The Problem of Evil: a comparative analysis of what it means for Sikhs and Christians
- Parminder Davgun
The problem of evil has troubled many Philosophers and Theist of the world religions. It is important to distinguish between the view of the Abrahamic religions and that of Eastern religions. In this essay, I will be offering the Sikh and Christian view on the problem of evil and how they address the problem and compare their views. Firstly, the problem of evil will be explained. The Christian view will be discussed, followed by the Sikh perspective. For Christianity, I will focus on Hick, Plantinga, and Marilyn McCord Adams. For Sikhism, I will be using primary sources such as the Guru Granth Sahib, and scholars such as Cole and Sambhi.
The Problem of Evil
The Problem of Evil questions how God, being benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient, and one that contains all good qualities, could allow evil to happen. This problem was originally formulated by Epicurus (341 - 271 ac) who states, "if God is willing to prevent evil but not able, then he is not omnipotent; if he is able but not willing, he is not benevolent; if he is both able and willing, whence comes evil?" This means that God is either: unable and unwilling to prevent evil, able but unwilling or unable yet willing. J. L. Mackie (1995, p45) states that an all-good being should alleviate all evil, as that is part of being a 'good' being. However, God does not, which means there seems to be a contradiction in Gods qualities.
Christianity is a monotheistic religion, which falls under 'Abrahamic religions.' The followers believe in Jesus Christ who is the Son of God and the messiah promised in the Old Testament. The most important belief in Christianity is that God sent Jesus, his only son, to earth to give his life on the cross and save humanity from sin, later to be resurrected. Although Christianity believes in One God, they believe that there are three forms that this one God takes: the first is God the Father, the second is God the Son, and the third is God as the Holy Spirit. The primary sacred text for Christians is the Bible, which includes the New Testament (NT), and the Old Testament (OT).
The Nature of God
Different denominations in Christianity have slightly varying beliefs when talking about Gods nature. Nevertheless, the key concepts are consistent. Besides attributes such as omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. Hick states that when discussing Gods attributes, it is best to start with 'aseity,' which entails that God is of an unconditioned nature (Hick, 1973, p 7-14). Hick then goes onto say that God is the sustainer and creator and also personal. Christianity along with Sikhism would believe that God contains attributes such as eternal, holy, unchanging, impassable, infinite, transcendent, self-existent, self sufficient, immaterial, good, loving, gracious, merciful, just, and sovereign.
Christians believe that God is incomprehensible. However there is one attribute that distinguishes how Christianity describes God. Christianity assigns the attribute 'jealous' to God. Jealousy is defined as being anxious or fearful of losing something that is of value to you. This is why they refer to God being righteously jealous. So when Christians call God 'jealous,' it is because they believe that God is jealous of the fact that his creation, human beings, are not following his order, and are instead worshiping idols (MacArthur, 2001).
What is evil?
In Christianity it is important to distinguish between Sin and Evil, as they are not the same. J. Harold Ellens (2011, p164) states that turning away from God is a sin, which then leads to two types of evils: the evil people commit and the evil they have to endure (Van de Beek, 1990). People commit evils such as destruction, murder and torture and have to endure evils such as anxiety and pain. What we can establish from this is that disobeying God and not following his rules is a sin, which then leads to evil. Roman Catholics (Vatican.va, n.d.) and Augustine believe that Original sin is inherent in all human beings because Adam and Eve created the human race and passed sin which inclines human beings to live sinful and an evil life; unless God blesses them with his grace.
Roman Catholicism and some Protestant groups believe that there are three categories for Sin. The first is Venial sin; secondly it is Mortal sin, and lastly Eternal sin (Vatican.va, n.d.). Venial sin is a sin, which is forgivable in the eyes of God, as it does not cause separation from God. In order for something to be a Venial sin it must not go against the Ten Commandments and also not be committed deliberately. A Venial sin is not evil. Mortal sin on the other hand damages your relationship with God and therefore is evil. Mortal sin is a sin which goes against the Ten Commandments and also done deliberately. Lastly, Eternal sin is in relation to being blasphemous to God, the Holy Spirit or Jesus. The Bible states that 'people will be forgiven for every sin, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven' (Matthew 12:31, NRSV). This is also an evil according to Christianity.
