The Mystery of Iniquity: Does Evil Exist or Do Bad Things Just Happen?

On June 10, 1991, a cover story appeared in Time magazine on the topic of evil. The author, Lance Morrow, did not argue for a particular thesis and did not reach any conclusions. What he did, however, was in a sense more important. He began by stating three propositions:

God is all-powerful.

God is all-good.

Terrible things happen.

Citing several sources, Morrow said that you can match any two of these propositions, but not all three. You can declare that there is an all-powerful God who allows terrible things to happen, but this God could not be all-good. On the other hand, there might be an all-good God who lets terrible things happen because he does not have the power to stop them; thus he is not all-powerful.

This analysis might easily have been stated by a Gnostic of the first three or four centuries of the Christian era, or for that matter by a contemporary Gnostic, such as the present writer. Not that Gnostics were the only ones who recognised this uniquely monotheistic predicament. The supreme medieval luminary of Catholic theology, St. Thomas Aquinas, admitted in his Summa Theologiae that the existence of evil is the best argument against the existence of God. If the concept of the monotheistic God is to be accepted, then the issue of evil has no viable explanation. Conversely, if evil exists, then the monotheistic God as presented by the mainstream religious traditions cannot exist.

Whence Cometh Evil?

Throughout history, religious traditions have accounted for the existence of evil in a number of ways. In primeval times, the undifferentiated nature of human consciousness allowed people to say that both good and bad come from the Divine. Thus archaic shamans would not have found it difficult to say that good and evil are visited upon human beings by the Great Spirit. In the more sophisticated context of Sumero-Babylonian traditions, it was believed that the gods amused themselves by creating terrible things – freakish beings, evil demons, and horrible conditions for human life.

To employ a psychohistorical rationale, one might say that when people did not yet possess a differentiated consciousness (which we may equate with the conscious ego), it was relatively easy for them to envision God or the gods as being like themselves, so that the coincidence of good and evil was part of their nature. More advanced spiritual traditions have inherited some of this attitude; thus in mystical Jewish theology we find the notion that God partakes of both good and evil tendencies (yetzirim).

With the growth of consciousness, the mind begins to differentiate between the beneficent and the malefic sides of being. The tension induced by trying to hold a God concept that unites good and evil becomes unbearable, so that it becomes necessary for the mind to separate the two. The notion of radical dualism thus arises. The most prominent example is that of Zoroastrianism. Here the true and good God, Ahura Mazda (sometimes called Ormazd), possesses a divine antagonist known as Angra Mainyu (Ahriman). The two are engaged in a perennial cosmic struggle for supremacy. Although Ahura Mazda is supreme and his ultimate victory is assured, as long as creation endures Angra Mainyu will continue to fight him and bring suffering into the world.

A sophisticated but very impersonal view of evil and its origins can be found in the great religions that originated in India. Most of these imply that evil is part of the unenlightened state of existence, and that the cause of evil is ignorance (avidya). If one attains to a transformed or enlightened consciousness and thus rises above all dualities, one is liberated from karma and from all other conditions in which evil plays a role. Whether such liberation inevitably leads to the cessation of incarnate existence is not always clear, but it is clear that life as one has known it ceases, and with it evil ceases also.

The fourth category is that of classical monotheism as found in mainstream Judaism and Christianity. As some of the other traditions ascribe the existence of evil to God, a malign counter-God, or human ignorance, this position ascribes the origin of evil to human sin.

The creation myth of the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition, with its story of the Garden of Eden and of the curious events that are said to have transpired there, forms the foundation for this view. This belief holds that the transgressions committed by the first human pair brought about a “Fall” of creation, resulting in the present state of the world. The sin of the original pair passed by inheritance to all members of the human race, who are born corrupt, afflicted by the weight of this “original sin.” Such evils as we find in this world, including natural disasters, plagues, and the ruthlessness of the food chain, are all somehow part of the momentous consequences of the Fall.

As some scholars, notably Elaine Pagels, have pointed out, these mythologems inevitably exercise a profound influence on the cultures founded on them. Even in a secularised age like our own, the powerful shadow of such beliefs continues to cast a pall on our minds. One may wonder how differently our history would have proceeded had the guilt of the Fall not been present to oppress the souls of men and women in our culture!

The Gnostic View

All spiritual traditions acknowledge that the world is imperfect; they differ only in how they believe this happened and in what is to be done about it. Gnostics have always had their own views of these matters. They hold that the world is flawed not because of human sin, but because it was created in a flawed manner.

