Evil as proof of God’s existence?

Christopher Benson draws attention to a statement by literary critic Terry Eagleton, a Marxist who has recently started attacking the “new atheists,” who has written a book on the reality of evil:

Evil is a form of transcendence, even if from the point of view of good it is a transcendence gone awry. Perhaps it is the only form of transcendence left in a postreligious world. We know nothing any more of choirs of heavenly hosts, but we know about Auschwitz. Maybe all that now survives of God is this negative trace of him known as wickedness, rather as all that may survive of some great symphony is the silence which it imprints on the air like an inaudible sound as it shimmers to a close. Perhaps evil is all that now keeps warm the space where God used to be.

via What if the problem of evil isn’t a problem? » Evangel | A First Things Blog.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://jackkilcrease.blogspot.com Dr. Jack Kilcrease

    It’s less complicated than he makes it. Let’s just put it simply. The argument against the existence of God on the basis of evil is non-sensical because if you say that evil exists, then you an absolute transcendent good, namely God, exists. This must be the case because otherwise there would be no basis to determine anything was evil, since things are evil because God says so. So, when an atheist says “God doesn’t exist, because of evil” all they’re really saying is “God doesn’t exist, because he hasn’t made the way I want it (namely without things I would determine to be evil).” This is of course absurd and also egocentric. If you admit that evil exists in some objective sense, then you automatically admit God exists. End of story.

  • http://jackkilcrease.blogspot.com Dr. Jack Kilcrease

    It’s less complicated than he makes it. Let’s just put it simply. The argument against the existence of God on the basis of evil is non-sensical because if you say that evil exists, then you an absolute transcendent good, namely God, exists. This must be the case because otherwise there would be no basis to determine anything was evil, since things are evil because God says so. So, when an atheist says “God doesn’t exist, because of evil” all they’re really saying is “God doesn’t exist, because he hasn’t made the way I want it (namely without things I would determine to be evil).” This is of course absurd and also egocentric. If you admit that evil exists in some objective sense, then you automatically admit God exists. End of story.

  • Dan Kempin

    I don’t know. The old “evil as an argument for God” bit doesn’t seem to be where Eagleton is coming from. The evil he speaks of (with reverence and awe) is not externally verified–it is not evil because God says it is evil–but it is “transcendent.” One can look at Auschwitz and feel the evil without any reference to God. One can instuitively know and sense it. That, I think, is his point.

    In one sense, he “replaces” God with evil, since evil is perceptible and God is not (in his own analysis). Evil is real in a way that “choirs of heavenly hosts” are not. On the other hand, he senses a reality in this transcendence that does not fit with a strictly atheistic world view, though he is still groping blindly and with wilful defiance of a transcendent God. (e.g. “Perhaps evil is all that now keeps warm the space where God used to be.”) He is not arguing for God, but he is admitting that classic atheism is inadequate.

  • Dan Kempin

    I don’t know. The old “evil as an argument for God” bit doesn’t seem to be where Eagleton is coming from. The evil he speaks of (with reverence and awe) is not externally verified–it is not evil because God says it is evil–but it is “transcendent.” One can look at Auschwitz and feel the evil without any reference to God. One can instuitively know and sense it. That, I think, is his point.

    In one sense, he “replaces” God with evil, since evil is perceptible and God is not (in his own analysis). Evil is real in a way that “choirs of heavenly hosts” are not. On the other hand, he senses a reality in this transcendence that does not fit with a strictly atheistic world view, though he is still groping blindly and with wilful defiance of a transcendent God. (e.g. “Perhaps evil is all that now keeps warm the space where God used to be.”) He is not arguing for God, but he is admitting that classic atheism is inadequate.

  • Norman Teigen

    Which states have good rest areas and which have poorly kept rest areas?

    I would like to nominate my state, Minnesota, for extremely well-kept rest areas. The rest areas typically describe points of historical interest in the areas in which they are located.

    We are traveling eastward in October to New York City. We will pass through Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Any tips on which states to use, or avoid, the rest areas?

  • Norman Teigen

    Which states have good rest areas and which have poorly kept rest areas?

    I would like to nominate my state, Minnesota, for extremely well-kept rest areas. The rest areas typically describe points of historical interest in the areas in which they are located.

    We are traveling eastward in October to New York City. We will pass through Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Any tips on which states to use, or avoid, the rest areas?

  • Dan Kempin

    *Btw, “instuitively” is a word I just invented that combines “instinctively” and “intuitively.” I’m sure the typing time this will save numerous bloggers will soon make this one of the most popular new words on the web, and I could think of no better place to roll it out than Cranach.

