God Can Allow Some Evil
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 3 - Philosophy of Religion
John Hick, from Philosophy of Religion
Kem Stone - 30 August 2007
Although this text argues that an omnipotent, benevolent God can exist in spite of the existence of evil, it does not
stand in opposition to Hume’s arguments, and one can agree with both opinions without contradiction. Although I
do not subscribe to the Judeo-Christian conception of God, I believe Hick’s reasons for why the presence of evil
does not preclude His existence are valid.
Hick begins with the assertion that the problem of evil is for most agnostics the most powerful detractor from the
belief in God. The concept of an all-good, loving God just does not seem plausible in the face of the
overwhelming amount of suffering in the world. Those who do believe in God are forced to reconcile this
problem, and many solutions have been offered in an attempt to explain the presence of evil without abandoning
belief in God’s benevolence.
Hick presents what he feels are two of the weaker solutions to this problem, beginning with the explanation
offered by contemporary Christian Science that because good and evil are human concepts, we cannot apply
these standards to an infinite being such as God. Yet Hick believes that such standards can be applied, as there is
no ambiguity as to the nature of evil in the Bible. “To say…that evil is an illusion of the human mind is impossible
within a religion based upon the stark realism of the Bible…there is no attempt to regard evil as anything but dark,
menacingly ugly, heart-rending, and crushing” (105). I would argue that this solution to the problem of evil is
perfectly valid for anyone with a broader conception of God, but Hick is correct that it does not satisfy the
problem in terms of the Judeo-Christian God that he is defending.
The second solution to the problem of evil that Hick addresses is that which simply denies God’s omnipotence
and asserts that God merely does “the best he can” with a finite creation, which inherently must be evil. Hick
states that to solve the problem in this manner is tantamount to abandoning the religion altogether, as God’s
omnipotence is a fundamental premise of Judeo-Christian monotheism. Furthermore, he cites the Augustinian
belief that the universe is not inherently evil but is in fact necessarily good, and that evil is merely a corruption or
distortion of that good. In any case, the belief that God is incapable of eliminating evil is incompatible with
Christianity as Hick sees it, and I believe almost all would agree.
Hick then begins to defend what he believes is the strongest solution to the problem of evil by first distinguishing
between two different types of evil. There is moral evil—the tendency of human beings to inflict harm on one
another, and nonmoral evil—or pain and suffering in either a physical or mental sense. To explain moral evil,
Hick first defines a person as “a finite center of freedom, a (relatively) free and self-directing agent responsible for
one’s own decisions” (106). Anyone lacking the freedom to make choices that might result in evil, according to
this definition, would not actually be a person.
An objection to this solution is offered by J. L. Mackie, who contends that that if God can create people who are
capable of freely choosing the good on one occasion, He is capable of creating people who will freely choose the
good on all occasions. Since God could have done this, the fact that He did not suggests that he must not be
perfectly good. Yet Hick does not believe this is a valid objection, as a being compelled by God to choose the
good on every occasion would not truly be a free being. “There is, in other words, a contradiction in saying that
God has made us so that we shall of necessity act in a certain way, and that we are genuinely independent persons
in relation to him” (107).
One could object further that if we deny God’s ability to create free beings who will nevertheless choose the good
on every occasion, we deny God’s omnipotence. Yet Hick insists that God’s omnipotence is not called into
question by His inability to realise a logical contradiction in this way. If free will is contained within the definition of
a person, God’s omnipotence is not limited if he can not create persons without free will, as to do so would
literally be to create a person who is not a person. Although it can certainly be debated whether for God to be
omnipotent He would have to be able to reconcile logical contradictions, such a consideration falls well outside the
scope of this argument.
Turning to non-moral evil, Hick begins by asserting that a great deal of suffering is a necessary consequence of
moral evil. “For an enormous amount of human pain arises either from the inhumanity or the culpable
incompetence of mankind. This includes such major scourges as poverty, oppression and persecution, war, and
all the injustice, indignity, and inequity which occur even in the most advanced societies. These evils are
manifestations of human sin” (108). What remains to be explained are instances of natural evil such as
earthquakes, storms, floods, and blights.
