The Existence of Evil

by Charles Hodge

Charles Hodge
From Hodge's Systematic Theology, vol. 1 pp. 429-436.

How can the existence of evil, physical and moral, be reconciled with the benevolence and holiness of a God infinite in his wisdom and power? This is the question which has exercised the reason and tried the faith of men in all ages of the world. Such is the distance between God and man, such the feebleness of our powers, and such the limited range of our vision, it might seem reasonable to leave this question to be answered by God himself. If a child cannot rationally sit in judgment on the conduct of his parents, nor a peasant comprehend the affairs of an empire, we certainly are not competent to call God to account, or to ask of Him the reason of his ways. We might rest satisfied with the assurance that the Judge of all the earth must do right. These considerations, however, have not availed to prevent speculation on this subject. The existence of evil is constantly brought forward by skeptics as an argument against religion; and it is constantly in the minds of believers as a difficulty and a doubt. While it is our duty to obey the injunction, "Be still and know that I am God," it is no less our duty to protest against those solutions of this great problem which either destroy the nature of sin or the nature of God.

Theories which involve the Denial of Sin.

Most of the theories proposed to account for the existence of evil, come under one or the other of the three following classes: First, those which really or virtually deny the existence of evil in the world. What we call evil is distinguished as physical and moral, pain and sin. There is some plausibility in the argument to prove that pain is not necessarily an evil. It is necessary to the safety of sentient creatures. But pain exists far beyond the bounds of this necessity. Such is the amount and variety of suffering in the world, of the just and of the unjust, of infants and of adults, that no philosophy can smother the conviction that the misery which weighs so heavily on the children of men, is an appalling evil. There is no such trial to our faith, as to see an infant suffering excruciating pain. If, however, pain could be removed from the category of evil, sin is not so easily disposed of. The world lies in wickedness. The history of man is, to a large degree, the history of sin. If God be holy, wise, and omnipotent, how can we account for this widely extended and long-continued prevalence of sin?

One solution is sought in the denial that sin is an evil. In other words, it is denied that there is any such thing as sin. What we so regard is, as some maintain, nothing more than limitation of being. To be free from sin, we must be free from limitation, i. e., infinite. It is not an evil that one tree is smaller, less beautiful, or less valuable than others; or that a plant has not the sensitive life of an animal; or that all animals have not the rational powers of man. As in a forest, we see trees of every shape and size, perfectly and imperfectly developed, and this diversity is itself a good so among men there are some more, and some less conformed to the ideal standard of reason and right, but this is not an evil. It is only diversity of development; the manifold forms of an endless life.

Others say that what we call sin is the necessary condition of virtue. There can be no action without reaction; no strength without obstacles to be overcome; no pleasure without pain; and no virtue without vice. Moral goodness is mastery over moral evil. There cannot be one without the other. All would be dead and motionless, a stagnant sea, were it not for this antagonism.

Others again say that sin has only a subjective reality. It is analogous to pain. Some things affect us agreeably, others disagreeably; some excite self-approbation, some disapprobation. But that is simply our own concern. God no more participates in our judgments than He does in our sensations.

Others do not so expressly deny the existence of sin. They admit that it is not only evil to us, but that it involves guilt in the sight of God, and therefore should be punished. Nevertheless, they represent it as arising necessarily out of the constitution of our nature. All creatures are subject to the law of development -- to a "Werden." Perfection is a goal to be reached by a gradual process. This law controls every sphere of life, vegetable, animal, intellectual, and moral. Every plant is developed from a seed. Our bodies begin in a germ; infancy is feeble and suffering. Our minds are subject to the same law. They are, of necessity, open to error. Our moral life is not an exception to this rule. Moral beings, at least those constituted as we are, cannot avoid sin. It is incident to their nature and condition. It is to be outlived and overcome. If the world be so constituted and so undirected that there is a continued progress toward perfection; if all evil, and especially all sin, be eliminated by this progress, the wisdom, goodness, and holiness of God will be thereby vindicated. Bruch asks, "Why has God (der heilige Urgeist) brought men into the world with only the potentiality of freedom (which with him includes perfection), and not with the actuality, but left that perfection to be attained by a long process of development? The only answer to that question," he says, is, " that development lies in the very nature of the finite. It must strive toward perfection by an endless process, without ever reaching it in its fulness. We might as well ask why God has ordained that the tree should be developed from a germ? or why the earth itself has passed through so many periods of change, ever from a lower to a higher state? or why the universe is made up of things finite, and is itself finite?" He adds the further consideration, "that God, with the possibility of sin, has provided redemption by which it is to be overcome, banished, and swallowed up." "The annihilation of sin is the design of the whole work of redemption. ' The Son of Man is come that He might destroy the works of the devil.' (1 John iii. 8.) Sin, however, will disappear only when not the individual alone, but when the whole race of man has reached the goal of its destination, -- and when," he asks, " will this happen? " (2) That question he leaves unanswered. On a following page, however, he quotes Klaiber (3) as saying: "Divine revelation gives the only possible and satisfactory answer to the question, how the existence of sin can be reconciled with the holiness of God, an answer which satisfies not only our pious feelings, but our anthropological and theological speculations, in that it makes known the truth that God determined on the creation of beings, who, as free agents, were subject to the possibility of sin, and who were-through their own fault sunk in evil, in connection with redemption; so that sin is only a transient, vanishing phenomenon in the development of finite beings. This is the great idea which pervades the whole of revelation; yea, which is its essence and its goal."

