Why do bad things happen to good people?

This is a question Daniel Castelo, my friend and colleague at Seattle Pacific Seminary, wrestles with in his new book, Theological Theodicy. As is characteristic of Castelo’s writing, this book is well-organized and accessible to the educated reader, without cutting theological corners or providing pat answers.

Castelo begins by outlining intellectual shifts that have changed the tenor of asking the “Why?” question about the existence of evil and suffering in the world. “Theodicy, as it shifted in modernity, became a rationally legitimating warrant for atheism” (9). Castelo then fleshes out the logic of the approach that raises the “Why?” question in order to justify a rejection of the existence of God, challenging many of the assumptions that are often smuggled into this approach. He then brings the first chapter to a close by noting that theodicy often falls short philosophically because “the key terms in question, ‘God’ and ‘evil,’ are often insufficiently developed or nuanced because they are usually devoid of a theologically substantiating context” (19). Castelo, rightly in my view, challenges the idea that Christians can answer questions about why bad things happen in an abstract way, without a careful consideration of who the triune God is.

In the second chapter, Castelo analyzes two different approaches to the “god” of modern theodicy, those of deism and dualism. Both approaches are found to be wanting, and the reader is reminder that neither “god” adequately represents the God of Christian faith. Castelo then moves to several dogmatic proposals for a Christian account of a creator God. After laying out these proposals, he concludes, “creation is good because it comes from a good Creator, and the degree that it can be evaluated as good is based on the measure with which it references its Creator” (54).

Among the topics addressed in the third chapter, I particularly appreciate Castelo’s discussion of death and where it fits into Christian theology. In contrast to those who often attribute positive roles for death in God’s ordering of creation, Castelo argues:

What one can observe is that death is the denial of life, and as such, it has been deemed by the Christian tradition as the primary and most determinate consequence of the fall. Death is not a good thing; although it may be a resting place, the cessation of suffering, and although it may be viewed as a rite of passage into eternal life, death is not something good in and of itself.” (75-76)

Castelo begins the fourth chapter in an arresting way:

Interestingly enough, we are outraged by evil, suffering, death, but we are not similarly outraged or shocked when we are beneficiaries of positive arrangements beyond our control… the American rate of consumption and waste, the use of energy and the like, are all impossibly available to the entire human race. And yet, outrage is normally not directed at these kinds of ‘luxuries’ or discrepancies; rather, Americans often use the language of being blessed, lucky, or deserving of such arrangements because of their work ethic, ingenuity, religious fervor, or some other reason. The hypocrisy here is that we often ask the ‘why’ question when things go horribly wrong; we rarely if at all ask it when things play out exceedingly (and unfairly?) in our favor. (80-81)

Finally, Castelo summarizes what can be said about what God has done (particularly through the way that Jesus takes on suffering in the passion) and is doing (particularly through the mission of Christ’s body, the church) to engage the reality of suffering. Ultimately, Castelo makes the case for a “pragmatic theodicy,” one that focuses on the healing and repairing of creation. He also provides a helpful reminder that in Scripture, “the call of discipleship” is not “associated primarily with answering questions… Rather, the call of discipleship is to reach the lost and needy with the good news of healing and repair that Jesus Christ proclaimed and embodied.” (94) Thus, when Christians are confronted by evil, sin, pain, and even death, the response “is not to explain but to feel for the purpose of being moved to action.” (94)

In this gentle, yet probing summary of the challenges that are posed by the problem of evil, Castelo is at his best when he gives the reader permission (even encourages) to avoid offering definitive explanations for why bad things happen. Rather than explaining, in thoroughly Wesleyan fashion, Castelo suggests that “the Christian life is one of bearing other’s burdens.” (97)

While Castelo is willing to honestly acknowledge and recognize the presence of suffering, because it is a Christian account, he is compelled to make sure that the last word is one of hope. “The creation has a hopeful future because its future is God.” (102)

This book provides excellent pastoral guidance to all who have taken on the name of Christ and seek to bring the riches of their tradition to bear as they seek to stand with others who experience pain and suffering. I heartily recommend it to anyone who has asked “why?” or felt unable to answer this question when it was asked by someone else. Those who have been reluctant to offer simple explanations for deep questions, which are usually asked with deep personal urgency, will find comfort that the Christian’s job is not to answer questions or defend God against every possible accusation. However, readers will also be made uncomfortable as they are reminded that much of the evil that is present in the world is allowed to exist because people choose to ask how a good all-powerful God could allow this to happen, rather than stewarding what God has entrusted them with to make a difference.

Regarding my personal interest in small group formation, I believe this book has a real contribution to make to small groups like the Wesleyan class meeting and band meeting. Small groups are often shallow and group members struggle to enter into one another’s lives in meaningful ways. When groups do enter into the “deep end” of each other’s lives, they often do so with little to no preparation to sit with someone who experience agonizing loss and is grasping for explanations. Castelo’s work can help people to be prepared for just how hard bearing one another’s burdens can be, while providing a reminder of just how desperately important it is.