May 28, 2013
Good and Evil
by Brian Schroeder
This a summary of a presentation by Brian Schroeder on Good and Evil on the 9th of May at Tabor College. His Power Point slides are in Good and Evil and the video recording is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEh19op3IAk.
“Good” and “evil” are innately believed concepts by virtually everyone. We don’t doubt that good exists or that evil exists. We assume them just as we assume many other fundamentals (such as 1+1=2, “I think therefore I am”, good is better than bad). Despite various denials, we intrinsically believe certain things to be either good or evil. Death is a fundamental evil, but beauty is good.
If God is totally good and all-powerful, how can there be evil? Either God is not all-powerful, or he is not truly good.
When God had finished creating he saw that it was all very good. God said to Adam: You can eat from every tree – except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. How can there be “good and evil” in God’s perfect world, and what about the prohibition against eating that fruit on pain of death?
This leads to the question: What is “evil”? How do you define “evil”? Or, for that matter, how do you define “good”?
a) Consider pain and suffering? If you put your hand in fire, then this leads to pain, which is a defence from damage, such as happens with leprosy. What about “no pain, no gain”? Athletes push the “pain barrier” regularly.
b) Is it evil to cut someone open with a knife? Both of my children were born that way. So, what is evil? What makes something evil? Is it motivation? And if so, what makes that motivation evil?
c) Massive earthquake and tsunami? What if it happens on Jupiter? Does “evil” depend on the experience of sentient beings, or does the experience of, for example, rocks count too?
When pressed, most people will be unable to provide any sort of meaningful consistent definition of evil. Philosophers have struggled with this over the years. Nietzsche’s approach is possibly the most consistent (non-theistically speaking). Basically, without an absolute reference point (ie. God), good and evil have no absolute meaning and can only represent that which is considered positively or negatively useful.
Assume there is NO GOD. The Universe created itself from nothing. The materialistic universe is all there is. We are the random result of random reactions. In the time-scale of the universe’s existence, all of life is a momentary blink with no purpose, no meaning, and no permanence.
In this universe there is no such thing as “good” or “evil”. The sum total that can be said is “What is – is.” Thus ultimately “good” or “right” can only be defined as what is, and therefore “evil” as what is not. So everything that is is good/right (and nothing is evil).
Enoch Tan stated:
Good and evil do not exist. At a fundamental level, there is really no good and evil in the universe. Everything just is. It is perception that frames reality. Good and evil is based on perception. Therefore the perception of good and evil depends on the one perceiving it. If you perceive something as good, then to you it is good. If you perceive something as evil, then to you it is evil. We can choose our own frame of reality or we can choose to follow the frame set by another in his perception of good and evil.
If there is no God then “good” and “evil” may be valid terms with real meaning in the following sense. Good is what ‘I’ like, and evil what ‘I’ dislike. It is thus totally relative – everything is a matter of personal opinion, and that opinion will become totally irrelevant when the person dies. (It makes little difference if we change from individual preference to a group preference.) Thus laws, rules, customs etc. are merely a temporary direction of a momentarily existing animal with no real purpose.
With very few exceptions (if any) everyone believes that real evil is committed by people. But in every case evil must disguise itself as good, must convince people that it is good. (There is a website that lists the 10 most evil people in history, and the 10 most good. Interestingly Adolf Hitler comes in at number 3 on the evil scale, and Jesus Christ at 4 on the good.)
Are good and evil absolute or relative? If they are relative then they are effectively meaningless. If a word can mean anything, then it means nothing.
Define God as
a) supreme being,
b) omnipotent, omniscient, all loving,
c) creator of and therefore ‘outside’ of the universe,
d) and therefore the definer of everything.
Thus “Good” means being in conformity with God – his being, his nature. Being as designed to be, doing as designed to do.
“Evil” means being out of conformity with God, contrary to his being, his nature. Being/doing contrary to how designed to be/do.
This implies that God is good. He is always in conformity with himself. It also means that it is wrong to say that
(a) God cannot sin,
(b) God cannot lie,
(c) God cannot do evil.
(a) sin cannot be done by God,
(b) untruth cannot come from God,
(c) evil cannot emanate from God. (Darkness cannot come from light.)
The inability lies in the evil, not in God.
Good exists in its own right, so long as God exists. Pure and total good is a valid concept. Absolute good exists and is real. It can exist by itself in its own right.
Evil does not and cannot exist in its own right. It is in total dependence on Good for its existence. “Pure evil” is an impossibility, an oxymoron (“pure” is a “good” term), it cannot be. For example death depends on life for both its existence and its power. Evil is the deprivation or negation of the good, or the corruption of the good. It is the rejection of the truth, of the right.Evil is embraced, received, accepted, promoted, defended on the basis of perceived reward (good) or promised good. Eg. “I” don’t kill someone out of desire to do be evil, but to remove some negative from “my” life, because I believe “my” life will be better in some way. Abortion is an obvious example.
