Is Theodicy At Odds with Humanitarianism?


Lately I have been writing about the argument from evil against the existence of God. This argument claims that the occurrence of evil in the world is more likely if atheism is true than if theism is true. Theists typically respond that while God hates evil, he nevertheless has morally sufficient reasons for permitting it. And God’s reasons are only sufficient if He has no better way of securing outweighing goods or of avoiding even worse evils than by permitting the evil in question.

Theists sometimes speculate about what those reasons might be: perhaps evil is an inevitable side-effect of free will; a necessary part of our sanctification; or a byproduct of natural processes which ultimately serve God’s creative aims. Whatever God’s reasons might be, the human project of trying to figure them out is a centuries old practice known as ‘theodicy’ (which in Greek means ‘justification of God’).

Theodicy and the Story of an Army Medic

But the project of theodicy raises some troubling ethical dilemmas: if evils are necessary for greater goods, then should we still try to prevent bad things from happening? By alleviating suffering through humanitarian efforts, are we not working against God’s plan to secure the goods that this suffering makes possible? One of the greatest existentialist philosophers of the 20th Century, Albert Camus, seemed to think so. In his novel entitled The Plague, Camus argued that if fighting against human suffering is our duty, and if that suffering is permitted by God for the sake of greater goods, then our duty is at odds with God’s plan. We can’t respect God’s plan and be humanitarians at the same time.

To understand Camus’ point more concretely, imagine that you are an army medic on a battle field. You are surrounded by wounded soldiers, and you are about to administer the medicine they need to survive, but you hesitate for a moment. Observing their helpless condition, you think to yourself, “If these soldiers don’t get this medicine quickly, they are going to die. But if they die, then God will have already foreseen this, and planned to use their deaths to secure much greater goods which would otherwise be lost. I don’t want those goods to be lost, so it’s best if I don’t save these soldiers.”

I’m sure the reader will agree with Camus that the army medic’s reasoning is seriously flawed. One flaw stems from the medic’s blatant disregard for the value of human life. Duty requires that he attend to the injured soldiers, even if he sincerely believes (for reasons of “theodicy”) that God’s purposes are best served by allowing them to die.

But is the medic’s belief correct? Is theodicy at odds with humanitarian efforts, as Camus suggests? Surely not. The reason is simple: we should obey God’s commands regardless of their consequences for His sovereign plan. If God has commanded us to protect human life, then (all other things being equal) we have a duty to obey Him. This is not to say that consequences are irrelevant to how we carry out our duties – they are! For example, if the medic knew that enemy forces had placed landmines underneath the injured soldiers, then the medic would be safeguarding human life by delaying medical help until the mines were defused. But that isn’t the main point.

The main point is that God’s reasons for allowing evil would not have been thwarted had the medic decided to save the soldiers. Why? Because God would have already factored the medic’s decision into his overarching plan. Had the medic saved the soldiers, God would have already foreknown this, and not made outweighing goods dependent on their deaths. Similarly, had the medic abandoned the soldiers, God would have already foreknown this, and ensured that their deaths would not be in vain. Because God has foreknowledge of the medic’s actions and weighs them accordingly, none of those actions can thwart God’s overarching plans.[1]

So what’s the moral of the story? The moral is this: we should be humanitarians and let God manage the consequences of our actions! Whatever His reasons for permitting evil, we have a duty to alleviate suffering and to trust that in none of our decisions will God allow suffering to be in vain.


[1] I’m sure this claim will need to be modified if open theism is true. That is to say, if some aspects of the future are unknowable (even for God), then some evils cannot be anticipated by God, and will therefore occur without greater goods at stake.


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