Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Theodicy Riddle?

Susan Jacoby


This light and darkness in our chaos join’d
What shall divide? The God within the mind.

Extremes in nature equal ends produce,
In man they join to some mysterious use;
Though each by turns the other’s bound invade,
As, in some well-wrought picture, light and shade,
And oft so mix, the diff’rence is too nice
Where ends the virtue, or begins the vice.

Fools! Who from hence into the notion fall,
That vice or virtue there is none at all.
If white and black blend, soften, and unite
A thousand ways, is there no black or white?
Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain;
‘Tis to mistake them, costs the time and pain.

—Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man: Epistle II”

Absent belief in and all-powerful, loving deity, there is no theodicy problem. This is one of the great blessings of atheism.

I have never heard an atheist try to produce a tortuous explanation for the evil that humans do purposefully or for the indifferent assaults of nature. Nor do atheists and agnostics appear on camera after tornadoes and talk about how “blessed” they are that their houses escaped the path of the storm while their neighbors’ houses were destroyed. This, too, is a blessing—for television audiences as well as for the distraught, unblessed neighbors.

Robert Green Ingersoll observed in the 1870s that believers praised their god for nature’s glories while absolving him of responsibility for nature’s horrors. “Did it ever occur to them that a cancer is as beautiful as the development of the reddest rose?” he asked, in a caustic tone that must have shocked even the staunchest nonbelievers in his audience.

How beautiful the process of digestion! By what ingenious methods the blood is poisoned so that the cancer shall have food! By what wonderful contrivances the entire system of man is made to pay tribute to this divine and charming cancer! . . . Think of the amount of thought it must have required to invent a way by which the life of one man might be given to produce one cancer! Is it possible to look upon it and doubt that there is design in the universe, and that the inventor of this wonderful cancer must be infinitely powerful, ingenious, and good?

Instead of wasting energy on the question of why a benevolent and supposedly intelligent designer allows evil to flourish throughout creation, atheists have no choice but to focus on the mixture of base and noble motives within their individual, corporal beings and in the world at large. Pope’s “God within the mind” is, for the atheist, an indivisible combination of good and evil.

Ironically, belief in an omnipotent deity devalues and overvalues human responsibility for evil—both the evil that we do and the evil done unto us. The same can be said of human responsibility for good. The mechanism of devaluation is obvious: if God knows all, sees all, and controls all, our petty efforts to make things turn out some other way mean nothing in a cosmic sense.

Consider Yahweh’s warning when he orders Moses to return to Egypt and liberate the Hebrew slaves: “When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, and he shall not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). Do what I say, sayeth the Lord, but it won’t work until I let it work. What could devalue any human achievement more thoroughly? While God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart, the Hebrews continue to endure the evils of slavery. Only when Yahweh decides to slay the Egyptian firstborn, and the masters get their taste of divinely wrought evil, is the divinely contingent leadership of Moses permitted to operate in the world and free the Israelites from bondage.

Monotheistic belief—notably, the three Abrahamic religions—also overvalues human responsibility for evil precisely because these faiths give their deity credit for good outcomes, such as the liberation of Hebrew slaves, while assigning blame for bad outcomes to humans alone. Even when a religion’s sacred texts say explicitly that God is pulling the strings, humans remain responsible for bringing evil on themselves. While Yahweh was handing down the first version of the commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, the boss knew what his chosen messenger did not—that the Israelites down below were carousing, blaspheming, and sacrificing to a golden calf. So who, really, was responsible for the sin of worshipping “false gods?”

The answer of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the theodicy issue is always “free will,” but only Christianity explicitly tries to reconcile the idea of free will with belief in an everlasting taint inflicted by original sin—which, of course, could never have happened without the connivance of God in the first place. (Space does not permit me to explore the differences between the story of the fateful events in the Garden of Eden told by the Christian Bible, the Torah, and the Qur’an. Suffice it to say that only orthodox Christianity, from the early church fathers through the Reformation, accepted the notion of hereditary guilt embodied in that doggerel from The New England Primer that goes, “In Adam’s Fall / we sinned All.”)

