From my first class in Philosophy 101 in college, the so-called “Problem of Evil” has been tossed up as the “clincher” in arguments against the existence of God. How can a good God allow innocent people to suffer? The most devastating case ever made on the subject was in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov, in the chapter entitled “Rebellion,” which is the chapter preceding the famous “Grand Inquisitor,” makes the details of his argument known. He is at an inn with his religious brother, Alyosha. A brief summary would be to say the suffering of innocent children is not worth anything good that God might do.
It’s a very strong argument – so strong, in fact – that Dostoevsky, a Christian believer, feared he had made the case too strong and did not succeed in refuting it in the novel. I disagree with his gloomy assessment.
My argument is somewhat the opposite. It is the problem of Good. Why with the world as dysfunctional as it is do we encounter transcendant goodness in the lives of some people? No one on the basis of nature and nurture can really answer it. Given the world and its headlines, why are not all people largely stockaded in their homes, armed to the teeth?
Why does a stranger volunteer to donate bone marrow to another perfect stranger? The procedure invovles pain.
Why does Mother Teresa gather up over 40,000 dying children from the streets of Calcutta in her lifetime and treat them with love and dignity – when everyone around her is just walking past the problem? Or why does one man lay down his life for others in the death camps of the Nazi’s like the Catholic priest, St. Maximillian Kolbe?
In July 1941, a man from Kolbe’s bunker had vanished, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the Lagerführer (i.e., the camp commander), to pick 10 men from the same bunker to be starved to death in Block 11 (notorious for torture), in order to deter further escape attempts. (The man who had disappeared was later found drowned in the camp latrine). One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only four of the ten men were still alive, including Kolbe. During the time in the cell, he led the men in songs and prayer. The cells were needed, and Kolbe and the other three were executed with an injection of carbolic acid in the left arm.
St. Maria Skobtsove demonstrated similar kindness in the Nazi camps after being arrested for her help with Jews. She died in prison.
And the litany of such actions grows. I do not find it hard to explain Hitler’s evil. He and the men like him were products of their time, their environment, perhaps with demonic inspiration thrown in. Hitler ordered the Berlin Philharmonic to play pieces from the Goetterdamerueng [the Twilight of the Gods] while the Russian troops entered Berlin. He existed in the most educated and enlightened country in the Europe in its day.
The serial killers, even of children, are fairly explainable. I saw an interview with Jeffrey Dahlmer before his death in prison. He sounded quite normal except for his habit of killing and eating people.
But where does transcendant goodness come from? Are some people born with a goodness gene? I do not think so. Their unanimous declaration is that they are imitating Christ without whose Divine aid none of their good works would be possible. They want no credit for their work. Mother Teresa gave away the money from her Nobel Prize.
How is it that someone forgives their enemies?
Such goodness in the world is easily outnumbered by the acts of evil, petty and otherwise. And yet these manifestations of Goodness continue.
Outside the Christian tradition, the work of Gandhi comes to mind. Though most people do not know that his ideas of non-violence were formed during a correspondence early in his life with the Christian, Leo Tolstoy. I would not deny that Divine Grace was at work in many of his actions.
And finally, why does there arise a teacher of goodness in the first century A.D., proclaiming that we should love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? Why does he tell us to sell what we have and distribute it to the poor. Why does he say and do what he does while the very religious authorities of his own nation sought to kill him. Why does he forgive all while enduring the pain of crucifixion?
I am not a good man. I want to be a good man. I believe that such good men exist and that it is possible to become one. I believe this because the One who was crucified said that He was God and that because He was God those who love Him could do even greater works than He.
As for the problem of Goodness – I want to become part of the problem.
First I will state that the mystery of goodness is a mystery. I believe all goodness comes from God – for so I have learned the universe – but having said that is not the same thing as saying that I fully understand it in any form. The Scriptures are clear that “[God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Unbelievers are capable of good as well as believers. If this were not so we could sort one another out with ease. But it’s simply not the case.
