God alone exists, evil is non-being.
How can we as Christians account for the existence of evil? It is common place for the Church’s detractors to point to the evil that is present in the world, the painful and supposedly undeserved evils that happen in life, as proof that God does not exist. In their argument God, if He did exist, would have to be seen as either cruel or weak. This conclusion they base on the following syllogism: (1) God is all knowing (or Omniscient) and all powerful (or Omnipotent) (2)God is all loving (or Omni benevolent) (3) Yet still, evil exists in the world that He created.
Atheists point to this syllogism as evidence of faulty reasoning. Either God is not all powerful, or He is not all loving.
I would agree with the those who say that the thinking that is represented in this syllogism is faulty. The fault, however, lies in something that is lacking in the syllogism.
At its basis the issue is the question of theodicy, a term which comes from the Greek theos, God, and dike, justice. It is a term devised by Gottfried Leibnitz in the 18th century to refer to attempts to justify how God can be good, when there is evil in the world. The whole issue seems to be predominantly a Western one arising from out of a flaw that might be said to exist in the Western understanding of the fall and redemption. It has elicited comparatively miniscule attention from Eastern theologians.
Irenaeus for example taught that God’s providential will was without exception or question always good. He said that it was a part of that goodness that He gave humans the gift of free will, which involves as a matter of course the possibility that man may use it for evil. A human being granted the capacity of free will may choose to use it to follow God’s will, or he may choose to kick against that will. When man chooses to rebel, things go wrong. There is no question in Irenaeus, or in any of the Church Fathers, of finding God guilty for these problems. Fallen man is not following God’s will when he is transgressing. God’s will is not deterministic upon those whom he has given the gift of free will they may either live by it, or against it. The thing they cannot do is to hold God responsible for their consequences of their own rebellion.
Athenagoras talks of evil as not just something that happens within a neutral world, but that the world itself has been corrupted by evil. This may not be entirely at odds with Scriptural passages that refer to Satan as the ruler of the power of the air in Ephesians 2:2, the ruler of this world in John 12:31, or the god of this world in 2 Corinthians 4:4.
Athenagoras and others seemed to have a very clear notion that God’s will is simply not being carried out in this fallen world, and so it should not be such a mystery to us that bad things happen to people. When man, who has been given free will and moral responsibility, chooses to oppose God’s will then he will not only suffer (not from God’s wrath, but from natural outcomes) but he corrupts all around him with his unwholesome influence. As a result all the world suffers.
The warfare theodicy motif appears to me to be consistent with the witness of the early church. There seems to be no question in the Church Fathers or the New Testament of Divine responsibility for evil. It is simply an unavoidable feature of mans capability of free will. Without the capacity for evil, man would not have the capacity for moral virtue.
In the west, Augustine’s influence is sometimes seen as what led to a lessening of the seeing of individuals as the ones who are ultimately responsible for their own behavior. It is as a result of this that theodicy has become a more pressing problem in the West then it is for the Eastern Church.
Perhaps Athanasius summed up the Eastern understanding when he said that “God alone exists, evil is non-being.” God is not accountable for man’s turning away through sin. That act of turning away separates man from his presence and as a consequent separates him from his only real existence, whose source is in God. So evil then does not really have on existence of its own, it is simply the absence of good. God is not the maker of things that are non-existent, so he can in no way be the author of evil.
There is therefore no contradiction in God’s character. He is omnipotent. He is all good. Evil is not everlasting. In fact it is non-being. It is only our slavery to sin and our passions that keep us from seeing this.