No, not a screed on the evils of religion, but an exploration of how monotheistic faiths (and Christianity in particular) account for evil in the world. It is another in the ‘Lost Pages’ series – sections of The Quest for a Moral Compass, my book on the global history of ethics, that I had to cut from the final version for reasons of space. Previous excerpts were on MachiavelliDescartes, Locke and Greek cynics, skeptics, atomists and relativists. Since this extract is long, I am splitting it into two sections. This first part begins with the Book of Job, perhaps the most important Biblical text about the problem of evil, and ends with the significance of Augustine and Original Sin. The second part, mainly about the idea of Satan, I will publish next week. This is not a deep discussion of theodicy or theology but a relatively quick look at the tensions created for monotheistic faiths by the question of evil.

blake illustration-to-book-of-job-2

The Old Testament’s Book of Job is a magnificent creation, one of the great works of Western literature. It tells the story of Job, a prosperous businessman, a pious man ‘perfect and upright’, who ‘feared God and eschewed evil’ but who becomes the subject of a wager between God and Satan, then still an angel in Heaven. Job shows such piety, Satan suggests to God, only because Yahweh has made him wealthy. Were God to take away ‘all that he hath’, then he would ‘curse thee to thy face’. God and Satan strike a wager. Take away all Job’s wealth and power and happiness, God tells Satan, and let us see if he remains pious.

Satan sets about his task with relish. Job’s flocks, his houses and his family are all destroyed, When he still does not curse God for his misfortune, God agrees that Satan can devastate him with illness to further test his faith. So Satan ‘smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown’.

Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, insist that he must have sinned to incite God’s punishment. God always rewards good and punishes evil, with no exceptions. They berate Job for refusing to confess his sins. Job maintains that his suffering is unjustified and  wants God to answer for his actions.

A new and mysterious figure, Elihu, whose name means ‘My God is He’, now enters the scene, arguing for God’s power and redemptive salvation. God, he insists, is always correct in his conduct. He might, however, be forced to impose suffering not just upon the sinful, but upon the righteous, too, as a warning, or for moral betterment. Real repentance, Elihu insists, requires not, as Job’s friends believe, for a sinner to identify and renounce his sins but for him to renounce his belief in his moral authority, an authority that belongs to God, and God alone. Job was a righteous man. But in his insistence on putting his case before God, and making God answer to him, he is assuming that he possesses a superior moral standard. Such arrogance deserves divine punishment.

Finally God Himself speaks ‘out of a whirlwind’. What makes Job think that he has the right to question the Lord, he demands.  ‘Where wast thou’, God wants to know, ‘when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ ‘Have the gates of death been opened unto thee?’, he thunders, ‘Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death? / Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.’ God is sovereign over the cosmos.  He is not subject to questions from His creatures.

Job humbly acknowledges that he has spoken beyond the boundaries of his understanding in demanding an answer of God. ‘I know that thou canst do everything’, he says contritely, ‘and that no thought can be withholden from thee.’ And given the power and majesty of the Lord, Job’s only response, even to his undeserved suffering, can only be to ‘abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’

At the end, it is Job’s three friends who face the wrath of God because in His words, ‘ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.’ God restores Job to health, doubling his riches and blessing him with seven sons and three daughters, ‘and in all the land were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job’. Job lives on another 140 years, living to see his children to the fourth generation and dying peacefully of old age.

blake illustration-to-book-of-job-3

Read without sympathy, the Book of Job’s God appears a callous gambler and a boastful bully, a Creator intoxicated with the sense of his own power. But read as the early Israelites would have read it (or rather heard it), as Job himself would have understood it, it is a narrative of considerable depth, both psychological and spiritual, and one that raises profound questions about the nature of righteousness, suffering and faith. At the heart of the book is an attempt to wrestle with the profound new questions raised by the emergence of monotheistic religions. Why does evil exist? Why do the righteous suffer? And why should one obey God?

In traditional pantheistic religions, such questions had little purchase. Good and evil were woven into the fabric of the universe. The righteous suffered because gods could be nasty, vindictive, brutal and immoral.  One obeyed – or, rather, appeased – gods because one did not wish to make enemies of such powerful, yet often capricious, beings.  It was the irrational, unpredictable nature of the gods that led Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to look to secular reasons for piety and righteousness.

