Catholic Studies

January 2, 2022

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?

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