anselm, the “dramatic” theory of atonement allows us to see God’s relation to death as one of sheer opposition.

Thiel’s penultimate chapter seeks to find a way of affirming the force of the doctrine of original sin-humanity’s radical need for grace-while denying one of its corollaries: death as divine retribution. With God removed as agent of suffering and death, we are left with the suffering that innocents experience at the hands of others and from what Thiel calls “precedent evil” (his term for “natural” evil). God does not cause, but is present to our suffering. The final chapter attempts to rethink Christology and discipleship in light of innocent suffering. Like many contemporary theologians, Thiel places the resurrection rather than the cross at the center of God’s purposes. Christ's suffering and death are not the means by which God saves the world, but show us “God’s solidarity with humanity in the midst of its own innocent suffering. Jesus’ suffering reveals God’s judgment on death’s dehumanizing power” (163).

My major worry about the book is whether the central notion of innocent suffering is made to do far too much work. On the one hand, Thiel is surely right to criticize the traditional equation between suffering and divine retribution. The Bible itself questions this view, most decisively in the teaching of Jesus himself (e.g., the tower of Siloam, the man born blind). On the other hand, Thiel’s desire to distance God as much as possible from suffering and death may lead to a rather tepid doctrine of creation. God may not have created the creature’s bondage to decay, but God did make creatures who were vulnerable to decay, and who therefore suffer. Death is not “natural,” but finitude is-and it is difficult to imagine creatures who do not die, in at least a physical sense. God’s relation to suffering and death is extraordinarily complex. I worry that Thiel’s account may, despite his best intentions, result in a dualism in which God’s moral purity is preserved at the cost of his concrete involvement in the world. What is needed here is a nuanced account of the relation between creation and redemption. Such an account is made difficult when a single notion (“innocent suffering”) is made to bear too much weight.

Despite these problems, the book is a creative and challenging exercise in Christian theology. Thiel’s intellectual clarity does not come at the expense of moral passion. He invites us to ponder how to respond faithfully to the mystery of suffering in a world created by the God of life.
Toronto School of Theology

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The topic of suffering is never far from the lips of theologians or those who take seriously their relationship with their God. In light of the horrific events of Sept.11, 2001, the questions posed by suffering, especially innocent suffering, seem especially pertinent for examination. John E. Thiel, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University, Conn., has given us a serious book that takes up this task. This highly analytical, rather theoretical, yet accessible book explores the age-old question: why do the innocent ones suffer? It is Thiel’s contention that God is not the cause of suffering or death in any way, and to name God as the cause of evil renders it impossible for us to believe in God.

Thiel insists from the beginning that he is not undertaking a theodicy, because he is not arguing for reconciliation between God and evil. Nonetheless he does argue quite vehemently in support of specific attributes of God, namely God’s omnipotence and omnipresence. It is no longer fashionable to do a theodicy, yet I wonder if those of us who are especially interested in the topic of suffering are not “closet theodicists,” for we do desire to defend particular understandings of divinity in the face of evil and suffering.

It is to Thiel’s credit that he does not want to solve the “problem” of suffering. What he hopes to achieve is an adequate account of God’s relationship to evil while maintaining God’s omnipotence and omnipresence. He also wishes to affirm that innocent suffering does take place in our world and such suffering must be allowed to exist in its own right. The author demonstrates a great sensitivity to the reality of innocent suffering and how it plagues us all. I am grateful to Thiel for fully exploring the faulty human assumption that one person’s innocence requires someone else’s guilt-and more especially, as is pointed out, requires someone's evil agency. This book will help put to rest the idea that God causes evil and suffering.

One very useful aspect of this book, from the standpoint of classroom teaching, is that it gives the reader a good overview of various aspects of the Christian response to suffering. St. Augustine’s theological contributions are highlighted, as well as the story of job, a brief history of theodicy, the arguments of contemporary theologians and references to the Holocaust. I was pleased to see that Thiel occasionally draws upon the wisdom of women theologians, but those who have done significant work in the field of suffering, e.g., Rebecca Chopp and Wendy Farley, are conspicuously absent. While his nod to the great work of Elie Wiesel is appreciated, I think it is important to draw other names from the long list of Jewish theologians who write with an eye to the Holocaust.

Thiel argues from the authority of Scripture and tradition as he lays out his understanding of divinity in the face of innocent suffering. He is most willing to reframe the traditional understanding of original sin in order to support his thesis. But he is most unwilling to reframe other aspects of the tradition, such as the power of God, that have been highly problematic. He wants us to know that our omnipotent God cares for us and is filled with concern for victims of innocent suffering; but the ways in which this attribute has been manipulated over the centuries to oppress others are ignored. I also found myself asking, “What of our triune God’s ability to relate to human beings? Why must this attribute take second place to God’s omnipotence?”

I was baffled by Thiel’s outright dismissal of process theology. It seems that this theology has nothing to offer when dealing with the reality of evil and suffering. I cannot accept Thiel’s declaration that process theology is unworthy because many believers “would be reluctant to pay the high price exacted by the process understanding of God.” In some areas Thiel stands open to acknowledging the value of randomness, change and chance with regard to divinity, but this openness disappears when the attribute of omnipotence emerges. While God's omnipotence (especially God’s ability to defeat death) is the basis of faith for many believers, God’s omnipotence is troubling and problematic for many others. I was hoping for a further exploration of power as perhaps a process of interaction between persons or a paradigm of mutual influence. Thiel takes no account of the fine theological work challenging the overemphasis on God’s omnipotence. This, in my view, is the major weakness of his book.

