Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH)

SIXTH SUMMER SCHOOL

“Philosophy for the Social Sciences and Humanities”[1]

Theme: Banality of Evil

4-15 July, 2011 

The Problem of Evil:  A Theological Perspective

 

Fr. Dr. K. M. George

 

              “Evil provides the primary challenge to every religious view of life and the world. Philosophies have no explanation - evil is the rock of Gibraltar on which all rational systems eventually founder and end up in splinters.”1

                              - Huston Smith (historian and philosopher)

 

Let me begin with a personal story. I was in my late twenties when I received an invitation from my Polish fellow students in Paris to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, the sinister remains of the largest Nazi concentration camp in Poland.

It was the biggest of the “labour” camps set up by Adolph Hitler during the Second World War that witnessed the genocide of about 6 million Jews - two thirds of all European Jewry.

Over the ominous looking metal gate of the horror camp one reads the German phrase: Arbeit  macht frei  - “Work sets  you free” or “Labour liberates”. Protected by electrified barbed wires with high sentry posts, the death camp literally haunted me with nightmares for many days to come. The reputed German efficiency, capacity for hard work, sense of system and order, technical know-how and political power combined with an anti-Semitic nationalistic ideology rooted in xenophobia, ethnic hatred and racial superiority were applied to torture and systematically eliminate millions of human beings.

All my rosy, youthful optimism about human goodness was shattered to a great extent by that experience. Ever since I have been forced to struggle with the question of evil as something enigmatically real and painfully existential in human life. As we know modern Western (European) civilization is sometimes divided into pre and post-Holocaust periods because of the tremendous metaphysical, ethical and spiritual questions that emerged from the Holocaust experience. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and several others have given us   graphic accounts of   that darkest of human evil occurrence in history in the middle of the 20th century, arguably in the most “civilized” part of the world.

 The problem of evil is one of the hardest nuts to crack in philosophy and theology. Western Christian theologians sometime use the expression crux theologorum (the cross of the theologians) for certain questions that do not yield any satisfactory answers during our life-time in this world. Problem of evil seems to belong to that category of unsolved questions. The word ‘mystery’ is often attached to the Being of God as well as to the existence of evil. Here mystery is not like any usual scientific problem that can be resolved with more research, more data and new paradigms of thinking.

In all theistic traditions there is some sort of a notion, with shades of difference, of an Omniscient (All-knowing), Omnipotent (All-powerful) and Omnibenevolent (All-good) God who is the Creator, Sustainer and Judge of the universe. The problem of evil is integrally connected to this concept of God. If God is All-knowing, All-powerful and All-good why is there evil in the world? Does a good God create and permit evil or is an all-bountiful God not capable of checking or eliminating evil?

All religious traditions have evolved theodicies to answer these questions though the answers hardly suffice to satisfy those who struggle existentially with the question of evil. A theodicy is a systematic attempt to justify or defend God who is Omnibenevolent. (Theos=God; dikē = justification) . It is ‘a vindication of God’s  justice in the face of the existence of evil’  - an attempt on the part of the believing persons to justify or defend the all-knowing and all-benevolent creator God while encountering  innocent suffering,  various forms of natural disasters, disease, and the many  social evils, created by human beings…

Religions, however, have provided various theodicies to explain the existence of evil, to circumvent it or to give solace to those who directly suffer from it. Let me mention a few of the current theodicies:

Indian Karma Siddhanta is considered to be an ingenious way of dealing with the enigma of evil. Evil is closely related to human free will and its exercise. Depending on the quality of one’s actions during a life time one is reborn into higher or lower forms of existence. One is caught in the samsara of repetitive cycles of birth and death until one’s actions weigh positively enough for one’s liberation from the cycle. One life-time of an individual is not enough  for accounting good and evil unlike in the linear historical Semitic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

 Historian Romila Thapar once remarked that “the fundamental sanity of Indian civilization has been due to an absence of Satan”[2]. While this may be a sweeping generalization, particularly contrasting it with the Semitic monotheistic cultures in which both God and Satan are considered  ‘persons’ one cannot ignore the pervasive notions of evil in various Indian traditions. On the other pole of sat there is asat, and the prayer and aspiration of any good person is to be guided from asat to sat. (Asato ma satgamaya). Likewise darkness (tamas) and mortality (mrityu) constitute the shadow side of existence, and we aspire to be led away from them in order to dwell in the realm of light (Jyoti) and life (amrita). Consequently all that militates against Being/Truth, Light and Life are expressions of evil.

The Vedanta tradition would consider evil as ultimately non-existent without, however denying its experiential reality in our vyavaharika world of daily life. This may be understood in relation to the well-known rajusarpa vada (rope-snake argument) in Advaita Vedanta. As you walk in semi darkness you find a snake just in front of you. You are terribly scared, you palpitate, you scream. Suddenly someone comes with a torch, and you find that the snake was actually a piece of rope. In the true light of knowledge (vidya) you realize that the snake was non-existent. All the same you had all the physical and emotional symptoms of being sacred by a real snake lying at your feet. All that appear to us as real in our vyavaharika existence marked by avidya (ignorance) will disappear as unreal once true knowledge arises. The phenomenon of evil belongs to this world of avidya.

