Irenaeus of Lyons

Can Christianity explain why God allows evil and suffering?

This is the third in a series of three talks I have been giving on why a good God should allow evil and suffering. If you like the sound of my voice you can listen to it here. The first is here. The second is here.

Traditional Christian accounts say God made a good world, but gave humans free will. Evil and suffering result from the human misuse of our freedom. In the early days they also speculated about whether God gave angels free will to sin.


The account which dominated western Christianity for most of its history and is still popular in some places is Augustine’s. In the fourth century Augustine argued that God created a perfect Adam and Eve and gave them free will. They used their free will to eat the forbidden fruit, and that way sin entered the world.

Augustine taught that all suffering is caused either by humans commiting sins or by God punishing the sins. Some of his successors taught that so long as all sins do get punished, the world is perfect.

Today most people are unhappy with that idea. Another problem is how Augustine divided history into stages. First there was the original perfect state. Then Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. That was the Fall. The next stage of history lasted from then to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. We are now in the third stage which will last until the Second Coming of Christ.


Today most people think of history as more gradual change over time. So did many of the Christians before Augustine. 200 years before him, a bishop called Irenaeus had already offered an account which fits our modern understanding much better and was revived in the nineteenth century.

According to Irenaeus when God created humans we were in our infancy and, like children, did not always do the right thing. As we use our freedom we learn from experience to choose good and reject evil. We make progress day by day, and ascend towards God who is perfect. We should accept that we are part of the process. Here is a lovely passage, with apologies for the 19th century translation:

If, then, thou art God’s workmanship, await the hand of thy Maker which creates everything in due time; in due time as far as thou art concerned, whose creation is being carried out. Offer to Him thy heart in a soft and tractable state, and preserve the form in which the Creator has fashioned thee, having moisture in thyself, lest, by becoming hardened, thou lose the impressions of His finger. But by preserving the framework thou shalt ascend to that which is perfect.

Natural evils

If this is right, why does God allow us to suffer from natural events and from other people hurting us?

First, natural events. There is a huge literature about this and the most common examples are earthquakes and cancer.

I find this rather odd. We know where the earthquake zones are. In California they design their houses to resist earthquakes. In Turkey the people who live on earthquake zones are poor people with no choice. It doesn’t have to be like this.

As for cancer, if you live in Liverpool you will breathe in air with carcinogens. Our society has chosen to pump carcinogens into the air in order to do other things it values more highly than clean air. As long as we are doing that, can we really blame God for cancer?

But of course we can find other examples and debate them for ever.

Moral evils

The other question is why God allows us to suffer as a result of other people doing wrong. Two weeks ago we looked at the story of Job and what life would be like if nobody suffered as a result of other people’s actions. Morality wouldn’t work the way it does now. But did God have to make us suffer quite so much from other people’s wrongdoings? Couldn’t the twentieth century have missed out on Hitler and Stalin?

This also is much debated, but I’d like to draw your attention to one issue. We all tend to convince ourselves that we are good people, and all the evil is done by other people who are not like us. We easily fool ourselves by not noticing the effects of our actions.

Studies have shown that the worst atrocities often get committed by pretty normal people. There is a classic study of this by Hannah Arendt, called Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann was one of the Nazis responsible for killing Jews in the gas chambers. He had no personal malice towards them. He even had Jews in his family. What makes him frightening, Arendt says, is his banality.

He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing… It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of the period… With the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann.

In other words, the trouble with Eichmann

was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.

So maybe our inability to understand why other people should be so wicked is partly because we imagine that we ourselves would never have done such things. We may be fooling ourselves.

The possibility of perfection

If Irenaeus was more or less right, God created the universe, so over time gases swirling about space are slowly turning into living, caring, loving beings. Referring to Jesus, Irenaeus said that God became what we are so that we may become what God is.

One of the debates is, is there any guarantee that we will ever get that far? Has God sewn it up so that we’ll get there in the end, or has God left the future completely open?

The best known book on why God allows suffering is John Hick’s Evil and the God of Love, published in the 1960s. He believed that the present evils can only be justified if in the long run everybody’s suffering will be compensated by even greater good, and that is one reason why he believes there must be life after death, to set the record straight

About 100 years ago F R Tennant argued that it isn’t a question of compensation. The point is that we can become holy like God, and we choose. Recently Linda Zagzebski has argued for a position similar to Tennant’s.

Consider the way parents treat their children. A good parent loves her child and wants him to develop into a full person. She also knows that her child’s personhood has to be cultivated by giving him the space to grow, and that that means gradually giving the child autonomy. The motivation for treating the child in this way need not be that doing so makes the child morally better, nor that autonomy is good, nor that the loving relationship she wants to have with her child is good. Still less need she do it because the overall amount of good in the world will increase if she does so. She does this simply because to love her child is to love a person, and that necessarily requires accepting the necessary condition for personhood, her child’s autonomy… Her love for her child is a motive that leads her to do whatever contributes to the development of his personhood, whether or not it leads to good. (Divine Motivation Theory, Cambridge: CUP, 2004, p. 315.)

Does this ring true for you? Do you think the world we have got, with its evil and suffering, could have been made by the God of Christianity? Do you think it possible that one day people will become perfect? Are some people extremely evil, and why?