‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ (Edmund Burke et al)

In this post we turn our attention to the idea that people who fail to do good in the world are wittingly (and unwittingly) guilty of evil. While it may offend some on first reading, the failure of the person to do good when it’s within their ability to act, is often referred to as a sin of ommision – that is when a person ‘omits’ to do something that will help another and a consequence arises. A moment in time when the person with power – be that physical, mental, resources etc –  has the opportunity to do good BUT  chooses to not go through with it.

There are many reasons why this happens. Sometimes the person falters because of fear. Other times it might be greed or because there wasn’t enough time to act before the window of opportunity closed on them? Or maybe it never crossed the person’s mind to act in that situation. Now, unlike moral evil which is seen through actions such as slander, malice, cruelty, murder etc,  sins of omission are best classified as ‘inaction.’ All of which means that the person who is suffering and experiencing some form of pain and desirous for someone to alleviate their suffering is often unaware of the potential answer that was not afforded them when the person crossed over to walk on the other side of the street. An example, aptly detailed in the Bible story of the Good Samaritan who’s action to the wounded traveller surpasses the righteous and reverred men who went before him on the trail that day.

So what is the answer?

Well, one thing  we can all do is to resolve to take action immediately against unfairness and injustice in the world where it is within our power to act.  Another, is to resolve to be active in God’s world being mindful that we are His solution and how our failure to deal with our own sins of ommision will always perpetuate the injustices we see around us.

Why doesn’t God lay down a marker so we know those who are evil from those who are good?

Now, because the issue of God’s lack of intervention in our world will be addressed in a future post, it will suffice at this point to consider one serious flaw in the proposal that God remove evil people from our world – with whom and where would God begin this process? A difficult question because surely every one of us is taken with the temptation to commit evil, albeit in some sort of lesser form. In fact, moral evil is perhaps better described as a problem that is endemic to society because it occurs in all human beings to one degree or another in that no one is exempt from losing their temper or thinking ill of another.

Just as a child takes another child’s toy and causes upset so a person gossips and brings misery to the other person who is spoken about. Or someone cheats on their tax return with the result that the government is denied revenue that would help others. Another person crashes their vehicle into a parked car and drives away, leaving the owner to meet the expense of repair.

From these examples, what we see is that if God were to oblige us in our request and remove people who do wrong in our world, a problem would immediately occur: what degree of evil is acceptable and at what point do we draw the line to determine who is in and who is out? Of course, if it were down to each human being to determine the position of the chalk line by which evil is measured, every one of us would  locate the point at which we would qualify as being ‘not evil’. Indeed, in my life, I have come across several individuals who truly believe they have never done anything wrong in their life. Implausibility of this aside, it is worth noting that moral evil is not so easily determined. We will turn to in the next post.

Why doesn’t God do something about evil people in the world?

 

A bomb explodes killing scores of people and injuring others. Terrorists lay siege to a building taking children and teachers hostage. Refugees are murdered in a wave of ethnic cleansing. Women are kidnapped and trafficked into a foreign country to serve as sex slaves in the prostitution industry. A teenager is stabbed and dies on the street of a city. Just a few of the events which reveal moral evil – that is humans treating others in an evil way – is as prevalent in society today as it has ever been during other periods of our history.

Given the frequency of moral evil in the world, one question that people sometimes ask is ‘Where is God?’ What they actually mean is ‘why doesn’t God do something? Why doesn’t He just come down and sort out all the bad people in our world?’

Behind this question is the rather simplistic idea that God possesses the ability to enter our world and remove people whenever he feels like it. Presumably, God would do this in order to make our world a better place to live. But is this the case or is it that God is ineffectual?Would removing evil people from the world make it better? Moreover, who gets to stay and who gets culled? Lastly – and most importantly – where is the line drawn in the sand by which we know if we stand on the right or wrong side of God?

With this and more in mind, the next seven posts will explore the issue of moral evil in the world and the Christian understanding of freewill and human choice. Hold onto your hats, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

 

 

I have argued that God has created everything ; the doctrine of “ex nihilo” underpins everything Christians believe about God. So, there is a logical need to ask why that included the possibility of evil? This applies even if we put the blame for evil acts on fallen beings like Satan, evil spirits and mankind himself.