  • Dan Kempin

    *Btw, “instuitively” is a word I just invented that combines “instinctively” and “intuitively.” I’m sure the typing time this will save numerous bloggers will soon make this one of the most popular new words on the web, and I could think of no better place to roll it out than Cranach.

  • Tom Hering

    “Evil is a form of transcendence …”

    No, it’s a form of submergence.

    “Perhaps it is the only form of transcendence left in a postreligious world.”

    It’s only a “postreligious world” for Marxists and atheists. They’re the ones having trouble with the category “evil.” Most of the rest of us have no problem with it, because most of the rest of us are religious.

    “We know nothing any more of choirs of heavenly hosts, but we know about Auschwitz.”

    This is a Marxist projecting his own experience onto everyone else. In fact, many of us know about both heavenly hosts and Auschwitz.

    “Maybe all that now survives of God is this negative trace of him known as wickedness … Perhaps evil is all that now keeps warm the space where God used to be.”

    This is a conflation of the subjective and objective. A Marxist confuses his personal experience – of the absence of God – with the presence of evil in the world.

  • Tom Hering

    “Evil is a form of transcendence …”

    No, it’s a form of submergence.

    “Perhaps it is the only form of transcendence left in a postreligious world.”

    It’s only a “postreligious world” for Marxists and atheists. They’re the ones having trouble with the category “evil.” Most of the rest of us have no problem with it, because most of the rest of us are religious.

    “We know nothing any more of choirs of heavenly hosts, but we know about Auschwitz.”

    This is a Marxist projecting his own experience onto everyone else. In fact, many of us know about both heavenly hosts and Auschwitz.

    “Maybe all that now survives of God is this negative trace of him known as wickedness … Perhaps evil is all that now keeps warm the space where God used to be.”

    This is a conflation of the subjective and objective. A Marxist confuses his personal experience – of the absence of God – with the presence of evil in the world.

  • Norman Teigen

    Whoops. I made a comment in the wrong place. Mr. Editor please discontinue my reception of follow-up comments here. The topic is too deep for my comprehension.

  • Norman Teigen

    Whoops. I made a comment in the wrong place. Mr. Editor please discontinue my reception of follow-up comments here. The topic is too deep for my comprehension.

  • Jerry

    This is also too deep for me, but that doesn’t mean I won’t comment. If there is no evil to oppose, then the Marxist has no meaning on his own. Therefore there must be evil. However, if there is evil it must be transcedent or else it can be overcome and the Marxist again loses meaning. Furthermore, because good (God) is defined by the state, there is no God or presence higher than the state.

  • Jerry

    This is also too deep for me, but that doesn’t mean I won’t comment. If there is no evil to oppose, then the Marxist has no meaning on his own. Therefore there must be evil. However, if there is evil it must be transcedent or else it can be overcome and the Marxist again loses meaning. Furthermore, because good (God) is defined by the state, there is no God or presence higher than the state.

  • Bob H

    Although I agree that if you accept the existence of evil, it precludes a strictly materialistic, atheistic worldview, I do not accept evil as transcendent, as described by Eagleton. In a Christian, theistic, wordview, evil is a state or condition. It is the state or condition that is opposed to or outside of the will of God. If we perceive evil in the world, it is because of the law written on our hearts by God, or because we have heard or read his word. If we then view evil as transcendent, we are setting up a “force” that is equal and opposite of God, an idea that is prevalent in the world, but is not a Christian concept taught in the Bible.

  • Bob H

    Although I agree that if you accept the existence of evil, it precludes a strictly materialistic, atheistic worldview, I do not accept evil as transcendent, as described by Eagleton. In a Christian, theistic, wordview, evil is a state or condition. It is the state or condition that is opposed to or outside of the will of God. If we perceive evil in the world, it is because of the law written on our hearts by God, or because we have heard or read his word. If we then view evil as transcendent, we are setting up a “force” that is equal and opposite of God, an idea that is prevalent in the world, but is not a Christian concept taught in the Bible.

