Chapter Five of the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought explores the idea of evil within monotheistic religion. It opens with the Book of Job, in my eyes the most  eloquent book in the Bible, and the one that  gets to the heart of the problem of evil for a faith that believes in a omnipotent, omniscient, totally benevolent God: how could such a God allow the righteous and the innocent to suffer? Chapter 5 explores the various explanations, from God’s punishment, to the work of Satan, to the inevitable fall-out from the existence of free will to various forms of theodicy.

This, the fifth in my series of extracts from a book in progress, is taken from the final section  of Chapter 5.

IN 1826 WILLIAM BLAKE PUBLISHED A SERIES OF 22 ENGRAVINGS TO ILLUSTRATE a new edition of The Book of Job. It was the culmination of more than 40 years of obsession with the Biblical story, and with a figure with whose torment Blake identified. The God that permitted Job’s suffering was, for Blake, a false God, a lawgiver who imposed upon humanity laws that it could never keep. In one of Blake’s engravings for the Book of Job, Yahweh appears as a cloven-hoofed apparition who menaces Job while pointing to the tablets of the Covenant.

For Blake there was no perfection to human existence. The Fall had taken place not in the Garden of Eden, but at the very moment of creation, when Man was dragged from the spiritual realm and made material, a belief that went back to the Manicheans and Neoplatonists. It is an idea captured in one of Blake’s most famous etchings, the dark and terrifying Elohim Creating Adam. The print shows Elohim (God) appearing out of a whirlwind, a face pale with awe and power, calling into being from the clay below him a figure scarcely human. Adam lies in the mud, a half-developed organism, almost repellent, unable to look at God, though clearly created by God’s hand. It is a hand that stretches down over Adam’s head, seemingly both bringing him to life and pushing him back into the dirt. One of Adam’s legs is bound by a serpent, already tormenting him, not in the Garden, but here in the mire, at the very moment of creation. Blake did not see God creating Man as an immortal who later brought mortality and suffering and sinfulness upon himself through free choice. He saw suffering as ever part of the human condition because God made Man to suffer. God created evil and set humans in the midst of it.

There are hints at this vision within the Bible itself. ‘I form the light, and create darkness’, Yahweh thunders in Isaiah; ‘I make peace, and create evil.’ Or as the Book of Lamentations asks, ‘Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good?’ The true inspiration for this vision lies, however, in the work of St Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lugdunum, or Lyon as it is today, and one of the first great Christian theologians. The dominant view of evil in all the monotheistic faiths has been of suffering and wickedness as the inevitable outcome of God giving humanity the gift of free will. For Irenaeus, however, all that existed was within God’s plan. Evil was part of God’s creative force.

Like the headmaster of an English public school, God had deliberately designed the world to be a difficult, heartbreaking place to teach humans the importance of moral norms and to build up their moral character – the world as ‘a vale of soul-making’ as the poet John Keats later put it. Rape and famine are, in this view, the cosmic equivalents of fagging and cold showers at Eton and Harrow. It took Jonah three days in the belly of a fish before he was able to turn to God. So, wrote Irenaeus, it takes humans a lifetime of searching for a way out of the darkness of this world before they could truly discover the divine. Evil is not a punishment, but a gift, an opportunity for humans to demonstrate their moral worth and to discover their Creator.

There may seem to be something deeply distasteful about an argument that appears to so dignify evil by making it an element of God’s work, something gratuitously repulsive about a Creator who would use murder, rape and genocide as teaching tools, something desperate about believers who would imagine that the divine ends justify the satanic means. Yet many modern theologians, such as John Hick and Richard Swinburne, have enthusiastically adopted this view of evil as helping to ‘serve greater goods’ in Swinburne’s words. Without the existence of evil or of suffering, Swinburne suggests, humans could not express compassion or the capacity for good. ‘A world with some pain and some compassion’, he argues, ‘is at least as good as a world with no pain and so no compassion.’ And to accept the goodness of ‘a world with some pain and some compassion’ is to accept the necessarily for ‘Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the Lisbon Earthquake, or the Black Death’:

Suppose one less person had been burnt by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Then there would have been less opportunity for courage and sympathy; one less piece of information about the effect of atomic radiation, less people (relatives of the person burnt) who would have had a strong desire to campaign for nuclear disarmament and against imperialist expansion.

It is an argument that may appear more soul-corrupting than soul making. ‘Only an Oxford don’ the critic (and former Oxford don) Terry Eagleton wagers, could suggest that Hiroshima and the Holocaust were worth the price of compassion. But surely even an Oxford don, cloistered in the most secluded of ivory-clad towers should be able to see that it is one thing to hope for compassion in a world in which suffering exists, but that it is quite another to wish (and indeed induce) harm on people so that others may show compassion.

‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’. Dostoevsky may not have written the line indelibly associated with him, but the sentiment certainly runs through much of his work, especially his last, and possibly greatest, novel, The Brothers Karamazov. ‘”Only how”, I asked, “is man to fare after that? Without God and without a life to come?”‘, one of the brothers, Mitya, recalls of a conversation. ‘”After all, that would mean that now all things are lawful, and that one may do anything one likes.”‘

But if Dostoevsky wanted to warn of the moral perils of godlessness, he was nevertheless also unflinching in his portrayal of the dilemmas facing believers. The novel constructs out of the emotional and intellectual rivalries of the three Karamazov brothers, Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha, a passionately spiritual drama about God, faith, doubt and reason set against the background of the social fragmentation of a Russia attempting to move from a feudal to a modern world.

The key debate takes place between Ivan, a fervent rationalist and would-be philosopher, and Alyosha, a gentle, generous, almost Christ-like figure who is a novice in a monastery. ‘I accept God directly and simply’, Ivan tells his brother. What he won’t accept is ‘the world created by Him’. He refuses to acknowledge God’s authority because He has created a world full of undeserved suffering. Ivan is particularly distressed at the suffering wrought on children, who have ‘not eaten of the apple’ and ‘are as yet guilty of nothing’. He details at great length the ill-treatment, cruelty, neglect, beatings and torture they suffer. ‘It is quite impossible to understand’, he observes, ‘why they should have to suffer and why they should have to purchase harmony with their sufferings. Why have they also ended up as raw material, to be the manure for someone else’s future harmony?’ He adds that ‘if all the sufferings of children have gone to replenish the sum of suffering that was needed in order to purchase the truth, then I declare in advance that no truth, not even the whole truth, is worth such a price.’ ‘That is mutiny’, Alyosha responds, ‘his eyes lowered’.

Ivan and Alyosha express the two sides of Job. Both believe in God. Ivan, however, is, like Job at the beginning of his ordeal, outraged at underserved suffering and wanting to hold God to account. Alyosha meekly accepts, as does Job at the end, that he lacks the wisdom or knowledge to question God’s plans.

When pushed, however, Alyosha himself wobbles. Ivan asks him to ‘imagine that you yourself are erecting the edifice of human fortune with the goal of, at the finale, making people happy.’ And to do this, ‘it would be necessary to torture to death only one tiny little creature, that same little child that beat its breast with its little fist, and on its unavenged tears to found that edifice, would you agree to be the architect on those conditions?’ ‘No, I would not agree’, Alyosha says quietly.

Augustine took a very different view. Is it ‘wickedness’, he asked, ‘that innocent witnesses should be tortured’ or ‘that the accused are so often overcome by such pain that they make false confessions and are punished in spite of their innocence’? Is it wicked that the accused ‘even if not condemned to die, they very often die under torture or as a result of torture’? No, Augustine insists, it is not. Since a wise judge is often forced to ‘torture the innocent’ because there is placed upon him ‘the unavoidable duty of judging’ so ‘he himself is certainly not guilty’. ‘The philosopher’, Augustine writes, ‘does not consider that these many and grievous evils are sins; for he reflects that the wise judge does not act in this way through a wish to do harm’ or ‘out of malice’. Such horrors are simply expressions of ‘the wretchedness of man’s condition.’

And here is the paradox of the religious view of morality. Without God, believers insist, all manner of evil will be unleashed. If God did not exist, Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to his friend NL Ozmidov, what reason would there be ‘to live righteously and do good deeds’ or not to ‘cut another man’s throat, rob and steal?’ And yet all manner of evil already exists. And to believe in God one seems to have to accept the most pernicious of arguments for why it does so.

At the end of the Book of Job, after God had restored to Job his health, wealth, friends and family, a great gathering takes place at his house. The throng celebrated the return of the old Job. They also ‘bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the Evil that the LORD had brought upon him’. It is a bittersweet ending to the story. All has been restored to Job. And yet all has not been restored. The very fact that evil was done unto him, and the fact that Lord had commanded such evil, cannot be erased. Job never lost his faith. His experience led him to see that his faith could only be unconditional and unquestioning. And yet, as the response of his friends and family at the final gathering reveals, that unconditional and unquestioning faith seems impossible to reconcile with the existence of evil.

It is a bittersweetness that lies at the heart of all faiths. It is often in conditions of extreme suffering that many people discover, or recover, their bonds with God. And yet nothing more questions those bonds, or the God, than that very suffering itself.


  1. Gabriel Andrade

    You attack the Irenean theodicy, but you do not say much about the Free Will Defense. I am not sure whether such defense really works. J.L. Mackie thinks God could have created us such that we freely always choose good. Plantinga says this is nonsense: if God created us free, He could not have determined us to do anything. Regarding the problem of evil, I think, the crux of the matter is: how acceptable is compatibilism? Does it make sense to say that we are determined yet free? If it does make sense, then no free will defense seems to work, because God could have determined us not to do evil, and yet, we would remain free.

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