An Irenaean Theodicy: Response to Critiques
Hick (John)
Source: Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, ed. by Stephen T. Davis, ©1981, John Knox Press, pp. 63-68
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  1. (p. 63) Much depends, in the formation and criticism of theodicies, upon whether one starts from the pressing fact of evil in its many forms, and proceeds from this to develop a conception of God; or starts from a conviction as to the reality and goodness of God, derived from the stream of religious experience of which one is a part, and then asks whether the grim reality of evil is compatible with this. The first path leads to the conclusion that there may be a good but finite, or an
    (p. 64) infinite but partly evil, deity. This is the path followed by Griffin, Roth, and Sontag. I can see how it is that having set their feet on this path they are led to that destination.
  2. However, others of us start elsewhere: from a powerful sense of the reality and love of God, as known particularly through the life and teaching of Jesus and the religious tradition which has flowed from him. The "Godness" of God entails that he is creator of and sovereign over the universe of which we are part. Further, "God is love" (1 John 4:8), known as our heavenly Father. He gives and forgives; and his ultimate gift is eternal life. He is sovereign, but leaves one free both for good and for evil. He could, for example, have intervened to rescue Jesus from death, but it was not in accordance with his purpose to do so (Matt. 26: 53-4). He allows people a genuine freedom, and accordingly "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45). God is known in Christian experience as the creative love in whose hands we are, who calls us to give ourselves to him in return amidst all the ambiguities of human history, and who is leading us through further stages of self-giving to that fulfillment of being, beyond the scope of our imaginations, which is eternal life.
  3. Given this faith in the love and sovereignty of God, how are we to understand the oppressive realities of human wickedness, and of pain and suffering, in ourselves and others? This is the form of the theodicy question to which the Irenaean type of theology offers an answer. It can offer a general but not a detailed understanding of our human situation in its relation to God. A vast surrounding mystery remains — much greater than in the case of theodicies which reject the problem by denying either God's limitless goodness and love or his limitless power. Thus we cannot show that the "epistemic distance" from God at which humankind has been brought into being, in order to endow one with cognitive freedom in relation to the maker, is the precisely optimum "distance"; or that the level of natural and moral evil in the world is precisely the right level — neither more nor less - for this stage of the creation of human animals1 into children of God; nor can we spell out the exact nature of the life to come and its ultimate eschatological fulfillment; nor, again, can we prove that the product of God's long creative process will be worth its cost — unless the abstract principle be accepted that an infinite gain must be worth a finite loss. But on the other hand this acknowledgement of mystery is not a mere evasion, but follows from the basic Irenaean theodicy principle. For the world, considered as an environment for the first phase of a long process of spiritual creation, is not a deterministic system but a living realm involving important elements of freedom and contingency. Its successive events, both good and evil, have not been individually "sent" by God, nor planned as a divinely prearranged obstacle course. What is divinely created is a world, functioning in accordance with its own laws, in which human freedom is to be exercised with real consequences in response to real
    (p. 65) problems and challenges. That life's contingencies, including both its blessings and its calamities, affect us indiscriminately, and not in proportion to our desert, is a precondition of the moral life and hence of the moral growth of the person. For if bad things happened always and only to evil people, and good things only to good people, we should inevitably be seeking rewards and avoiding penalties rather than making genuine moral choices.
  4. Accordingly I do not accept Griffin's demand that "Hick must defend God's decision to allow every instance of moral evil that has occurred." What has to be defended, surely, or at least accepted, is God's decision to create us as free beings who are to come to our eventual perfection through the exercise of our own freedom. For if we accept the precious gift of freedom, we accept that we and others may misuse that freedom without God intervening to revoke it. (I find it hard to take seriously Griffin's suggestion that God's purpose in creation might be satisfied by giving us the mere illusion rather than the reality of freedom. The kind of God he is talking about must be morally and intellectually limited as well as limited in power). Nor can I accept Sontag's insistence that it is not sufficient "that our actual world is at least one of those which might exemplify God's plan" but that we "need to know why we inhabit this particular world." If knowing why we inhabit this particular world means knowing why the world is just as it is — why, for example, it contains this and that specific danger and challenge, why God did not bar this and that particular disease and peril, why his creative work proceeds on this rather than a different time-scale, — then we cannot know this. All that we can do is to see that our world, with its ambiguities and mysteries, its evils as well as the good within it, may be a phase in the outworking of a creative divine purpose which is leading us to limitless good. And if our awareness of God as good and loving is strong enough to bear the weight, we are, I believe, entitled to opt for this interpretation of human existence.
