This is the second part of my essay on ‘God and evil’, exploring the problem of evil for Christianity and other monotheistic religions. The first part, which I published on Sunday, looked at the question of Original Sin. This second part examines the idea of Satan, and the tension in monotheistic religions between the idea that God is a necessary bulwark against evil (‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’) and the fact that  belief in God leads many to accept the most pernicious of arguments as to why evil does exist.  Both parts of the essay were in the original ms of The Quest for a Moral Compass, my global history of ethics to be published next year, but had to be cut from the final version for reasons of space. Previous excerpts in this ‘Lost Pages’ series of excised sections have been on Machiavelli, Descartes, Locke and Greek skeptics and atomists.

blake the-casting-of-the-rebel-angels-into-hell-1808


Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind,

John Milton’s Paradise Lost is perhaps the greatest of Christian accounts of the Fall. It is also one that draws upon a distinct explanation of evil. Evil is Satan’s work. As Satan himself declaims,

We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal war
Irreconcilable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heav’n.

In traditional Hebrew scripture, as in the Book of Job, Satan or ha-satan, meaning ‘Adversary’, appears as an angel, an agent of Yahweh, whose task it is to test humankind by tempting it to act impiously, as he did with Job. In early Jewish religious stories, Satan is a relatively insignificant figure. He acquires greater status in later writings. But it is through the Christian sects that developed out of Judaism in the first century CE that Satan emerges as a fully-fleshed incarnation of evil. Evil, the Catholic catechism teaches, ‘is not an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan’ who ‘throws himself across God’s plan and his work of salvation accomplished in Christ.’

This transformation of Satan shadowed a transformation in perceptions of an afterlife. As a faith based on the idea of a covenant in this world, Judaism had historically given little thought to the hereafter. The early Hebrews had no concept of an immortal soul, nor of resurrection from death. After death, they believed, the soul descended to Sheol, a place deep inside the Earth where the spirits of the dead were consigned to dust and gloom. ‘All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again’, as it says in Ecclesiastes.

All this began to change in the second century BCE. By that time Judah had become a province of the Seleucid Empire, the eastern remnant of the former Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great. The Maccabees were a group of conservative Jews who, in 166 BCE, launched a revolt against what they considered to be the unacceptable Hellenization of their faith. Two decades of bitter conflict led to Judah regaining its independence in 143 BCE, an independence that survived until the Romans arrived some eighty years later.

During the war Maccabees were captured, tortured and put to death in the most terrible of ways. Many Jews who could not believe that Yahweh would fail to reward such faith began to argue that the martyrs would receive moral restitution not in this life but the next. ‘Do not suppose that you can injure us by torturing us’, one of the martyrs defiantly tells his tormentor in 4 Maccabees, a bloody account of the revolt and martyrdom. ‘For we, through this severe suffering and endurance, shall have the prize of virtue and shall be with God, for whom we suffer; but you, because of your bloodthirstiness toward us, will deservedly undergo from the divine justice eternal torment by fire.’

blake satan rousing rebel angels

4 Maccabees was written well after the war, possibly even as late as the second century CE. But it draws on ideas that began to develop during the course of the war itself. The Book of Daniel, written around 165 BCE contains the first unequivocal mention in Jewish scripture of bodily resurrection and the afterlife of the soul. ‘Many of those who lie dead in the ground will rise from death’, it declares. ‘Some of them will be given eternal life, and others will receive nothing but eternal shame and disgrace. Everyone who has been wise will shine bright as the sky above, and everyone who has led others to please God will shine like the stars.’

In these works, the thought emerges that while the righteous may suffer in this world, God will ensure that their piety receives reward in the next. It is not so much an explanation of immoral suffering as a promissory note of divine recompense in the afterlife. As the idea of an afterlife developed, and notions of heaven and hell elaborated, so Satan became the Devil, cast out from God’s side and given dominion over Hell.

Satan’s new role forced believers to wrestle with a fresh dilemma. If God is omnipotent, and the Creator of all things, how could we account for the success of Satan?  One influential answer, developed in Augustine’s writings, was to think of the Fall of Satan in the same as way Christians understood the Fall of Man. God, having created Satan as an angel, gave him, as He gave all angels and Man too, the gift of free will. Blinded by pride, Satan chose freely to rebel against God, setting off a cosmic war, during which, as Milton explainsGod hurled the rebelling angel:

   headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.

‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n’, Satan tells his fellow fallen angels. Having been cast out of Heaven, he now seeks to tempt humans away from following God’s law, not to test human faith as with Job, but as a way of corrupting God’s Word. He appears, in Paradise Lost, a purveyor of evil, certainly, but also a complex, charismatic, often heroic, almost sympathetic figure who suffers great pain and alienation and struggles to overcome his own doubts and weaknesses to accomplish his goal of corrupting humankind.

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In 1826 William Blake published a series of 22 engravings to illustrate a new edition of The Book of Job. It was the culmination of more than 40 years of obsession with the Biblical story, and with a figure with whose torment Blake identified. The God that permitted Job’s suffering was, for Blake, a false God, a lawgiver who imposed upon humanity laws that it could never keep. In one of Blake’s engravings for the Book of Job, Yahweh appears as a cloven-hoofed apparition who menaces Job while pointing to the tablets of the Covenant.

For Blake there was no perfection to human existence. The Fall had taken place not in the Garden of Eden, but at the very moment of creation, when Man was dragged from the spiritual realm and made material, a belief that went back to the Manicheans and Neoplatonists.  It is an idea captured in one of Blake’s most famous etchings, Elohim Creating Adam. The print shows Elohim (God) appearing out of a whirlwind, a face pale with awe and power, calling into being from the clay below him a figure scarcely human. It is a vastly different imagining of Genesis from that of Michelangelo in his famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Michaelangelo’s  God is a very human, almost kindly, figure with flowing gray hair and beard, wrapped in a swirling cloak, and surrounded by angels.  He is stretching out his hand, the tip of his outstretched finger almost touching that of Adam. And what an Adam it is!  A youth with a body of unprecedented splendour reclining on the ground with the pose, as the art historian Kenneth Clark put it, ‘of all the river gods and wine gods of the ancient world who belonged to the earth and did not aspire to leave it.’

Blake’s is an altogether darker, more terrifying vision. Adam lies in the mud, a half-developed organism, almost repellent, unable to look at God, though clearly created by God’s hand. It is a hand that stretches down over Adam’s head, seemingly both bringing him to life and pushing him back into the dirt. One of Adam’s legs is bound by a serpent, already tormenting him, not in the Garden, but here in the mire, at the very moment of creation.  Blake did not see God creating Man as an immortal who later brought mortality and suffering and sinfulness upon himself through free choice. He saw suffering as ever part of the human condition because God made Man to suffer. God created evil and set humans in the midst of it.

There are hints at this vision within the Bible itself. ‘I form the light, and create darkness’, Yahweh thunders in Isaiah; ‘I make peace, and create evil.’ Or as the Book of Lamentations asks, ‘Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good?’ The true inspiration for this vision lies, however, in the work of St Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lugdunum, or Lyon as it is today, and one of the first great Christian theologians. The dominant view of evil in all the monotheistic faiths has been of suffering and wickedness as the inevitable outcome of God giving humanity the gift of free will. For Irenaeus, however, all that existed was part of God’s plan. Evil was a creative part of God’s work.

Like the headmaster of an English public school, God had deliberately designed the world to be a difficult, heartbreaking place to teach humans the importance of moral norms and to build up their moral character – the world as ‘a vale of soul-making’ as the poet John Keats later put it. Rape and famine are, in this view, the cosmic equivalents of fagging and cold showers at Eton and Harrow. It took Jonah three days in the belly of a fish before he was able to turn to God. So, wrote Irenaeus, it takes humans a lifetime of searching for a way out of the darkness of this world before they could truly discover the divine. Evil is not a punishment, but a gift, an opportunity for humans to demonstrate their moral worth and to discover their Creator.

There may seem to be something deeply distasteful about an argument that appears to so dignify evil by making it an element of God’s work, something gratuitously repulsive about a Creator who would use murder, rape and genocide as teaching tools, something desperate about believers who would imagine that the divine ends justify the satanic means. Yet many modern theologians, such as John Hick and Richard Swinburne, have enthusiastically adopted this view of evil as helping to ‘serve greater goods’ in Swinburne’s words. Without the existence of evil or of suffering, Swinburne suggests, humans could not express compassion or the capacity for good. ‘A world with some pain and some compassion’, he argues, ‘is at least as good as a world with no pain and so no compassion.’ And to accept the goodness of ‘a world with some pain and some compassion’ is to accept the necessity for ‘Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the Lisbon Earthquake, or the Black Death’:

Suppose one less person had been burnt by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Then there would have been less opportunity for courage and sympathy; one less piece of information about the effect of atomic radiation, less people (relatives of the person burnt) who would have had a strong desire to campaign for nuclear disarmament and against imperialist expansion.

