Discover more from Contemplations on the Tree of Woe
On the Problem of Evil
Towards a New Theodicy
What is the Problem of Evil?
If God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, why is there evil? This is the so-called problem of evil, and it has plagued the minds of men since the bronze age.
In discussing evil, theologians distinguish between human evil and natural evil. Human evil includes only the evil caused by the free-willed choices of human beings. Natural evil encompasses all of the evil caused by the nature of the world we live in. Simplistic answers to the problem of evil usually assert that evil is merely a byproduct of free will, but that is true only of human evil. Natural evil is a far more formidable challenge to explain. This article presents an excellent example:
Contemplations on the Tree of Woe is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Author and researcher Gregory S. Paul offers what he considers to be a particularly strong problem of evil. Paul introduces his own estimates that at least 100 billion people have been born throughout human history (starting roughly 50 000 years ago, when Homo Sapiens—humans—first appeared)… He found that the historical child death rate was over 50%, and that the deaths of these children were mostly due to diseases (like malaria).
[T]his means that within the bounds of his estimates, that throughout human history, over 50 billion people died naturally before they were old enough to give mature consent…. [A]s many as 300 billion humans may never have reached birth, instead dying naturally but prenatally (the prenatal death rate being about 3/4 historically).
Why did God create a world in which 300 billion wombs quickened with life, only to have the child die unborn? Why did God create a world in which 50 billion human beings died in terrible agony before they were even old enough to even read the Bible? That is the problem of evil.
What Are the Answers to the Problem of Evil?
An answer to the problem of evil is often called a theodicy, a term coined in 1710 by Gottfried Leibniz in his book Théodicée.1 A number of theodicies have been developed over time. In chronological order:
Isaiahic: Evil exists because God created it (and/or compels or permits his subjects to create it). Named for Isaiah 45:7, where God states “I form the light, and create darkness: I make good, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” Isaiahic theodicy rejects God’s omnibenevolence to emphasize His omnipotence and omniscience. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” is an Isaiahic platitude. Isaiahic theodicy is accepted by many Jews and Muslims, but most Christians reject it, believing that God is all-loving.
Irenaean: Evil exists for our own good. Goodness develops from the experience of suffering. In the words of contemporary theologian John Hicks, our world is a “vale of soul-making” that enables us to become spiritually perfected. But Irenaean theodicy leaves unanswered the question of inexplicable evil. If a mother dies in childbirth and her infant starves to death, with none to mourn for them, whose soul is being “made”? Irenaean theodicy asks us to just trust that God has configured our world to be the best possible world for human development. “God always brings good out of evil” and “God works in mysterious ways” are Irenaean platitudes. Irenaean is the main theodicy for Orthodox Christians and some liberal Protestants.
Augustinian: Evil does not exist except as privation from, or absence of, God. When humans freely chose to reject God, committing Original Sin, they thus introduced evil into the world. Augustinian theodicy leaves unanswered the question of foreknowledge. Why would an omniscient God create Adam and Eve knowing they would commit original sin? Isn’t a father who puts his curious child in a room with a loaded gun, knowing the child will pull the trigger, responsible for the harm when the child pulls the trigger? Augustinian theodicy also leaves unexplained why original sin is inherited. Even if the child is to blame for killing someone, why should the child’s great-great-great-great-grandson still be in prison? Questions like this split Orthodox from Catholic and Reformed into Calvinists and Arminians and continue to plague all denominations. Because of this critique, Augustinian theodicy has in practice tended to either collapse back into Irenaean theodicy or progress into Boydian theodicy, depending on whether omniscience or omnibenevolence is emphasized.
Boydian: Evil exists because of the free-willed choices of the beings over whom God has given authority over the world. Named for theologian Greg Boyd, this theodicy is distinguished from Augustinian theodicy because it denies God’s omniscience. Boyd is the creator of open theology, which asserts that God is not all-knowing about future contingent events. When God created Satan, Adam, and Eve, He delegated to them a libertarian free will that enabled them to make choices He would not know in advance that they would make. Because God vested great power into Satan (“the prince of this world”), and gave Satan free will, Satan causes great harm. Satan, not God, is responsible for 200 billion dead fetuses and 50 billion dead children. But Boydian theodicy is troubled by this question: why God doesn’t intervene to stop Satan now that Satan has chosen evil? If God cannot stop Satan, then He is not omnipotent. If God could stop Satan, but doesn’t because Satan’s evil actions are part of His plan, or because Satan’s free will is mysteriously part of the greater good, then we’ve reverted to Irenaean or Isaiahic. If God could stop Satan, but doesn’t because he made an irrevocable covenant to let Satan be prince of this world, then God is not just lacking in omniscience, he’s lacking in heavenly legal counsel — who writes a job contract without a termination clause for wrongful behavior?
