Book Review: John Hick ~ Evil and the God of Love
Let me start out by making it clear that this is not really a book review in the sense that you would think when seeing a review in a magazine or newspaper. This is literally me reviewing (as in: refreshing my memory of) a book I've read, and recording my interaction with its ideas. This is just for me and those interested in my thoughts. It has nothing to say really about the merits of this book as literature. This is an autobiographical account of my interpretation of this book.
I've read quotes from this book in 3 or 4 other books related to Universalism, so I figured I better check it out for myself. First, I looked the author up and found that the book was written in 1966 and that Hick's beliefs have changed since then. In 1966 He was an evangelical, questioning his fundamentalist presuppositions and coming to very different conclusions than what he had been taught. Obviously I see myself this way at this point in my life, so I find the trajectory of his beliefs a fascinating study, and plan to read the rest of his books in the order he wrote them as they seem to chart his path with hefty and well defined markers.
Hefty and well defined is a good way to start describing Evil and the God of Love. This is some dense stuff. Here, he quotes 18th century mathematician/rationalist/philosopher Leibniz on a way to accept both an omniscient God and Free Will:
"Since… God's decree consists solely in the resolution he forms, after having compared all possible worlds, to choose the one with is the best, and bring it into existence together with all that the world contains, by means of the all-powerful word Fiat, it is plain to see that this decree changes nothing in the constitution of things: God leaves them just as they were in the state of mere possibility, that is, changing nothing either in their essence or nature, or even their accidents, which are represented perfectly already in the idea of this possible world." ~ Gottfried Leibniz p. 158
Yes, that was one sentence. And yes, I quoted it because its length is silly. The rest of the book is not like that. Well, it's kind of like that in places. But for the most part Hick is clear and knows how to break complicated ideas down to smaller components, so I only had to re-read several paragraphs multiple times to understand them.
Here is the breakdown of the book: Chapter 1 starts out with this:
"If one were to construct a full descriptive title for this book, it might run as follows: A critical study of the two responses to the problem of evil that have been developed within Christian thought, and an attempt to formulate a theodicy for today." P. 3
He starts out by examining the problem and its terms. Namely, we Christians have a belief system that claims: 1. God is loving and all-powerful. Yet our senses tell us that: 2. Our world is full of suffering and evil. For those of you who are unfamiliar, this field of theology is called theodicy. And there are a wide variety of ways that folks have come up with over the years to address the problem. Hick takes a sampling from a wide array of philosopher's and theologians from all time periods and shows how they dealt with it. He briefly examines 'two poles of thought - Monism and Dualism'.
"Christian thought concerning theodicy has always moved between the opposite poles set by the inherent logic of the problem – monism and dualism. These represent the only two wholly consistent solutions that are possible; and unfortunately neither of them is compatible with the basic claims of Christian theology." P.15
Monism in this context basically says that what we perceive as evil is not actually evil at all when seen within the framework of a universally good end. Or: suffering and pain may appear as evils to us, but only because we don't understand that they are part of a glorious process that we will someday appreciate. Dualism as a theodicy says that good and evil are irreconcilably opposed to one another. And one must utterly destroy the other.
"On the one hand, it appears that the absolute monotheism of the Christian (as of the Judaic) faith entails an ultimate monism. If God is God, and if God is good, there cannot be any co-equal contrary reality; and therefore evil must in the end be subject to God's sovereignty and must exist by a permission flowing from His purpose for His creation. There seems here to be an undeniable truth, to neglect which would be to forfeit the fundamental Christian belief in the realty of God as the sole Creator and ultimate ruler of all things."p. 15
Hick asserts that the problem with this view is a weak stance against evil, as it is seen to be 'domesticated' or a 'servant' of God instead of a deadly enemy. Which, he says can end up where: "…the theodicist finds himself calling evil good and preaching peace where there is no peace." P. 16
In the concluding chapters of Evil and the God of Love, Hick will present "the Christian response to the problem of evil in eschatological terms, affirming a present interim dualism within the ultimate setting of an unqualifiedly monotheistic faith." P.16
After examining Spinoza's monism, Plat's dualism, the eternal dualism of Mill, the internal dualism of Brightman, Hick begins the largest section of the book. He traces the dominant Christian theodicy from Augustine to the modern day. Here, he shows what seems to me, an impressive grasp of both history and philosophy, eloquently and honestly approaching some of the greatest thinkers that humanity has produced.
"St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) has probably done more than any other writer after St. Paul to shape the stricter of orthodox Christian belief – more even than such epoch-making figures as Thomas Aquinas or the Protestant Reformers; for Augustine's influence was exerted at an earlier and more plastic stage in the growth of the Christian mind and neither scholasticism or Protestantism has significantly altered the grand design of his picture of God and the universe, or his conception of the drama of man's creation, fall, and redemption. Not that Augustine's teachings were novel. But it was his historic achievement to bring the diverse elements of Christian thought together to make an immensely powerful impact upon the intellect and imagination of the West. It is therefore with Augustine that we begin this study, though with glances back to Plotinus, through whom he absorbed so much from the surrounding thought-world of Neo-Platonism."
Thus begins a long and fascinating journey through the ages and the minds of Christianities greatest thinkers. Hick examines many of them, specifically their theodicies, and deconstructs each, showing what he sees as fatal flaws in their arguments. I'm not going to get into this part, as there is way too much to say on the subject, and I'm not good at summarizing. If you have a Christian upbringing you are probably familiar with the basic ideas. God made everything perfect. Satan rebelled, tempted humans in the garden, now the world sucks because of them. We all deserve to go to hell now, but God graciously decides to pick a few of us not to. (If we have the faith to believe in Christ as our savior.)
I'll go ahead and bring up one of the issues Hick brings up in his criticism of this scheme
As regards the self-creation of evil 'ex nihilo': the idea that God did not create evil, but that his creation made it. Due to their God-given freedom, some of the angels decided to be evil, and behold, there was evil! This is the way Christians have maintained that God is innocent and His creatures are guilty.
"The basic and inevitable criticism is that the idea of an unqualifiedly good creature committing sin is self-contradictory and unintelligible. If the angels are finitely perfect, then even though they are in some important sense fee to sin they will never in fact do so. If they do sin we can only infer that they were not flawless – in which case their Maker must share the responsibility for their fall, and the intended theodicy fails." P. 63
Because sin needs a motive, no matter how insane it may be. Whether arrogance or envy, (or insanity) these motives show that a pre-fall angel/human is not perfect if they fall. Therefore God must not have made angels or men perfect. Hick quotes Augustine:
"The transgression of eating the forbidden fruit – was committed by persons who were already wicked… The devil…would not have ensnared man in the open and manifest sin of doing what God had forbidden, had man not already begun to live for himself…. This wicked desire [to be self-sufficient] already secretly existed in him, and the open sin was but its consequence." P. 66 But none of this escapes the fact that God bares the more ultimate responsibility for the creations of being who He knew would, if created, freely sin.
After spending half the book with this sort of critique, Hick turns to St. Irenaeus (a church father from the third century.) as a source for a theodicy that is more satisfying than St. Augustine's. I think a basic theme that Hick paints is that the Augustinian theodicy looks backwards in order to explain evil, and Irenaean theodicy looks forward in order to explain it. One analyses the myth of the fall and adds all sorts of assumptions, the other looks to the eschaton (The end of everything, the final destiny of the world), and adds all sorts of assumptions.
What we see in Irenaeus is sometimes called a soul-making theodicy. The very basic idea being that our world and all its intrinsic suffering and evil is a necessary component for forming the type of creature that God wants. Irenaeus says in Against Heresies, "God had power at the beginning to grant perfection to man; but as the latter was only recently created, he could not possibly have received it, or even if he had received it could he have contained it, or containing it, could he have retained it." IV. 38
I see parallels in nature. You can tell a toddler all about sex, war, insurance, or any other reality of the adult world and realize quickly that there simply is not the capacity for comprehension. Even if you teach a child to parrot the definitions back to you, any further probing will reveal that they don't really understand what they are saying. Many realities are only comprehensible to us through experience. Irenaeus' idea is that this world is the experience we need to become mature souls. He draws another parallel: "…it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, [but she does not do so], as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible of God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection], being as yet an infant." IV. 39
So in Augustine we have a perfect mankind created, but fallen through rebellion, and retribution for that rebellion is in order. In Irenaeus we have a sort of infantile mankind created, with a purpose of learning Good and Evil and progressing through all the drama that life and human history bestows, for the good purpose of growing into perfection. In Augustine we have a calamity that creates a horrific mess that dooms the majority of mankind to a futile, torturous existence. And a God Who thus responds with His plan of grace for a few. In Irenaeus a God with a consistent plan from the beginning. It was no tragedy that man became aware of Good and Evil. It was a necessary part of growth.
