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Theodicy in dialogue

Imagine for a moment that through a special act of divine providence God assembled the greatest theologians throughout time to sit around a theological round table to solve the problem of evil. You would have many of the usual suspects: Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth. You would have the mystics: Gregory of Nyssa, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Ávila, and Thomas Merton. You would have the scholastics: Anselm, Peter Lombard, Bonaventure, and John Duns Scotus. You would have the newcomers: Jürgen Moltmann, Sarah Coakley, and Miroslav Volf. You might even have some unknown names and faces. Feel free to place your favorite theologian around the table. With these diverse and dynamic minds, you could expect to have a spirited conversation.

If you were to moderate the discussion around our massive oak table you would have the daunting task of keeping pace with these agile intellects and perhaps of negotiating a few inflated egos. It might be difficult to get a word in edgewise. Augustine would be affable and loquacious. Aquinas would be precise and ponderous. Luther would be humorous and polemical. But where would Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254) fit in, the greatest theologian of Eastern Christianity? What would he say about the problem of evil? All agree he deserves an honored seat at the table, but often others around the table suck all the oxygen out of the room, leaving little air for his profound insights, particularly on the problem of evil, which anticipate later developments while also reflecting his distinctive intellectual milieu. Let’s imagine how the conversation might go.

Disputa di Santo Stefano fra i Dottori nel Sinedrio by Vittore Carpaccio [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Disputa di Santo Stefano fra i Dottori nel Sinedrio by Vittore Carpaccio [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Thomas Aquinas: “Welcome all. I’ve been asked to begin our discussion. Let me say first that the problem of evil represents the most formidable conceptual challenge to theism.”

Augustine: “I agree, but the problem’s resolved once we realize that evil doesn’t exist per se, like a malevolent substance, it’s simply the privation of the good. At any rate, God doesn’t create evil, we do, and God eventually brings good out of evil, so evil doesn’t have the final say.”

Sarah Coakley: “It can’t be settled that easily. I’m suspicious of grand theological narratives that simplify conceptual complexities. Let’s retrieve some neglected voices on the problem.”

Gregory of Nazianzus: “I’ve written a theological poem about it that I’d like to share.”

Basil of Caesarea: “Please don’t. I can’t sit through another one of your theological poems.”

Gregory of Nazianzus: “Fine. I’m out of here. I didn’t want to come in the first place.”

Jürgen Moltmann: “That was a little rude, Basil, you know Greg’s sensitive, especially about his theological poetry, but let’s get back to the topic at hand. We can’t answer the theodicy question in this life, but we can’t discard it either. All we can do is turn to the God who suffers with, from, and for the world for solidarity with us in our suffering. Only the suffering God can help.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Karl Rahner: “The problem of evil is a fundamental question of human existence.”

John of the Cross: “I have endured many dark nights agonizing over it.”

Julian of Norwich: “Fear not, brother John, all will be well.”

John Calvin: “Not for those predestined to the fires of hell, but that’s part of the mystery of divine providence, which is inviolable, so in a refined theological sense, all will be well.”

Julian of Norwich: “I think we have different visions of what wellness means.”

Martin Luther: “You’re all crazy casuists. We’re probing into the deeps of divine mystery. We’re way out of our depth. We’re just small, sinful worms: we can’t possibly solve these riddles.”

F. D. W. Schleiermacher: “Settle down, Martin, we’re just talking. What do you think, Karl?”

Karl Barth and Karl Rahner (simultaneously): “Which Karl?”

Miroslav Volf: “Let’s give the Karls a pass. We heard enough from them last time, and we want to make room for others. Barth would probably just talk about ‘nothingness’ anyway.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Origen, you’ve been quiet, and you haven’t touched your food, what are your thoughts on the problem of evil? Won’t you give us the benefit of your deep erudition?”

Origen. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Origen. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Origen: “I’ve often pondered the question of the justice of divine providence, especially when I observe the unfair conditions people inherit at birth. Some suffer more than others for no apparent reason, and some are born with major disadvantages, such as blindness or poverty.”

Dorthee Sölle: “I appreciate your attentiveness to the lived experience of suffering, Origen, and not just the theoretical problem of how to reconcile divine goodness and omnipotence with evil.”

Gregory of Nyssa: “Me too, but how do you account for the disparity of fortunes in the world? How do you preserve cosmic coherence in the face of so much injustice and misfortune?”

