The Nature of Evil and the Irenaean Theodicy

By: Gregory S. Neal

As human beings, we live in a world which poses many dangers, many lurking tigers which are only awaiting our lack of diligence to leap out and devour us, and yet we walk from day to day upon the sound support of God's creative hand. Our very nature as beings comes from God. Without God, who is "Holy Being," we could not even exist. We exist only because God has "let us become." This is not a passive act on God's part; it is not the case that God "allows" us to come into existence -- quite the contrary, it is the active nature of God's expression, manifest in our being, that "lets" us become. And yet we, though created and supported by God, are beings in constant peril of "unbecoming." We run the risk, from moment to moment in our temporal existence, of being "eaten" by evil. This is how John Macquarrie, the influential Anglican Philosophical Theologian, understands the fundamental nature of evil. While I often differ with Macquarrie on many theological issues, this is nevertheless also how I understand it.

According to Macquarrie, evil is never a "positive phenomenon." Rather, evil is a reversal of the positive phenomenon of becoming. Indeed, Macquarrie does not go too far when he states that evil is a reversal of the creative nature of Being. In other words evil is, in its most fundamental sense, negation -- it is the un-doing of being, or the "lapsing into nothing ... [the] ceasing to be" of creation (Macquarrie, p. 256). As such, evil stands in opposition to Being and is the "enemy" of all beings. No good exists in evil since good is understood as "the striving to become," while evil strives for the ultimate opposite of becoming: which is, literally, to un-become.

When God gave being to us, God took the risk that what was created would, subsequently, lapse into non-being. According to Macquarrie, who often skirts the boundaries of classical emanation formulas, God emptied Being into nothing to create being. If not pressed too far, I can accept this language -- although I would prefer a slightly different interpretation of it than that which Macquarrie provides -- as descriptive of the risk God took in creation. According to Macquarrie:

God risks himself, so to speak, with the nothing; he opens himself and pours himself out into nothing . . . . in giving himself in this way, he places himself in jeopardy, for he takes the risk that Being may be dissolved in nothing (Mac. p. 256).

It is a crucial tenant of the Christian Faith that God is never in a state of ultimate jeopardy -- God can never be totally overcome by evil. God's creations can, however, be "eaten" by evil if they fail in their principle responsibility to say "yes" to God and, thereby, accept supportive Grace and Eternal Life from the Divine Source of all Being. When separated from The Source of Being by our own sinfulness, we run the risk of "un-becoming." This is, indeed, the risk which God has taken in creation -- that it all might be dissolved in a radical cascade of sinful un-becoming -- but it is a risk which God has taken for the expressed purpose of enabling creation to be. As God proclaimed during the creation, all that is created is "good" by the very virtue of having being. However, all that is created is imperfect because it is under the influence of evil and, as such, is in continual danger of un-becoming. Creation can never, by definition, be evil. Imperfect? yes. Capable of sin? yes. But inherent evil? No.

This is the root of the Irenaean theodicy. Creation is formed with a purpose, and that purpose is "perfection," or growth into the "likeness" of God. The "problem" of natural evil, as it is often specifically defined in various philosophical and theological circles, is one which lessens when removed from the Augustinian-Fall model of creation. Schleiermacher's observation on the question of how a good creation could fall is well taken, though I believe it is a limited critique. According to Process Theology, the introduction of Evil into a Good creation requires the direct creation of evil ex nihilo. Their critique is meaningful only if Evil is understood existentially rather than platonically; it is equally valid to observe that the evil can be explained through the creation of the potential for evil within the context of the exercise of radical free-will (for free will to be both truly "free" and "will," the potential for the negative choice must be an actual option, and not just a theoretical option). The Irenaean Theodicy, which has been picked up and expanded by the Process Theologian John Hick, entirely removes the Augustinian formulation of "the Fall" from the picture, in favor of the first concept. Human beings are created in an imperfect state -- according to St. Irenaeus, imperfect in the sense of containing the potential for sin, though not the actualization of it. The creation of an "imperfect" universe is intended to provide a realm in which imperfect ("mortal") human beings can be formed, molded, and shaped along their way toward God through the formation of various virtues like "trust (faith), generosity, kindness, the agape aspect of love, prudence, unselfishness," etc. (Hick: Philosophy of Religion, p.48). Hick refers to this kind of a world, the one which actually exists, as a "vale of soul making" (Hick: Classical and Contemporary Readings, p. 515), without which none of the above-mentioned virtues could be reasonably formed.

The problem of evil is only a fundamental problem when an alternate universe is posited as preferable to the one which actually. exists. Such writers as David Hume have claimed that if God were truly loving and truly omnipotent and omniscient, God would have created a world in which natural -- not to mention moral -- evil could not even exist. Instead of a world which poses us with C.S. Lewis' "Problem of Pain," the universe would be keyed to existence apart from pain and hardship -- apart from even the possibility of stumbling. This viewpoint presupposes that arguments such as: "God should have" has any meaning. It also assumes that God "should have" created beings who were automatically perfect, capable of existing in such a "padded," rounded-edged creation. It views humans as, basically, God's pets and creation as, ideally, a comfortable, no-problems dog-house in which we, God's puppies, can wiggle our way happily along without a care or a problem ever confronting us. Since the universe is not so comfortably constructed, God cannot be "perfectly benevolent and all powerful" (Hick: Philosophy of Religion, pp. 46-47). That this argument is tautological is clear; that it is never addressed, except in the most passing fashion, is also notable.

