The Problem of Evil

I think the problem of evil or suffering is the most challenging issue for theology.  It’s probably the biggest reason why people reject the existence of God.  Even for those who have believed in God, when something very terrible happens to them or their loved ones that belief can be shaken or even abandoned. The problem goes something like this:  If God is all knowing, all powerful, and all beneficent then why is there evil and suffering in the world?  It’s a tough one.  Now one issue that could be addressed is “what is evil” but I won’t get into that here and instead just go with our intuitive sense about it.

If this is such a serious problem then how is it to be tackled?  There have been a number of different theodicies, which are basically a defense of the idea of God.  Some try to limit God, saying that one of the three features (i.e. omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence) is incorrect.  In this approach usually it means that God is not all knowing or all powerful.  In process theology, God creates the universe but does not control it directly. God may “lure” or try to influence how things transpire but not in an overt way.  As such God doesn’t really know what will happen or have the power to control it. In some ways, this is similar to the “free will” approach.

One of the most common theodicies is found in the Abrahamic traditions where God allows humans to have the free will to decide for themselves. God creates them but endows them with the capability to rebel against what God would want.  The idea here is to provide some mitigating factor to offset the evil and suffering that is present.  I think the need for some mitigation is correct.

There are other attempts at resolving the problem of evil but now I’ll focus on the options and then the Divine Life Communion approach.

Mitigating Factors

Free will.  Probably the most prominent mitigating factor cited is free will.  In the free will approach, the greater good is the freedom of humans.  The way this theodicy goes is that God is good but allowed human beings to have free choice where they could act contrary to what God wants.  Free will is supposed to be a good thing and mitigates the presence of evil.  Does this, in fact, absolve God from the evil in the world?  I don’t think so.  While there is certainly much evil done by free agents, one could also argue that there is perhaps even more that occurs without humans being involved. Think of a tsunami or a horrible disease.  These events kill and maim not only individuals but also destroy families and cultures.  History is replete with all sorts of natural disasters that show no mercy toward both adults and children, families, and communities.  If God is responsible for the creation of nature then how is that evil not God’s responsibility? Metaphorically, the artisan is responsible for the artifact.

Secondly, if humans were created with the ability to not create evil, then surely there are individuals who completely made that choice.   These would be “pure” individuals who chose that path.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Everyone is a mixture of good and evil. Everyone leads an ambiguous life where they act both for the good and for the bad. Now one argument that is supposed to resolve this is original sin.  According to this the first humans (in the garden of Eden) made the wrong choice and that spoiled the whole of the world from the possibility of a purely good existence.  But does this make any sense today given what we know about evolution?  Given the long history of the development of modern humans from early hominids, there isn’t any place to find these “first” humans.  While I believe humans do have free will ( On Free Will ), I don’t see how his argument today is compelling.

Other theodicies like that of the great philosopher Gottfried Leibniz claimed that evil is present so we can become sensitive to what is good and create it.  Without evil we wouldn’t know what the good was and strive for it. While from a slightly different perspective this might provide some level of mitigation, I don’t think it is sufficient.  Others can decide if these mitigating factors are sufficiently compelling.

The Divine Life Communion proposes some different mitigating factors. The first is that life-itself is worth having the potential for evil.   The second is complicated but in an aspect monism ontology, it is literally God who both does the evil and suffers its consequences. Let’s take a look at these.

Life

What is life? This is a controversial question. Does life require metabolism, replication, use of energy, etc? From a theological perspective, however, I would like to focus on a broad feature, constrained being. How ever life may be defined, it occurs within constraints. There is a structure to the universe and it is within that structure that beings exist. There are fundamental constraints like space and time, polarities of positive/negative, fundamental forces, properties, as well as things such as chemistry, heat, entropy, etc. The bottom line is that these constraints make life, as we know it, possible. They allow for dynamic processes to occur that support things like energy flow and consumption, information transfer, and stability as well as change. The processes both create and destroy. There is growth and decay. Evolution itself shows how complexity can be created and destroyed but life moves on. To be alive means being but being within those life-giving constraints.  Much has been said about how fine-tuned the universe is such that life is even possible.  Life is possible because the constraints are just right for life forms.  Change something just a little bit and there would be no life (as we know it).  Constrained being.

