How would you answer the question on the nature and origin of evil?


(RZIM Connect Member) #1

Hi Max, thank you for your detailed responses to my questions and for wording them so I can understand. If I may and if you have time, I would like to ask another question. My apologies for that but it’s a great opportunity to learn. I was wondering how you would answer the question on the nature and origin of evil. We’ve been discussing it and I would love to hear how you would address it. Thank you.

(Max Baker-Hytch) #2


Sure, and you don’t at all need to apologise for asking more questions! Regarding the origin and nature of evil, I’m inclined to think that there are at least three importantly distinct questions that we might ask: (1) What is evil? i.e., what is it’s metaphysical nature? (2) How did evil enter the world? (3) Why does God permit the continuing occurrence of evil in the world?

As for question (1), I’m fairly sympathetic to the view that St Augustine of Hippo articulated in the fifth century, that evil isn’t actually a thing, but rather, it’s the lack or absence of something. So, for instance, consider disease. Disease is the lack of health. Health is an intrinsically good thing, and disease can be seen to be the absence of that good thing. Or consider slander or gossip. These are both misuses of language/communication, and language/communication is a good thing in itself. Or consider murder. Murder is the destruction of life. Life is an intrinsically good thing, and so murder can be understood to be the destruction of that good thing. So in short, the idea is that evil is necessarily parasitic on good things; evil necessarily involves the lack or distortion of misuse of that which is good. This view is known as the privation theory of evil. To be clear, the privation theory of evil is simply a theory of what the nature of evil is, it isn’t purporting to explain why God allows the world to contain evil.

As for (2), I’m somewhat open to the angelic fall account, which, stated briefly, says that God created angelic beings who were intended to participate in God’s creation and stewarding of the world, but some of them weren’t content to serve God and wanted to be the centre of attention themselves, and so rebelled against God, which had profound effects on the world. Most notably, when God brought human beings into existence, he intended for them to be stewards of creation and to help ‘subdue it’ (a rather violent word in the Hebrew in Gen. 1:28, which suggests that the world already contained disorderly aspects by the time humans came along), but instead, the fallen angel(s) lured them into joining the rebellion against God. Now, it’s true that the Bible doesn’t very clearly articulate a narrative of an angelic fall in the same way it clearly narrates the fall of human beings. But Genesis 3 strongly implies that evil had already entered the world prior to humans coming on the scene-after all, the serpent is already present in the garden before Adam and Eve fall. Moreover, there are a number of passages which, taken together, seem to point to an angelic fall which preceded the creation of humans. So, we have Isaiah: “How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!” (Isaiah 14:12). Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18), and in the book of the Revelation Satan is seen as “a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth” (Revelation 9:1). We are also told that one third of an “innumerable company of angels” (Hebrews 12:22) chose to rebel with him. In revelation, John saw this great wonder in heaven, “…an enormous red dragon…His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth…the great dragon was hurled down-that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him” (Revelation 12:3–9). So, all in all, I think the Biblical data does support the notion that prior to the human fall, evil had already entered the world as the result of an angelic fall. I would add that I think this perspective is necessary in accounting for the origins of evil, because a human fall alone doesn’t seem to be able to explain things like disease, earthquakes, and so on, whereas an angelic fall does enable us to account for the way in which brokenness and decay is woven into the very fabric of the physical universe.

As for question (3), this is the question of why God permits evil to continue to occur rather than bringing it all to end. A story which attempts to explain why God would allow evil to occur is called a theodicy, and as you probably know, there are many different theodicies that have been developed over the ages. Here I’ll mention one that I find especially helpful.

A theodicy I’m sympathetic to is that of the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, which draws on the notion of free will. Swinburne’s claim isn’t that merely positing the good of free will is enough to explain why God would allow the amount of evil and suffering we find in our world. Rather, his claim is that a world in which there are embodied rational creatures who have a serious amount of freedom to affect one another’s lives and the world around them is going to have to be a world containing a very considerable amount of evil and suffering.

As he writes, “A world in which agents can benefit each other but not do each other harm is one where they have only very limited responsibility for each other. A God who gave agents only such limited responsibility for their fellows would not have given much. He would be like a father asking his elder son to look after the younger son, and adding that he would be watching the elder son’s every move and would intervene the moment the elder son did a thing wrong.”

Having a significant amount of freedom to affect one another’s lives entails the possibility that ‘bad things happen to good people’-the world would be highly irregular if God always intervened to prevent us from ever harming anyone who didn’t (in some sense) deserve it.

What’s more, if each individual person could, all by themselves, attain all the material prosperity and knowledge needed for a happy life, then our degree of responsibility for one another would be massively diminished. Rather, in order for us to have real responsibility for one another’s wellbeing, we need to live in a world in which attaining the material goods and knowledge of the world that is needed for a happy life requires significant co-operation; or as Adam Smith put it, a ‘division of labour’. A world in which we depend on one another in these ways is unavoidably going to be a world in which our free choices have the potential-particularly if we occupy positions of significant power within the great interconnected economic and political web-to result in large-scale suffering: famine, war, even genocide.

Our having a significant amount of responsibility for one another also entails a world of mortality and decay. A world where no one dies is a world where there is a serious limit to our responsibility for one another; our choices would lack seriousness because they would never have the potential to help or harm one another in a permanent way; our bad choices could always be reversed. Nor would courage or supreme self-sacrifice be possible.

Swinburne’s view regarding the relation between our present existence and heaven is that there are goods God can obtain in a world like the one we currently inhabit that he cannot obtain in a heavenly world; and there are goods God can obtain in a heavenly world that he cannot obtain in a world of death and decay. God has reason to bring about both kinds of world.

(Kay Kalra) #3