Is Theodicy Offensive?

This week a few comments appeared on my Twitter feed concerning the apparent offensive nature of theodicy; theodicy being that branch of theistic thought that attempts to explain why God allows evils and suffering in the world.

A frequent retort to this project of theodicy – and one that occurred this week – goes something like this: “Yeah, go and tell that to a rape victim!” [The precise tweet I saw read: “theodicy is often offensive. Who’s gonna look at a rape victim & tell them it was a reminder from God?”] The idea here is that some explanation or other would be offensive to those who have suffered gross wrongs. But what is supposed to follow from this? That some explanation or other is false? That’s hardly the case, unless we seek to equate offensiveness with falsity. To my mind all that follows is that even if some explanation is true it isn’t necessarily helpful in some given context – such as counselling a rape victim. However, any responsible person wouldn’t approach a counselling situation in this way; not because the explanation is false, but because in this context it is both inappropriate and unhelpful to the recovery of the victim.

I remember several years ago having to attend counselling sessions for extreme anxiety. At the beginning of these sessions the counsellor delved into lots of things in my past, explaining how they had a bearing on my current psychological state and how that state comes about within the human body. It was certainly an education and much of what she told me was undoubtedly true. However, I found this approach extremely unhelpful and frustrating; even counter-productive. I felt like I was being treated as a psychological research project rather than being helped. The truth in my case was unhelpful, inappropriate and at times even offensive. It was still true.

There’s a time and place for everything. Giving a long-winded explanation of why God permits suffering may well be of no use to the victim of some act of evil. A philosophical explanation is not what they need at that moment in time. To judge a philosophical explanation by how it would perform in a counselling context is to set a false standard. Of course, we should note in passing that there are people who have been helped by seeing their suffering in a larger context. It is not uncommon to hear stories from Jewish people who suffered the hell on earth of the Nazi concentration camps about how their belief in God’s providence sustained them, that believing there was at least some reason or explanation for what was happening. Suffering, it seems, can be easier to bear when it’s set into a wider context of having some meaning.

Anyhow, we could make the point by flipping the situation around. Take an atheist who is utterly convinced that there is no God, that this life is all there is, and that each of us faces nothing but personal annihilation in a relatively short time. Say this atheist visits Africa to do charity work in a remote hospital. A mother has just arrived with a sick 10 year old boy on the verge of death. In fact, there’s nothing doctors can do except to bring some modest pain-relief and to help ease the suffering of both the son as he dies and the mother as she grieves. This mother and son are devout Christians. Despite living an impoverished and malnourished existence they look forward to a better future, the heavenly blessing of being reunited after death, when all fear is banished from their hearts, all pain from their bodies, every tear wiped away, and wrongs and injustices righted. Now, suppose our charitable atheists stands by the bedside to ease this boy into his death and help to comfort the mother. Is now a good time to offer the problem of evil? Is now a good time to point out the contradictions in the Bible and that it cannot be trusted when it speaks of the life to come? Wouldn’t to do so be crass and offensive? And yet the atheist believes all this is true.

The point should be obvious: that it is hardly a sensible critique of atheism to say “yeah, well you wouldn’t preach atheism to a dying child,” and likewise it’s rather unreasonable to critique a theodicy on the basis that “yeah, you wouldn’t tell that to a rape victim!”(Of course some given theodicy could be false for many other reasons).

So, how should we judge a belief system or argument? Not on its emotional appeal; not on whether someone considers it offensive; not on how many people agree with it; not even with regard to how effectively it makes the hairs on the back of our neck tingle when we consider it. We judge them in so far as we consider them true or false; correct or incorrect. Any given proposition could be considered offensive; many are true nonetheless.

Stephen J Graham



Filed under Problem of Evil

10 responses to “Is Theodicy Offensive?

  1. Aw, come on, Stephen. You’re not going to leave us like that, are you?
    “Any given proposition could be considered offensive; many are true nonetheless.”
    Give us at least two examples, ok?
    Also, I suspect you are being a little disingenuous here. When somebody find theodicy offensive, they are setting it against the claims of an omnibenevolent God. Theodicy makes God the offender, and therefore offensive.The apparent contradiction is an insult to the intelligence – therein lies the offensiveness of theodicy.
    And anyway, theodicy is a soother for the believer, and an ineffectual rebuttal to the atheist who makes the mistake of asking the wrong question.

