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Evil and the Existence of God (Part II)

February 27, 2010

This is the second part of my paper on evil and the existence of God.  It, and the following part, will address to popular Christian theodicies–The “Irenaean” Theodicy made popular by John Hick and the Augustinian theodicy (also known as the “Free-Will” Theodicy).

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The Irenaean or “Soul Making Theodicy”

In order to map out my own solution to the problem of evil, it is first necessary to look two popular theodicies.[1] I begin with the minority view—the Irenaean Theodicy’s (named after the early church father Irenaeus) and whose most popular proponent is John Hick.[2] Briefly stated, this theodicy denies that the presence of evil in the world has to do with a human or angelic fall.[3] Rather, humanity was created morally immature and imperfect, and by facing challenges (from the natural world and the making of moral choices), humans are to form certain characters (i.e. “soul-making”) that are compatible with a loving God.  There are a number of intriguing aspects of this theodicy.  First, it is in accord with modern science.  It is through the evolutionary process that humans emerged into moral and responsible creatures.[4] There was no Adam and Eve, who were morally innocent and rebelled against God; instead, from the beginning humans have struggled with a “hostile” environment and with each other.[5] Secondly, God has created an “epistemic distance” between himself and humanity.  God is not “overwhelmingly evident” in the world, rather the world is “religiously ambiguous, capable both of being seen as a purely natural phenomenon and of being seen as God’s creation and experienced as mediating God’s presence.”[6] Hick explains that this is so because if God’s desire is to create a world in which “finite persons have come in their own freedom to know and love God, this requires creating them initially in a state which is not that of their already knowing and loving God.”[7] Lastly, because “evil” (sin included) is built into the creative process, Hick proposes that universal salvation is the way in which God “justifies” such sin and suffering.[8] In his theodicy, sin is not a consequence of rebellion, but just part of the process so to speak.  Therefore, since God’s goal is to make morally mature creatures, then “sooner or later” (or “given enough time” one might say), humans will realize all shall freely come to God.  Thus, in summary, Hick’s “soul-making” theodicy explains evil by proposing that evil is a necessary aspect—even precursor—for a world where the process of moral and spiritual development is to occur.

While Hick’s theodicy is “untraditional” in many ways, there are a couple of areas where I find myself in agreement with him.  First, he (and Irenaeus) rightly understands that man was not created morally perfect but rather with the ability to grow into God’s likeness through process.  I think that this understanding of man’s original nature makes the best sense of the “Fall.”  However, in disagreement with Hick, I propose that man was created morally innocent.  It is through rebellion that we are tainted with sin.  Second, I find Hick’s concept of “epistemic distance” to be valuable in explaining how Adam and Eve could believe the serpent’s lie.  While it is not necessary to conclude that God must be completely hidden from man, it does seem probable that a certain distance was placed between Adam and himself in order for freedom to be genuine.  Gregory Boyd states the point well, “If God in all his glory, power and splendor were perfectly obvious to us from the start, it is doubtful our choice to love him could have a distinctly moral quality to it.”[9] While these points are valuable to my own endeavor at theodicy, there is much with Hick’s version that I find problematic—only one of which, for the present purposes, will be discussed.

The main area of disagreement is over Hick’s insistence that evil (moral evil included) is necessary as part of God’s plan to create morally responsible souls.  By denying the doctrine of the fall, Hick must conclude that sin and evil are just part of “the way things are”—that God designed it to be this way.  However, this view ultimately undermines the reality of evil as something that should not be.  Evil is so, precisely because it is the opposition of goodness and is, therefore, something to be fought against.  While it is true that the development of virtue is more valuable when something is overcome, it is unnecessary to conclude that evil and sin must be present from the beginning.  As I will argue, it is only necessary that the possibility to choose between good and evil be a real option in order for moral virtue and maturity to occur.  Adam and Eve, in their innocence, through the continual obedience to God—thus showing their continued dependence on Him—would have “grown” into the persons of moral maturity.  To put it differently, the process of sanctification (i.e. being “set apart”) through grace was as much of a reality for pre-Fall Adam as it is for us today.  This is so because the concept of grace includes reliance and clinging to God to refrain from sin as much as it includes being forgiven of sin.[10]

Therefore, while I find the concepts of “epistemic distance” and the understanding of Adam as capable of growing into moral perfection useful, I must reject Hick’s theodicy for its view of evil as a necessary component of moral growth.  In the end, the critique of N.T. Wright for such a theodicy is devastating:  “Nor can we say that evil is good after all because it provides a context for moral effort and even heroism, as though we could get God off the hook by making the world a theatre where God sets up little plays to give his characters a chance to show how virtuous they really are.  That is trivializing to the point of blasphemy.”[11]


[1] These are not the only two, but they are the two main Christian theodicies.

