Friday 7 October 2022

The Problem Of Evil.

“Stare not too long into the abyss, lest the abyss stare back into you.” - Friedrich Nietzsche.
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL – ah yes – an old and flavoursome chestnut. How many nights, fuelled by Velluto Rosso (and other brave attempts at a palatable New Zealand red) did I wrestle with my fellow undergraduates as to why, or even if, evil exists in this world.

“How could a benevolent God allow bad things to happen to good people?” That was one of the questions. Inevitably followed by: “And isn’t a God that allows bad things to happen to good people himself one of the bad guys? Or, if not bad himself, then powerless to prevent evil from doing its worst?”

Except, of course, that a powerless deity is not a deity at all – but a fraud. Which not only means that evil is more powerful than good, but also more powerful than God. And that is not a comforting thought.

Nor, I’m afraid, a very original thought. Indeed, the notion that this world is in the grip of a malevolent deity harks all the way back to the earliest decades of Christianity. Some called this evil being “Rex Mundi” – King of the World. His was the realm of matter. It was Rex who personally made certain that our all-too-solid flesh would melt, burn, decay, and otherwise fail to endure.

Given the fate of those who subscribed to this, the Gnostic, heresy, it is difficult to fault their theology. Over the centuries Rex Mundi has got a lot of blood on his hands.

I wonder, sometimes, whether undergraduates still argue over the problem of evil. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine them arguing about the nature of God – not when surveys show most of them rejecting the notion of divinity altogether. That said, it isn’t in the least bit difficult to imagine them arguing about the problem of climate change.

Ideally, this would be a rigorously scientific exchange, but I strongly suspect that any argument about climate change will very quickly morph into our old friend, the problem of evil.

Not that God will be standing in the dock at this trial. Much more likely the discussion will turn on whether there is enough good in the human species to warrant its survival, or, whether our overwhelming propensity to tear apart the delicate threads of Nature’s ecological web has led humanity to an evolutionary dead-end.

It is not a debate to which Rex Mundi would be invited. In my imagination, I see Gaia as the smiling hostess of this existential colloquium. Proving just how difficult it is for the human mind to free itself entirely from the notion of a benign and/or just deity.

Then again, voting for their own species’ extinction is a pretty hard ask of the undergraduates of the Twenty-First Century. But, if the species itself isn’t all bad, then, perhaps, the “problem” of evil is best resolved by examining who has done the most.

Who was it who enslaved the peoples of Africa? Who wiped out the world’s indigenous cultures? Who planted their flags in the soil of sovereign nations and claimed them for their own? Who spread their capitalistic economic system across the face of the whole planet without thought for the exorbitant human and environmental costs? Who denied women their rights? Who persecuted homosexuals and the gender-diverse? Who invented racism, heavy artillery, poison gas and the H-Bomb? Who is the living embodiment of evil?

Yes, well, we all know the answer to those questions, don’t we?

Us, the world’s white, heterosexual, males: marching down the centuries with our swords and guns and bombs; slaying the innocent; enslaving the weak; bending all to our implacable will; consuming the whole world to satisfy our insatiable appetites. Us, seated upon our ivory thrones, white as death, ruling the world of matter absolutely. Rex Mundi in human form. Evil personified.

It’s all our fault.

And it’s not just undergraduates who argue this way – their professors write books about it!

They characterise evil as the problem born out of power over others. The power that creates victims. The power to be overcome only when its victims seize their own power – and use it.

Making evil a paradox. When we fear it, we feed it. In attempting to defeat it, we only make it stronger.

“Stare not too long into the abyss,” warned Nietzsche, “lest the abyss stare back into you.”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 October 2022.


Anonymous said...

Who was it who enslaved the peoples of Africa?

Africans, Arabs, Jews, and Christians. The British nearly bankrupted themselves trying to end it. It is now worse than it ever was, with open slave markets returning to Libya after allegedly woke feminist Hillary Clinton's intervention.

Who wiped out the world’s indigenous cultures?

Whomever had the fastest ships and biggest guns. Before that, it was all against all. The archaeological record, much older than late European expansion, attests to it.

Who planted their flags in the soil of sovereign nations and claimed them for their own?

See above.

Who spread their capitalistic economic system across the face of the whole planet without thought for the exorbitant human and environmental costs?

Ask your average Chinese or African that question now, then ask their grandparents, if they are still alive. Ask them about the cultural revolution or, before that, foot binding. Ask them about the juju sacrificial rights in Southern Nigeria.

