Z. Phillips on God and Evil
(pdf available here)
book, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (London:
SCM Press, 2004) deserves a response from the among those of his
contemporaries whose work in this area he so severely criticised.
He lumped together as "the theodicists" a variety of contemporaries
covering a range of views - Richard Swinburne, Stephen Davis, Alvin
Plantinga, Marilyn Adams, Robert Adams, and myself. He might perhaps
have said, quite reasonably, that he was more interested in ideas
than in dialogue with particular authors. But in treating all these
different writers as a collective he was in danger of failing to
do justice to individuals. For example, Marilyn Adams criticises
Plantinga's and my arguments , and I criticise Plantinga's
. However I cannot speak for the other 'theodicists', although some
of the points I make will be endorsed by some of them.
In my own case Phillips used an article and Responses to other contributors
in Stephen Davis, ed., Encountering Evil , "Remarks"
at a conference in 1977 , and my students' textbook, Philosophy
of Religion . Inevitably, these relatively brief treatments
cover only certain aspects of my suggested response to the problem
of evil. He seemed not to have read the only book I have written
on the subject, Evil and the God of Love . He quoted a
passage from Richard Swinburne in which Swinburne quotes a sentence
from my book, but there is no sign that had read the book himself.
This is disappointing in that if Phillips had read my book he would
have found, and been able to respond to, answers there to some of
the objections he made in his own book.
But moving on from this, one principle of my own approach to the
problem of evil, within the context of traditional Christian theology,
is, as Phillips was aware, that it presupposes 'the principle that
virtues that have been formed within the agent as a hard-won deposit
of right decisions in situations of challenge and temptation are
intrinsically more valuable than ready-made virtues created within
her without any effort on her part' (66-7, quoting my article in
Davis, 43). Phillips agreed with this, believing that the idea of
ready-made virtues is incoherent. But he then claimed that I (as
well, he said, as Swinburne) 'suppress or ignore obvious examples
of the disastrous effects suffering has had on human beings; the
way in which it has marked them' (67), and he proceeded to offer
a series of such examples.
Following Rhush Rhees in his discussion of the Holocaust, he was
'referring to people who are falling apart morally in horrific circumstances'.
Despite a few individuals who survived intact or were even strengthened,
'would anyone in their right mind say that these showed that the
Holocaust was justified?' (70). Of course not; Phillips was here
setting up a straw man to knock down. And in alleging that I 'suppress
or ignore obvious examples of the disastrous effects suffering has
had on human beings' Phillips would have been less than fair were
it not for the fact that he was unaware of what I have written.
In Evil and the God of Love I spoke of evils whose
effect seems to be purely dysteleological and destructive. They
can break their victim's spirit and cause him to curse whatever
gods there may be. When a child dies of cerebral meningitis, his
little personality undeveloped and his life unfulfilled, leaving
only an unquenchable aching void in his parents' lives; or when
a charming, lively, and intelligent woman suffers from a shrinking
of the brain which destroys her personality and leaves her in an
asylum, barely able to recognise her nearest relatives, until death
comes in middle age as a baneful blessing; or when a child is born
so deformed and defective that he can never live a properly human
life, but must always be an object of pity to some and revulsion
to others . . . when such things happen we can see no gain to the
soul, whether of the victim or others, but on the contrary only
a ruthlessly destructive purpose which is utterly inimical to human
values. . . Instead of ennobling, affliction may crush the character
and wrest from it whatever virtues it possessed (330-31) .
And in my discussion of the Holocaust I
What does that ultimate purpose mean for Auschwitz
and Belsen and the other
camps in which, between 1942 and 1945, between four and six million
men, women and children were deliberately and scientifically murdered?
this in any sense willed by God? The answer is obviously no. These
were utterly evil, wicked, devilish and, so far as the human mind
unforgivable; they are wrongs that can never be righted, horrors
disfigure the universe to the end of time, and in relation to which
condemnation can be strong enough, no revulsion adequate. It would
better - much much better - if they had never happened. Most certainly
not want those who committed these fearful crimes against humanity
to act as they
did. His purpose for the world was retarded by them and the power
of evil within
it increased. . . . (361).
