, 47:161

Theodicy: The Solution to the Problem of Evil, or Part of the Problem?


DOI: 10.1007/s11841-008-0063-6

Cite this article as:
Trakakis, N. SOPHIA (2008) 47: 161. doi:10.1007/s11841-008-0063-6


Theodicy, the enterprise of searching for greater goods that might plausibly justify God’s permission of evil, is often criticized on the grounds that the project has systematically failed to unearth any such goods. But theodicists also face a deeper challenge, one that places under question the very attempt to look for any morally sufficient reasons God might have for creating a world littered with evil. This ‘anti-theodical’ view argues that theists (and non-theists) ought to reject, primarily for moral reasons, the project of ‘justifying the ways of God to men’. Unfortunately, this view has not received the serious attention it deserves, particularly in analytic philosophy of religion. Taking my cues from such anti-theodicists as Kenneth Surin, D.Z. Phillips and Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, I defend several reasons for holding that the way of thinking about God and evil enshrined in theodical discourse can only add to the world’s evils, not remove or illuminate them.


Problem of evil Theodicy Anti-theodicy D.Z. Phillips Dostoevsky 

No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

– Rabbi Greenberg (1989: 315)

Apart from a few lonely voices in the wilderness – such as those of Kenneth Surin and D.Z. Phillips – there is little discussion today within analytic philosophy of religion of the meta-theodical question of whether it is legitimate (in some significant sense) to offer a theodicy in response to the problem of evil. The recent resurgence of ‘sceptical theism’ has, of course, emphasized that we should not expect to know, at least in many cases, what God’s reasons are or might be for permitting evil, and so it is thought that it is somewhat presumptuous of us to construct theodicies. But the meta-theodical question I am asking is much more radical than that, for it questions the crucial presupposition lying behind all theodicies: the very idea that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil, whether these are beyond our ken or not. In other words, does it make sense – specifically, moral sense – to speak of God as permitting his creatures to suffer some evil, or inflicting suffering on them, for the sake of some ‘greater good’, such as free will or soul-making? In my previous work on the problem of evil1, I benightedly assumed that the answer was so obvious that the question did not even need to be asked. But now I think otherwise, and this is my attempt to explain why.

What is a Theodicy?

To begin with, what exactly is a ‘theodicy’, what is its nature and what does it attempt to achieve?2 Very briefly, a theodicy is the attempt to ‘justify the ways of God to men,’ as John Milton famously put it.3 In other words, a theodicy aims to vindicate the justice or goodness of God in the face of the evil and suffering found in the world. This purported vindication is, in turn, thought to be contingent upon the degree to which a ‘reasonable’ or ‘plausible’ explanation has been provided as to why God allows evil to abound in his creation. And the God under discussion – or under trial – is invariably the God of philosophical theism, an omnipresent person-like being that is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the sole creator and sustainer of the universe.

Theodicies come in all shapes and sizes, some more comprehensive and ambitious than others, some more abstract and technical than others, and some more tied to a specific religious tradition than others. Theodicies, I suggest, can best be understood by looking at them from three distinct perspectives.

Firstly, we can understand theodicies in terms of the range of evils they attempt to explain. Following the typology introduced by William Rowe4, at the least ambitious end of the scale we have theodicies that seek to explain why God permits any evil at all. Such a theodicy may seek to explain why there is some evil rather than none at all, or it may seek to account for at least one instance of evil. Next, there are theodicies that purport to explain why there are the various kinds of evil we find in our world, the two principal evil-kinds being ‘moral evil’ (evil brought about by the intentional misuse of human free will) and ‘natural evil’ (evil not resulting from the culpable misuse of human free will).5 Thirdly, there are theodicies that endeavour to explain why there is the amount of evil that we find in the world. Finally, and most ambitiously of all, there are theodicies that strive to account for every particular instance of evil, thus showing how it can be the case that, for every instance of evil, God is justified in allowing it.6

A second way in which the nature of theodicies can be clarified is in terms of the kinds of goods that are invoked. A theodicist, as indicated above, attempts to explain God’s permission of various evils, and this is achieved by ascribing to God some reason for allowing the evils to take place. This exculpating reason is thought to be a ‘morally sufficient reason’, a greater good for the sake of which God permits some evil and is morally justified in doing so.

The first thing to note here is that the greater good identified by the theodicist need not constitute God’s actual reason for permitting evil. It would suffice, for the purposes of theodicy, if it can be shown that, were the obtaining of the good in question God’s aim in permitting some evil, then God would be justified in permitting the evil. Secondly, the goods identified by the theodicist must in some sense be greater than the evils they justify (this is usually understood in quantitative terms, so that the positive value of the good state of affairs must outweigh the disvalue of the evil state of affairs).7 Thirdly, whatever goods are presumed to result from God’s permission of evil, it is often thought that – in at least the most extreme cases, involving intense, involuntary and undeserved suffering (e.g., child sex abuse) – these goods must include ‘patient-centred goods’, that is to say, goods that directly benefit the sufferer. Fourthly, the relationship between the goods invoked by the theodicist and the evils (or, more precisely, God’s permission of the evils) that these goods are intended to justify is one of logical necessity: when God’s permission of evil is explained in terms of some greater good this means, in part, that God’s permission of the evil is logically necessary (and not merely causally necessary) in order for the good to obtain.

A third way of interpreting the project of theodicy is in terms of the explanations that theodicists seek to offer. The theodicist’s explanations are not intended to be merely logically possible, for then a theodicy would be indiscernible from a ‘defence’, as this term is standardly used in the context of the so-called ‘logical problem of evil’. (Plantinga’s free will defence, for example, only attempts to show that it is logically possible that God and evil co-exist.8) Rather, the kind of explanation sought by the theodicist is one that would illuminate and make sense of our experience of evil from a theistic perspective, and to this end the theodicist must provide not only an internally consistent story (as to why God permits evil), but also one that is, in some significant sense, reasonable or plausible. The precise sense in which the theodicist’s story must be reasonable or plausible is much contested, with some requiring that theodical stories need only be true ‘for all we know’ (i.e., not explicitly ruled out by such things as commonsensical views about the world and widely accepted scientific beliefs)9, and others demanding that a theodicy be not merely epistemically possible, but more likely to be true than not true.10

Sketch of a Theodicy

The next step I want to take is to put some flesh onto this meta-theodical structure, in order to give some idea as to how theodicies are put into action. This is well-trodden terrain, familiar to most readers, and so I can afford to be somewhat brief.11

Two of the most common theodicies are the soul-making theodicy and the free will theodicy, which are intimately connected and perhaps better seen as a single theodicy comprised of two separate elements.


Inspired by the thought of the early Church Father, Irenaeus of Lyon (c.130-c.202 CE), John Hick has put forward in a number of writings, but above all in his 1966 classic Evil and the God of Love, a theodicy that appeals to the good of soul-making.12 According to Hick, the divine intention in relation to humankind is to bring forth perfect finite personal beings by means of a ‘vale of soul-making’ in which humans may transcend their natural self-centredness by freely developing the most desirable qualities of moral character and entering into a personal relationship with their Maker. Any world, however, that makes possible such personal growth cannot be a hedonistic paradise whose inhabitants experience a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. Rather, an environment that is able to produce the finest characteristics of human personality – particularly the capacity to love – must be one in which ‘there are obstacles to be overcome, tasks to be performed, goals to be achieved, setbacks to be endured, problems to be solved, dangers to be met.’13 A soul-making environment must, in other words, share a good deal in common with our world, for only a world containing great dangers and risks, as well as the genuine possibility of failure and tragedy, can provide opportunities for the development of virtue and character. A necessary condition, however, for this developmental process to take place is that humanity be situated at an ‘epistemic distance’ from God. On this view, if we were initially created in the direct presence of God we could not freely come to love and worship God. So as to preserve our freedom in relation to God, the world must be created religiously ambiguous or must appear, to some extent at least, as if there were no God.14 And evil, of course, plays an important role in creating the desired epistemic distance.

Free will

The appeal to human freedom, in one guise or another, constitutes an enduring theme in the history of theodicy. Typically, the kind of freedom that is invoked by the theodicist is the libertarian sort, according to which I am free with respect to a particular action at time t only if the action is not determined by all that happened or obtained before t and all the causal laws there are in such a way that the conjunction of the two (the past and the laws) logically entails that I perform the action in question. My mowing the lawn, for instance, constitutes a freely performed action only if, the state of the universe (including my beliefs and desires) and laws of nature being just as they were immediately preceding my decision to mow the lawn, I could have chosen or acted otherwise than I in fact did. In this sense, the acts I perform freely are genuinely ‘up to me’ – they are not determined by anything external to my will, whether these are causal laws or even God. And so it is not open to God to cause or determine just what actions I will perform, for if he does so those actions could not be free. Freedom and determinism are incompatible.15

The theodicist, however, is not so much interested in libertarian freedom as in libertarian freedom of the morally relevant kind, where this consists of the freedom to choose between good and evil courses of action. The theodicist’s freedom, moreover, is intended to be morally significant, not only providing agents with the capacity to bring about good and evil, but also making possible a range of actions that vary enormously in moral worth, from great and noble deeds to horrific evils.

Armed therefore with such a conception of freedom, the free will theodicist proceeds to explain the existence of moral evil as a consequence of the misuse of our freedom (though some, most prominently Richard Swinburne, have attempted to extend the free will theodicy to natural evil16). This, however, means that responsibility for the existence of moral evil lies with us, not with God. Of course, God is responsible for creating the conditions under which moral evil could come into existence. But it was not inevitable that human beings, if placed in those conditions, would go wrong. It was not necessary, in other words, that humans would misuse their free will, although this always was a possibility and hence a risk inherent in God’s creation of free creatures.

The free will theodicist adds, however, that the value of free will is so great as to outweigh the risk that it may be misused in various ways. It may be held, for example, that free will of the morally significant kind provides us with the opportunity to engage in soul-making, thus providing us with deep responsibilities (e.g., the responsibility for the sort of person we become and the choices we make) and giving us the ability to enter into relationships of love with others, including God. Given that freedom has such great value, it is better that God create a world with agents who possess free will, even though they may misuse it, than to create a world of mere automata.

