Dust & Glory Home

The Problem of Evil in Non-Christian Formulations
    by Jules Grisham [1]

Trying to define "evil" usually lands us in the predicament famously faced by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who, in attempting to define obscenity, wrote that "I know what it is when I see it." The word conjures all manner of associations for all of us, but, short of the Hollywood caricatures of evil (in which we picture a spectrum of silliness from Cecil B. DeMille scenes of riotous orgy to lots of head spinning, vomit, and foul language in The Exorcist), we realize upon careful reflection that it's rather difficult to pin down.

Indeed, many people object to using the term "evil," dismissing it as a value-loaded and "judgmental" term absent any real referent. After all, is "evil" really anything at all, or is it just a word we apply to those persons and things and forces which hamper our desires? In other words, is "evil" simply the name we give to the outworking and unfolding of history's events when those events don't work in our favor?

As a matter of fact, I'd always tended in this direction - or at least very much desired to. I reasoned that "evil" was just a label we placed on the foulness which afflicts us at times in the course of life, and I rejected the use of the term in my own speaking and writing. Why? Because I saw the use of the term as being dangerous, feeding the human addiction to self-righteousness, allowing the user of the term to feel him- or herself morally superior to (and thus judge of) the person or thing being spoken of, demonizing that person or thing in the process, and opening the door to the violence which flows from the toxic interaction of self-righteousness and dehumanization.

But the problem is that dismissing the problem of evil doesn't make it go away. Call it subjectivist, call it judgmental, dismiss, deny, disdain the concept and all those who employ it - nevertheless, we are confronted by it always, and it doesn't go away. The problem of evil is intractable, maddening in its persistence, pervasive. The fact is that human societies in every age and every place have encountered this malevolence at work and defined it in various ways as evil.

Let's face it, isn't there a discernible presence of evil operative in certain ideas, words, and events? When we consider the course of the 20th century, which began with pogroms, proceeded to Holocaust, pushed along through horrific Communist and Cultural Revolutions, and ended awfully in the the paroxysm of violence which spread across Africa like an infection, from Liberia and Sierra Leone to the Ivory Coast to Rwanda and Congo - when we consider the magnitude and sheer awfulness of these episodes, aren't we moved by basic human empathy to acknowledge that we have encountered something more than merely the randomly bad outworking of things, and that we've entered in fact into the presence of evil, characterized by an intentionality of hatred, viciousness, and destructiveness? The way we answer these questions will determine a great deal of our worldview, shaping our expectations and hopes and fears.

Try as we might, therefore, to avoid the use of so "judgmental" a term as "evil, yet it is a fact that horrific events intrude, with a grim inexorability, into our sophisticated pose, and we are forced to exercise our human capacity for fundamental moral discernment. And, at the end of the day, it is only the hardest of hardcore ideologues who deny that there's some real basis and justification for using the word. We may not be able to define it exactly, and we may be hesitant to throw the term around at everything which impedes our pursuit of happiness, but at the end of the day, it's there, and "I know it when I see it."

Tonight, we're going to examine the various ways in which non-Christian religions attempt to formulate and resolve this "problem of evil." I hope in this process to shed some light on the nature of the problem, and to discuss in a respectful way these various religious systems' approach to it.

    [2] Slide One: Methodological Approach and Thesis

Now then, a brief word up front - as I thought about how to present this material, I quickly realized that it’s hopeless! There’s no way I can do justice in a brief span of minutes to a number of religious traditions, each with its own particular spin on the problem of evil. We could simply march through the list, hitting religion after religion, and I’d hammer you with facts and data, but I fear that we’d quickly lose the pattern of the forest for the trees.

In other words, the usual way, the comparative religions way, of approaching the discussion of multiple religions would be to examine one religion after another, summarizing its key distinctives as briefly as possible, and then moving along. But there are two problems with this approach. First, as we’ve already said, given our shortness of time, such an approach would most likely leave us confused – knowing an abundance of disjointed data, say, but uncertain as to how now to integrate it. And second, this approach tends to emphasize and encourage seeming relativism in matters of religious belief and expression. We end up with a list that says, well, Hinduism says so-and-so about ultimate reality, while Islam puts it thus, while Christianity posits something else; and they all begin to appear as so many different takes on the same basic thing, reinforcing the terribly wrong idea that all religions are essentially equally valid paths to the same sought-after truths. But this is far from the truth, isn’t it? I mean, Jesus Christ is not merely a valid way to the truth, but rather, Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.

