Theodicy: What the Crucifixion Tells Us About God and Bad Things

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

John 19:28-30

The global experience of COVID-19 has brought the world to finally attend to its deepest needs and anxieties and has shined a light on the lack of moral and spiritual direction of our generation. The line between caution and fear is thin, in any instance, and the divide between the way of the world and the way of Christ has seldom been more apparent than in the current moment. However, I’ve seen so much attention given to the topic of Theodicy in recent weeks as we all tread the waves of article headlines, regulations, and market raids. In the meantime, God, in His high places, in our midst, waits for our attention.

Coincidental though it may seem, that it is now Good Friday mere weeks after Canada’s own outbreak exponentially grew in count seems like a timely provision. I feel this way because I think in the historic event of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ lies a wealth of mystery and logic that clarifies the question of God and bad things. As we ask, Why God permits these things? What is He up to? and so on, a deep world of divine discovery waits for us, beneath our noses, in the crucifixion event itself. The Gospel is the key, all along. Who God is, what He is doing, what He wants … all find a solution in the central event of created history.

When I say Theodicy, I mean a response to the twofold problem of evil and suffering. The first part of the problem is evidential: Since evil and suffering (lets consider both) exists, then either God cannot be all-good or God cannot be all-sovereign. The second part of the problem is experiential: How do I go on living with God while I suffer? Theodicy is an attempt to reconcile the Biblical and classically theistic notion of a good, sovereign God with the real existence of evil and suffering. What I would like to suggest is that the greatest solution to one of man’s greatest problems is the Gospel itself, as the ultimate expression of both God’s sovereign power and His goodness. The Gospel provides both persuasive theological and philosophical grounds for reasoning about God in order for us to effectively think through both aspects of the problem of bad things.

There are two ways I can go about trying to show this. The first way would be to begin with the attributes of God, so as to show the ontological reasons for why divine goodness and sovereignty are both simultaneously compatible with the existence of evil and suffering. And from there, I can make my way towards the activity of God, that is, the Gospel, and the cosmic story of restoration. The second way of going about showing how the Gospel is the best solution would be to begin with the Gospel itself and then to uncover the deeper reality of God’s attributes as they find expression in Christ. Both ways would be equally valid, I think, but I would find it personally easier to follow the first method, with Gospel as the conclusion but never relegated to an appendix. Quite the opposite.

If we imagine God in Himself as defined by the Bible, apart from the creation narrative (meaning independently of what He’s done and allowed to take place), He is Triune, all-powerful, unconstrained, everywhere, and the standard and definition of goodness–He is the Good. He is totally self-sufficient, free from obligation, free from any impulse, free from any law outside Himself, as He is the highest authority and power. The Biblical view of the sovereignty of God is such that God has the freedom, authority, and power to do all that He wishes, whatever He wishes. This especially includes with regards to His creation, the stuff that He has made, which belongs to Him. This is the understanding that comes from places like Job 38 and Isaiah 45, where God is asserted as Creator supreme and as such possesses the highest authority in and over the cosmos. To question Him and to judge His actions then is logically absurd. For created beings to judicially examine their Originator and Designer is nonsensical. God does as He intends, and by what external authority or standard may we appeal to if we disagree? We are often keen to ask why God allows the bad stuff when it is possibly more reasonable to ask why He allows the good stuff. (Does He owe us something?) But the logical view of God can only be that He has total sovereignty over what He has made. If He suspends His sovereignty at all over some fraction of reality, it would either still be an exercise of that sovereignty (i.e. God willfully giving a degree of creaturely freedom and control to His creation to achieve a known and desired end) or a cessation of His divinity (God giving control out of necessity or being removed of His power). To suggest that God is one power competing with other powers in the cosmos is to reduce God in both His sovereignty and in a more serious way His divinity. How God-like is God?

And God is good. In Himself, He is the very definition of goodness. All notions of morality and the Good must be in reference to Him as lawgiver and as the Origin of the world, in both its physical and non-physical dimensions. Without God, all other standards of goodness which we’ve devised and determined to follow must either be arbitrary (such as utility) or subjective (such as culturally agreed-upon norms and values). God Himself must by definition be the Good and thus everything He does must be necessarily good. There’s no logical possibility of God committing evil.

Therefore, with the two attributes of God in hand, absolute sovereignty and ontological goodness, there is good reason to believe that God in Himself has the freedom, power and authority to do whatever He wishes with His creation, which would include the permission of evil and suffering, without ceasing to be good.