Although not a theodicy in itself, the idea of a heavenly afterlife is usually appended to free will and soul-making theodicies, providing an eschatological perspective without which (it is often thought) these theodicies would simply collapse. This is particularly evident in Hick’s soul-making theory, which includes a universalist eschatology that extends the soul-making process beyond the grave. The motivation behind this extension arises from the following sort of objection: Although there are some people whose character is strengthened and transformed through the challenges and dangers they encounter, there clearly are many others who either make little progress due to dying young, or regress after finding themselves in terribly adverse circumstances. It seems, then, that the soul-making process, if it exists at all, is quite ineffective. As a way out, Hick speculates that this process does not terminate at death, so that anyone unfit for communion with God by the end of their earthly life continues on the course of moral and spiritual growth until they too attain the ultimate heavenly state of an eternal life of love and fellowship with God. This final state is described by Hick as an ‘infinite because eternal future good that justifies and redeems all the pain and suffering, sin and sorrow, which has occurred on the way to it.’17

The Anti-Theodical Critique

Now, what is wrong with all this? Isn’t it merely a reasonable and valiant, even if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to make sense of the human predicament, plagued as it is by all manner of strife and disaster. The overwhelming consensus within Anglo-American (or analytic) philosophy of religion is that there is nothing, in principle, wrong or mistaken in the idea that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil, and that we can at least try to discern what these reasons might be. I, for one, subscribed to this view, and in a number of previous publications I attempted to show that the kind of theodicy sketched out above provides us with some clues as to why God permits many sorts of moral evil, although such a theodicy (I argued) does not throw any light on God’s permission of natural evil.18 These arguments, I have now come to see, were not considered carefully and thoroughly enough, and so the conclusions were arrived at in a somewhat rash manner. In fact, I would venture to say, along with critics such as Kenneth Surin and D.Z. Phillips, that the theodicist’s way of proceeding evinces a failure to take suffering seriously. If I were to pursue the matter on an even deeper level, something I cannot do here, I would have to say that the heart of the problem lies with the kind of God, or the specific conception of God, that forms the basis of discussion in analytic philosophy. However, this is not to endorse anti-realism (or non-realism) with respect to God-talk, or religious discourse more generally, as is often feared, nor is it to fall back on some kind of invidious fideism or anti-intellectualism. Rather, it is to call attention to the nature of the divine reality that is taken to be experienced in the world’s religious traditions, a reality that cannot properly be understood with the tools of formal logic and empirical science, if it can be understood at all. But this, as they say, is the subject of another paper.19 For now, I wish to delineate some of the problems faced by those who offer theodicies in response to the problem of evil, showing in the process that these problems are in essence moral problems.

It is surprising to see that the recent revival of interest in both the phenomenon of evil and the theological problem of evil has given rise to very few anti-theodical critiques of the kind I am advancing here. In theological circles and in the so-called Continental stream of philosophy, such critiques of theodicy are also rarely offered, but this is usually because the morally problematic nature of theodicies is taken to be too obvious or too widely accepted to require explicit argument and defence.20 But while many on the theological and Continental sides are already convinced, the majority in the Anglo-American camp are far less sanguine, or even interested, about the prospects of the case against theodicy. There are therefore very few systematic defences of the anti-theodical view, particularly ones that engage with the concerns of analytic philosophers of religion. The most notable such defences that have made it to print are Kenneth Surin’s Theology and the Problem of Evil (1986), Terrence Tilley’s The Evils of Theodicy (1991), and most recently D.Z. Phillips’ The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (2004). As is well-known, Phillips consistently waged war for many decades against (what he called) ‘the friends of Cleanthes’, those who attempt to shore up religious beliefs with empirical evidence and philosophical demonstrations, thereby doing greater damage to religion than those who proclaim themselves to be atheists and agnostics. Although his recent book on the problem of evil was not his first foray into this subject, the book offers his most comprehensive critique of the theodical project. In the following two sections, I will focus on two lines of thought that Phillips advances, as I think these expose the moral dangers of theodicy in a particularly lucid way.

Those familiar with Phillips’ book will notice that Phillips brings an entire barrage of criticisms against the various theodicies that are currently on offer.21 Many of Phillips’ criticisms, however, are not directed against the very idea of God having morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil, but are rather offered as ‘immanent critiques’, that is to say, criticisms that operate within the terms of reference of the theodicy under discussion. For example, in reply to the theodical view that the evils suffered either by ourselves or by others provide us with the opportunity to be shown at our best in the ways we respond to such evils, Phillips counters that this view suffers from a fatal generality: it suppresses or ignores obvious examples of the disastrous effects suffering has had on human beings.22 These sorts of criticisms can be important in loosening the stranglehold theodicies have on our thinking. More, however, is clearly required if we are to finally put an end to the game of constructing divine reasons for evil, only to have them shot down in the next issue of our favourite learned journal, this in turn prompting us to reconfigure the original divine reasons or to offer new ones, only to have these debunked, and so on. Phillips is not unaware of this, and in at least two places he goes beyond an immanent critique and offers what might be termed a ‘global offensive’ that is intended to undermine the very foundations of the theodicist’s project.

Suffering the Consequences

Phillips’ first offensive takes the form of an insightful argument that sets out to show that if, as theodicists suppose, God had to permit (or inflict) evil in order to bring about some ultimate good which somehow redeems that evil, it would be impossible to attribute anything resembling perfect goodness to God.23

Phillips begins by noting that he will be granting, for the purposes of argument, the theodicist’s assumption that God is a moral agent who shares a moral community with us and is therefore subject to the same moral standards as we are. If this assumption is granted, then we are bound to draw our moral judgments regarding God from what we already know and believe about moral matters. (The importance of the assumption that God shares a moral community with us will become evident soon, but it is not one that Phillips accepts.)24

The theodicist, then, tells us that God had to allow evil to exist in order to fulfill some overall good purpose of his. So, the evils that exist are the unavoidable consequences of God’s purposes. As Phillips points out, the predicament of having to allow something unfortunate or bad to occur in order to achieve some goal is not something we cannot understand or appreciate, for it is a situation ‘with which we are already morally familiar’.25 We know perfectly well what is involved in such situations, what is said about people who find themselves in these predicaments and, indeed, what such people say or feel about themselves. This is not strange or alien territory, but ground with which we are all familiar and may have even traversed ourselves. But if this is so, then – recalling the assumption made at the outset, that God is a member of our moral community – what should we say about a God who must permit (or inflict) evil that good may come, and what would we expect this God to say of himself?

To answer this question, Phillips raises a further question, this time one which is structured as a dilemma: Does God do what he has to with or without a second thought?

To carry out or permit an evil without even so much as a second thought is to have no hesitation whatsoever, no scruples, no doubts and no remorse about one’s behaviour. It is clear what is said about people who act in this way: they are called callous and insensitive, and this even if they had no choice but to permit the evil for the sake of some worthwhile goal. If we defer, then, to the standards of our moral community, which we have agreed to do for the sake of argument, then to think of God as permitting an evil such as the Holocaust without a second thought is, in effect, to condemn God as callous and insensitive. God, on this view, would not be at all bothered or troubled by the predicament he is in, and he would be indifferent to the fate of those who will suffer as a result of the implementation of his ‘master plan’. In that case, it would make no sense to speak of the perfect goodness of God.

Perhaps, then, we should think of God as allowing evil only after a second thought. But this does not make things any better. For to say that God permitted some evil after a second thought is to say that ‘he did what he had to do, but gave full weight to the evil it involved’.26 Giving full weight to the evil involved, however, implies acting reluctantly and ‘with a heavy heart’, not excusing or absolving oneself for having taken this road, but rather seeing oneself as sullied with ‘dirty hands’ and hence in need of penance and forgiveness. But if God stands in need of penance and forgiveness, again it would make no sense to attribute perfect goodness to him.

Phillips therefore concludes that whether evil is allowed with or without a second thought, God has to ‘suffer the consequences’, the consequences being either moral insensitiveness or dirty hands. This is an ingenious and provocative argument, and one that is reminiscent of Camus’ statement in The Rebel that, ‘When man submits God to moral judgement, he kills Him in his own heart.’27

A possible response to Phillips’ argument is to draw upon the following kind of analogy with human parents to show that the theodicist’s God need not ‘suffer the consequences’. Clearly, parents are morally justified in subjecting their children to considerable suffering – say, at the hands of a surgeon operating on a tumor – if doing so is in their children’s best interests. But parents who subject their children to such treatment without a second thought are not necessarily callous and devoid of feeling; and those who subject their children to such treatment with a second thought do not necessarily have dirty hands. Might it not be possible, then, to construct a theodicy that conceptually parallels this parent analogy, and so avoids Phillips’ charges?28

But do (good) parents subject their children to painful medical regimes such as surgery and chemotherapy ‘without a second thought’, as this phrase was earlier explicated (where to do something without a second thought is to have no hesitations, no scruples, no doubts and no remorse about one’s behaviour)? I very much doubt it: most parents would be quite reluctant to take such courses of action (they would, for example, explore all possible avenues of treatment, obtain a second opinion, and so on). And if the parents do proceed with some painful medical treatment for their child, as long as they are sensitive and caring they would hardly be indifferent at taking up such an option, but would typically feel troubled, if not remorseful (though not necessarily guilty), about the pain their child is undergoing. Thus, even if a parent allowed their child to undergo painful treatment ‘only after a second thought’, the parent may not blame themselves but they would feel at least some regret and remorse that such treatment was necessary and they would be (from the third-person perspective) an object of pity and compassion (leading others to see the parent, and not only their child, as a victim caught up in tragic circumstances). The parent analogy, then, only serves to reinforce Phillips’ case.

