Critique of John Hick - An Irenaean Theodicy
Davis (Stephen T.)
Source: Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, ed. by Stephen T. Davis, ©1981, John Knox Press, pp. 58-61
Paper - Abstract

Paper StatisticsBooks / Papers Citing this PaperColour-ConventionsDisclaimer

Full Text

  1. (p. 58) Everyone who is interested in the philosophy of religion must by now be familiar with Hick's "Irenaean Theodicy." It has been chewed over considerably in the journals, and since I have no wish to go over ground that has already been covered, I will try to look at things here from a fresh perspective. Of the theodicies presented in this book (besides my own, of course) Hick's is the one with which I am in most sympathy. The main reason for this is that Hick (like me and unlike the others) tries to retain rational belief in "a limitlessly good and limitlessly powerful being."
  2. In addition, I agree with Hick on several other important points: that there is a sense in which God is ultimately responsible for the state of the world and a sense in which human beings are responsible for their own evil deeds; that human beings were created as free, morally neutral creatures in a religiously ambiguous world; that eschatology is crucial to theodicy; that moral values (and thus moral growth) could not exist without pain and suffering; and that in the midst of life's ambiguities and suffering people must trust in God.
  3. However, I do have several reservations about Hick's theodicy, some of which are more important than others. Let me mention four.
  4. First, while no theodicy is free of difficulties, I believe Hick's is not entirely convincing in its handling of the amount of evil that exists in the world. I notice, for example, that while Hick stresses the need for plausibility and not just logical possibility in theodicy, when he turns to the question of the plausibility of the Irenaean theodicy, he finds himself twice saying only that it "may well be true." I agree that it may well be true, but is it true? Well, what gives me pause is Hick's argument that since no amount of evil, however small, would be tolerable to us (if God subtracted, say, cancer from our world something else would then rank as our most feared disease), the amount of evil that actually exists in the world does not tell against the Irenaean theodicy. But the problem with this argument is that it appears to cut the other way too: it seems to imply that human suffering could get infinitely worse than it now is and still be compatible with the existence of a perfectly good and omnipotent God. And this, at the very least, seems to me implausible.
  5. Second, I am dubious about Hick's hope of a gradual spiritual evolution1 till human beings reach a full state of God-consciousness. Since I see no convincing evidence that the human race is improving morally or spiritually, I prefer to hope
    (p. 59) for a sudden spiritual revolution in the eschaton. Now I am not accusing Hick of 19th century theological optimism; he knows that God's "person-making" process "is not completed on this earth." Most people only attain it after death, he says. But if people are as morally and spiritually free after death as they are now — as Hick claims — then the evidence of how people behave here and now does not give me much hope that the human race will gradually improve till all are the God-conscious "persons" God intended. My own view is that at a decisive point in history God will seize the initiative and will give those who say yes to him a new "heart made of flesh" (Ezek. 11:19-20). He will, in short, suddenly transform us into "new persons."
  6. Third, I believe Hick also faces what I call the "cost-effective" criticism of the free will defense (see my main essay), and I am curious how he would answer it. It may be true, as he claims, that virtues which are freely learned on one's own are intrinsically more valuable than virtues bestowed as a gift of God. But is this excess virtue worth the price we pay for it, i.e., the great evils in the world human freedom has produced? It may also be true, given the physical and psychological laws at work in the world, that free kittens and persons develop adaptive behavior patterns in our inimical world much more readily than unfree ones. But surely an omnipotent being is not bound by these laws. Surely he could have made us grow and learn in a much less painful, harsh, and destructive world.
  7. My final and most serious criticism of Hick concerns his commitment to universalism. By way of introduction I would like to call attention to Hick's requirement that in order to be acceptable a theodicy must be "consistent with the data.. . of the religious tradition on which it is based. " I strongly agree with this. My complaint is that I do not believe universalism is consistent with the data of the Christian tradition. But before speaking further about universalism, let me briefly move to a related general question which I, as a theologically conservative Christian, would like to address not only to Hick but to the other contributors to this book as well. My question is this: if fidelity to the teachings of the Bible and to the Christian religious tradition no longer plays the normative role it once did in developing theological propositions that are acceptable to Christians, what will?
