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Theodicy (/θˈɒdɪsi/), in its most common form, is an attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil. Some theodicies also address the evidential problem of evil by attempting "to make the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good or omnibenevolent God consistent with the existence of evil" or suffering in the world. Unlike a defense, which tries to demonstrate that God's existence is logically possible in the light of evil, a theodicy attempts to provide a framework wherein God's existence is also plausible. The German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined the term "theodicy" in 1710 in his work Théodicée, though various responses to the problem of evil had been previously proposed. The British philosopher John Hick traced the history of moral theodicy in his 1966 work, Evil and the God of Love, identifying three major traditions:


  1. the Plotinian theodicy, named after Plotinus
  2. the Augustinian theodicy, which Hick based on the writings of Augustine of Hippo
  3. the Irenaean theodicy, which Hick developed, based on the thinking of St. Irenaeus

German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) saw theodicy as a social problem, based on the human need to explain puzzling aspects of the world. Sociologist Peter L. Berger (1929- ) argued that religion arose out of a need for social order, and an “implicit theodicy of all social order” developed to sustain it. Following the Holocaust, a number of Jewish theologians developed a new response to the problem of evil, sometimes called anti-theodicy, which maintains that God cannot be meaningfully justified. As an alternative to theodicy, a defense has been proposed by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga, which is limited to showing the logical possibility of God's existence. Plantinga's version of the free-will defence argued that the coexistence of God and evil is not logically impossible, and that free will further explains the existence of evil without threatening the existence of God.

Similar to a theodicy, a cosmodicy attempts to justify the fundamental goodness of the universe, and an anthropodicy attempts to justify the goodness of humanity.

Definition and etymology

As defined by Alvin Plantinga, theodicy is the "answer to the question of why God permits evil". Theodicy is defined as a theological construct that attempts to vindicate God in response to the evidential problem of evil that militates against the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity. The word theodicy derives from the Greek words Θεός Τheos and δίκη dikē. Theos is translated "God" and dikē can be translated as either "trial" or "judgement". Thus, theodicy literally means "justifying God".

In the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Nick Trakakis proposed an additional three requirements which must be contained within a theodicy:

  • Common sense views of the world.
  • Widely held historical and scientific opinion.
  • Plausible moral principles.
  • As a response to the problem of evil, a theodicy is distinct from a defence. A defence attempts to demonstrate that the occurrence of evil does not contradict God's existence, but it does not propose that rational beings are able to understand why God permits evil. A theodicy seeks to show that it is reasonable to believe in God despite evidence of evil in the world and offers a framework which can account for why evil exists. A theodicy is often based on a prior natural theology, which attempts to prove the existence of God, and seeks to demonstrate that God's existence remains probable after the problem of evil is posed by giving a justification for God's permitting evil to happen. Defenses propose solutions to the logical problem of evil, while theodicies attempt to answer the evident problem.

    Reasons for theodicy

    German philosopher Max Weber interpreted theodicy as a social problem, and viewed theodicy as a "problem of meaning". Weber argued that, as human society became increasingly rational, the need to explain why good people suffered and evil people prospered became more important because religion casts the world as a "meaningful cosmos". Weber framed the problem of evil as the dilemma that the good can suffer and the evil can prosper, which became more important as religion became more sophisticated. He identified two purposes of theodicy: to explain why good people suffer (a theodicy of suffering), and why people prosper (a theodicy of good fortune). A theodicy of good fortune seeks to justify the good fortune of people in society; Weber believed that those who are successful are not satisfied unless they can justify why they deserve to be successful. For theodicies of suffering, Weber argued that three different kinds of theodicy emerged—predestination, dualism, and karma—all of which attempt to satisfy the human need for meaning, and he believed that the quest for meaning, when considered in light of suffering, becomes the problem of suffering.

    Sociologist Peter L. Berger characterised religion as the human attempt to build order out of a chaotic world. He believed that humans could not accept that anything in the world was meaningless and saw theodicy as an assertion that the cosmos has meaning and order, despite evidence to the contrary. Berger presented an argument similar to that of Weber, but suggested that the need for theodicy arose primarily out of the situation of human society. He believed that theodicies existed to allow individuals to transcend themselves, denying the individual in favour of the social order.


    The term theodicy was coined by German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in his 1710 work, written in French, Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal (Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil). Leibniz's Théodicée was a response to skeptical Protestant philosopher Pierre Bayle, who wrote in his work Dictionnaire Historique et Critique that, after rejecting three attempts to solve it, he saw no rational solution to the problem of evil. Bayle argued that, because the Bible asserts the coexistence of God and evil, this state of affairs must simply be accepted.

