(Sub-title: Addressing the Problem of Evil and the theology of St. Paul)
Recently I received a letter from a reader in response to my article On the Origin of Evil. This person will be identified here as “Bob” which is not his real name. Bob wrote to me in protest because I deny that God is the ultimate source of Evil. Gnostic tradition teaches in various ways that evil enters the universe either through Error or the rebellion of lower angels. However, Bob disagrees and he insists that Evil originates from God himself; and that evil is one of the instruments by which God educates humanity about the value of goodness. (Similar statements are made in the Tripartite Tractate, but this treatise represents the exception in Gnostic tradition and not the rule.)
Of course I have heard variations of these arguments before from mainstream “orthodox” leaning Christians. What makes Bob’s argument worth mentioning is that Bob believes that Evil is not really evil at all. Bob supported his opinion by presenting me with the link to an online book entitled:
“The Problem of Evil and the Judgments of God” by Adolph E. Knoch (1874–1965) 
This book represents an effort by one “orthodox” leaning theologian to explain the paradox of evil, and, in my opinion, to rescue the war-god Jehovah and his evil-doings from a logical moral scrutiny. The author attempts to accomplish this by claiming that there is a difference between “evil” and “sin”; and that the real onus of immorality or injustice is tied to sin and not evil. The author defines “evil” as an amoral force which causes mayhem and thereby brings curses, famines, plagues, wars, misery and death upon sinners. The author conveniently refuses to make any connection between the evil orchestrated by “God” and the murders and other mayhem which result from the said evil.
I believe it is a very dangerous thing for religious men to deny evil for what it is: evil. I see this as a very convenient way that fundy Christians rescue their evil biblical war-god from the implications of his own morality/ ethics. But even more important, and more dangerous, is that when theologians seek to excuse the evil that scripture (written by men) assigns to their own god, these same men inevitably remove the onus from the evil that might otherwise define their own actions. This danger can be seen in the following statement from Jeremiah 42:6, where the loyal followers of Jehovah proclaim:
“Whether it be good, or whether it be evil, we will obey the voice of YHWH our God.” (Jeremiah 42:6)
Even Al Queda henchmen or Hamas suicide bombers, or KKK Klansman, could say something like this. This type of reasoning becomes the justification for persecuting people of another race or creed. Evil is not really evil, but is an instrument by which “sinners” or infidels are punished. Whether in theory or in practice, I believe this reasoning is morally wrong, and evil. There is no doubt that the history of Christianity has been scarred by this kind of twisted logic. I direct my readers to the book Foxe’s Christian Martyrs of the World for a record of the macabre atrocities that “Christian” leaders have been able to justify and inflict on other Christians.
The behavior of “orthodox” Christians in late antiquity, and in the Middle Ages, is a reflection of the same evils that are attributed to Jehovah in the Old Testament. Jehovah is a god of war who is involved in all kinds of heinous atrocities, which anyone of us today would call crimes against humanity. Jehovah sends his followers on military campaigns to invade the lands of other people and to butcher women and children like animals (e.g. Deuteronomy 2f., Joshua 6; see my article On God and Justice). Are we really to believe that this is what “God” is like? Is this what I’m supposed to believe? In Isaiah 13:16 Jehovah informs his prophet Isaiah how he will punish the Babylonians; and how their “wives” will be “raped.” But according to Bob and his scholar buddy, this is not “evil” as we understand it. Evil is the instrument of “God’s” justice whereas the rape is not part of the evil, because, well, evil and sin are two different things, and sin is what is bad—not the evil. Surely my readers must recognize how absurd this reasoning is. And if you don’t believe me, then just read the first chapter of the book by Adolph Knoch at the link above.
Personally, I think that Knoch’s book “The Problem of Evil and the Judgments of God” is one of the most wicked books I have ever read. But to be fair, I doubt that Mr. Knoch, as a theologian, was really trying to justify evil behavior in the literal sense, or in his personal life. (But certainly the logic that Knoch uses has been used by other Christians in the past to justify their vicious crimes.) In my opinion the flawed and dangerous reasoning of Knoch was driven by his need to rehabilitate the theology of the only religion and “God” that he knew. Rather than simply admit that the God of the Old Testament is evil and move on, Knoch turned instead to quibbling and diluting the definition of evil in order to create a moral loophole for his cherished god.
The most fundamental problem with guys like Bob and Mr. Knoch is that these men insist on believing that the Bible is the literal, infallible “Word” of God. These men fail to understand that many of these scriptures were written by men who were concerned with mundane struggles for power as opposed to a genuine spiritual quest. I would like to summarize my point with a quote from my article On God and Justice:
“[T]he real issue at stake in the Old Testament has nothing to do with what is right or wrong – the real issue is the acquisition of Power by the Israelites and their priesthood. …the Law of Moses, and the history of Israel, and its ethics, and its theology, are all the expression of an historic people who projected their personal problems and national woes into their conceptions of God. It is the height of foolishness for people to take these writings and erect these as a record of God and a higher judicial standard.”
Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t have a grudge against ancient Hebrews whose religious beliefs reflected their primitive times and struggles. On the other hand, I do believe it is a mistake to take these ancient, arcane writings and to erect these as if they are some infallible record of God’s nature and actions. To simply rely on these writings as explanations for the mysteries of God and the origins of evil is to play the fool. And this is exactly how I feel about people like Bob and Adolph Knoch. These guys regard the Bible as an infallible revelation of what God’s nature is really like. These guys fail to understand that the Bible is a collection of other people ideas about God that are second hand at best. I am not about to accept the proposition that God is the source of evil just because some guy says the Bible says so. Ultimately, all true Gnostics understand that this is a question of introspection and soul-searching and has nothing to do with what the Bible says. (Bob of course fails to notice that I don’t rely on the Bible in my article On the Origin of Evil yet he brings forth a fundy Bible theologian in his effort to correct me.)
Even more bizarre is that Bob believes that Knoch’s opinions represent a form of “gnosis.” By which he means that “evil” is some sublime mystery which has come out of the heart of God, and by which men and women are educated and initiated into a higher understanding regarding God’s nature, and the nature of evil. If I didn’t know any better I would think that this came from some esoteric or ‘Gnostic’ wing of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (if they had a Gnostic wing). I suppose that what I am confronted with here is a kind of ‘Fundy Gnosis’ (hence the title of this article). All I can say on this point is that I think that such rationalizations serve the purpose by which fundy Christian justify the continued adoration of their false and evil god. And this goes back to Bob’s contradictory stance in that he needs the assistance of a fundy Bible theologian in order to back up his own gnosis.
Next we will now go to the second issue in this article which is the problem of St. Paul and the notion of a Unity of God. Like many theologians of all stripes, Bob and his mentor make an appeal to Paul as justification for their notion that “evil” originates with God. In Romans 11:36 Paul (the assumed writer of this passage) exclaims of God: “For of him, and through him, and in him, are all things” (Romans 11:36).
Both Bob and Mr. Knoch reason as if this one passage is the last word on Paul’s theology. But these guys fail to acknowledge that “Paul” says all kinds of things; and when all of Paul’s theological statements are brought together, these statements do not constitute a unified theological system (see below). This, in a nutshell, is the whole problem with Paul that theologians and scholars have struggled with for ages. Bob and Mr. Knoch pretend that Paul’s theology can be summarized in one little passage; but this is just more of the same wishful thinking that so often characterizes the myopic opinions of fundy Christians.
The question we will now consider is did Paul ever affirm the Unity or Monarchy of God? Again, if we base our answer solely on Romans 11:36 then the answer would be a simple yes. But let us consider some other statements which place Paul’s theology in doubt, and have led to the breakout of theological disputes and heresies for ages. I invite my readers to read and compare the following passages.
Let us begin once again with Romans 11:36,
“For of him, and through him, and in him, are all things.”
1 Corinthians 15:24–28,
“Then cometh the end, when he (Christ) shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. … The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. … And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also be subject [unto the Father] …that God may be all, and in all.”
Note that in Romans “Paul” says that all things are in God, whereas in 1 Corinthians Paul says the opposite: all things are not in God; and for this reason “all rule and all authority and power” must be subdued or destroyed so that “God may be all, and in all.”
Can these two passages be reconciled? I think the answer is no. I believe the problem here is that Bob and Mr. Knoch are taking Paul’s statement in Romans too literally without acknowledging the true complexity of Paul’s theology as is truly reflected in the second passage. The reality is that Paul does not believe in a simple unity of the biblical godhead.
I see Paul’s statement in Romans 11 as a speech intended for public consumption. Paul does not get into the deeper issues of theology that appear in Galatians or the Corinthian letters (see below). Paul speaks of God in a popular way that is familiar to Greek-speaking Jews and Gentile God-fearers who often thought of God along the lines of Stoic ideas . I don’t believe Paul is writing to “initiated” people as in other letters; most notably in 1 Corinthians 2 where Paul reveals that there are “spiritual” men and “natural” men and that spiritual wisdom cannot be received by the natural man (1 Cor. 2:14). This ties into Paul’s statement that there is a “hidden wisdom” which is spoken in a “mystery” among the “perfect” meaning the initiates (teleiois; 1 Cor. 2:6f.). The meaning here is that Paul does not say all things to all men (cf. Romans 1:10–13). I believe this is the source of the contradictions in many of Paul’s statements. Paul has different doctrines for different people depending upon their spiritual nature or lack thereof. Paul’s practice of double talk is openly stated in 1 Corinthians 9:20,
“And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win the Jews; to them that are under the Law, as under the Law, that I might win them that are under the Law.”
