A Response to Hicks on Theodicy
The problem of evil in the philosophy of religion can be stated briefly: “[T]here are undesirable states of affairs that provide the basis for an argument that makes it unreasonable for anyone to believe in the existence of God.” [i] The problem of evil is significant because it is, as Thomas B. Warren has noted, “the basic tool of the atheist” in arguing that the biblical doctrine of God involves a logical contradiction. [ii] (For the purposes of this article, “God” refers to the Judeo-Christian God.) “Theodicy” refers to “a defense of the justice or goodness of God in the face of doubts or objections arising from the phenomena of evil in the world.” [iii] Thus, a theodicy is an apologetical attempt to resolve the problem of evil.
In “A Reasonable Theodicy? Tackling the Problem of Evil,”[iv] John Mark Hicks presents his “free will defense” as a solution to the problem of evil, and critiques Warren and others who, like Warren, subscribe to a “soul-making theodicy”.[v] In the present article, I will first summarize Hicks’ position. Then, I will defend Warren’s approach against Hicks’ criticism.
Hicks’ “Free Will Defense”
Hicks’ solution to the problem of evil, as stated in “A Reasonable Theodicy,” is based on the fact that all evil is the result of humanity’s exercise of free will. [vi] It can be summarized in the following propositions:
1. Evil is the result of the free acts of human agents
2. God is responsible for creating free beings, but is not to blame when those free agents choose moral evil.
3. God can use evil to accomplish his own, good purposes.
4. Natural evils are the results of natural forces (not the result of man’s free acts) which are in turn part of the penalty for sin, rather than the result of God’s intent in creation.
5. God will resolve the problem of evil in the eschaton through Jesus Christ.
6. Christ’s redemptive work, completed in the eschaton, [vii] is required for God to be justified.
Now, consider Hicks’ position in more detail:
Hicks says that God created man so that man would choose to love Him, but people sometimes choose otherwise. Choices in opposition to God are moral evils, and God is not to blame for them. So much is fairly straightforward. Difficulties arise, Hicks says, when we try to understand why God does not always intervene to prevent natural evils.
Hicks observes that some (including Warren) have said that God does not intervene in all cases of natural evil because the natural world is God’s arena for “soul-making.” According to the soul-making solution, the natural world is the exclusive and ideal testing ground, or environment wherein a person can exercise his freedom. God does not will the particular natural evils into existence, but merely the neutral, natural world which is a condition for such evils.
Hicks objects to the soul-making solution:
The inconsistency of this approach arises when one acknowledges that God does, on occasions, perhaps only in special circumstances, intervene in nature. In other words, there is no “covenant of creation” which God would violate if he worked a miracle or turned the course of a tornado. God has it within his ability and has, in fact, actually acted to redirect natural events. But this admission is fatal to [the soul-making—CC] approach to natural evil. If God intervenes in nature at all, then why does he not intervene to prevent natural evil? If he prevents some natural evil, why does he not prevent all natural evil? If God can act in nature to work his will, why does he not will to protect humanity from natural evil? [viii]
According to Hicks, then, the soul-making solution implies that God would be blameworthy for allowing an evil such as the death of a two-year-old child; God could have intervened to prevent the death and remained consistent with His nature, but He failed to do so.
Furthermore, Hicks attempts to support his critique of the soul-making view on the basis of the Bible: “Instead of removing God from the natural course of things, the Bible overwhelms us with the immanence of God in the world. . . . This is the world of Job. Job saw clearly the direct responsibility and causation of God for events in nature.” [ix] And, Hicks adds, if we can rightly praise God for natural goods (e.g., rain in a dry region, protection from a tornado), then we can rightly blame him for natural evils. After all, natural evils are called “evil” by analogy with moral evil.
Hicks says that we can reach a better solution to the problem of evil by first understanding that natural evils are “natural” only in the sense that they characterize the post-sin world. In other words, natural evil was not part of God’s original plan and God did not intend to use natural evil in soul-making. Unfortunately, man sinned, and so God had to inflict natural evils for soul-making. Thus, Hicks says that “My difference with the ‘soul-making’ theodicists is that I see each individual case as the result of some specific purpose of God. Others see a broad ‘soul-making’ principle that does not apply to specific acts.” [x]
Finally, Hicks says that God will finally resolve the problem of natural evil in the eschaton through Christ’s redemptive work. In fact, God’s allowing evil in the world can be justified only in light of the salvation of the righteous. (Hicks does not here explain how we are to understand God’s being justified only in light of the eschaton.)
