Christianity and the Problem of Evil
This is a follow-up to the previous article in response to Gerald R. Baron. This touched on the issues surrounding Christianity and the reality of evil. Here I’ll discuss these in more detail.
In a recent article I pointed out that, if we consider ‘God’ to be an ultimate creative principle, which is the source of everything, the unavoidable conclusion is that what we call evil originated in the Divine Mind. The existence of such a principle, an ultimate Ground of Being rather than a Creator God, is considered to be true in all the major spiritual traditions I’m aware of, apart from the three Abrahamic religions.
This suggestion makes people very uncomfortable, believers and unbelievers alike. How have people down the ages avoided this unpleasant conclusion?
Baron insists that the Creator is a person, and not merely a creative principle. (It would be interesting to know exactly how he understands this idea.) He says that evil obviously exists, but that to hold God responsible is incompatible with the biblical account. He therefore concludes that “the Mind of God cannot be all there is”, that “evil of necessity must exist outside of the very being of God”, and that “there must be entities with mind and power to act on it in opposition to the Almighty (which) God must allow that to exist. These might be either “entities endowed with personal characteristics, or some impersonal force that somehow interfered with the goodness of creation”. These entities have free will, which enables them to oppose that of God.
To my mind this does not really resolve the problem, for who created these entities? Presumably God. If not, there must be another Creator God, which would contradict the doctrine of monotheism. If yes, then this has merely moved the problem one step further back. God has created beings with the potential for choosing evil. And how did this potential for evil come into existence to enable it to be chosen, if not from God? I think the free will option is merely one way of avoiding the difficulty.
Another way is to claim that evil is not real, merely the absence of the good, which is the doctrine known as privatio boni. Baron, even though he firmly believes in the reality of evil, mentions this saying: “Evil, as many great thinkers have considered, can be understood as the absence of the good”. This suggests to me that he agrees with them.
As the relevant wikipedia article says: “If some things in the world were to be admitted to be evil, this could be taken to reflect badly on the creator of the world, who would then be difficult to admit to be completely good”. Indeed, that would be very difficult. The article further says that this doctrine states that “evil, unlike good, is insubstantial… Instead, evil is rather the absence, or lack, of good. This also means that everything that exists is good, insofar as it exists; and is also sometimes stated as that evil ought to be regarded as nothing, or as something non-existent” (their italics). Again this seems to be a way of avoiding the difficulty.
Various Gnostic sects adopted an alternative strategy, claiming that the universe was not created by the ultimate (good) God, rather by a lesser (false) God known as the Demiurge.
Atheists cite the existence of evil as a reason not to believe in God at all, agreeing that, if God exists, ‘He’ must be pure good.
Is there anything that can be done to resolve this problem? Can we look at this issue from a different perspective? Before I begin, let me say in advance that I am not attached to any of the ideas which follow, not claiming any of them as truth. They are just some possibilities which may shed some light on this issue.
One person who did not seek to avoid the difficulty, and faced it head on, was Carl Jung. He was willing to consider the possibility that what we perceive as evil is an emanation from the ultimate source. He called the goal of the individuation process — his version of the spiritual journey — the self, which he says is the God-image in man. He also says: “In the self good and evil are indeed closer than identical twins”¹. He therefore considers them to be equal and opposite tendencies. Also, Jung on various occasions in his writings is highly critical of the doctrine of privatio boni, which he considered a serious avoidance of the issue.
According to the Genesis account, Adam and Eve are definitely responsible for seeking to know good and evil. God told them not to do it, perhaps because ‘He’ knew they wouldn’t like it. This is true whether they are the original humans, as some Christians believe, or whether they symbolise spirit and soul, as I’ve argued in this recent article. God therefore cannot be held responsible for what Adam and Eve did.
It is often said that God is love, God is Good, omnipotent, and so on. The great mystics down the centuries, however, have said that God (the Ultimate Source) is ineffable, beyond all description and attribution. This would seem to be a contradiction. It is sometimes said in spiritual circles, however, that love is the energy that binds the universe together, in which case its meaning might be something closer to bonding or attraction. This might therefore mean nothing more than the concept of relatedness or the interconnectedness of the universe in quantum physics, not what we normally understand by love.
