Beal, in The Rise and Fall of the Bible, provides a clear description of the problem of theodicy:
Imagine the problem as a triangle: on one corner you have the belief that God is just; on the next you have the belief that God is all-powerful; on the third, you have the observation that people suffer unjustly.
It's a logical problem. You can't hold the three corners of the triangle together. So any solution to the problem of theodicy inevitably lops off one of them. (p. 160)
Some of us cut off the God-is-all-powerful corner, while others cut off the God-is-just corner. Still others claim that no suffering is unjust.
Beal notes that the Bible (remember, it's a collection/library) does not resolve theodicy. Instead, it argues, wrestles, and explores different responses to it. The texts end up "affirming the question over any and every solution" (p. 160). Again, the Bible is not univocal, and we cannot reduce it as such.
Psalms 13 and 88, and Pharoah's hardened heart, stand in tension with the idea that God is always just. This should rightly horrify us, and we feel the need to turn away. These stories and outpourings to God cause discomfort, and so we seek reassurance. But Beal points out:
[T]he psalm itself, indeed the Bible itself, doesn't turn away with us. It stays with the voice of pain. Even as it lingers in the hollow silence after Jesus' own lonely cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [...] The library of the Bible has spaces to let suffering speak and be heard. (p. 161)
This way of looking at those troublesome passages of Scripture, and the troublesome suffering we experience today, is intriguing, but it still begs the question. I still want to know why God would supposedly harden Pharoah's heart and render plagues the way She allegedly did. The notion that humans are pawns in a cosmic game is disconcerting.
Aside from my lingering concerns, though, the idea that the Bible doesn't seek to resolve the tension of theodicy is compelling. Perhaps we shouldn't expect the Christian faith to resolve those tensions either. In the same way that Beal criticizes the expectation that the Bible is an answer-book, I've realized that I'm expecting the Christian gospel to provide an answer to the theodicy problem.
In demanding that my faith provide answers it perhaps was not designed to provide, and in turn rejecting this version of the faith, I do it a disservice. Maybe what is repugnant to me is not the failure of Christianity to solve the theodicy issue once and for all, but at the heart of it, it's a failure of the expectations that I've imposed.
Will Willimon recently remarked on Bart Ehrman and theodicy in The Christian Century. In the context of the recent tornados that pummeled the South, Willimon acknowledges the limits of explanation, but comments that an Ehrman-like rejection of Christianity is not the only option:
No one around me at those locations of terrible destruction asked, “Why me? Why God?” Most of them were too busy, drenched in sweat, and dust from the rubble to pause to engage in philosophical speculation. Their most persistent question was, “How can we do more to support and work for the victims?”
And that seems very Christian to me. Jesus was not a great philosopher who came with a set of noble precepts and brilliant ideals. Jesus never said, “Think about me.” Rather it was always, “Follow me!”
Jesus was among us as a victim of horrible injustice. He offered us few explications of suffering and injustice; he offered himself as fellow sufferer. As Hebrews says, Jesus not only came to us but suffered with us. He offered us not reasoned explanations but rather empathetic, life-giving presence with us. He gave us not a great way to think about tragedy but a way of acting in and through tragedy.
The mindset of the tornado survivors who turned around the "Why me" question strikes me as very powerful. In my cerebral, analytical way, I have begged God, Scripture, and my faith community to please give me an answer in the face of global suffering and my very own personal nightmares.
The very fact that I've had the luxury to stop and think about suffering, analyzing the why's every which way, is telling. Just like those in the U.S. who have had their houses leveled, I doubt that those without clean water and enough food for their children around the world care which theodicy-triangle corner to lop off at the moment.
Yes, I still definitely struggle with what Ehrman dubs "God's problem," and at this time I'm close to lopping off the God-is-all-powerful corner. But Beal and Willimon have reminded me that Jesus calls us to follow him where we are. Perhaps instead of spilling liters of ink and writing wordy blog posts on theodicy, we should subvert those questions. We can't be expected to first solve all philosophical problems, or expect the gospel to solve them, before we begin to follow Jesus.