So why do we believe in God? This is where the reasons begin to go all over the map – though there needs to be a common core. That core is to be found in Christ Himself. Belief in God cannot finally be belief in an idea or a principle or even the nature of the universe for He is none of those things. The heart of our encounter with God is that He has made Himself known to us as person- indeed as persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A modern Western should not assume that he knows the meaning of those words, for the Church certainly means by them something quite different than common English usage. For the moment I will let it suffice to say that to know God as person means we can only know Him in freedom (both on our part and on His) and we can only know Him in an act of love (both on our part and on His). It is these latter realities that makes arguments about the existence, non-existence of God only marginally useful. God who is not a principle or an idea cannot thus be proven as though He were. In preserving our freedom He is also not necessarily obvious. He is readily knowable but not knowable of necessity. It is quite possible to look at the universe and come to a conclusion that there is no God.
I have always marveled at this latter point – sometimes wondering why it is not other than it is. And yet I am convinced that it is in the very humility of God that things are as they are. It would have been quite possible to have walked by the cross of Christ and assumed there was just one more Jew dying on a cross. The Gospels are a witness of faith, not a newspaper.
And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (Jn. 20:30-31).
So what are we left with? We are left with God. Nothing will substitute for Him – not argument or reason – not miracle or magic. And we who know Him should want nothing more. Our lives should be and become a living witness to the Life of God. If they are not, then why should anyone listen to us? As for others, they will come to faith as mysteriously as we did. Whoever heard of a single means by which people came to Christ other than the single means of grace? The last time I checked the Spirit blows where it wills and you can’t tell where it comes from or where it goes.
Thus we believe and we pray and we lean more deeply into Christ and God adds to the Church daily such as should be saved. And we, following the lives of the saints, should pray for everyone as if they were already further in the Kingdom of God than we.
That part was so disturbing to me that I had to stop reading for a while. I continued some time later only to put it down as Ivan descends into insanity into book 2.
Oh that God’s Grace would empower us to be a part of the problem of Goodness! Lord have mercy!
I once listened to a book on tape by a professor of religion. He claimed that he has studied hundreds of religions from all over the world and from different periods of history. One of his conclusions is that there are 5 and only 5 answers to the problem of pain. So far I have not found an exception to this rule.
1)A misunderstanding of the nature of God (interestingly this is the answer God gives Job)
2)Dualism (Good and Evil are more or less equal and in constant conflict)
3)Suffering is deserved (no one is innocent)
4)Suffering has a purpose
5)Suffering is only temporary and hence irrelevant when compared with eternity
“And we, following the lives of the saints, should pray for everyone as if they were already further in the Kingdom of God than we.”
That’s a great statement, Father Stephen. I will remember that.
Interesting. The enigma of goodness as an “argument” for the existence of God.
I would say, the older I get, the more this idea hits home. Goodness is a difficult concept for crusty, cynical adults.
I have a friend who every now and then will drop a “love bomb,” as he calls it, on someone around him. In other words, a good deed that has no root in anything done previously by the recipient. In fact, they may have deserved the opposite.
Your comment is interesting regarding our limited understanding of the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” As I grow in the faith, I become more struck by what a gargantuan revelation was Jesus’s introduction to us of the Father and later the Holy Spirit. We went from Monotheism for millennia to threeness in the universe, three persons no less. There’s is so much there to unpack, and it may take more than a few millennia to do so.
I think today’s gospel reading (June 14) is very appropriate for this blog post.
Dear Father, bless! Wonderful post. I also read about Gandhi that though he could not accept the Christian teaching that Christ is God (the bigoted behavior he encountered of self-identified Christians in South Africa being a major hindrance to his becoming a Christian), he found Christ’s teachings in the Gospels, in particular in the Beatitudes, peerless, and took it as the heart of his own philosophy. Was he pointed there by Tolstoy perhaps? I remember Gandhi also had a longtime and close friendship with a devout British Christian (Anglican pastor?), who lived and ministered in India and who also was highly influential in his life, whose name I do not for the moment recall.
father stephen, thank you for sharing your wisdom and knowledge. all of these questions seem to play in my head like a loud recorder. this post surely quiets the noise!
