Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

What is Evil?

Part I

By Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D.

The problem of evil is one of the most difficult issues in the area of religion and philosophy.  Evil has been the subject of interest for lots of different writers in the West. For our purpose here we need to ask two questions: what is evil and what is the cause of it.

But first, how do we define evil?  Something may be said to be evil when it takes human life, or if it causes humans to suffer in an inhumane way. Enslaving people against their will would be inhumane and evil.  The massive killings of wars are an evil.  One person killing another innocent person is evil.

If we can think of a tornado sweeping through a city, it is regarded by some as an evil since it probably kills people, destroys homes, and businesses.  If one could think of a tornado that sweeps through a city and kills no one, destroys nothing, then it would not be regarded as a tragic event.  But tornadoes are not like that – it is the loss of life and loss of homes, etc. that make it a terrible thing.  Would one declare all of this evil?  Many would not because there is no active will of anyone behind it, not even God.

Let’s look at natural events.  Natural events are things like tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods.  What are the causes of natural events?  Are these things caused by a divine being?  Are they caused by forces we don’t know about?  Are they caused by some sense of freedom in the world?  Are they the natural consequence of forces in nature or the cosmos?

Earthquakes are generally regarded as a result of plate movements in the earth.  When there is movement there is a reaction because of the movement affecting another plate and hence a rip in the earth’s surface and the shattering of houses, buildings, bridges, etc. It may be a movement of no more than an inch against another massive plate to create an earthquake.  However, the recent earthquake that hit Japan ripped the ocean floor a distance of 50 miles wide and 150 miles long.  There is no one behind these earthquakes.  No one can predict with certainty when one is going to happen. One can say that a certain area is due for an earthquake, but no date can be assigned when it will happen.  There is no one to whom we can assign blame for this.

How does the Western mind deal with tragedies?  I cannot speak for everyone obviously, but there are many who view the Creation in the religious sense in this fashion.  The story of creation in the book of Genesis is that God created the world and when it was finished we have these words:  Gen 1:31 “God looked at everything he had made, and he was very pleased.”  The second chapter of Genesis begins with these words:

“And so the whole universe was completed.  By the seventh day God finished what he had been doing and stopped working. He blessed the seventh day and set it apart as a special day, because by that day he had completed his creation and stopped working.” (Genesis 2:1-3 GNB)

It is important to note that His creative work was finished, complete, and there was nothing more to do.  There is no new creative activity.  The universe was given inherent existence and set in order, the planets were placed in orbit, the sun and moon were given their role for earth, the seasons were instituted, and we can investigate the world Yahweh has made and learn from it. The law of gravity was operational, the laws of chemistry and physics were in place and only later did people begin to investigate and use these laws for good and bad purposes.  Because there is order and regularity in the world we can learn and use them for good.  Regularity and uniformity in nature makes science possible.  It is thinking God’s thoughts after Him as someone has said.

While the Bible emphasizes the completion of the creation, it also stresses the fact that Yahweh upholds the created universe.  Consider the following verses:

“Everything was created by him, everything in heaven and on earth, everything seen and unseen, including all forces and powers, and all rulers and authorities. All things were created by God's Son, and everything was made for him.  God's Son was before all else, and by him everything is held together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)

“God’s Son has all the brightness of God’s own glory and is like him in every way. By his own mighty word, he holds the universe together. After the Son had washed away our sins, he sat down at the right side of the glorious God in heaven.”  (Hebrews 1:1-2)

“And Ezra said: "Thou art the LORD, thou alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and thou preservest all of them; and the host of heaven worships thee.”  (Nehemiah 9:6 RSV)

The conclusion evident in these verses is that Yahweh has not only created the universe and finished it.  He also upholds it.  It will become evident that there is a great difference between the Christian and Muslim views of God’s activity.  In the Christian view Yahweh finished his creation and upholds it, or it would cease to be. The creation is running its course until the end of history.  The Muslim view is that Allah is creating a new universe moment by moment and if Allah ceased to do this the universe would not be at all.

