Biblical studies: October 2010 Archives

The following passage is sometimes taken to teach that suffering and death aren't always because of the sins of the individuals who suffer or die:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." [Luke 13:1-5, ESV]

This passage does not teach that. You can find a teaching close to that in the book of Job. It isn't quite that, though. What Job teaches is that the immediate cause of suffering need not be the particular sins of the person suffering. It never says that there's any suffering that's not because of the presence of sin in the world, though. This passage in Luke, in particular, strikes me as in fact teaching something in the opposite direction of Job's point.

What is says is that the people who died weren't any worse sinners than the ones who didn't die. This wasn't to illustrate they were innocent and suffered anyway. Jesus' point is for his hearers to repent so that too won't perish, as if the reason for the perishing was indeed because of sin but that many of the people hearing his message were simply spared that out of God's mercy, at least so far, but they should not presume upon that mercy continuing for much longer. So the point does seem to me to mitigate the Job point. While it may well be that suffering can occur without its being directed against someone because of that person's sin, this passage isn't teaching anything about the suffering of innocents. It's teaching that those who die because of their sin aren't any worse than those who haven't yet met God's judgment as fully as they might. Consider the very next words of Jesus in Luke:

And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"[Luke 13:6-9, ESV]

This seems to be a clear presentation of the patience point above. God is merciful, and that's why some continue to live despite deserving death. God puts it off to give them time to repent, but God need not do this. God doesn't owe this to us.

I've been thinking about two different themes that run together here, both of which came out in the still-ongoing discussion of the Canaanite genocide issue. One is the Punishment Theodicy, and the other is the Patience Theodicy. These aren't where theists typically start when dealing with the problem of evil, but I think that's unfortunate. The Punishment Theodicy is usually dismissed by contemporary philosophers pretty quickly, mainly because of the Job point. If there's innocent suffering, then the Punishment Theodicy won't do all the work. Also, you need a reason why God allows the sin that's being punished for a large amount of evil to constitute punishment. But I think the Punishment Theodicy does do a lot more work than contemporary philosophers want to give it credit. The claim isn't that every bit of evil is punishment directed against someone for a particular sin that's being punished by that particular bit of suffering. It's that the vast majority of evil in the world today is the result of sin's being in the world, and one reason God allows it to the point it gets to is because we deserve it (and indeed much worse). It's allowed, at least in very large part, in order to punish us.

Another reason this isn't popular, I suspect, is because punishment is not popular, at least not for retributive reasons. But retributive justice is very popular when you put it the right way. It's unpopular to suggest that we deserve suffering for anything when you talk in terms of sin and God, but just try telling a graduating senior who didn't get hired that it's perfectly all right for someone who had lower qualifications to get the job, as if any choice would have been equally good, and you get responses that assume some notion of retributive justice. We can't make sense of the notion of an ironic punishment if we don't think people can deserve suffering because of their sins.

The Patience Theodicy is an explanation why evildoers seem to get away with it, why God doesn't judge sin immediately. Habakkuk worried deeply about that question, and God's response is that the sinner seeming to get away with it will indeed be judged. I don't think we ever get in Habakkuk why he's delaying, though. One place we do see an answer to that is II  Peter 3, where we're told that it's out of God's patience, to allow more time for people to repent. This theodicy explains a kind of evil that seems counterintuitive from one perspective. Normally, we want a reason why God allows evil. In a sense, this is an explanation of why God continues to allow a certain kind of evil. But on another level, this is an explanation of why God refrains from doing something that causes something that's intrinsically bad -- suffering and death. So it's a funny kind of theodicy, but it's a theodicy nonetheless, and it's also a pretty powerful one in that it explains quite a bit. The Punishment Theodicy explains a good deal of suffering on a very general level (without offering any claim about the details of particular cases, which is where those who apply it often end up mistaken). The Patience Theodicy explains a more specific kind of suffering by giving a reason why it might be allowed to continue when there's an easy way of cutting short evil by ending its existence altogether. It's an answer to the "how long" kind of question, i.e. the duration of evils, in Peter van Inwagen's way of putting it.

I'm not sure I had any specific point here, just some stewing thoughts after reading Luke 13 this morning, but I wanted to record some of these thoughts.

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