    French philosopher Voltaire criticised Leibniz's concept of theodicy in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (Poem on the Lisbon disaster), suggesting that the massive destruction of innocent lives caused by the Lisbon earthquake demonstrated that God was not providing the "best of all possible worlds". Voltaire also includes the earthquake/theodicy theme in his novel, Candide.

    In The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914), Constantine Kempf argued that, following Leibniz's work, philosophers called their works on the problem of evil "theodicies", and philosophy about God was brought under the discipline of theodicy. He argued that theodicy began to include all of natural theology, meaning that theodicy came to consist of the human knowledge of God through the systematic use of reason.

    In 1966, British philosopher John Hick published Evil and the God of Love, in which he surveyed various Christian responses to the problem of evil, before developing his own. In his work, Hick identified and distinguished between three types of theodicy: Plotinian, which was named after Plotinus, Augustinian, which had dominated Western Christianity for many centuries, and Irenaean, which was developed by the Eastern Church Father Irenaeus, a version of which Hick subscribed to himself.

    In his dialogue "Is God a Taoist?", published in 1977 in his book The Tao is Silent, Raymond Smullyan proves that it is logically impossible to have sentient beings without allowing evil, even for God, just as it is impossible for him to create a triangle in the Euclidean plane having an angular sum other than 180°. So the capability of feeling implies free will, which in turn may produce evil, understood here as hurting other sentient beings. The problem of evil happening to good people is not addressed directly here, but both reincarnation and karma are hinted at.

    Ancient religions

    “Writings and discourses on theodicy by Jews, Greeks, Christians, and Eastern religions have graced our planet for thousands of years.” In the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2000 BC to 1700 BC) as “in Ancient Mesopotamian and Israelite literature,” theodicy was an important issue.

    Dr Philip Irving Mitchell of the Dallas Baptist University notes that some philosophers have cast the pursuit of theodicy as a modern one, as earlier scholars used the problem of evil to support the existence of one particular god over another, explain wisdom, or explain a conversion, rather than to justify God's goodness. Professor Sarah Iles Johnston argues that ancient civilizations, such as the ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians held polytheistic beliefs that may have enabled them to deal with the concept of theodicy differently. These religions taught the existence of many gods and goddesses who controlled various aspects of daily life. These early religions may have avoided the question of theodicy by endowing their deities with the same flaws and jealousies that plagued humanity. No one god or goddess was fundamentally good or evil; this explained that bad things could happen to good people if they angered a deity because the gods could exercise the same free will that humankind possesses. Such religions taught that some gods were more inclined to be helpful and benevolent, while others were more likely to be spiteful and aggressive. In this sense, the evil gods could be blamed for misfortune, while the good gods could be petitioned with prayer and sacrifices to make things right. There was still a sense of justice in that individuals who were right with the gods could avoid punishment.

    Biblical theodicy

    The biblical account of the justification of evil and suffering in the presence of God has both similarities and contrasts in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. For the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Job is often quoted as the authoritative source of discussion.

    On the question of the absolute or relative form of the issue of theodicy prevailing in biblical theology as such, the prevailing account is predominantly in the relative form of theodicy in general. The Book of Isaiah in chapter 45 states;

    I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

    However, the Hebrew word רַע for "bad" has a wide range of meanings as it does in English and can be interpreted as misfortune, or calamity as with the New American Standard Bible or the English Standard Version This can be used improperly to attempt to deny God's omnibenevolence, but this fails to take into account the potential for a variety of the depths of the love of God towards those who are and are not his people. That God punishes those who are guilty and deserve it does not make him unloving, but in fact is an appeal that is all too common when questioning theodicy, viz. justice. It is an appeal to justice to suggest that God is not omnibenevolent, particularly that since evil exists and God should stop it if he could, or cannot at all. This assumes that the fullness of what can be known is available, but for the Christian, the Scriptures assure him or her that the allowance of evil is for a greater purpose: that God's name shall be honored. What is more, God's allowance of evil is essential to the outworking of redemptive history, nay the gospel itself and is referred to the "Greater-Good" defense.

    This is somewhat illustrated in the Book of Exodus when Pharoah is described as being raised up that God's name be known in all the earth Exodus 9:16. This is mirrored in Romans' ninth chapter, where Paul makes an appeal to God's sovereignty as sufficient explanation, with God's goodness experientially known to the Christian.

    Augustinian theodicy

    The Protestant and Reformed reading of Augustinian theodicy, as promoted primarily by John Hick, is based on the writings of Augustine of Hippo, a Christian philosopher and theologian who lived from AD 354 to 430. The catholic (pre-reformation) formulation of the same issue is substantially different and is outlined below. In Hick's approach, this form of theodicy argues that evil does not exist except as a privation—or corruption of—goodness, and therefore God did not create evil. Augustinian scholars have argued that God created the world perfectly, with no evil or human suffering. Evil entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the theodicy casts the existence of evil as a just punishment for this original sin. The theodicy argues that humans have an evil nature in as much as it is deprived of its original goodness, form, order, and measure due to the inherited original sin of Adam and Eve, but still ultimately remains good due to existence coming from God, for if a nature was completely evil (deprived of the good), it would cease to exist. It maintains that God remains blameless and good.