The great strength of the book is that it makes a sound case for God's omnipotence as a moral witness to innocent suffering. The reader will be moved by the acknowledgment that God bears witness to that which we cannot understand. Thiel offers us a God whose presence fills up the void left by such suffering. It is easy to see why omnipotence is so essential to his argument. This is a God who must be able to defeat death and emerge victorious. It is also a God who seems to be male, authoritarian and in control. Again, I voice my concern that Thiel’s use of omnipotence as the main attribute for God pushes all other understandings of God to the sidelines.
America Magazine

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As the subtitle of the book makes it clear, the work is not a philosophical theodicy. Rather it is a reflection on the relationship between God and evil from the perspective of the Christian faith as embodied in Scripture and Tradition.

Thiel begins his theology of evil with the affirmation that there is innocent, undeserved suffering, and indeed, that unjust suffering is the most scandalous of evils. This apparently obvious assertion flies in the face of a central assumption of received Christian wisdom, first fully articulated by Augustine, that all evils are divine punishments for sin, original and/or personal (the “legal explanation”). Thiel also rejects what he terms the “providential explanation,” according to which God allows (not necessarily causes) evil but will eventually overcome it.

Thiel sees the denial of innocent suffering present in current theological answers to the problem of evil which he categorizes into three types: pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. The first, represented by Augustine, denies innocent suffering by holding that all humans are guilty, either by the original sin or their personal sins. The second also denies innocent suffering by holding either that this world is the best-of-all-possible-worlds (Leibniz, John Hick, and Richard Swinburne) or that God is the best-of-all-possible-Gods (David Griffin). The third also denies innocent suffering by making God’s providence responsible for the whole of history and not for the individual’s personal fate (Paul Lakeland).

In contrast to all the three positions above, Thiel holds that it is logically possible and theologically illuminating to hold together three positions traditional considered incompatible: (l) God is absolutely good, omnipotent, and omnipresent; (2) there is innocent suffering, not making all sufferings into punishments for sins, or into means for moral self-development, or into neutral and amoral events outside of the scope of God's providence; and (3) God neither permits, nor wills, nor causes any kind of suffering or death at all.

To show how these three positions can be harmonized Thiel appeals to a crucial distinction between “precedent evil” and “precedent sin.” The former is not caused by anyone, divine or human; the latter is the result of a bad free choice and act. With this distinction in place, Thiel says that not all suffering is punishment for “precedent sin” and therefore there is innocent suffering. The most we can say of sufferings is that some are caused by or may be deserved by “precedent sin” while others are caused by “precedent evil.” But because “precedent evil” is not caused by anyone, either God or humans, God and humans who suffer because of it are innocent!

If innocent suffering exists (and no Christian can deny this in the case of Jesus!), then one of the most urgent ethical duties is not to blame the sufferers but to “act innocently.” Thiel notes that his theological proposal encourages us to “think of innocence not only as a quality of being that human beings share with God in an analogical way but also as an active virtue that believers enact in order to imitate the divine nature of Jesus, the same nature that Jesus shares with God who is Father and God who is Spirit” (168).

“Precedent evil” is a deus ex machina; calling it deus is not inappropriate, it allows us to affirm the existence of innocent evil, but at a great theological cost. Thiel himself is very aware of the fact that his proposal is liable to dualism, posing “precedent evil” as another god, uncreated and uncaused. He asks: “Whence, then, the kind of evil ... an evil rampant in the world and for which no personal cause can be assigned'? My answer can only be an admission of ignorance” (98).

But there is another more pernicious result evacuating Thiel’s ethical project of “acting innocently.” If “precedent evil” is not the result of anyone’s personal action, how can it be removed, either by humans acting out their innocence as an “active virtue” (incidentally, it is hard to understand how innocence can be an “active virtue”) or, more importantly, ultimately by God? How can God have any influence on anything that is not within God’s creative sphere?

This raises the question of whether one can affirm the existence of undeserved suffering without having to posit “precedent evil.” That there is innocent suffering is beyond doubt, and Thiel deserves our gratitude for drawing our attention to this obvious fact (it is very easy for one to overlook “obvious” facts, especially when conditioned by a certain type of theology). We also are grateful to him for his pointed critique of Augustine and Anselm. We applaud as well his firm adherence to the affirmation of the Christian faith regarding God’s perfection, omnipotence, and omnipresence.

