Can God and evil co-exist?
Stephen Fry has taken the lid off Pandora’s Box in his interview with Gay Byrne, and out has come the problem of evil! Writing or talking helpfully about evil is hard work. At school I was fascinated by mercury. You see it and feel it but it is impossible to hold it: it slips away from you. If my comments are less than fully coherent, it is because I feel like someone doing a painting in the dark. Evil is a bit like handling mercury: it is fascinating but very difficult to grapple with or understand. I will make some remarks about it from a philosophical point of view, and then from the perspective of Christianity.
But, some will ask, why drag in religion? Because I do not believe we can rationally cope with evil without illumination from a higher source. The Judaeo-Christian tradition has been grappling with the issue of evil from time immemorial, and for me it sheds some light on the problem, without pretending to satisfy all questions. On a dark road even a small torch can help you to read the signposts and struggle along. I am not interested in silencing opponents. I am trying to articulate what I hold myself, in the hope that this may be helpful to those who, thanks to Stephen Fry, wonder about evil in the world. And I am interested in whatever responses come in. Newman wrote of ‘kindly light amid the encircling gloom’. When kindly light is shared, it can give us more light to go on, and also can energise us to play our own part in the struggle against the evil around us.
Is God the cause of evil? Before we decide Yes or No, it is important to agree on what we are talking about when we use the word ‘evil.’ In his book Is God to Blame? (Dublin, Veritas, 2007) Gerard J. Hughes SJ points up the complexity hidden in that little word. He says that a person can only be blamed for something if each of the following conditions is met:
- The action done is bad, all things considered
- The person accused performed that action
- The person knew what they were doing and how things would turn out
- The person could have done better
- The person knew that they could have done better.
We can reflect on these points.
What is evil? Evil cannot be understood directly. The action which emerges as evil can be grasped only too clearly, but the evil hidden in the action is less obvious. Evil is the absence of what should be present in an action. Two actions can look similar, but one may be good and the other evil. A surgeon tells a patient: ‘I’m going to chop off your leg’. That is the right thing to do if the patient has gangrene. If a torturer says, ‘I’m going to chop off your leg to make you talk’ that is an unreasonable thing to do: we call it evil. But if there is something essential missing in what we call evil, we cannot hope to understand it fully: it lacks essential meaning. It’s a bit like the puncture in a tyre – something’s missing! When we fail to act in accordance with right reason, evil creeps into the situation.
Is God then guilty as charged? Can we show that this world of ours is a bad one, all things considered? From a philosophical point of view this may be as good a world as can be had. God could have created a different sort of universe, but we are talking about this one: we do not have another to compare ours with! And our world has so much good about it, as well as having evil mixed in.
Should we blame God for our freedom? Our misuse of our freedom causes evil. We know this from inner experience, and from awareness of others’ actions on ourselves. Is it reasonable to blame God for this? One thinks of Flip Wilson’s line ‘Hey, don’t blame me! It was that snake!’ Of course we can say that God should not have made a world in which we can do wrong; that creation was a bad idea. But that brings us back to the logic of the previous paragraph. It is hard to prove that creation is so bad that it should have been cancelled.
Did God know how things would turn out? As humans we have no insider track on divine knowledge. Let’s suppose God knows all things: then God knows about the reality of evil in our world. But – and this is where faith must come in – God also knows how evil can be transcended. Why so? Because, in the Christian tradition, God enters our world in Jesus Christ, opposes evil in all its forms, and experiences it personally to the point of death. His resurrection was proof to his disciples that he had overcome evil radically, and that this restored hope to all humankind. Evil is not the end: it has been mastered, even if it still ravages the earth and continues to break human hearts. Of course the case for Christianity is hotly disputed, but that is beyond our scope right here, as it would bring us into the world of belief, of scripture and of theology. We would have to take up the question: How reasonable is belief, and what make this or that belief reasonable?
Could God do better than this? We do not know. We are offered the de facto divine resolution of the problem of evil. God does not offer us a full explanation of evil: we are given a light to help us through the surrounding darkness. Accepted together with the divine promise of eternal life, it is enough to carry many people through the ‘valley of darkness’. But for many others, this goes beyond reasonable belief.
There are then no easy answers to the issue of evil. Those who dismiss evil by proclaiming simply a loving and caring God are refusing to deal with the issue. But so are those who reject God out of hand because evil exists. Dismissiveness of other points of view shows one hasn’t grasped the problem in any comprehensive way. I believe the best we can do is to try to lay down some stepping stones to guide us across a fast flowing river. To try to prove too much is fatal: it is better simply to offer suggestions that do justice to this dark mystery. Arguing doesn’t help – the ping pong approach leaves both sides frustrated. We need to sit on the same side of the table, listen sincerely to each other, and try to move forward together.
I am speaking here only of moral evil, which, according to some authors is the cause of 95% of human suffering. Personally, I have a big problem with why carnivores exist: an innocent rabbit savaged by a swooping eagle upsets me. Nature is both beautiful beyond imagining, but also ‘red in tooth and claw’. Must it be so? Is there a glimmer of light to be found in the fact that since the material world is all inter-related, deviation in one area leads to problems in another? So, if human beings commit evil, this may affect the world of nature? Christians get support for that idea from St Paul’s comment that creation, though now subject to decay, will obtain the freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:21).
