NOTES on John Hick (1922-2012): Evil and the God of Love

John Hick (1922-2012): Evil and the God of Love

A theodicy is an attempt to justify the goodness of God despite the presence of evil in the world. John Hick is an important philosopher/theologian who has developed what we can call the “Vale of Soul-Making” theodicy. In it, Hick suggests that the purpose of the universe is not to be a hedonistic paradise (although Heaven may very well be that), but is instead to help us develop souls so that one day we may become worthy of being citizens of Heaven.

Hick begins by contrasting two different views of Humankind, beginning with the view of Saint Augustine (354-430 C.E.), which is called by Hick “the majority report,” meaning that very many people believe it. According to Saint Augustine, human free will accounts for much of the evil that we find in the world. This is something that Hick agrees with; however, he does not agree with Saint Augustine’s second assertion, which is that at one time Humankind was in a state of perfection, from which it fell. In other words, Saint Augustine believes that God created Humankind perfect, but that through the use of free will, Humankind sinned and stopped being perfect.

This, of course, is one way to interpret the myth of the Garden of Eden. (By the way, a myth can be true, even if it is not literally true.) Adam and Eve were perfect, but they were tempted to sin, gave in to this temptation and did sin, and so became not perfect. However, we can interpret this myth in other ways. My own interpretation is that at one time Humankind (or its ancestors) did not sin — when our ancestors had not acquired the knowledge of good and evil and so were incapable of sinning. However, eventually Humankind achieved sufficient intelligence to know the difference between right and wrong and so became able to sin. (I don’t think that a dog sins because a dog is not capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong.)

Instead of accepting this opinion of Saint Augustine’s, Hick much prefers what he calls the “minority report” of St. Irenaeus (born in Anatolia, circa 140-160 C.E.; died circa 200 C.E.), a second-century Christian writer. As Hick writes, “Instead of regarding man as having been created by God in a finished state, as a finitely perfect being fulfilling the divine intention for our human level of existence, and then falling disastrously away from this, the minority report sees man as still in process of creation.”

An important part of Hick’s theodicy is that he recognizes two levels of existence: Biosand Zoe. Biosis mere biological life, whereas Zoeis eternal or spiritual life. St. Irenaeus believes that we were created with biological life, and that we are in the process of acquiring eternal or spiritual life.

This view can be supported with passages from the Bible. We are supposed to become “children of God” (Hebrews ii. 10) and “fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans viii. 17). In addition, this view is compatible with evolution. Life apparently originated as one-celled creatures in the ocean; therefore, Humankind was not created perfect and whole. Instead, life has evolved to the point where Humankind has achieved enough intelligence to tell right from wrong and has achieved the free will to choose to join the race of decent men or the race of indecent men (using Viktor Frankl’s terminology in Man’s Search for Meaning).

Hick does make a value judgment in his theodicy. He writes, “The value-judgment that is implicitly being invoked here is that one who has attained to goodness by meeting and eventually mastering temptations, and thus by rightly making responsible choices in concrete situations, is good in a richer and more valuable sense than would be one created ab initioin a state of either innocence or virtue.”

God could have created us morally perfect, if He had wished. However, He would have had to create us without free will — we would be like robots who are programmed always to do good and never to do evil. It is much more morally valuable to have a human being who freely chooses to do the right thing than to have a robot that is forced always to do the right thing.

Hick also points out, “Man is in process of becoming the perfected being whom God is seeking to create. However, this is not taking place — it is important to add — by a natural and inevitable evolution, but through a hazardous adventure in individual freedom.”

Many people might think that the world ought to be becoming better and better as Humankind becomes more and more perfect. However, that is not the case. The move toward becoming a child of God is happening in individuals, not in Humankind as a whole.

In fact, Hick specifically states, “Because this is a pilgrimage within the life of each individual, rather than a racial evolution, the progressive fulfilment of God’s purpose does not entail any corresponding progressive improvement in the moral state of the world.”

In addition, Hick points out a common mistake (made by David Hume, among others): “They think of God’s relation to the earth on the model of a human being building a cage for a pet animal to dwell in.” When these critics of theism look at the world, they note its imperfections and criticize it because of them. They believe that if God really were omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then He would have made the Earth a hedonistic paradise.

Hick writes, “Men are not to be thought of on the analogy of animal pets, whose life is to be made as agreeable as possible, but rather on the analogy of human children, who are to grow to adulthood in an environment whose primary and overriding purpose is not immediate pleasure but the realizing of the most valuable potentialities of human personality.”

As you can see, Hick believes that the world was made not to be a source of endless delights for Humankind, but was made in order for us to develop souls. What kind of world is necessary in order to make souls? Suppose I were to ask you: What is more important?

Pleasure, or Moral Integrity?

Pleasure, or Unselfishness?

Pleasure, or Compassion?

Pleasure, or Courage?

Pleasure, or Humor?

Pleasure, or Reverence for the Truth?

Pleasure, or the Capacity to Love?

I would hope that you would agree that pleasure is less important than the other qualities listed above. To help us develop those better qualities, God has not created a hedonistic paradise on this Earth, but instead He has created a world in which there is evil, yes, but a world in which we can — if we choose — develop the better qualities listed above.