So, what does this have to do with the problem of evil?  What it means is that the very same structures and processes that make life possible also make what we call evil possible. These constraints both create and destroy. There is growth and decay.  In growth, what came before is destroyed to some extent and the new takes its place. Even things like learning both create and destroy. The old is destroyed in some sense and the new takes its place. Hence, both the “good” and the “evil” participate in these same processes. If this is the case, then life requires the potential for evil to exist. Without the structures and processes that make evil possible, life would not be possible either.

So the question is, is life worth the potential for evil to exist? What would be an alternative? Enter heaven. To resolve the problem of evil, some sort of ultimate bliss is postulated. No evil, no pain, etc. At first blush this might sound appealing but would it really be? I think not. If there is no possibility of failure, would there be any satisfaction in success? Could there be any joy without the opposite of pain? Without tension where is the satisfaction of release? There would also be no joy in learning where the old is destroyed and the new created. I think if one thinks long enough about an existence without possible negatives there would be no appeal. Perhaps then having life is worth having evil.

So, in this scenario, is it necessary to shield God from evil and is a resolution to evil necessary? If life (and with it the potential for evil) is actually a worthwhile thing, then God as creator needs no defense.  So here is a tough one for many people to accept. Wouldn’t it be unfair that although creation with evil being present is necessary, God in God’s perfection doesn’t have to deal with evil? Only if there is no evil within God. In an aspect monism this isn’t the case. God is a living God, God has a Life. If there is only the One then evil resides in the One and, in fact, is created by the One. But such is life, and if there is a Divine Life then the divine also includes evil. From a moral point of view, since aspects in God both create and experience evil, so does God. The Author is responsible for both life and the evil within it. So is a resolution to the issue of evil necessary or even wanted? No possibility for evil, no life. If life is worth having the potential for evil, then a resolution is neither needed nor wanted.

In an aspect monism, God chose to live in the most challenging forms. God chose to be in the most oppositional positions relative to what God in God’s depth would want in this reality.  This means that even in what we might consider the most depraved individuals there is a spark of the divine depth that tries to come forward.  As an example, often we see in even serial killers a spark of humanity. They may be cold-blooded killers but often they break down when talking about their families.  No one is without the divine depth. It is there exerting its influence even in those who commit horrible evils. God chose to live in all its forms. This is God embracing all aspects of living, from the greatest noble lives to those we most detest.  Perhaps we shouldn’t so much.

Certainly, we should oppose them in the most vigorous way. This is also God opposing the evil tendencies in life.  But there are factors that should be considered.  Psychology tells us that the most evil among us have often experienced significant trials. This may include nature and nurture.  In the most evil of individuals there may be genetic predispositions that are an influence. Or there may be environmental issues in play: parenting, cultural situations, etc. Life imposes these on individuals. But within all that there is still the divine depth within.  It is ever present and tries to exert and influence.  However, there is a freedom to embrace it or reject it.  Thus is life. In each aspect, God struggles with this dichotomy in each individual.  This is the courage of being, as Paul Tillich talked about in his “Courage to Be”.  It is God embracing what it means to be a constrained being, with all its ambiguity and challenges.  I think we need to take life more seriously.  It is a gift. It recognizes that the stasis of perfection is not something to wish for.  Life is dynamic. It is the opposite of perfection.  It embraces what it means to live, to struggle, to strive for the good and at times fail.  It is a risk but a risk worth taking.

Now, this scenario doesn’t suggest complacency toward evil. To the contrary. Intuitional revelation as encoded in wisdom literature resoundingly calls for a struggle against evil. So the Divine Life entails a struggle for good over evil and if there is no resolution in the offing ( Rejecting World Rejection ) then this struggle is eternal.

Who Suffers?

One of the starkest examples of the problem of evil is that of children.  Most people feel extraordinarily appalled that children, who are so innocent, have to suffer and die.  Granted, this is a serious problem.  But who is it that suffers and dies because of the natural and intentional evil? In an aspect monism, it is literally God.  In an aspect monism, God, in the child, suffers and dies.  It is God who suffers the vicissitudes of life and suffers the consequences.  It is not the just the child, him/herself, but God who feels the pains and suffering of that child. I can’t stress this enough that not only is God the source of the evil but also the recipient.  This may seem to fly in the face of a beneficent God but it reflects God’s purpose to live in all its forms.  To be, within all the aspects of constrained being and with it the challenges of being, to forge ahead within the teleological purpose to live a life that has meaning.  Now granted, this may not seem an adequate defense of evil but what are the alternatives.  No potential for evil, no life.  Static perfection?  Life is about creation and destruction.  It moves ahead within its constraints with courage to embrace the good and oppose the evil.  That’s what life is about.  Apparently, it what God chose to do. God chose to become beings that have all the ambiguous issues to deal with but who still have a depth of the good to embrace if they probe that depth and embrace it.

