Tuesday 6 November 2012

Evil as un-creation - a metaphysical speculation


Since we know God is Good, and that 'everything' is therefore Good; yet we also know that evil is real, then what happens to evil?

If there ever has been evil in the universe, then surely it cannot be gotten rid of - maybe it it sequestered somewhere, in Hell?

But then the universe would not be Good...


But evil is the destruction of Good; evil is, then, de-differentiation: the undoing of created order.

Thus evil is - at this ultimate and metaphysical level - a chaotic rearrangement.

Thus evil does the same as entropy, that is it undoes divine order: but does this will-fully, with malice, from pride.


Thus the main metaphor for evil has often been fire - and fire is the heat released by disordering the stucture of that which is burned: an excellent metaphor for the action of evil.

Since evil cannot create, it operates by destroying - and lives-off the heat generated by increasing disorder.


So what happens to evil?

It strikes me that because evil destroys creation, and that includes itself; then evil can be undone and made as if is had not been; since chaos is the raw material of creation.

(Primary creation is from nothing, secondary creation is order from chaos. )


So evil destroys itself and - if God wills - leaves not a wrack behind.

Reality remains untainted. Wholly Good.


Well, it seems to make a sort-of sense...



FHL said...

Post 1 of 3

Well speculate no more! Once again, I must offer up a quote from my most favorite saint...

From the writings of St. Augustine, in the Confessions, Book VII:

"And I kept seeking for an answer to the question, Whence is evil? And I sought it in an evil way, and I did not see the evil in my very search. I marshaled before the sight of my spirit all creation: all that we see of earth and sea and air and stars and trees and animals; and all that we do not see, the firmament of the sky above and all the angels and all spiritual things, for my imagination arranged these also, as if they were bodies, in this place or that. And I pictured to myself thy creation as one vast mass, composed of various kinds of bodies -- some of which were actually bodies, some of those which I imagined spirits were like. I pictured this mass as vast -- of course not in its full dimensions, for these I could not know -- but as large as I could possibly think, still only finite on every side. But thou, O Lord, I imagined as environing the mass on every side and penetrating it, still infinite in every direction -- as if there were a sea everywhere, and everywhere through measureless space nothing but an infinite sea; and it contained within itself some sort of sponge, huge but still finite, so that the sponge would in all its parts be filled from the immeasurable sea.

Thus I conceived thy creation itself to be finite, and filled by thee, the infinite. And I said, "Behold God, and behold what God hath created!" God is good, yea, most mightily and incomparably better than all his works. But yet he who is good has created them good; behold how he encircles and fills them. Where, then, is evil, and whence does it come and how has it crept in? What is its root and what its seed? Has it no being at all? Why, then, do we fear and shun what has no being? Or if we fear it needlessly, then surely that fear is evil by which the heart is unnecessarily stabbed and tortured -- and indeed a greater evil since we have nothing real to fear, and yet do fear. Therefore, either that is evil which we fear, or the act of fearing is in itself evil. But, then, whence does it come, since God who is good has made all these things good? Indeed, he is the greatest and chiefest Good, and hath created these lesser goods; but both Creator and created are all good. Whence, then, is evil? Or, again, was there some evil matter out of which he made and formed and ordered it, but left something in his creation that he did not convert into good? But why should this be? Was he powerless to change the whole lump so that no evil would remain in it, if he is the Omnipotent? Finally, why would he make anything at all out of such stuff? Why did he not, rather, annihilate it by his same almighty power? Could evil exist contrary to his will? And if it were from eternity, why did he permit it to be nonexistent for unmeasured intervals of time in the past, and why, then, was he pleased to make something out of it after so long a time? Or, if he wished now all of a sudden to create something, would not an almighty being have chosen to annihilate this evil matter and live by himself -- the perfect, true, sovereign, and infinite Good? Or, if it were not good that he who was good should not also be the framer and creator of what was good, then why was that evil matter not removed and brought to nothing, so that he might form good matter, out of which he might then create all things? For he would not be omnipotent if he were not able to create something good without being assisted by that matter which had not been created by himself.

Such perplexities I revolved in my wretched breast, overwhelmed with gnawing cares lest I die before I discovered the truth. And still the faith of thy Christ, our Lord and Saviour, as it was taught me by the Catholic Church, stuck fast in my heart. As yet it was unformed on many points and diverged from the rule of right doctrine, but my mind did not utterly lose it, and every day drank in more and more of it...

FHL said...

Post 2 of 3

...But still I inquired, 'Whence is evil?' -- and found no answer. But thou didst not allow me to be carried away from the faith by these fluctuations of thought. I still believed both that thou dost exist and that thy substance is immutable, and that thou dost care for and wilt judge all men, and that in Christ, thy Son our Lord, and the Holy Scriptures, which the authority of thy Catholic Church pressed on me, thou hast planned the way of man's salvation to that life which is to come after this death...

