The problem of evil

Wrestling with inner demons is not restricted to everyday life alone. A recent stage performance of ‘Lord of the Flies' led students at St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point to think more deeply about boundaries.

By Fr Ross Jones SJ, Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point

In the fourth century BCE, observing the reality of evil, the Greek philosopher Epicurus rejected the idea of any god who was both all-powerful and all-good. If this god was all-powerful but chose not to prevent evil, then such a god is not all-good. But if this all-good god wants to crush evil but cannot, then this god is loving but not all-powerful. It is a problem the early Christian philosophers wrestled with some centuries later.

Much has been written on this in recent times. Forty years ago, American Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a New York Times bestseller, ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’. He settled for God being not quite all-powerful. The book generated much popular public discussion.

The two evils considered here are the physical and the moral. The former (tsunamis, earthquakes, electrocutions, diseases, car accidents, etc) are not determined by God, but they are the unavoidable side effects of an evolving world. The latter category, though, is culpable moral evil (with its repercussions) and a product of the God-given gift of free will – the freedom we have to choose the good or the bad. We are free to do evil. Free will is a human quality. We are not slaves to habit or instinct.

This notion of free will is not scriptural but was adopted and defended strongly by Christian theologians from pagan philosophers. I found it interesting that when determinism and free will were considered and debated recently by the young men in our Bellarmine Academy, the majority of them were determinists. They did not believe we have free choice, but that our actions were a product of our genes or some causal chain of prior events. Even attending the Bellarmine Academy seminar was not a free choice for them, but a pre-programmed outcome!

My suspicion is that such a preordained world view comes from the prevailing current culture of a sort of scientism (which appeals to the young analytical mind). Everything we regard as spiritual or religious or of the mind will eventually be mechanistically explained. In time we will be able to completely dismantle the immaterial.

But the Church has always staunchly defended free will – especially against some Protestants who even argued that God has, before time or existence, already specifically chosen some persons to be saved and others to be damned. (In which case we could all give up trying!)

At St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point, we were recently treated to a powerful performance of ‘Lord of the Flies,’ adapted from the 1954 novel of the same name by the late William Golding. Not surprising that we would spend the next hour-and-a-half wrestling with palpable evil. Just look at the curious title – a translation of ‘Beelzebub’, the name of one of the demons of hell.

It is the story of young boys fleeing a world-wide nuclear conflagration when their plane is shot down and they are washed up on a deserted Pacific island. Societal structures then begin to fall away – disturbingly. It seems Golding was prompted to write after reading a novel, ‘The Coral Island’, penned a century earlier. This was also about three boys marooned on a desert island after a shipwreck. But these fellows were thoroughly Christian which kept them civil and principled throughout! Golding wanted to write a similar story showing how he believed children in such circumstances would really behave when the chips were down.

Golding’s boys soon break into two camps, each with a rival leader. Bloodletting ensues – both of wild pigs for food, and of their fellows in tribal frenzies. These were confronting performances in our Playhouse – it was not for the squeamish. But since the novel had been adapted to a briefer stage play, and that play condensed further for our purpose, there seemed a surfeit of unrelenting brutality and seething evil. In the longer original novel there were more nuanced traces of humanity surfacing, of the good at work.

Little surprise then that, given the intensity of the experience, both actors and some of the student audience developed theories about human nature. Society seems merely a thin veneer holding back “nature red in tooth and claw”. Without the imposition of laws and authority we revert to our fundamental worst.

In the program notes, some of our actors gave expression to these beliefs:

  • “I learnt about the connections between the play and society and how it grows to prove itself a vessel of great evil.”
  • “I learnt that when anyone is put in a life-or-death situation, capacity for evil is greatly increased.”
  • “This production has taught me that evil … exists within all of us.”
  • “This production teaches that, at their core, humans will have a far greater capacity for evil when stripped away from the order of the world.”

And such assessments as these are understandable.

But others detected a balance:

  • “The play frames humanity in a negative light but also shows glimmers of hope seeping through.”
  • “This production taught me that, after the killings and fighting, there is always a sombre moment of reflection. It is in these parts of the production that I found an underlying optimism.”

Our Catholic theology has always asserted that we human persons are fundamentally good. God declared it so on the sixth day of the Genesis creation. God created man and woman and “saw that it was very good”. We have defended that very strongly in the face of some other Christian traditions that have even described humankind as inherently evil.

I am glad to see the boys wrestling with such philosophical and theological positions. “Question everything!”, as we encourage. But our faith remains one of freedom and hope. In that light, I would like them to be able to share an admission of that often grim French existentialist author, Albert Camus. He once said, to the surprise of many, “In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”

For four centuries in our Jesuit tradition, plays have always had a place in schools – particularly as an exploration of values and virtue, of human nature, and of places where God might be found. ‘Lord of the Flies’ was part of that instructive tapestry of the stage.

This article was originally published in a recent edition of ‘The Gonzagan’ newsletter for St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point.

Feature photo by Tasos Mansour on Unsplash.