A Theodicy of Evil – Lenten Season 2023
“Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowldege to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails – given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 11:9-14 NIV).
Revelations – Day 14 “The Secular Problem of Evil”
You are born, you live and then die in the context of this world. It isn’t long before you encounter the problem of Evil. Let’s not call it “evil” for now but we still need to give it a name. We can start with “the reality gap” if you like. That seems innocuous enough. At least for now.
What is this “reality gap” and why don’t we like it very much?
It is the “gap” between what we want or value and what we are able to get. It may be something optional such as a new car or a pair of boots. But it also may be something necessary for survival such as food and water and, of course, everything in between.
No big deal, you say. That is simply our opportunity to make something of ourselves, overcome our history, and create our own future.
Maybe. Maybe not.
I guess it depends on whether or not you have any control over your reality or, at least, how much control you have. Apparently, according to almost all philosophers and leaders, it isn’t quite so simple.
On the one hand, we have an estrangement-dependency relationship with nature (including our own bodies) and, on the other, we have a relational competitiveness for resources with other human beings.
At the very least, most people would agree that the world is not to their liking. For some, it is an opportunity to create their own future (thriving) but for others, it is a question of survival. In both cases, life ends in death, and no one is happy about that prospect.
But let’s take it one step at a time. Nature, people, and death.
Everyone from Feuerbach to Freud describes this “estrangement-dependency” with nature as the cruel dilemma of life. We face, in nature, a world that we cannot wholly control but from which we must get our sustenance to meet our needs. Nature is independent of the self, but the self is dependent on nature. And nature is not always friendly.
Nature includes our bodies and ultimately ends in death with general bouts of suffering and pain on the way to that finality. And although modern technology has done wonders, it has not yet solved the dilemma (and probably never will).
Freud adds his twist to the plot by suggesting that parents act as midwives to their children who are in the process of discovering this cruel dilemma. By acting as a provider and protector (or not), the parents are the ones who deny (or allow) needs, desires, and wants to be met.
Therefore, since we don’t enter into the world as full-grown adults aware of our situation and prepared to wrest our living from the world around us, we identify this estrangement-dependency dilemma with our parents with all of the accompanying trauma and defense mechanisms in place.
The “self” needs to develop some self-protection from others and some self-justification for the pursuit of his or her own desires and needs in the pursuit of his or her own self-interest. Defense mechanisms will be developed for their own protection, and the final result with all of the accompanying inferiority complexes, anxieties, beliefs, and values, may be considered a necessary evil.
And it isn’t only nature that you have to deal with. Other people can be even more dangerous to your well-being. Some families are downright dangerous, and some communities are not an ideal place to live in (to say the least).
Perhaps you can cooperate with some people, but you may have to manipulate others, ignore many, and perhaps even compete or fight with still more in order to get what you want, need, or desire. You may have to put a limit on your will (which we call morality) so that you can live at peace with others but many times morality is dictated by the strong and imposed on the weak.
Within that spider’s web of morality, laws, and expectations from society, you must weave your own story and accomplish your own ends. You have the option to obey society or not and potentially face the consequences but, in the end, you will decide for yourself what is good or bad for you. We call that the “moral gap” since our concern for our own well-being in a world that is not always friendly is at odds with our concern for others (or our desire for others to be friendly and help fulfill our wants, needs, and desires).
And when it comes to deciding what is good or bad for us, we aren’t very good at that either, truth be told. There is something fundamentally wrong with each of us.
Peter Byrne, in his book The Moral Interpretation of Religion, agrees that there are external “evils afflicting the pursuit of the good” but he also talks about humans having “imperfect wills” and a “self (that) is enmeshed in evil.” He even calls it the “cussedness of the human will” and the fact that we are “prone to choose evil over good.”
Apparently, we all are prone to want things that are not good for us but we want them anyway. We know that we should stop doing certain things, stop eating certain foods, stop smoking, and stop certain addictions, but we don’t. We may try. We may even succeed for a while, but our wills are strangely at odds with what we know is in our own best interest in the long run.
Apparently, we don’t have enough love even for ourselves to motivate us to do what is in our own best interests. Talk about a sad state of affairs. If we define evil as that which inhibits our ability to survive and thrive in this world we are born into, then there is certainly evil in nature. When we include our own bodies in the mix, there is certainly suffering, pain and death to contend with as well. Perhaps we can exclude certain natural processes like earthquakes and volcanoes but if they affect us directly, they would still be interpreted by us as a form of natural “evil.”
There is also evil in our relationships with others. Most crime is committed within families. Most pain is felt in our closest relationships. Some people are helpful. Some people are not. But the greatest evil, according to many philosophers, is the evil we do to ourselves. The evil within.
