For much of history, the greatest difficulty faced by thinkers in theistic traditions of the Middle East and West has been the so-called theodicy: How can a perfect God allow evil to exist? Much ink has been spilled in writing allegorical myths, cosmogonic speculations, and rational arguments in an effort to resolve the question, while atheists and agnostics remain largely unconvinced and continue to use the “problem of evil” as a principal argument.
In approaching this question, I must first of all begin with a different question, that of the “problem of reason.” Reason is a marvelous power, one which has produced wonders of scientific, technological, social, and philosophical import through all of human history; reason is what permits us to hold our heads above the muck and mire of instinct and to resist (at least in principle) the push and pull of constantly shifting emotions. We cannot, however, overly romanticize our faculty of ratiocination for, in doing so, we surely press reason into a sort of tortured striving beyond its inherent limits.
This all may seem like a slightly more sophisticated form of the old “It’s just a mystery” gambit, but I assure you of my sincerity on this point. The human mind is only so big, and the brain only so powerful, and our whole mental mechanism is built, so to speak, to specialize in answering certain kinds of question; putting other sorts of question to it can restructure the system to a degree, but the brain can only change shape so much before it becomes merely scrambled. We must then be reasonable enough to know that the toolkit of reason is not omnipotent; if the only tool you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, every problem will look like a nail. In the intellectual climate of the present day, every apparent problem is being bashed and smashed as we wonder in increasing futility why it won’t pierce the board. Though naming another person who is in agreement with me does not act as proof of my point, it is interesting to note that Colin McGuin makes a similar statement in his The Mysterious Flame, though in connection with the mind/body relationship. McGuinn’s point is essentially that the mind is simply not capable of delving very deeply into solving the problem of its own nature; that is, so to say, a question so big that it contains the mind and not the other way round.
While I do not think that the problem of evil can be resolved by unaided thought, I also do not think that it is a completely opaque “mystery,” incapable of human approach. It is a matter instead of approaching as far as we can under our own power and awaiting the self-unfolding of the question.
From an esoteric(1) perspective, we draw a conceptual distinction between the Absolute Principle as such, Its tendency toward Self-expression (what we might call “creation” or, more appropriately, “emanation”) and Its personal hypostasis; these we call Brahman (literally “the Big”), Śakti (“Power”), and Īśvara (“the Lord”), respectively. Brahman is the Absolute; Śakti is All-Possibility. We could also call them Eternity and Infinity as the two “poles” of the Absolute, the latter being the Absolute as endlessly extensible, and the former being the Absolute as unchanging Ground. Īśvara is Whom we normally call God.
The Perennialist thinker Frithjof Schuon referred to Īśvara, quite appropriately, as “the relative absolute”. The poles of existence, so to speak, could be named the Absolute and the relative; the Absolute exists of necessity, being Existence-as-such, while the relative has its being, as it were, “on loan” from the Absolute and exists only in relation to It. So, Īśvara as relative absolute is the hypostatic face of the Absolute within the sphere of relativity. Creation exists “within” God, made up of His substance. God is then the Absolute paradoxically in relation to the relative. He is thus omnipotent in relation to the created universe, a projection of Fullness into emptiness, and the immanent-transcendent Consciousness of which all individual consciousnesses are delimitations.
This sort of omnipotence does not mean that God can ignore logic; being Consciousness, logic is inherent to God’s very substance. The so-called rules of logic, then, are themselves expressions of God’s omnipotence. If they are to be seen as “limitations” at all, they are self-imposed limitations. This, however, is still not a fully accurate understanding of them. To refer to God achieving the exact projection of His own Mind represented by the principles of logic as a “limitation” is somewhat as if calling Picasso’s choice to use paint-on-canvas instead of clay and a potter’s wheel a “failure of imagination.” It simply makes no sense to do so. For God to “ignore logic” is tantamount to being other than Himself and that is an absurdity.
In our world today, we are somewhat conditioned to view everything as being “relative” in the sense of having no inherent being or meaning. One of the innumerable dangers in this perspective (in addition to its lack of factual content) is the mental trick of believing that physical laws could have been other than they are, or that principles of logic are somehow only guide rails which we just haven’t figured our way around yet. Nothing could be further from the truth. The very notion of logic, from the created perspective, is as a set of principles which inhere in the very nature of things and their relationships to one another which, when understood properly, allow for structured thinking and investigation founded in conceptual solidity. The idea that God could have used “a different logic” to underpin our universe is rather silly; if “different logics” do exist (as is entirely possible, for all I can imagine), any given universe may only be built-up from any one such system, and that logical system must then remain in place until the dissolution of that universe.
