Theodicy Revisited 6 December 2016
In my previous article (see Issue 13 of On Religion) I discussed one version of the problem of evil and I contended that one of the premises of this argument – “gratuitous evil exists” – is not one which the theist is obliged to accept. In fact, arguably this premise is only true if it is the case that God does not exist; but this is precisely what is at issue. Moreover, the chances of the atheist demonstrating that any particular evil is in fact gratuitous are not very good given our cognitive limitations.
In response, one critic opined that saying “God moves in mysterious ways” simply “doesn’t cut it.” However, nowhere did I suggest that the solution to the problem of evil is simply “God moves in mysterious ways.” I was merely offering a defence against one particular argument from evil. Just because I wasn’t offering a full-blown theodicy – an attempt to provide positive reasons why God causes or permits evil to exist – does not mean I think the problem of evil can be settled by saying “God moves in mysterious ways.” In fact, I think there are several positive things we can say about evil.
Now, when we offer a theodicy it shouldn’t be taken as an explanation of God’s actual reasons for allowing evil or as an exhaustive list of all the reasons God could have. Moreover, a theodicy isn’t a failure if it only addresses certain evils but not others. All a theodicy needs to do to help weaken the argument from evil is to provide plausible reasons which God might or could have for causing or permitting certain evils.
As there isn’t space in a short article to give a fully developed theodicy, I wish simply to outline some of the main themes that emerge in the various theodicies on offer.
- Free Will
Most theodicies rely on the notion of free will at some stage and to some degree. God has endowed us with free will as an important part of being creatures made in his image with significant choices to make in this world. Without free will our moral life would be impossible, in fact life itself would be reduced to something of a farce. However, our life and our choices really do matter. We are not automatons; God has made something much more valuable and significant than that. Philosophers of religion such as Alvin Plantinga have developed this use of the concept of free will in relation to the problem of evil, such that it seems to many to be an effective response at least to the evils that result from the abuse of free will by human agents. Other philosophers go even further than this and extend the use of the notion of free will to the existence of natural evils – earthquakes, tornadoes, or tsunamis, for example – seeing them as the result of the free actions of demonic agents. However, there is another way of applying free will to such things, which brings me to the second theme.
- The Fall
The most common way to view the evils of nature – inspired greatly by Saint Augustine – is to regard them as the consequences of the Fall. So, philosopher of religion Peter Van Inwagen writes: “All evil is the result of the primordial act of turning away from God; there is no source of evil other than creaturely rebellion.” In this turning away from God human beings caused the corruption not only of their own nature, but also of the created order. We are now living with the consequences of that act. Christian theologians add that it was to reverse this act of rebellion and its disastrous consequences that God became flesh to atone for sin, making salvation possible. God is now in the business of bringing creation to its ultimate purpose: where everything will be made new and all sin and suffering will be dealt with.
Now, it isn’t the case that all the pain and suffering a person faces are regarded as punishment for their own sins. It is no part of Christian teaching that when bad things happen to a person then there must be sin in his or her life which has brought them suffering and pain. The Old Testament book of Job is a decisive refutation of such theology, as is the life and crucifixion of Christ. However, there is a strand of biblical thought – most explicit in the book of Judges – that shows us that there are occasions when suffering and pain is caused either by sin itself or in the form of punishment for sin. Moreover, sometimes in the natural world there are certain consequences that go along with certain actions. For instance, those who are sexually promiscuous are far more likely to suffer sexually transmitted diseases. This suffering is not “punishment,” but is a likely consequence of certain forms of behaviour.
Again, it must be stressed that this should not lead us to a theology of retribution where every instance of suffering is interpreted as the result of a person’s sin: it clearly isn’t. Pain and suffering is, on this view, simply the result of living in a fallen world, a result which will in time be remedied.
- Soul Making
There is a minority tradition in Christendom that doesn’t accept this interpretation of human beginnings. This tradition is actually older than the Augustinian approach but it never achieved the same systematic development. This alternative view is often associated with Irenaeus.
