Unification Sermons and Talks

by the Reverends Eby

The Problem of Evil and the Goodness of God (Part 2)

Lloyd Eby

II. The Problem of Natural Evil

In most theological and philosophical discussions, evil has been divided into two types: moral evil and natural evil. (Note 6) Moral evil includes all the evils that pertain to human morality and include such things as murder, immorality, theft, hate, envy, gluttony, exploitation of one person by another and so on. Natural evil is evil or suffering that comes about through the activity of nature or natural events, and includes such things as disease, natural disasters such as earthquakes, storms and tidal waves, plagues of animals such as locusts, big fish eating little fish, and so on. These so-called natural evils are problems for the question of divine goodness because some of them lead to unwarranted, unnecessary, or gratuitous suffering for sentient beings, especially humans. A solution to the problem of moral evil does not necessarily also mean that the problem of natural evil has been solved.

Many devout theodicies, whatever account they may have given of moral evil, have tried to solve the problem of natural evil by denying clause E through asserting that natural evils are only apparent and not real. Other views, such as Augustine's mentioned above, have tried to maintain that even natural evils came about through human choice or agency. Another possibility is to adopt a form of the aesthetic conception of evil (mentioned above in connection with Augustine) and apply it to natural events, claiming that the seeming evils are parts of one grander divine scheme (this is a form of denial of clause E for natural evils).

Still another possibility is to attempt to divide natural evils into two groups, assert that one group is not really evil (i.e. deny clause E for that group), and then assert that the other group came into existence because of the culpable acts of human agents. For example, one might assert that there is no evil when big fish eat little fish, or when poisonous snakes attack and kill children (because these are just the normal workings of nature, and nature is neutral), and also assert that if humans had not fallen and were fully perfected (i.e if they had the divine "likeness" spoken of by Irenaeus) then either the natural evils would not occur or humans would have the ability to avert bad consequences from them (for example, by being able to predict earthquakes and by moving the inhabitants from the region to be affected, or by controlling or averting all diseases that result in unwarranted suffering). In other words, those views assert that although the results of some natural events are genuinely evil, even those evils came about because of the human fall.

That last suggested solution has a number of deficiencies or problems: (1) It tends not to be open to falsification (Note 7) because it insists on re-explaining any proffered counterexample by reference to its theory in such a way that the theory itself is never challenged. (2) It does not really take natural evil sufficiently seriously because it refuses to call it truly evil. (3) It takes too optimistic a view of human ability to predict and control the actions of nature. One of the results of the overthrow of the Newtonian world-view and its replacement with an Einsteinian and quantum-mechanical view is that natural events become, in principle, not fully knowable or predictable because the world is not a deterministic world. (4) This solution works only if for every case of so-called natural evil that results in gratuitous suffering, it can be shown that this suffering came about because of a (moral) failure by some agent (e.g. human or angel) other than God. In other words, even if it is shown that many or even most cases of gratuitous suffering from natural causes occur because of human (moral) failure, this is not sufficient to show that all such examples are thereby accounted for. It seems fair to say, then, that views which deny clause E for natural evil do not give a convincing solution to the problem.

Those views which try to deny the existence of genuine natural evil seem to me to be Pollyannaish. One can hardly see the natural order as only beneficial or benevolent unless one lives in an extremely mild and sheltered environment. The natural environment is frequently a threat to human life and well being: this environment contains drouth, poisonous plants, animals and water, life-threatening floods and storms, and unforeseeable malevolent changes in terrain, weather and other conditions. Other clear cases of problems arising from nature are widespread incurable disease such as cancer and sudden heart attack, inherited disease such as diabetes and birth defects, and diseases caused by unpreventable and unforeseeable accidents. It seems clear that any doctrine of divine creation requires that God be the origin of the natural order along with its principles of operation.