According to Hick, most of those who disbelieve in God’s benevolence due to these types of evil are usually
under the misconception that God has created this world for us in the same sense that we might create an
environment for animals in a zoo—to make it as pleasant and comfortable as possible. “Christianity, however, has
never supposed that God’s purpose in the creation of the world was to construct a paradise whose inhabitants
would experience a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. The world is seen, instead, as a place of ‘soul-
making’ in which free beings grappling with the tasks and challenges of their existence in a common environment,
may become ‘children of God’ and ‘heirs of eternal life’” (109). If we look at the world in terms of the challenges
it offers to man in accordance with this idea of “soul-making” we begin to see how the existence of natural evil
may be explained.
Hick imagines a world that is designed to be a paradise absent of all pain and suffering, showing just how radically
different such a world would have to be in order to work. If we still allow for moral evil, yet abolish pain, a
murderer’s knife would have to turn to paper before striking its intended victim, or bullets would have to dissolve
into thin air before reaching their targets. Money robbed from banks would have to spontaneously reappear in
their vaults, and all instances of corruption and fraud would somehow leave society as a whole unaffected.
Furthermore, no one could be injured even by accident—a mountain-climber falling off a cliff would float safely to
the ground, and reckless drivers would miraculously never hit anything. For such a world to be possible, there
could be no set laws of nature, but only divine providence operating on nearly every occasion. Life in this world
would be more like a dream than reality, as people floated aimlessly from birth to death without ever experiencing
a struggle or a care. “Consequently, such a world, however well it might promote pleasure, would be very ill
adapted for the development of the moral qualities of human personality. In relation to this purpose it would be
the worst of all possible worlds” (110).
We now have explanations for both moral evil and most types of natural evil, though Hick admits to the
incompleteness of his theodicy, which leaves out instances of child or animal suffering. I would be curious to
know how Hick deals with these cases, but I believe the “soul-making” hypothesis is still an effective starting
point. Children most certainly have souls, and their suffering would be just as valuable to their development as
moral agents as it is for adults. As far as animals go, if they have souls, their suffering no doubt benefits them in a
similar respect, whereas if they do not have souls they are not conscious and their suffering is merely illusory and
Hick relates his theodicy to the Christian conception of the crucifixion as simultaneously being the worst thing that
has ever happened (as the murder of God incarnate) and the best thing that has ever happened (as the occasion of
Man’s salvation). He sees this as an archetype for understanding all other instances of evil, from which good can
always be drawn. Thus in the Christian understanding, “tragedy, though truly tragic, may nevertheless be turned,
through a man’s reaction to it, from a cause of despair and alienation from God to a stage in the fulfilment of God’
s loving purpose for that individual” (110). This is essentially the Augustinian solution to the problem of evil—that
it is part of God’s infinite goodness to always draw good from evil.
For this reasoning to work, Hick realises, there must be life after death. Because people do not always react to
suffering by triumphing over evil, a future life is necessary should the divine purpose of soul-making ever be
complete. Finally, if the entire process of soul-making is to be justified in the first place, there must be some future
good which will render worthwhile all of the pain and suffering we must endure to achieve it.
This final point addresses but does not completely satisfy my only major objection to Hick’s argument, as the
“soul-making” process remains unjustified as long as we do not understand God’s ultimate purpose in using pain
and suffering to instil whatever moral qualities he wishes to instil in the souls He creates. One may still ask that
whatever God’s ultimate purpose may be, could he not have simply realised it and foregone the entire process?
For instance, if soul S comes to posses certain qualities Q only after undergoing process P, and P is painful
suffering and early death as a child, why not eliminate P altogether and simply create S already with Q? An
omnipotent God certainly could do this, and it would seem that a benevolent God would do this. Yet I expect
that this objection can also be answered by appealing to free will and showing that it is logically impossible for S to
have Q without undergoing P—as the result of P must come about through the freely chosen actions of S.
In any case, I agree with Hick’s essential claim that God’s existence as an omnipotent and benevolent being is not
precluded by the problem of evil, though I do so not on the grounds of the idea of soul-making but simply that if
God does exist, and its divine purpose is good, we are beings of such limited intelligence that we cannot be so
bold as to assume that suffering is not necessary for the achievement of this purpose. Yet I would hold to the
opinion of Hume that although there may be a good behind all this evil, this certainly does not appear to be the
case. All of Hick’s reasoning presupposes God’s existence as an all-powerful and perfectly good being, and
attempts to seek reasons to explain the circumstances of evil in terms of this. Yet the circumstances themselves
do not suggest the existence of such a being, and therefore the problem of evil remains a problem.