High power theologians like Augustine and Aquinas were keen to point out that there is a huge difference in nature between God and creation, what we call an “ontological” difference. Because creation is not God, and because God grants creation an inherent freedom, it is bound to have aspects which are not perfect or eternal. These may be evil, or appear evil to us because they sometimes have bad effects on us.

So much of what we see is not inherently evil but can cause suffering.  An example would be a earthquake, which comes about because of a necessary part of the created order that requires tectonic plates movement. For various reasons this is fundamental to life, but we don’t like it when we get in the way of one. Another example is the sun. We need its light, warmth and other things, but exactly the same physical phenomena that enable us to live can also cause UV over-exposure. This not only gives us sunburn but can be life threatening through the premature aging of the skin, suppression of the immune system, skin cancer and damage to the eyes. Even something as basic as gravity, essential to the way things exist in our universe, becomes a evil from our perspective when we fall from a great height or something falls on our head.

This is just a way of looking at evil from the stance of simple perspective, namely that good things do not always suit our needs. Ultimately this includes death itself.  The “last enemy” as Paul called it (1 Corinthians 15:26 ), prevents the planet that we know from becoming overcrowded and untenable. This will remain true for as long as we live according to the physical laws that God has currently put in place here. These are painful things to us, but having a good perspective on natural evil helps us appreciate the world more and be appreciative of its beauty and preciousness , instead of majoring on its imperfections and hardships.

 

A Logical argument – Is Evil Inevitable by Definition?

There is an anecdotal story about a Jewish man who engages a tailor to make a pair of trousers. After weeks of delay and endless frustration, the man confronts the tail and says, “Even God only took 6 days to make the whole world!” “Yes”, says the tailor, “but just see what a world made in a hurry looks like!”

The Christian tradition asserts God to be wholly different; different not just to man, but to the whole of creation. God exists outside creation and is not a product of it, so there is nothing in it to which He can be compared. We may have analogies to help us partly understand God but in the end he is “wholly other”. When you consider the cosmos, its complexity, size and time span, and the claim that God is in charge, it is just as well that he is truly different, for nothing in the realm of creation would be up to the job.

So, when God created the cosmos that we see with our eyes and telescopes, he was making something “other” than Himself. As such, by definition, there is a profound ontological difference between the entire universe, and God. Creation, by definition, carries with it inescapable imperfection because only God is perfect and the Universe is different from God. Evil, both the possibility of it and the actualisation of it, necessarily arises from this logical but profound difference of being.

Since God is infinite, there is no room for anything else – God has had to enable something other than himself to exist, it is argued. Some element of the tri-unity of God has had to recede, to literally retreat, to vacate the space, in order for creation to exist at all. So creation as we see it is imperfect but profoundly beautiful, where creative forces are allowed to play – the way galaxies and starts get made, the way in which cells divide and a baby is formed. In that creative process, alongside its inherent beauty, there is, from our human perspective an imperfection. It is shaped by finiteness, a tendency to be dependant or contingent on other things, it is mortal and will decay, and its life will be subject to competition, evolution, death and conflict (to a greater or lesser degree).

This difference in Christianity is that this is resolved in eternity. Reality is as we see it, flawed and imperfect. But the message of the gospel is hope –  such times as this will come to an end – sorrow will cease, injustice will not only be ended but will be repaid, sickness will be gone because the inherent imperfection of the current existence will be superseded by something else.

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”       Revelation 21:3-5

The physical order, of which we are undeniably a part, persists as it is in the meantime because it is not God. Because it has been given an inherent creative process, it is alive but finite; nebulae form stars and planets, stars burn fuel, life evolves, and all eventually ends because the imperfection means it is not eternal. This will not satisfy us when grief is consuming us, or when man’s inhumanity to man appears on the television screen. But it is an important thing to understand. Creation is described in Genesis as “good” or very good”. It is very pertinently not described as “perfect”. This may be a good starting point to look at purpose. Is there a redeeming point to the imperfection in the universe?

 

“Give me a God I can Understand!”

We have been considering the question of evil the light of the great theodicy question that confronts the Christian gospel – why does an omnipotent God of eternal love permit the existence of evil?

Christians believe that creation is good, was created good and that evil emerged from it, rather than being part of God’s nature. This is a very important distinguishing feature of Judaism And Christianity, who do not permit the possibility that another god exists, the one responsible for all the bad stuff (a view we call “dualism”). As I have argued, this leaves with a need to look for purpose it the way that God and reality seem to be, warts and all.