Warren’s “Soul-Making Defense”
I will argue that Warren and Hicks actually agree on one important issue where Hicks thought there was disagreement. Then, concerning three other issues where there is real disagreement between Hicks and Warren, I will first try to pinpoint where the disagreement lies, and then show why Warren’s position is superior.
1. First, Warren does not deny that God may have a specific purpose in allowing natural calamities, and so Warren and Hicks actually agree about this, although Hicks thought there was disagreement. In Have Atheists Proved There Is No God?, Warren has a chapter on natural calamities. [xi] (Warren uses the term “natural calamities” rather than “natural evils” because he thinks that only sin is intrinsically evil,[xii] a distinction to which I will return in a moment.) In the chapter, Warren repeats a proposition he stated earlier, that “Every instance of a natural calamity results from some condition(s) which was necessary to God’s providing man with the ideal environment for ‘soul-making.’” [xiii] Notice that, whereas Hicks says that “soul-making theodicists” fail to see each individual case of natural calamity as the result of some specific purpose of God, Warren does not preclude the possibility that God has a specific purpose in mind for a given natural calamity in the world. In fact, Warren and Hicks both admit that finding God’s specific purposes in suffering is difficult. [xiv]
2. On a second issue, Warren and Hicks definitely disagree. Warren says that evil occurs only in the will of man when he wills against his own sonship to God and brotherhood with his fellow man (natural phenomena cannot be evil since they are not candidates for sonship or brotherhood). [xv] Hicks, on the other hand, thinks that pains and natural calamities are evil because it is wrong that they occur. On Hicks’ view, evil is somewhere behind everything in the world that seems “wrong” to us.
Unfortunately, although Hicks agrees with Warren that natural calamities can be good for soul-making, [xvi] he does not address Warren’s extensive arguments [xvii] that the natural phenomena, although often regarded as evil, are not actually evil and are allowed by God because they contribute to the ideal environment for soul-making. These arguments are important, for the goal of theodicy as it relates to natural phenomena is to show that God is justified in allowing pain and suffering, even if we are unable to understand all of God’s specific purposes in allowing particular instances of them.
If Warren is correct in saying that God allows natural phenomena on the basis that they help man overcome the only real evil (sin), then Warren absolves God and satisfies the goal of theodicy as it relates to natural phenomena. Indeed, Warren’s arguments give us a number of good reasons for thinking that even difficult natural phenomena are necessary aspects of this vale of soul-making. For the sake of brevity, I will summarize these arguments here:
- The ideal environment for soul-making necessarily includes challenges and education for man, which must involve pain that comes upon people both predictably and unpredictably. [xviii] Such pain facilitates sacrifice, accomplishment, and consequences, leading to moral growth. The present world is perfect in this regard, because one could not extract the apparently negative aspects of the world without changing the nature of the ideal environment.
- A physical environment for soul-making necessarily conforms to regularities which result in “mutual interferences” or destruction in some cases. If we could not experience pain we would not have physical bodies. If we did not have physical bodies, it is unclear how we would function as moral agents with a legitimate choice between serving God or not. It seems that we would be unimaginably different and that the vale of soul-making we experience now would no longer be effective for us. [xix]
- The ideal soul-making environment necessarily results in non-human animal pain. Animals help man to fulfill his needs in various ways (food, clothing, shelter, research), and animal pain is an indirect help to the animals themselves.
Hicks may have had arguments such as these in mind when he questioned why Warren and other soul-making theodicists insist on the the need for regularity in nature, when God has at times, intervened in nature by miraculous and non-miraculous means. First, concerning the issue of why God does not miraculously intervene, Warren says:
With God, miracles are possible, but He does not use them promiscuously. He uses them only in connection with confirming that a particular doctrine has His approval, or in showing that He is pleased with a particular endeavor, or when He wishes to show that a particular person is especially sanctified. But He does not intervene in the world, setting aside the laws of nature, to prevent men from committing blunders or to save them from the consequences of blunders committed. If He did act in such a fashion, He would be constantly modifying (or setting aside) the laws of nature which He Himself brought into being. Such a course would render unintelligible the world which can now be studied in a scientific fashion by man. If God continually modified the laws of nature, man would be thrown into utter confusion if he tried to study the world in order to gain some measure of control over it by scientific and technical skill. Man could never arrive at the formulation of a single general law of nature. [xx]
In addition to what I have already said about Warren’s reasons why God would choose not to intervene in natural ways to prohibit seemingly unnecessary particular pains or calamities, consider that before someone could legitimately accuse God of wrongly allowing something bad to happen, the person would have to know all that God knows about the circumstances involved (i.e., he would have to be God), and prove that the bad occurrences do not function as necessary results of God’s intent to create the world as a vale of soul-making.