The existence of so-called natural evils seems to imply that the creation made by God cannot be wholly good, at least in any simple way. This suggests a deficiency in the Creator in that He has made a world in which there exists gratuitous suffering. In other words, the existence of natural evil tends to argue strongly that clause C is false. For this reason, devout persons attempting a theodicy tend to find themselves driven toward some solution that denies clause E for natural evils. But this attempt, as suggested above, is confronted by objections that seem overwhelming. Here, as before, discussions of the problem for devout theologians or believers tend to trail into discussions of eschatology, with a view that the eschaton will also be an eschaton for natural events and beings, as in the Biblical assertion that (presumably sometime in the future) "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox...." (Isaiah 65:25 RSV)

We can conclude our discussion of so-called natural evil, then, by asserting that it seems to present special obstacles for anyone who wishes to argue for divine goodness, that natural evil seems to be so prevalent and so powerful that it resists attempts to deny its existence as truly evil, that it may come about because of (human or angelic) moral failure but that this seems not to be the cause of every instance of human suffering because of natural events, and that attempts to account for natural evil on the basis of some claim that having a universe with these evils (or seeming defects) in it is better or more complete than one without the defects seem trite and banal especially in light of the enormous suffering that humans have in fact gone through at the hand of nature. I do not feel that any of the solutions ever offered for the problem of natural evil is really satisfactory.

III. Toward an "Existential" Theodicy: Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

Since we seem to be left without a real solution when we reach the end of the various discussions, suggestions, and arguments connected with the various attempts at a theodicy for either moral or natural evil -- none of the arguments seems strong enough to overcome the various objections and counterarguments -- a different approach to the problem of evil seems to be called for. Such an approach would go beyond or outside the questions or arguments of theology, philosophy and logical form into the realm of lived human experience. An investigation of that kind seems to me to offer better prospects for offering something more conclusive and more convincing on the topic.

What we might call the "existential" problem concerning evil, as I see it, is whether evil and rebellion against God may be preferable to union with God, even if this rebellion leads to damnation. It seems to me that one strong strain in twentieth century western intellectual and cultural life is just such a rebellion against God (and/or religion). (Note 8)

In my view, many important issues, especially issues dealing with things that, following Aristotle, we might call matters of practical wisdom -- ethics, political affairs, matters of art and creativity, matters of human life-choices, and so on -- are handled much better in literature, drama and film than they are in philosophical discourses. I do not think that this means that I am advocating non-answers to those questions. I suggest, instead, that those issues are especially well presented by means of thought experiments, and that dramatic, novelistic, and filmic presentations are really exercises in thought experimentation of a particularly subtle and profound kind.

Attempting to solve a problem by story or even by mythology is acceptable and necessary for novels, drama, film and other arts. Whether it is satisfactory as philosophical answer depends, at least partly, on the philosophical temperament of the presenter and the reader. It seems to me that much of philosophy (and theology) has been hampered by over-attention to what Stephen Toulmin calls "questions of logical form," along with insufficient attention to lived human experience or what he calls "collective reason" and "matters of function and adaptation." (Note 9)

The best "existential" discussion of the problem of possible divine evil that I know of occurs in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov and in various commentaries on that novel, especially the one by Albert Camus in his The Rebel. (Note 10) Dostoevsky's novel should be understood, I believe, as an elaborate thought experiment, in which the natural consequences of various views and ways of life are shown in the life developments and life movements of the various characters.

Dostoevsky also speaks to a number of other concerns in this novel. One is the question why indictments against God and religion there have been so numerous and so persistent in this century. Another is that through his example and practice in producing what is really a dramatic novel, Dostoevsky implicitly gives his answer to the question of whether a dramatic art that is of great intellectual merit and aesthetic pungency can be constructed on a God-affirming or religion-affirming basis. (Note 11) Because this novel speaks to these questions so well, I think it is worth examining in some detail.

The indictments against God and religion in this novel occur primarily in Ivan's speech in a long conversation with his younger brother Alyosha. (Brothers Karamazov, part II, bk. 5) Ivan begins by declaring his love of life, despite whatever might occur, and despite logic. He then states that the eternal questions -- God and socialism -- must be settled first. He affirms belief in God and in an underlying order and meaning to life, but he quickly moves from that to a declaration that he cannot accept God's world because that world is unjust.

To support his charge of injustice, Ivan gives many harrowing and heartrending stories of the mistreatment and suffering of innocent children. These stories are so moving that finally Alyosha -- a novice -- agrees that he too would want the perpetrators of these injustices shot. Ivan pounces on this admission, and declares that it shows that the world is absurd. He demands retribution, and not in some infinite time or space, but here on earth (i.e. Ivan rejects any eschatological solution to the problem). He rejects the view that there is some higher harmony that these things serve (i.e. he rejects any aesthetic conception of evil), declares that he could not accept any harmony that required the intense sufferings of such innocent children, and ends with a statement of rebellion against God, saying:

"It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket." (Karamazov, p. 226)

The force of Ivan's indictment of the world's injustice is so great that he compels even Alyosha to admit that the situation as described requires rebellion.

