Unification Sermons and Talks

by the Reverends Eby

The Problem of Evil and the Goodness of God (Part 1)

Lloyd Eby

Introduction: God and Evil

Many people seem to think that the question whether God exists is the most important of the many philosophical questions connected with theology, with philosophy of religion, and with religious practice. For quite a long time, however, I have felt otherwise; it seems to me that a far more important question is whether the God who exists is good. My having grown up within an overwhelming and oppressive religious tradition -- Mennonitism -- has left me with an abiding fear that the God who I am sure exists may not be good.

The question of the goodness of God has at least these parts: (1) is it really true that God is the source or cause of the evils that seem to come from divine activity or from religious systems, doctrines and practices; (2) can or could God do away with the evils that befall mankind if He chose to do so, and if He has that ability, then why does He choose not to use it, and (3) does God really sufficiently desire human happiness and well-being, or does God overlook these things and sacrifice them in favor of His own (supposedly superior) interest and will. I will not be able to answer all those questions thoroughly here, but I will explore one of the most important aspects of the problem, the abiding question of theodicy.

I. The Problem of Theodicy

The problem of the goodness of God in light of the evil in the world, known in theology and philosophy as the problem of theodicy, can be expressed as a series of assertions about God and the existence of evil. These assertions about God seem to be components of an adequate doctrine of God -- adequate at least from the point of view of the received tradition for monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Thus if:

(A) God exists, and
(B) God is the Unique Creator or First Cause of the existing universe, and
(C) God is fully good and/or fully loving, and
(D) God is omnipotent or fully powerful and competent, then how can it be that:
(E) there is evil in the world.

It seems, intuitively at least, that logic requires that the conjunction of all those clauses cannot be true, i.e. logic seems to require that at least one of those clauses is false. (Note 1) Solutions to the problem of theodicy, then, have nearly always been attempts to argue for the denial of at least one those clauses, coupled with an argument that the denied clause is not really a necessary component of an adequate doctrine of God or of the world.

One possible solution is atheism, the denial of clause A, and many people have concluded on the basis of the existence of evil that God does not exist. This solution is obviously not available to believers. Metaphysical dualism solves the problem by denying clause B by claiming that there are indeed two sources of existence, a "good" source and an "evil" source, or a principle of light and a principle of darkness. The ancient Greeks and the Gnostics, for example, held that matter is evil, but that God did not create the material world. But this solution too is unavailable to orthodox monotheistic religions, especially Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which are committed to the existence of just one Original Creator.

Another possible solution is to deny clause E by asserting that evil is not real; this solution is adopted by Christian Science and by Vedanta Hinduism, which claims that evil is maya, an illusion. But the monstrous crimes of the twentieth century, such as wholesale mass murders of millions of people, seem to be clear evidence of the existence of genuine evil, so I and most other people are convinced that evil is not just an illusion and that clause E is true. In any case, claiming that evil is an illusion does not solve the problem of our suffering brought about by the illusion.

It is clear from this that Judaism, Christianity and Islam cannot really deny clauses A, B or E without denying basic foundations of their beliefs. The only other candidates for denial are clauses C and D, which means denying either the goodness or the power of God in some manner, and most theodicies connected with those religions have tried to work out a solution in just that way. Because of that, the problem of theodicy is often put in terms of a conflict between the goodness and the power of God.

Most Christian attempts to solve the problem of theodicy have attempted to deny or weaken clause D in some way, claiming that God's power is in some way restricted, curtailed, or self-limited. But theologies or philosophies which attempt to maintain that there is a limitation of divine power, while at the same time asserting the doctrine of divine creation of the universe, meet with a problem. The simultaneous assertion of these two claims -- that God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and that God is limited in power -- seems to lead to contradiction. The power to create in an absolute way (which the received orthodox traditions in Judaism, Christianity and Islam all imply or assert that God has) seems to imply that the Creator has the power to do whatever He chooses to do. The doctrine of divine creation of time and the universe seems to imply that God's power in the act of creation is an unlimited power.

Some theologians attempt to understand or explain God's creation by reference to the model of human creativity, and explain limitations of divine power by analogy to limitations in human power, but this hardly works. God's creative power cannot be compared with any human power exercised in a human act of creation. Human creation operates only within limitations -- human creativity makes something from other things, or generates children, or performs other creative acts, none of which are absolute creations, but only creative acts within the parameters of existence and creativity already established. But God's creation of the universe (according to the received doctrines of creation held to by Judaism, Christianity, and possibly Islam) is absolute in that there is no previous existence or universe which it operates "inside" of; it brings existence out of non-existence (this is asserted, at least, in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo), and at the same time it makes the rules and parameters of time and existence itself.