Here’s the problem: all of the religions which we’ll be considering in our overview do in fact point to at least some aspect or aspects of the truth – and they do so in often very profound ways. And the truth being the truth, we find that Christianity shares this apprehension of the truth with the non-Christian religion in question. And when we begin by examining commonalities, it has the implicit effect of saying, well, what’s really important is that which is shared in common, while the distinguishing factors, the distinctives, are of less importance.

Accordingly, for example, we might say that what is significant is that both Christianity and Hindu devotional cults emphasize the importance of faithful devotion to god as the means to and path of salvation. Therefore, the important thing is the commonality of devotion. The specifics, whether that Savior God be Jesus Christ or Krishna, don’t really matter. And of course we’ve already moved deeply into relativism, according to which all paths are valid, and the distinguishing details are not important. But all paths are not valid; the details are extremely important. It makes all the difference in the world whether you place your hopes in Jesus or in Krishna! So when we proceed from commonalities, there is this danger of overstating the importance and value of shared approaches, while understating the importance and value of differences.

Therefore, our methodological approach will be a little different. Rather in the manner of examining a photographic negative instead of the photograph itself, in order to capture some detail that might have been lost amidst all the dazzling color, we’ll be examining these non-Christian religions not on the basis of their own self-presentation and truth claims – which as we’ve seen can and often do partake of some aspect or aspects of the truth – but on the basis of the way they define and deal with that which impedes the attainment of their truth claims.

In other words, we’ll be examining the various religious goals – according to which every religion presumes to provide an answer to the question, “What is the chief end of man?” (That is, "What is the purpose of life?" "How are human beings to live in a manner which most perfectly actualizes the promise inherent in being human?" And so on.) Then we'll turn to an examination of the perceived impediments to those goals. Put otherwise, we’re going to be analyzing these religions in terms of how they deal with the problem of evil – redefined, as we’ll see in a moment, as “that which impedes us from the [just-explicated] chief end."

And what we’ll find is this: it’s not that these religions are wholly wrong – they’re not; they have something to say, and point to at least some aspect of the truth. It’s not that they’re wholly wrong; it’s that they’re wholly inadequate. They’re wholly inadequate for dealing with the full extent of the problem of evil.

Again, by looking not into the light and glare of their particular truth assertions, but into the murkier areas which deal with impediments to these truth assertions, we’ll see that non-Christian religions prove inadequate to the task of fully dealing with the problem of evil, because all of them misapprehend some key aspect of the problem of evil, whether as to its Nature, its Extent, or its Solution.

If you understand the Nature of evil, but are wrong as to its Extent (as in Islam, as we’ll see); or if you understand the Extent of evil, but are wrong as to its Solution (as in Buddhism, as we’ll see); and so on - if your religion is grounded upon only a partial comprehension of the problem of evil, then the religion itself will prove inadequate at delivering on its promises of salvation. And our thesis is this: only Christianity understands and deals with all three of these – the Nature of evil, the Extent of evil, and the Solution to evil – in full measure; and therefore, only Christianity is really able to fulfill the promise made by all religions, to “deliver us from evil.”

    [3] Slide Two: The Basic Syllogism

All right. Let’s think back to our lecture on dualism a few weeks back. [4] Recall that Rob had defined evil, on the basis of the Scriptural evidence, as “that of which God approves,” and that we had gone on on the basis of that definition to ask the question “But how then can God, who has ordained all that comes to pass, yet disapprove of much of what actually transpires?" In other words, how can God disapprove of what he himself ordained? We then restated the problem in the form of a syllogism, as follows:

1.   God is all-powerful (he is omnipotent, he is the sovereign Lord, controlling all);
2.   God is all-good (he is omnibenevolent; he is the authoritative Judge, evaluating all); but
3.   Evil exists – and it does so persistently and pervasively.

The problem here is that the third statement doesn’t seem to follow from the previous two. That is, it seems that, either God has the power to be rid of evil, but chooses not to be rid of it, with the seeming implication that he can’t then be all-good; or that God has the will to be rid of evil, but cannot be rid of it, with the seeming implication that he can’t then be all-powerful. Simply put, an all-good, all-powerful God seems wholly incompatible with the presence and persistence of evil. It seems that, if we attempt to hold to both principles, both to God’s all-power and to his all-goodness, we end up with the seeming inconsistency of asserting that God disapproves of some of what he himself ordained. That’s the problem.