But is not possible to avoid ontological dualism inherent in the concept of “precedent evil” by refining our understanding of suffering and evil? Is each and every suffering always and necessarily “evil”? Is death itself, with all its horrors and torments, not always “evil” but a welcome blessing (St. Francis’s “sister”), not because it is an opportunity to atone for one’s sins, nor because it is an occasion for “soul-making,” nor because it is simply a natural end of an animal life, nor because it is a gateway to eternal life, but merely “liberation”? Can we not, like Buddhism, speak meaningfully of life as “suffering” without invoking the ontological and ethical concept of evil and yet at the same time urge a way of life that leads us out of suffering? Can we not see in what Thiel terms “precedent evil” ontological finitude over which God’s love, power and presence hold total sway and over which we humans have a limited influence through our personal “innocent” actions? Is not God's eschatological reign the new heaven and new earth, which is God’s promise and God’s deed, in which ontological finitude is no longer “dreaming innocence” but, without being transmuted into absoluteness (Tillich), participates in the fullness of divine life?
Catholic Studies

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John Thiel teaches at Fairfield University. His response to innocent suffering proceeds by holding together three assumptions that many claim to be incompatible: 1) the traditional understanding of God’s eternity and the absoluteness of all divine perfections, 2) the injustice of innocent suffering as a tragic fact of moral life, not to be attributed to human guilt or the need for moral development, and 3) the truth that God neither permits, nor wills, nor causes any kind of suffering or death, He explains how these assumptions can stand together, surveys the opinion of other theologians and philosophers through the ages, and answers objections.
Heiser

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John Thiel has written a sometimes fascinating and challenging book, but one that, in the end, is misguided. Thiel’s concern is: How can one actually allow for innocent suffering in the context of a good God? (p. ix). The problem within traditional Jewish and Christian theology is that, in order to uphold the goodness of God, innocent suffering was denied. ‘Guilt’s universality is imagined to be so utterly complete that innocent suffering evaporates without remainder’ (p. 116, see pp. 2-3). Augustine intensified Paul’s view of sin and so ‘all human beings are guilty perpetrators, and so the evil suffered by them in any way is God’s just punishment for their evil actions’ (p. 8). However, in the light of the Holocaust and other acts of untold violence and injustice against ‘the innocent’, how can one, Thiel asks, any longer deny that there are those who are indeed innocent and who do suffer in their innocence?

‘[I]nnocent suffering’, then, ‘presents the greatest threat to faith in God, since this suffering particularly forces believers to face the possibility of God’s complicity in evil’ (p.11). God’s complicity in evil, Thiel argues, is even found within the Old Testament. After a rather lengthy exposition and commentary on the Book of Job, Thiel concludes that ‘the God of Job is a capricious perpetrator of innocent suffering that, in a world of theistic belief, only God could inflict’ (p. 28). The suffering of the innocent and the existence of a good God appear to be incompatible. Yet, it is this seeming incompatibility that Thiel wishes to reconcile.

While Thiel is critical of the Christian/Augustinian tradition, he is equally dissatisfied with the modem and the postmodern approaches to the issue of innocent suffering, such as those of Leibniz, Hick, Swinburne, and Process Theology. Since all positions want to deny that God is responsible for innocent surf ring, he concludes his analysis of these thus: ‘[T)he pre-modern position denies innocent suffering by regarding all human persons as guilty before God; the modern position denies innocent suffering by rendering it meaningful within God’s creative providence; and the postmodern position denies innocent suffering before God by removing God’s personal, providential presence from natural suffering, thus rendering such suffering amoral, neither innocent or guilty’ (p. 54).

Thiel himself wants to uphold, firstly, the traditional view of God; that he is all-good, all-powerful, eternal, etc. Only such a God can he a providential God. Secondly, he equally wishes to uphold the reality of innocent suffering. Thirdly, he argues that God ‘neither permits, nor wills, nor causes any kind of suffering or death at all’ (p. 59). Because of this third point, Thiel argues that the Bible demonstrates that God is completely opposed to all evil and the innocent suffering that evil causes. Thus, for Thiel, suffering and death cannot be even willed by God as the consequence of sin. By eliminating God as a causal agent in relation to all evil, suffering and death, Thiel believes that he now has sure grounds for finding the goodness of God. From whence then does evil come? ‘My answer can only be an admission of ignorance’ (p. 98).

Thiel argues against the traditional doctrine of Original Sin in which every human being is born into a state of sin and thus is no longer innocent. Such a doctrine immediately implies that ‘God brings about suffering and death as humanity’s deserved punishment for the sin of Adam’ (p. 103). Thus Thiel believes all human beings are born innocent, but because of the history of sin that has enmeshed itself with societies and cultures, everyone is bound to sin. He refers to such an understanding as a ‘functionalist understanding of original sin’ (p.123, see pp. 121-25). However, this still leaves unanswered from where the initial source of evil comes. He speaks of a ‘precedent evil’ prior to volitional sin, and, despite its seemly un-Christian ring, latches on to Moltmann’s use of the Jewish kabbalistic doctrine of zimzum, where God withdraws his presence in order to make room for creation (see p. 134). However, such a divine withdrawal leaves a vacuum that can he filled by evil. ‘Precedent evil, we could say, is the prevailing, random consequence of an evolutionary process that the omnipotent God risked and with which the same God of life is eternally disappointed’ (p.137).

Thiel completely denies that Jesus’ death on the cross is a sacrifice because this would acknowledge both the guilt, and thus non-innocence, of humankind and the judgment of God that human beings are guilty and so in need of offering a sacrifice in reparation for their guilt (see pp. 15 5.63)- Rather, Jesus’ death is it manifestation of innocent suffering in solidarity with all those who also suffer innocently. What is important is that Jesus’ resurrection is the triumph of the Father’s promise that evil, sin, suffering and death will ultimately be overcome not only for Jesus but also for the whole of humanity. Thus, for Thiel, there is innocent suffering and the good God ultimately triumphs over it. He has vindicated his thesis! Or has he? I would like to raise a few issues, some of which Thiel himself raises at the end of his hook but does not adequately answer.

