Evil and suffering: An interim theodicy

By R. Page Fulgham

Laura’s story is repeated all too often. Her mother died a slow death from Alzheimer’s disease and then her brother developed colon cancer and died. Next, Laura’s husband committed suicide; and within just a few months, her 14-year-old son was killed in a horrible car accident. A few years later, Laura’s dad ended his own life. Laura contracted polio as a child and eventually developed Alzheimer’s and died.

My first question is, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” Next, why would one person have to endure so much suffering? Then, I want to know, “Can I honestly believe in a God of love and power, when God cannot prevent or does not choose to prevent suffering?”

In every century, in every age, these questions have reverberated as humans have searched for answers. Questions tumble from cancer wards, hurricane relief centers, and the parents of innocent infants who have died or suffered trauma and pain. Are there any reasonable answers in the Bible? Why does “just trust God” sound so thin to those who experience great suffering and loss? Pious and simple answers stream from religious teachers. Meaningless shibboleths and trite sayings such as “it must be God’s will” abound.

Many have tried to unravel the mysteries of evil and suffering only to complicate the problem. In the words that follow, I attempt to simplify a complex theological and human problem, discuss possible solutions, and give practical answers, all in an effort to bring some measure of understanding. This is not an easy road, the journey toward understanding, but a necessary road that must be traveled to demystify complex and sometimes unexplored avenues. Challenges to traditional faith and beliefs about evil and suffering and the introduction of a fresh approach to the issues involved can lead to a new and refreshing understanding.

The contrast between Augustinian and Irenaean theodicies gives us a starting place toward a new understanding of theodicy, or the attempt to rectify the existence of evil while maintaining faith in a loving God. Augustine attempts to relieve God from the responsibility of suffering and places it on the misuse of human freedom. Irenaeus accepts God’s ultimate responsibility and seeks to show for what good reason God created a universe in which evil was inevitable.

Based on our findings, I would suggest that the Irenaean type of theodicy (which suggests that we are created as children and through suffering grow into maturity) gives more clarity and hope in finding answers to the persistent questions about evil and suffering. The Genesis story affirms both the goodness of creation and the origin of human disobedience; but there is no indication in the text that goodness means “perfection,” which Augustine affirms and Irenaeus rejects. We find more evidence for original blessing than original sin.

What we find in the Genesis narrative is an attempt to name what the ancient Hebrews viewed in their world, with any literal interpretation of that account leading to wholesale despair in placing God in untenable positions. The biblical material does not support a systematic understanding of evil. Rather, it describes the results and implications for daily living, yes, even within the pain, suffering and anomalies of life. God does not need to be absolved from the responsibility of creating or allowing evil. We cannot know with certainty the origin of evil, but we have to contend with the figure of the serpent which may depict the choice of evil present in the created order. The fact that evil exists is one of the givens of life, as is the freedom to choose between good and evil, making humans responsible for those choices. It is in the context of insurmountable questions about the existence of natural and moral evil that we become fully human or, as Irenaeus said, we mature into our understanding of what it is to be human in the likeness of God.

For the unbelieving world, perhaps this is not a problem; but it is often used to taunt Christians who sometimes struggle to answer. It is a problem only for those who hold tight to the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God who has chosen, it seems, to limit interference in either the natural or moral order. The self-limitation of God’s powers is more palatable than the view of a finite God unable to alleviate suffering. John Newport says, “Limitation is inherent in God’s own choice and character, rather than in some force outside God’s power. The suffering of the innocent is part of the price that must be paid if we are to be really personal beings…. In spite of the horrible suffering choice can involve, most of us would prefer such a world to its alternative.”[1] Despite the challenges and limitations of this world, it is the place where souls are made, to borrow a phrase from Irenaeus. Yet, we must forever listen to the plaintive voices decrying the price of such soul-making. Dostoyevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, wrestles with the problem of innocent human suffering. In the estimate of Kenneth Surin, “What he [Ivan Karamazov] cannot accept, therefore, is the price, in terms of innocent human suffering, that is exacted so that men and women may come to enjoy eternal harmony.” Surin continues:

The ‘soul-making’ theodicist’s central affirmation, that human suffering is the means by which supreme happiness is ultimately attained, is unacceptable to the ‘protest’ atheist: like Ivan, she questions the moral propriety of a process which submits innocent children to unbearable pain so that human beings can get to heaven. For Ivan, there is no possible moral justification for the belief that the sufferings of the innocent can be expiated or redeemed in this life or in a post-mortem existence.[2]

Only in the crucified Jesus and the sufferings he did not deserve can we begin to glimpse the mystery of suffering that will be unveiled in the eschatological age. The heart of the gospel message is that through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, God has proclaimed more than mere judgment on human sin. God was in Christ, proclaiming and revealing both the image and likeness of God. In Christ we have a glimpse of what we can become in God’s likeness.

Maybe this answer does not bring comfort to the many who suffer from the anguish of life and the pain of existence in today’s realities; but perhaps it solves for many the mystery of the origin of evil, the necessity of suffering and the ability to make choices which either drive us into the arms of a loving God or usher us into the oblivion of hopelessness.

As a believer, I cannot fathom a God who arbitrarily inflicts pain and suffering on the innocent or is unaffected when children are suffocated in the gas chamber. In my mind, that kind of God becomes some kind of evil monster. Instead, what happens in the world is given as an opportunity for us to interact with pain and suffering, to learn, to grow, to become what is pictured in Scripture as genuine followers of Jesus. That involves a faith choice. I choose to believe in a loving and powerful God, not just in spite of what happens, but mostly because of what has happened. Yet, every time I read or hear of some tragedy, large or small, I wince and wonder why, or if it could have been prevented or lessened. The Irenaean type of theodicy does indeed involve the paradox, as John Hick points out, “that moral and spiritual growth occur through overcoming evil and that evil therefore contributes to good by being overcome by it.” But does that mean that we should not strive to overcome evil in the world? On the contrary, Hick concludes, that is why we are here![3]

To illustrate, the overwhelming evidence of systemic racism in the world is a looming problem facing all nations. The false ideology of white supremacy is self-perpetuating in the structures and institutions of society. I think that surely, we can do better, be better people. We must, we will dig our way out of the well of hatred and injustice. It is the unimaginably senseless events of history that cause me to continue to dive into the reasons as to why and how human actions can be so evil. It is the faith of my forebearers that lets me sleep at night.

The question of predestination by God is debated in reformed theological circles and in the wider Christian community. Calvinism, or hyper-Calvinism, is credited with the belief that God predestines some for salvation and some to damnation as shown in the Augustinian type of theodicy. If in fact God does predetermine all human and natural events in history, then humans have no real choices, no freedom of will, except in the pre-fallen world as described by Augustine where humans were free only to fall or fail. Thus, our lives are spent in faux freedom as mere pawns on God’s chess board, appearing to be independent, but actually groveling in servitude to the divine plan and Planner.

In my attempt to understand predetermination, I conclude that we do have choices as free-will creatures. Otherwise, why would God create humans who were not free to choose to worship God? In the beginning of the human race, God endowed us with the power to make choices, even bad ones, and to serve God out of that freedom. Would not God prefer to have one person choose to serve the kingdom rather than an army of sycophants pre-programmed to obey? Otherwise, what’s the point? We are free to choose evil, and that partially accounts for the evil in the world, but human freedom does not account for all evil, particularly natural events which are judged by some to be evil, by others, to be just nature performing as nature was created and intended by God.

