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Bunyan’s Theodicy

Very simply, a ‘theodicy’ is an explanation of why there is evil in the world if there is an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God in charge of things. The two facts don’t seem to fit together, and it’s something that monotheistic religions have often felt the need to offer justifications for (and rightly so).

Though some moderns toss their hands in the air exclaiming it to be a hopeless contradiction, this is a bit of an overstatement. The problem basically boils down to explanation. What possible explanation could God have for allowing such evil and hardship in this world? To simply say there can be no possible explanation is pretty well recognized as being illogical, but that alone doesn’t get us off the hook. Theologians have been offering possible answers since there have been theologians around to think about it.

In the Second Part of Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan adds a short theodicy of his own, almost as a side note.

Christiana asks why the hound of hell is there at the Wicket Gate, barking and attacking anyone who tries to enter. Why would God allow such an awful beast to threaten people at the very Gate that he also wants people to enter through? (An allegorical representation of the question “Why does evil exist?”)

Bunyan’s answer is this: He says that the reason for the existence of the hound (evil), is to shake up and frighten people toward God. The idea is, that without some kind of evil in the world, no one would cry out for help, or call out to God in any meaningful way whatsoever. Without evil, we would not even think to have a relationship with God because we’d be content to live without him. Without evil, we would all settle for less.

This is actually not that bad of an answer. Bunyan is operating under the assumption that God is more concerned with our relationship to him than our immediate happiness, and it is this assumption, that I think makes all the difference. The more we can get that into our heads – that God desires holiness over happiness – the more everything really begins to make sense.

But perhaps Bunyan also realizes that this, in and of itself, is not the whole story. He ends the passage with another bit of wisdom regarding God’s actions in this matter and states: “True wisdom acquiesces to God’s wisdom.” Paraphrase: God did it this way. Even if we can’t figure it out completely, we still need to subject our own personal hang-ups to God’s ultimate authority – no matter how much we might not ‘like it’.

This, again, is true. It’s just not satisfying. “But why would it need to be satisfying?” Bunyan would rightly ask me… And I would have no good answer for him.

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