The “problem of evil” and real courage

15 July OS 2016 – Wednesday of the Sixth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Martyrs Kirikos and Julita, Holy Great Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles

In today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 13:36-43), the Lord Jesus teaches the disciples that He permits the existence and intermingling of both the good and the evil during our earthly life, and how this relates to the Dread Judgment:

At that time, Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field. He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

 St. Theophan the Recluse takes this occasion to explain the role of evil in the spiritual life of the faithful:

…Thus will be carried out the division of good and evil, light and darkness. Now is the period of time in which they are mixed. It pleased the Lord to arrange that the freedom of creatures should grow and be strengthened in good through the struggle against evil. Evil is allowed, both in connection with inward freedom and outside of a person. It does not determine anything, it only tempts. One who feels a temptation must not fall, but enter into battle. He who conquers is freed from one temptation, and advances forward and upward to find a new temptation there – and so on, until the end of his life. Oh, when will we comprehend the significance of the evil which tempts us, so that we might arrange our lives according to this understanding? The strugglers are finally crowned, and pass on to the next life, where there are neither sicknesses nor sorrows, and where they become inwardly pure like angels of God, free from the sting of tempting inclinations and thoughts. This is how the triumph of light and good is being prepared, and it will be revealed in all of its glory on the last day of the world. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 145

One of the stock arguments of atheists is the so-called “problem of evil”: “How can a good and all-powerful God allow evil: Either He is good but not all-powerful and therefore cannot prevent evil, or He is all-powerful but evil, since He causes or allows evil to exist.” There are several things wrong with this argument, but let us make one thing clear: Only the Christian understanding of evil allows for man’s moral freedom, for man to be a spiritual and free being capable of loving God.   No other explanation makes room for this. God does not will evil, but He allows it, so that 1. Man may choose freely to obey Him or not, to become His servant and friend or not, and 2. The existence of evil provides the arena for man’s spiritual struggle – truly do the Fathers say that without temptations no one would be saved.  Anyone who has engaged in conscious spiritual life in an Orthodox setting understands this immediately.

Our intellects say, “Yes, now that someone has explained this to us, it is quite reasonable,” but we initially received this lofty understanding of man’s vocation through divine revelation, by grace, not by our own mental efforts. We realize that, being of divine origin, this truth is of course incomparably superior to the explanations that the fallen mind of man has created. We perceive that it gives us both peace of soul and the incentive to fight evil and to do good, and therefore not only is it intellectually satisfying but of the highest therapeutic and moral value.   Experiencing this, we ask, “Why would anyone not want to believe in the Faith?”

The answer, of course, is pride of mind, pride of will, and pride of sensuality: Fallen man wants to create his own reality, fallen man wants to disobey God’s law, and fallen man wants to indulge his passions. Even so, man has always wanted to explain evil, and therefore the finite and fallen intellect of man has constructed three basic explanations of evil. One is irreligious, and two are religious.

The “Eastern religions,” Hinduism, Buddhism, and their variants, say that this world is an illusion, that evil is being trapped in the illusory, material world due to some cosmic accident no one can explain, and that you need to go through various incarnations to get rid of your materiality (karma), to realize that even your personal existence and the existence of a personal God are illusions (or, conversely, that you are God, which amounts to the same thing), and that once you get rid of all mental distinctions, you will be absorbed into the World Soul, totally lose your individual existence, and feel no pain. One is eerily reminded of the epitaph of the excommunicated apostate novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, who claimed to have no religion at all: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Islam – and, to the extent that they are infected by determinism, schools of Roman Catholic and Protestant thought – say that only God’s will is really operative in the universe, that He is not interested in explaining anything to us, that what constitutes good and evil is not even a question open to rational discourse, and that your job is to submit without question or thought to the great Divine Steamroller, “Allah,” or whatever you want to call it.   Admit His total sovereignty, don’t question anything, and jump onto the cosmic Juggernaut before it runs over you.   On Judgment Day, all you can do is hope for the best, because you have no idea whatsoever if you have pleased the GUI (the Great Ultimate It) or not.

Materialism says that everything we experience is an accidental concourse of material stuff, and therefore nothing means anything. Eat, drink, and be merry, or seek total power over others for the thrill of it, or commit suicide, or whatever. Since mind does not exist, who cares what good or evil are, anyway, or who could offer a meaningful definition, since what the neurons in your brain invent is an accident, and what the neurons in my brain invent is another accident, and the two do not have anything to do with each other, do they?

What all three explanations have in common, ultimately, is nihilism, “nothing-ism.”   At root, all three deny Who God is, deny who man is, and deny the love of God for man.   All three, at root, are the fruit of pride, of Satan’s rebellion against the All-Good and All-Loving God Who created him, the fruit of Satan’s choice to “reign in hell rather than to serve in heaven.”   To adopt any of these three views and really live by it is to consign oneself to hell in this life, much less the next. Yet people fall very easily into these views, and only with great difficulty, and by God’s grace, do they accept the Truth. Without the miracle of grace, humankind cannot bear too much reality.

The Orthodox Church teaches us the truth, which is that God created man out of love and for love, so that man could freely choose to love God and do His holy will.   Advancing step by step from the fear of punishment to the desire for heavenly rewards to the love of God for His own sake, and thereby attaining the freedom of divine friendship, a man becomes a “god by grace,” and in the process, far from being absorbed into the Cosmic One, and far from being the helpless pawn of an inscrutable fate, he becomes more, and more truly, himself. To accomplish this, however, we must be courageous and full of hope in God’s mercy; we must open our hearts and throw ourselves into the abyss of His love, trusting Him to catch us.   We have to look evil square in the face and bravely hope anyway in the all-loving and all-wise God, Who cares for us, Who became a man and died for us, and Who rose from the dead, giving us the hope of an everlasting life.

Kazantzakis claimed that he had no fear because he had no hope. This is not courage but the very essence of cowardice. We can choose this way – the way of nihilism – or we can go the path of the saints.   Increasingly it becomes clear, from all that is happening around us, that there is no other choice.

pilgrims walking up a hill to a church in Serbia

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