Who denied women their rights?

Not Brit Mary Wollstonecraft. Where did universal suffrage begin? Where was it first practiced?

Who persecuted homosexuals and the gender-diverse?

Homosexual law reform began in the West. So did gender clinics. Many are still hung, from Iran to Nigeria to Brunei, for same sex attraction and acts.

Who invented racism,


heavy artillery,

those with the technological advantage.

poison gas and the H-Bomb?

See above.

Who is the living embodiment of evil?

The sort of man who would twist history to demonise a people based on skin colour.

Lenin's dead so you'll have to take the blame today, Chris.

Brendan McNeill said...

The Apostle John tells us in 1John1:5

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”

My five year old grand daughter, who loves to play the opposites game will tell you that the opposite of light is darkness, the opposite of good is evil. To live without God is to live in darkness, to rebel against God’s goodness is to open oneself up to the opposite of goodness - evil.

After many years in Soviet Gulag’s Solzhenitsyn wrote: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

If your readers wanted to explore the subject of evil, a spiritual reality expressed in the lives of human beings through the centuries, they may appreciate the book “Unspeakable” by Os Guinness.

The Barron said...

The origin of evil in Judeo-Christian thought is complex. The Adam and Eve story is considered a late inclusion in the Hebrew Bible (it is rarely cited elsewhere), the snake (most likely a seraphim - a flying serpent) was never thought of a 'Satan' until long after the Zoroastrian influence and likely deep into the Christian era, and original sin thought up by St Augustine.

It is thought that the early Hebrew thinking had El (aka El Elyon / ‎El Shaddai) as the 'Most High'‎ god, and Yahweh the Israeli deity (Deuteronomy), later these two became merged within monotheism the problem of evil was uncomfortable. God the creator, omnipotent and all knowing, must have been the origin of evil. Early Christian thinking struggled with this, and theologians such as Marcion returned to the two God view to accommodate the view that God, the creator of evil, was not God the father of Jesus, who had to be a perfect and loving god. St Augustine was in many ways a response to this.

The origin of evil may have been lost when neither the Jewish makers of the Torah or the Catholic Church included the books of Enoch in their cannon (the Ethiopian Church had maintained it as cannon, and Jude references it). Thought to be an important document late BCE Judaism and early CE Christianity it expanses on the reference still in Genesis about the Nephilim in the antediluvian period. Asael was an angel that came to earth and share the knowledge of the angels / gods, this is mixed with Semihazah who led two hundred angels to earth, raped the women and created the Nephilim, Giants who dominated the Earth and deleted the resources. As well as what would be seen as magic, the rogue Angels had shared knowledge of metallurgy and cosmetics. To restore order, Yahweh bought the flood. While many Near Asian societies had flood traditions, the Hebrew bible is the only one which attributes a moral justification (as Plato did in the destruction of Atlantis)

It is interesting that in both Genesis stories, obtaining knowledge is conflated with evil. Throughout the Mediterranean Wisdom or Sophia was a female entity and concept. Indeed, the original trinity included wisdom. Judeo-Christian theocratic development made this female component unstated, yet, it is easy to conclude that early thought was that evil was knowledge without wisdom.

Luckily, to tidy things up, post-exile Zoroastrianism was incorporated into Judeo-Christian thought and Satan (originally an accuser or advocate of God), Lucifer (the Morning Star) and the Devil (translation of accuser in the Greek Septuagint) could be conflated into a bringer of evil.

DS said...

Rex Mundi is the conception of the medieval Cathars, not the Gnostics.

Anonymous said...

Wow….. where can I get some of what you’ve smoked, Chris?

PaulVD said...

If your questions are not purely rhetorical, they can be answered only with some awareness of history (not widely-spread among modern undergraduates!) Start by remembering that Europe was a derisory backwater until about 500 years ago. To give a sense of scale, Egypt dominated the Middle East for over 3,000 years.
So a rough set of answers might be:

Who was it who enslaved the peoples of Africa? Blacks and Arabs, who captured slaves in the interior and sold them in coastal markets for distribution to the Ottoman Empire and the Americas.
Who wiped out the world’s indigenous cultures? Egypt, Babylon, Rome, China, Russia, ...
Who planted their flags in the soil of sovereign nations and claimed them for their own? Rome, the Aztecs, China, the Mongols, Alexander the Great, the Assyrians, the Normans, imperial Russia, ....
Who spread their capitalistic economic system across the face of the whole planet without thought for the exorbitant human and environmental costs? If one substitutes the broader "exploitative" for the special case "capitalistic", then see above. "The whole planet" limits it to the Western civilisation, but only because the West alone had developed the technical ability to go everywhere. The others would have liked to, but lacked the capability.
Who denied women their rights? Islam; pre-Maoist China. One of the earliest mass murders of which we have evidence appears to have been an ambush to kill the men and kidnap the girls and women.
Who persecuted homosexuals and the gender-diverse? Just about everybody.
Who invented racism, ... The Neanderthals, most likely. The Indians invented the caste system, which may be even worse.
... heavy artillery, poison gas and the H-Bomb? Finally, some items for which the West deserves exclusive credit.
Who is the living embodiment of evil? Xi Jinping.

As a white, heterosexual male, I am conscious of the evils done in the past, some by my ancestors. No doubt I am descended from both European slaves and slave-owners from earlier than about 900 AD. I am also conscious of the evils that I have done personally, but it is only for those that I accept responsibility. And because civilisations are robust but not infinitely so, I worry that the West's self-confidence is being undermined by false narratives of how evil and destructive it is. My biggest fear for my unborn descendants is that their society will collapse into barbarism, which is infinitely worse.

Kit Slater said...

It would seem “any argument about climate change” for undergraduates morphs less into the problem of evil per se than the politics of progressive anti-capitalism, as the Carbon Fairy ably demonstrates. Still, evil sought is evil found.

As a materialist, I consider ‘evil’ a useful but imaginary concept like ‘God’, a personalised expression of vicissitude for those suffering ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. But it’s useful to be able to create a shadow entity responsible for unforeseen consequences outlined elliptically in your essay, something unique to the (post-)Christian world, a sui generis exercise in suicidal misanthropy. Meanwhile, those in the rest of the world, Die Weltanschauungen ohne Schatten, now have a scapegoat for their failings, a whipping-boy for their indiscretions, and their lifestyle undisturbed by conscience.

What will future historians make of this, a failure to defend peak civilisation from, as Santayana put it, children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience?

The Carbon Fairy -

CXH said...

You make it sound like it is only white males that have unleashed havoc on the world. Maybe look back a little further and you will see it is not limited by either colour of the skin or sex.

Humanity has only survived because we can think and reason better than any other creature. This ability gives us both good and bad.

David George said...

Accepting that love and beauty, though not material, are real it seems to me that we therefore need to concede the probability of their opposite. The spirits of good versus evil, God versus Satan is another way of putting it. Evil isn't usually strutting about for all to see but now and then the curtains part and it's cackling visage is revealed. Satan himself?

I have three friends, not "evil" people, greenie/lefty types, that separately intimated their disappointment that the covid pandemic would only take out a few tens of millions, at "best". No problem for the rational mind to come up with a justification for that appallingly antihuman idea but where did it come from. Is the idea that Satan has got a piece of them and is calling the shots, as the religious types might explain it, really as ridiculous as it sounds to the rational secularists?

In a similar, though much more personal, vein I watched a fascinating discussion with the father of a Downs syndrome boy. The father clearly loved him deeply but was shaken to his core by a common response he received from people: "didn't you know?" The implication being that if they (he and his wife) knew of his condition then the boy, their loved and loving son, would have been terminated. His one shot at life, however humble, in the infinitude of reality snuffed out, murdered in the womb. Obviously! Is there even a question to ask?

The talk moves on to Eugenics, it's history and it's "heroes". It suffered a certain "loss of support" after the 1940s and the reasonable assumption was that it had withered away and remained only as a fantasy to a few seriously sick psychos. Turns out it was only putting on a change of clothes.
Eugenics: Flawed Thinking Behind Pushed Science. 1 hour 38 but you can skip right through the embedded ads.

"You don't know me from the wind
You never will, you never did
I'm the little Jew
Who wrote the Bible
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
But love's the only engine
Of survival

Your servant here, he has been told
To say it clear, to say it cold
It's over, it ain't going any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
You feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future: It is murder"

"Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
Give me Christ
Or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another fetus now
We don't like children anyhow
I've seen the future, baby: It is murder"

Leonard Cohen: The Future - with lyrics

Anonymous said...