To illustrate further the force of his argument, Phillips examines how characters in literature and film are depicted when they find themselves compelled to do something evil: What is said of them, and what do they say of themselves? One of the characters he discusses is Sophie Zawistowska from William Styron’s novel, Sophie’s Choice. Upon arriving at Auschwitz, Sophie was forced by an SS officer to make the terrible choice of whether to send her son or her daughter to the gas chambers. If she refused to make a choice, both children would be killed. As it happens she chooses to save her son, and so her daughter is taken away to be murdered. But consider the torment and anguish this choice caused her:

Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. ‘I can’t choose! I can’t choose!’ She began to scream. Oh, how she recalled her own screams! Tormented angels never screeched so loudly above hell’s pandemonium. ‘Ich kann nicht wählen!’ she screamed.29

The torment and anguish bore so heavily on Sophie that, two years after being liberated from the death camps, she gave up her own life. The moral of the story is not that Sophie should be condemned for letting one of her children be taken to the gas chambers. Rather, the point, as Phillips explains, is that she never thinks of her act of giving up her daughter as something to be excused in the light of the total situation. But if Sophie ‘suffers the consequences’, it would be unimaginable to think that God doesn’t, as Phillips points out:

If God shares a common moral community with Sophie and ourselves, what should we say of his allowing the Holocaust to happen? Is God to be the object of pity? Is creation a moral tragedy in which God is necessarily involved in evil? And what of God’s view of what he has done? Does the Holocaust stay with him? Does he think that it can be excused in the light of the greater good that made it necessary, or does he recognize he has something to answer for? It will be obvious that within these moral parameters, there is no logical space for talk of God’s perfect goodness.30

The Teleology of Suffering

A second problem with the theodical project lies with its teleology of suffering. To say that suffering has a teleology is to say that suffering has some (God-given) point or purpose, and for theodicists the ultimate purpose of suffering must be moral in nature (though some theodicists countenance non-moral – e.g., aesthetic – ends) and must be worth the devastation it leaves in its wake.

Phillips discusses some problems attaching to the idea of a teleology of suffering with reference to two specific theodicies31, though I think his criticisms have more general appeal. The first theodicy he discusses is Hick’s soul-making theory, which considers evil as an opportunity for character development, while the second theodicy examined by Phillips holds that the existence of evil makes it possible for one to be morally responsible by coming to the aid of those who are victims of evil. This latter view, usually formulated in the context of the soul-making theory, is championed most prominently by Richard Swinburne, who writes that evil is the price that must be paid if we are to have ‘great responsibilities for each other’ and that ‘the sufferer is of use to us in helping us to grow’.32

The morally problematic nature of the appeal to soul-making is nicely summarized by Phillips:

We are told that in allowing evils to exist, God is providing the conditions needed to give us the choice of moulding our characters in one direction or another. This offer of God’s morally sufficient reason suffers from a fatal objection. To make the development of one’s character an aim is to ensure that the development will not take place. This is because the endeavour so conceived is self-defeating: it lacks character.33

Phillips goes on to explain that if we understood the evils that exist as opportunities for character development, then we would be motivated to respond to evil at least in part in order to build our characters. But, notes Phillips, ‘it seems to be both a logical and moral truth that to seek one’s character development is to lose it.’34 For example, if someone acts bravely in difficult circumstances – say, they save a child from a building that has caught fire – but does so (partly or purely) out of self-regarding reasons (e.g., so as to build up their character, or make a name for themselves, etc.), then that would detract, or even annul, the moral worth of the action. In short, the soul-making theodicy promotes an indulgent concern with one’s self rather than the development of one’s character.35

The underlying problem, observes Phillips, is a self-centred instrumentalism that is antithetical to the genuine spirit of morality. This is evident once more in those theodicies, such as Swinburne’s, that view evil as an opportunity for developing and displaying moral responsibility. As before, Phillips criticizes this theodicy as morally incoherent: to say that another person can be regarded as an opportunity for us to grow morally or to develop moral responsibility does not make sense, since morality cannot be furthered by this sort of instrumentalism. As Phillips states, Swinburne’s morality ‘would make it possible for the Good Samaritan to say, on coming across the victim of the robbers, “Thank you, God, for another opportunity to be responsible”.’36 Similarly, as Phillips again points out, it would make it possible for God to multiply our pains in order to multiply compassion, a crazy view but one to which the theodicist (of the sort under consideration here) is committed.37

These, I submit, are perceptive observations, ones that would repay greater consideration by mainstream analytic philosophers. Unfortunately, as Phillips states later in his book, ‘philosophers of religion, for the most part, do not pause to consider whether the logic of economic management, the calculus of gain and loss, should be introduced into discussions of human suffering.’38 As a result, philosophical discussions on the problem of evil invariably presuppose a ‘teleology of suffering’, a framework which only compounds (albeit inadvertently) the evils we are subjected to, rather than illuminating or ameliorating them. I will return to this theme later, but in the interim I wish to stress that we must be careful about how we write and how we think about human (and animal) suffering, for it is the carelessness displayed in this area by so many that has raised the ire of critics such as Phillips.39

One can appreciate, then, why Phillips consistently and stridently opposed Swinburne’s philosophical theology, particularly as it impacts on the problem of evil. Phillips’ critique, in fact, remained largely unchanged from the time it first appeared in the published proceedings of a conference held in 1975, where Phillips responded to a paper presented by Swinburne on the topic of theodicy.40 In an unfortunate but not atypical section of his paper, Swinburne wrote:

…Hence it follows that one who knows much more about the probable consequences of a quarrel may have no duty to interfere where another with less knowledge does have such a duty – and conversely. Hence a God who sees far more clearly than we do the consequences of quarrels may have duties very different from ours with respect to particular such quarrels. He may know that the suffering that A will cause B is not nearly as great as B’s screams might suggest to us and will provide (unknown to us) an opportunity to C to help B recover and will thus give C a deep responsibility which he would not otherwise have.41

Something has clearly gone wrong here, and on Phillips’ diagnosis the problem runs deep indeed:

It is true that sometimes considering a matter further is a sign of reasonableness and maturity. But this cannot be stated absolutely, since at other times readiness to be open-minded about matters is a sign of a corrupt mind. There are screams and screams, and to ask of what use are the screams of the innocent, as Swinburne’s defense would have us do, is to embark on a speculation we should not even contemplate. We have our reasons, final human reasons, for putting a moral full stop at many places.42

In his reply, Swinburne defends his methodology as one that is entirely in keeping with, if not mandated by, his theoretical enquiries:

When we are doing philosophy and are justified in doing so (as I hope that we are now), it is never a ‘sign of a corrupt mind’ to be open-minded about things. In all areas of life what seems most obviously true sometimes turns out to be false, and it is not the sign of a corrupt mind but the sign of a seeker after truth to examine carefully views which initially seem obviously true. It seemed to many men obvious that the Earth was flat; we may, however, be grateful that despite this, they were prepared to listen to arguments to the contrary. Sometimes, too, moral judgments which seem obviously true turn out on investigation not to be so at all – and this for both moral and factual reasons.43

It is fair to say that this response, or something close to it, would be endorsed by most of Swinburne’s peers who toil in the fields of analytical philosophy of religion. But Swinburne’s response reinforces, rather than discredits, the initial charge of moral insensitivity. To see this, consider the following comments Kenneth Surin makes in the light of the above quote from Swinburne:

It is precisely the sign of a corrupt mind to speak easily of two different realities, say, the world of the Flat Earth Society on the one hand and the world of Auschwitz on the other, as if they are interchangeable. To be ‘open-minded’ about certain realities, and ‘more tellingly’ to insist on retaining such a contemplative disposition, is to show oneself incapable of making certain exigent moral discriminations. In the worst of cases, this incapacity to acknowledge that a particular reality is mind-stopping betokens an irremissable moral blindness, in less serious occurrences it testifies to a real lack of moral imagination, to an unshakeable moral coarseness. But in all cases the failure to lend a voice to the cries of the innocent (and there can be few more glaring instances of this failure than the willingness to construct a divine teleology out of innocent suffering) is to have lost the capacity to tell the truth.44

Surin glosses these ‘rather aggressive remarks’ (as he admits they are) with a quote from Theodor Adorno:

The need to lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth. For suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject; its most subjective experience, its expression, is objectively conveyed.45

Surin, like Phillips, accepts that open-mindedness is quite often a virtue that we should aspire to embody, but warns that open-mindedness is not always a virtue, and that the kind advocated by Swinburne and other theodicists – an open-mindedness that does not hesitate to ask what use or purpose someone’s sufferings could serve – betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of morality. To quote Surin again:

To think that morality is something that can be intellectually constructed in this way, that it can be slotted into a matrix of purposes (whether divine or otherwise), is to negate the concept of morality. In the domain where human beings have to think and act, there are irreducible realities – realities ‘extra-territorial to reason’ (to borrow a phrase of George Steiner’s) – which halt the tongue, afflict the mind with blankness. To be resolutely ‘open-minded’ when confronted with these morally surd realities is to have lost any possible accordance with the truth (Adorno). It is to have lost one’s own humanity (Cavell).46

Here we have the convergence of three distinct, but inter-related, themes: the teleology of suffering exemplified in theodicies displays a deep moral incoherence (morality just doesn’t work that way), an inexcusable moral insensitivity (treating people as mere means), and an equally culpable moral blindness (which refuses to countenance the possibility of unjustified and inexplicable evil).47

The Challenge of Ivan Karamazov

In developing the charges of moral insensitivity and moral blindness further, one can do no better than turn to Dostoyesvsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. Indeed, the failure of analytic philosophers of religion to appreciate the import of these charges stems in large part from their refusal to engage with literary works when philosophizing. But as Stewart Sutherland notes, ‘the separation of philosophical from literary inquiry is detrimental to both.’48 Philosophers, however, have not always been oblivious to the insights that works of literature can afford. A prime example is Alexander Boyce Gibson, a former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, who noted the impact Dostoyevsky’s novel had on subsequent thinking on the problem of evil:

By sheer force and sincerity he [Dostoyevsky] changed the face of theology. Since he wrote, it has become unfashionable, not to say impious, to contend that all is for the best in God’s world. Henceforward, no justification of evil, by its outcome or its context, has been possible; Ivan Karamazov has seen to that.49

Gibson, in fact, goes on to say, a few pages later, that he first read the infamous exchange between Ivan and his brother Alyosha ‘fifty years ago, and my theology has never been the same since.’50

Let’s turn, then, to this part of Dostoyevksy’s novel, where we find the well-educated and atheistic Ivan Karamazov meeting with Alyosha in an inn. Ivan has returned from his journalistic career in Moscow to stay at the family home in the provinces, while his younger brother has taken up the monastic life under the discipleship of the religious elder, Father Zosima. During their conversation, Ivan recounts a series of harrowing stories taken from a ‘fine collection’51 of such stories he has been collecting from newspapers and other sources. The most poignant of the atrocities recounted by Ivan involve the abuse and torture of children. There is the case of a soldier shooting a baby boy in the head even while the infant was in the hands of his mother; a five-year-old girl being constantly subjected to beatings and floggings by her parents, who went so far as to lock up their daughter during one freezing night in the outside latrine after having smeared her eyes, cheeks and mouth with faeces; and a general ordering an eight-year-old boy to be hunted down by a pack of borzoi hounds simply because the boy accidentally bruised the leg of the general’s favourite beagle.52 Having described these horrors in some detail, Ivan challenges Alyosha to square these facts with the traditional theodicies offered by theists in defence of their belief in a providential God.

