Archimandrite Arsenios Katerelos
from the book THEODICY AND THE PRESENCE OF EVIL IN OUR WORLD
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PART A ́
WHY MORAL EVIL EXISTS
By the Grace of God, to Whom every glory, honour and adoration belongs, now and forever, unto the never-ending ages, we are gathered here today in this historic space my beloved, in-Christ brethren, to commence our regular synaxes for the third consecutive year. I sincerely ask you all to pray that God will illuminate us. And now, let us embark on our first topic, which is the “hot” subject of theodicy.
And it should be mentioned to begin with, that it constitutes a chief “scandal” of Christianity, since there are so many who are scandalized by the injustice that is in fact widespread around us. In other words, they regard God as unjust and a tyrant - as if God enjoys watching us suffer in one way or another - because it is a fact, that all of us do suffer, more or less. However, as we shall see further along, this matter should be anything but scandalous for us Christians.
For a start, we need to elucidate that the word “theodicy” denotes man’s tendency to judge, and his desire to generally interpret whatever pertains to God: “Why is God like that?”; “Why doesn’t He intervene?”; and when He does intervene, “Why does He intervene in such and such a manner?”... “Why this?” “Why that?”... So many “Whys”... an unending chain of “whys”... “Judging God”: this is the precise source of the term “theodicy”. So, how is it possible for God to be vindicated, when the former irrefutably conradicts the latter, at least at first glance?
It is also irrefutable that in every era, man simultaneously lives and experiences all this drama, all this problem, in a tragic, painful, macabre and overwhelming manner – that is, the matter of theo-dicy. “If God could have hindered evil but didn’t will it, then how does that reconcile with His benevolence? That is, what if God does not want to hinder evil, even though He can? Then again, if God is unable to hinder evil, then how does that reconcile with His Omnipotence? Is it ever possible that something can be impossible for God?” How am I supposed to judge, with these -and not just these seemingly contradictory energies of God? What are the solutions to this philosophical and theological problem of theodicy?
At this point, let us simply mention that the philosopher Leibnitz was the first to use the term “theodicy”. So, entirely epigrammatically, for history’s sake, let us take a look at theodicy in the space of philosophy – although this of course is of no significance and meaning to us, because philosophy is nothing more than man’s attempts to give his own answers to various existential matters and issues. Now, in the sphere of philosophy, two central, diametrically opposite views were formulated on the subject of theodicy.
The first one was the optimistic view formulated by Leibnitz. According to him, despite its imperfections, the world is the best of all possible worlds: that is, it actually IS the best possible world. Not that it doesn’t have imperfections, according to Leibnitz; they have merely become fewer. And not only that; he claims that those imperfections contribute to the good, by more or less neutralizing the apparent disharmony and thus allowing perfection to be dominant. This position is somewhat reminiscent of the Greek philosopher Heracletus who lived in the 5th century B.C., who maintained that the antithesis that exists in the world is harmonious, and that reconciliation itself is that very antithesis.
Now, contrary to Leibnitz, the philosopher Schopenhauer had formulated the pessimistic view which claimed that this world is the worst of all possible worlds; that every existence is filled with concern and suffering; that the only thing most people become familiar with - for the duration of their lives - is the incessant, enduring struggle for survival - for their very existence - which one day will be gone forever. Thus, suffering and boredom are the two poles between which life steadily alternates.
In brief, these are the views put forth in the sphere of philosophy on the matter of theodicy. We mentioned two, diametrically opposite views, but we should not forget that in philosophy, one philosophical system is never negated by another one; quite simply, it is either adopted, or not adopted. This is why the findings of philosophy likewise do not negate each other, as is the case in the other sciences – especially in the theories of the natural sciences.
Now, what is important to us is to examine theo-dicy in its theological context; this is what will benefit us.
So, theodicy focuses on three main, basic levels. The first one pertains to ontology; that is, why must there be so-called “moral evil”? If God is Most Holy, and Most Benevolent and Most Wise and Omnipotent, why - for example – does He allow the existence of demons, why does He allow the existence of evil people, and our often uncontrolled passions, our inclination towards evil, gross injustices, slanders, crimes, murders, etc.?