Firstly, I believe that Thiel presents a very simplistic and often warped account of the traditional understanding of sin and its repercussions, such as suffering and death, and the need for sacrificial reparation. It is true that no one is innocent in that all have inherited the sin of Adam and have, subsequently, freely committed their own sins. However, saying this is not to deny that sometimes people who are not innocent do suffer innocently, that is, suffer through no fault of their own. Moreover, it is precisely because all of us are equally guilty of sin (no one, except Jesus and Mary, is ever merely an innocent sufferer of evil) that reparation needs to be made. Secondly, Thiel is so caught up in verifying the truth of innocent suffering that he fails himself to see what purpose it may have other than that it is innocent. He forgets, unlike Job and the Saints, that innocent suffering can manifest the courage, the love and the holiness of a person. God does indeed test us, despite Thiel’s denial, in order for us to display the glory of who we really are just, courageous and loving people in the face of sometime horrendous evil. Thirdly, Thiel needs to learn the difference between primary and secondary causality when it is applied to God and human beings. As creator, God is the primary cause of all that is, but he is not the primary cause of sin and evil. Human beings are the primary cause of sin and evil. Thus, God is the secondary cause of evil only in the sense that he holds in existence those who freely choose to do evil. Fourthly, to appeal to the concept of ‘precedent evil’ that is willed by no one, not even by God, is all a bit philosophically naive and theologically abhorrent. Fifthly, having rendered the biblical notion of sin almost entirely meaningless, Thiel sees Jesus as ultimately doing nothing for us. He is merely the innocent tool the Father employs to manifest his triumph over death through the resurrection. Thus huge portions of the Old Testament sacrificial prefigurement and its New Testament fulfillment are rendered completely redundant. Finally, the whole Catholic understanding of the sacraments as participating in the sacrificial death of Jesus, especially in the Eucharist, no longer have any meaning. In dealing with an admittedly perplexing topic, Thiel would appear to have drifted far from the Christian tradition.
Irish Theological Quarterly

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The emergent Christian tradition saddled itself with the problem of evil (that threat to credibility that has ever yet haunted the faith) when it rejected the path of Marcion by claiming the Hebrew Scriptures as its Old Testament based on the identification of the God of Israel, whom those very Scriptures named the (creator, With the God of Jesus, whom he had called “Father”-the god Christians believed had raised him from the dead. Augustine Would later opine that suffering was tile just dessert of all who inherited the sinful distortedness of postlap-sarian Adam, believing in turn that God showed His mercy by so transforming some that they escaped the general perdition deserved by all. He apparently believed that if babies who died in infancy could not be shown to somehow deserve their fate, then the world could not he viewed as a just order and faith in a just and merciful creator god would be rendered vain.

It is just this theological denial of innocent suffering represented by Augustine that John Thiel refuses to accept. He is eloquent in arguing that the sense of justice involved founders on the shoals of proportionality. But it Thiel refuses the solution of premodern traditional theology, he equally rejects approaches that he labels postmodern and modern, respectively. Apparently, Lakeland, Thiel’s colleague at Fairfield, reads God’s “Where were you ...?” speech to Job as justification for thinking that Good is not the kind of reality who micromanages the small-scale events of life. For Thiel, such a postmodern view seeks to separate the notions of sin and guilt, on the one hand, from natural events, on the other. Suffering caused by natural causes has nothing to do with punishment but, instead, is “statistically expected misfortune distant from the divine concern” (53). Thiel dubs Hick’s famous “Irenaean” theodicy an example of the “best-of-all-possible-worlds” option within modern theodicy, a classification shared by Leibniz, and Swinburne. For Hick, the world needs to be something like the world we inhabit lest it foil to be the vale of “soul making” that God has intended it to be. It took the evolutionary process to bring forth creatures capable of specifically moral maturity. Moreover, because virtue lies in overcoming temptation, we must have the capacity of moral error, even its we need to be vulnerable to suffering at each other’s hands so that we can learn to say no to harmful urges. Ultimately, any excess individual suffering contributes to the general awareness of the unacceptability of suffering and thereby meaningfully subserves our moral growth. Process thinking exemplifies the “best of all possible gods” option. Although some “evils” seem to be it necessary attendant of arty creation God might bring into existence because divine power is limited to persuasion, God might be responsible for the existence of a world containing the evils that it does, but He cannot be held blameworthy for what the world has made of itself. Debilitating evil is taken up into the divine memory and made a meaningful part of God’s interactivity with the world with the result that no evil is suffered in vain but, indeed, contributes to the whole even as it might destroy the individual. For Thiel, such modern approaches, in seeking to make suffering “meaningful,” ultimately undermine- as do the premodern and postmodern options-the unacceptability of such evil and the validity of protest against it.

