Problem of evil handout – Augustine, Irenaeus, Hick


OCR Checklist

Can I:

  • describe the nature of the problem of evil?
  • distinguish between the types of natural and moral evil?
  • explain the theodicies of Augustine and Irenaeus as attempts to respond to the problem of evil?
  • evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the Augustinian and Irenaean theodicies and the differences and similarities between them?

The Problem

Epicurus’ Definition of the Problem

  • Is God willing to prevent evil, but unable to do so? Then he is not omnipotent.
  • Is God able to prevent evil, but is not willing to? Then he is malevolent.
  • Is God able to prevent evil and willing to? Then why is there evil?

The Logical Problem of Evil – JL Mackie

Theists have to show that their beliefs make sense.

  1. God being Omnipotent – If God has power over Laws of Nature (“causal laws”) why does he not prevent evil and suffering? Could God not have created a free people who would always choose well? – Mackie
  2. The amount of evil – There is a great deal of suffering in nature despite human actions. If nature is merely the passing of genes, then what is good about creation? Mankind is capable of great atrocities against man – the Holocaust, Rwanda genocide.
  3. God is omniscient – Did God know that we would cause so much suffering?
  • If suffering is to learn, what are we learning?
  • If suffering is to punish, why do villains prosper?
  • Is suffering of benefit to humans?

Types of evil

Natural evil is the evil caused naturally. Vardy identified five types of natural evil:

  • Animal suffering
  • Suffering from poor bodily designs
  • Psychological suffering
  • Suffering from disease
  • Natural disasters

Moral evil is the evil caused by moral agents.

Responses to evil

  1. Evil is caused by creatures using their free will.
  2. Evil is necessary as a means of for people to develop some valuable moral qualities, such as compassion.
  3. Developing a different understanding of the nature of God.


Theodicy comes from the Greek: theos (God) and dike (justification). A theodicy then is a justification of God in light of evil and suffering in the world.

Augustine’s theodicy – definition of evil

Augustine defines evil as a “privation”; “evil is not a substance”. When we talk of things being evil or bad, it means that they do not meet our expectations of how they ought to be.

Herbert McCabe, “God, Evil and Divine Responsibility”

MaCabe was inspired by Augustine and gave the example of bad grapes and a bad deckchair. We know what they ought to be like and so we can call things bad if they do not live up to the expectations made.


Bear in mind Aristotle’s idea of good and evil; evil was when something did not fulfil its final cause or was changed so that it no longer fit its formal cause.

Absence and lack

Augustine distinguished between not being able to do something that you ought to be able to do and not being able to do (like breathing unaided) something that is outside of your nature (like breathing underwater). That said, there are some privations for which we are not to blame (eg lacking the health to walk unaided), and some for which we are to blame (eg lacking the qualities of generosity to be kind to our neighbours).

Augustine and the Origin of Evil

Augustine, Confessions

“I thought it better to believe that you had created no evil … rather than to believe that the nature of evil, as I understood it, came from you.”

All evil, natural and moral, comes from moral choices. It is the absence of humanity and goodness which makes things “evil”.

“Evil comes from God.”

“It was obvious to me that things which are liable to corruption are good … If there were no good in them there would be nothing capable of being corrupted.”

If God made everything, then all things that are evil:

  1. came once from God;
  2. began as good.

Genesis 1

Points to highlight from Genesis 1:

  1. Creation is good.
  2. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.

These points suggest two things:

  1. Human beings are physical, spiritual and capable of rational thought.
  2. There was no suffering in Eden; all was in harmony.

The Fall

Eve is tempted by the serpent to know good and evil. The verb “to know” in Hebrew means to know through experience; that is to experience what God forbade them. This disharmony with God is first identified by Adam and Eve realising they are naked. This is

what is called Original Sin. The consequences of Original Sin were man’s fate to work to survive and woman’s fate to suffer in childbirth.

The hierarchy of creation

God created not only physical beings but spiritual ones as well. If God had not created all beings he would not be omnipotent and creation would not be perfect. The disharmony caused by fallen angels brought natural evil into the world. In this way, both natural and

moral evil are the consequences of free will.

St Paul and the sin of Adam, Romans 5:12

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.

Why Free Will?

It is better to have free-thinking agents than mindless robots:

  1. It means that God allows evil and sustains a world with evil.
  2. If there was no free will there would be no good action either.
  3. Furthermore, privation highlights the nature of the goodness of creation.

In a nutshell

For Augustine, evil and suffering are the consequences of man’s misuse of free will: The

Free Will Defence.

Criticisms of Augustine’s Theodicy

  1. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love – Hick said that Augustine’s view was implausible for people nowadays; it requires a literal interpretation of Genesis and an unfounded belief in angels and demons.
  2. Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne – Plantinga did not require evidence of angels for the success of Augustine’s theodicy, only the possibility of angels. Both Plantinga and Swinburne accept the idea that evil is a direct consequence of the misuse of free will.
  3. Science – Augustine’s theodicy relies on a notion that the world was once perfect and was spoilt by sin. Geology and biology suggest that both the physical world and the evolution of man took place slowly over the course of thousands of years.
  4. Adam’s Sin – An understanding of Original Sin relies upon an ancient understanding of biology that the life-giving force comes from the father and the flesh from the mother. Furthermore, it shows God as unjust punishing humanity now for the sin of Adam.
  5. A perfect world – Schleiermacher, amongst other philosophers, questioned two points: How could a perfect world go wrong? Why would angels created to live in God’s presence turn from him?
  6. God’s responsibility for natural evil – The idea that moral evil is the fault of man’s misuse of free will does not satisfactorily answer why there is natural evil. Furthermore, how can God, who is responsible for everything, allow a world with evil, and how can suffering be punishment from a merciful God?

