The Mystery of Evil

by frankbeswick

The greatest challenge facing all believers is why does evil happen.

I suppose that I am fortunate that I have not seen the worst examples of evil first hand, though they blaze across our television screens and fill the news papers. But evil surely occurs, and religious believers are often challenged by it. Why does evil happen? What is the meaning of it. Why does God allow it? Cannot the Devil be simply un-created. These questions can be philosophical/theological, and then we call them the problem of evil, but philosophy and theology can be performed in academic ivory towers; but when we have to live with evil, it is better termed the mystery of evil, for we study and ponder problems, but we live in mystery. I intend to work on a theological solution rather than a philosophical one.

Photo copyright courtesy of Stuart

God and the Problem

The greatest statement of the mystery of evil occurs in the Book of Job, a work of religious fiction, part of the Wisdom Literature, a section of the Old Testament oft-overlooked. Job is one of the peoples of the East, not a Hebrew/Jew, who is the quintessentially good man who never sins. His non-Jewishness should alert certain people who think that only Jews and/or Christians can be good to the fact that the Bible does not support their view. The book commences with dialogue between God and Satan, who appears not as a devil, but as a member of the heavenly court. Satan says that Job is good only because of the benefits that his behaviour brings him, so God allows Satan to torment Job with disaster upon disaster. But Job never sins  by cursing God. He has three friends who call upon him, each giving an explanation of his problem. But in the end Yahweh [God] appears in a storm and speaks.

In Job 38:3 He asks"Where were you when I laid the Earth's foundations....." and then from chapters 38-41 he discourses about the limitations of human knowledge. The essence of this case is that humans have to accept that there are mysteries beyond them. Job accepts and in a section probably added later his life turns round again. 

But the questions still continue. Why, humans ask?

But the question can only make sense if we believe that God is good, powerful and wise. The ancient Greeks, who thought of their deities as capricious super-humans, fully accepted their deities to be morally flawed. The deities could inflict evil at will, and often did. Only the higher religions with an elevated concept of God have a problem. 

There are solutions from religions other than Christianity, but they lie beyond the scope of this article as they would require too much space to do them justice, so I will focus on a Christian response. 

The essence of the problem is that God is  good, wise and powerful. If God is good he does not want evil to happen; if He is wise He knows how to avoid it; if He is good he wants to avoid it. So why does he not simply prevent evil from happening? Of course, an assumption implicit in many people's problems about evil is that God can simply stop it instantly, a view that I have called "the finger-clicking God." This view I have addressed in my article God Does Not Have a Magic Wand: reflections on Pope Francis' address. The solution may lie in a challenge to this simplistic understanding of divine operation. 


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Historic Answers

The Book of Genesis is adamant that humans caused evil and that God is not to blame. In the beginning, Genesis 1, God create a world and saw that it was good. He then created humans and left them in an idyllic place, but human disobeyed and lost the idyll. Curses fell onto the whole human race because of the sin of a representative ancestor. But this view struggles with the realization that Adam and Eve are mythical figures, so the tale is not literally true. Furthermore, it makes God appear quite unfair. I don't expect to suffer for my great, great grandfather's moral faults, so why should I have to suffer for Adam? 

Augustine in the fifth century developed the Adam and Eve tale and ran with it. Humans were all born into sin inherited through sexual relationships from Adam, so all were doomed to Hell.  But from Adam they inherited conscupiscence, a disorder in human nature that makes for excess, which explains human propensity for sin. However, some were predestined to be saved by Christ, through the cross. Tough on the rest.What this cruel image of God has to do with the loving Father of Jesus Christ went unspoken, but it says much about the critical thought of the clerics who have for centuries slavishly followed Augustine for centuries. 

Yet Augustine's was not the only Christian theory. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, argued that the world was the vale of soulmaking, a place where humans learned to improve, so it  was inevitable that during the learning process mistakes would be made. This is a theory more humane and fair to God than Augustine's, but it was inexplicably the less popular of the two. 

Origen, a controversial figure of the third century, took another view of evil. Humans lived in a cyclic world, having various incarnations. Some souls fell from the higher spiritual levels out of love  for pleasure. They then became human and were prone to evil. However, through spiritual development they can rise up the spiritual ladder and become pure. Even Satan would be eventually saved. Theology has had a love-hate relationship with Origen, All theologians know his scholarship, but they reject his unorthodoxy. I  have even known an evangelical scholar describe him as a pagan thinker: a total injustice to a Christian who suffered horrendous tortures for his faith, but that's what you get if you disagree with a narrow minded theologian! Origen is interesting in that as an Egyptian he may have been in contact with Indian thought, which may have influenced his views. There are certainly influences from the Greek philosophy or Orphism, which shared Hindu views on a cyclic world. 