Given the complexities of Paul’s ideas and statements, I believe I am under no obligation to recognize Romans 11:36 as a concise summary of Paul’s theology. I’ll leave that for the fundy simpletons who are always in search of fast and easy answers to everything. (In this case Adolph Knoch simply chooses to accept Old Testament scripture for what it says about evil and the nature of God—rather than resist and deny like many other fundies do. Knoch admits that “God” is an evil-doer and then tries to rehabilitate from that point. Knoch’s error is in his failure to understand that he is wrestling with the ethics of a different age. This leads him to conclude that “God” is the source of all evil.)
Next I would like to get into the question of whether Adolph Knoch and St. Paul even share the same system of theology and Bible interpretation. As I understand it, Mr. Knoch believes in adhering to a strict, literalistic interpretation of biblical languages; but is this same standard used by Paul? The fact is, Paul did not quote the Old Testament in either a faithful or accurate manner. An example may be seen in Paul’s interpretation of Genesis in his doctrine of the priority of faith over the Law. Paul teaches that Abraham was accepted by God through faith alone (Gal. 3:6–9); whereas Genesis 17 literally says that Abraham accepted and practiced circumcision as a sign of his faith and the covenant with God (Gen. 17:10, 23). Clearly Paul has misquoted and twisted the Law in order to teach the very opposite of what the Law says. Paul evidently did not believe that males should be circumcised as mandated by “God” in the Law. Paul believed something else: just as Paul also believed that the Law was “ordained by angels” as stated in Galatians 3:19 (cf. Hebrews 2:2f., Acts 7:38, 53). Here again Paul is teaching against the very word of the Law of Moses. Obviously Paul did not accept the Law as infallible Holy Writ—and Paul relied upon a different tradition and theology as opposed to the Law of Moses.
Think: Why would Paul deliberately contradict the Law by saying that the Law was ordered by angels? By adding this concept of angels Paul is at best confusing the meaning of scripture. And at worst he is guilty of twisting biblical theology—and for what purpose? I believe that Paul’s introduction of angels was intended to undermine and deny the notion of a unity of God in scripture—without compromising the basic tenet of monotheism.
My point over all is that Paul does not embrace either the same theology or mode of Bible interpretation that Adolph Knoch does. These guys come from two different schools of theology—and Knoch carries on the “orthodox” tradition of projecting his theology into Paul’s writings. Again, guys like Mr. Knoch take the Bible literally and believe that the “Law” was given by God; but this is not what Paul says.
Mr. Knoch believes that Paul was defending the sovereignty and unity of God in Romans 9:18–22. But again, does Paul really say all things to all men?—is Paul stating his true opinions in Romans 9, or is he trying to convict Jews using their own scriptures? (Note: there is no solid evidence that Romans 9 was part of the original Romans letter.) In comparison with Romans 9 we can look at Paul’s statements in 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:4. Here there is language which shows that Paul did in fact attack the authority of the Lawgiver. This passage contains Paul’s interpretation of Exodus 34:27–35 where Moses received the second set of tablets from the Lord, and he spent forty days and nights in the presence of YHWH on Mt.Sinai. And when Moses returns down the mountain his face has a supernatural glow which frightens the Israelites. Moses then places a veil over his face and he recites the terms of the Law and the covenant to the Israelites.
In Paul’s interpretation Moses placed a veil over his face in order to conceal the “fading” glory, and he accuses Moses of blinding and deceiving the Israelites. Paul’s exact remarks are as follows: “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech: And not as Moses, who put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not steadily behold that [glory] which was fading. But their minds were blinded; for even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart.” (2 Cor. 3:12–14, cf. vs. 6, 7)
In the above passage Paul is making a connection between Moses and the “god of this world.” Thus Paul writes further “Therefore seeing that we have this ministry…we do not fail; but have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully… But if our gospel is veiled it is hid to them that are perishing; in whom the god of this world has blinded their minds…” (2 Cor. 4:1–4)
Again, Paul did not simply believe that the Law of Moses or the “covenant” came from God as Mr. Knoch does. This means that Paul did not regard the writings of Moses as wholly inspired or infallible.
The reality here is that Paul interprets the books of Moses in light of some other tradition and theology. And without a doubt Paul is denying the supreme sovereignty of YHWH the Lawgiver. Paul identifies the Lawgiver with the “god of this world.” Paul insists that salvation can only be achieved by beholding the glory of the unveiled face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Clearly Paul did not identify Jesus with the Lawgiver; from whom Moses received the Law; and which Paul referred to as the “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:6–7).