A second view of theodicy pertains to the existence of physical evil in the world. Why must there be sicknesses that culminate in death, natural disasters, various kinds of catastrophes, earthquakes, extreme weather phenomena, the variety of environmental phenomena, epidemics, and all else, if God is the Creator ex nihilo of the cosmos, and surely and unquestionably the Providence of all things?
The third view of theodicy focuses on how eternal damnation (“hell”) and punishment can possibly reconcile with the probity and infinite love that God actually is. Does Love per se (God) truly punish His creations, and in fact eternally?
The above points we have outlined only briefly, as an introduction, and will be tackling them in detail further along, on the “hot” subject of theodicy.
The first point: theodicy in ontology. It is true, that a host of questions appear relentlessly here. Why must this situation exist in the world – so much injustice, so much sin...? Why so much corruption and crime and insecurity, which, as time passes, will unfortunately increase at all levels? Furthermore, why do the irreverent prosper and experience happiness? How many times have we not heard these questions ourselves? And haven’t we also noticed the opposite cases, where righteous people quite often unjustly suffer and encounter misfortune? Why is it that -by and large- the actual culprits not only aren’t imprisoned, but instead, those who are less responsible by comparison are the ones who are tried in court?
As we shall see further along, the culprit and the only one responsible for moral evil is man, who, from his creation was made free-willed and self-governing. Our greatest treasure is freedom, and there is no logical creation that is without freedom. Inversely, every free creation is necessarily also logical. And, we can say here that the significant difference between us humans and unreasoning animals is not so much intelligence or logic (these do exist); the difference lies in a self-existent and immortal soul in man’s existence, whose chief characteristic is freedom. Animals have a mortal soul - not per its essence, but only per its energies – and they do not have freedom. They act in obeisance to laws, given that no animal for example would ever consider altering the natural environment in which they exist, move and survive. Man, on the other hand, is capable of making his natural habitat unrecognizable (as we all know, and have witnessed). I assume all of you have also seen animals with exceptional intelligence – for example, various apes or dolphins that can do amazing and incredible feats to the accompaniment of music?
So, we have been created ab originem as free-willed beings, however, we are subject to the consequences of this freedom of ours, and unfortunately for us, these consequences are often very deleterious. After all, it is because man has “missed the target” and has thus rendered his life difficult and unbearable. But, to put things in the proper perspective, just as a child cannot place the blame on its father for the transgression that it was responsible for, likewise it is not proper for man to place the blame on God for his own – his exclusively own - human mistakes.
As Saint Basil the Great has pointed out, “the beginning and the root of sin is the self-goverment within us”; that is, the existence of evil is exclusively attributed to man’s improper use of his freedom. God has nothing to do with force and coercion. As noted by a Russian theologian, “God can do everything – except force man to love Him”. And of course He “can’t” - because He doesn’t wish to. Or, as the blessed Chrysostom proclaims: “God wishes that they willingly be good, and not by necessity and force”. God wants us to be good, of our own free will, and never through force and out of necessity.
Delving deeper into the heart of the problem, we will refer here to the major, godly philosopher and above all theologian and hymnographer, Saint John of Damascus, who gives his answer to the fundamentally significant question: “If God knows in advance those who are going to sin and not repent, why did God create them?” In other words, why doesn’t He create only those who would not eventually wander off their path, but remain good and benevolent? That way, the world would have been a better place; there would be a perfect coexistence between mankind, without the familiar problems and their truly painful consequences.
“Why then did God create those whom He knew would eventually sin and not repent? Why didn’t He create only good humans?” Saint John of Damascus replied that God created all of His creations out of His benevolence, ex nihilo (out of nonexistence).
We should clarify at this point that everything was created by God, solely per His will. Everything was created from nil – from nothing, from nonexistence, from non-being as it were. The things that the ancient Hellene philosophers like Plato and the others taught were not all true: that an unformed mass of matter pre-existed, which later took on form and motion etc.
The reality is that nothing pre-existed, except our Time-less God. Creation did not exist before the ages, before Time. What did exist, pre-eternally, together with the Time-less Triune God that pertained to Creation was solely “the creative reasons of the divine volition” – otherwise referred to as “the creative reasons of beings (raisons d’être)” – which are none other than the causes, the destinations of all things, the way that divine volition had pre-eternally willed.
