We Can’t Figure Out Theodicy Either, Swedish Church Admits Frankly

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.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

39 thoughts on “We Can’t Figure Out Theodicy Either, Swedish Church Admits Frankly”

  1. To quote Heraclitus,”God is day and night, summer and winter, war and peace, surfeit and hunger.”

    At least that was his view…


  2. If I take up the religious view just for the sake of argument, can I still be said to be “playing devil’s advocate?”

    I know enough Christian theology to attempt an answer that I would give if I did believe in God and had to tackle this problem. This is mostly from a Catholic perspective because that’s my educational background.

    Humans were given the gift of free will by god and given a world free of suffering, with just one commandment, to stay away from that tree of knowledge of good and evil. But we couldn’t help ourselves. The consequence of disobeying the law was expulsion, not because god is vengeful but because the act of knowing good and evil was the knowledge of suffering itself. If you haven’t known suffering and evil, how can you know salvation and goodness when you see it?

    For my part, if I had to adopt a christian theology, I’d find this all perfectly consonant with my experience of reality. I wrote elsewhere recently about how our propensity for moralism is one thing that separates us from other animals who don’t seem overly obsessed with right and wrong.

    There’s an experiment that I think PBS covered on NOVA or Nature where juvenile apes and humans were both given a task of solving a puzzle to get a treat. The first puzzle was a black box, literally, and there were a series of steps to perform to get the treat out. An adult demonstrated and the young of both species learned by imitation. Then they replaced the black box with a transparent one. The operation of it was obvious from looking at it and some of the steps were unnecessary. The juvenile apes took the obvious shortcuts, while the human children did not.

    The theory is that it was this propensity for mimicking what they’d been taught even at the expense of what they could see for themselves explained our gift of language. We needed to be able to follow rules strictly that didn’t have consequences for not following them. We needed a sense of right and wrong. I don’t know if our gift of language is a consequence or cause of our moralism, but it seems they would reinforce each other.

    So the reason why god allows evil is because man chose it. The consequence of knowing good and evil is to suffer. I think it’s interesting that pride is the cardinal sin. We wanted to be like god, as lucifer wanted to be like god. That’s the precise temptation that Eve is given– “be like god”.

    One could take away from this story that god suffers too. In being rejected by some humans god experiences suffering that he could end by ending us.

    There’s another place I wind up more often as I think about this. It is the notion that there is nothing in the universe except god. Whatever we are, we are all the same thing. There’s a line in a Nine Inch Nails song that haunts me:

    What if all the world’s inside of your head?
    Just creations of your own…
    Your devils and your gods and the living and the dead
    And you really are alone

    That’s a vision of god as the *only* thing that exists, who creates the universe in order to experience separation so that he can know loss and reunion and have an experience of not being alone. In this view of god, dying and reuniting with the source isn’t a blissful event. It’s the realization that you really are alone after all, and all those people were just inventions. I believe that this is in essence the Hindu beliefs, but maybe without so much angst.


  3. Martin R: “A god who makes his creations jump through arbitrary hoops like that cannot be called benevolent.”

    Scary thought if there really is a God.

    Of course, you could look at this from a quantum physicist’s POV and say everything happens in some reality or another because of an infinite number of possible infinities and so on, etc, oy vey…

    Just remember that if you’re planning to go in deep, it’s not the universe’s fault that you forget to bring your scuba gear.


  4. “I feel that here, Trotzig has succinctly expressed that it is impossible to find a “solution” to theodicy.”

    And I feel that she has succintly expressed “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.” Or, to put it less succintly, “wrong question”.


  5. (OT) Oh sh*it!!! The petroglyphs survived for 3500 years. They did not survive us. http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/11/22/in-which-americans-celebrate-their-traditional-regard-for-native-culture/#comments As for Thanksgiving, here is a background: “The thanksgiving myth that still holds precedence in the U.S. is a load of manure. The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men. Hardly a reason for Natives to celebrate.”


  6. “The thanksgiving myth that still holds precedence in the U.S. is a load of manure. The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men. Hardly a reason for Natives to celebrate.”

    Yes, but that’s not why we celebrate it now. Many traditions have tragic beginnings, but are still good traditions. Now we celebrate Thanksgiving to reflect on what we have to be thankful for, and you don’t even have to be religious to celebrate it.


  7. The problem with theodicy, is that we have all been conditioned, believers and non, by the whole of history to accept that the God question can’t be resolved according to our modern understanding of the nature of knowledge. That has now changed! For what science and religion, not to mention the rest of us, thought impossible has now happened. History has its first literal, testable and fully demonstrable proof for faith.

    The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise, predefined, and predictable experience 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 will, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine transcendence and ultimate proof!

