John Hick’s Solution to the Problem of Evil: A Critique

 by David Mayo (UMD Philosophy Department)


I. Why Evil is a Problem for Theist

II. Hick's General Strategy

III. Moral Evil

A. Criticisms of the Justification of Moral Evil

III. Natural Evil

A. Criticisms of the Justification of Natural Evil

IV. Final Considerations


Alleged proofs for the theological hypothesis have been examined. Even if someone was convinced that none of the proofs we looked at were valid, it would not follow that the theological hypothesis was false--it might be that there is a valid proof we didn't consider--or it might be that there is no proof possible, but that the hypothesis is still true.


The Argument from the problem of Evil is a reductio ad absurdum argument by the skeptic to show that the theological hypothesis, as traditionally understood, must be false. The argument is simply this--if the world had been created by an all-loving God (who therefore would not want evil), and who was all-powerful (and thus could create whatever he wanted) there would be no evil. But in fact there is evil; therefore the world couldn't have been created by an all-loving, all-powerful God.


Hick, a theologian, tries to answer this argument by showing that, just as a loving human father (or even a compassionate human dentist) must sometimes inflict pain for the greater good in the long run, so the existence of some evil is essential to God's (ultimately good) plan. Notice Hick must show that all evil which exists is in some way essential--for to the extent that any evil is unnecessary, but still permitted/caused by God, to that extent God is not good. (A father who beats his children unnecessarily, only once in a while, is to that extent not good.)

Hick's general ploy is to argue that there are two distinct kinds of evil: (1) moral evil, and natural evil. Hick argues man had to be given free will, if his choosing good was to be meaningful, and not the action of a "mere puppet." It is argued that the natural evil of this life, like a very thorough and unpleasant curriculum at a school, is essential for the divine purposes of this life to be achieved. Hick describes the purpose of this life as "a final stage in soul-making."

I will to suggest some objections to Hick's position:

First, note Hick insists that God only permits evil, he does not cause it. But anyone who for a moment took the First Cause argument seriously, maintaines that God Caused Everything. He may not have caused the evil directly, but he caused the conditions which ultimately caused it--and he presumably knew infallibly (God knows all!) that it would result in evil. (Note, for instance, the Aquinas -Father Copleston argument that any event in this world is a contingent event, and all contingent events must ultimately be traceable to some non-contingent (necessary) Being, or event.) It seems, then, that he "caused" the evil in at least the same sense that someone who poisons the food he knows someone is about to eat, "causes" their death--even though he does not force them to eat the food.



What sense of "free will" does Hick have in mind? He says "we can never provide a complete causal explanation of a free act." But many human acts we CAN explain completely--Mayo ate breakfast because he was hungry! Hick seems to be suggesting that a "free will" is not (as a Compatibilist would say) a will which is free from compulsion, but instead (as a Free Will-ist said) a will free from causation. But if free acts are uncaused acts, they are chance, random, "come as a gift." (See William James.) But (1) how could someone reasonably be punished for what they do randomly, "by chance," or for no reason, and again (2) how do you square this with the jist of the First Cause argument, which is that the cause of everything, ultimately, is God?

Hick describes the choice of good and evil as a kind of test which man must undergo, and for God to tamper with the test, or to somehow guarantee that everyone should choose good, would make the test a fraud, BUT--must God "grade on quite such a high curve"? John Mackie suggests that God might have, not guaranteed that everyone pass, but nevertheless have created a world in which as a matter of fact everyone just happens to pass. (For God knew infallibly who would pass, and who wouldn't, before He created the world,) Would it, for instance, prove that Mayo had made up a fraudulent test, if everyone happened to pass? Must some fail if the test is to be fair? Surely a test tests the teacher as well as the student--if the teacher is sufficiently clear, and inspiring, it should be possible for him to teach what is to be taught, to everyone. (Are unclear teachers desirable, because managing to learn from them is "more virtuous"? Why isn't the "word of God" spread in such an effective and convincing way that everyone both hears and accepts it?)


The testing circumstances of God's test seem very odd. The fact that God knows infallibly who will pass, and who fail--this fact, it seems to me, makes it a fraudulent test. If I gave a test, and knew (infallibly) in advance exactly what grade everyone would get--THIS test, it seems to me, would be fraudulent. One taking such a test might ask "what's the use, it's already settled--AND KNOWN!) And remember, God's foreknowledge is infallible. I am suggesting, in other words, that even if God didn't cause the choices of man (which he must have, if he caused everything) he still knows them in advance, infallibly, and this seems just as damaging to the legitimacy of the "test".

But another problem with the test remains--it seems more often than not to be a test of the "William Tell" variety. (William Tell was a Swiss folk hero who was required by the "bad guy" to shoot an apple from his son's head with a bow and arrow.) That is, if one party "flunks" the test, (e.g. violates God's commandments) it is not always this sinner who suffers as a result, but often innocent bystanders. (Indeed, tho sinner may later repent, and be forgiven!) Imagine a teacher who lobbed a grenade at each student he caught cheating, which then killed students around the cheater! Hitler presumably violated God's commandment "Thou shalt not kill"--but Hitler's "taking the test" was rather hard on a lot of Jews. In short, it seems an all-knowing, all-powerful test designer could have designed a test in which innocent bystanders were less liable to be hurt. It is hardly an excuse for the evil the Jews suffered, that Hitler had to be given a fair test, in which he could do right or wrong--to them.

