Theodicy is the theological term for “the problem of evil.” It is, essentially, a defense of God when someone asks, “How could a good God allow evil to exist?”
When I studied theodicy in church and in seminary, I often felt disconnected from the reality of the discussion. Sitting at a table, it’s easy to defend God’s goodness. There are graphs and outlines and quotations. Everything is sanitized, kind of like this video describing Augustine’s famous solution to the problem of evil.
It’s all very logical and intellectual, and while safe at my privileged desk, I agree with the theology. But there has always been a deeper part of me, ruled by emotion, that rebels. I don’t care that God must allow evil in order to preserve free will. How can God be powerful and good when animals are killed so that humans might be fashionable, prisoners are raped so that power might be asserted, and wars destroy people, homes, and countries, so that feuds might be settled? When children are cowering in corners watching Daddy throw Mommy down the stairs in their pretty suburban house?
Theodicy answered my intellectual questions. But it could not satisfy the horror in my heart. I knew how a good and powerful God could allow evil, but….how could a good and powerful God allow evil?!
Emotion must be answered by emotion, and emotion is best conveyed with music and with story. The opening chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion gave me both. Entitled “The Music of the Ainur,” Tolkien presents a creation narrative similar to the one in the Bible, with some noticable differences. In The Silmarillion, God (here named Eru Ilúvatar) creates the Ainur, who in turn create the world. These angelic equivalents carry out their task of creation by singing into existence the will of Ilúvatar. Be forewarned – I will quote from the book extensively. I could explain the plot instead of allowing it to speak for itself, but explaining is intellectual, and the emotional power of story is in its telling.
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.
Tolkien’s creation mythology has a perfect God creating a perfect world. His story also includes free will, since Melkor, the Lucifer equivalent, rebels against the Great Music Ilúvatar created.
But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar…straight-away discord arose about him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent, and their thought was disturbed and their music faltered; but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first. Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and the melodies which had been heard before foundered in a sea of turbulent sound. But Ilúvatar sat and hearkened until it seemed that about his throne there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.
The chaos of evil is sometimes too much for words to express. At a certain point, the sheer enormity of it all makes my brain shut down. But a raging storm of music? I can perfectly imagine that and feel the dread and confusion and terror it would evoke. Evil has entered the perfectly created world. What will God do? What can God do? Erase it, or start over, or…something else? Something more powerful?
Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty. But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and again there was a war of sound more violent than before, until many of the Ainur were dismayed and sang no longer, and Melkor had the mastery. Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes…
Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will now show forth, that ye may see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.
It might be that Tolkien’s stories play exactly into the way my mind and heart are designed, but this story, more than any theodicy, gives me peace about the nature of God and the existence of evil. Zooming out to the big picture of creation acknowledges that evil consistently clamors for dominance and even seems to win it. But God is bigger than evil, and somehow the words “he that attempth this [evil] shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” makes my heart sink into the most profound sense of peace.
There is evil in this world, and as Christians, we try to defend God’s honor against those in pain. While I am thankful for intellectual explanations, I cannot help but feel they are too often inadequate. Augustine’s powerful and good God who allows for evil in the creation of free will is distant and a little cold. But Eru Ilúvatar brings the world into existence with song, rises from his seat again and again and calmly assures his created servants that he has everything under control.
No explanation. Just trust.
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