Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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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 just.

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 [1]. 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"
    [6].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 silence.
  • 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" [3]. 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 world.
  • 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 ..." [4].

    A modern variation on this theme is that of John Hick [5]. 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 [6] suggests that this has the weakness of lending a positive role to evil in the broader scheme of things.

    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 [7]. 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 now.

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 God exists.

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 word "evil".

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 terms.

The same argument applies to a host of other so-called natural "evils" - such as disease, natural disasters and the like. 
[1] Enchiridion, quoted by John Hick in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967
[2] Science and Health, 1934
[3] Confessions
[4] History of Western Philosophy
[5] Evil and the God of Love
[6] Christian Theology: An Introduction, 1994
[7] See A N Whitehead 

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