In simpler words: all of Creation had existed in the will of God before (created) Time and was manifested at some point during (created) Time. Everything that was going to exist already existed, before (created) Time; just as His glorious heavenly Realm has existed before (created) Time and still exists, which for us will arrive after the Second Coming of Christ. Therefore, all logical creations that have come into existence from nonexistence, owe their existence – not to their own, personal will (given that they did not pre-exist, so how could they will it?), but to the will of God.
We need to clarify something at this point, that the term “uncreated” pertains to whatever has willed to exist exclusively on its own - and of course that could only be God - Who exists, not out of necessity but freely, because He Himself wants to exist. On the other hand, the term “created” is everything that exists because someone else willed it to exist (=its Creator), and not itself. This includes us humans and the angelic world, who have been created by God because He so willed it. As such, all logical creations are not “free” as regards the cause of their existence.
At the same time however, God is the only authentic “Prescient”, with the power of knowing beforehand all the things that will take place. This is because only God exists beyond created Time; after all, He is the Creator of both Space and Time.
Now, if creations weren’t going to exist - particularly we humans – then they would automatically be neither evil given that they would be nonexistent, nor would God have known them in advance. How would He know of them beforehand, if they were not going to exist? Quite simply, knowledge of something can only pertain to things that are existent, and we cannot of course know, process and examine something that doesn’t exist. Pro-gnosis (foreknowledge) pertains to those things that will definitely take place.
Saint John of Damascus continues, saying that existence is precedent, while a good or a bad existence is pursuant. Let us analyze this, with our limited powers.
To begin with, Time does not apply to God, as He is beyond (created) Time. At this point, it is necessary for us to talk about God anthropomorphically – that is, with our own human abilities, images and facts, in order to somehow approach the unapproachable mystery of God as regards the matter of Time.
From the “standpoint” of God, the distant Past and the even more distant Future are both “the Present” to Him. There is no Present, Past and Future for God; it is as though all of them co-exist at this very moment, and every moment is like an enduring Present. What does the Prophet David say? “....for one thousand years in Your eyes are as yesterday which has passed, and as a watch in the night...” (Ps.89/90:4). That is, one thousand years are like yesterday for God.
The result of all the above is that for God, prognosis (foreknowledge) of any event is not the same as predicting (foretelling) it; rather, it is as if it has already taken place. Of course this cannot presume that God pre-ordains and pre-decides everything that we experience: it does not entail any absolute destination, destiny or “kismet”; it is about the things that are dependent on us, and not on other things, which are dependent on divine Providence and not dependent on us. Thus, whatever things are dependent on us are not pre-decided by God - on account of the fixed parameter of our personal freedom. As such, God merely foreknows, He knows in advance what we will personally want to do, and freely do it.
So, just as the knowledge of a certain thing presupposes that the said thing definitely exists (otherwise there is no meaning to that knowledge), so does God’s prognosis exist, for those things that will definitely occur. And as noted previously, for God, it will be as though they have already occurred. In other words, God foreknew all the creations that He was going to create.
So far, we have spoken of the existence of logical creations – that it is God, Who brings them into existence. Thereafter, each creation proceeds on its own preferred path. In the words of Saint John of Damascus, “...good or bad existence is pursuant”; that is, the good or bad use of every logical creation’s freedom. But this doesn’t mean that, because God foreknew the bad use of freedom by certain angels or humans, He should not have created them. Furthermore, just imagine if bad humans were going to be created (thanks to God’s benevolence), but God finally hindered them from coming into existence precisely because He knew they would eventually become bad through personal choice, then it would mean that the malice of those humans would have defeated God’s benevolence. But that is something that doesn’t relate to God’s benevolence, or His Omnipotence.
To summarize: the un-needing God (=Who is not in need of anything), has brought us into existence only out of benevolence, so that we might choose to be in the blessed state of being near Him, through Him, within Him. Thus, everything that God creates, He creates as something good. From there on, each one of us becomes good or bad, solely through personal choices.
