December 14, 2004
Original sin and its discontents

My attempt at starting a conversation about natural theology hasn't had any takers so far, and it occurs to me that in that long rambling post I brought up too many issues at once. So perhaps it would be more productive to take them one at a time.

As I brought up in my conversation two years ago with Telford, the place where the Darwinian account of creation seems to conflict most sharply with orthodox Christian theology (biblical literalism aside) is in the doctrine of original sin. Clearly, the evidence contradicts the classical model of a perfect creation which was then corrupted when people started sinning. The Darwinian story makes it seem more like creation corrupted us.

It's not a loss to take lightly, since original sin is a darn useful idea. It explains how evil exists in a world created by a benevolent God; why we all feel such a disjunct between how the world is and how we feel it should be, as well as how we feel we should be; how humans can be made in the image of God and destined to reign with him in heaven, and yet be such screw-ups. It also resonates with the nearly universal human feeling that there was a lost golden age back there somewhere. Huston Smith wrote that nearly all pagan religions describe a sense of drift from an original order, and "steps are needed to restore the world to its original condition."

So what are the alternatives? Over the course of discussion and reading, a few possibilities came up:

Natural evil vs. moral evil. I think one popular way of resolving the problem of natural evil is to say it isn't really evil; the word properly applies only when a free choice is made, and thus necessitates the human will. And certainly I don't think that, say, a dog is morally culpable for biting me in the way that a human would be for assaulting me.

But this seems to be mostly making a semantic distinction that is not terribly meaningful. For one thing, when we talk about the problem of evil we're generally talking about the problem of suffering, and natural evil creates plenty of suffering by itself. I don't think it hurts a parent less to lose a child to a bear than to lose it to a drunk driver.

Secondly, as I implied, the whole distinction between what is human and what is nature gets blurred in a Darwinian context. We say that a dog has an instinct to bite; but don't we have those instincts too? Is what we call "moral evil" really just a non-resistance to natural evil? Why does it suddenly become evil when it's within us?

Pelagianism. Pelagius was Augustine's chief opponent, and denied that original sin exists. The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes his philosophy:

Pelagius denied the primitive state in paradise and original sin (cf. P. L., XXX, 678, "Insaniunt, qui de Adam per traducem asserunt ad nos venire peccatum"), insisted on the naturalness of concupiscence and the death of the body, and ascribed the actual existence and universality of sin to the bad example which Adam set by his first sin. As all his ideas were chiefly rooted in the old, pagan philosophy, especially in the popular system of the Stoics, rather than in Christianity, he regarded the moral strength of man's will (liberum arbitrium), when steeled by asceticism, as sufficient in itself to desire and to attain the loftiest ideal of virtue. The value of Christ's redemption was, in his opinion, limited mainly to instruction (doctrina) and example (exemplum), which the Saviour threw into the balance as a counterweight against Adam's wicked example, so that nature retains the ability to conquer sin and to gain eternal life even without the aid of grace. By justification we are indeed cleansed of our personal sins through faith alone (loc. cit., 663, "per solam fidem justificat Deus impium convertendum"), but this pardon (gratia remissionis) implies no interior renovation of sanctification of the soul.

Even though Pelagianism as such didn't outlive its founder for very long, this general attitude remains popular today, because it actually fits pretty well with Darwinism and humanism. Nature is what it is, and never has been or will be different; only people's individual choices will improve things.

The problem, first of all, is that the Council of Ephesus declared this a heresy and no church has ever retaken it (though some have accused Arminians of being somewhat Pelagian). And the council had good reasons for doing so. God is kind of a bit player in this system, creating people with capacities for good and evil and then leaving it up to themselves. It has the same problem I mentioned above, about separating moral evil from natural evil. There also isn't much hope in it; there is, after all, no real reason to believe people are going to choose the good in the future any more than they have in the past. The moral teachings of Jesus appear disconnected from the new creation, and therefore out of synch with reality.

Another problem is that this emphasis on the individual will glosses over the corporate nature of sin. Augustine's picture of sin as a sort of virus that passes from parent to child and neighbor to neighbor, and corrupts whole societies, actually fits better with psychological and sociological observation than the notion that every person has a totally free choice to do good or evil. It's popular among tough-on-crime types to think that, say, the impoverished child of a crack addict and a pedophile has just as much opportunity to choose the good as they do, but this idea doesn't survive much serious thought. This is why the idea of Jesus rescuing humanity en masse and starting a counter-polity in the church make so much sense.

Irenaeus. Irenaeus was a Church Father who, unlike Pelagius, was a defender of orthodoxy. His idea of fallenness was a little different from Augustine's, however, as Jake explained in a comment:

Augustine's perspective of perfect humans falling; resulting in "original sin" is one perspective. Irenaeus offers a different view; that of humanity being created imperfect,and progressing towards perfection. The analogy he uses is that of an infant; the "fall" becomes the actions of immature children, not willful rebellion by adults.