We can conclude that the Irenaean approach to the problem of the origin and existence of evil gives more pathways to understanding than does the Augustinian approach. The Irenaean type of theodicy demythologizes evil and suffering and the superstitions surrounding the centuries of erroneous doctrine, teachings, and preaching about the origin and nature of evil, and especially original sin. The Middle Ages (but not limited to) produced the most outrageous non-biblical ideas about the nature of Satan, his powers, and the afterlife. Witchcraft, demonology, exorcisms and bargains with Satan contribute to Carus’ conclusion that “The Devil becomes greater and more respected than ever; indeed, this is the classical period of his history and the prime of his life.”[4] The reaction of the Enlightenment was total skepticism. What moderns are left to dissect and digest is a mixture of truth and fiction, fantasy and facts. Richard Rohr said, “In one way, the doctrine of ‘original sin’ was good and helpful in that it taught us not to be surprised at the frailty and woundedness that we all carry.” He continues:

I truly believe that Augustine meant the idea of original sin to be a compassionate one. Yet historically, the teaching of original sin started us off on the wrong foot—with a no instead of a yes, with mistrust instead of trust. We have spent centuries trying to solve the “problem” that we’re told is at the heart of our humanity.”[5]

My argument is that “the devil didn’t make you do it, you made yourself do it.” In other words, we cannot blame outside interference when our choice is our choice. Nor can we say with any biblical authority that God is punishing the world or individuals for their sinfulness or sinful choices by inflicting pain and suffering. God is not lying-in wait to catch sinners in the act and smite them, as the existentialist atheist, Jean Paul Sartre, implied. God is waiting patiently for opportunities to show love and mercy. Even the preaching of hellfire and damnation is in and of itself a misrepresentation of the Bible message about God’s love for the sinner. With the scarcity of biblical teaching on hell and damnation, and the over-abundance of material on the subject generated by the Church, I suspect we have preached more than we know about the subject. I have a theory that the Church, especially in the Middle Ages, developed an overly harsh doctrine of hell and punishment in order to manipulate and control the population.

I would be so bold as to say that what we humans call evil is a social construct, made-up imagery convenient for categorizing and classifying, but otherwise, a reality that is not really real. Evil was not created, nor does it exist as a separate substance, over against the substance of the universe. In other words, evil is only evil because we agree that it is evil or non-good. In a perfect world, there would be no bad or evil, only good. The slightest amount of non-good spoils the whole scene and thus evil enters our vocabulary. While evil, as a socially agreed upon construct, is nebulous and squirmy, hard to hold or describe, there is a tipping point, that a family, community or society can agree is crossing the border between good and bad. To restate, there is only one reality, mostly referred to in studies like this as the natural or physical order, but the natural order is divided into agreed upon realities like evil, morality and non-good, as well as good and acceptable. Civility leads us to agree that murder and rape are evil, that the senseless death of children through negligence or intentionality is evil—and the list goes on ad infinitum. Could there be a society where there was no evil, where everything, including what we call evil, is acceptable and tolerated? Maybe so, but I do not think I would want to live there or even visit.

According to Pew Research Center, most Americans say suffering in the world comes from people—not God. In September 2021 a survey of 6485 Americans polled online shows that Americans overall have a strong belief in God and that belief appears to be unshaken in the midst of hardship and suffering. Instead, according to Pew, seventy-one percent of Americans lay some blame for the suffering that occurs in the world at the feet of individuals and societal institutions. Thirty-five percent say that life happens and very few respondents (eight percent) suggest that sinful nature or free will is the root of evil or bad things. Even less (four percent) conclude that evil or suffering provides an opportunity for growth.[6] While on the one hand this research shows positive movement away from traditional religious approaches to evil and suffering, it also shows that only a very small percent of American respondents has any appreciation for hardship as a tool for growth, self-understanding, or pathway of faith.

We must conclude that reframing the conversation about evil and suffering leads to a broader understanding and a different set of questions. The old questions of “why evil?” and “why does God permit/cause evil?” seem inadequate to examine or explain reality, the real “reality,” not the one imagined. The new question and indeed the only question left to answer is, “How will I respond to evil in light of my faith in God?”

