It is right for you to look for what you are looking for, but it is not where you are looking for. In the land of death, you seek a happy life: it is not there. How can life be happy somewhere where there is no life? (St. Augustine, Confessions)
In times of crisis, nothing changes the situation of humanity: we are, as ever before, still on the brink. For what effect can plague or war, or any other event, have on life? Or on death? One hundred percent of people die. It’s true, they can die earlier than they otherwise should have. Still, they die. But beyond death, crisis situations change something else, very profoundly, in the way we relate to life and, especially at its end, we are forced to take it into account.
Even if, abstractly speaking, all our lives and all our projects are doomed to final futility, in ordinary times only a wise man realizes this. In times of crisis, we all see it — we are as fleeting as we were, only we can no longer ignore this fact. Just as we cannot ignore the essential questions on which we prefer not to linger too long in times when evil does not visit us personally. Questions that, however formulated, still lead us to the same insoluble problem — to which none of us has yet found the answer — related to the origin and meaning of evil. The problem that has troubled philosophers and theologians over time becomes acute at certain intervals in the face of every man who has not the world’s vast knowledge but his own human condition helps him understand, or rather NOT understand, that there is something implacable, on which he has nothing to say, but which concerns him personally.
The problem of evil — at least in the Christian space in whose civilizational dynamics we are — becomes all the more difficult as it has to reconcile otherwise irreconcilable elements, such as the existence of a good and omnipotent God with the existence of Evil itself and suffering. The answer to this problem has been sought in many ways, through aesthetic, didactic, theological solutions or simply the need for evil in a world of binomials.
St. Augustine even said that evil is not an existence in itself, but only the absence of good. The solutions found criticism and, less often, consensus.
There is, of course, the traditional interpretation of free will — it does not answer all the questions, but it is good to keep it in mind while we search for an answer: evil is inseparably tied to human freedom. Could God have created a being unable to commit any evil? Yes. Would she have been free? No. In that possible world, Christian theologians and philosophers agree, the resulting good would, in reality, have been an even greater evil: to be compelled to do good in the absence of freedom is in itself a greater evil (as a recent example all totalitarian utopias of the twentieth century are honest witnesses). In addition, virtue only exists in freedom, even if freedom (or especially because freedom) involves the risk of making the wrong choice. A free act of will precedes us — a “diabolical angelical” act — followed by a free act of the will of our first parents. This is how we came, as a species, to live in the syntax of evil, although the evil we face personally does not come to us, most of the time, from Adam, but more often from his descendants, and most often from ourselves.
Actual problems only occur when, being confronted with the problem of evil on a personal level, we cannot find logic in any of the existing theories for at least two reasons: the theories are useless (practically) and inconsistent (theoretically) precisely in the most difficult cases, i.e. the most important.
I understand that if I do evil, I bear a punishment; there is nothing inconsistent here. Just as psychologists tell us, we can at least partially know the cognitive mechanisms by which we hurt ourselves, and also how we can fix this. But I do not understand, for example, the evil of a totalitarian regime; and, even if I were to understand the socio-political context, plus the “hazard” factor, it would still mean nothing for the man in the Gulag.
In the midst of the greatest evils, some people did not get to learn anything, and those who lived after it preferred to forget or not to know.
I don’t understand the plague or the logic behind which it finds itself hitting in one place or another, someone and not someone else. Neither war, nor famine, nor earthquake, nor the suffering of children, nor the other evils that come upon mankind without their will. It’s true, evil can sometimes be pedagogical (for oneself or for others), evil can make you better or it can be transformed into something better. But often this is not the case! In the midst of the greatest evils, some people did not get to learn anything, and those who survived it preferred to forget or simply not to know.
Sometime after World War I, Jean Rostand wrote a book called Pendant Qu’on Souffre Encore (While the World Still Suffers). His idea was simple: we still have pain in our midst, we have martyrs who can tell us how torturous the war is. Let’s make it so that suffering is no longer possible! Let us organize it, this time not by aiming for the good, but by forbidding evil. The history of the same century shows us that evil still had much to say.
