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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.

35 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Re: “Perhaps it doesn’t matter if evil is necessary or not. Perhaps it is enough to say that evil is not the last word. ”

    Yes, that’s enough. That is our hope.

    In modernity I think that evil, as in innocent suffering, unnecessary, unredeeming suffering, is simply unnacceptable. We work to alleviate it, to stop it. Philosophy offers no justification because there is none that is acceptable to us.

    Biblical Christianity struggles with this problem too because this question is not settled in the BIble, not settled by justification at least. The Bible is, after all, a story of God’s love for Israel, more than anything else. It was not made for our time, not made for Romans and other Gentiles, in spite of the efforts of so many to apply it in our completely different contexts. We have appropriated it for ourselves. Pray be it fair. Our hope is analogous to that of Israel – evil is not the last word. We want to be loved as God loved Israel. If we are, then, no question, evil is not the last word.

    If I imagine evil is the last word, I want to scream. I think there is enough goodness in the world to justify the belief that evil is not the last word, to justify the belief that we are loved as God loved Israel, and not just us, but every living thing, every rock and drop of rain.

    November 9, 2011
    • I would put it slightly differently. My hope that evil is not the last word is not based on the amount of goodness I see in the world, grateful as I am for what I do see. Too often, there isn’t enough goodness to justify the nature and scope of the hope we need. Rather, it is based upon the God who, in Christ, demonstrates that he loves all of us—Jews, Gentiles, Romans… even Canadians.

      November 10, 2011
      • Ken #

        Yes, I know. The difference is one of theology, Biblical interpretation and, I guess, of what goodness we see in the world. My hope, as it is, is grounded in a reading of nature.

        Thoreau went into the woods to find out if life is sublime or mean. Like him, I find it sublime. But there were moments, even for him, as at Katahdyn, when he was not sure. They happen to all of us.

        November 10, 2011
      • They certainly do.

        November 10, 2011
  2. Gil #

    I think I’m finding it harder and harder to deny the category of “meaningless” suffering. As N.T. Wright puts it: “The thought that God decided to permit Auschwitz because some heroes would emerge is hardly a solution to the problem.”

    I think we recoil at this because we want our pain to mean something. But I think seeing “seeds of redemption” within it is far different than seeing it as necessary. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    November 9, 2011
    • Yup, that quote captures it nicely.

      I guess the question we are left with is, can “unnecessary pain” be meaningful? Is saying that “useless evil” can yet be redeemed just another way of saying that it has a use after all?

      November 10, 2011
  3. It seems for many, and you mention this in paragraph 3, the suggestion that there is “unnecessary evil” calls into the question the very sovereignty of God (or at least what we think God’s sovereignty to be). We limit God if he isn’t completely in control. This is the rationale I’ve heard for someone being at peace with their painful divorce. Mind boggling if you ask me.

    But I wonder, what’s more sovereign (and loving!), being the source of evil (and thus somewhat morally responsible, no?) or bringing healing and redemption out of evil? Or framed another way, is God’s sovereignty a static quality (i.e. cosmic being who is origin of all things) or is it an active quality (i.e. ongoing work of redemption in all things)? It’s both no doubt, but we often stay in one or the other.

    November 10, 2011
    • I like what you say about sovereignty as a dynamic rather than a static quality, Dave. It opens up a space for us to think about how God works in the world without only using words like control, power, etc. Perhaps we lack the imagination to consider different ways in which God might exercise sovereignty, so we default to the ones that we are most familiar with.

      However God exercises sovereignty, it seems to me that the creation of genuinely free creatures is an exercise in self-limitation. The Christian hope is that God gets what God wants in the end, but I don’t think this means that this is the case at every point along the journey.

      November 10, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston #

    ..”Deliver us from evil”…

    2851 (Canon CCCB) – In this petition, evil is not an abstraction but refers to a person, Satan, the evil one, the angel who opposes God. The devil (dia-bolos) is the one “throws himself across” God’s plan and His work of salvation accomplished in Christ.

    2852 – “A murderer from the beginning…a liar, the father of lies”, Satan is “the deceiver of the whole world”….

    Evil is never useless. It serves its purpose. It serves its master.God didn’t provide Auschwitz as a useful character builder for some. Satan provides Auschwitz as a character destroyer. The Jews of Europe were only the beginning. “Auschwitz” is for everyone.

    For good or for evil, it seems as if both potentials are available to each and every one of us. It is right to believe, metaphysically speaking, that evil does not have the last word. But perhaps the better question is a lot more discomforting than that. Perhaps the question is and always remains, does good or evil have the last word with me?

    Is some kind of moral neutrality an available option?