Obviously, a lot more could be said about each of these things, but the important thing to point out here is that there is a secular problem of evil. Evil doesn’t go away just because you deny the existence of God. In fact, the existence of evil may be one of the most profound proofs that God is really there.
Let’s take it step by step.
First, we start with our self-awareness. As far as we can tell, animals are not self-aware. A dog does not lament his existence as a dog, wishing he could be a cat. Humans do. Humans are aware of their own existence as an individual self. That very “gift” of awareness creates a primordial value system in the mind of each human child. Survival of the self is good and everything that denies that survival is bad.
That seems reasonable enough.
Second, we build on that basic value system the fact that the world and other people may or may not accept that value and belief system as much as we do. Parents, generally, are protective and good providers (but not always) and the communities we live in are generally safe (but not always). However far we must travel outside our immediate circles to confront this unwelcome reality, the truth is that evil is always there.
Third, whether we like it or not, we come to the realization that we are dependent on nature and others for our survival (as well as our desire to thrive). We may want to be independent and have control over our lives as we grow up, but we are unavoidably social by nature.
Fourth, because of our corporate nature, morality is a necessity in this world because it forces us to limit our will and seek the best interests of others in addition to ourselves. What that morality is made up of remains to be seen but is influenced heavily by our families and communities. Whether there is a universal moral code or not is under debate but there is no question that morality itself is an integral part of life as we know it.
Fifth, more needs to be said about the motivation for morality (however it is defined). Some would like to use a “utilitarian social contractualism” as the basis for morality (be good because it is expected by society) while others would look for motivation from some form of religion.
There appears to be a fundamental human desire to live in a just universe where evil is punished and good is rewarded but there is also a primordial fear of an absolute, all-knowing authority that would reveal the evil within, and we find ourselves on the side of those being punished. Religion is not necessarily the best source of motivation for morality if the evil is within.
More needs to be said, but we can already agree that this life we live is absurd and abnormal. It is “abnormal” because it flies in the face of our primordial self-value based on our self-awareness as human beings who can reflect on his or her own existence and value it. It is “absurd” because we discover a world at odds with our natural and good need to survive and even thrive and become all that we can be. It is absurd because it is full of pain. suffering and death. It is absurd because we ultimately discover the evil is within and there is very little we can do about it.
This absurdity of an abnormal existence is an interpretation of course.
Not everyone would agree. Some would call death a natural process that we should simply accept but most, especially on their deathbed, would disagree. Death denies our fundamental value as self-aware and sentient beings. The same is true for suffering, pain, and all of the other “evils” we face in life. Life is apparently cheap in this view but how does that square with what every parent knows – that the life of their child is the most important and valuable thing in the world?
The question to ask is why. Why should it be so? Why does evil exist at all? It seems out of step with the fundamental reality of our existence. Is evolution really so chaotic as to create the most incredible self-aware beings in existence and yet treat them like chattel to be slaughtered as if they were not important at all?
Perhaps we can see some similarities with other species of animals since reality does not seem to value each one of them either. Think of the thousands of lemmings who throw themselves off a cliff into the sea to die unthinking and unaware of their impending deaths as one of many examples.
But they are not self-aware “animals” like we are. Doesn’t that make a difference?
It should, according to us, but perhaps that is merely arrogance. I don’t think it is arrogant. I think it is the natural consequence of our own self-awareness. We value ourselves. We value others. We have a capacity for thought and reason. We have the capacity for morality and love. It is flawed but it is there. And that should mean something otherwise it is a cruel gift that evolution should have kept to itself.
If we are going to be treated by nature as unthinking, unaware animals then why were we not “created” as such by the evolutionary process? All the rest of the animals were. On the other hand, no one really knows how we became self-aware animals in the first place. It is one of the great mysteries of life. We can try to trace the physical evolution of the species if we like but there is no understanding of how this self-awareness developed. We simply accept it as a fact of life.
The point is that the nature of our existence is out of sync with being treated by the world as if we are nothing more than animals destined for slaughter without thought for our individual worth.
Let’s look at all of this from another point of view.
I’m not sure if you know that there are “existential” therapists who can help with these kinds of questions. It’s quite an interesting field. The National Institute of Health defines it as a focus “on the anxiety that occurs when a client confronts the conflict inherent in life.”
Often the German word “angst” is used but it is basically the same as the word “anxiety.” The interesting thing is that it is an accepted fact that there is a “conflict inherent in life” that causes that “angst.” We all may describe it a bit differently, but it is there, and it is a source of ongoing anxiety.