    Thus ‘faith’ becomes an act of trust in action, to search and discover this 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 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.” 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,


  8. Well, I am a theologian in Church of Sweden. And I use to read this blog mainly for the archaeological issues and I should not write in this subject, as I am afraid I will not be able to write very briefly, but…

    I think one thing is the translation of the old creeds stating God as “pantokrator”, “ruler of everything” which in Latin become “omnipotent”, which is a more problematic word in this discussion. A ruler – imagine the mightiest king ever seen – will maybe still not be able to make everything in his kingdom working perfectly as he want. No leader will ever have the power and wisdom to role everything according to his exactly will. And often his rules will give unexpected effects… I think that problem is implied in the Greek pantokrator-concept but much lost in the Latin omnipotentem, looking upon the power much more as an unlimited creative power. It may be a bit misleading.

    I think Luther was about this in his distinction between “deus absconditus” and “deus revelatus” i.e Gud as a not understandable force giving and taking in a way totally without sense from a human point of understanding. In Christ (mainly) however, “God turn his face towards mankind”, and through him God will indeed still not be understandable, but trustworthy — well, for some of us… 😉

    I would also say that in the view of biological evolution, the “original sin” seen as a some kind of ‘historical’ human fault, is very problematic. (Well, it is still according to the Genesis 3 tail, as God indeed created the snake, but now much more accentuated than before Darwin) If you confess God as creator, you have to also accept God as the creator of death – and evil and suffering as we judge it, likely as a result of death and limited biological resources and predation (and consciousness). I think he is right who said: “For anyone preferring the life as human being before life as an amoeba, death must be treated as a friend”. So we may rightly complain the Creator (if he is) for creating us to suffer and die. But except that suffering and death we do not seem to have been at all – and not complaining!

    So, if you like to confess a God, the choice is to confess a God Creator AND God as the ultimate origin of evil as well, alternately a God who is not creator of this entirely world, but ‘loving’ and ‘saving’ in some spiritual sense. The later option was the one stressed by the Gnostic’s in early Christian time, but very strongly rejected by Christian theologians, who kept the view of God as creator of *this* world and subsequently this world as fragile and suffering, but still holy and good, not evil, in itself. The Christian belief in a coming world without suffering is also a belief in a totally different world than this, and I am not sure that ‘the world to come’ will substitute all the good features of this one, as even ‘time’ is replaced with eternity, and God is all in everything. In that view any thoughts of ours are collapsing and almost every vision of what to come (streets of gold, or whatever) is, as best, just naive. I also think the view of this world as something good in it self, is one of the reasons why science grew at Christian universities from medieval time, and especially sins Aristotle was reintroduced in the 13’th century, and the idea that the ‘visible part of creation’ is relatively independent, and therefore the senses is a source of real knowledge. But that is another story… And I may not have to fight very hard towards the gnostic view on this blog, at least 🙂


    1. Thank you T.! Abandoning the idea of omnipotency would partly solve theodicy, but still leave us with a contradiction. This being apparently created the universe. But it can’t cure a single case of e.g. child cancer? Or doesn’t it want to? Then why worship it?


  9. As I understand from the comments above, in some forms of Christianity the solution is that G-d is not truly omnipotent. Judaism seems to admit limitations on G-d’s power as well. In our legends there are said to be at any given time 36 “perfectly just men”. When one dies, another is found to replace him. If G-d is unable to find a replacement, the world will come to an end. The possibility that G-d will be unable to find a replacement implies that G-d is not truly omnipotent.

    In contrast, in the dominant forms of Islam, G-d is believed to control every detail. Strictly speaking, devout Muslims within the mainstream do not believe in the validity of physical laws; they may appear to be true, but that is only because G-d chooses to act as if they were true.


  10. Ahem, perhaps the problem lies in an assumption of a deity who is benevolent and just. On the other hand, a view of God as being vengeful, sometimes petty, with a twisted sense of humor and a horrible temper…well, you know, a lot of things begin to make sense. Perhaps the difficulty with the theodicy question is more closely related to the Christian concept of God as a benevolent and kind healer who forgives all sins of the faithful. Contrast this with the classical Hebrew concept of a deity who would flood entire continents and burn cities to the ground, who would order Abraham to sacrifice his son and then only step in at the very last minute to say “haha, gotcha!” and theodicy seems to be less of a problem.

    Or perhaps a better way to say it, from a sociological standpoint, is that theodicy pops up as religious views change in societies where life is no longer nasty brutish and short, or at least where it is no longer expected to be nasty brutish and short.