    [5] Slide Three: What Happens When We Force the Data of Scripture to "Fit"

We went on then to show how various systems of thought give in to the temptation to "resolve" this inhering tension, either by emphasizing only God’s omnipotence and ignoring the implications of his omnibenevolence, or by emphasizing only God’s omnibenevolence and ignoring the implications of his omnipotence. And against either of these solutions, recall, we asserted the central Christian reality that we’ve got to deal with this tension and can’t just presume to reason it away, because that tension is descriptive of the very character of our existence; and we concluded that the tensions all resolved in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

But! Here’s the problem. Until now, we’ve been able to assume that the Bible is our standard of truth. It’s the Bible which told us about God and his nature and attributes, and it’s on the basis of these that we posed the problem of evil. And when confronted by Christians who would resolve the problem, as we’ve seen, by downplaying one or the other characteristics of God, it was sufficient to refute them by turning to the Bible and saying, But see, it says here so-and-so.... Whatever our differences in biblical interpretation, we at least shared a common acceptance of the Bible as our highest authority and ultimate standard.

Now, however, we step outside this matrix into a more chaotic environment. It becomes very hard to speak coherently about the problem of evil when we agree with one another neither as to the standard of truth, nor the nature of truth, nor the character of the problem! In other words, it’s not enough in this new context merely to assert what the Bible says on the matter, because none of these religions accepts the Bible as authoritative. Simply put, our definition of evil as “that of which God disapproves” would be all but incomprehensible to a Buddhist, say, who doesn’t even agree with our understanding of the nature of God, as a personal being. So we need, for the purposes of this lecture, anyway, to redefine certain terms and concepts much more generally than we’ve been approaching them until now, if only so that we can step into their worldviews on their very own terms and show them the inconsistencies from within.

    [6] Slide Four: Two Definitions - "Evil" and "Salvation"

Therefore, we’re going to define two terms. First, "evil." We can define evil in terms as an interlocking triad of senses, as follows:

1.   Functionally, as that which impedes us from the attainment of the good;
2.   Theologically, as that of which God disapproves;
3.   Morally, as that which is non-responsive to the drawing, transforming power of love.

Each of these senses are rich with meaning to explore, but our primary focus this evening will be on the first sense (the functional one). For the purposes of our discussion we will be thinking of evil as "that which impedes or forestalls us from attaining to the ultimate good or chief end of life.” You'll notice of course that the very definition is value-loaded; that is, we're making a religious assumption here that there IS some "ultimate good or chief end in life." But we are discussing religions, after all, and as we'll see, every religion (as indeed, every systematic worldview) has some such ultimate good and chief end in view, whether they describe it thus or not. And in fact, this brings us to our second term to be defined:

The second term is “salvation.” Again, we won’t define this nearly so properly as we should (from the Christian perspective, anyway), as being bound up in the eternal purposes of God and in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, because we’re striving after a most general and most widely applicable sense. On that basis, therefore, let’s define “salvation” as being “the attainment of the ultimate goal or chief end of life,” which entails as its necessary corollary the condition of removal from exposure to the continued effects of evil.

Now then, note the reciprocal relationship between these two concepts: if evil is that which blocks our progress to and attainment of salvation, salvation is the condition of being no longer blocked or ensnared or confronted by evil. Salvation is, as it were, the goal of life; and evil is that which blocks our attaining to that goal, such that, to overcome evil is in a sense identical with salvation itself…

At this point we need to note something which is so obvious as that we might entirely miss its significance: we see that every religion, every system of thought which posits some ultimate goal or chief end in life, realizes that there is in fact a problem in attaining to that desired goal. Every religion posits some ultimate good, some chief end in life, which is to be desired and sought after above all else. And in the very explication of this ultimate good, it must then set about addressing the impediments to attaining it. And the way it addresses these problems, these impediments, gives us a clear picture of its overall take on the problem of evil. And this in turn gives us a sort of standard measure, by which to evaluate that given religion’s ability to deliver on its promises.

