Focus on Theodicy

Focus on Theodicy

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Paul L. Redditt

Why do godly people suffer? Why do tyrants harm the helpless with apparent impunity? Why is there evil in a world created by a good God? Is the God who created such a world really morally good? These are questions often posed by readers of the Bible, and indeed, some are questions addressed within the Bible itself. At least on one level, Job suffered as a consequence of a bet between God and the Satan (the Adversary within the divine council of God itself). As parents of stillborn babies or victims of brutality or natural catastrophes will affirm, the issue of theodicy is too important for the biblical religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to ignore. John M. Frame states the issue of theodicy logically:

  • 1. If God is omnipotent, [God] is able to prevent evil.
  • 2. If God is good, [God] wants to prevent evil.
  • 3. But evil exists.

Conclusion: either God is not omnipotent, or [God] is not good.1

Of course, it should be pointed out—logically speaking—that either or both of the two premises of this syllogism might be wrong (i.e., some good might come from evil), but the syllogism has its force for readers of the Bible nevertheless.

The word "theodicy" is derived from two Greek words, theos (god) and dikē (justice). It has come to be used in two ways that pertain to this discussion: to designate the philosophical problem of the existence of evil, and (2) to defend the justice of God in an unjust world. The two understandings of theodicy are often collapsed into this question: how/why could a good God either cause or allow "bad things" to happen to "good people"?

Historical and contemporary thinkers often supply one or more of six basic explanations.

  • God's power and knowledge are limited in some ways, even if only by God's own choice, so humans are free to disobey.
  • Evil may be punishment for sin.
  • God is both just and merciful, even to sinners.
  • Evil may be part of God's justice.
  • Evil may be part of atonement.
  • Justice may lie beyond the grave.

Rather than developing each of these six explanations, however, this essay will examine four specific issues highlighted in key biblical texts: undeserved suffering in the books of Numbers, 2 Samuel, and the book of Job; redemptive suffering in the book of Isaiah; the suffering of Jesus in the gospels;, and martyrdom in Daniel and Revelation.

Suffering in Numbers and 2 Samuel

Some suffering is simply the result of unwise or immoral choices and might not raise the issue of theodicy. In other cases, however, the suffering endured seems excessive for the offense committed or even directed against innocent parties. Two texts, one in Numbers and the other in 2 Samuel, involve such apparently undeserved pain: the Korahite rebellion and the death of the firstborn son of David and Bathsheba.

The Korahite Rebellion

Korah was the ancestor of a clan of Levites, who, according to Numbers 16, led a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. How might groups settle such issues? One way was by means of a sign designating the deity's wishes. In this account, the narrator stood wholeheartedly on the side of Moses and Aaron. He described a trial by ordeal in which Moses directed the people of Israel to separate themselves from the Korahites and await God's action. The contest was one-sided; either way, the Korahites were going to die. If they died a natural death, that is, if "a natural fate" (e.g., a disease or an armed conflict) were to come upon them (Num 16:29, NRSV), that event would be a sign to the people that Moses was a fake. If, however, they died by some unusual means, their death would show that Moses was God's leader for the people. (Modern readers would surely object that Moses would win either way. Even if the Korahites died of natural causes, Moses would be rid of them and the dispute would be over.) In the biblical account, the Korahites died when the ground opened up and swallowed them—an event the Bible understood as an act of God on behalf of Moses. Readers may well ask whether death was justifiable in a disagreement over which side of a dispute was correct. Were there no means other than the death of the Korahites to settle the issue?

The death of the first-born son of David and Bathsheba

If the death of one group of priests in a dispute over leadership is ethically and theologically disturbing (what kind of a God would behave like that?), the death of a child for the misbehavior of its parents seems even more so. After describing David's ascent to the throne of Saul, his defeat of the Philistines, his capture of Jerusalem and relocation of the Ark of the Covenant there, and his war against the Arameans, the narrator tells of David's adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his warriors named Uriah. Compounding the sin further, he arranged for Uriah to be placed in the thick of battle where he would be killed. The narrator clearly depicts David as guilty of adultery and second-hand murder. He then reports David's bringing the widow to his house and marrying her. One may, perhaps, ask how guilty Bathsheba was in this sordid affair (could she have refused the king?), but there is no doubt that the narrator thought David was in charge of it all and guilty of adultery and murder. David's punishment was that God caused the child to become ill and die. The sins of the father were visited on the son! One can agree that David deserved to be punished, but what about the child? Did it deserve to die for the conditions of its conception? The answer is clearly negative, but the Bible does not even raise the issue of fairness to the infant. In a community that saw such matters in terms of families and not individuals, the death of the child seems to have been construed as fitting punishment for a sinful father.

