Should we explain evil? Some have tried.
- Immaturity: Irenaeus of Lyons said evil originates from the immature stage of humans at creation. He wrote: “Humanity was a child; and its mind was not yet fully mature; and thus humanity was easily led astray by the deceiver.”
- Necessary evil: Origen and Calvin said evil is necessary for God’s purposes. Origen wrote: “God does not create evil; still, he does not prevent it when it is shown by others, although he could do so. But he uses both evil and those who show it for necessary purposes. For through those in whom there is evil, he brings distinction and testing to those who strive for the glory of virtue. Virtue, if unopposed, would not shine out nor become more glorious by being tested. Virtue is not virtue if it be untested and unexamined.” Following this trajectory, Calvin wrote: “There is no random power or agency or motion in God’s creatures, who are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens [including, presumably, evil] except that which he has knowingly and willingly decreed.”
- Privation theory of evil: Augustine of Hippo and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio said evil originates from a defective movement of the human will. Augustine wrote: “The movement of turning away, which we admit is sin, is a defective movement; and defect comes from nothing.” Following this trajectory, Bonaventure wrote: “Sin is not any kind of essence but a defect and corruption by which the mode, species and order of the created will are corrupted. Hence the corruption of sin is opposed to good itself. It has no existence except in the good.”
Of the views above, I reject immaturity because God “created man [and woman] in his own image,” “blessed them,” and pronounced everything that he made “very good” (Gen. 1:26-31). I also reject necessary evil because it calls into question the power, justice, and benevolence of God. God has no business with evil, owing to his holiness. Therefore, I am the most sympathetic to the privation theory of evil because it holds that evil is not a positive entity, although it is weak to address the psychological and phenomenological affects of evil. Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart makes some important qualifications to this theory:
Christian thought has traditionally, of necessity, defined evil as a privation of the good, possessing no essence or nature of its own, a purely parasitic corruption of reality; hence it can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness. Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God has no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent — though immeasurably more vile — is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature.
Hart goes on to reject theodicy, which is a theoretical justification of God’s goodness in the presence of evil in the world. John Milton famously undertakes the project of theodicy in his epic poem Paradise Lost:
What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal providence
And justify the ways of God to men.
Can any finite creature justify the ways of an infinite God to men? What the Lord declares to the prophet Isaiah sounds like a resounding “No”:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8-9)
Why are we tempted by theodicy? I suspect it is to console ourselves with what is inconsolable, to explain what is inexplicable. Theodicy, it seems, is a fool’s errand. Our challenge is to endure the senselessness of evil with faith, hope, and love.
In December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami caused terrible ruin and loss of life in many coastal regions of southwest Asia. Reflecting on this event, Hart gives me permission to stop trying to explain why evil may exist and instead love what God loves and hate what God hates (Prov. 6:16-19; Prov. 8:13; Ps. 97:10). What follows is some of the most inspired theological writing that I have ever read because it rings of truth:
I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation and visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity. […]
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
This is a principled refusal to explain evil.