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.