Theodicy – Chad Meister

August 31, 2012

Savior in Glory, 1408 Dormition Cathedral Vladimir by Andrei Rublev

Throughout the centuries, a number of theists have believed there are no pointless evils — that there are greater goods that justify the evil in the world. Attempts to vindicate God by providing an explanation for evil come in a variety of forms, and two of the best known are Augustine’s free will theodicy and John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. The essays are by Chad Meister, Professor of Philosophy at Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana.

Augustine’s Free Will Theodicy
One important theodicy was formulated by St. Augustine (354-430), and it has probably been the most prominent response to evil in the history of Christian thought. Fundamental to the position is Augustine’s view that the universe God created is good; everything in the universe is good and has a good purpose, some things to a greater extent, some to a lesser one. Evil, then, is not something God created. Evil is a privatio boni — a privation of the good. Augustine uses the example of being blind. Blindness is not a thing in itself, let alone a good thing. It is a privation of seeing. Evil, he argues, is like blindness; it is a privation of good.

Then, if God created a very good world, what brought about the privations? How did evil arise? It came about, he maintains, through free will. The story is familiar. Some of God’s good creation — namely persons, including angels and humans — were given the good gift of freedom of the will, a gift that reflected God’s image of being morally culpable and creative. However, some of God’s free creatures turned their will from God, the supreme Good, to lesser goods.

This act of turning from God was, in essence, the Fall. It happened first with the angels and then, after being tempted by Satan (one of the fallen angels), with humans. This is how moral evil entered the universe and this moral fall, or sin, also brought with it tragic cosmic consequences, for it ushered in natural evil as well. The Fall was no insignificant event; it was a disaster of cataclysmic proportions in the universe that accounts for all the moral and natural evils throughout history.

Augustine’s theodicy does not end without resolution, however, for in the eschaton God will rectify evil when he judges the world in righteousness, ushering into his eternal kingdom those persons who have been saved through Christ and sending to eternal perdition those persons who are wicked and disobedient and have rejected his good offer of salvation.

Although this free will theodicy does exonerate God from evil by placing full responsibility for it upon free creatures, and although it has been extensively advocated by Christians since its development in the fifth century, it has been highly criticized in recent times. [For a recent and impressive defense of the free will theodicy, see Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998]

One problem with this type of theodicy is that, even granting a robust libertarian view of free will, could God not have prevented the consequences of the evil decisions made by free creatures — consequences having to do with both moral and natural evils? For example, could God not have prevented the Asian tsunami in 2004 that swept through eleven countries, killing more than 200,000 innocent people? Could he not have stopped the Black Plague in the fourteenth century, which wiped out well over thirty percent of Europe’s population? And although perhaps God was not able to avert members of the Khmer Rouge from deciding to torture and execute hundreds of thousands of Cambodian people, could he not have orchestrated events such that the totalitarian leaders failed in their attempts — thus preventing the killing fields?

Richard Swinburne, a contemporary defender of the free will theodicy, responds by arguing that not only do free will choices have great value, but their successful implementation also has great value — value great enough that God is perfectly justified in not thwarting the consequences of such choices, even if they are evil. [Also see Richard Swinburne's Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 82-107, for his engagement with this problem.]

Furthermore (and this brings up the issue addressed earlier regarding skeptical theism), how do we know that there are not greater goods that result from these evil actions that would not have arisen without them? It seems likely that we are simply not in an epistemic situation to make such an assessment. As has been discovered by those working in the field of chaos theory, the slightest perturbations of the early conditions of a dynamic system can have significant effects on larger systems that would have been impossible to predict given empirical observations.

The death of one European peasant centuries ago could have had incredible effects or others at later times and places that would provide God with a morally sufficient reason for allowing it to happen. [William Lane Craig brought this chaos analogy to my attention in private conversation. For a fascinating introduction to the developing field of chaos theory, see James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin, 1998).]

Another problem that has been raised with Augustine’s theodicy is that, given modern scientific understandings of the biological and social; development of homo sapiens, it no longer seems plausible to maintain that human beings began in a state of moral and spiritual maturity and perfection and then fell into a state of moral depravity as depicted in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. Rather than biological, social, and moral devolution, the story of human history is now generally seen as one of evolutionary development and progress. Furthermore, geology has demonstrated that natural evils existed long before the emergence of human life, and thus could not have been the consequence of a human fall.

However, perhaps the Augustinian theodicy can survive intact despite these developments. First, it is at least possible that natural evils are the result of the choices of free agents in the spirit world prior to the emergence of humans. Perhaps an angelic fall could account for “nature red in tooth and claw,” to quote Tennyson. Although this will seem farfetched to many modern ears, it is within the general purview of the Christian story, as C. S. Lewis intimated in his space trilogy. Furthermore, as Michael Murray has recently argued, it is possible to explain at least some natural evil as an unavoidable byproduct of a nomically [vocab: To know something nomically is to know it because it is implied by a natural law] regular, natural, good world. [See Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).]

