Excursus: Evil, Part 3–Who’s In Charge Here, Anyway?

As I discussed in the previous post, I’m examining the hypothesis (discussed in greater detail there) that while natural evils–hurricanes, floods, disease, etc.–existed before humans, they were not actually evil, or perceived as such, by humans before the Fall.  That is, presumably, if Adam had broken his leg, got a bad cold, come down with cancer or tapeworms, or got third-degree burns from the lava spewed in a volcanic eruption, nevertheless he would not have perceived or considered such things as being evil, as long as they occurred before he ate the Forbidden Fruit.  As strange or unconventional as this view may seem, it does have a certain internal consistency, and it can’t be falsified as such.  Nevertheless, I don’t believe it to be accurate.  Thus, I want to explain here why this is so, from my perspective.

An obvious issue is exactly what we mean by “good” and “evil”.  The Christian tradition is unanimous in describing God as not only good, but infinitely and perfectly good.  On this, both A. Sinner and I are in agreement, I think.

The Christian tradition also, on the other hand, insists that God is totally inscrutable.  The way this is expressed in Eastern Orthodoxy is that God’s essence (ousia) is totally unknowable; only the ways in which He interacts with the world, known as His energies (energeia), can be known to us.  Protestantism is all over the place, but God’s sovereignty which surpasses all human comprehension is certainly stressed in the traditional churches of the Reformation.

The way the Thomistic/Scholastic view puts it in terms of Catholic theology is that all properties of God, even existence, are true only analogously.  If we say God “exists”, we have to remember that He doesn’t exist as a thing among things as we do, but as Absolute Being Itself.  Thus “existence” doesn’t mean the same thing for God as it does for us.  If we say God is “alive”, that, too is an analogy–obviously God has no biological functions.  Thus we could continue for all properties attributed to God.

That includes, of course, “goodness”.  God is good, but not in the way we are good.  Most obviously, He permits a universe in which all kinds of things happen which most “good” humans would presumably try to prevent, if they had Divine power.  As Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of the monumental series on the Devil and the concept of evil, once said, if by saying God is “good” you mean He wouldn’t have allowed the Holocaust, then it is obvious that no such God exists.  He may be good, but it is in a way very different from ours.

This is the point at which we must add a big “however”.  However, despite the fact that God is good in a sense different from ours, His goodness must not be completely alien to ours, or there’d be no analogy at all.

To take an extreme hypothetical example, if I were to propose that God condones and in fact enjoys murder, rape, theft, war, chaos, and general mayhem but then hastened to argue that He is perfectly good and tried to justify this by arguing that “good” is used analogously of us and God, I think no one would be willing to accept that.  There have to some places of commonality between two things said to be analogous to each other, or the whole analogy fails.

Now bearing this in mind, let’s look at the specific issue at hand.

A. Sinner and I agree on the following two points:

  1. The world as originally created by God was totally and perfectly good.*
  2. Natural disasters, disease, and such existed long before humanity.

My assertion is that point 2. is exactly equivalent to saying that evil existed in the world before mankind and thus that the Fall of Man cannot be responsible for natural evil.  A. Sinner denies this, arguing that to unfallen man, such things would not be perceived as evil.  In short, “evil” is a category that is not ontologically independent but which is constructed by man, and constructed differently before and after the Fall.

Now it is true that great saintly people of all religious traditions  have often said that from the Divine perspective, the universe is indeed all good, with even what we perceive to be evil ultimately working for a higher good in the Divine plan.  I can respect that, and in a sense grant its truth.  However, such saints also usually have no trouble using the term “evil”, and try to help preserve others from the effects of evil (feeding the hungry, treating the sick, etc.).  Thus I think it’s fair to say that evil is part of a Divine plan for a greater good in only a contingent way.  In other words, a person may have a new outlook on life because of surviving cancer (the cliché “Cancer was the best thing that happened to me” does have some truth), but that doesn’t make cancer good in and of itself, nor would the survivor wish it on someone else.

In short, even if we assert that evil ultimately leads to good in the big picture, we don’t have to assert that it’s all right, either, or that we shouldn’t strive to overcome it or that God condones it as such.

So let’s take A. Sinner’s view to an extreme.  Let’s assume that God arranged a world such that unfallen humans would have been in constant pain and hunger throughout their lives, that they would have been regularly killed painfully by natural disasters and wild animals, that those who did not so die would die in horrible agony from cancer, that children would often starve to death–add any nastiness that you like.  However, from this perspective none of this would be evil, since there is no evil for unfallen man!

Now this isn’t falsifiable, of course.  Nevertheless, I contend that at this point we have stretched the analogy of God’s goodness to ours to and beyond the breaking point.  If all these things are defined as being evil only in a psychological sense or as a “construct” produced by Original Sin, and that a God who creates such a world and subjects His creatures to it is still perfectly good, then I’m not sure that the word “good” means anything any more.  As Iñigo Montoya might put it, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

In short, it seems to me aesthetically and morally questionable to argue that nothing God subjects humans to is evil as long as such humans have not fallen, and that any “evil” results  completely from humanity’s fall is metaphysically blaming the victim and emptying the word “good” of all meaning, as well as creating a sort of Calvinist God who can do the most monstrous things but still be good because–well, because He’s God and by definition nothing God does can be wrong.

Anyone who wishes to accept such a view is certainly free to do so, but I think it’s abominable and makes the goodness of God a mockery.

Of course, having rejected this view, I have to admit that my view–that there was real evil in the world before humankind existed–has a big problem, too.  Why did God make such a problematic, evil-infested world, and having done so, why in the world did He put innocent, sinless humans into it?

I’m not claiming to have a solution–it is the mysterium iniquitatis (mystery of evil) after all–but I do want to suggest some ways to look at it.  That I will save, however, for posts to come in the near future.

*Addendum:  I’ve reread this and some other posts in the process of writing my concluding post, and the way I’ve developed my ideas, I would no longer phrase this as originally written.  I would now phrase it thus:  “The material world, as originally intended by God was totally and perfectly good.”  I think that God eternally intended to create a material universe, and that His intention was that it be flawless and totally good, to the extent possible for a finite being.

I am not willing to rule out, however, that members of the Pleroma–angels–may have assisted demiurgically in the creation of the material world, and that this process may have gone awry as a result of actions of the angels.  I’m also not willing to rule out that in light of the disruption thus caused in the cosmos, God may have added some soul-making “evils” into the mix (nothing on the massive level caused by the fallen angels, but still there to some extent).  If either of these cases is so, then the cosmos was not, in fact, good from the beginning, having been flawed (temporally speaking, anyway) from the start.  However, metaphysically speaking, it was still perfectly good from the “beginning” in that  this was God’s original paradigm and intent for what it was supposed to be.

It is also possible that the world was created perfect and then marred by the fallen angels after its creation but before that of man, in which case my original statement holds as is.  Still, such a scenario seems to have less explanatory power than one in which the flaws are manifested, if not intended, from the start.  In any case, the rest of this post stands, as I think its arguments are sound.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 20/05/2012, in Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great take on this. I had the same questions at one point. I wondered in a universe so infinite, why was the ‘devil’ place here on Earth? I heard an aetheist say one time that man created God in his image. I laughed at this at first then I thought about it a little more. Man gave God all of his attributes and tried to understand ‘him’ from that prospective. I choose to believe that God is everything..the good and the bad. How could ‘satan’ commit a sin if it didn’t exist? Great post!

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