It is a quite extraordinary argument that appears more soul-corrupting than soul making. ‘Only an Oxford don’ the critic (and former Oxford don) Terry Eagleton wagers, could suggest that Hiroshima and the Holocaust were worth the price of compassion. But surely even an Oxford don, cloistered in the most secluded of ivory-clad towers, should be able to see that it is one thing to hope for compassion in a world in which suffering exists, but that it is quite another to wish (and indeed induce) harm on people so that others may shown compassion.

blake god-judging-adam


‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’. Dostoevsky may not have written the line indelibly associated with him, but the sentiment certainly runs through much of his work, especially his last, and possibly greatest, novel, The Brothers Karamazov. ‘”Only how”, I asked, “is man to fare after that?  Without God and without a life to come?”’, one of the brothers, Mitya, recalls of a conversation. ‘“After all, that would mean that now all things are lawful, and that one may do anything one likes.’”

But if Dostoevsky wanted to warn of the moral perils of godlessness, he was nevertheless also unflinching in his portrayal of the dilemmas facing believers. The novel constructs out of the emotional and intellectual rivalries of the three Karamazov brothers, Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha, a passionately spiritual drama about God, faith, doubt and reason set against the background of the social fragmentation of a Russia attempting to move from a feudal to a modern world.

The key debate takes place between Ivan, a fervent rationalist and would-be philosopher, and Alyosha, a gentle, generous, almost Christ-like figure who is a novice in a monastery. ‘I accept God directly and simply’, Ivan tells his brother. What he won’t accept ‘the world created by Him’.  He refuses to accept God’s authority because He has created a world full of undeserved suffering. Ivan is particularly distressed at the suffering wrought on children, who have ‘not eaten of the apple’ and ‘are as yet guilty of nothing’. He details at great length the ill-treatment, cruelty, neglect, beatings and torture they suffer. ‘It is quite impossible to understand’, he observes, ‘why they should have to suffer and why they should have to purchase harmony with their sufferings. Why have they also ended up as raw material, to be the manure for someone else’s future harmony?’ He adds that ‘if all the sufferings of children have gone to replenish the sum of suffering that was needed in order to purchase the truth, then I declare in advance that no truth, not even the whole truth, is worth such a price.’

‘That is mutiny’, Alyosha responds, ‘his eyes lowered’.

Ivan and Alyosha express the two sides of Job. Both believe in God. Ivan, however, is, like Job at the beginning of his ordeal, outraged at underserved suffering and wants to hold God to account. Alyosha meekly accepts, as does Job at the end, that he lacks the wisdom or knowledge to question God’s plans. But when pushed Alyosha himself wobbles. Ivan asks him to ‘imagine that you yourself are erecting the edifice of human fortune with the goal of, at the finale, making people happy.’ And to do this, ‘it would be necessary to torture to death only one tiny little creature, that same little child that beat its breast with its little fist, and on its unavenged tears to found that edifice, would you agree to be the architect on those conditions?’ ‘No, I would not agree’, Alyosha says quietly.

Augustine took a different view.  Is it ‘wickedness’, he asked, ‘that innocent witnesses should be tortured’ or ‘that the accused are so often overcome by such pain that they make false confessions and are punished in spite of their innocence’? Is it wicked that the accused ‘even if not condemned to die, they very often die under torture or as a result of torture’? No, Augustine insists, it is not. Since a wise judge is often forced to ‘torture the innocent’ because there is placed upon him ‘the unavoidable duty of judging’ so ‘he himself is certainly not guilty’. ‘The philosopher’, Augustine writes, ‘does not consider that these many and grievous evils are sins; for he reflects that the wise judge does not act in this way through a wish to do harm’ or ‘out of malice’. Such horrors are simply expressions of ‘the wretchedness of man’s condition.’

And here is the paradox of the religious view of morality. Without God, believers insist, all manner of evil will be unleashed. If God did not exist, Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to his friend NL Ozmidov, what reason would there be ‘to live righteously and do good deeds’ or not to ‘cut another man’s throat, rob and steal?’ And yet all manner of evil already exists. And to believe in God one seems to have to accept the most pernicious of arguments for why it does so.