So I do not ignore or suppress the reality
of horrendous evil. But my suggestion is not that each particular
evil, least of all this one, produces its own specific 'soul making'
benefit, as Phillips apparently assumed. It is this false assumption
that raises the question whether the Holocaust was justified. But
justified for whom? It was humans exercising their freewill who
committed this monstrous evil. Obviously, the Nazis were not justified
in doing this. Nor were all the other mass murderers - Stalin, Pol
Pot, and others throughout history - justified in doing what they
did. Or indeed all the other wicked deeds done by human beings in
all ages and today. So was Phillips asking, was God justified in
not intervening to stop it? As I pointed out, if it had been right
for God to have intervened to override human freewill to in order
to prevent some particular evil, it would have been right for him
to intervene to prevent every other major evil back to the beginning
of human history. Phillips's answer to this was that 'Apparently,
on Hick's view, if God tries to do something of the kind envisaged,
he has to do everything. . . [Otherwise] He would have to decide
where to draw the line. Doing so may confront God with all sorts
of dilemmas, but so what? . . . But who would accept the following
defence, "I can't save everyone, so I'll save no one"?'
(107). This might at first sight suggest that Phillips believed
in the possibility of miraculous divine interventions, and thought
that God should have intervened selectively. But of course Phillips
did not. His point is that 'This is simply a consequence of treating
God as a moral agent like ourselves' (107). God is a moral being,
and God acts in creation, but he is not an agent (on my view) within
our human arena. But this misses the point under discussion, which
is not whether God is a moral agent but whether miraculous interventions,
however numerous or few, would be compatible with having created
free beings in a world requiring continual moral choices.
But, more fundamentally, Phillips thought that the Holocaust undermines
the supreme value to humanity of freewill. He offered a poor argument:
'As a result [of seeing freewill as a good in itself], any bad choices
made by [humans], no matter what their consequences, are justified
by the greater good of the free will that makes it possible for
us to have choices at all. In this way, even the Holocaust can be
justified. One wonders what has happened to philosophy, if it can
lead one to say that, horrendous though it was, the Holocaust is
justified as a result of the greater good of the free will of whose
who perpetrated it' (177). But it is not the freewill of those who
perpetrated the Holocaust that is being appealed to, but the freewill
of everyone, including Phillips. Freewill is essential to human
personal existence. There would be no humanity without the freewill
of us all. Phillips was committed to denying God's justification
for creating the human race. For he accepted the impossibility of
God creating genuinely free beings who can be guaranteed never to
go wrong (97-8).
This takes us back to the argument of my book as a whole: If God
intends to create genuinely good free creatures, a ready-made 'goodness'
being either impossible or valueless, then it is to be expected
- as the early Christian thinker Irenaeus proposed - that humans
were not (as the main tradition holds) created as good free beings
who then sinfully fell, but as imperfect and immature beings, able
by the exercise of their own freedom gradually to grow towards their
future perfection beyond this world. Developing this, I asked what
kind of environment would make this possible, and suggested that
'in order for man [this was before the general use of inclusive
language] to be endowed with the freedom in relation to God that
is essential if he is to come to his Creator in uncompelled faith
and love, he must be initially set at an epistemic "distance"
from that Creator. This entails his immersion in an apparently autonomous
environment which presents itself to him etsi deus non daretur,
"as if there were no God"'(323). It must be a world operating
according to its own laws, which are not designed for human comfort,
and which involves occasions of pain and suffering, problems and
challenges, and the ability to help or hurt others. It follows that,
in words of Phillips, 'disasters of natural or moral kinds strike
us without rhyme or reason', for they arise, in the case of natural
disasters from the impartial order of nature, and in the case of
moral evils from the misuse of human freewill. Phillips says that
'When I say that ours is a world in which disasters of natural or
moral kinds strike us without rhyme or reason . . . some theodicists
look at me in amazement (82). I wonder who he was referring to.
Concerning the idea of epistemic distance Phillips asked, 'Is it
not clear that the distance between God and human beings is not
epistemic but spiritual?'(166). But these are different sides of
the same coin. It is our spiritual lack that constitutes God at
a distance in the dimension of human awareness; and it is by spiritual
change that this 'distance' is overcome. Phillips cites those, such
as one of the psalmists, for whom 'God's presence seems overwhelmingly
evident' (165). There certainly are people who enjoy a very powerful
sense of God's presence, and they have come to this by a spiritual
development that has eroded the epistemic distance in which, in
varying degrees, most of us still live.