We can express this contradiction between creation and limitation of power in terms of our clauses given above. To do this we should note that clause B really contains two claims: that there is only one Creator God or First Cause, and that this Creator God brought the universe into existence out of nothing, i.e. that God by His action caused the absolute beginning of time and the universe and gave the universe its characteristics. It is the second of those claims contained within clause B that we are concerned with here. Clause B, understood in this way, seems to imply clause D (i.e. creation by God implies that God is all-powerful). But then, by the logical principle of modus tollens, the negation of clause D (i.e. the assertion that God's power is limited or curtailed in some way) implies the negation of clause B (i.e. that it is in some way false that God by His action created the universe).

It seems, therefore, that if God is indeed the creator in the way Judeo-Christian monotheistic religions claim, then God's not changing things (i.e. His failure to eliminate evil by a divine act) must be due not to his lack of power to do so, but to His interest in having the evil condition or situation exist. This divine interest may operate without regard for human interest; in other words God's interest may be a selfish interest.

Interestingly enough, in the most pointed discussions of the problem of theodicy in the Bible -- the discussions in Job and Romans -- the power of God as manifested in creation is given as the (non)answer to the problem. When God finally deigns to respond to Job, instead of answering Job's questions, God refers to the mysteries of creation as demonstrating God's power and as showing human (Job's) insignificance and unworthiness to question divine action and purpose. (Job 38:1 to 42:6) So Job is forced to fall mute before divine assertion and action. Therefore Job does not really answer the question of theodicy except negatively, holding that God as sovereign creator is of surpassing power and is not subject to any requirements of having to answer human (Job's) questions about his activities.

In the Epistle to the Romans Saint Paul likewise asserts that God's activity is both decisive and beyond human question. (Romans 9:14-26) God shows mercy to whomever He wishes, "So it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy." (Romans 9:16 RSV) Paul appeals to God's activity in creation as justifying this and as compelling human silence and acquiescence: "But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me thus?' Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?." (Romans 9:20-22 RSV)

One quasi-Christian theological movement that has had a great deal of influence in recent years (at least in America) is process theology, developed by Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, Jr., David Ray Griffin and many others, based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, especially as developed in Whitehead's major work, Process and Reality. Process theology explicitly denies divine omnipotence, and therefore has little trouble developing a theodicy. (Note 2) But also, interestingly enough, process theology gives up the traditional doctrine of divine creation in favor of a doctrine with a very curtailed or weak notion of creation (if it indeed has a doctrine of creation at all), differing very much from the traditional Christian creation ex nihilo view.

In the process view, there is no unique, divinely-willed act that brings into existence time and the universe. Process theology therefore avoids the logical problem mentioned above, because it gives up both clauses B and D. (The problem, as we saw above, is that if clause B implies clause D -- and it seems to do so -- then it is contradictory to simultaneously assert the truth of clause B and the negation of clause D. But if clauses B and D are both denied, then no contradiction arises.) The adequacy of process theology on other points, however, must be left for other discussions.

One of the best and most thorough accounts of theodicy as it has been developed in (traditional) Christian theology has been given by John Hick. (Note 3) Hick divides Christian theodicies into two types, which he calls Augustinian (after St. Augustine) and Irenaean (after Irenaeus). The Augustinian-Latin answer has been adopted by the majority of Christian thinkers, but Irenaean theodicy, which was developed by Irenaeus and the Greek fathers prior to the work of Augustine, has had its (smaller) share of adherents.

Augustine, after his conversion to Christianity, abandoned his earlier Manichean dualism, and asserted that the universe (including matter) and its Unique Creator (God) are unambiguously good. Evil, according to Augustine, is the privation, corruption or perversion of something that was (previously or otherwise) good. Evil has no substantial being in itself, but is always parasitic upon good. Evil, then, entered the universe through the culpable free actions of otherwise good beings -- angels and humans. Sin consisted not in choosing evil (because there was no evil, as such, to choose), but in turning away from the higher good of God to a lower good. Natural evils (which will be discussed more thoroughly later) are held by Augustine to be consequences of the fall, and thus also consequences of (human or angelic) free will. When we ask what caused man to fall, Augustine answers through his doctrine of deficient causation. There is no positive cause of evil will, but rather a negation of deficiency. Augustine seems to mean by this that free volitions are, in principle, inexplicable -- free willing is itself an originating cause, with no prior cause (or explanation).

