A possible reason why God permits suffering and evil: the soul-making theodicy

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Steve Hays has a post up at Triablogue about one my favorite defenses to the inductive problem of evil – the soul-making theodicy.

He writes:

The soul-making theodicy was popularized by John Hick. In Augustinian anthropology, Adam and Eve were finished products. They fell from a state of moral perfection. Hick contrasted that with his own position, according to which Adam and Eve were created with the potential for moral growth. They were still in the process of creation. They had the potential for moral maturation. (Mind you, Hick denied the historicity of Adam and Eve.)

There’s some truth to this analysis, although it suffers from equivocation. To say unfallen Adam and Eve were morally “perfect” simply means they were sinless. It doesn’t mean there was no room for moral improvement.

Paradoxically, fallen humans can be both better and worse than unfallen humans. Inasmuch as they are sinners, they are worse. Yet Christians can have a moral grace that surpasses the mere sinlessness of Adam and Eve. Saints have virtues that angels lack.

3. Let’s take an example: Suppose you have a family of five. Both parents are social climbers and overachievers. The husband is consumed with career advancement. The wife is a tiger mom. She makes sure the kids are enrolled in all the right student clubs and extracurricular activities that will look good on a college application. The two teenage sons and a daughter are into the usual things kids in their age-bracket are into. At dinner, each member of the family is glued to the display on their smart phone.

The members of the family aren’t Christian. Aren’t into meaning-of-life questions. They lead superficial lives.

One son starts to forget routine things. At first this is amusing. They think he’s absent-minded. Distracted by too much multitasking. But he begins to complain about headaches.

His parents take him to the doctor, and he’s diagnosed with brain cancer. Suddenly their priorities come to a screeching halt.

They now have a sick family member who will just get sicker. Their social world contracts. Their center of gravity shifts.

Instead of being frivolous and self-absorbed, they make the most of the remaining time with their dying family member. The wrenching experience changes them. Deepens them. Makes them better people. Develops their unrealized moral potential.

Perhaps, in their distress and despair, they turn to God. They regret the missed opportunities. Regret taking life for granted. Regret taking one another for granted. Regret all the things they should have said and done differently, in retrospect.

That kind of regret can refine character. Moving forward, that prompts them to treat others with greater patience and understanding.

This is hypothetical, but there are real life examples of Christians like Eric Liddell and Ernest Gordon who exhibit moral heroism in the face of extreme adversity.

The rest of the article considers some objections to this defense.

Have you ever had that happen to you? Where something terrible happened and you found yourself having to pray, and care for others, and drop all your plans, and be unselfish? It’s happened to me. In fact, I think this is one of the main things that Christians should be doing. We ought to respond to setbacks as if they were opportunities for us to show our real character. Don’t treat the needs and sufferings of others as something to avoid, treat it as your opportunity to be more like Jesus. I know that we all have dreams of things that we would like to do and achieve. But sometimes, an opportunity arises for us to imitate Jesus by being obedient with suffering, or by caring for the suffering of others by putting our own needs and desires second. It’s tempting to think that our super-duper plan to change the world is the most important thing, but it really isn’t. Don’t miss the chance to form your character when you suffer, or when someone close to you is suffering.

I have to mention Dina, who has been busy visiting the elderly in a hospital for the last two weeks. She is a busy lady, and has things she would rather be doing. She hasn’t done any cross-stitching in months, because she is so stressed with work. Nevertheless, she didn’t take that as an excuse to put herself first. She found some people close to her who were suffering and thought “here is an opportunity for me to imitate Jesus by putting myself second, and serving others first”. Evil and suffering gives you the opportunity to be who God wants you to be.

7 thoughts on “A possible reason why God permits suffering and evil: the soul-making theodicy”

  1. Well said. Thank you, I enjoyed this.

    Something that bothers me about the world today, suffering is often perceived as “sin,” whereas if you are a good person, God will allegedly prosper you and free you of all suffering. I blame some prosperity ministers and happy preachers for this shift, as well as our very materialistic culture.

    In recent times suffering was known to be a virtue, it builds character, it brings out the best in us, it produces fruits of the spirit. People who have never experienced any hardship or suffering tend to take things for granted, to have little empathy for others, and to be lacking in gratitude. Gratitude is an important key to happiness so in it’s absence you can wind up with people who have been greatly blessed but are miserable inside. Robin Williams and Whitney Houston come to mind.

    1. That’s a good point. It’s amazing to me that any Christian could think this, since the central figure in the religion gives up his life to save others, suffering a great deal to put others first.

  2. I preached on this sort of thing recently – that suffering or hardship is not necessarily an indication of God’s disfavor. In fact, a Christian attempting to follow God in all of his or her ways will look back and see that every instance of hardship was evidence of God’s intense interest in and love for them.

    But, more to the point, if Jesus suffered even though He was perfect, we should expect to do likewise if we are in His will. We know for certain His sufferings were not a result of sin and disfavor, but a result of the world’s hatred of anything that doesn’t fit in, the inevitable consequence of all of our sins. People wanted to kill Him because He had the audacity to speak and do truth. If the world will do that to its creator made flesh, there isn’t much it wouldn’t stoop to in dealing with those who follow Him.

    I’m not really a fan of Stephen Colbert, but he threw out a Tolkien quote in a recent interview that floored me. “What punishments from God are not gifts?” It was in the context of what Tolkien wrote about his mythical prehistory but it fits into my life perfectly. God loves me enough to discipline me when I go astray, and wants me to know Him and be like Him enough to let some bad stuff come my way because it makes me drop the pretenses and hold fast to Him. Ergo, even His punishments are gifts of His mercy and grace and love.

  3. This is a very important post, and it teaches a theme that deserves to be emphasized…and explored further.

    “If we suffer with Him, we will also be glorified with Him.” If we are unwilling to suffer with Him, we will, to that degree, be without glory when the time comes for glory.

    “He learned obedience from the things He suffered.” Likewise, we learn obedience from the things we suffer. If we are unwilling to suffer, we don’t learn fully of His ways.

    The friend you described is doing the right thing. Such activities are not diversions from the path of God but are themselves the path of God.

    There are two kinds of suffering: those that we bring on ourselves due to sin and those that come upon us because we seek to live godly in Christ Jesus. We ought to avoid the former and embrace the latter, knowing that give us opportunity to glorify our Savior…and to learn to become more like Him..

    This is a good vein – keep mining it.

  4. I’ve been working on a sermon (I’m not a pastor mind you) that relates to this. I have not suffered as much as a lot of people in the world, but I think about it ontologically because the suffering objection to Christianity is more emotional than anything. How I see it is this: I think it is quite possible God is more concerned with growing our character than He is increasing our happiness. Happiness is to be pursued, but the pain along the way in no manner negates the pursuit. There may be obstacles or hurdles, but they show who you are and where you’ve come from.

    If God designed this life for our happiness (which how can you define without sadness?) then sitting on the couch and eating surgary food all the do-long-day would be the best thing for us! Unfortunately you wouldn’t progress as a human, in fact you’ll regret those years of laziness when you go to the doctor and have your blood samples taken. People go places in order to destroy and rebuild their muscles, run long distances, lift heavy things, stop eating certain foods, prohibit certain behaviors in order to undo a lot of the things they thought would make them happy. I hate this rhetoric that a lot of people claim. “Everybody has the right to be happy.” No, they don’t. They have the right to pursue happiness, as long as it doesn’t violate somebody else’s liberty or life.

  5. Suffering was how God brought me back to Him. It pulled me out of my self-centered world and I saw other’s as people rather than nuisances. In the end it shaped my character for the better. Great work.

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