The Problem of Evil in Judaism, Christianity & Islam

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The theological problem of evil questions, if God is Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent, why do we have evil?  I am considering this from the Abrahamic and related traditions since they explicitly hold the concept of an Omniscient, Omnipotent God as central to their theological doctrine. 

Mainstream Judaism’s response is markedly similar to traditional Islam: evil is perception since if God is All Good, then everything in the Divine Sight and cosmic scale is ultimately good.  It is our inadequacy and perception that causes things to be ‘evil’.  There is a Day of Judgement where all misconceptions are Addressed.  There is an oral tradition, an allegorical narration, that exists in Judaism that God Determined the advent of the Messiah (a.s.) by a great set of scales.  On one side, God Placed the Messiah (a.s.) with the souls of the unbelieving dead.  On the other side, God Placed sorrow, tears, and the souls of the righteous martyrs.  God Declared that the Messiah (a.s.) would appear when the scales were balanced.  This is to explain that evil is necessary in the bringing about redemption, as suffering resides on the scale of Divine Justice.  The Talmud explicitly states that every bad thing is for the ultimate good, and a believer should praise God for bad things like he praises God for good things.  This is also the Muslim position.  ‘Satan’, then, is merely an agent Divine Will.

The doctrine of tzimtzum in Kabbalah holds that God has Withdrawn Himself so that Creation can exist, but this withdrawal means Creation is Veiled from the Reality of Divine Attributes.  This is similar to the concept of tawhid adz-dzat in Islam.  ‘Tzimtzum’ is a Hebrew word means ‘contraction’.  Rabbi Isaac Luris used it to explain his doctrine of Creation and is relationship with free will, thus allowing evil.  He said that God began Creation by ‘contracting’ his Ein Sof, which in Islam, we know as His Nur, Divine Light.  This was in order to Allow for a conceptual space where the finite and temporal could exist.  This creates a problem regarding Divine Omnipresence, but it really is not within the scope if what I am trying to say to address that here.  In essence, here, free will exists where it is not overwhelmed by Divine Will.  And where that free will is at great variance to Divine Will and Intent, that is evil.  ‘Satan’ here is an attribute, not an entity.  And this is where Christian theology began.

In the Bible, the word ‘evil’ occurs approximately 613 times in the Western Christian canon: 481 times in the Old Testament, and 132 times in the New Testament.  Based on Scripture, Christianity actually defines evil as all that is opposed to God and His Intent, sin; or that which the human perspective views as ‘harmful and non-productive’, suffering.

Christian theologians have argued that though evil is present, it is not strong enough evidence to suggest that God is not Omnipotent and Loving.  The simplest contentions is that God has Reasons to permit evil, meaning there is a hidden Divine Wisdom.  This is a type of greater good response.  Greater good responses justify evil in the world by claiming that they are necessary for God’s Plan, which is ultimately good.  Another answer is the free will response.  Some Christian theologians argue that if God prohibited one evil, then He would have to prohibit them all, curtailing free will.  This is not acceptable in Islam and Judaism since it supposes an inadequacy in His Creation or His Sovereignty.

Christian Gnosticism is a heresy which collectively see evil as due to the world being created by an imperfect god, the demiurge, which is contrasted with a superior entity.  But this does not answer the problem of evil if the superior entity is Omnipotent and Omnibenevolent.  Different gnostic beliefs give varying answers.  Manichaeism, for example, adopts dualism, in opposition to the doctrine of omnipotence.

Irenaean theodicy was posited by Irenaeus of Alexandria and reformulated by John Hick.  It holds that one cannot achieve moral goodness or love for God if there is no evil and suffering in the world.  Evil tempers the soul, leading to Divine Closeness.  It states God Created an epistemic distance.  Since God is not immediately knowable, evil is necessary so that we may strive to know Him and become truly good.  Evil is a means to good through three things.  It is knowledge.  For example, hunger leads to pain, and causes a desire to feed.  Knowledge of pain prompts humans to seek to help others in pain.  It is through character building since evil offers the opportunity to grow morally.  And it is through a predictable environment.  Natural evil only occurs when these natural laws conflict with our own perceived needs.  There is no immorality.

Theologians such as Pelagius and Augustine of Hippo debated the doctrine of Original Sin and its consequences.  Pelagius argued on behalf of original innocence, while Augustine indicted Eve and Adam (a.s.) for Original Sin.  This is the current doctrine of the Church.  Pelagianism is the belief that Original Sin did not taint all of humanity and that mortal free will is capable of choosing good or evil without Divine Aid.  Augustine’s position was that Adam (a.s.) and Eve had the power to topple God’s Perfect Order, thus changing nature by bringing sin into the world, but that the advent of sin then limited mankind’s power to evade the consequences without Divine Aid.  Eastern Orthodox theology is a variation of this since it holds that one inherits the nature of sinfulness but not Adam (a.s.) and Eve’s guilt for their sin which resulted in the Fall.

The Augustinian theodicy, as presented in John Hick’s ‘Evil and the God of Love’, focuses on the Genesis story.  It states that a Good God Created the world and thus it was Good; evil is a consequence of the Fall of Man.  Augustine stated that natural evil is caused by fallen angels, which I consider an egregious superstition; whereas moral evil is as a result of being estranged from God and deviating from Divine Will.  Augustine believed God could not have created evil in the world, as it was Created good since God is Good, and that all notions of evil are simply a deviation or privation of goodness.  For example, there is no darkness, merely a privation of sight.  This doctrine is consistent with Islamic and Jewish theology.