Ivan begins with the idea, central to ‘contrast theodicies’, that evil provides a necessary contrast to the good. One way of spelling this out is in epistemic terms: just as we could not learn what the colour red is without experiencing the contrast between it and other colours, so too if we had no experience of evil we would have no knowledge, understanding, or appreciation of the good. To this, Ivan offers the following response:

Without it [i.e., evil and suffering], they say, man would not be able to survive upon earth, for he would not know good from evil. Why recognize that devilish good-and-evil, when it costs so much? I mean, the entire universe of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child addressed to ‘dear Father God’. I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-ups – they have eaten the apple, and the devil with them, and the devil take them all, but the children, the children!53

Ivan’s view is that no good is great enough to morally justify the sufferings of innocent children (‘the entire universe of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child’), in which case the very project of constructing a theodicy, at least for the evils suffered by children, becomes impossible to carry out.
There is a strong contrast in Ivan’s thinking between deserved and undeserved suffering: children do not usually deserve the suffering they experience, whereas adults who ‘have eaten the apple’ may well deserve to suffer. But it would be a mistake to think that Ivan is merely trying to say that children are innocent, or their sufferings are undeserved, and therefore no moral justification for such suffering can be provided. Although Ivan would accept this, the main point he is trying to express is that there is something gravely wrong in the idea that the suffering of children can be used, or made to serve, some higher purpose. It is an anti-instrumentalist argument of the sort we encountered in Phillips. What Ivan is therefore gesturing towards is the existence of evil that is in principle unredeemable and incomprehensible. Theodicists, however, habitually turn a blind eye to the possibility that no moral justification for (God’s permission of) many evils may be available. As Surin points out:

Theodicy, by its very nature, involves the application of the principles of reason to a cluster of problems which are essentially such that they cannot be resolved by the mere application of rational principles. Evil and suffering in their innermost depths are fundamentally mysterious; they confound the human mind. And yet the goal of theodicy is, somehow, to render them comprehensible, explicable.54

Surin is not merely making the epistemic point that our rational faculties are unfortunately not well suited to the task of uncovering the underlying meaning behind suffering. Rather, his point is the far stronger one that at least some evils have no point – they are inherently inexplicable. It is this that gives life its tragic dimension, a dimension not easily recognized by philosophers in the grip of theory (such as the principle of sufficient reason, which posits a reason for everything that happens) or by lay people intent on playing the victim and finding a scapegoat for their misfortunes (‘Someone is going to pay for this!’, and if no person or corporation can be sued for damages, then God can always be made to pay). But what gets lost in all this is the tragic sense of life, where notions of ‘blame’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘explanation’ are entirely out of place.55
The immorality of thinking otherwise, of indulging in rationalizations and assuming that just any evil can be justified, is again contested later on in the dialogue by Ivan:

If everyone must suffer in order with their suffering to purchase eternal harmony, what do young children have to do with it, tell me, please? It is quite impossible to understand why they should have to suffer, and why should they have to purchase harmony with their sufferings? Why have they also ended up as raw material, to be the manure for someone else’s future harmony?56

Some philosophers have interpreted Ivan here not as challenging the entire practice of developing theodicies, but as laying down a principle we met earlier, a principle that is thought to function as a criterion that any satisfactory theodicy must meet. The adequacy condition in question is usually understood along the following lines: God could permit a person to suffer intensely, involuntarily and undeservedly only if, by their sufferings, a greater good will result in which they themselves can participate. A growing number of contemporary philosophers of religion, theists and non-theists alike, have come to accept this view. Eleonore Stump, for example, argues that ‘there is something morally repulsive about supposing that the point of allowing a child to suffer is some abstract benefit for the race as a whole and, therefore, that the good which justifies a child’s pain must be a benefit for that child.’57 To speak as Ivan would, a person should not be reduced to ‘manure for someone else’s future harmony.’58

But there is much more to the immediately preceding quote from Ivan than simply an endorsement of an adequacy condition for theodicies. For Ivan’s message is that, even if the adequacy condition were rejected and so we accepted that ‘everyone must suffer in order with their suffering to purchase eternal harmony’, it is terribly wrong to subject children to this scheme: there is no reason why they should have to ‘purchase harmony with their sufferings’. This is not so much an attack on some extravagant form of utilitarianism, but a criticism levelled against those who cannot see the inviolable sanctity of childhood.59

The idea of ‘purchasing eternal harmony by means of one’s suffering’ comes under further question by Ivan, who criticizes the very coherence of this notion:

I decline the offer of eternal harmony altogether. It is not worth one single small tear of even one tortured little child that beat its breast with its little fist and prayed in its foul-smelling dog-hole with its unredeemed tears addressed to ‘dear Father God’! It is not worth it because its tears have remained unredeemed. They must be redeemed, or there can be no harmony. But by what means, by what means will you redeem them? Is it even possible? Will you really do it by avenging them? But what use is vengeance to me, what use to me is hell for torturers, what can hell put right again, when those children have been tortured to death?60

The typical theodical tactic of appealing to a heavenly afterlife for the victim and a hellish post-mortem existence for the perpetrator, the former as a compensatory award and the latter as a just punishment, is shown by Ivan to be totally irrelevant, for it does nothing to redeem (or make up for) the underserved sufferings of a child. Such sufferings, Ivan suggests, cannot be redeemed in any way, and without such redemption there can be no prospect of achieving an ‘eternal harmony by means of one’s suffering’. Phillips makes a similar point when arguing against the idea that, in the afterlife, God will either compensate us for, or in some way redeem, all the evils we have suffered in this life (an idea which, as indicated earlier, is not a theodicy as such, but is often appended to theodicies as a further defence of God’s benevolence):

Given the nature of many of the evils human beings undergo, it would make little sense to speak of compensations for them after death. It does not even make sense to speak of compensation, in this life, with respect to many of our losses – the loss of a child, the end of a friendship, various forms of injustice which create harm, a harm done to someone who dies before any restitution can be made and so on. In some of these circumstances, the law decrees financial compensation, but one almost always hears those who receive it say, ‘Nothing, of course, can compensate for…’ Faced with this undeniable fact, the picture cannot change by changing the landscape from an earthly to a heavenly one.61

In the remainder of the chapter, Ivan continues his anti-theodical critique in some of the most moving and memorable words to be found in any literature:

I do not want the mother to embrace the torturer who tore her son to pieces with his dogs! Let her not dare to forgive him! If she wants, she may forgive him on her own account. She may forgive the torturer her limitless maternal suffering; but as for the sufferings of her dismembered child, those she has no right to forgive, she dare not forgive his torturer, even if her child himself forgave him! And if that is the case, if they dare not forgive, where is the harmony? Is there in all the world a being that could forgive and have the right to forgive? I do not want harmony, out of a love for mankind I do not want it. I want rather to be left with sufferings that are unavenged. Let me rather remain with my unavenged and unassuaged indignation, even though I am not right.62

If to forgive the torturer is tantamount to imposing a meaning or justification to the child’s suffering (‘I forgive him because he knew not what he was doing/because such-and-such a good would not have been possible if the suffering did not take place’, etc.), then in forgiving we are not taking suffering seriously, we are not showing proper respect to the sufferer, but are diminishing them by trying to diminish their sufferings. If we have ‘a love for mankind’, therefore, we must refuse the temptation to ‘forgive’, to construct theodicies, and must remain instead with our ‘unavenged and unassuaged indignation’. And all this ‘even if we are not right’: even if as a matter of ‘objective fact’ the theodicists have it right and all our sufferings are necessary to purchase some greater good, we should protest on moral grounds against such a scheme of things (that is to say, this scheme, even if true in some sense, can never be morally acceptable).

…And so I hasten to return my entry ticket. And if I am at all an honest man, I am obliged to return it as soon as possible. That is what I am doing. It isn’t God I don’t accept, Alyosha, it’s just his ticket that I most respectfully return to him.63

The ‘entry ticket’ to the heavenly afterlife where an eternal harmony will reign is too expensive; it is not worth the sufferings – particularly the sufferings of children – that it demands. But, as the above quote indicates, this does not lead Ivan to some form of conventional or speculative atheism, whereby one merely adopts a particular attitude (viz., cognitive dissent) towards a particular proposition (viz., ‘God exists’). Rather, Ivan is, as some have labelled him, a ‘moral atheist’ or a ‘protest atheist’, someone who passionately rebels against God. As Kenneth Surin explains:

Ivan already believes that the world is a providential place, he accepts, albeit most unwillingly, that history will probably take a course according with Christian eschatology (though he finds it quite wrong that one should acquiesce in the outcome promised by this scheme of things). What he cannot accept, therefore, is the price, in terms of innocent human suffering, that is exacted so that men and women may come to enjoy eternal harmony. God has a providential relationship with his creation, yes, but this divine providence is just too costly. Ivan, it seems, has steeled himself (in the end his spiritual turmoil drives him insane) to the point where he decides that he must decline to be the masochistic accomplice of this God – we ought not to allow ourselves to be loved by such a God.64

Alyosha responds, ‘This is mutiny’, but Ivan raises the tempo of his challenge even further:

‘Imagine that you yourself are erecting the edifice of human fortune with the goal of, at the finale, making people happy, of at last giving them peace and quiet, but that in order to do it it would be necessary and unavoidable to torture to death only one tiny little creature, that same little child that beat its breast with its little fist, and on its unavenged tears to found that edifice, would you agree to be the architect on those conditions, tell me and tell me truly?’

