Graham Pemberton
10 min readFeb 20, 2023

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What’s Wrong with Christianity? — Carl Jung and the Problem of Evil

first image, pixabay TheDigitalArtist

“For Jung, the dark side of the psyche, mythologically the Devil, is a substantial reality. Furthermore, ‘the shadow and the opposing will is the necessary condition for all actualization’ ”¹.

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Anyone interested in the theme of this article might be interested in Jack Preston King’s response, and the ensuing conversation. Gerald R. Baron has also posted a Christian response. It’s obviously best to read this article in advance.

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I’ve written in general about the theme of Christianity and the problem of evil in this article. Here I’m revisiting the topic in relation to the ideas of Carl Jung.

In the previous article in this series I discussed the need, according to Jung, to acknowledge the reality of the Divine Feminine. Here, after some preliminary discussion, I’ll turn to his thoughts on the opposites of good and evil.

Carrin Dunne outlines how this issue has always been a problem for Christian theology: “Throughout the Christian centuries, the problem of evil has been both a scandal and a stumbling-block for the rational mind, the stumbling-block being that if God is good, then God is not God, the scandal being that if God is God, then God is not good”².

In Christianity the belief in a personal God allows the possibility that this God is purely good, sometimes called the Summum Bonum, and that all evil is attributed to the Devil or humanity’s fall because of Original Sin. Thus, in the New Testament, the first epistle of John says, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1:5). Along similar lines, and blaming humans for evil, St. Basil the Great said: “It is impious to say that evil has its origin from God, because naught contrary is produced by the contrary. Life does not generate death, nor is darkness the beginning of light, nor is disease the maker of health, but in the changes of conditions there are transitions from one condition to the contrary”. He also said: “No one who is in this world will deny that evils exist. What, then, do we say? That evil is not a living and animated substance, but a condition of the soul which is opposed to virtue and which springs up in the slothful because of their falling away from good”³.

If, on the contrary, we conceive God as a Ground of Being, a Oneness which is the source of everything that exists, then inevitably we are drawn to the conclusion that, like the masculine and feminine principles, both good and evil have their ultimate source in that original Oneness.

For example, in Sufism, according to Medium writer Shafiqah Othman, “the world is seen as the self-manifestation of God, and therefore, what appears as evil and suffering in the world can ultimately be traced back to the origin of creation itself. In this view, the existence of evil in the world is a necessary aspect of creation, and it reflects the infinity of God in His self-manifestation”.

Or, in the words of Medium writer Story Waters: “The realization of oneness that results from exiting duality is called spiritual awakening or enlightenment. Although these terms are often dressed up in religion and mysticism, what they most essentially describe is seeing through the illusion of dualistic thinking — like the labeling of things as good or evilsuch that the underlying unity of all things is revealed. Because we tend to express our duality through division, this is to dissolve the illusion of separation and ‘know all as one’ ” (italics in original, my bold type).

In the Old Testament we have both points of view expressed. Deuteronomy says at 32.4: “our God (is) the Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he; yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him, a perverse and crooked generation”. However, at Isaiah 45. 6–7 we find: “I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and I create darkness, I make weal (which is an old-fashioned word for well-being) and create woe; I the LORD do all these things”.

That is the NRSV translation. I am grateful to Medium writer Dave M who some time ago pointed out to me that an alternative and better translation is “causing well-being and creating evil”, rather than “I make weal and create woe”. He says that “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’ (or ‘woe’ as in NRSV) 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)”.

Isaiah’s depiction of God here seems to go against much of the rest of the Bible, especially the New Testament, and therefore Christianity. However, as Nathan Schwartz-Salant says: “This positive valuation of the destructive aspects of human and divine nature is found as a major thesis of Manicheism and Zoroastrian thinking”⁴.

Interestingly, in the context of my ongoing theme of the connections between Jung and Gnosticism, Manicheism was a Gnostic tradition. Peter Kingsley describes it as “perhaps the most potent and terrifying form of Gnosticism that ever existed”. He says that Mani had “claimed he was bringing together in his own mission the most essential teachings of Buddha, of Christ; of every other prophet, including Zarathustra… He had also proclaimed himself as the fulfiller and completer, as the one true successor and superseder of all their wisdoms”. He also presented himself “as a scientist with a detailed insight into the workings of the world and of the human psyche which only the direct experience granted through revelation can ever hope to provide”.

It is not hard to see therefore why the Catholic Church, given that it was seeking to impose itself as the sole authority in religious matters, would want to condemn and suppress Manicheism. Jung, however, as Kingsley goes on to say “was fascinated by Mani’s amazingly intricate explanations of the physical world” and “warmly praised Mani for his skills not just as the founder of a world religion but as a wonderful painter”⁵.

Having been deeply involved with it, Saint Augustine then rejected Manicheism, converting to Christianity. Since he was such an influential figure in early Christianity, this can be seen as an important turning point/split in the history of the two traditions.

That’s the end of the preamble. Turning now to Jung’s thoughts on evil, he seems to belong to the camp of those who conceive God as the Ground of Being, the wholeness of everything that exists. For example, collaborating with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, he developed the idea of the Unus Mundus (One World), a level where mind and matter are as one.

