I’ve been wrestling with the problem of God and evil for a while. It’s not a typo. The problem, to me, goes beyond good and evil and forces us to confront the problem of God and evil.
Christians claim that their religion is the only true authentic religion—the only religion that includes divine incarnation, bodily resurrection, etc. Yet there is a pervasive, contradictory Christian belief that undercuts this view. Christians typically offer two primary objectives of “salvation”: justification or forgiveness of sins (and therefore, a home in heaven when you die), and sanctification or becoming like Christ. The typical view seems to be that, once one is “saved,” one then begins the process of becoming a better human. And how does one do this? By praying and reading the Bible, of course. The benefit of Christianity is that presumably, one now has the Holy Spirit who will help you actually understand the Bible.
While I don’t think that all of the above should be summarily dismissed, the problem with all of this is that it’s ultimately no different from any other major religion. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism—all purport to elevate individuals from the rotten creatures we are to something enlightened, awakened, or glorified. This is precisely what secular self-help gurus do: help people change their thinking, actions, and habits to become a better version of themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if that is all that religion is, then maybe God is just a psychological projection of the highest good at which we aim in our drive for self-improvement.
I’ve concluded that there’s too much evidence for the existence of God to ignore, but accepting the premise that God exists leads to another dilemma: is God the author of evil? This is generally where Christians start crying, “blasphemy!” but their own doctrine seems to support the concept.
Some people believe that God created both good and evil—the thought being that one can’t exist without the other. Others believe that there is no such thing as evil. I find this view easy to dismiss because almost no one lives that way, and I’m far more interested in how people behave as opposed to what they say they believe.
Here’s the problem as I see it. God gave us instincts to ensure both our survival and the propagation of the species: instincts like fear, anger, lust, self-centeredness, and a drive to achieve higher social status. Yet, when one allows himself to be governed by those intrinsic instincts, we call that “evil.” When one wolf attacks another wolf, trying to get a bigger share of the kill, we don’t say the wolf is evil; but if a human uses violence to get a larger share of resources, attempts to mate with another human against her will, or uses malicious means to climb the social ladder, we call that evil.
If God created humans with such instincts, then left us without a mechanism to transcend said instincts, then He created evil. (Even if the “Fall” stemmed from a single act of rebellion and we’re victims of original sin, I think it’s fair to say that creating humans who are unconditionally destined to be evil makes God the author of evil.)
However, if God created us with those instincts, and created everything good (meaning He’s not the author of evil), then He must have given us a mechanism to allow His divine life to live through us and overcome those instincts. Moses conceptualized this mechanism as a tree, the tree of life, which, in his view, was placed off-limits to humanity. To overcome the problem of evil, he issued a thorough code of hundreds of laws, enforced by coercive methods to keep human nature in check.
If God is the author of both good and evil, it doesn’t seem obvious why we should choose one over the other. I don’t believe that God is the author of evil, but if He is not, what precisely is the mechanism by which we can overcome our human nature? I like the concept of building self-discipline. I like the concept of self-improvement. Trying to do better so that you’re more capable of helping others sounds great, but no matter how much you work out, there’s always a weight that you won’t be able to lift. Self-discipline has limits; the law has limits. When I wake up in the morning, I really want to be kind to people. I would love to be an agent of peace and healing in this world. Then I get in my car, and do you know how long that feeling lasts? About three minutes, about which time I want to start playing bumper cars with all of the idiots on the road—idiot being defined as “anyone who is not me.”
No matter how hard I try, I can’t get past my human nature. Paul articulated this problem very well in his letter to the Romans. Like the rest of us, Paul failed to do the good things he wanted to do and did the bad things he didn’t want to do.
So… the mechanism? Most Christians would say it’s the Holy Spirit, but they can’t tell you how the Holy Spirit imparts divine life. They usually tell you to “read the Bible and pray for the Holy Spirit’s understanding;” but the bible is just the rule book—not the motive force. I don’t need to read the rule book again. I’ve read it. I already know that I fall far short, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. Practically, Christian dogma boils down to: when you’re good, God is living within you. When you’re bad, you’re unplugging from God—effectively taking righteousness out of the Holy Spirit’s domain and putting it back in the domain of self-discipline. We’re back to following the law, which makes Christianity as futile as any other religion or self-improvement methodology.
If God is the highest good, and He is not the author of evil, how does He impart divine life? I think it is correct to say that the Holy Spirit is His mechanism for imparting divine life, but the Holy Spirit infuses our behavior COLLECTIVELY rather than individually. So Christ lives, not through you and me individually, but through us collectively. His divine life is manifested when his followers band together with Christ as the head and the followers as parts of an organic body as opposed to members of an artificial hierarchical structure.
That’s why Paul struggled with doing the wrong thing when he didn’t want to. The individual is physically bound to instinct. But Christ infuses His body collectively with divine life. All the parts are imperfect, and we can’t connect to the head individually. It’s only when the parts are joined together and connected to the head that divine life is expressed.
Of course, if this is correct, then it calls into question the Christian notion of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In American Christianity, it could be argued that the personal relationship is the cornerstone of all other doctrine. I’m not certain anymore that there is such a thing, although I acknowledge that many others are confident that there is. To me though, it just doesn’t work to have a hand connected directly to a head. We need all the parts of the body functioning together as they were designed. There may be a personal component to one’s relationship with God, but I don’t know how it works. The old “pray and read the bible to get closer to God” advice doesn’t do it for me.
It also calls into question how one connects organically with other disciples when most are wedded to religious practice. I don’t have an answer for that. In fact, that’s most likely the next dilemma I need to wrestle with.
In the meantime, I shall endeavor to build relationships rather than seeking God solely through the pages of a book. We’ll see where that leads.
The above thoughts have been heavily influenced by the works of Watchman Nee and Frank Viola, although it’s taken me years to grasp the essence of what they were saying, and even now, I don’t see the spiritual reality as clearly as they do/did. I don’t think that one can arrive at a full understanding by simply being given the answer to this problem without struggling with it. It seems clearer now than it did a few years ago, but to me, it’s still in the realm of theory. I’d really like to see it played out in the world to validate the concept. If anyone has any thoughts on the subject either way, I’d love it if you reached out to me through the contact form on this website.