Buddhism (regarded by many scholars as the Gnosticism of Asia) begins with the recognition that earthly life is filled with suffering. Gnostics, both ancient and modern, agree. Suffering is indeed the existential manifestation of evil in the world. Although humans, with their complex physiology and psychology, are subject to torments of a singularly refined nature, the fear, pain, and misery of all other creatures is evident as well. To recall St. Paul’s insight, all creation groans and travails in pain. Yet Gnostics have not been inclined to attribute such misfortunes to the sin of the first human pair. They reasoned that it makes much more sense to say that the world has not fallen but was made in a sadly imperfect manner to begin with. To put it in slightly more abstract terms, evil is part of the fabric of the world we live in; it is part and parcel of the existential reality of earthly life. If indeed there is a creator of this reality, then it is assuredly this creator who is responsible for the evil in it. Since, for the monotheistic religions, this creator is God, the Gnostic position appears blasphemous to conventional believers, and is often viewed with dismay even by those who consider themselves unbelievers.

The Gnostic position may need to be considered in the light of the historical roots of the tradition. According to most contemporary scholars, Gnosticism originated in the Jewish religious matrix (probably in its heterodox manifestations) and then came to ally itself with the Jewish heresy that became Christianity.

Thus the Gnostics were confronted with the image of the monotheistic God in the Old Testament and its adaptations in the New Testament. They faced a God who was often capricious, wrathful, vengeful, and unjust. It was easy for them to conclude that this flawed God might have created a world in his own flawed image. The greatest of all questions the Gnostics asked was this: is this flawed creator truly the ultimate, true, and good God? Or is he a lesser deity, who is either ignorant of a greater power beyond himself or is a conscious impostor, arrogating to himself the position of the universal deity?

The Gnostics answered these questions by saying this creator is obviously not the true, ultimate God, but rather a demiurgos (“craftsman”), an intermediate, secondary deity. This Demiurge whom they equated with the deity of the Old Testament was the originator of evil and imperfection in the world.

Thus the apparent blasphemy of attributing the world’s evil to the creator is revealed as originating in the Gnostics’ confrontation with the monotheistic God. Kindred movements, such as Hermeticism, did not face this predicament: being pagans, the Hermeticists did not inherit the dark, ambivalent figure of the Old Testament God, so they were able to adopt a less harsh position. (Ironically, today many people tend to favour Hermeticism over Gnosticism for this very reason.)

Many have tried to evade recognition of this flawed creation and its flawed creator, but none of their arguments have impressed Gnostics. The ancient Greeks, especially the Platonists, advised people to look to the harmony of the universe, so that by venerating its grandeur they might forget their own afflictions as well as the innumerable grotesqueries of ordinary life. “Look at this beautiful world:” they said; “see its superbly orderly way of functioning and perpetuating itself, how can one call something so beautiful and harmonious an evil thing?” To which Gnostics have always answered that since the flaws, forlornness, and alienation of existence are also undeniable, the harmony and order of the universe are at best only partial.

Those influenced by Eastern spirituality have at times brought up the teaching of karma whereby one’s misdeeds generate misfortune later in life or even in another life as explaining the imperfection of the manifest world. Yet a Gnostic might counter that karma can at best only explain how the chain of suffering and imperfection works. It does not tell us why such a sorrowful system should exist in the first place.

Qualified Dualism

As we noted earlier, one way of explaining the existence of evil was radical dualism, of which the Zoroastrian faith is a possible example. The Gnostic position, by contrast, is not of a radically dual nature; rather it might be called “qualified dualism.” In a simplified form one might define this position as declaring that good and evil are mixed in the manifest world; thus the world is not wholly evil, but it is not wholly good either. If the evil in the world should not blind us to the presence of good, neither should the good blind us to the reality of evil.

Here we might resort to the approach that was most favoured by the Gnostics themselves – the mythological. (The power of this method has been rediscovered by such contemporary figures as C. G. Jung and Joseph Campbell.)

Myths telling of the commingling of good and evil in creation predated the Gnostics. One of these tales is the Greek myth of Dionysus. When this god was torn apart by the Titans, Zeus came to his aid and blasted the malefactors with a thunderbolt. The bodies of both the Titans and Dionysus were reduced to ashes and mixed. When all sorts of creatures, including humans, rose from these ashes, the divine nature of Dionysus was mingled with the evil nature of the Titans. Thus light and darkness are at war with each other within human nature and in the natural world.

The Gnostics had their own myth about the origins of good and evil. They began by speaking of a boundless, blissful fullness (Pleroma) that dwells beyond all manifest existence. The Pleroma is the abode of and constitutes the essential nature of the true, ultimate God (alethes theos).

