Its Roots and Role
Eric S Williams
HUX 505: Introduction to Philosophy
Dr. Eiichi Shimomisse
Men and women have wrestled with the notion of good and evil for thousands of years. Every principal religion is based upon some sort of supreme being responsible for creating the world and the plants, animals, and people which populate it. Further, each principal religion deals with some god, goddess, or force, which is responsible for evil in some way. While many people may agree that indeed ‘evil’ does have its roots on myth, legend, or religion it is a much more complicated monster to deal with in the Christian religion. As the Christian faith is based upon the concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and inherently ‘good’ God, then how can so much ‘evil’ exist and for what purpose. In order to answer this premise one must look at it from a broad perspective and begin by defining and quantifying ‘evil’. To understand ‘evil’ and it’s place in the Christian religion, one must first define and analyze the notion of ‘evil’ and the arguments for why or how it can exist.
The term ‘evil’ is a very old term, owing its origins to the language of the Indo-Europeans (the term wep- which is meant bad or evil) and first appeared in the canon of Old English in the form of yfel (American Heritage 1623). It is further defined using words or phrases like morally bad or wrong, wicked, causing ruin, pain or injury, malicious, and spite (American Heritage 476). The term is first used in the Bible in Genesis. In Genesis, the serpent tempts eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. Buy eating it her “eyes will be opened, and you [Eve] will be like God, knowing good and evil” (New Student Bible 28). This is the first mention of evil, yet it isn’t truly defined. It would make sense then that the idea of evil must be known as malicious or spiteful acts in some regard as the Bible here fails to define evil…we are expected to already know what it is. The intriguing point to consider is that humanity must have been oblivious to what evil is as the serpent tells us that only God know good from evil. But how does knowing what evil is cause it to happen in the world?
The ‘problem’ of evil isn’t summarized by saying it is the need to understand and combat evil. That is far too short sighted. The notions of understanding evil and engaging in humanitarian to limit or combat evil is a noble cause but still sidesteps the main issue presented here: why does evil exist at all? The Internet web page www.britanica.com defines the problem of evil as “a theological problem that arises for any philosophical or religious view the following three propositions: (1) God is almighty, (2) God is perfectly good, and (3) evil exists. If evil exists, it seems either that God wants to obliterate evil and is not able to—and thus his almightiness is denied—or that God is able to obliterate evil but does not want to—and thus his goodness is denied” (“problem of evil”). We could serve to solve this problem by merely subtracting any one of the three preceding propositions. This is quite problematic as all three of these propositions are heavily discussed and defended in the Bible and in Christian Theology. The book of Genesis already stated that God knows good from evil. God’s might is represented in the Creation, the Flood, and the Exodus of Moses. Finally, God’s goodness is refined in the New Testament through the words of his son, the prophet Jesus Christ. Thus, the problem of evil relies more heavily on interpretation than on simply denying any of the simple truths held by Christian tenet.
So then why does evil exist? B.C. Johnson argues in his article “God and the Problem of Evil” that evil exists in order to create a sense of moral urgency on the part of humanity ( Burr and Goldinger 159). Moral urgency is the desire to do things or make things right. Johnson claims that God cannot interfere in evils such as natural disasters without damaging the need for moral urgency (159). “…God is seen as one who tolerates disasters…in order to create moral urgency. It follows that God approved these disasters as a means to encourage the creation of moral urgency. Furthermore, if there were no such disasters occurring, God would have to see to it that they occur” (qtd. in Burr and Goldinger 159). By this argument, Johnson indicates that evil is needed in order to make humanity understand and work for good.
The argument does not simply end there. Johnson continues to defend the need for evil three other ways:
1) Evil is needed in to produce virtues in humans like courage and sympathy.
2) Evil is needed to deflate man’s ego so he does not laud his good fortune.
3) Evil is needed as a contrast to good so we can know what good truly is (Burr and Goldinger 160-61).
These ideas point to an inclination that evil is necessary in order teach or inspire. These do not necessarily sit well with everyone. Those who put there faith and devotion in the worship of an all loving and all powerful God are hard pressed to believe that God would willingly allow or encourage such behavior. Let us consider another possibility.
John Hick in his article “The problem of Evil” makes mention that evil may be inextricably linked to humanity’s free will. Hick writes, “To be a person is to be a finite center of freedom, a …self-directing agent responsible for one’s own decisions. This involves being free to wrongly as well as rightly. The idea of a person…always to act rightly is self-contradictory” (qtd. in Burr and Goldinger 165). Thus, all people are capable of sin, and therefore evil, because of free will and the right to self-determination. Hick also contends that, “to say that God should not have created beings who might sin amounts to saying that he(sic) should not have created people” (165).
A final argument for the existence of evil comes from the idea that good and evil cannot exist without one another. This idea is popular with some theorists and philosophers but not so with many theists. The main idea is that evil and good are contradictory terms by nature but must exist to create balance and symmetry in the universe. This basically claims impossible to imagine good without evil, “because of the tight logical relation between the two concepts (“Philosophical Problem”). Many major religions believe in a utopia, but many of these same religions have a polar opposite for utopia. In Christianity, Hell sits vastly apart from Heaven in it’s location, description, and inhabitants. Thus we create balance between good and evil. The fact is that even though many try to dismiss evil, the theory of balanced good to evil makes it necessary for us to consider its existence, though we try to imagine the evil as being some other place like Hell (“Philosophical Problem”). The problem addressed here isn’t that good and evil exist, but how it seems distributed. Can we believe that the evils subjected to children across the globe have a corresponding good that goes with it? In light of the tragic events in our own history this past 100 years, can we find a good strong enough to balance the Holocaust, Titanic disaster, Columbine, or the fall of the
There are other theodicies which attempt to explain the role of evil. Some claim that evil is a means for punishing sin or as a means to remind us of God’s power (“Philosophical Problem”). Others claim that evil exists because of the fall of Adam to Original Sin, more or less making evils both moral and natural justified. Older theories from the Gothic and Romanesque ages claim that evils make us appreciate the afterlife, that all shall be made up to us in heaven. Finally, there are those who might say that evil is present to test our faith in God. Regardless of what you or I believe realistically, philosophically, or theistically, evil exists. It’s riddles, role, and explanation has been the point of contention for countless theorists since the Golden Age of Greece and likely before that.
To understand ‘evil’ and it’s place in the Christian religion, one must first define and analyze the notion of ‘evil’ and the arguments for why or how it can exist. Its roots trace back deep into religion and lingual history. Its face is ever changing and takes elements of the beautiful, sensual, grotesque, and hellish. No one answer has been able to truly explain its role in any convincing or infallible manner. Many of the theories discussed here agree that God created the fact of freedom and that humanity creates acts of freedom. The ability of any of us to exercise free will allows us choices based on possible repercussions. Augustine believed that we will act on good, the extent that evil has poisoned or distorted our choice makes the act fair or foul. Johnson argued that evil was needed to create moral urgency and Hick stated that we are free to choose ill as freely as we could choose to do well. Whatever it is we believe in, the true answer may never be known to us and we may be better off for it. History has dictated that to know is to control. The notion that any of us may be able to eventually know what evil is and why it is here is frightening when you consider how finite beings might choose to use it.
American Heritage Dictionary. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company,
Hick, John. “The Problem of Evil”. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. 8th Edition.
John R. Burr and Martin Goldinger, Prentice Hall,
Johnson, B.C. “God and the Problem of Evil”. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues.
8th Edition. John R. Burr and Martin Goldinger.
New Student Bible, The: New International Version. Zondervan Publishing Company,
“Philosophical Problem of Evil, The”.