Thoughts on the Soul-Making Theodicy

In “All Possible Worlds“, I wrote about the various religious responses to the problem of evil. Today, I want to say some more words about one of the common theodicies, the “teaching” or “soul-making” theodicy, as it’s defended in the Christian tradition. This theodicy holds that experiencing and resisting evil is the only way to produce the kind of genuine moral development and strength of character that God desires.

In the Christian view, one could imagine that the universe is like a testing ground, with human beings sitting for their exams under the eye of a divine proctor. But God, according to the Christians, is not a stern, disinterested examiner who grades on a curve. On the contrary, he wants as many people as possible to pass. Why, then, would he not make the test as easy as possible?

Even if we grant that moral development requires facing and overcoming real temptations to evil, there is no reason why the choice needs to be as difficult as it is. Our world, according to the teachings of many religions, is fraught with temptation – nearly every situation offers an opportunity to sin. Worse, the path of evil often holds the promise of considerable material rewards, whereas the path of virtue entails continual sacrifice and self-denial.

A wise and benevolent architect would not have done things in this way. Instead, he could have arranged things so that the world steers us toward good rather than toward evil. He could have seen to it that, in most circumstances, obeying the rules was the only realistic course of action, and opportunities for disobedience only reared their head in special rare and limited cases. He could have ordered the world so that the good were blessed with happiness and prosperity, whereas evildoers suffered privation. A world like this would still have provided for moral development by offering real opportunities to do evil, yet would have guided far more people to the correct path.

It might be objected that a world like this would encourage people to do good purely out of self-interest, rather than practicing virtue for its own sake, and that this is not the kind of moral development God wants. But if that’s true, then we already have a problem: the traditional monotheistic religions all teach that there is a Heaven for the obedient and a Hell for the disobedient. These teachings, too, could inspire people to believe purely for the sake of self-interest, but it is not believed that such conversions are unacceptable to God. Thus, there’s no reason why a more perfectly ordered world would cause a greater problem in this respect.

Another point against the soul-making theodicy is that, often, evil does not give rise to good but only to more evil. Many people respond to unjust suffering with anger, frustration and vengeance, rather than developing patience and fortitude. Severe and incessant suffering, such as many people experience, does not produce virtue but only trauma, passivity and despair. A world where evil was restricted to special circumstances would give people more of an opportunity to resist and overcome it than a world such as ours where evil can be pervasive and inescapable.

Finally, the soul-making theodicy has one more big problem to confront: the fact that most conceptions end not in birth but in spontaneous abortion. Via the Christian “age of accountability” doctrine, the bizarre, yet inescapable conclusion is that most of Heaven’s residents will never have had a mortal life at all.

The age-of-accountability doctrine is incompatible with the soul-making theodicy. How could it possibly be true that God had no choice but to fill the mortal world with suffering and disaster to temper our moral fiber, yet he has no problem granting salvation to those souls who avoid mortal life altogether and are never tested at all? This would be like a professor giving a complex, difficult test, which most of his students fail, yet giving straight As to those who skip the test and never show up in class.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.