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The philosophical Problem of evil concerns the existence of evil, specifically how it can be that evil exists in the world even though God is said to be both omnipotent (all powerful) and omnibenevolent (all good). If God was omnibenevolent but not omnipotent, then he may not be able to dispose of evil, or if he was omnipotent but not omnibenevolent he may not want to. But Christianity teaches that he is both, leading to the tricky conclusion that God should be both able to eliminate evil and desire to do so, and yet he has not. This is the Problem of evil, and there have been many theodicies (defences of God) proposed over the ages.

The Wikipedia page on the problem of evil cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the originator of "cruciform theodicy" when he wrote this in 1944:

Only the suffering God can help.

But were there previous Christian writers who claimed that Christ's suffering on the Cross contains the answer to the problem of evil? What is the origin of cruciform theodicy?

Note: this question is not asking about the problem sin and evil as they pertain to us, of how we can be forgiven, saved, and restored to perfection. If your answer does not directly discuss the attributes of God it may not be a valid answer.

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    Hi Betterthan Kwora, can you confirm that you're specifically interested in the problem of how evil can exist when God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, not the problem of how sin can be erased and humans can be right with God again? – curiousdannii Jan 8 at 1:40
  • Yes, I'm interested in the former and not the latter! I thought it was clear, but it seems to be causing confusion... – Betterthan Kwora Jan 8 at 4:40
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    An answer to this question must to specifically take up this teaching and do something with it, therefore it has to be more than interpretation of the Bible that Bonhoffer, himself, would have used to get there, otherwise this question is meaningless. So, please don't answer this question with just scripture. – Peter Turner Jan 8 at 5:01
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    I've given the question an edit and also changed the title to hopefully avoid getting any more answers that didn't understand what was being asked. – curiousdannii Jan 8 at 11:31
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    OP here-- no. I'm not asking you to defend the attributes of God at all, or even to defend this particular theodicy. I'm asking about the history of this theodicy. I know you and Bonhoeffer believe this one is supported in Scripture. But then surely other Christians before 1940 would have come to the same conclusion. So my question is asking who they are, and in which writings. – Betterthan Kwora Jan 9 at 4:40
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In her novel The Minister's Wooing, written in 1859, Harriet Beecher Stowe offers the death of Christ as a response to the problem of evil. She does it in the voice of one of the characters, but it is safe to assume from the context that she agreed with his sentiment. Interestingly, in her view, the great suffering of God is primarily that of the Father who endures the death of His Son.

It seems to me irreverent and shocking that a child should oppose a father, or a creature its Creator. I never should have done it, only that, where direct questions are presented to the judgment, one cannot help judging. If one is required to praise a being as just and good, one must judge of his actions by some standard of right, — and we have no standard but such as our Creator has placed in us. I have been told it was my duty to attend to these subjects, and I have tried to, — and the result has been that the facts presented seem wholly irreconcilable with any notions of justice or mercy that I am able to form. If these be the facts, I can only say that my nature is made entirely opposed to them. If I followed the standard of right they present, and acted according to my small mortal powers on the same principles, I should be a very bad person. Any father, who should make such use of power over his children as they say the Deity does with regard to us, would be looked upon as a monster by our very imperfect moral sense. Yet I cannot say that the facts are not so.  When I heard the Doctor's sermons on ' Sin a Necessary Means of the Greatest Good,' could not extricate myself from the reasoning.

I have thought, in desperate moments, of giving up the Bible itself. But what do I gain? Do I not see the same difficulty in Nature? I see everywhere a Being whose main ends seem to be beneficent, but whose good purposes are worked out at terrible expense of suffering, and apparently by the total sacrifice of myriads of sensitive creatures. I see unflinching order, general good-will, but no sympathy, no mercy. Storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, sickness, death, go on without regarding us. Everywhere I see the most hopeless, unrelieved suffering, — and for aught I see, it may be eternal. Immortality is a dreadful chance, and I would rather never have been. — The Doctor's dreadful system is, I confess, much like the laws of Nature, — about what one might reason out from them.