  8. It seems clear, both from what they officially say and from what they clearly presuppose, that none of my fellow contributors feels any strong need to be guided in theology by Scripture or Christian tradition. They do not feel particularly bound in any normative sense to do theology either on the basis of the Protestant methodological principle of sola scriptura or the Catholic principle of "Scripture and tradition. " How then do we determine what is allowable and what is not in Christian theology? I mean this as a serious question. Can a person come up with any thesis, however bizarre, and push it on Christians? What if some future theologian says that the devil created God or that Jesus Christ was an astronaut from Tralfalmadore or even that God wants all red-headed people to
    (p. 60) move to Borneo? In an age of religious charlatans like Jim Jones (who reportedly told his people, "I'm the nearest thing to God you'll ever see") I would have thought we needed far more, not less, adherence to the Bible and to the Christian religious tradition. This, I believe, is our only epistemological protection against religious figures and theologians who stray from the truth.
  9. Let me say a word about universalism and the Bible. The Bible does teach that it is God's will that everyone be saved (Rom. 11:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9) and that the work of God's grace in Christ was designed for the salvation of everyone (Titus 2:11; Heb. 2:9; 1 John 2:2). Pauline thought also includes the notion of God's ultimate total victory and of the eventual reconciliation of everything to him (Rom. 8:19-21; 1 Cor. 15:22-28; 2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 1:10, 20-23; Col. 1:19-20). But none of this implies universalism. There are also a few texts which universalists say explicitly predict the salvation of everyone (John 12:32; Rom. 5:18; Phil. 2:9-11). But on the assumption—which I am prepared to make — that Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel do not blatantly contradict themselves, we can see that universalists fail to interpret these texts correctly. For these same biblical authors can also make the statements found in John 3:17-18; Romans 5:18-19; and 1 Timothy 4:10 (assuming 1 Timothy is Pauline). The first shows, contrary to the universalist's interpretation of the "all" passages in the Fourth Gospel, that the Son's being the savior of the world, whatever precisely it means, is quite consistent with some people being condemned. The second shows that Paul's doctrine that "all men" are acquitted and have life, whatever precisely it means, does not entail universalism, for it can equally well be stated (as if in Hebrew parallelism) in terms of "many" men. And the third shows that the sense in which God is the savior of "all men" is not the same sense in which he is the savior of "those who believe." He is the savior of all, but he is especially the savior of those who believe.
  10. Let me confess that I would like universalism to be true. I would find it comforting to believe that all people will be saved, and Hick may be correct that the problem of evil is a bit less intractable for the universalist than for the non-universalist. But as a matter of theological method, we cannot affirm a doctrine just because we would like it to be true. The plain teaching of Scripture, I believe, is that some will be condemned to eternal separation from God. See, for example, Matthew 7:13; 12:32; 25:41; 2 Cor. 5:10; and 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9. And the reality of hell seems inextricably tied to such major themes in New Testament theology as God, sin, judgment, atonement, and reconciliation. That is enough for me; that is why I cannot affirm universalism.
  11. But how can a just and good God condemn someone to eternal torment? In the first place, I do not believe hell is a place of torment. New Testament metaphors that seem to suggest this are merely metaphors. Second, I believe the citizens of hell are there because they freely choose to be there. Unless one bows to God and makes his will one's own, heaven is too much to bear and one chooses hell.
    (p. 61) Thus it is not only just but loving that God allows them to live forever in hell. Third, hell may have the effect on many of hardening their resolve never to repent; sin may voluntarily continue; and if it is right for evil-doers to be punished for the evil deeds they do here and now, this will be true of the evil deeds they do after death. Fourth, Christians believe their salvation is a matter of sheer grace; we deserve to be condemned, but out of love rather than sheer justice God forgives us and reconciles us to him. If hell is inconsistent with God's love, then our salvation is not a matter of grace: it becomes a matter of our justly being freed from a penalty we don't really deserve.


Critique of "Hick (John) - An Irenaean Theodicy".

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - Dec 2020. Please address any comments on this page to File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page