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Within the various religious traditions there is broad agreement that evil exists and that it is a central theme in the comparative doctrines, yet justification for the existence of evil and magnitude of the paradox differs significantly from belief system to belief system. While each system gives at least some attention to the problem, it seems readily apparent that within the Christian tradition one will find the greatest consideration of and more numerous propositions for resolution of the problem. Perhaps the problem of evil is a central issue for the biblical system, since it is more precisely definitive of the character of God than it is in any other system.
In Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, Socrates asks “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” The question reflects a dilemma related to the problem of evil. If the former is affirmed then the gods are governed by an absolute standard which would necessarily be superior to them by virtue of its governance. If the latter is affirmed then any absolute standard of piety (or goodness) must be dismissed. If the latter is affirmed then the gods (or God) could not accurately be described as absolutely good since there would be no absolute standard of good, but again if the former is affirmed then the gods (or God) could not be described as all powerful, since they (or He) would be governed by piety (or goodness).
While Plato provides an epistemological basis for further discussion of the problem of evil, he would not have recognized the existence of evil as presenting any difficulty to explain. Evil offers a counterbalance to good and “evils can never pass away, for there must always remain something which is antagonistic to good” (Theaetetus 176). Regarding moral evil (absence of good, virtue, etc., related to ignorance), it is to the soul as physical evil (disease) is to the body—each type of evil brings about the destruction of its host (Republic, Book X, 608). In life and death comes a kind of divine justice, as Plato’s Apology recounts Socrates statement that “no evil can happen to a good man either in life or after death” (41d). But the very existence of evil is attributed in the Timaeus to the demiurge’s creation not as ex nehilo, but rather from preexisting and imperfect materials. Here Plato identifies a dichotomy in causation between the necessary and the divine, the latter of which is recognizable as nature permits happiness, and the former being prerequisite to the divine (Timaeus, 36:69). While Plato did believe in the benevolence of the deity, he would not accept the premise of the creative deity possessing omnipotence, thus in Platonic thinking there is no paradox regarding the existence of evil, for it is necessary.
Although there is no extant form of Epicurus’ characterization of the problem, he is generally credited as the first to state it, and he does so in the form of a trilemma, which as understood by Hume could be structured as follows: if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, then how can evil exist in a world made by God? First century (BC) atomist Lucretius represents significant Epicurean influence, and his poem De Rerum Natura provides an important source for Epicurean doctrine, as Lucretius argues against the teleological on grounds (among others) that there is frailty and evil present for which cannot be accounted in a teleological system. Third century theologian Lanctantius provides perhaps the strongest early evidence of Epicurus’ statement of the trilemma, as he propounds an apologetic responding directly to Epicurus:
What happiness, then, can there be in God, if He is always inactive, being at rest and un-moveable? if He is deaf to those who pray to Him, and blind to His worshippers? [lacking omniscience] What is so worthy of God, and so befitting to Him, as providence? [lacking omnipotence] But if He cares for nothing [lacking omnibenevolence], and foresees nothing, He has lost all His divinity [Note: Epicurus’ necessary conclusion]. What else does he say, who takes from God all power and all substance, except that there is no God at all?1
And again, regarding two particular horns of the problem:
God, says Epicurus, regards nothing [premise 1: lacking omnibenevolence]; therefore He has no power [conclusion: lacking omnipotence]. For he who has power must of necessity regard affairs [premise 2: inferential relationship between omnibenevolence and omnipotence]. For if He has power, and does not use it, what so great cause is there that, I will not say our race, but even the universe itself, should be contemptible in His sight?2
While Epicurus’ goal was not to assert atheism (he didn’t, but rather posited that if gods existed they were of no concern, being themselves either unconcerned or impotent regarding human affairs), his elucidation of the problem of evil in particular and resultant complexities in the teleological idea provides momentum for the atheistic worldview, and thus with Epicurus (as characterized by Lucretius, Lanctatius, and later Hume) the problem of evil becomes a pivot point of discussion not only in regard to theism but cosmogony and cosmology in general. The teleological nature of the issue causes the problem of evil to be of significance to a number of fields within philosophical inquiry.
