Theological ideas about the origin of evil

  • This is a short teaching session Jon the freelance theologian was asked to do on the subject of evil. Instead of addressing the standard ‘Problem of Evil’ as classically stated, this was a study of some theological ideas about the absolute origin of evil in a world created that Christian theology would claim was created as ‘good’ by a good God.

    There were six theological ideas put forward:

    • Evil originates in God and is misunderstood.
    • Evil occurs when God ‘withdraws’ from a place.
    • Evil is entropy/chaos seeking to reassert itself in a world that has been placed in order by God.
    • Evil is the ‘no’ inherent in the ‘yes’ of God’s creative act. It is the ‘nothingness’ that exists apart from God.
    • ‘Evil’ is down to natural probability.
    • ‘Evil’ is a force in the world that springs from our collective psychic experience – interiority.

    Much of the following is based on the excellent book A Theology of the Dark Side by Nigel G Wright (Paternoster Press 2003). However, any errors in the following summaries are the responsibility of Jon the freelance theologian.

    Some preliminary notes to the discussion

    Some evil is subjective
    So, if, for example, my friend Ian opens his wallet and finds the £20 note he put in there is missing, he may curse his luck and think he’s the victim of misfortune and that the world is evil as a result. But if I’m walking down the street 100 yards behind Ian and suddenly a £20 note blows towards me I may praise the situation. Free money! And I may think the universe is a beneficial place for me.

    For Ian, losing the money disadvantages him and therefore he feels wronged. For me, finding the money advantages me and therefore I feel happy.

    But is that all evil is? Well, no, there are other things that seem more tangible and life-threatening than the movement of a £20 note. My point is that some “evil” is subjective, depending on whether we are hurt or damaged by it.

    Events are compounded by moral choices
    The recent earthquake in Haiti registered at 7 on the Richter Scale. They are still pulling bodies out of the rubble. In the early 1990s an earthquake hit Los Angeles, registering 7 on the Richter scale and only 68 people died.

    Was the earthquake that hit Haiti any more or less evil than the one that hit LA? Was it the effects of the earthquake that were more evil? Should we really blame the earthquake at all, given that its devastating effects were the result of it hitting one of the world’s poorest countries not one of the world’s richest? What really caused that ‘evil’ event?

    This is where we start to blur the lines between ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ evil. Often natural evil is magnified in its destructive intensity by moral evil. In the case of Haiti, the oppression of ‘poor’ countries by rich ones contributed towards it. But earthquakes are a case in point – we call their effects evil because they impinge on our freedom. But does that make it evil?

    But where does moral evil come from?
    Much has been written about the notion of free will, the ‘Fall of Man’, and supernatural intervention by a malignant force. But why would we (or any being) choose for evil to happen? What is the origin of evil in a universe created by God – who we would say is the ultimate good?

    The origin of evil is the purpose of this article. Ultimately the big question we need to ask before we start seeing evil as a ‘problem’ is ‘does evil exist, and, if so, from whence did evil come from?’ Here are six possible philosophical/theological possibilities.

    Option 1: Evil originates in God and is misunderstood.
    But one important aspect of the idea of ‘satan’ is interesting to bring in here. There are some theological viewpoints that state that God uses satan/evil for God’s purposes. God is therefore the author of both good and evil.

    Another way of looking at this is that evil is God’s ‘dark side’ – what philosopher Carl Jung called the ‘shadow’.

    This presupposes that God is capable of any acts, including evil, and – because evil is subjective – sometimes God’s act appear evil. So, for example, God’s grace and God’s wrath are like opposite sides of a weighing scale. If you’re on the wrath side, then you may experience ‘evil’ that is authored in God.

    Strangely this view has some Biblical authority – Exodus 32:14 (King James Version): “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” (New International Version) “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” (See this article on freelance theology for more on this.)

    Some ideas in “Process theology” suggest that God is ‘working out’ his dark side in the drama of human history. Through interaction with the world, God is becoming more good. The Biblical story does seem to show a developing understanding of God from a bloodthirsty tyrant in the Old Testament to an incarnate God willing to enter his creation and die to reconcile human beings to himself in the New.

    Option 2: Evil occurs when God ‘withdraws’ from a place.
    There is a problem with ‘free will’. If God is the author and sustainer of the universe, that means that all potentiality finds its origin in God. Free will is an illusion if all actions are pre-known and/or pre-planned by God. The great criticism of Calvinism is that when predestination is asserted too strongly, it means that everything is ultimately God’s responsibility which makes the whole idea of sin, judgement and justice ultimately an illusion.

    If God withdraws to allow free-willed beings to exist and make genuinely free choices, then his sustenance of that creation is withdrawn, allowing for a collapse into chaos and the emergence of ‘evil’ events and actions that are not aligned with God’s plans.

