In the classic meaning of the phrase, the “problem of evil” applies only to monotheistic theology (try saying that three times fast). The problem is, how can God be omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, all three, when evil exists? Theologians tie themselves in knots of sophistry over that one. It’s simply enough resolved if one abandons the premise, however, and acknowledges that indeed there can be no omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God, given that evil does exist. Either God has insufficient knowledge to prevent evil, or He has insufficient power, or He chooses that evil exist. Incidentally, there’s one monotheistic (more or less) religion that draws precisely this conclusion and has decided that God is not omnipotent; in Zoroastrian teaching, the God of Good, Ahura Mazda, must contend with an equally-powerful God of Evil, Ahriman. Evil exists because God is unable to prevent it.
However, having dispensed with that particular manifestation, there are other dilemmas that might be called “the problem of evil” that are more universal. What is evil, exactly? What is it in the context of spirituality, or in the context of fantasy?
Start with the fact that evil is not an objective characteristic of anything. If we limit ourselves to falsifiable statements, we can call nothing evil (or good). The Holocaust was, objectively, an act of mass murder by a national government conducted in secret with great efficiency; all of that may be demonstrated. But that this act was evil is a subjective judgment — one that most people would probably agree with, but subjective nonetheless.
The statement, “this action is evil,” is a distortion of the truth caused by a fuzziness in English grammar. The verb “to be” is properly used in a statement of fact about something. It describes a property of the thing described. Thus, in describing an evil act such as the Holocaust, we may properly say, “the Holocaust was an act of mass murder,” or “the Holocaust was a government policy of Nazi Germany,” or “the Holocaust was a secret program of extermination during World War II in which some eleven million people were killed, mostly Jews, homosexuals, and Gypsies.” All of these are characteristics of the Holocaust and so the construction “the Holocaust was” is logically correct as well as grammatically correct.
But if we say, “the Holocaust was evil,” we imply a characteristic called “evil” which may be observed about the Holocaust, and in reality there is no such characteristic. We can point to the Holocaust’s murderousness, its officialness, its secrecy, its organization, or its death toll, but we cannot point to its evil. The phrase is grammatically correct, but logically incorrect. The evil of the Holocaust is added to it by our judgment that it is evil, and so the phrase should properly read, not “the Holocaust is evil,” but “I judge the Holocaust as evil.” This is not a statement of fact but an assertion of will. It’s almost equivalent in meaning to “I don’t like mass murder,” but also incorporates the idea of “you shouldn’t like mass murder either,” and that of “you shouldn’t commit mass murder,” which isn’t so with all “I don’t like” phrases.
Now, some might argue that this trivializes good and evil by removing them from the sphere of divine judgment and assigning them purely to human judgment, especially since human beings can honestly disagree. But human beings can honestly disagree about good and evil whether or not they attribute this judgment to the divine. They can (and do) disagree about which scriptures or religious teachings are true, or about their interpretation, and that amounts to the same thing. Practically speaking, it makes no difference. The compelling quality of a judgment that something is good or evil always came from our own hearts, not from its attribution to an authority greater than ourselves. That attribution may at times have persuaded people to agree with a common judgment, and so helped to enforce moral behavior, but it is nonetheless a falsehood.
In fact, outside of a human context, the terms “good” and “evil” lose all their meaning. Good can be what benefits us or what we would like to see people do or what meets a certain standard of values, but always in the context of human decision-making and human behavior. If a human being shoots up a school or a movie theater and kills, say, twenty people, we may reasonably judge that action as evil. But if an earthquake kills thousands of people, it makes no sense to call the earthquake evil, and few would do so.
The book of Job from the Bible actually touches on this, when God appears in the whirlwind and asserts in poetic language that moral judgments are meaningless applied to God. God (or the gods or the cosmos) is not morally good. God is not evil. God is beyond good and evil and at that level of reality such judgments have no meaning.
If we recognize that good and evil are human judgments, then we can also accept that they are judgments that can be changed if our circumstances change or if we achieve new enlightenment. Thus we now judge slavery, spousal rape, and bigotry to be evil, all of which were once considered acceptable. In addition, we remove a barrier to spiritual experience, since expecting God/the gods/the cosmos to be the source of moral judgments is inserting a delusional veil before the Holy. Religious teachings that give moral judgments diving authority are like a parent telling a child: “because I said so!” This may be of some value in making children behave, but eventually one grows old enough to need a more realistic basis for judgment.
I try to make this understanding part of my storytelling as well. While I may depict religions that teach morality on a basis of divine authority (such as the Church of the Good God in The Green Stone Tower and Goddess-Born), I’ll never have a deity actually making that claim as if his or her word were absolute. Deities know better.
So should we.
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