Notwithstanding that the history of Christianity has been a relentless assault on rationality, Christian “theodicy” has been a tirel ess effort to provide a rational defense of the goodness of God in the face of the reality of evil. This is more than a tacit recognition that rational creatures cannot live by blind faith alone. Unfortunately, it is also a self-refuting move because it is logically impossible to assert simultaneously that (1) God is totally omnipotent; (2) God is perfectly good; and (3) evil exists in the world. To make any sense, one of these claims must either be overtly rejected or covertly subverted.
The orthodox “solution” to the problem of evil begins by undermining the reality of evil. Augustine and Aquinas adopted the Platonic view of the identity of goodness and reality. Since God is the supreme good, he is also the most real, followed by the angels, human beings, animals, plants, and so on. In this “chain of being,” evil has no reality: it is the absence of good. (This is like saying that rape is the absence of friendliness.)
Denying the reality of evil does not make it vanish. However, it does have the effect of distancing it from God’s creative activity by linguistic fiat. Since it makes no sense for God to create nonbeing, it follows that God did not create evil. He created the world and human beings perfectly good. But not wanting to create puppets, he made Adam and Eve free to choose or reject the good, defined as a life with God in perfect obedience. But they chose to disobey, turning away from God and hence from goodness. It follows that evil has its source in human freedom.
As their descendants, we have inherited their sin. In view of our wickedness, we deserve not only death but eternal damnation—the justice of God requires it. Our dreadful plight is entirely of our own making. Yet God in his mercy sent his only begotten son to pay the penalty for our sins. All this is highly problematic, because if God were omnipotent or had any power at all, he could have forgiven Adam and Eve or given them another chance. There is absolutely no reason for him to insist on the gruesome death of his son for what Thomas Aquinas called his “satisfaction.” Justice did not require it.
Orthodoxy from Augustine to Luther and Calvin maintains that even the precious blood of Christ could pay for only a fraction of the mass of sin in the world. As a result, only a few can be saved. These few are the elect whose election is predestined from the start and has nothing to do with their merits. In other words, Christianity begins with a strident monism that declares that only God is real then succumbs to the dualism of the elect and the damned, the children of light and the children of darkness, good and evil, God and Satan. This obscenely pernicious doctrine has the gall to describe itself as a religion of love and to insist on the goodness of God. Sensitive and discerning Christians must no doubt feel deeply ashamed of what passes for orthodoxy.
In Evil and the God of Love, John Hick makes a heroic effort to save Christianity from opprobrium. He denounces the orthodox doctrine of hell, eternal damnation, and dual predestination. Instead, he borrows the anti-orthodox view of a single predestination—which means that God predestines all human beings for salvation, as a result of which hell will be no more. For Hick, hell must be banished if either the goodness or the omnipotence of God is to be seriously entertained. At the same time, Hick refuses to pretend that evil is not real. He is determined to take it seriously as a real force, while maintaining that God is good. But how?
Two Fatal Flaws of Orthodoxy
To solve the problem of evil, it is necessary to account for two kinds of evil: natural evil, which includes the suffering of humans and animals as a result of storms, volcanoes, floods, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, drought, famine, disease, insanity, and the like; and moral evil—that is, wickedness, cruelty, callousness, greed, malice, and injustice.
The orthodox response to natural evil is that it is a punishment for sin. Surely, that response cannot account for the suffering of animals that are burnt alive in forest fires or children who die in agony from dreadful diseases. For the most part, Christianity has ignored the suffering of animals and accounted for the suffering of children with the obscene doctrine of original sin—even though the idea of punishing children for the sins of their parents does not absolve God of evil but only makes matters worse.
When it comes to moral evil, the orthodox defense in terms of human freedom is hopelessly inadequate. In his article “Evil and Omnipotence,” J. L. Mackie has argued that blaming human freedom for evil makes no sense. If Adam and Eve were created good, then they would be unlikely to choose evil. The conduct of Adam and Eve must be a function of their God-given character. So, God must be responsible for evil (in Nelson Pike, editor, God and Evil).
Hick accepts the validity of Mackie’s critique. In his theodicy (defense of the goodness of God) outlined in Evil and the God of Love, Hick rejects the orthodox view that God created the first human beings perfectly good. Instead, he follows the anti-orthodox view of Irenaeus of Lyons (130–202) and the progressive view of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), according to whom God did not create the first human beings perfect but merely perfectible. As Hick explains, God had no desire to create a static, ready-made world; he wanted to create a dynamic world that would allow human beings to play an active role in their own self-development.
