Theodicy – Why God Permits Evil


By Professor Revilo P. Oliver
From The Origins of Christianity, Chapter 4

THIS IS THE REEF on which founder all religions that posit a supreme and benevolent god who is interested in mankind.

The Stoics constructed for their animus mundi a theodicy that evidently satisfied persons who were primarily interested in ethics and desiderated a system of moral certainties to stabilize societies. The Stoic answer was like that given in the Fourteenth Century by William of Occam and the other Nominalists, who saw that the only escape from the impasse was to assert that whatever the Christian god ordained, was, eo ipso, just. The Stoic answer could not content people who wanted a god who could and, if properly appeased, would interfere with the processes of nature and make miracles for his favorites: what use was a god who couldn’t do anything for you? William of Occam’s answer cannot content persons who have our innate and racial sense of justice and refuse to believe that unmerited suffering, agony and death inflicted on innocent and helpless individuals, can be right, no matter who orders it: who can respect a god who rewards evil and punishes good?

It is the business of theologians, of course, to devise arguments and rhetoric that will confuse the issue, and the theologians of all creeds have exhibited a high degree of ingenuity, but the only way to evade the problem of theodicy successfully is to assume, as do several of the Hindu cults, that metempsychosis provides a long series of incarnations that produce a spiritual and moral evolution of the individual from the very simplest and lowest forms of organic life through ascending forms of mammalian life to mankind and then on upward to superhuman species, who reside on the moon or in some place beyond human attainment, and eventually to gods in some well-furnished heaven. On this vast scale, the suffering that comes upon any individual in any one life shrinks to insignificance and, furthermore, is condign and just punishment for the misdeeds of an earlier life and is a necessary process of spiritual purification and evolution.

If the present life is the only one we shall have on earth it will do no good to say that divine injustice in it doesn’t matter because this life will be followed by a few hundred thousand years or a few million years or even an eternity in some heaven that will be equipped to prevent its inhabitants from dying of boredom after a few dozen centuries. To our racial mind, justice does matter and furthermore it is inherently unjust to make an infinite future depend on conduct during a few years by a person who was born with certain innate tendencies and capacities and placed in situations that more or less determined how his character would respond to them.

One of the important junctures in our civilization is marked by the short treatise De libero arbitrio,(1) written around 1436 by Laurentius Valla, who had the most incisive critical mind of the early Renaissance. Under the transparent veil of a dialogue about Apollo’s power to predict human conduct, Valla demonstrates that no god can be omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent.

The proof is simple. Take one of the incidents, so common today, in which an obviously innocent little girl of five or six, old enough certainly to feel pain, is raped and blinded or raped and killed by one of the savages on which masochistic or sadistic British and Americans now dote. Now, if there is a god who oversees the lives of men and sparrows, did he foresee the conduct of the savage, whom he created and presumably endowed with a savage’s instincts? If he did not foresee it, he is not omniscient. If he did foresee it, was he able to prevent the child’s agony? If not, he is not omnipotent. If he had the power and did not use it, he willed the crime and he willed the suffering of the child, so he cannot be benevolent.

Theologians, of course, explain that if the girl had not been killed at that time, she might have grown up and become an atheist – or papa must have offended a deity who chose to take out his anger on both the innocent child and her mother (who, of course, may have done something to vex him).(2) Or we mustn’t think about it, because thinking is bad for souls. None of these explanations will satisfy an Aryan’s sense of justice.


Valla’s explanation did not too greatly perturb contemporary churchmen, for Christian ditheism then attributed such things to its anti-god, who either had on this earth a power that his celestial antagonist could not overcome or sneaked in to promote the dirty work when God wasn’t looking. Everyone knew, after all, that the Devil was so powerful that he had been able to carry a third of the Christian god up to high mountains and there try to bribe him. But with the current tendency to make Christianity a monotheism, the problem has to be faced.

It is probably impossible to devise for a monotheism a theodicy that will satisfy the Aryan mind. At least, no one has done it yet.

There is one more topic that must be considered in our hurried sketch of the evolution of religions with reference to what we suppose to be the innate mentality of our race. When we speak of any religion today, we automatically think of its priests, a specialized and professional clergy. That is not a necessary connection.

1. The text was well edited by Maria Anfossi (Firenze, 1934); I have not heard of a translation. Almost all scholars who concern themselves with the Humanists of the Renaissance assume that Valla could not have been so impious as to say anything that was bad for the salvation-business. It is true that at the end of the dialogue Valla says that he has proved that human reason cannot cope with the Divine Mystery, but I take that to be an anticipation of the notion of a “double truth,” which enabled Pomponatius and many other philosophers of the age to affirm that they believed by faith what they had just proved to be impossible. In the Fifteenth Century men with inquiring minds had to take precautions to avoid being tortured to death if they annoyed the theologians. The hounds of Heaven were baying on Valla’s trail often enough as it was, and once he was saved only by the intervention of King Alfonso of Naples.

2. Every such incident has repercussions on persons other than those immediately involved. Years ago, an old man, with whom I was discussing the efforts of professional holy men to attribute the coincidences that are called luck to intervention by their deity, told me that his life had been shaped by an appointment he had kept when he was a young man. He had decided to keep that crucial appointment in the metropolis by taking a train that passed through his town in the early morning. That morning his alarm clock failed to ring, and when he awoke, he threw on his clothes and ran to the station, although he knew he could not reach it in time. He was fifteen minutes late, but that morning the train, for the first time in many months, was even later: it had been delayed when it struck an automobile on a grade crossing, killing the occupants. “If I had been superstitious,” he said, “I would have decided that Jesus so loved me that he killed three persons, a man, his wife, and their child, to enable me to keep my appointment. Or, if the train had not been late, I would have been sure that my sins had so annoyed him that he slipped into my bedroom that night and tampered with the mechanism. But that would have drastically changed the life of my wife, whom I married later, and our children would never have been born. Of course, she and I might have married other spouses, changing both their lives and our own, and each of us would have had quite different children, who would have grown up to change the lives of many others and themselves engender children. The consequences of that accident at the grade crossing are almost infinite and incalculable, for, of course, we should have to consider also the victims and the results of their death.”


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