The Existence of Evil
by A. Wynne Acton
It is a fundamental of religion that God is pure love and mercy, and that all His works are done in truth. His love is shown in His purpose of leading all men to eternal happiness, and His truth in the means He has established to effect that end. The question arises in the natural mind: If God's love is the salvation of the human race - and His omnipotence can accomplish all things - why are not all men saved? How can man apparently thwart God's will? Why do not all men receive the eternal happiness that He wills to give them? Why does evil with its misery and suffering exist in this world, and continue to eternity in the next? Indeed, why did God ever permit evil to arise in the first place?
To the spiritual mind, enlightened by Revelation, there is no serious problem here. It begins with the conviction that God is love itself, and the nature of that love is "to love others outside of Himself, to will to be one with them, and to make them blessed of themselves" (TCR 43). The Divine love is infinite giving, imparting its blessedness to others in such a way that they may feel it as their own. Such love can find its satisfaction only in creatures as it were separated from itself - in beings who are free to receive that love and feel it as their own.
For this reason the creation of man with free will was a necessity of the Divine love. Only that which a man feels free to choose or to reject can he feel as his own; only that after which man has striven of himself can impart to him true delight. Free will postulates the possibility of a choice, for which reason man was so created that he could freely choose to follow his Creator or to go his own way.
God's love is not to receive, but to be received; not to possess the object of His love, but to be possessed; not to compel, but to reciprocate. His desire to give Himself freely to man was so ardent that He had to permit man the possibility of refusing that love. And from man's refusal to receive, from his abuse of this most precious gift of free life, has arisen all evil with its attendant misery and suffering. This is not to attribute the formation of evil to the Divine - an unthinkable idea - but the permission of it was inevitable from the very nature of the Divine love.
Before going further we would emphasize the need of approaching our subject from the light of Revelation. The Lord has revealed Himself, and the nature of good and truth and of evil and falsity, in His threefold Word, because we could not discover these truths for ourselves. It is not for us, then, to form our beliefs from our natural conceptions of what is good and evil, but to learn what the Lord has revealed. It is especially important in this subject, since evil touches so closely every plane of our life. The selfish loves into which we are born continually obscure our sight of what is true and orderly; our proprial love by its very nature seeks to justify itself, and this it can do only by means of falsity. Just as an active state of passion blinds man to reason, so the deeply seated evils of his heredity blind him to the realization of the more fundamental issues of right and wrong. Apart from Revelation, then, we can only judge the nature of evil from sentiment and prejudice, with no sure objective standard.
And let us make sure that we know what evil is. The natural mind considers such a question redundant, for do we not see it around us every day, appearing in a thousand different guises? But as we shall show, what we see in this world is the result and manifestation of evil, rather than evil itself. We must turn to the realm of the spirit if we would see its origin and real nature, and this we can do only with the aid of Revelation.
Let us begin with the self-evident proposition that there is one only life, that is, God. This life in its essence is love, and in its form or proceeding it is truth and order. Since creation was from this one Divine love, its form and order are imposed on every created thing from inmosts to outmosts. Only to man was given the ability to depart from that order, and his freely chosen departure was the origin of all evil.
Put it in another way. God created all thing for use. Things on lower planes were created to perform their uses to those on higher planes, and so on successively to the highest plane of creation, which is the angelic heaven; thus every least thing in the universe was created by God to play its part in effecting His supreme purpose. On every level of creation below that of man, this order is fixed so that everything must contribute its use to the good of the whole. Thus, despite the disorders introduced by man, the universe continues in its orderly progressions. With man, however, this compulsion ends. He was created with the ability to use all things on the lower planes for the purpose for which they were Divinely intended, or to abuse them and turn them away from that purpose to his own selfish gratification. To abuse means simply to turn something aside from its proper use, and this abuse is the origin of all evil. For instance, the delights of the senses are given in general for the purpose of building a sound body in which a sound mind can be formed. The endeavor to seek these delights for their own sake, apart from their intended use, or even contrary thereto, brings its consequent disorders. The evil arises, then, not in the action, but in the motive and purpose from which the action arises.
