Friday, 18 April 2014

Is the idea of a Biblical God compatible with the existence of evil and suffering?

by Zoe Dukoff-Gordon

Crucifixion by Mathis Grunewald, 1508
The main issue concerning evil and suffering in the world is the contradictions with God’s qualities. God is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient, however evil and suffering exist. This creates an inconsistent triad: the amount of evil in the world appears to challenge the goodness of creation. Thus certain theodicies have been created: an explanation, used by religious believers, of how a belief in a good, omnipotent God can be maintained in our world of Evil and Suffering.

One famous theodicy was that of Irenaeus. He didn’t attempt to show that evil and suffering do not exist, he argued that it had been deliberately created with the goodness in the world. He believes that God allowed evil to continue, so that we could develop and grow as humans to have a mature and free relationship with God. Evil allows us to appreciate the goodness. He believed that we have to have evil in the world so we can develop as individuals. If it all went our way, we’d never learn anything as we grow from our mistakes. He started his ‘theory of recapitulation,’ this idea that we should bring something back to the beginning and bring people back into a relationship with God.

Irenaeus uses Genesis 1:26 ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeliness,’ to demonstrate that we are here to develop our own soul. Creation is not yet finished. He believed that we have been made in the image of God with the potential to be like God. Irenaeus said that God has given human beings free will and that this free will entailed the potential for evil. This is moral evil and choosing to do the right thing implies a decision to avoid doing an immoral act. He believed that God giving us free will was better than receiving ready-made goodness. To back up his point he used the example of a mother not being able to give her child ‘substantial nourishment.’ In other words, just as a young infant cannot take solid foods and so is given milk as they are immature, humans could not receive fully formed goodness as they were spiritually immature and so are given free will to develop their own goodness. This is echoed in the notion that we are made in the image of God- with the potential for Good and moving towards to likeliness of God (becoming good.) Irenaeus believed that the gift of moral perfection would not mean anything to human beings if they did not learn the value of it for themselves. We become like God or move towards the likeness of God by freely choosing the good. When we choose evil and sin we are therefore creating evil in the world. So for Irenaeus moral evil is caused by humans misuse of free will. God allowed us to have free will as it was seen as more beneficial than making readymade perfection.

Fall? Michelangelo's portrayal of the Fall (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

This idea is echoed in Irenaeus’ belief in the story of the fall of man, which he took literally. He believed that it demonstrated that we weren’t ready to accept God’s grace or goodness as we are spiritually and morally immature. This is further evidence that humans are not capable of receiving God’s ready-made goodness and perfection. They were led astray by the devil because they were distant from God spiritually. Adam and Eve are seen as stereotypes, in the way that they go astray morally because they haven’t yet gained the wisdom to do what is right. He believed that humans do go astray and are not blameless because at this point we haven’t developed the wisdom to know what is right; like children, we are not to blame. He believed we can only get to know God in a world where suffering exists; therefore we need some suffering in the world.

There have been modern interpretations of the Irenaean theodicy such as those of John Hick, who started from a belief that God exists; Hick, like Irenaeus, tried to understand why we have evil in the world. He had the ability to reconcile a belief in the infinite goodness of God with the existence of evil and suffering in the world. Hick addresses the problem of evil and suffering from a Christian perspective, but was aware that it isn’t just a ‘Christian problem.’

For Hick, a theodicy should contain two criteria:

1. It should be internally coherent and consistent with the religious traditions on which it is grounded (accepts all religions);

2.  It should be internally coherent and consistent with the natural realm (i.e. science.) He believed that we should use the science of today to help the theodicy and should be faithful to scientific enterprise. 

Hick takes an evolutionary approach when understanding our physical, emotional and cognitive development; thus the same applies to our morality and spirituality - it develops over time. However, to remain true to modern scientific beliefs such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, we must begin with the notion that evil really exists and is the cause of real pain and suffering. God created evil just as he created everything else.

Ascent? evolution
John Hick therefore rejects the Free Will Defence, as he believes it contradicts scientific enterprise (this idea that we have evolved and developed into more complex, moral and spiritual beings from more primitive states). Conversely, the Free Will Defence states that humanity was created morally yet has ‘fallen away’ from this state. He says that there is no evidence for this; the evil comes from human disobedience.

Hick believed in the importance of free will. At the foundation of Irenaean theodicy we have been placed in a hostile environment in order to become better people. Some may questions why God has placed us in a ‘hostile environment’ in order to gain perfection? Yet Hick would respond that we must be brought into existence at a distance from God, in order for us to act naturally and not to be overwhelmed by the reality of God. He believes in the idea of Epistemic Distance, meaning that God isn’t ‘in our face’, that God needs to draw away from us in order that we might act naturally. Although God could have given us perfection, we might not choose to be this way. God’s more interested in our choosing to become who God wants us to be at some point, rather than force us to be perfect. This modernizes Irenaeus’ idea about us being made in God’s image.

Another way Hick would reply to this question of evil and suffering would be that something we have struggled for is more valuable, more worthwhile and more valued than being given it. He believed we should make real choices that count. For Hick, the goal of ‘struggling humanity’ is the turning from self-centeredness to reality (or God)-centeredness. Therefore, evil and suffering are often here as a residue of people acting selfishly -- acts of morally and spiritually immature people.

For Hick, moral and spiritual development cannot be completed easily in this life. Thus his theodicy presupposes that we have an afterlife. He still believes that the origin of evil and suffering is from God; however, we as immature humans add to it. 

So, does this theodicy allow an explanation for the evil and suffering in the world and their compatibility with the idea of the existence of God? 


1 comment:

  1. I find your exlanations very interesting and clear. However, is there more? I would like to know what you think, also what are the alternative (non-Christian) points of veiw?


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