There is but just one thing remaining, and that is, as Candace said, the cross of Christ. If God so loved us, — if He died for us, — greater love hath no man than this. It seems to me that love is shown here in the two highest forms possible to our comprehension. We see a Being who gives himself for us, — and more than that, harder than that, a Being who consents to the suffering of a dearer than self. Mary, I feel that I must love more, to give up one of my children to suffer, than to consent to suffer myself. There is a world of comfort to me in the words, "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" These words speak to my heart. I can interpret them by my own nature, and I rest on them. If there is a fathomless mystery of sin and sorrow, there is a deeper mystery of God's love. So, Mary, I try Candace's way, — I look at Christ, — I pray to Him. If he that hath seen Him hath seen the Father, it is enough. I rest there, — I wait. What I know not now I shall know hereafter.

There may of course have been Christians before 1859 who have had the same perspective, but Stowe is the earliest whom I can find.

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Here is an early writing which may have been part of what influenced Bonhoeffer in the direction of cruciform theodicy. It comes as part of a letter from Ambrose of Milan to the Christian congregation at Vercellae in 396 AD. In staunch opposition to Epicurean Philosophy (from whence comes the Problem of Evil in it's original formulation) Ambrose points out that pleasure cannot reinstate us to Paradise because pleasure alone has caused us to lose it.

But Holy Scripture refutes this, for it teaches us that pleasure was suggested to Adam and Eve by the craft and enticements of the serpent. Since, indeed, the serpent itself is pleasure, and therefore the passions of pleasure are various and slippery, and as it were infected with the poison of corruptions, it is certain then that Adam, being deceived by the desire of pleasure, fell away from the commandment of God and from the enjoyment of grace. How then can pleasure recall us to paradise, seeing that it alone deprived us of it?

If pleasure cannot avail us of it, perhaps the unspoken opposite of suffering is implied as the cure.

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  • There are prophecies from the beginning of time that hint at what is to come but I agree that Paul's writings are the first clear and extensive account of the sufferings and death of Christ and their application to the fact of evil in the world and evil in the individual.+1. – Nigel J Jan 8 at 2:46
  • An answer to this question would have to specifically take up this teaching and do something with it, therefore it has to be more than interpretation of the Bible that Bonhoffer, himself, would have used to get there, otherwise this question is meaningless – Peter Turner Jan 8 at 5:00
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Were there previous Christian writers, prior to [Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945) who claimed that Christ's suffering on the Cross contains the answer to the problem of evil?

A little clarity is in order first. The Wikipedia article on the Problem of evil does not cite Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the originator of "cruciform theodicy".

Cruciform theodicy

Soul-making theodicy and Process theodicy are full theodical systems with distinctive cosmologies, theologies and perspectives on the problem of evil; cruciform theodicy is not a system but is a thematic trajectory within them. As a result, it does not address all the questions of "the origin, nature, problem, reason and end of evil," but it does represent an important change. "On July 16, 1944 awaiting execution in a Nazi prison and reflecting on Christ's experience of powerlessness and pain, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned six words that became the clarion call for the modern theological paradigm shift: 'Only the suffering God can help." Classic theism includes "impassability" (God cannot suffer personally) as a necessary characteristic of God. Cruciform theodicy begins with Jesus' suffering "the entire spectrum of human sorrow, including economic exploitation, political disenfranchisement, social ostracism, rejection and betrayal by friends, even alienation from his own family...deep psychological distress... [grief]..." ridicule, humiliation, abandonment, beating, torture, despair, and death.

The ground work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cruciform theodicy is centuries old.

The Apostle St. Paul gives us glimmers into his thoughts on Christ’s sufferings.

Meditating this mystery, the power of salvific suffering of Jesus Christ on the Cross, the Apostle Paul says:

"In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church." - Colossians 1:24

Pope John Paul II explains these words as follows:

These words seem to be found at the end of the long road that winds through the suffering which forms part of the history of man and which is illuminated by the Word of God. These words have as it were the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy. For this reason Saint Paul writes: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake". The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The Apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help—just as it helped him—to understand the salvific meaning of suffering. - Salvifici Doloris

Saint Methodius of Olympus (died c. 311) was a Christian bishop, ecclesiastical author, and martyr. He is commemorated on June 20. He wrote the following on the following on the Cross and Passion of Christ.