Thus evil, in the first place, is man's perversion of influx from the Lord. It can continue in its real existence on earth because man's mind is fixed by the ultimate things of this world, and is thus held in a continuing state of perverting all that inflows. If there were not this fixity in man's mind, and if there were not the continuous influx from the Lord, evil could have no existence; or for that matter, neither could good, and there could be no man. It is the influx from the Lord which brings about the possibility of both good and evil; but the cause of the evil is in man's reception; even as the same sun causes both the good and the useless plants to grow.
Consequently, we may see that evil is not a thing in itself, in the sense that it is something having self-life; rather is it a state of man's mind, abusing the good gifts given him. There is nothing in the universe which was not created for some use; and equally there is nothing that cannot be abused by man. It is man who turns everything one way or the other, and thus to him must be attributed the full responsibility of evil; for the evil is not in the thing, but in the first place in man's intentions and purposes.
This gives rise to the appearance that evil is nothing. Once, when Swedenborg had finished the section on conjugial love and was meditating on scortatory love, an angelic couple approached him and said: "We perceived and understood what you were previously meditating on, but the things on which you are now meditating are beyond us and we do not perceive them. Lay them aside for they amount to nothing. . . . How can a love be possible which not only is not from creation, but is also against creation. We regard things opposite to creation as objects of no reality." Swedenborg replied: "The love on which I am now meditating is not nothing for its exists. . . . Evil regarded in itself is not nothing, though it is nothing of good . . ." (CL 444).
The thought that evil does not exist is a popular belief at this day. The argument is that if there is one only life, and that is good, how can there be such a thing as evil; it only appears to exist because of the perverted imagination of man. Such teaching appears to exalt goodness and to draw man's thoughts to the infinite love of God; it claims to lift man's mind above the unclean and sordid things of the world into the realm of eternal light. But perhaps the greatest appeal of this teaching is the thought that it can apply on the physical plane as well; for it claims to be able to teach man to think aright as a means of overcoming all his bodily infirmities and sufferings. Lift your mind above wrong thinking, it is said, and you will be healed in mind and body.
There is grave spiritual danger in this outlook, which becomes all the more serious because of the basis of truth upon which it is founded, and because of its apparent spirituality. In the first place, it is incompatible with any belief in the sole Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is simply a supreme example of a man who devoted His life to the contemplation of goodness with such success that He could cure others of their physical infirmities; He can be regarded as an absolutely unique person, but not as God. Secondly, it entirely ignores the Lord's teaching in the New Testament concerning the reality of evil and eternal punishment; and it would have to discard much of the Old Testament, which gives such a frank and honest presentation of the evils of mankind.
Further, it encourages a perilous delusion that man is fundamentally good, rather than evil. It leads him to look away from his evil to his supposed goodness: look to what is high and noble, and the appearance of evil is no more! Thus it does away with the need of self-examination for particular evils with the purpose of shunning them as sins; whereas the Writings tell us that "the good of life, or living well, is to shun evils be cause they are against religion, and thus against God." And it is added: "If you do good to the fullest extent . . . and yet do not shun evils as sins against God, none of these goods are good; they are either hypocritical or meritorious, for evil is still inwardly in them" (DP 326: 8). Hence such a teaching perpetuates the dire falsity mentioned in the Writings, that "hitherto man have not known that to shun evils as sins is the Christian religion itself" (DP 265).