Returning to the idea of a challenging world as an environment for
person-making, I offered a number of supporting considerations.
the capacity for love would never be developed,
except in a very limited sense of the word, in a world in which
there was no such thing as suffering. The most mature and valuable
form of love in human life is the love between a man and a woman
upon which the family is built. [Or, I would add today, love between
two people of the same sex]. This love is not merely a physical
or romantic enjoyment of each other, although that is where it begins
and should always be an element within it. But it can grow into
something more than this, namely a joint facing of the task of creating
a home together and the bearing of one another's burdens through
all the length of a lifetime. Such love expresses itself most fully
in mutual giving and helping and sharing in times of difficulty.
And it is hard to see how such love could ever be developed in human
life, in this its deepest and most valuable form of mutual caring
and sharing, except in an environment that has much in common with
our own world. (325-6)
Phillips might seem to be asking, Was God
justified in creating finite free beings in the first place? But
as we shall see, Phillips did not in fact believe either in creation
or in an objectively real God. His chapters in criticism of Christian
responses to the problem of evil were intended to move us into the
fundamentally different way of thinking expounded in his later chapters.
I will come to that. But it is an essential
element of my approach, as of several others of 'the theodicists',
that the creative process continues beyond this life. (Hence my
slogan, 'No theodicy without eschatology'). This is not as Phillips
suggests, like 'the small print in advertisement material, an addendum
is added to the story: there's a second instalment - we are to live
again after death' (83). So far from being an addendum, it is an
essential part of the structure of the theodicy. Phillips assumes
that the person-making process should show that it works in this
present life alone: it 'simply does not work in the very life it
was supposed to be designed for' (84). It does to some extent: this
life, for all its horrors, does produce people who can be properly
described as in varying degrees saintly, and very many do grow spiritually
in the course of their lives. But, I added, 'we have not become
fully human by the time we die. If, then, God's purpose of the perfecting
of human beings is ever to be fulfilled it must . . . take place
through a continued development within some further environment
in which God places us' (347). But this is not the 'Compensation
or Redemption after Death' that Phillips objects to. Redemption,
in its usual sense of salvation through Christ's atoning death,
suggests the idea, currently popular among many Christian theologians,
that non-Christians will encounter Christ after death and will then
have the opportunity denied them in this life of responding to him.
But this is not an idea with which I have any sympathy. And the
idea of compensation is likewise unacceptable. In Evil and the
God of Love I emphasised the contrast between what I have proposed,
the view that the promised joys of heaven are
to be related to man's earthly travails as a compensation or reward.
This suggests a divine dispensation equitably proportioning compensation
to injury, so that the more an individual has suffered beyond his
desert the more intense and prolonged will be the heavenly bliss
that he experiences. . . As distinct from such a book-keeping view,
what is being suggested here, so far as men's suffering are concerned,
is that these sufferings - which for some people are immense and
for others relatively slight - will in the end lead to the enjoyment
of a common good which will be unending and therefore unlimited,
and which will be seen by its participants as justifying all that
has been endured on the way to it. The "good eschaton"
will not be a reward or a compensation proportioned to each individual's
trials, but an infinite good that would render worthwhile any finite
suffering endured in the course of attaining it. (340-41)
But of course Phillips did not believe
in any kind of life after death: 'I do not think that that notion
of life after death does make sense' (85). In chapter 11 he reiterated
the position of his earlier Death and Immortality .
My suggestion, as I have said, is that the divine purpose of the
world is soul-making or person-making. Phillips says that this suggestion
'suffers from a fatal objection'. This is that 'To make the development
of one's character an aim is to ensure that the development will
not take place' (57). I think that this is generally (though
not invariably) correct; but it is not an objection. However Phillips
later recognises that the suggestion is not that character development
is our aim, but God's aim in creation. But he maintains (a) that
'if God's reasons are confused and morally objectionable, this would
have the unhappy consequence . . . of making God inferior to human
beings' (57). But why should we suppose God to be confused? The
development in question is not God's nature but ours. (b) Nevertheless,
Phillips said, if we accept the Irenaean theodicy and 'understand
the evils in these terms, this will obviously determine what we
think we are doing when we respond to them, namely, that we are
developing our characters' (58), so that the original objection
will return. No; if we accept the Irenaean theodicy we should face
adversity without losing our faith in God, and combat - rather than
accept - the causes of adversity, so far as we can, as they affect
both ourselves and others; for it is by seeking to overcome evil
that we grow morally. (Phillips notes this on p. 267). The basic
question is whether the entire person-making process, in this life
and beyond, will ultimately have a fully justifying value to all;
and the belief that it will can only be a sustaining belief to us
now. One could say of this faith, as Phillips did on a different
basis, that 'It does not depend on life's events taking one course
rather than another, since it sustains the believer no matter what
course it takes' (186).