  • DonS

    Norman @ 3: I think there is a strong argument to be made that poorly kept rest areas are, indeed, evil. :-)

  • DonS

    Norman @ 3: I think there is a strong argument to be made that poorly kept rest areas are, indeed, evil. :-)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Kind of sounds to me like Manichaeism meets Nietzsche: there are two transcendant powers, good (God) and evil (Satan), but we know that God is dead, so …

    Okay, that’s likely abusing both Manichaeism and Nietzsche, but the quote did seem Dualist. Or, perhaps, post-Dualist?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Kind of sounds to me like Manichaeism meets Nietzsche: there are two transcendant powers, good (God) and evil (Satan), but we know that God is dead, so …

    Okay, that’s likely abusing both Manichaeism and Nietzsche, but the quote did seem Dualist. Or, perhaps, post-Dualist?

  • Dan Kempin

    I may be wrong, but I don’t think Eagleton is using the word “trancendent” in the same way that it is used within Christianity, namely as a quality of the Divine. He seems to be using it to describe a reality that is beyond quantification.

    Hey tODD, did you hear the one about the post-dualist duelist? (Not to be confused with your earlier post-dualist post.)

  • Dan Kempin

    I may be wrong, but I don’t think Eagleton is using the word “trancendent” in the same way that it is used within Christianity, namely as a quality of the Divine. He seems to be using it to describe a reality that is beyond quantification.

    Hey tODD, did you hear the one about the post-dualist duelist? (Not to be confused with your earlier post-dualist post.)

  • Jerry

    On American Thinker there’s a blog on a recently published paper, Purifying the World: What the New Radical Ideology Stands For. It illustrates where a lot of this is going.

  • Jerry

    On American Thinker there’s a blog on a recently published paper, Purifying the World: What the New Radical Ideology Stands For. It illustrates where a lot of this is going.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Those who simply posit evil as a proof for good ignore the hard choices of we humans daily between evil and good. Simply viewing evil as a proof of the good is an academic argument of Benson that ignores the choice involved.

    For C.S. Lewis, the solution to the problem lies in the doctrine of free will. If humans are truly free to choose good or evil, he reasons, then evil must be a real possibility. An omnipotent God could surely prevent evil, but he could only do so at the cost of human freedom. Human freedom is better than a world without suffering because it makes real love and real goodness possible.

    For Lewis, the solution to the problem may lie in the doctrine of free will. If humans are truly free to choose good or evil, he reasons, then evil must be a real possibility. An omnipotent God could surely prevent evil, but he could only do so at the cost of human freedom. Human freedom is better than a world without suffering because it makes real love and real goodness possible.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Those who simply posit evil as a proof for good ignore the hard choices of we humans daily between evil and good. Simply viewing evil as a proof of the good is an academic argument of Benson that ignores the choice involved.

    For C.S. Lewis, the solution to the problem lies in the doctrine of free will. If humans are truly free to choose good or evil, he reasons, then evil must be a real possibility. An omnipotent God could surely prevent evil, but he could only do so at the cost of human freedom. Human freedom is better than a world without suffering because it makes real love and real goodness possible.

    For Lewis, the solution to the problem may lie in the doctrine of free will. If humans are truly free to choose good or evil, he reasons, then evil must be a real possibility. An omnipotent God could surely prevent evil, but he could only do so at the cost of human freedom. Human freedom is better than a world without suffering because it makes real love and real goodness possible.

  • The Jungle Cat

    I am a conservative Christian, and I have a problem with the notion that evil exists. This sounds counterintuitive so bear with me. If evil exists and there is an ultimate good in the world (God), it follows that an ultimate evil must exist in the world too. Generally, Christians hold that the most evil being in the world is the devil, but, as tODD pointed out, this lapses into Manicheeism (or perhaps Zoroastrianism–what you will.) Christianity leaves no room for the belief in two ultimate beings, one representing good and the other evil. For this reason, I would say that evil does not exist, but that non-existence is paradoxically a form of abstract existence. In other words, evil is non-existence itself. This idea does not have a great deal of currency, I realize, but I believe that it is vindicated both by scripture and nature. After all, when God created the world, did He not say of its material form that it was good? Furthermore, that which we call evil is not typically creative, but rather destructive; evil is that which makes being become non-being. Even cancer does not result from malevolent cells but rather from a lack of benevolent cells. Death–not life-after-death, but death itself, mind you–we hold in a negative light, not because it is positively bad, but because it takes away life, which we regard as being positively good. Anyway, I’m interested to hear what everyone has to say in regard to this.