As we have seen, evil is primarily a state of the mind - the perverted form in which man has chosen to receive the heavenly influx. It is this reception which determines his character, and makes him to be the particular individual that he is. The ordering of the mind is always from within; but the way of that ordering is determined by man's outward life, for the Divine can work only with the materials which we provide, that is, the things we allow to pass through our senses into our minds. These are the building blocks out of which the Lord forms our spiritual homes. The Lord has provided wholesome food for the mind in the revelation of Himself as the Word - the means whereby He approaches man from without. Man is thus free to take into his mind the correspondential Divine truths revealed, and thus provide within himself the spiritual stuff out of which the Lord can build a heavenly habitation. Then can the Divine from within be present in the Divine truth that man has received from without, for the Divine can inflow only into what is Divine. Man, on the other hand, is free to reject the leading of the Lord's Word, for he can reject anything that comes to him from without. When man does this the Divine can have no resting place in the mind of that individual, since he has willfully rejected the means provided for his free response to the Lord. The Lord is indeed present within the soul of that man, for otherwise his life would cease, and to a small degree can reach down into his mind to withhold him from the ever deeper infernal depth into which he would cast himself.
It is similar with the human body. The Divine life inflowing through the soul forms the body in the first place and ever seeks to maintain it in health. But the soul can accomplish its purpose only in accordance with the material we offer it from without. If we present the body with harmful food, the soul is handicapped in maintaining its health; or if we abuse the body by a disordered life, the activity of the soul is directed toward minimizing the harm we would bring upon it.
The general law of all creation - spiritual and natural - is that the Divine descends directly to the most ultimate plane, and thence returns to itself through successively higher planes. The story of creation tells us that God first created the heaven and the earth; then the succeeding days of creation mark the return to God through the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms up to man as a spiritual being. The descent is a purely Divine operation apart from all created things; but the return is by means of the Divine operating in and through those things He has formed.
This order of influx presents the reason that the Lord could not create man as an angel of heaven; for all creation, until it reaches down to the ultimate plane, is a work purely Divine, beyond all finite consciousness. There is no separation of the Creator from the created until the most external plane is reached, and only there does every created thing have the basis of its fixed, constant existence. This is true also of the mind, or spirit, of man. This can be formed by the Lord as a fixed and eternal entity only on the basis of the fixed things of this world. Man's spirit does indeed exist on a plane discretely above the material, both while he is in this world and the next, but its form has been determined by means of the lower plane, which ever remains as the ultimate basis. Unless this were so man could have no continued individual existence, no consciousness of his own life, no blessedness of receiving and responding to the Divine leading; in other words, no humanity.
It is according to this law that man's life - shaped in this world - remains such to eternity. It can indeed develop and be perfected, but it cannot be essentially changed, for this would be to change the man himself as to his individual life, and man's sojourn on earth would be purposeless. If the Lord could miraculously change an evil man into an angel of light upon entering the other world, what would be the reason for man's life on earth with all the evil and suffering which he brings upon himself and others? Indeed, if man could thus be changed instantaneously from evil into good, either in this world or the next, would it not rather be the opposite of mercy to allow evil to exist at all? Why should the Divine allow evil to exist for ages, when in a moment by a Divine act He could wipe it out?
To superficial thought this may seem a hard saying, for it involves the eternal duration of the hells; it seems to forbid any reformation, any second chance to improve when one has seen one's errors. This is not so, however, as the Lord ever holds out the possibility of reformation to every man; the only restrictive force is man's own unwillingness to reform his life. No man is permitted to enter into his permanent place in hell until his life has been formed in such an irrevocably fixed pattern that he has entirely renounced all desire to change it.
But, men say, the time is so short. What is the span of one life in relation to eternity? Why should the mistaken choice that man may make in his comparatively few years on earth bring eternal unhappiness upon him? Such an attitude has proved fertile ground for the spread of the ancient Indian doctrine of reincarnation. According to this, man has innumerable rebirths upon earth, so that he may become better each time, until he finally reaches his degree of perfection; though it is difficult to see how he can improve on his previous lives since, with rare exceptions, he is not supposed to have any memory of his past mistakes; if not, how can he correct them?