Another idea to consider is that what appears to be evil at the material level may not seem so at higher spiritual levels, what we might call the soul’s eye-view, or God’s eye-view. (This may be the implication of Genesis 2 according to my alternative interpretation.) What is called the One, the unus mundus, by definition must contain all that exists, so that the distinction between good and evil may not be meaningful at this level, where all the opposites that appear antagonistic to us, are synthesised as a unity.
Human perception is flawed and subject to various illusions. The most obvious one is the belief that the material universe is real and as we perceive it. Quantum physics has proved beyond doubt that there is no such thing as substance.
Less obvious is the illusion of time. It is a well-known spiritual saying, however, that time is an illusion of consciousness (at the material level), that at higher levels everything occurs simultaneously. Some physicists are also coming up with similar counterintuitive ideas about time: that the laws of physics are time reversible, and therefore the possibility of retrocausation. Some even agree that at the quantum level there is no time.
Perhaps something similar applies to the distinction between good and evil. This seems real from a human perspective, but is perhaps an illusion at a higher level, when seen through the eyes of the soul, or of God. In that context, it is interesting to note that ‘beyond good and evil’ is a state of consciousness aspired to in Hinduism.
Since writing this article originally, I am very grateful to Dave M for a response which included this paragraph: “Most Christians see evil as an external, malevolent injection into God’s plan. (This is Gerald Baron’s position.) Yet in Isaiah 45, the great ‘sovereignty of God’ chapter, we find this statement, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating evil; I am the Lord who does all these.’ The Hebrew word translated as ‘evil’ in this passage is ‘râ’a’. Some translations try to soften things and attempt to reduce God’s culpability by using the word ‘calamity’ here but the actual meaning of the word is to spoil, make good for nothing, afflict, do harm, hurt, punish, vex, do wickedly (Strong’s 7489)”.
Someone who has explored such ideas is the parapsychologist Lawrence LeShan in his book The Medium, the Mystic and the Physicist². He noted, as others have done, the similarities between the statements of quantum physicists and various mystics. He goes one step further and says that mediums and clairvoyants have similar experiences to mystics, and share a similar, if not the same, worldview.
He studied the writings of and interviewed various clairvoyants: “My sources appeared to agree on four basic differences between the ordinary and the paranormal ways of understanding how the world is constructed”. Two of these were the nature of time, and the nature of good and evil.
“The sensitives agreed that in the moments when they were acquiring paranormal information they felt differently about these four aspects of reality than they did at other times. Their relationship to reality changed in the special ‘paranormal’ moments and these four differences were aspects of that change”.
On the question of the nature of time, we all understand how it operates in everyday reality. However, “in the Clairvoyant Reality, say the sensitives, time takes on quite a different structure (my italics). All events are, they do not happen. The past, the present, and the future are all equally in existence, even though we can ordinarily only observe those events located in the present. It is as if one were describing what happens when a movie is being shown. All the events of the movie are in existence: they are on the celluloid film already, but we can only see a very narrow slice of the film at any one time. As the frames of the film pass behind the lens of the projector and flash on the screen, it looks to us as if the events were happening, but in reality the entire film and all the events on it already exist. All these events can (theoretically at least) be observed”.
He quotes the medium Eileen Garrett: “On clairvoyant levels there exists simultaneity of time, and the clairvoyant message may concern future events and future relationships…”
On the question of good and evil, LeShan says: “If everything that is, was and will continue to be, then every event is, and is above and beyond the concept of good and evil. In Mrs. Garrett’s words ‘What I see in clairvoyance is neither good nor is it right. It is. It is inevitable” (all italics in original).
“In the Clairvoyant Reality one simply observes and does not judge. Everything and every event is seen as a part of everything else and a part of everything that (from our ordinary view) was and will be. Thus to judge any specific event as good or evil is to judge the entire cosmos, the complete space-time fabric of being. If no thing can be separated from all other things, then neither can the judgment of any one thing be separate. It is partly in this sense that the clairvoyant says that from this view, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are concepts that are irrelevant to her perception”.
Does any of the above help us to feel more comfortable about the relationship between God and evil? I would be interested in any observations.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
- Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works volume 12, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2nd edition 1968, para 24, p21
- Turnstone Press, 1974, p33f