  • The Jungle Cat

    I am a conservative Christian, and I have a problem with the notion that evil exists. This sounds counterintuitive so bear with me. If evil exists and there is an ultimate good in the world (God), it follows that an ultimate evil must exist in the world too. Generally, Christians hold that the most evil being in the world is the devil, but, as tODD pointed out, this lapses into Manicheeism (or perhaps Zoroastrianism–what you will.) Christianity leaves no room for the belief in two ultimate beings, one representing good and the other evil. For this reason, I would say that evil does not exist, but that non-existence is paradoxically a form of abstract existence. In other words, evil is non-existence itself. This idea does not have a great deal of currency, I realize, but I believe that it is vindicated both by scripture and nature. After all, when God created the world, did He not say of its material form that it was good? Furthermore, that which we call evil is not typically creative, but rather destructive; evil is that which makes being become non-being. Even cancer does not result from malevolent cells but rather from a lack of benevolent cells. Death–not life-after-death, but death itself, mind you–we hold in a negative light, not because it is positively bad, but because it takes away life, which we regard as being positively good. Anyway, I’m interested to hear what everyone has to say in regard to this.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jungle Cat (@14), I’m not sure I agree that “Christians hold that the most evil being in the world is the devil.” I even take issue with your phrasing that “there is an ultimate good in the world.” And the reason is your implications that there are degrees of evil and good. There are not. There is God. He, alone, is good (i.e. holy, sinless, perfect) — though, by faith, he makes us good as well. And then there is everything that is not good, which is evil.

    I have read (and am intrigued by, without having fully thought it through) frameworks by which it is argued that evil isn’t so much of a thing, but the absence of a thing. Such arguments usually note that there is no such thing, scientifically, as cold or dark, but that, rather, there is only light and heat (or, of course, their absence, which is what cold and dark refer to). I still don’t think that’s grounds for arguing that evil doesn’t exist, anymore than I would argue that darkness doesn’t exist. If that were true, we couldn’t say, “it’s dark.” It’s just that darkness isn’t the presence of something, only the absence. But absences exist. You might as well argue that holes don’t exist, either. And while this is veering dangerously into the realm of clever-sounding arguments, we should be careful not to lose our Scriptural footing. And the Bible makes it clear that evil and Satan exist. Period. They do not, however, say that Satan is an “ultimate being”.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jungle Cat (@14), I’m not sure I agree that “Christians hold that the most evil being in the world is the devil.” I even take issue with your phrasing that “there is an ultimate good in the world.” And the reason is your implications that there are degrees of evil and good. There are not. There is God. He, alone, is good (i.e. holy, sinless, perfect) — though, by faith, he makes us good as well. And then there is everything that is not good, which is evil.

    I have read (and am intrigued by, without having fully thought it through) frameworks by which it is argued that evil isn’t so much of a thing, but the absence of a thing. Such arguments usually note that there is no such thing, scientifically, as cold or dark, but that, rather, there is only light and heat (or, of course, their absence, which is what cold and dark refer to). I still don’t think that’s grounds for arguing that evil doesn’t exist, anymore than I would argue that darkness doesn’t exist. If that were true, we couldn’t say, “it’s dark.” It’s just that darkness isn’t the presence of something, only the absence. But absences exist. You might as well argue that holes don’t exist, either. And while this is veering dangerously into the realm of clever-sounding arguments, we should be careful not to lose our Scriptural footing. And the Bible makes it clear that evil and Satan exist. Period. They do not, however, say that Satan is an “ultimate being”.

  • http://www.lordjimemperoroficecream.blogspot.com The Jungle Cat

    @tODD. Thank you for the follow up. Many of your points have merit, but I’m not convinced. First, I would say that the claim that only God is good is interpreting a scriptural passage (Mk. 10:18) in a way in which it was not meant to be interpreted. In this particular passage, Jesus does say that only God is good, but he was referring to the goodness in the spiritual realm rather than the physical realm. One can just as easily rebut this claim by quoting Genesis 1:31: “And God saw everything that he made, and behold, that it was very good.” It is certainly a scriptural position to assert all material is, in a sense, good, though the spirit that animates some matter may be lacking. I don’t know if you were making this claim about my argument, but I never made the case that Satan was an ultimate being. It was the avoidance of this position that made me affirm that evil is the privation of good. I actually think that one can argue that holes do not exist, but that it is a particular sort of nonexistence that–like evil–has relevance to things which do exist. Even so, I don’t think that this distinction–between whether evil actually does exist or is only abstractly existent as nonexistence–is relevant because of how theodicy arguments are regularly framed. For instance, if a skeptic were to claim that the existence of evil precludes the existence of God, one could rebut this argument by making the case that evil does not exist; it is rather nonexistence, and it is, therefore, the shadow of the God who is.