... And I viewed all the other things that are beneath thee, and I realized that they are neither wholly real nor wholly unreal. They are real in so far as they come from thee; but they are unreal in so far as they are not what thou art. For that is truly real which remains immutable. It is good, then, for me to hold fast to God, for if I do not remain in him, neither shall I abide in myself; but he, remaining in himself, renews all things. And thou art the Lord my God, since thou standest in no need of my goodness...

...And it was made clear to me that all things are good even if they are corrupted. They could not be corrupted if they were supremely good; but unless they were good they could not be corrupted. If they were supremely good, they would be incorruptible; if they were not good at all, there would be nothing in them to be corrupted. For corruption harms; but unless it could diminish goodness, it could not harm. Either, then, corruption does not harm -- which cannot be -- or, as is certain, all that is corrupted is thereby deprived of good. But if they are deprived of all good, they will cease to be. For if they are at all and cannot be at all corrupted, they will become better, because they will remain incorruptible. Now what can be more monstrous than to maintain that by losing all good they have become better? If, then, they are deprived of all good, they will cease to exist. So long as they are, therefore, they are good. Therefore, whatsoever is, is good. Evil, then, the origin of which I had been seeking, has no substance at all; for if it were a substance, it would be good...

FHL said...

Post 3 of 3

...To thee there is no such thing as evil, and even in thy whole creation taken as a whole, there is not; because there is nothing from beyond it that can burst in and destroy the order which thou hast appointed for it. But in the parts of creation, some things, because they do not harmonize with others, are considered evil. Yet those same things harmonize with others and are good, and in themselves are good. And all these things which do not harmonize with each other still harmonize with the inferior part of creation which we call the earth, having its own cloudy and windy sky of like nature with itself. Far be it from me, then, to say, 'These things should not be.' For if I could see nothing but these, I should indeed desire something better -- but still I ought to praise thee, if only for these created things. For that thou art to be praised is shown from the fact that 'earth, dragons, and all deeps; fire, and hail, snow and vapors, stormy winds fulfilling thy word; mountains, and all hills, fruitful trees, and all cedars; beasts and all cattle; creeping things, and flying fowl; things of the earth, and all people; princes, and all judges of the earth; both young men and maidens, old men and children,' praise thy name! But seeing also that in heaven all thy angels praise thee, O God, praise thee in the heights, 'and all thy hosts, sun and moon, all stars and light, the heavens of heavens, and the waters that are above the heavens,' praise thy name -- seeing this, I say, I no longer desire a better world, because my thought ranged over all, and with a sounder judgment I reflected that the things above were better than those below, yet that all creation together was better than the higher things alone...

...And I saw and found it no marvel that bread which is distasteful to an unhealthy palate is pleasant to a healthy one; or that the light, which is painful to sore eyes, is a delight to sound ones. Thy righteousness displeases the wicked, and they find even more fault with the viper and the little worm, which thou hast created good, fitting in as they do with the inferior parts of creation. The wicked themselves also fit in here, and proportionately more so as they become unlike thee -- but they harmonize with the higher creation proportionately as they become like thee. And I asked what wickedness was, and I found that it was no substance, but a perversion of the will bent aside from thee, O God, the supreme substance, toward these lower things, casting away its inmost treasure and becoming bloated with external good."

Note from FHL: I had to pick and choose which verses from The Confessions were the best. But the entire chapter (as well as the entire book) is well worth reading. I could probably quote St. Augustine as an answer to any theological question that arises in any situation; he's just that good and is why I love him so...

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - well of course St A is true in an ultimate sense - yet it is a potentially deceptive truth (as seen in some Eastern religions) because here in this world there is evil and it is real: *our* culture's problem, indeed, is denial of the reality of evil.

The bridge is free will (as I comprehend it). Evil in our world and in time is the consequence of free will (in angels and in Men). God created beings with free will and a world of Time in which they/ we operate.

FHL said...

Well, yes. This is all very confusing stuff, so forgive me if I am wrong, but you are saying that evil is an absence of good, but that the good should have been there so the absence is noted, is that correct?

Like if you were to go check your bank account tomorrow and find your balance stands at a total of 3 pounds, you would not just say "Oh, thank goodness there's nothing distasteful in here!" The 3 pounds is not what should be there- there should be much more, and the lack of what should be in there is noticeable and a grave cause for concern.

I don't think St. Augustine meant to say that there was a balance, or karma, or that all things that happen happen for a reason, or anything like that.