Relating evil to matter itself, Plotinus sees matter as having potential for good but being in itself (and unaided) a primary evil. While this in itself seems a significant contradiction in Plotinus’ approach, his characterization of evil not as an objective state of being but rather as the absence (although not completely so) of good importantly provides the Neoplatonic context for iteration and solution of the problem. Evil is in the realm of non-being. Plotinus explains:
If such be the Nature of Beings and of That which transcends all the realm of Being, Evil cannot have place among Beings or in the Beyond-Being; these are good. There remains, only, if Evil exist at all, that it be situate in the realm of Non-Being, that it be some mode, as it were, of the Non-Being, that it have its seat in something in touch with Non-Being or to a certain degree communicate in Non-Being. By this Non-Being, of course, we are not to understand something that simply does not exist, but only something of an utterly different order from Authentic-Being: there is no question here of movement or position with regard to Being; the Non-Being we are thinking of is, rather, an image of Being or perhaps something still further removed than even an image. Now this (the required faint image of Being) might be the sensible universe with all the impressions it engenders, or it might be something of even later derivation, accidental to the realm of sense, or again, it might be the source of the sense-world or something of the same order entering into it to complete it. Some conception of it would be reached by thinking of measurelessness as opposed to measure, of the unbounded against bound, the unshaped against a principle of shape, the ever-needy against the self-sufficing: think of the ever-undefined, the never at rest, the all-accepting but never sated, utter dearth; and make all this character not mere accident in it but its equivalent for essential-being, so that, whatsoever fragment of it be taken, that part is all lawless void, while whatever participates in it and resembles it becomes evil, though not of course to the point of being, as itself is, Evil-Absolute.3
Plotinus’ dichotomy is evident: being and beyond-being is good, and while non-being does indeed exist, it is essentially distinct from authentic being. Thus evil does not exist as an objective hypostasis, and certainly not as a co-equal and opposing force to deity.
The impact that the Neoplatonic definition of evil would have on future discussion is truly immeasurable, and Plotinus’ characterization is an instinctive entry point for the medieval philosophers.
The Problem of Evil in Medieval Philosophy
It is early in the medieval era that we see a turn toward more theological interpretations of the problem, and perhaps for two reasons: (1) Since the rise in philosophy observed in the pre-socratics can be attributed to directed effort toward naturalistic explanations, there was a reluctance on the part of more than a few to adopt the materialist framework. While natural philosophy was constructing the problem and attempting materialist solutions, moral philosophy was not immune to the pursuit and found itself in need of similarly contrived resolutions on the topic. Also of significance, (2) natural philosophy declined (at least) with Socrates’ shift toward moral philosophy and perhaps can be credited to lack of development in contemporary scientific methods. The naturalists could only extend tested theories so far, thus microcosm presented greater need and opportunity for advancement than did macrocosm.
But how to explain the human experience relating to interaction with evil in metaphysical terms? This question would find primacy in the philosophy of the medievals.
As a developed synthesis of Platonic cosmogony (as presented in Timaeus) and epistemological premises, gnosticism found itself impacting the problem. Evil’s existence, in gnostic tradition, was attributed to the failure of the demiurge’s potency—an absolute denial of omnipotence, and thus as in Plato, the problem of evil was a non issue. Such justifications on grounds of rejecting omnipotence were untenable to the groundings of the Western theological minds that would soon rise as the biblical text became a focal point for bonding theological presupposition with philosophical justification.
In practice gnosticism’s foundations were characteristically dualistic, viewing the material as corrupt and all that relates to gnosis as more pure. As a result, two particular strains of gnostic orthodoxy become evident: (1) that which would de-emphasize the significance of the material/corrupt and thus promote licentiousness, and (2) that which would highlight the significance of the material/corrupt and in accordance promote asceticism. Later thinkers would respond (generally) critically toward both.
Working from a theistic standpoint and a biblical context, Irenaeus opposed Gnostic premises, responding directly to them (perhaps most notably in Against Heresies). He affirmed omnipotence and offered an alternative solution in two forms.
First, Irenaeus redefined the epistemological grounding on the issue, appealing to the Biblical text as the source of objective truth, consequently dismissing Platonic cosmogony as untenable.
