Critique of John Hick - An Irenaean Theodicy
Roth (John K.)
Source: Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, ed. by Stephen T. Davis, ©1981, John Knox Press, pp. 61-63
Paper - Abstract

Paper StatisticsBooks / Papers Citing this PaperColour-ConventionsDisclaimer

Full Text

  1. (p. 61) Three features of Hick's theodicy attract me. I concur with his emphasis on God's omnipotence. I share his belief that theodicies are doomed unless they include an eschatological dimension that points to personal life beyond death. I also agree that demonstrations of logical possibility take us hardly anywhere. Far more decisive is the degree to which a theodicy is plausible.
  2. By Hick's reckoning, a theodicy's plausibility rises or falls to the extent that the theory fits facts. Unfortunately, even if one accepts that qualification, what is plausible to one person may be a snare and a delusion to another. No doubt John Hick has a possible theodicy. However, because I find it falling short by its own criterion, his perspective is not one that I can accept. In a word, Hick's theodicy is just too good to be true.
  3. Hick rightly calls the Holocaust an instance of "demonic malice and cruelty." His theodicy requires him to reconcile that event with other crucial claims. They include these affirmations: (1) God is not only "limitlessly powerful" but also "limitlessly good and loving." (2) This God has created human life in an evolutionary1 setting where progress toward person-making is the aim and where achievement of person-perfecting is the end. Hick's theodicy is implausible to me because I am convinced that his claims about God's goodness cannot stand the onslaught of what he calls the principal threat to his own perspective: "the sheer amount and intensity of both moral and natural evil."
  4. Hick's theory tends to keep the most wanton qualities of evil at arm's length. Some hardship and pain may make persons stronger and better, but Hick, I think, sees the world too much as a schoolroom when it is actually more like a dangerous alley. How is the Holocaust compatible with the plan of person-perfecting that he describes? How does Auschwitz fit the claim that there is divine intent ensuring evolutionary2 progress where human character is concerned? In the Holocaust persons were ruined and destroyed more than they were made or perfected. Auschwitz is waste, the very antithesis of providential design and purpose in God's economy.
  5. (p. 62) Of course, an Irenaean theodicy banks on life after death3 to redeem waste and to justify God's limitless love and goodness. Presumably God's heavenly persuasion will reconcile everything and everybody; all experience will figure into our ultimate perfection. Still, how will that process work in relation to waste that cannot be undone any more than it did not have to be? Much explanation — from Hick, if not from God — is needed if it is going to be plausible that our lives have always been surrounded by a limitless love and goodness that never let us go and that make all things well. The arguments may not be God's, but Hick does offer examples of how that explanation might unfold. They are plausible if one wants to legitimate evil.
  6. John Hick is critical of some free-will defenses for God. Yet his own theodicy belongs in that genre. According to Hick, persons-in-the-making must be free. Indeed they must be free to do all manner of evil. In addition, if men and women are to grow into a genuinely loving relationship with God, human freedom will entail both an "epistemic distance" from God and a pilgrimage through moral dilemmas and natural difficulties in which failure, pain, and untimely death are live options.
  7. The general outline may be correct: if we are fully to become God's children, our environment may have to be "broadly the kind of world of which we find ourselves to be a part." Its breadth, however, makes that claim insufficient. It will not do for Hick to take what may be a wiser course and to admit that some facts cannot be reconciled with God's limitless goodness and love. But so long as he stays with his general approach, the effect is precisely to leave unjustified the grisly details and the structures that produce them. When he does move to consider those details, however, his theory fares no better. The reason is that Hick must defend evil, and he cannot do so without condoning — even if only inadvertently or unintentionally — what happened to its victims.
  8. For instance, Hick notes that there is "intolerable" evil. He mentions this reality, however, not to reveal its sheer waste but to mitigate evil by relativizing it. In a world of person-making freedom, Hick implies, people can always find something to fault no matter how good things are. There will always be some evil, something that is "worst" and therefore intolerable. Since we must have some "intolerable" evil in order to become the perfected persons we are destined to be, the further implication appears to be that we ought not to protest very much. Such implications, unintended though they may be, lurk in Hick's apologies. Those implications do everyone a disservice. Most people will not protest hardship, or even pain, if they can clearly see a commensurate benefit. Moreover, it is not impossible that there could be a world with commensurability between hardship and benefit, even if this present one cannot qualify. On Hick's terms, though, moral value would be diminished in that case, for virtue would never be its own reward. In a theodicy so heavily dependent on an eschatological resolution for the problem of evil, it is questionable whether virtue will ever be its own
    (p. 63) reward in the final analysis, but however that dilemma comes out, Hick's apologies still seem to be offered at the expense of evil's victims.
  9. Like Leibniz, Hick urges contentment with the metaphysical structure of our current world, if not with the details of our experience. Thus, he argues that if one lets reason prevail, we will not want God "to revoke ... freedom when its wrong exercise becomes intolerable to us." Hick makes this claim on the grounds that our taking "with full seriousness the value of human freedom and responsibility" will enable us to see that "humankind's moral freedom is indivisible, and can lead eventually to a consummation of limitless value which could never be attained without that freedom."
  10. Is it clear, however, that moral freedom is or must be indivisible, or that such indivisibility is all that good? The moral fabric of human existence, for example, depends on intervention, on stopping people from doing certain things. On the other hand, Hick's vaunted indivisibility allows freedom to make all hell break loose. Apparently God will not intervene to stop this waste, but that fact does little to enhance the plausibility of his limitless love and goodness — unless "limitless" implies something very strange in this case. Rather the waste of permissiveness, God's and ours, in allowing freedom to be indivisible augurs against God's benevolence. True, if some "limitless value" (whatever that might be) results from indivisible liberty, we can be more tranquil. The problem, though, is to imagine how evil's waste will fit. If our epistemic distance from God were less, we might understand more, but Hick also suggests that if we knew too much now, the risk factors in our lives would be curtailed and the grandeur of our character might be diminished. Such excuses, I fear, defend evil too much.
  11. If Hick is correct, my fear is groundless. Waste will waste away. Evil will be transcended, rendered inconsequential, forgotten so that neither God nor humanity is in any way permanently soiled. There shall be pie in the sky by and by — a whole one, not just a slice. This theodicy is nice. Its plausibility, however, must be judged in terms of how nice life seems to be. John Hick finds it nice enough to justify calling God's love and goodness limitless. The sheer amount and intensity of evil's waste make me demur.


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