In other words, we’ll say, “You claim that we can attain to the ultimate goal of life – which whatever else that condition involves, entails removal from continued exposure to evil – we can attain to the ultimate goal of life by following this given path you’ve marked out. But we will ask, Does that path, and does the goal and end in view, really account for the problem of evil in all its fullness? Because, if you think about it, if it doesn’t, then when we’re going to find that we’re still being confronted by evil even when presumably we’d attained to the salvific estate you’d prescribed for us.”

As we'll see, when the problem of evil is misunderstood, the effect of that misunderstanding is to undermine the very efficacy of the system. It promises to deliver us from evil, but in fact does not.

    [7] Slide Five: The Three Approaches to the Problem of Evil

How then do different religions understand evil? How do they conceive of the problem of “that which impedes us from the good.” Well, in the most general sense, we must distinguish between those systems which hold that the impediment – the evil, as we’ve defined it – is metaphysical in nature, and those systems which hold that this impediment is ethical in nature. We’ve got to distinguish between metaphysical evil, on the one hand, and ethical evil, on the other.

Now, “metaphysical” – that’s a term we often hear brought up in various contexts. It refers to “the things beyond physics.” Accordingly, metaphysics is the study of ultimate reality. It’s the branch of philosophical inquiry which asks the question, What is the nature of that which is behind and beyond all the diversity of phenomena that we experience? What is the really real like, and what is it not like? And when we examine various religious systems, we come to see that some of them approach the problem of evil as an aspect of metaphysics, in the context of thinking about ultimate reality. For such as these, evil is understood to be something, whether that something be actually existent or ultimately illusory – and more on this in a moment. But the key is this: we can understand metaphysical evil to be some impediment to achieving our ultimate goal which is built into the actual structure of reality itself.

We find on deeper analysis that we can tend towards either one of two perspectives on metaphysical evil. On the one hand, evil can be understood as being something actually existent, a real and necessary and ever-present principle built into the very scheme of things. This is dualism, which – recall from a few weeks back – we defined as “giving the Devil more than his due,” or more properly, “granting a power and permanence to the principle of evil which Scripture doesn’t warrant.” Accordingly, then, dualism sees evil as something real and tangible, as something really “out there,” set inexorably and ever against us, built into the very fabric of things.

Now, here’s the interesting thing: when we conceive of the problem of evil in this manner, we see that the problem prescribes its own remedy: it makes sense that if evil is embodied in some irreducible principle out there, then that evil is best, and only, overcome by siding with that principle which best protects us from evil’s assaults and which best helps us in the attainment of our goal. Usually, as we’ll see, this takes the form of aligning ourselves with some protector god or power. In short, and in simple, evil in a dualistic world is overcome by right devotion to the right patron deity or power.

But metaphysical evil need not be conceived as something actually existent “out there.” In fact, more often than not, it is understood – yes, as a disturbing quality built into the nature of things – yet ultimately as something illusory and finally unreal. This is the other form by which metaphysical evil finds expression, and which we might term “illusionism.” In this view, the impediment to the ultimate goal – evil – is understood as being all bound up in the attachment of the individual sentient being to the illusion that all this variety of finite things we experience is real. Evil in this sense is not so much a tangible principle “out there,” as what we might refer to as “the self-absorption of finitude.” Evil is the fact and consequences of the part attempting to usurp the ultimacy of the whole. Therefore, that which hinders us from achieving the ends we seek is bound up with finiteness itself, and with its ignorant grasping after self-preservation. Evil, in sum, is the state of ensnarement to an illusion. And, just as we saw with dualism, this prognosis of the problem writes its own prescription for remedy: if evil is thinking to be real that which is only illusion, then surely evil is to be overcome by right knowledge, which would eradicate ignorance and free us from our ensnarement in illusion. And we’d note at this point that this view, illusionism, is the dominant, but by no means exclusive, motif of the Eastern religious systems.