‘No, I would not agree,’ Alyosha said quietly.65

Ivan here succinctly reinforces points made earlier: anti-instrumentalism with respect to human suffering (which can be seen as an instance of the Kantian categorical imperative to always treat another human being as an end in himself or herself and never simply as a means66), a defence of the sanctity of childhood, and the impossibility of redeeming the tears of a child – in short, the rejection of theodicy as traditionally practiced.67

Before proceeding further, it might be worthwhile considering an objection I have often encountered when putting forward the view that the act of constructing a theodicy entails a lack of proper respect for the sufferer and a failure to take the sufferer’s suffering seriously. Although some theodicies might be guilty of this, so the objection goes, it seems to be going too far to say that theodicies as such must be guilty in this respect. Indeed, explaining a given case of suffering by offering a reason why it was necessary may have the opposite effect of giving suffering meaning and giving full respect to the sufferer. Consider, for example, the following thought commonly expressed in response to the death of someone who fought for some moral cause: ‘They didn’t die or suffer for nothing. Their death or suffering was not in vain’. Consider also how moral or respectful it would be (for a theist) to say to someone dying of AIDS or cancer, ‘The fact is you are dying for no greater good and no greater reason – this is just a horrible, inexplicable, unredeemed journey of pain’? Would it not be more respectful to address such a person in terms of meaning and hope? It is far from clear, then, that those who suffer would consider themselves callously instrumentalized by having their lives situated within a greater web of meaning, as the theodicist attempts to do.68

Some theodicies, I concede, do appear to create hope and meaning even in situations where there seemed to be none. But such hope and meaning is, I claim, illusory. For the kind of meaning theodicies offer does not help us make moral sense of tragedy and misfortune, but rather (as argued earlier) provides a picture of suffering that has all manner of morally (and socially) unwelcome consequences, such as undermining our moral practices, failing to countenance the full depth of evil, and treating the sufferer as a mere means to some divine end, usually an end that the sufferer has not themselves chosen or endorsed. People in the midst of great adversity often sense this, and that is indeed why, in many cases, offering a theodicy to someone who is undergoing some terrible suffering has the counter-productive effect of adding to that person’s woes, or at least bringing them little or no comfort. Also, refusing to identify a divinely ordained purpose to suffering need not lead to hopelessness and despair, but can be part of an overall strategy that is aimed at strengthening and uplifting the victim. This can be achieved in various ways, for instance: by acknowledging rather than trivializing the reality of evil as experienced by us; by encouraging the victim to create or find their own meaning from their suffering; and by showing how God sympathizes (if not identifies) with our sufferings, as in Kenneth Surin’s proposal of an incarnational ‘theology of the cross’.69

Theoretical and Practical Problems of Evil

Another factor contributing to the morally suspect nature of theodicy is the almost exclusively theoretical character of the enterprise: the machinery of deductive and probabilistic logic plays an important role in the formulation of arguments, the debates are often couched in a highly abstract, technical and ahistorical language, and little attention is given to the concrete, emotional and practical problems that the occurrence of evil brings in its wake. As a result of this ‘professionalization’ of the problem of evil, a spirit of cool and detached reflection pervades the increasing number, and often quite repetitive and barren, journal papers and monographs dealing with the subject of theodicy. Detached reflection of this sort is, of course, to be found in all areas of academic scholarship and is not in itself something to be lamented. However, when our gaze turns to the evil and horrible suffering we inflict upon each other on a daily basis, dispassionate and abstract theorizing (at least of the kind recommended by theodicists) seems wholly inappropriate.

In attempting to make sense of the realities of evil and suffering, theodicists inculcate a sense of detachment both in themselves and in their readers. They never stop to ask, however, whether we should, or even could, be detached from the stark realities of evil in the ways they propose. No question is ever raised as to whether there might be some moral danger involved in promoting a strategy of detachment. But as Kenneth Surin and Terrence Tilley have emphasized, a number of dangers follow unavoidably from a purely theoretical and disinterested study of the problem of evil. Tilley, for example, calls attention to the harms that might accrue to readers who follow the theodicist’s counsel that, ‘it is in regard to the issues that raise the greatest passion that we must try to be the most dispassionate’ (the words, in fact, of the process theodicist, David Ray Griffin70):

The theodicist encourages readers to ‘distance’ themselves from the evils of the world to ‘understand’ them. Yet should readers distance themselves from their own sins, and refuse to own them?… It is just those who can’t or don’t own their lives – including their sins – who are fated to continue the process of dehumanizing victimization without reconciliation.71

Thus, the distancing strategies promoted by those who approach theodicy as a purely theoretical undertaking only add to the evils of the world, rather than illuminating or counteracting them. For as Tilley explains, ‘accepting the recommendation of detachment when considering evils may render one oblivious to the commitment, practical wisdom and constancy needed to counteract some evils,’ predisposing one instead to a quietistic fatalism or a kind of masochism or escapism.72
Kenneth Surin, similarly, argues that the theoretical pursuit of theodicy can have disastrous moral consequences, not only for writers and readers of theodicies, but for society at large. To view theodicy as an exclusively academic undertaking, notes Surin,

…is already to possess the perspective on good and evil which Max Weber found to be characteristic of modern times; namely, an essentially bureaucratic view of the nature of good and evil. [Surin explains by way of a footnote that, ‘It is typical of the bureaucratic view of good and evil that it regards them in an abstract way, as something involving roles of office, administrative procedures, protocols, etc., but rarely personal guilt and responsibility. The evil bureaucrat par excellence, who rendered evil “banal”, was of course Adolf Eichmann.’] If this is in fact the case, then to regard theodicy as a purely intellectual exercise is to provide – albeit unwittingly – a tacit sanction for the evil that exists on our appalling planet.73

The key premise in Surin’s argument is that every theoretical discourse has a social dimension, or as he puts it, ‘all philosophical and theological reflection, no matter how abstract such reflection may be, inevitably mediates a certain social and political praxis.’74 The crucial question therefore is whether the praxis mediated by the work of theodicists serves to transform life and reality, or whether instead it legitimizes and mystifies the status quo. Surin’s damning judgment is that theodicists have become complicit in the very evils they seek to explain:

A theodicist who, intentionally or inadvertently, formulates doctrines which occlude the radical and ruthless particularity of human evil is, by implication, mediating a social and political practice which averts its gaze from the cruelties that exist in the world.75

The theodicist, then, tacitly sanctions evil when putting forward a doctrine or theoretical perspective which endorses the treatment of people as mere means toward some higher end; which is abstracted from the plight of those who are suffering, thus turning a deaf ear to their screams and reinforcing their powerlessness; which encourages (to borrow Surin’s words) ‘serenity in a heartless world’76; and which is blind to the harsh and gratuitous nature of much evil.77
The typical response made by theodicists is to draw a distinction between the theoretical problem of evil and the practical problem of evil. The theoretical problem of evil is the purely intellectual matter of determining what impact, if any, the existence of evil has on the truth-value or the epistemic status of theistic belief. It is customary to divide the theoretical problem into the ‘logical problem of evil’, which concerns the logical compatibility of theistic belief with the existence of evil, and the ‘evidential problem of evil’, which concerns the likelihood that theistic belief is true given the existence of evil. These issues are contrasted with the difficulties arising from the practical (or experiential) problem of evil, where the problem is how to adopt or maintain an attitude of love and trust toward God when confronted by evil that is deeply perplexing and disturbing. Although it is sometimes recognized that the theoretical and practical problems are interconnected – theoretical considerations, for example, may colour one’s actual experience of evil, making it harder or easier to bear – it is usually thought that the two problems are distinct and therefore call for different approaches and answers. Alvin Plantinga, for example, writes:

Confronted with evil in his own life or suddenly coming to realize more clearly than before the extent and magnitude of evil, a believer in God may undergo a crisis of faith. He may be tempted to follow the advice of Job’s ‘friends’; he may be tempted to ‘curse God and die’. Neither a Free Will Defense nor a Free Will Theodicy is designed to be of much help or comfort to one suffering from such a storm in the soul (although in a specific case, of course, one or the other could prove useful). Neither is to be thought of first of all as a means of pastoral counseling. Probably neither will enable someone to find peace with himself and with God in the face of the evil the world contains. But then, of course, neither is intended for that purpose.78

The theist may find a religious problem in evil; in the presence of his own suffering or that of someone near to him he may find it difficult to maintain what he takes to be the proper attitude towards God. Faced with great personal suffering or misfortune, he may be tempted to rebel against God, to shake his fist in God’s face, or even to give up belief in God altogether… Such a problem calls, not for philosophical enlightenment, but for pastoral care.79

Having distinguished in this way between theoretical and practical responses to the problem of evil, the theodicist may then proceed to argue that the criticisms made earlier – in particular, the criticism that the abstract and detached approach of theodicists promotes a callous and indifferent attitude toward the sufferings of others – have force only if the scope and aims of the theoretical and practical projects are conflated. David O’Connor expresses this view well in his reply to Kenneth Surin:

Theoretical theodicy is indeed a response to the actuality of evil in the world… Through and through it is an intellectual response. But it is not, and to my knowledge has never been offered as, a response in the quite different sense of being an address to the victims, of being an attempt to minister to the afflicted, or as a substitute for such a response. Surin, however, operating without an express distinction between the conceptual and existential dimensions of the problem of evil, supposes otherwise, and so gets to the view that theoretical theodicy is heartless, indifferent, and acquiescent in the face of real suffering. But, with the distinction made…between a conceptual and a ministerial response to evil in the world, and with the recognition that, to my knowledge, no philosophical theologian has ever supposed the former fit for the work of the latter, the alleged culpability, together with the grounds on which it is alleged, disappears.80

Michael Scott helpfully clarifies O’Connor’s position as follows: Two distinctions may be drawn, the first of which focuses on the kind of problems evil creates for a religious believer:
  1. (1)

    the theoretical problem of determining the logical consistency and probability-value of the theistic worldview, and

  2. (2)

    the practical or existential difficulties in coping with evil.