The question of evil had an entirely different character within faiths in which God was seen both as omnipotent and as willing good upon the world. The existence of evil suggests either that God is not omnipotent or that He is responsible for such evil. Since neither view was acceptable to believers, a new kind of explanation was required.  As David Hume put it in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

The question of how to reconcile belief in a good, omnipotent God with the reality of evil has been central to moral and theological debate over the past two millennia.  Perhaps the most enduring of the many explanations that have been volunteered is of evil as a consequence of human sinfulness, the failure to obey God’s law.  So, when in the eighth century BCE the Assyrians destroyed Israel and slaughtered its people, they were acting, in the eyes of the prophet Isaiah, not as God’s enemies but as the instrument of his fury, ‘the rod of mine anger’, sent against ‘an hypocritical nation’ whose people were to be ‘tread… down like the mire of the streets’. Two centuries later, after Judah too had been overrun, and Solomon’s Temple sacked, another prophet, Jeremiah, similarly saw God’s hand at work. ‘Because you have not heard my words’, an incensed Yahweh proclaims, so he would send forth the armies of ‘Nebuchadrezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land, and against the inhabitants thereof’ and take from them ‘the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness’ so that ‘this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment.’

blake nebuchadnezzar
For these early prophets, Yahweh is an angry and vindictive god, full of terror and fury. Over time, He softened and mellowed, acquiring the virtues of goodness and compassion. As God’s character changed, so necessarily did the explanation for evil.  The idea of suffering as divine retribution never disappeared, but it became less plausible as a means of reconciling the goodness of an omnipotent being with the presence of wordly torment – after all, a deity that deliberately brings suffering to His people appears neither good nor compassionate.

Evil came increasingly to be seen not so much as a rod of God’s anger as the washing through of human moral frailties. It was an explanation interwoven with the developing concept of free will. God, so the argument ran, had created humans as beings capable of making moral choices. Evil was an expression of the kinds of moral choices that humans sometimes made. The world contained evil not because God chose to make people suffer but because humans did, despite God’s best attempts to instill in them moral rectitude. As the twentieth century Christian thinker CS Lewis put it in his book The Problem of Pain, God could only eliminate evil by thwarting every malevolent action, by ensuring, for instance, that ‘a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon’ or that  ‘the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults’. But for God to do this would mean that ‘freedom of the will would be void’. Evil is therefore the price that has to be paid for allowing morally frail creatures the good of free will.

The introduction of free will allows believers to transfer responsibility for evil from God to humanity.  But it raises the question as to why, given that God made human beings, He should make them so morally frail. God made humans as beings with free will. But He also made humans with a particular nature and essence, a nature and essence that determined how humans freely responded to good and evil, to temptation and sin. It was within God’s power to make humans with a nature less frail, less given to temptation, more robustly willing to follow God’s will. He chose not to.  Would a benevolent God really have chosen not to? If God has chosen not to, should we not consider the responsibility for human moral frailty – and for the willingness of humans to sin – to lie with the Creator himself?  But, perhaps most importantly, the introduction of free will does not address the question that so torments Job: why should the righteous suffer? If evil is a consequence of humans choosing to disobey God’s law, then why do those who choose to obey also have to endure punishment?

One answer that became theologically important was that no one is without sin.  The very moral frailty of humans means that, in the words of Genesis, ‘the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth’.  In Christian thought this idea became transmuted into the notion of ‘Original Sin’: all humans are fallen because of Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden in eating of the Tree of Knowledge.  Augustine, perhaps the most important figure in establishing the idea of Original Sin and of its relationship to evil,  distinguished between natural and moral evils. Natural evils, such as ‘fire, cold, wild beasts’ only seem evil because of our blinkered perspective. What humans myopically regard as natural evils are in fact ‘splendid in their own places and natures’, are disposed with ‘beautiful order’ and ‘contribute, in proportion to their own share of beauty, to the universe as a whole, as to a commonwealth.’

Moral evil, on the other hand, is the result of the Fall. Augustine maintained that evil is not a thing – all things that exist are created by God and He would will into being no evil thing. Evil, rather, lies in the absence of good, such as in discord, injustice, the loss of life and the curtailment of liberty. Original Sin corrupted the human soul, made it less than wholly good and so created a space, or absence, that we came to call evil.

blake the-temptation-and-fall-of-eve-1808

Augustine’s argument is both sophisticated and crude. The idea of evil as an absence has an indelibly modern ring to it, and is a major advance on previous conceptions of evil. Yet there is also something deeply atavistic about the notion of Original Sin, something profoundly disturbing about a philosophy that holds all descendents guilty of their ancestors’ sins. Many modern believers do not, of course, read the story of Adam and Eve literally. They see the tale of Adam’s disobedience as an allegory about the human condition, and view Original Sin as a metaphor for a flawed human nature.  Such an allegorical reading robs the story, however, of its power in explaining the problem of evil. If Original Sin is but a metaphor for the human condition, then it cannot resolve the contradiction between an omnipotent, completely good God and the existence of evil (unless the omnipotent, completely good God is Himself also a metaphor).

Even as an allegory the story of Original Sin reveals something profound about the Christian attitude to human nature. The story of Adam and Eve, and of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, was, of course, originally a Jewish fable. But Jews read that story differently to Christians. In Judaism, Adam and Eve’s transgression creates a sin against their own souls, but it does not condemn humanity as a whole, and nor does it fundamentally transform either human nature or human beings’ relationship to God.