Okay. But, recall that we mentioned another, entirely different approach to the problem of evil, which considers evil to be a matter of ethics. In this conception, evil isn’t so much understood as being bound up in the structures of ultimate reality, as it is seen to be bound up in the actions and consequences of moral agents. As we’ve seen, metaphysical evil would assert either that “evil ever is, and is ever against us” – as in the case of dualism – or that “evil ultimately is not, though it is a dasht pesky illusion” – as in the case of illusionism! But ethical evil asserts, rather, that “evil happens.” Evil is what is done by moral agents in their misuse of the proper powers of thought and action. Evil is what comes to pass when moral beings act wrongly, in a manner which doesn’t accord with the way things ought to be done. And here, in ethical evil, we enter the realm of “ought.” We can refer to this “cosmic oughtness” by various names – we can call it the Way, as in Taoism, or Nature (with a capital “N”), as in Deism, or the Law of God, as in theistic traditions – but the basic principle is always pretty much the same: and that is, there’s a sort of built-in way of things, an authoritative and ultimate Law of right and wrong, which serves as the standard against which the actions of moral agents may be evaluated as either good (if in conformity to the Law) or bad (if in violation of the Law). So when a moral agent opts, as it were, to up and “go against the flow” – to use a more Taoist way of thinking about the matter – or to sin – to use more familiar terminology, then that act is evil, and entails evil consequences for both the doer and the environment in which the evil has been done. Evil, in short, is a willful going against the great cosmic ought; it is a turning from the right path by means of wrong thought or action. And, once again, we see that this prognosis of the problem writes its own prescription for remedy. It’s quite simple, really: if evil is what we do, then stop doing it! Evil is to be overcome by right action, by right conformity to the Law, to the way things ought to be done. And here we’d note that ethical evil is the dominant motif in the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – as well as, we should add, interestingly enough, of the pantheistic scientific Naturalism of the pre-postmodern west, as expressed, for example, in 18th century notions of Natural Law.

So, at this point we see that we’ve elaborated three qualitatively different religious understandings, three wholly different conceptions, of the nature of and solution to the problem of evil. Now, let’s examine this a little more deeply, as we turn to a consideration of the different “paths” by which different religions endeavor to overcome evil and bring us thereby into a condition of salvific blessedness. I’d like to read you a quote, by Ramakrishna, who was a nineteenth century Indian religious thinker. He wrote:

There are three different paths to reach the Highest: the path of I, the path of thou, and the path of thou and I. According to the first, all that is, was, or ever shall be is I, my higher Self. In other words, I am, I was, and I shall be for ever in Eternity. According to the second, thou art, O Lord, and all is thine. And according to the third, thou art the Lord, and I am thy servant, or thy son. In the perfection of any of these three ways, a man will find God.

    [8] Slide Six: The Three Paths to Salvation ???

We see in the thinking of this Hindu writer the acknowledgment of three distinct paths to what he calls “reaching the Highest,” or “finding God,” but to what we could just as easily call, per our definition of the term, “salvation.” And Ramakrishna’s paths will serve, I hope, as a useful template for us as we begin to examine the three paths, which will consume the rest of our lecture.

But we need to be clear about something: Ramakrishna’s point is that all three paths are valid, and indeed, that each path pursued alone with proper devotion will lead to salvation. We do not hold that view, but just the opposite: we will attempt to show that no one of these paths is sufficient unto salvation. None of these paths can in and of themselves “deliver us from evil,” because none of them, as we’ll see, fully grasp the problem of evil in its fullness.

We’ve seen that, if we perceive evil as being built into the very fabric of things, as being some principle actually “out there” and operating inexorably against us – this being the view of dualism – well, then, salvation is to be attained, and evil overcome, by rightly siding with a benevolent patron, either in the embrace of, or under the cover of whom, we can find protection from evil’s effects. The salvific solution in this case is therefore personal and relational. And consequently, in turn, we might appropriately call this approach the Path of Love (conforming to Ramakrishna’s path of thou), in that it seeks salvation through personal and relational attachment.

If, on the other hand, we understand evil to be ultimately only an illusion – and indeed, to be the illusion that finite things are really real – and recall that this is the view of illusionism – then in this case we would argue that salvation is to be attained, and evil overcome, by rightly knowing the truth, that all the diversity of things we experience, including even evil itself, is but an illusion. And the knowledge of this truth is seen to be identical with salvation itself, and union with the Absolute – either through total identification of the inner self with the Absolute (as in Hindu thought), or through total annihilation of the craving-caused illusion of self (as in Buddhism). Either way, knowledge is salvation; and we might therefore appropriately call this approach the Path of Light (conforming to Ramakrishna’s path of I), in that it seeks salvation through the knowledge which comes from detachment.

