Robert J Russell on theodicy

I’ve found much to agree with in reading Russell’s Cosmology – from Alpha to Omega with regard to his approach to theistic evolution. I’m rather less happy with his take on theodicy. He is quick to point out that by putting divine governance back into theistic evolution, he has increased the challenge of theodicy posed by evolution. You’ve heard it, and I’ve criticised it, before – all those parasitised grubs agonising from Darwin, egregious genetic errors and viruses from Ayala, and so on. Russell sees that a “top-down” evolution doesn’t let God off the hook at all, yet concludes that a God who is actually in charge necessitates even more explanation for “natural evil.”


I’m glad to say that Russell admits from the start that the right response to natural evil is faith more than rational argument, quoting Karl Rahner that the deepest answer is “the incomprehensibility of God in his freedom and nothing else.” He still adds something else though, if only to divert atheist criticisms, as if one could ever persuade them.

Russell’s work is extensive and dense, so I only want to look at where I disagree – in fact his conclusion, that theodicy is achieved only in the eschatological consummation of the work of Christ on the cross, can’t be faulted. I just disagree with some of how he gets there, and therefore with the nuanced understanding of what the cosmic Christ achieves.

Let me start with the theodicy of John Hick, to which Russell refers a lot. Hick critiqued what he said was the theodicy of Augustine, preferring to develop what he claimed as its rival, by Irenaeus, into a concept of suffering as “soul making”. His work is massively influential, as the vast number of Google hits testifies, but it seems unlikely that most of either his supporters or critics have checked out his Patristic sources. This matters because Hick’s is essentially a speculative theodicy, building on the theologies of two writers who were primarily biblicists. If Hick misrepresents them, he’s potentially straying far from a scripturally-rooted doctrine. I’ve suggested before that he, or at least those who seem to depend on him, that this has indeed occurred.

As far as I can see Russell doesn’t delve much into the Fathers either, probably gaining his ideas mainly from Hick and those employing his work. He cites no specific references or quotes, and the footnotes give, for Augustine, only a suggestion to check out Confessions and City of God, both of which are sizeable volumes on other topics. So I did. But before I go into detail, let me quickly sketch how Russell develops his argument, with some minor critiques:

1    As per Hick, Augustine taught that all evil comes from corrupted wills, so that sin is man’s fault, and natural evil (including death) either punishment for this, or maybe the acts of similarly fallen angels (“free-will” defence).
2    Sin/natural evil are therefore unnecessary, but post-fall become inevitable through the transmission of original sin.
3    Augustine’s explanation is strained if evolution precludes  a historic fall of man, and if natural evil existed billions of years before man.
4    Yet maybe a similar “unnecessary yet inevitable” cause can be found in science, acting as a precursor to, and facilitator of, the fall of man. Russell finds this is the “self-organisation from entropy” theories of Ilya Prigogine . This to me seems a risky move as Prigogine’s view has found little support within physics, and its limitations are shown by David Abel here.

5    By this means Augustine’s “free-will” defence can be applied to the natural world – the contingency of complexity spontaneously arising in an entropic cosmos resembles the “unnecessary/inevitable” nature of Augustine’s fall, and results in natural evil as an actual evil.
6    The atonement of Christ, through the suffering of God with his creation (as per Moltmann), transforms the suffering not only of humanity but the whole creation into a final state of perfection.

The scheme seems somewhat more coherent than the “freedom of non-volitional creation” ideas bandied about in the TE world, but is still (fatally?) dependent on the idea of contingency and self organisation as a surrogate for free-will. But is also seems to build on a version of Augustine that he wouldn’t have recognised. Given the length of this post, I’ll hold that discussion over to the next.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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