Indeed, the fight or flight phenomenon sets in, and we gird our loins and fight for meaning and purpose in order to hold the darkness at bay, or we bury our heads in the sand. As a society, we face a major problem—how to manage what we deem evil and maintain civil order, equality, justice and peace.

While we cannot take away all evil, and we would not want to, we can attempt to hold a balance. We need evil to prod us to reach our full potential. John Haught, scientist, theologian, and advocate of biological evolution, states, “If God had not opened up the universe to novelty and drama from the start, there would have been no suffering. But there would have been no increase in value (beauty), life, sentience, and consciousness either.” Haught notes that a perfectly designed world would preclude any struggle with how to make sense of evil and suffering in a world said to have been created by a good and all-powerful God, and concludes that a perfect world would have been “trivial in comparison with the dramatically intense universe that is still coming into being and whose meaning remains obscure until the story is fully told.”[7].

The greatest contribution of Irenaeus to the conversation on evil and suffering is that we accept reality, even with our artificial social constructs, as the best place to grow, or complete the story, and prosper with and because of the existence of evil (even horrible evil). The attempts to explain, justify and absolve God from the responsibility of evil lead only to dead ends and theological entanglements that great minds of present and previous centuries have been unable to resolve.

In the end, we cannot answer the ultimate question of evil and suffering in the natural order or the moral universe either philosophically or theologically. We can only live in the mystery and suffer with the courage of hope as we await the eschaton. In the meantime, we struggle with the pain, with the mysteries, with the horrible and unexplainable evil found both in the universe and in humans, and with the existential angst of life—all of which compel us to the quest for the likeness of God. Becoming fully human (in the likeness of God) is not completed until we reach our eternal destiny, or, in Haught’s words, “when the story is fully told.” There is much to be said about the God of the future who leads us gently into the unknown, which requires patience suffused with hope.

How does undeserved suffering make theological sense? One answer is that it does not make sense at all. Another might be we will not know until someday. I would suggest that according to biological evolutionary science, all that happens to us influences, affects, or alters our DNA which is passed on to future generations. In other words, what seems meaningless or senseless now may hold future value. What Haught and other biological evolutionists are saying is that Darwinian science may be able to help us understand that suffering has adaptive significance but cannot tell us what subjectivity is or why subjectivity came into existence.[8]

“Someday” seems like a thin answer to the many who suffer the ravages of war, the devastation of poverty, the consequences of disease, and to those who are the victims of crime, hate, and racism; to those children who are born into the city of hopelessness and despair, who cling to life with the boney fingers and the swollen bellies of starvation.

“Someday?” It is incumbent on all decent human beings on the face of the earth to pull out all the stops, leave not one stone unturned until we alleviate the great afflictions of poverty, war, disease and the moral plagues of hate, racism, greed and indifference. Although we cannot possibly eliminate all pain and suffering, we can try! In the meantime, what hope can we offer?

Whatever solace, comfort, and future lies in the promise of eternity, surely it is found in the transformation into the likeness of God, as Irenaeus has presented. We are being remade by the Holy Spirit into beings who bear the scars of pain and suffering but who will find ultimate completion in the likeness of God.

— The author has edited this excerpt from his forthcoming book published by Smyth & Helwys, Evil and the Garden of Good: Exploring the Mystery of Suffering.



[1] John P. Newport, Life’s Ultimate Questions: A Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989), 240.

[2] Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd.,1986), 98.

[3] John Hick, Evil and the God of Love [Revised Edition] (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 376.

[4] Paul Carus, The History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1974), 283.

[5] Richard Rohr, “Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation,” The Center for Action and Contemplation. October 25, 2021.

[6] Pew Research Center, November 21, 2021. https://www.pewresearch.org/interactives/in-their-own-words-how-americans-explain-why-bad-things-happen/

[7] John Haught, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 84-85.

[8] John Haught, Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 179.

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