  • http://www.lordjimemperoroficecream.blogspot.com The Jungle Cat

    @tODD. Thank you for the follow up. Many of your points have merit, but I’m not convinced. First, I would say that the claim that only God is good is interpreting a scriptural passage (Mk. 10:18) in a way in which it was not meant to be interpreted. In this particular passage, Jesus does say that only God is good, but he was referring to the goodness in the spiritual realm rather than the physical realm. One can just as easily rebut this claim by quoting Genesis 1:31: “And God saw everything that he made, and behold, that it was very good.” It is certainly a scriptural position to assert all material is, in a sense, good, though the spirit that animates some matter may be lacking. I don’t know if you were making this claim about my argument, but I never made the case that Satan was an ultimate being. It was the avoidance of this position that made me affirm that evil is the privation of good. I actually think that one can argue that holes do not exist, but that it is a particular sort of nonexistence that–like evil–has relevance to things which do exist. Even so, I don’t think that this distinction–between whether evil actually does exist or is only abstractly existent as nonexistence–is relevant because of how theodicy arguments are regularly framed. For instance, if a skeptic were to claim that the existence of evil precludes the existence of God, one could rebut this argument by making the case that evil does not exist; it is rather nonexistence, and it is, therefore, the shadow of the God who is.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jungle Cat (@16), I think there’s some confusion here. You cite Genesis 1:31 to “rebut” my saying that “only God is good”, but your rebuttal only proves my point: “God saw everything that he made, and behold, that it was very good” (my emphasis). The blessings that we have on this earth — that is, all good things — come from God. Not sure if that changes anything in your reply, but there you are.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jungle Cat (@16), I think there’s some confusion here. You cite Genesis 1:31 to “rebut” my saying that “only God is good”, but your rebuttal only proves my point: “God saw everything that he made, and behold, that it was very good” (my emphasis). The blessings that we have on this earth — that is, all good things — come from God. Not sure if that changes anything in your reply, but there you are.

  • Dan Kempin

    Jungle Cat,

    Interesting reflections, but the idea of evil as “non-existence” does not hold up, particularly when you (echoing Mr. Eagleton) say that it is a “shadow” of God. That is at root (to tODD’s initial comment) dualist.

    Death itself is not evil, but the result of evil. Death is the curse and consequence of evil.

    Non-existence is neutral. It is not active. It is the opposite state of existence.

    Evil is destructive, corrosive, and self-propagating. Evil does not annihilate that which is good, but it corrupts, co-opts, and and commandeers the good.

    Evil is not a thing unto itself, and thus it is perfectly true to say that God did not create evil, nor is evil the required antithesis of that which is good. (dualism) Creation existed before the fall in a state of “good”-ness without evil.

    Whence came evil? That is the truly difficult question.

    What is evil? It is a corruption of the good, for everything created was initially good.

  • Dan Kempin

    Jungle Cat,

    Interesting reflections, but the idea of evil as “non-existence” does not hold up, particularly when you (echoing Mr. Eagleton) say that it is a “shadow” of God. That is at root (to tODD’s initial comment) dualist.

    Death itself is not evil, but the result of evil. Death is the curse and consequence of evil.

    Non-existence is neutral. It is not active. It is the opposite state of existence.

    Evil is destructive, corrosive, and self-propagating. Evil does not annihilate that which is good, but it corrupts, co-opts, and and commandeers the good.

    Evil is not a thing unto itself, and thus it is perfectly true to say that God did not create evil, nor is evil the required antithesis of that which is good. (dualism) Creation existed before the fall in a state of “good”-ness without evil.

    Whence came evil? That is the truly difficult question.

    What is evil? It is a corruption of the good, for everything created was initially good.

  • The Jungle Cat

    @tODD and Dan. Thanks again for the comments. I usually don’t continue web discussions beyond two or three posts, but I’ll just briefly note one point, and that is that one can make a scriptural case that death is evil based on the fact that it is specified as the last enemy for Christ to defeat.

  • The Jungle Cat

    @tODD and Dan. Thanks again for the comments. I usually don’t continue web discussions beyond two or three posts, but I’ll just briefly note one point, and that is that one can make a scriptural case that death is evil based on the fact that it is specified as the last enemy for Christ to defeat.

  • Cincinnatus

    Dumb argument by a rather pedestrian (i.e., dumb) literary critic. Evil has no ontological status.

  • Cincinnatus

    Dumb argument by a rather pedestrian (i.e., dumb) literary critic. Evil has no ontological status.


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