Saturday 17 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.


Anonymous said...

While it might be theological coherent to speak of evil as nothing. Don't you worry that doing so lessen the reality of evil as it is experienced and felt by humans? I have a hard time, pastorally. to say to someone who has experienced radical evil or suffering that this is all a chimera, a shadow, etc. Is that not just semantics? As much as I might want to avoid justifying evil, the Barthian move toward nothingness or privation seems to be its own form of justification. In this regard, I find Christ and Horrors, Adams' new book a more compelling option. As it actually names evil for what it is, debilitating and very regularly ruinous for human life.

Anonymous said...

Isn't meaningless suffering unsufferable? Doesn't saying that suffering has "no ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all" devalue what some people go through. Well, I guess "devalue" is the wrong word since it had no value to begin with. My Mom --- who has had health problems her entire life, has been diagnosed with MS, recently shattered her knee cap and was more recently diagnosed with oral cancer --- is greatly helped by believing that her suffering has some purpose from God. In fact, I think that's the only reason she gets up in the morning. To say to her "Your suffering has no meaning at all" would be devastating.

A God who allows his people to suffer without meaning is worse than a God who, himself, inflicts suffering on his people.

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