Thomistic and Augustinian views suggest possible ways of reconciling the idea of God’s actions being always necessarily good and His permission of evil. One way is to recognize distinctions between primary and secondary causes, though the outcome of both is necessarily the same, where God is prime mover of the Universe and the first cause of all it contains, and human free choice lies within the realm of secondary causes so that we are still responsible for what we do.

Now there is no distinction between what flows from free will, and what is of predestination; as there is not distinction between what flows from a secondary cause and from a first cause.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, q.23

Moreover, evil not being a positive substance or thing but merely the absence or corruption of good, like darkness is the absence of light, it could be said that God can’t have actually caused evil, at least not in the same way that He is the cause of good. Aquinas says in Question 49 of Summa Theologica:

It must be said that every evil in some way has a cause. For evil is the absence of the good, which is natural and due to a thing. But that anything fail from its natural and due disposition can come only from some cause drawing it out of its proper disposition. For a heavy thing is not moved upwards except by some impelling force; nor does an agent fail in its action except from some impediment. But only good can be a cause; because nothing can be a cause except inasmuch as it is a being, and every being, as such, is good.”

Therefore, with regards to issue of the permission of evil and the goodness of God, there is a much bigger and nuanced discussion to be had and in some sense we are asking questions only God Himself can answer. There is a degree of mystery that must be accepted. But, as simply and plainly as I can put it, I think I can confidently state that while God is in some sense responsible for the existence of evil (via His permission) he isn’t the proper cause of it (it is only privation of good which he created) and human agents having creaturely freedom are accountable for their actions. Indeed from places like Genesis 3 and Romans 1, the fallen state of humanity cannot be neglected in a balanced, Biblical account of evil and suffering.

Once we get past the threshold of recognizing that God is in fact God and He, in Himself, has the capability of enacting His plan, whatever that plan entails, we can then proceed to deal with the plan itself as it is revealed to us in both special and general revelation.

The Bible, known in the Christian world as God’s special revelation, lays out before us God’s reality. The reality of his triune being and the reality of Gospel narrative which overlays all of creation and gives it meaning. What we see in this narrative, this ancient story, is that God is actively orchestrating and leading history so that it is colinear with His eternal plan for creation and people.

In Isaiah 46:9-11 God says, “for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ 11 calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.”

And His orchestration of events past, present and future doesn’t not include the bad things. The Bible plainly reveals the intimate involvement and presence of God in the midst of evil and suffering. God has since its existence been working in and through evil deeds and moments of suffering to accomplish His purposes for creation.

The Apostle Paul in Romans 9:22-24 says, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

Jacob says in Genesis 50 to his brothers who abandoned him, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

God says to Cyrus in Isaiah 45, “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

And there is the beginning chapter of Job where God permits Satan to plunder the protagonist and cause all sorts of pain for him, which concludes with Job famously saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

But at the apex of this temporal trajectory, marked by human struggle and God’s mercy towards rebellious creation, is the earthly life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose divine person is the second member of the Trinity and the Son of God. In Christ, we see most clearly the sharpest point of the arrow of all created history. For in Christ’s living and dying on a Roman cross, we see the fulfillment of centuries of prophetic foreshadowing and events, ordained by God, which were all along pointing to the coming Messiah. In the accomplishment of Christ, we see the reality of God’s command over all the things preceding His earthly life leading to His arrival and crucifixion. God was in control all along. He was directing all things to Him all along. It was His plan from the beginning. In the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus, the greatness of the sovereignty of God is on full display rather than His sovereignty being exposed and falsified as a weak savior lay dead.

Isaiah 53:4-5 “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.”

Ephesians 1:7-11 “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known[c] to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,”

1 Peter 1:18-21 “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”

Acts 2:22-24 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus,[c] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

The suffering and evil that exists in the world, by God’s sovereign permission, therefore, does not exist arbitrarily or by accident. It is first of all ordained within the all-encompassing work of the triune God and as such has meaning to it, contrary to the naturalistic alt-metanarratives that reduces suffering to random and meaningless phenomena to be shrugged at. The evil and suffering that exists also allows for God to demonstrate the full spectrum of His attributes, including justice and mercy, wrath and kindness. But in the more ultimate sense, it was evil and suffering that lead to the event of the murder of the innocent Godman, Jesus, which accomplished once-and-for-all the salvation of people from the personal and eternal consequences of evil, and achieved for all the hope of a life finally without evil and suffering. The story God has been crafting since the beginning in and through suffering and struggle and hardships and misdoings, as well as the countless good things which would not exist if not for his infinite mercy, is the restoration of the world, the triumph of good over evil, the redemption and adoption of sinful humanity undeserving into the triune life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. All things, the bad included, were part of the eternal design, God’s redemptive narrative, for His eternal glory (Romans 11:36).

