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Posted by: | Posted on: April 20, 2011

The Unseen Creation Session: Two

Hell and the Problem of Evil

The Devil and all His Angels

Jesus frequently talks about ‘a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth’. In his parable of Dives and Lazarus he refers to there being ‘a great gulf fixed’ which cannot be crossed’ as existing between these two worlds. The existence of Hell as a spiritual reality is an uncomfortable thought. It remains, however, central, to traditional Christian thinking.

We are probably all familiar with the traditional story of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven because of his sin of pride, his desire to be a rival God. The traditional imagery pictures Lucifer as the brightest and best of the angels who falls into a fiery furnace, together with those other angels he incited to rebel against God. Some early theologians, largely drawing from the writings of the Apochyrpha, or Deutero-Canonical books, thought that there were subsequent rebellions in the ongoing war between heaven and hell. This they thought led to the emergence of three orders of the Devil’s or Hell’s Angels who fought the seven orders of angels in Heaven. Their battlefield was the Seen Creation in which we live as well as the spiritual world.

Christ’s Descent Into the Underworld

Ancient religious beliefs frequently have an account of a descent from this world into the world below. Perhaps the story of Orpheus in the Underworld (of which the film Moulin Rouge is a contemporary re-telling) is one of the most well known. Christian mythology, however, took nearly four centuries to agree upon the the sentence which now appears in the Nicene Creed; ‘He descended into Hell’. Partially this was finally agreed to resolve the issue of what happened to the souls of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses and the Old Testament prophets who were born and died long before the Advent of Christ. Surely God would redeem them as well?

The importance of this belief in mainstream Christian theology was not finally affirmed until the Council of Constantinople in 381. The Council decreed that those who denied this doctrine should be condemned, presumably to a Hades or an underworld, in which they themselves did not believe.

So why did it take so long to agree on this. There are several subtle references in the Bible to Christ’s descend into Hell, although there is no direct account in the New Testament of this event (Revelations gets close, but remains somewhat oblique.) To find it, you have to read the Bible imaginatively. For instance how we are to understand the passage in Matthew’s Gospel:

As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ Matt 12.40.’

David Miller, in his study, ‘Hells and Holy Ghosts: A theopoetics of Christian belief’ argues that the reason Christian struggled to come to a common mind was because of the widespread persistence of Gnosticism.

Gnostic belief took Dualist thought to its logical extremity. They believed that the world in which we lived was Hell itself. Miller begins his book by quoting the words which most of us will have used, colloquially, at some point.

‘”My life is hell!” Uttered in anguish or felt so deeply as to be unutterable, these words involve the woman or man experiencing them, unwittingly to be sure, in ancient theological controversy. Indeed, it may well be that an unconscious residue of Christian thinking informs the person’s feeling in this moment, a theological habit of mind (rather than one’s psychological reality) leading the individual to believe that history can be hell.’ 1

The Gnostic view that the world was essentially evil did not accord with the Genesis account that God’s creation was ‘good’. It also, more seriously for early theologians, undermined Christ’s conquering of Hell, and consequently death. Gnostics did not believe in any other-worldy understanding of Hell. Miller goes on to observe that:

It may come as something of a surprise for a person who is suffering the feeling that his or her life is hell to learn that precisely in this feeling there is a heretical religious perspective, an unorthodox stance1 indeed, to such a one the 2descent into hell2 may be more real than for many of today’s orthodox Christians, not a few of whom would rather forget that portion of the creed which speaks about a descent into hell. The oddity is that those today who may be closest to this underworldly aspect of traditional Christian belief are those whose profound expression most resembles heretical belief, while those who most adhere to conventional Christian belief may well be most out of touch with the reality of depth to which that belief attests.’ 2

The Problem of Evil

Christianity believes in God who has three aspects to his nature, he is unique, he is all knowing and he is all-loving. In this last sense he is understood as being entirely good. How then do Christians explain away the problem of evil, of suffering in the world? How, in particular, is the existence of evil reconciled with the idea of there being only one, true God?

Jeffrey Burton Russell, an American Medieval Historian, who has written extensively on perceptions of the Devil, approaching this as ‘a history of ideas’, has claimed that 3:

This has always been the weakest seam in Christian theology, the spot at which generations of atheists have forcefully struck. 4 Their argument usually runs something like this: (i) If God exists, he is all good and all powerful; (ii) such a God could have no morally sufficient reason to allow evil; (iii) but there is evil in the world; (iv) therefore God does not exist.’

