The Problem of Evil 1 March, 2009

In his new booklet for CTS, Edward Hadas tries to get to the roots of the present financial crisis, the full scale of which continues to unfold in the headlines every day. “Banks have failed, governments have debauched currencies and the rest of the economy has been thrown into recession. If only the business of banks worked anything like as smoothly as the aviation system. Then crises of the sort the world is now enduring would be almost as rare as plane crashes. Could that happen? No one can be sure in advance, but it is worth trying to create a sounder financial system. The current crisis provides an excellent opportunity. ”

Hadas concludes his analysis with a “moralist manifesto” that aims to integrate finance with morality. For in the words of the Church’s Compendium of Social Doctrine: “The moral dimension of the economy shows that economic efficiency and the promotion of human development in solidarity are not two separate or alternative aims but one indivisible goal.”


Visit our Stations of the Cross during Lent.

Where did evil come from?

There is a gaping hole in the Christian explanation of the universe. Or that is how it appears to many young people. Where did evil come from? The standard answer, of course, is “free will”, but that isn’t enough. The question is why, if God knew that sin and therefore suffering would ensue, did he continue with the creation?

The Christian tradition replies (a) that any creation is better than none, and (b) that God made sure that it would end well, by dying on the Cross. But many believe that non-existence is better than suffering (witness the rise in suicide and the arguments for mercy-killing). And they ask, how can it be made to end well by yet more innocent suffering? Especially if an eternal hell lies in wait for those who don’t repent.

Lent seems a good time for Christians to reflect on all this, and to try to clarify what is going on. Two preliminary points come to mind. Point one. As Chesterton once said, you should not look a gift-universe in the mouth. How can we pretend to be able to judge whether the whole is worthwhile, or weigh the positives against the negatives and find it wanting? We are simply not in a position to be able to do so. Point two. Suffering is not cumulative. As the philosopher Wittgenstein pointed out, there is no suffering greater than the suffering of one man. I’ll come back to that next month, as we approach Easter.

Meanwhile, the origin of evil is still on the agenda. How could the highest Angel, Lucifer, reject God in full knowledge of what he was doing, and of the consequences, so completely that he will never repent of it? That is the question, surely, in its starkest form? The fall of humanity is merely an echo of the angelic fall that preceded it.

Satan in his original glory, William Blake

It is impossible to reject God completely, since our being comes from him. To reject him in that sense is beyond our power; it would be to un-make ourselves. But what is possible – for a creature that is like God but not God – is to reject “part” of God, or an aspect of God; specifically, its own loving relationship with God. In fact, the more like God, the more beautiful and glorious, a creature is made to be (and Lucifer was very great), the more intense must be the temptation to reject that relationship.

To be like God is to be self-sufficient in every way except the most important – we depend on God for our existence. But if our existence is already assured, we can reject God in every other sense. Lucifer has what he wanted: himself. He was faced with a choice between water and fire, between flowing and burning. In choosing to keep what God had given him, rather than give it back to God, he chose the fire.

But why did God, knowing that Lucifer would reject him, go ahead and create him anyway? We might turn the question around. Would Lucifer in fact have chosen non-existence, if that had been an option for him? It seems not, because he wanted his own being so much he was prepared to reject God in order to keep it for himself, even if it meant being wrapped in flames.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, Ainulindale, God tells Melkor (Lucifer) that the divine plan for creation as a whole cannot be thwarted: “For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” In God’s design, even the rebellion of Satan, with all its dreadful consequences, can be accommodated. No comfort there, of course, to the mother whose children are being tortured to death before her eyes. But who said the truth must be immediately comforting?

We assume too readily, also, that Revelation (and therefore theology) must have an answer to all our questions. The Venerable John Henry Newman wrote: “Now why does God permit so much evil in His own world? This is a difficulty, I say, which we feel at once, before we open the Bible; and which we are quite unable to solve. We open the Bible; the fact is acknowledged there, but it is not explained at all. We are told that sin entered the world through the Devil, who tempted Adam to disobedience; so that God created the world good, though evil is in it. But why He thought fit to suffer [permit] this, we are not told. We know no more on the subject than we did before opening the Bible. It was a mystery before God gave His revelation, it is as great a mystery now; and doubtless for this reason, because knowledge about it would do us no good, it would merely satisfy curiosity. It is not practical knowledge.” Read the whole sermon.

If you are looking for more Lenten reading, I cannot recommend too highly Timothy Radcliffe OP’s Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist, which is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book. It manages to be both funny and wise on every page.