Such a beautiful post. Thank you so much. The problem of goodness, the humility of God, what a brilliant theology.
Sometimes it seems like the great Christian fallacy that we are quick to praise God for positive things but reluctant to credit him for negative ones. But if you consider God to be the source of all goodness, and only goodness, then it makes perfect sense to do so.
I tend first towards (1) and only a few elements in any others (and reject (2). But it’s a useful list. I believe that according to the NT, Christ is the “definition” of God made known to us. It is Christ who defines goodness, mercy, love, the response to evil, etc. This is usually not part of the philosophical equation. Dostoevsky’s answer was to point primarily to a life (the Elder Zossima) and the work of suffering redemption in the lives of characters. Some suffering clearly has a purpose, but according to the fathers, its purpose is not punishment, in the sense of retribution, but corrective – it is for our healing.
Of course Ivan pushes the case with the innocent suffering of children – though in the book – his heart is revealed not as being concerned with the suffering of children – but being concerned with rejecting God.
I remain convinced that no one has written as well and thoughtfully (even painfully) about the human predicament in the modern world as Dostoevsky. But of course, my reading is very limited.
Thank you, father.
Some of the greatest Christians I have known, would stress very strongly that we should give thanks to God for all things and in all things, without distinction. This is very hard, and can only come from a heart that has been deeply pierced by the love of God. But I have seen this so clearly demonstrated in a few lives (as well as the teachings of the fathers) that I accept it as the truth and struggle day by day to learn what it means.
Gandhi could indeed accept Christ as God, but not in an exclusive sense. Gandhi saw Christ as one of many Incarnations, or Avatars, of God.
Excellent thoughts! I love the strategy of turning a defensive problem into an offensive asset.
One of the areas which I have been fascinated with, is connection between suffering and self-discipline (a form of suffering) and its opposite, imposed suffering. It’s sort of like innoculating oneself with a weaker form of the thing which helps prevent the ravages of the disease.
For example, by means of the self-imposed suffering of not drinking too much, one avoids liver disease and so many other great evils. The suffering of engaging in spiritual disciplines helps us avoid the suffering connected with being a fool or an evil person.
It is profound that we get to choose which stick to pick up, but God sovereignly chooses what the other end of the stick is (the consequence to our actions).
But this also goes for suffering which we did not participate in choosing (accidents, etc.), in that we can choose our response to it. A psychologist once told me that one very small group of people were on either extreme of life: completely miserable, or gloriously positive: quadrapalegics. We get to choose what we do with life.
Obviously this line of thinking deals with the above answer to the problem of pain in that it is educative… consequently suffering is, or can be – should be, a blessing.
Which is simply to say that he was a Hindu. Karen, statement from a Christian perspective means that he could not accept Christ as God, as a Christian would mean that statement.
Really interesting. Could it be that part of the reason why more people aren’t pointed toward by the goodness they see around them, that it exposes their own lack of goodness, and hence is difficult to acknowledge even as beautiful as it is?
Or, something I’ve seemed to notice lately, is that when we experience good in the world, many are not thankful, but self-entitled, and hence think that we deserve the “good”, and the only reason why the “evil” bothers us is not because it’s contrary to God’s plan for the universe, but because it’s uncomfortable for us?
I was discussing a little on the origins of evil yesterday and one of my friends pointed me over here. I really appreciate it.
In a comment dated June 14, 2010 at 2:01 pm you say that “Gandhi could indeed accept Christ as God, but not in an exclusive sense. Gandhi saw Christ as one of many Incarnations, or Avatars, of God.” (my italics).
