The concatenation of all his counsels is not intelligible to us; for he is as essentially and necessarily wise, as he is essentially and necessarily good and righteous. (Stephen Charnock, 1632 -1680. “A discourse on the wisdom of God”). Introduction
If only the earth were not so full of evil. The question before us, though, is a theological one: how to reconcile evil in the world with God who is all good, all knowing and all powerful? From the start, we have to realise that we can never get a complete answer for the simple fact that God is God, and man is man. Some may think, ”I suppose you’re going to pull out the ‘mystery card.’” Well, regarding the deepest things of God, yes, they remain hidden; this, however, does not mean that the deep things of God are beyond our reach. In the Bible. there are many deep things of God that are accessible to those whom God gives the grace to understand. Many are those who, although good with language, haven’t a clue what the biblical words mean. This is so because it is the Spirit of God within the words that brings light. “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (Psalm 36:9). Of two things a Christian is sure: God always fulfils his purpose, and all God’s purposes are good. So evil always has a good purpose. Out of evil God brings good. That is the biblical understanding of evil.
My mishmash of the midrash
In a previous article, Digging below the surface of Torah, Midrash and Vulgate: When very good includes evil. I accused the Midrash for saying that when God said his creation was very good, the reason was because until that moment he hadn’t yet created the “evil inclination” (yetser hara – ra in Hebrew means “evil”). Here is what I wrote about the Midrashic interpretation of Genesis’ “And God saw that it was very good.”
“If one wished to penetrate the deepest secret of all, one would discover – according to the Midrash – something so deep that it would defy the laws of contradiction. I would find that when God says “very good,” he means “very good” only for the hoi poloi. But if you’re Jewish and have also devoted decades to Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah, then, and only then, will you understand that when God says “very good,” he really means “very bad”; indeed, worse than “very bad”; He means the evil inclination itself, the yetser harah. Let the Midrash speak for itself:
“And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)—Midrash: Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: “Behold, it was good” refers to the Good Desire; “And behold, it was very good” refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says “very good” after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says “and God saw that it was good”) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: “Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.” (Kohelet [Eclesiastes] IV, 4) (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, translation from Soncino Publications).
I show in this article – in the section on the bibical view of evil – that the Midrash is not so far from the scriptures than I previously thought.
Plato and Christian philosophies of evil
When I was doing a BA philosophy degree many decades ago, I had to read Plato’s “Republic” in all seven courses over three years. I also did some Augustine of Horse (Hippo). Augustine is purported to have said (although I can’t find the exact statement in his works, it is the kind of thing he would have said ): “Plato made me know the true God, Jesus Christ showed me the way to him.” (See Frontispiece of Benjamin Franklin Cocker’s Christianity and Greek Philosophy, 1870).
In Book II of the “Republic” on the education of children, Plato describes the attribute of God’s goodness. (My italics):
“But what shall their education be? Is any better than the old-fashioned sort which is comprehended under the name of music and gymnastic? Music includes literature, and literature is of two kinds, true and false. ‘What do you mean?’ he said. I mean that children hear stories before they learn gymnastics, and that the stories are either untrue, or have at most one or two grains of truth in a bushel of falsehood. Now early life is very impressible, and children ought not to learn what they will have to unlearn when they grow up; we must therefore have a censorship of nursery tales, banishing some and keeping others…And our first principle is, that God must be represented as he is; not as the author of all things, but of good only. We will not suffer the poets to say that he is the steward of good and evil, or that he has two casks full of destinies;—or that Athene and Zeus incited Pandarus to break the treaty; or that God caused the sufferings of Niobe, or of Pelops, or the Trojan war; or that he makes men sin when he wishes to destroy them.Either these were not the actions of the gods, or God was just, and men were the better for being punished.But that the deed was evil, and God the author, is a wicked, suicidal fiction which we will allow no one, old or young, to utter. This is our first and great principle—God is the author of good only.” Plato’s “Republic,” translated by Benjamin Jowett).
