Technology has progressed in such a way that if humanity wanted to painlessly end all suffering on earth we could do it through a coordinated nuclear strike that would instantly vaporize the surface of the planet. If that idea seems crazy, I agree with you! We have the power to prevent evil from continuing, but we do not have the will, and not only do we not have the will, most people probably think the idea that ending all life on earth is totally absurd. I want you to keep the absurdity of this idea in your mind as we discuss another concept that many people have found very persuasive.
Over the centuries countless people have been convinced that God cannot exist because of the Epicurean Paradox. Hume put it succinctly when he said, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?” I want to argue that God is powerful but he is not willing. His unwillingness, however, does not make him malevolent.
In the example I gave above we see a circumstance where humans have the power to prevent ongoing evil but our unwillingness to do so does not make us malevolent. It is actually benevolent for us to allow evil to continue rather than stop it by ending all life on earth. God however was faced with an altogether different dilemma. He could prevent evil by simply not creating at all, or, as some have argued, he could have created a world where evil would never exist. I don’t think the second option is true but I also don’t think it limits God’s power.
This post is titled “The Fall of the Devil,” but in it I will also be talking about the fall of Adam and Eve because I think these events are closely related. In God’s creation he could protect his creatures from every possible temptation but one, and that temptation is the desire to be like God without the maturity necessary to resist evil. That is exactly what we see in the story of the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve are tempted, they aren’t just tempted by the fruit, they are tempted by a desire to be like God, yet it is precisely this desire to be like God, which is good in itself, but leads to evil.
You could also imagine a parent raising a child and isolating the child from everything that could possibly harm them, the only thing the parent couldn’t hide would be themselves, and even a perfect parent cannot force a child to perceive them perfectly, not because of any fault in the parent but because of the child’s immaturity. Someone might say, “but God could have created Adam and Eve with a fully formed intellect already preloaded with a perfect conception of the world,” but that sounds a bit like mind control doesn’t it? So, God’s unwillingness to shield us from a desire to be like him, is itself actually an act of benevolence.
Anselm’s The Fall of the Devil goes beyond the story of Adam and Eve because someone might argue that God didn’t have to create the world in the form it currently exists, if he’s all good and all powerful there must be some way that he could have created it free from evil. So if we focus on angelic beings, entities apart from any materiality, we can reason abstractly about what would be possible in any possible world. In it Anselm goes step by step through how Satan, originally created good and with a will to only desire the good, could desire to be like God in such a way that would lead him to evil. He makes an extended argument over several chapters that I will not attempt to recreate in it’s entirety here but it is definitely worth a close reading and I will attempt one section.
Imagine God in the process of creating the angels, we can agree that it is fitting for beings in God’s creation to have a will and that if those beings only had one will, the desire for one thing, then they would never truly be free. So, God gave the angels a will for justice and a will for happiness, or in his own words, “God must create both wills in him in such a way that he both wills to be happy and wills it justly. This added justice governs his will for happiness so as to curtail its excess without eliminating its power to exceed.” The Devil therefore left justice, but not for something evil, he willed something he thought would increase his happiness, to be more like God.
I admit someone might still say, but couldn’t God have created a being with a “perfect will,” one truly free but also incapable of willing anything they should not will. While this may seem appealing intellectually, especially if we’re already having doubts about God, but it is incredibly unsatisfying to think about in reality. Imagine a parent unwilling to have a child because there is the possibility of imperfection, or a society like that portrayed in the movie Gattica, where all children are altered “in utero” to prevent any genetic abnormality. We instinctively reject that notion of selective creation, so why do we hold God to a different standard?