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John 9-10

10.19.2010

Thodicy?  Don’t mind if I do.

Theodicy is the attempt to justify or vindicate the love and justice of God despite the presence of evil in the world.  The short answer, from a Biblical perspective, is because of sin.  It’s within this context that the disciples want to know if the blind man’s affliction is a result of his sin or his parents’ sin.

Modern readers will scoff at the question because it sounds so archaic and retributive.  It’s received the same way as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson claiming that Hurricane Katrina was divine punishment for cultural tolerance for promiscuity or that 9/11 was God’s answer to our banning prayer in schools.  There’s no consequential logic, only punitive logic; it thus seems crazy and spiteful. 

I don’t mean to suggest that the disciples weren’t mistaken in their understanding of the consequences of sin, but I do think that the fundamental principle of affliction being the result of sin is sound.  The disciples’ error is really one of scale.  They assume that the causal link can only extend to the blind man or his parents.  Ultimately, the causal link goes back to the Fall.  This is what Christians mean when we say that the presence of evil (pain, suffering, affliction, etc.) is because of sin.  Man’s decision to disobey God in the Garden and pursue equality with Him kicked off a chain reaction of sin and selfishness and short-sightedness that’s inherent in us all. 

Remember that sin means falling short of God’s standard.  Since man fell short, he was kicked out of the Garden into a fallen world, where God’s perfection is unattainable.  It’s in this imperfect environment that we get disasters and criminals and starvation and pain and evil and suffering and loneliness and…  It’s the truth to which the Greek mythos spoke in the story of Pandora’s box.  So why is this man blind?  Because of sin, not necessarily his sin or his parents’ sin, but because there is sin in the world.

If the discipled erred in scale, we err in confusing consequences with punishment.  To say that the man’s blindness is the result of sin does not necessarily mean that God got angry and and yanked away his sight.  It could mean that his parents engaged in activity that was unclean and damaged him in the womb.  Although Jesus specifies that it’s not the case for the blind man, this is how the causal link between sin and suffering can be valid even within the disciples’ scale. 

The troubling aspect for me is contained in 9:3, where Jesus says that the man was blind not because of his or his parents’ sin, ‘but that the works of God might be displayed in Him.’  This is where a determinist can implicate God in evil.  If I say, as I would have and probably did until relatively recently, that God’s plan is perfect, that this man is not entitled to sight, that what ultimately matters is the state of the man’s soul and not his eyes, that God may not have caused the blindness but merely allowed it so as to demonstrate the healing power of Jesus … if we say all these things, we can, technically, defend God’s justice.  But there’s no love.  It also suggests that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was not enough to save mankind but that it took His death plus this man’s sight in order to demonstrate the power of Christ to atone for the sins of man. 

As is becoming routine for these questions, I must admit that I don’t know how to take the second half of 9:3.  Paul, in Romans 5:20, explains the concept whereby more sin = more grace.  But he immediately follows it up with an answer to the logical follow-up question of whether we should sin more so that grace will abound: ‘By no means!’ or, as in a more colorful translation, ‘May it never be!’  Tellingly, the KJV translates this as, ‘God forbid!’  Paul says that God expressly forbids creating sin (evil, pain, suffering, etc.) to serve as a backdrop for grace.  If God forbids it, I can’t believe He would do it.

There’s a whole lot more to theodicy than the issues I’ve touched on here.  CS Lewis has what I understand is a good book on the topic but which I have not yet read.*  He also has a couple of great essays on God in the Dock that address this subject.  I’m sure we’ll encounter it as we continue (I may have to add a theodicy tag).  In the meanwhile, I welcome all thoughts and reactions.

————

*  CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

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