John Hick – God, Good and Evil

John Hick (1922-2012) was a British philosopher of religion who taught in the UK and, for many years, in the USA. I came across Hick’s work in the 1980s while a student at Trent University, Peterborough. That was before the internet and like hot music and films, trending thinkers got around by word of mouth or, as was often the case, from referrals by competent professors. That’s when I first considered Hick’s view of the problem of evil, as outlined below.

John Hick
John Hick

To understand evil, we first need to understand the nature of God. Hick says the monotheistic belief in a ‘wholly other’ God runs throughout the history of the Jewish and Christian traditions.¹

According to Hick, believers in a wholly other deity usually say it is:

  1. Infinite and self-existent
  2. Eternal
  3. The sole creator of all creation
  4. Regarded as a personal being
  5. Loving and good
  6. Holy

In his early years, Hick was an evangelical fundamentalist. He is well known for his work on the problem of evil, also called theodicy.

Theodicy refers to different theological attempts to uphold God‘s absolute goodness and power given the presence of evil in our world.

In Christian theology, evil is usually seen as a necessary part of God’s ‘plan of salvation.’ Most Christians accept as an article of faith that God permits evil for some greater good, beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

6 Seek the Lord while he may be found;
   call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
   and the unrighteous their thoughts.
   Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
   and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   neither are your ways my ways,”
   declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts.

~ Isaiah 55:6-9, NIV (Read full chapter)

One school of thought, stemming from St. Irenaeus and popularized by Hick, argues that evil is permitted but not caused by God.

Follow links for a good discussion on God's 'permission' of evil
Follow links for a good discussion on God’s ‘permission’ of evil

Why one might ask would a benevolent all-powerful God permit evil?

For the Irenaean school, the answer lies within the idea of “soul-making.” A soul freely choosing to abstain from evil is of greater value than one automatically avoiding evil. The free and virtuous soul better glorifies God than would a sinless automaton.

Although evil may ravage, test, and torment good souls living on earth, the ultimate goal of our finite, earthly life is to become worthy of eternal heaven. In other words, we’re being “made.” But that process isn’t automatic. We need to freely choose to cooperate with God’s plan of salvation.

According to this view, evil acts as a crucible. Souls not succumbing to but ultimately resisting evil are purified and strengthened towards the good. Evil, then, is necessary. It acts as a kind of “hammer” that pounds out the soul’s impurities.

Hick’s later work advocates religious pluralism. Hick is probably partly right in saying that cultural influences have an effect on religious truth claims. For Hick, all the different religions are just cultural and historical responses to an essentially unknowable God.

Are all religions the same?
Are all religions the same?

Hick says “the different religious traditions, with their complex internal differentiations, have developed to meet the needs of the range of mentalities expressed in the different human cultures.”²

Hick also believes that the exclusive beliefs of Christianity are “no longer feasible in the present age, and must be effectively ‘lowered.'”³

And this is where I depart from Hick. To me, Hick’s assertion seems like a dreadful watering down of Christianity based on his thinking instead of any kind of advanced and mature mystical experience.

From my perspective, we cannot assume equivalence of religious experience among different religions or, for that matter, among individuals within a given religion.

Moreover, some individuals encounter not just one but several different types of religious experiences within a lifetime, each experience having a unique numinous quality.

Numinosity is an interior experience so not easy to portray
Numinosity is an interior experience not easy to portray

So like a lot of thinkers I encountered as a youth, I partially outgrew Hick and the professor who advocated him. Such is life. Or, I should say, the life of someone who wants to learn for themselves and not stay stuck on one ‘channel’ of perception and comprehension, as so many people seem to be.

Related »  William James,  Numinosity,  Joachim Wach,  An Outline of Rudolf Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy”

Also worth a look »

¹ The idea of a ‘wholly other’ God is both championed and critiqued by different Christians. See results here


³ Ibid.


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