  5. To a great extent the defense of this view has to consist in correcting misunderstandings and repudiating misleading caricatures. The eschatological aspect of the Irenaean type of theodicy is particularly vulnerable to these. Thus it is a common misunderstanding to characterize its eschatology in some such terms as the hope that "We'll have a nice time in heaven." The Irenaean theme, however, is not compensation, but the fulfillment of our nature in relation to God. There is also misunderstanding involved in Griffin's view that "the future life or lives will not differ qualitatively from this one in terms of the relation between God and the soul; it will differ only quantitatively, i.e., it will be much longer." In discussing possible conceptions of life after death2 (in Death and Eternal Life) I have argued for a very different view from this. One cannot go beyond hypotheses. But the hypothesis that seems to me somewhat probable is that any continuation of the person-making process beyond death will consist in a series of lives, each with its own beginning and end; for it is the boundaries of life that provide the pressure that constitutes it a person-making history. I conceive of
    (p. 66) these as embodied lives in a real environment. But the transition from one life to the next will, according to this hypothesis, be via a temporary bardo phase in which the disembodied3 consciousness, creating its own mind-dependent world, and finding its real desires reflected in that world, comes to a greater self-knowledge. This is a kind of psycho-analytic experience, preparing the individual for a relative new beginning. Thus the further lives are not mere quantitative continuations of the present life, but part of a spiritual progress towards the ultimate state which lies beyond the series of finite lives.
  6. It is another misunderstanding of the Irenaean hypothesis — in this case on Davis' part — to suppose that it postulates "a gradual spiritual evolution" such as would be contradicted by a lack of signs "that the human race is improving morally or spiritually." It is hard to determine whether the human race is improving, ethically or religiously, along the plane of earthly history. But the hypothesis of an ascent towards God through many lives in many worlds does not entail that successive generations in this world should show a moral or spiritual advance. Rather, the postulated movement towards human perfection should occur in the personal histories and interactions of individuals through the successive par-eschatological worlds.
  7. This hypothesis of a development brought about by free human responses, from self-centered human animal4 to self-transcending child of God, seems to me more probable than Davis' theory that God will suddenly transform us into "new persons." For the implication that it is consistent with the divine method of creation for God suddenly to transform us into perfect beings, seems to undermine the significance of our present life. If God can transform us at death (which comes for some in old age but for others in youth or even within moments after birth) into the perfect beings whom he desires to exist, he could presumably do this at any point in our lives, and so the long hard business of person-making through interactions with others in a harsh and challenging environment would be unnecessary. It therefore seems to me preferable to postulate a continued process of person-making in other environments beyond this world.
  8. Still in the realm of eschatology, Davis argues that the idea of universal salvation, which the Irenaean type of theodicy requires, is not "consistent with the data of the Christian tradition." The reason why universalism is required in an Irenaean type of theodicy is that a justification of suffering and wickedness as part of the process through which finite spiritual life is being brought to perfection, requires that the process shall eventually succeed. If it fails, the sin and pain that it has involved remain unjustified. A person's sin and suffering can be redeemed, retrospectively, by becoming part of the history by which that person arrives at the fulfillment of God's purpose. But if only some arrive at that fulfillment, whilst others are eternally lost, then the depravity and suffering of human history will only have been partially redeemed. It is thus a memorable understatement of Davis' that "the problem of evil is a bit less intractable for the
    (p. 67) universalist than for the non-universalist." If part of humankind is in the end condemned to hell, this will itself constitute an infinite, because unending, aspect of the problem of evil. God's good purpose will have been eternally frustrated, leaving the eternal evils both of sin and of punishment.
