When is “Evil” Truly Evil? (Is Christianity True? #37)

The problem of evil is perhaps the most popular and potent contemporary objection to belief in God. In its simplest form it goes like this: How can you believe in a good, all-powerful and all-knowing God in the face of the pain, suffering and inhumanity that plagues the world? Would a good God allow genocide on a massive scale, if he could stop it? Wouldn’t an all-powerful God prevent the human death and suffering caused by tsunamis and earthquakes, if he cared? Agnostics use such questions to undermine certainty of belief in God. Atheists offer these objections as evidence against belief in the existence of God. Believers also feel the negative force of evil and sometimes feel abandoned by God and threatened by doubt.

As befits a blog devoted to “thoughtfulness in religion” I want to begin at the beginning and approach the subject at the most fundamental level where the question of evil first emerges. The following two questions strike me as getting about as close to the foundation as we can get: what are the conditions under which any event or series of events could be considered evil?”  And what quality is being attributed to an event when it is called evil?

Evil cannot exist unless something exists. Absolute nothingness is not evil or good. Whatever evil is, it exists as a quality of something else—of a thing, an event or a relation. If there were no things or events or relations, evil could not exist. Now imagine that our universe has existed eternally or came into existence arbitrarily and that there is no divine mind to order and direct it. Imagine further that there are no finite minds or even any living things but that physical and chemical processes that constitute the universe will continue to operate forever, the universe evolving as it has since the Big Bang. Does evil exist in this imaginary world? Can it exist in such a world? No. Even though things are continually coming into existence and going out of existence, being built up and destroyed, no event or series of events can be considered evil. Why?

At a minimum, to designate an event or series of events as “evil” is to say that something has gone wrong; evil is a misrelation, disharmony where there should be harmony.  But the concept of “going wrong” makes no sense where there is no concept of “going according to plan.” And the idea of a “plan” makes no sense apart from a mind that conceives of that plan. Hence the possibility of evil depends on the existence of a real world in which the actual course of events can contradict the ideal course of events as conceived by the divine mind. If evil occurs in this real world, contradicting the divine ideal world, we can see that such evil would cause distress and disappointment in the divine being. [We are not yet speaking of God the Creator in the Christian sense. We are speaking only of an all-encompassing cosmic mind.]

So, what are the conditions for the emergence of the concept of evil? Something must exist and a flow of events must be taking place. There must be a plan that encompasses all things and events, and there must be a mind that contains this comprehensive plan. Only a mind can perceive the contradiction between the way things actually go and the way they are supposed to go. And only a mind that wills the good (that is, the way things are supposed to go) can experience distress when they go wrong. The concept of cosmic evil emerges only with the emergence of a cosmic mind/will. Hence to argue that there is no God because things go wrong is self-contradictory. The argument affirms that things do in fact go wrong (evil) but denies the necessary conditions for the affirmation that things go wrong (a plan for the way things are supposed to go).

Now let’s shift our attention to the human experience of evil. As I have shown above, if there is no divine-like cosmic mind that can conceive and will the way things are supposed to go in the world, the concept of evil makes no sense in reference to the flow of cosmic events. Imagine, then, that we have evolved by chance in a universe in which there is no divine mind, no cosmic plan and no cosmic evil. Here we are. We exist for no reason and no purpose. For our coming into existence is a cosmic event and cosmic events do not happen for reasons or purposes. But as a matter of brute fact we exist as thinking, feeling and willing beings. And as thinking, feeling and willing beings we exist also as cosmic beings in the flow of cosmic change, of coming into existence and going out of existence, of the process of building up and tearing down that constitutes the universe. And as cosmic beings we come into existence, exist for a while, then deteriorate and fall apart. Though there is no ideal plan for the way things are supposed to go, we can imagine one and wish it to be so. Though there is no divine plan for our lives we imagine our lives unfolding in an “ideal” way, that is, according to our desires. And we can perceive the contradiction between our ideal cosmic and individual plans and the actual flow of our lives in the cosmos.

As thinking, feeling and willing beings, we wish to be exempted from the cosmic processes of decay and death to which we are subject as cosmic beings. As a matter of brute fact we desire to live and experience happiness. We do not want to experience physical pain or emotional distress or spiritual suffering. When the actual flow of cosmic events contradicts our idea of the “way things are supposed to go” in our lives, we experience this contradiction and consequent distress as wrong, as a misrelation and as disharmony where harmony ought to exist. Hence on a human level evil is defined as whatever contradicts our ideal plan and thwarts our pursuit of happiness. And since this contradiction assails and destroys what we love, we hate it and rebel against it with all our energy. At the human level evil is that to which we say “No!”

But this line of thinking rather undermines the argument from our experience of evil to atheism. We’ve seen that the idea of cosmic evil makes no sense apart from a divine mind that can plan and desire the way things are supposed to go in cosmic history. You cannot argue for the existence of real cosmic evil from the contradiction between the mere human idea of the way the world should go and the human desire for life and happiness, unless you assume the existence of a divine plan and a divine mind. And if there is no divine plan or divine mind, the “evil” human beings experience is not really cosmic in nature. It is subjective, relative to the brute fact of human desires and wishes. On the supposition of the non-existence of God or anything like God, at the cosmic level genocides, hellish wars, devastating tsunamis, catastrophic earthquakes, famines, cancer and all other hateful evils are not evil. Like the deterioration of a radioactive element or the death of a star in a supernova, they just are.

