The importance and place of free will in matters of faith
The central principle of the Irenaean Theodicy is that we have been placed in a hostile environment in order to learn to become better people. However, this begs the question as to why God has placed humans in a 'hostile environment' in order to bring them to perfection? For if perfection is your goal, why not simply start (and end) by creating each person perfect as God intends them to be (and at the same time automatically conscious and aware of God)? Hick writes:
"In order to be a person, exercising some measure of genuine freedom, the creature must be brought into existence, not in the immediate divine presence, but at a distance from God."
Although God could have created us perfect, we might not have chosen to be a perfect being as God intended. God is not interested in creating robots. Rather God is more interested in our choosing to become who God wants us to be (at some point in the future), rather than force us to be this way from the start (no matter how long this process takes). Furthermore, in order that we might 'act naturally' and not be overwhelmed by the reality of God, God remains distant to us (what Hick calls an EPISTEMIC DISTANCE).
Epistemology is to do with knowledge. When Hick talks about an 'epistemic distance' he means that God is not 'in our face', so to speak, and knowledge of God's existence is ambiguous. To illustrate what Hick means, think about how people act when their favorite actor or singer is near them, and how differently they act when not. Now imagine how this translates to God. If God’s presence was immediately known to us, we would simply live in fear and awe. There would also be no atheists. As far as Hick is concerned God does not want this. God wants us to live free lives. We might argue that God may even want some people to choose to be atheist, which is why God needs draws away from us in order that we might act spiritually and morally as we see fit.
Of course, one consequence of this is that the world is religiously ambiguous, which means we do not have any certain evidence that there is (or is not) a God, but this is the world God desires for us to be in. We live in a world where we have the freedom to live in any way we choose. In terms of belief in God, when someone comes to 'freely to know and love their Maker', they have chosen this for themselves, and that choosing is also far more valuable and meaningful. Something we have struggled for and worked out for ourselves is more valuable (and valued) than something we are simply given:
"A moral goodness that exists as the agents initial given nature, without ever having been chosen by him in the face of temptations to the contrary, is intrinsically less valuable than a moral goodness which has been built up through the agent's own responsible choices through time in the face of alternative possibilities." (John Hick)
Making real choices that count
For Hick, the goal (of 'struggling humanity') is the turning from self-centredness to Reality (or God) centredness. Pain and suffering in the world is therefore the residue of people acting selfishly, or in other words the actions of morally and spiritually immature people. Although this explains why moral evil exists, the question begs as to why God wants our 'learning to become better people' to take place in a natural realm that is dangerous, and where the fragility of the human body can quickly and easily lead to illness, pain and suffering?
Hick's response is that moral and spiritual development cannot take place in a static environment, but in one where there are real consequences for both ourselves and others around us. For example, we cannot expect to learn about the fragility of the human body if banging a hammer down onto one's thumb
never hurt, or led to any physical injury. By living in world where our choices make a real difference we learn to live thoughtfully, and with careful consideration. If the situation was such that no-one would ever experience physical pain/suffering as a result of our actions, then how could
anyone develop any sense of moral responsibility?
Finally, Hick is the first to admit that the person-making process of moving from self-centredness to Reality-centredness is only being completed in a few people here on earth. There are very few
people we might regard as a 'true saint' when we look back over the course of human history. Thus the
Irenaean theodicy presupposes that there must be a continuation of life after death whereby this process can be completed:
"Only if [salvation] includes the entire human race can it justify the sins and sufferings of the entire human race throughout all history." (John Hick [bracket mine])
It is for this reason that Hick's Irenaean Theodicy is sometimes called a 'soul-making' theodicy.
As attractive as Hick’s thesis is, it is not without problems. For one, if people are meant to live in a world where our choices have significant consequences for our personal benefit, then Hick might stand accused of belittling some of the excesses of human depravity. For instance, for a few people to learn not to be anti-Semitic, millions of Jews lost their lives in World War II. One could also say that the Jews who died in the Holocaust we also being used for the moral benefit of others, which does not
count very favorably towards what some might say God thinks of them. To use others as a means to our personal end is also something we might consider the opposite of trying to live free of self-centredness.
Hick's response to this is that our judgement of what constitutes 'the excesses of human depravity' is relative to our personal situation. In other word's, what we consider to be excessive today may not be considered so by others say in fifty or a hundred years time:
"In a world in which there was no cancer, something else would then rank as the worst form of natural evil." (John Hick)
So although the world may appear harsh and hostile (and especially towards certain groups of people), there is always something worse coming along. Even the fact that calamity strikes indiscriminately, in that the 'good' are often afflicted with pain and suffering whilst the 'bad' seem to enjoy a long healthy and happy life, is all a matter of keeping things in perspective:
"Let us suppose that... the sinner was [always] punished and the virtuous [always] rewarded. Would such dispensation serve a person-making purpose?... God has set us in a world containing unpredictable contingencies and dangers, in which unexpected and undeserved calamities may occur to anyone; because only in such a world can mutual caring and love be elicited." (John Hick)
The unsavory aspect of Hick’s theodicy is evident here. Part of 'growing up' is the realisation that we cannot always have things 'our way'. We live in a world where sometimes the cards will be stacked against us (and sometimes not), and we have to deal with that. If 'life' always patted us on the back for doing good, we might never learn to be better people when faced with times when we have done an unrecognised (or unacknowledged) 'good'. For it is in situations such as this that we learn to truly become people of deeper moral and spiritual character, rather than superficially so. However I cannot help but think that this ‘suck it up’ mentality is only going to be acceptable to a male, Christian, white, educated, and affluent member of the human race, such as John Hick!