In addition to that, Augustine has another theme, which we can call the aesthetic conception of evil. According to this view, what appears to be evil is such only when seen in an isolated or limited context; when viewed in the context of the totality of the universe it is good because it is a necessary element in that good universe. This view comes from the principle of plenitude (derived from Plato's Timaeus, 41 bc) which holds that a universe in which all the various possibilities of being are realized -- a universe containing lower and lesser, as well as higher and greater beings -- is greater than a universe which contains only the highest type of beings. In other words, the universe, to be as great as possible, must contain a hierarchy of forms of created beings, each good in its own place in the scheme of things. Lower beings are not, therefore, evil, but merely different goods. As an application of this principle, Augustine holds that the universe must contain mutable and corruptible beings. It is better that the universe contain free beings who can (and do) fall, than that it should fail to have them. Augustine, therefore, brings even moral evil within the scope of the aesthetic conception of evil. (The distinction between moral and natural evil will be discussed later.)

The two principle theses of Augustine's view (evil as privation and the aesthetic conception of evil) were adopted by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica (I, 47-49), and by Leibniz in his Theodicee. Employing these concepts, Leibniz argued that this is the best of all possible worlds, by which he means the best of all possible universes -- a view which Voltaire satirized mercilessly in Candide. It is the best not because there is no evil in it, but because any other possible universe would not be as good (i.e. would contain fewer possibilities, which means more evil). Since all the possibilities of existence are eternally present to the Divine Mind, God surveys all these possibilities and selects the best, and then brings those particular possibilities into existence.

This traditional (Augustinian) theodicy has been criticized on primarily two points: its accounts of the origin of evil and of the final disposition of evil. According to the Augustinian view, a finitely perfect being willfully fell into evil. But that seems to be self-contradictory. If a being is indeed perfect, then it seems that such a being could not fall, because perfection seems to imply the lack of capability for evil or falling. To assert otherwise seems to imply that evil has created itself ex nihilo. Furthermore, Augustine's doctrine of the fall seems to be in conflict with his view on predestination, which, in effect, sets man's activities within the purpose and responsibility of God (cf. Saint Paul's assertions in Romans, quoted above); it seems to follow therefore that evil and the fall were predestined by God.

The problem of the final disposition of moral evil can be put in terms of a conflict between clauses C and D: If God desires to save all human creatures but is not able to do so (i.e. clause D is false), then he is limited in power, but if he does not wish to save all, but has created some for damnation, then he is limited in goodness (i.e. clause C is false). In any case, the doctrine of eternal damnation, when it is held, makes it impossible to make any Christian theodicy.

Irenaean theodicy differs from that of Augustine in that Augustine held that the pre-fall Adam was in a state of original righteousness and that his sin constituted the inexplicable turning away from good by a wholly good being, whereas Irenaeus held that the pre-fall Adam was more like a child than a mature and responsible adult. In this Irenaean view, Adam stood at the beginning of a long process of development; he had been created as a personal being in the "image" of God, but he had to develop into the "likeness" of God. Adam's fall, then, was not a disastrous transformation and ruination of man's situation so much as it was a delaying and complication of his development from the "image" into the "likeness" of God.

In the Irenaean view, man is seen as not having fallen from so great a height of original righteousness, nor to so profound a depth of depravity as in the Augustinian view. In Augustine's view, man was spiritually fully perfected before the fall, but in the Irenaean view man fell in the early stages of his spiritual development, and now needs greater help than would otherwise have been required in carrying through that development.

The Irenaean theodicy also differs from the Augustinian in its view of the purpose of the world. The Irenaean account sees the world as a place for "soul-making," an environment in which the human personality may develop and grow. Nature, as an environment for man, has its own autonomous laws, which man must learn to obey. If God had created a world in which natural laws were continually changed to fit human desire, then there would be no opportunity for humans to grow through subordinating their desire to external laws. There would be no occasions in which humans could do any evil or harm, and consequently there would be no occasions for moral choice. In this view, the making of such choices is the primary means by which human growth -- the growth that God intended this world to be the arena for -- is made. Therefore it was necessary that God create the world and humans in such a way that humans would be faced with moral choices in order that humans might develop the moral virtues.