Irenaeus made the distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity, corresponding to two stages of creation. The former concerns our basic nature as rational agents capable of relating to God; the latter refers to our final perfecting by the Spirit, a goal which we must ourselves cooperate with. Irenaeus argued that whilst humankind is created in God’s “image” (the first stage of creation) we are not perfected in God’s “likeness,” (the second stage of creation). We must use our moral and rational faculties to grow towards this perfect nature, a nature which must be freely chosen and developed, and which will be rejected by some. Ireneaus argued that this way of creating humankind is morally superior to the direct creation of a perfect finite being because it’s good to grow and develop in moral knowledge; it’s good even to experience failure and suffering because through them we experience the great goods of forgiveness and mercy and have a deeper appreciation of God’s love and grace.
For this second stage of creation to be realised we require a certain type of environment, and in particular one allowing us a significant level of freedom from God. In order to possess any kind of significant autonomy in relation to God, humankind must be set at epistemic distance from God. This means the reality and presence of God is not impressed upon human beings in the coercive way in which the natural world forces itself upon our attention. To some extent then the world must appear as if there is no God. God will be a hidden deity, veiled by creation, and knowable only by a mode of knowledge which requires a free personal response on the part of each individual person. This context will secure for humankind the necessary cognitive freedom, from which we may either be aware or unaware of our Maker. So, the hiddenness of God – so often used as an argument in favour of atheism – is actually to be expected. It guarantees our cognitive freedom, and makes it possible for us to ignore God if we wish and live as if He were not there. On the other hand creation remains fit to mediate the presence of God for those who choose to step towards Him. As Pascal put it: There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”
When we consider the kind of character the world must have so as to give humans freedom vis-a-vis God it seems that a world of the kind we occupy is a fitting environment to this end. In our world we do not dwell in the direct and unmistakable presence of God, but rather in a context in which we may freely welcome the knowledge and presence of God or hold it at bay. Our world can be experienced and interpreted in religious or atheistic terms. The state of the world is then a necessary condition for the realisation of an incredibly great good: the perfection of beings which comes through redemption.
- Greater Goods
This highlights another popular theme in theodicy – the idea that God causes or permits evil and suffering because by doing so He brings about goods that weren’t otherwise possible. If we judge the world on the extent to which it promotes pleasure to all, then it fails. However, in Christianity – and virtually all other major world religions – the purpose of life is not hedonism or worldly pleasures. The purpose of life is the knowledge of God, which brings ultimate human fulfillment. Knowing God – the creator of the universe, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the locus of infinite goodness and love – is an incomparable good, the fulfilment of our existence. The evils we find in the world are pointless in so far as creating a nice environment for promoting our own desired pleasures, but not necessarily with respect to achieving the kinds of goods God desires for us. For instance, innocent human suffering could lead to deeper reliance and trust in God (though of course whether this purpose is achieved will depend on a person’s free response), or perhaps moral and natural evils are often the means God uses to draw people to Himself. Not every evil we face is obviously connected with a greater good, but many evils are at least plausibly connected to greater goods. When so many evils are at least plausibly connected with greater goods we can perhaps have hope when faced with evils for which no greater good can be presently conceived that even they too are not gratuitous.
For the Christian, God’s purposes extend beyond this life and into eternity. If earthly life is a grain of sand, eternity is the Sahara. Many who bear suffering and sorrow in this life will receive heavenly joy and recompense beyond earthly comprehension. The apostle Paul was able to write in the midst of his hardships: “So we do not lose heart. . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to things that are seen, but to things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Earthly life is infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life awaiting us. The sufferings of our present life will shrink towards an infinitesimal moment, a speck on the horizon.
There is much more to say, but ultimately the Christian’s response to evil rests on his or her hope in the sovereignty, love and justice of God. There is no evil outside of God’s control; no evil that doesn’t serve a divine purpose; no evil that won’t be dealt with in the fullness of time.