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Good Has No Shadow: What is Evil and Why is it Necessary?

Updated on September 5, 2014
The Temptation of Christ by Ary Scheffer.
The Temptation of Christ by Ary Scheffer.

How can one person justify all the evils in the world while many question whether or not evil objectively exists at all? Certainly, this is a difficult, perhaps impossible task, but it is also a very important one; whether you believe in good and evil as nebulous, but very real, or you believe that they are only names with changeable assignment. The answer a person gives will define their world view, their choices, their actions and their inactions. To do this, we must first back off the question of why evil exists and delve into whether evil actually does exist and define what it is and discuss its origin. Only then can we ask ourselves why an all-moral, all-powerful God would allow evil in his world.

It may seem strange to many people to actually ask whether evil exists. We live in a world in which we are inundated with images of senseless violence. After the Holocaust, how can we ask if there is evil in the world? It is right in front of us. Some, however, believe that notions of good and evil are only labels put on behavior and happenstance by people and that these labels can change over time. Therefore, it could be argued, there is no “evil”; there are only things that we call evil. Consider the Taoist tale of indifference to good and evil. A man’s horse runs away. His neighbors express their sympathies to him saying what a misfortune it is. The man says that he is not so sure. The next day his horse returns bringing three horses with him. The man’s neighbors congratulate him on his good fortune, but the man again says that he is not so sure. The next day the man’s son breaks his leg while training the horses. The neighbors again express their sympathy and again are met with indifference. The next day men from the capitol come to recruit men for the army and let his son stay due to the broken leg. This flux does not, however, conquer “good” and “evil,” because it depends only upon human notions of the world as the absolute truth. Who’s to say that there isn’t a perfect good in the universe that all can be judged against? Just because human morals change doesn’t mean that morals do not exist.

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son.
Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son.

As said, many do not feel the need to ask whether evil exists or not. Unease, guilt and a glance at the headlines of the day are all that is needed. But how many people ask: where does evil come from? There seems to be a belief that God created evil and blighted humans with it; that it is used to torture us, perfect us and test us. But the question of the origin of evil does not lie there. God did not create a shadow so that the world could better distinguish the light. Take the devil for example. By the general account the devil was God’s number one angel, but yet, somehow, he fell. But what tempted the Light Bearer? Isn’t he the one that does the tempting? No. Just as good is uncreated in the form of God (for it is one thing to say that he is the Lord of Good and another to say that God is good) so is evil uncreated.

The conscious or unconscious belief that evil was created by God as a test for mortals is helped along by the popular metaphor (which has almost stopped being a mere metaphor in people’s minds as it has been used so frequently) of light as good and darkness as evil. Light must cast a shadow, darkness is necessary to know light—pick your analogy. But a favorite Twilight Zone quote of mine is: “There’s nothing in the dark that isn’t there when the lights are on.” Evil is not darkness; evil is a void in everything. It is uncreated because it is uncreation itself. Evil is the act of making things less than what they are. Evil is the act of searing the bonds that connect heart to heart. A shadow would be something, but evil is “nothing” in the worst way imaginable.

Sin is not simple rule breaking. It is defined by Christians as a broken relationship with the creator best illustrated in the prodigal son parable. Another good tale to illustrate this comes from a book by Don Everts called The Smell of Sin: And the Fresh Air of Grace. In brief, the story goes like this: Imagine you have just woken up in your parent’s house. The smell of breakfast draws you out of bed. You head downstairs to find your mother and father waiting for you. Your mother passes you a tray of bacon, and sausage and pancakes and all your favorites for breakfast. Then she pulls the cinnamon buns out of the oven and sets them right by your plate. When you have eaten your fill you stand up, walk over to your mother and spit in her face. Sin is not skipping church on Sunday. Sin is degradation and negation.

Now we can tackle the question of why God allows evil in the world. The act of justifying every act of evil will not be attempted. The burden of William Rowe’s assertion—without justifying every evil act as a sacrifice for the greater good or to keep evil from occurring elsewhere we cannot say God exists—cannot be attempted. Good can come out of even out of the most horrible situations and there are many stories to illustrate this fact. However, humans cannot even be aware of all the acts of evil perpetrated on their planet let alone draw good out of each. We are limited. However, we can examine notions such as human feelings and tendencies and the all-important concept of free-will.

The statement: Humans are basically good (and its exact opposite) could be met with a great amount of argument. Less, I think, would be directed at the statement: Humans are basically curious. Curiosity is not really a good or evil trait. It can be used to make great discoveries and help people, but in their drive for meaning humans can also hurt each other (and eat fruit we’ve been told not to). Curiosity is a valuable and very human trait, but allowing it also invites evil into the realm we live in. Would we trade curiosity for a world without hurt? John Hick’s made a poignant and quite practical point that a world without sin would also be a world without gravity. What about our feelings, which can all be turned against us in such a way? If we strip everything away that can hurt us we will be left as something not-human: not bright or keen or able to love.

A comprehensive argument for God’s morality in a world plagued with evil cannot be complete without the ingredient of free-will. It may be said that free-will is an illusion. It may be said that we always choose the option which benefits us most. But that is rational, and sadly humans do not always fall into the category of “rational.” God didn’t want mindless slaves who would love him just because he said the word. He wanted sons and daughters who would choose to love him and whom he could truly love back. When given the choice between good and evil, human beings—with their yearnings and limited understanding—will sometimes choose evil. Should God treat us as children and take that choice away from us to save us from harm? Or does God not only love us, but respect us, and our abilities to make our own decisions?

Evil has always existed, and it resides within the human soul. However, the quest for justice and virtue against wrath and disgrace is one that can bring something very special out of a human. I’m not talking about sin as some kind of celestial multiple-choice exam or a torture to create the human masterpiece. The struggle for virtue in a hostile world, whether it is just a mindless act in a god-forsaken universe that does not care a wit about our efforts, or a true and reciprocated quest for meaning and universal love, is everything that encompasses what makes humans human.

Humans have the fantastic opportunity to be truly and authentically virtuous in a way that something without free-will could not. Because of free-will humans are capable of the most selfless, charitable acts of brotherhood; but they are also capable of the most monstrous of crimes. I'm not talking about the various cross-sections of humanity having each trait; I'm talking about the actions of a single person. In fact, just as a person can never possibly go through life without sinning, it is also impossible to go through life not doing any good. This lack of purity on both ends allows humans the opportunity to truly create their own place in the world and possess dignity. Humans are creatures of contrast. If they were not, they would not be human.

These contrasts are made concrete in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
These contrasts are made concrete in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In a never-ending journey for justice, mercy and truth, humans are faced with the distinct honor and burden of being neither wholly good nor wholly evil. They have been with us since before the beginning of time and they have become a part of us. It is best not to consider sin as a punishment or God's way of putting us through our moral paces. Evil has been around for a lot longer than us. Why should it be quashed? Why should the choice be denied to us? We are not so much the children of God, but the rebellious teenagers of God. We make our choices and cut our ties and are allowed to, because we would become less than ourselves if we were forced into submission. Virtue enhances, vice erodes.

***

References

Everts, Don. The Smell of Sin: And The Fresh Air of Grace. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Hick, John. “There is a Reason Why God Allows Evil”. Philosophy: The Quest For Truth. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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