But rather, in a metaphysical sense, I think he meant that while you can't actually carry negative pounds around with you in your pocket, and if you have anything at all, it must be positive, the lack of what is supposed to be there is still real enough. Something that was there is now missing; it is a theft, a theft within time and within this world.

But thieves can only steal what's already there, so if you where to add up all the (physical, material) British pounds in circulation, you would never have a negative number. So there is a loss compared to what could be, but the net total is always in the positive.

Am I reading you correct? Or am I just totally confused?

I also see the part about taking the evil results and reorienting them to good, but I need to read more about that to figure out what's really going on there. I do think St. Augustine mentions something like that several times however, but like I said, I'm not sure...

...and sorry for the super-long quote... I didn't realize how long it was until I saw it posted just now...

FHL said...

...or to continue this metaphor... after the thieves take the money, thus decreasing the supply of pounds, they then go spend it... and it comes right back?

Don't bother with me if I'm just very confused; I find this intriguing but won't be insulted if you are trying to say something way out of my league.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - I think you have probably misunderstood me.

I am not really talking about evil as the absence of Good; but evil as something more like the process of destroying Good: and by detroying I mean something like dis-organizing things: demolishing the forms and strcutures and processes of creation.

On your bank metaphor, evil is not failing to find money in a bank - but more like setting fire to the money - and maybe using the resulting fire to torture someone into becoming a traitor.

I am not in any way saying that Augustine is wrong; merely that his discussion seems to be at the level of eternity and changelessness purely. I am trying to work-between Time and Change (on earth) - where there certainly is evil, evil dominant; and unchanging eternity - trying to reconcile the two.

I agree with those (like Greg Boyd) who see something utterly monstrous in explaining-away the evils of this earth by absorbing them into the infinitely-vaster eternal goodness of Heaven.

Or, at least, this can only be decently be done by a very few individuals of the highest level of Holiness.

Our business is *mostly* (certainly not entirely) with the spiritual warfare here and now in this world; real evil doing real evil and opposed by (weaker forces of) Good.

George G. said...

I wondered your thoughts on a possible metaphor. If we exercise we create heat that is a byproduct of destruction, but it leads to a greater good. In a sense, we destroy what is good - in our muscles - to organize and create even greater and healthier muscles. Is it not evil to simply allow something to deteriorate - a muscle, a church? Or is evil based only on intent and not just lack of intent?

Also interesting that communism's open goal is to actively level all things (tearing down complexity?) and included in it not merely material things, though it professes to only care for material things, but also sought the banning of and destruction of religious institutions.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GG - I think this is because we inhabit a fallen world, where we live off death and destruction - this is one of the tragedies of earthly life.

Re Communism - yes, it is an advanced form of nihilism: see


FHL said...

post 1 of 2

Ah. I think I see what you mean. Once again, please forgive me if I do not completely understand, but I think we are describing two different, yet perhaps complementary, ways of looking at evil that can be symbolized by the thoughts of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Tolkien tended to view evil in terms of warfare- evil were the goblins, horribly disfigured into grotesque yet deadly beings. The battle between good and evil mainly took place along a storyline that focused on a physical battle between two opposing forces attempting to overcome the other (but not completely, as seen in the case with Frodo attempting to resist the temptations of the ring...)

Yet for C.S. Lewis, evil was much more subtle, and rarely resolved through a head-to-head battle. I do not remember the Chronicles of Narnia that well, and I must admit I have only read the first book, but I seem to recall that Aslan had full power to destroy the evil forces yet he had to sacrifice himself. Why? To save one of his subjects. Over what? Turkish delights... little sweet snacks. How pathetic, that someone could sacrifice everything for candies!

In The Great Divorce, what separates the good from the evil is that the good is fully real, while the evil is a shadow, incapable of handling the pure reality of God's goodness and His creation. There is a memorable scene where a vain man (in the purgatorial form of what Lewis calls "ghosts") tries to impress a lady in Heaven who has become a saint. The man keeps up a theatrical posture, hoping to fake his way through, but it is clear he is failing. As his ego gets more and more stubborn, he gets smaller and smaller, until he finally *poofs!* and disappears.

In Till We Have Faces, (MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD IN THE REST OF THIS SENTENCE!) the main character realized that she is the evil character in the story, and this was revealed in a scene where she realized that her face, her very humanity, her person-hood, had completely vanished.

So I do see a difference, but like you said, I don't think that they are contradictory, or that people have to chose just one way of looking at things.

Much like an earlier conversation we had regarding the notion of Time and Change in the afterlife, I see pluses and minuses with both explanations.

