"Goodness is Tested by its Encounter with Evil"

In 1972, Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Surouzh participated in a discussion aired on British radio. His opponent was the British journalist Anatoly Goldberg (1910-1982), an agnostic who was born in Riga, Latvia and later emigrated to Great Britain. The following discussion became a chapter in a book entitled, God: Yes or No? Discussions between believers and unbelievers, published by Nikea publishers (Moscow), who granted Pravoslavie.ru permission to publish it. We present an English translation of that discussion here.

--Metropolitan Anthony, I have known people who became religious because they were tormented by the question of the manifestation of evil. I also have known people who have become disillusioned by religion for that same reason. The first category felt or came to the conviction that the concept of good and evil could not have come into being by itself, that good and evil must have been created by a higher power. Why good exists is of course obvious to them, but they hoped to find the answer in religion to why evil exists. The second category, those who became disillusioned with religion, arrived at the conviction that religion does not answer the question of how to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent God, Who personifies goodness and justice, with what happens in the world--not only in the realm of human relations, but also in nature, where chaos, strife, and cruelty reign. What answer can you give to that question?

--This is a very difficult question in the sense that one really can come from the same postulate either to belief or to doubt. It seems to me that a Christian would give approximately the following answer: Yes, God is omnipotent, but He created man free, and this freedom necessarily carries with it the potential for both good and evil; the potential for deviating from the law of life or, to the contrary, participating in this law of life. It seems to me, this question of freedom is central to the problem of good and evil. If God had created man incapable of deviating, then man would be just as incapable of anything positive. For example, love is unthinkable outside the category of freedom. You can’t give of yourself when it is impossible to refuse giving of yourself; you can’t love a person if that means a purely mechanical relationship. If there were no freedom to refuse or renounce; if there were, finally, no possibility of evil, then love would be no more than a power of attraction, a power that binds all units, but does not create any kind of moral relationship between them.

--Why? Does that mean that evil exists only to distinguish good, by way of contrast?

--No, I do not think that it exists for that reason; but where there is the possibility of one, the possibility of the other inevitably follows. Of course, if we were simply perfect beings, incapable of making a wrong choice, evil would exhaust itself; but it would nevertheless exist as a possibility.

--But do you allow that God, the omnipotent God, cares for people, watches after human fates, helps people, and makes sure that evil does not triumph on earth?

--Yes, I am deeply convinced of this. Again, from my Christian point of view, I definitely do not picture God as an unresponsive God Who created man, gave him this terrible freedom--which can ruin and destroy everything--and then, (I will use the image provided by Ivan Karamazov) "waits" somewhere at the end of time for the moment when He will judge and condemn man for not using his freedom the right way. I do not imagine God to be that way. I imagine God as responsible, a God Who created man and life, but Who does not just wait at the end for the moment when He will settle accounts. And the fullest extent of this responsibility that God takes for life and for His actions, for His creative act, is the Incarnation--it is that God becomes Man, enters into history and immerses Himself to the end in its tragedy, then somewhere resolves this tragedy.

--How and where does he permit this tragedy?

--He does not outwardly permit it in the sense that death, sickness, and suffering continue to mow people down. But the relationship between one person and another can become something deeply different; the relationship to one’s own suffering can be something completely different; the relationship to another person’s suffering can, again, change deeply from this.

--This means that, as a Christian, you definitely deny Voltaire’s thesis, which proceeds approximately from the assumption that God created man, gave him everything necessary--first of all reason--and then considered His task done. If people are guided by reason then everything will be fine. If not, then that is their own business. This is essentially a quite logical explanation. However, from what you have just said, it seems you categorically deny this.

--Yes. I simply could not imagine such a God because this would be so irresponsible an act, a simply immoral act, which would ultimately be the foundation and cause of all evil. It would be an irresponsible, evil act because: What right does such a God have to create us when He bears no responsibility for what we do, and will moreover someday judge us for it? What sort of God is that?

--Voltaire did not say that God will judge us. He simply said that God has given man everything he needs, that God created the amazing mechanism and structure of man, most importantly--reason. Why is that irresponsible? Why would that be criminal?

--Anatoly Maximovich, if the God you describe had created such a remarkable mechanism then it would not go so hopelessly wrong. It would mean that God, Who built this mechanism, is just a horribly bad mechanic and good for nothing. If that is the God we have, one who can’t even create a decent mechanism, then really we have nothing more to say.

--But how do you explain the fact that God on the one hand cares for people, while on the other hand, over the course of the existence of all mankind, injustice has mainly triumphed over justice? At first this was explained by saying that when man is in trouble he is to blame for it--that means that it is all punishment for his sins. Then apparently that no longer satisfied people and they began talking about how God tests man, that He tests man’s faith--that of course relates to Job [St. Job the Longsuffering of the Old Testament]; but when this no longer satisfied people, then Christianity came along and began convincing people that suffering is something exalted. Do you agree with this somewhat simplified characterization of the development of human thought along these lines?

--I agree; only those explanations that you have relegated to the past as something that have outlived their time are things that I do not see as outlived. Very much evil, suffering, and human torment comes from sin--only from sin in the sense that man is evil. He causes evil and suffering, and besides that, he deforms his own self, he becomes monstrous and ceases to be human.