Thiel argues that similar difficulties haunt traditional approaches to death. Classically, God allows death as punishment for sin but so contextualizes it in a providential order that it contributes to the salvation of some. At the level of piety, the recognition that God uses death to accomplish His purposes leads to speech about God “taking” those who die unto Himself. In Thiel I think we can hear an echo of the far less guarded indictment of a Camus, for whom such a God is a cosmic murderer. Explicitly Thiel charges that the idea that death is divinely sanctioned risks positing a double will in God, either by making the same divine act an act of both retribution and blessing or-in a thinker like Calvin, for whom retribution and blessing are unmixed- by making God’s treatment of different people unequal. It would seem, by either account, that God is not wholly love. Modern approaches, in their turn, seek to undermine the legitimacy of any moral protest against death by making of it a purely natural thing, the working out of the laws of nature That God established and which He does not contravene. For his part, Thiel refuses to allow natural necessity or the laws of nature to he identified with the will and law of God. Rather, he seems to want to do justice to the very old motif that death and suffering are unambiguous enemies of God.

While Thiel refuses to compromise the traditionally recognized attributes of God in the manner of process theology, his innovation is to seek to avoid the attribution of divine complicity in death and in innocent suffering entirely. He admits that the scriptural warrant for such a line of thinking might be less than“overwhelming” (79). Yet .scriptural warrant may not be as weak as Thiel implies. For example, Thiel might very well recognize an ally in Jon Levenson, whose work on the idea of creation in the Hebrew Scriptures has shown the extent to which biblical categories reflect the idea of a God engaged in trying to limit-and in apocalyptic times, Completely plaster-chaos. For his part, Thiel exploits the analogous scriptural characterization of God as the “living God” who exercises His creative power unambiguously on behalf of life and the living, drawing on the work of Ronald Thiemann in viewing revelation as promissory of a final victory over evil.

If evil does not originate with Gods, then whence? Unlike Karl Barth, who traced evil to the metaphysical drag of Das Nichtige, and unlike the contemporary thinker Gregory Boyd (whose “warfare theodicy” has some parallels wing Thiel’s approach), who ultimately appeals to the agency of a devil to account for the efficacy of evil in the world, Thiel is Content to leave the source of evil mysterious, implying that the seeming omission is more than mule up for in the gains made in rendering Christian faith coherent and commendable to morally sensitive people. Thiel insists that he does not intend to argue a dualistic perspective inconsistent with Christian faith. If evil is something unwilled by God that nevertheless haunts Creation, then evil is not necessarily something substantial. Indeed, Thiel suggests that evil might very well still be thought of as a deprivation of good, as it is in much traditional theology. But in wanting to claim that the sobering and death to which humans are vulnerable are not attributable to the direct or indirect agency of God, Thiel recognizes that he runs the risk of dualism, but he argues that it is a risk worth taking “in order to allow fin- innocent suffering to enter theological explanation and to describe cod’s saving work in such a way that remove any hint of a double will in God’s relation toward death” (98.).

Thiel admits that his hook is realty a systematic theology in nuce. Anselm famously argued that God required the death of the God-man Jesus to exhaust His anger at sinful humanity and restore His otherwise wounded sense of honor so as to free humanity horn its otherwise deserved fate. But note, says Thiel, how such a view perpetuates the idea that death is an instrument of God. Instead, Jesus-in his total innocence-should he understood as God’s innocent engagement with “precedent sin” (the evil that humans enact, the presence of which in each generation infects the succeeding one) and “precedent evil” (tile evil of human mortality and the suffering undergone because of it)-in the light of which precedent evil and sin are revealed to be the evils that they are. Jesus resurrection, in turn, is God’s pledge that life will swallow up evil and death in victory-even for those of us who are compromised by sin in ways that Jesus was not. Correspondingly, discipleship lies in the imitation of Jesus’ innocent engagement with evil on the part of his not-so-purely-innocent followers.

The brevity of this very persuasive and clearly argued book belies its weight and significance. It answers to the need to begin to speak of God in ways that avoid the attribution of divine complicity in evil and death. AS such, it deserves a place on the bookshelf of every Contemporary theologian and a place on the syllabus for every course in contemporary ideas of God and the problem of evil. Some years ago, the philosopher James Muyskens called for an authentic theology of hope. John F. Thiel has finally given us one.
JAAR Book Review

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The nature and meaning of evil in the world have troubled religious thinkers throughout the centuries. Particularly vexing is the suffering endured by those who seem innocent of guilt or blame. If the person of Christian faith takes seriously the experiences of seemingly innocent victims of pain, a question naturally surfaces: How might one understand theologically innocent suffering (i.e., suffering out of proportion to human guilt)? God, Evil, and Innocent Suffering responds to this question, beginning with an exploration of the possibility of innocent suffering: “Does anyone suffer innocently?” From the author’s perspective innocent suffering is real and serves as the measure of all evils because of its radically unjust nature.

Classical theodical projects deny the realness of innocent suffering in part, Thiel argues, because such a denial allows for a clear and strong belief in the goodness of God in that suffering has merit or it is deserved punishment. Treatments by church leaders such as Augustine as well as Jewish doctrine are heavily reliant on “traditional doctrines of covenant and original sin” respectively, and as a consequence are guided by notions of implicit/explicit guilt. However, moving beyond abstract notions of sin and evil, can the suffering endured, for example, by Holocaust victims or children be attributed to wrongdoing by the victims? Does the implicit/explicit guilt paradigm work? At the very least these examples point to suffering that is out of balance with any sin the two groups, Holocaust victims and children, could have committed.