Of course this sort of reframing can really rattle the modern Christian mind that has had so much Augustinian sediment resting on it.
With Augustine there was a devastating mistake made in pre-history and we all inherit the guilt. We stand as a corporate unity, guilty and deserving of hell, but for His own reason God gives grace to some of us.
"It is helpful to distinguish two separable elements within this tradition: namely, the assertion of an inherited sinfulness or tendency to sin, and the assertion of a universal human guilt in respect of Adam's crime, falling upon us on account of a physical or mystical presence of the whole race in its first forefather. As we shall see, the former idea is common to all Christian traditions – whether in the form of a physiologically or a socially transmitted moral distortion – whilst the latter idea is peculiar to the Augustinian and Calvinist theology. The Augustinian picture is so familiar that it is commonly thought of as the Christian view of man and his sinful plight. Nevertheless it is only a Christian view." P. 201
Here, Hick blithely takes us over a speed bump at full speed, and any inerrantist (Those who believe that every word of the Bible was put there by God, through inspired writers; perfect and accurate in every way.) will fall out of the back of the truck:
"As F.R. Tennant pointed out at the outset of his valuable study of The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin, 'S. Paul's teaching as to the connection of human sin and death with Adam's transgression is but one of the various possible interpretations of this narrative [Gen. 3], slowly and tentatively reached after some centuries of Jewish exegesis and reflection. S. Augustine's fuller and more definite doctrine is but a developed form of one of the possible interpretations of the statements of S. Paul, arrived at after the preparation of further centuries of Jewish speculation."
Now I'm not one to gulp down whatever critical biblical scholars serve me, but I also don't dismiss their work as some sort of deceptive ploy or poisonous ideas. Because I no longer have faith that our current Bible is inerrant, complete, perfect, or direct revelation from God, I'm more open to learning about possible influences of the writers. Hick lays out a model of how the creation myth that got canonized evolved and its competitors (like the book of Enoch) were weeded out. Then shows us just how many assumptions we have about the actual text of Genesis creation account.
"In the Augustinian elaboration of the Genesis story Adam's pre-fallen state is an exalted condition of 'original righteousness', the snake is Satan in disguise, and the fall results in our mortality and the inheritance by the whole subsequent human species of both an imputed guilt for the first crime and an inherited moral taint or disease. But none of this is to be found in the text of Genesis 3. There man's first condition is one of primitive simplicity; he is not set in a heavenly or paradisal state but in an earthly garden which he must tend; the snake is a snake and not a fallen angel; and there is no suggestion either of an inherited guilt or of a congenital tendency to sin." P.204 (Emphasis mine)
So it is through St. Paul that we interpret the Genesis account as we do. Or at least the seed of the idea that Augustine watered, nurtured, and gave as housewarming gifts to everyone he knew. Though Paul painted the story as reason for the sinful nature we all observe it was Augustine who really emphasized the concept, exaggerating it as he went.
"Another important development during this same period in the writings of the Latin Fathers was a growing sense of the heinousness of the fall. There is throughout the fourth century a heightening of the mythological perfection of Adam in the Garden of Eden, and a corresponding lengthening of his fall. The fall ceases to be thought of –as generally by the Greek-speaking theologians – as a depriatio, the loss of something good, and is seen instead as a depravatio, a wicked corruption." P. 207
It's something I hadn't thought about before, but when the church fathers were writing there was a generally accepted list of texts, but they were not seen as perfect or authoritative until canonization. Most of the church fathers it seems regarded Paul's letters and Luke's biographies the same way modern critical scholars do. They felt free to reinterpret and leave out parts they found dubious, and emphasis and exaggerate the parts they liked. I imagine it was sort of like the way I have tremendous respect for the writings of C.S. Lewis, yet still feel free to disagree with him on key doctrinal issues.
"So far as Christian teaching concerning sin and the fall is concerned, the 'sub-apostolic age' (the period between the work of the biblical writers at about the end of the first century and that of Irenaeus towards the end of the second century) was a time of great fluidity and of the absence of established dogmas. This fact is significant for us to today as we seek to discern the shape of a viable Christian theodicy, for it shows what wide freedom of interpretation and speculation existed among those Christian thinkers who were closest in time to the life and teaching of our Lord. As we have already noted, the Christian revelation itself, as it occurred in the saving events centering upon the life of Christ, presupposes the dread reality of sin and suffering but does not provide us with any divinely authorized theory as to their origin. The first few generations of Christians were very largely 'starting from scratch' when the speculated on this subject, and we are therefore free, if there seems good reason to do so, to return behind the later dogmas to the freedom of that earlier period – learning something, however, we may hope, from the difficulties in which later theologians sometimes became entangled."
Being a good Protestant I thought I was free from these kinds of difficulties, receiving teachings straight from "the" Bible rather than filtered through the corrupting machinery of the lumbering Catholic Church. But the more I've studied, the more I found the actual amount of influence from early church fathers is almost identical. We Protestants merely ignore the sources and so they lay quiet and invisible in our dogma. So returning to them is an interesting endeavor for me. And it's eye-opening as I wonder why the opinions of this one were so well received by history, and that one got anathematized hundreds of years later. Why are modern Christians so thoroughly Augustinian?
"It was in Irenaeus (c. 130-c.202), Bishop of Lyons and author, in response to Gnosticism, of the Church's first systematic theology, that there comes clearly to light the point of view that was to characterize the Greek as distinct from the Latin Fathers."
Clement of Alexandria (died c. 220) carried on Irenaeus' themes concerning the imperfect nature of Adam. Methodius and St. Gregory of Nazianzus apparently accepted this interpretation as well. Hick quotes N.P. Williams' summation of this earliest type of systematic Christian thinking concerning sin and evil:
"Our study of these primitive Greek-Christian writers has thus revealed, gradually taking shape within the Catholic Church of the late second century, an interpretation of the Fall doctrine which, whilst preserving the essential outlines of the Pauline teaching, wears a humane, reasonable, and curiously modern complexion. It does not, indeed betray any suspicion that Adam and Eve may not have been historical personages. But it gives us a picture of primitive man as frail, imperfect, and child-like – a picture which is on the whole unaffected by the Rabbinical figment of Adam's 'Original Righteousness', and is by no means incapable or harmonization with the facts revealed by the science of today. It exaggerates neither the height from which, nor the depth to which, the first men are alleged to have fallen. It finds in the inherited disorder of our nature rather a weakness to be pitied than an offence to be condemned…"
It turns out us modern Christians are NOT thoroughly Augustinian. We modern WESTERN Christians are thoroughly Augustinian. It seems that language was a major factor in the schism between eastern and western Christianity. And it seems to me, we westerners got the losing language. I mean, if you're going to pick a language from which to assemble a theology, wouldn't it behoove you to use the one that most of the original texts you revere were written in? I've blogged before about how the tradition of Lucifer was a bungling of a Latin translation of Greek text that was seized upon by the non-Greek speaking Augustine, and turned into a whole lore of its own. What a marvelous advantage it must have been to not only be close to the time of the original documents, but to speak the same language.
From this point of view, the Latin soil of the Western Church choked out seeds that the Greek soil of the Eastern did not. Though Hick is clear: "It cannot, however, be said that there is an 'Eastern Orthodox theodicy' which is Irenaean as distinct from Augustinian. Although, as we have seen, there are the foundations for a theodicy in the work of the early Hellenistic Fathers, Orthodox thought has never built systematically upon these foundations…"
From these undeveloped beginnings, Hick fast forwards to Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who picked up the Irenaean type of theodicy and really gave it some legs, bringing it to a more systematic form. Schleiermacher interprets the perfection of the primordial, "pre-fallen" world, not as a state of constant sunshine and roses without thorns; but rather it was, and still is: perfect for its intended function. That function is its suitability as an environment for the emergence of thoughts of God.
Likewise, he sees the original "perfection" of man not as a sort of Achilles-but-without-the-weak-spot. Rather, our perfect nature is perfect-for-reminding-us-of-God. Our nature is so constituted to bring the physical creatures that we humans are to an awareness of God. Schleiermacher defines this as "God-consciousness". And everything in the physical universe is perfect for bringing about this God-consciousness: joy, sorrow, pain and pleasure can all be conduits to this end.