    In the Roman Catholic reading of Augustine, the issue of just war as developed in his book The City of God substantially established his position concerning the positive justification of killing, suffering and pain as inflicted upon an enemy when encountered in war for a just cause. Augustine asserted that peacefulness in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a sin. Defense of one's self or others could be a necessity, especially when authorized by a legitimate authority. While not elaborating the conditions necessary for war to be just, Augustine nonetheless originated the very phrase, itself, in his work The City of God. In essence, the pursuit of peace must include the option of fighting with all of its eventualities in order to preserve peace in the long-term. Such a war could not be pre-emptive, but defensive, to restore peace. Thomas Aquinas, centuries later, used the authority of Augustine's arguments in an attempt to define the conditions under which a war could be just.

    Irenaean theodicy

    Irenaeus (died c. 202), born in the early second century, expressed ideas which explained the existence of evil as necessary for human development. Irenaeus argued that human creation comprised two parts: humans were made first in the image, then in the likeness, of God. The image of God consists of having the potential to achieve moral perfection, whereas the likeness of God is the achievement of that perfection. To achieve moral perfection, Irenaeus suggested that humans must have free will. To achieve such free will, humans must experience suffering and God must be at an epistemic distance (a distance of knowledge) from humanity. Therefore, evil exists to allow humans to develop as moral agents. In the twentieth century, John Hick collated the ideas of Irenaeus into a distinct theodicy. He argued that the world exists as a "vale of soul-making" (a phrase that he drew from John Keats), and that suffering and evil must therefore occur. He argued that human goodness develops through the experience of evil and suffering.

    Origenian theodicy

    In direct response to John Hick's description of theodicy, Mark Scott has indicated that neither Augustine of Hippo nor Irenaeus of Lyons provide an appropriate context for the discussion of Hick's theistic version of theodicy. As a theologian among the Church Fathers who articulated a theory of apokatastasis (or universal reconciliation), Origen of Alexandria provides a more direct theological comparison for the discussion of Hick's presentation of universal salvation and theodicy. Neither Irenaeus nor Augustine endorsed a theology of universal salvation in any form comparable to that of John Hick.

    Relatively minor theodicies

    Michael Martin summarizes what he calls “relatively minor” theodicies.

  • The Finite God Theodicy maintains that God is all-good (omnibenevolent) but not all-powerful (omnipotent).
  • The Best of all Possible Worlds Theodicy, a traditional theology, argues that the creation is the best of all possible worlds.
  • The Original Sin Theodicy holds that evil came into the world because of humanity's original sin.
  • The Ultimate Harmony Theodicy justifies evil as leading to “good long-range consequences”.
  • The Degree of Desirability of a Conscious State Theodicy has been reckoned a “complex theodicy.” It argues that a person’s state is deemed evil only when it is undesirable to the person. However, because God is unable to make a person’s state desirable to the person, the theodic problem does not exist.
  • The Reincarnation Theodicy believes that people suffer evil because of their wrong-doing in a previous life.
  • The Contrast Theodicy holds that evil is needed to enable people to appreciate or understand good.
  • The Warning Theodicy rationalizes evil as God’s warning to people to mend their ways.
  • Jewish anti-theodicy

    In 1998, Jewish theologian Zachary Braiterman coined the term anti-theodicy in his book (God) After Auschwitz to describe Jews, both in a biblical and post-Holocaust context, whose response to the problem of evil is protest and refusal to investigate the relationship between God and suffering. An anti-theodicy acts in opposition to a theodicy and places full blame for all experience of evil onto God, but must rise from an individual's belief in and love of God. Anti-theodicy has been likened to Job's protests in the Book of Job. Braiterman wrote that an anti-theodicy rejects the idea that there is a meaningful relationship between God and evil or that God could be justified for the experience of evil.

    The Holocaust prompted a reconsideration of theodicy in some Jewish circles. French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who had himself been a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, declared theodicy to be "blasphemous", arguing that it is the "source of all immorality", and demanded that the project of theodicy be ended. Levinas asked whether the idea of absolutism survived after the Holocaust, which he proposed it did. He argued that humans are not called to justify God in the face of evil, but to attempt to live godly lives; rather than considering whether God was present during the Holocaust, the duty of humans is to build a world where goodness will prevail.