That is, unsurprisingly (since Plato made Augustine know the true God) Augustine’s position as well. For Augustine:
“There is nothing to be called evil if there is nothing good. A good that wholly lacks an evil aspect is entirely good. Where there is some evil in a thing, its good is defective or defectible. Thus there can be no evil where there is no good. This leads us to a surprising conclusion: that, since every being, in so far as it is a being, is good, if we then say that a defective thing is bad, it would seem to mean that we are saying that what is evil is good, that only what is good is ever evil and that there is no evil apart from something good. This is because every actual entity is good omnis natura bonum est. Nothing evil exists in itself, but only as an evil aspect of some actual entity. Therefore, there can be nothing evil except something good. Absurd as this sounds, nevertheless the logical connections of the argument compel us to it as inevitable. At the same time, we must take warning lest we incur the prophetic judgment which reads: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil: who call darkness light and light darkness; who call the bitter sweet and the sweet bitter.” Moreover the Lord himself saith: “An evil man brings forth evil out of the evil treasure of his heart.”What, then, is an evil man but an evil entity natura mala, since man is an entity? Now, if a man is something good because he is an entity, what, then, is a bad man except an evil good? When, however, we distinguish between these two concepts, we find that the bad man is not bad because he is a man, nor is he good because he is wicked. Rather, he is a good entity in so far as he is a man, evil in so far as he is wicked. Therefore, if anyone says that simply to be a man is evil, or that to be a wicked man is good, he rightly falls under the prophetic judgment: “Woe to him who calls evil good and good evil.” For this amounts to finding fault with God’s work, because man is an entity of God’s creation. It also means that we are praising the defects in this particular man because he is a wicked person. Thus, every entity, even if it is a defective one, in so far as it is an entity, is good. In so far as it is defective, it is evil.” (Augustine of Hippo, “The Problem of Evil” in his Enchiridion Chapter 4, par. 13).
Most “good” people, including most Christians, take the above position. They reason thus: If God is perfect (infinitely good) and infinitely powerful (omnipotent) in his being, it follows that nothing evil can flow out of his being. So anything that God creates cannot be evil.
Thinking Augustine’s thoughts after him, here is the modern Christian philosopher, Greg Koukl (Stand to Reason):
“The first step in answering the problem of evil is this: We’ve got to get clear on what this thing “evil” actually is. It does seem to follow that if God created all things, and evil is a thing, then God created evil. This is a valid syllogism. If the premises are true, then the conclusion would be true as well. The problem with that line of reasoning is that the second premise is not true. Evil is not a thing. The person who probably explained it best was St. Augustine, and then Thomas Aquinas picked up on his solution. Others since them have argued that evil has no ontological status in itself. The word ontology deals with the nature of existence. When I say that evil has no ontological status, I mean that evil, as a thing in itself, does not exist. Let me give you an illustration to make this more clear. We talk about things being cold or warm. But coldness is not a thing that exists in itself; it has no ontological status. Coldness is the absence of heat. When we remove heat energy from a system, we say it gets colder.” “Koukl again (a few paragraphs later; my italics and underlining):
It’s not good to promote evil itself, but one of the things about God is that He’s capable of taking a bad thing and making good come out of it. Mercy is one example of that. Without sin there would be no mercy. That’s true of a number of good things: bearing up under suffering, dealing with injustice, acts of heroism, forgiveness, long-suffering. These are all virtues that cannot be experienced in a world with no sin and evil.”
“Now the real question at this point is, “Was it worth it? Good can come out of evil, but was it worth it in the long run, the measure of good that comes out of the measure of evil in the world?” And my response is that the only One who could ever know that is God. You and I couldn’t know that because our perspective is too limited. Only God is in a position to accurately answer that question. Apparently God thinks that, on balance, the good is going to outweigh the evil that caused the good, or else He wouldn’t have allowed it to happen. Christ paid a tremendous price, an example of the tremendous love God had for us. God would not be able to show His sacrificial love unless there was something to sacrifice for.”
“Here’s the problem, and this is why we don’t think that, on balance, it’s really a fair trade. We think that life is about giving us pleasure and making us happy. That’s what we think. This view is very prevalent in the United States. Our personal happiness, pleasure, and enjoyment are the most important things in life.”
According to Koukl, God “allows” evil to happen. The word “allow” means that he sits back because, after all, that’s the price (and Koukl’s reasoning, it seems) man has to pay for the precious divine gift of free will, “No one in my universe can bark back at me and say that I have decreed him or her to do evil.” The main part of my article will discuss the biblical response to this libertarian view of man. What is odd is that Greg Koukl is a Calvinist (miraculously with sweet breath), that is, he should believe not only in the permissive will of God but in the decretive will of God; or more accurately, God allows things to happen because he decrees them – evil as well, naturally.