In light of this we need to consider the words of Jesus in John 5:17, “Jesus answered them, "My Father is always working, and I too must work."”  I don’t think we need to think of this as creating new stuff, but rather working with the old stuff.  In the Old Testament soon after Yahweh created the world He began revealing Himself through Abraham, Moses, and finally coming in the Person of Jesus to bring back rebellious humans to Himself.  The Father was working to show Israel his nature, his love, his covenant, and his promise of a Messiah.  In the work that Jesus did, he revealed the Father in a very personal way, declared the New Covenant in Himself, and died to establish the New Covenant in his blood, and vindicate all this by the resurrection from death.  Did Jesus create anything new?  Not that I know about.  He returned sight to the blind, he healed the lepers, raised the dead, healed the lame, and crippled, and did many miracles.  This was working in human beings who were living, not making people from scratch.

Now back to the Genesis account.  The story goes on to describe the rebellion of the first couple against the commands of Yahweh.  Placing themselves above the Creator’s commands brought their downfall and with it changes in their human condition and the condition of the world, particularly earth. The choices made in the Garden by Eve and then Adam were choices for ignorance, rejecting the knowledge and wisdom of Yahweh.  With the disobedience of Eve there comes pain into the human experience, particularly in child birthing.  For the man hard labor in the production of food from the soil was part of his punishment.  No longer was their paradise idyllic, but the creation now reflected their own rebellion against Yahweh and soon the first murder occurre

There are deeper implications of the result of the disobedience of the first couple in the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:

“All of creation waits with eager longing for God to reveal his children.  For creation was condemned to lose its purpose, not of its own will, but because God willed it to be so. Yet there was the hope that creation itself would one day be set free from its slavery to decay and would share the glorious freedom of the children of God.  For we know that up to the present time all of creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth.” (Romans 8:19-22)

The creation has things going on that were not part of the original creative act of Yahweh.  Sin and rebellion entered and freedom to sin is a major issue in human history. Along with this freedom has come some freedom in nature in which nature becomes unruly. This freedom can be seen in the unpredictable weather concerning rain or the lack thereof,  the heat waves or the cold waves that devastate crops and animals.  The conditions Adam now faced because of disobedience into sin were now placed in his future:

“Because of what you have done, the ground will be under a curse. You will have to work hard all your life to make it produce enough food for you. It will produce weeds and thorns, and you will have to eat wild plants. You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything, until you go back to the soil from which you were formed. You were made from soil, and you will become soil again.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

Moreover humans have caused destruction and changes by deforestation, overgrazing, changing the conditions for rainfall, and pollution.  There are changes that take place in nature that cannot be predicted with accuracy such as the weather, movements of continents causing earthquakes, volcano eruptions, monsoons, tornadoes, tsunamis, etc.

Christians, therefore, conclude that human rebellion is the beginning cause or precipitating cause and the earth reflects this rebellion. The sin of our ancestors, Adam and Eve, set in motion some ripple effects which include various kinds of natural disasters. When they sinned God passed a just verdict on them which was also tempered with a promise containing a seed of hope. As we have seen, the verdict had a wider impact than just their offspring, it involved the whole created order (e.g. weeds and thorns). One could describe this effect as a warping or distortion of God’s original good purpose. But let us not forget that when God orchestrated (foretold) events would happen in the way they unfolded, he did not act capriciously. He acted justly. God is the one who ultimately subjected 'all creation' to 'frustration' and 'groaning' as the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:19-22 (NIV).

Man disobeyed God so he is blameworthy. From this perspective, one might say man caused the earth to produce weeds and thorns, including abnormal weather patterns and quakes that inflict destruction.  In this sense, man is the precipitating cause but God is the ultimate mover. Where does the energy come from that moves the plates? From God. He is the one who acts behind the scenes. Man’s world was made by God to conform to his disobedience as a matter of judgment on sin and it will one day be redeemed and a new heaven and new earth shall prevail.

Yahweh made the world very good, but humans have rebelled against his commands and there are lots of tragedies in the human experience as well as in nature.  Who is to blame for all of this?  It seems irrational to blame Yahweh since his creation was very good. In a general way we may say that human rebellion is the beginning cause and the earth reflects this rebellion.

However, if you adopt a Muslim philosophy of science it would seem there is someone to blame for it. It could be Allah. How would this be possible?  The person whose name is associated with this attitude toward the creative activity of Allah is Al-Ash’ari (874-935)  who is the founder of the tradition of Muslim  theology known as Ash’ariyah.  The implication of this view can be seen in the excerpts in the following article below by Patrick Poole in The American Thinker on Islam and the Problem of Rationality.

