Adventures in Theodicy

“If God, why evil?”

When men first announced the death of God these four, short, stabbing, syllables were thought to be the nails in the Creator’s coffin. This riddle may not have been the instrumental cause of his death but it was certainly thought that it would prevent any future resurrection on his part. Unfortunately for them scoffers have a bad track record when it comes to keeping God in his grave. I would suggest that far from being atheism’s invincible weapon, the “Problem of Evil” is just a question in search of the proper context.

But this is not to say that the question is not a legitimate one. Indeed, it is a conundrum with which many philosophers and theologians, pastors and missionaries, parents and children have wrestled without rest. Some, having found no satisfactory answer to the question, have left the faith of their fathers. Others, hearing no one bother to even attempt answer, never come to into the faith in the first place. In both cases each deserved more; each deserved better.

To that end, I want to raise the question, turn it over a few times by way of examination, and hopefully set it down again in such away that it makes some sort of sense. I am under no illusion that my answers will satisfy everyone but I do hope that they will at least start us thinking about how we approach the question.

I suggest that we situate the question of evil within the context of story. We might call this the “narratival solution” to the problem of evil. Of course, this argument rests upon the premise that God is and that he is as he says he is. But that is as it should be.

Authors of Evil?

Listen in on the conversation of two girls finishing up their junior year at university. It’s ok; they are fictitious (though no less feisty for their non-existence).

“Admit it. You know it’s true! Bram Stoker was the real monster. Just flip through the pages. Blood everywhere. Machinations, manipulation, and morbid fascinations abound! People lured, quite unexpectedly, to some God-forsaken castle in a land which time justly forgot, all for the purpose of stealing a bride and enslaving innocent victims to fates worse than death. It’s not just that it’s grim, it’s godless! Stoker wants us to view him as some tragic romantic; a poor soul who pines for a long lost love. Nonsense! He’s just a bloodthirsty maniac. They drink blood for Pete’s sake! It’s amazing to me that we call this ‘classic literature’  Even more shocking, we call it ‘good.’ Stoker should have been imprisoned but what do we do? We make him immortal. Immortal evil; like the Dark Prince of his novel. ”

“I think you have a rather skewed view of things actually. Stoker isn’t the villain. Dracula is the monster. He hatched the plot. He seduced the bride. He tortured his guests. He preyed upon the innocent. He killed for pleasure as well as for food. Dracula is the evil one. It’s true that there may be others to blame. Who made Dracula the beast that he became? Blame him. Who took his darling wife? Blame them. There is probably plenty of blame to go around but don’t blame Bram Stoker. He just wrote the story. He’s just the author.”

“Oh, so you think that being the author puts real distance between him and the atrocities that seep out of his pen? Honestly?! You think that the monsters wrote themselves? The whole diabolical plot was the product of his demented mind. He thought up the sick twists and vile turns. You say he’s not a monster. Well, at best he’s a sadist.”

“I don’t think that it’s as simple as all that.  Stoker had reasons for all of the horrible bits in his book. In order to tell a particular story he had to include particular details. In order to convey the true horror of loving and losing he had to make it truly a horror. There were evils in the world to which Stoker wanted to draw our attention. Since we are so desensitized to those evils he had to exaggerate many of them in order for us to see them at all. What is Renfield but a portrait of greed, envy, and selfish ambition? Did you not hear the words of Van Helsing, thought of himself as “ministering God’s own wish”, as an old “knight of the Cross”, in order to “set the world free”? Is it lost on you that a piece of wood in the heart destroys the evil that lurked there? Do you not then see that Van Helsing is gospel agent bent on driving back the powers of darkness? That you can’t see the meaning passed the monstrosities tells me that your problem isn’t that you misunderstand Stoker; your problem is that you don’t understand stories.”

Authors get away with murder. And not only murder. All sorts of mayhem is spattered on page with pen and ink. Whether it’s Bram Stoker and his Count loosed upon London, or J. K. Rowling and the cruel death of Harry’s parents, or J.R.R. Tolkien unleashing orcs on the quiet villages of Rohan, authors spend their days inflicting harm and loss upon their unsuspecting characters.

Of course, we really don’t think that there is anything criminal about how authors treat their characters, namely because—like our two college students—they are fictitious. But what if they were real? What if they weren’t figments of our imaginations but creatures of flesh and bone and blood? What then?

Are authors guilty for the crimes committed by their literary creations?  They certainly govern every fine detail of their stories. None of the characters could have possibly done otherwise, taking the pen in their own hands as it were. But it would be a rather odd thing to accuse Shakespeare of King Duncan’s murder; especially when their lies the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth. Ink stained fingers aren’t equal to bloodstained hands. We don’t denounce Tolkien because he set the evil eye of Sauron upon Middle Earth. Saruman’s treachery doesn’t defile his character. He is not touched by the corruption of the Nazgul. And yet all of these and more exist at his will and by his design.

Here’s my question: What if the relationship between authors and stories is illustrative of something even greater? What if thinking about the existence of evil in Stoker’s London, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and Lewis’s Narnia can provide for us a new perspective for seeing and making sense of our own storied world? God is the Author and this world is his story and we are his words made flesh? Can this illuminate the context of the question of evil and thus dispel the shadows that surround it? I think so.

Over the next few days I will apply a narratival solution to the problem of evil in order to see how it bears up theologically, philosophically, and existentially.


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