This results in Irenaeus seeing evil as an essential part of the progression; part of the plan (think Job), rather than coming out nowhere as Augustine seems to suggest. That always troubled me; Augustine insists that God could not have created evil...that seems to put some serious limitations on God, doesn't it? I'll go with Irenaeus and Job. Unfortunately, most of Christendom is rooted in Augustinian (the former Manichean) thought. Any surprise that dualism is such a popular solution to the problem of evil?

This idea has several things going for it. As I mentioned here, the idea of progress from a spiritual childhood to adulthood, both individually and corporately, is well attested in the New Testament. Also, the whole Judeo-Christian cosmology follows a linear timeline with a beginning, middle and end, as opposed to cyclical or static schemes of time in other cultures. It posits an "evoluton" of sorts well before Darwin (albeit a more neatly progressive one than natural selection tends to follow).

But this idea also brings to mind a discussion at Bible study a few months back. Some passage in James set the pastor talking about how you need to let children suffer adversity and stumble a few times or they wouldn't grow, so God lets us suffer for the same reason. Finally, another person snapped, "I never bought this stuff about adversity building character. It didn't build my character to be molested by clergy!"

It was a good point. To characterize grave moral evils as part of the growth experience at best trivializes them, and at worst justifies them. So the idea that suffering is "part of the plan" makes me wonder what on earth that plan could be, and why I should trust it.

Actually, in my talks with Telford after our blog exchange he built an argument that essentially synthesized Augustine and Irenaeus. Creation was made imperfect and God had a plan to bring it to adulthood, but the corruption of sin is making it more painful than it ought to be. In this scheme of things, natural evil stems from the immature nature of creation, while moral evil comes from Augustinian rebellion of the human will against God's attempt to make us grow up. This solves a certain number of problems, but not all.

The fallen angel. This is an old idea, and not really an alternative to the original-sin story. But the interesting feature of this for our discussion is that it has evil beginning not in the rebellion of Adam and Eve, but in an earlier rebellion by a supernatural being who then led the first couple astray. Therefore it does not saddle human beings with the entire responsibility for the existence of evil in the whole world.

This means reviving the idea of a personal, powerful Satan, which (despite C.S. Lewis' efforts) is increasingly unfashionable in the non-creationist set that I'm talking to here. And for good reason, because that belief has led to some nasty behavior, most notably the witch hunts of the Renaissance era.

However, from my study of the witch hunts in college, it seems to me that the problem there wasn't so much the belief in Satan as the waning belief in the saving power of Jesus. After all, for the first 1400 years the church believed in Satan and had a lot of paganism going on around it, but its official position was that witchcraft had no real power. They believed Jesus had crushed Satan, and so the images of him at the time are often of a ridiculous figure, deprived of his human captives and gnashing his teeth in helpless rage. This is quite a change from the witchcraft literature that appeared later, where Satan stalks the earth practically unhindered and Jesus has receded to near-irrelevance.

But anyway, getting to the topic at hand, should we then blame Satan for the corruption of nature as well as humanity? Could he have employed nature somehow in order to corrupt humanity? After all, the Eden story represents him with a snake, and Paul in Romans 1 describes the idolatry of animal gods as the first step leading to all other sins. I'm getting groggy with cold medicine, so I'll leave it there, but it bears some thought.

Posted by Camassia at December 14, 2004 07:33 PM | TrackBack

It's interesting that you should suggest the possibility that "creation corrupted us". Because however this world got screwed up in the first place, it's clear that anyone who is born into this world the way it is, with Darwinian competition the order of the day and with human sin surrounding us as we grow up, has no chance of growing up without being at least a little bit damaged. The environment into which we are born is more than a little bit responsible for each of us ending up broken and fallen and in need of redemption.

And what is the motivator for the Darwinian struggle that we all must participate in? We call it "an instinct for self-preservation", but perhaps it's more honest to call it the fear of death. And it is this that the Scripture and the Fathers cite most often as the "mechanism" by which the consequences of evil ("original sin") are transmitted to us. As St Paul says, "... through one man sin came into the world, and death through sin, and death passed through to all, because of which all have sinned" (Ro 5.12); and the letter to the Hebrews explains, "[Christ] partook of flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death (that is, the devil), and deliver all those who through fear of death were held in lifelong slavery" (Hb 2.14-15).

Posted by: Chris Jones on December 14, 2004 10:09 PM

There's so much good stuff in here (and the previous post) that it's hard to know where to begin!

Let me just make a few loosley connected (if that) points:

1. I think that the tradition has always recognized an element truth in Irenaeus' position at least in so far as it regards redeemed creation as qualitatively different (and better) than the creation pre-fall. That is, redemption is not just a return to the status quo ante. This is where you get the stuff about Adam's "happy fault" (felix culpa) that made it possible (necessary?) for God to exalt and divinize human nature through the incarnation far beyond what it was in its pre-lapsarian state. So there is a progressive development (though not a smooth one!).

