Religious Studies

January 2, 2022

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.

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