Theil finds modern theodicies just as problematic as classical responses to suffering. Beginning with attention to versions of the “Best-of-All-Possible-Worlds” theodicy, Thiel argues that Leibniz’s classic presentation of divine justice is never fully jettisoned by John Hick in his “vale of soul-making” theodicy. In either case, the presence of evil in the realm of a good God is explained in that “God willed a world open to evil in order to manifest fully God’s goodness”. For Hick this includes the ability of humans to grow through the pedagogical benefits of suffering. In a similar vein, Swinburne denies innocent suffering by arguing that “passive evil suffered” provides opportunity for human accountability and the fostering of strong moral agents of great character, who are strengthened through the pedagogical moment suffering entails. In the final analysis, all three theodicies do damage to innocent suffering by transforming it into something beneficial: “divine and human goodness cannot be what they are apart from a world in which evil really exists” (p.47).

Process theodicies-“Best-of-All-Possible Gods” theodicies-fare no better. Whereas Hick, Leibniz, and Swinburne work to maintain the omnipotence and goodness of God over against evil, process responses to evil involve a surrender of omnipotence because it is “inconsistent with the finite and temporal character of reality” (p.47). God, like humans, is faced with the “ordinary conditions of existence”. Consequently, God's power is exercised within certain limits in that God’s work in the world involves the attempt to persuade humans to behave in productive ways. Whereas liberation theologians have traditionally found this depiction of God woefully inadequate for the demands of justice, Theil objects for a different reason. Process depictions sanitize innocent suffering, he argues, by removing the weight of the “pain, loss, grief, and injustice” involved. While “Best-of-All-Possible Worlds” theodicies erase innocent suffering by rethinking the world’s constitution, Process theodicy does so by reworking the nature and purpose of divine movement in the world. In either case, innocent suffering becomes a non-reality because it points beyond itself to new possibilities of moral growth and a moral future.

In contrast to the theodicies examined, God, Evil, and Innocent Suffering does not seek to transform innocent suffering into something less troubling. But its realness does not damage Theil’s doctrine of God, which is premised on the attributes of absolute goodness, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Furthermore, these traditional attributes of the divine are held in creative tension with the undeniable integrity of innocent suffering as unjust and tragic.

In order to develop and hold this position, the author appeals to a faith-based response to suffering that is not philosophical in nature (not a theodicy), reflecting instead “on God’s relation to evil theologically”. “Faith”, Theil continues, guides “reasoning here, and scripture and tradition, understood as divine revelation, will supply the evidence for faith-oriented reflection” (p.ix). The author does not make use of a hermeneutic of suspicion in reading scripture and tradition, and so his theological interpretation can easily fall prey to the perspective of the privileged over against the experiences of the oppressed. (It becomes tempting to take scripture at face value.) At times, the author’s theological response to innocent suffering seems best suited to those who do not bare the bulk of misery and pain-those who can speculate from a “safe” distance. And, oddly enough, this resembles his charge against Hick.

The idea that God’s will operates through instances of pain and suffering offends the author’s perception of God and the substance of faith because “the prospect of God’s purposeful willing of death” opposes the “expectations of faith in how God’s providence is disposed toward the world” (p.73). Innocent suffering is not the result of divine activity and it cannot be explained simply in terms of human guilt. There is a troubling distance from the source of innocent suffering in the author's theological interpretation of evil.

One might raise questions concerning the source of evil that is not of God and not from humans. Yet, oddly enough from the author’s perspective God, Evil, and Innocent Suffering is not obligated to provide an answer. In fact, theological formulations are incapable of satisfying this desire for information on the genealogy of innocent suffering. Readers, hence, are quickly told that the book is not concerned with a full explanation of how evil and a good God can exist in the same space. Instead, God, Evil, and Innocent Suffering seeks to take faith seriously by “chart[ing] another viable course through the tradition’s basic beliefs” (p.3). In this sense, Theil’s work, unlike the theodicies presented, creatively uses resources from the Christian faith to both affirm the attributes of God and the reality of innocent suffering: God is good and innocent suffering remains unjust and the “most dramatic symptom of evil” (p.67). This modality of suffering simply is, and the Christian theologian must recognize its existence in strong terms while doing no damage to the character of God. Theological truth rests on the maintenance of this tension. Nonetheless, how does one speak of justice when the origin of innocent suffering cannot be (and need not be) ascertained?

The author’s proposal is provocative, but not convincing. This is particularly the case for readers who share the theological sensibilities and sociopolitical outlook of liberation theology. His limited attention to black and womanist theologians, for example, who have given a great deal of thought to issues of moral evil seems odd considering Theil’s concern with issues of justice and injustice. Dialogue with theologians of liberation may have assisted Theil in grounding his notion of innocence within concrete instances of oppression in part by recognizing the sociopolitical, economic, and cultural context of the Christian faith. (The Holocaust and vaguely presented suffering of children are used only to critique theodicy.) From the perspective of liberationists, why even speak of a God whose causal agency is distanced from the most horrific form of evil? What does it mean to say God has a preferential option for the oppressed (innocent sufferers) in light of Theil’s postulation of God’s non-relationship to innocent suffering? Furthermore, how do those who suffer unjustly raise a protest in light of the author’s framing of God’s position relative to innocent suffering? What happens to human accountability and responsibility-the drive for improvement-when innocent suffering is not the consequence of misdeeds? Is it enough to recognize the unjust nature of innocent suffering? Where is the consolation in that?

