This article appears in the May 1999 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

Return to May 1999 CMQ




Father, awaken in us that desire for you which is within each of us, and is truly the greatest desire of our life. Direct our thoughts and words today by your holy inspiration, and bring us to understanding through the light of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

When Pope John Paul II wrote his encyclical Faith and Reason last year, one of the fundamental questions he asked Christians to examine was: Why is there evil? It’s a grim question, but one we can hardly avoid on Good Friday as we witness the cruel death of an innocent man. It is a question which torments the believer above all. Why does God permit evil in his world? Isn’t he in some way responsible?

It is traditional in philosophical discussion to see the problem of evil as a trial. God is the accused. How can we defend him? There are On this retreat several distinguished lawyers. In their time they have accepted some pretty hopeless looking cases but have managed to get a not guilty verdict. But who would want God as a client? The evidence against him looks so bad.

First, let us be clear, a crime has been committed. Some religious groups suggest that evil is a product of the mind, that it has no objective reality, that you can wish it away. That is not the belief of Christianity or Judaism. The Bible is full of the reality of evil, and the world is no better now. Philosophers traditionally distinguish between two kinds of evil: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil involves the things humans choose to do: murder, rape, theft, the unjust crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth nearly 2000 years ago, ethnic cleansing, torture and war in Kosovo at this very moment. They happen because God has left us the freedom to choose between right and wrong. Most of the time we accept that wrong choices are a fair price to pay for freedom, that is, we accept that God was justified in arranging things in this way and we admit that we humans are guilty of these our own crimes. But even this generally accepted defence of God, which we call the Free Will Defence, seems less convincing when faced by horrors on the scale of the Jewish Holocaust. Couldn’t God have done something? Moreover, moral evil is not the whole story; there is also natural evil, the sufferings which cannot be blamed on the misuse of free-will: earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and disease. Those horrors, too, happen every day. Who is responsible?

The evidence looks so bleak for our client because God was on the scene of the crime. Yesterday we said that God is not only the creator of the world but is responsible for it now. Is he, then, responsible for the volcano and the lightning, for cancer and the AIDS virus? For a time, notably in the 18th. century, Christians seemed to have found a way to get God out of this problem by developing the system of belief called Deism. It was a theory that God had created the world like the designer of a complex machine, and then he set it running. It was not his fault if screws came loose and mistakes showed up at a later stage. God was seen as an absentee landlord with no responsibility for what goes on in the house he has rented out. But Deism is not the same as Theism, the orthodox belief of mainstream Christianity: we do not believe in an absent God. For us God is present and active in our world, which is the scene of the crime.

There is the further problem that we believe our God to be omnipotent, powerful in every way. Christians do not believe in a cosmic struggle between two separate and equal powers, or believe that God is limited. That would get him off the hook, but it would also mean admitting that God is not God.

Finally, and this is the most distressing part of the problem of evil, we believe that God is loving. How can we explain his lack of action to save us from suffering?

So, to take on the role of Counsel for the prosecution, let me present you, the jury, with a swift recap of the evidence. Multiple crimes have been committed, God was at the scene of the crime and sometimes appears to have been the only person present. He apparently had the power to stop the crime happening. And he acted with total indifference. St. Augustine has stated the case well:

Either God cannot abolish evil or He will not.
If He cannot then He is not all-powerful.
If He will not then He is not all-good.

Yes, even to the great philosopher saints like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, God looks guilty. More poignantly he looks guilty to the mother whose child is ill, to the earthquake victims who have lost their home, to the widower, the widow and the orphan.

