Throughout history, religions have swept through the hearts of men, conquering doubts and strengthening faith. But there is one barrier which has never been overcome. Overlooked in times of peace, maybe, but firm and resolute during strife. Evil. How can an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God allow Evil to exist? He knows evil exists, he can destroy evil and he wants to destroy evil. But he doesn’t. You do not need to look far to find it.
Not that attempts haven’t been made. Far from it. There are hundreds of theodicies, form every religion and every era. Many sound convincing but under pressure, with news of children and innocent families being gunned down because of their nationality, or being drowned by rising waters, it takes a heart of stone not to doubt.
Probably the earliest theodicy still used today is that offered by Hinduism. At first it seems no different from the early Christian beliefs, that all pain and suffering are the results of past sins. But the difference is reincarnation. When Hinduism says ‘past sins,’ it is talking of sins which could have been committed in a past life. Although with many lives lived peacefully and well, one can break the chain and transcend physical life, it is not uncommon for a Hindu mother to scold her children and warn them that evils committed in this life could be returned in the next, perhaps being reincarnated as an animal!
Life seems pitiless. We are punished for sins that we cannot possibly recall doing, and possibly would not commit if faced with the same circumstances. To be born a beggar, a king, an athlete or a helpless cripple is simply the composite consequence of the deeds of other lives. It is no use inventing a devil to explain evil. Life is purely what we’ve made of it.
Looked at from this standpoint, despair lurks close, but many seers have had different ideas. From their perspective, life is no longer an unpitying court of justice, but instead a gym, where obstacles in life seem more like the ropes and parallel bars and vaulting boxes which make us strong.
Saint Irenaeus was born in the early 3rd century in Asia Minor. He was born into a Christian family, surprising as Christians were still prosecuted for another 50 years. He became the 2nd Bishop of Lyon in his later life, by then well known for his book, of which only one copy remains, a Latin translation. He believed that Mankind had been created immature and needed to overcome evil and brave suffering before it can be pure and be, in every sense of the word, good. He said that Adam and Eve’s argument with God had been not a fully fledged rebellion, but instead a childish tantrum, portraying man’s desire to have everything, now. He believed that God is keeping Eden safe and untainted, waiting for when man grows up. He likened death and suffering to the whale which ate Jonah: it was only in the depths of the whale’s stomach that he could turn to God.
Saint Augustine was born in a Roman city in northern Africa, son of Saint Monica. He was raised in Carthage and grew up to teach rhetoric and philosophy but moved to Rome, often considered the centre of the civilised world. He became known later on for his privation boni theory which is very popular today. He believed that Evil was not created by God, but was just an absence of Goodness. For example, God did not create darkness, he created light. He created life and justice, but did not create injustice and loss of life. This is often known as the Constant Theodicy.
Karl Barth thought that current theodicies relied too much on the a priori notion of God’s omnipotence. He agreed with the Constant Theodicy, calling the opposite of good ‘das nichte’, which always threatens to reduce God’s creations to nothing. He talked much about Hope. He said that was what God had given to help man against das nichte, so that man would be helped through pain and suffering by the hope that God’s eventual triumph over evil would soon come.
The most recent and probably the most popular theodicy is that concerning Free Will. This believes that God created man with the potential in him for both good and evil and the ability to choose, for obedience and goodness is pointless if it is forced and there is no alternative. God then set limits on his own powers, so that he could not interfere with man’s thoughts and actions.
My eyes have been opened to many theodicies which have shaken me out of my blissful ignorance on this subject. Many are shaky at best, with glaring holes in their arguments. The Hindu argument seems plausible, but I cannot reconcile a completely unmerciful life with the idea of a loving God. Irenaeus seems way ahead of his time and in another life would have been a boarding school headmaster, perhaps little more than two centuries ago. Barth is persuasive, but he is very pessimistic, saying that evil is inevitable and we will suffer, but that we must hope that we won’t…
I think that the Free Will theodicy gives the clearest explanation to the Problem of Evil. God gave us the choice to do good or evil, gave us the safekeeping of the earth and we must seek to eradicate evil ourselves.