Even the Devil was not created with a wicked nature, because God is never responsible for anything evil. The Devil had chosen to reject the illumination and the highest honour that the Creator had bestowed on him as a gift (the bringer of the first light to Creation), and, following his personal freedom of choice, he became transformed from his initial, natural state into an unnatural state, by boasting before God with his senseless desire to revolt against Him. So, by first distancing himself from the benevolent, he automatically ended up in evil. After all, evil is nothing more than the deprivation of good. Evil does not have its own hypostasis – just as “darkness” doesn’t have its own hypostasis – that is, it is not comprised of something, but is simply the deprivation, the lack of light.
When our Lord said of His former disciple, Judas, that it would have been better for that man to never have been born (Matth.26:24) – that is, it would have been better for the traitor to never have been born - He was naturally not criticizing His own creation. Far be it! He was criticizing the evil that had overtaken His creature, Judas, on account of his own, bad inclination. Judas’ thoughtless choice had annulled the Creator’s benefaction; Needless to point out that Judas was already highly and uniquely blessed, inasmuch as having as his guide, as his Elder, as his spiritual father (to use an ecclesiastic term), the very King of Kings!
After all the aforementioned, the following scalding and tragic question arises: “Ok, of course God is not to blame for anything; but then why must some innocent – or relatively innocent - people suffer because of other, wicked or relatively wicked people?’
And not only that. The fact that many bad people’s prosperity and the misfortune of many virtuous and even holy people, give rise to many intense existential and consciensic problems. People are perennially tormented by thousands of such questions on the topic.
Besides, even the Prophet-king David had noted this quite intensely, in Psalm 71:2-19: “I was envious of the lawless, seeing peace among sinners”. (I became jealous of the lawless ones, when noticing that they are at peace and prospering). “They are not in human toils and not plagued, as are other people” (They do not taste any labouring like others, nor do the lawless ones suffer, like their fellow humans do). “Behold, these sinners are also merry”. (They are sinners, and yet, they prosper, they are merry, and they have a good time). Quite often, a good and just person will undergo tragedy in his life, as did the righteous and long-suffering Job, and others. Suffering upon suffering, relentlessly..
Quite justifiably, then, the pious and God-inspired author of the Psalms – King David – comments as follows: “I wonder whether perhaps I have justified my heart and washed my hands along with innocents” (I wondered for a moment, if perhaps I have kept my heart chaste in vain; that is, if it was futile to toil for virtue in general, and that along with the innocents, I had washed my own hands to show that they are clean of every injustice). In other words, he sought to solve the problem, but stumbled on the mystery of the divine will: “And I sought to know about this, but it was laborious before me”. (I tried to study this problem -of theodicy, he implied - in order to understand it, but my attempts were in vain. For me, the problem remains unsolved).
This appears difficult and unsolvable at first glance: “And only this is comprehensible: its incomprehensibility” – that is, the only thing that we can understand is that it is impossible to solve this immense problem of theodicy.
It suffices here to recall and to ponder on an incident with that very “teacher of the desert”, the truly Great Saint Anthony, whose fiery prayers had supported the entire world, but who didn’t receive an answer to a certain query that he had, as we can read in the Gerontikon (Book of Elders). It says in there: “While pondering about the depths of God’s judgments, Abba Antonios asked, ‘Lord, how is it that some live a short while on earth and others reach a very old age? And why do others live in poverty while others are wealthy?’ He then heard a voice say: ‘Antonios, keep to yourself; these things are arranged by God, according to His judgment, and it is not to your benefit to learn about them!’” What a divine reply: “It is not to your benefit to learn about them!” So, if God had responded thus to a genuine friend of His like Saint Anthony, what kind of demands must the rest of us have?
But, we should focus here on the words that the angel uttered to Anthony the Great: “It is not to your benefit to learn about them!”. Why were they not “to his benefit”? Well, a number of explanations can be given; in essence, it is impossible for man to obtain information as to how God chooses to act. And it is impossible, because in the long run, the instances that need explaining are as many as the very multitudes of people, given that each human being is, from the moment of its creation and by definition, unique and unrepeatable. As such, it would be more than impossible to count, to analyze and explain the myriads of cases, either individually or en masse, as that would surpass the finite and limited human potential. The human mind cannot possibly grasp all these cases sufficiently and fully, with all their coordinates and paramenters. So, we could justifiably close this topic with piety, surety, satisfiably, humbly, wisely and confidently, because, just as the essence of God is indeed incomprehensible, likewise unfathomable is His divine Will.
