The Problem of Evil: A Review of ‘Where the Hell is God?’ by Richard Leonard, SJ

I was at a retreat with the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis this weekend at the Loyola House in Morristown, NJ–a retreat house run by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). They had a small bookstore, and I found Richard Leonard’s short Where the Hell is God? on the first table I came across. It was billed as a contemporary approach to theodicy, so I decided at $12 it was worth a read. At only 67 pages, I finished it in no time.

I had hoped for a robust re-positioning of the ‘problem of evil’, which has dogged theologians and philosophers for the whole of recorded history. Although Leonard presented some relevant ideas, I was ultimately quite disappointed. I think fundamentally this book was intended as a pastoral–rather than academic–work. Leonard, who recounts how his sister became a paraplegic in a car accident 20 years ago and how that forced him to confront the reality of evil, seems more interested in helping lay Christians grapple with their own personal struggles rather than trying to delve into the metaphysical and teleological implications.

And I get that! Pastoral theology is crucially important. The problem is that for too long it’s been dominated by relatively superficial, saccharine, shallow ideas. Leonard basically argues that though God indeed created everything, and that evil is real, somehow, God doesn’t cause evil. He seems to rely on the doctrine of free will to fill in the gaps, but it doesn’t stick, and the gaps are glaring. And my fear is that it is exactly this sort of ersatz, feel-good pastoral theology that really gives contemporary Christianity such a bad name. It’d really be better, I think, to say nothing than to put forth inconsistent and ultimately patronizing ideas.

I was particularly bothered when, in the conclusion (p. 65), Leonard writes:

I do not think that God has to be the direct cause of everything in my life to have a strong and lively belief in a personal God. Indeed, I am passionate about God’s personal love and presence. As stated throughout, thinking that God is removed from the intricate detail of how things develop does not remove God from the drama of our living, our suffering, our dying.

But of course, if God is “removed from the intricate detail of how things develop”, where exactly is God? Leonard seems to be outlining a sort of ad hoc Christian-Deism. When convenient, he stresses the transcendence of God; at other times he brings in the Incarnation. But where is the Spirit? Where is the immanent God, the God in which all things move, live, breath, and have their being? Leonard seems to dismantle the Trinity in order to excuse God for the realities of evil.

This isn’t in any way to minimize the problem of evil. But I don’t think this approach can yield any good fruit–but it could lead to plenty of confusion, anger, and incredulity. A robust, Trinitarian view of God wouldn’t deny God’s presence in evil. There’s no currency in that, unless we want to retreat to a Dualism or a Deism. For me, the only way forward in dealing with the problem of evil is to look to mystical and ascetical theology: when we assert that God is, indeed, present in all places and at all times, that God was not only incarnate but is present now as Spirit, we are can appreciate the paradox of God’s transcendence and immanence: God is indeed ‘out there’ and ‘Other’–but God is also ‘in here’ and ‘with us.’ God is creator, first cause, but also the very ground of existence, the sustainer of all things and actions. This forces us to account for God’s presence in evil–but when we really push the realization of immanence to its necessary conclusions, we are met with the further mysterious paradox: God causes suffering, yet as present with us, God also suffers. And, in fact, in some incomprehensible but real way, God must be the suffering. So God causes, is, and receives suffering. Nothing can occur outside of, away from, or apart from God–if we accept that God is not some sort of sky father but indeed the very ground of our being: being-itself. And of course such a view, however it might ruffle the feathers of Platonists (and too many Christians seem more wedded to Plato than to Christ!) it completely comports with our image of the God on the Cross: suffering indeed.

There are other possible insights to bring to this problem, for example: defining evil in totally negative terms, such that it is not anything at all, but rather the absence of being, which God, in effect, as Redeemer, is ‘filling in’. I think there is some value to such approaches. But even this angle can’t deny the presence of God–and even the responsibility of God–for evil. Any attempt to dodge this forces us to propose some other source of evil, as if we were Manicheans. The free-will move won’t really allow us to avoid the problem either, though reflections on the need for beings with true freedom may indeed be a crucial approach in addressing evil; such a move may be necessary–but it isn’t sufficient.

I find insufficient approaches to such serious problems particularly problematic in light of all the criticism that the Church faces today. If we want to stand before, for example, the likes of Richard Dawkins and articulate a meaningful and believable understanding of God, we absolutely must do better than Where the Hell is God? And indeed, even if we want to educate and comfort our fellow Christians, we must do much better. The 21st century will demand serious, solid answers to these difficult questions. I don’t think we can afford to throw such soft theology at such pressing problems.




2 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil: A Review of ‘Where the Hell is God?’ by Richard Leonard, SJ

  1. Believe the Bible? Read Isiah 45 verse 7 then read the entire Chap. We live in a world of opposites which gives us awareness of many realities..

    • While it’s true that to *define* good, we must contrast it with evil, that doesn’t help us to understand why a God we understand as love seems to subject us to a lot of evil. Presumably, we could know what evil was without experiencing it in the form of war, rape, natural disasters, aging, etc.

      I think this becomes clearer with a comparison: we also have to define light as the opposite of dark, but we can also imagine floating in space a mile or two from the sun: we would be experiencing a super-intense light, and, unless we turned around, no darkness (we’d also be obliterated by the intense radiation and heat, but you get my point).

      So our attempts to understand God as love and our experience of evil force us to admit a mystery, at the very least. Quoting the Bible won’t change that, precisely because we are called to communion with God–not just a book.

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