It is obvious that all theories which make sin a necessary evil, destroy its nature as revealed in Scripture, and in our own consciousness.

Sin considered as the Necessary Means of the Greatest Good.

A much more plausible theory, belonging to the class of those which virtually, although not professedly, destroy the nature of sin, is that which regards it as the necessary means of the greatest good. Sin, in itself, is an evil; relatively, it is a good. The universe is better with it than without it. In itself, it is an evil that the smaller animals should be devoured by the larger; but as this is necessary to prevent the undue development of animal life, and as it ministers to the higher forms thereof, it becomes a benevolent arrangement. The amputation of a limb is an evil; but if necessary to save life, it is a good. Wars are dreadful evils, yet the world is indebted to wars for the preservation of civil and religious liberty, for which they are a small price. Better have war than lose the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free. Thus, if sin be the necessary means of the greatest good, it ceases to be an evil, on the whole, and it is perfectly consistent with the benevolence of God to permit its occurrence. This has been a favorite method of solving the problem of evil in all ages. This is the idea which Leibnitz wrought out so elaborately in his " Theodicde." It has been adopted by many theologians who do not carry it on to its legitimate consequences. Thus Twesten says: " If the world be absolutely dependent on the most perfect Being; if it be the work of the highest love, power, and wisdom; and if it be constantly controlled and governed by God, it must be absolutely perfect." Hence even sin, although like pain an evil in itself, must on the whole be a good. It is a necessary element in a perfect world. Twesten, therefore, says "If the world, with the sin and misery which it contains, produces a greater amount of good, and reveals the divine power and love more fully than could otherwise be possible, then the consistency of the existence of evil with the universal causality (or government) of God is thereby vindicated." The word good in this connection, according to the common doctrine of optimists, does not mean moral good, but happiness. The principle on which this theory is founded was propounded in a posthumous treatise of President Edwards, in which he taught that virtue consists in the love of being. This principle was adopted and carried out by Drs. Hopkins and Emmons in their systems of theology, which for many years had great influence in this country.

Objections to this Theory.

Plausible as this theory is, it is liable to many objections. 1. In the first place, we have no right to limit the infinite God. To say that this is the best possible world, is to say that God can make nothing greater or better; which, unless the world be infinite, is to say that God is finite. It is enough for us to believe that the world with its finite results, is what God in his wisdom saw fit to call into existence; but that it is the best He could make, is a gratuitous and derogatory assumption.

2. It is unscriptural, and contrary to our moral reason, to make happiness the end of creation. The Bible declares the glory of God, an infinitely higher end, to be the final cause for which all things exist. It is the instinctive judgment of men, that holiness or moral excellence is a greater good than happiness. But, on this theory, holiness has no value except as a means of producing happiness. This cannot be believed, except under a protest from our moral nature. The theory in question, therefore, solves the problem of evil by denying its existence. Nothing is an evil which tends to the greatest happiness. Sin is the necessary means of the greatest good, and therefore is not an evil.

The Doctrine that God cannot prevent Sin in a Moral System.

The second general method of reconciling the existence of sin with the benevolence and holiness of God, is, not to deny that sin, even all things considered, is an evil; but to affirm that God cannot prevent all sin, or even the present amount of sin, in a moral system. It assumes that certainty is inconsistent with free agency. Any kind or degree of influence which renders it certain how a free agent will act, destroys his liberty in acting. He must always be able to act contrary to any degree of influence brought to bear upon him, or he ceases to be free. God, therefore, of necessity limits Himself when He creates free agents. They are beyond his absolute control. He may argue and persuade, but He cannot govern.