3. Warren and Hicks also differ concerning a third issue. Warren’s view is that God created the world such that some painful effects occurred in nature even prior to man’s sin. Hicks, on the other hand, says that there was no natural evil in the world prior to sin. [xxi] Warren’s view of natural calamity as resulting from “law or regularity” would apply to the pre-sin world as well. (Adam experienced hunger even in the Garden of Eden. And, if Adam had hit his head against a branch in the Garden of Eden, it would have hurt him.) Warren’s position allows that the “vale of soul-making” was changed after sin entered the world, in the sense that natural calamity increased to accommodate man’s state of guilt before God.
Warren’s position on this point is biblical. Man’s sin brought changes to the world in ways that we only partially understand, but nonetheless the world has remained a vale of soul-making since the creation. Romans 8:20-22: “[T]he creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” Doubtless many natural calamities or their effects are made worse due to the “bondage of corruption” that causes man to die (Genesis 2:17; 3:19, 22) and God’s creation to groan. Warren’s position accommodates the fact that much suffering results from the sin of Adam and of subsequent generations. [xxii]
4. Warren and Hicks differ concerning a fourth issue. For Warren, God’s resolution of the problem of sin and suffering in the eschaton is necessary in the sense that God’s soul-making project will be completed at the eschaton; God created the world for soul-making, and so the eschaton is the logical conclusion to the process. [xxiii] Hicks, on the other hand, says that we, as sinners, deserve worse than suffering during life; in fact, God would be perfectly justified in killing us right now as punishment for our sin. [xxiv] According to Hicks, God is being merciful to us now in a supererogatory way. But Hicks also says that God cannot be justified for inflicting evil on the world until the eschaton. Hicks cannot consistently hold both that God is justified now and that God remains unjustified until the eschaton.
Someone might respond by saying that, if it is a problem for Hicks that God will be justified only at the eschaton, it is also a problem for Warren, since Warren involves the eschaton in his theodicy as well. But for Warren, God is never unjustified, since God is always involved in some part of the program of soul-making, the whole of which will conclude in the eschaton. Whereas Hicks is inconsistent, Warren is consistent.
Hicks’ position should be rejected not only because it is internally problematic, but also because it provides less comfort or assurance to suffering individuals insofar as it explains less about our suffering. Warren has argued that God has set up the ideal vale of soul-making such that particular instances of suffering—even random suffering—can be explained in light of God’s soul-making endeavor. Having rejected Warren’s arguments, Hicks has no philosophical ground from which to argue that there is a general account that explains every instance of human and animal suffering on some level. Instead, Hicks says that there probably is a specific rationale in the mind of God that explains each particular instance of suffering. In the same breath, Hicks is forced to admit that such specific plans are inscrutable to the human mind, and therefore it is impossible to know whether God has such a particularized rationale or not. [xxv] This is surely an unsatisfactory outcome.
The mind of God is indeed beyond us, but faith is built by appreciating the general reasons for suffering that God has made knowable to us. Warren’s approach to the problem provides such an explanation whereas Hicks’ does not.
[ii] Thomas B. Warren, Have Atheists Proved There Is No God? (Ramer: National Christian Press, 1972), vii-x.
[iii] Robert M. Adams, “Theodicy,” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 910.
[v] See Warren, Have Atheists Proved; ibid., God and Evil: Does Judeo-Christian Theism Involve a Logical Contradiction?, Ph.D. Dissertation, Vanderbilt University (1969).
[vi] It would be better to use “free choice” instead of “free will,” unless the writer is prepared to argue that the individual human will is totally unconditioned prior to choosing. I am not so prepared.
[vii] Eschatology is “The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell” (“Eschatology,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, Oxford University Press, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/64274 ). The “eschaton” refers to collectively to occasion when these final things occur (“Eschaton,” Oxford, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/64275?redirectedFrom=eschaton& ).
[viii] “A Reasonable Theodicy.”
[xii] Have Atheists Proved, 21.