This requires us to eventually accept a God of mystery. I was reminded of this listening to a sermon this Sunday about the 10 Commandments and the incident of the Golden Calf. The people of Israel cried out for a God they could understand, a God they could touch, a God they could appease and manipulate in the way that everybody else did. The result was not God at all, but a golden idol, the very opposite of what the commandments contained, literally carried under Moses tired arms as he descended the mountain (Exodus 20 and 21).

The problem of evil illustrates for me that we do not have a God we can fully understand. I have tried to show that we must accept that God created a universe which includes stuff we don’t like, and created or allowed the possibility that evil would emerge from His creation. I will go on to explore why this might be, but without ever pretend that I have the full answer. But I thought I’d like to back up my assertion with something biblical. The Bible contains much that suggests that all reality comes from him, and is sustained and governed by him. The clearest passage I can find is this one from Isaiah, which insists, “I am the Lord, there is no other.”

I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal* and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.     Isaiah 45:5-7

(* “Weal” =  happiness or prosperity.)

There is a danger that we create a theodicy or an explanation for evil that is nothing more than preference doctrine, that is the sort of thing we want to believe because it avoids questions we would prefer not to ask. On toughquestions.org we are saying that these questions are allowed, and the God we seek is not a simple answer to any of them. More than anyone whoever lived, Job perhaps has justification for asking God, “Why do these things happen ?” After much wrangling God answers in Job 38-40 along these lines :

 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?”    Job 38:1-5

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” is a rhetorical question that actually says, these things are not for you to fully understand. God asks us, will we love Him and trust him, even when we do not understand. So before we embark on addressing the “why” questions, I think we need to accept the fact that reality is that it s and there may be a purpose in it, as opposed to the view that it’s all a ghastly mistake and God is currently operating Plan B.  I would seriously counsel, be heard the God you think you understand and beware the theologies of those that make him just like us. He is not.


 

What we’re exploring here is the particular Christian problem with evil.  By evil we mean the issue of suffering of any kind, not just deliberate human malevolence. By this definition, animals suffer from it, and creation suffers from it. If nothing else, everything, is subject to decay and death, and that is an “evil” for our purposes.

Christians have a different problem with this to other faiths. Most faiths have similar ethics, and all recognise the difference between good and evil, exhorting the good. But they do not have the same problem explaining it. For example, Buddhists do not have to worry about why an all powerful God of love does not abolish evil, because they have no such concept of God. Even Muslims, who do have such a concept, prefer to live with the tension between evil and God’s goodness, than concede anything on God’s authority, and power. Evil is because God wills it, the explanation is mystery, and not for us to question.

However, for Christians it is a 2000 year old problem. How do we reconcile a God of omnipotence, omniscience, absolute love, and creatio ex nihilo, with the existence of evil. God is able, and should be willing to remove all evil from the world, but clearly doesn’t do so. This has given rise to the emergence of theories of “god defence” which go by the term “theodicy”. A theodicy is an attempt to explain the notion of evil within the definition of God held by Christians. Theodicy itself has been around for a long time, and the two basic types of theodicy emerged from the 2nd century onwards.

1.          Augustine’s is the best known, and has occupied a more central place in Christian theology. He argues that the problem of evil arises purely because of human choice, and is explained by the Fall (Genesis 3), which he sees as the disaster that explains all history. Human beings, Augustine argued, were created as perfect moral agents with the ability to make choices, both for evil as well as for good. They (Adam and Eve) used that freedom wrongly and evil entered the world. Evil was the absence of good, or privatio boni – the absence of good arising from the wrong use of good moral freedom to make bad moral choices.

2.          Irenaeus (AD 130-202) had a theodicy which accepts God’s partial “responsibility” for the emergence of evil. He prefers the view that says human beings were created as imperfect creatures, and the task of life was to bring them to perfection by development and growth through confronting the moral choices of life. The world is not a “paradise lost” but is as we see it now, with evil and good mixed in, is part of God’s purpose for Ireneus. He tries to explain it by identifying what is achieved through the process of overcoming evil. Iraneuas can also embrace the concept of natural evil in his theodicy (tsunami, earthquake and disease), which is much more difficult for Augustine or any theodicy based on the Fall. Rather than a fall from perfection, Irenaeus sees Genesis as a more like a deflection, or loss of direction, for humanity. The gap between us and God is caused by us wandering off the pathway, not falling from a height.