This doctrine undoubtedly had its origin from a perversion of the teaching known in the Ancient Church that there is a spiritual birth exactly corresponding to the natural birth. There is no basis for its literal application in the whole of Scripture. Although the Lord's saying to Nicodemus - "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" - is sometimes quoted in its favor, it is, in fact, the opposite, for when Nicodemus put a literal interpretation upon it the Lord corrected him. It is a dangerous doctrine, as it tends to take away from the urgency of man's assuming his full spiritual responsibility in the present. It is very easy to procrastinate in our spiritual obligations, feeling that there is no hurry in striving for the heavenly life; if we believed we had many lives in front of us, we should do so even more.
We have seen the philosophical reason why this could not be, namely, that man can freely form his life only on the basis of what comes to him from without; only that which comes to him through his external senses can form his individual character. When man leaves this world his character is fixed and his love is formed: to change this would be to change the man himself so that he would no longer have any individual existence. Not even the worst devil of hell would wish his life's love to be changed, for a man is his love, and holds to it as his very life. No one lacks constant opportunity to receive a heavenly life while he is still here on earth, to repent of the evils he has desired and done, and to reform his life according to heavenly order. We can be sure that the Lord's mercy desires this, and His power makes it possible, and it is presumptuous on our part to suppose that we can provide a better way of salvation than that which the Lord Himself has ordained.
Such a fallacious idea has a wide appeal to men because of a mistaken idea of hell as a place of eternal torment. Hell is a state of mind within man - a state of the love of self and the world to the rejection of all things of Divine order. Those who have that state within them desire and form corresponding appearances around them. Because their loves are depraved and deformed they have a corresponding environment, and in any other environment - such as heaven - they would be most unhappy. And since they strongly resist the least attempt to change their love, they would equally resist any attempt to remove them from hell. The degree of happiness of which they are capable can only be enjoyed there. We have considered the essential nature of evil - that it is a perversion of the Divine inflowing life, and an abuse of the laws of Divine order. What shall we say of the evil that we see in this world? From seeing the real quality, of evil, what lesson can we learn concerning our life here? Since evil is primarily a perverted state of mind, what we see in this world is a manifestation of that perversion. Selfish love leads to distorted thought, which in turn leads to wrong deeds. The wrong doing must be corrected by changing both the external and the internal from which it proceeds. To change the deed only, without reference to its evil origin, cannot be effective; for then the root remains hidden, to break out in some fresh way. The Divine truth shows us the root of all evil: it reveals the laws of God's providence and order and all things that are opposed to them; and it is only as mankind learns those laws, and observes them, that evil can be removed from the earth.
We are living, for instance, under an almost constant threat of an all-destructive war. We may be thankful that there are many men of good will in the high places of state who are diligent in their efforts to prevent its outbreak; they are searching for just agreements and compromises which can preserve peace among nations. This is well, and they deserve our full support; but the only ultimate hope for true peace among men is the removal of evil at its source, that is, learning the way of the Divine order and living according to it. In the longest view, we, as New Church men, may best serve our fellowmen by strengthening the church upon earth. Whatever political aims and national ideals we may cherish, we may best contribute to peace and order upon earth by spreading the knowledge of the laws of that order.
Again, there is great concern at this day with the unruliness of our youth. Many reasons are given - poor economic conditions, lack of moral discipline, broken homes, and lack of religion. Undoubtedly, such conditions encourage delinquency, but they are not the cause of it; many young men and women may be brought up in the most unfavorable conditions, and yet turn out to be respectable and responsible citizens, while others brought up in apparently the best conditions turn the wrong way. The real answer to this problem is the recognition of Divine laws of order, and the intelligent effort and zeal to train children according to those laws. If a young man can be made to realize that he is placed upon this earth by a loving God in order to perform a use to his fellow man, he will cultivate a sense of duty that will carry him through all the trials and tribulations of youth. In past generations this strong sense of duty has been preserved with many people; how much stronger should we be able to make it with the interior things of the Word as our guide.