Origen: “I’ll tell you a plausible story that brings many of these theological threads together. Before the dawn of space and time, God created disembodied rational minds, including us. We existed in perfect harmony and happiness until through either neglect or temptation or both we drifted away from God. Since all reality participated in God’s goodness, we were in danger of drifting out of existence altogether the further we strayed from our original goodness, so God, in his benevolence, created the cosmos to catch us and to enable our ascent back to God. Our lot in life, therefore, reflects the degree of our precosmic fall, which preserves divine justice. The world, you see, exists as a schoolroom and hospital for fallen souls to return to God. Eventually, all may return to God, since the end is like the beginning, but not until undergoing spiritual transformation. We must all traverse the stages of purification, illumination, and union, both here and in the afterlife, until our journey back to God is complete and God will be all in all.”

John Hick: “That makes perfect sense to me.”

Irenaeus: “Should you really be here, John? That’s a little far out there for me, Origen.”

Athanasius: “Origen clearly has a complex, subtle mind that doesn’t lend itself to simplification. It’s a trait of Alexandrian thinkers, who are among the best theologians in church history.”

John Chrysostom: “Spare me.”

Augustine: “I think I see what Origen means, especially about the origin and ontological status of evil and God’s goodness. It’s not too far from my thoughts, except for his speculative flights.”

Thomas Aquinas: “Our time is up. We haven’t solved the problem of evil, but we seem confident that God ultimately brings good out of evil, however dire things seem, and that’s a start.”

Francis of Assisi: “Let’s end in prayer.”

Thank goodness Hans Urs von Balthasar asked for Origen’s opinion, since I doubt he would have offered it otherwise. What our imaginary theological roundtable and fictitious dialogue reveals, hopefully, is that there are a variety of voices in theology that speak to the problem of evil. Some, such as Augustine and Aquinas, are well known. Others, such as Origen, have been neglected, partly because of his complicated reception, and partly because of the subtlety and originality of his thought.

 Mark Scott is an Arthur J. Ennis Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University. He has published on the problem of evil in numerous peer-reviewed journals in addition to his book Journey Back to God: Origen on the Problem of Evil.

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Recent Comments

  1. Disconnected

    I Am Not A Theologian, but doesn’t Origen’s cosmology as set forth here vaguely parallel many gnostic narratives?

  2. Robert Landbeck

    Theology will never resolve the question of evil because it is a purely human intellectual project. But that is not to say is cannot be resolved and in this lifetime! The question is could two thousand years of scholastic exegesis, tradition and the faith of millions be wholly in error? And no longer just a rhetorical question for mud slinging between atheist and religious, we are on the threshold of discovering that answer!

    The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ has been published. Radically different from anything else we know of from theology or history, this new teaching is predicated upon the ‘promise’ of a precise, predefined, predictable and repeatable experience of transcendent omnipotence and called ‘the first Resurrection’ in the sense that the Resurrection of Jesus was intended to demonstrate Gods’ willingness to reveal Himself and intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His Command, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine Will and ultimate proof!

    Thus ‘faith’ becomes an act of trust in action, the search along a defined path of strict self discipline, [a test of the human heart] to discover His ‘Word’ of a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power that confirms divine will, law, command and covenant, which at the same time, realigns our mortal moral compass with the Divine, “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” Thus is a man ‘created’ in the image and likeness of his Creator.

    So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. Nothing short of an intellectual, moral and religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at http://www.energon.org.uk

  3. arthur

    I want suggest Mr. François de la Mothe le Vayer like one of “newcomers”

  4. Austin

    I enjoyed a few good laughs here. Enough that I am quite intrigued by the book as a whole. Thank you!

  5. Brendan

    Origen’s position is superficially the same as most contemporary Gnostic systems; however it is opposed to them in both the author of Creation and the motivation driving it. In Gnostic cosmologies, the creator is a sub-divine entity that creates the physical world as a prison out of malice, something Origen’s position differs on as described above.

  6. Mark Scott

    I would love to expand the dialogue. How would other influential theologians contribute to the conversation about God’s perplexing permission of evil? How would you distill their distinctive response to the problem of evil into a few lines of dialogue?

  7. James M. Lawson

    See our paper in our blog on The Absolute Sovereignty of God. Will clear things up if you are taught of God (John 6:45). http://www.reformationcartoons.blogspot.com
    Just posted! Take care! [: )

  8. Gabe Horton

    We are wrestling with the problem of evil over in the Methodist world at UMC LEAD, and this was a fantastic help! I love the way you wove together perspectives from across the centuries to be in conversation with one another. This is probably more akin to the way we try to make sense of these big questions today, anyway.

    Thank you for this contribution. And, because I have to plug, feel free to check out my own take at http://umclead.com/is-god-all-powerful-or-all-loving/

  9. Jose

    The problem is that it shifts the issue of drifting away from God from an immanent context to a spiritual pre-mundane context. The next problem is why and how these spirits drifted from God.

Comments are closed.