The nature of the problem
Augustine in his ‘Confessions’ expressed the dilemma thus:
“Either God cannot abolish evil, or he will not; if he cannot then he is not all-powerful; if he will not then he is not all-good.”
The assumption is that a good God would eliminate evil as far as it is possible. If he is omnipotent then all evil should be eliminated. However, evil exists. So, why does God allow evil to continue?
This ‘inconsistent triad’ presents Christians with a problem. Should they drop one of God’s characteristics (his omnipotence or his omni benevolence) so that his existence is compatible with the existence of evil?
Different types of evil
John Hick described evil as “physical pain, mental suffering and moral wickedness.” Two types of evil exist:
Natural evil – suffering caused by natural disasters e.g. the eruption of a volcano killing humans and animals.
Moral evil – suffering caused by human selfishness e.g. Hitler’s killing of Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies.
Irenaeus believed that there were two stages to creation. First, man was first created as an immature being that had yet to grow and develop. Then there would come a period of change where man would respond to situations in life and eventually become a ‘Child of God’.
Irenaeus argued that we were created imperfect so that we could freely choose to become good and turn to God. We were made at a distance from God – a distance of knowledge – an epistemic distance. Moral evil was that result of our having the freedom to grow and develop into a child of God.
Irenaeus saw the world as a ‘soul-making place’. Here we could complete our development into a child of God. Evil was necessary to aid this development. Natural evil such as famine had a divine purpose – to develop qualities such as compassion.
Irenaeus saw evil as a necessary part of life, something that will eventually make us into better people. At death, some of us will proceed into heaven. Those who have not completed their development will continue their soul making journey after death but will then enter the kingdom of heaven.
Is God responsible for the existence of evil? For Irenaeus God is partly responsible for evil. Evil is a means by which we can grow and learn.
What is the origin of evil and the role of freewill? Irenaeus said that the world was made imperfect and so moral evil was the result of the freewill to follow or disobey God.
Criticisms of Irenaeus’ theodicy
- Irenaeus argues that everyone goes to heaven. This seems unjust as immorality is not punished. It is inconsistent with orthodox Christianity as it denies The Fall, and Jesus’ role is reduced to a moral example.
- The quantity and extremity of evil seems unacceptable in soul making. Is evil such as the Holocaust necessary?
- Allowing evil to continue can never be an expression of love according to D. Z. Phillips in ‘The Concept of Prayer’.
Counter criticisms using Irenaeus’ theodicy
Irenaeus contended that heaven was for everyone because:
- If life simply ended, God’s purpose would never be fulfilled.
- Only a supremely good future in heaven can justify the magnitude of the suffering.
- Many ‘evil’ people cannot be held responsible for their actions. I.e. their actions could be the result of illness or ill treatment. Eternal punishment would be unjust. This supports Jesus’ teachings of compassion.
St. Augustine’s response to the problem of evil is the traditionally accepted one. Unlike Irenaeus he did not think that God was responsible for evil or that we are working towards perfection. Augustine based his theory on two key passages in the Bible: Genesis 3 (the story of The Fall) and Romans 5:12-20 (St. Paul describes how Jesus’ crucifixion wipes out the sin committed by Adam and Eve).
Augustine believed that a good God created the world and at the time of creation it was good. Evil, according to Augustine is a “privation of good”, not an entity itself – just as blindness is a privation of sight.
If the world was good when God created it then where did evil come from? According to Augustine, evil was a result of angels who turned away from God, misused their freewill and tempted Adam and Eve – this is the origin of moral evil. Since all humans are ‘seminally present in the loins of Adam’, we are all born with original sin. Augustine described natural evil as the punishment for sin or the “penal consequences of sin”.
At the end of time, Christian belief says that there will be a Judgement Day. At this time, the good will go to heaven and the bad will go to hell. Because evil is punished, Augustine argued that God’s world can still be seen as perfect in the end.
Is God responsible for the existence of evil? According to Augustine, God is not responsible for the existence of evil – he created a perfect world free of evil.
What is the origin of evil and the role of freewill? Augustine says that moral evil originated through the disobedience of angels and the temptation of Adam and Eve. Thus moral evil came about by the misuse of freewill by Adam and Eve. Natural evil is punishment for moral evil. Based on Genesis 3 and Romans 5.