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3 thoughts on “When is “Evil” Truly Evil? (Is Christianity True? #37)

  1. nokareon

    Well said. I think this post serves very well to drawing out the battle lines concerning the Problem of Evil objection. Atheists want to have their cake and eat it too–they want to keep the righteous sense of indignation at states of affairs in the world while simultaneously arguing that such states of affairs disprove a divine mind. But if the arguments in this post are correct, the Atheist cannot hold on to both of these.

    I want to raise two different perspectives on Evil which might throw a wrench in the “divine design plan gone awry” view presented here. The first is Augustine’s view of evil as a mere deprivation of the good. In this post, you hold that evil is a property or quality of something else such that it could not exist if nothing existed. But this seems to me somewhat to be in tension with Augustine’s Deprivation theory. After all, if Evil is just a lack of Goods, how can it be a property of a thing? Surely the absence of something cannot be a property of another thing. Also, if the Deprivation account is correct, then the most Evil thing of all would be if nothing existed–for that would be an utter lack of any Goods. But you had said that a universe with nothing would also not be Evil.

    Also, from the Naturalist’s point of view, one can choose to excise the word “Evil” from this equation and choose to speak instead simply of suffering. Pain and suffering, the thought goes, certainly are objective features of the material world independent of whether or not a Cosmic Mind exists. The Naturalist may just bite the bullet and say “sure, we cannot call pain and suffering Evil in the robust sense, but nonetheless the UtIlitarian can still base an ethic on facilitating pleasure and avoiding pain and suffering.” Here, the fact that things go awry and are therefore undesirable to the individual simply is the morally relevant datum–if it causes that person frustration and pain, it is to be avoided.

    I know that there are a plethora of responses to be given against these views being in fact true, but I was wondering whether you might have a reply to how these views bear on the topic at hand in this post.

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  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    In response to the idea that a property cannot qualify as an Augustinian privation, disorder or defect, actually I don’t think I am affirming the positive being of the so-called evil property. And if the word property must make such an affirmation, I will strike it from my vocabulary describing evil. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas held evil to be not something real that could exist on its own but an “accident” in another thing. Not an accident like blue or hot or round but nevertheless a (defective) feature of a thing to which one must refer for a full description of a concrete existing thing: the lame man, the broken bottle, the sinful deed. Lameness, brokenness and sin are not things that can exist apart from that which they impair. But we must use some word to designate their presence in the thing they qualify. Just now I called it a “feature” and referred to its “presence.” Even using the words “privation,” “disorder” and “defect” tends to substantialize them. This is the problem with all language used to describe “nothing.” Even the word “nothing” gives the feel that nothing is something after all. So, by “property” I simply mean a special kind of accidental presence (of absence!) that is nothing in itself and adds no perfection or goodness to the thing it qualifies. It refers rather to the state (another word that implies real existence!) of defective existence of a real thing.

    As to the second objection, that is, the way out of the dilemma I posed, I don’t think it is a way out, not at all. It gives up the idea that the universe qua universe (apart from our subjective experience) contains elements that are “wrong,” that is, that contradict the idea of the way things are supposed to go. This admission destroys the argument from cosmic evil to the non-existence of God. If I get where the objection is headed, it wants to ignore or lay aside the idea of cosmic wrong and argue from our subjective experience to the nonexistence of God, arguing of course that the existence of God is incompatible with our experience of negation (i.e., suffering). In our assessment of this argument let’s keep clearly in mind that the argument cannot claim that human suffering is a cosmic wrong, since it already gave up the argument from cosmic wrong to atheism; indeed even stronger, human suffering in cosmic perspective is neither good nor evil but just is. So, the argument boils down to this: (1) the existence of God is incompatible with of the existence of a universe whose flow of events human beings’ experience as negating their deeply held desires and wishes. (2) Human beings’ do in fact experience the flow of events in the universe as negating their deeply held desires and wishes. (3) Therefore God does not exist. The major premise of this argument is impossible to substantiate and is highly counterintuitive. Why should God adjust the flow of events in the universe to human desires and wishes? Nothing is more intuitive than that God’s plan for the universe is bigger than this, and that the human experience of negation may be part of a larger picture. Or as Romans 8:28 says, “God works all things for the good of those that love him….”

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  3. nokareon

    Thanks for the clarification on that first point; I still do not quite buy Deprivation Theory, but you have satisfactorily shown that your remarks are consistent with Deprivation Theory.

    I agree that the Atheist who abandons objective Evil cannot effectively use the Argument from Evil. The Atheist will still want to have the cake and eat it too, but I cannot think of any way for them to carry it through. Utilitarianism mostly works as a system of practical ethics, but I do not think it can sustain an Atheistic argument. The most it could manage is some sort of Epistemic Problem of Evil, saying that it is difficult to believe in an Omnibenevolent God if there is so much suffering in the world.

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