problem of evil

Augustine’s Confessions (Book VII)


Theodicy and Liberty

The existence of evil is a problem for theodicy, for the justification of God. Why does God allow this terrible evil to exist, and why does He suffer it to triumph? The whole world is full of discord and bloodshed. Satan and not God seems to be its master. Where then is the activity of divine providence? We may remember the argument of Ivan Karamazov about a child’s tears which ended in his refusal to accept a passport to universal harmony. The Euclidean spirit which refuses to grasp the irrational mystery of life claims to make a better world than that which has been created by God, a purely rational world in which there would be neither evil nor suffering. The man who is possessed by this Euclidean spirit cannot conceive why God did not create a happy world without sin and incapable of evil. But the “good” human world of the Euclidean spirit is distinguished from the “bad” divine world by the complete absence of freedom which does not form part of its original design, and man in this case would be nothing but a good automaton. The absence of freedom would have made evil and suffering impossible, and man is ready to give up his liberty in order to be finally delivered from his pain. In the Euclidean world there would be no more free trial or unfettered search. The world that God has created is full of evil, it is true, but at its heart there lies the greatest of all goods, namely the freedom of the spirit which shows that man bears the divine image. Freedom is the only answer to the problem of justifying God. The problem of evil is the problem of liberty. Without an understanding of liberty we cannot grasp the irrational fact of the existence of evil in a divine world. There is in the very origin of the world an irrational freedom which is grounded in the void, in that abyss from which the dark stream of life issues forth and in which every sort of possibility is latent. These unfathomable depths of being which are prior both to good and evil are incapable of final rationalization, for there is always within them the possibility of an influx of new and obscure forces. While it is true that the Logos brings light in place of darkness and that the harmony of the cosmos replaces chaos, yet apart from the dark abyss of chaos there would be neither life nor liberty, nor indeed any meaning in the process of evolution. The dwelling-place of freedom is the abyss of darkness and nothingness, and yet part from freedom everything is without meaning. It is the source of evil as well as of good. Thus the fact of evil does not imply that all is meaningless; on the contrary, it actually establishes the existence of meaning. Freedom is not created because it is not a part of nature; it is prior to the world and has its origin in the primal void. God is All-powerful in relation to being but not in relation to nothingness and to freedom; and that is why evil exists.

Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, p. 159-60