When the devil (assuming he exists) wants to tempt someone, he doesn’t say “You are going to hate this! It will make your life a misery and destroy everything you think is good.” Rather he works to convince us that it will do something good for us.
Good is always better than evil, more beautiful than evil; it is truer, righter, more attractive. That is why evil has to clothe itself in apparent goodness (if I cheat I will get a better result, more money, glory, etc.). But if/when we see them truly only GOOD is good, right, true, beautiful, alive, lasting…
Consider a brand new car. Carefully designed and built, just out of the factory in ‘perfect’ condition. It comes with an owner’s manual, and a servicing manual. It is designed to work in a certain way, to be driven and maintained in a certain way. To get the absolute best out of the car, it is essential to follow the design and to treat it according to the manufacturer’s instructions. “Good” is to do so. “Evil” is to use the wrong oil; kerosene instead of petrol; drive with the hand brake on; aim to keep the needle in the red zone as much as possible; don’t maintain coolant; … and many more possibilities. If the headlights get smashed – or are missed during manufacture – or windows, seats, spare wheel… then the car is incomplete and contrary to the design. Being born blind, or blinded later, is an evil; it is contrary to how we are designed to be.
But what if God is a capricious God? What is good one day may be evil the next, and vice-versa. Such a being would be internally inconsistent. ‘He’ could never be “God” as we understand “God”. ‘He’ could never be the creator of a functioning universe – the ‘laws of the universe’ could not be depended on & may vary or change at any time & for no reason Þ no science. ‘He’ could not be ‘love’ or the author of love. Such things as good, evil, love, justice, etc. would have no basis for being.
No, we do not have this option. Either God IS – in all his omnipotent, omniscient, relational glory – or there is not God.
What if I don’t like God; what he is like? What about some of the ‘horrible’ things he has done (eg. commanded Israel to exterminate Canaanites)?
Basically “Good” is defined by God, not by our feelings, and not of itself. As God’s creatures in his created universe, our understanding of good and evil can only be as defined by God. Therefore if anything about God appears to “me” as anything other than pure and total GOOD. That can only be because
- I have incomplete knowledge and understanding (eg. Surgeon cutting person open with a knife),
- I have a wrong perception of God (eg. God = Santa Claus, God = Baal, …),
- I have a wrong or distorted perception of the situation, or
- I have been deceived by a 3rd party.
If we could but see the big picture, the whole picture, we would see and know that not only has God only done good the whole way through, but the best possible good. We would see too that it could not be otherwise.
“Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil” The greatest possible good involves / includes / requires the choice of embracing God’s image. Love isn’t love if there is no choice. So in order for God to create the greatest possible good (and how could such a God do otherwise?), he had to create the opportunity to choose, and this therefore meant the opportunity to choose differently.
The point of the choice was very simple and minor, but never-the-less totally significant. To choose to eat of it was to choose not-God, to be ‘other’ than God, different to God, contrary to him and contrary to who they were created to be. More specifically: to be distinct from God.
Since, in this creation, God is the epitome, the definition, of good, then to be distinct or different can only mean to be less than good – or therefore to be, “know”, evil. And from that point evil has grown.
One can only create from what is within them. Everything that IS comes from God (John 1:3). So did God create evil? Is God responsible for evil? Is evil part of who God is? (Yin and Yang?). Since the greatest good involves the choice, it must inherently contain the concept (possibility ?) choosing otherwise. SO: No! There is no darkness, evil, wrong, etc. in God. And yet in creating the greatest good, evil (= other than God) had to be possible. By its very nature, inherent in the greatest possible good is the possibility of rejecting that good, of choosing otherwise.
- Without God there is no such thing as good or evil, merely reality. This also means that “the problem of evil” does not exist unless God exists. It is either a non-question, or it has meaning only if you already believe in God.
- “Good” means being fully congruent with God. “Evil” means deviating from that – being ‘other’ than God or God’s nature. Thus “God is good” is a tautology; there is no other option.
- Good exists in its own right. Evil does not. It is dependent on good for its existence.
- Any time I am disposed to accuse God of evil; it can only be because of insufficient information or because of actual evil in me.
- God is not the author or originator of evil. But inherent in the highest possible good is the possibility of rejecting that good – this rejection is then what we call evil.
This all leads to – What is “evil”? Following the argument through we end up with “If there DOES NOT exist an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good/loving being then evil does not exist.” Thus to claim that evil exists is to acknowledge that God exists! Thus the problem of evil is only a problem to the theist – ie to those who believe in both God and in the existence of evil. Yes we struggle with it. Yes it is hard (sometimes impossible) to understand. But because we believe in God – as defined above – we believe that there IS an answer.
3 For I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God!
4 his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.
5 They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.
6 Do you thus repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?
Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.
17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’
18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.