Unlike the orthodox view, Hick’s eschatological perspective situates perfection not in a lost past but in a future that is yet to come. He thinks that Adam was more of a child than a free agent; this leads him to regard evil as a function of immaturity. In what seems like a shocking departure from orthodoxy, Hick admits that God is responsible for evil. However, he maintains that this need not impugn God’s goodness because evil is a necessary component of his grand plan, which will lead to a wondrous and unsurpassed harmony.
If moral evil is a function of our immaturity, how can natural evil be justified? Hick tells us that God was not interested in creating a hedonistic paradise. He had something much more elevated in mind. He wanted to create a world with higher goods than pleasure—moral goods such as steadfastness, temperance, courage, and self-sacrifice. In Hick’s view, a world without dangers, misfortunes, or calamities would no doubt promote pleasure, but it would not be suitable for the development of these moral qualities. For Hick, the world as we know it provides the perfect opportunity for this elevated project of self-perfection. It is the best possible world for the project of “soul-making.”
God’s grand plan is to create the opportunity for all humanity to turn away from evil and embrace the good. As a consequence, all humanity would come to live in perfect harmony and obedience with God (who is identical with the good). Christ is the model for this perfection, because he was the only truly perfect human being. His total love and obedience to God is the exemplary ideal to which all humanity must aspire. Hick is convinced that this grand and glorious plan will no doubt outweigh all the evil and suffering of this world.
How does Hick know so much about God’s intentions and deepest desires, you may ask? His answer is that by reading Scripture, especially the New Testament, he has faith that a good and omnipotent god will not allow evil to triumph in the long run. The suffering of humanity, like the suffering of Christ, will lead to a magnificent end where all will be fulfilled. In the final analysis, Hick’s project rests on faith.
What Hick offers is no different from what Jesus offered more than two thousand years ago when he asked his disciples to believe, even though they could not understand, the mysterious ways of God. He told them that everything that has been “kept secret from the foundations of the world” will be revealed, “For nothing is secret that shall not be made manifest” (Matthew 13:35 and Luke 8:17). Moreover, he assured them that it would not take too long: “This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled” (Luke 21:32). As things turned out, it did not happen; more than two thousand years later, it still has not happened. Jesus was a false prophet. So, why should we believe his followers, who are making the same empty promises?
Hick’s theodicy is not just a pleasant and comforting fiction that reconciles us to the reality of evil and suffering. Unfortunately, it has seriously pernicious consequences, because, as I hope to show, it is grounded in a dark and deeply flawed conception of morality.
Imagine a mother whose treatment of her child is so cruel that the neighbors report her to the police, and as a result she loses custody of her child. She hires a lawyer in an effort to get her child back. The prosecutor argues that she is an unfit mother because she imposed severe and life-threatening deprivations on her child. On one occasion, he fell into a well thirty feet deep, which she had purposely covered over with leaves. The child was left there in a state of terror and confusion for two days. When he was finally rescued, he was semiconscious, delirious, and incoherent. On another occasion, she lit his clothes on fire, and by the time he extracted himself from the flames, he had painful burns all over his body. On yet another occasion, she withheld food for days and gave him some water only when he fainted.
In response, the lawyer for the defense does not dispute the facts as presented by the prosecutor. Instead, he argues that his client is a loving mother who did all these things for the sake of the moral development of her child. She was merely trying to create the conditions that would facilitate the development of his higher virtues—strength, grit, fortitude, and endurance. She hoped that as her child became more perfect, his love for her would also become more complete. It was out of love that she inflicted these hardships on her child. What jury in its right mind, I ask, would acquit this mother? What jury would grant her custody of the child?
Yet Hick believes that this cruel conduct and bizarre reasoning are appropriate for our father in heaven. Evil is the means by which God promotes our perfectibility. Hick assures us that through suffering we are made more patient, resilient, and loving; indeed, Christ himself is perfected through his suffering. In my view, this God, like the mother in my example, is either a cruel sadist or a mad bungler whose tactics for “soul-making” fail to achieve their ends. He is certainly not a God who can set a moral example for humanity.
Hick’s conception of God explains why the book of Job looms so large in his theodicy. God makes a wager with Satan that even though he will destroy his house, kill his children, and cover his body with boils, Job’s love of God will remain unwavering. Job remains steadfast, and God wins the wager. Such a happy ending is appropriate only in a fairy tale, with a most unsalutory message.
O Felix Culpa!