In the Christian tradition, God created humanity to be immortal. In eating the apple, Adam and Eve brought mortality upon themselves. Jews have always seen humans as mortal beings. In the Garden, Adam and Eve were as children. Having eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they had to take responsibility for themselves, their decisions and their behaviour. This is seen not as a ’fall’ but as a ‘gift’ – the gift of free will. As the Hertz Chumash, the classic Hebrew-English edition of the Pentateuch and Haftorahs, observes, ‘Instead of the Fall of man (in the sense of humanity as a whole), Judaism preaches the Rise of man: and instead of Original Sin, it stresses Original Virtue, the beneficent hereditary influence of righteous ancestors upon their descendants’.

The story of Adam and Eve was initially, then, a fable about the attainment of free will and the embrace of moral responsibility. It became a tale about the corruption of free will and the constraints on moral responsibility. It was in this transformation in the meaning of the Adam and Eve’s transgression that Christianity has perhaps secured its greatest influence.  The true legacy of the doctrine of Original Sin is not as an explanation of evil, but rather as a description of human nature, a description that came to dominate Western ethical thinking as Christianity became the crucible in which that thinking took place. This, in many ways, has been the most profound legacy of Christian thought to the Western tradition. Not till the Enlightenment was the bleakness of that vision of human nature truly challenged.

Part 2 here.


The illustrations are all by William Blake. From the top down: ‘Job’s evil dreams’ and ‘Job rebuked by his friends’, both from The Book of Job; the print Nebuchadnezzar; and ‘The Temptation an Fall of Eve’, from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

About these ads


  1. bruce madeiros


    I found your article very interesting which , to some degree, is trying to deal with the classic problem of the juxtaposition of evil on the earth and the Good Yahweh God, as understood by Christianity and to some extent the Jewish faith.
    You make an interesting point when you said that for early Hebrew prophets, Yahweh is an angry and vindictive God, full of terror and fury. You then go on to say that over time, He softened and mellowed, acquiring the virtues of goodness and compassion and hence suggest that God’s character has changed. I would suggest to you that God’s character hasn’t changed but the understanding of God’s character has changed.
    As I understand it, in the 21st century, I considered that we live in two war zones. A physical one and a spiritual one . The latter having an effect on the former.

    A good book to describe this war zone it would be Asimov “Foundation” series .
    There is a character called the Mule who takes over planets belonging to the Foundation
    at a rapid pace. The Mule doesn’t have mighty fleet of war vessels to assist in this task
    but has the ability to psychically alter the emotions of people and hence to control
    them. Also another book which was published at the beginning of this century and
    describes this two war zones in more theological terms would be Greg Boyd’s book
    Satan and the Problem of Evil.

    • The Mule is interesting in that, in the context of the Foundation books, he represents free will, while Hari Seldon’s science of ‘psychohistory’ is deterministic.

      Asimov was an atheist though, and ethnically Jewish, so I’m not sure how the story (in which determinism ultimately wins out) maps onto Christian theology.

      • bruce madeiros

        The Mule however does initial upset Hari Seldon’s deterministic Plan . Yes Seldon’s Plan only operates by mathematical probabilities and known human statistics whilst the Mule possessed the ability to change things in an unseen way and even controls the emotions of the humans and causing feelings of love in his enemies and “Converting” them into his loyal followers .
        So I don’t go along with the idea of Webster ‘s belief in pure evil (BPE) and belief in pure good (BPG) but I believe Asimov’s Mule exists today .

        As for determinism mapping onto Christian theology, that does happen if one is a Calvinist. However I am an Arminian , determinism does really feature very much in my theological grid.

    • Bruce, I was not suggesting that God’s character rather than the understanding of God’s character had changed. I take it for granted that God is a human creation, and that debates about God are really debates about issues that humans project on to that human creation.

  2. “Not till the Enlightenment was the bleakness of that vision of human nature truly challenged.” Yup, and now here we are in full circle – our vision of human nature, in some ways bleaker than ever. Thanks again for publishing these pieces… I really look forward to picking up this book when it hits the shelves.

  3. “Read without sympathy, the Book of Job’s God appears a callous gambler and a boastful bully, a Creator intoxicated with the sense of his own power.” – so very true. I admit that as I was reading your summary, and not being very familiar with the original material, I did not read it sympathetically. My default was to think exactly what you think an unsympathetic reader would. It takes special effort on my behalf to read it without finding it frankly annoying. I guess this is just another reminder that really trying to understand history, and how people have thought and behaved throughout history, is hard work and only possible if you can at least temporarily discard your contemporary attitudes and prejudices. Otherwise almost everyone just looks stupid and awful. Great excerpt, and can’t wait for the book! BTW, here’s some relevant research I Tweeted earlier today: Belief in pure evil linked to aggressive/punitive attitudes, belief in pure goodness to greater prosociality

Comments are closed.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,740 other followers