Christian Understandings of Evil

The Historical Trajectory

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Charlene P. E. Burns
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Augsburg Fortress
    , October
     230 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Christian Understandings of Evil, Charlene P. E. Burns traces the development of the problem of evil in the Christian tradition, from its roots in Second Temple Judaism to contemporary perspectives. Burns begins with a statement of the intractability of the problem, as well as its theological and spiritual stakes: “Evil is the thorniest of theological problems for a Christian theologian and may well be, as some have claimed, the number one cause of lost faith” (1). Given its perennial status as the “rock of atheism,” the problem of evil demands serious, sensitive theological engagement. Burns undertakes a survey of theological responses to the problem of evil over the two-thousand-year span of Christian history, in keeping with the goals of The Christian Understandings series. Her wide-ranging overview begins with the biblical backdrop and pivots to examine the problem of evil and theodicy in major theologians and philosophers, such as Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Gottfried Leibniz, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, John Hick, Jürgen Moltmann, and Alfred North Whitehead, among many other intellectual luminaries.

The book unfolds in seven chapters: 1) Setting the Stage; 2) Personified Evil in Ancient Israel and Early Christianity; 3) Cosmic Speculation and Late Ancient Theodicies; 4) Consolidating Ancient Themes: Middle Ages to Enlightenment; 5) The Foundations of Modernity; 6) Full Circle or New Directions?; and 7) Theodicies of Protest and the Evils of Theodicy. At the conclusion of each chapter there are “Suggestions for Further Reading.” Burns shows both the continuity and discontinuity of Christian conceptions of evil and theodicy over the centuries as they encounter new intellectual environments and historical realities. Throughout the book Burns attends to the lived reality of evil and asks the hard questions, including the question of protest theodicy: “Is the entire project of theodicy bankrupt?” (197). While Burns does not offer a constructive theodicy—which is not the task of the book—she does demonstrate that the Christian tradition has theological resources to speak productively to the problem of evil. The structure of the book necessarily requires selectivity, so it does not offer an exhaustive guide.

As a work of historical theology, Christian Understandings of Evil reminds us that theodicy does not hang on skyhooks, but has a historical trajectory that evolves over time and draws from diverse intellectual contexts. Too often, debates on the problem of evil soar to rarefied noetic heights without sufficient grounding in their original historical roots. By highlighting the people and places that give birth to the germinating ideas of theodicy, Burns equips us to engage better with the problem of evil theologically and philosophically. Moreover, the title itself signals the plurality of perspectives available in the Christian tradition to address “the most difficult of all theological questions” (x). Burns does not attempt to forge an artificial consensus or to pronounce a verdict between contesting theodicies. Instead, she shows the diversity of viewpoints, situates them historically, and leaves the reader to plunge deeper into specific theologians, philosophers, and trajectories. Christian Understandings of Evil gives a salutary starting point for initial contact with the problem of evil and theodicy in the Christian tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark S. M. Scott is assistant professor of religious studies at Thornloe University at Laurentian.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charlene P. E. Burns is Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She is the author of Divine Becoming: Rethinking Jesus and Incarnation (Fortress Press, 2001) and More Moral Than God: Taking Responsibility for Religious Violence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), and the editor of Mis/Representing Evil: Evil in an Interdisciplinary Key (Inter-disciplinary Press, Oxford, UK, 2009).



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