The second distinction, however, is based on the different methods open to the believer in responding to the above problems:
  1. (3)

    the application of the theoretical techniques used by philosophers and theologians, and

  2. (4)

    various practical strategies for helping one to combat or come to terms with evil.

Scott then restates O’Connor’s argument in terms of the above distinctions: O’Connor is arguing that Surin’s moral objections would be valid only if the theodicist were conjoining (2) with (3), that is to say, were employing the theoretical techniques of professional philosophers and theologians to resolve people’s practical or ‘real-life’ problems. But no theodicist, at least as far as O’Connor is aware, is guilty of such an inhumane response to the plight of victims of evil.81
Surin, however, is not suggesting that the (theoretical) theodicist intentionally sets out to alleviate our personal struggles with hardship and suffering. The theodicist is clearly not addressing his journal papers and monographs to the poor and the afflicted, to the hungry and the homeless (in any case, people who don’t have a morsel to eat, or are not sure if they can make it to the next day, are not likely to worry about whether the latest atheological argument from evil is logically valid). But on Surin’s view, the practice of theodicy has great practical implications that bear on the religious life of believers. As Michael Scott shows, O’Connor admits as much when he argues that theodicies provide believers with a necessary bulwark against rival (i.e., naturalistic) interpretations of the world.82 Without a successful theodicy, O’Connor agues, the cognitive aspect of religious belief – enshrined by the theory called ‘theism’ – would be undermined, and with it would collapse the ‘life-guiding’ dimension of religious belief, that is, the religious practices that are a source of inspiration, comfort and hope to the religious community. In O’Connor’s words:

If religion is to be able to sustain its integral claim to a transcendent dimension in human life, a claim crucial to its distinctive life-guiding power, it will need to be able to sustain an appropriate ontology and epistemology. That is, it must continue to earn a place in the debate over ultimate things to which technical philosophy, natural science, and increasingly the human sciences too, are evident contributors.83

And in its struggle to ‘earn its place’, religion cannot afford to do without theoretical theodicy.

The problem with this view is not merely that it assimilates religious belief to the language of scientific explanation (an assumption criticized by Scott84), but more importantly it completely misses Surin’s point: theodicies mediate a praxis that sanctions evil. No-one would deny O’Connor’s claim that theoretical theodicists do not seek to redress the painful realities of everyday life. But Surin’s claim is that in the very act of not seeking to redress these realities, theodicists impinge upon them in certain detrimental ways. The underlying assumption here, as noted earlier, is that all theorizing has a social dimension, which Surin expresses as ‘the principle that the text participates in society, that consciousness is not divorced from historical and social forces,’ from which it follows that ‘the philosopher and the theologian do not reflect and discourse in vacuo: it is their responsibility, therefore, to ask themselves, continually, what particular praxis their work mediates.’85 Abstract and disinterested approaches to the problem of evil, however, only legitimize – rather than ‘interrupt’ – the reality in which horrendous evil and its victims languish.86

By way of conclusion, I would like to return to Irving Greenberg’s view, quoted at the outset of the paper, that ‘No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.’ In light of the criticisms made above, the project of theodicy, of offering moral justifications for God’s permission of evil, clearly fails Greenberg’s litmus test. In the presence of the burning children, the declarations of theodicists are shown to be not merely morally confused, but morally scandalous.87 But this raises the following curious question: If the theodicist’s picture of the world can readily be unmasked as a falsifying one that does not answer to the grim moral realities we know and experience, then why do theodicists bother offering us such a picture at all? Who are they trying to convince? (Or, less charitably, who are they trying to fool?) Those presently undergoing suffering, in their time of despair and desperation, are hardly going to be persuaded, let alone comforted, by the reassurances of the theodicist. They are more likely to ask, just as the terrified Candide did, while trembling with fear and confusion, ‘If this is the best of all possible worlds, what can the rest be like?’.88

This suggests that theodicies are addressed to those who have achieved a certain degree of detachment from either their own or other people’s sufferings. The moral dangers of a detached posture have been spelt out before. But here I wish to emphasize a danger of a different kind. In seeking an ‘objective’ perspective from which we can reflect on the sufferings of others with the aim of determining whether any sense or meaning can be given to their predicament, the theodicist privileges the observer’s point of view at the expense of the outlook of the one who is in the throes of pain and despair.89 But as Levinas points out, rather than imposing a meaning on the sufferings of others, we must view their sufferings as ‘useless’ or ‘for nothing’. For suffering in itself has no intrinsic value, and whatever value it has can only be conferred by the assent of the sufferer. Therefore, even if the individual victim may assign some meaning to their suffering, this is not the prerogative of the observer or bystander. Indeed, ‘the justification of the neighbour’s pain,’ writes Levinas, ‘is certainly the source of all immorality.’90 But the theodicist’s disregard for the testimony of the sufferer when seeking to impose an objective meaning to suffering leads us once more to the question of the theodicist’s audience. Here the insights of Rowan Williams are pertinent:

‘Who is it for?’ is a question very close to ‘In whose presence is it done?’ If the answer to that is, ‘In the absence of the perspective of the sufferer as subject or narrator’, how can it [i.e., theodicy] fail to evade – to evade not only humanity, but divinity as well?91

Theodicy, then, may set out with the noble aim of vindicating the justice of God, but only ends up effacing our humanity and God’s divinity. With friends such as Cleanthes, as Phillips would say, who needs enemies? We may need to choose our friends more carefully, or to quote Williams again:

Perhaps it is time for philosophers of religion to look away from theodicy – not to appeal blandly to the mysterious purposes of God, not to appeal to any putative justification at all, but to put the question of how we remain faithful to human ways of seeing suffering, even and especially when we are thinking from a religious perspective.92


See, for example (Trakakis 2003a, b, c, d; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007).


Much of this Section has been distilled from Chap. 9 of my The God Beyond Belief: In Defence of William Rowe’s Evidential Argument from Evil.


See Milton (1667/2000), Book I, v. 26.


See Rowe (1988: 131).


An alternative but less common classificatory schema, following Leibniz, is to divide evil-kinds into ‘metaphysical evil’ (imperfections or limitations), ‘physical evil’ (or pain), and ‘moral evil’ (sin or vice).


Richard Swinburne takes on this ambitious aim when describing the overall goal of his book Providence and the Problem of Evil thus: ‘I am certainly committed to, and sought to argue for, the strong version of the strong thesis: For every instance of evil, God is justified in allowing it’ (‘Reply to Gale’ 2000: 221).


However, another species of ‘greater goods’, defended vigorously by Roderick Chisholm and Marilyn McCord Adams, are ‘defeater goods’, goods which are made up of an organic unity of good and bad elements, with the bad elements somewhat paradoxically rendering the whole better than it would otherwise have been. See Chisholm (1990), and Adams (1999: ch. 8).


See Plantinga (1965).


A view of this sort is endorsed by van Inwagen (2000: 66–67), though van Inwagen thinks of stories that might well be true for all we know as ‘defences’ rather than theodicies, and puts them forward in the context of a sceptical theist outlook.


See, for example, Draper (1996: 182–87). Cf. the adequacy conditions for theodicy specified by Hick (2001: 38).


For a more detailed account, see Chap. 10 of my The God Beyond Belief.


Hick develops his soul-making theodicy in Part IV of Evil and the God of Love, first edition (London: Macmillan, 1966). Apart from this work, other important presentations of his theodicy occur in Hick (1968); the revised edition of Evil and God of Love (New York: Harper Collins, 1977), which includes an extra chapter where Hick responds to some of his critics; ‘An Irenaean Theodicy,’ originally published in Davis (1981), and republished with some minor amendments in the new edition of Davis’ collection issued in 2001 (both editions also contain interesting discussions between Hick and the other contributors); and Philosophy of Religion, fourth edition (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1990), pp. 44–48.


Hick, Evil and the God of Love, first edition, p. 362.


See Hick, Evil and the God of Love, first edition, pp. 317–18.


Many theists, of course, do not accept libertarianism, but adopt a compatibilist conception of freedom. It is commonly thought, however, that determinism, whether of the hard or soft variety, renders the problem of evil intractable for theism. See, for example, Flew (1973), Reichenbach (1988), and Le Poidevin (1996: 91–96). For an opposing view, see Trakakis (2006).


For Swinburne’s free will theodicy for natural evil, see Swinburne (1998: 176–92).


Hick, Evil and the God of Love, revised edition, p. 375. On Hick’s eschatology, see also Part V of his Death and Eternal Life (Glasgow: Collins, 1976). Hick likes to capture the importance of the afterlife for theodicy with the slogan, ‘No theodicy without eschatology’ (see, e.g., Hick 1997: 48).


See the works listed in note 1 above.


One point to note here is that much of the trouble, as Rowan Williams explains, seems to be caused by the theodicist’s overly anthropomorphic conception of divine action. The theodicist’s God, Williams (1996: 143) writes, ‘is (like us) an agent in an environment, who must “negotiate” purposes and desires in relation to other agencies and presences. But God is not an item in any environment, and God’s action has been held, in orthodox Christian thought, to be identical with God’s being – that is, what God does is nothing other than God’s being actively real. Nothing could add to or diminish this, because God does not belong in an environment where the divine life could be modified by anything else.’ What this indicates is that one’s theology (particularly one’s conception of God) should begin with, and be informed by, the problem of evil, rather than (as usually happens) attempting to conform one’s views on evil and suffering to an already established theology. For an elaboration of this view, see Sutherland (1984: ch. 2). I will take this opportunity to add that D.Z. Phillips’ critique of the God of analytic philosophers of religion no longer appears uncongenial to me as it (regrettably) did in Oppy and Trakakis (2007).


