Toronto School of Theology

January 2, 2022

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.

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