--I think that justice in this sense would be very unattractive. If happiness and prosperity were the rapid award for goodness, then goodness as a moral category would be guaranteed; it would be a basic calculation. I think that goodness becomes goodness precisely when a person can stand up against injustice, against unrighteousness, against suffering, and yet not renounce his own goodness, what seems to him--or what objectively is--goodness. If, let’s say, a person is generous but is sometimes deceived by others, and after trying to be generous one or two more times comes to the conclusion that it is not worth it to be generous, then his generosity is rather impoverished. It is a question of what kind of responsiveness he has. In every respect it seems to me that goodness is tested and subjected to examination by coming up against evil. I am not saying that this is essentially good; but undoubtedly a person grows into a completely new dimension, a completely new grandeur when he is capable of meeting face to face with suffering, hatred, sorrow, and terrible wars, and yet remain humane to the end, even grow to the greater measure of, let’s say, compassion, understanding, courage, and the ability to give of himself and sacrifice himself.

--This is, after all, a somewhat complicated process. I entirely agree that the end result is desirable, but the acquisition process is very complicated. It is a very difficult path and it is rather hard to imagine that it couldn’t be achieved in a simpler way. But tell me: Does God concern Himself with the fate of mankind? If so, then how do you explain such a monstrous phenomenon as for example Hitler, who I personally consider absolutely exceptional, because in his case there weren’t even attempts to justify those evil acts by some higher, pseudo-ethical ideas. Instead it was stated clear and simple: We want to do evil. How do you explain such a phenomenon if you assume that God concerns Himself with the fate of mankind?

--First, I am convinced that God concerns Himself with the fate of mankind. Second, I think that if there is freedom in man that was given by God, God no longer has the right to stand in the way of this freedom and destroy it. Otherwise it would look like this: God makes you free, but the moment you use that freedom in a way that He doesn’t like He flattens you and you are no more. There would be less evil in the world--that is, there would be fewer evil-doers, no Hitler or others like him. However, in fact the greatest evil-doer of them all would be that very God Who gives me freedom, but Who, the moment I make a mistake on my path or stray from it due to my madness, kills me, destroys me for it. I would say that the moral problem in this case would be worse than the former one... Just imagine what man’s life would be like! He would be living with the knowledge that if he does something wrong God will destroy him. Here is the next stage: because God knows everything and can foresee things, then the moment an evil thought comes into your mind, God may destroy you. That would be worse than a concentration camp! We would be living under the sword of Damocles all the time. Now He’ll kill me... maybe He won’t, no, He’ll kill me... no, He won’t... Thanks a million for such a God!

--Could you repeat that...

If God really made man free, that is, free to make responsible decisions that are reflected in his actions, then God no longer has the right to violate that freedom. He can enter a person’s life; but on an equal footing. That is how Christ became Man and died from that on the cross: yes, I understand that. If He had forced Himself upon life as God, that is, with all His omnipotence, omniscience, and so on, then the moment the earthly evil-doer, who was given his freedom by God, mistakenly uses that freedom not as he should, he would become the victim of Divine wrath; that is, he would simply be destroyed--killed. And even worse: so sooner would a person think about doing something wrong than God would destroy him on the spot, because God knows what would happen in the future. And all mankind, gifted with that cursed freedom, would be living in eternal fear. Ah, an evil thought slipped in--now I’ll be punished... Ah, I just had a desire for something I shouldn’t have--what will happen now?... That would be a monster and not God. He would be the greatest evil-doer of them all.

--Then what does Divine intervention in people’s fate mean?

--First, that God has instilled the laws of life in man; that is the yearning for all that is the fulness of triumphant life, triumphant love. Second, that He gave man the consciousness of good and evil. We did not make it up, it is not just a sociological phenomenon, because sociological forms change endlessly, whereas the understanding of good and evil runs like a thread through everything.

--I agree with that entirely.

--Furthermore: Through people who are faithful to Him, who know Him by experience, prayer, and life, God has said His word, shown the moral measures, and pointed out the moral paths. Because man’s conscience is a relative thing, clear to varying degrees, and wavering, He gave man the law; He gave man rules of life. Most important, God Himself entered into history through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He became Man and showed us in deed that one can pass through all the horror of life and suffering and never waver in love, righteousness, or purity; and that although this person was historically destroyed and crushed, he was not conquered. He achieved the full measure of his humanity; and that is truly a victory over evil that is much greater than if there simply were no evil.

--This raises a whole series of questions, which I hope to discuss the next time.

--That is perfectly clear. We are talking about how injustice triumphs over justice; in other words, how bad it is for those who are not such terrible sinners, who are perhaps even righteous.

Rev'd Fr. Paul Patitsas8/16/2013 1:41 am
We hope to broadcast a portion of this translation on our Auckland, New Zealand radio program: "In the Narthex with Father Paul" today. Please know that your ministry is touching many even here in New Zealand. May God continue to give you strength to do His will.
Here you can leave your comment on the present article, not exceeding 4000 characters. All comments will be read by the editors of OrthoChristian.Com.
Enter through FaceBook
Your name:
Your e-mail:
Enter the digits, seen on picture:

Characters remaining: 4000

to our mailing list

* indicates required