There is another term that I want to discuss with you called “existential OCD” which is also interesting for our discussion. The following definition comes from the International OCD Foundation, and I want to quote it in its entirety.
“Existential OCD involves intrusive, repetitive thinking about questions which cannot possibly be answered, and which may be philosophical or frightening in nature, or both. The questions usually revolve around the meaning, purpose, or reality of life, or the existence of the universe or even one’s own existence.”
You could say that all of my writings are promoting “existential OCD” in my readers, but it wouldn’t quite be true. Why? Because we discuss these issues of “the meaning, purpose, or reality of life, or the existence of the universe or even one’s own existence” in the context of the good news of the Bible. We have a solution at hand. There is no need to become OCD about it.
Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at what OCD is all about. OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is about thoughts and behaviors, specifically “obsessive” thoughts and “compulsive” behavior and just to be clear, these thoughts are considered to be “unreasonable thoughts and fears.”
One thing is to have OCD about germs or needing to control your world by organizing everything around you, but these therapists (and philosophers) believe that you can be OCD about existential issues. They would characterize these issues (or thoughts) as “unreasonable” fears that are “frightening in nature” but that “cannot possibly be answered.”
There is a lot of bias in that perspective. Obviously, this all comes from a secular worldview that does not include the answers that God provides in the Bible. After all, for them, religion is an illusion (more to come on that in a later post).
So, there you have it. If you dwell too long on these issues (without answers) it can drive you a bit batty apparently. This just goes to prove that the “normal” human being has learned simply not to dwell on these “unanswerable” questions and “unreasonable” issues and simply focus on the day-to-day issues of surviving. In fact, that is one of the recommended treatments for people suffering from “existential OCD” is to focus on the daily decisions of life in order to get your mind off these terrible questions of life.
I’m not exactly clear what the “compulsive behavior” would be that normally would accompany these obsessive thoughts. Perhaps going to church all the time or giving everything away to the poor or always praying to God. It isn’t clear. But I’m sure that if you try to deal with these things without answers, it could be quite frightening, to say the least. Perhaps it is the Holy Spirit stirring you up to take a hard look at life and driving you to consider a new relationship with God as the only real solution.
I call them “beautiful illusions” which comes from a discussion I had with one of my “secular” students in a bilingual secondary school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was quite brilliant, and I was teaching a class on religion. He took it upon himself to refute everything that I said since his goal was to become a lawyer like his father. Our sparring matches held the attention of the rest of the students through many discussions.
Finally, with no place left to go, he simply declared that I was addicted to a “beautiful illusion” that was presented in the Bible. I responded that he was right but that he also clung to a “beautiful illusion” of life on his own terms without needing to answer to a higher authority. One of us was right and the other was wrong but both of us had “beautiful illusions” to help us deal with life as we found it.
The real question was whether our “beautiful illusions” could stand the test of time, the pain and suffering of evil, and the finality of death. Of course, the ultimate answer can only come after death which is too late to make any difference at all. It would require faith to find the answers on this side of the grave.
There are actually four different existential issues that therapists deal with on a regular basis. The British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists tells us that “existential therapy has four key themes, often known as pillars – death, meaning, isolation, and freedom. These are big topics that often cause people anxiety. You work through your anxieties with your therapist to help you reach a point of acceptance.”
Once again, we see a secular worldview ingrained in this therapy since the goal is to “reach a point of acceptance.” There is no good news here. The Bible sees death as the last enemy (I Cor. 15:26 NIV). We do not “accept” evil or its consequences, we conquer them in the strength of God (Romans 8:28 NIV). We solve them by “accepting” God’s solution for sin and evil and receiving his cleansing and restoration. But that is a story for another post.
All I wanted to do is point out that this “existential angst” is not made up from my imagination or a by-product of some religious belief. It stands on its own as a fact of life from which there is no escape. For those who are sensitive to these issues, it can be quite frightening (and rightly so).
After all, even Nietzsche said something to the effect of “if you look into the abyss long enough, you may find the abyss looking back at you.” In other words, if you look at evil, or even just your existence, long enough and think about it deeply, you may get truly scared at that emptiness.
Because our very nature insists on meaning, purpose, and significance because we are self-aware, sentient beings. That “abyss” is a frightening place and not a place of peace and joy precisely because it is not in sync with our human nature.
The best advice that the secular worldview and existential therapists can give you is to focus on the decisions you need to make every day just to survive. Some of the more ambitious thinkers will tell you the truth, that there is no meaning in life. You are not significant. You do not have a purpose. Your identity is your own and you need to decide for yourself what is good or bad for you, whether you are capable of it or not. You must create your own meaning in life. You must consider yourself significant. You must decide your own purpose, no one else.
