The Problem of Evil: Barbara G. Walker

By Barbara G. Walker

Almost all religions claim to teach the difference between good and evil. However, their definitions of good and evil are various and ambiguous. Few terms in human language are more relative than these, for what is good and what is evil depends on individual points of view.

Aside from the socially controversial subjects that some authorities call evil while others do not, most folks tend to define as evil anything seen as a danger to themselves, their loved ones, their community, or humanity in general. Yet humanity itself is evil to other species, whose survival is threatened by ours. A hunter is evil to the hunted. A carnivore is evil to the meat animal. An army is evil to the opposing army. Humans are evil to other humans.

Some people perceive other groups of people as evil not because they pose any immediate threat, but merely because they exist. This has been the basis for numerous genocidal aggressions throughout history. Such aggressions are invariably endorsed and sanctified by the aggressors’ God.

According to the book of Genesis, God forbade Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. When they ate it anyway, he condemned all humanity to death and eternal torment. Fathers of the Christian church founded cultural sexism by insisting that Eve’s disobedience brought death and all other evils into the world. Men could have lived forever, they said, if Eve had not tempted Adam. Now all Eve’s female descendants should suffer to pay for this primordial crime. Tertullian said to woman, “The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age; the guilt must of necessity live too.

“You are the devil’s gateway.” 1

Oddly enough, churchmen through the centuries claimed the ability to dispense this same forbidden knowledge of good and evil. One might think, if they actually obeyed God’s orders, they would keep it under wraps forever.

It is interesting to note that in the original language of the book of Genesis, the words translated “good” and “evil” actually mean “beneficial” and “harmful”–that is, to humans. Included in such categories would have been the ancients’ magical lore of charms and spells, healing herbs and poisons, blessings and curses, and the secret names and rituals for compelling both good and evil spirits.

Few modern religious authorities try to perpetuate the idea that death is not a natural process but a consequence of human sin. However, they have problems dealing with a God purported to be the creator of everything, including everything harmful. Natural disasters, perceived by humans as evil, such as destructive storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and so on, are described as “acts of God.” God himself says in Isaiah 45:7 that he is the creator of evil. Theologians have wrestled unsuccessfully with the admission that God, not human sin, is ultimately responsible for diseases, droughts, f1oods, famine, and the vast world of insect pests. Or, as Ogden Nash succinctly put it:

God in his wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.

According to the Calvinist/Presbyterian doctrine of predestination, God is even responsible for human evil. As creator of every individual, he knows in advance how each person will behave in life, and he knows in advance who will be saved and who will be damned. To say that God doesn’t know these things is to deny his omniscience; but to say that he does know them is to deny his goodness or mercy. This doctrine led theologians into a philosophical impasse that has not yet been cleared, though many labyrinthine arguments have tried to circumvent it. Some have postulated free will, as God’s way of giving people a personal choice; but if God already knows what will be chosen, his is still the ultimate responsibility. Having perfect prescience, as the theologians insist, God would have foreseen original sin and all its consequences in the first place, yet he failed to create the kind of world he really wanted.

If a father deliberately allowed a child to misbehave, in order to inflict punishment afterward, we would consider him a bad parent, unjustly manipulating a child’s naivet to satisfy his own sadistic impulses. A father god who so treated his children would deserve little respect, since he demanded unconditional obedience–on pain of eternal torture–from persons deliberately endowed with the will to disobey. Even with the deck thus stacked in God’s favor, the implication that human beings can easily deny God’s will seems to depict him as petty rather than powerful.

Sometimes God was depicted as the kind of Oriental potentate who would behead his courtiers for not singing his praises loudly enough. The same Oriental-potentate image entered in to traditional ideas of heaven as a place where one would spend all eternity singing God’s praises. It may be hard to imagine that feeding God’s apparently insatiable appetite for praise would constitute one’s own ultimate bliss. But if this alleged bliss was the carrot of reward, hell was the stick of punishment, very concretely envisioned and described.

George Smith writes: “Hell stands as a constant reminder of the essence of Christianity: God is to be obeyed because . . . he is bigger and stronger than we are; and, in addition, he is incomparably more vicious.”2It has been said that a heavenly father who creates a hell for his children should be the first to be burned in it.