In the classical Christian tradition also, evil is considered experientially real, but having no ultimate being. It is non-being. As Gregory of Nazianzus, a prominent 4th century Christian theologian says, “Evil has no substance or kingdom”. It is the absence of good , similar to darkness which has no material particle or molecule, but is simply the absence of light. St Augustine in the West would say evil is the deprivation of the good (privatio boni).

Gregory of Nyssa, another distinguished Christian philosopher and theologian in the 4th century spoke about the “chain (akolouthia) of evil”. Akolouthia is originally a Greek philosophical expression (used by Stoics and others) meaning consistency, consequence, follow-up, sequence, coherence. He spoke about breaking the sequential order of the chain of evil by the chain of the good. “Evil happenings can be counteracted only by their opposite. Evil words and actions would not have developed to such a pitch if some kind word or deed had intervened to break the continuity of the chain of evil”[3].

Commenting on this, Paulos Gregorios, a renowned 20th century Indian Christian theologian and philosopher says: “Evil is a chain reaction that leads to non-being, in which mankind is caught. Creation is a chain-reaction that should lead to being, but evil goes in the direction opposite to that of creation. The need for man is for this akolouthia of evil to be broken, so that he can be placed again in the akolouthia of the good[4].

 

Classical Christian theology in the East as well as in the West would hold that God’s Will and Love sustain creation and that it is good, as stated in Genesis, the first book of the Jewish- Christian Bible. God did not create evil. It arises from the preeminent gift of freedom and self-determination God granted to human beings. When they make the wrong choice, evil results. In the creation story of the Bible, evil is personified as a crafty serpent whose highly logical but pernicious suggestion to Eve the first woman in Paradise was to use her freedom in order to be like God.

 Paulos Mar Gregorios says: “Evil cannot be ultimate, for then evil would be eternal. Evil exists as the manifestation of being which refuses to become what its destiny indicates, and thereby inevitably moves towards nonbeing. Evil is being-toward-death, and ultimately when death itself is removed, then evil will also have been removed, for death is the consequence of evil”[5]

For Gregorios, human freedom is the core of the whole debate on evil. He would say that “evil can help the growth of true humanity in freedom by its very presence demanding from man difficult and strenuous choices between evil and good in situations where it is much easier to choose evil. It is in the struggle against evil that man develops true freedom”[6]. Eastern Christian theology holds that evil is not part of the crated nature of human beings, for everything that God created is good. Evil is external to human nature and can be subject to the exercise of human free will sustained by divine Grace. This is in contrast to the teachings of the celebrated Western theologian-philosopher St. Augustine who would underestimate human freedom and call humanity a “massa damnata”, condemned mass, not able even to will good!

 

In the life of Jesus, at the very beginning of his public ministry evil desires arise in his mind. Abstaining from food and drink he fasted and prayed for 40 days in the utter solitude of the desert. Then “the Tempter” comes and persuades him in a very nice way and with good common sense and by quoting scripture - to convert all the desert stones into bread that he, hungry as he is, urgently needs. Then he insinuates Jesus to jump from the temple tower safely down to the applause of the crowd, and finally to take possession of all the countries of the world by simply bowing down to the Tempter. The Bible says that Jesus refused to listen to the seductive suggestions, and thus conquered the evil desires that might certainly have ruined his great self-giving mission in the world. In the Christian tradition Jesus’ death on the Cross and Resurrection are qualified as the triumph over evil and death. In the Bible death is the consequence of sin, created by the evil intention of human beings. It is alienation from the source of Being, from sat. Consequently we suffer from darkness and mortality. This agrees very well with the Upanishadic connection we mentioned between Sat, Jyoti and Amrit.

The Book of Job in the Bible is a classic case of theodicy. Job, a very righteous, rich and well respected man suffers untold miseries to the point of losing all his wealth, health, children, reputation and friends. He is the epitome of innocent suffering. He questions God, and struggles with him. His wife advised him to denounce God. His friends criticized him to the core challenging his sense of justice and his belief in God. Yet Job “fights for God against God”[7]. He was finally vindicated and restored though his ultimate questions regarding evil and innocent suffering are not answered. Instead God poses counter questions. They powerfully remind Job of his total inability to understand the ways of God. In the book of Job it is the divine incomprehensibility and human finitude that mark biblical theodicy[8]. The following are some further theodicies as listed by historian of doctrine Daniel Migliore[9]:

 

1.                           The punishment or chastisement model. The good and the wicked receive what they deserve. Pestilence, earthquakes and other natural calamities are chastisements of God for human sin (Calvin).

2.                           Divine Pedagogy. Our suffering on earth helps us to remember and return to God. Poverty, loss of the loved ones and various diseases can create a deep sense of trust in God and can teach us new ways of perceiving the mystery of God’s sovereignty as well as compassion.