Though, if we accept the "strong" Irenaen position - i.e. that creation initially contained actual evil rather than just the potential for evil, don't we have to ask why God couldn't create a world without evil?

2. Let me defend Augustine for a minute: the reason God cannot be the author of moral evil is that evil is literally no-thing. It is the will's turning away from its true good, which is, considered rationally, absurd. The evil will chooses nothingness over being (because in turning away from God it is turning away from the source of its own being). Augustine is not a dualist - in fact, invoking the fallen angel just pushes the problem back a stage. Why did Lucifer choose to turn away from the good? For Augustine this always remains rationally inexplicable, but that's what you get with free will.

3. I think if we take seriously the idea that "nature red in tooth and claw" is not the way God intended it, then we do have to re-evaluate our relationship to the animal world. Does this mean positing some kind of cosmic cataclysm for the way the world is now? I'm not sure, but it at least seems to imply that it's not always going to be that way, if God has his way (which presumably he will).

Also, you might find this article by Hauerwas and John Berkman of interest:


"Of course, the notion of creation is not self-explanatory. In much of the literature devoted to questions concerning how Christians conceive of the environment and of animals, the term 'creation' too easily becomes synonymous with 'nature' and reasons why nature is important. In such an account, the affirmation of creation becomes simply a kind of romanticism toward nature. Though we stand in awe of our so-called 'natural world,' we certainly do not intend to stand for this kind of romanticism. We discussed earlier how the language of 'inalienable rights' presupposes a world at war with itself, a view that is antithetical to the Christian understanding of creation.

"However, advocates of 'inalienable rights' and other analogous viewpoints may rightfully argue that the natural world is also at war with itself. We are acutely aware that animals still eat animals, even under the best of conditions. We cannot avoid the fact that hawks eat rabbits, lions eat gazelles, cats eat mice, and that, if necessary, we human animals eat all of them.
Acknowledging the tragedy of the natural world being at war with itself inevitably leads us to 'survival of the fittest' conclusions, unless we realize that 'nature' and 'creation' are not referring to the same world. Those who believe that 'nature' and 'creation' are synonymous often buy into an implicit Deism (which sometimes also appears under the name 'theism'), believing that God functions primarily as 'the first cause of it all' and thus presuming that 'nature' is coextensive with what Christians mean by 'creation.'"

Posted by: Lee on December 15, 2004 06:59 AM

Oh - and I think what you're doing here might be better called "theology of nature" rather than "natural theology." The latter term usually refers to attempts to prove God's existence relying solely on reason.

Just being a nit-pick. :)

Posted by: Lee on December 15, 2004 07:27 AM


This is a question I've been thinking a lot about--original sin given what we're learning from sciences. I'm not a systematician, but more a poet and painter and liturgist and historian interested in the particular as particular and as how it shows us something about us as humans more generally.

But then again the Church Fathers including Augustine were not systematicians either but more pastoral in their approaches to such things, so working this out for myself always seems to be in process as new insights arise or come into purview rather than given to a final outcome...

Lee makes excellent points about Augustine's understanding of evil as turning away from G-d in whom we live and move and have our being, which means negating our own being or person because we have our being in Being who is G-d. This is the meaning of Augustine's dictum, "Love God and do what you will." If we love G-d, our life flows from that freedom in G-d which is our true self, rather than our self (our ego). Evil is that negation, that no-thing, no being, and is such does not exist. And even Satan is good because Satan is created--in turning away from who he is created to be in G-d, he becomes evil, but he is not EVIL INCARNATE. That is why the Eastern Church and some strands of Anglicanism continue to teach that we can hope for even the salvation of the demons and Satan. Madeleine L'Engle's Wind in the Door series has interesting thoughts on this in poetic forms. It also critiques making any person or group of persons into a scapegoat or EVIL INCARNATE, as we are all created, and hence, by nature good.

This focus on our personhood completed through Person is at the heart of the thinking behind the Trinitarian doctrine as formulated by the Cappadocians and Maximus. Fr. John Zizioulous has written excellently on this.

In the East, Irenaeus (himself educated in this milieu) is given much higher homage, and Cassian also plays a role in formative Christian spiritual psychology. And Original Sin does take on a more "semi-Pelagian" or maybe in John MacQuarrie's words, "semi-Augustinian" approach. Peter Brown has written excellently on Augustine's "invention" of Pelagianism. Though Morgan (Pelagius) seems not to have been an exceptionally humble guy, what little we know of his actual theologizing does not seem novel from Eastern perspectives because in such perspectives, even creation is grace--gift, so it is not so much that Morgan made G-d nearly unnecessary as that G-d is so at the heart of all things that there is no place finally without
G-d's grace, so act from that place--the place of creation completed. It has problems, but from the Eastern perspective, Augustine was an innovator denying tried and true wisdom and practice coming from the Desert Elders in Egypt and Syria and such.

