Obscene Theodicy

The fluttering of a butterflies wings can start a chain of events leading to a tsunami, this is a parable used in Chaos theory called the butterfly effect. It’s also a parable used in theology, specifically theodicy, to explain how we can never know all the factors of, and effects of, evil. It’s used especially by Calvinists who appeal to the principle found Genesis 50:20, the idea being that God pre-ordains evil because he intends to use it to bring good out of it. The same goes for non-calvinists, arminians and modalists; they will often point to the finitude of human understanding to make the point that God created a world with evil but that it is justified because there is ultimately good that will come out of it, even to the point of saying it would be logically impossible to create a world without evil.

This type of theodicy here has evil and good as a kind of cost/benefit balance that God needs to strike, or it has evil as just an unfortunate step to ultimate good, good that ultimately justifies the evil. As a Christian I find these type of theodicies obscene. Not only because it contradicts scripture: for every Genesis 50:20 there are many Luke 13:1-5’s that seem to say that there is evil for no purpose, or a Genesis 4:1-16 where a murder happens with no silver lining; but also because it fails to understand what evil is.

Thomas Aquinas has, I believe, one of the most sophisticated understandings of evil (although I do not believe he has an adequate explanation of evil):

Hence it cannot be that evil signifies being, or any form or nature. Therefore it must be that by the name of evil is signified the absence of good. And this is what is meant by saying that “evil is neither a being nor a good.” For since being, as such, is good, the absence of one implies the absence of the other.

. . .

And because good has the nature of an end, therefore good and evil are specific differences in moral things; good in itself, but evil as the absence of the due end.

. . .

Now it is in this that evil consists, namely, in the fact that a thing fails in goodness. Hence it is clear that evil is found in things, as corruption also is found; for corruption is itself an evil.

According to Aquinas, evil is privation, has no end, and is a corruption of good. I think this is a perfectly acceptable definition; yet, if one insists on saying that all evil is used by God to bring about a greater good, what you are basically saying is that there is nothing which is truely evil. To give a trivial example, if a doctor inflicts pain on me during some treatment that is intended to cure an illness, we haven’t gotten into the realm of evil yet; because the suffering has a greater end, i.e. to relieve me of an Illness. It is only when pain is inflicted for no end, for no greater good, that we truely have evil. If all suffering really results in good; there is no evil, there is no privation.

But the fact is there is evil in the world, and we all know it. Even With the doctor inflicting pain on me to cure an illness, it is evil that illness exists and that it can only be (maybe) relieved, through inflicting pain … cancer, for example, is evil. Of course those who insist on universalizing Genesis 50:20 will say we simply do not know enough to know whether or not evil, cancer for example, leads to a greater good. However as soon as you start attempting to lay out any scenaio in which the situation becomes justified you end up in obscenity.

What story could you tell to justify a child slowly dying of cancer? Multiply that by millions, and attempt to think of what kind of story a justification would even look like? It immediately becomes grotesque. Even if, some good does somehow come from Evil, that does not justify the evil.

The first question is why is the world formed in such a way that only through unbearable suffering can good arise? There seems to be no reason why this should be the case apriori, and it has to be apriori if you believe in creation ex-nihilo. Second, any later good that arises later is really not relevant to the absolute wickedness of true evil. If a child dies slowly of cancer, but in the process shows some moments of charity and moral uprightneses, and because of that millions of people are inspired to change their lives and start helping others; you could say that good came out of that child’s death and suffering, but did it Justify it?

I would say not at all, because evil is, almost by definition, an immeasurable catastrophy; the parent of the child, for example, could never give a measurable quantity of good that would justify the evil of her child’s suffering, no just exchange can be possible. The same with the good, no one can quantify love to the point to where one could say how much suffering would to be too much to justify that love. The absolute horror of a child dying of cancer is not merely a glitch in the machine, or a cog in the machine, it is a horror that destroys even the concept of the machine.

Even so, empirically evil almost always results in more evil. For every victim of child abuse that moves on to be an advocate for victims, there are many who go on to themselves abuse children. For every victim of oppression that goes on to be a defender of the oppressed, there are many who become angry and violent, or who raise out of their position and then go on to oppress others. Suffering is rarely redeeming. Even if it were, any positive outcome does nothing to dampen the horror or suffering and evil. Even if it were, this calculating God theodicy comes another problem; why is it that creation needs evil to make good? 

This is not just a religious phenomenon, secular culture has its own pop theodicy. There is a tendency to justify evil as building toward a greater good; in the personal realm there is the insistence that any misfortune must be seen as an opportunity, that we are only to make lemonaid out of lemons, that whatever doesn’t kill us must make us stronger. On a societal scale there is the idea of progress, the ravages of the industrial revolution were necessary for this brave new modern world, where everyone gets their just deserts. Poverty must be justified, it must be because the poor were lazy, abused substances, made the wrong descisions, or otherwise caused their own poverty. It is the theodicy of self-help and progress; the maxim of “you can control your own destiny” or “the world is what you make it”, are secular versions of theodicies. But in the end, when real suffering and evil is experienced; those ideologies brake down, everything does not happen for a reason, and there is no way to ultimately master ones fate, and the innocent suffer with no redemption. A good does of Ecclesiastes is in order for both the religious and secular Theodicists:

In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. (Eccl:7:15

No matter what ones theological position is, I think one must avoid attempting to erase evil; we must stare it in its grotesque face, in all its desperate horror, unredeemable pointlessness and wickedness.

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Obscene Theodicy

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