Christians do not think of the Incarnation in terms of divisibility but in terms of unity. The distinction between “the many” and “the one” is ontological (not merely semantic or arithmetic).
The Christ-ian identity (soul) is a seeking of the two “paradigmatic” natures of Christ (God) — in His pre-eternal divinity and in His incarnated humanity (cf. Rev. 22:13).
The Christian identity is a fusion of the two “paradigmatic” natures of Christ (God), I should say.
With all due respect to one who’s mother chose very wisely when naming him, there is absolutely no fusion of the two natures of Christ – “One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by Unity of Person.” I actually find the miaphysite formula of St. Cyril of Alexandria enlightening – “One Incarnate nature of God the Word”, granting of course that to be incarnate means to have adopted humanity in its fullness (save for sin). You cannot fuse a finite nature with an infinite one – Christ’s humanity would overshadowed like a drop of water in the ocean (a Eutychian image, I believe).
Dharmashaiva: I am assuming based on your name that you are a Shaivite. Do you follow a monistic school (such as Kashmiri Shaivism) or a more tantric one? In either case, you would have a different understanding of Creation than Christians do, which results in a misunderstanding regarding the whole Incarnation/avatar distinction. For Christians, the world is indeed lila (God’s play), but it has an existence which one can speak of separately from God (even though it cannot exist without God creating it and, in the same act, preserving it in exist) – so it is probably not quite true according to Christianity to speak of the world as maya. We are perfectly comfortable speaking of reality as something different – less than, but different – than ultimate Reality. The world is an icon of God, and a veil covering His face – but it is not merely an illusion wrought by ignorance. Consequently, we believe that our physical bodies and our souls are really who we truly are, not just a covering or shell hiding atman. So we really are human in a way that God was not human before the Incarnation, and Christ really is God in a way which we by our natures can never be (we can only share the divine life through grace).
The Christian understanding of Creation is also different from the tantric understanding of the world. We distinguish the physical world from the presence of God within the world. The “energies” of God by which the world was made – I hate to use the term shakti for this, since the Greek word which came down to Orthodox theology in English as “energies” actually means “works” or “effects”, I think – are not the same as the physical world, but both are real. The physical world did not exist before its creation; it does not emanate from God the way shakti emanates from Purusa (am I getting that right? or is it Siva? Personally, I’ll just stick with believing in God – monotheism was a huge advance over the polytheistic chaos that the primitive religious world believed in). God’s presence pervades and creates the world, but Christ’s humanity was not merely an form of shakti, but was really a unique, physical individual. Christ could not come back as any other human without being schizophrenic.
Just a clarification, since I mentioned shakti: God’s energies are also not a female principle within the divinity, as shakti is the female half of Siva. The world – like the soul – is female in one respect, that God enters the world from without and infuses his life into it in the great wedding between God and His Bride the Church, as a man enters a woman from without in sexual intercourse, but that’s a far cry from Shakti.
Hope this helps understanding why we say that Gandhi didn’t believe that Christ was God, the way we (and Jews, including Christ) mean when we say God.
(The long response to Dharmashaiva was by the same Seraphim that did the post immediately beforehand. Maybe I should change my name to Serafim, or Maloserafim – is that correct Russian, for “little Seraphim”? – since there seem to be two of us here.)
Yes, that helps. Thanks.
The world is real enough but it is passing away (like a veil as Seraphim rightly puts it, it exists purely as an icon of God).
It stands to reason that in the “multiplicities” (how fallen man understands the world) there are untold divisions, but when the veil is removed there is perfect unity.
Thanks all for responding to Dharmashaiva, on my behalf.
Seraphim #2, I vote for you choosing a different variation of your name. It would be helpful to distinguish which Seraphim is which. Thanks for your amplified clarification of the differences between Christian and Hindu cosmology.
Some would say that evil is not of God…that it is a deprivation of good..
Yes I would agree. Evil has not true being – it, at best, is a misdirected action.