With respect to the evolutionary account of human beings, it can be argued that there is no irreconcilable conflict between the standard neo-Darwinian account of human evolution and the view that there was an early pair of morally culpable hominids in whom God granted moral and spiritual awareness not unlike those depicted in the garden story of Genesis. Nevertheless, another attempt at theodicy developed by John Hick provides an overall better fit with the current scientific story of human development.

John Hick’s Soul-Making Theodicy
Based on the work of Irenaeus (c230-c.202 CE), John Hick developed a theodicy that is, in some ways, in stark contrast to the Augustinian approach. He maintains that his soul-making theodicy has the benefit of God’s having a close, developing relationship with his creation over time, whereas the Augustinian type presupposes an impersonal or sub-personal relationship between God and creation.
[Hick spells out this criticism of the Augustinian theodicy in his Evil and the God of Love (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)] Instead of God creating a paradise with perfect human beings who then freely fell into sin, on this account God created the world as a good place (but no paradise) for developing a race of beings from an early state of animal selfishness and self-centeredness to an advanced state of moral and spiritual maturity

God’s purpose was not to construct a paradise whose inhabitants would experience a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. The world is seen, instead, as a place of “soul making” or person making in which free beings, grappling with the tasks and challenges of their existence in a common environment, may become “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life.” Our world, with all its rough edges, is the sphere in which this second and harder stage of the creative process is taking place.
John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

God created good but undeveloped persons and moral, spiritual, and intellectual maturity requires experiencing trials and hardships in life. Evil, then, is not the result of perfect persons choosing to sin but, rather, is an inevitable part of an environment necessary for developing mature character. Thus, by placing evolving beings in this challenging environment, through their free will to choose what is right and good, they can gradually grow into the mature persons that God desires them to be, exhibiting the virtues of patience, courage, and generosity, for example.

Furthermore, as the theodicy goes, God will continue to work with human persons, even in the afterlife if necessary, by allowing them non-coercive opportunities to love and choose the good so that eventually everyone will be brought into a right and full relationship with God; everyone will finally experience redemption. [Eleonore Stump develops a version of the soul-making theodicy that centers on a particular theological good. See her "The Problem of Evil," Faith and Philosophy 2 (1985):] In this view, God allows moral and natural evils in the world to nurture virtues within individuals in order to make morally and spiritually mature souls or persons.

One objection that can be raised is that although it may be true that a soul-making environment cannot be a paradise, the degree and extent of pain and suffering that exist in the world surely are not justified. Why: need there be an Auschwitz, for example? Could not mature characters’ be developed without this kind of horror? In addition, some evils seem to be character destroying rather than character building. Not all people improve through the hardships they endure; often, the difficulties in one’s life cause it to end in tragedy. Think of a child with a debilitating. disease who is made fun of or who is always the recipient of charity, and then dies at an early age; or a woman who is brutally raped, held captive, and then murdered days later. Do such examples of gratuitous evil not count against soul-making type theodicies?

Hick responds by claiming that apparently pointless evils are not, in fact, without purpose and merit. The kinds of sympathy and cornpassion, for example, that are evoked by such seemingly indiscriminate and unfair miseries are very great goods in and of themselves — goods that would not arise without the miseries appearing as unfair and indiscriminate. [See Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Chapter 10] Although God did not intend or need any particular evils (such as Auschwitz) for his soul-making purposes, he did need to create an environment where such evils were a possibility. Thus, although each individual instance of evil may not be justified by a particular greater good (purpose or merit), the existence of a world where evil is possible is necessary for a world where soul-making takes place.

Furthermore, as noted earlier, on this theodicy a positive doctrine of life after death is crucial, for there are cases in which difficulties in an individual’s life breed bitterness, anger, fear, and a lessening of virtuous character. So in these instances, at least, the soul-making process would need to continue on into the afterlife if it is to be successful. In addition, as will be argued subsequently, on a Christian account of resurrection, an afterlife could also perhaps provide future goods that are great enough to justify even the worst horrors experienced in this life.

The free will and soul-making theodicies share a common supposition that God would not permit evil that is not necessary for a greater good. But a number of theists affirm that some evils are not justified, that some horrors are so damaging there are no goods that outweigh them. If there are such evils, why would God allow them? It may be that “restricted standard theism” — the view that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-good being who created the world, accompanied by other religious claims — is inadequate to provide a response. Perhaps an adequate reply requires “expanded theism” — the view that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, omnigood being who created the world, accompanied by other religious claims, such as those provided by orthodox Christian theism.

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  1. Yes. Things can get some time quite disheartening. Extremely scary things can happen. To say that they are ‘NECESSARY for a greater good’ means you can say anything. D. B. Hart has a very thorough take on this question of evil, suffering, etc., underlining the dramatic, not the preordained aspect.

    • Have you ever read this? Hart debates his piece in the WSJ on Tsunami of 2004. Reading selections from that here. Thanks for the comment. You’ll find a category of some of Hart’s writings here.


      • As a matter of fact, this very blog is where I have read that essay, more than one year ago. Thank you.

  2. The H. Gospel of Saint Luke– 13:1 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

    13:2 And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? 13:3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

    13:4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? 13:5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

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