Irenaeus successfully defends God against charges of creating or allowing evil and suffering! Discuss (40)

The problem of evil and suffering continues to trouble all those with conventional Christian faith.  If God is, as Christian doctrine suggests, both omnipotent and omnibenevolent then why would evil and suffering exist within His creation?  David Hume pointed out an “inconsistent triad” of beliefs underpinning Christian faith and in the 1980s JL Mackie went so far as to call anyone basing faith on the propositions

  • P1: God exists and is omnipotent (and omniscient)
  • P2: God exists and is omnibenevolent
  • P3: Evil exists

“positively irrational.”  Because of this it is of the utmost importance for Christians – at least those with propositional faith – to address the problem of evil and suffering and defend God against the charge of creating or allowing either.  Such defences have traditionally been called theodicies, from the Greek words for God and defence.  One attracting attention in the past few decades is the Irenaean theodicy, as developed by John Hick and more recently by Richard Swinburne.  However, while the Irenaean theodicy might offer Christians ways of reconciling their faith with the real experience of suffering, Irenaeus’ original arguments offer little to the modern believer because they are unsuccessful in defending the concept of God that most Christians uphold

Back in the 2nd Century AD at a time of persecution and pogrom St Irenaeus was one of the first Christian writers to attempt a theodicy and explain why God would allow good people to suffer along with – and often more acutely than – sinners.  In Against Heresies, published around 186AD, Irenaeus argued that human beings were created by God in an infantile state and had to grow and develop through experiencing suffering, to fulfil their God-given natures.  In Book IV Chapter 38, Irenaeus explained how

“created things must be inferior to Him who created them, from the very fact of their later origin; for it was not possible for things recently created to have been uncreated.”

It seems that Irenaeus conceived of a God whose omnipotence does not include the ability to do what is logically impossible.  Atheist philosophers like JL Mackie would dispute this and ask why an all-powerful God could not create a world in which the laws of logic ran differently, especially if doing so would make the world a better place?  Of course, Irenaeus would not be alone in arguing that God could not create a world that is so substantially different from this one. St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas would both agree that because God’s creation must have been single and simple and this world exists it follows that God would not have created multiple different types of world.  Further, if God is perfect it follows that God would only have created worlds of the best-possible type and as this world exists, this world must be of this type.  Nevertheless, the atheist objection to the supposed compatibility between God’s omnipotence and his being constrained by the laws of logic still seems persuasive.

Irenaeus continued by arguing that as mankind depends on God, human beings are contingent and necessarily less than perfect.  It is fair to say that this point betrays Irenaeus’ anthropomorphic understanding of God and His act of creation.  He wrote…

“Because, as these things are of later date, so are they infantile; so are they unaccustomed to, and unexercised in, perfect discipline.”

For Irenaeus, God’s creations are like God’s children and are affected by the type of imperfections that we know that children are affected by.  While this is appealing on one level, it is difficult to maintain the idea that the atrocious suffering of the 20th century could be justified as consequences from childish mistakes or opportunities to develop resilience.

To push the analogy that Irenaeus suggests, what sort of parent would allow the Holocaust to happen… whatever message it might send to their children about making sensible choices? Surely there are limits.  Irenaeus has difficulty in accounting for the extent of suffering in the world without supposing that inequalities in our experiences could be made right through the afterlife.  John Hick later develops this aspect of Irenaeus’ thinking, but even in his account it is difficult to accept that the appalling and apparently pointless suffering of a young child with an agonising cancer or animals undergoing vivisection can be justified as part of some lesson that God is trying to teach people. Any amount of heavenly bliss would be inadequate – if the person or animal in heaven remembered their former agonies then an eternity in heaven might be a continuance of their suffering and if their memories were erased then it is difficult to see how heaven could be any sort of mitigation for the unjust pointless suffering that individuals experience.  If a wrongly-convicted prisoner was told that somebody else would be compensated for their suffering – or that they would receive compensation only after they had advanced dementia and could not connect the compensation with the miscarriage of justice – they would hardly be satisfied.

Irenaeus argued…

For as it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, [but she does not do so], as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection], being as yet an infant.”

The implication is that God could have created human beings perfect but chose not to because human beings could not cope with the weight of perfection.  This makes little sense.  If it was within God’s power to make man perfect from the start, should it not be within God’s power to create man with the capacity to receive perfection?  God is supposed to be omnipotent and not just like any human mother. Either God is as limited as anybody, in which case He is probably not worthy of worship, or God is culpable for the consequences of creating substandard human beings.

John Hick, in his “Evil and the God of Love” (1966) argued that Irenaeus’ writings offer the germ of a Theodicy which might satisfy modern Christians better than the traditional Augustinian Theodicy.  It might be argued that Hick’s development of Irenaeus’ ideas shows that they might offer a successful defence of God against charges of creating or allowing evil and suffering.  However, Hick’s “Irenaean Theodicy” draws on Origen and Schleiermacher as much as on Irenaeus and anyone who takes the trouble to read Against Heresies for themselves will see the distance between what Irenaeus argues and what Hick’s Irenaean Theodicy argues.   Irenaeus focusses on God’s justice and the idea that human beings deserve any amount of hell-fire and is far from being the gentle, comforting writer that Hick was.  For Irenaeus, life is less a “vale of soul making” than an annealing process, the human body being like iron quenched in fire and icy water to make it hard. In its original form, it is probably fair to say that Irenaeus’ Theodicy is at least as abhorrent as Augustine’s to the modern reader.

In conclusion, it seems that Irenaeus fails to defend God from charges of creating or allowing evil and suffering.  Firstly, unlike Augustine, Irenaeus leaves the nature of evil open and fails to head off the argument that God actively created evil.  Secondly, Irenaeus offers no convincing explanation for the inequality in our experience of suffering or for its pointless and unjustifiable extremes.  John Hick had a good go at reawakening interest in Irenaeus, but that interest is unlikely to survive the process of going beyond Hick’s account of Irenaeus to the original work.

Further Reading

Irenaeus: Against Heresies (New Advent)


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