2 Objections to the Soul-Making Theodicy

In a previous post, I outlined four components of the soul-making response to the problem of evil. This response argues that moral and natural suffering are allowed by God so that humans can play an intentional role in developing the good character which God will fully endow them with in heaven. In the afterlife, those humans who have intentionally shaped their characters in the direction of goodness, and who have confirmed their intention in the face of suffering and temptation to the contrary, will be endowed by God with essential goodness and thereafter be incapable of doing evil.

Advocates of the soul-making theodicy point out that the inability to do evil is valuable only if we can freely participate in (or consent to) the process of developing that ability. But that process requires that we have some acquaintance with natural suffering and moral evil so that we can make a significant choice as to who we will become. Without that choice, our goodness of character in heaven would be a superficial, pre-programmed response – in other words, a sham.

In this blog post, I would like to develop two standard objections to the soul-making theodicy and then subject them to critique.

Objection 1 – The Virtual Reality Machine

This objection questions the assumption that character formation has the inevitable result that other people are negatively impacted by my poor decisions. The objection grants that significant choices are needed for virtue, and that my actions will affect me for good or for ill; but it rejects the claim that this must involve risk to others.

virtual reality machine
Why doesn’t God let us shape our character within the safety of a virtual reality machine, without any negative impact on others?

For example, imagine that God inserts me into a ‘virtual reality machine’ in which I believe I affect the lives of others but really only affect myself. I live under the private illusion that I influence other persons when in reality I can only influence my own well-being for good or for ill. In his virtual reality machine, I have the ability to form my character because I believe (falsely) that I am not alone.

Of course, God would not expose the illusion to me. The belief that I truly am affecting others is essential to the process of cultivating virtues, because without it, I would start relating to others as “simulations” rather than as people. Nevertheless, as long as I remain unaware of my private illusion, I maintain the capacity to shape my character without harming real people.

Unfortunately, this objection ignores the fact that the theistic God would be unlikely to foist such an illusion on people. First, a God who inserts people into virtual reality machines and perpetuates deception is more like a Cosmic “Mad Scientist” than a loving Creator.

Second, this form of mass illusion jeopardizes other goods, namely the good of real give-and-take relationships. In my private world I am never really responsible for others and I can never really benefit or be benefited by the actions of others. During my entire life I relate to an illusory spouse, an illusory family, and to illusory friends whose gestures of love and care are nothing but figments in my mind. The good of real relationship is lost and traded for an even worse deception.

Thus, even if this virtual experiment is compatible with the character of a loving God (and I have argued that it is not), it is unlikely that He would sacrifice real relationships for the sake of blocking all harm to others. [1]

Objection 2 – No Acquaintance with Suffering is Needed

This objection states that if God is omniscient, then he knows what every human being would freely do in any possible circumstance.[2] Provided that this knowledge does not infringe upon freedom of the will, God would be able to anticipate how humans would intentionally shape their characters even before he created them! Therefore, it is preferable for God to spare us the long and painful process of character formation and simply populate heaven with those of us who would have pursued virtue, had we been acquainted with suffering. No actual suffering is required.

Virtues that have not been tested by actual suffering remain superficial at best

Unfortunately, this objection overlooks the fact that when virtues are not tested by actual suffering, they remain superficial at best. According to advocates of the Soul-Making Theodicy, God wants virtues to have the abiding depth they do because a person has actually contributed to the process of developing them. It is not enough that I would have struggled to be virtuous had I been given a chance. It is much better if I have actually confirmed my desire for goodness of character by pursuing it in the face of opposition, suffering and contrary inclination. Thus, it is far from clear that God would preempt a temporary, earthly period of acquaintance with natural and moral suffering if doing so prevented us from developing the deeply abiding virtues most fitting for heaven.


[1] For more on this objection, see Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God (1979) chapter 11, Providence and the Problem of Evil, and “Some Major Strands of Theodicy,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil (1996) Ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder.

[2] I’ll assume for the sake of this post that divine omniscience implies “middle knowledge” of counterfactuals of freedom.

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