Here is C S Lewis on good and evil as a dualism: “I freely admit that real Christianity (as distinct from Christianity-and-water) goes much nearer to Dualism than people think. One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe–a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.” In Chinese philosophy, the TAO (Ultimate) gives birth to the twins of Yin and Yang Yin and Yang originate together. Thus, Yin and Yang spring arm in arm out of the TAO – out of the ULTIMATE – into existence. If Yin disappears, Yang disappears. Yang is the masculine principle and Yin is the feminine principle. They can’t live without each other. Even monks need a woman to get born – if not to get born again. Thus, if there was no evil, we would have no idea what good is. (Yin Yang dualism, CS Lewis and Christianity).
If all the above writers are right, then the Bible is wrong: I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil (Hebrew – ra); I am the LORD, that doeth all these things (Isaiah 45:7).
Viktor Frankl and Voltaire on evil: a lamp and a lampoon.
A lamp – Viktor Frankl’s “to life” (lacha-im)
In his “The case for a tragic optimism,” Viktor Frankl asks:
“Let us ask ourselves what should be understood by “a tragic optimism.” In brief it means that one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” as it is called in logotherapy, a triad which consists of those aspects of human existence which may be circumscribed by: (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death. This chapter, in fact, raises the question, How is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all that? How, to pose the question differently, can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects? After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything,” to use the phrase in which the title of a German book of mine is couched, presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation.” (My emphasis).
A lampoon – Voltaire’s satire
In Voltaire’s novel “Candide, or Optimism,” usually referred to by the shorter title “Candide,” the main characters experience all the great horrors of the few centuries of European history before 1759 (the date of publication of “Candide”). The final horror was the great earthquake and tsunami that devastated Lisbon in 1755; an event that shook the faith of many Christians, as the Holocaust shook the faith of many Jews about two centuries later. Today most Jews remain on shaky religious ground. For example, Reform and Reconstuctionist Jews, who have inverted Genesis 1:1; they say man created God, not the other way around. (See Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism here and here. One compensation – many Jews would say a new start – is that they can now do their shaking on perhaps more solid ground – the Land of Israel.
Voltaire’s “Candide”, in contrast to Frankl’s book of hope, is a stinging satire. Candide concludes with this “quiet” advice (quietism means “accept the world as it is”): “Work then without kicking against the pricks,” said Martin; “it’s the only way to make life bearable.” (Candide). I’m reminded of Saul (Paul) of Tarsus: “And he [Saul] Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.”
If Voltaire lived after 1945, he would have included the Jewish Holocaust as one of these main horrors. Victor Frankl didn’t only live through the Holocaust, he was a prisoner in four concentration camps, and his family was killed in them. Where Voltaire is satirical, Frankl is (in his words above) “positive and constructive.”In the last few lines of “The case for tragic optimism” (p. 154), Frankl admonishes us once again to do our best: “… the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.” That is the common thread running through all forms of Judaism and all kinds of Jews – and all mankind, “responsible” mankind, Frankl would say.
Man is always at war, if not with others, then – tritely and tragically – with himself:
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Thomas Hobbes, “Leviathan,” 1660).
The biblical view of evil
For Frankl, evil is a total mystery, but unlike Voltaire, it is not a total misery. Others float between the two for whom life is mystery, misery, and short. Let us see what the Bible has to say about evil and God’s role in it.
For man, the origin of evil in a universe that God had originally created as good is probably the greatest mystery. How can a perfect God create the potential for imperfection? One example is the creation of the angelic being who later became the accuser, Satan – the very name evokes, for many, horror and disgust. God creates another perfect being – an angelic being – with the potential for evil; a potential that monotheists such as Christians, Jews and Muslims claim does not exist in God Himself.