However, what is commonly acknowledged is that the more man becomes cleansed and illuminated, the more he will be able to discern the otherwise completely indiscernible will of God – of course to a certain degree only. But the more that man becomes illuminated through spiritual cleansing (“catharsis”), the more he is enabled to partake of God’s energies; and the more he partakes of God’s energies, the more he will be able to understand things that pertain to God, such as His glory, His wisdom, His Omnipotence, His benevolence, His will, etc..
“The uncreated energies of God can be partaken of”… We need to clarify here, that “partaking” of something merely implies that we only partially part-take of it, because if we “partook” of something wholly, it would mean that we grasp it wholly! That man can partake of God’s uncreated energies does not signify that he partakes of ALL divine energies: the blasphemy of the thought alone! Man can only partake of those energies that his human nature is able to accept and comprehend, in proportion to his personal receptiveness and “like frequencies” – that is, the prerequisites that he himself has forged for partaking, through his personal spiritual labours.
But on the other hand, what is amazing is that during man’s partaking of the uncreated divine Grace, he would be partaking of the entirety of the Triune God, given that the fullness of God is behind the energy of this partaking. In reference to this, Saint Filotheos Kokkinos characteristically mentions that it is “all of God acting”. Saint Gregory Palamas also mentions that “all of God is present, not partially, for those who partake of His Grace”.
But: the wisdom, the radiance, and in general the various forms of God’s energy (creative, providential, conservative, salvatory, sanctifying, hedonic, deifying etc.) are more than infinite – both “qualitatively” and “quantitatively”. And it is a fact that, even if we deduct the finite from the infinite – regardless of the magnitude of the finite, the infinite will continue to be infinite. Thus, even the one who is illuminated to the highest possible degree by the Grace, the wisdom and the illumination of God – and no matter how much and how many things he may savour and understand about God (His energies, His divine Will etc.) - in the long run, compared to the things he still ignores about God and His Will, he will always be borderline close to zero and ignorance, in whatever pertains to the knowledge pertaining to God.
On the other hand however, even the minutest God-experience will be more than adequate and priceless for one to be amazed, dumbfounded, and filled with unsated satiety and sober inebriation at the grandeur, the all-holiness and infinite wisdom of God. Indeed, one consequence of such a God-experience is his thereafter limitless trust in the divine authority – i.e., that God is the One on Whom everything in Creation depends, and without Whose permission or Will, nothing can take place: from a leaf falling from a tree, to the explosive birth of a galaxy. Likewise, his limitless trust in God’s knowledge, providence, or allowance of whatever He allows to happen in the world – good or bad, and whether it depends on Him or on people, etc.. Such a person will have no doubts whatsoever in this regard; which means that he will no longer waver in life regarding the turbulent matter of theodicy. Deep down, this matter is already answered inside him, just as there is no turbulence in the depths of the ocean waters. So much so, that whatever an illuminated person now savours and perceives is so fulfilling, that even if an angel came down from heaven for the purpose of providing more explanation, he would not crave it, inasmuch as he would not feel the need to – simply because he would feel sated, upon already having savoured and enjoyed the grandeur and the glory of God, and hence be in the state of awareness of many other indescribable grandeurs of God within him.
Of course it is an entirely different matter that he would be able to precisely comprehend the supposedly interpreting angel, only in those things that his personal experience of the wondrous and sublime experiences that he had personally partaken of. Everything else he may have been able to “catch a whiff of”, or imagined, or be superficially informed about; but, by not being his own personal experience, they would not be savoured, comprehended and familiarized in every dimension. Besides, in spiritual matters generally speaking, if a University-level person talks about and analyzes spiritual phenomena and situations to a First-grade-level person, the latter will only understand the first-grade things.