What can we say in defence of God? How can we answer the Pope s question: Why is there evil? St. Augustine, having stated the problem, changed his prosecutor s robes to take on the case for the defence. His plea on behalf of God has lasted a long time, although I think you will find it unsatisfactory these days. First of all, Augustine is very insistent that God did not create anything evil. Everything is good. So he explains that evil is not a something (made by God) but a nothing, a lack of goodness. You will get the idea if you think of light. Light is something. You can shine a torch into a dark place and it takes the darkness away. But darkness is not something. It s simply a lack of light. If you open a box, the darkness doesn’t spill out and make the room more gloomy. So you get the idea: darkness is a no-thing, and the same is true of evil: pain, disease, earthquakes and spots on your nose are all places where goodness is missing. But we are bound to ask, how are these blots on the landscape possible, why is the original goodness missing? Augustine at this point brings in the free will defence. Remember he was writing in about 400 A.D. and believed literally in the Bible. So he says the original perfection of the world began to go wrong when some of the angels, notably Lucifer, and then the first humans deliberately chose to do evil. Natural evil followed from this moral evil because humans were neglecting to look after the earth and also because God sent natural evils as the punishment for evil deeds. "All evil", Augustine says, "is sin or the punishment of sin". In other words, evil consists of the sins we have chosen to commit and the punishments God sends as a result of our choices. That kind of teaching has had a long term effect on human thought, so that people ask themselves, when tragedy strikes, "What have I done to deserve this?" Certainly it was assumed in the Middle Ages that sickness was a punishment for sin, and if good people became ill local gossip began to suggest that they bad committed some secret sin. The point is that Augustine defends the creator by putting the whole blame on his creatures; God walks free. What is more, lest any unhappy memories of evil should survive, at the end of time all sinners will be banished to hell. Augustine seems to think of God as an accountant balancing the books: somehow a good punishment cancels out the evil that was done; as he says: "The penalty of sin corrects the dishonour of sin" as if a sound beating will repair the window a careless boy has broken.

As I said, this explanation does not convince us quite as much as it might have convinced people in the past. If we take the role of the prosecutor again, we will want to ask some questions of St. Augustine s client. First, why did the angels, perfect creatures in a perfect world, choose to do wrong? Even Augustine puzzled over this, and his conclusion was that some of them had got less grace than others. But that places the responsibility with God again. Also, surely it isn’t true that all natural evil is a consequence of moral evil? People became a bit suspicious about that after the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. People who were in church at the time got crushed to death, while those drinking in the squares were fine: it didn’t seem to add up. And, of course, geologists were soon able to point out that there were floods and earthquakes around long before humans appeared on earth, so the link between chosen sin and natural disaster was dubious.

I think St. Augustine can be said to have earned his fee, but the jury is still out. Perhaps God is guilty for the evil in the world after all. That s why I feel it is necessary to call in another defence lawyer, St. Irenaeus. More ancient than St. Augustine (he was writing around 200 A.D.), Irenaeus was a wily thinker: his plea in defence of God has been revived by a number of philosophers in recent years. First, he did not believe that we were created perfect and have then fallen; rather he thought that we start from imperfection and then, painfully and gradually, need to develop. Obviously this fits in well with the theory of evolution. God gives us space for growth, a bit like a good parent who gives their child more and more freedom. Inevitably humans misuse their freedom and make mistakes, but we can learn from our mistakes and God never gives up on us. Moral evil is thus our responsibility, but God is interested in what is going on. That is an early form of the freewill defence, but more importantly Irenaeus explains that God is directly responsible for natural evil, for disease and disaster. He has put it there as a kind of assault course, to bring out the best in us, to call out from us great acts of heroism and charity. There is a recognition here that, in a totally protected and comfortable world, there would not be much human development. So here is a totally different defence of God. He permits evil, even to a certain extent causes it, so that we will grow up. It s like parents sending their little son off to public school: they know there may be a few horrors ahead, but they hope that at the end of it he will be a man!

Now you may feel that even Irenaeus cannot get his client off scot free. Most of us will recognise that challenge does lead to growth, but some people are crushed and diminished by their sufferings. Hasn’t God made the assault course too tough? Irenaeus insists that all is not lost. God can complete the work of maturing beyond this life, and all who turn to him for help will eventually be with him in heaven (it is a comforting thought that although Irenaeus believed in hell, he reckoned it might be empty, such is God s power to redeem all things).

These philosophical explanations of evil may be able to satisfy our reason. But they don t help much in the moment of suffering, when we face illness or have lost a loved one. The philosopher cannot touch the suffering heart, because there still seems to be too great a distance between the omnipotent God and us who feel the pain here below. The only comfort then is our faith. That s why this day is so important. It renews our belief that in Jesus God himself knew suffering, felt rejection, pain and death. On the cross he even knew that feeling which may come to most of us at some time, the feeling of being abandoned by God: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" that is the cry of the suffering. Even so, it is also the cry of faith. When we question God, when we accuse him, we are still acknowledging him, and out of our despair and lack of understanding trust may emerge, as it did for Jesus: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit". That may be all we can say. It is enough.



