What we can learn from the early church
Of the topics relating to religion and philosophy, the so-called “problem of evil” is one of the most popular among Christians. In my classes, students often perk up whenever the topic is broached. They want to know why God could allow evil in the world. They want to know why it is that God allows bad things to happen to good people. After all, what kind of God would allow bad things to happen, if indeed he is omnipotent and has the ability to keep those bad things from happening? In scholarly terms, this problem is called “theodicy.” Students enjoy readings that discuss theodicy in all its forms. C.S. Lewis made a veritable career out of discussing this problem in both philosophical and literary books (such as Mere Christianity or Till We Have Faces) However, the “problem of evil” the way students often consider it is not the same thing as theodicy. We need to redefine what it is that the problem of evil actually is – if we do that, then maybe we will find that the “logical problem” is more easily solved if we change our expectations of what we expect God to be solving for us. This is a moment where we, in the post-enlightenment modern world, can learn something from the earliest generations of Christians who understood more clearly what is really at stake and where we should focus our energy.
The “problem of evil” is a modern concept that has become very popular among (at least) Protestants. The reason it has become so central is that it is a logical problem which religious adherents attempt to solve. The problem can be presented briefly:
- God is all powerful
- God is all good
- God wants to be in relationship with humans
- God could have created a world however he chose
- This world is full of sin and evil and humans are not in relationship with God
This “problem of evil” then is that God could have created a world where there was no sin and evil. Further, if God is all good, he logically should have wanted that. Given that he didn’t, he either is not completely powerful and couldn’t create an alternate world; or contrarily, he could create a world where this was possible, but isn’t completely good and instead created a system where humans have to suffer (making him far closer to being cruel than good).
This problem is one that has been solved in a variety of ways. The most popular solution has been found in the pages of C.S. Lewis and reiterated throughout Christian apologetics. The essential argument as depicted in The Problem of Pain is that in order for there to be true devotion to God, there had to be a way not to be devoted to God – there had to be room to sin in order for there to be followers. After all what would faith be if there was no way to avoid having faith? This is essentially an argument for a kind of “free will.” With this understanding, then, humans did not make the right decision and humans therefore have to suffer the consequences. Further, God cannot simply change the rules of the game for individual cases, because the entire system depends upon freewill having consequences one way or another.
The problem with this is that it does not actually solve the problem. While the idea of freewill functions fine for the here and now, it does not solve the problem of why people are born into the system in the first place. If the system is dependent upon freewill and humans can make the decision to follow or not, it is logical, that humans should be on an equal playing field – for everyone to be a blank slate to make a good decision, there needs to be the opportunity to make that decision. There are several problems. First, people do not always have the same opportunity. While Paul can argue that there is the “law written on people’s hearts” (Rom. 2:14) it is relatively clear that those who have actually heard the Torah have a better a chance of following it than those who have to rely completely on the arbitrary nature of their conscience – just as Paul says, “What advantage has the Jew – much in every way” (Rom. 3:1). People do not have equal opportunity.
Second, for the system to be dependent upon free will, then a person should be able to opt in (or not) to the system at all. However, no one chooses to be born. Indeed, if God was truly all good and all powerful and created a system based entirely on will, his forcing people into a situation with cosmic consequences would seem beastly. Just because someone could choose to follow God rightly doesn’t mean one will. Therefore, God is forcing people into situations they did not select.
More concerning yet, for Lutherans and those of traditional faith, is the amazing amount of weight it puts on humans. It suggests that humans had better “believe hard enough” or else something will go wrong. What is more, they had better make the right choices now or else things will go poorly for them in their life. Martin Luther was insistent that any grace that could only be received if we did something to earn it is not grace – a free gift cannot be free if it is earned. This solution that Lewis made so popular is elegant, but not very helpful for the day-to-day life of most Christians. What is actually does it place more emphasis on the fallen sinner rather than less. Lewis has essentially argued that in order to solve the problem, we had better believe rightly.
The problem with the solution is not its logical challenges, the problem is that it is a bad question. The “problem of evil” is not clearly considered. “Evil” is seen as an unambiguous entity. It is usually determined by the “absence of Good” or even stronger yet, is presented as a cosmic force (in the way that Paul could speak of Sin and Death as cosmic forces that enslave people) (Rom 5-6). Whatever one thinks of the spiritual reality of these figures, how “evil” manifests itself in life is necessarily ambiguous. What is considered evil in the 6th century – e.g. the painting of icons of Christ – is seen as not only acceptable, but religiously valuable in the 9th century.
What is needed is to move beyond “the problem of evil” and into a full discussion of theodicy. Theodicy, in the terms of Peter Berger, is how a religious world legitimates itself. It is the thing that answers the question of “why.” Why is it that we are where we are and not somewhere else? This, of course, does include the answers to why some people are suffering so much. However, it would equally include the answers to why other people are suffering so little. Both sides are important, because both sides are the manifestation of the actual problem – variance.