Over the centuries Christians have advanced a number of theories to counter this criticism. Some of them are outlined below:

  1. Evil is necessary for the greater good. Although our own world is imperfect and is apparently in a state of dischord, there is a hidden harmony directed by Providence. Human understanding of good and evil cannot be attributed to God. If we only know enough, we would perceive that what we assume to be evil is part of a grander, essentially benovelent divine schema. The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell dismisses this argument contempoouosly by saying if you presented it to a mother whose child was dying of leukemia it would be a sick answer. However this can be countered easily by saying ‘Would you rather tell the mother that her child’s suffering and death is completely meaningless? That there is no reward or justice offered in the afterlife by the suffering the child is presently experiencing? The main point is the horror of evil in the world is not removed, or even palliated, by an atheistic position. Facing up to the problem of evil is as difficult for the atheist as it is for the Christian. The question ‘Why is there evil in the world’ simply refuses to go away.

  1. Evil is real, but it is the necessary by-product of an essentially good universe. Since the finite cannot be perfect, God is obliged to create a finite world that is imperfect. This is the best of all possible worlds, in the sense, that it is as perfect as God can create. God may be all powerful but to use that as on objection is at best inelegant, at worst ignorant, and seeking to reduce God to human understanding. Although we may find it difficult to comprehend God’s choice, it is a fact that God either cannot or chooses not to break his own rules, i.e. he will not do something that is self-contradictory. You cannot have one opposite without the other. In response to evil, however, there is a cosmic harmony which is good which overwhelms the existence of evil. The existence of any goodness at all implies a providential hand and the possibility of salvation to a world in which evil no longer exists. This argument is strengthened further by its acknowledgement of the importance of freewill, God has to give us the choice between pursuing an evil or good life and, has to allow, the consequences of our actions to affect the temporal happiness of others.

  1. Evil should be understood as non-being. It is, essentially a destructive force, not a creative one. Good is essentially creative and healing. The world in which we live is perfect insofar as it has being, but it also has pockets of non-being. Again, this is the best world God could create because good clearly outweighes the evil in it. Again this supports the existence of freewill, to potentially dramatic consequences, God cannot save or redeem the atheist if he is determined to embrace an afterlife which is manifestly one in which ‘being’ or existence is a possibility.

  1. Evil and its existence is simply beyond our understanding but, in the fullness of time, God will redeem all of his Creation in a state of bliss. This clearly is an evasive answer and, as such, is an unsatisfactory one. The only thing that supports this answer to have any validity, is the Crucifixtion of Christ on the Cross. God has entered into human suffering and such an act was essential, in order to correct the problem of evil within an eternal schema.

  1. Another response, which addresses the issue of suffering head on is that evil is necessary to test us, to instruct us, and to permit us to mature within ourselves. It is possible to view the Old Testament Book of Job in this light. Satan tests Job’s loyalty to God, hoping Job will ultimately denounce God. Satan, however, fails in his endeavour. Good, in this case, ultimately triumphs over evil, although it can only do so at a great cost. The need for evil, in this view, is that, without it, we would be spoiled children who became selfish, insensitive and irresponsible. Our fall from grace may actually be understood as a ‘fortunate fall’, through which we acquire wisdom and maturity. The atheist responds to this argument by saying ‘very well, but, in that case, why is there so much suffering in the world? Surely there could be less?

  1. A final answer might be seen in the role of Dualism, which was widely present in early Christianity, but which the Church sought to downplay as orthodoxy gained ground in Christian thinking. This was touched on earlier, but, in orthodox teaching, it continues to suppose the reality of spiritual warfare. Evil exists as a result of an ongoing war between heaven and hell for the human soul. This war will only end at the end of time. In orthodox belief good will vanquish evil, in a similar manner to the Revelation account of St. Michael the Archangel trampling the beast underfoot.

Questions for discussion

  1. What is your idea of Hell?

  1. Do you believe in everlasting damnation, or just for a finite time?

  1. What do you think is the best response to the problem of evil?

  1. If God could create the world without evil would the Crucifixtion make any sense?

  1. If evil is a necessary part of Creation was the Crucifixtion the only way God could finally overcome evil? Why do you think Jesus HAD to die?

  1. The Devil’s greatest trick is to convince you that he does not exist. What do you think of this statement?

1 D Miller, Hells and Holy Ghosts, p. 13.

2 D. Miller pp. 14-15.

3 J. B. Russel, The Devil, Perceptions of Evil From Antiquity to Primitive Christianity pp. 222-223.

4 Ibid. p. 223. Russel goes on to claim, in a footnote, that ‘This argument works, if it works at all, against the idea of the Christian God, but not against a monist God, from whose being evil is not excluded. Some athiets address themselves, rather reluctantly, to the problem of monist theodicy, but most have paid Christianity the curious compliment of insisting upon a Christian definition of the deity. Matson, for example, in his 1965 study, The Existence of God, dismisses unorthodox theism as a refusal to play by the rules of the game. The rules of the game, as Matson sees them, consist in defining God in such a way that Matson will be able to disprove his existence.