But back to the issue of moral evil, where human beings misuse their freedom and wreak appalling suffering on others. Evil is a problem especially for believers. How can they hold in tension the existence of God and of evil? Believers affirm the existence of a being who is good and almighty. They say: ‘Witness the beauty of nature, the wonder of the cosmos, the goodness of so many people, the existence of love in the world. Everything speaks of mystery, because humans find themselves in a world not of their own making. We are visitors to an extraordinary planet which seems to have known we were coming, and has provided suitable support systems for our survival.’ So far so good. Prayer and worship follow. BUT…
What happened when my religiously-minded forebears were first faced with suffering and evil? What did troglodytes make of death when they first experienced it? How did they come to terms with the incursion by a neighbouring tribe that stole all their women and children? Philosophies and theologies were born here. So the Hebrews of 4,000 years ago began to grapple with the problem. On the one hand, they argued that God is good, God provides a promised land for us, saves us from our enemies, liberates us, intervenes through prophets and rulers to keep us on the right path. But on the other hand, how can such a God let evil people prosper?
The Psalms are full of advice for God as to how evil people should be dealt with: ‘Kill them off!’ But God exercises the divine privilege of being totally unpredictable. God turns out not to think as humans do. God is not a spectator-god, not a Roman emperor who chooses some for death and others for life. Instead of dealing destruction on evildoers from without, God intervenes indeed, but by way of entering into the human condition in the person of Jesus. He works to transform human history from within.
This puts God at risk. Four hundred years earlier, Plato wrote his myth about the cave, where a good man trying to bring his fellow prisoners out of the cave, into freedom and sunlight, is murdered by them. Nothing new here, when this happens to a young itinerant preacher and healer outside Jerusalem who is teaching a message of love and equality. He is rejected, betrayed, tortured, killed and buried, and thus removed from the face of the earth. But then the story of this man’s rising from the dead and returning to strengthen his followers! But is this believable?
Critical to the Christian story about evil is the historical truth of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Scholars will debate the evidence till the end of time, because it is not conclusive evidence, but enough to persuade at least some open-minded people. There are some 2.4 billion Christians in the world today who profess, at least nominally, belief in Jesus Christ, Saviour. To me the evidence is persuasive, but not overwhelming. Living it out carries its own conviction: it is intelligible and non-contradictory. It also makes for a rich and worthwhile mode of living and relating. And it carries the promise that the best is yet to come.
Such, in the Christian view, is the divine response to evil. Opposites are connected: God is shown as good, concerned and as dealing with evil, but in an unexpected way – the way of love. Human freedom is respected: people are free to choose to live by love. The love, of course, is love of another kind than the world is accustomed to: it is a suffering love which embraces everybody, bad and good. Love of enemies is central: this love is non-violent. It seeks to win people over, never to eliminate them. It works, even in this world, to create a community of humankind; a community in which everyone is welcomed, and in which all is shared. The challenge can bring out the best in those who share the vision. But the community will reach its fullness only in the world to come.
Christian thinkers draw from the Christ-event some important insights. The first is that God works to bring good out of evil. God could eliminate evil but instead respects it and its perpetrators, and works from within the human heart to transform evil. God also asks for patience: it will take the whole of human history for God to bring about this transformation: ultimate joy must await the world to come.
Another insight is called ‘the dynamic of the Cross’. If Jesus chose to transform evil in a radical way by getting right inside it and breaking its power, we can do likewise. His patient and loving acceptance makes the difference. He accepts reality! So, my partner walks out on me and the kids: how do I face this? A drunk driver leaves my son in vegetable condition: how do I respond? What I cannot change, I can put up with patiently, and this brings an inner transformation in me. The alternative is to allow evil to dominate me.
A third insight: Thomas Aquinas, a man of huge understanding of philosophy and theology, asserts early in his Summa: ‘God is so almighty and good that he would not allow evil at all unless he could bring good out of it.’ That is the Christian tradition. But it does not and must not attempt to explain too much. God cannot be domesticated or sorted out by human thinking, as Job discovered. Glib remarks about what God wills or does not will are out of place. I cringe when well;-intentioned persons say: ‘Sure, wasn’t it for the best that the child died when it did?’ or ‘God wants us to suffer as his Son did.’ My own view is God will have a lot of explaining to do if and when we meet, given all the tears of humankind. But God didn’t ask my advice 14 billion years ago about getting creation going. So I cling by my finger nails to belief in the goodness of God, as shown in nature and the cosmos, and most of all in the Christ-event. But I am in constant danger of losing my grip in the face of the world’s evil.
Guest blogger – Brian Grogan SJ
Brian Grogan has spent many years working with groups on the application of Ignatian spirituality in everyday life. He is the author of a number of books on diverse topics, including death and the afterlife, making meetings work, and the nature of Jesuit education. He lives in Dublin.
Photo: Haags Uitburo / Flickr (CC)