Criticisms of Augustine’s theodicy
- F. D. E. Schleicermacher in his book ‘The Christian Faith’ said that Augustinian theodicy was flawed. He said it was a logical contradiction to say that a perfectly created world had gone wrong, since this would mean that evil had created itself ‘ex nihilo’, which is impossible. Either the world was created imperfect or God allowed it to go wrong.
- If the world was perfect and there was no knowledge of good and evil, how could there be freedom to obey or disobey God, since good and evil were unknown? The fact that Adam and Eve and the angels disobeyed God means that there was already knowledge of good and evil. Is Augustine’s interpretation of the tree of knowledge flawed?
- Augustine’s view that the world was made perfect and was them damaged by humans is contrary to the theory of evolution, which asserts that the universe has been continuingly developing from a state of chaos.
- The existence of hell as a place of eternal torment challenges the notion of an all-loving God. If hell was part of God’s design for the universe and he knew it would go wrong, then why did he still allow it to happen? This implies a malicious God not and omnibenevolent one.
The Freewill Defence
Like Irenaeus, the freewill defence centres on the idea that for man to respond freely to God, he must be able to make his own decisions. This means that ultimately, a man may choose to do good or commit moral evil.
Supporters of the freewill defence such as Richard Swinburne have said that God cannot intervene to stop suffering because this would jeopardise human freedom and take away the need for responsibility and development.
Swinburne says that death is necessary since it means that humans are forced to take responsibility for their actions. If they were immortal and had infinite lives then there is no need for responsibility – “if there is always a second chance then there is no risk.” Thus, natural evil is necessary to facilitate death regardless of the suffering caused.
Critique of the freewill defence
Is God justified in allowing people to misuse freewill to such an extent that millions die? John Hick says that if we say that some evils are too great then we start going down a scale of evils until the slightest evil becomes too great e.g. if we start by saying that cancer is too severe then what about heart disease, flu or a headache? Hick says that we must either demand a world free of evil or accept the one we have.
Other solutions to the problem of evil
Evil and suffering are an illusion – however, the Bible describes evil as something that is real, so how can it be an illusion? If evil is seen as an illusion or a privation of good then God can still be seen as good.
The positive value of suffering – evil can be seen as essential to life i.e. hunger leads to pain, which leads to the desire to feed, ensuring the continuance of life. It can also be seen to be a warning to an illness. However, the pain suffered can be disproportionate to the seriousness of the illness i.e. toothache is excruciating while the final stages of cancer are relatively painless.
Evil leading to greater moral goodness – evil is not a good thing but necessary for morally good qualities such as compassion to be demonstrated. If suffering did not exist then there would not have been a Mother Teresa. Again, perhaps the suffering in the world is still disproportionate?
Strengths and weaknesses of the Irenaeus theodicy
1. Unlike Augustine`s theodicy, Irenaeus` theodicy can be reconciled with scientific evolutionary theory.
2. Unlike Augustine`s theodicy, Irenaeus` theodicy does not contain a logical contradiction between a) the idea that God created a perfect world, and b) the appearance of evil and suffering in the world.
3. Irenaeus` belief that everyone will eventually complete their development into God`s likeness and go to heaven is more in-keeping with the idea that God is loving. A less harsh theodicy toe Augustine`s which focuses on God`s justice.
4. Like Augustine`s theodicy, Irenaeus` theodicy helps to explain the existence
in the world of both moral and natural suffering.
a) Problems with the concept of `heaven for all`
1. The concept of `heaven for all` seems unjust: it places too much emphasis on
God`s love and not enough on God`s justice.
2. The concept of `heaven for all` also creates logical problems for Irenaeus` theodicy. Where is the incentive to `develop into God`s likeness` if you know everyone is to be rewarded with heaven?
Problems with the quantity and seriousness of suffering in the world
Irenaeus` theodicy shows how the process of soul-making requires the existence of some suffering in the world. But why is there so much suffering? Many would argue that the quantity and gravity of suffering in the world is totally unacceptable.
Problems with the idea that any suffering is needed in the world
Irenaeus` theodicy rests on the assumption that suffering is good for humans:
that God allows suffering to exist in order to help people develop into his likeness. This idea that suffering can be seen as an expression of God`s love has
been challenged by D. Z. Phillips.