Irenaeus’ Theodicy

The lesson of Adam and Eve

While Irenaeus accepted the story of Adam and Eve as literal, he believed that it was a lesson of the relationship between God and man. The serpent had committed the greater sin; Adam and Eve were like children disobeying their parents. However, God’s capture of

the serpent indicates that God did not abandon mankind. Suffering is part of the way we learn. For while promising that they should be as gods, which was in no way possible for him to be, he wrought death in them; wherefore he who had led man captive, was justly

captured in turn by God; but man who had been captured, was loosed from the bonds of condemnation. [Against the Heresies, Book 3: XXIII]

Irenaeus’ Analogy

A conquering army captures a people and they are made captives for a long time. Some of them have children with their captures. It would be unjust if a rescuer only rescued the descendents and not the parents who were originally captured, even though they were to

blame for being captured in the first place. In the same way, God rescues no only us but also Adam and Eve who were to

blame for our sin.


To Irenaeus, God did not punish Adam and Eve; labour and pains were the consequence of their disobedience which came from naivety. Without punishments man would “despise” God just as children despise parents who do not give them boundaries.

Necessity of suffering

It is only through accepting suffering in the world that people can come to an understanding of who God is. The prophets teach about how to reach God and the incarnation of Christ reconciles God and man. Irenaeus points out also the link between Jesus and Adam, Jesus being the new Adam who obeyed God and was crucified on a tree. It is therefore one and the same God the father who prepared good things with Himself for those who desire His fellowship, and who remain in subjection to Him; and who has eternal fire for the ringleader of the apostasy, the devil, and those who revolved with him, into which [fire] the Lord has declared those men shall be sent who have been set apart by themselves on His left hand. And this is what has been spoken by the prophet, “I am a jealous God, making peace, and creating evil things”; thus making peace and friendship with those who repent and turn to Him, and bringing [them to] unity, but preparing for the impenitent, those who shun the light, eternal fire and outer darkness, which are evils indeed to those persons who fall into them. [Against the Heresies, Book 4: LX]

Modern Irenaean Theodicies

John Hick’s Irenaean Theodicy

1. The problem to be solved – The story of Adam and Eve is a myth which attempts to explore the existence of evil and suffering in the world.

2. Human beings – Human beings are not created perfectly by God:

  • Image. We are created to evolve into rational, “intelligent and religious animals” (“Encountering Evil” in Live Options in Theodicy). Human beings are spiritually immature and are on Earth to grow.
  • Likeness. This is when human beings have attained spiritual maturity and are one with God. It is for this reason that there is suffering, so that we may grow into God’s likeness.

3. The Fall – The Fall is not as significant for the Irenaean theodicy as it is for the Augustinian theodicy, as it is merely the act of spiritually immature people. The term “the Fall” can only be used to describe the epistemic distance between God and man. If there was no distance we would be overwhelmed by God and unable to make free choices. The “distance” cannot of course be spatial; for God is omnipresent. It must be an epistemic distance, a distance in the cognitive dimension. And the Irenaean hypothesis is that this “distance” consists, in the case of humans, in their existence within and as part of the world which functions as an autonomous system and from within which God is not overwhelmingly present. (Hick, “Encountering Evil” in Live Options in Theodicy).4. Soul-making – The existence of evil is part of the nature of the world as an arena in which we can develop a sense of charity, compassion and goodness. Life is about soul-making, about developing into good people; that can only happing in a world where evil is possible. The development of human rights is an example of the good soul-making while mass genocide and people acting according to instinct rather than reason is an example of poor soul-making.

5. Natural disasters – The existence of natural evil is part of the test of life. If there is no danger there is no sense of achievement. In a world devoid both of dangers to be avoided and rewards to be won we may assume that there would have been virtually no moral development of the human intellect and imagination, and hence of either the science or the arts, and hence of human civilisation or culture. (Hick, “Encountering Evil” in Live Options in Theodicy)

6. The eschatological answer – Hick argues that clearly not all who have died were in the likeness of God, which must mean that post-mortem there is an additional form of soul-making, a purgatorial stage where the incomplete soul is made suitable for the presence of God. Hick therefore believes in universal salvation, God saves all after death; Hick does not believe in hell.

Criticisms of Hick

  1. Plausibility – Hick criticised the Augustinian Theodicy for its implausibility with regard to the Fall, but his own theodicy, especially the eschatological aspect, is itself implausible for nonbelievers.
  2. Injustice – Given that Jesus’ teachings suggest a notion of all people being given freedom to make their own decisions, it seems contrary to the Christian notion to suggest universal salvation.
  3. The existence of suffering – It is contrary to the notion of God as loving and good to create a world with natural suffering which Hick claims is a necessary part of our soul-making.
  4. Is it worth it? There has been so much suffering on account of a soul-making process that it seems contrary to the notion of God being good.
  5. Does the end justify the means? Most Christians, including Immanuel Kant, would reject the idea that God permits evil so that we may learn from it and develop into the likeness of God. The idea of justifying evil for a greater good is contrary to the idea of objective morality.
  6. The epistemic distance – If life is a soul-making process, why is God so distant?







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