Evil

The most perplexing problem in religion is the existence of evil. It is also the major reason for disbelief in God. 

Primitive religions held simple ideas about evil and its supernatural origin. Pagan gods were believed to interfere constantly in the human world, tormenting or defending mortals according to their jealous moods and capricious whims. When the pagan gods were angry, cringing humans suffered earthquakes, famines, plagues and wars.  Elders consulted soothsayers and oracles to discover the cause of divine wrath.  Knees were bent, prayers were prayed, sins were confessed, and sacrifices – animal or human – were butchered on altars until the wrathful gods were appeased.

 

Little by little, primitive gods were driven into the shadows by the light of knowledge. The modern world knows that earthquakes are caused by shifting tectonic plates, not the immortal hammer of Hephaestus.  Plagues are caused by contagious viruses; they can be prevented.

 

Natural disasters may be unexpected and distressing, but they are rarely a mystery. Suffering in the world is almost always the result of observable cause and effect. Even human cruelty and the ultimate barbarity of war can be adequately explained, if not fully understood. Atheists are not puzzled by hurricanes or epidemics. These things are as much a part of the natural world as clement weather and sensual pleasure.

 

Suffering in the world is only a problem for people who believe in an omnipotent, benevolent God.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Believers are forced to choose between a God who is less than omnipotent or imperfectly benevolent.

There is another explanation, which requires such a tremendous leap of faith that few theologians have dared suggest it. The mind of God cannot be fathomed by philosophical speculation or natural theology.  The only possible source of information is revealed theology.

 

What is revealed theology?  It is divine information revealed to the human race.  The Old Testament, the New Testament, the Qu’ran and the Book of Mormon all claim to be directly transmitted from God/angels to humans. These claims are not universally believed, although it may be conceded that specific ideas reappear in many places. 

 

If a commandment is recognized as revealed in one religion, should other versions be considered equally inspired, or as mere copies?  The most universally known dictum is: Love your neighbour as yourself.  What are Christians to make of other religions which are familiar with the Golden Rule? Are we all neighbours?  Are we to love everyone?  The Gospel of Love taught by Jesus says yes.  The Gospel of Wrath taught by Augustine disagrees: human love, like divine love must be conditional.

 

Augustine merged Christianity and Paganism in the 5th century to create a Gospel of Wrath.  Augustine’s God was angry. Why? Because of sin, Original Sin. Augustine wrote extensively about sin and evil, to prove that God did not create them. Man created sin, suffering and death.  Man alone destroyed God’s perfect paradise.  It was a peculiar argument that required believers to accept that an omniscient God had not anticipated either the rebellion of angels or humans and that an omnipotent God had been unable to prevent the overthrow of paradise. Not to mention that a God of infinite love is filled with unquenchable rage. Nonetheless, Augustine insisted that God  was absolutely innocent and humans fully and eternally guilty.

 

Eden unleashed evil on the world. Enter the devil, roaring like a lion, relentlessly luring the weak, vulnerable, vain and powerful to their destruction. From Eden on, the devil makes us do evil. He is tireless in creating new forms of evil. God hates evil and sin and death. Augustine’s God is an eternally enraged against fallen angels, fallen man and fallen women. Augustine’s God punishes sinful nations, destroys sinful cities, crushes sinful individuals and visits his wrath upon their innocent offspring for generations without number. All children of Adam are condemned.  For Augustine, only the baptized could be saved. But first they must be tormented in this life and then purged of their sins for decades, centuries and millennia, before finally being admitted to paradise.

 

The Catholic Church of the Dark Ages feared and worshipped a God of Wrath. Every natural disaster and plague was sent to punish the sins of the world. Some torments were the work of the devil. Other torments were the work of God. It was often hard to tell which was which. The devil was often more active and present than God. Christianity of the Dark Ages was indistinguishable from Paganism; it was a pessimistic, tormented, suffering religion.  The devil was omnipresent: tempting, tormenting, deceiving, destroying.  God was omnipresent: testing, tormenting, punishing, destroying.  Believers cowered and prayed, fasted and flailed themselves.

 

When the wrath persisted they sought scapegoats.  During the Bubonic plague, Christians looked around for the evil-doer(s) who had provoked God's wrath.  Who scorned and mocked the cleansing blood of Jesus?  Christians attacked Jews to appease the rage of their angry God. In later centuries babbling old woman were burned as witches and entire nations of ‘Savages’ were slaughtered for worshipping the wrong gods and refusing to convert.   

 

The Protestant Reformation claimed an all-conquering God who had never lost a battle or failed to keep a promise. Luther and Calvin condemned freewill with a fury usually reserved for rape and pillage. Their God was in control, full control. Their God had not been foiled in Eden by mere devils and dust. Their God had conquered sin and evil when the blood of the lamb flowed on the cross, had conquered death when the Saviour rolled away the stone and marched triumphant from the tomb. The Protestant God was vengeful but victorious, merciless to the damned but infinitely gracious to the elect. The Protestant God would carry the banner of Christ to the ends of the earth in an unstoppable campaign of conquest. The Reformation incited millions of Christians to do battle with other Christians who had incurred the wrath of the ‘true God.’  

 

Modern Charismatics, on good days, still believe universal victory for Jesus is possible; on bad days nothing remains for the battered remnant of elect believers but to abandon this destroyed world to its rightful ruler, the King of Chaos.  It is a mixed message.  The modern Charismatic Church is rarely certain whether God or the devil has the upper hand, whether temporary decline of evil is a sign that God is winning or that the devil is simply busy elsewhere; whether a plague of evil means that devil is busy or God is angry.  Many Charismatics worship a micromanaging God who is ‘credited’ with every tsunami and pestilence. Why? Because of sin. Every starving child, deformed baby, raped innocent and butchered civilian is being punished for sin: their own sins, the sins of their clan, the sins inherited from Adam and Eve. There is more than enough sin for a population of billions and more than enough wrath for a hundred eternities.

 

Pagans, Jews, Christians and Muslims have always found it easy to believe they are being tormented them for evil they have done or have resisted. Like co-dependents in a toxic relationship, if they can't find love, they will endure torment. Anything is better than being alone.  They would rather be punished for sins they never committed than believe that God has granted them freedom to live and learn. A God who inflicts incomprehensible suffering in retribution for unknown sins has always been infinitely more popular than a God who waits for us to take responsibility for our own lives and that this life is just the beginning of a long journey. A tremendous leap of faith is required to believe that an absentee God is only a prayer away, that an omnipotent, benevolent God desires a personal relationship with us and is waiting for us to reciprocate.  

 

Comment or Question?