It may be argued that the book of Job is a shameful chapter in the history of God because it describes an occasion when he succumbed to a temptation from Satan and that God’s soul-making plan is not all that unrealistic. According to Hick, there must be fires, floods, storms, and other calamities if human beings are to attain heroic heights of moral perfection. In other words, we need catastrophes if we hope to have heroes.
This understanding of morality is modeled on fairy tales in which the prince rescues the damsel in distress. This “heroic” morality is parasitic on a continuous stream of calamities, misfortunes, and misadventures. Such a world requires a steady stream of treacherous hazards, menacing monsters, wicked stepmothers, and malicious genies. Otherwise, the prince would be robbed of all his glory.
Hick’s model of moral perfection is the crucified Christ. He is the prince, and humanity is the child or damsel in distress. Jesus rescues humanity from the monster to end all monsters: Satan. He displays not only courage and tenacity in defeating Satan but also perfect obedience to God’s will, despite the magnitude of the agony and torment involved. This dark, ascetic morality requires toil, struggle, suffering, self-sacrifice, even self-immolation.
Christian morality is antithetical to the quiet or eudaimonistic view of morality as one of self-fulfillment and completion, something that comes easily and naturally, something that is an integral component of human happiness. So understood, morality is the cultivation of traits of character such as wisdom, generosity, moderation, and justice, which contribute to a happy life with family and friends. In contrast, Christianity seems incapable of relishing a quiet happiness attained without suffering, or a love not premised on alienation.
Alienation must precede reconciliation, just as the Fall is necessary for salvation. In the absence of the Fall, the Incarnation would be unnecessary. What an alarming thought! It made Aquinas cringe. In response, he wrote what Hick believes to be his most “pregnant” sentence: “O Felix Culpa (O fortunate crime), which merited such and so great a redeemer” (Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q, 1, A. 3). Hick concludes his book by saying that “in their far-reaching implications, these words are the heart of Christian theodicy.”
If the Crucifixion is the model of moral perfection to which we aspire, then God will have to invent new catastrophes in heaven so that we can display our Christ-like obedience to his will in the face of terrible suffering. In other words, a conception of human moral perfection modeled on the sacrifice of Christ will require an endless string of crimes and calamities, not only on Earth but also in heaven.
A Deadly Calculus
Hick’s theodicy relies on a deadly calculus—namely, that all the evils and suffering in the world will be more than compensated for by the love, harmony, and reconciliation with God that is to come. In other words, the price in suffering is a pittance in comparison with the glory yet to come. Of course, that depends on who is doing the calculus.
The Russian Communist revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin (1870–1924) thought that the earthly paradise his revolution would create was worth the death and suffering of millions. In comparison to a state of affairs that will secure the happiness of all future generations, no sacrifice would be too much. Lenin was not an evil man; he was thoughtful and cultured. In fact, he enjoyed Beethoven’s Appassionata so much that he would have loved to listen to it every day, but he did not allow himself the pleasure because it made him so happy that he felt like patting everyone’s head—and the revolution required that he break a few heads. Lenin was not a sadist. For him, the revolution was a necessary evil for the sake of an infinitely greater good that would be unsurpassed in joy, justice, and freedom. Interestingly, Lenin’s moral sensibility is the same as the one that Hick attributes to God.
It may be objected that, unlike Lenin, God is omnipotent and can therefore bring his plans to fruition. But so far, there has been no evidence that all the suffering will yield the promised glory. Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that the promised glory will come, it does not follow that all the suffering of innocent children and animals is worth it. In The Brothers Karamazov, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky imagines a conversation between Ivan and his brother Alyosha, who is a Christian monk. Ivan says to his brother:
It’s not that I don’t accept God, it’s the world created by Him I do not and cannot accept. . . . I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage … something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that will make it not only possible to forgive, but to justify all that has happened . . . but though all that may come to pass, I don’t accept it. . . . I won’t accept it.
Ivan tells his brother the story of the little serf boy, in the dark days of serfdom, who was stripped naked on a cold and gloomy autumn day and was chased by the nobleman’s hounds. They ripped him to pieces while his mother was forced to watch. Ivan tells Alyosha that God’s “eternal harmony” is not worth the suffering of that one child. Why must so many children pay for God’s glorious harmony? Why indeed?
Lenin and Ivan represent two responses to John Hick’s God: Lenin mimics the morality of God in a secular guise and makes the world a living hell, while Ivan rejects him and gives back his ticket to heaven. Clearly, it is far better to reject this monstrous God than to emulate his conduct as the standard of morality in this world. Far from saving Christianity from opprobrium, far from defending the goodness of God, Hick offers a portrait of God that is so repellent that human decency requires denouncing him without reservation.