The word for this dilemma is theodicy, which Webster’s defines as the “vindication of the divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice, in establishing or allowing the existence of physical and moral evil.” In other words, how do we justify the existence of a God who created us and loves us, and oversees the affairs of the world, with the yawning chasm of poverty, pain and sorrow so prevalent around us? Or, as Jews most frequently put it: How can I possibly believe in God who let the Holocaust happen?
Two years ago, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Bart D. Ehrman, PhD, tackled this issue in his aptly titled book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer (HarperOne). Ehrman is the author in 2005 of Misquoting Jesus, an unlikely bestseller that documents the unreliability of a literal reading of the New Testament.
In God’s Problem, his objective is different. Raised in a conservative religious family and “born again” in high school, Ehrman explains how the issue of theodicy essentially ruined his faith completely. “I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian,” he explains. “The subject of this book is the reason why. … I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things … The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith.”
It’s a journey that many of us Jews, living post-Holocaust, can relate to. It’s a big reason why so many of our synagogues are empty.
Ever a scholar, Ehrman explains how the Hebrew Bible attempts to answer this question. The Prophets, Psalmists and Apocalypticists – all of whose voices are found in the pages of Tanach – offer three unique answers to the “problem” of evil:
1) Suffering is punishment for sinful behavior
2) Suffering is a test of virtue, or will be ultimately redemptive
3) God will ultimately conquer evil and establish paradise
He provides ample examples from the text for all three of these answers, and to varying degrees, all three of these theologies continue to exist in the Christian world today. Evangelicals and Baptists often preach Nos. 1 and 3. Catholics and Methodists buy more into No. 2. Studies show that some 80 percent of Americans (most of whom are Christian), believe that “everything happens for a reason” and that “God has a plan for me” — both of which presume that there is some larger, operating system in place that can explain why the tornado hit one guy’s house, but not someone else’s. (Whether or not we know what that system is is another matter).
Interestingly, in the Jewish world (or the non-Orthodox Jewish world at least), I would consider such views as highly unusual, and from the bimah, I never hear rabbis offering any of these three “answers” in response to human suffering.
How do we Jews attempt to reconcile an all-powerful God with the existence of evil? We don’t! In growing numbers, we become agnostic, cultural Jews who avoid traditional scripture and liturgy, which so resoundly reflect theodicean ideas. Or, in the case of classical Reconstructionist Jewish thought, we redefine the very definition of “God” itself – thereby eliminating the dilemma. (If God is no longer a separate, all-knowing, all-powerful being, we no longer have to ask how such a being could allow human suffering.)
If you’d like to read more about the ideas in Ehrman’s book, but want a shortcut, check out this excellent review by James Wood, published in The New Yorker in their June 9, 2008, issue.
To hear Terry Gross, of NPR, interview Ehrman, click here. Highly recommended!
If you’d like to learn more about how Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, addressed the problem of evil, check out Mordecai Kaplan’s Theology and the Problem of Evil, by Steven Katz. A PDF of the article can be purchased for $13.50.