And man? Why God would create a world where He knew man would become radically corrupt is not something we can ever know from natural wisdom but from God’s revelation in the Bible. There are spiritual things, however, that we can know from natural wisdom (philosophy). “What degree of perfection, asks Benjamin Franklin Cocker, can humanity, under the most favorable conditions, attain, without the supernatural light, and guidance, and grace of Christianity? Cocker’s answer: “philosophy is simply the analysis of our natural consciousness of God, and the presentation of the idea in a logical form. Faith in the existence of God is not the result of a conscious process of reflection; it is the spontaneous and instinctive logic of the human mind, which, in view of phenomena presented to sense, by a necessary law of thought immediately and intuitively affirms a personal Power, an intelligent Mind as the author.” (B. F. Cocker. 1870. Christianity and Greek philosophy; or The relation between spontaneous and reflective thought in Greece and the positive teaching of Christ and the Apostles, p. 51, free ebook). Romans 1 says the same thing but also adds God’s condemnation for those who suppress this “spontaneous and instinctive logic of the human mind” (Cocker above):
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23, ESV).
To return to the question, “Why God would create a world where He knew man would become radically corrupt,” if you – with your spontaneous and instinctive noggin – think about it, who are you to tell God how to run his creation? “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Romans 3:1-4). The issue then becomes not to question God on what he says or does, but “Did God really say? (Genesis 3:1). This is where divine revelation erupts into our world, specifically biblical revelation. The rest of this examination will hopefully be meaningful to those who believe that God really said what the Bible records.
The Bible tells us:
First, God was not taken by surprise when Satan and his angelic cohort sinned and when Adam sinned. Everything that happens is “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, (Ephesians 1:11, ESV). God designed the universe to display his perfection. This perfection takes three forms: creation, providence/sovereignty and redemption. So God created the world to manifest his sovereignty in redemption: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men” (1Corinthains 4:9). “I have become a sign to many; you are my strong refuge” (Psalm 71:7).
God has designed everything to manifest (show off) the radiance of His perfection and holiness; in a word, his glory:
 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.  And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-5 ESV).
Second, and here is where human indignation, among many Christians as well, boils over: God foreordains all events: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36 ESV). “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11 ESV). We read in Joshua Liebman’s “Peace of mind” that religion is “at its best” merely “the announcer of the supreme ideals by which men must live and through which our finite species finds it’s ultimate significance.” If people were honest, says Liebman, “they would admit that the implementation of these ideals should be left to psychology.” Whereas the Scripture (Hebrew and New testament) says “Man proposes, God disposes,” Liebman says, “God proposes, psychology disposes.” “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps (Proverbs 16:1); “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21).
Here’s the rub: the Lord’s purpose is fulfilled not in spite of Satan and man but because of Satan and man:
 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”  So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died:  ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”  But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.  So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:15-21 ESV).
 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know  this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23 ESV).
When we say God is all-knowing, we mean He knows everything past, present and future. That’s fine say most; omniscience is one of the incommunicable attributes of God, which He doesn’t share with man. God is also eternal, that is no beginning, no end. It follows that an eternal all-knowing God learns nothing. The Bible says that everything that happens is because God pre-ordains it, even in the number of hairs on your head. So, the reason why God knows everything and learns nothing is because He pre-ordains everything. The scriptures above are clear that this is so.
Open, Middle-knowledge and Knee-jerk theists
– “Open theists” believe that God cannot know something that has not happened.
– “Middle knowledge” theists (Molinists) like the philosopher, William Lane Craig, say that God has a special vision (scientia visionis) and so knows all the possibilities of what man (a free being) would choose, if the necessary conditions were fulfilled. God then supplies these conditions. A variation of Aristotle’s ”excluded middle,” where God knows both what He’s doing and what He’s not doing.
– And “knee-jerk-God-doesn’t-change-his mind theists” such as Adrian Stanley.
“God doesn’t change his mind, says Stanley…This (Philippians 2:6-10) is God’s knee-jerk reaction to our trying to hijack his glory. This is God’s response to the traitor race…who took the freedom He gave us and abused it for our benefit and to his embarrassment. Here’s how He responded: ‘I’ll teach ‘em.’” (See The Violation of Philippians 2:6-10 – Knee-jerk theism). Here is Philippians 2:4-10:
4. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:4-11, ESV).
Yes, God can teach us much, but we – who were or still are – miserable (mysterious?) worms, can’t teach the Holy One of Israel anything. He’s a know-all. Because He decreed it all: knees, jerks, and evil to boot.