Pelagius, Augustine's bete noire, whom Augustine had driven out and exiled [nice man wasn't he] argued that Adam's sin worked not by inheritance but by example. Quite a modern theory of the origins of evil. But this was not taken up by the church as an ultimate explanation. 

The Christian belief is that humans caused the problems in the world, eagerly aided by Satan. But this begs a question, why does God simply not stop us sinning? Here is where theology moves forward. 



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Natural and Moral Evil

Yet so far we have talked about moral evil, the kind that humans do wrong. But there is also natural evil. Children die at birth, people live and die in pain. Famine often stalks whole lands and people waste away. The Old Testament seems to imply that death came into the world from Adam. You still hear some Christians making the claim that death and suffering entered the world with Adam, but this argument is best ditched. Animals lived and died before Adam, volcanoes erupted, there was disease. Quite simply, pain and suffering are part of a created world.

St Paul spoke of creation groaning in its birth pangs, so he believed that God's work is not over. As yet it is imperfect, and so there will be sufferings. Yet we sense the germ of an answer to the wider problem in this imagery.The finger-clicking God is a myth. God is working against evil, but  divine action takes time.  Quite simply, the process takes aeons.  When Jesus says "My Father goes on working and so do I" [John 5:17-30] he seems to imply that divine work does not achieve instantaneous results. 


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Why does not God do something about evil.

Christians argue that he does, that he constantly urges humans to goodness through his servants, the church and people of good will outside it. However, this raises the issue that not all people try to be good or listen to God's servants. So what does God do about them? Why could not Hitler be turned instantly into a heap of smouldering ash. Problem solved, no World War Two. But God does not do this.

The gospels seem to indicate that God, through Jesus, is reluctant to destroy. In Luke 9 the apostles James and John, who have just had a hard time in a Samaritan village [they probably had rocks thrown at them, a custom in those lands] return to Jesus in a fury and ask can they call down fire and brimstone on their foes. But Jesus rebukes them and they carry on unavenged. For Luke we are in a time for mercy, before the settlement of what is due to sinners, and this time is rather extended. 

There is also the parable of the darnel, [Matthew 13 known also as the Tares or the Weeds in the Wheat.] In this parable the reapers [angels] ask the landowner can they rip up the weeds, but he answers that if they do then some wheat will be destroyed with them. Jesus seems to imply that there are limitations upon divine action. God cannot easily wave a magic wand and destroy sinners, there is a process that is working to a conclusion. 

But the cross is the axis of all Christian thinking on evil. The cross remains a mystery, on which Christians must reflect but which they will never fully comprehend. For some reason the divine wisdom decided that the way to confront evil was for God to become incarnate as man and bear the burden of evil himself. Yet implicit in the cross is the idea that God does not wave his magic wand or click his fingers for instantaneous results. Instead there is a process that must be take place. What and why this process is is a mystery to humans, but the realization that ending evil is not something that can be effected instantaneously releases us from wondering why bad things happen. Furthermore, the finger-clicking God works with no apparent cost, but the cross shows that the struggle with evil has a heavy cost, which God bears himself. I envisage not a God who sits in magisterial comfort, but a God who carries the burden of humanity, being with humans in their travails, suffering along with them, but determined to ultimately win in the spiritual war with evil. 



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Humanity's role.

An essential ingredient in any solution to the mystery, however inadequate it must be, is to realize that there is no solution without humans. We might not be all the problem, but we have to be a major part of the solution. Christians believe that God is calling them to be co-workers with him in his work. For example, Mother Teresa felt an enduring call to work with the poor and doing so led to a wonderfully successful mission. But there is nothing unique in her call, many Christians have a sense of vocation to do something specific for God. Perhaps the resolution of the mystery lies in the direction of saying that without God evil cannot be finally defeated, but without humans as co-workers God cannot achieve his goals. 

I conclude with a grim tale. I once picked up a newspaper to find that an ex-pupil of mine, a mentally handicapped fourteen year old boy had been murdered along with his mother and sister. It is at these moments of grief and horror that we think of the times when we are tempted to do evil and we say to ourselves that there is so much evil in the world that we don't want to add any more to it. But that is insufficient, as we then say to ourselves that we must only do good and work for the healing of all evils. But where do we begin. We look inwards into our hearts and must begin there. 

Updated: 12/06/2014, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Treathyl Fox on 12/07/2014

If evil / hate is a mystery, then good / love is unfathomable. Good article. Like your concluding statement. Start with the man (woman) in the mirror, as Michael Jackson said.

Guest on 12/07/2014

Very interesting article.

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