"Rebellion? I'm sorry you call it that," said Ivan earnestly. "One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge you -- answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature -- that little child beating its breast with its fist, for instance -- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to bet the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth." "No, I wouldn't consent," said Alyosha softly. (Ibid.)

Alyosha tries to protest that Christ -- because He gave his innocent blood for all and everything -- is the Being on whom a foundation for the edifice of justice and forgiveness is constructed. Ivan rejects this possibility too, in the well-known chapter entitled "The Grand Inquisitor." Although this chapter should be understood in terms of Dostoevsky's Slavophile attack on the Roman Catholic Church, it can also be seen as an attack on organized or institutional Christian religion in general. Religion has rendered ineffective Christ's attempt at liberation, replacing it with central planners who understand that the masses of people are too weak and too desirous of comfort, regularity and material well being to be able to follow and benefit from Christ's work and teaching. The Church (churches) have gone over to the devil but for good reasons; that side gives the bread, the peace and the power over kingdoms of the earth that Jesus rejected. The Grand Inquisitor has gone over to that side not for personal gain, but out of love for humanity because he realized that this way was the only way that could truly offer benefit to the struggling and unruly mass of people.

Albert Camus' comments on this novel are particularly astute and instructive. He notes that Ivan's rebellion goes beyond that of previous rebels against God, whose rebellion was primarily individualistic. Ivan changes the tone, goes beyond reverential blasphemy, and puts God Himself on trial.

If evil is essential to divine creation, then creation is unacceptable. Ivan will no longer have recourse to this mysterious God, but to a higher principle -- namely, justice. He launches the essential undertaking of rebellion, which is that of replacing the reign of grace by the reign of justice. He simultaneously begins the attack on Christianity. (Note 12)

Ivan makes these attacks not because he does not believe in God, but because he feels that God is unjust, and hence evil; he ranks justice above the divinity, and refutes God in the name of moral value. Ivan attacks the interdependence in Christianity between suffering and truth. His rejection is so total that even if offered salvation or eternal life he would refuse, because to accept it would mean acquiescence to the injustice of the world. The problem with Ivan's total rejection of divine coherence, however, is that this stance leads to recognizing the legitimacy of murder and the condoning of crime. Once he has taken this step of rebellion, he must go to its bitter end, which is to replace God with man -- to the metaphysical revolution in which man occupies the place formerly held by God. (Camus, 836-839)

But Ivan's rebellion leads to contradiction; there is now no basis on which to distinguish between what is permissible and what is crime. One man's view of what is permissible becomes as legitimate as any other man's view. Dostoevsky may be, as Camus claims, the prophet of the new religion of atheism and socialism, but Dostoevsky did not welcome or champion this development.

Dostoevsky replies to Ivan's devastating indictments throughout the novel, but especially in the account of the Russian Monk Zosima. As Nathan Rosen points out, Dostoevsky himself saw Ivan's indictments and the account of the monk as pro and contra on this issue of divine goodness or evil. (Note 13)

The question of the genuineness of sainthood is not answered philosophically, but with the living example of Father Zosima; we see his virtue by observing his life, his teaching and his activity. His saintly example is contrasted with Father Ferapont, who possessed the trappings of genuine religion (fierce asceticism, fervent prayer, wearing chains under his robes to mortify his flesh), but who nevertheless spread discord and dissension among the monks. Ferapont represents, I think, Dostoevsky's admission that some religion is indefensible and even destructive, religion of forms and trappings and even personal sacrifice without the essential heart.

Dostoevsky presents many things from Zosima's life and from the lives of the other characters that reply to Ivan's indictments. I think it may be instructive and worthwhile to list and comment on some of the more important of them.