Methodius, Bishop, to those who say: What does it profit us that the Son of God was crucified upon earth, and made man? And wherefore did He endure to suffer in the manner of the cross, and not by some other punishment? And what was the advantage of the cross?

Christ, the Son of God, by the command of the Father, became conversant with the visible creature, in order that, by overturning the dominion of the tyrants, the demons, that is, He might deliver our souls from their dreadful bondage, by reason of which our whole nature, intoxicated by the draughts of iniquity, had become full of tumult and disorder, and could by no means return to the remembrance of good and useful things. Wherefore, also, it was the more easily carried away to idols, inasmuch as evil had overwhelmed it entirely, and had spread over all generations, on account of the change which had come over our fleshy tabernacles in consequence of disobedience; until Christ, the Lord, by the flesh in which He lived and appeared, weakened the force of Pleasure's onslaughts, by means of which the infernal powers that were in arms against us reduced our minds to slavery, and freed mankind from all their evils. For with this end the Lord Jesus both wore our flesh, and became man, and by the divine dispensation was nailed to the cross; in order that by the flesh in which the demons had proudly and falsely feigned themselves gods, having carried our souls captive unto death by deceitful wiles, even by this they might be overturned, and discovered to be no gods. For he prevented their arrogance from raising itself higher, by becoming man; in order that by the body in which the race possessed of reason had become estranged from the worship of the true God, and had suffered injury, even by the same receiving into itself in an ineffable manner the Word of Wisdom, the enemy might be discovered to be the destroyers and not the benefactors of our souls. For it had not been wonderful if Christ, by the terror of His divinity, and the greatness of His invincible power, had reduced to weakness the adverse nature of the demons. But since this was to cause them greater grief and torment, for they would have preferred to be overcome by one stronger than themselves, therefore it was that by a man He procured the safety of the race; in order that men, after that very Life and Truth had entered into them in bodily form, might be able to return to the form and light of the Word, overcoming the power of the enticements of sin; and that the demons, being conquered by one weaker than they, and thus brought into contempt, might desist from their over-bold confidence, their hellish wrath being repressed. It was for this mainly that the cross was brought in, being erected as a trophy against iniquity, and a deterrent from it, that henceforth man might be no longer subject to wrath, after that he had made up for the defeat which, by his disobedience, be had received, and had lawfully conquered the infernal powers, and by the gift of God had been set free from every debt. Since, therefore, the first-born Word of God thus fortified the manhood in which He tabernacled with the armour of righteousness, He overcame, as has been said, the powers that enslaved us by the figure of the cross, and showed forth man, who had been oppressed by corruption, as by a tyrant power, to be free, with unfettered hands. For the cross, if you wish to define it, is the confirmation of the victory, the way by which God to man descended, the trophy against material spirits, the repulsion of death, the foundation of the ascent to the true day; and the ladder for those who are hastening to enjoy the light that is there, the engine by which those who are fitted for the edifice of the Church are raised up from below, like a stone four square, to be compacted on to the divine Word. Hence it is that our kings, perceiving that the figure of the cross is used for the dissipating of every evil, have made vexillas, as they are called in the Latin language. Hence the sea, yielding to this figure, makes itself navigable to men. For every creature, so to speak, has, for the sake of liberty, been marked with this sign; for the birds which fly aloft, form the figure of the cross by the expansion of their wings; and man himself, also, with his hands outstretched, represents the same. Hence, when the Lord had fashioned him in this form, in which He had from the beginning flamed him, He joined on his body to the Deity, in order that it might be henceforth an instrument consecrated to God, freed from all discord and want of harmony. For man cannot, after that he has been formed for the worship of God, and has sung, as it were, the incorruptible song of truth, and by this has been made capable of holding the Deity, being fitted to the lyre of life as the chords and strings, he cannot, I say, return to discord and corruption.

It is evident that for St. Methodius the Cross and the sufferings of Christ contained the answer to the question of the problem of evil and more: our salvation.

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