Are Good and Evil Opposites?

On parts of the Internet, there flourishes a practice called Theodicy which tries to rationalize every act of God (and everything God does not prevent) into something we can approve as comprehensible and good. Like apologetics, theodicy is rarely satisfying unless you are already among the convinced.

But it’s useful to notice that our whole frame of “good” and “evil” is deeply tinged by the thinking of people like Epicurus. He’s the 4th-century BC guy who came up with this ever-popular unexamined sound bite:

If God can’t prevent badness, he’s not God. If God can prevent badness and doesn’t, He’s not good.

Epicurus was able to formulate this thought because he had already defined Good as “absence of suffering” and Evil as “suffering.” By reducing morality down to the easy categories of “stuff I like” and “stuff I don’t like,” Epicurus makes sociopathy the root of his ethics.

Working within these infantile definitions of good and bad, Epicurus would have had no way to even parse Hebrew 12, which asserts that God (like every good parent) permits His children to suffer – and even originates some suffering – in order to shape their character. God not only does not fear or flee from pain; He enters into it personally in His incarnation and makes the experience of suffering His own. 7th-century missionary Augustine of Canterbury famously summarized this chapter: “God has one Son without sin but none without suffering.”

Christians define good in terms of God’s personal character. For deviation from or corruption of that character, we borrow the pre-Christian Greek work amartia, meaning an arrow that misses or falls short of the target, to describe our deviations from God’s character: in English, that word is translated sin. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

“Evil” in the sense of suffering or calamity isn’t some polar opposite to goodness or to God.

  • Exodus 32:14 – And the Lord relented from the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
  • Isaiah 45:7 – I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.
  • Lamentations 3:38 – Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that evil and good proceed? (NIV: calamities and good things; NKJV: woe and well-being.)

I think if our notions of “good” and “bad” (or “evil”) aren’t any better than Epicurus’ self-serving categories of seeking pleasure instead of pain, then we’re working from a purely animal perspective.

I haven’t got many easy, satisfactory answers to how God can do things that cause suffering and don’t result (in any way I can see) in good. Yet my reading of God’s explicit self-revelation in Christ, and my limited experience of Him, give me reason to trust Him when He asserts that it’s so: All things work for good to those who love Him, and a time is coming for the restoration of all things. God’s promises and kingdom are not about this handful of decades between our birth and bodily death; His purposes run on an infinitely longer timeframe, and will not be completed in us before we all fall into the grave.

If we haven’t got room in our heads for a God who is good and still permits or even causes suffering in this temporary life, then that’s as much a statement on our limited perspective and capacity, as it is a statement on God’s measuring up to His own character.

To me, the Epicurean paradox always seems to stop in the middle of a thought. Either there’s no God, or there’s a God who offends me. Okay, go on… To stop there is to commit the logical fallacy called the Appeal to Consequences, in which a thing cannot be true if I would not like the results.

So either there’s no God, or else I must choose to live in denial of a reality I find offensive, and therefore I choose delusion and self-deception; and further, I choose to be a victim, passive-aggressively embracing the consequences of a negligence as potentially disastrous as stepping off a hundredth-storey balcony. That’ll show Him.

“God is evil” doesn’t conclude a thought: it’s an assertion that petulantly refuses to face a possibility; it’s a setup waiting for a “Therefore” that never comes. What will I do in response to the possibility that God not only exists but opposes me, or is outside my construct of morality?

And of course stopping at the assertion that “God is evil” irresponsibly disdains to examine the notion of “evil” at all.

On which subject, have a look at: Evil is not a thing: some implications.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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