Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Gnosticism and the Problem of Evil

I have been increasingly thinking for a while now that the obsession with evil and suffering in the world—and the increasing tendency of atheists to raise the problem of evil and suffering as an argument against God’s existence-is a very modern phenomena. I have tended to think that it reflects just how comfortable contemporary western life is. Only people who have gotten to the point where they think that life really should be easy, safe, and free of any real problems would be so thrown by the existence of these features of life. Western complaints of suffering in the world feels like the complaints of an over-indulged young twenties adult ‘Who’ll just die because the boss won’t let me listen to the radio while serving customers.’

However, Gnosticism is nothing if it’s not an attempt to try and solve the problem of the existence of evil. So, while I still think there’s something in the ‘Get over yourself’ response to contemporary histrionics about the existence of suffering and evil, it does seem as though people began asking the question soon after the gospel was proclaimed. This suggests that the problem may be more basic to human responses to the knowledge of God than I had thought.

Unfortunately, like all attempts to find an answer Gnosticism is problematic. Ultimately the Bible doesn’t explain where evil comes from or how it began. It is a mystery—one of those things God hasn’t revealed, that we don’t have the resources to discover without revelation.

Gnosticism’s solution has the problem that it turns us into victims, rather than criminals. Evil and suffering exists because of the moral irregularities of beings further up the ontological tree (the Demi-Urge who made the world and is the god of the OT and his mother, Sophia). We aren’t responsible, and neither is God.

The problem is two-fold. We don’t see ourselves correctly and so don’t see that forgiveness really is at the heart of the solution to the human condition.

But arguably just as bad is that this desire to keep God’s hands clean can only be done by distancing him from the world in which evil and suffering exist. Gnosticism is a fairly strong example—it preserves God’s utter purity by putting multiple ontological layers of beings between God and the world and having the world alien to God’s love (an excellent insight by my supervisor—Gnosticism’s difference with Christianity is that Gnosticism makes the world alien to the love of God). But the desire to absolve God of the problem of evil regularly involves reducing his Lordship over the world, and involvement with it.

The Bible is less squeamish, and more robust. God makes no apologies for the existence of evil and suffering, is regularly pictured as using them for his good purposes, and is unequivocal that he is good and righteous. The book of Job makes it clear that God is not interested in coming down to our level and giving us the evidence we need to pass judgement on him—that he sees even our desire to answer the problem of evil as itself part of the problem of evil. God is God. He is to be worshipped, glorified, thanked, and served. He’s not to be vindicated or condemned. You don’t judge the Judge, even to declare him righteous.


qraal said...

Hi Markon

Interesting you mention "Job" and the problem of evil - it's one of my favourites for meditating on the issue. But I think you've missed a few points in later Jewish and Christian thought on the question Job's lot poses about the Almighty's nature. Much ink was spilt trying to figure out why the unrighteous do well when the righteous suffer - considering the misfortunes politicially of the Jews from Exile to Jewish Wars I can see the point.

I think Jacob's letter to the Jewish faithful reveals what the Jewish Christians thought - he reiterates the Gospel command "to be perfect as God is perfect" and in context it's pretty clear he's talking about God's Impartiality. God sends rain on the wicked and the good alike, Jew and Gentile. Thus followers of the Way have to do good to those who do them ill, just like God feeds, clothes and gives life to the ungrateful, idolatrous and proud.

The solution Jacob, and his circle, developed to Job's dilemma is - as more than one Matthean parable shows - that God is going to break-in to this world and set things right, but because of his grace and mercy to all he's not going to do it just yet. One day he'll break-in, all guns blazing, but he doesn't want to take the just with the unjust.

Personally I don't think either the Answer to Job nor the Jacobean answer give us the whole story, but God has graciously given us some ideas.

qraal said...

How embarassing... I left out half my argument and quoted the wrong Bible book. "Matthew" I believe is the Gospel with the strongest parallels to Jacob's letter - Paul Barnett has argued for a common originating group. Thus that's how I end up attributing a Matthean verse to Jacob. D'Oh! I'm trying to explicate my argument further on my blog:

...sorry for the confusion. Jacobean Christians viewed God as changelessly luminous, tempting no one. That kind of doesn't fit with Job's tale does it?

Baddelim said...

Hi qraal,

I think I'd agree that none of what the Bible gives us is the whole story about evil and suffering. I don't think that's really God's concern--he seems happy for us to live with unknowns. And I think that's a big part of the message of Job.

I think you're right that there's an eschatological dimension in James that is pretty important--ultimate defeat over evil enables us to go on doing good irrespective of people's merits.

I think it's sort of there in Job too though - the vindication of Job after God speaks smacks of a shadowy creation/resurrection in typological form for me.

As for God and the testing of Job. Well that's a big can of worms. Even in James, the word for test is the same as the word for tempt, and God is clearly behind the first even as he is clearly not behind the second.

Maybe Satan's temptation was God's test?

I agree that they are big issues. Well worth sustained reflection.

in Christ,