"There is, indeed, no aspect of our human experience that is not in principle capable of serving to awaken the awareness of God; and this religious receptivity (together with the social nature in virtue of which we can communicate it to one another) constitutes the 'original' or basic perfection of our nature." Pp 221
This departure from the Augustinian tradition casts a completely different light on the world we now inhabit. Rather than a shadow of a former glory, we find ourselves in a perfectly ordered mechanism for growth. Our nature is not "fallen"; it is a stumbling block that forces us to reckon with God and each other. This is in no way to diminish the terrible reality of sin, it is only to show that ALL things -including sin- can have a redemptive purpose. This new perspective shows the signs of a through-line, an unthwarted purpose of God that begins and ends according to His plan. This, rather than the intrinsically dualistic Augustinian story of a rebellion, trickery, foiled perfection, a Plan B, etc. All those elements that remind me so much of Greek mythology are absent in the Irenaean/Scheiermachian scheme.
Rather than seeing sin and evil as opposing forces to God, we see them as utilitarian mechanisms for something beautiful. This does not make the sin and evil beautiful. Just as the digestive system and its products are not beautiful, yet they make possible all the beauty that the human form posses and creates. God made those ugly guts and designed them to produce fecal matter. Does that diminish the beauty of God? Likewise, God can create a universe containing sin and evil without diminishing His goodness.
"We have…found it to be an inescapable conclusion that the ultimate responsibility for the existence of sinful creatures and of the evils which they both case and suffer, rests upon God Himself. For monotheistic faith there is no one else to share that final responsibility. The entire situation within which sin and suffering occur exists because God willed and continues to will its existence; and we must believe that from the first He has known the course that His creation would take. This is not to deny man's blameworthiness for his own sins, for our individual human responsibilities hold good on a different plane from that of the ultimate divine responsibility, in such a way that the one does not lessen the other. We have seen that the Augustinian theological tradition, although unwilling openly to acknowledge this, nevertheless cannot help doing so implicitly in its doctrine of divine predestination. But the first great Christian theologian to affirm it openly was Schleiermacher.
Negatively, Schleiermacher argues that the distinction between divine causing and divine permitting, behind which Christian thought has traditionally sheltered itself from this aspect of logic of monotheism, is untenable. But, more positively, he links sin with redemption. For 'everywhere human evil exists only as attached to good, and sin only as attached to grace. And looking at sin through grace, we see that redemption presupposes that from which we are redeemed.' Thus, starting from the Christian experience of redemption, which expresses the immediate activity of God, and seeing this as occurring within the universal divine sovereignty, we can only conclude that the total event that culminates in man's redemption represents the outworking of God's purpose" Pp 228
Now I'm just going to copy a few pages because I can't summarize any better than Hick does here.
The Two Theodicies –Contrasts and Agreements
We now have before us the two historical types of Christian theodicy. I shall summarize the main notice of certain convergent tendencies, working for the most part beneath the surface, which qualify these contrasts and even suggest the possibility of a common future development. But first the contrasts:
- The main motivating interest of the Augustinian tradition is to relieve that Creator of responsibility for the existence of evil by placing that responsibility upon dependent beings who have willfully misused their God-given freedom. In contrast the Irenaean type of theodicy in its developed form, as we find it in Schleiermacher and later thinkers, accepts God's ultimate omni-responsibility and seeks to show for what good and justifying reason He has created a universe in which evil was inevitable.
- The Augustinian tradition embodies the philosophy of evil as non-being, with its Neo-Platonic accompaniments of the principle of plenitude, the conception of the great chain of being, and the aesthetic vision of the perfection of the universe as a complex harmony. In contrast, the Irenaean type of theodicy is more purely theological in character and is not committed to the Platonic or to any other philosophical framework.
- The Augustinian theodicy, especially in Thomist thought and in Protestantism of the eighteenth-century 'optimists' (as distinct from that of the Reformers and of twentieth-century neo-Reformation theologians), sees God's relation to His creation in predominantly non-personal terms. God's goodness is His overflowing plenitude of being bestowing existence upon a dependent realm; man has accordingly been created as part of a hierarchy of forms of existence which would be incomplete without him; evil is traceable to the necessary finitude and contingency of a dependent world which however exhibits an aesthetic perfection when seen from the divine standpoint; and the existence of moral evil is harmonized within this perfect whole by the balancing effect of just punishment. These are all ideas to which the category of the personal is peripheral. According to the Irenaean type of theodicy, on the other hand, man has been created for fellowship with his Maker and is valued by the personal divine love as an end in himself. The world exists to be an environment for man's life, and its imperfections are integral to its fitness as a place of soul-making.
- The Augustinian type of theodicy looks to the past, to a primal catastrophe in the fall of angels and/or men, for the explanation of the existence of evil in God's universe. In contrast, the Irenaean type of theodicy is eschatological, and finds the justification for the existence of evil in an infinite (because eternal) good which God is bringing out of the temporal process.
- Accordingly, in the Augustinian tradition the doctrine of the fall plays a central role, whereas in the Irenaean type of theodicy, whilst it is not necessarily denied in all its forms, the doctrine becomes much less important. The accompanying notion of an original but lost righteousness of man and perfection of his world, and of inherited sinfulness as a universal consequence of the fall, which jointly render that event so catastrophic and therefore so crucial for the Augustinian theodicy, are both rejected.
- The Augustinian tradition points, at the other end of history, to a final division of mankind into the saved and the damned, whereas Irenaean thinkers (at any rate since Schleiermacher) have been inclined to see the doctrine of eternal hell, with its implications of permanently unexpiated sin and unending suffering, as rendering a Christian theodicy impossible.
Points of hidden agreement
Despite these very large differences there are also points of agreement between the two types of theodicy. These do not lie fully open to the view on the surface, but are perhaps all the more significant for that, as unintended witnesses to the certain basic necessities of Christian thought concerning the problem of evil.
- The aesthetic conception of the perfection of the universe in the Augustinian tradition has its equivalent in the Irenaean type of theodicy in the thought of the eschatological perfection of the creation. This is the belief that the Kingdom of God, as the end and completion of the temporal process, will be a good so great as to justify all that has occurred on the way to it, so that we may affirm the unqualified goodness of the totality which consists of history and its end. Augustine's 'To thee there is no such thing as evil' is matched by Mother Julian's eschatological 'But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well'. Thus, despite the large difference that the Augustinian tradition attributes to the world the goodness of a balanced harmony of values in space and time, whilst the Irenaean type for theodicy sees it as a process leading to an infinitely (because eternally) good end, each proclaims the unqualified and unlimited goodness of God's creation as a whole.
- Both alternatives acknowledge explicitly or implicitly God's ultimate responsibility for the existence of evil. Theodicies of the Irenaean type, from Schleiermacher onwards, do this explicitly. They hold that God did not make the world as a paradise for perfect beings but rather as a sphere in which creatures made as personal in the 'image' of God may be brought though their own free responses towards the finite 'likeness' of God. From this point of view sin and natural evil are both inevitable aspects of the creative process. The Augustinian tradition, on the other hand, implicitly teaches an ultimate divine responsibility for the existence of evil by bringing the free and culpable rebellion of men (and angles) within the scope of divine predestination. Augustine and Calvin both see the fall as part of the eternal plan which God has ordained in His sovereign freedom. The real issue between the two theodicies at this point is not so much as to the fact of the ultimate divine omni-responsibility, as the proper attitude of a theologian to that fact. The Augustinian thinks it is impious to state explicitly what his doctrine covertly implies; the Irenaean, in a more rationalist vein, is willing to follow the argument to its conclusion.
- The 'O felix culpa' theme is common to both types of theodicy. The profound paradox expressed in the famous words (of unknown authorship) of the ancient Easter liturgy – 'O fortunate crime, which merited such and so great a redeemer' – are quoted with approval by theologians in both traditions. In agreement with this paradox Augustine explicitly affirms that 'God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist', and Aquinas that 'God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom'; though neither of them permits this insight to affect his theodicy as a whole, as it does those of the Irenaean type. Nevertheless, the recognition in both kinds of theodicy that the final end-product of the human story will justify the evil within that story points to an eschatological understanding of the divine purpose which gives meaning to human life.
- Both types of theodicy acknowledge logical limitations upon divine omnipotence, though neither regards these as constituting a real restriction upon God's power; for the inability to do the self-contradictory does not reflect an impotence in the agent but a logical incoherence in the task proposed. This principle was misused, because over-extended, by Leibniz, who regarded all empirical relationships as logical and accordingly saw the characters of all possible worlds as determined by logical necessity rather than by the divine will. The principle is invoked in a more modest way by the developed Irenaean type of theodicy when it claims that there is a logical impossibility in the idea of free persons being ready made in the state (which is to constituted the end-product of the creative process) of having learned and grown spiritually through conflict, suffering, and redemption.
- The Augustinian tradition affirms, whilst theodicies of the Irenaean type need not deny, the reality of a personal devil and of a community of evil powers. The traditional notion of Satan as the prince of darkness can have permanent value for Irenaean thought, at least as a vivid symbol of 'the demonic' in the sense of evil solely for the sake of evil, as we meet it, for example, in sheerly gratuitous cruelty. On the other hand, the notion is misused if it is absolutized so as to provide a solution – but necessarily a dualistic solution – to the problem of evil. A permissible doctrine of Satan must be logically peripheral to Christian theodicy in both its Augustinian and Irenaean forms.