One cannot overlook, however, the important contributions to anti-theodicy made by modern Jewish theologians in the wake of the Shoah. See, for example, Braiterman (1998), where the idea of ‘anti-theodicy’ receives its first systematic development.


See Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, Chap. 3.


Ibid., Chap. 3, §§6–7, pp. 63–71.


Ibid., Chap. 2, §3, pp. 33–44.


As pointed out by Holland (1980), without the idea of God as a member of a moral community, one cannot speak of God as having or not having morally sufficient reasons (pp.238–39). Holland, interestingly, goes even further to argue that, even if God were a member of a moral community, it is false that God must have some good reason for what he does (pp.239–40).


Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, p. 40, emphasis his.




Camus (1971: 57).


I thank an anonymous referee for bringing this objection to my attention.


Styron (1980: 642).


Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, p. 43.


Ibid., Chap. 3, §§3–4, pp. 56–60.


Quoted in Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, pp. 58–59.


Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, p. 57, emphases in the original.


Ibid., p. 57.


It might be objected that the problem identified here is not a difficulty for theodicies as such but rather for advocates of theodicies. The soul-making theodicy, for example, is simply the view that evil is justified as a necessary condition of soul development, but if a proponent of this theodicy goes on to claim that suffering should be used for personal gain, this is a failing of that individual rather than a view sanctioned by the theodicy itself. (I am grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this objection.) But to view the soul-making theodicy as implying that the sufferings of others are an opportunity for us to grow morally is not to misunderstand that theodicy, for that is precisely what this theodicy maintains. And so it is difficult to see how someone who accepts the soul-making theodicy would not be drawn to viewing the sufferings of others in an instrumental and self-regarding fashion.


Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, p. 59.


Ibid., p. 60. Note, however, Swinburne’s response: ‘I am not saying that a world with a lot more choice and a lot more opportunity to be of use, together with the bad states which would be needed for that, would be better than our world. There certainly does come a point where additional bad states make things overall worse, and a point at which it would be quite wrong of a creator to create a world with so much bad in it.’ (Providence and the Problem of Evil, p. 243, emphasis in the original.) But if the level of suffering in our world is not excessive in the sense of providing more opportunities to be of use than is necessary, then with what confidence can we say that doubling the current levels of suffering will be excessive and counter-productive in the relevant respect?

Furthermore, if God subscribes to the ‘do evil that good may come’ ethic, then should not we do the same? Swinburne’s response has been to argue that God, as our creator and benefactor, may have the right to allow us to endure abuse and murder for the sake of some greater good, whereas we do not have those sorts of rights over each other (Providence and the Problem of Evil, Chap. 12). But see McNaughton (2002), where it is argued that, from a deontological framework, what God has the right to do to us must be tempered by our basic human rights, such as the right not to be sexually abused regardless of any good that may result.


Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, p. 71, emphasis in the original.


Another critic worth mentioning in this context is Michael Levine, who characterizes the responses of Swinburne and (especially) van Inwagen to the problem of evil as ‘terrible solutions to a horrible problem’. With much poignancy, Levine writes: “If van Inwagen and Swinburne were political figures, there would be protesters on the street. I mean this literally and not polemically. After all, what they have done is to offer not just a prima facie, but an ultimate justification for the holocaust and other horrors. What should be explained is how this has gone virtually unnoticed in the literature.” (‘Contemporary Christian Analytic Philosophy of Religion: Biblical Fundamentalism, Terrible Solutions to A Horrible Problem, and Hearing God,’ International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 48 (2000): 107). Levine goes on to suggest that the proposals of Swinburne and van Inwagen are ‘indicative of the lack of vitality, relevance and “seriousness” of contemporary Christian analytic philosophy of religion’ (p.112).


See the papers by Swinburne and Phillips in Brown (1977).


Swinburne, ‘The Problem of Evil,’ in Brown (ed.), Reason and Religion, p. 92.


Phillips, ‘The Problem of Evil,’ in Brown (ed.), Reason and Religion, p. 115.


Swinburne, ‘Postscript,’ in Brown (ed.), Reason and Religion, p. 130, emphasis in the original.


Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, p. 84, emphases in the original. Interestingly, in a more recent paper Swinburne evinces some sympathy with such moral criticisms. After writing that ‘if the long term is very long, the short term may not be very short’ – meaning by this that, if it is an eternity in heaven we stand to gain, then our short-term or temporal sufferings may justifiably be greater than they would be if there were no afterlife – Swinburne adds: ‘I must admit that whenever I write sentences like the above and then watch some of the world’s horrors on TV, I ask myself, “Do I really mean this?” But in the end I always conclude that I do’ (‘Response to My Commentators,’ Religious Studies 38 (2002): 305). Some defendants cannot help but indict themselves.


Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, p. 84. The quote is from Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), pp. 17–18.


Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, pp. 84–85. Surin notes that he is referencing Stanley Cavell’s analysis of the ‘grammar’ of the refusal to acknowledge the humanity of the other, particularly as found in Cavell 1979: 329–496.


A further problem with the teleology of suffering which should not go unmentioned relates to its assumption that there can be an ‘outweighing’ relation between goods and evils, so that (for example) the evil of child abuse can be outweighed by the good of free will and the goods free will makes possible (e.g., the ability to enter into relationships of love with others). The problem here is twofold. Firstly, in order for there to be a scheme of outweighing goods and outweighed evils, it must be possible to isolate, quantify, and then compare our multifarious experiences. But does this even make sense? Where, for example, does the experience of child abuse start and end, and how is its degree of badness to be measured and compared against the mere existence of human free will (or the free will of the assailant)? But secondly, even if talk of a particular good outweighing a certain evil made sense, should we be so ready to adopt such a language? Theodicists, unfortunately, never stop to ask whether the language of the marketplace is suited to express moral realities, particularly the horrific moral realities we encounter. Instead, they go about attaching a ‘fixed price’ to goods and evils (where the value of one good might be + 7, while the disvalue of some evil might be –5) and then weighing the one against the other, blithely unaware of the dehumanizing effects of such language. I express my indebtedness here to Rowan Williams’ excellent essay, ‘Redeeming Sorrows’.


Sutherland (1977: vii).


Gibson (1973: 176).


Gibson (1973: 179). The exchange between Ivan and Alyosha occurs in book 5, chapter 4 (entitled ‘Mutiny’) of The Brothers Karamazov.


This is how Ivan sarcastically describes his compilation – see Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. David McDuff (London: Penguin, 1993 [orginally published in Russian in 1980]), p. 274.


For Ivan’s account of these and other instances of horrific evil, see Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, pp. 274–79. At least some of Ivan’s stories are actual incidents that Dostoyevsky had culled from Russian newspapers. For some of the sources Dostoyevsky was relying upon, see Terras (1981: 224, items 151, 153, and 158).


Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 278.


Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, pp. 52–53, emphasis in the original. Cf. Surin’s statement in his paper, ‘Theodicy?’ Harvard Theological Review 76 (1983): 243, that ‘Theodicy is inherently flawed: it requires us to be articulate in the face of the unspeakable.’ I should also point out that on pp. 96–105 of his Theology and the Problem of Evil, Surin provides an excellent analysis of Ivan Karamazov’s critique of theodicy.


I register my indebtedness here to the penetrating exploration of tragedy in Solomon (1999: ch. 5). See also Wetzel (1989), who admits that ‘the vice of speculative theodicy is that it cannot accept the possibility of irredeemable evil’ (p.8), even though he goes on to argue, against Surin, that traditional theodicy cannot be avoided.


Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 281.


Stump (1985: 433), emphasis hers. Similar sentiments are recorded by Alston (1991: 48), Tooley (1991: 113), and Adams (1999: 29–31).


Michael Scott (1996) expresses an objection to theodicies raised by Kenneth Surin as follows: ‘It is one thing to claim that moral evil is justified as the inevitable consequence of human beings being free and responsible; it is quite another to suggest to a person who has been raped that the suffering involved in that experience is in some way balanced out by God’s gift of free will to human beings. The failure of the practice of theodicy in connecting with the practical realities of evil seems to leave the theodicist vulnerable to the charge of moral insensitivity.’ (p. 2)

It should be noted, however, that the general practice of free will theodicists nowadays is to abide by the adequacy condition identified above so as to avoid the kind of problems mentioned by Scott. Whether such a move can meet all the difficulties raised by the anti-theodicist is another matter.


Children occupy a special place in Dostoyevsky’s novels, which often highlight (but without idealizing) the innocence and unquestioning love of children. The precious character of childhood, and of the memories it leaves behind, are also frequently stressed by Dostoyevsky. It is not surprising, then, to find that Dostoyevsky enjoyed an especially close relationship with children. His second wife, Anna Grigorievna, recalls in her memoirs that, ‘He [her husband, Fyodor] had a special ability to talk with children, to enter into their world, win their trust (and this even with strange children he met by accident) and get the child so interested that he would become gay and obedient at once. I account for this in his unflagging love for little children, which told him how to behave in a given situation.’ (Anna Dostoevsky 1975: 283.) I explore some of the distinctive characteristics of childhood, and what they have to teach us, in ‘Becoming Children: The Hidden Meaning of the Incarnation’, Theandros: An Online Journal of Orthodox Christian Theology and Philosophy [], vol. 3, no. 3, Spring/Summer 2006.


Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 281.


Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, pp. 85–86. An additional difficulty in the idea of evil as something that can be compensated for or redeemed is that this view naturally leads to a denial of the reality of evil or to the belief that evil is not as bad as it initially seems. Consider, for example, Alexander Pope’s infamous lines:

All Discord, Harmony, not understood;

All partial Evil, universal Good:

And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,

One truth is clear, ‘Whatever IS, is RIGHT.’

