Theodicy refers to the problem of reconciling the character and powers of God with the existence of suffering in the world. On the one hand, theologians consider God, absolutely or relatively, good, knowing, and powerful. On the other hand, we see suffering in the world and throughout history, especially undeserved and unpunished evil. Thus theodicy attempts to answer the question, how can an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God cohere with the occurrence of suffering?
Rape is a common and tragic example of suffering in the world. Normally, an innocent man or women falls victim to an aggressive perpetrator who forces the victim into sexual relations. Most people, religious or irreligious, term rape as a form of suffering and evil. In light of theodicy, we ask, how can God allow such suffering? Does he permit such action? The problem crystallizes when we consider the theological attributes of complete goodness, knowledge, and power. God must know that numerous women are raped each year; he must likewise despise it with a desire to eradicate it, if he is at all good; and he should be able to stop the suffering, if he is indeed all powerful. But rape continues, and thus theodicy remains.
Three issues of note arise in the previous example. First, the problem of theodicy depends upon a definition of the “good.” That is, by claiming that God is all good, we assume agreement of what a good God is. I am not saying that God deems rape good, but only that theodicy broaches and often assumes an understanding of good and evil. Second, theodicy revolves around the issue of justice. We demand proper justice for the suffering and the one who causes it. However, the unfulfillment of justice prompts us to discuss theodicy. Third, the concept of God’s power reveals that theodicy is a matter of volition. We question not only God’s ability to act, but his desire and opportunity and omission of action. This suggests a personal sense of God rather than a simple machine, idea, or distanced divinity of Deism.
The final point transitions into the next question. Why does theodicy arise in monotheistic religions more prominently than in other forms of religion? In the first place, some monotheistic religions forward a very personal and involved God. For example, in Christianity and Judaism, God enters into history, acting on behalf of his people to save them and promote justice. Likewise, he reveals his character, not as a far-removed deity but as a personal, knowable, and interested Lord. The personal character of God in monotheistic religion fosters theodicy because it underscores and takes quite seriously the attributes of God and the problem of suffering.
In contrast to monotheistic religions, others proffer less-developed notions of deity. For example, Hinduism features three god-like figures: Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. In addition to these, adherents can worship most any god of their choosing, incorporating Hindu practices and beliefs with various god-objects. Furthermore, these gods appear less personal, powerful, and involved that the single God of monotheism. Thus, we find less incentive to ask, why does Brahma allow suffering? If Brahma is not all powerful nor all good or even interested in consolation, then theodicy is not a pressing matter.
Salvation plays a central role in most religions. In Islam, salvation turns on the actions of the believer and the final judgment of Jesus. At the end of history, Muslims claim, Jesus will return and judge all human beings. Those who did good deeds and “submitted” to Allah will receive heavenly bliss; those who did evil deeds and did not submit to Allah, will reap eternal punishment. For the individual, salvation depends upon the actions of this life. For the community, we might infer that they may or may not foster such practices. Another example is Christianity. Here salvation consists also of actions, but foremost of faith in Jesus and God’s grace. Christians claim that salvation refers to forgiveness of sins, where God reconciles the broken relationship between individuals and communities through the sacrifice of Jesus. Because Jesus rose from the dead, he secured salvation for people who trust him. This, Christians claim, constitutes the grounds of salvation and good works simply follow from a changed heart.
We have not comprehensively addressed all problems related to theodicy or the various aspects of salvation and their representative religions. However, we have addressed the key issues of both with, I hope, clarity and accuracy.