- The Augustinian tradition affirms a positive divine valuation of the world independently of its fitness as an environment for human life. The Irenaean way of thinking is not concerned to deny this, although it is inclined to stress that we can know God's purposes and evaluations only in so far as He has revealed them to us in their relation to mankind. Again, neither type of theodicy has any interest in denying the possibility, or indeed the probability, that there are divine purposes at work within the created universe other than and in addition to that of providing a sphere for mans' existence. This though has, however, been more cherished in Augustinian and Catholic than in Irenaean and Protestant thought, and probably represents a point at which the latter should be willing to learn from the former.
These are significant agreements, upon which we must attempt to build in Part IV."
Then we come to my favorite part of the book. In Part IV Hick builds "A Theodicy of Today". Here, he samples more modern philosophers and theologians, probing their theodicy-related arguments for and against the traditional Augustinian view. I'm going to quote some of Hick's thinking on free-will because at some point I'll want to reference it for further thought.
"Is there a third concept of freedom such that a free act is neither, on the one hand, the inevitable outworking of a man's character nor, on the other hand, a merely random occurrence? There is such a concept of freedom, and, indeed, it is the one that seems intuitively most adequate to our ordinary experience as moral agents. It is, however, not easily defined. It is roughly the notion of freedom as a limited creativity. This must be thought of as involving an element of unpredictability; for, whilst the action proceeds from the nature of the agent, the nature from which it proceeds is that of 'the actual self alive in the movement of decision'. (Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection) Thus, whilst a free action arises out of the agent's character it does not arise in a fully determined and predictable way. It is largely but not fully prefigured in the previous state of the agent. For the character is itself partially formed and sometimes partially re-formed in the very moment of free decision. Some such concept of freedom seems to be a necessary postulate of the Christian view of the relation between man and God. The primary point at which it is required is that at which man in his freedom is willing or unwilling to become aware of God. For it is man's cognitive freedom in relation to his Creator that must be insisted upon. And the concept of freedom as creativity would make it possible to speak of God as endowing His creatures with a genuine though limited autonomy. We could think of Him as forming men through the long evolutionary process and leaving them free to respond or fail to respond to Himself in uncompelled faith. I do not know however, how freedom at this point can be proved." P. 276
I completely disagree with the thrust of this: that any real Christian conception of relationship with God must be predicated on free-will. And what "genuine but limited autonomy" means exactly is far beyond the scope of this book or my review, so I'm not going to get into it right now.
Later, Hick has a chapter on pain, and one on suffering that were very illuminating. One cool thing in the pain chapter was the recognition of how completely subjective it is. "The sufferer's inner attitude can exercise a powerful formative and transformative effect. How a sufferer supports the pain, how he copes with the pain experience, often depends on this inner attitude… A strong, vital personality will, when in good health not permit even intense physical pain to take up too much room in his consciousness or to have too large a scope for expression; he will not allow the pain 'to take hold of him'. (H.K. Beecher) P. 297
I see a shining example of this in my wife who is in pain constantly. Unlike me, she simply does not permit pain to hog up her consciousness. She just keeps going. Further insight is brought up with the example of people in sports, who endure a lot of pain, but because the context is one of competition or enjoyment it doesn't diminish the experience much at all. Whereas the exact same pain in another context can really ruin your day.
From here he launches into an examination of why God would even make creatures that are susceptible to pain. He lists Hume's challenges to the idea that God had to create physical creatures susceptible to pain, and gives some great refutations.
The next chapter tackles suffering. It's distinction from pain is explicated thusly: "We shall, I believe, be using the words to mark an important distinction within human experience if we differentiate between pain on the one hand and suffering , misery, or anguish (three terms that I shall use synonymously) on the other. Pain is, as we have seen in the previous chapter, a specific physical sensation. Suffering, however, is a mental state which may be as complex as human life itself. The endurance of pain is sometimes, but not always or even usually, an ingredient of suffering." And further: "Attempting then, to define an all-to-common dimension of our experience, I would suggest that by suffering we mean that state of mind in which we wish violently or obsessively that our situation were otherwise." A few examples: "…regret and remorse; anxiety and despair; guilt, shame, and embarrassment; the loss of someone loved; the sense of rejection, of frustrated wishes, and of failure." P. 318
"These all differ from physical pain in that they refer beyond the present moment. To be miserable is to be aware of a larger context of existence than one's immediate physical sensations, and to be overcome by the anguished wish that this wider situation were other than it is." P. 319
So now we come to the question of why God would allow suffering. What we get is a sort of mish-mash of ideas as a free-will defense is mixed with a soul-making defense.
"Seeking to relate the sad facts of human misery to the problem of theodicy, we have to ask ourselves whether a world from which suffering was excluded would serve what we are supposing to be the divine purpose of soul-making. Having been created through the long evolutionary process as a personal creature made in the 'image' of God, would man be able to grow without suffering towards the finite 'likeness' of God? So far as human nature itself is concerned, the question concerns man's liability to bring suffering upon himself and upon his fellows by his own selfishness, greed, cruelty, and lovelessness. … We concluded that in order for man to be endowed with the freedom in relation to God that is essential if he is to come to his Creator in uncompelled faith and love, he must be initially set at an epistemic 'distance' from that Creator." P. 322
While I don't believe in ultimate free-will, I do completely agree with apparent free-will and the absolutely imperative function that it provides for our moral nature and growth. So while Hick speaks in apparently absolute terms about our necessary freedom, I still agree with the flow of his argument because I think we do need to believe and act as though we have true freedom.
The "epistemic distance" from God is an important idea that serves as a fulcrum for this theodicy. The basic idea being that we have to NOT know that there is a God. I'll show how important this is later. Here is some further definition of the idea:
"This [epistemic distance from God] entails his immersion in an apparently autonomous environment which presents itself to him etsi dues non daretur, 'as if there were no God'. We further saw that when man is so circumstanced, it is not only possible for him to center his life upon himself rather than upon God, but that it is virtually inevitable that he will do so. Man's 'falleness' is thus the price paid for his freedom as a personal being in relation to the personal Infinite. God is so overwhelmingly great that the children in His heavenly family must be prodigal children who have voluntarily come to their Father from a far country, prompted by their own need and drawn by His love. This means that the sinfulness from which man is being redeemed, and the human suffering which flows from that sinfulness, have in their own paradoxical way a place within the divine providence. Their place, however, is not that of something that ought to exist but of something that ought to be abolished. The contribution which sin and its attendant suffering make to God's plan does not consist in any value intrinsic to themselves but, on the contrary, in the activities whereby they are overcome, namely redemption from sin, and men's mutual service amid suffering." P. 322
In the preceding chapter on Pain, Hick argued that without pain there would be no impetus to develop hunting, agriculture, building, and the social organization that lead to the sciences and technological innovations "which have been essential foci of human civilization and culture." P. 323
Beyond this assertion, Hick now argues that suffering is even more important to the present order that constitutes this soul-making machine that is our world. Again, he engages David Hume on the subject, who complains: "Might not the Deity exterminate all ill, wherever it were to be found; and produce all good, without any preparation or long progress of causes and effects?" (Dialogues, pt. 11 p.253)
In other words: couldn't God just miraculously keep us from all harm? Well, if He is omnipotent, then of course He could. Hick's response is obvious: "But let us imagine Hume's suggested policy being carried out, noting in particular its consequences for man's status as a moral being. It would mean that no wrong action could ever have bad effects, and that no piece of carelessness or ill judgment in dealing with the world could ever lead to harmful consequences. If a thief were to steal a million pounds from a bank, instead of anyone being made poorer thereby, another million pounds would appear from nowhere to replenish the robbed safe: and this, moreover, without causing any inflationary consequences. If one man tried to murder another, his bullet would melt innocuously into thin air, of the blade of his knife turn to paper. Fraud, deceit, conspiracy, and treason would somehow always leave the fabric of society undamaged. Anyone driving at breakneck speed along a narrow road and hitting a pedestrian would leave his victim miraculously unharmed; or if one slipped and fell through a fifth floor window, gravity would be partially suspended and he would float gently to the ground. And so on. We can at least begin to imagine a world custom made for the avoidance of all suffering. But the daunting fact that emerges is that in such a world moral qualities would no longer have any point or value." P. 324
In other words, no one could be good or bad. Which, if the soul-making theodicy is correct, means no development of the soul.