The goal of his Individuation Process (spiritual path) is the self, which for him is the image of the divine (the Unus Mundus?) in a human, a centre of wholeness of the personality where opposites are transcended and unified. The most obvious pair of opposites is good and evil. He therefore conceived these opposites as equal and complementary aspects of the psyche: “In the self good and evil are indeed closer than identical twins! The reality of evil and its incompatibility with good cleave the opposites asunder and lead inexorably to the crucifixion and suspension of everything that lives”. On the same page he talks about “the truth about the self — the unfathomable union of good and evil”⁶. It’s interesting therefore that he said: “I don’t aspire to be a good man. I aspire to be a whole man”⁷.

According to him, the unavoidable beginning of this Individuation Process is the integration of the shadow, the darker aspects of personality, into consciousness. It’s therefore worth noting from a Christian perspective that, according to Matthew’s Gospel (23. 25–27), this was a problem which Jesus also was deeply concerned with: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean… You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”.

Jesus is accusing the scribes and Pharisees of not having integrated, or of having repressed their shadows. Are we therefore meant to assume that he has integrated his own shadow? The Catholic Church teaches its followers to “renounce Satan and all his works”. It is supposedly inviting them to follow the example of Jesus, since this is precisely what he did, according to the synoptic Gospels, at the time of his Temptation. On the other hand, is it inviting them, perhaps unintentionally, to repress their shadows, like the scribes and Pharisees?

That might be Jung’s interpretation. He considered Christ to be a symbol of the self, albeit lacking the dark side. Thus he says: “Christ is our nearest analogy of the self and its meaning… Yet, although the attributes of Christ… undoubtedly mark him out as an embodiment of the self, looked at from the psychological angle he corresponds to only one half of the archetype. The other half appears in the Antichrist. The latter is just as much a manifestation of the self, except that he consists of its dark aspect… It is therefore well to examine carefully the psychological aspects of the individuation process in the light of Christian tradition, which can describe it for us with an exactness and impressiveness far surpassing our feeble attempts, even though the Christian image of the self — Christ — lacks the shadow that properly belongs to it”⁸.

On that theme, in many places in his writings Jung was highly critical of the Christian doctrine of Privatio Boni, the idea that evil, unlike good, is insubstantial, and merely the absence of good. He mentions or quotes Irenaeus, Tatian, Basil the Great, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Augustine as Christian sources for this viewpoint, and says that this “nullifies the reality of evil”⁹.

Carrin Dunne says that, psychologically speaking, the doctrine of Privatio Boni “leads us to downplay evil as a non-being… which gives man the perfect excuse to avoid taking his shadow or dark side seriously”. Also, “the human soul is given an exaggerated importance as the cause of evil… A doctrine that has its roots in Origen and St. Basil the Great reaches full expression with St. Augustine and his struggle to deliver himself from Manichaeism. Since God is the creator of all things, in order to preserve both the unity and the goodness of God (as opposed to the Manichaean doctrine of two ultimate principles, one good, the other evil), an ingenious solution is hit upon by interpreting evil as non-being, not part of the creation at all but, as it were, a hole in creation”¹⁰.

As the words ‘ingenious solution’ suggest, it’s possible, even likely, that this doctrine was invented purely in order to avoid having to contemplate the possibility that the ‘Creator’ is not completely good, the source of everything that is, including evil. It’s also worth noting that the doctrine seems to contradict the Bible, for in Genesis (2.17) we learn of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, where the two seem to be considered equal and complementary opposites.

Jung points out that, apart from any other metaphysical considerations, the doctrine is logically flawed, since it assumes as truth what it is attempting to prove (that God is the Summum Bonum), and is therefore a circular argument. (See, for example, this website page.)

More importantly, he appeals to the evidence found in the Bible itself, namely the Book of Job, concluding, as Carrin Dunne says, that “God is rather a totality, being both good and evil or, to intensify the paradox, all-good and all-evil”. She continues: “But if the Christian God is none other than the God of Job and the God of Psalm 88¹¹, why is it that Christian tradition emphasizes only the bright aspects: goodness, light, love? How can the God whom Jung describes as an ‘amoral phenomenon’ (in Answer to Job) be the Summum Bonum?”¹².

That is an important question for Christians to contemplate.

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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 of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.

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FOOTNOTES:

  1. Nathan Schwartz-Salant, from an essay ‘Patriarchy in Transformation: Judaic, Christian, and Clinical Perspectives’, in Jung’s Challenge to Contemporary Religion, edited by Murray Stein and Robert L. Moore, Chiron Publications, 1987, p63. The Jung quote is from A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity, CW11, Princeton University Press, 1969, p196.
  2. From an essay ‘Between Two Thieves: a Response to Jung’s Critique of the Christian Notions of Good and Evil’, as footnote 1, p15
  3. https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/saint-basil-quotes
  4. as footnote 1, p42
  5. Catafalque, Catafalque Press, 2021, p306–7
  6. Psychology and Alchemy, CW12, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968, p21
  7. Quote by Carl Jung: “I don’t aspire to be a good man. I aspire to be…” (goodreads.com)
  8. Aion, Princeton University Press, 1979, para 79, p44
  9. ibid. para 80–83, p46–47
  10. As footnote 2, p19
  11. see verses 14–16
  12. As footnote 2, p16, p17

Shafiqah Othman

Gerald R. Baron

Story Waters

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Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com