  2. I would have liked a reply to my response on your earlier post about God and gratuitous evil, but we don’t always get what we want and I daresay these minor disappointments and set-backs can be character- building. But when it comes to the major traumas that life inflicts, I do always like to think that if I were omnipotent, omniscient and infinitely good I might come up with a rather better way to build characters than rape, murder, lingering death, devastating bereavement etc.
    What always gets my goat is the suggestion that it’s all of no real consequence when viewed through the lens of eternity.
    Firstly, it IS of real consequence. If you don’t understand that, then you are less than human.
    Secondly, if you still say that it’s of no real consequence because it’s a blip in eternity, can you Christians please stop going on and on about how HUGE Jesus’ sacrifice of dying on the cross was and what an immense debt we all owe him, us ‘orrible worthless lot. It was only six hours, for God’s sake! If you really believe that temporal suffering is diminished by being seen from the perspective of eternity, then time to draw a line under that particular six hours and move on, IMO.

    • “I would have liked a reply to my response on your earlier post about God and gratuitous evil,”

      I had intended to write a response but I haven’t found myself with adequate time to write a response. Your response was well written and I regard it as worthy of proper treatment. I still have it on my “to do” list.

      For now I will note simply that I agree with you that suffering *is* of real consequence. What we go through is very real to us and should not be made light of. I don’t speak from a position of ignorance and my own life has not been one of blissful privilege. Suffering has a terrible power and can have truly terrible consequences. But for believers who accept that God is all-powerful and all-good theodicy is something which they must engage in to at least try to make sense of the world. In my own case sometimes I can’t make sense of it.

      Anyhow, I hope to respond to you fuller at a later date.

      Stephen J Graham

  3. “Any given proposition could be considered offensive; many are true nonetheless.”
    Give us at least two examples, ok?
    Two propositions that could be considered offensive and which are true. And, of course, their relevance to theodicy.
    Ready when you are.

  4. You ask, “So, how should we judge a belief system or argument?”
    Then you answer, “We judge them in so far as we consider them true or false; correct or incorrect.”
    That is not a reply to a “How?” question.
    Let me help you out here.
    “How do we judge a recipe? First we bake the cake, following the instructions in the recipe. THEN we judge the recipe in so far as we consider the cake edible or inedible, tasty or foul.”
    You have missed out an important step in your reasoning.

    • Richard,

      I think you’re missing the point of the article. The point isn’t to defend any given theodicy; the point here is simply that criticising a theodicy on the basis that it might be offensive to someone is not a reason to reject it.

      You ask me twice to give examples of propositions which could be considered offensive and yet are true nonetheless. That’s hardly an arduous task and I’m surprised you cannot think of any yourself. But, here are a few propositions which are true and yet which might be found offensive to some:

      1. Young earth creationism is scientifically illiterate and theologically naive.
      2. It is morally right that in certain circumstances terminally ill people should be allowed to end their lives.
      3. Not All religions can be true.
      4. God (if He exists) might well have morally acceptable reasons for permitting suffering.

      All these – and many others – will be offensive to some people, and yet they are all – to my mind – true (though not undisputable). Remember that I’m not making a point specific to theodicy here – the point I’m making was inspired by a Twitter discussion concerning theodicy but obviously has wider implications than that.

      As for your claim that I’m being disingenuous, I note once more my disappointment that you so easily turn to character slurs, and thus I won’t respond to you further on this point.

      To clarify: the point of the article is simply to argue that saying “X is offensive” has no bearing on whether or not X is true.

      Stephen J Graham

      • Stephen,
        Saying that you were being disingenuous was not a character slur, for crying out loud. I was pointing out how I interpreted the attitude that you seemed to demonstrate in this article. This ONE article!
        Overall, I very much appreciate what little I know about you. I’m sorry that I hurt you by what I thought was a fairly innocuous example of the ordinary rough’n’tumble of these discussions.
        That said, at least my slur prompted you to give a succinct summary of your entire 833-word article: “saying “X is offensive” has no bearing on whether or not X is true.” A neat Tweet.
        Er, yes. Obviously.
        But to say that is to miss the point that the sense of offense is what some people use to indicate the roaring contradiction that theodicies try to rationalize.
        I would much rather that you didn’t go away and sulk. But that’s your choice…

      • I’m not hurt and I’m not sulking, I just find your standard “go to” criticism rather tiresome.

      • But being tiresome doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wrong, does it?
        Take care.

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