Tag Archives: Theodicy

Skeptical Theism vrs Theodicy

It’s not uncommon to find theistic philosophers and, more frequently, apologists appealing to both skeptical theism and to various theodicies in their responses to the problem of evil. However, the two approaches are not obviously compatible. Before I examine the compatibility of these two enterprises, I had best briefly outline what the problem of evil is and how each of these approaches traditionally seeks to answer it.

The problem of evil comes in various guises, but for my purposes here one of the most popular forms will suffice:

(1) If God exists then gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil exists.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

This argument will, of course, be nuanced differently by different thinkers; sometimes it will come in a deductive form, other times in an inductive form, for instance.

Take now two theists: Joe Skeptic and George T O’Dicist.

Joe Skeptic – as the name suggests – is representative of the skeptical theist school of thought. Joe will be quick to point out that mere mortals such as you and I are not epistemically well placed to make the kinds of judgments required to make the problem of evil a successful atheistic argument. God, surely, has lots of reasons for acting as He does; reasons which we simply do not know – and possibly cannot expect to know. Many evils certainly look gratuitous, but we see only through the eyes of finititude. Joe, being a Tolkien fan, reminds us of Gandalf’s words in Lord of the Rings: “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” And thus, for the skeptical theist, we simply cannot make such judgments. We have no way of knowing if any evil is gratuitous or such that there is no morally sufficient reason for God to allow it, even though we do not – or cannot – know these reasons. “How do we know? We can’t know,” says Joe.

George thinks Joe is punting to skepticism far too soon. George reckons that we can plausibly know why God allows certain evils. Perhaps God allows some suffering for the greater good of permitting morally significant freedom. Perhaps other forms of suffering play their part in the world as a “vale of soul-making.” Or, maybe some instances of suffering are plausibly divine punishments for sin. These are just a few of the bewildering array of theodicies on offer from George and his cohorts.

The main difference between Joe and George is that George is claiming detailed knowledge concerning the morally sufficient reasons God has for allowing suffering, whilst Joe is pleading agnosticism on the matter. Joe says: “We don’t/can’t know why God allows suffering.” George says: “God allows suffering because X, Y, Z.” But, of course, in real life many of those who engage with the problem of evil are neither Joes nor Georges, but rather a curious hybrid of the two. Frequently, and this is nothing other than my own observations, I see my fellow theists begin with bold theodicies and, in the course of debate, weaken their claims until they arrive at skeptical theism. Other times theists will change their hat to suit the occasion (or their mood). And this, I’ve also noticed, can be a source of frustration to atheist thinkers: “Do you know or not?” “If you claim we don’t or can’t know, why don’t you spend some time criticizing theodicists?”

Despite all this it seems to me that skeptical theism need not be in conflict with the enterprise of theodicy, though the latter will require certain restrictions to be put upon it. In order to be fully compatible with skeptical theism, theodicy must refrain from any attempts at big, sweeping, assured statements. What I mean is that theodicy should refrain from saying such things as: “This instance of suffering is due to X,” or “Suffering in general is due to Y.” Critics might here complain that I am effectively saying theodicy should cease to be theodicy. I admit, if a full compatibility with skeptical theism is to be achieved then theodicy must make compromises. However, I don’t mean to make theodicy redundant – and readers of my blog may well know that I defend a form of theodicy which attempts to combine a modified form of Leibniz’s best possible world with a version of Irenaeus’ soul-making approach. What I do think needs to happen is a humbling of the theodicy enterprise. Instead of claiming God allows some specific or general type of suffering because X, Y, Z, the claim needs to be restricted to something like, “God might allow some instance or type of evil because of X, Y or Z.” Or, alternatively, “X, Y and Z are, plausibly, morally sufficient reasons for God to allow some instances or types of suffering, even if we do not or cannot know if X, Y or Z constitute God’s actual reasons for allowing some instance or type of suffering.”

