Belief, Bible Study, Genesis, God, Old Testament, Seeking

Evil

Roxanne asked about evil. I’ll tell you now, at the beginning, to save you time if you thought I was going to be able to answer this question: I don’t know how to answer this question. I don’t know what to do about evil.

I’ll start with this poem by Duane Michals, “I Am Much Nicer Than God.”

“It was last Thursday, when I heard that Dennis had finally died, that I realized I was much nicer than God. I would never have let him suffer all those months as he did. I would never have invented cancer in the first place. Nor would I permit children to fall asleep hungry, or old people to cry alone. But if it is true, that I with my petty vanity and selfishness are much nicer than God, then I am in despair. I do not have enough compassion and love to protect. Somewhere there must be more love.”

Evil really isn’t that difficult of a concept to wrap your arms around. We innately know what evil is. Evil is something terrible that happens that leaves you powerless. Of course, sometimes it’s something like an earthquake, or a brushfire, and the earthquake and the brushfire themselves aren’t evil. Sometimes it’s an illness like cancer, or HIV/AIDS, but cancer and AIDS themselves aren’t evil. Evil is cruelty and violence, and it is sometimes disguised as caring and love. We experience the effects of evil; maybe evil is like wind: unseen but felt, always around us and we only notice when we’re blown off course.

God, however, of course, created earthquakes. And brushfires. And cancer. And AIDS. And humans, who exacerbate the problems while also being the victim.

Are people evil? We sure want them to be. We want an explanation for bad behavior, that an evil person did an evil thing because evil is in the world. And sometimes, I guess, that’s true. The problem is, the more we learn about the brain, the more we start to see how little control we actually have over our actions. Where I am with evil: there is a lot of bad in the world, most of it caused by humans, and evil is a way of labeling it, but it’s not a useful designation, because we use it like packing peanuts to couch our discomfort. Calling something evil and then blaming God for not fixing it has not worked as an effective counter to evil or as a deterrent to belief in the Divine.

But why does God allow evil? That’s a question any religion that claims a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity has to answer. That seems to be an especially Christian p.o.v. God has faults and makes mistakes in the Hebrew Bible ::all the time::, and it doesn’t undercut his standing as the chosen god of the Israelites. (Though there is an interesting development, characterwise, with God in the Hebrew Bible: there seems to be some room for polytheism at the beginning; God references other deities*. He then becomes the most powerful of all the deities. And ::then:: he becomes the ONLY deity. Christianity works some polytheism back into the mix with the trinity concept, which may not have been Christianity’s smartest move, but it was in part to create an answer to the question: Is Noah/Abraham/Moses saved, not having had a Christ-experience? John gives us the answer: yes, because “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I have been chastened by my pastor for my current thoughts on John so I’ll say no more until I’ve read this book of commentary on it.) Christianity wants a benevolent God to have all the Os — omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence — but also wants there to be sin. And we get the sin problem because now we have to introduce the concept of Free Will. That makes evil ::our:: problem, not God’s problem, and is a really shitty way to think about evil and God if you ask me.

(* Genesis 1:16 is an interesting place to talk real quick-like about translation and editorializing. It’s a curious little passage; here it is in the NRSV edition: “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” It’s identical in the King James, and essentially identical in the earlier 1599 Geneva translation. The Hebrew translation is also very straight-forward — we don’t have any contextual issues where a Hebrew word has been poorly translated. But the phrasing. “The greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night.” Why not just say “The sun to rule the day and the moon to rule the night.” And it’s because the names for the sun and the moon at the time this text is written down were also the names of Mesopotamian deities. If you’re world-building as a solo entity, you can’t very well say that God created Utu (sun deity) and Nanna (moon deity), so we’re left with this awkward Hebrew work-around that has stayed with us through the current day.)

(Me again: there is an arm of evangelical Christianity that sees the “lesser light” as referring to Satan and I either have a lot to say about this or nothing to say about this we’ll see.)

Theologically speaking, God is at least aware that evil is a force in the world, whether he created evil or not. In Genesis 2:9, we learn that God has created both a tree of life (which grants immortality), and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And that good/evil tree is created ::before:: God has created Adam. So man didn’t bring evil into the world, because evil must already exist if it can be detected via fruit.

Later, God worries about the new state of the humans he’s created. Gen. 3:22: “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” The Gnostics will argue that the serpent doesn’t lie to Eve, but that God does. Because Eve and Adam do not die after eating the fruit. Certain Christian sects will say, “They died spiritually in that moment,” or “They lost the chance at immortality.” But immortality doesn’t seem to be part of God’s initial plan for humanity, anyway, since he’s also forbidden eating from the fruit of the tree of life. So evil exists — maybe even independently of God — and God sees knowing the difference between the two to be a terrible burden that he hopes to protect his new humans from.

(It’s also useful to consider that the Jewish tradition of creation is not “out of nothing” or “ex nihilo.” God brings order to chaos, not creation out of nothing, in Genesis 1. Christianity — specifically the early Church fathers — is the one arguing for Creation Ex Nihilo because I guess no one had anything better to do in the early 100s?)

But I do think evil is ::our:: problem. And I think God — the full complement of whatever that experience is — is such a profound mystery that as humans we may never understand the point of any of what we are doing here. We’re born, we live our days as best we can, sometimes doing good, sometimes doing evil, sometimes happy, sometimes broken entirely, and we die, and: [something even if it’s nothing happens]. I love this Tolstoy quote from War & Peace: “You will die and it will all be over. You will die and find out everything or cease asking.”

I don’t think there will ever be a human definition of evil that will make sense — and certainly, and ironically, religion can’t answer the question because we don’t understand the question, fully, even though I said evil itself isn’t all that difficult of a concept to wrap one’s arms around. Since we know that evil isn’t something God is willing/able/allowed to fix, we’re left on our own. Evil exists because humans exist, and our job that we should assign to ourselves is to bear witness to evil and call it out when we see it, and to do what we can for those who are suffering.

(Donald Trump is absolutely evil. As are his children, even Tiffany, and Mitch McConnell. Ellen is evil. Dick Cheney, too. George W. Bush is evil but we have decided he’s cute because Michelle Obama hugged him once. Capitalism is evil. Orthodoxy that seeks to control/gatekeep is evil. Obviously Hitler.)

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