As a historian and liturgist, I must say that as is often the case with "universal" (Augustine's views are considered "heretical" in the Eastern Church(es)) doctrines, these start with particular circumstances or disagreements. The starting place in this instance is differences in liturgical practice and what we've come to call liturgical families: Roman, North African, Ambrosian, Gallic, Celtic, Mozarabic, Alexandrian, Antiochian, Byzantine, East Syrian...

In the case of Original Sin, Augustine came to muse on this from the particular liturgical initiation practices of the North African Church in which there was a pre-baptismal exorcism anointing, baptism, and a post-baptismal anointing (later interpretted as Confirmation which became separated from baptism and Eucharist in missionizing to Germanic triblesin the 9th century onward). He mused on why infants would need exorcism. He came to understand that even infants were corrupted in nature through concupiscence passed on from Adam and needed to be exorcised. This is the starting point for his formulation of the Western understanding of Original Sin. This tradition emphasizes the dying and rising in Christ metaphor...

Now from a liturgical standpoint, West Syrian or Antiochean practice was quite different. We find a pre-baptismal anointing, water baptism, and post-baptismal anointing. The trick is, the pre-baptismal anointing is not interpretted as exorcistic (word?). The metaphor is dying and rising in Christ as with North Africa, but it lacks this distinctly North African interpretation which finds itself linked with Roman and Ambrosian (Milanese) traditions...

And in the liturgical family of East Syria centered in Edessa, a tradition now mostly lost due to being set outside the Imperial Church for "heresy" (this is being reevaluated as scholars reconsider Theodore of Mopsuestian, more the central theological figure in this tradition, not Nestorius)and conflict with the Persian Empire, due to later Antiochean influences, due to later 19th and 20th century impositions of Western liturgical norms. In this tradition there was a pre-baptismal anointing (see Gabrielle Winkler's article in Worship) and a water baptism. This tradition emphasizes the metaphor of crossing the Jordan and messianic anointing. Such an understanding saw the pre-baptismal anointing as a messianic anointing and as the central rite and water baptism as emerging from the womb to new life. Some current Episcopal Church, USA liturgies emphasize these metaphors.

My disagreement with Augustine's approach with all of that said has more often to do with his interpreters than with him--Augustine (and Paul from whom he largely draws) was not a dualist (most of the time--there are places where he tends to interpret Paul dualistically), but many of his interpreters are. Original sin is useful in explaining our present status but not useful in explaining our final human being. Fall theology can get us gazing on the past and our sins instead of our telos and forgivenness, the consumation, if we don't think of Fall as having missed the mark from the point of the Consumation--the fulfillment/perfection of all things rather than from some mythical past. Doing theology from eschatological perspectives--that is my understanding of what doctrine is supposed to be about--shifts even Augustine's approach...

Thinking eschatologically, Telford seems to make some good points. An unfinished world, or imperfect world if perfection means being fully ikon of G-d's all encompassing community of love. By our choosing to cooperate with G-d in creation we expand more fully into Christ who is that compassionate community, that fulfillment embodied taking creation to its completion, and our final end. OR we choose to live for our self (our ego) going it without paying mind to G-d (SIN) in a shrunken, fearful, grasping, dominating manner which leads to sins--actions that do not embody our true self in Christ, in the Eschaton as carefully discerned. Again, our true freedom is not in the choosing this or that, as Augustine (and Luther) I think rightly understood, but in our living from a G-d-centered space and choosing what G-d wants us to be (which for each of us is unique as G-d calls each of us in the beloved community to be unique as persons. The danger is when one person or group theologizes/universalizes/dominates on what is human personhood that excludes other possibilities or ways of being human persons as discerned prayerfully by those persons--even Augustine did this...he failed to consult his larger community of married men and women and so forth in his theologizing and it frankly shows in his earlier works). Nonetheless Augustine's understanding of freedom is IMHO a radical critique of our choice-driven consumer society.

But even then G-d redeems our willingness to kill Being, to kill G-d, to annihilate our possibility as persons...loving us anyway through forgiveness and walking with us to Emmaus and beyond, and hopefully in even giving us a taste of that all-encompassing love, we turn to our "future" (honey rather than vinegar) ever so slowly, always in process. Our turning to G-d and our personhood in G-d and our turning away from a self based only in our own self/ego (futile as we cannot give ourselves being) requires a great deal of "soul-searching", discipline (asecis), waiting on G-d in silence, counsel with a spiritual friend, communities of support that are honest together (this a huge problem with Church) about their struggles with demons both inner and outer. This is a pastoral, contextual, wisdom approach, however, which treats each of us a unique other Christ (or little Christs--the literal meaning of Christian) and that has led me to give the Desert Elders, Starets, Wilderness Saints, Sts. Benedict and Scholastica, and such a higher place in my thinking than most systematicians are willing to so do.

Sorry for the ramble. As I said, I'm not a systematician. Thanks again for these discussions...

