As a professor who teaches literature, philosophy, and, at times, theology, I spend quite a bit of time discussing with my students the problem of evil. So much of the world’s great works are attempts to grapple with evil in some way or another. Some are overt in their purposes: Milton’s famous attempt to “justify the ways of God to man” springs to mind. The novel, that relatively new yet now-pervasive literary genre, is almost defined by an attempt to portray humans confronting evil in its various forms. Indeed, Aristotle’s ancient definition of plot so clearly lends itself to human endeavors to grapple with evil: after the beginning of the story (exposition), the rising action is almost always some sort of complication that arises from the hero being confronted and challenged by evil. Perhaps I should be thankful for the problem of evil—without it I might not have a job! But considering the sheer volume of human attempts to cope with evil and all the suffering that results from it, why make further comment on the subject?
I know that anything I have to say will never amount to anything as significant as Dostoevsky says, but in my own life and in the lives of my students, I’m often struck by how our responses to evil have almost nothing to do with the theoretical discussions we have in class, in which we all come to quite a satisfactory—sometimes even downright holy—response to evil. When I get hurt, when I am wronged, or, almost worse yet, when my most beloved people are hurt or wronged, I find my first responses are anything but the holy response to evil that I’ve discussed so many times in class.
The problem of evil presents both theoretical and practical difficulties. On the one hand, the theorists ask how a wholly good God who creates and sustains the universe could allow evil. Efforts to answer this puzzling question have at best led to a kind of defense—the best possible world could be the sort where humans use God-given freedom for evil ends, i.e. the freewill defense. I think that this sort of defense is the best theoretical answer available because evil itself is irrational—it works against the natural ends for which creatures are created. I think the practical problem, that evil is present in this world and we must respond to it, may offer a much more fruitful discussion for Christians and non-Christians alike.
When I turn to literature, I see this practical problem embodied in events that happen in various times and places, and perhaps, literature affords us the best opportunity to explore the shaping influences of evil. Who, for instance, could forget the faithfulness and honest questioning of Job or David when confronted by personal destruction and false accusers? What reader of Shakespeare could miss the increasing fear and paranoia of King Lear that eventually leads to madness? How could any reader imagine Chaucer’s Pardoner without indignation at the abuse of office sanctioned by the Church? Literature allows a wide range of possible responses to evil to be reenacted: apathy, anger, vengeance, cynicism, sentimentalism, fear, coercion, depression, despair, and stoicism. We recognize how evil can distort an Oedipus and worry about our own well-being. But how ought a Christian respond?
In his monumental work, The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius provides one clear answer—those who perpetrate evil do not have actual power because evil renders power as weakness. Contra Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, the Christian must resist the notion that power amounts to pragmatic efficiency. True power is not measured by arbitrary outcomes based on individual aspirations. As image bearers of God, we are made for one ultimate end—to participate in the Glory of God by partaking of Christ. This belief is not a fairy-tale hope or comforting fiction but the very essence of Faith. According to Boethius, reaching this true end figures much more in life than honors, offices, or material wealth. Elusive happiness, which all men and women desire, must finally rest on something that cannot be taken away. In light of this insight, evil does not necessarily harm the soul but may be an opportunity to grow in grace. After all, who we become in this life is far more significant than what we accomplish. If evil can cause us to increase our love of God and neighbor, even our enemies, then God’s redemptive work is already manifest in a fallen world.