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(7) Where Does Evil Come From?
When we think of the world as being ruled by two supernatural beings, one good, the other evil, one God, the other the devil, we will end up dealing with a problem known as theodicy. Theodicy is a term which roughly translated means “How can God be just in a world where there is so much evil?” Or, “Why does God allow evil in the world?” Another way of putting it is the way the French intellectual Voltaire did: “If God is good, he is not all powerful, if God is all powerful, God is not good.”
That the world is “bent” I don’t think anyone would disavow. We use terms like broken or fallen to indicate that something is off with this thing called history. We see murder, wars, abuse of all kinds, slavery, discrimination, pain, heartache, misery, poverty, greed, theft, scarcity and all manner of selfishness. If God created the world and it is good, how can we account for the evil that is in the world? Traditionally there have been a few options.
- God created evil. Some cite Isaiah 45:7: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things.” In this view, God is the author of both light and darkness, good and evil. God is both a cursing and blessing God. The problem with this view is that God is ultimately Janus-faced. The New Testament response to this is to say that “God is love” and “God is light” (I John) or that “in God there is no dark side [no shadow of turning]” (James). If one believes that God’s character is fully and truly revealed in Jesus, then one must reject Isaiah’s way of understanding God.
- The way around this is to say that God makes all things “good” (Genesis 1) but that good became evil. This is what the watcher myth or apocalyptic literature of second Temple Judaism did. In this view, the devil is a good angel who rebels, is cast from heaven and then wreaks havoc on humanity. Some cite Isaiah 14 or Ezekiel 28 to justify this view canonically but there are several problems with this. First is that Isaiah and Ezekiel are referencing human kings, second, that the satan plays only a marginal role in Jewish thinking about evil prior to apocalyptic literature (arising in the 3rd century B.C.E.). The problem here is that the satan must be conceived in the realm of the transcendent outside humanity. The satan becomes an ‘almost divine’ type of figure in this scenario. One solution was that of the author of the prologue of Job which we shall explore in another post, another that of the apocalyptists. Neither is satisfactory.
- A third possibility is that evil does not arise from without but from within the human condition. The rabbi’s came up with this idea which Paul reflects in Romans 7 and perhaps James in James 1: that God created humans with two ‘impulses’ or ‘yetzerim’, one good the other evil. Think of those pictures where humans have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. Jesus may (and I say ‘may’) have been alluding to this in the Lord’s Prayer when he said “Deliver us from [the] evil [impulse].”
Each of these is a way of accounting for evil in the world. As I said in the first post, the devil is an idea with a history. Israel in the exile had to figure out why God had brought them to this state of despair. The dominant idea was not that of an external tempter but of the disobedience of the people. One finds time and again in the prophets that Israel rebelled and was paying the price of her rebellion. It is only after the exile under the influence of Zoroastrian thinking that the devil makes an appearance in Jewish literature. In the literature prior to the exile, Israel’s fate is determined solely by her covenant faithfulness or lack thereof.
Only the third solution puts evil squarely on the shoulders of humanity. I think the rabbis were on the right track when they made this leap away from some transcendent notion of the devil (although it must be admitted that some also found ways to combine it with both the first and the second views and superstitiously found demons lurking in shadows and other assorted places). As I explore Rene Girard’s view of the satan as a purely human phenomenon I in no way wish to minimize the reality of evil. Nor will I be saying that it does not have a spiritual component. I will use the work of Walter Wink on The Powers to hopefully show that evil has two sides: a physical or structural one and a spiritual side. Following Wink, I argue that we may dwell in an ‘Integral’ view of the cosmos, a view which suggests retains that which is both seen and unseen. To give you a preview of where I am going there is a realm of the spirit, just as there is a realm of creation. Just as there is God’s good creation (nature) so there is our human creation: society, civilization or what the writer of the Fourth Gospel calls the ‘kosmos.’ Just as God dwells in the realm of “spirit” so also we humans have created a realm of spiritual darkness with our violence against one another. If you have listened to my podcasts on the satan you will know that I have said that this spiritual darkness we humans created (which we shall talk more about in future posts) has in a sense ‘broken free’ from us, brought us into bondage to its darkness and from which Jesus has delivered us. The problem of theodicy can be solved when we as humans take the burden of evil on our shoulders, when we recognize that God does not create evil or darkness, that God is only light and love and that it we who have brought down the creation and ourselves. I am glad that the New Testament is at such pains to speak of our deliverance from evil, but it is our own evil from which we are delivered. We humans, not some transcendent being, are the bottom line in why the world is so out of whack. And it is Jesus, the True Human who restores to use our rightful place as sons and daughters of the living God, so that we may, as He is, be fully human and thus transform, challenge, and bring light and life to our world.