“Historically, the views of the Ash'arite school were rooted in the theological dogma of "volunteerism", which holds that rather than created objects having inherent existence, Allah constantly recreates each atom anew at every moment according to his arbitrary will. This, of course, undermines the basis for what Westerners understand as natural laws.  (underlining is my emphasis)

“From volunteerism sprung another irrational idea amongst Muslim thinkers - occasionalism - that further prevented the development of rationalism within the Islamic tradition. Occasionalism is the belief that in the natural world, what is perceived as cause and effect between objects is mere appearance, not reality. Instead, only Allah truly acts with real effect; all seemingly natural observances of causation are merely manifestations of Allah's habits, for Allah simultaneously creates both the cause and the effect according to his arbitrary will.

“The connection between what is habitually believed to be the cause and what is habitually believed to be the effect is not necessary for us… according to the occasionalist view, when a sword struck off a person's head causing death, it only merely appeared that the sword was the cause of the decapitation: the real and primary cause of the decapitation and the death was the will of Allah, not the sword. The sword, in fact, played no part at all. Had Allah willed it so, the sword could have cut through the neck without decapitation or death. To believe otherwise, Islamic occasionalism held, would be a limitation of the omnipotence of Allah. As with volunteerism, the consequences of occasionalism had catastrophic effects for the development of empirical science in the Islamic world.” (Source)

In the Muslim view of reality each moment of reality is an instantaneous miracle of creation directly caused by Allah’s will.  No one can question Allah’s act.  The continuing instant creative acts of Allah requires the rejection of cause and effect, the rejection of the laws of nature which can be investigated, and the rejection of the usefulness of the laws for predicting and creating solutions for problems in the world.  Since the Muslim is required to reject cause and effect in nature, trying to inquire into Allah’s mind (his creation) is blasphemy.  Even questioning what Allah has created each moment is forbidden.  The same submission is required in the issue of ethics. One cannot question Allah’s commands in Sharia law.  So real rationality is impossible by the inability to question Allah’s revelation.  Moreover, the Muslim view requires the possibility that Allah can change his mind about the natural world at any time.

Given this view of Allah’s world, then every tragic event in history must be the result of Allah’s action.  On January 27, 2011 a car bomb ripped through a funeral tent in mainly Shiite area of Baghdad killing 41 people and three other small bombings brought the total to 200 people killed on this one day.  Given the Muslim view of Allah’s continuous creative activity can any other being be responsible for this evil activity?

On January 23, 1556, an earthquake shook Shaanzi in China and 830,000 people were killed.  Given the Muslim view of Allah, these are the acts of Allah.  In the 14th century the Black Death spread across Asia, Europe, and Africa killing approximately 100,000,000 people.  Does Allah predestine all this? That seems to be required because of the Muslim view of creation.  On December 26, 2004  the Indian Ocean Tsunami hit Indonesia killing 229,866 people.  Do we conclude that Allah caused this?

There are serious implications of the Muslim philosophy of science and Allah’s role in the world with the idea of continuous creation.

Think of a man/woman suffering from cancer.  Why is Allah driven to create the person anew each moment and always with the cancer?  One would think that Allah would create the person anew without the cancer.  Is there some force above Allah that requires the pattern of creation to be continued for the cancerous person?  Muslims would reject such a proposal, but then one is moved to inquire about Allah’s compassion for people. With a new creation each moment why does Allah not cure the cancer?

In the Christian way of thinking, the person has cancer without thinking that it is caused by Yahweh. We conclude that something has gone wrong in our bodies.

It is part of the system of the world in which one organism exploits another organism.  There are good bacteria in my system and bad bacteria.  The bad do not belong there and my body may be able to fight them off.  If not, the invader, or cells out of harmony, will win and I lose.  There is freedom in the world not only in the human realm.  Diseases are a form of invasion of my life by something that does not belong there.  Murder is the invasion of my life by someone who does not belong there.

We are free to pray that the cancer be healed.  God created the world so that there are laws of nature and of the universe that can be investigated.  Cures for cancer can be sought as well as prayed for.  In the days of Jesus, people were healed of their diseases.  People are still being healed today in answer to prayer.  Yahweh is not bound by the universe, He is free to intervene in His world.  This is why there are miracles in the world today.  These are direct acts of Yahweh in healing people. Many people are still being physically healed in the name of Jesus Christ. One of his great acts is to transform the inner being of people by forgiveness, love, and his indwelling presence by His Spirit.

Continue with Part II of this discussion.