Part of the nature of the All-Possibility is that anything which can exist, must exist. It needn’t exist within every single possible universe, as the underpinnings of some universes will necessarily exclude certain manifestations which are still possible ab natura. There is nothing contradictory in this.
Omniscience is rather similar to omnipotence. God is bound by neither time or space, those things existing “in” and “of” Him as the matrices of manifestation and experience. Time and space are necessary for particularity, individuality, and change. In a sort of projection, time is the relative expression of the Absolute’s aspect of Eternity, while space is a similar reflection of Infinity. Both are required for manifestation to take place; lack of extension in either space or time results in a lack of physical reality, though reality may still obtain in subtler form — and must do, so to speak, “prior” to physical manifestation.
Though God is bound by neither time nor space in His essence, He must act within them for the sake of relative manifestation. God’s omniscience is the result of time and space existing of His own Conscious Substance; nothing can exist or occur without God’s absolute knowledge of it “from the inside.” This knowledge ignores boundaries of past and future because it is more fundamental than the extension of time itself. There is no complete human analogy, but one can imagine complete knowledge of a civilization existing within one’s own imagination; the future end of that civilization is known from the very start. If we can then imagine that the individuals comprising that civilization are imbued with a small reflection of the Imaginer’s consciousness, we can further imagine that, though “part of” the Imaginer’s consciousness and being small reflections of it, they would not necessarily be aware of the “whole.”
Such is the nature of God’s omniscience as the Imaginer, and we, the imagined, go blithely along knowing whatever little corner of the grand image we happen to inhabit, and that rather imperfectly. But how does that effect the notion of free will?
I think it a mistake to come down too hard on either side of the free will/determinism debate. It seems to me that we certainly have freedom of choice, but within some rather tight constraints. I am free, for instance, to try to fly by flapping my arms, but I am not free to fly by flapping my arms. On a subtler level, I am free to think or imagine anything within the constraints of my mind; those constraints may be altered to an incredible degree, but are not infinitely expandable. In either case, there are limits to my freedom, but that does not mean that the freedom is nonexistent.
On the other side, it is quite true that causality has an impact both broad and deep on the thoughts we think, emotions we feel, and desires we hold at any given moment; the past, stretching back into unknown infinity, is full with every event which has led up to the present. However, it strikes me that causality is significantly more complex than a simple notion of classical “billiard balls” physics lets on, and we have no reason, as yet, to discount the subjective experience of making a conscious choice between various options as a part of the causal chain. There does appear to be an element of randomness in the universe, if a constrained one, and it seems only reasonable to entertain the notion that our own capacity to choose might be one of those instances of “constrained randomness” or, to borrow from the drama of Greek thought, each of our choices can be thought of as a moment of bringing cosmos from chaos.
As this entire process has existed, if I may put it such, “from the beginning” in the mind of God, from the absolute perspective we do not have free will. However, to claim that we have none in any sense is to make not merely a category error, but an error of conflating different degrees of Being. This particular error is, I’m afraid, an especial hallmark of post-Scholastic Western philosophy. The medieval world had the notion of the Great Chain of Being, a Platonic-Christian acknowledgment of the continuum of existence from inert matter to sentient life forms to angels to God Himself, and the four worlds of the Jewish Kabbalah (also influenced by Platonism and Pythagoreanism) point to the same notion. God is not on a level playing field with us, just as we are not on a level with the virtual particles (neither quite existent nor quite non-existent) of quantum mechanics. To try to treat God as another mere entity is to have sought to trap Him within conceptual rubrics infinitely smaller than Himself, as if pushing a Great Dane into a change purse.
Anyhow, our limited mode of experiencing the universe necessarily includes the subjective experience of a will at least free enough to choose between several apparent options. God’s transcendence of spacetime is a “higher plane” phenomenon, one which lies back of our mental processes but which our mental processes need not be always consciously aware. God is, in a sense, experiencing the universe in and through us, with the capacity to choose being a part of the uniqueness of that experience. If, from an infinitely larger view, that capacity is illusory, it is real enough from our present view to make the ideas of “law and order” make some sense in building societies.
Speaking of free will, it is true, though not quite enough, to say that “evil” is a matter of choice. Certainly, acts of evil erupt from the capacity of humans to choose what is not in the best interests of others, individually or collectively and, more often than not, what is not even in their own best interests. As the Buddha taught, sin is already the punishment for sin. This means that the tendencies or habits which we build up through our thoughts, words, and deeds dig deeper and deeper channels and become harder and harder to resist with each repetition. Thus, evil becomes more and more ingrained as we continue to think or do it. Kleptomania is a well-known example of an evil act (though usually a relatively small sort of evil act) which has become a compulsion, so heavily ingrained that free will has little say in the matter.