God is undoubtedly an infinitely unfathomable Ocean; the quantity of “water” that we can draw from that Ocean depends on the capacity of the “bucket” that we have – that is, the degree of spiritual cleansing/catharsis, illumination and theognosy (knowledge of God) that we already possess, as well as our available capacity. It also stands to reason that our personal “bucket” should not be full of holes – obvious or latent. But, regardless of the size of our bucket, the “rest” of the Ocean will continue to be infinitely unfathomable...
What is important however is that even with that minuscule quantity of water that we do draw, we nevertheless get a significant existential “taste” of that “Ocean’s” quality and composition: that is, of God.
Besides, God’s Providence for His Creation is such and so bounteous that He has taken care of even the minutest detail in order for life to exist. For example, the constants in the mathematical expression of natural laws are such that they determine and allow for the emergence and the maintenance of life on Earth. If their values were even slightly different, there would be no life. So, if God caters so minutely to the emergence and the preservation of life and for everything that occurs on Earth, then He would obviously care even more about whatever pertains to the creations that are “according to His image”.
The Holy Spirit (God) cannot be “viewed”. But the Grace of God - which guides man not only to faith regarding God but also to the knowledge of Him and the unshakeable trust in Him – is what can be viewed, experienced, savoured and is re-cognizable.
All of the aforementioned have an obvious connection to theodicy and comprise a hermeneutical key to its more general problem.
For example, how God will be judging each and every person is, in the end, inscrutable. One thing which is for sure is that He will judge each person impartially and justly, entirely personally and uniquely. God alone knows all the parameters that govern one’s motives and actions. Given that we cannot see all these aspects-parameters, in the life to come we will be encountering many surprises – positive and negative ones. God is so absolutely just, that He will mete out justice even for the tiniest and most insignificant thing in our life, to which we hadn’t paid any attention, in the way that only He knows.
Thus, we can safely close the subject here, by accepting without any doubt the unerring authority of God – even for the more inexplicable, the more mysterious, as well as the seemingly unjust phenomena and events in our lives.
But, to be even more credible on this point, let’s mention another detail: that God does not have to “think about” anything at all. That is, on the matter of Judgment, He does not need to ponder it. And not only about Judgment, but about all other matters the way that we people do, given that He is Omniscient beyond everything. He is the very source of true knowledge and wisdom. We humans similarly have certain things that we are very familiar with and don’t have to think about them necessarily; they come as second nature, automatically. For example, we don’t have to think specifically about how to walk or breathe etc..
Hence, God knows everything and as such, is the supreme authority. If we abolish and discard God’s authority – the only true and sure authority – then man automatically becomes a deluded authority, constantly revolving with a dizzying speed around the ever-changing axis of his self-love. In fact, the faster his angular revolution speed around himself, the more his perception becomes blurred, rendering him dizzy and darkened in perception, unable to sort things out; everything is relativised, without any criterion whatsoever for anything. In the end, everything is deemed permissible, resulting in the predominance of a complete existential chaos, an impasse at all levels, and the splitting of the person’s individuality that is far greater than the splitting of the atom in Physics.
It would have sufficed to close this topic after reading the angel’s response to Anthony the Great earlier on. But we will continue with the topic’s analysis, since all of us suffer from a certain relative pride and also a certain justified concern comprised of many positive and negative and neutral elements, such as the meting out of justice, our inclination towards learning and knowledge, our pains, our concern, our agonies, our sorrows, the overestimation of human capabilities, our lack of trust in Divine Providence and many other aspects.
Apart from them, we shall also extend our ana-lysis of theodicy, seeing how we hear so many negative comments by those unfortunates who strive to fight against the Church but who don’t remember that “the embattled Church is rendered even stronger”, but also because we are obligated to give our response “to all who enquire” about the specific topic. Quite obviously, those who mostly stumble on such areas don’t have much trust in God, and are often ignorant of all the causes.
Finally, many people – both the pious and the indifferent - tend to be tormented and stumble on this matter; unfortunately to such a degree that it sometimes overwhelms us spiritually, organically, as it does our soul. This is why we must continue our attempts in the forthcoming synaxes, always basing ourselves on the Holy Bible and in general the Patristic literature that focuses on this subject.