Sunday, 18 February 2007

Explaining evil?

David Bentley Hart’s little book on theodicy, The Doors of the Sea (2005), is a work of profound insight. Hart observes that attempts to justify evil by appealing to its broader meaning in God’s plan simply render the universe “morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome” (p. 99). Against all such theodicies, Hart rightly argues that “suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all: and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts” (p. 35).

The Christian faith, Hart notes, “denies that … suffering, death, and evil have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all.” Instead, “they are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may – under the conditions of a fallen order – make them the occasions for accomplishing his good ends” (p. 61).

To offer a rational explanation or “justification” of evil is thus to explain what God himself refuses to explain. In Karl Barth’s words, evil is das Nichtige – it is futility, vanity, emptiness, nothingness. It is that which passes away. It is the absurd nothingness which God refuses to interpret or explain or endow with meaning. It “is” only in as much as God rejects it utterly. It “exists” only as that which God vanquishes and overcomes in the death of his Son. It is that horror which is never synthesised or redeemed, but only cast out. It is the shadow of violence which Jesus Christ exposes and expels with the light of his peace.


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