4 Compenents of the Soul-Making Theodicy

A theodicy is an attempt to justify the ways of God to human beings. It tries to explain why evil exists in a world created by God by arguing that these evils are somehow needed to secure outweighing goods or avert greater harms. One such theodicy says that a world containing evil and suffering is needed for human beings to develop the virtuous character that God desires them to have. In other words, evil is necessary for “soul-making.” In this post, I will explore four components of this theodicy before evaluating it in a subsequent post:

1. Virtues are valuable

Advocates of the soul-making theodicy argue that God highly values relationships characterized by virtues such as trust, fidelity, perseverance, self-sacrifice, and compassion. By virtues I mean attitudes and patterns of behavior which are learned through practice and directed toward the goal of seeking the moral good. Virtues are cultivated by encountering and responding to moral situations that require the use of reason, imagination, and ingenuity in order to do what is right. By repetition and hard work, a person becomes virtuous by learning how to apply the correct moral rules in a given situation, when to depend on intuition if rules do not clearly prescribe the right course of action, which aspects of that situation are relevant to the solution of a moral problem, and how to bring resources to bear on situational needs.

A person becomes virtuous through repetition and hard work in seeking what is good

The best virtues are those which are confirmed in the face of adversity since they result in a greater love for the good and a stronger will to do what is right, whereas virtues that haven’t been tested by a balance of contrary desire are easily overcome by human weakness and lack of resolve.

2. Suffering is needed for the best virtues

According to the theistic worldview, virtues are highly valuable because they are an integral part of loving relationships and because they come at a great cost to the one cultivating them.

The best virtues are those which are confirmed in the face of adversity since they result in a greater love for the good and a stronger will to do what is right

These ‘hard won’ virtues can only be developed when suffering – such as oppression, poverty, hardship, and personal loss – poses a measured threat to the wellbeing of oneself and others. Without being confronted by moral and natural suffering, human beings lose the opportunity to develop the best kinds of virtues which make loving relationships so worthwhile. Thus, a world without suffering would be morally deficient in certain respects.

3. The best virtues are necessary for heaven

The necessity of evil for soul making is also a reason why God cannot simply create heaven without a probationary period of suffering and testing beforehand. According the Christian doctrine of heaven, the citizens of heaven exhibit the virtues of love, trust, and faithfulness and never misuse their freedom to do evil.

God does not want heaven to contain creatures who are pre-programmed to do good, just because He made them that way

But a significant amount of character development has to take place before heaven can become a reality.[1] Why? Because God doesn’t want people who just happen to do the right things all the time or who superficially love Him because they have never been tested by opposition; neither does God want people who are preprogrammed to love him because He made them that way. God’s desire for heaven is that it be populated with essentially good people who have (to some extent) struggled to have the good characters they will eventually receive in heaven. Humans who become essentially good will no longer be able to sin.

4. Essential goodness is a divine/human project

But how do people obtain an essentially good character that is fit for heaven? The answer to this question is apparent when we reflect on the nature of character development. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle said there is a moral difference between doing good and being a good person. Being a good person is an achievement, not a merely gift. It involves the consistent choice to act in a certain direction. The more times you do the right thing, the more it becomes a habit that is settled into your character. Doing the right thing becomes second nature and this habit slowly diminishes your ability chose otherwise.

We never obtain complete freedom from the desire to sin during this earthly life, but God eventually removes that desire in the afterlife by creating (in us) the essentially good of character which we had previously fought for.

Christianity claims that good character cannot be had without divine assistance. We need to cooperate with God’s grace to flee from temptation and settle our intention to love what is good. While we never obtain complete freedom from the desire to sin during their earthly life, God eventually removes that desire in the afterlife by creating (in us) the essentially good of character which we had previously fought for. God’s transformation of us into essentially good people is the ckimax of a gradual process during which our characters are settled in the direction of goodness and become suitable for existence in the afterlife, where doing right comes naturally and sin becomes impossible, or at the very least unthinkable. The absence of sin in heaven is not a pre-programmed response engineered by God; it’s the natural result of divine/human project whereby goodness becomes so habitual that the desire to sin is eventually extinguished.

Advocates of the soul-making theodicy argue that having essentially good character is only worthwhile for finite creatures like us if we freely participate in the process.[2] But that process requires that we have some acquaintance with suffering and evil so that we can make a significant choice as to who we become.

[1] The need for a probationary period of character development prior to heaven probably requires that some persons will need to endure a temporary period of testing after they die but before transitioning to a glorified state. The reason is that some human beings die before their character is adequately settled in the direction of good or evil, e.g. young children or those with mental challenges.

[2] Other philosophers of religion such as Albert Haig (2006) would make and even stronger claim by arguing that God is obligated to get our informed consent before creating us to be essentially morally good. See “A Deontological Solution to the Problem of Evil.” Ars Disputandi Vol. 6 (2006).

3 thoughts on “4 Compenents of the Soul-Making Theodicy”

  1. Hi Thomas. I liked your post. I thought I would mention, since you’ve referenced my article on informed consent, that I have since moved on and now hold to a soul-making theodicy as you’ve described. This was largely the result of my having arrived at an essentially Neoplatonist metaphysical position, for reasons which I’ve outlined in a recent article (Colloquium, 47/2, 2015).

    One other important aspect of the soul-making theodicy, which is worth mentioning I think, is that it holds that the form of finite creatures is intrinsically temporal, so that my past is an integral part of who I am. Thus the soul-making theodicy involves certain definite metaphysical commitments, and works best in my opinion within a Platonic theory of forms. Otherwise, the atheist can respond (as Bertrand Russell did), that God could simply create a person in the final state of goodness, without having gone through all the suffering to get there. But if the final state incorporates all the past states as integral to it, Russell’s objection fails. This would also mean that the soul-making theodicy is incompatible with “presentism”, a view which seems to be popular among open theists. In some real metaphysical sense, the past has to “live on” and be intertwined with the present, in order for the soul-making theodicy to work.

    1. Thanks Albert for your reply. I enjoyed your original article immensely, and look forward to reading your newer work on this topic. Is there a link to the Colloquium article? Does this mean you no longer take informed consent to be a necessary condition for divine allowance of the relevant evils mentioned in your original article? Thanks again, Thomas

  2. The Colloquium article doesn’t really deal with theodicy at all, but is just an argument for a broadly Neoplatonist metaphysical position. It’s not available for download on the web (not yet at least) but I can send it by email to anyone who wants a copy, my email is albert.haig@gmail.com. I no longer hold to a Kantian ethical position, and the issue of informed consent isn’t very important to me anymore. My position on human suffering is very much along the lines that you outline here in your post. I think that for a finite creature to become good in their character, requires suffering in order to develop and express that goodness. Personally I think the soul-making theodicy makes a great deal of sense both at a theoretical and practical level, and allows us to hold to a high view of divine sovereignty. It allows us to understand suffering in our own lives as something God has ordained for our benefit, so that we can learn the lessons we need to learn to develop a Christ-like character (which includes lessons of how to forgive those who are cruel to us, for instance). It seems to me also to be more faithful to what scripture says about the purpose of suffering than other theodicies are. It gives all suffering, even the most extreme, a redemptive aspect, so that it is not meaningless.

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