Father, awaken in us that desire for you which is within each of us, and is truly the greatest desire of our life. Direct our thoughts and words today by your holy inspiration, and bring us to understanding through the light of m your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Holy Saturday morning is a strange time. Christ is in the tomb. The disciples have run away. God is dead. So let us, just this once, let the atheists out to play. Let us listen to them trying to explain to us not just that God is dead, but that he has never existed at all.

Atheism is the conviction, based on reasoned argument, that there is no God, that this world is all there is. It is actually quite rare because most people, when pressed, will admit they simply don t know: they are agnostics. The atheist s task is not an easy one because religion is still very popular. I have a friend who was the Papal Nuncio in Sri Lanka. He told me that one of the main problems when there was a feast day was that everyone wanted Holy Communion - not just Catholics, but Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists as well. The people just love any kind of religion. In England our enthusiasm for religion is more restrained, but surveys still report that most people believe in God. So the atheist has to explain where this sense of God comes from. There are two main approaches.

Some suggest the idea of God is a mild form of madness, largely favoured by people of inadequate mind. The other approach is that religion is a cunning way of getting people to behave themselves, a way of getting them to accept the rules and restraints which a successful society needs.

We will look at both these types of atheism, but first I want to introduce you to the Granddaddy of all atheists, Ludwig Feuerbach. He lived from 1804 to 1872, and his portrait shows the kind of man you would imagine a German philosopher to be a self-important air, massive beard, and a thoughtful, slightly bad-tempered, frown. Rather strangely his major work became known in England because it was translated by the lady novelist Mary Ann Evans, better known to us as George Eliot. Feuerbach was convinced that the idea of God was a human invention. His thought can be summed up in two sentences. First, "What man is in need of he makes his God". By this he meant that we tend to be frightened of life, we need the comforting thought that life has a purpose, that there is someone in control and so our imagination creates a God figure who will look after us and make us happy. That is why the idea of God has sprung up all over the world. But Feuerbach went on to explain why people have different visions of God. He wrote "What man wishes to be he makes his God". We imagine this God to be a perfect version of everything we would like to be: perfectly good, perfectly intelligent, perfectly loving. In other words, we project all the best human qualities onto this imaginary superhuman being beyond this world. The different gods of different religions will have a lot in common, but Feuerbach pointed out that you will also get a certain amount of local variation because different cultures will not have the same ideas about what is most noble in humanity. Thus in the Mediterranean world, where they know what life is about, they had a god of wine, Bacchus. The ancient Germanic tribes, who valued the virtues of a strong warrior, had violent warrior gods like Thor and Odin. And in India, where an elephant used to be man s best friend, not surprisingly you get an elephant god, Ganesh. Feuerbach thought that this projection of good values onto an outside being had left humans with a lack of self esteem, feeling weak and sinful; so he declared it was time to get rid of the imaginary God and discover our own true value

Feuerbach was an important influence on the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who worked in Vienna and then in London in the first half of this century. Freud also saw religion as a comfort, a variant of the obsessional behaviour which is quite common when people are feeling stress. You know the kind of thing: people go and check the gas is switched off three or four times, even though they really know they’ve done it already. In the same way, he thought people prayed or performed religious rituals to give them a sense of controlling the world. In addition Freud developed an amazing story to explain why God is so often thought of as a Father figure. Remember, he was writing at a time when people were discovering the first human remains - Neanderthal man and soon. Freud imagined the lifestyle of the very first human group, which he called the "primal horde". In this group there was one dominant male. The sons respected him because he offered protection, but as they grew up they became more and more frustrated because he kept all the females for himself. Finally, the sons rebelled, killed their father and ate him. The trouble was they immediately felt guilty about what they had done, and every time they wanted to hurt someone, or eat another human being, or have sex, the guilt came flooding back. And because the Father was gone, he became an image in their minds a God. Freud thought that all humanity had inherited this guilt from the primal crime, so even now we have mixed feelings about God. We need him but we fear him, and we feel guilty if we follow our own instincts and act disobediently. Freud himself was Jewish although he never practised his religion -and he thought his fellow Jews had a particular tendency to be guilt-ridden. So he looked in the Old Testament for an explanation. He noted that the official story claims that Moses died before the children of Israel reached the promised land. Freud said that the truth is that the Israelites, fed up with forty years of being bossed around, killed Moses. However, this reawakened the memory of the primal father-killing in their subconscious minds, they were overwhelmed with guilt and became even more religious. Freud s answer was that we should get rid of God, the Father figure, grow up, feel free and let it all hang out. In fact Freud was very much behind the spirit of the 1960s although I see that there are some representatives of the flower power generation who are now sitting like respectable citizens in the audience here today.

