A Perfectly Imperfect World

One of the prime arguments against the existence of God is the presence of evil on Earth. The problem of evil creates an impossible clash of God’s qualities – otherwise known as an Inconsistent Triad. God is viewed as omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient; but with regards to the presence of evil, the three are logically inconsistent. If God was omniscient, he would be aware of existing evil and suffering in the world; if he is omnipotent, he can put an end to it and if he was omnibenevolent, he would want to. Yet suffering persists, therefore many use the presence of evil to disprove divine existence.
Saint Irenaeus was a 2nd century philosopher, who recognised this conflict of divine ability and proposed what is now known as the Irenaeun Theodicy. This entailed a two stage process in which humans require free will and the experience of evil in order to develop into perfect moral beings. It is in this way that he burdens the blame of earthly evil on God, but with good cause.
He suggested that humans were originally created in the image and likeness of God and, having fallen from this into an immature ethical state, we still retain the potential to achieve moral perfection. God had to give us free will and by doing so he had to also allow the freedom to disobey him, thus permitting the possibility of evil. What’s more, God cannot remove this evil because he would then have to compromise our freedom.
Through struggle and experience of consequences for our actions, we understand the meaning of morality and can begin to distinguish between what is ethically right or wrong. By doing so, we choose to honour God through our actions as oppose to succumbing to instinct. Irenaeus concludes stating that, following this deliberate process of human development, we return to ‘children of God’ having regained God’s likeness.
Irenaeus believed that suffering was firstly useful as a means of knowledge; for example, hunger leads to pain which equals a desire to be fed. Through pain, we have a greater sense of empathy and a more compelling incentive to help lose less fortunate. Not only this, but he also regarded evil as an effective tool for character building. In other words, suffering offers the opportunity to grow spiritually by assessing the consequence of evil actions and amending moral principles accordingly.
Ultimately this theodicy allows the existence of evil and God to be simultaneous. From this perspective, it becomes comprehensible that God may have permitted suffering for the benefit of human values. Through this whole process, humans develop into the likeness of God – consequently evil is not only explained but justified.
John Hick, a theologian and philosopher of religion, has since developed the opinions of Saint Irenaeus, emphasising greatly the importance of individual human development. He likened the goodness of one’s own actions to that of a robot, if God had engineered humans to be perfect from the beginning. Love and morality would be automatic and without deliberation. Thus, he resolved, not genuine. God desires genuine love and obedience, so for that reason, free will is necessary (and with free will, as mentioned before, comes the unavoidable presence of evil).
Their opinions are mirrored by that of many others, including British philosopher, Richard Swinburne who agreed that to make free moral choices, humans must have experience of consequences preceding their own evil actions, so natural evil must exist to provide such choices. In his words “we would never learn the art of goodness in a world designed as a complete paradise.”
However, within this theodicy lie a number of crucial problems. On a fundamental level, through this perspective, everyone is subject to suffering, everyone is a victim. The only way, Irenaeus states, to justify suffering imposed by God is to offer a supreme life in heaven. Therefore every individual, no matter their own actions, must be repaid for their anguish in eternity in heaven – which many would argue is simply unjust. This results in a dangerous lack of incentive both for moral decisions and for individual soul development which is, in itself, detrimental to the aim of the theodicy. Similarly it does not correspond with the biblical teachings of eternal punishment; if every human moved to God’s likeness, there would be no requirement for hell despite the lessons of the Bible.
Finally, and perhaps most contentious, is the extent to which God allows this evil. Surely, the same moral lesson would be achieved through the murder of 1 million, as oppose to 6 million Jews in the Holocaust? How can a God who allows extensive and unnecessary evil remain truly benevolent?
By admitting God’s responsibility for evil on earth whilst justifying his intentions, St Irenaeus’ Theodicy defends the probability of an omnipotent/scient/benevolent God in the face of an evil world, successfully providing explanation for the presence of evil and suffering. God deliberately fashioned an imperfect world in the best interests of humanity – and though this earth is not designed for the maximisation of pleasure or minimisation of pain, it is perfect for the purpose of soul development. Despite this, the main problem is that if the intention of the designer was to encourage good over evil, then the system would be at fault, considering the outcome from both is the same.
There are such a great number of theodicies, including this one, that try to demonstrate how both evil and God can be in existence, with varying levels of success. Though many are convincing, none are without their flaws, with no exception for that of Irenaeus.