Another objection: Imagine a human father who, without forcing his child, tempts it with a lollypop (which he knows infallibly the child will not be able to resist)--or who even permits a friend to tempt it--to run across the street without looking, just as a steam-roller is coming. Suppose the father had previously told the child not to do it. The father maintains the child is responsible, since the child makes a "free choice." Such a father, it seems to me, could only be written off as a sadist. BUT--I think the essential elements of the sadism are present in the care of Moral Evil:

(1) God knows--infallibly--who will fail, yet still provides/permits the fatal temptation.

(2) God has told Man not to give in to temptation (at least he has told some men) and this is supposed to excuse him, since men "choose freely."

Suppose now that the human father did this to 5 of his children, just to prove (to himself? to them? to whom? that 2 of them were really virtuous. Surely if he knew and could predict infallibly in advance, which would pass the test and which fail, then it seems the glory which (according to Hick) could only legitimately be heaped upon those who passed the test if they actually went through it, was purchased at the price of the lives of the other children. This is an all-loving father??


Hick suggests that, if the objective of this world were to make man as comfortable as possible, then natural evil would be unjustifiable. BUT the objective of this world is to provide man with a test, challenges, etc, thus evil is necessary to "set the stage" for a fair test. (An analogy I will use: a particular course at a university is very unpleasant, but essential if the graduates are really to come out the best possible.)


A. Of such a "university," it would be naive, shortsighted and wrong of the "curriculum committee" to strive to eliminate the difficult course, simply on the grounds that it involved suffering. But SURELY AS HUMAN BEINGS WE DO WANT TO TRY TO ELIMINATE NATURAL SUFFERING. Hick suggests that natural suffering is essential. I am suggesting this is complete outrageous--if anyone did seriously believe suffering was essential, then he would resist any attempt to eliminate it. But we all want to minimize human suffering. In fact, many people, if pressed for a goal or "meaning" to life, might spell it out in terms of trying to "make the world a better place"--of trying, that is, to cut down on the amount of suffering our children will have to undergo. But if Hick's argument is sound, the presence of such evil must be essential to "God's plan."

B.But the theologian may answer, some souls may need to be exposed to more suffering than others, if they are to achieve the status the "school" is striving for.

1. But (as insisted above) some souls never DO make the grade--Hick's argument about moral evil was that it is essential to a fair test that some people should flunk it. So the greater suffering of some persons cannot be justified by saying that each must suffer however much is necessary for them to be able to pass the test.

2. If God could create some souls which can get by, "undergo the proper test," with very little suffering, then it is quite unclear why He couldn't see to it that all souls are this way. If some people get souls which will need to suffer a lot, and others get souls which need suffer only a little, it seems the soul-dispenser is unjust.


C. The believer may answer that although some men seem to suffer more than others, in fact we all suffer the same amount. Even the rich suffer, although over different issues, as much as the poor.

1. Isn't this outrageous? Granted, we all suffer some--isn't it clear that some people make it through life with relatively little suffering--no major crises, they grow up in a loving home, find someone they love, marry and have children who love them. Others suffer a great deal--to suggest that everyone suffers exactly the same is to fly in the face of the facts. Isn't it self-evident that those who are starving endure more suffering than those whose biggest worry is a Phil 1001 final?

2. Again, if someone were convinced (as Hick suggests) that everyone will be subjected to the same amount of physical suffering--or that they must be, if their soul is to be properly processed or tested,

a. It would be morally wrong, incompatible with God's plan, to try to ease the suffering of another person. (And it would be futile, since God would presumably see to it that any suffering someone is able to prevent, will be replaced by other which will make up that person's quota.")

b. It would be wrong to do this in the long run as well--to hope, and work, for a world for our children in which they do not have to endure as much suffering. This would be like removing the difficult course from the curriculum, with the result that the graduates of tomorrow wouldn't really "have it." What seems a favor is really cheating them in the long run.

 V. FINAL CONSIDERATIONS: Two final points:

(1) Look at nature--isn't it obvious that nature is neither "for" nor "against" humans, but that it is neutral? Some of us have very bad luck--some children inherit diseases which kill them before they are rational--but not before they can suffer unspeakable pain. Others have relatively pleasant, comfortable lives. And part of the meaning of life, in Mayo's mind at least, has to do with making the world a place in which there is as little suffering as possible.

(2) How, on Hick's hypothesis, do we explain the children

who die before they are even moral agents? (A related problem--how do we explain those who aren't even Christians, who never make the choices between good and evil, or are never even aware of such choices, or of the tests which, according to Christianity, are essential?