Suffering and the book of Job

It is clear that bad conduct sometimes, maybe even often, results in just recompense. People may regret their actions, rebel at justice, or just whimper, but recompense for many such persons hardly justifies a complaint. Two-packs-a-day cigarette smokers might or might not develop lung cancer, but if they do they may merely reap what they have sown. If some do and some do not, one might look for reasons—usually natural—why some smokers avoid cancer. When a non-smoker develops lung cancer, moderns seek some other explanation, such as heredity, work environment, or diet. Sometimes an affected person might note that "it just does not seem right" that so-and-so, who never smoked a day of her life died of cancer, while a given, over-weight smoker lived a long and healthy life. We would probably seek an explanation in genetics. We probably would not say that God was responsible.

Job and His Friends, by Gustave Doré, 1832 - 1883, French. Engraving for the Bible. 1870, Art, Artist, Holy Book, Religion, Religious, Christianity, Christian, Romanticism, Colour, Color Engraving, Dore, Gustave (1832–83) / Private Collection / Photo © Liszt Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library

Such seemingly unjustified punishment is just the type of situation presented in Job. He was afflicted at the prime of his life. His friends said he must have been a terrible sinner for God to punish him. (See Job 4:7–9; 5:8–16; 8:2–3 in the first cycle of speeches alone.) He responded that God was punishing him, but without cause (Job 9:32–35; 10:1–22). The book resolves the issue this way. Job served God for no ulterior reason other than awe of the Almighty (Job 42:1–6), and God wound up rewarding Job (Job 42:10–7) even though God did not need to do so. The book of Job does not so much answer the question of theodicy as depict it and stare it down. It is the responsibility of humans to revere God no matter what happens. If humans do so, God might restore them.

Redemptive suffering and the book of Isaiah

Ancient Israelite prophets also did not shrink from saying God would punish sinful nations, including God's children Israel/Judah. The disaster that fell upon both Israel and Judah was justified as punishment for their conduct. Many of the prophets excoriated selfish individuals, or nations as a whole for the sins of the wealthy or of the government. Amos, in particular, comes to mind, but Micah and Jeremiah were equally judgmental. Isaiah 40–55, though, depicts a worthy Servant who suffered for no apparent reason. The so-called "Second Isaiah" (likely not just one writer) suggested that suffering could be redemptive for other people: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are made whole" (Isa 53:5). These verses do not justify such a means of atonement; they merely recognize its possibility. In other words, gratuitous suffering can have positive results even in the worst of circumstances.

The identity of that servant is an issue of concern to both Jewish and Christian readers. It has received so much attention, in fact, that only a brief summary of that thinking is possible here. Simply stated, scholars have suggested that the Servant might have been Israel itself, an identification made elsewhere in Isaiah 40–55 (see Isa 41:8–9; 44:1–2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3); Jeremiah the "wailing prophet'; the author of Isaiah 40–55; the Persian ruler Cyrus (who is called God's shepherd in Isa 44:28); and Jesus.2 No resolution of this issue is possible here.

The Suffering of Jesus

In the Hebrew Bible, sacrifice atoned for ritual and intentional sins. According to Lev 6:1–7 sins like theft could be forgiven if restitution was made and a sacrifice was offered. Sins like murder and adultery were deemed to be punishable by death. (How often death sentences were carried out is impossible to determine. Rabbinic Judaism in any case was loath to endorse such punishment.) The gravity of sin, moreover, was that it was directed against God, so only God could forgive sin. One human might or might not forgive another for a perceived offense, but only God could forgive an affront against God. To be sure, the human who receives God's forgiveness is both expected and empowered thereby to forgive other humans. Any offended party, whether divine or human, is always free to forgive on the basis of retribution, restitution, or grace, but the New Testament makes grace mediated through the death of Jesus and based on contrition the means of receiving God's forgiveness.

Jesus was crucified by the Romans as just another "messiah" (one who intended or tried to mount an insurrection), and the New Testament authors went to great lengths to deny any political ambition on his part. Thus they turned an act of Roman political self-preservation or savagery into the greatest sacrifice imaginable: God's own sacrifice to fulfill all righteousness. In the Hebrew Bible God had tied the forgiveness of sins to sacrifices, the Christian Testament claimed that God had bought salvation through the price of Jesus' death (1 Cor 6:20, 7:23). That is, God took human injustice upon God's own self and dealt with it. That understanding appears outside the gospels as well, specifically in Rom 5:6–15; 6:10; 1 Cor 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14–15; 1 Thess 5:10; and especially Hebrews 9–10.