You have an exceptionally ethnocentric view of goodness. Do you think there are no good people who haven’t been Christian? Did you miss the Catholic Church’s support of Hitler? The agnostic Warren Buffet giving away 99% of his fortune?
You’ve still done nothing to explain why there is evil in a world which god could make perfect if it chose too, nor have you given any evidence that god exists – an even bigger problem than the PoE.
Tim, my comments will be inadequate but here goes:
1. For Chrisitans, all goodness is inspired by and comes from God. Jesus Christ is God incarnate so whether a particular person actually believes in God at all or not, the goodness come from the same source or is inspired by the same source.
2. I won’t defend sin, but the Catholic Church was not a monolithic supporter of Hitler to imply otherwise is a polemical distortion of history
3. The Christian paradigm posits evil comes into the world because man rejects God.
4. If God ‘made the world perfect’ we would not be free to fail or free to grow, or love or joy. We would be Stepford folk, automatons mere shadows of being lower than ameoba.
5. God has been poorly represented by we, His people so that He often is seen as a twisted caricature of whom He really is.
6. It takes effort and faith to get to know Him, even a little bit. He is a living being, not a mental or philosphical construct so He can’t be proven.
As Fr. Seraphim Rose said: “Truth is not just an abstract idea, sought and known with the mind, but something personal—even a Person—sought and loved with the heart, Jesus Christ”
7. I make no attempt to ‘prove’ the existence of God. I merely testify to what I know. He is there, Jesus Christ is real, His love and forgiveness sustains us all. There is much more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our philosphies.
Since when has Christianity been an “ethnicity”? There have been Christians of all nations at all times, from modern America to Mongol China (Kublai Khan’s mother and sisters, for example) to ancient Ethiopia.
All men possess reason and can see goodness, moral and aesthetic. God’s grace can work through their reason and lead them to do good – hence we can have agnostic social workers who devote their life to serving the poor. Everyone needs to feel fulfilled, and everyone needs to give himself in order to be happy. If that were not true, only Christians would get married. But I doubt Warren Buffet has to beg for his food like a monk, literally following Christ’s injunction to sell all of his posessions and follow Him. I doubt any atheist is going to offer his life in place of another, as St. Maximilian Kolbe did, or even in place of a pregnant woman as St. Maria Skoptsobve did. There are holy men of other religions – Al-Hallaj, for example – who have offered their lives for the sake of Christians under persecution; the Church teaches that such an act comes from the grace of God, and that they are spiritually Christians (“baptism by blood”).
You also need to study history. The Catholic Church was persecuted by Hitler, as were the Orthodox Churches. 4000-7000 Jews were sheltered in the Vatican by Pius XII of blessed memory, and at least 5000 more were sheltered in at least 155 convents (according to Rabbi Lapide, who only gives the ones he knew about) on his orders (an act which cost the Church many martyrs as the Nazis retaliated by emptying all convents which had nuns of Jewish blood in them – St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce [St. Edith Stein] was martyred at Auschwitz as a result). Dachau had almost as many priests as Jews – Fr. Johannes Lenz, a Dachau survivor, records the statistics in his books “Christ in Dachau” (mostly Catholic priests, Orthodox priests and nuns in rough proportion to the Orthodox population of Nazi-occupied territories, and also some Protestant ministers). Rabbi Lapide credits the Church for being “instrumental” in saving 700,000-860,000 Jews. The chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, converted to Catholicism after the war and took the baptismal name of the Pope out of gratitude, and many other Jews expressed their thanks, including one intelligent guy named Albert Einstein, who said: “Only the Catholic Church protested against the Hitlerian onslaught on liberty. Up till then I had not been interested in the Church, but today I feel a great admiration for the Church, which alone has had the courage to struggle for spiritual truth and moral liberty.”
