The mystery of evil
Posted on Wednesday, 23 December, 2009 | 8 comments
Columnist: William B Stoecker
For those who believe in the existence of a benevolent Supreme Being, it has always been difficult to understand or explain the existence of evil and of human suffering. If God is virtually omniscient, virtually omnipotent, and truly benevolent, how can anyone explain the slow and painful death of even one child due to cancer or tuberculosis? Why does evil so often triumph in this world, and why are virtuous people condemned to poverty, disability, or disease? How can anyone explain the mass tortures and murders committed by tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Jung Il? Before beginning the discussion, let us establish the ground rules. For the sake of argument, let us assume (as I personally believe, although I adhere to no organized religion or dogma) that there is a God. I shall conform to convention and refer to the Supreme Being as “He,” although I believe that God transcends sex. I qualify His omnipotence and omniscience with the word ”virtual” because, as a mathematician once explained to me, this avoids certain paradoxes. For example, could an omniscient God invent a puzzle He could not solve? Could an omnipotent God create a mountain He could not climb, or a weight He could not lift? Also, as I have explained in detail in my book and in another article, there are reasons for believing that the mystics’ view of reality is the correct one, and that we are ourselves part of God, cells, so to speak, in His brain. This view holds that God created the universe and also sustains it, and that God is the universe.
People have wrestled with the mystery of evil since written records began, and probably long before that. The great Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas, medieval scholars like Boethius, and poets like John Milton have struggled to, as Milton put it, “justify God’s ways to Man.” So what right have I, a relatively unknown author, to attempt this? If, as I believe, all of these great minds tried to solve the mystery, but failed, I can do no worse. All of them believed that God endowed Man with free will, and it was Man’s own choice to sin and fall away from God’s grace. But, if God is virtually omniscient, He knew in advance that this would happen. If He is virtually omnipotent, why did He not prevent it by creating a stronger and more virtuous human species? If Man was tempted by Satan, why did God allow it? And why did He create Satan to begin with, knowing that he would rebel and fall from Heaven? And the whole Judeo-Christian idea of original sin hardly justifies the suffering of innocent children. Is a four year old child really so corrupted by a distant ancestor’s sin that she truly deserves a slow death due to leukemia or hunger? And do we truly have free will if we were in essence programmed by God to be what we are and do what we do? John Calvin, the Protestant leader, dispensed with free will altogether, and believed that God deliberately created evil demons and evil people, programming them to fall, and created a hell of eternal torment to punish them with endless eons of unbearable agony…for being what He made them to be. My apologies to some fundamentalist Christians, but eternal agony and a benevolent God are not connected. And if God was as Calvin claimed, He would be a monster as evil as Satan.
And, even if we assume that free will is possible, why would a benevolent God not establish just and virtuous governments under His control, ensuring peace, prosperity, and right conduct among the people?
So if there is a virtually omniscient and omnipotent God who created everything that exists, and evil exists, this means, inevitably, that God created evil. And this means that God is not (or at one time was not) completely benevolent. We can certainly argue that, overall, God is benevolent. Given that it is the nature of evil always to destroy and never to create, an evil God never could have created the universe, nor, having created it, sustain it. We can also note that, despite the enormity of human (and animal) suffering, the overall picture of the universe is one of order, complexity, and awe-inspiring beauty. A lawn and garden, a park, a seascape, a glaciated mountain…all of these things are beautiful. Away from city lights, when skies are clear, the stars are magnificent, and modern telescopes afford us pictures of stars, planets, nebulae, and galaxies that do, indeed, declare the glory of God. And if there is an eternal afterlife of joy and fellowship with God, finite and temporal suffering in this life may seem insignificant.
And that is all very well. But here and now, in the mud and the blood of the trenches of this life, this gives little comfort to someone paralyzed from the neck down or to a parent whose child is dying. At some point God created evil, and this means that at some point, to some degree, God was partly evil. But does that mean that God is still partly evil? Or could something have happened at the moment of creation, and is there now a completely benevolent Supreme Being? Can Christians and Jews somehow have their cake and eat it too, so to speak? Perhaps they can.
Mystics have always believed that God, in a sense, split into a multitude of lesser beings, including us humans, all of us connected. According to this view, we are all rather like bricks in a wall, individuals, but also part of something larger. Virtuous people recognize their connection with everything else, even if only subconsciously, and behave accordingly. They seek to increase, not decrease, their union with God. But evil beings are completely self absorbed and egotistical, and seek separation from God, not union. Ultimately this leads to terrible suffering and perhaps even the death of their souls, but they care only for themselves and for the here and now. It therefore seems likely that at the moment of creation the most evil beings of all, the devil and his demons, would have deliberately separated themselves from God and from the rest of the universe. Perhaps this is the true meaning of the Biblical account of the war in Heaven and Satan’s fall. The demons were not cast out of Heaven by a tyrannical God, but left of their own (corrupted) free will. If there is a Hell, it is they, not God, who have caused it. If this view is correct, God is now completely benevolent, free of the evil portions of His being, who are now at war with Him and His creation.
It can be argued that God is a being who transcends time, and that questions like “Who made God?” or “What did God do before the creation?” are completely meaningless. If time began at the moment of creation, there simply was no “before.” Of course, if our modern cosmologists with their “big bang” theory (which is remarkably similar to the Judeo-Christian view of creation) are wrong, and the universe has always been here, this would mean that God and the Devil have always been separate. Either way, the continued existence of evil would mean that God, while immensely powerful, is not quite strong enough to defeat the Devil…yet.
William B StoeckerArticle Copyright© William B Stoecker - reproduced with permission.