If you are satisfied with any of those four theodicies, you should stop here. You have my gratitude for being a reader of this blog, and I do not wish to challenge your faith. The rest of this essay is just for troubled souls.
I count myself as one such. It is my personal judgment that none of these theodicies is an adequate answer to the problem of evil. And that problem is a problem — for my own faith, at least. I lost my belief in God as a young man when my father was struck dead by cancer; the various priests I spoke to offered me some variant of the Irenaean answers (I’m Greek Orthodox) and not a one remotely persuaded me that it made sense. Today many people, even many scientists, are willing to concede “we might be living in a simulation,” “it sure looks like the universe was designed,” there “might be something more,” and so on. But they stop short of any form of traditional faith because they cannot reconcile belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God with the universe we live in.
It is to that universe, God’s universe, that we now turn.
Why Does God Have to Sustain the Universe?
Christians believe that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Note that this is actually two separate claims:
God created the universe ex nihilo — from nothing.
God continuously sustains the universe in existence.
Contemporary deists accept the first claim, but reject the second. Contemporary Christians accept the first and second claim. Historical Christians didn’t even believe in creation ex nihilo until the Second Century AD, but they have always believed in the first claim. Indeed, Biblical attestation of creation ex nihilo is actually rather difficult to find but Biblical confirmation of God the Sustainer is ubiquitous:
Wisdom 11:21-26: How would anything have endured, if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?
John 5:17: My Father is always at his work, even to this very day; and I am also working.
Hebrews 1:3: He upholds all things by the word of his power.
Colossians 1:17: And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
Theologian A.H. Strong aptly summarized Christian doctrine when he wrote “[God] is the originator and the upholder of the universe…..In Him it consists, or holds together, from hour to hour. The steady will of [God] constitutes the law of the universe and makes it a cosmos instead of chaos, just as His will brought it into being in the beginning.”
Now let us pause and ask: Does God have to have to sustain the universe in order for it to stay in existence?
This is not intended as a rhetorical question. Could God have created the universe such that He did not need to sustain it continuously? That is, could God have created a self-sustaining universe, that did not need Him?
If the answer is yes — then why didn’t He? It seems to me impossible to reconcile an unnecessarily arbitrary state of existence with God’s omnibenevolence. In no case does the human conscience think that a state of uncertain and arbitrary existence is better than a reliable one. So, unless we wish to accept an Isaiahic solution, the answer must be no.
Moreover, to the extent that we take Scripture to mean what it says, Wisdom 11:21-26 does not seem to afford any optionality about it: “How would anything have endured, if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?”
So something about the way the universe is, requires that it be continuously sustained. The universe’s continuous existence, in some way, is contingent on God’s continuous exertion. But exertion against what? What could challenge the eternal existence of God’s creation?
Hold that thought.
What Did God Create the Universe From, Again?
If traditional Christianity is correct that God created everything from nothing, and that evil is the absence of good, then by logical syllogism we can demonstrate that God created the universe from evil. The argument proceeds as follows:
Premise 1. God created everything from nothing.
Premise 2: Everything God created is good.
Premise 3: Nothing is the absence of everything God created.
Premise 4: Evil is the absence of good.
Therefore, the absence of everything God created is the absence of good.
Therefore, nothing is the absence of good.
Therefore, nothing is evil.
Therefore, God created everything from evil.
One critic of mine has argued that the verb “to be” cannot be used in a literal way in conjunction with the noun “nothing.” Since being is existence, and nothing is nonexistent, it cannot “be”. We could argue this point to book length to no avail. It is just grammatical torture created by our inability to conceive of nothing.