    November 11, 2011
    • What do you mean by “moral neutrality?”

      November 11, 2011
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I’m thinking of a mostly passive response to life where I wouldn’t embrace a Gospel imparative to love neighbour but at the same time I do not consciously engage in activities that undermine or harm. Is this a viable Christian option? Or am I the “lukewarm” that God “spits out”?

    Put another way, do many people suffer harm only due to deliberate action or is simple indifference sufficient?

    November 12, 2011
    • Of course no one embraces the Gospel imperative perfectly. All of us suffer as a consequence of our own choices (including indifference) AND due to realities that we do not control. There is evil within and evil without.

      November 13, 2011
  6. Paul Johnston #

    I guess what I’m trying to pin down here, Ryan is your position on Satan. I fully understand a non theist, post modern critique of God that is bewildered by the vast presence of suffering and evil, within the worldly realm of a supposed omnipotent diety. There is no spiritual agent actively promoting evil, within this critique. Within Christianity though, we acknowledge the Satanic presence. Surely this presence must factor to some degree in our assessment of evil.

    How does it factor in yours?

    November 14, 2011
    • I’m not sure I have a “position” on Satan. As I’ve said, there is evil within and evil without. Part of this evil is, no doubt, satanic.

      November 14, 2011
      • Ken #

        I think Paul’s exegesis of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer is sound: deliver us from the “evil one.” It is a reference to a being, and the prayer itself is addressed to a being: God, the holy one of Israel. The more abstract notion of “evil” in that context is less plausible, as is a more abstract notion of God.

        I think Paul was asking about that.

        Do you think of God and Satan as beings, as, for example, having personalities and motives and feelings like “persons” do?

        November 15, 2011
      • Do you think of God and Satan as beings, as, for example, having personalities and motives and feelings like “persons” do?

        Yes, I do. I don’t think a consideration of evil in more abstract terms precludes acknowledging this.

        November 15, 2011
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks, Ken. Precisely, Satan as person. However crude my Catholic understanding I have never held the default position…” 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. ”

    Mystery is not a hole. God will reconcile all that is His.

    Evil is the sole purview of a fallen angel and those who either actively or passively suppport it’s objectives. The situation is worse than we think. Satan and those who would advance his cause are way past any inconsistent or incomplete theodicy. For Him for them, evil is grace. Mass starvation is abundance. To rape is to make love, to murder is to exact justice. Violence is pleasure, the greater it’s degree and scope, the greater the pleasure. Evil is an objective.

    We have a great enemy. In unity with God, living by Godly principals, Satan and evil can be overcome can be rendered impotent, even non-existant. Without our co-operation evil dies.

    Consequently I remain somewhat bewildered by those who cannot fathom either evil’s purpose or the solution. To recontextualize John Lennon, His peace is here, if we want it.

    November 15, 2011
    • “Mystery is not a hole. God will reconcile all that is His.”

      I think you’re missing the point of what I am saying. I am saying that, from a purely logical point of view, there are holes. This is the case regardless of the role that Satan is judged to play in the origins or ongoing reality of evil. The question is still, what was the option of evil doing there in the first place? It doesn’t really matter if it began with a fallen angel or with human beings—the strictly logical problem is the same: if God is good, and God is all powerful and knowing and the source of all that is, then in some sense, the existence of evil (in the abstract or not) falls on God. To say that all theodicies leave holes is simply to say that no purely rational theory explains everything to our logical satisfaction (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!).

      We have a great enemy. In unity with God, living by Godly principals, Satan and evil can be overcome can be rendered impotent, even non-existant. Without our co-operation evil dies.

      Yes, very true.

      November 15, 2011
      • Ken #

        Paul and Ryan, you have somewhat different ways of accounting for evil. One cannot be reduced to the other.

        Ryan’s way is the way I have tended to see things, at least to the extent that I have believed in God. I think if I could see God as a being rather than as an abstraction, then I could see Satan too as a being.

        I think that when one does see Satan as a being, and when one does believe that Satan, not God, accounts for the all the evil in the world, then one has theological remedies for it here and now, just as Paul says. That is not true for abstract evil, and so when we attribute evil, even partially, to that abstraction, we seek ways to defend God against evil that God created or, at least, sustains for now.

        When it is Satan, not God, who accounts for evil, then there is no logical problem. Instead there is only a tension that is resolved again and again and finally in the end in a great long theological drama. As much as I can, in my own way, I try to see life that way. I can love that God, even in my disbelief.

        November 15, 2011
      • When it is Satan, not God, who accounts for evil, then there is no logical problem. Instead there is only a tension that is resolved again and again and finally in the end in a great long theological drama.

