The Uses of Evil
Last night I attended the last of a three night lecture series hosted by a local church where my former professor, John Stackhouse, was speaking about the problem of evil. Of course, there is no “solution” to the mystery of evil and suffering—no rational explanation that explains what pain and waste and evil are doing in a world presided over by a good and merciful God. All theodicies leave holes.
There are, however, better and worse ways of thinking about God and evil. Some holes are bigger and unmanageable than others. When we discuss theories about how God and evil fit together, we are, in a sense, deciding upon which holes we can live with and which we cannot. Stackhouse very helpfully focused our attention not on making all of the logical pieces line up, but on the character and trustworthiness of God in spite of the existence of evil.
One of the issues that came up at various points over the last few nights was that of the “necessity” of evil—of there being no such thing as “useless evil.” On the one hand, this makes sense and flows directly out of what we understand the nature of God to be. If God is in control of the world, if God is good and wants what is best for the world, and if whatever evil does exist is thought to be part of God’s sovereign plan for redemption, it logically follows that nothing exists that God has not somehow allowed/ordained, and through which God is not working to bring about what is good. To predicate anything wasteful or unnecessary is to call into question either God’s governance or his goodness.
On this view, evil—however horrific—has a use. It is useful in bringing the “lords of creation” to maturity and completeness. It is through the fires of suffering that our faith is tested and refined. Evil has the capacity to produce character and strengthen faith. This is a version of what is often referred to as the Irenaen theodicy (after 2nd century bishop St. Irenaeus) articulated more recently by philosopher John Hick. Where St. Augustine located the origins of evil in human freedom, Irenaeus argued that evil was created by God as a means of gradually perfecting human souls.
Of course, not all are convinced by this view of God and evil. Some would rather locate the holes elsewhere. But even if we grant that evil exists for this purpose, does this require that there be no useless evil? Could some evil be simply collateral damage in a ruptured cosmos? It seems to me that some suffering can have the effect of producing maturity and character. Some suffering leads to good. And I think all suffering, however atrocious, contains the seeds of redemption within it. But part of me still resists the idea that the amount and variety of evil that our planet has witnessed—the amount and variety of evil some individual lives have witnessed—is necessary.
I think I’m ok with unnecessary evil. In fact, I may even need it.I don’t want mass-starvation and the spectacular waste of war to be an indispensable part of God’s design. I don’t want the rape of a child to be part of God’s necessary plan for the cosmos. I don’t want a once vibrant loved-one withering away into the foggy dismay of dementia to be an essential piece of the divine puzzle. This isn’t to say that I don’t think that good can come out of even these things. But I have a hard time seeing such things as necessary.
I think I would rather say that God can work even out of events that were not necessary—events which the world and God’s project of reclamation could have just as well done without, but through which God can still bring goodness and hope. I like what Miroslav Volf has to say in The End of Memory:
We do not need for all of our lived life to be gathered and rendered meaningful in order to be truly and fully redeemed…. no need to take all of our experiences, distinct in time, and bind them together in a single volume so that each experience draws meaning from the whole as well as contributes meaning to the whole. It suffices to leave some experiences untouched…, treat others with the care of a healing hand and then abandon them to the darkness of non-remembrance…, and reframe the rest.
Evil undoubtedly has a role to play in the drama of the cosmos—in the drama of our individual lives. This, I do not deny. Perhaps the above is just an exercise in rearranging or reframing the holes in my calibration of how to think about God and evil. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if evil is necessary or not. Perhaps it is enough to say that evil is not the last word. Some evil strengthens and emboldens us, enlivening our faith, sharpening our character, and drawing us closer to God. Some evil wounds and scars us as we stagger toward eternity. All evil can be overcome by God.
Image courtesy of Russell Berg at Seeing Berg.