It is clear that the Irenaean account of the origin of evil avoids some of the problems and consequences of the more traditional Augustinian accounts. (Note 4) One of the possible difficulties of such a view, however, is that it may not take sufficient cognizance of divine sovereignty (i.e it seems to go against at least some parts of the Bible, such as Job and Romans), and it is difficult to harmonize such an account with any strong doctrine of creation. More importantly, we can ask why man could not have been created by God already perfect, having the virtues that are supposed to be developed through those moral choices. One answer to that question is that a developed virtue is more valuable than one created by divine fiat, and that God is not content to have creatures with only ready-made or ready-created qualities.

That reply seems not to be completely satisfactory, however, because the connection between gaining virtues and going through trials is not a direct one; there is no one-to-one correspondence between having overcome some potential evil and having developed a virtue, in fact the evidence for any such correspondence is vague at best. At least as many people (probably more) have been crushed by life's challenges as have developed virtues through overcoming them. It would seem that those who have been crushed would have reason to say that what they were faced with was not something that was a good placed before them by the Creator. Discussions of these points tend to trail into discussions of eschatology, claiming that in the final eschaton, all will be made good, and it will then be found that Divine Purpose was fully good and fully provident after all. Such eschatological discussions, however, place the solution to theodicy beyond discussion because they depend on what cannot be known (at least to finite creatures) because it is future.

In more recent developments of Irenaean-type theodicy there is a tendency to give up the notion of the fall as a primordial historical event or occurrence, and to see it as a mythological account of a general human difficulty and tendency -- an general impediment to development existing within all human life. This view also tends toward assuming that the fall (considered either as a primordial historical event, or as an impediment existing naturally within human life) was an inevitable consequence of human existence.

As Young Oon Kim has noted, one possible way of handling the problem of evil is to drastically reduce or qualify the goodness of God, and any theology which asserts the existence of divine predestination of evil and damnation, or of an eternal hell implies a limitation to God's goodness and love. (Kim, p. 68) In these views, God is sovereign, Lord of nature and history. What right do we humans have to question God's acts, and especially what right do we have to judge Him by our finite ethical standards? (The references above to Job and to Saint Paul's claims in Romans argue precisely this way.) In addition to Job and Saint Paul, the Christian reformers -- Luther, Calvin and Zwingli -- tended to attempt to solve the problem of evil in this way. They and those who follow them tend to argue that whatever God wills is right because God, as Sovereign, wills it.

That answer, however, commits or leads to a logical absurdity: in asserting that divine sovereignty makes whatever God does good, there is an implicit assertion that what would otherwise not be good is good only because God does or wills it. This implies that 'good' does not have any independent meaning or status, and if 'good' means something different depending on who is saying or doing whatever is in question, then no logical discussion seems possible. If what God wills is good simply because God wills it, then there is no independent meaning to 'good,' and discussions of goodness will become impossible because there is no logical way of understanding or defining goodness. This solution, moreover, turns Christianity into a rigid form of determinism, makes God into a despot, and makes the (seemingly arbitrary) exercise of divine power more important than moral or ethical standards.

This problem of God versus man is a central problem of western monotheistic theology and culture, i.e. of Judeo-Christian and Islamic life, religion and culture. In fact, it is possibly the dominant problem of these cultures and religions. The God versus man problem, however, seems to be much less severe -- and possibly even nonexistent -- for the life, religion and culture of Oriental societies (I have in mind primarily Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto, and their various offspring) because those cultures and religions do not really have a personal, sovereign, creator God. Instead they have a more naturalistic god, a god that is everywhere and is expressed in nature and in human events and life, a god that is not really a person who says "I am."

The orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition, however, has a God who is a sovereign person in a strong sense, who describes Himself in the great assertion, "I AM WHO I AM" of the Old Testament, (Exodus 3:14 RSV) a God who is so holy that His name cannot even be spoken by humans. In other words, God asserts his own "I-ness" from the beginning. In order then for humans to relate with this God, they must submit or bow down or humble their own "I-ness" below God's "I-ness." Human existence and well-being therefore seems to be circumscribed by -- or even compromised before -- God's existence, while God's existence or "I-ness" is not circumscribed by or compromised before human existence in the same way.

Attempts, such as those of Plantinga and others, to argue that God's creation of free beings means that they must have the real ability to choose evil seem to me to be problematic also. The doctrine of divine creation seems to me to imply that whatever characteristics any created person has -- whether those characteristics be faith or lack of faith, perseverance or lack of perseverance, love or lack of love, or whatever -- all those characteristics themselves are ultimately the characteristics that were given to the person by God. God is the Ultimate Cause, and hence the ultimate cause of the personality and character, the will and abilities, the desires and needs of each individual also. Each person is a resultant being, and hence not the cause of himself, or of his characteristics.

