Skeptical conversations, part III: The problem of evil (full post)

Continuing the conversation . . .

A: Maybe it’s just me—though I doubt it—but something doesn’t fit together here. First you say that God is perfectly good, and now you say that when bad things happen, he’s responsible for them. So is he evil as well as good?

R: No. Whatever happens, happens because God does it—in Isa. 45:7 he declares, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster”—but God is not the author of evil; whatever happens, happens because human beings, or the Devil, or some other creature brings it about. Both statements are true.

A: I don’t understand this. Let’s back up and try a different line of approach. If God exists, if he is completely good, all-powerful, and in complete control, then why is there evil?

R: That is an important question. Shortest answer: I don’t know. Even at the very beginning, if you look at Genesis 1, creation is portrayed as God’s victory over evil—not moral evil, but what Dr. Waltke, one of my Old Testament professors, calls surd evil: the power of chaos. Where does that come from? And what about the Devil, who tempted humanity into sin? Where did his evil come from? I really don’t have answers to those questions.

A: You referenced the Devil a minute ago, too. Do you really believe in the Devil?

R: Yes, I believe that there is a personal agent of evil who is at war with God; he’s already lost, but he won’t admit it yet.

A: Huh. Well, I suppose that if you believe in God, there’s no reason not to believe in the Devil as well.

R: No. What I’m getting to, though, is that the fact that I can’t explain evil isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You see, evil isn’t a positive reality, but a negation. Are you familiar with Madeleine L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time?

A: I’m sorry, no.

R: Oh, well; that would have made explaining this a little easier. It was Augustine’s insight, I believe—he was one of the great theologians of the early church—that if God is the one who is and the creator of all that is, if he is the source of all good, and evil is the opposite of good, then evil is ultimately the negation of being, uncreation. As Henri Blocher, a French theologian, put it, “evil is disruption, discontinuity, disorder, alienness, that which defies description in creational terms (except negatively!).” Blocher makes the point that human reason is designed to understand the order God created, to trace out the patterns. A rational explanation of the existence of evil could only be possible if evil had a place in the rational order of creation; this could only be the case if evil were in fact an original part of creation. This in turn would mean that God was the source of all evil as well as of all good, and thus that evil, too is eternal. But this is not the case: evil is outside the rational order of creation, and has no part in God.

Blocher goes on to say that evil is not there to be understood, it is there to be fought, and that God has in fact already defeated it; we are living with the death throes of an enemy that has not yet accepted that it has lost.

A: So what you’re saying is that evil is as incomprehensible as God is.

R: Yes. God is beyond the ability of our reason to comprehend because he is too big, great and good beyond the scope of our reason; evil is beyond our reason because it is fundamentally opposed to the created order, and thus fundamentally arational.

A: Intuitively, that makes sense to me; but I think that answer leaves a hole, because it doesn’t address the continued existence of evil, to say nothing of its continued success. If, as you say, God is perfectly good and all-powerful, once evil came to be—or to not be? on your terms, I’m not sure how to phrase the question—why didn’t he simply defeat it at the beginning? Why leave evil to do all the damage it has done?

R: Again, I don’t know; I can’t answer that. I’ve heard one preacher suggest that once the Devil rebelled, God decided to let his rebellion play itself out in order to ensure that no one would ever try it again; I don’t know that I would offer that as an answer, but it does make a certain amount of sense. Origen, another of the Church Fathers, held that in the end, God would redeem all of creation, that even the Devil would eventually be restored. He was condemned as heretical by later councils of the Church, and I won’t offer that as the right answer either, but again, it makes some sense; and I’d like to believe it, whether or not I do.

In the end, though, the only answer I can offer is this, that God is a creator and a lover, not a destroyer, and that he chose to fight evil accordingly by bringing good out of evil. In the end he will bring the curtain down on evil once and for all, but for this time he has chosen to answer evil with self-sacrificing love; and he has given this world time while he carries out his plan, spreading his word throughout the world to claim all those who belong to him. The number of those to be saved has not yet been completed.

What the question of evil comes down to, then, is the question posed by another of my professors, John Stackhouse: can God be trusted? Can we trust his wisdom, that he does indeed know what he is doing and why, and can we trust his heart, that his love is indeed unflawed? To me, the answer is clearly yes, we can; the fact that the Father was willing to go so far as to send the Son to the cross, and that the Son was willing to go so far as to endure it, and that the Spirit was willing to bear that loss—that is proof enough for me. But it’s a question everyone has to answer themselves.

