This essay has been written because I feel that some text books lack a coherent account of what Irenaeus actually said. Please feel free to comment on any aspects of my work. Again, as always, everything written on here has be completed under timed conditions (30 minutes in this case).
A theodicy is the defence of God’s righteousness in the face of evil. For a theodicy to be successful we must expect a full explanation of natural and moral evil, as logically speaking no omnibenevolent and omnipotent God would allow evil to exist (inconsistent triad – Epicurus and Hume).
Irenaeus’ starting point comes from the time he was writing in. A small Christian sect known as the Gnostics believed, as Plato did, that all matter was inherently evil. This would mean that God would not have been able to create ‘matter’ as it would be totally evil so it would be a logical contradiction for an omnibenevolent God to create it; and that Jesus could not have had a physical body (as ‘matter’ is inherently evil) and this would make him imperfect. To solve this dilemma Irenaeus had to find an answer for why evil existed. He wanted to maintain that everything was from God and so had to explain the role of evil in the world.
He uses Genesis 1:26 ‘Let us make man in Our image, in Our likeness.’ to demonstrate that we are here to develop our own soul. Creation is not yet finished. We have been made in the image of God with the potential to be like God. Irenaeus said that God had given human beings free will. This free will entailed the potential for evil. This is his account of moral evil. Choosing to do the right thing implies a decision to avoid doing the immoral. He believed that God giving us free will was better than receiving ready-made goodness. To back up this point he uses the example of a mother not being able to give a child ‘substantial nourishment’ or solid food. In other words, just as a young infant cannot take solid foods and so is given milk as they are immature, humans could not receive fully formed goodness as they were spiritually immature and so are given free will to develop their own goodness. This is echoed in the notion that we are made in the image of God (with the potential for Good) and moving towards the likeness of God (becoming Good). Irenaeus believed that the gift of moral perfection would not have meant anything to human beings if they did not learn the value of it for themselves. We become like God or move towards the likeness of God by freely choosing the good. When we choose to do evil and sin then we are creating evil in the world. So for Irenaeus moral evil is caused by human’s misuse of free will. God allowed us to have this free will as it was seen as more beneficial than making ready-made perfection.
This idea is echoed in Irenaeus’ belief in the story of the fall of man (Adam and Eve). He saw Genesis 3 as literally true and that it demonstrated that we weren’t ready to accept God’s grace or goodness as we were spiritually and morally immature, as described above, but he does not see this as Original Sin in the same way that Augustine does. This is further evidence that humans were not capable of receiving God’s ready-made goodness and perfection. They were led astray by the devil. This was because they were distant from God spiritually. People are like Adam and Eve in that they go astray morally because they haven’t yet gained the wisdom to do what is right.
Irenaeus identifies the fact that humans cannot get to God by their own means. They need a helping hand. Irenaeus uses the example of a potter and clay to help explain this idea. He suggests in ‘Against Heresies Book 4:39-2’ that we should keep ourselves moist so that God can work us without becoming too rigid. God’s ‘hands’ help mould us through the existence of natural evil. It is the experience and contact with natural evil that ‘shapes’ us in the image of God from the likeness. It enables us to develop desirable moral qualities or virtues. If we are open to God’s ‘touch’ then we will move towards the ‘likeness’ of God. It is therefore necessary for God to help humans achieve moral and spiritual perfection. The term recapitulation is often used to describe this theodicy. It means to bring something back to the beginning or head. The notion is that humans are being brought back into a relationship with God (theory of recapitulation). For Irenaeus Jesus is the second Adam who makes this recapitulation possible. Jesus allows us to create a relationship with God that we were not ready to enter into to begin with (as symbolised with Adam with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) through obedience to God through dying on the cross (the second tree). Jesus links God and humans as He is both divine and human.
To explain the role of natural evil Irenaeus suggests that we need to live in a world where the potential for moving towards the likeness of God exists. He uses the example of Jonah and the whale.
He states that Jonah was able to respond to his responsibilities and essentially learn to accept God’s wishes through his experience of being swallowed by the whale. God didn’t intend on killing Jonah, He simply wanted Jonah to learn to accept His will. Natural evil, therefore, is a means to an end of soul making. It provides the environment needed for moving to the likeness of God. Suffering must be endured so that we can move closer to God and His likeness.
God is justified in continuing to allow moral and natural evil because we move to the likeness of God. Natural evil is seen as an instrument for God’s purpose. It is clear that Irenaeus believed that only those who accepted God would be saved and those who reject God will be damned. He believed in some form of a continuation of soul-making in the next life to complete their souls in the likeness of God. However, the damned will be sent to hell as they refused the ‘workmanship’ of God: ‘Your ingratitude, ignoring his goodness in creating you human, will mean you have lost his work on you, you will lose your life (Against Heresies 4:39-2)’.