Metaphors

To offer an illustration I’ll employ a couple of metaphors.  Now, I don’t mean to trivialize or make silly the situation but I think metaphors can help with understanding.  Accordingly, I’ll use a couple of metaphors that may help. They are author/story and actor/role.

When authors set out to create a story it happens in their mind.  They imagine a world, characters, and events.  All these things are still in the author’s mind but there is also a distinction.  These are aspects of the author’s mind and are based on what the author knows and their own particular psychological makeup.  The elements of the story are still part of the author but they represent features and attributes of an imagined narrative.  For instance, a character in the story may be very different from the author herself but since they are part of the author’s mind, they are not completely distinct from the author.  The author imagines what a particular character would be like and how they would act.  The characters are a constrained aspect of the author. The author herself is the full mental and psychological package but each character is a subset of the author’s whole. The author can do that because they have complex experiences of what the world is like and the inclinations also within herself.

Now, the author intentionally creates the narrative — what the world is like and what the characters do. There also is an inherent purpose to it all.  There is a teleology, so to speak, in how the story is structured and unfolds.  That purpose may be just to entertain or there may also be deep meanings that the author wishes to express.

One interesting aspect of this process is that sometimes what happens in the story surprises the author.  It’s as if the narrative has a life of its own.  There are times in writing the story where a character does something that surprises the author.  “Where did that come from?”   Authors I have talked to will affirm this.  It’s as if the characters have a life of their own.  And as aspects of the author, they do.

So, how does this relate to the problem of evil?  What this means is that while God is the author, there are aspects of God that are, in some sense, distinction but not separate from God.  These features of the narrative are constrained aspects of God and behave within those constraints.  They are not the author in total, but they are still part of the author’s mind.  And since they participate in God, they also have a limited freedom that is granted to them.

Now, in any narrative, there are elements that could be called evil, whether they be part of the world (natural events) or characters.  As natural events, they behave according to the constraints of regularity and novelty ( What Constitutes Reality ).  They operate within the full range of what is possible.  That full range can result in events that we might consider good or evil.  Gravity makes life possible and is considered good. We can walk around because of gravity. We can have fun playing golf because of gravity.  But if someone falls and breaks a leg it isn’t so good.   Or if a tsunami kills thousands of people we might call that an evil act of nature.  The very same processes that can create the good can also create the evil.  Without gravity, life as we know it, wouldn’t exist.  But with gravity, there can also be terrible events that occur.  What this means is that it may be the case that without the possibility of evil, there could also not be the possibility of good.  Such is life.

But what about the characters in the story. They can be both good and evil, or a mixture of both. It should be clear that all interesting narratives have both.  This has been true since stories were created.  In Vogler’s book “The Writer’s Journey” the mythic structures of effective narratives including the array archetypal characters and structure of struggle that make narratives powerful and compelling. Those mythic characters include a vast array of characteristics, often conflicted and struggling with their evil and good tendencies.

Summary

So to summarize.  How ever one approaches theology, God is responsible for evil.  If this is so, then there should be mitigating factors.  The primary mitigating factor in this approach is life itself.  Life entails constraints.  Both the forces that create the good also create the evil. These complementary and opposing forces (yin/yang) make life possible. This is life and the alternative is perfection, which means an abhorrent stasis.  If life is worth it, then we have to accept that there is inherent potential for both good and evil.  Not only that but God creates both.  In an aspect monism, God takes on the constraints of each being and acts within those constraints.  God, in God’s depth, has a goal or teleology for reality so each aspect of God has that goal also in their depth.  So, there is a freedom to embrace that depth or not.  Often we do not but sometimes we do. What this means is that life is an eternal struggle between embracing the good in our depth or rejecting it.  This means risk. Both for God and each aspect.  The problem of evil really addresses the question of whether to live or not to live. If the choice is to live then it forces an act of courage.  This is what God chose to do in living a Divine Life.  God emptied God’s self for this Life to enter into the eternal struggle to create love, beauty, and meaning in the midst of all the ambiguities and vicissitudes of life.