The crucifixion event demonstrates the power and sovereignty of God over all things, including evil and suffering, including human affairs and events. But it also demonstrates the vast, infinite goodness of the being of God. In the submission of the Son to the Father’s will, in that voluntary sacrifice, we see the awesome heights of God’s goodness as well as His power. Christ, in suffering and dying, shows the length to which He–God–will go to rescue people. Us. You and me. That shows great concern and compassion for the plight of humanity. It shows that His attention has been on us all the time. And it shows that He wants us to be with Him. He wants family and for us to be at home with Him. His kenotic submission to the Father and His being made low “like a servant” exemplifies divine humility. God’s ultimate act of power-posing is taking on a form like one of us, weak and able to suffer and bleed and experience real, physical death. In doing so, He empathizes with us and efficiently brings about a solution.

More than this, the crucifixion shows us that God’s intention this whole time was never that the current reality of evil and suffering exist indefinitely, without end. God means for it to have an end. God means to conclude the matter for those who are members of the family of God, justified and adopted by grace through faith in Christ and His work. We can trust that He will fulfill the promise of justice established and world renewed precisely because of His sovereignty and His sovereign fulfillment of His promises and the Old Testament prophesies in the life of Jesus.

Romans 8: 28 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,[h] for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Revelation 21:1, 3-4 “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, […] And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.””

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, yet our inner self is being renewed day by day. For our light and temporary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs our troubles. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

1 Peter 1:3-9 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

And I love John Newton’s summary of Christ’s accomplishment here:

Jesus died. His death was penal: He died for sin, though not for His own, and therefore suffered the penalty due to sin, the curse of the broken law. The torment and shame of His crucifixion were preceded and accompanied by unknown agonies and conflicts, which caused Him to sweat blood, and to utter strong cries and groans. Death stung Him to the heart; but, (as it is said of the enraged bee) he lost his sting. The law having been honoured and sin expiated, by the obedience and sufferings of the Son of God for us, and in our nature, death has no longer power to sting those who believe in Him. They do not properly ‘die,’ they ‘fall asleep’ in Jesus (Acts 7:60 ; I Thessalonians 4:15) . To them this last enemy acts a friendly part. He is sent to put an end to all their sorrows, and to introduce them into a state of endless life and joy.

John Newton, Triumph Over Sin and the Grave

So what shall we do in the meantime? How then do we go on living? How are we supposed to live while we suffer? How are we supposed to go on living with God? Is joy really attainable here and now?

These are the toughest questions to answer. Partly because answers can look so different from one personal experience to another. It is difficult at best to identify true reasons for such complex things and the best path forward without downgrading to one of Job’s “friends”. But also these aren’t necessarily questions for any one person to answer for another. These are honest questions that demand the Spirit of God to enter in and bring about the “peace surpassing understanding”. However, what the prophets and apostles and Jesus Himself emphasize, in the context of life with God on fallen earth, is at least two things: God is with you, and the need for repentance and self-denial. With both tools in hand, the awareness of God’s presence and the crucifixion of Self, we have what we need to persevere through life’s drudgery. Read the following words from the Biblical authors:

Psalm 34:17-18 “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. 18 The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

1 Peter 4:1-2 “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh,[a] arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.”

Philippians 4:11-13 “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Matthew 6:19-21 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Matthew 16:24-25 “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

John 15:9-11 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

The crucifixion shows us that God has full mastery over time and history, full control over his created reality. That God is supremely good even in times of trouble. That God will accomplish what He has set out to do and what He has promised. One can build their theodicy on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the triune God. We can logically, while at ease with a degree of mystery in it, conclude that God can allow bad things to exist while not ceasing to be good or sovereign, that his allowance of bad things isn’t arbitrary or accidental, and that the saints can rest confidently in the promise that evil will have its end and the cosmos will one day be at rest. We will be at home with the good Trinity.

Can any praise be worthy of the Lord’s majesty? How magnificent his strength! How inscrutable his wisdom! Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still , since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you

St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

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