[2] see Peterson et al., Philosophy of Religion, pp. 301-314.

[3] Contra the Augustinian Theodicy or the Free Will Defense.

[4] Ibid., p. 304.

[5] Ibid., 304.

[6] Ibid., 305.

[7] Ibid., 306.

[8] Ibid., 314.

[9] Gregory A Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 2001): p. 258.

[10] I am highly indebted to Dallas Willard for this understanding of grace.  In his fine work, Renovation of the Heart, (Colorado Springs:  NavPress, 2002.) p. 82, he writes:  “The transformation of our inner being is as much or more a gift of grace as is our justification before God.  Of course neither is wholly passive.  (To be forever lost you need only do nothing.  Just stay the course.)  But with reference to both justification and transformation, ‘boasting is excluded’ by the law of grace through faith (Romans 3:27-31; Ephesians 2:1-10).  In fact, we consume the most grace by leading a holy life [!!], in which we must be constantly upheld by grace, not by continuing to sin and being repeatedly forgiven.  The interpretation of grace as having only to do with guilt is utterly false to biblical teaching and renders spiritual life in Christ unintelligible.”  I would add that this view is more consistent with God’s creative purposes as well.

[11] N.T. Wright, “God, 9/11, the Tsunami, and the New Problem of Evil” Response 28.2 (2005): http://www.spu.edu/depts/uc/response/summer2k5/features/evil.asp

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2010 3:06

    So, just a couple thoughts Jonathan, I haven’t read the third section yet, but in this section was reminded of some reading I’ve done recently on the Fall, and how the Fall affected Adam and Eve, and ultimately, humanity.

    I think it was probably 3 years ago in Intro to Christian Theology where we studied Good and Evil, and Irenaeus, so forgive my scattered thoughts on the subject.

    One point that’s quite valid that I totally agree with when it comes to our theology and understanding of good and evil, is that God created the world, and all that was in in and it was “good”. He was pleased with it. But God in his foreknowledge knew that Satan and “evil” was part of this world he created. I think of C.S. Lewis and the Magician’s Nephew when they see Aslan singing to create this new world, yet evil was apart of that world. Anyway, if we understand that evil was apart of the world, then part of God’s plan of redemption was to provide a way for evil to be defeated, and for us to personally overcome evil, and that is through Jesus Christ. So I personally I would say that I believe good and evil were present from the beginning.

    As you speak about Adam and Eve being “immature” or “innocent” in their understanding, one author I read recently actually described the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as a “Moral Tree” of sorts, so upon eating the fruit, they would know good apart from evil, also suggesting that evil was present at this time. The author describes something similar to what you’ve suggested, Jonathan, that perhaps over time God would have given them the understanding of morality over time in the Garden, if sin hadn’t occurred. (The book is by Albert Baylis… “From Creation to the Cross”… excellent read.)

    Sorry about the scattered thoughts, I’m going to read that wikipedia article, and read your next section…. Well done research Jonathan!!

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      March 5, 2010 9:16

      Meridith,

      Good thoughts. I guess my only part of concern is with the foreknowledge of God concerning evil. If he always knew that evil would undeniably exist, then I think we may have a problem. If he already knows before he ever creates people that they will reject Him and be eternally destroyed, then why does he create them in the first place? I guess the same could be asked concerning the presence of evil. That’s why I emphasize the possibility of evil. God always knew that evil would be a possibility in his creation, but His hope was and is(!!) that evil be resisted. Adam was meant to resist it and so are we. So, I would say God’s foreknowledge consists of the possibilities of outcomes rather than what will inevitably come to pass. Does that make sense?

  2. Ali permalink
    January 5, 2011 11:31

    The evil is a result of what happens , God grants for us the right of choice , we do good , we do bad , in Fact , we ( the human beings ) made the evils !

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