In the examples above, just as in other, involving evils that are equally hard to bear or understand, no explanation has yet been fully given. Neither free will, nor other theories, nor even evil as a pedagogical method can amount to an explanation. Not all evils elevated those who endured them (sometimes for lack of time) or those who followed (because they preferred to forget).
Sometimes evil is – seemingly – just meaningless and pointless, and perhaps being rational about it means understanding that we cannot rely solely on reason in this regard. The question may thus refine by switching from how do we manage to understand suffering? – because we fail to do so – to how can we metabolize it in our lives even without understanding it?
The problem of confronting evil ultimately becomes a matter of faith, and faith itself is the only answer to the mystery of evil. Evil that is still an integral part of our world. The evil that God does not stop, not because he does not hear our prayers (nor would he need our exhortations to do what is best), but because it may not be the time. We cannot see or understand the whole picture for the simple reason that we are still part of it.
In his book on parables, Romanian author Andrei Pleşu offers a possible Christian answer to the problem of evil, through the example of weeds. According to the biblical text, the Master sows the good seed in his land, and the enemy sows weeds. The caretakers offer to go and eliminate the weeds, that is, the evil, and the Master’s answer is categorical: “No!” It is amazing the idea of the gospel that evil and good must exist together for a while, and we must not rush to separate or eliminate evil. First of all, because, by eliminating evil, we can do a greater evil: “lest by pulling the tares, you also pluck the wheat with it. Let them both grow together until the harvest” (see Matthew 13:24-43). Judgment will come at last, and it will not be mankind to lay out justice, because we do not have the right method or criteria to separate good from evil.
Here, in the need to accept good and evil in the world, we can also find a reference to the very origin of good and evil. The primordial man wanted the “knowledge of good and evil,” he wanted to have access to the discernment between good and evil, believing that he will know what to do with it. He didn’t! (We still don’t.) And the result for the man who wanted to know for himself what is good and what is bad was evil itself and death, which is ultimately a redemption: once man fell into sin, immortality would have been for him a hopeless destiny and the only one possible. Death becomes, in this case, ambivalent: it is the punishment for sin, but also the way in which, in a world of sin, we are prevented from suffering it indefinitely. It is the great weapon of the wicked and also the great weapon of God. It is the thing that Jesus came to overcome and the means by which He overcame it. For He is the representative “Mortal” of the universe and, therefore, the Resurrection and the Life.
In his best-known book, author Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt says something profound: “No one can escape suffering. Neither God, nor you.” And the late Christian apologist C.S. Lewis also wrote about the suffering of Jesus: He did not suffer so that we would no longer suffer, but he also suffered to show us how to suffer. He, the Son of God Himself, suffered deeply, feared death, doubted divine support at the very last moment, and prayed that the cup of suffering would depart from Him. He was deeply saddened and felt — and even was — abandoned by everyone. He suffered like any human being, and therefore the answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” in the difficult moments when we feel hit or forsaken by God is encouraging: the same thing. Jesus also showed us that life on earth is a trial, and he commanded us to endure it, not to love it. Because the best thing we have in this life is hope that another life will follow.
Carmen Alina Nedelcu has a degree in public relations from the University of Bucharest and a master’s degree in business management from the Academy of Economic Studies. She is an expert in cloud technologies and passionate about books.
The Works of Saint Augustine. A Translation for the 21st Century, 46 vols., John E. Rotelle et al. (eds.), New York: New City Press, 1991–2019.
Viktor E. Frankl, The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
C.S. Lewis, Fern-seed and elephants: and other essays on Christianity, Glasgow : Collins/Fountain Books, 1977.
C. S. Lewis, Miracles: a preliminary study, New York: Macmillan Co., 1947.
Carlo Maria Martini, Umberto Eco, Belief or Nonbelief? A confrontation, Arcade, 2012.
Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées, New York:E.P. Dutton, 1958.
Christophe André, Alexandre Jollien, Matthieu Ricard, Three Friends in Search of Wisdom, Sounds True, 2018.