This, I think, would make theodicy fully compatible with skeptical theism. But is there any benefit in such a weakened form of theodicy? I think there is. There are lots of areas of human knowledge where it can be important to venture even tentative explanations for seemingly recalcitrant facts. Certain aspects of origin of life studies or evolutionary theory can be like that, for instance. Theories can often seem more plausible in the face of uncertainty if we are able to at least take stabs a possible explanations for data that proves difficult to account for. In particular with respect to the problem of evil, we can note that forms of suffering and evil are not all equal. There are some forms which might be accounted for fairly easily; whereas other instances seem intractable. By providing plausible explanations for certain forms or instances of suffering, theodicy can increase our confidence that plausible explanations exist also for these more difficult instances of evil.

Perhaps the skeptical theist might also make a compromise here. Rather than dogmatically asserting that we can’t know, perhaps he should hold to the weaker statement of skeptical theism – that we don’t know, or don’t know fully, why God allows some instance or form of suffering. This attitude would then allow theodicy some role in at least investigating whether or not plausible reasons for some evils can indeed be found, or at least rationally surmised. This surely would be a sensible compromise for the skeptical theist to make, since it avoids for him a rather uncomfortable knowledge statement (“we can’t know”) which sits uneasily with his overall outlook. Skeptical theism of the form “don’t know” seems, to me anyhow, more internally consistent than the “can’t know” form.

Such an “agreement” between these two approaches has analogues in other disciplines. Take, for example, the philosophy of mind. Some philosophers of mind – most notably Colin McGinn – reckon the problem of consciousness is one which we are simply cognitively unequipped to solve, and we need to simply live with it. Others – rather hopefully – think it is solved. Though these two positions aren’t immediately compatible, we can adopt elements of both: we can agree with McGinn that the problem has not in fact been solved; but agree with the optimists that we can make some progress, even if we can’t solve the problem at present.

What this gives us is a much healthier attitude, one that appeals both to our sense of realism and to our sense of curious optimism and which might lead us to say something like: “I’m not sure we can know, but let’s try.” And thus, with one or two compromises made, it seems to me that Joe and George can safely sit at the same table.

Stephen J Graham

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Is Theodicy Offensive?

This week a few comments appeared on my Twitter feed concerning the apparent offensive nature of theodicy; theodicy being that branch of theistic thought that attempts to explain why God allows evils and suffering in the world.

A frequent retort to this project of theodicy – and one that occurred this week – goes something like this: “Yeah, go and tell that to a rape victim!” [The precise tweet I saw read: “theodicy is often offensive. Who’s gonna look at a rape victim & tell them it was a reminder from God?”] The idea here is that some explanation or other would be offensive to those who have suffered gross wrongs. But what is supposed to follow from this? That some explanation or other is false? That’s hardly the case, unless we seek to equate offensiveness with falsity. To my mind all that follows is that even if some explanation is true it isn’t necessarily helpful in some given context – such as counselling a rape victim. However, any responsible person wouldn’t approach a counselling situation in this way; not because the explanation is false, but because in this context it is both inappropriate and unhelpful to the recovery of the victim.

I remember several years ago having to attend counselling sessions for extreme anxiety. At the beginning of these sessions the counsellor delved into lots of things in my past, explaining how they had a bearing on my current psychological state and how that state comes about within the human body. It was certainly an education and much of what she told me was undoubtedly true. However, I found this approach extremely unhelpful and frustrating; even counter-productive. I felt like I was being treated as a psychological research project rather than being helped. The truth in my case was unhelpful, inappropriate and at times even offensive. It was still true.

There’s a time and place for everything. Giving a long-winded explanation of why God permits suffering may well be of no use to the victim of some act of evil. A philosophical explanation is not what they need at that moment in time. To judge a philosophical explanation by how it would perform in a counselling context is to set a false standard. Of course, we should note in passing that there are people who have been helped by seeing their suffering in a larger context. It is not uncommon to hear stories from Jewish people who suffered the hell on earth of the Nazi concentration camps about how their belief in God’s providence sustained them, that believing there was at least some reason or explanation for what was happening. Suffering, it seems, can be easier to bear when it’s set into a wider context of having some meaning.

