Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And behold, it still IS pretty good

“And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

It might have been easy to agree with this verdict after Day Six of Creation, when God renders it. But now? A quick look around reveals much that does not seem very good at all: everything suffers, decays, and dies. If the perfectly good and all-powerful God is responsible for the existence of everything, then how could there be so much imperfection and evil in the world?

It’s a hard question, and which continues to vex philosophers to this day, but the great medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides (1135-1204) thinks it can be answered.

Consider, to begin, the difference between light and darkness. Light has genuine being or existence, and wherever it does exist something actively produces it, some source of light. But darkness has neither genuine being nor must be actively produced: it’s what you get when there is nothing to produce light. Similarly creatures who can see have a genuine property: seeing is something we do and sight is an ability we possess. But a creature who is blind does not possess some other ability for blindness; not seeing is not something it does. Rather, blindness is what results in the absence of sight.

The natural evils of the world, then, are like darkness and blindness, with no real existence of their own. Terrible things like poverty, illness, and death are really nothing but the absence of wealth, health and life. Once we recognize this then we see that God does not create evils after all, for these evils are not “actively produced.” Everything God creates is in itself good. But goodness is a matter of degree, and when He produces things with less goodness than we might like, we call it an “evil.” But in itself it is just a lesser degree of that healthy goodness we desire.

And indeed we often show great ignorance in our judgments about what is evil! We naturally think of our own illnesses and deaths as great evils and wish they could be avoided. But that doesn’t really make much sense. We are physical beings made of matter and it’s the nature of matter to decay; to wish that we didn’t become ill or die would be like wishing we material beings were not material beings. But that is not to wish that we were healthier; it’s to wish that we didn’t exist at all, since a non-material being wouldn’t be us! And nobody wishes that.

Our judgments about evil can also be remarkably self-centered. If something happens against our personal desires or interests we immediately condemn it as evil, as if everything were all about us personally. But individual people, and even all humanity, are but the tiniest components in this immensely vast world--a world which is not made worse because some beings enjoy less goodness than others but rather more beautiful by the tremendous variety of beings it contains. We may not like it but the world just might be better off overall, as whole, if we personally happen to be enjoying less goodness than we might. Who are we to declare that the world as a whole is only good if things go well for us in particular?

So everything God does is good, to various degrees, then and now, Maimonides concludes--and we shouldn’t be so quick to judge as an evil our own rank in the relative distribution of goods.

Source: Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chs. X-XII. Transl. M. Friedländer, 2nd edition (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1904/1956).


  1. How do we explain the bad things that happen to good people? Think about Epicurus' argument in this context ---

    Is God willing but unable to prevent evil?
    Then He is not omnipotent.
    Is God able but unwilling to prevent evil?
    Then He is not benificent.
    Is He both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is He neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?


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