What “Wonder Woman” Teaches Us About Theodicy
From Greek philosophers to womanist theologians, western thinkers have struggled to make sense of the problem of evil and divine vindication in light of the reality of human-induced suffering. As I sat and watched Wonder Woman just one day after its big debut, I could not help but think that the entire film was a modern-day attempt to work out this deeply philosophic and theological problem. What is evil? Why does God, or the cosmic order, allow it?
I’ll admit that my moviegoing experience is shaped by my work as a biblical scholar. So what does this latest addition to the DC canon look like when viewed through a biblical-theological lens?
As this review is one big spoiler, I’d like to start midway through the film, when the Great War that Diana (Wonder Woman) has so feared is well underway.
Diana and British spy Steve assemble an unlikely crew: Sameer, a spy who wants to be an actor but “isn’t the right color,” Charlie, a respected marksman who wants to sing, and The Chief, an expert smuggler, who longs for his lost heritage.
In Wonder Woman, as in the biblical text, people with little or no power are agents of divine justice: the biblical God chooses and uses people who are on the fringes of empire.
The team that Diana and Steve assembles is not aligned with either side of empire. They are not British soldiers—they are outlaws, lowly and dishonorable by society’s standards. In the biblical text, there are numerous examples of similar unlikely heroes: Moses is a genealogical hybrid of sorts who ends up fleeing Egypt; and Rahab is a prostitute who helps save Israel. Jesus himself chooses ordinary men to be his disciples, including a tax collector.
When Diana/Wonder Woman finally fights and kills General Ludendorff it seems that victory has been won, but to her surprise, the war does not end. The war’s continuation defies Diana’s central belief: that Ludendorff is none other than Ares, the god of war, and that killing the god of war will end the process of war. In all of the preceding build-up, the audience has been led to believe that Ares is the cause of war and the cause of the darkness of men, implying that his death will bring peace.
In theological terms we’d say that God’s intervention does not necessarily end human war or human-induced suffering.
It is this central belief that is at the core of the Wonder Woman film. Throughout the movie, we the audience are rooting for Diana, whom we assume will defeat Ares, Hollywood style, bringing perfect peace to the world. But what we learn by the end of the film is that evil cannot be located in a single demigod, villain or agent.
The fact that Ludendorff’s death does not result in an armistice indicates the pervasiveness of what I call “human-induced suffering.” Human-induced suffering is an important part of the theodicy problem, because it reveals to us what is almost counter-intuitive: neither God nor the devil is wholly responsible for the destruction that human beings wreak upon one another.
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