“No theological question is more difficult or recurrent,” writes Thomas Oden in Classic Christianity, “than why bad things happen to good people.”
“But there is one even deeper perplexity for Christians–” he continues, “why the absolutely just One has suffered so absolutely.”
That is how Oden opens an extended discussion on the way Christians have worked out their thoughts on suffering and evil in the last 2000 years. His book is a systematic theology in which he tries to say “nothing new,” but instead just compiles and lays out what has been the basic, broadly agreed on truths across the breadth of the whole church over the generations since Jesus ascended. So what you get is exactly what the title of the book implies: classic Christianity, especially as it was taught in the first few hundred years after the Apostles wrote.
Over the next week or so (and several posts) I want to share an entire passage from this book, because it contains the best concise exploration of these things I’ve read. I’ve already recently posted another resource for these issues, and Monday night’s study hit on them as well, and you should totally check out Joni Eareckson Tada’s message from Sunday night at CC Philly. So maybe it’s a season to think about all of this.
Let’s get started. Oden begins with some definition:
For classic Christian teaching, the wisest theodicy flows out of a deep reflection upon the cross. There the profound mystery of God’s suffering becomes transmuted [that is, changed] by the even deeper mystery of God’s suffering for humanity.
Wait–let’s define that word “theodicy” first (this is helpful). Oden says:
Theodicy is the attempt to speak rightly of God’s justice (Greek theos-dike) under conditions of suffering and evil. Theodicy is an intellectual discipline that seeks to clarify the hidden aspect of God’s goodness despite apparent contradictions of that goodness in history.
In other words, whether you know it or not, “theodicy” is what you do when you or someone you know suffers some hardship, or there’s a tragedy somewhere in the world, and you do your best to fit it in with what you know about God’s goodness. It’s a “justification of God”–saying that God’s still good and right and just, even when horrible things happen. How you do it depends on your view of Jesus, and whether or not your effort is successful depends on your ability to think long and hard about Scripture’s teachings on the matter. Oden continues:
“The gospel of salvation is intricately connected with the interweaving problems of suffering and evil. If there were no problem of evil, there would be no felt or experienced need for the gospel of salvation. The gospel is the good news of evil’s defeat.”
Starting tomorrow, we’ll begin travelling through Oden’s compilation of Christian thought on the matter.