Even if the creation of hell is attributed to devils, the buck still stops with God, who also created devils and assigned them the duty of torturing sinners. Fathers of the church were perfectly willing to perceive their God as infinitely cruel, and even looked forward themselves to enjoying, from their vantage point in heaven, a perfect view of the agonies of the damned. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that heaven could not be completely satisfactory unless it provided such a view.

Nowadays, mainstream religious authorities mention hell as little as possible. It is soft-pedaled, or even denied, because it is embarrassingly inappropriate to the image of a loving and merciful God. Yet it lurks inexorably beneath the surface of Christian theology, for what can it mean to be “saved” if there is nothing to be saved from?

Another old-fashioned doctrine that the premise of salvation makes essential is the resurrection of the flesh. Church fathers assumed that the body would be restored after death with all its nerves and senses intact, otherwise how could the pains of hell or the bliss of heaven be felt? Among the more ludicrous examples of sadism are the 19th-century tracts written to frighten children into behaving themselves. They say, for example, that a little girl who dared to dance on the sabbath must stand forever in hell with bare feet on a red-hot dance floor. Another, who went to the theater instead of to church, has blood boiling in her veins, and “her brain bubbles in her head.” The “compassionate father” telling this story to a young reader says, “Think what a headache that girl must have!” 3

Such theology of the past sounds evil in a more compassionate age. The “Holy Inquisition,” the Crusades, and innumerable conversions by the sword befoul the history of Christianity with their cruelty. Also, ascetic strands in Christian tradition have equated evil with physical pleasure. Church annals are replete with tales of saints who tormented themselves and denied every bodily appetite to increase their holiness. Beaumont wrote in the 18th century that “any form of pleasure in any part of the body” must be considered devilish. 4

Even within marriage, any sexual or sensual enjoyments apart from basic reproduction have always been considered suspect by celibate churchmen. St. Jerome insisted that it was a sin for a man to love his wife passionately. 5 As late as 1975, Pope Paul VI ruled that masturbation is a sin so heinous that God will never again love such a sinner. 6 In such ways has religion almost completely reversed the balance of pleasure and pain that teaches other creatures what to pursue in life and what to avoid.

Good-and-evil ambiguity is rife in the world even today, forcing moral dilemmas for many people. It is deemed evil for men to kill other men, but they can be ordered to do so by their government, yet the government does not thus become evil; indeed, the theologians say that these orders are permitted and encouraged by God. No nation has ever declared a war that the same nation’s clergy unanimously condemned. God is circumspect enough to support temporal power in any endeavor. God has no problem with the killing of thousands of men, women, and children whom a government considers enemies, although he has a huge problem with the killing of one unwanted fetus, and even with the prevention of an unwanted fetus via birth control.

Fixing blame for evil events or behaviors has been a large part of theological ratiocination. The devil generally bears most of the blame, as in “the devil made me do it,” man’s great classic excuse. Woman comes in for a large share of blame also. Medieval churchmen were prone to blame women, because they taught that Eve’s female descendants were the incarnations of original sinfulness. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote a tract against “The Monstrous Regiment of Women,” calling them the source of all sin, and “sin is the moral cause of earthquakes, whatever their natural cause may be.”7Albert the Great, teacher and mentor of St. Thomas Aquinas, declared that “woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature. . . . One must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. . . . Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.”8So tight was the stranglehold of Christianity on the Western mind that in all those sexist centuries, hardly any woman ever raised her voice to protest such slanders.

