Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Revealed : how a 2600 year old mistake caused problem of evil

Archbishop Rowan Williams
Just listened again to John Humphrys interviewing Rowan Williams on the BBC. The crux of the interview was the problem of evil. Rowan Williams had only the lamest of answers. It will all be healed by God in his good time, probably after death.

When Humphrys parodied this as “don’t worry, you’ll go to heaven”, Williams failed to convince. I’ve listened, and I’ve read the transcript, and all he has to offer is this:

“ My faith tells me, and it's very hard to believe in these circumstances, but it tells me and I trust this, that the world, yes, is such that suffering arises in these unspeakable ways. It also tells me that what God can do with those circumstances and those persons is not exhausted by the world, there's more.”

Yes that’s it. Really.

I trace his difficulty back to 600 BC. This is when the Jews invented their religion, and in doing so took a critical wrong turn. The elite were exiled by King Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon. Having sat down by the waters and wept as they remembered Zion, they assimilated a lot from Zoroastrianism. Already 400 years old at the time, this religion venerated a single, universal, merciful God. The exiled Jewish elite came to recognise this
concept as far superior to the failed tribal warlord they had followed hitherto.

They didn’t overthrow Jehovah, they reformed him. But in doing so they made a bad mistake, the consequences of which poor old Rowan Williams is struggling with to this day. And their mistake was to reject the key point about Zoroaster‘s god (Ahura Mazda).

All-powerful is good, but weak is better

That key point is that Ahura Mazda was not all-powerful, but weak, engaged in unequal strife with the forces of evil, unable to prevail on his own, and needing humankind to come to his assistance.

If they’d taken my recommendation they would have stuck with this formula. But no, they made Jehovah all-powerful. It seemed a good idea at the time, I suppose.

If only they had got it right all those years ago. Then, instead of having to say how hard the problem of evil is, Williams could now say: yes indeed there is evil, but God doesn’t will it, nor does he allow it, he is powerless to prevent it; and will remain so until you lot forsake your sinful ways and come to his aid to combat the malign forces that have brought this state of affairs about.

He could hold has head high defending that sort of religion. Instead he's now stuck with stammering and stuttering his way through the problem of evil.

The interview was one of a 4-part series called Humphrys in Search of God: 31 October 2006. I can't find it any more on the BBC website so maybe it’s been deleted. But John Humphrys has made the interviews the basis of a book, In God We Doubt: Confession of a Failed Atheist (2007). (Subsequently bought it second hand in Cork 19/5/2010.)


  1. In fact, further to my last comment, I think if all three of the related religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) had adopted the doctrine you advocate here, then there would be more scope for Religion being used to END strife and conflict, rather than it being interpreted as a CAUSE for conflict.

  2. By striking co-incidence, that John Humpreys book caught my eye on the new arrivals shelf at the library this morning. I had a look at the blurb on the back, and it looked interesting. Does he draw the same conclusion in his book as you have done on this blog?

  3. Not sure I agree with your first comment Alb - isn't "evil" a subjective term which (radical) followers of Islam apply to most of the West (and Israel), while Israel thinks it of its enemies and Christians certainly have down the centuries (crusades, inquisition etc)? Most of us of any religion (or none) would view Hitler as "evil", but he certainly didn't think of himself like that, and seemingly there were enough people who agreed with him to give him a mandate to do what he did. I know many people wouldn't know all that was being done in their names, but we all know now, yet he still has sizeable groups of followers around the world. Suppose my point is, who defines "evil"?