Hick’s theodicy includes these themes: free will, and harmony. We see the harmony in a World (Heaven) to come in which Humankind (who have become citizens of Heaven) has achieved the better qualities listed above. According to Hick, “The good that outshines all ill is not a paradise long since lost but a kingdom which is yet to come in its full glory and permanence.”

By the way, the phrase “the vale of Soul-making” comes from a letter written by English poet John Keats to his siblings in April 1819.

Note: The quotations by John Hick that appear in this essay are from his Evil and the God of Love, revised edition by John Hick (copyright 1966 and 1978).


Edward H. Madden (born 1925) and Peter Hare (born 1935-2008): Rejection of Hick’s Theodicy

Previously, we examined John Hick’s theodicy, in which he argued that a combination of free will and harmony (eventually, those who become children of God will reach Heaven) will serve to justify the goodness of God despite the presence of evil in the world. Now, however, we will look at the views of Edward H. Madden and Peter Hare, who reject Hick’s “Vale of Soul-Making” theodicy in their book Evil and the Concept of God.

Madden and Hare first quote Hick making an important point that

man, created as a personal being in the image of God, is only the raw material for a further and more difficult stage of God’s creative work. This is the leading of men as relatively free and autonomous persons through their own dealings with life in the world in which he has placed them, towards that quality of personal existence that is the finite likeness of God.

Madden and Hare then mention Hick’s criticism of many writers who use the fact of evil against God. According to Hick, such writers “assume that the purpose of a loving God must be to create a hedonistic paradise.” Hick, as well as Madden and Hare, will reject the idea of a hedonistic paradise, but nonetheless Madden and Hare will argue that the amount of evil that is in the universe is sufficient to reject belief in God.

Madden and Hare accuse Hick of three informal fallacies in his theodicy. The three informal fallacies are 1) all or nothing, 2) it could be worse, and 3) slippery slope.

I. A Fallacy: All or Nothing

According to Madden and Hare, the all-or-nothing fallacy “is the claim that something is desirable because its complete absence would be far worse than the evil its presence now commands.” They believe that the fallacy lies in reasoning that there are only two alternatives: all of something, or none of something. However, Madden and Hare say that there is a third alternative: less of something.

Madden and Hare believe that Hick is guilty of the all or nothing fallacy on two occasions. The first occurs when he uses the free-will defense. Yes, there is moral evil in the world, but Hick says that the moral evil in the world is necessary to create souls. If God were to create us in such a way that we always choose to do the right thing, then we would be robots without free will and without the chance to develop into the finite likeness of God.

However, according to Madden and Hare, there is a third alternative: We could have free will, but our freedom to do evil and our moral inclinations to do evil could be much less than they are now. This would allow us to still develop souls, while doing less evil than we do now.

Madden and Hare use an analogy here. They say that God is like the headmaster of a very permissive school. The headmaster does not make the school’s students read books because he doesn’t want to do anything that would restrict their freedom by forcing them to learn — he wants them to choose to learn for the sake of learning, not because they are forced to learn.

According to Madden and Hare, there is a better way to run the school — one that will still give the students some freedom. As they point out, “There are, after all, many different ways for a parent to guide his child’s moral growth while respecting his freedom.”

The second way in which Madden and Hare believe that Hick is guilty of the all-or-nothing fallacy is in Hick’s explanation of epistemic distance. We do not have knowledge of the existence of God. Why? According to Hick, it is because God wants us to develop faith. If we knew that God existed, it would not be possible for us to have faith.

Once again, Madden and Hare use the analogy of the headmaster. The headmaster appears before the students only once a year to give an address. But Madden and Hare say that their analogy is too generous — God hardly ever appears before his people. Jesus walked the Earth 2,000 years ago, and has not returned since.

II. A Fallacy: It Could Be Worse

According to Madden and Hare, the it-could-be-worse fallacy “is the claim that something is not really bad because it will be followed by all manner of desirable things.” However, Madden and Hare say that this does not justify the bad thing. We can think of another alternative to something bad that is followed by something better. That alternative is this: something good that is followed by something better.

Hick writes, “Christian theodicy must point forward to that final blessedness, and claim that this infinite future good will render worth while all the pain and travail and wickedness that has occurred on the way to it.” By this, Hick means that eventually the faithful will earn their way into Heaven. (This is a variant of the Harmony type of theodicy.) Hick also suggests that it is possible that we will not remember the bad things that occurred to us on Earth.

Madden and Hare reject this. If we are being tortured now, how can this torture be justified even if someday we will be in Heaven? In a vivid analogy and counterargument, Madden and Hare ask us to imagine a man torturing his wife. Suppose that once the torture is over, the man gave his wife a drug that caused her to forget the torture. This is better than remembering the torture, but it does not explain why the torture was necessary in the first place.

III. A Fallacy: Slippery Slope

According to Madden and Hare, the slippery-slope fallacy “is the claim that if God once started eliminating evils of this world he would have no place to stop short of a ‘perfect’ world in which only robots and not men were possible.” However, Madden and Hare say that God would know where to stop to reduce the amount of evil that is in the world yet still have enough evil to serve the purpose of building souls.