But now let’s note already that this solution is the very opposite to that proposed by the path of Love. There, in the context of the reality of evil “out there,” salvation was seen to come through devotional attachment; here, in the context of the illusoriness of evil, salvation is seen as coming through the exact opposite of attachment – detachment. We see already that the two approaches are incompatible.

But let’s push on. Again, if we perceive evil as being the fact and consequences of the wrongful acts of moral agents – this being the ethical view of evil – then salvation is to be attained, and evil overcome, by rightly doing as one ought. In this view, we strive to conform our lives to the overriding principles of moral oughtness, and so to live in conformity with the design and pattern of things in their great outworking. Since this approach seeks salvation through living according to the moral Law, we might refer to it as the Path of Life, or of Moral Living (conforming to Ramakrishna’s path of thou and I). Here the goal is not so much the cultivation of attachment or of detachment, but of virtue, by which we learn to will to do the right and eschew the wrong.

So we’ve got three paths, the path of Love, the path of Light, and the path of Life, with their respective imperatives, of attachment, detachment, and virtue, respectively. Now, at this point, perhaps I’ll try and smuggle in some specifics. What we find is that each of these paths find representative expression in one or more non-Christian religions. Thus, for example, we see the path of Love finding its purest expression in various Hindu devotional cults, but also in faith-directed Buddhist sects and ancient Greek mystery cults. We see the path of Light finding purest expression in the Vedanta schools of Hinduism or in Theravada Buddhism (the ancient and austere form of that religion), but also in the various strains of Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism which have persisted in the West. And we see the path of Life finding its purest expression either in what might be called the “social naturalism” of Confucianism or, especially, in the doctrines of Islam, but we also see it manifest in Hindu notions of dharma and karma (that is, the cosmic ought and its operative instrument of cosmic moral cause and effect), in Greek Stoicism, and also (as we mentioned earlier) in the “Natural Law” conceptions of the modern West.

Good! Let’s summarize. As we’ve considered the problem of evil from different perspectives and vantage points, we’ve been able to formulate three entirely distinct and mutually incompatible religious formulations. Accordingly, depending upon what we declare life’s ultimate goal to be, and in turn depending upon what we consider to be the nature and extent of the impediments in our path to that ultimate goal, we see that we can think our way, very logically, step by step, down mutually incompatible approaches to life. And while one can appreciate Ramakrishna’s attempt to assign validity to all these paths, the facts are (1) that each of these paths is wholly inadequate, in and of itself, to deliver us from evil – as I hope we’ll show more fully in a moment; and (2) that one can’t try a mixed approach and blending of the paths either, because the paths are wholly inconsistent with one another. The three paths: wholly inadequate in their isolation; wholly inconsistent in their aggregate. We’ve already got some sense of their inconsistency. Now let’s turn to the issue of their inadequacy.

    [9] Slide 7: The Three Paths and the Problem of Evil

As we've already mentioned, if one follows a given religion's prescribed path to salvation, and if at the end of the journey one is still confronted by evil, then – deny it however strenuously we may – we have not in fact removed ourselves from evil, and have therefore not come in any real sense to an estate of salvation. Once again, our point is to show not that the respective paths of Light, Life, and Love are wholly wrong – they’re not, and indeed, each points in some significant measure to the truth. Indeed, what we're going to find is that each of the paths of which we’ve been speaking gets one of the three aspects of evil right: the Path of Life is right as to the nature of evil; the Path of Light is right as to the extent of evil; and the Path of Love is right as to the solution to the problem of evil. The problem, however, is just that: while each path gets one aspect right, it only gets the one while missing the mark on the other two. Thus, to repeat what we said up front: it's not that these non-Christian approaches to the problem of evil are wholly wrong - they're not wholly wrong; it's that they're wholly inadequate to handle the problem in all the fullness of its nature, extent, and solution. In short, each of these paths are inadequate to the goal of salvation.

Thus, we see, first, that the path of moral Life, with its apprehension of the ethical nature of evil, is partially right and partially wrong. It is right in its understanding of the nature of evil. As Christians, we know that evil is in fact an ethical reality, consisting of creaturely rebellion against the Creator; it is sin; it is “that of which God disapproves.” And so the moral path is also right in emphasizing the importance of living in conformity with the moral Law, of not doing what one oughtn’t and sinning thereby. But! It is wrong both in its underestimation of the extent of evil and in its overestimation of our ability actually to live by that moral Law.