Anyhow, we could make the point by flipping the situation around. Take an atheist who is utterly convinced that there is no God, that this life is all there is, and that each of us faces nothing but personal annihilation in a relatively short time. Say this atheist visits Africa to do charity work in a remote hospital. A mother has just arrived with a sick 10 year old boy on the verge of death. In fact, there’s nothing doctors can do except to bring some modest pain-relief and to help ease the suffering of both the son as he dies and the mother as she grieves. This mother and son are devout Christians. Despite living an impoverished and malnourished existence they look forward to a better future, the heavenly blessing of being reunited after death, when all fear is banished from their hearts, all pain from their bodies, every tear wiped away, and wrongs and injustices righted. Now, suppose our charitable atheists stands by the bedside to ease this boy into his death and help to comfort the mother. Is now a good time to offer the problem of evil? Is now a good time to point out the contradictions in the Bible and that it cannot be trusted when it speaks of the life to come? Wouldn’t to do so be crass and offensive? And yet the atheist believes all this is true.

The point should be obvious: that it is hardly a sensible critique of atheism to say “yeah, well you wouldn’t preach atheism to a dying child,” and likewise it’s rather unreasonable to critique a theodicy on the basis that “yeah, you wouldn’t tell that to a rape victim!”(Of course some given theodicy could be false for many other reasons).

So, how should we judge a belief system or argument? Not on its emotional appeal; not on whether someone considers it offensive; not on how many people agree with it; not even with regard to how effectively it makes the hairs on the back of our neck tingle when we consider it. We judge them in so far as we consider them true or false; correct or incorrect. Any given proposition could be considered offensive; many are true nonetheless.

Stephen J Graham

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The Horrors of Creation

I remember sitting in a church men’s meeting I had been invited to watching images of the universe on a screen while a song played asking “how can you say there is no God!” The images were all of stunning beauty and natural wonder, and only a cold emotionless being could fail to be moved by them.

All these dazzling images before me were taken by the Hubble space telescope, which opened up the heavens to us in a way that wasn’t available to previous generations. Anyone with an internet connection can marvel at the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy, or the rather splendid Sombrero galaxy.

When people think of creation, often it’s the beautiful things they have in mind. It’s not uncommon to hear people speak of experiencing God through a majestic sun-set, or in the grandeur of a mountain range, or the vast expanse of the oceans. There is certainly no shortage of natural wonders; beauty is not in short supply. We see it in the night sky when we gaze at the stars; we see it through phenomena like rainbows or the northern lights. On one occasion I remember seeing a toucan at a bird park on a family holiday in Spain and welling up, so moved was I at how beautiful it was. Seriously. A toucan. It’s easy to see the hand of God in such things.

I also remember a song that used to be sung when I was in primary school:

“All things bright and beautiful;
All creatures great and small;
All things wise and wonderful;
The Lord God made them all.”

Indeed. The verses of the song go on to cite example after example of the wonderful beauty of the natural world. How loving is God to give us such a wonderful and beautiful world to live in!

Alas, the world isn’t all rainbows and toucans. Needless to say my old primary school song doesn’t tell the whole story: about parasitic worms that infect and feed on human eyeballs, causing blindness; swarms of hornets that attack beehives and tear the heads off all the bees; hyenas that begin to eat their prey before it’s even dead; various animal species that reject the young if their parents die. The Lord God made all these too, presumably. Creation might indeed be stunningly beautiful, but it’s often an incredibly fearful place too: bloody, cold, cruel, dangerous, and merciless. Most of the earth isn’t safe. The earth is wild. Beautiful, yes – but so very wild.

And what are we to make of the wildness, the danger and the sheer bloody cruelty of it all?

The traditional answer in Christian circles, even in countries which typically boast a high degree of scientific sophistication, is that creation used to be perfect but has been adversely affected by the sin and fall of humankind. So, God made all things perfect, but when the first humans rebelled against God certain consequences followed – not only for humankind but also for the created order. The sin of the first humans corrupted the earth, leaving pain, suffering, death and misery in its wake.