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Gosh David, you've done it again. No one is suggesting that we force anyone to have abortions. (And yes, before you start – I'm sure it was done in communist China or somewhere like that, but we are not that, and no one here pretty much as a communist.)
But if you care to get outside your right wing/religious bubble you will find that abortion is associated with better health outcomes for women across the board, and tends to prevent cases like this – which I have posted before but presumably you never bothered reading it.

"Abortion restrictions do not decrease abortion rates. Globally, abortion rates are nearly the same in countries that prohibit them or have provided legal access, which is between 36 to 47 and 31 to 51 abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49. In the U.S., data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that abortion rates are highest among women in their twenties, and lowest for young people less than 15 and women 40 and older."
This is something else you have ignored, again I suspect through ideological/theological stubbornness, because surely no one is ignorant of the statistics behind this?
Or this?
Or this?

When I was eight I had a friend
With a pirate smile
Make believe and play pretend
We were innocent and wild
Hopped a fence and slammed the gate
Running down my alleyway
In time to watch Sally's pigeons fly
We loved to watch them dive and soar
Circle in the sky
Free as a bird from three to four
And never knowing why
Neighbors pulled their wash back in
Put away my Barbie and Ken
Look out overhead
While Sally's pigeons fly
I had a fool's confidence
That the world had no boundaries
But instincts and common sense
Come in different quantities
My heart began to skip to the beat
Of the boy next door
She had her eye across the street
On someone shy and tall
We lived our dreams
And challenged fate
In tears she told me she was late
And Sally let his pigeons out to fly
On the dresser sits a frame
With a photograph
Two little girls in ponytails
Some twenty one years back
She left one night with just a nod
Was lost from some back alley job
I close my eyes and Sally's pigeons fly
She never saw those birds again
And me, I can't remember when
A pirate smile hasn't made me cry
I close my eyes
And Sally's pigeons fly ...Sally's pigeons Cyndi Lauper

You know what, for all your emotional appeals I suspect you really don't care – you just want to impose your particular moral view on the rest of the world. You will notice that this particular moral view is a Christian one pretty much. Many if not all Muslim countries have quite liberal abortion laws, and AFAIK the Torah says that the soul does not enter the body until the first breath. If I remember correctly Jewish organisations already suing the anti-abortion states in the US for the right to have abortions – because it's their religious freedom at stake.

David George said...

Religious questions? Of course, inevitably!
The idea of the sanctity of life and the divinity of man barely registers. How is it that when we hear people like Attenborough describe humanity as a "virus on the planet" the only reaction appears to be nods of agreement. No problem to come up with a rational justification for that. How about "rivers of filth" (Michael Woods) or cockroaches and vermin (Hitler). Is it somehow OK to dehumanise humanity, in its entirety or in part, and where does it lead when we start thinking, believing and feeling like that?

It was discovered, fairly well into the pregnancy, that our third child had spina bifida and achondroplasia (dwarfism) . We were youngish, frightened and forced to confront something that neither of us were in any way prepared for. Everyone said that termination was the sensible option. Nothing could have prepared us for what followed. Labour was induced and our daughter died in her mothers arms. At our hand. Unsurprisingly the strongest resistance to abortion is from those born with disabilities - they know they would never have got to live at all, however humbly, if that option had been taken. What would our little girl Charlotte have thought I wonder?

Jordan Peterson has a new book coming out "Those who wrestle with God"(?) in which he explores deeper that ever before, and that's saying something. He has been to heaven and to hell so that is sure to be fascinating, possibly revelatory.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

David, my sympathies. Our first child had the genetic disability and also died in our arms. Both of us would rather have had an abortion given the danger to my wife's life that giving birth represented, but it wasn't discovered until quite late in the pregnancy.
We were attended by a nun for some strange reason who was supposed to be tremendous at comforting people like us. All she did was repeat "It's hard". Something I didn't need her to tell me. If only this thing could have been resolved while the zygote in question was simply just a few undifferentiated cells, it would have saved a lot of heartache and pain.
It would also have freed me from the Christian who told me that as an atheist I was incapable of mourning my dead son. Christ I haven't thought about that for a long time – fuck him I hope he dies in a ditch.
But still, "the strongest resistance to abortion is from...."? Citation? You keep making the statements as if they are somehow universal truths. I suspect not.
It's just another version of the old Christian gotcha question "What would happen/how would you feel if your mother had aborted you?" To which the answer is obviously I wouldn't exist. But I do – so I don't care.