  9. Davis is able to say that "The plain teaching of Scripture … is that some will be condemned to eternal separation from God" because he apparently treats the many different documents comprising the New Testament as though they were a single writing by a single author, who must be assumed to be consistent, so that one must interpret the universalist passages in terms of the non-universalist passages. But would it not be more realistic to acknowledge that there are both universalist and non-universalist strands within the diverse literature of the New Testament? And within this diversity is it not striking that the teachings of the historical Jesus, so far as they are recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, contain only one passage (Matt. 25:41)—or two if we include the mysterious saying about the sin against the Holy Spirit — in which eternal punishment is threatened; and this despite the fact that the idea was widespread within the popular Judaism of his time?
  10. But how can we affirm an eventual universal salvation if men and women are genuinely free to respond or fail to respond to God's love? This traditional dilemma is created by leaving out of account the doctrine of God's initial creation of humankind "in his own image," for relationship with himself. In Augustine's words, "Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee." Here we have the idea of a basic bias of human nature towards its creator, a bias which will sooner or later lead all people to him. And so instead of the image of the irresistible force (God) confronting the immovable post (human freedom), a less misleading analogy might be that of the relationship between a psychiatrist and a patient who is so inwardly mixed up that he or she cannot enact his or her own deepest desires. In so influencing the patient as to achieve change, the psychiatrist is not forcing the patient against the will but is on the contrary releasing him or her from an inner "bind" and making him or her more free to be and do what the patient really wants to be and do. We can conceive that God, in the infinite resourcefulness of infinite love, acts in many ways, through many worlds, to bring his creatures to himself by their own free insights and choices, thereby fulfilling their own deepest nature as beings made in his image.
  11. Sontag rightly raises the question of pain in the sub-human sentient world. If God is all-good and all-powerful, why has he created "nature, red in tooth and claw"? Here one might be tempted to turn to the traditional doctrine of the perversion of the natural order as a consequence of the fall. But unfortunately that doctrine is totally implausible: we know that life preyed on life, and that animals suffered from painful diseases (there is evidence, for example, of arthritis in the bones of some pre-historic animals) long before humankind had come into existence.
    (p. 68) A Christian theodicy has therefore to look elsewhere. The right question to ask is not, I would suggest, why do animals feel pain? The pain mechanism is necessary to the survival of organisms inhabiting a world with a fixed structure. It is by means of this mechanism that we, and the other animals, learn to conduct ourselves successfully within a common environment. (It should however be added that the lower animals, living wholly in the present moment of experience, are entirely or almost entirely exempt from the kinds of suffering we know at the self-conscious human level, involving memory of the past and anticipation of the future. We should not project upon them our own form of consciousness, capable of unhappy memories, remorse, guilt, jealousy, anxiety, fear of the future and awareness of death.) The question, then, is not why animals feel the kinds of pain that they feel, but why there should be a realm of animal life at all. A theologian is not obliged to claim to know the answer to every question. There is a place for trust in the goodness of God beyond our understanding. But it may nevertheless be possible to see some gleam of light on this particular question. Perhaps we should learn to see all life as forming a unitary process. Hindu and Buddhist thinkers have seen spiritual life developing through successive animal embodiments until it reaches self-consciousness5 in humans, and they accordingly treat all life as related, inter-linked, and indeed as ultimately one. We do not have to adopt the distinctive eastern theory of reincarnation through animal into human life to accept the basic conception of animal and human existence as forming one continuous ongoing complex of organic life, which is the process whereby "children of God" are gradually being created out of human animals6, themselves created out of lower forms of life, which was in turn created out of inorganic matter. One effect of our embeddedness within this larger stream of life is to make possible our cognitive freedom in relation to the infinite Creator.
  12. I must end by stressing again the limits of a Christian theodicy of the Irenaean type. As I emphasized in my main essay, it offers an understanding of our human situation; but this is not the same as offering practical help and comfort to those in the midst of acute pain or deep suffering. Further, because of the central part played in it by humankind's free response to God's non-coercive modes of revelation, and by human trust in God as thus known by faith, such a theodicy does not expect to be able to see in detail how "all things work together for good" for God's creatures, or how it can be that by wrestling with evil we are ultimately being created through it. We believe that the history of the universe is God's creative action; that the formation of spiritualized personality is a long, hard and painful process; and that its justification lies in the limitless good to which, beyond this world, it finally leads. But from our present standpoint in the midst of this process of creation we still have to live in faith and trust.

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Response to :- (Critiques of "Hick (John) - An Irenaean Theodicy").

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