Regrettably this rather tidy explanation is utterly untenable given what we now know of natural history. If we go back in time prior to the appearance of homo sapiens we won’t find lions lying down with lambs. Polar bears did not eat snow-cones prior to the appearance of the first humans and the first sin. Nature was just as red in tooth and claw as it is today. Animals ate other animals. Even some plants ate animals! The suggestion that the natural world got ugly as a result of the sin of the first humans was OK for Saint Augustine but it’s unbelievable these days.

In any event it isn’t at all demanded by the biblical narrative itself. In the primitive simplicity of the Genesis account there is no indication that the natural world was perfect and then completely corrupted with the first sin. According to the Genesis story Adam was not created in some paradisal state, but rather he was created in an earthly garden which he has to tend. When we compare the relative simplicity of the actual biblical account with the later theological developments – mainly via Saint Augustine – we see really how massively overstated these theological developments were, both in terms of exaggerating the heights from which creation fell as well as the depths to which it fell.

Of course it’s not just the empirical problems with the traditional – Augustinian – account of sin and suffering in the world that make it implausible, there are weighty theological considerations against it too. One crucial problem is that the traditional account doesn’t shed any light on suffering and evil by pointing back to the fall of man or a prior fall in the angelic realm. This theology presents us with a paradox: man (or angels) created as finitely perfect in a perfect environment and then somehow engaging in evil. As John Hick points out this doctrine of the “self-creation of evil ex nihilo” is difficult to make sense of, if indeed it isn’t downright incoherent. Hick puts it: “To say that an unqualifiedly good (though finite) being gratuitously sins is to say that he was not unqualifiedly good in the first place.” Moreover, it raises massive problems for the doctrine of heaven: if perfect humans in a perfect environment fell once why could it not happen again? And of course this entire theology was made all the more bewilderingly incoherent once Calvin came along with his doctrine of strong divine determinism.

And thus I think it’s time for Christian thought to explore other avenues with regards to the nature of the world and the suffering it contains. To this end I want to briefly sketch another Christian approach, one which is actually older than the Augustinian approach but which never achieved the same systematic organisation and development and thus was largely ignored by the Western church in its obsession with Augustine.

We see hints of this different theodicy very early in Christian thought. Tatian argued that God did not make human beings perfectly good but in such a way and in such an environment (not an idyllic paradise) as they could become perfectly good through obedience to God. In a similar vein Theophilus speculated that Adam and Eve were created as children – immature – and were placed in the garden of Eden to grow in maturity and obedience.

These tentative themes were developed further by the church father Irenaeus. Irenaeus made the (exegetically dubious, but ideologically useful) distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity. The former concerns our nature as rational agents capable of relating to God; the latter refers to our final perfecting by the Spirit, a goal which we must ourselves cooperate with.

This distinction then allows Irenaeus to argue that whilst humankind is created in God’s “image” we are not perfected in God’s “likeness.” We must use our moral and rational faculties to grow towards this perfect nature, a nature which must be freely chosen and developed, and which will be rejected by some. Under this scheme, therefore, Adam was only potentially perfect, not actually perfect. All human beings are in the same spiritual boat: presently only potentially the perfected beings God seeks to make. In fact Ireneaus also argues that this way of creating humankind is morally superior to the creation of a perfect finite being. The argument is that it’s good to grow and develop in moral knowledge; it’s good even to experience failure and suffering because through them we experience the great goods of forgiveness and mercy and have a deeper appreciation of God’s love and grace, since, in the teaching of Christ, “[for] he to whom more is forgiven loveth more.” As part of this scheme Irenaeus also stresses the epistemic distance between God and man, which makes a degree of cognitive freedom possible and allows us to move towards or totally ignore God as we see fit.