Second, he redefined anthropological cosmogony, operating from the basic premise that human free will is prerequisite to human good or perfection. This presupposes that God did not create perfection (in mankind at least). Rather perfection comes through the proper appropriation of autonomy. While natural evil provides opportunity and occasion for the person’s growth, moral evil is then an outcome of free will appropriated to disobedience, and is not due directly or necessarily to the corporeal nature of humanity (as in gnosticism). He is specific on this point, saying,
Those persons, then, who possess the earnest of the Spirit, and who are not enslaved by the lusts of the flesh, but are subject to the Spirit, and who in all things walk according to the light of reason, does the apostle properly term “spiritual,” because the Spirit of God dwells in them. Now, spiritual men shall not be incorporeal spirits; but our substance, that is, the union of flesh and spirit, receiving the Spirit of God, makes up the spiritual man.4
Thus the spiritual man is one who has received the Spirit of God in union with the flesh (and spirit). In gnostic tradition such redemption of the flesh would have been impossible, yet for Irenaeus, in accordance with his epistemological foundationalism (holding revelation as foundational) is able to argue for a theodicy that neither denies the omnipotence of God nor the existence of evil. While he would certainly face significant hermeneutic challenges in defending his conception of man and his place in the cosmos, he nevertheless succeeds in providing an alternative in both areas of knowledge and cosmogony of evil, and as a result is influential in restructuring the debate. Also notable here is the role given to free will, which further colors future discussion and again illustrates the centrality of the problem of evil in connecting philosophy and theology.
From his foundational assertion that God is “supremely and equally and unchangeably good”5 Augustine argues admittedly6 from the Neoplatonic standpoint that evil is the privation of good. He distinguishes between natural evil as penal consequence and moral evil as the fruit of free will appropriated in disobedience. Augustine attributes significance to the existence of evil, but not at the expense of God’s omnipotence or omnibenevolence. Thus evil must serve those two qualities in a utilitarian sense. He says,
And in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it with the evil. For the almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good?7
Evil is only allowed inasmuch as God is powerful enough to bring from it greater good. And Augustine is careful to characterize evil not as not as an independent substance of equal quality to that of the good, but rather simply as the absence of good. In illustration of this he discusses a wound as a defect in the flesh which when health is restored ceases to exist. The wound does not continue existence elsewhere, and thus should not be seen as an entity in itself but rather as the privation of function or health. Evil functions in the same manner.
It should also be noted that Augustine believed good to be extracted from evil even to the point of supreme good. Evil contributes in an important way to cosmic order: privation of good is a necessary and divine implement serving an almost aesthetic overview of existence. The principle of plenitude begins to emerge here.
Finally, for Augustine, evil finds its origin and impetus as being intimately connected to human free will. God in His goodness allows free will, the utilization of which must possibly result in a turning from God. Augustine notes that the turning itself is the central issue, not the alternative chosen. He says, “for when the will relinquishes that which is superior to itself, and turns to that which is inferior, it becomes evil not because that toward which it turns is evil, but because the turning is evil.”8
Thus the turning itself results in the privation of the ideal and offers contingencies not readily identifiable with any overall good, yet when viewed in perspective of the whole, there is an aesthetic sense in which the whole is (and must be) deemed good. This creates another problem separate yet related problem with which Augustine must deal—and one beyond the scope of this present discussion: the compatibility of human free will with the divine perfections of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence. The manner in which he deals with these issues necessarily impacts his conception of theodicy.
Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)
Anselm, like Augustine, preferred to see creature-volition as the means whereby the responsibility for the existence of evil is placed elsewhere other than at the feet of God, and in so doing protected the attribute of omnibenevolence, a necessary consequence to his ontological defense of the existence of God. Anselm’s argument is as follows:
something greater than which cannot be thought exists in thought…And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater. If, therefore, that than which greater cannot be thought exists in thought alone, then that than which greater cannot be thought turns out to be that than which something greater actually can be thought, but that is obviously impossible. Therefore something than which greater cannot be thought undoubtedly exists both in thought and in reality.9
The argument requires “that than which greater cannot be thought” to possess the highest degree of perfection, and thus Anselm narrows the debate to exclude the possibility of diminishing the perfections of God in order to resolve the problem of evil. For Anselm, as was also the case with Augustine, creature-volition seemed the best option. In discussing freedom of the will, Anselm emphasizes not freedom from but rather freedom to. This active element of freedom does not, for Anselm, in its protection especially of omnibenevolence, violate omnipotence or omniscience, despite its potential to create scenarios which could be described as evil, as that freedom finds its very origin and enablement in divine mandate. The significant contribution here is the centrality of omnibenevolence in the trilemma.
Isaiah 45:7 reads in the KJV as follows: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Aquinas counters a syllogistic argument based on this passage: (P1) God created everything, (P2) Evil is something, (C) Therefore, God created evil. The second premise causes difficulty for Aquinas as he, consistent with Neoplatonic thinking, argues against evil as a substance. He says,
As the term good signifies “perfect being,” so the term evil signifies nothing else than “privation of perfect being.” In its proper acceptance, privation is predicated of that which is fitted by its nature to be possessed, and to be possessed at a certain time and in a certain manner. Evidently, therefore, a thing is called evil if it lacks a perfection it ought to have. Thus if a man lacks the sense of sight, this is an evil for him. But the same lack is not an evil for a stone, for the stone is not equipped by nature to have the faculty of sight.10
Aquinas solidifies for medieval philosophy the definition of evil as privation rather than essence. Like those before him he recognizes that this definition requires human volition in order to account for privation, and that evil as a penalty is introduced by God in order to supply justice. This accommodation is a significant one, as it additionally introduces an intersection between theological philosophy and naturalistic philosophy by way of a world ordered by justice. The teleological emphasis here ties the problem of evil and theodicies of this order to the concepts of necessity, justice, and plenitude—factors not exclusive to the religious or the secular, but rather shared by both. Thus while Aquinas remains perhaps the medieval era’s most provocative advocate of theological philosophy, he also plays an important role in uniting the interests of the religious and the secular as he frames the problem of evil in terms which can be engaged from either grounding.
William of Ockham (1288-1347)
Whereas previous thinkers regarded omnibenevolence as the attribute least predisposed to redefinition, Ockham shared no such regard. He suggested that there existed in the volition of God distinction between potentia absoluta (absolute power) and potentia ordinata (ordained power). Feinberg explains the division:
The distinction between the two powers doesn’t mean that God acts sometimes with order and other times without it. It means that God can, and has, in fact, decided to do certain things according to the laws which He freely establishes, i.e., de potentia ordinata. On the other hand, God has absolute power (potentia absoluta) to do anything that doesn’t imply a contradiction.11
The result for Ockham is a non-absolute standard of good: God is not obligated to act in a certain manner because that action is good, rather it is good because He declares it to be so. Thus in Ockham’s estimation the standard of good is God Himself. Some, like Barnhart, believe that such a move robs the term goodness of any real meaning and results in a cruel and tyrannical deity. Barnhart indicts such a deity as “not only [knowing] who would go to hell, he actually created them to go there…[this] is not unfair because God is not subject to the principle of fairness. He is above it.”12
For Ockham, this redefinition represented an ironclad theodicy, but it invited criticism as the very nature of good and God was in need of reassessment. Such analysis would be furthered with the dawn of the Reformation and the rise of the Modern Era of philosophy.
1 Lanctantius, On the Anger of God.
3 Plotinus, Enneads, 8:3.
4 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5: 8:2.
5 Augustine, Enchiridion, 10-12.
6 Augustine, Confessions, 7:9:13.
7 Augustine, Enchiridion, 10-12.
8 Augustine, City of God, 12:3.
9 Anselm, Proslogion, ch. 2.
10 From Thomas Aquinas, Compendium theologiae 114, 125-126, as quoted in Bill King, “Thomas Aquinas on the Metaphysical Problem of Evil” in Quodlibet Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2-3, Summer 2002.
11 John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 37.
12 Joe E. Barnhart, The Billy Graham Religion (Philadelphia, PA: Pilgrim Press, 1972), 135.