What if we think about creation differently? Creation ex nihilo was not the original understanding of the Bible. The ancients coupled creation with order, and destruction with chaos. This worldview lives on in the words we have inherited from them. The English word “cosmos,” nowadays a synonym for “the universe” or “all of creation” derives from the Ancient Greek κόσμος or (kosmos), meaning “order” or “government.” Likewise, the English word “chaos,” nowadays a synonym for “anarchy” or “disorder,” derives from the Ancient Greek χάος (kháos), meaning “void” or “nothingness.”
To the ancient mind, the statement “there was nothing until God created the universe” is the same statement as “there was chaos until God created order.” To annihilate order is to annihilate creation; to bring about chaos is to bring about destruction.
We find this doctrine across many ancient societies: The Hellenic kosmos, the Vedic rta, the Buddhist dharma, the Sumerian mes, and the Egyptian maat. Each subject of the Pharaoh was expected to follow his or her maat in order to hold back chaos; to not follow them ran the risk of chaos breaking forth and destroying the cosmos.
Applying this thinking to our syllogism:
Premise 1. God created order/cosmos from chaos/void.
Premise 2: Order/cosmos is good.
Premise 3: Chaos/void is the absence of order/cosmos.
Premise 4: Evil is the absence of good.
Therefore, the absence of order/cosmos is the absence of good.
Therefore, chaos/void is the absence of good.
Therefore, chaos/void is evil.
Therefore, God created order/cosmos (a state of good) from chaos/void (a state of evil).
Both approaches lead to the same conclusion. Both answer the problem of evil. Why does evil exist? It is pre-existent. Evil is logically entailed to be the default state absent action by God.2 In Irenaean theodicy, we trust that “God always brings good out of evil;” in our new theodicy, we know that God necessarily makes good out of evil.
Without God, creation collapses into destruction. Without God, order collapses into disorder. Without God, cosmos is reduced to chaos.
Physicists call the measure of chaos entropy and assert that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases. The inevitable increase of entropy may be the cause of the arrow of time. Entropy is opposed by negentropy, also known as syntropy, “the entropy deficit of an ordered sub-system relative to its surrounding chaos.” Most physical processes are entropic, but life is negentropic, systematically exporting its entropy to maintain its homeostasis. Life is orderly, and life is good. And so too is the cosmos, which began in a state of absolutely low entropy, which physicists call the Big Bang and believers call Genesis.
Now, this understanding of evil in no way diminishes God’s omnipotence. In fact, it only emphasizes it. How much power is required to sustain a cosmos of infinite size from collapsing into chaos? Infinite power. God is everywhere and always using his infinite power to sustain the universe against the infinite power of chaos.
Does that mean that evil is just as powerful as god? Not necessarily.
Mathematicians acknowledge the existence of infinities of greater and lesser degree. The set of whole numbers (1, 2, 3…n) is of infinite size; for any n, there is always n+1. But there are an infinite number of real numbers between n and n+1. Between 1 and 2 are 1.000000001, 1.34, 1.34000001, and so on. So the set of real numbers is not only of infinite size, it is of infinitely greater size than the set of whole numbers!
Since existence exists, order overcame chaos. The value of the infinite set “God’s power” must greater than the value of the infinite set “chaotic anti-power.” Satan plays with whole numbers, but God with real numbers. Infinite goodness exists, and is infinitely greater than evil, even though infinite evil exists.
Reason, science, and scripture can thus work in tandem to restore us a cosmogony of chaoskampf, of creation as a struggle of God’s order against the monstrous chaos that threatens it. But to accept this truth, we must accept that the cosmos is at war, that God is at war — and that we are at war, eternally, against the anti-cosmic forces of entropy and destruction. Christ’s message is not peace but a sword.
Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe.
There are some technical facets that distinguish a theodicy from a defense to the problem of evil, with the former requiring only that evil be logically possible while the latter requires that evil be justified; but for purposes of our Contemplation we’ll call all answers to the problem of evil theodicies. When even scholars disagree about terms, we who merely blog can be casual.
This argument has ancient antecedents. Neoplatonists, one of the most influential of the ancient Pre-Christian religions, believed that the Matter that made up cosmos was, until given Form by Mind, nothing but an immaterial and formless non-entity which we call chaos. They believed that this Matter was the source of evil in our cosmos. Unlike the Gnostics and Manicheans, however, the Neoplatonists did not believe that the cosmos (creation itself) was evil because the act of creation, the act of bringing order to chaos, brought good into it.