Can We Justify God's Ways?

Book cover
Defending Godby By James L. CrenshawOxford Univ. Press. 275p $35

In the aftermath of the great tsunami of late December 2004, there emerged a lively public philosophical and theological debate in the popular media. Where was God in this terrible event? Why did God allow it to happen? What did the victims do to deserve this? Did they do anything wrong at all? How can we defend God’s justice and omnipotence in the face of such destruction and human suffering? This is the problem of theodicy.

While the Bible rarely deals in depth with natural disasters, it does have much to say about moral and religious evils. And it was natural that the Book of Job and other biblical texts should be drawn into the debate. For those who wish a learned and often brilliant guide to what the Bible does and does not say about theodicy, Professor Crenshaw’s Defending God is an excellent resource.


The word “theodicy” refers to attempts at defending or “justifying” God in the face of moral or natural evil in the world. In the preface to his scholarly and objective study, Crenshaw, professor of Old Testament at Duke University, observes that he did not find theodicy but theodicy found him “as a child of four when my father died, leaving a widow with four small children in rural South Carolina in the wake of the Great Depression.” One of the great experts in Old Testament wisdom literature, Crenshaw seeks to trace the biblical evidence for a convincing response to the problem of evil and God’s perceived injustice. His unifying theme is the abiding biblical tension between God’s justice and mercy (see Ex 34:6-7).

Crenshaw ranges over the whole Old Testament’s various attempts at “defending God” with reference to the problems of evil and suffering. His major method is descriptive analysis of key texts, though he does not refrain from giving his own philosophical and theological opinions about the issues raised in the texts. Instead of charting the historical evolution of the ideas of evil and suffering, he takes a thematic approach, without neglecting the historical context of the relevant passages. He generally confines himself to the Old Testament, with only a few nods to the New Testament. He does make use of the so-called apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, especially Sirach, Wisdom, 2 Maccabees, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch.

The author divides the biblical approaches to evil and suffering into three categories. Under “spreading the blame around,” he discusses three approaches: denying God’s existence for practical purposes (the atheistic answer), blaming other members of the heavenly court or pantheon (alternative gods) and dealing with the “dark side” in God (which eventually develops into a Satan or demonic figure). Then under “redefining God” he considers efforts at accentuating human freedom (limited power and knowledge), reconciling justice with mercy (God’s split personality), stimulating growth in virtue by divine discipline and blaming the victims for the consequences of their real or alleged sins (punishment for sin). Finally, under “shifting to the human scene” he considers four more responses: vicarious atonement (making the most of a bad thing), life after death as the locus of God’s justice and of rewards and punishments for humans (justice deferred), suffering as a mystery beyond human comprehension (appealing to human ignorance) and disinterested righteousness or questioning the problem (especially in the book of Job).

The excellence of Crenshaw’s work lies principally in his learned expositions of the pertinent Old Testament passages. Since he constructs his argument mainly by interpretations of specific biblical texts, it is important while reading Crenshaw to have at hand the biblical texts it treats. Without an open Bible, it may be difficult to follow the arguments and appreciate the close readings.

Crenshaw wisely concludes that the problem of reconciling real injustices with belief in Yahweh is both too complex for any single answer and too urgent to be ignored. In the final analysis, his own theological vision seems a bit cloudy, if not gloomy. Nevertheless, in his effort to put together all the puzzles, contradictions and anomalies in the book of Job, Crenshaw arrives at a striking (if minimalist) conclusion: “As recipients of the supreme gift of life, humans would do well to relinquish the notion that the deity owes them anything more than has been freely bestowed, irrespective of desert.”

The major theological contribution of Crenshaw’s work is to show how the various biblical attempts at dealing with evil and suffering (theodicy) are intertwined with the tensions inherent in the Old Testament portraits of God. The author brings out well the “dark side” of the God of the Bible in such passages as God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22) and the wager between God and Satan in Job 1–2. He also underscores the dangers posed by Israel’s eventual adoption of monotheism, and the tensions between God’s mercy and justice. And he comes down squarely in favor of the idea of the suffering God, and says that “pathos” best characterizes the biblical concept of God, much to the chagrin of those who prefer the God of the philosophers.

References to the New Testament are few and far between. One must respect Crenshaw’s decision to write an Old Testament theology of evil and suffering, and appreciate his clear and rich presentation of the biblical data. However, since so many of the Old Testament approaches get picked up in the New Testament and find a convergence in the person of Jesus, a final chapter or even an appendix on Jesus and theodicy would have been welcome as a contribution to a comprehensive biblical theology. Nevertheless, Crenshaw’s elegant and honest treatment of this timely topic deserves a careful reading and even several re-readings. It is a fine book by a great biblical scholar.

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