What is required, given God’s purposes for his creatures, is an appropriate environment in which these purposes can be realised. The world, then, was never an idyllic paradise but is intended – (at least partially since God may well have other purposes in creation besides humanity) – as an appropriate environment to develop those made in God’s image into the likeness of God. The world, according to this view, then naturally contains good and evil, suffering and pleasure, which God uses to teach his creatures lessons and values, and ultimately build them into the type of creatures he desires. The world was never a paradise with no suffering or physical death, but rather has always been a place with suffering, but this suffering has a divine purpose.

The contrast with Augustine is clear. Whereas Augustine looks back to a time when man was supposedly created finitely perfect and then somehow (inexplicably) fell from this state and plunged the entire human race into catastrophe and the natural order into death, suffering and cruelty; Irenaeus sees man as created immature and placed into an appropriate environment and thus looks forward to a time when humanity and the created order will be perfected.

Insofar as we can claim the world is “perfect” we can only mean a functional perfection – the suitability of the created order to accomplish the divine purposes, which includes what Irenaeus called the “likeness” of God, and what Schleiermacher later referred to as the “God consciousness” of human beings which can be awakened and challenged by pain and pleasure alike. This type of perfection is one which exists now – always was and always will – but it doesn’t – contra Augustine – refer to some primordial and long lost condition of perfect human virtue and its accompanying natural paradise.

It seems to me quite clear that the dominant Augustinian notions of an “original righteousness” of humankind and “original perfection” of the environment are empirically false and theologically dubious. The way forward for theodicy and an understanding of sin, evil and suffering lies elsewhere: in the notions of our human propensity to respond to God and share in his work and purposes – or not – and the conception of the goodness of the created order as lying in its being an appropriate environment for the outworking of God’s plan for his creatures.

Stephen J Graham

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These ideas will be fleshed out in forthcoming articles.
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Theodicy & The Book of Job

With its belief in the omnipotence and perfect goodness of God the problem of evil is particularly acute for Christian theism, and it therefore makes sense to inquire what resources might be found within that tradition for dealing with this problem. In this article I want to look at the Bible, and specifically at the book of Job. The book of Job is the sort of book that must be read in its entirety. Proof-text from Job at your peril!

The first thing to notice is that Job is not a work of analytic philosophy. It’s a story. It doesn’t give us 5 point deductive argument defending the existence of God in the face of evil and suffering. Instead Job is a narrative, cleverly woven together to give us a lens through which to view the evils and sufferings we face.

The story is of a righteous man who suffers, and, in his own eyes, suffers unjustly. The main portion of the book is taken up by cycles of debate between Job and his three friends – Eliphaz, Zophur, and Bildad (and later on Elihu). The theological background of the book is vital. Israelites believed that God was almighty and perfectly just; and no one was wholly innocent in His eyes. The prevailing theodicy was simple: our suffering is a measure of our guilt before God. If you were righteous you enjoyed God’s blessing. If you were not, you didn’t; you suffered to some extent in accordance with your unrighteousness. This theology undergirds numerous utterances of the various characters. Thus, for example, we find Eliphas saying, “Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope? Who being innocent has ever perished?”[Job 4:6].

But the book of Job throws up a problem: Job was righteous (though not without sin) and yet suffered greatly. The orthodox theology has broken down. For Job’s friends the theology holds true, and they therefore conclude that Job’s sin before God must be great. Job, who also adheres to this theology, believes he is righteous and therefore holds out for God to vindicate him. Theology has collided with human experience, and God has become an enigma in the eyes on the suffering righteous.

Some theologians believe that one of the purposes of Job is to refute this theology, but that is inaccurate. The purpose is to show that while it may be true that God often rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked (see the cycles of sin-punishment-repentance-deliverance in the book of Judges for an illustration of this theology at work), this isn’t always or necessarily the case. Of course, it could be the case – and could even generally be the case – that this is how God operates, but the theology is not universal: sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. The world is not such that you always reap what you sow.