Furthermore, the author’s position does not seem to do justice to the emotional response to suffering he critiques others for diminishing. In fact, the author seems more concerned with protecting God from participation in evil than in addressing the plight of those who suffer. At times it seems Theil’s theological response flirts with theodicy in an effort to safeguard God from charges of wrong doing: Theodicies alter doctrine of God in ways that give meaning to innocent suffering, and Theil protects God by shrouding innocent suffering in “an admission of ignorance”. Who, within the community of innocent sufferers, can be expected to embrace ignorance with regard to the source of their misery? At best this approach works in theory, but not with respect to the pastoral emphasis Thiel says is vital for good theology. The author enters a call for patience in anticipation of God’s ultimate triumph over evil. However, until then, it is not clear how we are to hear, respect, and embrace the emotional response to evil coming from the oppressed. What is the nature and meaning of praxis?

The author’s position is unconvincing at times, and it will leave those committed to liberationist theological principles frustrated. But that is fine. This book tackles an important issue and whether or not one agrees with Theil’s conclusion, his text should be read. It provides a provocative-whether satisfying or not-discussion of our most vexing dilemma.
Religious Studies

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John Thiel argues a challenging and complex thesis, or theses, on a crux interpretans for any theology: innocent suffering. Stated negatively, Thiel argues “that God neither permits, nor wills, nor causes any kind of suffering or death at all” (p.59) — and this requires him to deny a number of features of traditional, modern and postmodern understandings of God, evil and innocent suffering. Stated positively, the eternal God of prevenient love creates a world that has both guilty and innocent suffering a world in which God moves in the solidarity of the Innocent Sufferer, calling disciples to be authentic witnesses to both guilty and innocent suffering. The book’s prose is clear — accessible, at least in large part, to the undergraduates and lay readers for whom Thiel writes. But his argument is very complex; it will be (as Thiel hopes) of interest to theologians and even the philosophers of religion of whom he is critical (p. x).

Chapters one and two focus on but are not restricted to his negative thesis. This “majority tradition” includes the tradition of Paul and Augustine, modern “best of all possible worlds” theodicies from Leibniz to Swinburne and process theologies, and “revisionists” who affirm that God creates the world but does not act in specific ways in the world. Thiel argues that this position does not take account of disproportionate suffering, when the punishment does not fit the crime, from the death or murder of children to the Shoah and modern genocides.

It is not clear to me why Paul cannot he read in the light of the broader biblical narrative so clearly affirmed by Thiel (see below) rather than the way Thiel has read him. But Thiel’s negative thesis ultimately has to be judged in relation to the positive thesis articulated in chapters three through five. In chapter three, God is a living God and therefore a God of the living. Thiel sketches what he modestly calls “a rather traditional theological portrait” in which God is a God of prevenient grace, and his omnipotence eternal and absolutely perfect (p.78). Thiel proposes as his model Aulen’s Christus Victor, where (appropriately demythologized) God is engaged in dramatic “ongoing battle with death for the liberation of humanity” (p.91) in contrast to Anselmian or Abelardian models.

If not God, then who or what causes death and other evils? Thiel admits that he “risks dualism” by leaving evil unexplained. But this is not a Gnostic or Manichaean dualism but “productive theological ignorance” (pp.98-99) — ignorance over the origin of evil and “why God’s promise to destroy death has not been completely fulfilled in the present” (pp.98, 173). Thiel is wise indeed to build ignorance into the framework of our thinking about innocent suffering. This is not ignorance about what evil is — Thiel agrees with the traditional Augustinian description of evil as “a privation, the absence of being and so the absence of the good that everything created possesses” (p.97). And this is not an ignorance of where innocent suffering is going God will eventually emerge victorious over it. It is an ignorance over where such suffering cones from, and why God does not complete that victory now. How much ignorance over these questions is productive? The last two chapters can he read as an answer to this question.

Does Thiel's affirmation of our abiding ignorance over the origins of innocent suffering deny original sin, particularly as canonized at the Councils of Orange and Trent (p.115)? Thiel affirms “a functionalist understanding” of the “tragic precedence of sin” (p.121) in which we find God is not the cause of death in any way and death is therefore not divine retribution (p. 124). Remove the traditional doctrine of original sin from its ties to what Thiel had called the “legal explanation” of evil as punishment for sin and we can affirm “innocent suffering in the midst of guilty suffering” (p.120). Although I would press the question of the ontological origin of the privatio boni further than Thiel, his agnosticism on this score enables him to say powerful things throughout the book about innocent sufferers, including our need for solidarity with them. The relationship between his non-functionalist account of the God of prevenient grace (chapter three) and his functionalist account of sin and evil (chapter four) becomes clear in his account of Jesus, the Innocent Sufferer (chapter five). Jesus’ powerlessness in crucifixion and death does not undo his innocence, and his Resurrection is God’s promise “to do for humanity what God has already done for Jesus” (p.146). Thiel argues that Anselmian understandings of Jesus’ death — where “Jesus willingly exchanges his uncompromised innocence for humanity’s uncompromised guilt, taking onto himself an undeserved death that is humanity’s lot” (p.153) — reinforce difficulties he has with the traditional teaching. On the other hand, he argues that a directly Chalcedonian understanding of Jesus emphasizing Jesus’ full humanity and divinity means that “humanity too possesses the quality of innocence that is its existential condition for Jesus' innocent suffering” (pp.157-158). We should think of “Jesus’ saving work not as sacrifice but as solidarity in the Incarnation with the innocent suffering of humanity” (p.159). Here Thiel sides with what Catholics might call a more Rahnerian soteriology of solidarity rather than a Balthasarian soteriology of substitution. He does not think that Jesus solidarity with our innocent suffering eclipses the differences between each. That is, his desire to avoid monophysitism does not lead him to the Nestorianism of which “monophysites” often charge western Chalcedonians. But Thiel will need to say more about the relationship between Jesus innocence as God and as human to persuade substitutionary soteriologists. I think it is only by going through the latter that one can address the question of the incompleteness of God’s victory that is so crucial for Thiel’s case.