In his advocacy of a "purifying atheism" Phillips sought
to show that "certain ways of talking, which seemed to make
sense, in fact have no application: talk of God's covenant with
his people in terms of a contract; talk of God as an agent among
agents; and talk of God as pure consciousness" (158). But none
of this is required by theism. A divine covenant is a distinctively
Jewish idea, not shared by Islam and only sometimes within Christianity.
Again the idea, which Phillips rejects, of God as an agent among
agents is misformulated. God acts in creation, whether initially
or continuously, but this was not the act of an agent among agents.
Together with a number of other Christian writers I do not hold
that God sometimes intervenes miraculously in the world. As to the
idea of God as pure consciousness, I once sought to clarify Phillips's
position at a 1975 conference by saying, 'I take it that [Phillips]
denies the existence of an all-powerful and limitlessly loving God.
I take it, that is, that he denies that in addition to the many
human consciousnesses there is another consciousness which is the
consciousness of God . . . ' . Phillips rejected the question
because 'The notion of consciousness being invoked is a philosophical
chimera. If this is so, it cannot be attributed, meaningfully, to
either human beings or God' (152). His reason for this, in the next
sentence, is that 'If consciousness is the essence of a person,
one would expect it, at the very least, to be the guarantor of that
person's identity' (152), and he proceeds to question whether consciousness
can guarantee a person's identity. But this is irrelevant to the
question whether God is conscious and whether God's consciousness
is distinct from the consciousness of each human being. Whether
consciousness constitutes the essence of a person, guaranteeing
our identity, is a separate issues. Phillips's arguments go at a
tangent to the point in question. Again, he attacks 'the primacy
of consciousness' (153, 154). But the question whether God exists
and is conscious does not involve any doctrine of the primacy of
Again, Phillips claimed that 'this conception of a person without
a body is meaningless' (156). The issue centres on a possible post-mortem
state - which Phillips did not believe to be possible. However among
the philosophers who argue for its possibility are H.D.Lewis
, H.H. Price and Richard Swinburne . Phillips's total dismissal
of the idea was only justified on a materialist, or physicalist,
What Phillips meant by the reality of God has been a matter of contention
for many years. I believe that he was a non-realist concerning the
objective reality of God and that he advocated a non-realist use
of religious language. He strenuously denied this. I wrote that
'I understand Phillips as saying, or rather implying, that the concept,
or idea, or picture of an objectively real God is a very powerful
concept which, although unsubstantiated, is nevertheless central
to a whole coherent way of thinking, imagining and living, which
is the religious form of life' . In The Problem of Evil and
the Problem of God he returned to the issue. He said, 'What
I am saying is that it is by looking at the application of religious
concepts that we find what it means to speak of an objectively real
God who is at a distance from human beings' (167). He says that
'the trouble with the notion of God as "an additional consciousness
to all human consciousnesses" is precisely that it has not
been given, or been shown to have, any coherent application' (168).
By this he presumably meant that, as he argued earlier, the notion
of a disembodied consciousness is incoherent. And yet we address
God in prayer, confession, praise, as One who hears us. Intending
to avoid this conclusion Phillips referred to our addressing God
as our Creator, saying that 'In order to say that God is our creator,
who existed before the mountains were brought forth, or the earth
was made, we would have to participate in the religious form in
which this confession has any sense . . . We would be confessing
God as our creator' (171). True; but would it not be implicit in
our confession that our creator is a conscious power? Does not the
believer, in this confession, assume that his/her creator is a purposeful
conscious being? For the same believers pray to their creator, believing
that he can hear them.