The theodicy problem appears in its most extreme theological form in the early patristic writings. No one summed up the irreconcilable nature of the conflict better than Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), the author of the first tell-all memoir in Western literature, in his musings in Confessions on the evil of babies:

Who remindeth me of the sins of my infancy? . . . Who remindeth me? Doth not each little infant, in whom I see what of myself I remember not? What then was my sin? Was it that I hung upon the breast and cried? For should I now do so for food suitable to my age, justly should I be laughed at and reproved. What I did then was worthy of reproof; but since I could not understand reproof, custom and reason forbade me to be reproved. For those habits, when grown, we root out and cast away. Now, no man, though he prunes, wittingly casts away what is good. Or was it then good, even for a while, to cry for what if given, would hurt? Bitterly to resent, that persons free, and its own elders, yea, the very authors of its birth, served it not? That many besides, wiser than it, obeyed not the nod of its good pleasure?. . . The weakness then of infant limbs, not its will, is its innocence. Myself have seen and known even a baby envious; it could not speak, yet it turned pale and looked bitterly on its foster-brother. Who knows not this? [Italics added.]

A baby might look innocent to doting parents, but to Augustine infants were only biding their time until they grew strong enough (thanks to feedings on demand provided by the soft-hearted moms of late antiquity) to wreak real mayhem. Although babies did not possess the developed intellect and limbs to do wrong in the adult sense, the inclination to evil was already present.

Even absent belief in the lasting force of original sin, the theodicy problem has naturally caused much more trouble for monotheists than for polytheists or for those who, like the Enlightenment deists, believe in a being who set the universe in motion but takes no active part in the affairs of men. Polytheism assigns different roles to different gods, who exhibit many of the failings of mortals in their quarrels with one another as well as in their unpredictable attempts to intervene in human affairs.

Zeus, after all, is ultimately responsible for the Trojan War, in that he sets in motion the Judgment of Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, who was charged with deciding whether Aphrodite, Ath
ena, or Hera would be the winner of an Olympian beauty contest. Paris chose Aphrodite, who offered him Helen, the most beautiful of mortal women, as a bribe. (Helen was actually half mortal, because she was Zeus’s daughter by Leda, whom he had impregnated while assuming the form of a swan.) Helen, wife of the Greek king Menelaus, then runs off to Troy with Paris, and we know how the story ends.

In a capricious polytheistic world, where bad divine actions sometimes cancel each other out, there is no real need for the dogma of human free will or for the frequently articulated monotheistic rationalization that “God must have his reasons” that reason knows nothing of. If numerous gods can’t be counted on for benevolence and reliability—if they derive pleasure from naughty impersonations of swans and celestial beauty pageants that lead to ruthless wars of extermination—the theodicy question really has no meaning.

However, if one believes in a dignified and loving supreme being—whether original sin is part of the equation or not—the theodicy problem never really goes away. In the twenty-first century, as ghastly news events demonstrate each day, monotheistic believers will go to as great lengths to justify the ways of God to man as they did in biblical times.

One of the most anguishing recent examples unfolded after the shooting by a white supremacist of nine African Americans attending a Bible study class in the historic “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. At the arraignment of the shooter, Dylann Roof, relatives of the slain victims expressed their forgiveness—in the most devout Christian terms—for the hate-filled young man.

The forgiveness was then transformed—by the media, politicians, and a public desperately in search of evidence that good can come out of evil—into a narrative that placed the murders within a consoling Higher Plan. Without those expressions of forgiveness, and the imputation to them of a larger Christian purpose, it is unlikely that the South Carolina legislature would have acted swiftly to remove the Confederate flag from a place of honor outside the state capitol building. God must have his reasons, and in this case the reason was apparently instigation of the political will to strip public buildings (if not all T-shirts) of a symbol that stood for slavery and treason.

One way to mute the theodicy problem is for a society to congratulate itself on getting rid of a piece of racist iconography. Would this good have emerged from evil had the victims been shot in a black-owned bar instead of a black church, or if their relatives had said, “You deserve everything you get from the courts” instead of “God forgives you and I forgive you”?

As the Charleston story was unfolding, I thought about a dear friend, a Holocaust survivor who had died three months earlier. He once told me, “Do you know what the Holocaust meant? Nothing. Absolutely nothing except that it’s one human possibility. But people can’t face that. It goes against our egotism to accept that something so terrible can mean nothing except what we already know—that human beings are capable of anything, good and bad.”

The Charleston episode has often been analyzed in terms of a specific tradition of forgiveness within the black church in the United States, and that tradition was indeed one way in which an oppressed people asserted their humanity—a humanity superior to that of their white oppressors. But the notion that God permits evil in order to draw good out of what cannot be understood from a mortal perspective is as old as institutional Christianity, and Augustine was the first to elaborate on this doctrine in detail. In his view, Satan was an instrument of both punishment for man’s sins and (inadvertently) of conversion to the true path of God. This argument was used repeatedly in the Middle Ages to explain why God allowed evil witches to flourish instead of striking them down before they had the chance to work their black magic on crops as well as human lives. Indeed, those who converted to what was seen as a “false” faith were often accused of witchcraft themselves.

