“Suffering and the Search for Meaning” a Review

The problem of evil is “the one argument against God’s existence worth taking seriously.” Everyone will eventually encounter pain and suffering. In his new book, Suffering and the Search for Meaning, Richard Rice offers a picture of seven of the most common theodicies. In each chapter he describes one theodicy, offers the theology behind it, why some find it appealing and some of the major objections to it. Rice astutely observes that “while no theodicy perfectly answers all the questions that suffering brings, looking at the options may help us find a way to respond to suffering resourcefully when we need it most.” (39)

Chapter two discusses “Perfect Plan Theodicy.” This view sees suffering as within the perfect plan of God. A notable advocate of this view is Jon Eareckson Tada. This theodicy “goes hand in hand with the idea that the universe at every moment and in every detail is the precise expression of God’s will.” (35) Of all the views none “attracts more ardent support or more robust criticism than” this one. (39)

In chapter three we have the classic Free-will Defense. The chief advocate of this is Alvin Plantinga. Because of free will “God is responsible for the possibility of evil, but not for the actuality of evil.” (47) Evil is not construed as something in itself but rather as a privation.

The “Soul Making Theodicy” is the topic of chapter four. Here the benefit of evil is seen in the character it produces. John Hick is the example offered as the defender of this view who, in turn, points us to Irenaeus of Lyons as an example from early church history. This view says that suffering can help us find the meaning of life. (64) Soul making theodicy contends that some virtues depend on the presence of suffering in some form. “If no one ever suffered there would be no opportunity to show compassion, nor any need for it.” (67)

Chapter five features the theodicy championed in recent years by Gregory Boyd: the Cosmic Conflict Theory. At the root of all evil and suffering is Satan. According to this view “we do not suffer because God wants us to—God’s role is to relieve suffering. We suffer because we live in a war zone.” (79) I was surprised to learn that the founder of the Seventh-Day Adventists, Ellen G. White, was a defender of this view. “In Boyd’s estimation, she ‘integrated a warfare perspective into the problem of evil and the doctrine of God perhaps more thoroughly than anyone else in church history.” (80)

Chapter six features a theodicy based on Open Theism. Open Theism rejects the doctrine of absolute foreknowledge. The future free decisions of people cannot be known even to God. Central to this theory is that “God is genuinely affected by everything we go through, good and bad.” (97) Suffering is not part of God’s will and there is “little to be gained by trying to find a specific divine purpose or reason for it.” (98)

Chapter seven offers the Finite God Theodicy. Harold Kushner’s Why Bad Things Happen to Good People is the prime example of this theory. Essentially it maintains that God is limited in what he can do. It finds its philosophical roots in process philosophy. Because of God’s relatedness to the world he is “unable to interrupt or intervene in the course of creaturely events.” (110) An attractive element of this theory is that “it relieves God of any responsibility for suffering.” (112-13)

A final theory is unfolded in chapter eight which Rice describes as Protest Theodicies. This is basically atheism. It says evil and suffering is incompatible with the existence of God. “So conventional theodicies are not just logically or philosophically unconvincing, they are personally and morally offensive.” (125)

It is one thing to formulate a theodicy. It’s another to live with it. “Concrete suffering . . . can seriously alter our outlook on reality as a whole. And we may find that some of our cherished views cannot survive the pressure of experience.” (156) In the final chapter, “Fragments of Meaning”, Rice argues that everyone should assemble a practical theodicy since “[w]hen it comes to a personal theodicy, there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all.’” (139) A practical theodicy draws from a number of different areas including the standard theodicies. Rice says it is less like a puzzle and more like a quilt. When the elements are put together they may “lack perfect logical coherence yet [they may] provide personal strength and reassurance.” (142) “A practical theodicy will almost always contain diversity and tension. And this is where practical and theoretical theodicies differ.” (142) “To concrete sufferers, however, the differences among theodicies are less important than the various strengths they provide. Practical theology is by nature eclectic. It pulls together strands from various theodicies, even those that seem incompatible on a logical level.” (142)

I found Rice’s book to be enormously helpful. It admirably lays out the various theodicies in a concise manner without being simplistic. His conclusion on a practical theodicy was intriguing and I think warrants some thought. Some will wonder about his guidance to formulate a personal theodicy from contradictory theories simply because they find it comforting. It amounts to saying something like, “I will choose to think this about God. It may not be true but it helps me.” Many of the theodicies are not mutually exclusive and they overlap quite nicely with others. Integrating them successfully is perhaps not always the work of a philosopher but of the sufferer. That is the strength of Rice’s book.

Richard Rice is professor of religion at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. He is the author of several books, including God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will and Reason and the Contours of Faith.




One thought on ““Suffering and the Search for Meaning” a Review

  1. Thanks for sharing the review. This sounds like a pretty interesting book. After mentioning that Rice allows for sometimes incompatible beliefs for the sake of theodicy, you wrote: “Many of the theodicies are not mutually exclusive and they overlap quite nicely with others. Integrating them successfully is perhaps not always the work of a philosopher but of the sufferer. That is the strength of Rice’s book.”

    Does this mean that Rice made this latter point as well, or is this an extension that you came up with?

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