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The Table Video

Eleonore Stump

The Limits of Theodicy (Eleonore Stump)

Professor of Philosophy / Robert J. Henle Chair in Philosophy, Saint Louis University
March 19, 2018

Philosopher Eleonore Stump and CCT Director Evan Rosa discuss the project of theodicy. Dr. Stump comes at the question of theodicy from multiple directions, including making reference to the paradoxical response of the early church in the face of suffering, and the Greek concept of suffering as a necessary prelude to wisdom. Dr. Stump also considers how the ultimate Christian telos is not character development, but rather it is enjoying an intimate relationship with God Himself.


That’s what sets up what philosophers call theodicy, an answer or an attempted defense to the problem of evil, to the problem of suffering. I wonder if you’d comment about the way you. What are your starting points for thinking about theodicy?

Well see, it’s goes somethin’ like this. People think, okay look, there couldn’t be a world without suffering and God in it. There just couldn’t be. Then of course, that’s way too fast. The response is, “Yeah but, “there could be if God had a morally sufficient reason “for allowing you to suffer.” And then, the question on the other side is, “Oh yeah, and what would that reason be exactly?” And now, we are off and running on the project called theodicy.

And that reason appears to be something that would be deeply tied to human purpose. I mean, suffering is so rampant–


and so universal that whatever that morally sufficient reason is, it sounds like it must be tied fairly deeply to the core elements of human purpose.

Mm-hmm oh yeah, absolutely. What’s really interesting, if you look at the history of the Christian West, is to see the way in which this problem has and has not come up. So for us, it’s an obvious problem. It’s an obvious problem. But if you look back at the Patristic Period, in the first centuries after Christ, when the persecution of Christians was severe, it’s worth noticing that not only do the Christians of that period who are suffering in the persecution, not ever, ever think to raise the problem of suffering, never even think about it. And why, you might ask. But they don’t. And not only that, but they celebrate, they glorify the people who suffer.

There’s this expectation of us.

There’s an expectation that there is something absolutely magnificent in being allowed to suffer in this way. So Chrysostom, Don Chrysostom, the famous Patristic theologian, he knows that there are people who are scandalized at the sight of Christian suffering in these persecutions. And he says, “People who are scandalized “at this suffering don’t realize “that having this suffering “is the privilege of those who are specially dear to God.” Not every age, not every culture sees suffering in the same way. And if you think about your own children, you begin to have some idea of how to look at this problem in a different way. So you get a magic lamp, Aladdin’s magic lamp, and the genie appears and says, “What would you like? “Would you like me, “Evan, would you like me to make it the case “that for each one of your children, “that child never has any suffering? “No skinned knees, no failure to get a Valentine at school “on Valentine’s Day, no disappointments, no heartbreak. “Would you like that? “‘Cause I can do that.” And then, you’re gonna think to yourself, hmm. Would a human being without any kind of suffering really be a human being I hope my children will be?

Right, right.

Yeah and you can see the point, right away. So–

But do you think that’s tied to a kind of acceptance of well, this is life, and it’s really not supposed be that way?

No it’s tied to the fact that you know that the children who grow up in highly protective, overprotective, rich, coddled, sort of–


surroundings yeah where they never face suffering and they never face challenges, you know they’re not gonna come out very well.

Something about character formation then.

Yeah or–

Becoming a kind of person that is a good person.

Yeah I wouldn’t think of it as character formation exactly. See if you look at the Greek world, the Greek world is a pagan world. And it cares about character formation. And it has the idea, which it has transmitted to the West, that suffering is required for wisdom. So the Greek tragedians say, “Zeus has put suffering on the road to wisdom.” So now, they’re thinking of character formation. Oedipus at Colonus, in Sophocles’ last great play, Oedipus at Colonus says, “I have suffered more “than any other human being in the world. “I am more disfigured, more tried “than any other human being has ever been before, “and I am the person most blessed of gods.” So there we have the idea that there’s something about suffering that goes into character formation, not in the sense that it makes a person courageous and temperate, but in the sense that it makes a person deep, spiritually deep, wise and so on. But that’s the Greeks. And Christians are not Greeks. So Christianity is characterized by a doctrine of God as Trinity. At the ultimate foundation of all reality, there are persons. And you can’t reduce those persons to anything impersonal. And you can’t reduce the three of ’em to anything else that is just one. The doctrine of the Trinity says that though there is just one God, there are three persons. And they don’t reduce to anything else. The heart of Christianity is personal relationship, persons sharing love with each other. And so, for Christians, the greatest thing for a human being is not character development. But it’s loving, personal relationship. And the idea, in the Christian tradition, is that something about suffering enables you, doesn’t make you, but it enables you to open and open and open and open more deeply to God. And when you are more open to God, you are also more open to other people. So that the best thing for human beings, in the world, is personal relationship. And that’s the thing that suffering enables you to have more of. That’s the idea. And of course, it’s just an enabling. It doesn’t guarantee it. You can become bitter and hateful in suffering also. And it is really important to see that neither for the Greeks nor for the Christians does this thought about suffering change it from being a bad thing to a good thing. To say that something conduces to a good end isn’t to say that it’s intrinsically good. Chemotherapy drugs are valuable. We’re grateful for them. They save lives. But in themselves, they’re just poison. They poison the whole system. So if you have a child with cancer and the doctor says, “Good news, “good news, it’s a very treatable kind of childhood cancer. “We’ve got drugs for these. “Of course, the bad news is, the drugs are toxic, “and your child’s gonna suffer. “But we will heal him with these drugs.” Then you’ll be so grateful for the drugs because of the good that they produce. But in themselves, they’re awful. And suffering is like that. In itself, it’s awful, and you must never forget it. And there’s nothing about theodicy that can change that. So theodicy says that by means of this awfulness, the best thing open to human beings will be yours. But the thing in question that helps get you there is so awful. That’s the way it works. So the morally sufficient reason for God to allow suffering has to do with the goods that suffering brings. But those goods, closer personal relationship with a loving God and with each other, that doesn’t make suffering any less awful. And you must never get confused and think it does.