Simplicity, Virtue and the Problem of Evil Pt 1

The problem of evil is one of the most persistent topics in the history of human thought. This is probably so because evil keeps on occurring. As one character in the Exorcist noted “I don’t know if I believe in God. But I believe in the Devil because the prick keeps doing comercials.” Various attempts to explain how it is possible for a perfectly good and all powerful God and evil to both exist have been brought forward. All of the attempts try to show that not only is God not responsible for evil but that God is innocent. What we want in a theodicy or a defense is not just an explanation of why there is evil but some assurance that God’s hands are clean. We want to be sure that God isn’t somehow tied up with the possibility of evil. This is the Achilles’ heel of most defenses or theodicies. As sophisticated as they may be it is usually the case that you get the feeling that God is somehow tied up with the mess of evil and that God could have done better.

What could the doctrine of divine simplicity have to do with the problem of evil? Let me say that I am not the first to think of the relation between the two ideas. Origen certainly stands out as the first, if not the foremost Christian thinker to perceive some kind of relation between the Good, the possibility of evil and simplicity. But Origen certainly isn’t the last Christian theologian to think about these ideas. Other names such as Athanasius, Augustine, and Basil quickly come to mind.

What exactly could be the relation between divine simplicity and the problem of evil? Well one intuition regarding God and evil is that when all is said and done evil is eradicated or at least permanently contained. More specifically the Fall is something that will never happen again such that those who are saved from annihilation, corruption and sin become impeccable. They are not only free from evil but from the possibility of evil. It is impossible for those glorified to fall again into sin. It is not mereley that they never will want to or that they never will in fact choose to sin. It is impossible for them to do because their integration with the Good is so close or “tight” that a fall is impossible.

Here the obvious question is, if they are so integrated or fixed in the Good how are they free? The worry here is that fixity in the Good somehow constrains or eliminates their freedom. And since we take freedom to be of the essence of a person, a diminishing of their freedom threatens the status of the glorified as persons. This is in part why sin is so damaging because we become slaves to it. We serve our appetites or passions so that our mind is set on them making it impossible to please God. Slaves are diminished in their status as persons because their freedom is. And we want it to be the case that we enjoy more freedom in glory than we do in sin. Certainly something seems wrong with saying that people who can sin have more freedom than those who have transcended sin and evil.

Part of the problem is seeing freedom as requiring options of differing moral value-one evil and the other good. I think this is a mistake. Freedom of the libertarian variety only requires that there be alternative possibilities. It does not require that those possibilities be of differing moral worth. Just so long as there is a plurality of goods to select from, an impeccable agent has all the libertarian freedom one could want. And it is here that viewing divine simplicity as absolute simplicity becomes tied up with the problem of evil.

For the glorified if there is one absolutely simple Good to choose to enjoy in the eschaton, regardless of how they perceive it, all choices must be a choice for that Good. The only other option is to choose to turn away and fall into sin. So if there is only one Good to select, either freedom has to be restricted/eliminated or the possibility of evil has to be retained. Augustine took the former option and Origen the latter. For Augustine, it is being taken up into the one moment of God’s life, eliminating all pluralities that secured the place of the glorified in the eschaton. It is by eliminating a plurality of options that the Christian doctrine of the impeccability of the glorified is upheld. For Origen, it is maintaining the freedom and hence personhood of human beings that motivates his speculations that a cycle of falls and redemptions is possible. It is on the basis of the Imagio Dei that Origen maintains the possibility of a fall. Both share the idea of an absolutely simple Good in the eschaton and that Good being God. The trick is to bring the Imagio Dei and the Impeccability of the glorified together without weakening either doctrine.

For Augustine, even though he is a synergist of sorts, he still has to understand freedom in a soft deterministic way such that an agent is free even if they lack alternative possibilities. This is because for Augustine, the glorified have only one good option to select. A plurality of options for Augustine and Origen implies a possibility for evil. For both of them it was just this plurality that made the Fall possible in the first place-choose life or death. So absolute simplicity motivates the need to curtail or diminish human freedom so that the *possibility* of evil can be removed.

But why is there a possibility of evil in the first place? If a mere plurality of options is not the culprit so that it is possible to have multiple options and never sin, why didn’t God create humans so that they never are able to sin? This question I think points out a problem with most libertarian and compatibilist views of the Fall. For the compatibilist it is hard to see why God didn’t just create everyone good such that they would never sin. A appeal to libertarian free will by itself won’t help now either. It is conceptually possible to have an agent with libertarian freedom who could never sin just so long as they have available to them all and only good options. Here the worry is that if God could have created such agents, why didn’t He do so? God’s hands seem dirty and he seems related to the entire mess of evil, or at least the possibility of evil. Even if God is not responsible it is hard to see how God is innocent.

In part 2 I discuss various ways as how not to solve this problem. I sketch the role of virtue in relation to the possibility of evil. And I argue that it is not freedom alone that gets God off the hook for the possibility of evil. I argue that this approach removes our suspicions that God is not innocent concerning the possibility of evil and that such an approach can only be true if absolute simplicity is false.