What Is Theodicy?

Theodicy presents a means of understanding the problem of evil, while allowing room for the possibility of God’s existence.

Aug 28, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology


Theodicy is one of the oldest subjects in theology and the philosophy of religion. It is an attempt to understand the problem of evil in a way which still leaves room for God’s existence. It is one of the most important ways in which theologians and other believers can attempt to defend their faith. These two closely related disciplines are concerned with understanding religious traditions – particularly the Christian tradition – and attempting to explain certain beliefs in an intelligible way. In this way, Theodicy is a way of making sense of God’s existence.


Theodicy Navigates the Complex Relationship Between Evil and God

Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1577-87, via The Met
Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1577-87, via The Met


Theodicy is an argument for God’s existence, because it defends the belief against a number of potent criticisms. All of these criticisms center around arguments to do with the existence of suffering or evil, often described as the ‘problem of evil’. This problem in its simplest form holds that there is a straightforward contradiction between the existence of evil in the world and the attributes typically attributed to God.


In the Abrahamic religions (of which Christianity is one), God is understood to be all powerful, all knowing and completely good. Or, as theologians and philosophers of religion put it, God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. The problem of evil holds that the existence of evil means that God cannot exist in the form which Christians think of him. To take one kind of evil as an example: how can it be that a God who is all powerful, all knowing and all good allows children to die of painful diseases? If God is all powerful, then he can change this. If he is all knowing, then he knows about this. And if he is completely good, then he would want to change it. This is the crux of the problem of evil.


Theodicy Has Ancient Roots

The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John, Hendrick ter Bruggen, c.1624-5, via The Met
The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John, Hendrick ter Bruggen, 1624-5, via The Met


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Theodicies are attempts to respond to this problem, and to make room for the existence of God. Of course, the simplest theodicy is to simply deny that God has all of the stated characteristics. One could hold that God exists, but just isn’t all knowing, all powerful or completely good. Indeed, there are many religions which have a God or gods which don’t appear to fit this description. However, for a Christian (or at least for most Christians), God is, by definition, all of these things. To give up any one of these characteristics would be to give up on the idea of God’s existence. Leaving that basic form of theodicy aside, there are many other kinds of theodicy. Indeed, as we shall see, the history of theodicy is almost as old as Christianity itself.


St. Irenaeus’ “Vale of Soul-Making” Is an Early Theodicy

The Dead Christ With Angels, Edouard Manet, 1864, via The Met
The Dead Christ With Angels, Edouard Manet, 1864, via The Met


One of the oldest forms of theodicy comes from St Irenaeus, one of the earliest Christian theologians. He was Greek, but became the bishop of the city known nowadays as Lyon, in France. Irenaeus’ theodicy is sometimes referred to as the ‘vale of soul-making’ theodicy, which is a reference to a poem by John Keats, in which he referred to the world as a ‘vale of soul-making’. For Irenaeus, the existence of evil can be explained in terms of its role in allowing us to become better human beings. Without suffering, both our own and that of others, we could not learn to be kind. More modern philosophers of religion have rubbished the idea that the ideal world is one in which suffering would be completely eliminated and pain is abolished.


However, even if some amount of pain is valuable, the burden placed on the believer is to show that all the pain which exists in the world is for the best. It isn’t hard to think of examples of fruitless or unproductive pain, even by Irenaeus’ own standards.


Theodicy and Modern Dilemmas

Byzantine Mosaic Portraying Christ, early 20th century, via The Met
Byzantine Mosaic Portraying Christ, early 20th century, via The Met


Modern day theologians and philosophers of religion are still trying to develop yet more sophisticated, powerful defenses of God’s existence against the problem of evil. Contemporary philosophers of religion have made a number of arguments in defense of a theodicy based on free will, even though this has also been a kind of theodicy since the earliest days of Christianity. That is, the possibility of doing evil is what makes human decisions meaningful, and our ability to make free choices is essential to our status as autonomous beings.


In other words, meaning is more good than evil is bad. Yet this view fails to account for the problems of natural evil – like disease or natural disaster – which are not in our power to control. Moreover, it isn’t obvious that we have free will in any case – many philosophers dispute a straightforward, positive assessment of the belief that we are free to choose how we act, although few such philosophers are also believers.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.