Blessed and Blessing,

Blessed and Blessing,

Posted by: Christopher on December 15, 2004 10:41 AM

Dear Camassia,

Regarding distinctions between "the Darwinian story," in which it seems as though creation "corrupted us," and "the classical model of a perfect creation which was then corrupted when people started sinning," I thought that you might find the following paragraph, from the late Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff, rather interesting:

"It has been often recognized that Eastern patristic thought ignores the notion of a transmission of guilt from Adam to his descendants. However, it does not ignore the very fact of cosmic fallenness. This fallenness is not expressed in terms of divine punishment inflicted upon all humans (the Augustinian massa damnata) from parents to children, but rather in terms of a usurpation or illegitimate tyranny exercised by Satan upon God's creation. Humans are rather seen as victims of the universal reign of death (indeed Satan is a 'murderer from the beginning': Jn 8.44). 'Through fear of death, they are subject to lifelong bondage' (Heb 2.15). What is being transmitted from parents to children is not sin but mortality and slavery, creating a condition where sin is inevitable: 'Having become mortal,' writes Theodoret of Cyrus, '[Adam and Eve] conceived mortal children, and mortal beings are necessarily subject to passions and fears, to pleasures and sorrows, to anger and hatred.' The model here is Darwinian: fear of death generates struggle for survival, and survival is attainable only at the expense of others - a survival of the fittest, winning over the weak. 'By becoming mortal, we acquired greater urge to sin,' writes Theodore of Mopsuestia, 'because we depend on food, drink, and other needs, and the desire to acquire those leads inevitably to sinful passions.' Patristic references can be easily mutiplied, and their context is understandable if one remembers that the Greek Fathers read the Greek original of the famous passage of Rom 5.12 ('As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because [or 'and because of death'] all have sinned') and were not conditioned by the Latin mistranslation, which implied that all sinned 'in Adam.'"

Perhaps the classic theology of original sin and the "Darwinian story" are not necessarily very different after all. Thank you for your excellent blog.


Posted by: Neil on December 15, 2004 01:25 PM


Thanks for posting this quite apt quote from Fr Meyendorff of blessed memory. Fr Meyendorff succinctly expresses - much better than I am able to do - what I was trying to say in my first comment on this thread.

This is not surprising, because these ideas were taught to me by Fr Meyendorff personally. I had the honour of attending a lecture he gave back in the mid-1980s. The subject of the lecture had little or nothing to do with original sin, but a question he fielded after the lecture (from a Protestant pastor in the process of converting to Orthodoxy) touched on the question of original sin. In a two- or three-minute answer, Fr Meyendorff laid out the Greek patristic view of the matter, including an exegesis of the original Greek of Romans 5.12, and changed my understanding of original sin and the human condition forever.

From which of Fr Meyendorff's works was that quote taken?

Posted by: Chris Jones on December 15, 2004 03:14 PM

Dear Chris Jones,

You can find the quote in Fr Meyendorff's article, "New Life in Christ: Salvation in Orthodox Theology," Theological Studies 50 (1989), p. 493. Please let me know if you do not have access to the Jesuit journal Theological Studies; I can e-mail you a PDF file of the article.

Thank you very much.


Posted by: Neil on December 15, 2004 06:51 PM

Y'all are much better theologically trained than I. But that hasn't stopped me yet. Evolution gets all the press, but is only one of the sciences that need to be reconciled with theology. At a minimum, evolution, astrophysics, and the age and size of the universe present challenges. As I understand our best scientific consensus - We're circling one of 10^22 stars (that's 10 with 22 zero's, give or take a couple of orders of magnitude), there are 50 to 100 billion galaxies, the universe is relatively "young" and still expanding, the earth is 4 billion years old, or so, with billions of years left on it, and what we would call humans have lived on it for .015% of its existence. If global warming releases all of the stored methane in the arctic and again wipes out 95% of the life on earth, signs show that something new will grow in the next 100 million years or so. I'm not sure that we can refer to creation as a completed fact. And without knowing where creation is going, it seems harder to be certain as to whether creation is good or evil, a'la original sin. It seems to me that we're part of an ongoing process. Do I have any answers to this? Not really.

Posted by: A Progressive Christian on December 16, 2004 06:51 AM

I don't know any theology, so this comment will probably be irrelevant. My own understanding of the word "evil" involves some sort of purposeful agency. In my own mind suffering and evil are two different things. Evil is the intentional infliction of suffering. A sadistic torturer is evil because he wants his victim to suffer. My father died of cancer. He was stoic but he did suffer. Nonetheless, those cancer cells were not evil--they were not sentient. Is an earthquake evil? No. Now, if there is an agent purposefully causing an earthquake that will kill innocent mothers and children, this agent is evil. And that, of course, only complicates matters. Theodicy and all that.


Posted by: Kolya on December 16, 2004 08:24 AM

Though, if we accept the "strong" Irenaen position - i.e. that creation initially contained actual evil rather than just the potential for evil, don't we have to ask why God couldn't create a world without evil?

