"Can a world in which sadistic cruelty often has its way, in which selfish lovelessness is so rife, in which there are debilitating diseases, crippling accidents, bodily and metal decay, insanity, and all manner of natural disasters be regarded as the expression of infinite creative goodness? Certainly all this could never by itself lead anyone to believe in the existence of a limitlessly powerful God. And yet even in a world which contains these things innumerable men and women have believed and do believe in the reality of an infinite creative goodness, which they call God." (John Hick)
John Hick has made major contributions in two areas of Christian theology. The first is the relationship between the different world faiths, whereby he attempts to explain the phenomena of religion from a religious (as opposed to a naturalist) perspective. The other is his Irenaean Theodicy, and how theists can reconcile a belief in the infinite goodness of God in light of the presence of evil and suffering in the world.
Although Hick addresses the problem of evil and suffering from a largely Christian perspective, he is aware that this is not a specifically 'Christian problem'. In fact, he acknowledges from the start that each world faith has a need to justify what they believe about the nature of the Divine and/or the world, with the existence of evil and suffering.
Setting the scene
Hick begins by insisting that any theodicy should fulfill two criteria:
- It should internally coherent and consistent with the religious tradition on which it is grounded (E.g. a theodicy grounded in the Christian tradition should be acceptable to Christians, and recognisable as a 'Christian theodicy').
- It should internally coherent and consistent with the picture of what we know of the natural realm (i.e. it should be scientifically credible).
This latter point means Hick requires a theodicy to be faithful to the scientific enterprise, and be consistent with the 'facts' we know of the world (E.g. Acting as if there is no gravity is 'bad', acting as if there is 'good'). The modern scientific enterprise also presupposes an evolutionary approach to understanding how we have developed physically, emotionally, cognitively etc. So in order to remain consistent with this, we must understand our moral and spiritual development in the same way. As such Hick refuses to accept that biological life-forms developed physically, emotionally, cognitively etc. over a long period of time, but that they suddenly gained moral and spiritual maturity (as as literal reading of the Creation accounts in the Bible seems to imply). On the contrary, the same biological evolutionary developmental processes must be said to apply all aspects of our lives (moral and spiritual included).
Hick also believes that in order to remain true to the modern scientific view of the world we must begin with the notion that evil really exists, and is the cause of real pain and suffering in humans. Hick is aware that traditionally Christians have tended to adopt the FREEWILL DEFENSE (FWD) to explain the presence of evil and suffering in the world (and his rejection of this is the main reason why he adopts the Irenaean model), which suggests that all evil and suffering is the result of a misuse of human freedom. In doing so, the FWD places the blame for evil and suffering firmly onto us.
However, this raises the question as to why God created a world where evil and suffering can occur
in it (something Hick believes the Irenaean Theodicy is better suited to explain)? Of course, the classic FWD response to this is that this is the world God made, and that is that! However, some go further and claim that God actually allows evil and suffering to occur, for some greater good:
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him." (Romans 8:28)
The problem with this interpretation of things (for Hick), is that it means evil and suffering does not really occur in the world - it just appears that way to those who do not see God working 'behind the scenes'! Yet this is contrary to the modern scientific mind, which takes that view that evil and suffering
really does occur (i.e. You really are going to die if you jump off a 50 story building with no parachute or safety net to prevent you crashing into the ground). As such, Hick believes any credible theodicy must reject the 'evil re-interpretation model', and be grounded on the 'evil really occurs' premise.
More reasons why Hick rejects the FWD
As a further prelude to his Irenaean theodicy, Hick sets out two further reasons why he rejects the FWD (the traditional Christian model for explaining why evil and suffering occur in the world):
- The idea that humanity was created morally and spiritually perfect yet have 'fallen away' from this state, is not a view backed up by the scientific enterprise which teaches the exact opposite (that humanity has evolved and developed into more complex moral and spiritual beings, from more primitive states).
- There is no evidence to suggest that death, disease, decay, earthquakes, floods etc. are the direct result of human disobedience. It is simply incredible to suggest that the reason why there is death in the world, is because the first humans on the planet ate some forbidden fruit ('And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."' - Genesis 3:22).
This means that for Hick, the Genesis account of the creation of the world and the fall of humanity must but understood as a myth (story with a meaning), rather than be read as literal account of what happened.
So although it remains a popular choice for Christian theodicies, Hick believes the FWD is no longer a viable theodicy for people to believe in. The simple reason being that the FWD is contrary to everything we believe to know about ourselves, and the world we live in.
Building a credible theodicy
Hick's Irenaean theodicy takes as its starting point the notion that far from being created perfect (a state from which we are said to have fallen from), that God initiated a 'two-stage' process in the act of creating humanity. Firstly, following the modern scientific-model humans are said to have evolved into social, moral and spiritual beings, who are also capable of reflection on their environment.
However, people becoming like this did not occur suddenly, but developed through a long process of struggle against a hostile environment.
This process of struggle sets the scene for what Hick sees as the second stage in human development; this being that humans - through their own free will - are being made into the Divine 'likeness'. In other words, each human is on a journey to becoming more God-life (i.e. 'Children of God'). Thus perfection, rather than lying in the past (as the FWD suggests), now lies in the future!