A theodicy is an attempt to respond to the question of how an all-loving, all-powerful God can allow suffering to exist. The question transcends Christianity and religion in general and has received answers from all over the theological/philosophical spectrum (ex. even atheists have an answer; their answer is that God doesn’t exist). Typically, the answers offered have a rational/philosophical basis that is then further built upon depending on each theological tradition’s unique features. For example, someone coming from a Muslim background might share a similar approach with other religions when it comes to the rational basis of the theodicy, but would then add their own distinct components drawn from the Koranic narrative. There is an enormous body of scholarly literature that has been dedicated to this topic going back millennia and crossing continents, so in discussing this topic, we’re stepping in to a long and complex tradition.
Every theodical approach has to address the three legs of the Epicurean Trilemma in some way. The trilemma states that it is rationally impossible for an all-good, all-powerful God to exist if suffering exists. Stated more poetically:
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?
The three legs of the trilemma then are: omnipotence, omnibenevolence and suffering. A theodicy, attempts to address the alleged logical contradiction of these three elements all being true at the same time.
Three Categories of Answers
There are basically three ways to respond to the trilemma:
Category 1: The Non-Answer Approach: This approach can be summarized as ‘we don’t know.’ Or, in a stronger form, ‘we don’t need to answer,’ or, even stronger, ‘it’s blasphemous to try to answer.’ Whether it is called a ‘mystery’ or in some other way transcends human understanding, this approach refuses to provide an answer to the question while still claiming that the three legs of the trilemma are correct. (The claim that ‘we don’t know why suffering exists but we do know that God suffers with us’ falls under this category as well.)
Category 2: The Two-Legged Approach: This is an attempt to form a theodicy by knocking down one (or more) of the three legs of the trilemma. Either God is not omnipotent, not omnibenevolent or suffering doesn’t actually exist (ex. Buddhism.) This approach can take many forms: God can be too great to relate to human suffering, God can be apersonal, God can be so strict in His governing protocols that He cannot allow Himself to intervene in various circumstances, etc. All these imply that God is less then loving. Otherwise, God might want to intervene but lacks the capacity for some reason (less than omnipotent.)
Both the Category 1 and Category 2 approaches function as necessary compromises in situations where, for whatever reason, all three legs of the trilemma cannot be addressed. Some people feel that, rather than portray God as less than omnipotent and omnibenevolent, it’s better to just say we don’t know. Others feel that, rather than not saying anything, it’s slightly more reasonable to at least defend two legs of the trilemma. Whatever the case, both these approaches are inferior approaches appealed to only if a viable Category 3 approach cannot be found.
Category 3: The True Theodicy Approach: A true theodicy is an attempt to reconcile all three legs of the trilemma. Some common approaches are the soul-making theodicy and the free will theodicy.
The soul-making theodicy claims that a good, all powerful God can allow evil to exist for the purpose of developing character. If created beings don’t ever have to face any hardship, they will not grow into their full potential. This theodicy does reconcile all three legs and has some overall value, but is generally recognized as limited. It seems that other means of developing character could exist that don’t involve evil and suffering. Moreover, it implies that evil is a necessary component of creation. And, most importantly, even if the case can be made that some degree of suffering and evil could be beneficial, there is no way that the degree of evil that exists on this planet could be justified.
The free-will theodicy claims that a good, all powerful God can allow evil to exist if this is something that created beings freely choose. It would be contradictory for God to grant creatures the freedom to choose only to then prevent them from making a choice He disagrees with. This approach does solve the logical problem of evil but fails to address the particular circumstances humanity faces. In our world, it is not just those who made a bad choice that suffer its effects, but often the innocent suffer as well. And, those who suffer, often suffer more than the situation calls for.
A more viable alternative, then, is the modified free will theodicy. This theodicy states that God can allow evil to exist temporarily, if, in doing so, he can convince non-omniscient, free-willed beings never to choose evil again. This theodicy is capable of addressing innocent suffering and gratuitous evil because, unless such evil is allowed to play out, a strong enough case will not be made against evil and the purpose of the entire project would be defeated. In other words, God must allow things like the Holocaust to happen because, this is what evil leads to and this is the very reason it should not exist.
The main question here is why such a demonstration should last so long. But it is difficult to determine the length of time it would take for a sufficiently strong case to be made against evil so as to provide both an eternal deterrent and legal precedent. New iterations of evil might emerge, and there should be sufficient data in this demonstration either to convince against it or to forcefully prevent it without alienating others.
Reason vs. Revelation
The Modified Free-Will Theodicy can thus be developed on a fully rational basis. God, however, has multiple options as to how this demonstration should be implemented and we rely on Revelation to determine the specific approach. According to Scripture, God has chosen to implement this process on two levels: the angelic and the human. And, until all matters are settled, a cosmic conflict of sorts is allowed to unfold where God limits Himself and engages Satan on a near equal footing.
While the Modified Free Will/Cosmic Conflict Theodicy has been recognized at various points throughout Christian history, it has had limited reception. Often, the reason was simply a lack of awareness. In most cases, however, the construct was not entertained because of previous theological/philosophical commitments. Historically, the timeless, simple, impassible and utterly transcendent God of Classical Theism (based on a Platonic/Neoplatonic/Aristotelian metaphysics) was inherently incompatible with such an idea. During the Reformation, the sovereign God of Calvinism did not allow freedom of will. Lastly, for modern theology, the construct is difficult to harmonize with the theory of evolution. But incompatibility with previous commitments is not a defeater of the construct on its own grounds. Up to this point, a sufficiently compelling defeater has not been proposed.
Adventists & the Cosmic Conflict
For Adventists, the cosmic conflict is more than a theodicy but also a macro-hermeneutic for Scripture. This is intentional and due to the failure of other previous hermeneutical approaches. Adventism has rejected the Catholic, Protestant, Liberal & Fundamentalist approaches because they are all highly problematic. The Catholic & Liberal approaches butcher Scripture while the Protestant and Fundamentalist approaches inevitably result in a myriad of interpretations. Adventism recognized that an overarching narrative is needed to rein in Scriptural interpretation and that the Cosmic Conflict is the narrative that most seamlessly overlaps with the Scriptural data. The narrative helps make sense and organize the Scriptural data into a coherent whole.
Because of this, the construct plays a critical role in the Adventist theological system and cannot be treated lightly. Not only does it provide a satisfying explanation for evil and suffering but also resolves a major hermeneutical hurdle. It is critical then to carefully determine if potential objections stem from actual problems with the construct or from theological/philosophical bias. At this point in time, the idea seems to be quickly increasing in popularity among the wider Christian community so the benefits seem to be outweighing the objections.