We may feel that we have to ask it, but we never seem to recognize that asking "Couldn't God have made a world without any evil in it?" is also asking "Couldn't God have made a world without me in it?"

It seems obvious that He could have, but apparently He loved me enough not to take that option (or, if He did take that option, He also created me, and my world).

Posted by: Zippy on December 16, 2004 09:08 AM

For that matter, how do we know God didn't create a world without evil? (Not ours, obviously, but another one.)

Posted by: Tom on December 16, 2004 09:24 AM

"Though, if we accept the "strong" Irenaen position - i.e. that creation initially contained actual evil rather than just the potential for evil, don't we have to ask why God couldn't create a world without evil?"

We may feel that we have to ask it, but we never seem to recognize that asking "Couldn't God have made a world without any evil in it?" is also asking "Couldn't God have made a world without me in it?"

It seems obvious that He could have, but apparently He loved me enough not to take that option (or, if He did take that option, He also created me, and my world).

But if we're being good Augustinians wouldn't we say that I'm not evil per se, but rather I have turned my will to evil (i.e. away from God)? At least I hope I'm not evil per se!

Posted by: Lee on December 16, 2004 09:32 AM

If we are looking at rational explanations for the existence of evil and the reason for the fallen nature of man and creation, we won't do much better than the thought of Plotinus and his elucidation of the concept of the Great Chain of Being. Everything in creation is just so many steps down the ladder from the Eternal Perfection of the Unknown and Unknowable ONE. So animals and plants are not without soul, they just have less of it--or are less aware of what they have. It's all good, but some goods are better than others. But--do we really want a rational explanation?

Posted by: Rob on December 16, 2004 10:23 AM

Lee wrote:
But if we're being good Augustinians wouldn't we say that I'm not evil per se, but rather I have turned my will to evil (i.e. away from God)? At least I hope I'm not evil per se!

I may not be evil per se, but clearly I am the contingent product of a history that contains per se evil. If the Holocaust hadn't happened my parents probably would not have met. So while the "problem of evil" is a genuine lament of the existence of evil on the one hand it cannot do that work without simultaneously lamenting my own personal existence on the other.

Tom wrote:
For that matter, how do we know God didn't create a world without evil? (Not ours, obviously, but another one.)

Right, that is what I mean by "if He did take that option". Ultimately He allows us entry into that perfect world as well, it is perhaps worth pointing out.

Posted by: Zippy on December 16, 2004 11:19 AM

Zippy - I think that's a fair point. But I'm not as concerned with formulating a practical existential response to the problem of evil (at least, not at the moment) as with understanding intellectually how we reconcile the fundamental goodness of creation (which I take to be a revealed truth) with the manifest existence of evil. Does it require positing some kind of cosmic cataclysm? If so, can that be understood in a way that doesn't require taking the creation accounts in Genesis literally?

Posted by: Lee on December 16, 2004 12:02 PM

Lee, Zippy:
The Fall introduced relativity. What was originally created as perfect and immortal became susceptible to error (which is understood as sin in the moral realm), gradual disintegration, and death or disintegration. Some things, in the interim, remain mostly good; other things are almost completely evil. All created things are virtually--sub specie aeternitatis--effervescent.

Posted by: Rob on December 16, 2004 12:25 PM

Sorry. I meant for that second "disintegration" to be "dissolution".

Posted by: Rob on December 16, 2004 12:28 PM

...understanding intellectually how we reconcile the fundamental goodness of creation (which I take to be a revealed truth) with the manifest existence of evil.

I guess part of my point though is that the problem of evil is not well formed, at least in a world in which fundamental goods (say, me) are existentially contingent upon evil occurrences (e.g. the Holocaust). With apologies to Liebniz and Voltaire this may not be the best of all possible worlds in the abstract, but it is surely the best of all possible worlds for me because it is the only one in which I am possible. God's love for contingnent beings like me is greater than God's hatred of evil; therefore I exist, and the evil without which I am not logically possible also exists. That evil is an abomination that God tolerates for my sake.

"Fundamental goodness" can't mean "existentially independent of evil" or else my existence would not be fundamentally good. The problem of evil is not well-formed or coherent unless it is taken as saying that it is better for me to never to have existed than for any evil to have been permitted. The problem of evil is really only a problem for a nihilist, or perhaps more accurately it can only be expressed as an assertion of nihilism.

Posted by: Zippy on December 16, 2004 12:47 PM

Zippy, I think I see where you're going, but I guess what I'm trying to do is distinguish two "problems of evil." The first asks: how can a good God be justified in permitting evil? This seems to me to be the question you're addressing (correct me if I'm wrong).

The second asks: how, as a matter of fact, did there come to be evil in the world? I.e. was there a time when creation was devoid of evil? And if so, how did evil come to enter it?

I'm not saying these are unrelated, but I do think they are different questions. One asks for justification, the other for explanation.

