The 77% Weekly
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From the desk of Rabbi Brian
NOTE: This article is the last of an ongoing God-beliefs investigation. I wrote a part of my rabbinical school thesis on this subject. It's an annoying topic, but good to know. RB
If God is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing, how can there be evil?
Theodicy isn't a word a lot of people are familiar with. Theodicy - which rhymes with, but has no relation to, Homer's classic The Odyessy - means "an argument in defense of God's benevolence despite the existence of evil." Theodicy is a word that encompasses all the answers to the question: If there is only one all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God, how can there be evil?
But, before we can begin a discussion of God's goodness in the face of evil, we need to take a closer look at three concepts:
·why people don't want to associate "the bad" with God
·the definition of evil
In polytheism, dysfunctional relationships between deities explain why bad things befall good people. For example, if your farm got flooded, it might be explained that the God of rain was upset at the God of the harvest for some reason outside of your control and you were just an innocent casualty of their feud.
This isn't so with monotheism - the notion that there is only one God. If that God is the one God of the whole world then all calamities must originate with that deity - there's no one else to blame.
N.B. The early sections of the Bible are rooted in polytheism - 1) the Bible makes multiple references to the existence of other Gods. 2) The one God of the Bible might originally have been conceived of as more than one God and were later unified. This would explain why God has different names, why each name has different attributes, why the names are in the plural, and why, for example, Genesis records two stories of the creation of humanity - each favoring a different name of God.
2. But God can't be bad!
British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein used the term "splitting" to describe a phenomenon that can happen when humans experience a heightened state of anxiety. Klein observed that while we may be aware that in good there is bad and in bad there is good - we nonetheless try to manage our discomfort by splitting our feelings, assigning the good ones to ourselves while projecting the bad ones onto other objects and people. This emotional "splitting" also explains why we commonly view God as "all good" while eschewing anything that may be perceived as negative.
What is evil? Well, as it turns out, evil is relative.
Things are only evil based on comparison to other things. Evil is not an absolute - just as there is no absolute hot, absolute comfortable, or absolute sweet. (Still, it is fun to put the adjective "absolute" in front of the word evil to describe something you really, really, really don't like - but it makes about as much sense as saying that your car is absolute fast.)
The greatest evil has to be viewed in relation to what is considered the greatest good. So, if you consider the preservation of all life to be good, then you will probably define the extinction of any life as evil.
Evil is often defined as the absence of good. This is known as the privative theory of evil and is attributed to Augustine of Hippo. Privative means the indication of the absence or negation of. But there is a problem with the privative theory of evil (as with most any privative theory): a lack of something does not necessarily mean that the opposite exists. An individual without the strength of a lion is not necessarily a weakling. Not being or having good does not mean being or having evil.
For our purposes, we will use the word evil as a placeholder for those things of greatest repugnance.
God and Evil.
Back to the question:
If God is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing, how can there be evil?
Before we get into to the answers, I want you to be aware of two things: 1) We won't finish this topic with much more clarity than we currently have here, at the start. 2) Most of the answers will seem terribly unsatisfying. (Sorry about that; as you might have surmised, this is a bit of an impossible question to answer.)
The classical answers to the problem of theodicy are:
·God made evil.
·There is no God.
·This is just beyond our understanding; faith, my child.
·God is limited.
·Something's gone awry.
Let's explore each answer, and then I will present my own answer to the question.
God Made Evil.
Why? Why would God make evil? Is God a sadist? (Well, based on the early parts of the Bible it would appear so, but since we're working with the assumption that God is all-good, this cannot be the answer.)
Classically, the answer that God made evil is explained as follows: God made evil so that God can test humanity's freedom of will. Of course, this presents a bit of a problem because freedom of will ignores God's omnipotence and omniscience. After all, how can God be all-powerful and control everything if we have freedom of will? Moreover, how can God be all-knowing if we have the ability to choose our own future?
Regardless, the notion that God - assumed to be all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing - made evil isn't a satisfactory answer.
There Is No God.
"If there is evil, then an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God cannot exist." The existence of evil is the lazy atheist's argument.
Although this line of reasoning might explain why there is evil in the world, it does not fit the definition of theodicy: "an argument in defense of God's benevolence despite the existence of evil." Therefore, we have to move on.
(I know, really unsatisfying.)
This Is Just Beyond Our Understanding; aka Faith, My Child.
A lot of folks give up on organized religion after having a question dismissed at some point by a religious authority figure with, "This is simply beyond your comprehension." We want to know but we are told that we can't know. And we are told to just trust God and believe.
This answer also implies that the things we experience as bad aren't really bad from God's point of view. Being informed that we don't know enough to recognize evil is disconcerting at best.
There is also a non-deistic, metaphysical version of this answer. It tells us that human perception is the only thing that makes something evil. In Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, William Shakespeare gives voice to this seemingly Zen line of thinking: "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." In other words, only an all-good, all-powerful, and all knowing God can see the world as it truly is - it is beyond human thought and understanding.
Although somewhat disturbing and mainly unsatisfying, this line of reasoning is in fact the best argument in defense of God's benevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience despite the existence of evil. Yikes!
God is limited.
The kabbalists-a Gnostic-like Jewish group with roots in 13th century Spain -posit that God constricted some of God's omnipotence to allow for freedom of will. They reason that God isn't everywhere, evil exists, and that God needs humanity's help to repair the world.
This answer is a wonderful call to social action and encourages humanity to take part in repairing the world, but this philosophy blatantly ignores the premise of God's omnipotence, so it doesn't fit as an answer to theodicy. (Again, sorry.)
Something's gone awry
If you've ever been on a theme park ride, then you are familiar with the premise of "something has gone awry." Most versions of this defense of God's goodness cast the devil as a fallen angel operating evil and badness outside of God's control.
This answer fails with regard to the notion of God that God is in control of everything. So it doesn't work for our purposes.
Rabbi Brian's Thoughts
I don't have a waterproof philosophical argument in defense of God's goodness despite the existence of evil.
What I do know is that nothing is solely good and nothing is purely evil. An ancient rabbinic commentary on the Bible says, "There is no absolute good without some evil in its midst." This is true. There is no good without bad and no bad without good.
Nonetheless, I want: I want to be comforted when I'm scared. I know it's juvenile, but I still want God to be an idealized parent - all good, all powerful, and nurturing me.
My life, like yours, can be scary - I will never be able to control enough of my world to feel completely safe and I will never know when a tragedy is going to befall me.
Is there an answer to the question of theodicy? Why do bad things happen? I think it has to do with our being attached to a specific outcome of reality and the future.
The simple truth is, things that fall outside of our sense of control and how we think the world should be will always be what we deem to be "evil."
Spiritual-religious advice for the week: Theodicy, shemodicy, it doesn't matter who is to blame for the mess in the kitchen (or the woes of the world), it's still up to us to clean it up.