Augustine’s explanation will appeal to those who refuse to acknowledge that God has any part in the existence of evil. But it has a serious problem of historicity ; what we think we know of history contradicts it because death and suffering predates mankind (see Bob Eckhard’s blog of September 21, 2017) . Irenaeus, on the other hand, will appeal to those who accept this evidence and would prefer to try and explain evil by redeeming its purpose and embracing its challenge.  As such Irenaeus, despite being lesser known and possibly ignored down the centuries, actually offers us some sense of purpose, and even optimism.


Is God Responsible? God, ex-nihilo, and Evil

Things are not right – inwardly we all feel that. The world is manifestly not a perfect paradise, at least according to our human frame of reference. We would acknowledge that from our point of view, creation is not “perfect” . Some Christians go further and say that it is in fact “fallen”. Well that’s a subject for another day, but one of the oldest questions in Christianity is the one that asks: “Given that there is evil in the world, is God to blame?”

Christian thinkers have argued this point for early 2000 years. I am going to argue that God has created a universe where evil is possible, so in a logical sense, if not a moral sense, we have to say that God is involved. I hope to explore the possibilities this opens up, avenues of thinking about life’s challenges which are more, rather than less, helpful.

In the Christian sacred text (the Bible), God is believed to have created everything. That means not just that he crafted everything from something unformed, but that he created everything. Without being too profound, it means He created reality itself; there was no reality to make things from before God made reality itself.

The traditional view is known as creation ex nihilo, a Latin phrase meaning “out of nothing”, which usually comes up in the context of creation, meaning “creation out of nothing”. It is more central, and more important to most Christians’ concept of God than they realise, despite it not being explicitly stated in the bible. It is impossible to envisage, and impossible to prove.  It is not knowledge, it is belief. Ex nihilo is implied in scripture by Genesis 1:1, appropriately the first verse of the bible, and reaffirmed in the fantastic words of John 1:3:

“He (Jesus) was with God in the beginning. 3 Through Him All things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made.”

Not every Christian thinker has accepted ex nihilo, especially as it is theologically derived from the Bible, rather than explicitly stated. However, the alternative view centres on the assertion that God made what we see from pre-existent matter. This means, if true, that the matter of the universe is as eternal as God is and all sort of theological questions then arise. It means that either matter is eternal or that something or someone created the chaos. Creation itself remains unexplained, being the product of something or someone else who failed to finish the job.

That view is convenient (if not attractive) because we could blame evil on that unidentified creator and not on God but the implications are wider than that. We pretty soon end up with God either coexisting with another being (something preceding God or superseding God), or derived from another being, who may or may not have the qualities we associate with “ours”.

Yet if we decide that God cannot have made evil or had any part in it, in an effort to defend God then this is precisely where we end up – ex nihilo is discarded, whether we realise it or not. On the other hand, if we accept ex nihilo as a fundamental basis of Judeo-Christian belief about God and creation then in a sense, God created evil. We can nuance this by saying God created everything therefore He created the possibility, perhaps the probability that evil would emerge.

Our task is not to try and explain that away, but rather accept it as logically inescapable and speculate why. Whether or not we then “blame God” is another matter but we need to start from first principles that at least grant God the supremacy that is claimed in our sacred texts.   That need not be devastating if we keep thinking. We can argue that the way in which the universe works, and the way in humans are made contains something of such value and preciousness, that the emergence or possibility of evil must be worth it. The alternatives might be worse, or there may be a purpose or a reason for all this? I hope to explore that in this series of blogs. Let’s see where we go with it.

In a previous post, I outlined how the Lisbon Earthquake of 1795 rocked the Church’s understanding about God. The rise of enlightenment across Europe with its appeal to a more rational understanding of the Divine, resulted in German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher attempting to reconcile the God found in Nature with a God understood through reason and rationality. The only problem being that in the wake of Lisbon and its 60,000+ deaths, the God who controlled Nature also appeared wanton and destructive.