The question is sometimes asked if Jesus died as a martyr. The answer partly depends on how one understands the meaning of the word itself. Generally the Greek word martus means "witness." Anyone, therefore, who bore witness to something was a "martyr," and the NT uses the word in its general sense in various places. It also appears in the NT in the specialized sense of one or those who died for bearing witness unto death, i.e., what moderns call "martyrs." The term martyr in this sense is appropriate for Jesus, though it is not used of him in the gospels; see further the discussion of the book of Revelation below. More importantly for this discussion, in Christian thinking suffering was incorporated into God's own experience and understood to be salvific.

Suffering and Martyrdom in Daniel and Revelation

Not only Jesus, but Jewish and Christian individuals and communities experienced death for their convictions, and the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation address that ultimate form of unjustified suffering. The book of Daniel opens with the fall of Jerusalem and its temple to Babylonia and the exile of pious Judeans. A question raised by these events was one of survival: how could one live rightly and sing the songs of Zion in a foreign, pagan land? The answer for Daniel and his fellows was to follow the law, including avoiding "impure" Babylonian foods and eating only "seeds" (Dan 1:12; NRSV "vegetables") They were also not to worship Babylonian gods, which the book lampoons. Daniel 2 and 7 anticipate the fall of the Babylon Empire and those of the Persians, Medes, and Greeks as well. In Daniel 3 and 6, the heroes faced martyrdom, but were delivered by God. Those tales of deliverance may rightly be called "broken martyr stories." Daniel 7:25–27 has in view the tumultuous years under the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes and the restoration of the "people of the Most High" to their rightful kingdom, and Daniel 12:2–4 anticipates the earthly resurrection of those martyred by the Greeks and their participation in the new day for Jerusalem and Judah.

The book of Revelation calls Jesus a "martyr" (Rev 1:5; NRSV "witness"), and celebrates him as the "Lamb that was slain" (Rev 5:12). It goes on to depict a "new heaven and a new earth," i.e., a new creation (cf. Genesis 1), and expects perpetual life in a new Jerusalem where God will dwell among God's people (Rev 21:1–3).

Thus both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments deal with the issue of evil, within individual human beings and human societies, and with the eschatological end of evil. Its end was a hope rooted in conviction of the goodness of God, realistic about evil in human hearts and history, and convinced of the ultimate triumph of good over evil.


1John M. Frame, "The Problem of Evil," pp. 141-164 in Christopher W. Morgen & Robert A. Peterson, Suffering and the Goodness of God. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 141.

2On the identity four "Suffering Servant" Songs and the identity of the Servant, see, for example, Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55 (Anchor Bible 9A; New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland: Doubleday, 2000), 76-81. He argues, based on Isa 42:1–9, that the Servant passages originally described the Persian liberator Cyrus, but that 49:1-6 ascribes that function to the poet himself.


  • Crenshaw, James L. Defending God; Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • D'Souza, Dinesh. God Forsaken. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2012.
  • Dempsey, Carol J. with Anthony J. Tambasco, "Isaiah 52:13—53:12: Unmasking the Mystery of the Suffering Servant," pp. 34-50 in The Bible on Suffering: Social and Political Implications. New York/Menwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2001.
  • Frame, John M. "The Problem of Evil," pp. 141-164 in Christopher W. Morgen & Robert A. Peterson, Suffering and the Goodness of God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
  • Fretheim, Terrence E. The Suffering of God. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.
  • Gardner, Lynn. Where Is God When We Suffer? Joplin, MO: College Press, 2007.
  • Gerstenberger, E. S. and W. Schrage. Suffering. Trans. John E. Steely. Nashville: Abingdon, 1977.
  • Jung, C. G. Answer to Job. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. New York: Pastoral Psychology Book Club, 1955.
  • Koch, Klaus. "Is There a Doctrine of Retribution in the Old Testament?" pp. 57-87 in James L. Crenshaw, ed.; Theodicy in the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress; London: SPCK, 1993.
  • Long, Thomas G. What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith. Grand Rapids, London: Eerdmans, 2011.
  • Mathews. Susan, "When We Remember Zion," pp. 93-119 in The Bible on Suffering: Social and Political Implications. New York/Menwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2001.
  • McNish, Jill L. Getting Real about God, Suffering, Sin, and Evil; A Pastor Rethinks the Age-Old Problem. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Plymouth, UK: University Press of America, 2011.
  • McWilliams, Warren. Where Is the God of Justice? Biblical Perspectives on Suffering. Hendrickson Hendrickson: Peabody, MA: 2005.
  • Tambasco, Anhony J. The Bible on Suffering: Social and Political Implications. New York, Manwah, NJ: Paulist, 2001.
  • Williams, Ronald J. "Theodicy in the Ancient Near East," pp. 42-56 in James L. Crenshaw, ed.; Theodicy in the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress; London: SPCK, 1993.

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