1. Zosima gives three stories about his life before his conversion -- the story of his brother Markel, the story of the duel, and the story of the murderer's confession. Each story contains an element of mystery, which suggests that all human life has a mysterious dimension encompassing the mysteries of faith, conversion and cosmic justice.
2. Zosima tells the story of Job, but ignores Job's claims about his innocence, focusing instead on the fact that the lost children were later replaced, and on the mystery that the new children erased from Job's memory the pain of the earlier loss. This is an indirect answer to Ivan's concern about the suffering of children. It is also implicitly a kind of eschatological solution to the problem of suffering, and perhaps a tacit claim that only an eschatological solution is available.
3. Although accorded the status of a saint by the common people, Zosima neither mocked them nor was obsequious toward them, but merely served them with dignity, giving blessings and counsel, thereby contributing to their genuine well being. As a man of religion and tradition he embodies what is best in life and contrasts dramatically with the lives of other non-religious characters, especially the Karamazovs.
4. Zosima brings together the father Karamazov with his sons so that the father's buffoonery and despicableness temporarily subside. Yet the meeting is ultimately unsuccessful; although Zosima is a saint, he does not work miracles that go beyond or usurp the responsibility of others who meet with him. This suggests that, in practice, the power of true good is circumscribed by or responsive to human choice and the contingencies of human existence.
5. Zosima recommends that Alyosha, the novice, leave the monastery and marry, a recommendation in striking contrast with Ivan's troubles with the women in his life. Ivan cannot achieve intimacy for any extended time, but Zosima sees intimacy as part of Alyosha's salvation.
6. Zosima's faith is neither uneducated nor blockheaded, though simple and elemental. He wears it with good humor and good feeling for all, and spreads goodness to all who will accept it. This contrasts with the gloom and nervousness Ivan spreads to his companions. This suggests that Ivan's concern with justice does not translate, in practice, into an increase in goodness, but rather into an increase in a kind of evil.
7. When Zosima dies, his body decays and begins to smell, denying to others the supernatural miracle they expected. But a greater miracle happens in that Alyosha and Grushenka go through several stages of inner transformation, culminating in the "Cana of Galilee" episode. Zosima brings the true miracle of inner change of heart; this miracle comes when one follows true insight and prefers doing good to doing evil.
8. Despite the brother Mitya's passion, his hatred of his father, his need for money, his vow to kill his father, and even the opportunity and the weapon, he runs away from the temptation to parricide. If the Grand Inquisitor were right, these psychological and material causes should have compelled him to the deed. But every reader realizes the genuineness of his refusal and his self restraint. His example shows that people have the inner capacity to overcome those forces. This is a kind of proof (or at least very strong evidence) that psychological and material causes (or forces) are not compelling or overwhelming, and that they are subservient to human will and choice. This amounts to a strong refutation of all forms of materialism and of psychological theories, such as Freudianism, which affirm psychological determinism.
9. Ivan goes away profoundly depressed after reciting his tale to Alyosha, and finally recognizes that this depression is caused by the revolting familiarity and impiousness of Smerdyakov. Even though Ivan hates his father and would like to see him dead, Smerdyakov's lack of piety toward the father grates on Ivan. Also, Ivan himself confesses complicity in the murder in the end, even though this is irrational and ridiculous because he knows no one will believe him. So even Ivan operates at the personal (which is to say real) level by a different ethic than the one he expressed earlier in his speech to Alyosha. We might call it an ethic of human relationships and human love, as opposed to an ethic of justice.
10. Ivan goes mad in the end, while those who follow the way of life of Father Zosima undergo inner transformation to a higher state of consciousness and way of life. This suggests that rebellion against God and against divine notions of goodness leads to psychological, social and even physical degradation, whereas saintliness of life -- following the divine order -- has the opposite effect.
11. The atheistic socialism that Dostoevsky and Camus see (correctly, I believe) as the alternative to the religious view does not solve the problem of justice, but in fact ultimately promotes much greater injustice, even in the economic realm where it is supposed to be paramount; we have observed this dramatically in the last decades. So rebellion in the name of justice does not work even for its own ends.

Through all these episodes Dostoevsky has presented an answer to the existential problem I mentioned above. He has shown both the consequences of rebellion against God and against the divinely-created cosmos, as well as an alternative to this rebellion, and has presented all this in the form of an elaborate thought experiment. The novel can and should be seen as presenting a kind of theodicy. It is not a theodicy given in terms of theological or logical investigation or presentation, but what, for want of a better term, I have called an "existential" theodicy. In addition to that, by his own work of art, as well as through the contrast between Fathers Zosima and Ferapont, Dostoevsky offers an answer to the question about whether a non-trivial and important dramatic art can be constructed on a basis other than a God-indicting one. (Note 14)

Dostoevsky himself does not shrink from criticizing religion in his dramatic novel (he does it through his presentation of Father Ferapont), but presents even that criticism on a religion-affirming basis (an affirmation of the genuine goodness of Father Zosima). This novel demonstrates a possible way in which true religion can both do away with the need for rebellion and lead to grater things: to a superior dramatic art and to the kind of human well-being furthered by Father Zosima.

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