"If to act wrongly means, basically, to harm someone, there would no longer be any such thing as morally wrong action. And for the same reason there would no longer be any such thing as morally right action. Not only would there be no way in which anyone could injure anyone else, but there would also be no way in which anyone could benefit anyone else, since there would be no possibility of any lack or danger. It would be a world without need for the virtues of self-sacrifice, care for others, devotion to the public good, courage, perseverance, skill, or honesty. It would indeed be a world in which such qualities, having no function to perform, would never come into existence…
Perhaps most important of all, the capacity to love would never be developed, except in a very limited sense of the word, in a world in which there was no such thing as suffering. The most mature and valuable form of love in human life is the love between a man and a woman upon which a family is built. This love is not a merely physical or purely romantic enjoyment of each other, although that is where it begins and that should always be an element within it. But it can grow into something more than this, namely a joint facing of the task of creating a home together and the bearing of one another's burdens through all the length of a lifetime. Such love perhaps expresses itself most fully in mutual giving and helping and sharing in times of difficulty. And it is hard to see how such love could ever be developed in human life, in this its deepest and most valuable form of mutual caring and sharing, except in an environment that has much in common with our own world. It is, in particular, difficult to see how it could ever grow to any extent in a paradise that excluded all suffering. For such love presupposes a 'real life' in which there are obstacles to be overcome, tasks to be performed, goals to be achieved, setbacks to be endured, problems to be solved, dangers to be met; and if the world did not contain the particular obstacles, difficulties, problems, and dangers that it does contain, then it would have to contain others instead. The same is true in relation to the virtues of compassion, unselfishness, courage, and determination – these all presuppose for their emergence and for their development something like the world in which we live. They are values of personal existence that would have no point, and therefore no place, in a ready-made Utopia. And therefore, if the purpose for which this world exists (so far as that purpose concerns mankind) is to be a sphere within which such personal qualities are born, to purge it of all suffering would be a sterile reform.
At the same time, it is to be noted that we have, in all this, discerned only a very general connection between the kind of world in which we are living and the development of so many of the more desirable qualities of human personality. We have seen that , from our human point of view, this is a world with rough edges, a place in which man can live only by the sweat of his brow, and which continually presents him with challenges, uncertainties, and dangers: and yet that just these features of the world seem, paradoxically , to underlie the emergence of virtually the whole range of the more valuable human characteristics." p. 325
Then… Oh hell, here's another couple pages:
"4. Excessive or Dysteleological Suffering
But we have now to consider the all-important question of the amount of suffering in the world. The less radical form of Hume's second suggestion is that God should not interfere in the workings of nature to such an extent that no objective order remains, but should interfere only secretly and on special occasions to prevent exceptional and excessive evils. 'A fleet, whose purposes were salutary to society, might always meet with a fair wind. Good princes enjoy sound health and long life: Persons born to power and authority, be framed with good tempers and virtuous dispositions.' (Dialogues, pt. xi p. 254)
This suggestion seems more plausible than the previous one. But nevertheless it is not free from difficulty. For evils are exceptional only in relation to other evils which are routine. And therefore unless God eliminated all the evils whatsoever there would always be relatively outstanding ones of which it would be said that He should have secretly prevented them. If, for example, divine providence had eliminated Hitler in his infancy we might now point instead to Mussolini as an example of a human monster whom God ought secretly to have excised from the human race; and if there were no Mussolini we should point to someone else. Or again, if God had secretly prevented the bombing of Hiroshima we might complain instead that He could have avoided the razing of Rotterdam. Or again, if He had secretly prevented the Second World War, then what about the First World War, or the American Civil War, or the Napoleonic wars, and so through all the major wars of history to its secondary wars, about which exactly the same question would then be in order? There would be nowhere to stop, short of a divinely arranged paradise in which human freedom would be narrowly circumscribed, moral responsibility largely eliminated, and in which the drama of man's story would be reduced to the level of a television serial. We always know that the rugged hero who upholds law and order is going to win the climactic gun fight, and if every time a tyrant set out to trample upon human freedom we could be sure in advance that some apparent accident would providentially remove him from the scene it would no longer be true that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance: and indeed vigilance, and the willingness to make sacrifices for human liberty, would no longer be virtues and would no longer be evoked in mankind. If we knew in advance that no really serious threat to them could ever arise, the struggle for righteousness and human dignity would become unreal. Once again, then, we are confronted by the integral character of the existing order of things such that bane and blessing are intimately bound together within it, and such that not even an unfettered imagination can see how to remove the possibility of the one without at the same time forfeiting the possibility of the other.
There is more to be said about excessive suffering in the world, and a more serious difficulty to be faced, when we turn in Hume's forth complaint from social to natural evils. But first we may note his third complaint, which is that man is too sparsely endowed with powers and in particular with the capacity for perseverance.
"In order to cure most of the ills of human life [he says], I require not that man should have the wings of the eagle, the swiftness of the stag, the force of the ox, the arms of the lion, the scales of the crocodile or rhinoceros; much less do I demand the sagacity of an angel or cherubim. I am contented to take an increase in one single power or faculty of his soul. Let him be endowed with a greater propensity to industry and labor; a more vigorous spring and activity of mind; a more constant bent to business and application… Almost all the moral, as well as natural evils of human life arise from idleness; and were our species, by the original constitution of their frame, exempt from this vice or infirmity, the perfect cultivation of land, the improvement of arts and manufactures, the exact execution of every office and duty, immediately follow; and men at once may fully reach that state of society , which is so imperfectly attained by the best-regulated government." (Dialogues, pt. xi pp. 256-7)
Once again, this seems at first sight to be an enlightened and constructive proposal. And yet its flaw is not far to seek. If all men were endowed with, let us say, twice as much industry and perseverance as at present, this would mean not only that good men would work twice as hard for good ends but also that evil men would work twice as hard for evil ends. And the resulting state of the world would be proportionately the same. Criminals would be twice as industrious, but the police twice as active to frustrate them. In our contemporary political mythology, the children of darkness –whether 'red' or 'imperialist' – would arm themselves twice as quickly, and the children of light would follow suit; and as a result the world would be in an even more dangerous state than it is now.
But it is Hume's fourth and last complaint that raises the really insoluble problems. This concerns the way in which various elements of the world order which are in themselves good, such and wind, rain, and heat, the 'humours and juices of the body' and the passions of the mind, often exceed, as he says, 'those bounds in which their utility consists'. For example, 'the winds are requisite to convey the vapors along the surface of the globe, and to assist men in navigation: But how often, rising up to tempests and hurricanes, do they become pernicious? Rains are necessary to nourish all the plants and animals of the earth; but how often are they defective? How often excessive? Heat is requisite to all life and vegetation; but is not always found in the due proportion. On the mixture and secretion of the humours and juices of the body depend the health and prosperity of the animal: But the parts perform not regularly their proper function…'(Dialogues, pt. xi pp. 256-7)
Hume's point could be elaborated indefinitely. Let the hypothesis of a divine purpose of soul-making be adopted, and let it be further granted that an environment which is to serve this purpose cannot be a permanent hedonistic paradise but must offer to man real tasks, challenges, and problems. Still the question must be asked: Need the world contain the more extreme and crushing evils which it in fact contains? Are not life's challenges often so severe as to be self-defeating when considered as soul-making influences? Man must (let us suppose) cultivate the soil so as to win his bread by the sweat of his brow; but need there be the gigantic famines, for example in China, from which millions have so miserably perished? Man must (let us suppose) labor on the earth's surface to make roads, and dig beneath it to extract is coals and minerals; but need there be volcanic eruptions burying whole cities, and earthquakes killing thousands of terrified people in a single night? Man must (let us suppose) face harsh bodily consequences of over-indulgence; but need there also be such fearful diseases as typhoid, polio, cancer, angina? These reach far beyond any constructive function of character training. Their effect seems to be sheerly dysteleological and destructive. They can break their victim's spirit and cause him to curse whatever gods there are. When a child dies of cerebral meningitis, his little personality undeveloped and his life unfulfilled, leaving only an unquenchable aching void in his parents' lives; or when a charming, lively, and intelligent woman suffers from a shrinking brain which destroys her personality and leaves her in an asylum, barely able to recognize her nearest relatives, until death comes in middle life as a baneful blessing; or when a child is born so deformed and defective that he can never live a properly human life, but must always be an object of pity to some and revulsion to others… when such things happen we can see no gain to the soul, whether of the victim or of others, but on the contrary only a ruthlessly destructive process which is utterly inimical to human values. It seems as though 'As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, They kill us for their sport' (Shakespeare, King Lear)
It is true that sometimes – no one can know how often or how seldom – there are sown or there come to flower even in the direst calamity graces of character that seem to make even that calamity itself worthwhile. A selfish spirit may be moved to compassion, a thoughtless person discover life's depths and be deepened thereby, a proud spirit learn patience and humility, a soft, self-indulgent character be made strong in the fires of adversity. All this may happen, and has happened. But it may also fail to happen, and instead of gain there may be sheer loss. Instead of ennobling, affliction may crush the character and wrest from it whatever virtues it possessed. Can anything be said, from the point of view of Christian theodicy, in the face of this cosmic handling of man, which seems at best to be utterly indifferent and at worst implacably malevolent towards him?