Freud’s theory is, of course, pretty preposterous; and it was based on no kind of scientific research. First of all, his view of the world is totally male-dominated. His early history of humanity barely mentions women. When he wrote about God as a protecting figure, he says we imagine him this way because we remember our fathers bending over the cradle and smiling down at us; my memory tells me that it was much more likely to be a mother who took an interest in us at the cradle stage, with father keeping a safe distance. As for his attempts at history, there is no evidence that a primal horde ever existed in the way Freud described or that Moses was murdered.

For me, at least, Freud s psychological argument fails to prove that God does not exist. I do not accept that God is a creation of the mind, with no reality outside ourselves. Yet I can see why Freud has convinced some people. The thought of God is a comfort and doubtless people often turn to God for the wrong reasons. Similarly, religious behaviour can sometimes be neurotic, but that does not mean religion always stops us from growing up. Rather, I think, it challenges us, making us less selfish and more fully human. Feuerbach was right, too, that our image of God is influenced by our culture. But again, that does not mean we have invented him. Inevitably we can only work within the limitations of our own human minds. Thus recently Jesus has been portrayed as a revolutionary, totally at the other end of the scale from the royal image of him which was popular in the early Middle Ages; but the fact that our view of him changes has no bearing on the question of his existence.

Freud was not the only philosopher to be influenced by Feuerbach. Another disciple was Karl Marx, who used Feuerbach’s ideas to develop a sociological argument against the existence of God. Marx was intrigued by the thought that the idea of God gives us a sense of security. He’d seen vast factories in Germany and the cotton mills in Manchester arid he knew that life was hell for the workers. Why didn’t they struggle to make life better for themselves? Why didn’t they revolt against the factory owners? Marx thought that the answer lay in religion. That s the origin of his famous phrase "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed ... it is the opium of the people". Religion, like opium, could take away the pain of the working life by promising the workers a better life in heaven. But also like a drug, religion made them weak and so unable or unwilling to do anything to change their situation. Marx noted that the ruling classes used religion to keep the workers in their place. Certainly in Russia the priests were closely linked to the aristocracy, but even in Britain factory owners paid for chapels in the hope that the workers would learn the lessons of humility, docility and obedience. That way the revolution would never come. Conversely Engels, Marx s disciple, said that once the people have freed themselves "by taking possession of all means of production", they would no longer need the comforting illusion of God, and so religion would simply die out.

Again, I think we have to recognise that Marx s theory has a certain amount of truth in it. Religion can be used as a way of control. Any teacher of Religious Education knows that they can quieten down an unruly class by saying "And now we’ll start with a prayer". But the fact that people misuse religion does not mean that God does not exist. God and religion are not identical. Marx thought that priests and ministers would always support the regime they lived under. Sometimes that may be true. There may even have been the occasional Downside monk who has not refused dinner at the tables of the great, but none of us, I hope, are lap dogs. For Marx, close to God would mean close to society, but a more common experience is that close to God means living at a certain distance from society: think of monks, nuns and hermits, but think also of those many holy people who have been actively critical of the societies they live in, from the prophets of the Old Testament to missionaries in South America today. Marx, and other sociologists since, have described religion as the creation of society, but the great world faiths have started with inspired individuals rather than with a community. Moses, Mohammed and Jesus all went against the grain of the society of their times. Finally, you will recall that the communists expected religion to die out when the workers were free. But that did not happen, even when Stalin tried to help the process along by killing thousands of priests and tearing down churches. In spite of propaganda, bribes and bullying, religion did not vanish. Perhaps, then, religion is not the creation of society but of God.

Well, your friends may be surprised when they ask you about this weekend and you tell them you’ve been listening to arguments for atheism. But, as I said at the beginning, today is the appropriate day to let the atheists have their say. What they say contains glimmers of truth, but they fall a long way short of proving that God does not exist; I hope you have been able to see through them. Feuerbach, Marx and Freud thought they were writing God s obituary; but I suspect that he may be around for quite a time.

Dom Augustine Clark OSB,. BA, PhB, STL, Dip RSA is a monk of Downside Abbey.

Return to May 1999 CMQ