Elihu, who is introduced later in the book, has a slightly different take on things. While he holds to the traditional theology he takes it in a slightly different direction. Job is a sinner, like everyone else. However, rather than his suffering being a punishment for wrong Elihu seems to see the suffering as a warning of future judgment. Suffering, for Elihu, becomes God’s way to attract Job’s attention towards the sin in his life that needs to be dealt with in order to save his soul. Thus conceived the suffering of Job is actually a part of God’s love and redemptive plan. Christian theism certainly contains a theme to this effect, a theme which was highlighted by CS Lewis when he referred to pain as “[God’s] megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But, as with the aforementioned theology, we know that while this may well be true on many occasions, it isn’t the case with Job’s situation here.

Towards the end of the book Yahweh finally makes an appearance. We might at this point expect an explanation from God but He never actually gives one. Yahweh appeals simply to his omniscience, suggesting that Job’s complaints are made from a position of ignorance: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?. . . Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!”[Job 38: 2, 4-6]. And on and on Yahweh peppers Job with such questions. Yahweh’s speeches imply that Job should trust God to do the right thing. In other words, if Job knows God is almighty, just and omniscient then Job should accept that God knows what he is doing and is doing the right thing, even though Job has no idea what is going on. Job comes to accept this divine chastening: “I know you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”[Job 42:2-3]

Notice that Yahweh never actually tells Job what the reader knows. In this instance God has been challenged by “the satan” – “the accuser” – and this challenge has massive ramifications for the God-man relationship, a relationship which the satan seeks to destroy. God delights in Job and boasts of Job’s righteousness. In response the satan makes his challenge: Job’s righteousness is in fact evil and purely self-serving; he is righteous and loyal only because he enjoys the blessings of God. God takes delight in Job’s righteousness but the satan challenges that Job’s righteousness is really devoid of all integrity, and that if God would let him break the link between righteousness and blessing then Job will be exposed as the sinner he is and God will be shown as a fool for delighting in Job. There is a lot at stake: if the satan is right then he will have succeeded in driving a wedge between God and man Elmer Smick writes, “It is the adversary’s ultimate challenge. For if the godliness of the righteous man in whom God delights can be shown to be the worst of all sins, then a chasm of alienation stands between them that cannot be bridged.”

God then steps up to the challenge so as He and Job may be vindicated and the satan silenced. The lesson seems to be that the righteousness of man is of such importance that God values it above all else, and thus suffering in this case has deep meaning and value. Job has to endure because God is interested in freely given love and loyalty and to prove that people would still love and be loyal no matter what happened to them. God perhaps desires to prove that He is worthy of love and loyalty in Himself and not because of the positive rewards He gives.

But God never explains any of this to Job, and we could only speculate as to why that is. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Job remained righteous and loyal and, in the end, needed no explanation. As a righteous man God’s presence was all Job needed – not a theological or philosophical answer. Or perhaps the point is that God is not under some obligation to explain his dealings with us. But whatever the answer is there is a more general point to make, since the reason for Job’s suffering is not intended to be an explanation for why everyone suffers.

The more general point of the book is to show that from our perspective as we live our lives – like Job and his friends – we have a severely limited view of reality. Job and his friends have simply a man’s eye view of things. But the reader of the book is given a God’s eye view from the start. Job and his friends are “inside” the story; the reader is “outside,” and privy to information that is hidden from the main characters in the dispute. We get to see a glimpse of a person struggling to understand their suffering, while also knowing the reason why they are suffering. With a God’s eye view we know that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than any character realizes. From a man’s eye view God is an enigma and it’s easy to feel injustice, or sense a lack of purpose behind our suffering, or even offer crass explanations why such and such happens. But, with a God’s eye view there is a clear purpose and reason that often isn’t clear.

The book of Job is written primarily for the people of God who are suffering. It’s a reminder that suffering isn’t necessarily tied to sin (thus suffering need not be compounded by guilt). Further, it’s a reminder that for those who believe in the greatness and goodness of God there is no suffering over which God is not in control. Most crucially it’s a reminder that we only see a small piece of reality and thus it’s difficult to draw conclusions such as “some evil in the world is gratuitous,” or “there is no reason for much pain and suffering that occurs,” or “an omnipotent and perfectly good God would not allow such suffering to happen.” To confidently draw these conclusions we need precisely what we do not have: A God’s eye view. How do we know – indeed, how could we know – that some level of suffering is the threshold beyond which a perfectly good God would step in? How does our lack of knowledge about the purposes of some instance of suffering justify a leap to the conclusion that it has no purpose?