Ah, finally, a chance for me to summarize again… Hick takes this last question and holds up a traditional answer about nature being perverted by fallen angels. But points out the same unintelligible conclusion that lies at the root of the Augustinian theodicy. That is, the creation of evil ex nihilo, and an underlying dualism. So how does he answer the problem of the apparently pointless and unfair nature of suffering that seems to crush us rather than build us? His answer binds a nice ribbon around the soul-making package and brilliantly sums up the theory in a way that makes me look at life differently.
"The only appeal left is to mystery. This is not, however, merely an appeal to the negative fact that we cannot discern any rationale of human suffering. It may be that the very mysteriousness of this life is an important aspect of its character as a sphere of soul-making." P.334
Just to be clear, Hick is not doing what caused me to leave my orthodox Augustinian tradition… that is: he's not throwing up his hands and saying "God works in mysterious ways!", sweeping the problem under the rug. Instead he is saying it is necessary that we can NOT know the reason why any particular person is subjects to suffering for a very important reason. This is closely tied to his previous thought about epistemological distance playing a vital role in our development. If we could KNOW through some accessible process that there was a God and could KNOW His nature and attributes and what He desires of us, we would not have the burning desire to find it out. And that desire pushes us along the path of growth. Here, with the apparent randomness of our brutal natural world we are further distanced from the goal of complete understanding, and that distance is mandatory.
"To test this possibility let us employ once again the method of counter-factual hypothesis, and try to imagine a world which, although not entirely free from pain and suffering, nevertheless contained no unjust and undeserved or excessive and apparently dysteleological misery. Although there would be sufficient hardships and dangers and problems to give spice to life, there would be no utterly destructive and apparently vindictive evil. On the contrary, men's sufferings would always be seen either to be justly deserved punishments or else to serve a constructive purpose of moral training.
In such a world human misery would not evoke deep personal sympathy or call forth organized relief and sacrificial help and service. For it is presupposed in these compassionate reactions both that the suffering is not deserved and that it is bad for the sufferer. We do not acknowledge a moral call to sacrificial measures to save a criminal from receiving his just punishment of a patient from receiving the painful treatment that is to cure him. But men and women often act in true compassion and massive generosity and self-giving in the face of unmerited suffering, especially when it comes in such dramatic forms as an earthquake or a mining disaster. It seems, then, that in a world that is to be the scene of compassionate love and self-giving for others, suffering must fall upon mankind with something of the haphazardness and inequity that we now experience. It must be apparently unmerited, pointless, and incapable of being morally rationalized. For it is precisely this feature of our common human lot that creates sympathy between man and man and evokes the unselfish kindness and goodwill which are among the highest values of personal life. No underserved need would mean no uncalculating outpouring to meet that need.
Further, the systematic elimination of unjust suffering, would entail that there would be no doing of the right simply because it is right and without any expectation of reward. For the alternative to the present apparently random incidence of misfortune would be that happiness should be the predictable result of virtue, and misery the predictable outcome of wickedness. Under such a regime virtuous action would be immediately rewarded with happiness, and wicked action with misery. What Kant called the good will, which does the right simply and solely because it is right, and of which he said that this is the only intrinsically good thing in the world or out of it, would be excluded. For whilst the possibility of the good will by no means precludes that right action shall in fact eventually lead to happiness, and wrong action to misery, it does preclude this happening so certainly, instantly, and manifestly that virtue cannot be separated in experience and thought from its reward, or vice from its punishment." P. 335
I would state it more simply this way: We can't have a guarantee that being good will make us happy or our motives would be impossibly corrupted.
"Accordingly a world in which the sinner was promptly struck down by divine vengeance and in which the upright were the immediate recipients of divine reward would be incompatible with that divine purpose of soul-making that we are supposing to lie behind the arrangement of our present world.
Our 'solution', then, to this baffling problem of excessive and underserved suffering is a frank appeal to the positive value of mystery. Such suffering remains unjust and inexplicable, haphazard and cruelly excessive. The mystery of dysteleological suffering is a real mystery, impenetrable to the rationalizing human mind. It challenges Christian faith with its utterly baffling, alien, destructive meaninglessness. And yet at the same time, detached theological reflection can note that this very irrationality and this lack of ethical meaning contribute to the character of the world as a place in which true human goodness can occur and in which loving sympathy and compassionate self-sacrifice can take place. 'Thus, paradoxically,' as H.H. Farmer says, 'the failure of theism to solve all mysteries becomes part of its case!'" pp.335-6
I want to pause here for a moment because this touches on a theme that has been developing in my thinking for a couple years now. I think it's a way of understanding paradoxes. I'm sure it has a name and a million philosophers and theologians have been over this a million times but I'm not well-read enough to have come across it. But the basic idea is that our perception cannot grasp the ultimate, therefore we live with apparent paradoxes. The first example is my conception of free will. I see our wills as free because we are incapable of determining the trillions of inputs that actually form and direct our wills. Ultimately I don't think we have free will. Practically, I recognize that we do simply because we perceive that we do. Not only do we perceive it, but it is vital that we do in order to keep our society stable. I don't think a community that fully believed there is no free will would be a kind or loving one.
And here, Hick is pointing out another apparent paradox. Our perception that the world is randomly cruel and unfair to us is actually the cornerstone of our moral understanding. Because in communities where the idea that all bad things are happening to you because you were bad, I can only imagine terrible indifference if not downright cruelty. And yet the idea behind Hick's soul-making theodicy is that that all the bad stuff that happens to us is not truly random, but divinely appointed for an ultimately good cause. I don't think that idea, fully embraced, would help a community be loving either. Yet I believe it, and I don't see myself as becoming less loving. (Of course we are always the worst judges of our own character.) So I wonder if it is right to believe an idea for myself that I would not advocate my community embrace. Is that a paradox?
I don't think so, and here's why. The reason that these ideas can be toxic to a community is because different people respond to them in different ways. It's probably due to the variation in personality, maturity, and the values they are raised with. This is how is it that one man can believe all things are inevitable and becomes a lazy fatalist, disconnected from the emotional life of those around him; and I can accept the same premise but be driven the opposite way. We input the same data, but interpret it and respond to it differently. I suppose it's like those moments when a boat full of people realize they are all going to die. Some cower, some rage, some (according to the movies) want one last sexual fling.
This idea that a doctrine can create opposite trajectories sure makes it hard to judge its validity by its fruit, huh? It's also possible that this is just not true, and that my specific case of feeling motivated to good action from my doctrine of God's sovereignty is a misreading of myself. It could be that the theological upbringing (founded on free-will) I received put me in this orientation despite the sovereignty doctrine. Perhaps there is still a 'positive balance' in my do-good-stuff account that is keeping me on track, and eventually, when the capitol runs out I'll become a lazy fatalist. I think this is an issue I'd like to come back to in a future blog.
OK. Now back to my regularly scheduled copyright infringement:
"My general conclusion, then, is that this world, with all its unjust and apparently wasted suffering, may nevertheless be what the Irenaean strand of Christian thought affirms that it is, namely a divinely created sphere of soul-making. But if this is so, yet further difficult question now arise. A vale of soul-making that successfully makes persons of the desired quality may perhaps be justified by this result. But if the soul-making purpose fails, there can surely be no justification for 'the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible would'. And yet, so far as we can see, the soul-making process does in fact fail in our own world at least as often as it succeeds.
At this point a further, eschatological, dimension of Christian belief becomes importantly relevant, and must be brought into the discussion in the next chapter." P.336
The eschatological dimension Hick asserts next is the idea of universal salvation, which I've spilled countless pixels over, so there's no need to go into this. Suffice it to say, that without the universally victorious act of Christ to ensure that all souls are made complete, the soul-making theodicy is just as weak as the Augustinian theodicy. I'll just quote in agreement this bit and move on:
"We must thus affirm in faith that there will in the final accounting be no personal life that is unperfected and no suffering that has not eventually become a phase in the fulfillment of God's good purpose. Only so, I suggest, is it possible to believe both in the perfect goodness of God and in His unlimited capacity to perform His will. For if there are finally wasted lives and finally unredeemed sufferings, either God is not perfect in love or He is not sovereign in rule over His creation." P.340
Next Hick grapples with the apparent Biblical paradox of evil. The way God is shown as the author and purveyor of bad stuff, while in other places He is inimical to it; and how that plays out through our attitudes towards sin and evil. Jesus showed both sides in His dread and resistance to death, yet His ultimate acceptance that a good thing was being produced by it.
