All the monotheistic religions have a problem known as Theodicy or The Problem of Evil. Simply put, it’s the question “How can there be evil and suffering in the world?”. The religions in question posit that their god knows everything that happens, so he isn’t ignorant of the shit that’s going on. And they posit that their god is endlessly well-meaning and loving, so he isn’t the one inflicting the evil and suffering upon hapless humanity. And they posit that there is nothing he cannot do if he wants to, so he isn’t watching powerlessly as evil and suffering happens. But evil and suffering does happen. So logically speaking, it appears that all the monotheistic religions are wrong about what their god is like.
To my mind, theodicy is the only argument anyone can ever need against these religions. Because the Problem of Evil has a simple solution: that there is no omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent god. So I got to thinking – in apologetics (the art of defending a system of religious beliefs against counterarguments), shouldn’t theodicy be the top item on the agenda? I became curious as to what stance Sweden’s largest religious organisation, the former state church, takes on theodicy.
The Swedish church is a Lutheran denomination founded in c. 1530. My learned Christian friend Mattias explained to me that the church hasn’t really adopted any foundational theological documents since the 16th century. Those still current are collected in Svenska Kyrkans Bekännelseskrifter, encompassing “the three creeds, Confessio Augustana, the Schmalkaldian articles, Luther’s catechisms and a few other documents”. And apparently this body of theological writing does not address theodicy. Granted, it isn’t apologetic literature, but seen from my outsider’s viewpoint it is odd that smart men like Martin Luther and Philipp Melancthon would not see or acknowledge the logical hole at the base of their edifice.
I wrote to the Swedish church’s inquiries email address and asked them if the organisation has an official stance on theodicy. A theologian who chose not to reveal their identity replied (and I translate):
Theodicy has no simple solution. As Birgitta Trotzig put it, suffering is “a mystery whose depth and real dimensions are not available to the instruments of intellect alone”. She continues, “Suffering is a wound that should be kept open; a contradiction that must not be evened out; an insufferable unsolveability which humankind has no right to allow to be solved.” I feel that here, Trotzig has succinctly expressed that it is impossible to find a “solution” to theodicy.
The “answer” that can be given from the perspective of Christian faith mainly consists of showing how God, in Christ, has shared humankind’s conditions and suffered pain, degradation and death under the most degrading and horrifying circumstances.
This is no explanation but it demonstrates God’s love for humankind and God’s solidarity with humankind in her suffering. Christian faith further means that Jesus Christ has overcome evil through his life, his death and his resurrection. This is a foundation for the belief that we shall one day meet an existence where there is no longer suffering.
These are an individual Swedish church theologian’s views, not the party line — there doesn’t seem to be one. And as you may imagine, they in no way make this faith more reasonable in my eyes. Trotzig’s opinions that theodicy is intellectually ineffable and an area of forbidden inquiry amount to no more than replying “Never mind that” to the question. The idea that an omnipotent god would respond to people’s suffering not by ending it, but by trying out what suffering is like for a while, just re-states the basic problem: this being doesn’t seem to be anywhere near omnibenevolent after all. And promising a life without suffering not now, but in a supernatural future, both strains credulity and is kind of irrelevant. Theodicy asks “Why is there ever pain and suffering?”, not “When is this going to end?”.
So maybe Luther’s and Melancthon’s silence on the subject of theodicy actually shows how smart they were. This is not an issue that the wise apologist will bring up. Better ignore it and hope that nobody starts asking questions.