Voltaire’s ridicule of why Lisbon should be singled out by God when other cities in Europe more notoriously decadent were allowed to survive is a reasonable question to ask. A question which deserves better answers than those provided by believers who have sometimes tried to explain these events in terms of the sovereignty of God, or an issue of faith, or as a Divine mystery. Interestingly, when survivors of the 2004 tsunami were asked to talk about their experience, few of them considered God responsible for the disaster. The reason being that today we live in a secular age where most people do not think such a thing possible or likely of God. However, when people were asked a different question about whether God should have intervened, a good number considered that the Divine was powerless to act in such a situation.

From this, it seems that God is no longer considered the arbiter of natural disasters but rather impotent or not powerful enough to intervene. All of which brings us back to what was hinted at in the first post that whether we like it or not, humans inhabit a world in which nature is at times ‘red in tooth and claw’ (Lord Alfred Tennyson). That said, on the upside, it is also a world in which people are able to make self-determining choices, enabling them to grow and develop with all the risks and challenges this brings.

 

 

 


This strand of the natural disaster argument centres on some people’s belief that suffering is the product of human activity which came about when people decided to rebel against God. The result of this being that the world of humans was changed forever. The thinking goes something like this. Firstly, human rebellion allowed moral evil to come into the world, affecting the way people related with one another (and  God). Secondly, the delicate balance of the physical world was somehow damaged and derailed in this process as the human environment was brought into turmoil.

For many christians who subscribe to this sort of thinking, the turmoil is in the Bible where the present world is likened to a woman labouring in the pains of childbirth, groaning until physical order can be restored (Mark 13v8, Romans 8v22) . Now if such a thing were true, it suggests that the extent of sin is more pervasive than humans presently understand because it affects all kinds of environments. However, in the light of scientific understanding, this also begs the question of whether such a position can be taken seriously or not?

Of course, we know from our experience of natural disasters that these can be caused by human activity within our world. A good example of this is the extended deforestation of Bangladesh which occurred during the 20th century. The extensive flooding of its plains came about because there were no forested valleys left to absorb excessive rainfall higher up in the mountains. A different example is the ‘dust bowl’ which occurred when incorrect farming techniques, combined with storms, turned vast areas of the American and Canadian prairie into desert overnight. Perhaps the most common example that people are aware of today is how industrial development has produced greenhouse gases, currently thought to contribute to the climate change that is melting ice caps and raising temperatures around the world.

Now, although all the disasters I have mentioned are the outcome of human activity, it is questionable whether every phenomenon can be attributed to people in this way. One reason that it is problematic is because scientists date the world’s existence as millions of years before human life began. Given that there is much evidence to support the claim that earthquakes and tsunamis were happening long before human activity, it is not unreasonable to conclude that natural disasters have their origin in something other than human sinfulness. This reasoning is reached by an understanding that if the early development of the world required the movement of tectonic plates to create mountains and valleys, then it is equally likely that occurrences of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis began long before humans were ever around to record these events. All of which means that natural disasters simply cannot be the consequence of human rebellion away from God, because these already occurred at a much earlier date in history.

More notably, English naturalist Charles Darwin, who in his attempts to explain how species adapt and develop in their environments, came across Sir Charles Lyell’s theory of ‘uniformitarianism’. This theory proposed that the world was far older than the date advanced by the Church which had calculated the age by adding together the cumulative years in the genealogy from Adam to Jesus and then an extra 17 centuries after that. Lyell’s theory suggested these biblical calculations were incorrect because the time needed for the weathering and erosion of the landscape to occur (in the rocks he had examined) meant the earth was much older – a planet with an age that should be calculated in millions of years rather than thousands. This theory helped Darwin to begin developing his idea of a much slower and gradual sequence of events in the evolution of species and allowed the sciences to advance independently of the Church. Prior to this, the prevalent view among scholars was that of ‘catastrophism’, which asserted that the earth had changed as a result of violent cataclysmic events which disrupted the regular order of things within it. What Darwin’s model suggested was that change was not sudden but established over lengthy periods of time and in ways that allowed species to adapt and develop in different ways – an idea totally at odds with the global catastrophe described in the Noah account.

So, given that the world and its natural disasters have been in existence far longer than human life and activity, it is not unreasonable to suggest that these phenomena originate from something other than human sinfulness – though clearly not everyone will agree with such a conclusion.