The idea that evil is a force, in the manner explained by Tolkien, that it is a dangerous reality, that is warfare, has the benefit of spurring one into action and making sure that a person chooses a side. But the downside is that evil begins to take a life of its own and is given a power that perhaps should not be granted to it. It may cause one to despair. It can also lead to overconfidence on an individual's part if he views himself as being automatically on the good side.

The explanation given by C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine, that evil is complete nonsense and is completely impotent and exclusionary, has the benefit of "taking off the emperor's clothes," so to speak, mocking evil and revealing it to be the foolishness and vanity that it is. I mean, really, selling your family for Turkish delights? C'mon now! 'Tis truly a "grasping at the wind."

But it also has the downside of producing overconfidence in the face of evil, which may seem to be obviously foolish in the books, but the devil is very clever and the modern world has placed blinders in front of our eyes, so that we may not see how terrible our actions are until it is too late. It can can also seem to cold to certain people to simply say “evil is nothingness,” especially if they have suffered evil. (but to others who have suffered evil, it may be a source of comfort in the security of God's kingdom)

FHL said...

post 2 of 2

Personally, I have always been attracted to the latter method of viewing evil. I think so because I find that (for me personally) it seems to encourage the fear of God rather than the fear of the devil. When you know which side is the winning side, and with what force and certainty that it will be victorious, you will tremble once you realize that your entire life has been spent on the opposite side. The fear of being defeated in battle is no match to the fear of being completely annihilated, of ceasing to have any value, of ceasing to exist. The image that C.S. Lewis gives of hell in the Great Divorce, where people just keep moving further into the wasteland, becoming mere shadows of themselves and shunning all real experiences that they do not have complete control over, is completely terrifying to me. I know that is very strange and paradoxical, since I am ultimately saying that evil seems more real and apparent to me when I think of it as nothing than when I think of it as something.

You find it monstrous sometimes (and I know you are not calling either St. Augustine nor myself monstrous, but the just the method of explanation), but personally, I can sometimes find the former view monstrous. In my view, evil should be mocked, snubbed, and presented as the vanity that it is- not given Darth-Vader-like theme music which makes it seem all powerful*. After all, all traditional hymns have praise of God in mind, none of them ever contemplate making the devil the subject of the song, unless it is about how much God has defeated the devil, in which case God is once again the subject. But evil is never referred to the subject of any hymn or song. The church will never give Satan his very own theme song, he doesn't deserve such a thing.

However, the psalms of David will sometimes have evil as their focal point, but in those situations, the song is always written with God as the intended audience. So I think we just have different ways of viewing things.

This may also have to do with our histories: you came to Christianity from a life of complete systematic liberalism; as for myself, I had some liberal thoughts and ideas but I was never fully a liberal- I came to Christianity from a life of unrestrained hedonism (yet old habits are hard to kill and unfortunately it is not so easy to quit some of my sins from my old lifestyle and I struggle and am defeated daily...).

So I can see how in your in eyes evil would be considered the destroyer of good, seeing as that's what systematic liberalism does, while in my eyes evil is mainly nihilistic nonsense and a complete vanity, a grasping for the wind, as that is what a hedonist chases after. One says “it will torture you” while the other says “it will reveal itself to be empty after it is too late to go back.” Both are correct, in certain conditions and times, and both are terrible and terrifying. Or so I believe.

*the scriptures actually swing both ways. Sometimes the devil and evil are presented as terrible predators, fearsome and vicious, something you must always fear, while other times they are presented as a defeated enemy, one whom you can step on and crush beneath your sandals.

(quick note: I think Bonald has posted a dialogue on the Orthosphere that covers some this ground, concerning whether evil has power or not, whether it is victorious or not)

Anyways, I hope that makes sense, and I hope I didn't completely shoot off target.

Now please excuse me while I go see which crook my countrymen have chosen to lead my fair and much beloved country and home into the quicksand....

Bruce Charlton said...


"I think we are describing two different, yet perhaps complementary, ways of looking at evil"

Yes indeed - the earthly and heavenly perspectives on the same thing.

"can be symbolized by the thoughts of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis."

The similarities are much greater than the differences.

TA Shippey (Road to Middle Earth) discusses both views of evil in relation to LotR, especially the Ring itself. For example the wraithing process is evil as privation of Good.

And Lewis wrote the best known account of spiritual warfare (evil as engaged in a head-to-head battle with Good) in The Screwtape Letters.

They both knew and understood both sides of evil as we all must. However, culturally it is the spiritual warfare understanding which is, I think, nowadays most needed.

Our culture takes evil-as-privation-of-Good (this phrase, significantly, derives from RW Emerson) to mean that there is no *real* difference between Good and evil, everything works-out to the good so don't worry, and that evil can therefore be inverted and re-expressed as Good. In other words, mainstream secular Leftism.