The real question at issue, here, is a bit different, so I shall formulate it explicitly: Is evil a metaphysical entity, or merely a human concept? Is there anything which lies back of evil other than human imperfection responding to a difficult world?
Much like free will, evil exists only as part of the complex relationships of the sphere of relativity. Like the whole plane of relativity, it exists only in relation to the Absolute; that is to say, its reality is temporal and reflective, neither essential nor creative. “The devil is the ape of God,” and “the devil is God, inverted.”
It is not enough to say, as some do, that evil is the lack of good. Though that is true, in a sense, it is only a part of a much larger relationship. We may understand our “world of forms”, what I have been calling “relativity”, in two reciprocal ways: as emptiness in relation to Divine Fullness, and as the reaching of Fullness into emptiness. “Nothingness” is, of course, impossible, insofar as by the very definition of the word nothingness is not a thing which exists. Yet the divine activity of emanation is itself something of a metaphysical “stretching out” of Fullness into emptiness, Being into nothingness, or, as it were, light into darkness. Creation, the entire realm in which we live, is thus gracious and charitable, from one perspective, but indifferent and privative from another. Both of these perspectives are true, the latter in a relative sense only, and the former from a more essential view.
Evil exists as part of this dynamic of privation. As lack stands in partial opposition to Fullness (complete nothingness being a non-thing), so does evil stand in partial opposition to good; it cannot be a complete opposition due to the necessary, though unidirectional, dependence of evil upon good. We can see the partial nature of this opposition in the motivation behind much evil behavior. It is quite rare indeed that a person does something evil because they wish to do evil. As a rule, anger, violence, hatred, and the like, are all in service to an ideal strongly held, a powerful instinct for survival, or a notion of protecting others from some greater threat. In other words, evil almost always takes form around a good, or at least basically neutral, motive. Stalin felt himself constantly under threat, and did what he thought was necessary to protect himself and his government; Hitler thought that he was doing right by his country and society; on a more prosaic level, corporations flout ethics in an effort to take care of their shareholders. None of these motives is evil, in principle, but have all given rise to horror by way of extravagance and misdirection.
This perversion and privation of good is inevitable. I will even go to the length of calling it an ontological necessity. The Divine All-Possibility’s very nature is to give rise to projections and reflections of everything which is logically possible to whatever degree it is possible to grant it being. The opposite of Itself is, in a seeming paradox, no different from any other possibility, except insofar as the opposite of Being is nothingness, it can never be fully realized. So, it is given the greatest degree of realization which is possible, that being the potential for evil in the world.
Evil, resulting from All-Possibility, is thus a necessity as far as relativity is concerned. God thus can abolish any given evil, but evil-as-such must remain as a possibility for as long as the creation exists. In order for the creation to be differentiated from God, in a manner of speaking, it must include the potential for that which “opposes” God and God’s will. God’s will is, however, ontologically prior to evil and, so, vincit omnia Veritas: the Truth (in this case used as an expression of the Good) is triumphant over all. As Sri Chelapaswami put it, “It was all finished from the very beginning,” which is to say that God’s victory is built into the very nature of things, even if seeming offenses “needs must come.”
There can thus be no real reciprocity between good and evil from the Absolute perspective; that relationship exists horizontally and only within the experiential plane of relativity. There is no such relationship on the vertical axis, whereon Good is simply coterminous with Being and evil with “not-quite-nonbeing.” Eventually, evil will simply give way, by the “natural” unfolding of things, as its neutral substance returns from whence it came and its privative form dissolving with it. “Nothing” cannot exist on its own, but only be given a temporary and relative form hinting at the notion of non-being. Even on this plane, a perfect vacuum is not physically possible, as the very “substance” of spacetime remains in even the emptiest of coordinates.
Does evil, then, present a challenge to God’s omnipotence? It may appear to, again within the realm of relative existence, but not in the final tally. This lack of inherent ontological reciprocity means that not only can evil never truly defeat good, but that there’s no real “war” between them anyway. Good is the essence, while evil is the accident which results from the projection of the Good into interrelated formal existence. Evil is, in the final analysis — and without trivializing the experience of evil for those sentient beings who suffer by it — only a fleeting accident in an infinitely larger process. It is necessitated by that process, insofar as anything which can be must be, but that is the beginning and the end of its entire history: a black pixel which will flicker back to vibrant color when the present film is done playing.
1. “Esoteric” must not be confused with the merely “occult”; the esoteric is the inward dimension of any given religious tradition, while the occult is (in general) an attempt at gaining “secret knowledge” (and, often, power) by way of appropriating the symbols, images, and practices of religion.