Wednesday 7 March 2012

The reality of supernatural purposive evil in the world - why such belief is necessary


It is necessary for Christians to believe in the reality of supernatural purposive evil (as conceptualised, typically, in terms of Satan, demons, fallen angels etc.)

This is non-optional - however uncomfortable and embarrassing to the modern sensibility; because it is scriptural and the two millennium teaching of Holy Fathers and Saints.

It is also necessary in order to avoid serious misunderstanding.


People seem to talk as if supernatural purposive evil is either an unnecessary hypotheses or an hypothesis of last resort.

Both are errors.


The proper question is whether something is true, not whether an hypotheses is un-necessary - indeed, strictly, any hypotheses can be discarded, if you are prepared to accept the consequences.

Nor should it be an hypothesis of last resort - but it should be an hypothesis which is applied where and whenever it is applicable - whenever the proper explanation is that of supernatural purposive evil at work.


If, as most modern people have, we discard supernatural positive evil as a fact operative in the world - what are we left with?

Only two types of explanation for evil:

1. Selfish short-termism.

3. Well-intentioned error.

In other words we get the Leftist perception of evil as being due to stupid, ignorant, selfish, frightened, greedy people (ie. Right Wingers - such as Hitler) who therefore require more Leftist 'education'/ propaganda/ discipline; or else evil is excused as an accidental and unintentional result of well-meaning and nobly-motivated Leftists (such as Stalin and Mao).


Without the concept of supernatural purposive evil, evil is thus explained-away.

Since all are selfish and short-termist, discussion is merely a matter of unmasking this in others in order to distract from it in oneself.

Well-intentioned error is treated as a technocratic problem - the problem of evil is reduced to a five year plan to ensure than good intentions are effectively implemented.


In face of this pitifully flat, simplistic and impoverished vision of reality, we must acknowledge the active pursuit of evil for its own reasons, as the motivated destruction of Good.

Those who serve this evil intent (in varying degrees) may do so for selfish reasons of expediency, or through error, or deception - or may make the choice actively to destroy the Good.

(As have many modern intellectuals: artists who work to destroy Beauty; public relations people who work to destroy Truth; journalists and pressure groups who work to destroy Virtue - to be subversive and inverting of Good is mainstream modern intellectual life.)

The fact that such folk stand against the consensus of the ages and deny the reality or even the possibility of supernatural purposive evil is significant, indeed decisive.


Of course, as corrupt and imperfect creatures - we certainly will make errors in applying the hypothesis of supernatural purposive evil to any specific situation - as we make errors in applying science to any specific situation; and in a sense we can never be sure of anything.

Nonetheless, we must do our best; be aware of the possibility of error; and ready to correct it

And of course there are more concrete/ simple and more abstract/ complex ways of describing purposive evil - e.g. as personified devils or fields of influence.

But bear in mind abstraction is not all gain - it has a tendency to make things seem less real; also that abstraction is merely another kind of metaphor, but less obviously so than anthropomorphic metaphors.


But the point is that we should acknowledge the reality of supernatural purposive evil and be alert to the necessity of applying the hypothesis in order to understand the world accurately.

Not just 'should acknowledge' - we must.



Gyan said...

The existence of fallen angels is not an hypothesis but a supernatural Revelation.

It is not deducible from phenomena. Man's selfishness suffices to explain all moral evil.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - I don't really understand your point; it seems a non sequitur from my argument in this post.

When you say "Man's selfishness suffices to explain all moral evil." what do you mean by 'suffices'?

As I have said, almost any hypotheses will 'suffice' to explain 'everything' in the world - if you are prepared to put-up with a grossly distorted and dangerously incomplete understanding of things.

For example, 'everything' can be explained by evolution, or by brain chemistry, or physics, Paganism, or or (fill in the gap) - it simply means that what is not explained is regarded as an illusion or epiphenomenon.

For example it would be possible, indeed facile, to explain (i.e. explain away) all moral evil in terms of entropy - except that the term would be emptied of all meaning.

But either way, a Christian must believe in the reality of supernatural purposive evil whether he wants to or not: the only thing up for discussion is whether it is a significant factor in any specific instance under consideration.

Wurmbrand said...

If there was ever any human being who recognized the existence of the devil, this one was the Christ, Jesus. Recognition of the existence of the devil and evil spirits is absolutely integral to the Gospels. Jesus describes His mission us-ward as that of Redeemer, but His mission is also one of overthrowing the devil and his works. It appears that God the eternal and transcendent could not fulfill this necessity without becoming incarnate. Once He is incarnate, the evil one has the opportunity to kill God, and sets about accomplishing this. Outrages immediately flare up, e.g. Herod's murder of the infant boys. The evil one does not succeed in killing the young Jesus (and perhaps we may wonder if more such attempts occurred during the years of Jesus' life about which the Scriptures say little). He tempts Him after His Baptism. Jesus' healings and preaching are works against the evil one as well as saving works for people. We are told that the devil entered Judas just before he betrayed Jesus. Perhaps the evil one rejoiced when Jesus died on the Cross. But his greatest victory was actually his defeat, because Jesus' death was essential for the deliverance of each and every human being who shall inherit eternal life. If you or I or the Buddha is saved, it is entirely because of the saving work of Jesus. After Jesus' resurrection and ascension, His disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, continue to overcome the works of the devil.