Before time and memory, this ineffable fullness extended itself into the lower regions of being. In the course of this emanation, it came to manifest itself in a number of intermediate-deities who were rather like great angels endowed with enormous talents of creativity and organisation. Some of these beings, or demiurgoi, became alienated from their supernal source, thus becoming replete with evil tendencies.

Thus the world-creating will was tainted with self-will, arrogance, and the hunger for power; through the works performed by these alienated agencies, evil came to penetrate creation. Ever since then, as the Gnostic teacher Basilides reportedly said, “Evil adheres to created existence as rust adheres to iron.” As one of these created beings, the human entity partakes of the nature of his flawed creators. The human body, being a material creation, is subject to disease, death, and various other evils; even the soul (psyche) is not free from imperfection. Only the spirit (pneuma), deeply hidden within the human essence, remains free from the admixture of evil and tends toward the true God.

Such mythic statements can convey insights in a fashion that is not possible through other methods of communication. At the same time it must be admitted that these myths were formulated long ago and far away and so may profit from certain amplifications and clarifications within a contemporary context.

Contemporary Conclusions

Terrible things do happen, as the Time essay stated. The world is filled with evil, with grotesque horror and universal suffering. Fiendish humans, often possessing great power, torment and slay others daily. The history of the twentieth century offers much proof of rampant wickedness in the world. Believers in the monotheistic God and/or in karma often tell us that this does not matter all that much, because in the final analysis evil really promotes good. They seem to be saying that evil is not really evil at all, but good masquerading in an unpleasant disguise. Yet this kind of topsy-turvy argument is an affront to all those who have looked evil in the face. To present this argument to survivors of the Holocaust or the Gulag or the killing fields would be insulting as well as ridiculous. For these victims, evil is evil, and all else is but an evasion.

Moreover many terrible things happen that are in no way due to human volition. While the perversities of the human condition are responsible for some of the suffering in this world, much of it is not our fault. Frequently, however, we believe that it is. Yet, whether occasioned by the myth of Adam and Eve or by the propaganda of some trendy folk today who make out humans to be the sole villains in the environment, the cultivation of guilt in the human mind is no remedy for evil. On the contrary, guilt usually begets more sorrow in the long run. Let us be done with this self-flagellation and try to mitigate the evils over which we have some control while remembering that it is beyond our powers to eradicate misfortune altogether.

Like the world, humans are a mixture of good and evil. Just as it is impossible to exorcise evil from the fabric of creation, so we cannot entirely get rid of it in ourselves. If human schemes and techniques were able to eliminate evil from human nature, they would have succeeded in doing so long ago.

This is why so many spiritual traditions teach the need for redemption from outside. Every spiritual tradition worth its salt has always possessed a soteriology – a teaching about salvation. Gnostics ancient and modern do not perceive liberating gnosis as a do-it-yourself project. We cannot purify or psychoanalyse evil away by our own strength. The Messengers of Light recognised in the Gnostic tradition, such as Jesus, Mani, and others, have always been envisioned as the great facilitators of salvation. Their salvific mission is to enable the consciousness of the individual to experience gnosis. An early Gnostic source, Excerpta de Theodoto, defines this gnosis as the knowledge of “who we were, what we have become; where we were, whereinto we have been thrown; whither we hasten, whence we are redeemed; what is birth and what rebirth.”

Many have noted the similarities between these Gnostic teachings and those of Hinduism and Buddhism. In all of these traditions, insight into the origin and nature of the manifest world is seen as liberating us from it and its evils, reuniting our spirits with transcendental reality. Unlike the great Eastern religions, however, Gnosticism specifically identifies the root of all evil as the faulty creation brought about by spiritual agencies of limited wisdom and goodness.

The Gnostic view of the human condition thus also differs from the modern secular view. Gnostics do not share the assumption of many in our culture that there is a purely naturalistic and humanistic remedy for evil.

Contemporary Gnostics for the most part agree with the fundamental insights of their ancient counterparts. Do modern Gnostics believe in the Demiurge? Do they believe in Messengers of Light? Do they regard such ideas as metaphysical truths or as mythologems hinting at more subtle and mysterious realities? The answer is that some Gnostics may believe these things more in a literal sense, while others may believe them symbolically; still others may hold a mixture of both views.

What matters is not the precise form of these teachings but their substance. And this is clear enough. It speaks of the reality and power of evil, of its fundamental presence in all of manifest existence. It declares that while we may not be able to rid the world or ourselves of evil, we may and indeed will rise above it through gnosis. And when the task of this extrication is accomplished, then we shall indeed no longer fear the noonday devil or the terror that walks by night.

This essay originally appeared in Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions, Winter 1999, and was reproduced in New Dawn 96 by permission of the author.