Irish Theological Quarterly

January 2, 2022

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.

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