Theodicy: A “New” Idea [Not Really]

One of the most uncomfortable feelings I ever have is when I am teaching a Sunday school class and I introduce a new term to Christians and they wonder whether it is “legit” or not.*  The looks of consternation are disconcerting.  The mumbling among the class sounds unsettling as indeed they may be feeling “unsettled;” their response is certainly unsettling to me!  Recently I have been teaching a class on angels and I introduced the term “beatific vision,” actually a theologian on a video used the term and I followed up on his use of the words. 

The idea was new.

They were not sure…

It seems that the more I study my faith, the more I encounter more complex terms that are used in theological circles, not layperson circles.  Another such idea is theodicy.  Theodicy means the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.

A brand new idea?

The term may be new but I bet the simple meaning of the term is not.  Theodicy is the idea that the innocent suffer and the wicked seem to flourish.  My Grandmother Hattie was an avid watcher of her daily “soaps” [a reference to daytime dramas].  I would drop in and visit with her and I got accustomed to some of the characters on her shows; every “soap” had squeaky clean characters and horribly filthy characters.  And yes, it seemed at times as if the wicked people were winning in the game of life.  Grandmother would always say to me about the evil people; “Don’t worry, they will get their ‘comeuppance.’”  She had faith that good would rule in the end and the evil people of the world would be punished.

In Chapter 8 of John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ he explains the way the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is a “word” as well as a work [essentially what does the sacrifice reveal about God?].   We have already commented on Jesus’ sacrifice as “the glory of God”** and now we turn to the sacrifice as a revelation about the justice of God.  In many places in the Old Testament it is difficult to parse out God’s justice.  Stott points to Abraham’s anguish about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; it would seem that he has some serious concerns about The Lord’s justice when he says “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” [Genesis 18: 25].  Of course there is a whole book of the Old Testament devoted to theodicy, the Book of Job.  Why does Job have to suffer so much?

How do we reconcile such instances when good vs. evil seem so out of balance?  Stott writes that some answers come from two ideas: the final judgement of God and the judgement of God that has already taken place at the cross.

The final judgement is like Grandmother Hattie’s “comeuppance.”  Stott writes that it can be very tempting to follow the ways of the evil person if they are prospering.  Turning to Psalm 73, the psalmist admits that being evil may be ok;   that “envying their freedom to sin and their immunity to suffering, he had almost turned away from God…more ‘brute beast’ than godly Isarelite.”  What is not considered is the day of “final judgement” when they must account before God for all the acts that they have committed.  God has the last say.

A more complex notion is the sacrifice of Jesus to assuage all sins, yes, even those of evil people.  “The reason for God’s previous inaction in the face of sin was not moral indifference but personal forbearance until Christ should come and deal with it on the cross” [Stott, 204].  Stott points to the Apostle Paul’s writing in Roman’s 3: 21-26 because it sheds so much light on this idea:  “Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.  God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood.  He did this to demonstrate justice, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—He did it to demonstrate His justice at the present time, so as to be just and the One who justifies the man who has faith in Jesus.”

This writing emphasizes the complex notion that for some, maybe God is letting sinners off too easily.  That He should not be so lenient with evil people.  Here one can only say that all humans sin.  Some seem to sin more than others, some on a grand scale.  What happens when a sinner truly repents and comes to dedicate their life to Christ?   Sins are forgiven, small scale and large scale.  It matters not to God.  Jesus talks about the joy He feels when a lost lamb is found.  He tells the story of the son who sins and returns home to a joyous father.  The worker who begins work late in the day makes as much salary as the early worker.  It does not matter to God if souls are saved.

It is also very difficult to understand God sacrificing Himself to save man.  This is another difficult idea for Christians to understand.  The biblical concept of propitiation relates to God’s righteousness being completely satisfied by the death of Christ at Calvary, thereby enabling Him righteously to save sinners who place their faith in Christ.  To appease Himself, God sacrificed Himself, all on behalf of man.** * “By bearing Himself in Christ, the fearful pealty of our sins, God not only propitiated His wrath, ransomed us from slavery [to sin], justified us in His sight and reconciled us to Himself, but thereby also defended and demonstrated His own justice.”

Are evil people punished, people who do not repent of their evil and ask for forgiveness?  Yes they are.  Stott writes “If God does not punish sin, He would be ‘unjust’ to Himself…He would cease to be God and we would cease to be fully human.  He would destroy Himself by contradicting His divine character as righteous Lawgiver and Judge, and He would destroy us by contradicting our human dignity as morally responsible persons created in His image.”

But if man will turn to God, He will experience forgiveness for his sin.  That is what God wanted eventually.  The function of The Law in the Old Testament is to condemn, but when Christ came to earth, the unrighteous have a chance to gain righteousness. 

If we submit to Him.

Receive His forgiveness

Become a member of His kingdom.

Is this human justice?  Not at all.  It’s God’s justice and at times we might not understand it, just like some of my Sunday school class members don’t understand beatific vision or theodicy or propitiation.

But we should all be thankful, for because of God’s loving mercy, we all have a chance…  

*I am not an ordained pastor or hold a Ph.D. in Theology.  I have a Ph.D. in speech communication

** see “It Was Not Me” March 18, 2022.

***Propitiation is discussed numerous times in this blog.  For additional discussion go to the search feature and type in propitiation.

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