See No Evil

August 13, 2008

There are a only a couple ways for anyone who believes in God to account for evil. I want to trace one path at the present moment and highlight its shocking conclusion: that most Christians deny the existence of evil.

Either evil comes from God or it doesn’t. (c.f. The Law of Excluded Middle) Christians are usually keen to say it doesn’t come from God (“God is not the author of evil.” c.f. The Westminster Confession of Faith) but ambivalent about the actual source. On one account, it comes from the hearts of mankind (Genesis 6:5-6 and many more); on another, it’s from the influence of the Devil (Job 1:12 and many more). Most Christians that I know hold a confused amalgam of both sources. The curious feature I wish to highlight is present among any theodicy which accounts for the existence of evil as part of God’s plan for the world, regardless of its source.

According to most Christian justifications of evil, evil plays an important part in God’s plan for the world. (The most notable exception probably being that of Open Theism, which does not fall victim to this line of reasoning, but has its own set of problems.) God’s view of evil is probably best articulated by Jonathan Edwards’s explanation (or John Piper’s summary) of God seeing evil through two lenses: a zoom lens where God hates evil and its practitioners, and a wide-angle lens where God sees the function of evil in bringing Himself glory through the broad sweep of providential time. It is the later to which I take issue now.

This issues is commonly called the Problem of Evil and lies in the apparently inconsistent premises: 1.) God is all-powerful, 2.) God is entirely good, 3.) Evil exists. Some attempts try to qualify the power of God (ex: Open Theism). Some try to qualify the goodness of God (ex: dualist or polytheist theologies in which the gods are not all good). Some try to qualify or deny the existence of evil (ex: Christian Science). It is this last group where most Christians accidentally fall.

Christians deny that evil exists. The response to the problem of evil is often that God has a use for evil. In the end, they insist, good is displayed or God is glorified in ways that couldn’t have happened if this evil didn’t exist. I believed this line of reasoning for a long time. But if evil ultimately results in a larger good (which wouldn’t have happened otherwise), evil is not evil but rather a particular species of good. It’s a means to an end. Evil is necessarily how good happens. So if you take the long view, like Edwards suggests, whatever evil you might consider is actually a good thing in the long run because it is necessary to bring God glory in the end. “Evil is good in the long run.” Evil is good. Take the blue pill; welcome to the Matrix.

Any explanation of evil which posits a greater purpose of evil falls prey to this same peril. “Evil is an illusion that results from our limited perspective. If we could see it from God’s perspective—the hidden truth—we would see that all evil is necessarily a good thing because it accomplishes God’s plan.” Then the part no one admits: “So evil doesn’t really exist; it is only part of the good.” Therefore, everything is good.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Romans 8:28

2 Responses to “See No Evil”

  1. Hello,
    I think it is absolutely impossible to give a reason for the existence of moral evil (sin). Sin is unaccountable and to explain it means to excuse it. Surely God is not the author of sin. You say some Christians are […] ambivalent about the actual source of evil. I agree inasmuch as that there cannot be found any source of evil. The unexplicability of evil is its real problem. Thus there can be no reason given for the existence of sin, but salvation is needed.

    I’ve been elaborating on the knowledge of good and evil on the blog provided here. The last posting deals with the “origin of sin”.

  2. exxn said

    If I understand you right (and after looking at your blog), you seem to be advocating a categorical ignorance toward questions of evil lest we again “eat form the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” This is interesting. I have not come across this before.

    I don’t know that this is really possible, even for pre-fall man. If even a thought about the concept of evil is in itself evil, then Adam sinned before the fall by understanding what God told him. Thus, Adam sinned before Adam sinned, which is absurd. What’s more, God sinned when he conceived of this command to Adam. You could avoid this last bit by claiming that different rules apply to God (which no doubt has SOME truth in it), but you can’t avoid then that God still compelled Adam to sin by communicating his command to mankind. Non posse non peccare?

    In a slightly different direction, on thinking about this, I can think of at least 3 different meanings of “giving a reason” for the existence of moral evil: 1.) It could include identifying the precipitous event in the causal chain (ie. finding the “cause”), 2.) it could attempt theodicy, seeking to give a justification for evil’s existence, which is somewhat related to 3.) It could seek to place blame or identify culpability.

    God being the “author of evil,” and denials toward it conflate these separate senses, which is why people often talk past each other on this question and why Christians are ambivalent (and uninformed) when it comes to “giving a reason for evil.”

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