by Paul M. Gould, Associate Director of RC Prof
It is a truism that trials and tribulations can make us stronger. We can, and often do, grow morally and spiritually, through difficulties. This truth is affirmed by human experience, theology, and philosophy. Some, such as John Hick, go further and offer what is called a soul-making theodicy. The claim is not just that God can and does use evil for our good, but that it is necessary for higher-order goods such as courage, compassion, and wisdom. I argue that the soul-making theodicy, while initially attractive, should be rejected because it renders something fundamentally irrational and alien—evil—as part of God’s functionally good creation.
An attempt to provide God’s reason for evil
Kelly Clarkson’s 2011 hit song Stronger (What doesn’t Kill You) is an in-your-face rebuke to the heartbreak of a failed relationship. “You think you got the best of me . . . Baby you don’t know me, cause your dead wrong . . . What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger, Just me, myself and I.” Clarkson, of course, is riffing Nietzsche, who, it could be argued was riffing on the Bible. One of the clear and consistent teachings of Scripture is that God uses sin, suffering, and evil to grow our character. In the book of James, we learn that we are to endure with joy the trials in life: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:2-4, NIV). Likewise, Paul argues that suffering produces perseverance and “perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:4, NIV). The basic idea, affirmed by human experience, theology, philosophy, and art, is that we develop morally and spiritually through trials. Suffering changes us, and if we allow it, it changes us for the better. Christian theologians and philosophers have formalized this basic idea in what is now known as the soul-making theodicy. Finding inspiration from the early Church Father Irenaeus, John Hick was a leading proponent of one version of the soul-making theodicy. Hick asks, if God is perfectly good and powerful, why is it that humans were not created perfect, in full possession of all the virtues? Hick’s answer is that hard-won virtues are more valuable than ready-made perfections. Unearned moral goodness is 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.” Thus, “if God’s purpose was to create finite persons embodying the most valuable kind of moral goodness, he would have to create them, not as already perfect beings but rather as imperfect creatures who can then attain to the more valuable kinds of goodness through their own free choices.” Moral and natural evil, on the soul-making theodicy, are “necessary aspects of the present stage of the process through which God is gradually creating perfected finite persons. There is much to like about the soul-making theodicy. It resonates with human experience; it helps us understand why there is, in addition to moral evil, natural evils: we live in a “person-making world” and such a world must have a genuinely challenging and dangerous environment; it has significant theological merit and biblical support; and finally, when tied to the belief in the afterlife, it links sanctification in this life with the believer’s future glorification in the next, grounding the “living hope” (1 Peter 1:3) for those who believe. There is one major worry, however, with the soul-making theodicy. In making sin, suffering, and evil necessary for human growth and maturity, it makes something that is fundamentally irrational—evil per se—into something rational. As Kevin Diller puts it, Unlike the free will theodicy, in a [soul-making] theodicy God desires evil as a means to his good purposes . . . . In a free will theodicy it is the permission of evil that is essential to the greater good that God intends, in the [soul-making] theodicy it is the evil itself that is essential to the greater good. Evil is made reasonable as a functional good. Moreover, as the late philosopher Stanley Kane (who I had the privilege to know and learn from as a young and eager philosopher while a campus minister at Miami University in Ohio) has noted, it is not obvious that many of the traits of character Hick has in mind require evil for their development: courage can be developed through perseverance of any difficult or long-range task (such as writing a dissertation); compassion can be developed by showing sympathy for someone engaged in such long-range tasks, and so on. It is not obvious that moral and spiritual growth require evil. For this reason, I think it is better to say that God permits, but does not require (or desire) evil. A perfectly loving God can and will use evil for his good purposes, including our moral and spiritual growth, but as an answer to the problem of evil, we must look elsewhere.
- “What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, quoted in James Spiegel, “The Irenaean Soul-Making Theodicy,” in God and Evil, eds. Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013), 80.
- Hick didn’t believe in the doctrine of the fall or in the existence of Adam and Eve. Rather, according to Hick, humans come into the world as (epistemic, moral, and spiritually) imperfect creatures as a result of evolutionary processes. The soul-making theodicy is neutral with respect to the fall, however. All that is needed is the claim that humans, as they are now, are less than perfect, whether that imperfection finds its source in the fall of man or in evolutionary processes.
- John Hick, “Soul-Making Theodicy,” in God and the Problem of Evil, ed. William L. Rowe (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 271.
- Ibid., 276.
- This is Hick’s phrase. See ibid., 278.
- Kevin Diller, “Are Sin and Evil Necessary for a Really Good World? Questions for Alvin Plantinga’s Felix Culpa Theodicy,” Faith and Philosophy 25.1 (2008): 96. Diller is discussing Plantinga’s Felix Culpa theodicy but the same criticism applies to the soul-making theodicy (which I understand as a version of Felix Culpa theodicies in general).
- G. Stanley Kane, “The Failure of Soul-Making Theodicy,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 6 (1975): 1–22.
Paul M. Gould teaches philosophy and apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University, serves as the associate director of RC Prof, and is the founder and president of the Two Tasks Institute. He is the author or editor of ten books including Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Zondervan, March 2019). He is married to Ethel and has four kids and lives in Fort Worth, Texas. You can find out more about Paul at www.paul-gould.com.