"Jesus saw his execution by the Romans as an experience that his heavenly Father desired him to accept, and that was thereby to be brought within the sphere of the divine purpose and made to serve the divine ends.
This view of suffering as capable of a constructive use continues in the remainder of the New Testament documents, expressing the attitude of the members of the earliest Christian communities. There are three main themes. There is, first, a rejoicing in the hardships and persecutions of Christian apostleship as a sharing of both the sufferings of Christ and the joy of his redemptive work. For 'Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps'(1 Peter 2:21); and 'as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too'(2 Cor. 1:5) Again, Paul writes to the Christian at Colossae, 'I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…'(Col. 1:24)
Closely connected with this theme, there is, second, the vivid expectation of sharing in the joy of Christ's heavenly Kingdom. 'So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…'(2 Cor.4:16-17)
And third, there is a sense of the 'soul-making' significance of suffering. Even the Lord himself was made perfect in this way. 'For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.' (Heb. 2:10) And the same must be true of us. 'It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? … For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained for it.'(Heb. 12:7,11) Therefore, in the words of St. Paul, 'we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…'(Rom. 5:3-4)"Pp. 356-7
So how do we understand these biblical views of sin and evil when they seem so paradoxical? God is responsible for evil… and He hates it. The Bible clearly says both.
"I suggest, then, that these two contrasting biblical attitudes to evil reflect, on the one hand, our existential involvement in the long, slow, difficult, painful process of 'soul-making' and, on the other hand, our faith that such a process is in fact taking place within and around us; and that both attitudes are wholly valid. The prominence of the monotheistic –instrumental view of evil at several points in the Old Testament is due to the fact that the faith of the prophets reached beyond our human scene, and looked upward to God, participating by faith in His view of the drama of human history as the outworking of His own sovereign purpose. And the strongly dualistic view of evil is so vividly present at many points in the New Testament because this reflects God's incarnate view of the world and of human life from within. Experienced from within the stresses of human existence, evil is a sheerly malevolent reality, hostile alike to God and His creation. It is a threat to be feared, a temptation to be resisted, a foe to be fought. This is the indelible quality of evil as it is seen through human eyes in the anguish of loss or remorse or anxiety, or the weaknesses and smarts of bodily illness. Seen, on the other hand, in the perspective of a living faith in the reality of the great, ongoing , divine purpose which enfolds all time and all history, evil has no status in virtue of which it might threaten even God Himself. It has an interim and impermanent character which deprives it of the finality that would otherwise constitute so much of its terror. Neither its beginning, its course, nor its end lies outside God's ultimate control.
In a coalescence of these two perspectives, or a penetration of our continuing natural awareness by our occasional religious awareness – a coalescence whose fitful and flickering character reflects the precarious quality of our own faith – we are conscious of the divine love, which has ordained our ambiguous human existence, as also actively present within our agonizing human experience of evil, but sets it within the context of God's purpose of good and under the assurance of the ultimate triumph of that purpose. In virtue of this wider context of meaning there can be a partial but significant transformation of our present encounter with evil." Pp. 358-9
The transformation Hick describes is an attitude or posture towards the swirling evil we see and encounter every day. Within us, our sinful acts, he insists, is still completely our personal responsibility because, "They are our actions" and "flow from our own responsible choices." So "The ultimate divine responsibility for the universe of which we are part, and our personal responsibility for our own actions, do not clash with one another." P.360 In the framework I quoted above we see this as a matter of context and perspective. But here Hick seems to contradict that framework by making ultimate statements. He further confuses me by this statement about the suffering and evil of others, specifically citing the Nazi activity at Auschwitz in WWII, "Most certainly God did not want those who committed these fearful crimes against humanity to act as they did. His purpose for the world was retarded by them and the power of evil within it increased." P. 361 Again, he speaks ultimately where I see this as a view based on perspective. I know I sound monstrous when I say it, but I DO think God wanted those horrible things to happen. I cannot see a way for an omnipotent God to have anything other than what He wants to happen, happen. He could have intervened at any number of levels to stop it if that was His desire. He could have miraculously stopped the extermination as he did for the OT trio in the fiery furnace. He could have assisted one of the plots to assassinate Hitler before that all went down. He could have moved the Jewish people to have never inhabited Europe. He could have so constituted the DNA and parenting practices of those who would become leaders in Germany so that they would be docile men of beneficent principle. (This would not change any perceived free will.) And ultimately, He could have chosen NOT to create the universe and humans. But in His omniscience He decided to make things go exactly as they did. This does not make the Nazi actions 'good', they were by their very definitions evil. It means that God's ultimate plan for every Nazi and Jew involved in the holocaust was being fulfilled in and through the evil that occurred. It is only in our existential and limited view of reality that such acts of evil outrage us. (As they should!)
So I give John Hick a big 'meh' for this section which seems to me to contradict the brilliant previous pages I quoted. Here is some more back and forth on the issue:
"The dualistic and instrumental views of evil in the Bible are thus derived from the two perspectives of the religious life, as immersed in the historical process with its uncertainties and threats, and as participating by faith in God's on-going creative purpose, secure in the knowledge of His final triumph. However, the question still remains: What is the relation between these two points of view? Does one of them describe reality and the other appearances? Is evil really good but only seems from our finite human point of view to be bad? Or is evil really bad, but is made to seem good in speculative theory? Neither suggestion can be accepted for a moment. We must insist both that evil is really evil and that God has really willed for a good purpose a world in which evil, with its demonic quality, arises. For it is an inevitable deliverance of our moral consciousness, of which nothing must be allowed to rob us, that evil in all its forms is to be abhorred and resisted and feared. And it is –as I have been arguing through these chapters of Part IV – an inevitable theological inference, to which we must not blind ourselves, that the actual universe, with all its good and evil, exists on the basis of God's will and receives its meaning from His purpose. However, these two conclusions do not stand in simple contradiction to one another. The one says that evil is bad, harmful, destructive, fearful, and to be fought against as a matter of ultimate life and death." Pp. 362-3
I have to interject here: please note the flaw I see in Hicks argument at this juncture. He uses the world 'ultimate' to describe the threat of evil. I'll come back to this after concluding his thought…
"But the other does not deny this. It does not say the evil is not fearful and threatening, inimical to all good, and to be absolutely resisted." P. 363
And note his lack of 'ultimate' in that sentence.
"It says that God has ordained a world which contains evil – real evil – as a means to the creation of the infinite good of a Kingdom of Heaven within which His creatures will have come as perfected persons to love and serve Him, through a process in which their own free insight and response have been an essential element.
The bridge between the two standpoints is provided by the Christian hope of the Kingdom of God. The compatibility between the 'existential' view of evil as utterly malevolent and harmful and the theological view of it as divinely permitted and over-ruled, is a form of the compatibility between the temporal process which we know by our own present immersion within it, and the future completion and transformation of it which we affirm by faith. We have seen that evil must ultimately be defined as that which thwarts God's purpose for His creation." P. 363
And this is where I get lost. "Thwarts God's purpose"? Really? Then we get what sounds to me like more double-talk.
"This means that if in fact God's purpose of universal good is eventually attained, then in relation to that fulfillment nothing will finally have been sheerly and irredeemably evil." P. 363
See, that I agree with. But to me that HAS to mean that evil is not 'ultimately' threatening BECAUSE God utilizes it for an ultimately good purpose.
"For everything will receive a new meaning in the light of the end to which it leads. What now threatens us as final evil will prove to have been interim evil out of which good will in the end have been brought. That is to say, there will have been states of the temporal process which might have led, and which indeed by themselves would inevitably have led, to the thwarting of God's purpose and so have been irretrievably evil; but in fact they will, in the retrospect of God's completed work, be seen to have been used as stages in the triumphant fulfillment of the divine purpose of good." Pp 363-4
But doesn't that mean that evil 'ultimately' does not "thwart" God in any way? Yes, evil would be ultimately threatening if God was not going to use it for a good purpose. But the whole premise of the soul-making theodicy is that God will use all evil for an ultimately good purpose. Which means then that evil is not ultimately threatening us. That's the great hope of this theology.
"Of such moments –which we know as contemporary acts of sin or contemporary moments of suffering – it is true that they really are evil and will remain so until they have been forced to serve God's creative purpose. They are genuinely and unequivocally evil, and at enmity with God and His creatures, unless and until they are turned to an end that is alien to their own character." P. 364
Yes. Exactly. In the here and now there is real evil that is really bad. This is the existential view of our reality. But the whole point of this – I thought – was that our faith causes our vision to transcend the existential view, and so transform our attitude towards the evil we encounter. Because we believe that God does 'ultimately' use all things for good, we can endure and hope no matter what crap we are going through. To me, that is the great message in this theodicy, but Hick undercuts it when he says the threat is 'ultimate'. But next he explicates the idea with a twist that maybe is just too advanced for my puny brain, or utilizes the concept of paradox which I reject.