        The strictly logical problem remains, from my perspective, and for the reasons I mentioned above. If God is the source of all that is, then he is responsible (however indirectly) for evil. Nothing new, of course, simply the classical formulation of the problem of evil. And, of course, the hope of resolution in this great drama is a profound one. This is how I try to see life as well—resolution, not solution.

        November 16, 2011
      • Ken #

        Thank you, Paul, for the hope. Your prayers matter much to me.

        November 16, 2011
      • Ken #

        Oops, I posted that last comment in the wrong place. I posted it again below after one of Paul’s comments.

        Yes. The logical problem is there in philosophy. I agree.

        I think the world and evil look differently to those who attribute evil solely to Satan rather than partly (or wholly) to God by logic. They have theological remedies that take care of evil, over and over. The problem is not philosophical, but practical in their context. The remedies, gifts from God, are a great source of joy and hope and healing.

        I think the world and evil looked differently than they look to us today in a similar way in ancient Israel, even in the day of Jesus. The God we know and think about philosophically is not the one described in the Bible. These Gods differ partly in the kind of powers and knowledge attributed them. And the order they have created is different too.

        For me to enter that world requires suspension of disbelief. It is a beautiful world. I wish I could stay longer.

        November 16, 2011
      • Yes, the God of the Bible and the God of the philosophers often bear little resemblance to one another. For my part, even though I am interested in philosophy, I try to always return to the God of the Bible—and Jesus in particular. As an Anabaptist, I suppose this makes sense. But I don’t think that in applying the tools of philosophy, logic, etc to important questions of God, faith, and life we are necessarily wandering off into some separate “philosophy God” territory. The questions that I (and others) ask about the God of the Bible are not necessarily the Bible’s questions. This doesn’t mean they are illegitimate, it just means they are different. I see our questions as necessarily tethered to how and what God has chosen to reveal about his nature, but not determined by this.

        November 17, 2011
      • Ken #

        re: “This doesn’t mean they are illegitimate, it just means they are different.”

        This is what we all try to believe about others and ourselves in postmodernity. Still, there remains a plausibility gap that confounds each of us.

        As for me, the Darwinian notion that chance and necessity are sufficient explanations for everything is the most plausible notion of all. At the same time, I have a religious notion that this world of chance and necessity is at its heart holy, and that chance and necessity have given birth to love and hope and joy, or else, as it seems to me, they were of born and are made of such beauty themselves. It is there that I see God.

        Is this a legitimate way in Christianity? Who can say? It is not far from Teilhard de Chardin’s way. This I can say. Perhaps it not critically far from the way of Saint Francis.

        November 17, 2011
      • James #

        Hi Ken
        It’s been a while since we exchanged thoughts but in reading through this post the phrase “suspension of belief” jumped out. I suppose you may well know this- but that is the mission statement of the ancient skeptic. All this to keep gently pushing back on the idea that somehow we 21st century creatures are separate by an intellectual chasm from our ancestors of Biblical times. Beyond the fact that we currently inundated by iJunk I continue to live by the credo that “there is nothing new under the sun.”
        BTW if you ever venture up to Nanaimo, I love to join you in walk in this corner of God’s beautiful world. And it is a truly beautiful world He has given to us.

        November 17, 2011
      • Ken #

        Hi James,

        I picked up “suspension of disbelief” from Coleridge by way of a friend referring to it. Nice to know where Coleridge found it.

        I hope to have the chance to hike with you someday. Similarly, if you ever come to southern California, I would love to hike here with you. At a trailhead at the base of a desert mountain this morning, I saw cars with British Columbia and Alberta plates.

        Tomorrow, we are planning to roam through some washes in the desert and climb a small mountain in Joshua Tree National Park.

        November 18, 2011
  8. On my morning commute today I listened to a sermon from one of my former professors who, quoting one of his mentors, had this to say:

    No adequate understanding of history can be had without taking into account that behind and around and through history a personal, diabolical, satanic spiritual force is bent on destroying all good and its author Jesus Christ.

    None of us will understand ourselves and our troubles until we recognize that evil is more than the mere absence of good, that evil is dynamic and personal, working to possess our mind and heart, to coerce us to reject God’s love and rule.

    Maybe someone’s trying to tell me something :).

    November 16, 2011
    • Paul Johnston #

      🙂 Well ya know I’m a B liking this one!

