Theodicy is one of the great challenges of faith. Here is a formulation of it:

Either God wants to eliminate evil and cannot: then God is weak, which is not true of him,
Or he can and does not want to: then God is begrudging, which is alien to him,
Or he does not want to and cannot: then he is weak and begrudging at the same time, i.e. not God,
Or he wants to and can, which is only fitting for God: where then do the evils come from and why doesn’t he take them away?

A few years ago, I took part in the Alphalive course (a Swiss derivative and simplification of the Alpha course). The theodicy question was rated in the course as the question that would put most people off the Christian faith.

I was working in IT at the time. My coworkers knew that I was working part-time in a church. They asked me lots of questions, but this one never came up.

That always confused me. Of course, I was part of a subculture which – at least at the time – was characterized by high analytical ability and above-average intelligence and education, but often not by too much empathy. It was almost to be expected that this group would ask mostly different questions. But the fact that the question never came up was astonishing, given its supposed importance.

The questions I heard were about the incompatibility of the modern and traditional worldviews. I am not saying that science and faith are incompatible. But rather that the belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible as absolute truth was – and is – incompatible with the findings of the modern age. An example:

How can you believe in a God who claims that the earth was created in seven days about 6000 years ago?

I asked myself whether we as a church were not falling prey to a misinterpretation here. I began to ask other Christians how often they had encountered this question and found that others were rarely asked this question, too, even in its elementary form of “Why does God allow for so much suffering?” or the personal form of “Why does God let me or us suffer through this?”

Of course, the question arises when we are in a cancer ward for children, when we think of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, or when we think of the war in Ukraine. And I’m not even talking about the Second World War.

But a pattern began to emerge. It wasn’t the people who didn’t believe in God who were asking this question. It was those who did believe.

And they did so for various reasons. Either they went through great suffering themselves, or they were asked the question for the first time – for example during training for the Alphalive course – by other Christians.

Today, outside of theology and philosophy, the question has a certain tendency towards navel-gazing, or it is reminiscent of the Psalms of lament.

Navel-gazing: In our sheltered ghetto, we Christians ponder why people out there have no interest in faith, and especially in our form of faith. We find a question in our history that could make sense, ask it to people and generate interest ourselves.

What happens when I ask this question to someone who has no interest in faith? I provide him or her with a free argument to brush me off. The person doesn’t even have to think about why they don’t believe. The question becomes a proxy.

Not so for us Christians. When we hear the question, it is highly relevant. We believe in God and need to find an answer in order to continue to do so.

For most, the answer will be rather simple. Either it is our own fault because of the fall of man or because we have too little faith, God respects our free will and holds back, or there is the devil.

Hardly any non-theologian, hardly any average Christian, questions these naïve reasons and justifications.

When someone points out that an omnipotent and omniscient God could probably have created a world in which suffering was not necessary or possible and yet free will and love were possible, and that God was therefore ultimately responsible for suffering, the verse was quoted: “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts”, followed by “God did not ask us to understand him, but to believe him”. End of discussion.

Even theologians and philosophers do not have an answer to theodicy, although they have been dealing with it for over 2000 years. The question was probably already known to Epicurus (341-271 BC) and seems to go back even further.

One way out is to question the question in and of itself. We assume a certain image of God and world view here, and, for example, declare goodness, as we understand it, to be universally valid and absolute. However, the concept of goodness has always been given a different meaning in different cultures. We can therefore only ask the question from a human, temporal and non-universal perspective.

However, we can ask it of a God who has explicitly stated that he wants to meet us, that he wants a relationship. He wants us to understand him, at least in part. And we can ask it of a God who makes moral demands of us, for example in the law of the Old Testament.

Then it loses its universal validity, because at that moment we are not asking the question of God, but of our interpretation of God, our image of God. And we do not define goodness universally, but within the framework of our understanding of goodness, which is based not least on an interpretation of the high moral standards set by God in the Bible. Our understanding of suffering is also culturally shaped.

The problem becomes particularly clear in the example of suffering. Postmodern people experience things as suffering that people did not even know in the past.

But back to the beginning. The question no longer interests most people today because the concept of a monotheistic God no longer interests them. If we ask it without the person being asked seriously asking themselves, we only give them another reason against God and against faith. Because we do not have a satisfactory answer.

Nothing against Alphalive. I only mentioned Alphalive because the course belongs in my personal history. The course works where it works because people are not concerned with this question at all. They are concerned with what God is also concerned with: relationship. They need support, feel alone, seek comfort, want to complain and want someone to listen to them.

What faith offers them is a community, a place to go for their complaints, a companion in times of need and loneliness, a father who loves them.

It is we Christians who promise them more. Give your life to Jesus and all will be well.

It is we Christians who give them less, be it in church services where everyone goes straight home after the final hymn and professional pastors deal with church politics and church renovations, or in congregations where suffering is not allowed and is attributed to too little faith.

We invite them to come to our church services in courses and personal conversations – in courses and personal conversations in which they are allowed to ask questions, to church services in which they sit in rows and listen quietly to someone who has decided what the topic for today should be, what problems plague them and what the answers are.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves why we allow for so much suffering.