For example, Islamic doctrine holds that we are confronted by evil because of our own sins, and the solution it proposes is simply that we cease from sinning, that we follow the “right path” as prescribed in the Koran. The promise it holds before us, quite explicitly, is that if we live in this manner, and really, really desist from sinning, then we will have success in this life and the next. Talk about a theology of works! This is a system of self-righteousness on steroids! And the problem with this view of evil is obvious: it simultaneously overestimates our ability to lift ourselves out of our own sinfulness and underestimates the extent of the evil with which we’re confronted. In fact, this theology of equating righteousness with success leads them to deny the reality of Christ's crucifixion, and to deny themselves thereby the very grace of God which Christ's atonenment could avail for them.

Islam offers salvation by self-justifying action. Its promise is that we can attain to salvation, to the estate of no longer being exposed to the ravages of assorted evils, by doing right and avoiding wrong. But does it deliver on this? Can it deliver? No, because the lesson of Jesus himself is that even the righteous man suffers in this world. In short, the problem of sin is bigger than the Muslims account for. They can ignore it or deny it all they want, but the promised salvation will never materialize as they promise, because they have not dealt with the problem of evil in all its extent. And all they’re left with is the counsel of Job’s friends: well, if you’re suffering, somehow it must be your fault. You must repent. But God rebukes this counsel.

In short, the Path of Life (the path of savation by moral behavior) drastically understates the extent of human depravity, and in so doing, drastically under-appreciates our need of a Savior. Thus, although it is right as to the nature of evil, the path of moral Life is wrong both as to the extent of evil and as to the solution to the problem. Therefore, and despite the claims of the moralists, it fails to deliver on its promises: the moral path, the path of virtue, is inadequate, in and of itself, to deliver us from evil and into the estate of salvation.

Next, we turn to the path of Light, with its emphasis on right knowledge in overcoming the illusion of finitude’s self-absorption. This path, too, is partially right and partially wrong. It is right in its apprehension of the extent of evil. As Christians we know that our condition is indeed helpless without God’s grace to sustain and save us; our depravity is total, and we remain dead in sin unless the Spirit come and renew us to life. And it’s really interesting to realize that, alone among all the major religions, only Christianity and Buddhism really get the dire extent of the human condition. Buddhists really proceed from the same apprehension that we do, understanding that morality alone can by no means save us. But! The difference, the profound difference, between us is in the proposed solution. While the Buddhist sees the inevitability of suffering and turns away toward the relief of annihilation, the Christian looks into the very heart of the suffering, to the Cross, and there finds the love and the life of salvation.

In short, although it right as to the extent of evil, the path of Light is wrong both as to the nature of evil and as to the solution to the problem. Therefore, and despite the claims of the intellectual elites who often tend in this direction, the path of Light, too, fails to deliver on its promise: the path of detachment is inadequate, in and of itself, to deliver us from evil and into the estate of salvation.

And finally, we come to the path of Love, with its emphasis on right devotion for overcoming the evils with which we’re confronted. Once again, this is partially right and partially wrong. It’s right in its proposed solution to the problem of evil. We Christians know that all of us need a Savior, and that the path by which evil is overcome is precisely through our attachment to, and union with, Jesus Christ, in and for whose sake we are loved by God the Father. But! The path of Love becomes terribly wrong of course when it proposes attachment to any gods or powers but the One and Living God. And it’s wrong in its description of the nature and extent of evil, ceding to it as dualism does a power and permanence which it does not in fact possess.

In short, although it is right as to the proposed solution to the problem of evil, the dualist approach is wrong both as to the nature and extent of the problem. Therefore, and despite the claims of the popular devotional movements, it fails to deliver on its promises: the path of attachment is inadequate, in and of itself, to deliver us from evil into the estate of salvation – though as we say, this path, Love, comes closest to the mark.