Most Christian attempts to account for such a God-human split or tension claim that it came about because of the fall of man. That account, however, is not fully convincing. If there was a fall (either a primordial disastrous one, or a general one that happens naturally to all in the course of human development), it seems that the divine-human split must have existed before that fall; if there had been no such split -- if human interest were not sometimes in conflict with divine desire, as an inevitable result of human existence -- then there would hardly be any possibility of any fall.

A fall, if it happens for any reason other than divine predestination (and note that some theologies, such as that of Augustine, hold that the fall was predestined), could only come about because humans chose it because they were motivated by a human desire. (The only other possibility is that it was a purely random accident -- but in that case it is impossible to see how there could be any human responsibility for it, and any just account would require that God solve the problem by his fiat). Such human desire, at least in the case of the primordial fall, can be accounted for (assuming a non-Manichean doctrine of creation) only as a desire that arises as an inevitable result of the facts of divine creation. But such a desire must also be contradictory to God's desire.

The conclusion seems to be that some conflict between God's desire and human desire seems to arise inevitably from creation, which implies that the divine-human split or tension must be inherent, in some fashion, in creation. The choice confronting humans even before the fall, therefore, must have been between choosing God's way or denying their own happiness (or at least what they perceived as their present happiness -- in other words, they had to deny their immediate perceptions in favor of divine law).

In some accounts of the origin of evil, Satan figures prominently as the seducer or deceiver of humans, and the primary onus or responsibility for causing evil is placed on Satan. This may be of great help in developing a demonology and an adequate theology and piety of evil and it may help toward an adequate theory of human responsibility, but it is of hardly any consequence for the problem of theodicy. It merely shoves the problem back one step earlier, to accounting for why Satan chose evil instead of good, which brings us only to the same set of questions as discussed above. Satan seems to be merely another victim in this drama, a character who is himself a created being, and who therefore faces a similar dilemma as the humans. In other words, the being who became Satan was caught in the same bind or dilemma of having either to submit to God, which meant to give up some perceived good, or else defying God, which meant his downfall. In either case, he lost something.

Anselm discussed the fall of Satan, and tried to account for it on the basis of a distorted will. Anselm tried to use this account to place the onus for Satan's fall on Satan himself, removing any onus from God. Anselm discussed the problem in terms of whether Satan was given perseverance and a will sufficient to resist falling. According to Anselm, God gave Satan a will and perseverance sufficient for him to avoid the fall, but Satan nevertheless fell. Anselm seems to suggest that it was Satan's failure to receive, and not God's failure to give, that caused the problem.

It seems to me, however, that Anselm's answer does not accomplish his purpose of removing the onus of Satan's fall from God. It is obviously false to claim that Satan was given a sufficient will and perseverance to avoid turning to evil, as Anselm claims, for if Satan had possessed these sufficiently to avoid falling, then he would in fact not have fallen. The fact that he fell proves that his will and perseverance were not sufficiently strong to avoid falling. Since the will and perseverance he had were given to him by God, then the conclusion must be that God did not give him a sufficient will and perseverance to avoid falling, and if God offered but Satan did not receive, then this came about because God did not give Satan a sufficient desire or will to receive. I do not see that Anselm has really answered this problem. (Note 5)

Another possible way of attempting to solve the problem of the origin of Satan may be to see Satan as a formerly good but imperfect being -- an angel who, like the pre-fall Adam, was growing toward some fuller state of existence -- who fell from that state, and then (or thereby) induced the human fall. In other words, it may be possible to adapt an Irenaean-type theodicy for the fall of Satan also, and in that way account for the Biblical suggestion that an evil being induced the human fall.

As can be seen from this discussion, the arguments and discussions about the problem of theodicy seem inconclusive in that there seems to be no solution (or at least no solution from logic or from theological speculation) that is not open to serious and seemingly unanswerable questions about its adequacy and accuracy. Young Oon Kim notes that some theologians and philosophers have concluded that the origin of evil may be a mystery that is beyond powers of human comprehension. But she also notes -- and she is surely correct in this observation -- that more and more Christian theologians tend towards a view that limits God's sovereignty in some way, (Kim, pp 69, 71) despite the Biblical claims otherwise, and despite what seem to be the requirements for divine power inherent in a doctrine of creation. (But also, as noted above, many theologians, especially process theologians, tend also to give up those notions of creation that imply sovereign divine power.)

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