"They do not merely seem to threaten us with ultimate destruction; they really are such a threat. And yet precisely because they really do thus threaten our deepest good we may by God's grace so repent of our sins and so bear our sufferings that they become elements within something else, namely our reconciliation with God and our growth into the finite 'likeness' of our Maker. We thus have to say, on the basis of our present experience, that evil is really evil, really malevolent and deadly and also, on the basis of faith, that it will in the end be defeated and made to serve God's good purposes. From the point of view of that future completion it will not have been merely evil, for it will have been used in the creation of infinite good. This duality and paradox is expressed by a sentence which the Christian Church has always cherished even when it has been unable to assimilate it into the prevailing theological framework: 'O felix culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem' (O fortunate crime which merited such and so great a redeemer). In their far-reaching implications these words are the heart of Christian theodicy."
That is the end of the main part of the book. (He has a concluding chapter that covers some recent developments on the theodicy front.)
In total, I'm very impressed and excited by Evil and the God of Love. Especially the last section that I almost completely transcribed. Even though I disagree with two of Hicks accepted premises, (acceptance of real paradox and ultimate free will) I still find the overall explanatory system to be convincing and powerfully explained. Here is a theory that proposes consistent answers to most of the biggest questions in life. While the Augustinian traditional Christian theory I was raised with had answers, it was my inability to perceive consistency in that system that drove me to look elsewhere for a system that my brain and heart could accept. And this is just such a system. (After I surgically excise the parts about free will and paradox.)
I want to play with a couple ideas that Hick sort of brought up, but stuck out to me. One of them is the idea of viewing sin and evil from an ultimate or transcendent perspective. How should that manifest in the Christian life? It is almost exactly the same issue we see in the free-will/predestination debate. Opponents of predestination argue that if one lives their life by this precept they will inevitably become spiritually lethargic because they will lack the motivation that comes from being in control of your own destiny. This is also similar to the argument I often hear against Universalism: why bother witnessing if everyone ends up in heaven? To me, all three of these arguments are answered by the obvious state we find ourselves in as humans: WE DON'T KNOW THE FUTURE.
This ignorance is the fuel that feeds the fire of activity. Or maybe it's the engine, and Love is the fuel… I can believe that sin and evil will ultimately be used for good, but still vigorously oppose them because I don't know how or when such a reversal will take place. In the meantime I desire to relieve the suffering of those around me to the best of my abilities because Love prompts me to do so and in faith I acknowledge that doing so is part of my growth. If I KNEW that a specific evil would accomplish a specific good in someone's future life, then yes, I could happily inflict that evil on that person as much as possible. Like those parents who beat their kids for everything and justify it by claiming it is ultimately good for them. But that is a perversion of love because it presumes knowledge that we humans don't have. Beyond this, there is the safety net of our inability to truly know anything for certain. So even if I fell into one of the associated errors such as thinking that since all suffering brings good, I should, at best, never work to reduce suffering in myself or others, and at worse, inflict suffering for the 'good' of others, I would be contradicting my natural empathetic love. And again, I would be arrogantly assuming that I KNOW what is true. Since I could be wrong about God using evil for good, or wrong about the existence of God, I dare not act in any way that inflicts suffering or fails to help when the opportunity arises.
So that is how I address the negative possible side-effects of understanding God's work this way. Let me talk about the positive effects I see in my life. First and foremost is peace. I come from a culture that is typified in Frank Peretti's book This Present Darkness, which instantiates the war between good and evil with literal demons and angles in literal combat with literal weapons in the spiritual world. The more Christians prayed and 'put on the armor of God' the better the angels did and the worse the demons fared. He tapped into the modern evangelical psyche that sees demons behind every bush and attributes every flu and car crash to malevolent demonic forces battling against God's will. Within this milieu our every moment is precariously balanced on a precipice of doom. If we haven't prayed enough, or tithed enough, or any other positive religious act, we have opened ourselves to literal attack that can literally damage our bodies… literally.
While I don't deny the idea that our actions play a large part in determining how well or poorly our lives go, I find simply trusting that God has given me a reasonable amount of 'work' to do in this life is very calming. I'm not letting people starve or die of cancer because I'm not on my knees begging God to help them every waking moment. I don't have to perform rituals to keep myself and my family safe. I don't have to feel guilty for not being a missionary because every second another x-thousand people are going to hell forever. But within the freedom of this peace I still choose to do many of these things because I recognize the benefit they bring regardless of demons and angels battling over my head unseen. I know when I pray for safety on a trip that the act focuses my mind and in some way adjusts my posture to be safer. But I'm not afraid that if I don't do that then the angles won't have the power to fend off the demons that are always trying to push my car off a cliff.
So to me, fear of evil is caused by a lack of faith. (I'm not implying that I'm never afraid of evil.) But "faith" is such a general term, it requires a specific target before it means anything. The question regarding my faith in a particular definition of God versus a traditional Christian definition of God makes all the difference in my view of evil. Before, I had faith in a God that had a lot of power, but when it came to our lives, had very little power without our constant struggle to give it to Him. Now I have faith in a God Who designed us - from our DNA to our culture to our upbringing – from the ground up. A God Who built our wills to desire the things we do and act the way we do, and all for His glory. I don't care if I'm a puppet or a robot as long as I'm bringing glory to God with Love, then I can be whatever it is I am. Whether my actions are freely chosen from infinite possibilities, or are animated by a single Designer, I take joy in what is before me and attempt to bring that joy to others.
The other issue regards the mystery of whatever process may occur after death to bring us into a right relationship with God. This is of course alluded to in many places in the New Testament with dark visions of horror and shame. If you try to take it all literally you will have a contradictory mess of silliness. Darkness and fire and eternity and death and the end of death and zombie worms and goats and… well, suffice it to say all these symbols point to some kind of reality that I don't believe we can literalize or even begin to understand. So all theological work on this subject is even more speculative and unjustified than regular theology. But let me throw this idea up here just because it's something I'm pondering. One of the problems we encounter with the soul-making theodicy that Hick does not address with any detail is the diversity of life spans and mental capability. The idea is that every single soul created eventually encounters the experiences necessary to become… perfect? I'll use the word perfect to indicate whatever state it is where we are entering the gates of heaven. (Whatever that means.) The obvious problem is that stillborn infants, severely brain damaged, and severely insane people pose serious obstacles to those experiences we would expect to find in a soul-making scenario. Things like learning to put others before yourself and loving your enemies are hard to teach a fetus or a coma patient. Being a believer in predestination, I would also group all those with inclinations-that-push-them-towards-evil into this group of problem-children for the theory.
One way to view our post-mortem experience would be as a finishing school, building on our earthly experiences, and completing our maturity. But that model doesn't work well if you never left your mother's womb, or weren't able to tell a person from a peanut.
There are work-arounds for this problem. One is the idea of reincarnation. That way we could be accumulating the necessary experience through multiple lives, so a completely insane life would not pose a problem since the next or previous life may have been perfectly normal. I'm not completely against this idea, (Except in the Hindu form where ones unfortunate station in life is attributed to being a horrible person in the last life.) but I don't think it's necessary to fix our soul-making dilemma.
Another idea I've thought of is that the finished state of perfection for each soul is not the same for everyone. There could very well be different levels of completion and those whose lives are cut short by early death, insanity, or disability may just fill lower or different functions. This does not tickle my egalitarian nature, to be sure. But hierarchy is a constant reality in both nature and scripture, so I can't say that it would surprise me.
The third idea that I've had is the one I like the best. Rather than viewing each person's soul as a complete and definite whole, seeing us as all parts of each other and God. That is to see the 'self' as a temporary state that is the result of time/space/physical world. And that 'self' is simply not the same type of thing after death. This way, the process of perfection through fire is undergone by everyone together. We all would have access to every person's memories/experiences and learn from one another in a massive collective experience that flattens the mountains and fills in the valleys of our souls. Because time is not a factor in this experience, it could very well be the case that what we are experiencing now IS that process or part of it. This could be what Paul meant when he said Jesus would rule over all, then submit to God, and then all will be in all. He could be talking about consciousness. We could all be 'in' each other, learning and growing from our combined experiences.
I don't know… it's kind of a cool, mind-blowing thought. If it's true then I have a lot of growing to do. I really like being a 'self' and having a personal identity. But I'll bet it's possible to have both personal identity and group oneness with new bodies in a new earth. Who knows?