  11. I believe that no modern scholar in analytic philosophy accepts the classic Epicurean problem of evil as a contradiction, since it requires some hidden premises to be a logical contradiction. One must for example add the premise: “God has no morally sufficient reasons to allow evil of which God is aware and could abort”. This premise already reveals the matter as a theological contradiction, not a strictly logical one. In short: in order to formulate the problem of evil as a contradiction, one needs to take a particular stance on the nature of God (for example: God has no morally sufficient reasons to permit evil). I think this is the reason why Erasmus, Melanchthon, Bayle and others did not accept theodicy as natural theology.


    1. But why accept as divine a being who does not share human morality? He is allegedly powerful enough to make his own rules of conduct and set all external operating conditions, after all.


  12. Depends on what “human morality” is. Hitler and Stalin had slightly different views than the current consensus, and did not mind people succumbing to malnutrition and disease unless they were of imminent use for them…
    And Herbert Spencer, the creator of “social Darwinism” had some blood-curdling views.
    Of course a deity of their ilk would not be my favourite, but then, at least 99,9% of the current religions must be wrong (if we assume Buddha and Allah do not co-exist in a kind of South Parkesque “super best friends” team), so statistically in a universe with a monolithic god you are near-certain of ending up with a god you did not like.


  13. For me it’s always been a direct consequence of free will. You can’t grant humans free will without allowing evil (at least the human caused kind) to happen. Especially the old testament seems to be full of “I won’t stop you from doing it, so I might smite you afterwards” episodes.


  14. “But why make humans so imperfect that they do evil when allowed free will? And what about all the non-human-caused suffering?”

    It can all be explained if you assume god to be a hyper-AI along the lines of “the Eschaton” as described by Charles Stross.
    12.7 billion years of “legacy code”, buggy upgrades and software patches. Eventually, the software correlate to the universe gets so chaotic that the only solution is to re-boot with a brand new OS (aka “the apocalypse”). Whether any elements of the previous creation are continued into the new version I cannot say.


  15. Mu: But nobody feels that their free will is impaired by being unable to eat lava, fly through the sun, or have children with a rock. And an omnipotent, omniscient god presumably sanctions social systems which tremendously restrict the ability of their inhabitants to exercise their wills. I think that the Christian notion of “free will” is fundamentally confused.

    Mattias: Monotheists who don’t believe that their god is good in the same sense that a human is good seem very rare. And saying “good is whatever my god decides it is” is not very comfortable or useful. So while your distinction is good philosophy, I don’t think it matters much in practice.


  16. (on: Martin R reply to me, November 26,)
    Yes, I think that is one of the most relevant theological questions! From a Christian point of view, In my opinion it should be treated as one of the best (but maybe not the only) answer to the “Cur deus homo?”-question (classified as a “subjective” one)! God subordinates himself under the unfair, evil structure of human life through the incarnation and the suffering of Christ, and in that way taking responsibility for the structure ha caused us. While God “in itself” may continue to appear untrustworthy and “daemonic”, “in Christ” he become related to us in a positively engaged way dealing our struggles through this world of too much sorrows and pain.


    1. To me, that is comparable to if I found you splashing around in a hole in the ice on a lake. And instead of pulling you out using a rope, I jumped into the hole too, thus relating to your struggles in a positively engaged way.


  17. Yes, that is one way to see it.

    Another is that I may have some kind of a mission down in that ice hole. And indeed you, standing there with the rope, are the one who sent me down! – Yes, I would certainly complain strongly if you prepared such an unpleasant mission for me, but still maybe I would be a bit happier if you shared my cold dwelling place during the time 😉 – And the Christian hope is still that life will not end down there…


    1. That would make sense if it were you and me against a hostile world. But in the case of theodicy, I made the hostile world in which you’re flailing about, and I can change the characteristics of this world into whatever I want. So if I don’t help you as you’re lying there, I tend to think I’m a bit of a cold-hearted bastard.


  18. Martin, a matter of terminology: in scholastic philosophy “theodicy” is a justification of God’s acts, not a resolution of any formulated problem of evil – so the replies you are getting from Sv.K. theologians and others in fact constitute theodicy. What you’re asking for is a defense from natural theology, and that is a somewhat different matter.

    Another thing: I am pretty certain that the Wittenberg reformers did not refrain from addressing these matters for tactical reasons – it was just not a central issue in their context. There was much more interest in this in the late scholastic era (some of which discussions Melanchthon in fact ridicules and criticizes in the ‘Loci communes’) and there is quite some interest in present philosophy as well (you are no doubt aware of the writings of Plantinga, David Lewis, Oppy and others).

    A funny thing: I stumbled tonight upon a notion related to the free will proposition of the problem of evil in the ‘Alfons Åberg’ book I read for my son. Alfons and his father are bored, asking what boredom and inertia is good for, and wondering why every day could not be fun like Christmas day. Grandma then questions the category of “fun” if understood essentially without any relation to some other category, socratically making the sulky other two ultimately admit that fun without consequences of free will (well, she puts it somewhat differently, of course) is not in fact fun. 🙂


    1. You flatter me! I wouldn’t recognise a work of Plantinga, David Lewis or Oppy even if it fell into my bowl of morning cereal.

