Companion Theodicy

By​ Mark S. M. Scott

Theodicy, in its classical sense, signifies the rational attempt to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the doctrine of divine omnipotence, goodness, and justice. To those in the midst of suffering, however, these logical explanations often fail to bring any comfort. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his poignant Lament for a Son, bemoans that in the aftermath of his son’s death from a mountain-climbing accident, he found no solace in theodicy: “I have read the theodicies produced to justify the ways of God to man. I find them unconvincing. To the most agonized question I have ever asked I do not know the answer. I do not know why God would watch him fall. I do not know why God would watch me wounded. I cannot even guess” (68). It seems to me that if theodicy fails here, in these concrete moments of despair, it fails everywhere. If it does not make sense in the crucible of tragedy, it loses all intellectual and existential credibility and relevance.

The Book of Job has been the locus classicus for theological reflections on the problem of evil. Nevertheless, its message is notoriously difficult to discern, and many deny that it gives us any “solution” at all. I would not be so foolish as to venture an interpretation of Job in these few words, but I have found in Job an image that has constructive value for theodicy. When Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar first see him “from a distance,” they perceive the depth of his suffering and weep and mourn for him (Job 2:12). What happens next is astonishing: rather than uttering specious theological explanations for his plight, they simply sit with him in his pain and sorrow: “They sat with him seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). In the tableau of Job surrounded by his friends in the midst of his suffering we have a beautiful biblical image to guide what I call a “companion theodicy.”

A companion theodicy begins with the assumption that those in the throes of suffering find comfort in our solidarity with them, not in ill-timed and ill-conceived theological theories. They do not need someone to stand in front of them spewing empty words. Even when offered with the best of intentions, theological speculations ring hollow at best and compound suffering at worst. Rather, those beset by misfortune need someone to sit beside them in silence and solidarity. The depth and breadth of evil in the world defies simplistic explanations. While I would not abandon the project of theodicy, all theodicies eventually come to the realization that the mystery of evil exceeds our noetic capacity. We simply do not and cannot know why God allows some to suffer and not others. Since we “know only in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12), we should speak with theological reserve and humility. A companion theodicy refrains from hasty theological conclusions (silence) and attends to the practical and emotional needs of those who suffer (solidarity). Theodicy, in the expanded sense of reflective responses to suffering (both intellectual and practical), speaks best through compassionate actions, not words.

Wolterstorff employs the apt metaphor of a “mourning bench” (Lament for a Son, 5, 34, 63) where those who suffer from loss sit in silent solidarity. Wolterstorff’s metaphor perfectly complements the image of Job’s friends sitting silently beside him. The mourning bench is a place for silent reflection, for sharing pain that surpasses speech, and for deep friendship—not for false consolation that “it’s not really so bad,” or for blame. Job’s friends lose their way and become the proverbial “Job’s comforters” when they rise up from “the bench” and begin to accuse him of wrongdoing. Similarly, Pat Robertson lost his way when, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, he blamed the natural event on the Haitians themselves, calling them “cursed.” Although theodicy eventually must speak, it should wait for the right moment and search for the right words. More often than not, we are wise to say nothing at all.

The more I read and write about theodicy, the more I am convinced that the “solution” to the problem of evil does not lie in books and talk at all. Research and scholarly discourse have their place, but at the end of the day people in the depths of sorrow want aid, companionship, and, yes, answers, but not scholarly sleight of hand. In moments of tragedy and despair, we should come alongside those who suffer and help as best as we can: sometimes by doing, sometimes by speaking, sometimes by silence. A theodicy of silence and solidarity—a companion theodicy—calls for theological agility, humility, and humanity. It recognizes the mystery of evil and the limits of human reason. It combines theory and praxis. It creatively employs and adapts the most promising aspects of classic and contemporary Christian theodicies to meet the needs of particular situations of suffering. And last, it strives for theological sophistication, systematic coherence, and practical relevance. If I were to blaze a pathway in theodicy, it would be in that direction.

Mark S. M. Scott, PhD ’08, is Visiting Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri–Columbia.

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