It is significant that the actual Irenaean theodicy does not posit such a purpose for the universe. As said before, the cosmos is made to be a "vale of soul making." Only in such a world, where obstacles abound and the chance of "flubbing it" exists, can there be any positive growth toward God; only in such a world would there be any need for actually trusting in God. In other words, in a universe where the threat of "un-becoming" didn't exist, "becoming" would have no conceivable meaning and no constructive purpose. Surprisingly, John Hick is quite convincing on this:

. . . in [such a hypothetical, idyllic universe] our present ethical concepts would have no meaning. If, for example, the notion of harming someone is an essential element in the concept of a wrong action, in a hedonistic paradise there could be no wrong actions -- nor, therefore, any right actions in distinction from the wrong. Courage and fortitude would have no point in an environment in which there is, by definition, no danger or difficulty (Hick: Philosophy of Religion, p. 47-48).

What is viewed as natural evil -- as well as that which is understood as moral evil -- is, therefore, part of the matrix of "person making" which has been established by God through the formation of a universe which operates by various "dependable laws ... [presenting] real dangers, difficulties, problems, obstacles, and possibilities of pain, failure, sorrow, frustration," (ibid) and "unbecoming." Unfortunately, Hick does not take the argument this far. He finds within the Irenaean theodicy a requirement for not just a positive after-life, but a universal one as well (ibid, p. 49). I am not, as of yet, willing to make such a move. Indeed, for me it seems clear that the very nature of the "vale of soul making" must include the actual possibility of the most ultimate mistake, which I understand to be a terminal lapse into nothingness. It is at this point that I draw the Irenaean theodicy back into Macquarrie's understanding of evil.

Evil is the direct antithesis of being. Evil tries to reverse the process of becoming, in an attempt to cancel out creation and "eat up" being within nothing. Humans have being; they can also lapse into non-being. I mean this literally. If being is represented with a positive number, non-being can be represented by a zero. By non-being I mean, quite literally, NOTHINGNESS. The only thing which can prevent this lapse into non-being is God, though it should be understood that God need not do anything extra (beyond "letting be") to maintain being relative to the "vale of soul making." Indeed, an extreme propensity for doing so would violate the very purpose of the "vale," which is to develop those virtues and responses to life and grace which prompted Bod's initial risk :In creation. In other words, God does not often reach into the "vale" to right a wrong, or soften the harsh realities of existence, without very good reasons -- ie, reasons which would, ultimately, favor the purpose of the "vale." God does not drag anyone, "kicking and screaming," into eternal life, nor does God force anyone to strive toward becoming. Instead, throughout the challenges of life, humans are presented with God's gift of Grace and promise of eternal life. They can either accept or reject the gift of Grace and peace; they can either accept God's acceptance, despite (and, indeed, in response to) the "vale," or they can reject it and go the other way. God would have all to accept the gift, but many are intent on trusting in themselves, and in "the things of this world," and not in God. To borrow from the words of the Apostle Paul, humans have "worshiped the creation, not the Creator." To place one's hope in something other than the Source of Being ("God") for existence beyond the "vale" of this creation is to place one's hope in nothing -- for not-a-thing can give the gift of creation other than Holy Being. Without God, creation can and will lapse into nothing. This is the ultimate risk that God takes in letting all things be; God runs the risk that they will reject God, choosing to rely on themselves and risking the nothingness, the non-existence, which will inevitably result.

Rejecting Being and moving toward non-being, non-existence, nothingness, is the ultimate rebellion of humankind. Through the "vale of soul making" we are provided with opportunities for trusting that God will not leave us to lapse into nothing. If we, instead, decide to trust in the creation, and not in the Creator, we shall surely lapse into utter nothingness. In this way, through the rejection of God's gift of love, Grace, and life, creation is being swallowed up by evil. Indeed, this is the very foundational nature of evil. Being is emptied into nothing and overcomes nothing in the Christ-event, where being and Being meet in one Jesus of Nazareth. Human beings, in the "vale of soul making," are offered opportunities for greater becoming in the light of the Christ event; but, they reject the gift and leap, headlong and feet first, back toward nothing. They take the gift of being and, willy-nilly, they drowned it in nothingness. They un-become.

This is the nature of evil. This ultimate un-becoming, in which creation is "eaten" by nothingness, is the outcome of the "vale" if God is not known, is not trusted, is not accepted. Some argue that Being's creation could come to fruition without the possibility of evil. This hardly seems likely since, as Hick argues, without obstacles the virtues found in trust, love, truth, joy, grace, pleasure, etc., would be impossible. Still others argue that, while the possibility of evil may be necessary for the formation of these virtues, the degree of evil which is actually present in the "vale of soul making" is simply too severe; there are too many "left overs" in the evil department -- too many "loose ends." To this, Macquarrie offers an interesting thought:

... even when one allows for this [functional] ... instrumentality of natural evil [and human evil, too], much that seems excessive, wasteful, and just senseless remains. Here, I think we have simply to acknowledge that there are loose ends that are not integrated into the main creative process or into God's providential act, side effects, as it were, which arise inevitably and which have to be risked (Macquarrie, p. 258).

This is not a heartless declaration; it may simply be a fact. Hick would argue that the after-life settles evens the iniquities from the "vale," but in my opinion this is only true for those who do not cast themselves into total nothingness. The real answer to the question of excess evil, however, can be found in the realization that God's risk in creation is that non-existence may swallow it up. This, it seems to me, is a more severe evil than any temporal wrong that any human being or any other element of creation can suffer. For creation, which has been poured out by Being, not-a-thing can be more severe than its lapsing into nothingness. This, after all, is the very nature of evil, is it not? The antithesis of being is not-being.


Hick, John. Philosophy of Religion. 3rd Edition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.

Hick, John, ed. Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion. 2nd Edition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970.

Macquarrie, John. Principles of Christian Theology. New York: SCM Press, 1987.


© 1990 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved

*This paper was written in 1990 for a Course in Systematic Theology which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from