Posted by: Lee on December 16, 2004 12:54 PM

The second asks: how, as a matter of fact, did there come to be evil in the world?

God contemplated what possible worlds He could make. In one possible world He saw me, as a contingent product of other beings, beings who had free will and some of whom had rebelled against Him; and He loved me, even though yes, I myself also participated in that rebellion. So He breathed the fire of existence into this world; and so I exist, and not only do I exist but He came to me as Redeemer, and gave me the means to get to a more perfect world, a world free of all evil. Other worlds than these may also exist, but of course I can only know (at this point) the one in which I exist.

Posted by: Zippy on December 16, 2004 01:08 PM

So there is no *necessity* to this world as it is? Its nature is the result of an arbitrary, cafeteria-style, selection among an array of possible creations?

Posted by: Rob on December 16, 2004 01:13 PM

Leibniz's Ghost! So, the evil of this world is an inevitable outcome of God choosing to actualize this world (rather than some other)?

Posted by: Lee on December 16, 2004 01:27 PM

Lee: Not the second this world, since many worlds are possible and we have no way of knowing which ones are actual. But me personally, sure. The evil of this world is a logically necessary outcome of God's choice to actualize me, absolutely.

Rob: no, I don't think the existence of a particular world is solely a matter of necessity. God can choose to create a world, or not.

Posted by: Zippy on December 16, 2004 03:16 PM

After reading all this I'm confirmed in my own thought that we really don't know what original sin is. Theologians theorize. Is there anything which we are precisely required to believe about it? And yet we are required to believe that Mary by the Immaculate Conception was preserved from all stain of this original sin but there seems to be no clear understanding of what she was preserved from. Help!

Posted by: Caroline on December 16, 2004 03:50 PM

Have any of you read Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy?

I read an earlier edition of the book contained in that link, but it's well worth the read. There are five theologians/philosophers, all coming at the discussion from different backgrounds, who each give their theodicy. Then, after each one does this, the other four give their critique of it. Then the person putting forth their theodicy responds to each of the critiques.

It's a wonderful read. I wouldn't say I exactly have a better grasp of the issues involved, but I know now, after being exposed to so many viewpoints, that I at least know what I don't believe.

Posted by: Eric Lee on December 16, 2004 04:36 PM

I like your proposal of the fallen angel as the cause of creation's misfortune. A common interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that Jesus was the Samaritan, we are the half-dead traveler left so by the devil. Like the traveler, we were headed for a certain death. But Jesus pours his oil and wine over our wounds and bandages us. The inn is the church, where he heals us as we await our final destination, the heavenly Jerusalem.

Posted by: TSO on December 16, 2004 04:50 PM

As far as theology and science. Science has a alot of reconciling to do with itself. Qunatum mech and gravity don't mix. Quantum mech in itself is incomplete and baffling. Science did grew up in the Christian system. Augustine himself didn't literally interpret the garden of eden story(not quite sure how he saw it). John Polkinghorne, and anglican pries/ particle physicist deals with the whole original sin/ darwinism issue. Pascal dealt with that whole vastness of space issue. He basically said that we are between the bigness of planets and the smallness of atoms. He also saw us as havign the big advantage in terms of we being the observers and the universe being the observed. I admit their are alot of mysterious and science and theology. I just like to thing that God is challenging us. I wonder about this stuff everyday, But i've also grown in my relationship with Jesus. That helps infinitely!
Regardless of whatever science conjectures, Aquina's five ways are still valid (they are perfect for an evoltuionary universe.

Posted by: phil on December 16, 2004 06:09 PM

Caroline wrote:
"After reading all this I'm confirmed in my own thought that we really don't know what original sin is.

Ah, but that is true of all of the great Christian mysteries: the Incarnation, the Trinity -- all of them. It is even true of mundane everyday natural things like time, consciousness, free will, and the laws of physics. Most things are mysteries when you get close enough to them: why you yourself, Caroline, are a great and profound mystery. But mysteriously enough, we still seem to be able to know things about these mysterious things.

Theologians theorize. Is there anything which we are precisely required to believe about it?"

That we are all (with the exception of the Blessed Mother) born with it. That Christian Baptism removes it. That there is nothing short of Baptism that we can do ourselves to remove it. That it is a consequence of Adam's and Eve's sin. Lots of things, in fact.

Posted by: Zippy on December 16, 2004 08:23 PM

If the mind of God is eternal and omniscient and omnipotent, then wouldn't any world of which God conceives always have existed? I have a problem seeing how this can be called "choice." There would be a infinite number of universes--this one differing from that one only in that in this one your tie is red and in that one your tie is blue. In this one Fred has thirty cents in his pocket on Friday at 12 noon and in that one Fred has fifty cents in his pocket. This may be the case, but I hold out for the concept that this world, our world, is as unique as our God--who is One.

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 09:06 AM

...wouldn't any world of which God conceives always have existed?