And, indeed, those who trust that God is perfectly good and all powerful have grounds to hold that whilst we may not see any good purpose there must ultimately be one if an omnipotent and perfectly good God exists. That, it seems to me, is the underlying message of the Book of Job.

Stephen J. Graham

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This is an article that I had originally intended to send for publication, but I just don’t like it enough yet! Any comments or suggestions for improvements will be welcomed!
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Saint Augustine’s God’s Eye View on Evil

St Augustine is considered by many to be the fountainhead of so much of Western Christianity and his thinking on the problem of evil is no exception. Insofar as the problem of evil involves a wider sphere of Christian doctrines – creation, the fall, redemption, and providence – the shadow cast by Augustine is long indeed.

When it comes to the problem of evil there are numerous strands of Augustinian thought, all intricately woven together into a complex fabric that remains influential 1500 years later. Augustine is probably most famously remembered for his privative account of evil, but in this article I want to focus on a different strand of Augustine’s thought: what some scholars call the “aesthetic theme,” but what I prefer to call the “God’s eye view theme.” The idea here is that God sees the universe in its totality and from that perspective it is wholly good. As finite creatures we lack the necessary perspective on the universe and consider much that is evil which actually contributes to the good of the universe as a whole. Augustine here conceives of God as the cosmic Artisan, and the universe is His work of art, containing both gradations and contrasts to make it all the more beautiful in God’s sight.

The influence of Neo-Platonist writers on Augustine is well documented, and we find this same influence here. Consider the following passage from Plotinus:

We are like people ignorant of painting who complain that the colours are not beautiful everywhere in the picture: but the Artist has laid on the appropriate tint to every spot. . . Again, we are censuring a drama because the persons are not all heroes but include a servant and a rustic and some scurrilous clown; yet take away the low characters and the power of the drama is gone; these are part and parcel of it.”

Compare this with Augustine:

All have their offices and limits laid down so as to ensure the beauty of the universe. That which we abhor in any part of it gives us the greatest pleasure when we consider the universe as a whole. The very reason why some things are inferior is that though the parts may be imperfect the whole is perfect. . . The black colour in a picture may very well be beautiful if you take the picture as a whole.”

In fact, Augustine goes as far as to say, “To thee [God] there is no such thing as evil.” God, reckoned Augustine, has appointed the order of the universe in all its various elements, and when understood properly we see that the entire thing is just as it ought to be, and nothing can spoil it. Even those things we regard as evil have their divinely appointed place in the grand scheme of things. Human beings, as part of the picture, don’t see the whole thing and thus incorrectly judge everything not in accordance with their value in God’s sight but rather on the basis of their usefulness or harmfulness to themselves. The evils we might abolish from the world would be abolished in ignorance of the place they have and the role they play in making the big picture perfect.

Augustine saw beauty in the organic processes of nature: the decay of vegetation and even the devouring of animals by other animals. This is where we find one of the weaknesses in Augustine’s theodicy: his downplaying of the cruelty of nature. Sure enough we can naturally see beauty in the change and decay in, say, leaves during autumn which give rise to wonderful reds, browns, yellows and purples. But leaves feel no pain. The idea isn’t so readily transferable to a deer torn to pieces by a pack of hyenas. Unfortunately Augustine isn’t terribly helpful here because his writing displays a crude insensitivity towards non-human animals. The most useful thing he has to say is that nature is like a great organism which ebbs and flows and continually changes, as individual units die and are replaced by others: “Of this order the beauty does not strike us, because by our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonized with the most accurate fitness and beauty.” That said, Augustine’s doctrine here makes better sense of the non-animal world, but leaves much of the pain of nature unillumined and shrouded in mystery.