One problem that Hick must face is that of excessive suffering — dysteleological suffering. Some suffering is necessary. If you are out of shape and wish to get in shape, you have to force yourself to exercise even though you would rather not exercise. (Eventually, when you get in shape, you will enjoy exercising.)

However, some of the suffering in the world does not have a good result. Although some people are ennobled by suffering, other people are made bitter by suffering. The people who are ennobled by suffering have what we can call teleological suffering. They are building their souls. The people who are embittered by suffering have what we can call dysteleological suffering. Their suffering serves no good purpose.

Let no one doubt that pain hurts. Let no one doubt that suffering can harden a person and make that person bitter. How can Hick justify this kind of suffering? Why wouldn’t God get rid of at least the dysteleological suffering in the world?

Is the slippery-slope fallacy that Hick is supposed by Madden and Hare to have committed really a good criticism? Is it true that God could eliminate some of the evil that is in the world without logically having to eliminate all of the evil that is in the world?

Possibly not. Take the world of the 20th century. The worst evil in it is probably Adolf Hitler. According to Madden and Hare, God could eliminate some of the evil in the world and still have enough evil to suffice for the purpose of building souls. Therefore, God could eliminate the evil of Adolf Hitler.

But notice what happens next. The second-worst evil has now moved up to the place of the first-worst evil. Perhaps the second-worst evil is Benito Mussolini. The logic of Madden and Hare’s argument requires that God eliminate the evil of Benito Mussolini.

But notice what happens next. What was once the third-worst evil has now moved up to the place of the first-worst evil. The logic of Madden and Hare’s argument requires that God eliminate this evil as well.


In Hick’s words:

Unless God eliminated all evils whatsoever there would always be relatively outstanding ones of which it would be said that He should have secretly prevented them. If, for example, divine providence had eliminated Hitler in his infancy, we might now point instead to Mussolini. … There would be nowhere to stop, short of divinely arranged paradise in which human freedom would be narrowly circumscribed.

According to Hick, once God began to remove evils, He would have to continue removing evils until no evils were left at all.

Hick does not appear to be guilty of the fallacy of slippery slope. The logic of Madden and Hare’s argument seems to require that God continue to eliminate evils until no evil is left in the world.

However, Madden and Hare reject Hick’s thesis. According to Madden and Hare, God would know when to stop eliminating evils. There would still be evil in the world, but much less evil in the world than we have at present. But that amount of evil would still be sufficient for soul-building.

We should point out that since human beings have free will, the amount of evil we cause can vary. If most people use their free will to do evil, much evil will be in the world. During such times, the amount of evil in the world can greatly exceed what is needed for soul-building. Also, of course, if most people use their free will to do good, much good will be in the world.

IV. Mystery

Hick eventually resorts to mystery. He writes, “I do not now have an alternative theory to offer that would explain in any rational or ethical way why men suffer as they do. The only appeal left is to mystery.”

The kind of mystery that Hick appeals to is that there is no answer to the problem of evil. Not only do we not have an answer to the problem of evil now, but there will be no answer forthcoming in the future (at least, in this world).

However, Hick suggests that mystery can aid us in the process of soul-making. He asks us to imagine a world in which there was no unjust suffering — all suffering would be punishment for something that the person had done wrong, or the suffering would be “a part of moral training.” Such a world would seem to inhibit the development of compassion.

Madden and Hare make three objections to this idea:

1) We can feel compassion even when the suffering is teleological. As an example, Madden and Hare point out that a husband can feel compassion for his wife’s labor pains even though the labor pains will result in the birth of a child. Also, we can feel compassion for the pain suffered by a criminal even though we think the suffering is deserved.

2) Suppose that some undeserved and unnecessary suffering is needed in the world. According to Madden and Hare, the amount of needed undeserved and unnecessary suffering is much less than the world currently has.

3) “… while unjust suffering may increase compassion, it also creates massive resentment.” Once again, we must remember that suffering crushes some people.

V. One Last Justification for Unjust Suffering

Hick offers one last justification for unjust suffering. Suppose that there was no unjust suffering in the world. In that kind of world, you would be rewarded for good deeds and punished for bad deeds. However, in that kind of world, you would quickly figure out what you would have to do to get ahead, and therefore you would do good deeds not because they are the right thing to do, but because you want to get ahead. In other words, you would do good deeds because you were selfish, not because you cared about the people you were helping. This is the opposite of developing a good will — doing good deeds because they are the right thing to do, not because you hope for a reward.

Madden and Hare make three objections to this idea:

1) If God were to administer rewards and punishments for our actions, he would certainly take into account a person’s motivefor doing something. If someone does a good deed merely for a reward, God would know enough not to give a reward to that person.

2) If God administers rewards and punishments on the basis of motive, this will have a good effect on human morality.

3) Suppose that always rewarding a person for having a good will is bad. That does not mean that God couldn’t get rid of an enormous amount of the unjust suffering that we see in the world today without getting rid of the possibility of acting with a good will.

Note: The quotations by Edward H. Madden and Peter Hare that appear in this essay are from their Evil and the Concept of God(Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1968).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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