A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
The technical term for a defence of God's goodness and omnipotence
in the face of the existence of evil is "theodicy", a term coined by
Gottfried Leibniz (from "theos", God, and "dike", justice). The theodicies
of traditional theology are many and ingenious. They range from concluding
that God is evil to dismissing evil entirely. It seems that today's
answers may require a new and sensitive awareness of the the world - and
of what evil really is.
A later insertion into the
original Lord's prayer includes the words, "And deliver us from evil." I
for one have often thought of evil as something external to myself. It's
some sort of negative power out there, struggling against good for the
soul of man. I suspect that many others have thought of evil similarly.
It can be strangely comforting to construe the world in this way. We can all
the more easily think of ourselves as on the side of the good. If we do
submit to evil from time-to-time we can, as it were, come back from the
brink. We can step away from fatal contamination.
God is almost universally defined as without evil, as completely good. But
how can a good God allow evil? Boethius, a Roman scholar who influenced the
Church greatly, put the question as Si Deus justus - unde malum? "If
God is righteous, why evil?" He reasoned that either God wishes to prevent
evil but cannot, in which case God is just but not omnipotent; or God can
prevent evil but chooses not to, in which case God is omnipotent but not
This sort of reasoning presents but a taste of
the tortuous arguments about evil which pepper the history of human thought
and, in particular, of Christian theology. That none of those arguments has
succeeded explains why the question remains a central weakness in the
various ways in which we seek to speak of God.
- Plato, on whose philosophy much Christian teaching is
founded, thought of God as "the Good". This perfect God is at the top of
a chain of being. Thus the only "not-good" (or evil) is that which
doesn't exist except as an aspect of something else. "Nothing evil
exists in itself, but only as an evil aspect of some actual entity
. Problem solved.
Those who have taken up Plato's view of the world usually conclude that
evil is illusory. At any rate, evil is like what seems to be an ugly
smudge on an otherwise beautiful picture. Step back, and you'll see that
it only seems an ugly blotch on an otherwise beautiful work of art. The
dark patch is actually part of a splendid whole. Thus even if certain
things seem evil, God in truth hasn't designed them this way - as anyone
who knows the bigger picture can readily conclude. We might call the
Christian institution of Inquisition evil, for example. But, according
to this view, even that may not be what it seems to us.
Evil as illusory is also the conclusion of the Hindu Vedanta
teachings. The world and all its evils is maya or illusion.
Christian Science in the West maintains a similar position. Its founder,
Mary Baker Eddy, wrote that "... evil is but an illusion, and it has no
real basis. It is a false belief" .
- The Persian solution has been to propose that we live
amidst an eternal struggle between the powers of light and the powers of
darkness. There is a battle of cosmic proportions between the forces of
good and evil. This is a common social explanation. But it only removes
the problem of evil a step away. It can be met by asking why a good God
allows the powers of evil to exist at all. Nevertheless, this dualistic
approach is still popular. Many (if not the majority) of Christians
think of the world as a battleground between God and Satan. They point
to Communism, or terrorism or cloning as examples of satanic forces
operating in our world, and which directly challenge the revealed
goodness of God's will for us.
Augustine of Hippo recognised that our notion of God would be
compromised if we allowed that God created evil in any way. But if that
was so, how could humans choose evil unless it first existed? He thought
that Satan had caused mankind to fall into sin. But where did Satan come
from? Augustine taught that Satan had fallen into evil by rebelling
against God. But if that was evil, where did the evil come from? A E
McGrath remarks, "From there, Augustine appears to have been reduced to
silence" .According to
John Hick, Augustine seeks refuge in obscurity or mystery by suggesting
that when we choose evil it's like trying to see darkness or hear
- Some refuse to limit God in any way. God to them is rather like a
ruler who has absolute power. God is omnipotent. The famous 20th century
theologian, Karl Barth, was one such. He asked how we can dispute God's
wisdom and goodness in making the universe the way it is. We should, he
thought, simply accept things as they are. That any person should be
evil (damned) or good (saved) has been decided by God long before he
created our world (predestination). The clay cannot rightly complain
about the potter. But God's omnipotence in this respect derives not from
a power to do anything and everything. Rather, it is God's grace which
through Jesus Christ will ultimately triumph over evil and suffering.