As we have seen, the very life of religion is the shunning of evil. And so we are told that "the first of charity [or the primary thing of the life of religion] is to look to the Lord, and to shun evils because they are sins, which is done by repentance" (Char. 1). Note that this life is twofold: to look to the Lord, and to shun evils. We must look to the Lord in His Word that we may learn thence the way of the Divine order, and we must look to Him in His church and its worship that we may gain the strength to follow in that way. Only after learning the laws of the Divine order can we know the things opposed thereto that must be cast out of our lives. As stated in the Divine Providence: "Heaven is granted to those only who know the way to it, and walk in that way. . . . In what is angelic there is a knowledge of the way from walking in it, and a walking in that way through a knowledge of it" (no. 60).
The first truths which we learn are like the directions we seek before setting out on a long unknown journey. Following these directions presents many difficulties; we hesitate here and there to know which road to take; we take wrong turnings, and have to retrace our steps until we return to the right way. But if the directions are correct, and we are diligent and intelligent in following them - not ignoring them in favor of some short-cuts of our own devising - we will finally reach our goal. Afterwards, the more frequently we traverse that road the more we can do so with confidence and assurance, for we know the way from walking in it. Thus it is only by the actual shunning of evils that we may inwardly know and traverse the way to heaven.
It has been suggested that the emphasis on the existence of evil and the necessity of shunning it as the first of religion induces a negative attitude; that it is better to look always to the positive side of life, ignoring the very existence of evil. But this latter is to live in a world of illusion, covering over evil so that it does not appear, and can remain within as a cankerous sore, spreading its hidden poison. Realistic life recognizes the existence of evil, and faces it. This does not imply that we are always to dwell on the thought of evil, for we are to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. But we must recognize the existence of stumbling-blocks along the way. Our gaze is upon the city set upon the distant hill, but we must not have our heads so much in the clouds that we do not see the dangers that beset us upon the way. In our journey we must climb many mountains, from the top of which the city can be seen in its glory; but we must also descend into the valley, when our vision will be obscured and we must search diligently for the way up the next mountain.
To combine ideals with practicality is to be realistic. As long as we abide by and develop the teaching of the Writings our gaze will ever be fixed toward spiritual virtues, for we are constantly reminded that the whole purpose of life is a heaven from the human race. To fulfill this purpose in our own lives will be our constant and guiding aspiration, and what more truly noble and exalted ideal can man have? But the more noble the ideal, the more anxious will we be to search out every hindrance along the way, that we made overcome it.
Because the Lord is pure mercy, He has provided that all men may be elevated into the heavenly life; and because He is omnipotent, the means He has established for man's salvation are sure and perfect. But man, in his proprial intelligence, would question those means which He has ordained and revealed to us. Man would question the Lord's mercy because in some particular case he cannot understand it, thus placing his puny mind against infinite wisdom; or man would suppose that he could devise a more perfect system of salvation and discard whatever he does not like in the Divine ordination. In every page of the Writings we are taught that God is infinite and perfect order; that He has created all things according to its pattern; but to man only He has granted the ability to cooperate with this order, or vainly to strive against it.
This truth is epitomized in the following statement: "The Divine truth which proceeds from the Lord is what makes order, and is order itself. Consequently as everything that is according to Divine truth is according to order, it is possible; and as everything that is contrary to Divine truth is contrary to order, it is impossible" (AC 8700: 2). Here is the whole teaching. Our salvation is possible if we conform our lives to that order which the Lord has shown us in His Word; if we do not, our salvation is impossible. Further, if we strive to build the church upon earth according to the laws of Divine order its establishment and growth is not only possible but assured; but if we are working along lines of our own devising, in contradistinction to what the Lord has revealed, however great our efforts, the church cannot be established, for everything contrary to order is impossible. To insure the establishment of the church in our own lives, and upon earth, it must ever be our effort to enter more fully into the understanding of that Divine order, that with intelligence, determination and zeal, we may shun as a deadly poison everything opposed thereto, and allow the Lord to build His house upon earth.
-New Church Life1958;78:370-379