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David Ray Griffin

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From Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, Stephen T. Davis, ed. Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1981. A revised edition was published in 2001. (See Amazon link in left column.)  Professor Griffin's publications on the problem of evil include two books: God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976; reprinted with a new preface, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991; and Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.  (See Amazon links in left column.) 

A Critique of

John H. Hick's Theodicy

David Ray Griffin

Hick and I agree that theodicy involves the construction of a metaphysical hypothesis, and that to be successful this hypothesis must be plausible, not just logically possible.  However, he also agrees with the other three authors that God must be conceived to be “limitlessly powerful,” by which he means that no other actualities can be thought to have inherent power to limit the actualization of God’s will.  Any power actualized by other actualities is due entirely to the voluntary decision by God to grant them power; hence any limitation on God’s power is a self-limitation (which could be revoked at any time).   Since Hick, unlike Roth and Sontag, also thins that God is limitlessly good, he must try to show that all the apparent evils in the world are necessary for the greatest possible good: “evils are never tolerable—except for the sake of greater goods which may come out of them.”  The question is whether Hick has made plausible the conviction that this inherently omnipotent God is perfectly good.  I think not.

Hick seeks to justify the existence of every type of apparent evil in terms of its utility for soul-making—in other words, for the development of moral and religious virtues in beings capable of those virtues, which in effect means human beings.  An obvious question is, why is the pain evidently suffered by sub-human beings necessary?  If Hick replies that this pain can produce compassion and helpfulness in us, we can restrict the question to the hundreds of millions of years of life that preceded the advent of human beings.  If Hick replies that a natural environment is necessary for our “epistemic distance” from God, we can ask why this natural environment had to be crated through a long, slow, pain-filled evolutionary process.  Hick’s God, being essentially omnipotent, could have created the needed environment in the “twinkling of an eye.”  Hick claims that the “Irenaean” theodicy is superior to the “Augustinian” one in being more adequate to the modern knowledge of the evolutionary process.  But Hick provides no reason why God should have wasted over four billion years setting the stage for the only ting thought to be intrinsically valuable, the moral and spiritual development of human beings.  And the high probability that hundreds of millions of years of that preparation involved unnecessary and unuseful pain counts against Hick’s defense of the omnipotent God’s total goodness.

Hick’s free-will defense if of a hybrid nature.  That is, he says that freedom is a contingent aspect of the actual world, given to it by God’s voluntary choice.  This means that God could suspend or interrupt this freedom at any time.  God could have converted Hitler from his hatred for Jews; God could overrule someone about to beat and rape a child; God could stop every human act that would result in suffering.  Accordingly, Hick must defend God’s decision to allow every instance of moral evil that has occurred.  Furthermore, if Hick h olds that part of the creation is unfree, then he must defend God’s decision to cause every instance of natural evil.  While one may be able to make a somewhat plausible case for God’s goodness when discussing moral and natural evil in the abstract, when we are confronted with concrete, horrendous instances of evil, this abstract justification loses its convincing power.

Hick does seek to provide an answer to this question as to why God does not prevent the most horrendous forms of evil, but I find it inadequate.  Surely an all-wise, omnipotent being could have found some happier middle ground between our present, all-too-destructive world, and the “hedonistic paradise” fears would make us morally and spiritually flabby.

However, there is an even more basic question to raise about freedom: if there could be an actual world similar to ours except devoid of real freedom and the evils it brings, why did God give us real freedom in the first place?

Hick claims that freedom is a necessary condition for the emergence of that which is most valuable.  And what is most valuable, according to Hick, is moral and religious virtue.  On the face of it, the argument appears sound, since there can be no authentic virtue unless there is genuine freedom to be non-virtuous.  But when we look more closely, a problem arises.  For whom is it important that the virtue be authentic?  If it were for the human beings, there would be no problem: God would be justified in granting real freedom to humans, since this would be necessary for them to experience the greatest intrinsic value open to creatures. But it is not necessary from the human viewpoint: all that we human beings would need, in order to enjoy the feeling of being authentically virtuous, would be the belief that we were genuinely free. Hick’s God could have created us such that we were absolutely convinced that we were free, even though we only did what God willed for us to do.  in such a world, there would be no genuine evils, since God could program everything to work out for the best; no pains would occur except those absolutely needed for the desired human experiences.  And yet we would not know the difference; we would think that freedom was real, that the possibility and even the actuality of genuine evil were real, that temptation was real, and that real victories were being won.  Only God would know the difference.

And precisely this turns out to be the reason that Hick’s God put real freedom into the world – it is for God’s own sake, not ours.  God makes humans genuinely free so that God can have the knowledge that the creatures have come to love God freely.  (The analogy between God and a hypnotist in Hick’s Evil and the God of Love makes this clear.)  Is a creator who has the power to create a completely different type of world and yet who deliberately builds earthquakes, tornadoes, and cancer into the structure of the world, who creates us so that moral evil is necessary – moral evil that can produce Hiroshimas and Auschwitzes – is a deity who would do all this, solely for the sake of knowing that some of its creatures came to love their creator freely, “limitlessly good?”  Again, Hick has not made this plausible.

Furthermore, such a deity, given a reasonable amount of circumspection, would surely know that it was not worthy of love; hence it could not derive much satisfaction from knowing that some of the creatures loved it anyway – except perhaps the satisfaction of having put one over on them.

Surely Sontag and Roth are correct: the hybrid free-will defense cannot save the total goodness of an omnipotent creator.

There is yet another problem of plausibility.  Hick’s theodicy absolutely requires belief in a life after bodily death.  He himself points out that this makes this theodicy implausible for many today.  And yet the problem is more serious than his admission suggests.  For, the major problem, as he sets it up, is that our lives are simply too short for the soul-making process to reach completion, at least for most people.  Accordingly, he projects a further life, or perhaps many lives, in which God will gradually, through persuasion, win us over.  The important point is 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 only differ quantitatively, i.e., it will be much longer.  But this raises the question as to why God did not simply make our earthly life-spans much longer, so that we could reach the goal on earth, or at least get much closer to it.  This would have been very easy for an omnipotent God and would have Hick’s theodicy much more plausible.  Hick’s answer to this, I suppose, will be that God does not want faith to be an easy matter – God wants true faith, which is in things unseen.  But this raises the distinction between faith and foolish credulity.  If Hick’s theodicy is truly as implausible as it seems to me, would acceptance of it, and faith in its God, really be a virtue?

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