NOTES ON EVIL
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he’s not omnipotent,” mused Epicures when contemplating the nature of divine beings. “Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why do we call him God?”
The nature of evil has fascinated people regardless of time, place, and culture. But Epicures’ trilemma, later paraphrased by David Hume, shows that the Abrahamic traditions struggle with an additional question; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have to address the problem of evil.
An atheist can be a deeply moral person and struggle to do the right thing. However, she doesn’t have to explain why evil exists in the first place. A Buddhist can turn to the sutras for guidance, but there are no divine powers to complicate the issue. The gods are, after all, stuck in the circle of rebirth just like him, albeit on a different level. But the monotheistic religions have to deal with the seemingly contradicting nature of God. How can a benevolent and omnipotent being allow bad things to happen?
Augustine was once asked by a student what God did in the days before He created the world. The theologian promptly answered that God used that time to create a hell to house all those that ask perky questions. But the problem of evil isn’t as much about the seeming contradictions surrounding the Abrahmic god, as it is about what it means to be human.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam hold that evil came into this world when Adam and Eve rebelled against God by eating the apple, thus defying a divine commandment. The apple itself, however, was not just a choice piece of fruit. In Genesis, it is described as growing on the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Up until the moment Adam and Eve consumed its fruit, it was purely a source of divine wisdom.
According to the German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski, Adam and Eve never stood a chance. “A prohibition creates the knowledge that it prohibits,” he argues in Das Böse oder Das Drama der Freiheit (Evil or the Drama of Freedom) (1989). “Once this forbidden tree stands among the others, mankind has succumbed to the knowledge of good and evil.” This pragmatic contradiction means that the fall of man did not occur when Adam and Eve ate the apple, but rather at the moment when God forbade them to eat it.
But, Safranski continues, it is this knowledge, this freedom that lifts mankind up and truly transforms him into the image of God. Knowledge of good and evil enables us to choose. And being able to choose it is what defines us.
The Dutch sociologist René Diekstra once argued that philosophy began when the first person committed suicide. This is a more brutal, and perhaps more realistic version, of fall of man: the realization that life itself is a continuous choice to make.
Ignorance is bliss, and as humans we have long ago lost this. This isn’t a comfortable thing. “We are continuously reminded of this loss,” Safranski believes. “We still have three forms of heavenly bliss that, to this day, arouse our jealousy: we envy animals because they are one and all with nature, without being troubled by consciousness. We envy God because He may be pure consciousness, without nature. And we envy children, that divine animal.”
Yet this is what makes us what we are. The nature of evil, ironically, is to create and instil our humanity.