3.                           Protests theodicy. Primarily based on the writings of Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel. Several Jewish theologians adopted this stand in the face of the unimaginable suffering and cruel death of about 6 million Jews in Nazi concentration camps. This protest of faith puts “God on trial”, it is “for God by being against God” (John Roth)

4.                           Process Theodicy. Drawing inspiration from the Process philosophy of Whitehead, theologians refuse to compromise on God’s goodness and argue that a radical restriction of divine power provides a solution. Process philosophy’s God is a persuasive God and not a coercive one. Since God respects the freedom of human beings, persuasion is the only way. There is a certain ‘inability’ on the part of God in preventing tragedies like the Holocaust. So God is not to be blamed for the tragic turn of events that can be controlled by human freedom.

5.                           Person-making theodicy. Evil is considered not simply as the consequence of sin, as in St. Augustine, but the possibility and experience of evil are conditions of the possibility of growth towards free and mature humanity like in St. Irenaeus. Human beings are created incomplete, and can participate freely in the process of realizing their maturity and full human potential as intended by God. There is acceptance of suffering for growth rather than active resistance to suffering and evil.

6.                           Liberation Theodicy. Continuing suffering and oppression of poor people in many countries of the world apparently contradict the claim of theology that God is with the poor to liberate them. Therefore active resistance to evil is advocated while maintaining the value of redemptive suffering (James Cone). This is borne out by the experience, for instance, of the Black population of African-Americans, the poor peasantry in Latin American countries and the Dalits in India and so on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One may summarise the mainstream Christian theological position somewhat in the following way:

·        It is futile to look for some rational explanation for the origin of evil. Metaphysical scrutiny is unlikely to yield any satisfactory answer. Questions of origin are shrouded in cosmogonist myths in all cultures.

·        The pervasive presence of evil is a matter of experiential knowledge. No one can deny or ignore the painful expressions of evil in human life and nature.

·        Christian theology points to the compassionate providential divine governance of the created world though the presence of evil often squarely contradicts any understanding of a gracious providence of God.

·        God’s compassion to human beings goes beyond any quick judgment of the good and the evil in them. Advising his disciples to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” Jesus said that God the heavenly Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust..” (Matt.4:44-45).

·        Suffering refines human personality. It is a divine disciplining one has to willingly accept in view of the rich spiritual rewards. An innocent individual’s suffering, for instance, due to a serious disease or a congenital disability like blindness or HIV infection through blood transfusion is not attributed to the personal sin of that individual[10]. In total disagreement with the Jewish teachers of his time Jesus said that a certain blind young man, healed of his blindness by Jesus, was born blind not because he or his parents sinned, as assumed by the Pharisees, but that the glory of God had to be manifested in him (Jn 9 )

·        The Christian Bible, especially the New Testament, is not metaphysically concerned about the theological-philosophical question of the origin of evil. It takes for granted the creation myth in the Book of Genesis. The Gospels and other New Testament writings are more concerned about countering evil and its many manifestations in the life of the individual and community. ‘Overcome evil by good’ is the regular advice. It assumes that evil cannot be the ultimate word, and human freedom combined with faith and trust in the grace of a loving and caring creator-God can overcome the negative forces of evil.

·        In contemporary Christianity, particularly inspired by the ecumenical movement, there is an acute sense of  the social evil occurring in such forms as poverty, racial and caste discrimination, oppression of the poor, marginalization of people,  various forms of injustice, global economic exploitation, terrorism, violence, destruction of eco-systems, undemocratic political regimes, consumerism, climate change and so on. There are action plans at the global and local levels to counter these innumerable forms of evil that uproot human values and dehumanize homo sapiens. The emphasis is on prophetic denunciation of evil and effective strategic action to wipe out or keep under control the specter of evil so that Common Good is promoted. Although Christian theology, has no adequate answer to the why of natural catastrophes like earthquakes and tsunamis, there is great hope and optimism that a new and just order of human society can eliminate man-made evils like wars, nuclear disasters, poverty, exploitation and various types of injustice, and that victims of evil can be compassionately assisted to return to normal life.

 This also provides a large common ground for people of all faiths or of no faith to work together in close collaboration with each other for the Common Good of human beings and the rest of creation.

 

Notes


 


[1]  P. Cousineau (ed), The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life,  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, p.145

 

[2]  A History of India, Vol. I, Penguin, 1997 p. 15

 

[3] Contra Eunomium Book I, quoted in Paulos Mar Gregorios, Cosmic Man: The Divine Presence, Sophia Publications, Delhi-Kottayam, 1980, p.62

 

[4] Ibid., p.62

[5] The Freedom of Man: An Inquiry into Some Roots of the Tension between Freedom and Authority in Our Society, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1972, p.81.

[6] Ibid, p.80

 

[7] P. Evdokimov, Woman and the Salvation of the World, SVS Press, NY 1994, p.200

 

[8] D.L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan, 1991, p.106.

 

[9] I follow a list produced by Daniel L. Migliore, Ibid, p. 111f

 

[10] See K. M. George, Interfacing Theology with Culture, ISPCK, New Delhi, 2010 p. 120f