Thus we can maintain our morale and hope even in the face of, for
example, genocide. The clay knows that the potter will eventually
produce the perfect artifact. Augustine, with typical enthusiasm, also
holds this view. God sees the bigger picture which is hidden from us.
"To you there is no such thing as evil. When the entire creation is
taken as a whole, there is no evil" .
An implication of this approach is that there are, as it were, levels or
orders of good. What seems good to one may appear bad to another. Some
Christian theologians propose further that as long as the evil is
balanced by punishment it is of no account in the greater scheme of
things. Despite appearances, then, we do live in the best possible
- Perhaps the most common approach is that which acknowledges that God
made the universe as it is. In this sense the world reveals God 's
nature. God can't deny the logic of language, for example, since logic
is something intrinsic to God's created order. No more can God suspend
gravity since it's a fundamental force which binds the entire universe
into a system. Similarly, there are rules or laws about goodness. God
can't suspend them either for they reveal God's goodness in relation to
our behaviour. So murder is always wrong and its outcomes always evil.
Evil is created when we humans break God's eternal laws. God must
"allow" evil because it's subsidiary to the moral laws God has made
intrinsic to the universe.
This implies that choice between good and evil is essential to being
human. If God made humanity that way, then evil is necessary. It is
logically impossible, said Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), for God to
bestow free will on us and at the same time decree that there should be
no sin and therefore no evil. We can rest assured, he said, that we
inhabit the best of all worlds - since good outweighs evil. As Bertrand
Russell remarks, " This argument apparently satisfied the Queen of
Prussia. Her serfs continued to suffer the evil, while she continued to
enjoy the good ..." .
A modern variation on this theme is that of John Hick
. He proposes that humans are created to progress to maturity
through life. In doing so they must, of course, have at least a degree
of free choice. This implies freedom to choose both right and wrong. A E
McGrath  suggests that this has the
weakness of lending a positive role to evil in the broader scheme of
One other worthwhile approach to theodicy is to suggest that God as
creator has freely set aside power to compel sentient beings to conform.
This is the suggestion of Process Theology .
Evil exists because there can be no guarantee that the opportunities God
provides for us will be used for the best. So God can't be said to be
responsible for evil. Rather, God accepts its existence as something
which accompanies free will.
It seems to me that none of the above is a really
satisfactory solution to the problem of evil. Perhaps it's impossible to
find one. If it were possible, surely it would have been put forward by
One reason why solutions to such problems can't be found
may be that the problem itself has been badly or incorrectly stated. When
that is the case, it's better to re-state the problem and see what answers
pop out. Rather get out of the river and walk along the bank, than swim
against the current to no avail.
My suggestion is that we first take a look at the
universe as created by God. It seems impossible to demonstrate that the
universe is created - just as it's impossible to demonstrate (prove) that
But if God did create the universe, and if God is good,
then we can only conclude that the universe is good in all its aspects.
The importance of evil in our lives arises because we all have a basic
belief that this world is, by and large, a good place to be in.
If we choose this starting point, all the arguments
above come into play. We know the results. Whether or not they are correct
or satisfactory, the fact is we have to live with things as they are. The
same applies if the universe has some origin other than God, or if it
simply exists as an absolute in itself.
That's just the way it is. Let's stop worrying about it
and accept that God is good, and that what we call evil is simply part of
the package we're given for better or worse. Or if God doesn't enter into
the equation for some, then equally, "That's the way it is".
Another suggestion is to re-think the meaning of the
The universe (created or not) is what it is. It
comprises processes which are frequently unpleasant and often fatal to
life. Indeed, the very process through which humans came into being is one
which entails a struggle to survive, sometimes against enormous odds. So,
for example, the famous Neanderthal human has failed to survive - most
probably because it could not compete with Homo Sapiens.
To call natural suffering and death "evil" is, I
venture, not useful. This usage dates back to time when the physical
universe was understood in a very different way. Then the devastation
caused by a volcanic explosion could be called evil because its origins
and importance were not understood. In contrast, we know today that
without volcanoes life could not exist on earth. In short, they are God's
blessing on living beings, difficult as it may be to perceive them in such
The same argument applies to a host of other so-called
natural "evils" - such as disease, natural disasters and the like.
 Enchiridion, quoted by John Hick in the Encyclopedia of
 Science and Health, 1934
 History of Western Philosophy
 Evil and the God of Love
 Christian Theology: An Introduction, 1994
 See A N Whitehead