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Augustinian Theodicy and Irenaean Theodicy Essay

The problem of evil is a significant and enduring philosophical and theological debate. A question is often raised and discussed: if God is both all-loving and all-powerful, then how can evils-including natural evil and moral evil—exist in our world? In response to the charge that the evils of the world are incompatible with God’s omnipotence and perfect goodness, the word”theodicy” is coined to deal with the problem of evil. Usually it is an attempt to show that it is possible to affirm the omnipotence of God, the love of God, and the reality of evil without contradiction. Two of the most well-known and most frequently discussed theodicies are the Augustinian theodicy and the Irenaean theodicy.

The Augustinian theodicy was constructed by Saint Augustine (345-430 AD) and is the main traditional Christian response to the problem of evil. The Augustinian Theodicy holds the view that because God is perfect, the world was created free of imperfections. God cannot be blamed for evil and suffering since God didn’t create them, on the contrary, evil comes from angels and humans who act less than perfectly and choose through free will to sin and disobey God. Natural evil is an appropriate punishment because humanity destroyed the natural order, we have all sinned so we all deserve to be punished. Quite different from the Augustinian theodicy, the Irenaean theodicy which was created by Saint Irenaeas (130-202 AD) and later developed by John Hicks and Richard Swinburne doesn’t see the world as created all-good and describes an almost opposite process compared with the Augustinian theodicy.

It holds that humans were initially created as immature and imperfect beings; they were created in the image of God, but not His likeness. Mankind’s goal is to achieve that likeness. Such perfection and likeness of God cannot be ready-made, it can only be developed through free will choices, and we can only become moral and develop through making moral judgments. Natural evil has to be created in order to help man progress. According to Irenaean theodicy, the suffering of the world will be justified with the reward of heaven, and this is a heaven for all, everybody will go to heaven by achieving the likeness of God. The following passages are mainly devoted to the discussion of the distinctions between the Augustinian theodicy and the Irenaean theodicy.

First, the different theories of evil are where a foremost and drastic distinction emerges. In the Augustinian theodicy, the main philosophical position is the idea of the negative or privative nature of evil. Evil here is seen as a matter of privation-in each created being, evil is that which deprives it of the particular form or purpose which is natural to it. In other words, evil is not substance, not a “thing”, but a privation of good, an absence of good and a falling away from good. It always consists of the malfunctioning of something that is in itself good. For example, shadow is not a proliferation of darkness, but an absence of light. Since evil is a lack of something, it is not something that was created by God, but comes from angels and humans who act less than perfectly. When human being’s free will abandons what is above itself and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil. So human beings are totally responsible for evil because evil is the result of human error.

In the Irenaean theodicy, however, evil plays an important role in the gradual creation of a perfected humanity through life in a highly imperfect world. Then a question “Why can’t God just create us as perfect as in Augustinian theodicy?” is raised. To this question, John Hick gave a fully and vivid explanation in his book Philosophy of Religion. He cleverly points out: if the world were a paradise from which all possibility of pain and suffering were excluded, then the consequences would be very far-reaching, nothing bad, nothing suffering would exist in this world, no one could ever be injured by accident, people could do anything immoral they want without hurting other people…

As a result, in a world free of real dangers, difficulties, problems, obstacles, there will be no meaning for the real good qualities as generosity, kindness, love, prudenceetc to exist. God had to allow the possibility of evil, because if there were no such possibility man would not be free to choose good over evil. If there were no evil and suffering humans would always follow God’s law because there would be no difficulties in doing so. The evils in this world are required by a God of love who seeks the development of his free creatures from their original innocence into fully mature spiritual beings. In other words, we human beings learn to be morally mature enough to grow closer to God. Evil can lead us to the final goodness and perfection. In this regard, God is partly responsible for the evil in the world.

Second, Augustine sticks close to the biblical text, whereas Irenaeus ties his theory less to the biblical text. As the more authentically biblical view, the Augustinian theodicy is based on the Bible and does not contradict the scriptures; it follows the traditional Christian interpretation of the creation story in the Genesis: God creates the world perfectly in six days, Adam and Eve—-the ancestors of human beings—live in the Garden of Eden happily, until one day Eve is tempted by a serpent and eats the forbidden fruits and is finally driven out of the Paradise.

By eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil Eve commits the first sin. Augustine’s theodicy could be seen as consistent with this interpretation of the text. Moreover, he uses other Biblical ideas of God, and defends the perfection of God by maintaining that evil is a privation and not a substance, and that evil comes from human sinfulness. Humans deserve the consequences of natural evil and they are responsible for their own suffering through abuse of their own free will. The Irenaeus theodicy, on the contrary, is not compatible with biblical teaching. As a matter of fact, it is in many ways just the opposite of the interpretation of the Bible by claiming that God is partially responsible for evils.

Third, in comparison to the Augustinian theodicy being a “Soul deciding” theodicy, the Irenaean theodicy is a “Soul making” theodicy. “Soul deciding” means that different consequences come as a result of the free will of human beings. So if a person chooses to do a morally wrong act a consequence will follow. A “soul making” theodicy is applied by irenaeus, which means to move from the state of imperfection through moral struggle toward eventual completed humanization. Besides the distinctions mentioned in the above passages, the Augustinian theodicy and Irenaean theodicy are often compared by people in many other aspects.

For instance, Augustine leaves some people a long way from God whereas Irenaeus explains how everyone can reach heaven through moral struggle; for Augustine God is remote from man, having been distanced by his sin whereas for Irenaeus, as we make this progress we grow closer to God, reducing the epistemic distance between us and God; the Augustine’s theodicy is often thought of as a pessimistic and “tragic” theodicy whereas the Irenaean theodicy is generally conceived as a “comic” theodicy as is more positive and optimistic.

Not surprisingly, the two theodicies also have some similarities, the most common one is that both of them trace evil back to human free will: for Augustine it is the reason why angels and human beings fall from the ultimate goodness of heaven, and what they use to disobey God, but for Irenaeus it is a part of God’s plan because it allows self-development, people also use this free will to disobey God and it causes suffering, but this suffering can help them to develop their character in order to choose to embrace goodness or evil.

In conclusion, the Augustinian theodicy and the Irenaean theodicy are two sharply contrasted theodicies: the Augustinian theodicy which is also known as the “soul deciding” theodicy, stresses the role of the Fall, and sees evil as either sin or the result of sin; whereas the Irenaean theodicy, which regards evil as a requirement by a God of love to let his free creatures to develop from their original innocence into fully mature spiritual beings. Thus, our world becomes “the vale of soul-making”. Since the day of their births, the two theodicies have respectively received many praises as well as criticisms and challenges. Many deficiencies are found in both of the two theodicies. As a matter of fact, the problem of evil, far from being solved, is still open to discussion.


Day, Elizabeth. “Geneticist claims to have found’God gene’ in humans.” The Washington TimesWorld. 15 Nov 2004. Copyright 2004 News WorldCommunications, Inc.

Hick, John. “An Irenaean Theodicy.” A John HickReader. Ed. Paul Badham. Philadelphia:Trinity Press International, 1990. 88-105.

Ridley, Matt. Genome. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000

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