Variance is what we are really asking about when we ask about the problem of evil. If everyone experiences something that is “bad” we don’t consider it “bad.” We simply call it the state of the human condition. For example, the fact that humans are so dependent upon resources such as oxygen, food, water, and shelter is not seen as “bad” – it is something that simply is the affair of being a human. The only type of “evil” that could be present is if some people have more access to these things than others. Needing proper nutrition is not a “failing” or humanity, but not being able to get it while others can – now that is a problem.
Origen of Alexandria is famous for his speculative work, On First Principles. The text is not meant to be a systematic theology, but was read as such for many years and consequently is known by many more religious thinkers than any of Origen’s other works. It also contained controversial views that would later be challenged. Here, we consider one of those controversial views – the preexistence of souls – in order to display how theodicy is an issue of variance rather than issue of objective evil.
Origen argued that all souls were originally in right relationship with God before becoming manifest in a human body. These figures, for lack of a better term, are often called “logika” – meaning they were in relation in the mind of God. These souls then individually chose to fall away from God. Their choice of fall, then, caused God to place them in corporeal forms in order that they might learn what it is that they particularly needed so that they could eventually return to that same place where they were as logika.
Origen’s view of this pre-existence of the soul is usually expressed in consideration of theodicy. The idea is that one of the major problems associated with the logical challenge of birth has been solved. It was above directed that no one chose to be born, so therefore, the argument of freewill is tenuous. Here, Origen argues that all people did choose to be born, therefore this problem would in theory be solved. However, Origen hasn’t actually solved that problem. Just because he argues that people did choose to fall and therefore be born, he has no argument for why they were created as logika in the first place. All Origen has done is pushed back the problem to a new ontological level.
So what can be learned from Origen? Most of us are not going to posit a preexistence of the soul – indeed, this idea was one of the ones that were officially deposed in the second council of Constantinople in 554 A.D. But there is something we need to understand – Origen worked hard to solve a logical problem that is more relevant than C.S. Lewis. This third century Christian thinker who was breaking brand new ground can speak to our interests more than modern authors.
Origen, unlike C.S. Lewis, was not really interested in solving “why are we born into this world.” He didn’t really address that. It sounds like he did given that he suggested we chose to be born, but what he really suggested was not that there was an issue that we were born, but rather, that we were born into different estates. He recognized that life is not fair. He saw some people born in good families, others in poor families, others with birth defects, others with illnesses, and others yet who only live for a very short while and others a very long while. Why is that? Why do some people get to prosper and others get to suffer? What is worse, it doesn’t seem to matter how religious one is – sometimes the righteous suffer, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes the unrighteous don’t suffer, and sometimes they do. Shouldn’t there be some kind of plan? Why can one thing be so good for one and so bad for another? One can hear Origen exclaiming, much like us “this isn’t fair!”
Origen, then, does not solve the problem of the omnipotent and all good God creating a world where people could suffer. Indeed, Origen even argues for a providence in one’s fall. It can be certainly argued that one’s station was not quite “earned” – instead, God had a hand in placing people in a position on the earth for what would best serve their salvific needs – not necessarily a one to one relationship that the farther one fell, the worse one’s estate would be on the earth. He argues that eventually God is in control and creates a functioning universe.
What Origen suggests to us, is that we should stop asking “why are there so many bad things happening to us” and instead ask “what is a bad thing?” Why do we call some things “so bad” and other things not so bad? Why is that we think a starving child is a tragedy, and getting food to that starving child a miracle? Why aren’t we asking why they were starving in the first place when we weren’t?
Origen suggests that we have to address the fact that life is uneven. But what if the reason life is uneven isn’t because of how bad the individual is and instead it is because God has placed us there? What if we can actually believe that God has a plan for us to “remain as we are” (1 Cor. 7)? This is the Lutheran theology of vocation – God has called us in a particular station in life to act in a way that is beneficial to our relationship with him. We work in the world – in its good, bad, and ugly state – in order to express who we are as people of God. What is more, we are actually the means of grace for people – us acting is simply God acting through us.
If we see variance that way, then we are no longer wringing our hands about why one person’s life is better than another, instead, maybe we should look at our world around us as places where God has placed us so we can serve to the best of our individual abilities. We don’t have to accept what Origen said – that we existed before we were born – but we certainly can learn something about it. It is, as Paul said, God had a purpose for us before we were born (Gal. 1:15) and that purpose is now being enacted. We shouldn’t spend the time wondering if the world around is “good” or “bad” or if we are particularly “suffering” or “not suffering” – we should instead act with the confidence that we are strengthened and placed by God so we can practically act in the world with purpose – regardless of whether we “earned” this station or not.
Benjamin J. Nickodemus is a part time professor of theology at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. He will be beginning his PhD in New Testament Exegetical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis Fall 2016. He writes and teaches to educate the laity in the field of the early church and has particular interest in the way that the early church can teach us lessons for life today. Readers can see his blog with numerous articles at www.bennickodemus.blogspot.com