Is a Soul-Building Theodicy Biblical?

detbgrdtgWhat is a soul-building theodicy?  God allows certain natural evils to occur so people will choose to do good for others. We become better persons or souls by doing good for others. We have to have the opportunity to do good which requires evil to exist. The soul-making theodicy rests on the idea that God allows evil to exist because the existence of evil is a necessary condition for individuals to develop or complete their moral souls. Suffering makes us better people and allows us the ability to help and forgive others. I think an explicit, fully-orbed soul-building theodicy is absent from Scripture. There is never a passage where a biblical author seeks to explain evil by appealing directly to such an apologetic argument. But, the primitive idea that suffering produces character and is thus beneficial to believers is found within the Bible.

In the book of James, the author admonishes the Christians to, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jas. 1:2-4)” The logic of the verse is the believers should rejoice when they experience suffering because the testing of their faith produces patience (if responded to in a godly fashion) which allows them to be mature and lacking in nothing as it relates to their relationship with God. This would come as a great encouragement to many within the believing community for they were experiencing problems not only from the rich within the Church (1:9-10, 2:1-13, 4:11-17) but also from those outside their the congregations (5:1-6). James is not arguing the suffering or trials are goods. Dan. G. McCartney rightly notes that, “James is not advocating masochism. The reason for the joy is not the suffering per se but rather its fruit, the character traits that it induces: endurance, maturity, and wisdom. The strange ability to experience joy at the same time as sorrow is a hallmark of genuine faith.”[1] This sounds similar to a soul-building theodicy where acts of evil occur which in turn allow the sufferer and those around them to respond in courageous ways. The believers in James’ congregation had an opportunity not for bitterness but for growth.

jvghAfter bringing up Abraham and David as two examples of justification in the Old Testament, Paul writes that believers have been justified by faith and have received peace from God because of the work of Christ (Rom. 5:1). This is certainly a cause for rejoicing and standing firm upon the grace of God (Rom. 5:2). The apostle makes a similar observation about the goodness of suffering’s fruit remarking that, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5)” Paul believed that suffering produced good present and future benefits which should lead the Christians to rejoice. Thomas Schreiner writes, “After one endures many difficulties, a strength of character develops that was not present previously. Such tested character in turn generates hope. Why does tested character spark hope? Because moral transformation constitutes evidence that one has really been changed by God. Thus it assures believers that the hope of future glory is not an illusion…Believers, then, become assured that the process that God has begun he will complete (1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:6).”[2] These verses also seem to model some sort of soul-building theodicy. The only problem I could foresee in using them is that these promises only apply to believers. Can these really justify evil which affects all people irrespective of religious background? Some might possibly reply in the negative.

[1] Dan McCartney, James. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 2009), 84

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1998 256.

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