[xiv] Hicks: “Given the power, wisdom, and goodness of God revealed in Scripture, there is reason to believe that specific natural evils do not occur randomly nor without purpose. God’s purposes may be varied, such as to punish or to give grace or to test. They may not always be discernible, but there is reason to believe that they are there. While we may be left to wonder like Job about the real reason for our suffering, we have reason to believe in God’s gracious purposes (ultimately revealed in the cross). In the same way, God could act to hinder the burglar, or the drunk driver, but why he does or does not is not always discernible. That God can so act makes sense our of my prayers and his sovereignty, but why he sometimes does and sometimes does not is not within my abilities to grasp. Here, like Job, I must bow before the mystery of the transcendent God” (“A Reasonable Theodicy”); cf. Warren: “If the critic objects by saying, ‘Even if I were to grant that, in order for there to be a physical world, there must be the possibility of the occurrence of mutual-interferences or cross-accidents, it nevertheless seems clear to me that there is no need for such violent ones as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, etc. What contribution does an earthquake, which destroys twenty thousand people (including many infants) make to “soul-saving”?’ (An imagined objection.) It is to be doubted that any man has (or could have) the knowledge to explain completely the contribution (to ‘soul making’) of every instance of such destructive forces. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that God is not blameworthy for having created a world in which such events occur” (Have Atheists Proved, 58, parenthetical items in orig.).
[xv] Have Atheists Proved, 40-41; God and Evil, 292.
[xvi] Hicks: “Because natural evils are just consequences of sin, God is justified in lovingly using them in the process of “soul-making”. Therefore, while natural evils produce unpleasant and painful effects, it is moral for God to use them to accomplish his purposes in the context of a fallen world. Since we now deserve death, God uses all moral means at his disposal to save and preserve those who love him. God uses natural evil, even causes natural evil, to serve his ultimate goal, to serve his ultimate good. God’s goal is fellowship with his creatures, and he will use natural evil as a means to accomplish that goal. It is not immoral for God to use natural evil because natural evil is a just response to moral evil, and God has good reasons for using natural evil” (“A Reasonable Theodicy”).
[xvii] In, e.g., God and Evil and Have Atheists Proved There Is No God?.
[xviii] Warren, God and Evil: “If it were the case that one could avoid any and all diversity (pain, disease, suffering, etc.) by simply becoming a (spiritual) son of God, then man would not be living in an ideal environment for soul-making for the simple reason that he would not have a situation in which a challenge would be involved in his decision to become a son of God” (354, parenthetical items and emp. in orig.).
[xix] One might wonder here, “Why did God not make us to be like angels, which have no corporeal bodies and yet at one time could choose to oppose God?” As far as I know, Warren does not answer this question directly, and yet he has sketched a promising strategy for accounting for the necessity of our physical bodies as part of our probation in the vale of soul-making (see God and Evil, 312ff.).
[xx] God and Evil, 65-66, parenthetical item in orig.
[xxi] “I believe that the biblical tradition is that what we call ‘natural evils’ are the just consequences and punishments for sin” (“A Reasonable Theodicy”).
[xxii] E.g., Have Atheists Proved, viii-ix.
[xxiii] The implicit necessity of the eschaton for Warren can be seen in his insistence that one part of the “soul-making” on earth is that man learns that the earth is not his final or ultimate home but is rather the location for a probationary period (God and Evil, 250). This makes sense only in light of a possible future abode in a better place. Warren says, “If man’s eternal destiny can be decided without the probationary period, then the pain and suffering which man experiences during earthly life appears pointless and meaningless. And, if God planned such a pointless and meaningless existence of man, then He is surely deficient in at least one (and perhaps all) of these attributes: power, knowledge, and goodness” (ibid., 361-362, parenthetical item in orig.).
[xxiv] “Furthermore, God is morally justified in using ‘natural evils’ in a fallen world for his purposes. In a fallen world, what do we deserve? Life itself after the Garden of Eden, after the fall of Adam and Eve, is a matter of grace. We do not deserve wealth or health. We deserve death. Is God culpable if he permits or even causes us to receive what we deserve?” (“A Reasonable Theodicy”).
[xxv] “Given the power, wisdom and goodness of God revealed in Scripture, there is reason to believe that specific natural evils do not occur randomly nor without purpose. God's purposes may be varied, such as to punish or to give grace or to test. They may not always be discernible, but there is reason to believe that they are there. While we may be left to wonder like Job about the real reason for our suffering, we have reason to believe in God's gracious purposes (ultimately revealed in the cross). In the same way, God could act to hinder the burglar, or the drunk driver, but why he does or does not is not always discernible. That God can so act makes sense out of my prayers and his sovereignty, but why he sometimes does and sometimes does not is not within my abilities to grasp. Here, like Job, I must bow before the mystery of the transcendent God” (“A Reasonable Theodicy,” parenthetical item in orig.).
Caleb Colley is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University, Faulkner University, and holds the Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of South Carolina (Columbia). He presently serves as pulpit minister for Macland Road Church of Christ, Marietta, GA.