Only if an eternal omniscient and omnipotent God has no choice but to create all conceivable worlds, though it is hard to see how such a God could be called omnipotent. There is a difference - not a small difference - between something which is conceivable but does not exist and something which does exist.

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 10:02 AM

"There is a difference between...something which is conceivable but does not exist and something which does exist."

This assumes that something can be in the mind of God and not exist. That seems a large assumption. But, in any event, I don't think that it makes sense to speak of God "choosing", or to speak of God being, or doing, this, rather than that. God is. "I am that I am." God is not bound by necessity, God is necessity.

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 10:09 AM

This assumes that something can be in the mind of God and not exist.

Correct. It assumes that God can think of things without those things automatically popping into existence against His will; that God is capable of maintaining a distinction between the merely possible and the actual; that God is Creator, not that God has not choice in what to create. If that is not the case then the problem of evil is definitely moot, because everything that could conceivably exist (including all the worst conceivable evils) simply must exist.

Of course in thinking about God we are necessarily constrained by our own limitations. My main point above is that the problem of evil as conceived by human reason, as a complaint directed toward God about the existence of evil, is simultaneously a complaint about our own personal existence. The lesson in that is perhaps that - even at the level of basic rationality - to accuse God is literally to ask for death.

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 10:27 AM

Is God about Being, or is God about Becoming? Is God in Eternity, or is God in infinite Time? That which can change is, ipso facto, not Eternal; does this describe the mind of God? The nature--the necessity--of matter is that "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"--is there a necessary correlation between perfection and eternity? or is the changeable damaged goods from the git-go? I think that the difficulty here is simply in trying to compare our situation to God's. God *simply* is. That which God is, is eternally necessary.

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 10:42 AM

But Rob, I'll say it again: I am making a point mainly about humans and human reason and the so-called "problem of evil"; not about God. To the extent that a human being can formulate a "problem of evil" that is conceivable by human reason, its indictment of the existence of evil is also inextricably an indictment of the existence of the self.

We are all, each of us as individuals, contingent products of a history with evil in it. Take away the evil from that history and you take us away too. Asking "how can an infinitely good God allow evil to exist?" is a rational superset of asking "how can an infinitely good God allow me to exist?" because, while not per se evil in ourselves we are in fact contingent products of per se evil.

All of us no doubt know people whose very conception was a mortally sinful act. In no sense can we ask "how can God allow evil?" without that question necessarily containing the question "how can God allow all of us who are contingent upon evil to exist?"

I think most of the other things you are talking about are not terrifically accessible to human reason, so I don't tend to say much about them.

My main contention here is not "here is a solution to the problem of evil"; I wouldn't say such a thing because that would assume that the problem of evil is intellectually coherent. No, my main contention is more like "the problem of evil sounds like a coherent expression of a conundrum about God, but really it is just a bunch of nonsense words that don't mean anything".

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 11:11 AM

"...asking "How can God allow me to exist..."

God does allow us to exist as creatures contingent upon evil. God requires that we either die to ourselves and be redeemed from that contingency, or be cast forever into the outer darkness of nonbeing. As we are, we are not "allowable".

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 11:22 AM

My first sentence should have begun "God does NOT allow us to exist..."

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 11:33 AM

God does allow us to exist as creatures contingent upon evil.

Sure He does. In order to be redeemed from a contingency the contingency (that is, the logical dependence of our personal existences on evil) must exist in the first place. Maybe you mean that God doesn't allow us to go on existing in a fallen state; if so it is irrelevant to my point, but that would seem to be tantamount to claiming that Hell is eternally empty, at least of human souls.

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 11:38 AM

My first sentence should have begun "God does NOT allow us to exist..."

Funny, that is exactly how I read it.

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 11:39 AM

I don't think it makes sense to say that God *allows* us to exist in a state of rebellion against His will. What God does allow is the potential--which exists outside of, and beyond, us as we now are, and is dependent entirely upon His grace--for us to be redeemed by dying to ourselves. From the aspect of eternity, we are already alive, or dead, as the case may be.

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 11:59 AM

Well Rob, I don't claim to know much about anything from the perspective of eternity, other than that I expect single malt scotch is still better than that blended swill there. I don't even know what it might be like to know something from the perspective of eternity.

What I do know with virtual certainty though is that saying "God should have created me without creating evil" is an equivocation on the word "me".

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 01:15 PM

I certainly agree that it is an error and an act of total arrogance to say that God *should* have done anything whatsoever.

Posted by: Rob on December 17, 2004 01:20 PM

It certainly is Rob, but the context I most often see where the POE comes up is where an atheist/agnostic says, e.g. "there can't be a good God because of all this evil", and my reply is then "you mean the events your own existence depends upon?"

Posted by: Zippy on December 17, 2004 03:54 PM

but that would seem to be tantamount to claiming that Hell is eternally empty, at least of human souls.

I hold out the hope that Hell may prove to be eternally empty.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on December 22, 2004 07:10 PM
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