As it happens, the insoluble theodicy problem has been responsible for the most persistent heresies in Christian history, ranging from Manicheism—which divides the vile body from the purer spirit—to lesser-known (today) Pelagianism.

Pelagius (c. 354–420 CE), who had the temerity to reject the emerging doctrine of original sin, was a monk from Brittania and a contemporary of Augustine. We know little about him before he turned up in Rome around 400, but when he looked into the heart of the empire and the aspiring heart of the church, his reaction seems to have resembled that of Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Here were men claiming to be the direct successors of the apostles while living sumptuously and co-opting imperial officials (and, in many instances, being co-opted by them) for financial and political gains that had little to do with faith and goodness. Pelagius believed in his brand of Christianity as devoutly as Augustine believed in his, but the former did not believe that God’s grace or withholding of grace determined the actions of men.

In Pelagian philosophy, Adam’s fall is not the cause of man’s sinfulness and each human being is solely responsible for his virtues and vices. Nor is death the penalty for original sin, as Augustinian Christian theology maintains. Adam was nothing more or less than a man, and he would have died whether he sank his teeth into the fruit of the tree of knowledge or not. Poor Pelagius! Small wonder that he was condemned by more church councils than any other heretic of the premedieval Christian era.

Pelagius elaborated on his belief that although God had endowed humans with the intelligence and understanding to choose between good and evil, he wants our choices to be the product of our own reason rather than fear of his punishments—“volutarium, non coactum.” God wants the fulfillment of his plans to come from our own willing collaboration, not the divine will. God wants a lot: in Pelagian philosophy, he wants to have it both ways.

It is obvious that Pelagius was no more successful than Augustine and his orthodox contemporaries in his effort to reconcile free will with divine power. What separates him from the rest is a much higher opinion of human capacities; the balance in Pelagian thought is tilted in favor of human reason rather than divine intervention through grace. A man or woman might seek divine grace but cannot rely on it to ensure a sound moral life.

There is another element distinguishing Pelagius from the orthodox fathers of the church: a sense of humor. Regarding original sin, he remarked that “there are enough things for which we are morally accountable, without blaming us for the things for which we are not.”

Of course, the question of what, exactly, humans are responsible for followed us into the age of Enlightenment reason and the age of science. While theodicy poses no problem for atheists who believe in a secular form of free will, it could be more of an issue—in theory, at least—for those captivated by neuroscientific research based on the hypothesis that free will, if it exists at all, is much more limited than vainglorious humans like to imagine. I say “in theory” because I do not believe that science will ever succeed in “proving” that there is no such thing as free will; the field, in the sense that the term is used in physics, is simply too large to prove an overarching negative.

Genetic and environmental constraints on what sentient humans perceive as free will can never obviate our perceived and real need to keep dark impulses from overwhelming the better angels of our nature. Even though atheists have no theodicy problem, we are left with a moral duty and a moral challenge that never go away—the imperative to do right when we are strongly tempted to do wrong.

“I had to do what I did” is accepted as a valid defense in a courtroom only when a jury concludes that the defendant was indeed insane, in the sense of lacking the physiological and psychological capacity to distinguish between good and evil. Dostoevsky, in his famous dictum (expressed by the character Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov) could not have been more wrong in the contention that “without God, everything is permitted.” He not only reached the wrong conclusion but raised the wrong question. The pertinent moral question—the heart of the theodicy issue—is why a world with God is filled with the impermissible, the unbearable, the painful fate accorded so many human beings.

When the man I loved was “dying from the top”—a phrase used in the eighteenth century to describe what is now known as Alzheimer’s disease—more than one person asked how I could bear the experience in the absence of religious faith. I cannot imagine how I could have witnessed the deterioration of a brilliant mind if I did believe in a deity who might have prevented that form of torture but chose to withhold mercy. Such a god would be a fiend. The highest imaginable blessing for an atheist is the freedom to deal with suffering and evil without the burden of making excuses for a divine monster.

This essay is adapted from Susan Jacoby’s forthcoming book, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion (Pantheon).

Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby is the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Yale University Press). Her most recent books are The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Vintage) and Why Baseball Matters (Yale University Press).