Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Origen on Evil

One theme that has naturally arisen on this blog has been a survey of attempts at dealing with "the problem of evil." This is also known as "theodicy" or justifying God in the face of the evil in the universe. I've wanted to write about this as I struggled greatly with the reality of evil for many years and how horrendous evil in the universe fits with the reality of an all-powerful and perfectly good God. While I've found most arguments made by atheists against the existence of God to be quite unconvincing, the one argument which they make that once had some weight for me was their argument against God's existence from evil. This argument is perhaps most strongly and artfully made by Dostoyevsky's character, Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov. As I said, this argument once affected me strongly but God, by His grace, has brought me to a place where that argument seems no longer to have much of an effect on my convictions. I would be tempted to say that I wasn't even really converted when a strong argument from an atheist would throw me into a serious state of doubt as to whether or not there was really a God.

So with that introduction, I will quote from an article written by one of our professors here at Loma Linda. At Loma Linda students in the school of medicine are required to take religion courses and I'm just beginning a course called, "God and Human Suffering." This article, which was required reading for us, explores the view of the early church on the problem of evil, specifically through the writings of Origen. Origen has been called the greatest intellect of the Eastern Church and lived from around 185 to 254. Origen did have some heretical ideas that were later condemned but I think that Origen's writings are still of great worth.

Much as Origen feels bound and emboldened by Scripture, he is quite able to single out the difference between the Christian view and that of Celsus on a deeper theological and philosophical level. First, evil did not arise by necessity, as if by some flaw in the divine design or by a capricious withdrawal of divine favor. Sin lies instead in the choice and not in the nature of the beings that brought evil into the world. Second, goodness itself has meaning only when the possibility of evil exists. Virtue is not worthy of the name if the option to choose otherwise has been ruled out. This point is as basic to Origen's underlying view of God as it is to his specific understanding of the origin of evil, fighting his battle against the determinism of the Gnostics and others who misinterpret the existence of evil to reflect negatively on God. Third, there is no quick fix for the crisis that arose when evil came to exist contrary to God's will and purpose, as Celsus so condescendingly assumed. "In my opinion he ought to have punished the devil," says Celsus, seeing God easily restricting the devil's range for harming others. But Origen is not fazed by the implied criticism that the God of the Christians lacked the power to put the devil in his place. In his view, there is more depth to God and more subtlety to the nature of evil than for such a crude remedy as power to succeed. "It was necessary for God," Origen answers, "who knows how to use for a needful end even the consequences of evil, to put those who became evil in this way in a particular part of the universe, and to make a school of virtue to be set up for those who wished to strive lawfully in order to obtain it."

-Sigve Tonstad in Andrews University Seminary Studies.

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