Thomas Aquinas systematised the Augustinian conception of evil, supplementing it with his own thoughts on the matter.  According to him, evil is a privation, or the absence of some good which belongs properly to the nature of the creature.  There is, therefore, no positive source of evil, corresponding to the greater good, which is God; evil being not real but rational, meaning it exists not as an objective fact, but as a subjective conception.  All things are not evil in themselves, but by reason of their relation to other things or persons.  And all realities are in themselves good; they produce bad results only incidentally.  Consequently, the ultimate cause of evil is fundamentally good, as well as the objects in which evil is found.

Modern Catholicism states that evil is threefold: metaphysical evil; moral evil; and physical evil; the retributive consequence of moral guilt.  Its existence subserves the perfection of the whole; the universe would be less perfect if it contained no evil.  The Catholic Encylopaedia states that fire could not exist without the corruption of what it consumes; the lion must slay the ass in order to live, and if there were no wrong doing, there would be no sphere for patience and justice.

Isaiah 45:6-7
6 Because I would proclaim it from east to west that there is no other God.  It is the Lord that Speaks, “And there is no other to rival Me; 7 I, the Fashioner of darkness, the Creator of light, I, the Maker of peace, the author of Calamity.  I, the Lord, am the Doer of all this.”

Accordingly, God is said to be the author of evil in the sense that the corruption of material objects in nature is Ordained by Him as a means for carrying out the design of the universe; and on the other hand, the evil which exists as a consequence of the breach of Divine laws is in the same sense due to Divine appointment; the universe would be less perfect if its laws could be broken with impunity.  Thus evil, in one aspect, counter-balances the deordination of sin, and has the nature of good.  But the evil of sin, though Permitted by God, is not due to Him.  This would be denying Omnipotence, that another equally perfect universe could not be Created in which evil did not exist.

The two Protestant theologians, Martin Luther and John Calvin, explained evil as a consequence of the Fall of Man and Original Sin.  Their ideas are inferior to Thomas Aquinas, Pelagius and those that came before.  In fact, the entire theological basis of the Protestant movement is painfully weak.  They believe, however, due to Divine predestination and Omnipotence, the Fall is part of the Divines Plan.  Ultimately, this Plan is ‘unknowable’.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are a pseudo-Christian sect, believe that Satan, an actual entity, is the original cause of evil.  They believe that he was once a perfect angel, but developed feelings of self-importance and craved worship, and eventually challenged God’s Right to rule.  It was Satan who caused Adam (a.s.) and Eve to disobey God, and humanity subsequently became participants in a challenge involving the competing claims of Jehovah and Satan to universal sovereignty.  Other angels who sided with Satan became demons.  This narrative challenges the belief in an Omniscient God.  Considering, however, that this group cannot even get the supposed true Name of God right, pronouncing it with the ‘J’, whatever they have to say about theology has no worth.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe God’s subsequent tolerance of evil is explained partly by free will, but this period of suffering is one of Divine non-interference, which serves to somehow demonstrate that ‘Jehovah’s’ ‘right to rule’ is both correct and in the best interests of all intelligent beings.  This Divine silence gives individuals the opportunity to show their willingness to submit to God’s rulership, which is conveniently according to the interpretation of their elders’ council in New York.  In essence, a group of self-satisfied, unlearned old white men of privilege are giving directions about God’s Will.  Accordingly, they believe that at some future time known only to Him, God will ‘reclaim’ His right to universal sovereignty.  The reconciliation of the ‘faithful’ will be accomplished through ‘Christ’, and nonbelievers and all evil will be destroyed.  It is interesting how they understand evil to be non-belief in their inadequate doctrine.

In Islam, since God is ultimately Omnibenevolent, He does not create evil.  Evil is how we perceive things since Divine Justice is overwhelming.  The main conceptions of God and the problem of evil in Islam are found in the Mu’tazila, the Ash’ari and the Maturidi.  Every school of theology essentially falls within these three positons.

The Mu’tazila emphasised God’s Omnibenevolence.  As such, they believe that evil arises not from God but from the actions of His Creations who create their own actions independent of God.  This is considered a heresy and rejected by the Ahl as-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah since in the doctrine of tawhid al-af’al, God Alone Originates actions in His Creation.

The Ash’aris emphasised God’s Omnipotence.  God is not limited to an objective moral system centred on Man.  As the Qur’an States many times, He has the Power to exercise His Will without limit.  ‘Evil’ is our inadequacy in accepting and understanding His Will and Decree, but we believe that His Intent is always good.  The Maturidi have a variation of this position.  They contend that ‘evil’ arises from God but that ‘evil’ has a wiser purpose as a whole and for the future.  It is ‘evil’ in our perception.  As such, evil has not reality.  Evil arises from the lack of realisation, awareness and God-consciousness.

The Wahhabi sect, a heretical idol-worshipping group within Islam, does not actually address this issue.  They reject the Ash’ari and Maturidi conception of a God without limits.  Naswir ad-Din al-Albani himself states that God has limits and only God ‘knows’ His limits.  This implies that where God ‘ends’, evil begins.  From the position of mainstream Islam since it implies a form of duality.

Zoroastrianism, which began as a monotheistic faith with one prophet, Zarathustra (r.a.) or Zoroaster, as he is also known, had a different way of addressing this.  As it evolved, it developed the belief in two creator gods: Ahura Mazda, the source of all goodness, and Ahriman, the source of all evil.  And from there, it devolved into polytheism.  And all this because it had no real answer to this question.

As has been shown here, the Problem of Evil itself cannot be addressed without actually considering the conception of the Divine Nature in the various traditions within the Abrahamic and related faiths.  In true monotheism, however, evil cannot have an independent existence.  It must be contingent upon goodness since there is only One Creator and God is Good.


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