You do realize, of course, that we are back in the garden with Adam and Eve making that fateful choice to cut themselves off from the Tree of Life and their relationship with God and become gods unto themselves. Isn’t it interesting that a text written thousands of years ago could have such a penetrating insight into the nature of man and the life he lives on earth? But that is the Biblical interpretation of events, and we aren’t quite ready for that yet.
Suffice it to say that the secular worldview simply doesn’t accept the Biblical interpretation of reality and, therefore, must come up with an alternative. The “sin” for them is conformity. If you now have the ability (wrestled away from God or not) to decide your fate for yourself, to decide between good and evil (within limits), and create your own future (to some degree), then nothing could be worse than conforming to the expectations of others whether that be your family or the society you live in. That would be a tragedy.
And this is where the philosophers of death come into play. Now it isn’t as bad as it sounds. Basically, the idea is that when you face the prospect of death (one of the existential anxieties we all have), it strips you bear to expose who you really are. It helps you to face what you really want, who you want to be, what you want to do, what you believe your purpose to be, and how you want to find your own definition of meaning in life.
Most people just follow the herd and that is a sad epitaph for a human being with this great, almost divine, gift for deciding for themselves what is good or evil for them. Rather than seeing this “gift” as the source of sin and evil, they see it as the source of purpose and meaning and, therefore, happiness in life.
In reality, it doesn’t work out that way.
Pain and suffering seem to get in the way. Death interrupts our march toward our goals. Ignorance seems to plague our efforts to climb the ladder of success only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall. There is nothing more common than wealthy and successful people who are unhappy and depressed after reaching the pinnacle of worldly enterprise.
Nowadays, it is common to hear that the way to find satisfaction and significance is to invest your energy in some sort of “transcendent” goal that is outside of your own self-interest. And generally, that is good advice. But death still interferes, and people still get in the way and those who accomplish their philanthropic goals are still left largely unsatisfied in the end.
The only solution, according to the Bible, is a new relationship with God. In that context, you can invest in people by also bringing them to God and teaching them how to live in the peace and joy that comes from the Tree of Life.
But the philosophers of death are right about one thing. It is when we face the prospect of death that we are stripped of all our conformity and stand naked in front of ourselves with nowhere to hide. The problem is that they don’t go far enough. They must also penetrate to the source of evil within.
The secular worldview accepts the truth the evil is within so why do they stop at the gates of hell and not proceed to the real source of the problem? Simply because they don’t have a solution for that level of exposure.
But then, doesn’t it beg the question just a bit to say that I have this wonderful “gift” to decide for myself my own fate (at least to some degree) and yet also recognize that I have this evil will within that drives me to do things that are not good even for myself. It is the expediency of doing what I want when I want to that is the very heart of the problem.
In other words, it is the very “gift” of deciding for myself but not having the power to do it consistently or even reliably that is the problem.
Finding life in the face of death is only possible when we are honest enough about the evil within to accept God’s judgment that we are simply not able to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil. We can live in the “beautiful illusion” of thinking that we can handle life on our own terms, but the truth is lurking in the shadows of our minds just waiting for the opportunity to throw a wrench into all of our plans. And there will be no one to blame but ourselves.
Did you notice that we haven’t even started talking about the face of evil we find all around us in the abuse of women and children, the thefts and murder of the innocents, the prisons filled with the corrupt and the corrupted, the streets dominated by addiction and those who prey on the vulnerable. We haven’t even talked about earthquakes and famine and plague or the wars in Ukraine and Israel. We haven’t talked about terrorism and oppression and the worldwide epidemic of sex slavery or the abuse of power by our leaders at every level of society.
Yes, there are bright spots as well and we all try to live in them as much as possible. But that is the point. It isn’t always possible. We are not entirely in control of our own lives or the lives of our loved ones. The reality of the world is that it is dangerous, and we will all eventually die. Whether we can arrive at our deathbeds relatively unscathed is an open question. But we will arrive at our deathbeds and our personal value will be extinguished whether we like it or not.
That is the secular problem of evil and it must be dealt with (or ignored). You get to decide which. Perhaps the only hope that I can give you at this point is that there is hope. There is a solution, and it has been effective for millions of people throughout the ages and around the world.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done or what your background is. It doesn’t matter what has happened to you or whether the evil within you has erupted into horrendous events or deeds.
God’s solution is robust and complete and can solve the problem of sin and evil within if you are willing to accept that the “gift” of deciding for yourself is in fact a “curse” and that the only solution is to throw yourself at the mercy of God.
The Desert Warrior