What I’d say in a rushed conclusion is this: we find, in the final analysis, that only Christianity is so broad in its scope and so grounded in the true description of the human condition, both as to its glorious potentiality and as to its deeply flawed actuality – as to incorporate all three paths into one consistent and harmonious whole. In Christ Jesus and him alone are brought together Light, Life, and Love; and in that light, so too are drawn together the collateral imperatives for us, of right knowledge, right action, and right devotion. In sum, where all the religions fail is in their not taking full stock of the problem of evil and its inextricableness from the human condition, save by grace. Only in Christ do we see the splendor of what God made man to be, and only in light of that splendor do we fully grasp the degradation to which our sin has brought us. Only in him, by grace, through faith, do we know the hope of the glory that will be revealed in us, even us, the children of God.



1   This paper was originally delivered as a lecture by Jules Grisham at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, 2002.



We’ll be examining non-Christian religions not on the basis of their own self-presentation and truth claims, but on the basis of the way they define and deal with that which impedes the attainment of their truth claims (i.e., the problem of evil).


We will find that these religions are not wholly wrong, but are wholly inadequate, in that they fail to understand EVIL as to its

    EXTENT, and

Only Christianity understands and deals with all three of these in full measure; in the final analysis, therefore, we will find that only Christianity is really able to fulfill the promise made by all religions to “deliver us from evil.”



  • God is all-powerful (he is omnipotent; the sovereign King controlling all);
  • God is all-good (he is omnibenevolent; the authoritative Judge evaluating all); but
  • Evil exists – and it does so persistently and pervasively.

4   See Granting the Devil More than His Due, a discussion of dualism, the devil, and the problem of evil.



The central confessional affirmations of Scripture are

1.   That the Lord is God; and
2.   That Jesus is Lord

Note then that:

If we emphasize only God’s omnipotence,
and ignore the implications of his omnibenevolence,
we end up in a condition of DENIAL
(this is the path of Islam)
    Ultimately, this view denies the Lordship of Christ

If we emphasize only God’s omnibenevolence,
and ignore the implications of his omnipotence,
we end up in a condition of SURRENDER
(this is the path of Dualism)
    Ultimately, this view denies the Lordship of God



Evil =

  • that which impedes us from the good;
  • that which impedes or forestalls us from attaining to the ultimate good or chief end of life.

Salvation =

  • the attainment of the ultimate goal or chief end of life;
  • the condition of removal from exposure to the continued effects of evil.

Note the reciprocal relationship between these two concepts:

  • If EVIL is that which blocks our progress to and attainment of salvation,
  • SALVATION is the condition of being no longer blocked or ensnared or confronted by evil.



Metaphysical Evil =

  • Evil is understood as being “built into” the structure of things; it is or is not some thing;
  • Appears in one of two forms:

1. Dualism =

  • Evil ever is, and is ever against us; it is a permanent, necessary feature of reality;
  • Overcome by RIGHT DEVOTION

2. Illusionism =

  • Evil ultimately is not, though it is an ensnaring illusion; it is the self-absorption of finitude;
  • Overcome by RIGHT KNOWLEDGE

3. Ethical Evil =

  • Evil is understood as arising from the thoughts and actions of moral agents; it is the fact and consequences of doing that which “ought” not be done
  • Overcome by RIGHT ACTION



The Path of LOVE     (“the Path of Thou”)

  • Grounded in the Dualist conception of evil
  • Overcome by Right Devotion
  • Our collateral imperative: ATTACHMENT!

The Path of LIGHT     (“the Path of I”)

  • Grounded in the Illusionist conception of evil
  • Evil overcome by Right Knowledge
  • Our collateral imperative: DETACHMENT!

The Path of LIFE     (“the Path of Thou and I”)

  • Grounded in the Ethical conception of evil
  • Evil overcome by Right Action
  • Our collateral imperative: VIRTUE!

Taken individually, these paths are:

  • Not wholly wrong; but
  • Wholly inadequate to deliver on what they promise.

And taken altogether, these paths are:

  • Wholly inconsistent with one another.



The Path of Life     (or, the Path of Virtue)

  • Right as to the NATURE of evil;
  • Wrong as to its EXTENT and its SOLUTION

The Path of Light     (or, the Path of Detachment)

  • Right as to the EXTENT of evil;
  • Wrong as to its NATURE and its SOLUTION

The Path of Love     (or, the Path of Attachment)

  • Right as to the SOLUTION to evil;
  • Wrong as to its NATURE and EXTENT

Dust & Glory Home


© Faith Presbyterian Church 2009 • Jules Grisham, Pastor
Church Phone: (267) 392-5282 • E-mail: Jgrisham@faithprez.org