      Do note though that I don’t question the existence of an omnibenevolent deity on the grounds that I’m bored sometimes. I’m thinking more of evils along the lines of mass child starvation.


  19. SM wrote “Monotheists who don’t believe that their god is good in the same sense that a human is good seem very rare.”

    This is not my impression. The entire concept of God’s ineffability (a Christian commonplace) rests on the idea that the goodness and greatness of God is of a higher order than the goodness and greatness of which humans and other organisms are capable. This does not mean that it is different by neccesity, but by possibility. This is what most Christians I know believe, and I know many Christians of different confessions.


  20. Reply to post below:

    Of course, Martin, I did not intend to equate your adressing the problem of evil with Alfons Åberg’s “problem of boredom”.

    Plantinga’s free will resolution is an interesting read. It is found already in his 1974 “The Nature of Necessity” (Oxford: Clarendon), but I think he has continued working with this in later articles as well.


  21. Mattias, I wonder if we are both suffering from selection bias here. Are there any surveys of ordinary members of particular religions today which try to assess what they actually believe, as opposed to what slogans they will repeat if asked? See Converse, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” 1964 or some of the recent work on Christianity as practiced by ordinary country people in late medieval and early modern Europe.

    It seems to me that most believers I know or have read believe either that their god and humans must follow the same ethical standard, or that good is whatever their god commands (but as Plato pointed out in the “Euthrypho”, this conflicts with moral intuitions, what a Scholastic would have called lex naturalis). I think that most people who call their god wise, just, merciful, good, and so on intend those words to have the same semantics as they would have when applied to a human. I’m not sure if you disagree with this?


    1. I am reminded of a study of American voters from a few years back that showed that their opinions on individual issues had hardly any correlation at all with those of the parties they voted for. These people simply believed that they were Democrat or Republican voters and never checked whether this was actually true.


  22. SM: Yes, there are many such studies done by sociologists of religion, but the problem is that in order to gain enough statistical power (by numbers of replies) they tend to be too blunt for questions of moral ontology, for example.

    I think we both are of the impression that most Abrahamitic believers have a strong correlation between ideals of the perfect human and the ideals of their God, and that this often also shapes how they interpret their scripture. But I think we also have the impression that most would hold that neither they themselves, or some other human, can comprise these qualities. This leads to the view of ineffable goodness and greatness, a fundamental otherness in the goodness of God (press people in these matters, and I think you would find this).

    Martin: I remember the first election when newspapers offered the type of simplified questionaires of the type “answer these questions, and find out which party you should vote for”. A friend of mine re-did the test four times, tweaking his answers to match the party which he thought he should vote for, then exhulting “finally!”. 🙂


  23. I have used those on-line questionnaires for many years. I don’t tweak my results. Instead I take several tests put out by newspapers with different political standpoints. So far they have been pretty unanimous in pegging me as a Social Democrat or Green Party sympathiser.


  24. Mattias: Yes, I agree. The monotheisms which I am familiar with agree that humans are imperfect, while their god is not, so a good human is far less good than god. I have enjoyed this opportunity to have a friendly discussion of religion online!


  25. I am a human and I would not willingly allow the suffering of a dog, despite the fact that a dog is a “lesser” being. The fact that the christian god allows needless suffering not only of dogs but also of humans, and not just human-caused suffering, surely demonstrates that his nature differs substantially from our definition of good. Thus I am forced to conclude that god, if he exists, is not good by our definition, and that is the only definition that matters. That is the solution to the problem.

    And whatever religious philosophies other countries might have, in the US, the christian god is absolutely considered omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.


  26. I just realised there is an answer to the theodicy problem provided even gods are subject to the rules of logic.
    God can -like the protagonist in “Day Break” (why did they not make a second season?)- re-set time to avoid mayhem. Unfortunately, the butterfly effect creates secondary mayhem for each change, so El/Yaweh is stuck choosing betwen suboptimal solutions, as each change causes some negative results across the whole world.
    Long-term. those changes create more serious side-effects.
    For instance, if not the ancients had burned the library of Alexandria and thrown the western world into a dark age, we would have achieved spaceflight too early and attracted the hostile attention of a Vogon scout ship passing through the system ca. AD 1000.
    And if not Hitler had seized power and turned the world inside out, Zlorf the Horrible would have done the same two decades later, but now with access to nuclear bombs.
    Damn, I wish I could patent the idea and get filthy rich.


  27. “The reason why god allows evil is because man chose it.” So THAT’s what caused the Boxing Day tsunami! Such a relief to know it was all put fault, not God’s.


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