    This has some Biblical backing, namely the use of the term ‘kenosis’ in Philippians chapter 2. The idea that in the incarnation, God the Son ‘emptied himself’ (kenosis) to become human, seems to illustrate a way that God could ‘deny his very nature’ and become less-than-God. Kenosis is a fairly popular topic within theology as it allows for God to experience mortality (death) as a reality in the person of Christ. (See this freelance theology article for more on kenosis.)

    If God withdraws from the cosmos and allows it, and the creatures that dwell in it, to run along self-determinating lines, then those creatures and the very cosmos itself could deviate from God’s original plans. ‘Evil’ is deviation from the original plans.

    A version of this was put forward as an explanation for evil by Augustine. (It wasn’t particularly original, but he summed it up well.) He talked about the ‘Privatio Boni’, the Privation of Good. So evil is only seen as evil because it is a falling away from perfection.

    So, if a man blind it’s a privation of the good – being sighted – and therefore blindness is evil. But for a cave fish with no eyes anyway, being blind is not evil because it is not a falling away from perfection.

    The idea of a ‘falling away’ from a state of perfection obviously has a Biblical basis in Genesis chapter 3, where sin enters the world and begins to distort it. But it doesn’t really explain where sin/evil originates; it just explains the form that evil takes.

    Option 3: Evil is entropy/chaos seeking to reassert itself in a world that has been placed in order by God.

    The two terms to be aware of are Creativity versus Discreativity. This is seen in dualistic religions such as Zoroastrianism, and has some Biblical basis – ‘the deep’ in Genesis chapter 1 is often thought of as the ‘primordial chaos’ as seen in, for example, Babylonian creation myths (more on freelance theology here). The creative act of God brings order in the midst of chaos, but chaos fights back

    So, the natural state of things is non-order – and this seems to be evidenced by physics with the idea that due to entropy all matter will lapse into a uniform state.

    As entropy seeks to discreate, ‘evil’ is the result. God’s role as sustainer becomes even more important, because it is only through God’s continual input into creation that entropy can be held at bay.

    But occasionally it can’t be kept out, for whatever reason (probably the free will of autonomous beings again), and so ‘evil’/discreativity occurs.

    However, a problem for this point of view is that chaos is pre-existent, and Christian theology traditionally asserts creatio ex nihilo, i.e. that there was nothing pre-existing God and God’s creative acts.

    And yet there must have been something other than God for God to be defined against. This leads us onto a new option: evil as ‘nothingness’

    Option 4: Evil is the ‘no’ inherent in the ‘yes’ of God’s creative act. It is the ‘nothingness’ that exists apart from God.

    Ways to think about this: You cannot create light without creating dark. You cannot create matter without it having vacuum to move frictionlessly in. God cannot exist without something to define God against, otherwise in what sense does God exist?

    The ‘nothingness’ is a key element of Karl Barth’s explanation for the origin of evil. Barth coined the term ‘Das nichtinge’ – and defined ‘the nothingness’ as a negative force that exists ‘improperly’ because it is not planned or purposed by God

    Barth said that evil is the ‘no’ of God that is inherent in the ‘yes’ of the creative act. God said ‘let there be light’ and as a result created darkness. When God sets out creation and says ‘let it be like this’, he also in a strange way creates an alternative mode of being at the same time for it to be defined against. There is something profoundly poetic and therefore compelling in the way Barth describes this.

    Let it be good” means you create the potentiality for it to be bad at the same time. Evil becomes the potential by-product of creating ‘good’. When it takes form, as all potentialities can, evil affects a discreative influence upon the universe. That can be in the moral relationships and behaviour of autonomous agents operating in a space that God has withdrawn from to allow free autonomy, or just the workings of said world deviating from it’s original ‘good’ plan.

    This definition of evil is similar to privatio boni and discreativity in that evil feeds parastically on existence as a failing of existence, in all three ideas.

    But there is a problem with this view, when it states that God’s ‘yes’ was within God’s will, but that God’s ‘no’ was outside his will. Actually both may be within God’s will, in that God may actively choose the good and reject the bad at the same time. God may choose to create and therefore choose not to discreate in the same action, much as you or I often have a choice between two eventualities.

    Option 5: ‘Evil’ is down to natural probability.
    This isn’t a particularly Christian idea, but it’s found in modern pandeism, notably in God’s Debris by Scott Adams (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001). And yet, it does resonate with some of the process theologies, as probability is one way for God to work out his creative processes.

    It also seems to chime with a lot of the ‘wisdom literature’ you find in the Old Testament, like the books of Job and Ecclesiastes that try to explain why bad things happen to good people. Jesus’ comments about how God ‘sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous‘ (Matthew chapter 5, verse 45) also seem to indicate that bad things are as likely as not to happen to good people.

    So, what is meant by probability?