One does not "believe in" the devil; but the devil cannot be extracted from Christianity without its becoming a travesty of itself.

But again I urge anyone interested in such matters to read Gregory Boyd's book God at War. For me it really has been one of the outstanding books of about forty years of Christian reading.

Gyan said...

I mean that we know that existence of supernatural evil i.e. fallen angels only because it has been revealed to us.

We can not (and do not) deduce it from any phenomena.

For instance, Hindus and Buddhists have the same phenomena but since they lack the Revelation, they do not explain the phenomena by supernatural evil but by human ignorance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - I would interpret the many Gods of Hinduism (and other forms of paganism) as themselves possibly based on angelic beings - some good, some evil.

Wurmbrand said...

Gyan and Dr. Charlton, for interesting accounts of the demonism in Indian guru circles, you should read Farasiotis's The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios. I think you will find this book from the St. Herman of Alaska Press to be unforgettable.

Craig said...

You seem to be conflating two points:

1. There exists a source of evil in the world apart from selfish short-termism and well-intentioned error. This may be described as purposive evil.

2. Supernatural entities comprise a source, perhaps the ultimate source, of this purposive evil.

#1 is obviously true of the human world: there are people who embrace purposive evil. It is not evident that #2 is needed to explain #1.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Craig - the point of my post is that when you say 'It is not evident that #2 is needed to explain #1.' - the 'needed' is the problem. No hypothesis is ever 'needed' to explain anything - IF you are prepared to take the consequences of leaving it out.

But for Christians, a belief in supernatural evil entities is non-negotiable - they must be believed as real and operative, because they are described in multiple scriptural revelations.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't the concept of a supernatural purposive evil contradict the concept of an all-powerful, all-loving God? It implies some form of manichaean / gnostic heresy, doesn't it?

If there's a supernatural demon injecting evil into the world, an all-powerful God can halt his work. God is ultimately responsible for allowing the demon's evil to exist. This also reduces human culpability for evil. If a man carries out evil under demonic possession, he's not really responsible, is he?

JP said...

If you discard discard supernatural positive evil, why must you also discard non-supernatural (human originated) positive evil? There is certainly plenty of evidence for it. And even the Left is willing to admit it exists - Hitler being the classic example.

"Man's selfishness suffices to explain all moral evil."

Certainly not. Selfishness certainly does not explain any genocide one can name. Genocide is a lot of work, you have to be motivated beyond mere selfishness to go to that length.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anonymous - All these questions are answered (using various metaphors and explanations) by traditional Christian theology dating back to the first few hundred years AD. Or modern summaries of this - such as C.S Lewis. You just need to read it!

@JP - I find that the *modern* Left cannot properly label even Hitler - their great bogeyman - as evil; or if they do then they make a large gesture then need quickly to change the subject, or leave it imprecise. Because if they make the reasoning more precise then they will soon be labelling as evil people and practices which they regard as good.

You and I may not be satisfied by explanations of genocide on the basis of selfishness - but plenty of people are apparently satisfied because that is precisely how they explain it. Usually genocide is seen as a 'final solution' to what is perceived as an intolerable and intractable problem of 'ethnic' conflict.

Gyan said...

Evil is not quantitative. even a single snub may be diabolic as CS Lewis suggests in Screwtape Letters.
Even a snub or a sneer that it not noticed may be diabolic.

The point is that human reason is incapable of inferring the existence of fallen angels. That is pure Revelation.

Wurmbrand said...

Anonymous, I would happily buy for you a copy of Gregory Boyd's books God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil, in answer to the challenge you pose to orthodox Christian faith.

You wrote:

--Doesn't the concept of a supernatural purposive evil contradict the concept of an all-powerful, all-loving God? It implies some form of manichaean / gnostic heresy, doesn't it?

If there's a supernatural demon injecting evil into the world, an all-powerful God can halt his work. God is ultimately responsible for allowing the demon's evil to exist. This also reduces human culpability for evil. If a man carries out evil under demonic possession, he's not really responsible, is he?--

As Dr. Charlton wrote, there are answers to this. Boyd's writing may be more accessible. I don't mean that he has written the last word; but these books grapple seriously and in a well-informed manner with these issues. He's probably a lot more impatient with Christians who dismiss the problems as he is with people who don't have time for Christian answers.