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This concept seems to give rise to, or is often cited as giving rise to, theodicy, dualism, atheism, and other thorny philosophical-theological issues.  The problem usually seems to be approached in this manner:

a. God is good.
b. evil exists
c. evil, is, well, evil (or at least bad)
d. therefore, there is a problem.  Either i. God isn’t good; ii. There is an independent source of evil; iii. There is some need for a form of theodicy.

This approach seems to treat evil as a distinct, ontological reality.  But, what, exactly is ‘evil’?  Is this a silly question?  I don’t think so—not when one reads or watches as writers and artists struggle with the concept of evil.  If it is an ontological problem, then surely it must have an essence of some sort?

Is its essence that which is unpleasant or negative from a human point of view?  This seems to be the take that the classic dualists, the Zoroastrians, have.  Evil is for them, quite simply, that which is negative and unpleasant to the human species.  This definition, however, seems too anthropocentric for an ultimate ontological category.

Is it ethical, moral, or some sort of ‘deontological’ issue?  I think a large amount of the Christian tradition would view it somewhere along those lines: evil, is, then quite simply that which goes against the will of God due to the fallenness of man.  If man simply ceased to sin, then evil would cease.  This view has a certain attractiveness, and it seems almost acceptable, until various things come into consideration:  what then of the Holocaust/Shoah? (Surely moral failing can only explain part of that horror).  What of things such as the recent Tsunami in South East Asia?  Does that fall in the category of ‘evil,’ and can it be blamed on moral failings?  It seems to me that things generally considered to be ‘evil’ cannot always be explained away by reference to human responsibility, and that that line or argumentation can seem to trivialize suffering to some extent.

A further problem I have with the ethical understanding is that it seems to impinge on the sovereignty of G-d.  By blaming evil on the actions of humans, or of fallen/evil supernatural beings for that matter, implies that evil’s existence is in someway independent of G-d, existing and creating in opposition to His will.  That is an implicit dualism.  As is often pointed out, blaming it all on a devil operating nominally under the auspices of G-d does not solve that problem: either it implies that G-d is sloppy and lazy in His creation, or that the devil is truly in some way independent, even if weaker.

This view also seems to imply too much of a ‘precious moments’ version of G-d to sit well with me.  The ‘darkness’ or terrifying aspects of the divine are well attested not only throughout mythologies and anthropological studies, but in the Bible and our own personal experiences as well.  G-d does not operate in a way we’d choose as humans, in a way suited to our viewpoint, or, well, in a way which we traditionally speak of as ‘not-evil.’  See:

Isaiah 45:7,9

I form the light and create darkness,
  I bring prosperity and create disaster;
  I, the LORD, do all these things…
  “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker,
  to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground.
  Does the clay say to the potter,
‘What are you making?’
Does your work say,
‘He has no hands’?

Isaiah 8:13-14

The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread,
and he will be a sanctuary;
but for both houses of Israel he will be
a stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.

Amos 4:13

He who forms the mountains,
creates the wind,
and reveals his thoughts to man,
he who turns dawn to darkness,
and treads the high places of the earth—
the LORD God Almighty is his name.

Amos 5:18-20

Woe to you who long
for the day of the LORD!
Why do you long for the day of the LORD ?
That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

1 Samuel 16:14

Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.

Qohelet: 7:13

Consider what God has done:
Who can straighten
what he has made crooked?

 Qohelet 8:14

There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.

Qohelet 9:11-12

I have seen something else under the sun:
       The race is not to the swift
       or the battle to the strong,
       nor does food come to the wise
       or wealth to the brilliant
       or favor to the learned;
       but time and chance happen to them all.
Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:
       As fish are caught in a cruel net,
       or birds are taken in a snare,
       so men are trapped by evil times
       that fall unexpectedly upon them.

And all of Job

In some of these passages, there is certainly an ethical dimension, of God’s punishment for violating His rules.  But that is not all there is implied in these verses.  There is a dark side (an ‘evil’ side?) to G-d that the prophets periodically needed to impress upon their audiences.  Is this solely an issue of sin?  Again, we come to the problems above.

The biblical tradition also affirms, however that G-d is holy, or set apart.  He is righteous, or victorious.  He is love, or intimately concerned.

What if we don’t look at evil as an ontological problem, but a teleological one?  Or, to use more traditional theological language, a soteriological one?  What if evil is a part of G-d, what if the evil we experience in whatever form it comes into our individual and collective experiences, is here by G-d’s purposeful intent from the foundation of Creation?  What if it is designed to teach, to mold, to forge, through the fires as it were, a people and a creation which have struggled and been perfected rather than just been perfect?  Somehow, it seems the experience of suffering (‘evil’?) even made Christ Himself more perfect—(Hebrews 5:8-9) Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation—and again, Jesus himself calls humans ‘gods’ (John 10:34).  Does this imply that the occurrence of evil in the world is a manifestation of the process of the perfection of the world?

Does this reasoning trivialize or ennoble an individual’s suffering?  I don’t know; it seems to give it some meaning, but it is a harsh meaning with unclear perimeters.

The arts, if they may be brought into this musing, seem to see this ambivalent side to evil/suffering.  It is long noted (cf. Orson Welles, Kierkegaard, etc. etc.) that great art usually comes out of suffering; ‘great’ stories, whether fictional or real, depend on conflict.  A good novel or adventure story by definition depicts events which no one would ever wish to happen to them.  Somehow, something, about the nature of art seems to require this dark side.  It is the arts and artists that seem to want to avoid this which are so cheap, tacky, and sentimental as rule—I’m thinking Kinkade, or on a different level, Left Behind.  We are moved, inspired, and (in theory) ennobled by art that deals with this harsh reality.  Is this part of the nature of art (and thus making art suspect, as the Puritans thought), or does it cause this reaction in us because it speaks to our experience, or does this nature reflect the teleological/perfecting aspect of evil?

This offers no answers, it is only a very long and rambling musing on these various issues.  The only thing I know for sure, is Christ and Him crucified: and while that is a joy and a comfort, it is also suffering and a demand.  And I have the notion that somehow the remainder of reality must also fit into that kind of ‘dialectic’ nature.

Jason M Silverman

15th February, 2007