      Yes I quite agree with…”If God is the source of all that is, then he is responsible (however indirectly) for evil. “…but in this way….my best logical stab at the arguement… God is the antithesis of evil. He is pure holiness and good. He is pure love and reason. God is affronted and grossly offended by the corruption freely chosen by his creation. Rather than destroy in the name of justice, rather than subvert love and impose His will, unto Himself he imputes the outcomes of evil, absorbing it’s violence and death. All innocent victims are redeemed. All perpitrators and their collaborators are offered forgiveness. They must simply seek and repent. God seeks to redeem everything, His love is that large. But the redemption seem to require a synerginistic response. We must freely choose/accept God’s love. We must surrender the incomplete, corruptible, finite self, as we know it, and allow His grace to manifest the whole incorruptible, eternal self that he would have us be. The essence of His very own being, that he offers to us in love.

      It seems so glorious and yet through the course of history so much death, so much destruction, so much suffering. Why God why?!!

      He made us free. Love seems to insist on it. In this way then the better question is not to demand an accounting of God but rather an accounting of ourselves.

      Again I think we agree more than we disagree but I must say I am heartened by a return to an apologetic that acknowledges evil as a person; a real spiritual presence.

      November 16, 2011
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks, Ryan I wasn’t intending to question the legitimacy of the post within context. As always your rationale is articulate, detailed and logically consistent with the supposition it wrestles with. My challenge so to speak is with apologetic points of view that render, as Ken says, the arguements to their abstraction. Intentionally or not the abstraction of evil imputes to God causation. God becomes the source of evil from which he requires defence. A defence that to my mind is hopelessly self defeating. If he didn’t inflict/tolerate evil, we wouldn’t require redemption. If evil has no person, if evil is not manifest as a free choice of fallen creatures, in direct defiance of Gods command, than God is cast as some sort os sadistic monster who literally and figuratively sets people on fire so that at some later date he might put those fires out…or not!

    Satan’s corruption of freedom and the ongoing influence of a gullible humanity in pursuing that corrupt version, is evils source.God relentlessly works to inspire humanity to choose otherwise. His love sets us free and many have embraced love and will continue to glory. Many have done and will continue to do much damage…

    So what else do I believe, (logically or not :)) . Whatever innocence Satan and man have collaberated to destroy has already been redeemed and glorified in heaven. Evil was not the last word. Whatever evil lurks within you, me or anyone cannot be passively ignored it must be acknowledged and rejected. We must seek God’s grace. It will not be denied but without it we will corrupt and die. God’s love and our faith in that love are all we have.

    So why does God not just destroy Satan and like minded people now….I mean right eff’n now!!…I don’t know the particulars but I do steadfastly believe that it happens when it’s the right time. Time for His glory, time for creations redemption, time for separation from that which freely rejects redemption.

    Logic is for puzzles. Faith sustains us through mysteries.

    November 16, 2011
    • I hope nothing I have said would indicate that I believe anything other than that evil is the result of the free choice of fallen creatures. I absolutely believe this.

      My challenge so to speak is with apologetic points of view that render, as Ken says, the arguements to their abstraction. Intentionally or not the abstraction of evil imputes to God causation. God becomes the source of evil from which he requires defence. A defence that to my mind is hopelessly self defeating.

      Perhaps it’s my philosophy background coming out here, but I feel I must offer at least a partial defence of abstraction. It’s not abstraction in and of itself that imputes causation to God, it’s simply basic logic. You can consider evil in as personified a form as you want, the question is still: What is the potential for evil doing there in the first place? One needs no conception of “abstract evil” to ask this question.

      As you say, we don’t know the particulars. God’s time—this has to be enough for us, through the mysteries.

      November 16, 2011
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, you ask, “What is the potential for evil doing there in the first place? One needs no conception of “abstract evil” to ask this question….

    (forgive my responses they are kind of all over the place….how appropriate lol)

    Evil is a consequence of freedom, choice and disobedience. i suspect the Satanic arguement goes something like….God cannot impute goodness and call it love. His goodness must be freely chosen by His creature. Love insists upon freedom of choice and reciprocity. Anything else is contrivance, self indulgence, manipulative and deceitful. Surely a God of supposed goodness cannot impose Himself in this way. Alternatively for goodness to be “choice” there must be alternative anti goodness options. One choice is no choice, so to speak. Continuing this line of thought I’m sure the demon can validate his being, as being neccessary to salvation. The ultimate goodness of evil as it were.

    I imagine the Devil to be a master of philosophy and psychology.

    November 16, 2011
    • I’ve always suspected the devil was a mathematician :).

      November 16, 2011
  11. Paul Johnston #

    Ken, my prodigal friend. Your Father just may have better plans for your future than you envisage. 🙂 Keep the faith, my brother. Surely you help me with mine. There is always such compassion and reason in what you write here.

    November 16, 2011
    • Ken #

      Thank you, Paul, for the hope. Your prayers matter much to me.

      (Somehow I accidentally posted this message above in the wrong place.)

      November 16, 2011

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