    Professor of theology David R. Blumenthal, in his book Facing the Abusing God, supports the "theology of protest", which he saw as presented in the play, The Trial of God. He supports the view that survivors of the Holocaust cannot forgive God and so must protest about it. Blumenthal believes that a similar theology is presented in the book of Job, in which Job does not question God's existence or power, but his morality and justice. Other prominent voices in the Jewish tradition commenting on the justification of God in the presence of the Holocaust have been the Nobel prize winning author Elie Wiesel and Richard L. Rubinstein in his book The Cunning of History.

    Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch sought to elucidate how faith (or trust, emunah) in God defines the full, transcendental preconditions of anti-theodicy. Endorsing the attitude of "holy protest" found in Job and Jeremiah, but also in Abraham (Genesis 18) and Moses (Exodus 33), Rabbi Schneerson argued that a phenomenology of protest, when carried through to its logical limits, reveals a profound conviction in cosmic justice such as we first find in Abraham's question, "Will the Judge of the whole earth not do justice?" (Genesis 18:25). Recalling Kant's 1791 essay on the failure of all theoretical attempts in theodicy, a viable practical theodicy is identified with messianism. This faithful anti-theodicy is worked out in a long letter of 26 April 1965 to Elie Wiesel.

    Christian alternatives to theodicy

    A number of Christian writers oppose theodicies. Todd Billings deems constructing theodicies to be a “destructive practice”. In the same vein, Nick Trakakis observes that “theodical discourse can only add to the world’s evils, not remove or illuminate them.” As an alternative to theodicy, some theologians have advocated “reflection on tragedy” as a more befitting reply to evil. For example, Wendy Farley believes that “a desire for justice” and “anger and pity at suffering” should replace “theodicy’s cool justifications of evil”. Sarah K. Pinnock opposes abstract theodicies that would legitimize evil and suffering. However, she endorses theodicy discussions in which people ponder God, evil, and suffering from a practical faith perspective.

    Karl Barth viewed the evil of human suffering as ultimately in the “control of divine providence”. Given this view, Barth deemed it impossible for humans to devise a theodicy that establishes "the idea of the goodness of God". For Barth only the crucifixion could establish the goodness of God. In the crucifixion, God bears and suffers what humanity suffers. This suffering by God Himself makes human theodicies anticlimactic. Barth found a “twofold justification” in the crucifixion: the justification of sinful humanity and “the justification in which God justifies Himself”.

    Christian Science offers a rational, though widely unacceptable, solution to the problem by denying that evil ultimately exists. Mary Baker Eddy and Mark Twain had some contrasting views on theodicy and suffering, which are well-described by Stephen Gottschalk.

    Free will defense

    As an alternative to a theodicy, a defense may be offered as a response to the problem of evil. A defense attempts to show that God's existence is not made logically impossible by the existence of evil; it does not need to be true or plausible, merely logically possible. American philosopher Alvin Plantinga offers a free will defense which argues that human free will sufficiently explains the existence of evil while maintaining that God's existence remains logically possible. He argues that, if God's existence and the existence of evil are to be logically inconsistent, a premise must be provided which, if true, would make them inconsistent; as none has been provided, the existence of God and evil must be consistent. Free will furthers this argument by providing a premise which, in conjunction with the existence of evil, entails that God's existence remains consistent. Opponents have argued this defense is discredited by the existence of non-human related evil such as leukemia in small children.

    Cosmodicy and anthropodicy

    A cosmodicy attempts to justify the fundamental goodness of the universe in the face of evil, and an anthropodicy attempts to justify the fundamental goodness of human nature in the face of the evils produced by humans.

    Considering the relationship between theodicy and cosmodicy, Johannes van der Ven argued that the choice between theodicy and cosmodicy is a false dilemma. Philip E. Devenish proposed what he described as "a nuanced view in which theodicy and cosmodicy are rendered complementary, rather than alternative concepts". Theologian J. Matthew Ashley described the relationship between theodicy, cosmodicy and anthropodicy:

    In classical terms, this is to broach the problem of theodicy: how to think about God in the face of the presence of suffering in God's creation. After God's dethronement as the subject of history, the question rebounds to the new subject of history: the human being. As a consequence, theodicy becomes anthropodicy — justifications of our faith in humanity as the subject of history, in the face of the suffering that is so inextricably woven into the history that humanity makes.

    Essential kenosis

    This theodicy rethinks God's omnipotence by saying God's power is constrained by God's love. Essential kenosis says that love comes first in God. Philosophically, this means that love is logically prior to power in God's nature.

    This view allows one to affirm that God is almighty, while simultaneously affirming that God cannot prevent genuine evil. Because out of love God necessarily gives freedom, agency, self-organization, natural processes, and law-like regularities to creation, God cannot override, withdraw, or fail to provide such capacities. Consequently, God is not culpable for failing to prevent genuine evil. Thomas Jay Oord's work explains this view most fully.


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