Thiel’s main achievement is to have located innocent suffering in relationship to faith’s thinking about God and evil and Jesus Christ, in contrast to those who seek to understand it within the limits of reason alone My question is whether the two theses with which I began are Consistent whether a God out to liberate us from evil (actual and original sin and suffering, guilty and innocent) can do so without in some sense permitting (albeit not doing) evil for the sake of the greater good of the communion of saints.
Pro Ecclesia

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On the basis of experience, Thiel argues, one sees that there are forms of suffering, which are totally undeserved. Classical philosophical and theological efforts to reconcile divine goodness with human misfortune have been either legal (all are guilty and thus deserving of punishment) or providential (suffering serves a divine purpose). A process view resolves the tension between divine goodness and human suffering by deconstructing the notion of omnipotence. But if one takes seriously the Bible’s conviction that God never wills death or any of the evils that kill the human spirit, then one is in a position to appreciate the category of “innocent suffering” and God’s relation to it. Death is not what God wants for humanity; the resurrection of Jesus is the primary scriptural evidence of this fact. Because it has been linked so closely with human reproduction, Thiel shows why it is important to reconceptualize original sin in social and historical categories, although the correlative christology he offers could stand more development. The book would draw serious undergraduates into a splendid thought experiment, introducing them to major thinkers (Augustine, Anselm, Leibniz, Hick) and inviting them to wrestle with the dualism that lurks, perhaps unavoidably, in many Christian minds.
Religious Studies Review

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Thiel, professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University, offers a theological alternative to traditional theodicies indebted to philosophical analysis. But, make no mistake: This is a tightly reasoned treatise. Thiel believes that traditional theories have failed to acknowledge the genuine innocence of victims. He wants a position that avoids the “Scylla of a guilty God,” viewed as the cause or source of innocent suffering, or the “Charybdis of denying the common human experience of innocent suffering” (p.55). In this regards, he is particularly critical of Augustine’s supposition that no one suffers innocently since all are born into sin. Also, he criticizes the pot-modern tendency to affirm that God, while involved with the well-beings of the whole cosmos, is not providentially involved. Hence, he is critical of the perspective that sees death as a penalty as well as the “providential” explanation that seeks to align divine love with justice with the affirmation that in death “God call someone to heaven.” For Thiel, God is ever at odds with death (p.86).

Thiel wants his perspective on evil to be guided by three commitments. First, he affirms the traditional view of eternity and the absoluteness of the divine perfections. Second, he notes that the injustice of innocent suffering is an undeniable and tragic moral fact of life. It is not to be denied by transforming it into a meaningful vehicle of moral development, or by removing innocent suffering from the scope of divine providence. Third, he rejects the view that God is the cause of suffering either by permitting the evil victimization of some or by willing suffering through natural means. God neither permits, nor wills, nor causes any kind of suffering or death at all (p.59).

For Thiel, God’s presence in the universe testifies to the guilt of those perpetrate evil and offer solidarity with victims (p.131). Evil exists, in part, not only because of the deeds of perpetrators but also because God is self-restrictive in this world. Thiel affirms that God lets the otherness of creation with respect to God be taken seriously. Evil disrupts the goodness of this freedom. Thiel appeals to Luther’s notion of promise in order to affirm God’s solidarity with suffering.

Thiel’s is a fresh, crisp, thoughtful approach to a longstanding issue. It is to be welcomed by theologians, pastors, and church leaders.
Theology Missions Paper


“Many current books on evil see human suffering mainly as a conceptual problem to be solved by philosophical analysis, while other see suffering as a compelling reason to reject Christian belief. John Thiel offers an arresting theological alternative to such views. Belief in the omnipotence of divine love, he argues, is a faithful and coherent response to the innocent suffering we see all around us – and to our deep sense that God is in no way the cause of evil. Whether or not they agree with his conclusions, Thiel’s readers will be challenged to look at an ancient problem afresh by this welcome and thought-provoking book.”
Bruce Marshall, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

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“John Thiel’s book provides the most compendious mapping and critical evaluation of the theological responses to the problem of innocent suffering that I know. Moreover, it does so with great economy, and in a style that is clear, fresh, and engaging. Its critique of tendencies in classical and modern theology to evade the scandal of innocent suffering is especially compelling. Yet this book also offers a constructive and original alternative to traditional and modern accounts. It speaks to the God of promise, who announces the truth of God’s being with us, nothing less than the end of what divides, rends, and annihilates us.”
Cyril O’Reagan, University of Notre Dame

9780824519285
Paperback / 192 pages
Dimensions: 6 x 9
HERDER & HERDER, 2002