This doctrine that God cannot effectually control the acts of free agents without destroying their liberty, is so contrary to the Scriptures, that it has never been adopted by any organized portion of the Christian Church. Some theologians avail themselves of it for an emergency, when treating of this subject, although it is utterly at variance with their general scheme. Twesten, for example, who, as we have seen, in one place teaches that God voluntarily permits sin as the necessary means of the greatest good, in another place says that He cannot prevent it in a moral system. "Mit der Freiheit," he says, "war die Moglichkeit des Misbrauchs gege'ben; ohne jene zu vernichten, konnte Gott diesen nicht verhindern." That is, without destroying liberty, God cannot prevent its abuse. If this be so, then God cannot govern free agents. He cannot secure the accomplishment of his purposes, or the fulfilment of his promises. There is no security for the triumph of good in the universe. Angels and saints in heaven may all sin, and evil become dominant and universal. On this theory, all prayer that God would change our own hearts, or the hearts of others, becomes irrational. All this is so contrary to the teaching of the Bible, which everywhere asserts the sovereignty and supremacy of God, declaring that the hearts of men are in his hand, and that He turns them as the rivers of water; that He makes his people willing in the day of his power, working in them to will and to do, according to his good pleasure; it is so inconsistent with the promise to give repentance and faith, with the assertion of his power to change the heart; it is so incompatible with the hopes and confidence of the believer, that God can keep him from falling; and so subversive of the idea of God as presented in the Bible and revealed in our nature, that the Church has, almost with one accord, preferred to leave the mystery of evil unexplained, rather than to seek its solution in a principle which undermines the foundation of all religion.

The Scriptural Doctrine.

The third method of dealing with this question is to rest satisfied with the simple statements of the Bible. The Scriptures teach, (1.) That the glory of God is the end to which the promotion of holiness, and the production of happiness, and all other ends are subordinate. (2.) That, therefore, the self-manifestation of God, the revelation of his infinite perfection, being the highest conceivable, or possible good, is the ultimate end of all his works in creation, providence, and redemption. (3.) As sentient creatures are necessary for the manifestation of God's benevolence, so there could be no manifestation of his mercy without misery, or of his grace and justice, if there were no sin. As the heavens declare the glory of God, so He has devised the plan of redemption, " To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places, might be known by the Church the manifold wisdom of God." (Eph. iii. 10.) The knowledge of God is eternal life. It is for creatures the highest good. And the promotion of that knowledge, the manifestation of the manifold perfections of the infinite God, is the highest end of all his works. This is declared by the Apostle to be the end contemplated, both in the punishment of sinners and in the salvation of believers. It is an end to which, he says, no man can rationally object. " What if God, willing to shew his wrath (or justice), and to make his power known, endured with much long suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that He might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had afore prepared unto glory." (Rom. ix. 22, 23.) Sin, therefore, according the Scriptures, is permitted, that the justice of God may be known in its punishment, and his grace in its forgiveness. And the universe, without the knowledge of these attributes, would be like the earth without the light the sun.

The glory of God being the great end of all things, we are not obliged to assume that this is the best possible world for the production of happiness, or even for securing the greatest degree of holiness among rational creatures. It is wisely adapted for the end for which it was designed, namely, the manifestation of the manifold perfections of God. That God, in revealing Himself, does promote the highest good of his creatures, consistent with the promotion of his own glory, may be admitted. But to reverse this order, to make the good of the creature the highest end, is to pervert and subvert the whole scheme; it is to put the means for the end, to subordinate God to the universe, the Infinite to the finite. This putting the creature in the place of the Creator, disturbs our moral and religious sentiments and convictions, as well as our intellectual apprehensions of God, and of his relation to the universe.

The older theologians almost unanimously make the glory of God the ultimate, and the good of the creature the subordinate end of all things. Twesten, indeed, says' it makes no difference whether we say God proposes his own glory as the ultimate end, and, for that purpose, determined to produce the highest degree of good; or that He purposed the highest good of his creatures, whence the manifestation of his glory flows as a consequence. It, however, makes all the difference in the world, whether the Creator be subordinate to the creature, or the creature to the Creator; whether the end be the means, or the means the end. There is a great difference whether the earth or the sun be assumed as the centre of our solar system. If we make the earth the centre, our astronomy will be in confusion. And if we make the creature, and not God, the end of all things, our theology and religion will in like manner be perverted. It may, in conclusion, be safely asserted that a universe constructed for the purpose of making God known, is a far better universe than one designed for the production of happiness.

Scanned and edited by Michael Bremmer

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