I repeat that Phillips insisted, as his central position, that the
meaning of religious language is to be found in its religious use,
and he cited among examples of the first-order use of religious
language 'O Jehovah, my God, thou art very great' (Psalm 104: 1).
There are hundreds of other examples in the Bible of humans addressing
God: 'Save me, O God! . . O God thou knowest my folly (Psalm 69:
1 and 5), 'Our Father who art in heaven . . Give us this day our
daily bread and forgive us our debts . . .' (Matthew 6:9 and 11),
'Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify
thee . . .' (John 16: 1). Who would address God without believing
that God is conscious of them as they speak to him? Phillips does
not suppose, any more than the rest of us do, that God is an embodied
consciousness. If, then God is conscious of God's creation, God
is, inter alia, a non-embodied consciousness. If we did not believe
that God is not aware of us, would we pray to God? Is it not implicit
in first order religious language that the religious person believes
that God is conscious, not embodied, able to hear human prayer?
But all this Phillips has declared to be impossible - except as
an idea in the religious person's mind and a term in their language.
This is non-realism in relation both to the reality of God and to
the proper use of religious language.
This non-realism is evident throughout the later part of Phillips'
book. He uses the language of traditional faith, but clearly intends
it in a non-realist sense. As one of many examples, he says that,
when someone is in deep suffering, 'God is with them if love of
God [i.e. their love of God] has not been rendered pointless for
them' (197). However the God in question is not an objectively real
being, but the idea of God to which they cling throughout their
suffering. Some of us would have preferred Phillips to be explicit
in his religious non-realism, as is his contemporary Don Cupitt
in such books as Taking Leave of God .
In the end, Phillips was implying that religious people don't mean
what they say, but that he knows differently and better than them
what they must mean. This constitutes a fundamental flaw in his
philosophy of religion: he both appealed to and yet contradicted
the use of religious language by devout religious people. He based
his case on the actual use of religious language by religious people,
within their form of life, but rejected their own understanding
of what they are doing.
Finally, what I have been discussing is the Irenaean theodicy, formed
within orthodox Christian theology; and Evil and the God of Love,
as well as the writings from which Phillips quoted, belong in that
context. But in my later writings, particularly An Interpretation
of Religion  , I have, as a philosopher of religion, gone
beyond the confines of Christian theology. In the course of this
I have set theodicies, including the Irenaean, in a new context.
This does not affect the structure of the Irenaean theodicy, but
its status and function. But this is not the subject of the present
This article was published in Religious Studies, Vol. 43, No.
2 (December 2007), copyright by the Cambridge University Press,
and available in Cambridge Journals Online.
 As I completed the first draft of this article I learned that
Dewi Phillips had suddenly died a few hours earlier. He was long
time personal friend as well as philosophical opponent. The work
of this distinguished and influential philosopher will continue
to be discussed and debated long after his death.
 In Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Ithaca and
London: Cornell University Press, 1999.
 Evil and the God of Love, 2nd ed., pp. 365-71.
 Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981, 2nd ed., 2001,
but with the original articles unchanged.
 Reason and Religion, ed. Stuart Brown, Ithaca and London:
Cornell University Press, 1977.
 Philosophy of Religion, 3rd ed., 1983, Englewood Cliffs,
N.J.: Prentice Hall.
 1st ed., 1966, 2nd ed. 1977, reissued 1985, 3rd ed. 2007, London:
PalgraveMacmillan and Louisville: Westminster Press. Barry Whitney's
Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography on the Problem of Evil,
1960-1990 (New York & London: Garland, 1993) lists forty
five critical discussions of it, and there have been quite a number
 My quotations are from the 2nd ed. The text is the same but
the page numbering different in the 1st ed.
 London: Macmillan and New York: St Martin's Press, 1970.
 "Remarks", 122.
 The Elusive Mind, London: Allen & Unwin,
and New York: Humanities Press, 1969, chap. 16.
 Philosophical Interactions with Parapsychology, ed.
Frank Dilley, London: Macmillan and New York: St. Martin's Press,
1995, chap. 12.
 The Evolution of the Soul, Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1986, chap. 8.
 "Critique of D .Z. Phillips", Encountering Evil,
 London: SCM Press, 1980.
 London: Macmillan, and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1st
ed. 1989, 2nd. ed, with a response to critics, 2004.