In contrast to Great Albert’s endorsement of the manly art of reason, other influential thinkers condemned reason as an evil that would enfeeble faith. Martin Luther viewed reason as inimical to God: “There is on earth among all dangers, no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason. . . . Reason must be deluded, blinded and destroyed.”9A modern commentator calls this “fundamental and viciously destructive of Christianity: that some beliefs lie beyond the scope of criticism and that to question them is sinful, or morally wrong. By placing a moral restriction on what one is permitted to believe, Christianity declares itself an enemy of truth. . . . Reason becomes a vice, something to be feared.” 10

Annoyed by the advances in scientific understanding during the 19th century, Pope Gregory XVI said: “It is in no way lawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, or speech, of writing, or of religion.” At the turn of the 20th century. Pope Leo XIII seemed to crave a return to the glory days of the Inquisition when he said, “The death sentence is a necessary and efficacious means for the Church to attain its end when rebels act against it . . . especially obstinate heretics . . . It can and must put these wicked men to death.” 11

Unbelief is almost invariably perceived by believers as evil. To the extent that their spiritual persona is founded on elimination of doubt or unbelief from their own minds, they view another’s doubt as an opening wedge into a dark void of uncertainty. It never seems to occur to fundamentalists that uncertainty is not a dark void at all, but the natural condition of every human creature whose curiosity is greater than her empirical knowledge. To refuse to apply reason to the beliefs of one’s culture, to purge them of crude superstition and false history, is surely a futile exercise. Joseph Campbell comments:

Is it not ironic that our great Western civilization, which has opened to the minds of all mankind the infinite wonders of a universe of untold billions of galaxies and untold billions of years, should have been saddled in its infancy with a religion squeezed into the tightest little cosmological image known to any people on earth? 12

It is reasonable to observe the relativity of evil, which clearly has different meanings in different schools of thought. We all think we can identify what is good and what is evil, but we are forced to realize that others will not agree. With the great diversity of thought on such matters, where is a moral code general enough and consistent enough to command real respect?

The bible’s ten commandments, with their outdated strictures against graven images, the use of holy names, and work on the sabbath, may be too limited in scope for a complex modern world. Instead of a series of thou-shalt-nots, a code probably should allow for finding pleasure in life, like the central precept of neo-paganism: “Do as you will, provided you harm none.” Perhaps the very best code of all is the shortest and simplest: “Be kind.” Kindness is the one human quality that never has been labeled evil.

Because patriarchal religions are dualistic by nature, setting up a dichotomy between the saved and the damned, they readily convince their followers that their own beliefs are good and others are evil. Such ideas make dedicated warriors, willing to exterminate alien populations for the holy cause. Throughout history, men have pretended that God wants them to invade and slaughter, and have even invented pretentious hypocritical phrases for it, like Manifest Destiny or Lebensraum. Fully patriarchal religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, were promulgated not by kindness but by conquest.

Pious idealists often claim that universal peace will come to humanity only when their own beliefs have gained universal credibility. But it seems more likely that humanity will never achieve universal peace until it has outgrown all its dualistic faiths. As long as anybody is saying “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Light,” as long as there is any guru, prophet, savior or cult leader touted as the Teacher of Righteousness, the One who must be followed, there will be we/they dichotomies that condemn alternative thinking as evil.

Only when truth is no longer confused with mythology; only when transcendent rewards or punishments are no longer postulated in an after-life; only when people judge other people by their actions rather than by their beliefs, or lack of beliefs; only then might it be possible for the concept of absolute evil to wither away, to be replaced by a new ethic of kindness and tolerance. Will it happen, sooner or later? Will it ever happen? What do you think?

1. Bullough, Vern L. The Subordinate Sex. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1973, p. 114
2. Smith, George. Atheism: the Case Against God. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1979, p. 300
3. Smith, Homer. Man and His Gods. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1952, p. 376
4. Silberer, Herbert. Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts. New York: Dover Publications, 1971, pp. 284-285
5. Sadock, B.J., H.I. Kaplan and A.M. Freedman. The Sexual Experience. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins Co., 1976
6. Ranke-Heinemann, Uta. Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter Heinegg, trans. New York: Doubleday, 1990, p. 319
7. Bufe, Charles, ed. The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations. Tucson, AZ: Sharp Press, 1988, p. 165
8. Ranke-Heinemann, op. cit., pp. 178-179
9. Smith, George, op. cit., p. 100
10. Ibid., p. 322
11. Ellerbe, Helen. The Dark Side of Christian History. San Rafael, CA: Morningstar Books, 1995, pp. 38, 77, 184
12. Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Viking Press, 1972, p. 89

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.

Freedom From Religion Foundation