    We live in a universe that is mathematically ordered along strong lines of probability. Many things happen every day – some favour us and some don’t. We all attract a certain amount of things to us and how favourable those things are could be plotted on a probability graph – very favourable things towards the top, and very unfavourable things towards the bottom.

    Most of us bumble along the middle of the graph, very occasionally attracting one or two very good things – we meet our life partner; we win the lottery – or very bad things – we are made redundant; we get cancer.

    But some people get all good things – they are born in privilege and everything they touch turns to gold. And others get all bad things – they are born in a third world hellhole, scrape a meagre living, catch a horrible disease and die a horrible death.

    Well, that’s the way probability works.

    But there are ways of shading probability. You can exercise to avoid heart disease. Or apply yourself to your job to make sure you don’t get laid off. And as a race, we can spread the wealth and raise people up out of grinding poverty, thereby shading their probability towards the top end of the graph.

    Probability isn’t a particularly good way of comforting people, you’d think, but personally I like to think that we live in a world where favourable and unfavourable events happen, and when unfavourable events happen to me it’s not because God is angry, or doesn’t love me, or doesn’t care. It’s just that in life some unfavourable events are going to happen.

    And when those things happen to other people, I have a choice whether I turn to help them or not. I think there’s a call on us to react to ‘evil’.

    I’m aware that this approach does lead onto more questions – why would God create a world where probability is a driving force. My guess is that it’s because only such a world would work if God withdrew from it to allow beings within the universe to have free will.

    Option 6: ‘Evil’ is a force in the world that springs from our collective psychic experience – interiority.

    Let’s start by talking about institutionalised evil: The institutions end up controlling us. They become their own ‘thing’ that we give the power to and then become enslaved by. Think of how people can get caught up in church traditions. At one point they created those traditions to serve a purpose, but soon they became enslaved by them.

    How does this happen? Well, some thinkers point to the notion of ‘interiority’. This is the idea that somehow humans create structures and institutions which take on ‘a life of their own’. The power that we give them gets turned back on us and ends up ruling us. Think of a democracy – we effectively control the democracy because we give law-making powers to people we elect. Does it feel that way?

    At a simpler level – the ‘spirit of the mob’ occurs when we abdicate responsibility for our own actions and become part of a larger whole which is capable of doing terrible things. I have shouted things at soccer matches I would never shout if I was an individual on my own. Being part of ‘the mob’ meant I was part of a collective and the mob was shouting those things so I shouted along with it. But by shouting along with it I helped create it.

    The theologian who talks most about interiority is Walter Wink. He points out that most of the Biblical references to ‘evil’ references structures of control and power – in fact evil is defined as “principalities and powers”. Wink sees these powers as the crystallisation of the ‘innermost essence’ of human beings made manifest through word and action.

    Evil thus manifests itself in human thought and action, but is based ultimately in human idolatry – trusting in something other than God and gifting that thing with power that should in reality belong to God. That power then comes back to haunt us by overpowering us and making us its slave. We effectively enslave ourselves.

    Is this an adequate understanding of evil? Well, it doesn’t really answer the question on the origin of evil – we have to posit a withdrawing/self-limiting/autonomy-gifting scenario in order for human beings to develop the collective psychic consciousness and vest it with power.

    But the strength of this point of view is that it does allow Christians to talk about negative spiritual forces arraigned in opposition to God – ‘devils’ and ‘demons’. The irony is that these negative spiritual forces have come into existence and are powerful because human beings have helped make them real and gifted them with power.

    These six points of view are fairly esoteric, but they each have ideas worth exploring. Ultimately, no one option is an entirely satisfactory solution to questions about the origin of evil and maybe a more compelling answer will include elements of all of them.

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    1. Nic Trent Jun 11

      If God (YAHWEH) is the creator of every thing, He therefore created everything = Gen 1:1 & Rev 4:11. Whetever it be dark or light, cold or hot, wet or dry, good or bad, love or hate = Isa 45:7. God knows good & evil = Gen 3:5. Evil existed before Earth’s creation = Gen 2:9 & Rev 12:7-9. It does not matter what God has created He know’s best. There must be an opposite to compare and decide on. If God created evil it does not mean created beings have to practice it. God gave us 10 Commandments to obey, Jesus tells us to practice Christian love. We have free choice. Best wishes from Nic Trent (UK)

    2. Jon the freelance theologian Jun 21

      While certainly some traditions within Christianity would be happy to ascribe God as the source of evil in the universe, there is generally a reluctance to do so. The issue comes from the logical difficulty with a holy and good God punishing sin. If God is the source of all that is evil as well as all that is good, then holding created (less than perfect) beings to account for also creating evil seems illogical.

      Furthermore, even in those traditions that hold to a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, there is a case to be made that in the Hebrew text there is primordial matter (‘the firmament’) that exists apart from God – ‘the Spirit of God hovered over the deeps’, that according to the chronology of Gensis had not been created yet.

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