Pius XII’ alleged silence was a matter of prudence – it is better to save Jews then make a lot of noise and get them killed. He had gotten a reputation as Papal Nuncio to Germany for strong anti-Nazi views; on the day of his election, he was denounced by the Berlin Morgenpost: “The election of cardinal Pacelli is not accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism and practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his predecessor.” The Nazis already knew what he thought. The Jews did not want him to do anything foolish. To quote a Jewish couple from Berlin who escaped to Spain with the help of the Church, “None of us wanted the Pope to take an open stand. We were all fugitives, and fugitives do not wish to be pointed at. The Gestapo would have become more excited and would have intensified its inquisitions. If the Pope had protested, Rome would have become the center of attention. It was better that the Pope said nothing. We all shared this opinion at the time, and this is still our conviction today.” (Pinchas Lapide, Three Popes and the Jews, p. 99)
Tim, perhaps it would be worth noting that according to Christ’s teaching, God is not a respecter of persons. He doesn’t show partiality, but judges according to the truth of what is. Not everyone calling themselves Christians (or religious) will be approved, and not everyone who is seemingly unbelieving or agnostic about God (especially caricatures of Him) is necessarily without His grace (and certainly not outside His love). Our understanding of Final Judgment is found in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25. It has to do with how we treat others (including in the motivation of our hearts), not what we say we believe. We are called to recognize the image of God in everyone and honor that, regardless of external appearances and associations. Forgive us where we have failed to do so.
I don’t believe father stephen is saying that goodness is unique to Christians or the west. The fact that goodness exists in the world is an indication that there is something going on beyond deterministic material processes such as evolution, a “pointer” to God, as it were. If the ultimate basis of the real is God, one would expect to see effects in people throughout the world, and in many religions, just as the effects of the physical laws crop up everywhere regardless of whether people comprehend them fully or not.
Nationalism (but not necessarily ethocentricism rightly understood) is only one of the many faces of an apostate Church. While many Catholic priests did indeed collude with Hitler’s Germany, this could always be linked to divisive spirits that saw national revival as an exclusive phenomenon, and which was locked in permanent struggle against the inclusive Church present at Pentecost.
C. S. Lewis pointed out the flip-side to the ‘problem’ of goodness: the rather strange notion (strange, that is, in the context of ‘survival of the fittest’ and all the pain in the world) that man on the strength of his own reason would ever conceive of a God whom they believed was good. Lewis added that this is even more remarkable considering men believed in the goodness of God many centuries before the invention of chloroform (anesthesia) and in times when human brutality was even more commonplace than is generally acceptable today.
From whence should such a conception of God come? Those of faith know that this seemingly irrational yet widely believed notion points to the nobility of man’s descent – a clear, albeit sometimes faint indication of the glory and the dignity with which he was endowed as well as the depths of degradation and suffering to which the misuse of his freedom has brought him.
Archimandrite Zacharias on what Holy Orthodoxy really is:
“One can only know God if he has seen His kind (that is to say His glorious image), or heard His voice (that is to say the voice of God through the power of the Holy Spirit) that puts a seal to the truth of God revealed in us”
(From the theology of St. Silouan the Athonite and Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov).
The quote Seraphim just gave us shows the difference between faith and atheism – we believe in the God Who has divinized us through His holy mysteries, and is known because we have communion with Him. Atheists reject a God they somehow expect to find in a test tube – a God Who is someone an object, and and object of study.
David Bradshaw’s paper on The Divine Glory and the Divine Energies goes a long way towards demystifying what divinization means.
His exegesis of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 serves as a “caution” against any tendency to think of the divine glory as a kind of show or spectacle that God puts on for creatures (and serves also as a perfect illustration of “God obeying God” — to quote Tim Cronin).
What Bradshaw is essentially saying is that Christ has opened up the way for fallen man to share in His pre-eternal mutual relationship with the Father. In a sense (Bradshaw tells us) this is what Jesus’ earthly life has been all about (see the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25, verses 31–46).