At the end of the Book of Job, after God had restored to Job his health, wealth, friends and family, a great gathering takes place at his house. The throng celebrated the return of the old Job. They also ‘bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the Evil that the LORD had brought upon him’.  It is a bittersweet ending to the story. All has been restored to Job. And yet all has not been restored. The very fact that evil was done unto him, and the fact that Lord had commanded such evil, cannot be erased.  Job never lost his faith. His experience led him to see that his faith could only be unconditional and unquestioning. And yet, as the response of his friends and family at the final gathering reveals, that unconditional and unquestioning faith seems impossible to reconcile with the existence of evil.

It is a bittersweetness that lies at the heart of all faiths. It is often in conditions of extreme suffering that many people discover, or recover, their bonds with God. And yet nothing more questions those bonds, or the God, than that very suffering itself.


The images are by William Blake. From top down: Illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost; Elohim Creating Adam; and God Judging Adam. The cover image is a detail from Henri Rousseau’s Eve.


  1. Milton of course was scarcely orthodox. His description of how Christ is “elevated” to Godhead rather than being co-eternal with God the Father makes him, to say the least, tainted with Arianism. Milton also shows some affinities with the 16th century mystical writer Jakob Boehme – seemingly endorsing the idea of creation ex ovo rather than ex nihilo.

    If creation is not the invention of substance out of nothing but rather a kind of exfoliation and spinning out of divine substance (a proleptic theologised “big bang”), the there is no “evil” as such – only faulty juxtapositions and modifications of good. A benign eschatology therefore would involve a universalism, a belief in the fact that all substance will return to its Divine origin – thus – there can be no eternity of Hell or Suffering.

    Milton plays with the ideas more than he resolves them. Indeed, Milton cannot write convincing verse for God, because of the atemporal quality of Divine “wisdom”. At one point Milton’s God condemns humanity in the past tense for sins they have yet to commit – and the verse starts to rock back and forth on the caesural pause as a consequence.

  2. I can’t help thinking that all those centuries of nuanced and permutated arguments that have hammered out every conceivable shape of moral minutae in the context of one God, could be more useful to us with no God. Has someone mapped the psychic equivalence of say, a human rights based court of justice, with all that went before in western God-centric civil societies which makes those thoughts relevant. Otherwise, this essay seems to miss me, or I’m missing the obvious. I too lived within and then studied theology for thirty years and my current godless life feels sort of the same when it come to morality but I’ll be damned if I can articulate it.

  3. You write at length about Christian views on good and evil, but don’t even approach the life and death of Christ. Jesus’ death on a Roman cross is the most evil deed in history. Here you have a man who, though tempted, was innocent of any wrong doing throughout his life. He was falsely accused by a group of self-righteous men of sedition against the Roman Empire and of claiming to be God in the flesh. His sentence, crucifixion, was the most brutal, prolonged, and thorough punishment known to human history. This evil deed was the ultimate miscarriage of justice!

    Yet through this death, God redeemed the entire human race from the flawed nature described in your essay. Why does God permit evil? Perhaps we are so short sighted that what we see as evil is ultimately going to be the best for us eternally. Only God has the ability to see the end result.

    If you prefer a different analogy, consider the life of the patriarch Joseph. His brothers threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. As a result, God put Joseph in a position in Egypt where he could preserve human life during a 7-year famine. He said to his brothers in Genesis 50, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” To God be the glory.

    I suggest John Piper’s book, Spectacular Sin, for excellent insight on this subject.

    • My aim was not to accept the Christian account but to unpack it. (Although, in my book, I do deal with the question of Christ’s crucifixion and Paul’s attempt to transform what was a scandalous embarrassment into the defining feature of the faith.) You as a Christian accept Christ’s divinity. I, as an atheist, recognize God as a human creation.

      You write:

      ‘Why does God permit evil? Perhaps we are so short sighted that what we see as evil is ultimately going to be the best for us eternally.’

      That is exactly the kind of theodicy that I was deconstructing in my essay, the kind of theodicy that leads Richard Swinburne to write, in all seriousness, that had ‘one less person had been burnt by the Hiroshima atomic bomb… there would have been less opportunity for courage and sympathy… less people (relatives of the person burnt) who would have had a strong desire to campaign for nuclear disarmament and against imperialist expansion.’

      Finally it takes a particular, and particularly blinkered, frame of mind to suggest that ‘Jesus’ death on a Roman cross is the most evil deed in history’ and Christ’s crucifixion was ‘the most brutal, prolonged, and thorough punishment known to human history’. It was precisely such a blinkered, indeed in my eyes immoral, view that I was challenging.

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