Why do bad things happen in the world? If there is a god, should he not be good? Does he not care? Why does he not help?
This is maybe the oldest problem in theology, the so-called question of theodicy, of the justice of god. According to Lactantius, Epicurus famously framed is thusly:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” 1Lactantius, De Ira Dei, 13, 20-21
This seems straightforward and logical. But it also directly begs the question of what is “evil”, and with that, also the question of what is “good.” Plato famously builds his entire philosophy of state on the notion of the question of “goodness”, and it could be argued that “goodness” and “godliness” are the same.
Yet it is not that simple. Each one of us has their own idea of what “good” means. To the laborer, higher wages and fewer work hours would certainly be good. To the business owner, such considerations will need to be put in the context of the profitability of the business. A parent may want a child close and safe, while a child may value their freedom and agency (while probably also desiring safety). Thus whatever is good will always be a compromise, a consideration of more than one perspectives.
But the difficulties continue. Why is there sickness? Why are there viruses and bacteria? Why are there parasites? Why do we suffer from them?
Such questions are deeply anthropocentric, and they suffer from an understanding of creation that is written from the perspective of human beings. Viruses, bacteria and life-forms we call parasites also want to exist. Is creation really only something that should benefit human beings? To a lion, a gazelle is food; to a gazelle, the lion is a predator. If lions had a conception of a protector god, that god would provide them with an infinite supply of gazelles; if gazelles had an idea of such a god, that god would make sure lions do not exist as a threat to gazelles. Yet both lions and gazelles are part of the ecosystem; and the ecosystem is a finely tuned machine in which both lions and gazelles play their part. Without the ecosystem, none would exist – thus is not the existence of the system more important than catering to special interests of its participants?
The assumption that god should care is a reasonable assumption, but that this care should be only dedicated to human beings is rather myopic. If god’s focus would be on anything, then only on the big picture, on the system view.
This conclusion would then require us to adjust our expectation about the nature of god and his responsibility for us: whatever god is, he cannot be our personal savior or protector. He has to take care of the big picture. That also means he cannot really be seen as human, and should thus not be seen as possessing human attributes. God is not a he, not a she, probably not even a person in the conventional, human sense. Whatever god is, it will remain obscure to us. “God” is not even a name, it is a concept, and idea transcending our possible ideas about ourselves, our world, even about god.
The Jesuit insight – probably following Augustine – is that “god is always greater”, or in Latin, “deus semper maior” – the Arabic translation would probably be “ٱللَّٰهُ أَكْبَرُ”: “Allahu akbar.” What does this mean? It means nothing else but that whatever god is transcends our understanding, transcends everything in the world, is beyond and greater than anything else. It is not a description of god, but the definition of divinity itself: The divine is that which is beyond our limited physical and temporal existence.
Such an understanding, of course, makes clear that the very “problem” of theodicy is that we are really not talking about whether god is just or good, but whether our outsized expectations of the world are at all realistic. Whatever we consider “good” or “evil”, we are limited in our understanding by our very own positionality. What is good for humans, or specifically, for us as individuals, may be completely different from what is good for the other beings in our world, for the planet, for the universe, or whatever is beyond the universe. “Theodicy” is a pseudo-problem that disappears once we outgrow an understanding of god as a person that somehow puts our own individual (and sometimes selfish) needs above anyone else. “Good” and “evil” are human categories, and it is up to us to create justice. Bringing god into this is just an excuse.
The criticism attributed to Epicurus thus betrays a very myopic understanding of divinity. It is a child-like belief that somehow thinks of that-which-is-beyond-us as a parental figure, more similar to a polytheistic godhead than to the actual insight of monotheism that is inscribed in the commandments as the warning to not make graven images of god. This commandment can be understood to mean that we shall not assume, as human beings, that we could somehow make for ourselves an image, either physical or in our minds, of what divinity actually is. It is not just a call against idolatry, it is a reminder that first, we will never understand what “god” wants and should not use this limited understanding as an excuse for actions “in god’s name”, but also, second, that our idea of justice can only be a human justice, and that we are ourselves responsible for the world we are creating and sustaining around us.
1 “Deus, inquit, aut vult tollere mala et non potest; aut potest et non vult; aut neque vult, neque potest; aut et vult et potest. Si vult et non potest, imbecillis est; quod in Deum non cadit. Si potest et non vult, invidus; quod aeque alienum a Deo. Si neque vult, neque potest, et invidus et imbecillis est; ideoque neque Deus. Si vult et potest, quod solum Deo convenit, unde ergo sunt mala?” Lactantius, De Ira Dei, 13, 20-21