Guys like Mr. Knoch want to place all the emphasis on Romans and the theology as it appears in that text. Everything else that Paul says in his other letters is simply ignored. A further problem is that one cannot even be sure as to the original form and length of Paul’s letters or even the context of Paul’s statements. This in turn raises the question of whether Romans really gives an accurate picture of Paul’s theology? Sure, Mr. Knoch can point to things that resemble “orthodox” opinions. But I can point other things that are unorthodox or otherwise do not conform to Knoch’s ideas. If Paul’s letters are not wholly orthodox then they are unorthodox. It is really up to people like Mr. Knoch to prove that Paul’s letters really are theologically correct, or otherwise preserve a correct theological system.
Getting back to the issue with Bob: Bob wants to style himself as a Gnostic; and as someone who knows more about “gnosis” than I do. Yet he has to rely on the dubious research and rationalizations of fundy Bible theologians who take the Bible literally—and who rely wholly upon the Bible for everything they know about God. This is not what Gnostic tradition is about. It is true that Gnostics do study the Bible and other texts and traditions in search for spiritual insights. There are certain elements of the Bible that reflect the thoughts of true aspiring mystics. In this context there are spiritual nuggets spread throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. And the incredible truth in this regard is that the Bible contains the seeds of its own heresy. But ultimately the true Gnostic is concerned with discovering the reality of God in his/her own being. It is here that we discover the true nature of God, and we realize that we are spiritual beings and not animals. We realize that God is not the source of evil: but that evil originates from ignorance. If Bob’s God has some grand plan for evil in our lives then it is because Bob’s God is himself an ignorant and limited being… In truth this “God” is the Demiurge and he lives and creates and governs in the shadow of his own ignorance.
My other comments on the inherent goodness of God have already been stated in my article On the Origin of Evil. —jw
1] The Tripartite Tractate is the one “Gnostic” text that does state that God the Father has a grand plan to reveal evil to mankind. Hence it is the Father’s Will that “man should experience the great evil, which is death, that is complete ignorance of the Totality, and that he should experience all the evils which come from this and, after the deprivations and cares which are in these, that he should receive of the greatest good… Because of the transgression of the first man, death ruled. It was accustomed to slay every man…because of the organization of the Father’s Will, of which we spoke previously” (107f. ET: H. Attridge, D. Mueller, Nag Hammadi Library, HarperCollins, pg. 89). The Tripartite Tractate is atypical among Gnostic texts which are generally concerned with separating God from evil and materiality. A comparison of these traditions is presented in my article Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, III: The Pattern of Gnostic Truth.
Elsewhere in the Nag Hammadi Library this very philosophy, as stated above, is condemned in the Book of Thomas the Contender. Here Thomas asks Jesus: “What teaching shall we give to these miserable mortals who say, ‘We have come to [do] good and not to curse,’ and will [say] further ‘If we had not been born in the flesh we would not have known iniquity’ ”?
Jesus answers Thomas: “To tell the truth, do not think of these as human beings, but regard them as animals. As animals devour each other so people like this devour each other. They are deprived of the kingdom… They pursue derangement not realizing their madness but thinking they are wise.” (141, M. Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pg. 242.)
Note that Jesus condemns this kind of thinking in the strongest terms. People who argue that God has a purpose for evil, and thus for the world, choose to believe such things because in reality they love the world and are not really troubled by the evil that goes on. For this reason Jesus condemns them like animals—which is a metaphor for the material man who loves materiality and worships the material god.
2] Based on everything I have been able to learn about Mr. Knoch, from his writings, he is a fundy Bible theologian—by which I mean that he believes the Bible is the literal revelation and word of God. On the other hand, Mr. Knock also brings ideas to the table which may not be shared by every fundy theologian. For example, Knoch believes that God’s plan was based from the very beginning on a dialectic between good and evil: Good + Evil = knowledge of God’s supreme Goodness. Thus God created both good and evil from the very beginning in order to guide human evolution and to perfect human nature. Mr. Knoch also rejects the doctrine of eternal damnation and believes instead that there will be a complete reconciliation of everything in God “all in all.” Mr. Knoch’s ideas seem to resemble a form a Stoic philosophy which holds a similar view of good and evil in the Stoic theory of the unfolding providence of God (see note #3).
3] The influence of Stoic thought in early Christian theology is addressed in my article The Gospel and the Greek Philosophers. Stoicism was an ancient, pagan school of Greek philosophy which offered many pragmatic ideas about God and ethics. Many Hellenistic Jews and Christians adopted Stoic ideas to their own notions of theology. The Stoic philosophers offered a unique view of God as a monistic supreme Being whose “logos” was present in everything and guided the order of the cosmos. They also believed that good and evil were together a part of God’s ever unfolding providence (e.g. Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus). The Stoics believed that evil was a necessary part of existence; and for this reason they refused to condemn evil or to be disturbed by it. The modern definition of our word “stoic” originates from this ancient philosophy and attitude toward evil—to accept evil or misfortune without complaining.
By Jim West. Copyright © 2009, 2013. All Rights Reserved.