(An Essay on Man, Epistle I, vv. 291–94, in John Butt (ed.), The Poems of Alexander Pope, London: Methuen & Co., 1963, p.515)

To be sure, theodicists vehemently deny that they are committed to the unreality of evil. They would argue that, in describing, say, the everlasting post-mortem beatific vision of God as a good which ‘redeems’ or ‘defeats’ the evils in one’s life, the evils continue to be thought of as evil. However, the theodicist adds, viewed sub specie aerternitatis the evils one suffers can no longer be seen as destroying the value and meaning of one’s life, for they will then be seen as somewhat trivial in comparison to the glorification experienced in heaven (see, e.g., Romans 8:18) and as providing various benefits not otherwise obtainable (e.g., character growth). But this, I suggest, is to effect a change in our perspective on evil that is so radical as to deaden our moral sensibilities, particularly our sense of horror and disgust aroused by much evil. Stewart Sutherland develops this view in response to Marilyn McCord Adams, who appeals to the experience of the beatific vision as an incommensurable good that both outweighs and defeats all evils, even evils of the worst or horrific kind, that one may have undergone in one’s temporal life. Sutherland replies that ‘at its minimum the defeat of horrendous evil requires a significant qualification of the initial moral perceptions and commitments which lead to the classification of evils as horrendous evils. That is to say, the individual must, in the end, come to the view that viewed in a proper light horrendous evils are not so bad after all!’ (Sutherland 1989: 317). See also Wachterhauser (1985), where it is argued that the very condition of having a moral perspective is the ability to recognize at least some instances of evil as unjustifiable.


Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 282, emphasis in the original. One is reminded here of the following exchange between Dr Bernard Rieux and the Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, in Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague (1960: 178):

‘I understand,’ Paneloux said in a low voice. ‘That sort of thing [the death of a child resulting from a plague] is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.’

Rieux straightened up slowly. He gazed at Paneloux, summoning to his gaze all the strength and fervour he could muster against his weariness. Then he shook his head.

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’


Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 282. Dostoyevsky, particularly in his younger days, was heavily influenced by the work of Schiller (in a letter to his brother Mikhail in 1840, Dostoyevsky wrote: ‘I have learned Schiller by heart, spoken Schiller, raved Schiller,’ quoted in Lantz 2004: 385). This influence is evident in Ivan’s famous phrase of ‘returning my entry ticket’, which is borrowed from Zhukovsky’s Russian translation of Schiller’s poem, ‘Resignation’ (1784), specifically lines 3–4 of the third stanza: ‘The entrance letter to an earthly paradise/I return to Thee unopened’ (see Terras 1981: 16).


Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, p. 98. I strongly recommend the insightful analysis of Ivan’s atheism provided in Sutherland (1977: ch.2). Sutherland detects three strands in Ivan’s subtle form of atheism, the first of which is the rebellion against God mentioned above, the second consists of viewing God in terms that are ‘profoundly and intentionally blasphemous’, while the third involves a denial of the validity and intelligibility of the religious way of life. See Sutherland, Atheism and the Rejection of God, Chap. 2.


Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 282.


It might be objected that Kant’s categorical imperative as formulated here (the so-called ‘humanity formulation’) does not rule out using people as means to our ends – something, in fact, we regularly do – but using people merely as means to our ends. I do not wish to dispute this. My point, however, is that theodicists do tend to picture God as treating human creatures as mere means to his ultimate ends. Consider, for example, Swinburne’s suggestion that, as long as God grants you a life that is overall good, he has the right to treat you as a means to some end, or more specifically, he has the right to allow you to suffer so as to provide opportunities to others to respond well to that suffering (Providence and the Problem of Evil, p. 233). But, going by the kinds of calculations theodicists (Swinburne included) like to make, it is relatively easy for God to ensure that you have a life that is good overall. For it should be noted that, in this context, ‘life’ denotes one’s entire (pre- and post-mortem) life, and that the value of the heavenly afterlife is thought to be an incommensurable good, or at least a good that far outweighs any merely temporal good or evil. In that case, God can deliberately inflict serious harm on someone for the good of others, but then ensure that the sufferer has a life that is good overall by simply offering them a heavenly afterlife as compensation. It is doubtful that God, in violating the basic dignity of a person in this way, is treating them as an end in themselves or setting great store on their humanity. For a helpful discussion of Kant’s ‘formula of humanity’, see Hill (1980), where Hill argues that, for Kant, to treat human persons as ends in themselves is to view the humanity in persons as having an unconditional and incomparable worth that cannot be traded off for something of greater value.


But if theodicy is rejected, how should the theist respond to the problem of evil? This is an important question, deserving a paper in its own right. Briefly put, the kind of response I would favour is that offered by Dostoyevsky himself, who sought to (indirectly) counter Ivan’s rebellion by juxtaposing it with the Christian form of life embodied by Alyosha and, especially, Father Zosima. For further details on this kind of strategy, see Sutherland (1977: chs 6–8).


I am indebted here to an anonymous referee of this journal for presenting the objection in the above clear and forceful way.


See Surin, ‘Theodicy?’ pp. 240–43.


Griffin (1976: 16).


Tilley, (1991: 231).


Tilley, (1991: 231). The tendency to fatalism, or to a sense of passivity, is created by the theodicist’s view that no evil is gratuitous, from which it may be inferred that there is little point in attempting to prevent a particular evil from occurring since the evil, even if it were to occur, would only help to serve some purpose ordained by God. Some, indeed, have thought that this exposes a fundamental incoherence in the project of developing ‘greater-good’ theodicies. See, for example, Hasker (1992).


Surin, ‘Theodicy?’ p. 230. The footnote quoted is from note 10, p. 230 of Surin’s paper.


Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, p. 50. For an excellent illustration of this premise, see the essays in Part II of John K. Roth (ed.), Genocide and Human Rights: A Philosophical Guide (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), these essays showing the various ways in which philosophy has been complicit in genocide.


Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, p. 51.




See McClleland (2004). In this perceptive essay on the (pathological) psychological motivations lying behind theodicy, McClleland speaks of the abstractions of theodicists as producing an ‘Echo effect’. The reference here is to the myth of Narcissus, as recounted by Ovid, where the nymph Echo is deprived of her powers of speech by Hera (the wife of Zeus and goddess of marriage), and is consequently unable to express any thoughts of her own, but can only repeat (or echo) the last words that she hears from others. But Echo is best known for falling in love with the beautiful Narcissus, who shuns her advances and as a result she gradually wastes away in grief until she is nothing more than an answering voice. McClleland explains that the nymph Echo ‘has ceased to be a real character at all, so lacking in psychological depth and solidity as finally to be nothing but a disembodied and depersonalized voice’ (p.194). Theodicies, McClleland goes on to add, have a similar (Echo) effect when they fail to give the sufferer a voice, and instead treat their sufferings in an abstract and hence psychologically shallow manner (pp.202–204).


Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 28–29, emphases in the original.


Ibid., pp. 63–64, emphasis in the original.


O’Connor (1988: 64). On the previous page of his paper (p.63), O’Connor draws the distinction between the conceptual and the ministerial problems as follows: ‘In the domain of the [conceptual problem of evil] success and failure are measured by rules of logic and sufficiency of evidence, that is, by making the right distinctions and by having good arguments…while in the [domain of the ministerial problem of evil] the measures of success and failure are subjective, existential, and pragmatic. In the former, we succeed to the degree we come out with a good explanation, while we succeed in the latter to the degree we cope.’


See Scott (1996: 3).


See Scott (1996: 5).


O’Connor (1988: 68).


See Scott (1996: 6).


Surin (1986: 50).


Sutherland (1977: 141–42) points out that theodicy offers a set of emotions or emotional responses to the world which is intended to appease and placate sufferers, and to therefore sanction evil (echoes of Marx’s ‘opium of the people’). By way of contrast, consider the emotional response to the world’s atrocities exemplified by Ivan Karamazov: anger, bitterness, protest, and rebellion. As Sutherland notes, to seek to alter these emotions or to question their appropriateness would amount to redescribing the situation facing Ivan, and in that sense it would be to falsify the facts concerning evil – this is precisely what Ivan believes is asked of him by the theodicist.


Greenberg’s test, it might be objected, would have the effect of reducing us all to a position of silence in the face of evil. I do not think this is right. Responses other than silence to the problem of evil are available, as indicated in note 67 above. Nevertheless, the importance of silence is usually overlooked by analytical philosophers, who rush in where angels fear to tread, as it were, by not hesitating to tell us God’s reasons for permitting suffering or why such reasons cannot be known by us. This attitude can be contrasted with the reticence of Holocaust survivors to write and talk about their experiences, many waiting ten to twenty years before breaking their silence. ‘They were afraid,’ Elie Wiesel explains, ‘that, in the very process of telling the tale, they would betray it… So we didn’t speak about it because we were afraid of committing a sin’ (Roth and Berenbaum 1989: 367). To be sure, the only credible immediate response to evil is not talk, but action. As John Roth explains, in an essay which also takes Greenberg’s statement as its epigraph, ‘Talk about a theodicy of protest or about antitheodicy would not be much more credible in the literal presence of the burning children. Efforts to rescue the children and to resist the powers that took their lives would be the only statements that could fully approach credibility in those dire straits’ (Roth 2004: 277).


Voltaire (1947: 37).


This prioritization of the ‘objective’ over the ‘subjective’ illustrates that the theodicist (like many in the analytical tradition of philosophy) fails to see that someone who has suffered some painful loss or illness may have acquired an insight or understanding of suffering not available to one who has not gone through such an experience (much like people who have lived in poverty or under oppression may be aware of social realities that those in positions of power and wealth cannot but be oblivious to).


See Levinas (1988: 163). For further discussion of Levinas’ rejection of theodicy, see Cohen (2001: ch. 8) and Bernstein (2002).


Williams (1996: 148).


Williams (1996: 148, emphasis in the original).


Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, School of Philosophy & BioethicsMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia

Personalised recommendations