We might also wonder what Augustine makes of moral evil. How does that fit into his system? If the “universe is perfect” and “to thee there is no such thing as evil,” what are we to make of human sins? Augustine simply squeezes the moral failings of humans into his grand scheme with the shoehorn of “moral balance.” Sin is not permitted by God to ruin the perfection of the universe, and thus each sin is balanced out, so to speak, by appropriate punishment. In Augustine’s mind a universe with no sin, and thus no punishment, is not superior to one containing sin and appropriate punishment: “the penalty of sin corrects the dishonour of sin,” and that, “. . . as the beauty of a picture is increased by well-managed shadows, so, to the eye that has skill to discern it, the universe is beautified even by sinners, though, considered by themselves, their deformity is a sad blemish.” Ultimately humans are morally culpable for their sin, but God uses sinners to further his own good purposes, and thus the overall beauty of the universe remains intact. “God,” writes Augustine, “judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to suffer no evil to exist.”

That last insight holds great promise for attempts at theodicy, and has been incorporated into many various theodicies over the centuries which have sought to improve upon the Augustinian picture where weaknesses have been perceived. One such weakness that subsequent thinkers have detected in Augustine’s idea is that it seems to slip over into monism; in other words evil seems to disappear entirely, as if it doesn’t – contrary to all creaturely experience – really exist at all. However, Augustine’s idea can be modified using a better analogy than that of a picture, and thus blunt the force of this criticism. Perhaps we should think of a piece of music or a drama – some art-form containing elements of duration and change. On this view evil could be likened to disagreeable clashes within a piece of music – these noises are indeed grating, but they add to the beauty of the piece in the end when we reach triumphant resolution which wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier discordant notes. On this different way of viewing the matter the perfection of the universe is not related to its state at any given point of time. At certain points the evil is stark, very much real and terrible. But given the entire panorama of existence – including the element of time – the universe will be brought to a justifying good in the end.

This, however, leads us to one of the most basic criticisms of Augustine’s theodicy: God’s relation to His creation appears to be cast primarily in impersonal or subpersonal terms. Augustine views the universe as a complex picture whose value lies in the totality of things rather than in individuals. But again it seems to me that Augustine’s theodicy can be modified to nullify this objection. God has freely desired to create personal beings, and one of the insights of modern theologians of all stripes is to stress the desire of God for personal relations with those beings. So, perhaps rather than stress the beauty of the universe in aesthetic terms we could instead stress its perfection in the sense of how well suited it is to fulfilling God’s desires and plans for such creatures, (though we should never forget that God may well have other purposes in creation besides this. The divine purposes may very well be multi-dimensionally complex). Thus, as John Hick puts it: “Instead, then, of thinking of the origin and fate of human personality as a function of an aesthetically valued whole, we should see the great frame of nature, with all its sources of evil, as the deliberately mysterious environment of finite personal life.”

It seems then that with certain modifications this aspect of Augustine’s theodicy still has potential as part of a Christian approach to the problem of evil. In fact, a similar notion appears also in the other major tradition of theodicy inspired by the thought of the Church Father Irenaeus. Irenaeus viewed the world as set up by God and in the process of perfection, a process in which we must participate as free agents. The world is not currently “perfect,” but it will achieve eschatological perfection in time. In this, Irenaeus regarded the work of creation as ongoing. Irenaeus also makes use of the notion cited above in which the universe is better viewed as a drama or piece of music than a picture. For Irenaeus the Kingdom of God was the completion of world history, and will be so great a good as to justify what has happened on the way to it. So, when the world is looked at from beginning to end – with a God’s Eye View – we will see that the entire cosmic drama is good. It fulfils its purpose. Evils, whilst real, are justified by the goods that God will work through them.

Whether we agree with the various twists these thinkers and those who followed them give to these ideas, the notion of a God’s Eye View at the very least reminds us that often things look very different with a different perspective. How often have we looked back in our own lives and viewed an event differently than we saw it at the time? When dealing with the complex interactions of free creatures, the magnitude of the created order, and the purposes of an omnipotent and omniscient God, it should be no surprise to find that there may well be a lot we don’t see.

Stephen J. Graham

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