A: This still leaves the question of human evil; if we grant for the moment that evil is allowed for whatever reason to exist and that we are limited beings, then certainly bad things are going to happen. There will be errors in judgment, which will lead to accidents, things we have made will break, which will produce more, natural disasters will occur. The forces of chaos, as you referenced a few minutes ago, are at work—fine, we’ll accept that for the moment. But what really concerns me is why we humans do so much evil to each other and our world, and I don’t think you’ve answered that. Why is evil allowed so much influence over us?

R: That’s partly a question about God, but it’s also a question about us—after all, human sin comes out of human nature—so I think there are a couple of things that need to be said before trying to answer that. In case you’re interested, the formal terms theologians use here are anthropology, which is the doctrine of human nature, and hamartiology, which is the doctrine of human sin.

A: Every field has its own jargon, I suppose.

R: And the jargon has its uses—at the very least, it helps you keep track of what part of the discussion you’re in. Now, God created Adam and Eve in his own image.

A: So you believe there really was a literal Adam and Eve?

R: I do. I’d rather not get sidetracked into a discussion of possible interpretations of Genesis 1-2, which I read as a poetic and liturgical text, rather than a scientific description of creation, but I will say this: if one believes as I do that God created everything, then there is no reason not to believe that he created human beings in the way that the Genesis text recounts; I’ve already said that I have scientific as well as theological reasons for rejecting the various theories of natural evolution, and again, I’d rather not get off into that discussion. What’s more, from a Christian perspective there is good reason to believe that God created the human race directly, even if one does accept evolutionary theory. Namely, there is the biblical statement that God created human beings, male and female, in his image. This separates us from the animals.

A: Come now. We’re animals, too, after all.

R: Physically, yes, but we’re more than that. We’re spiritual amphibians, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, a fusion of body and spirit like no other animal.

A: Ah, yes; when we die, our souls go to Heaven or Hell, is that it?

R: Umm, no.

A: No?

R: I didn’t say we’re spiritual Oreos—screw off the top, eat the filling, and leave the chocolate cookie behind. We are embodied souls, ensouled bodies, the union of the two, we are in total made in the image of God, and we don’t separate out; we aren’t just our bodies, but we’re not whole without them, either. The face you wear is as much you as the thoughts you hide behind it. That’s why I say we’re spiritual amphibians, because we belong to two worlds at once, that of cats and dogs and that of angels and demons.

A: Angels always seemed so wishy-washy to me. But if you don’t believe that your soul will live on after death and go to Heaven, what do you believe?

R: We’ll get there. As for angels—well, Western culture tends to sentimentalize them something awful these days; I think we have the Victorians to thank for that one, with their simpering fainting-girl angel paintings. Not at all the biblical idea. But as I was saying, we were made in the image of God, which means both that we were made like God and that we represent him in the world—we were made to be his agents. Like I said earlier, part of that is that we reflect his communicable attributes: we are personal beings; we are moral agents; we were created good; we are capable of love; we are creative actors, and we have the ability, to some degree, to carry out what we plan to do. As Tolkien would say—

A: Tolkien? What does he have to do with this conversation?

R: Besides being a devout Christian—

A: He was?

R: I believe he was Catholic, to be precise. In any case, Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” called human beings “sub-creators,” because God has given us the ability and the right to create within his creation. We cannot create out of nothing as he did, but we can create much from the materials he has given us, and we were meant to do so to his glory. Dorothy Sayers—yes, the mystery writer, she knew both Tolkien and Lewis—argues in her book The Mind of the Maker that this is what Genesis means when it says that we’re made in the image of God, because at that point in the biblical story what we know of God is that he creates.

I think, actually, that there is more to see than that from the beginning of Genesis; God is presented as rational, personal, and capable of relationship—after all, God is quoted as saying, “Let us make man in our image.”

A: “Us”? Interesting. I hadn’t thought the doctrine of the Trinity was that old.

R: It isn’t. This passage allows for the Trinity, but whoever wrote it had no such conception. There are arguments about what the author was thinking, but I don’t want to get into them. Anyway, we can also see from the creation story that God is good, since he is creating everything good, and that he rules over everything. So in part, to say that we are in the image of God is to say that we reflect his character, and in part it is to say that we reflect his activity as creative beings; and in part it is to say that we represent him in this world, that we are not only small creators but small rulers, responsible for managing the world which he made and which therefore belongs to him.

A: I can’t help thinking that this would be a very different world if Christians actually believed what you’ve been saying; from what you’re saying, pollution is a sin.

R: I believe polluting the earth is a sin. But seeing that isn’t enough, even if everyone in the church did. After all, even if our understanding of God were perfect in every respect, we would still be sinful people; and given that self-deception is a sin, and one that we as a race are pretty good at, the contradiction between our beliefs and our behavior would corrupt the purity of our understanding in short order anyway. We were created perfect, but we didn’t stay that way.

Posted in Credo, Religion and theology, Scripture.

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