Now we have to distinguish what is a sinful and evil action in the real world and what is an evil action and which God is responsible for, if any. To begin with, according to the definition of sin used, if a human being does not follow God's teachings, which are found in the Bible, then he is committing a sinful action. For example, if you do not apply the teaching 'love your neighbour' then you are being sinful. However if you decide to act upon a sinful act then you are committing evil. For example, it is sinful to not apply the teaching 'love your neighbour' but then if you go and act on this by raping your neighbour then it is an evil action. The same applies to 'lesser evils' than rape, such as robbing your neighbour. As Christianity believes that human beings have complete free will, all sinful actions and evil comes from human beings and none from God.
Why is there evil?
American philosopher Alvin Plantinga introduced the Free Will Defense. What he states is that human beings were made free by God. God made human beings, which are capable of moral good and also moral evil (Plantinga, 1977, p30). This entails that God, himself, cannot intervene with moral decision-making because once he does, then the agent is no longer free. Plantinga concludes that evil exists because agents have free will and the role of God has nothing to do with moral decision making. Plantinga (1977, p30) argues that the reason God has to make a world, in which there is free will, thus evil and good, is because it is more valuable than a world in which everything is determined.
Marilyn McCord Adams believes that the Free Will defense is not plausible. She lays out many arguments to refute Plantingas argument. Firstly, she argues that Adam and Eve were lacking knowledge. She states that in the Garden of Eden there was only good and nothing evil; so how would Adam and Eve know they were doing evil when evil did not exist? (Center for Philosophy of Religion, 2013). She also states that taking the responsibility from divine shoulders and putting it onto human shoulders is not acceptable. McCord uses the example of a child and its parents. She states that the parent is morally responsible for the actions of a child because they have more knowledge and awareness (Center for Philosophy of Religion, 2013). The same can be argued for God and humans.
To refute this argument, it can be argued that Christianity does not believe that Gods purpose in creation was to construct a world in which humans experience only pleasure and not pain (Hick, n.d., p467). The reason as to why this argument works is because it argues for the case of the human existence having the purpose of developing the soul. For example, if we live in only a 'good world' then there would be no hardships, challenges, injuries and so on. Without these, we would not learn and therefore would not develop. Hick (n.d., p468) says that the world must involve real dangers, difficulties, problems, obstacles, and possibilities of pain, failure, sorrow, frustration, and defeat. To summarize the argument, Hick (n.d., p468) states that "It is to understand that this world, with all its "heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to," an environment so manifestly not designed for the maximization of human pleasure and the minimization of human pain, may be rather well adapted to the quite different purpose of "soul-making."
Plantinga makes the claim that evil has to exist because of free will and that God had no other option but to do this. Therefor we live in the best possible world (Plantinga, 1977, p30). This claim from Plantinga implies that God works within certain limits in which he is constrained. However, God is supposed to be all-powerful, so how could he be limited to a certain way of acting. Free will could exist and God could have made the world so there was no such thing as evil, so we would never have known anything besides good actions. There can still be free will within a system made by God in which there is no such thing as evil therefor you have free will in a completely good world. We can conceive of this therefore it is a possibility; many philosophers believe that conceivability does entail possibility. An example is that we have 'free will' in a world made by God in which we cannot fly. If we were living in a free world then we would have the option to fly and not to fly. However this is not the case, yet Plantinga believes that we have free will.
According to John Hick, the above objection made against free will is not suitable to deny the existence of free will. Hick (n.d., p465-466) states that God cannot do what is logically impossible. Hick's argument outlines the fact that in order to be a 'person', we need free will in which evil is an option. God cannot accomplish a world in which there is only good and no evil if 'persons' have free will. The reasoning behind Gods decision is that it would be meaningless for 'persons' to only have the option to be good. Looking at Gods nature based on Christian beliefs makes the free will argument from Plantinga and its defence by Hick very viable. This is because God in Christianity is one that has suffered through Jesus Christ. Alister McGrath (2011, p202-203) argues that God suffering through Jesus makes suffering for human beings permissible because he is treating himself the same as the human beings he has created.
The arguments in support of Plantingas free will argument strengthen his argument. However, this is where John Hick contradicts his previous beliefs of humans having free will and God not being able to prevent evil, as it is logically impossible when God has given us free will. In his paper Who or What is God?, Hick (2001, p1) states that "God can and does perform miracles, in the sense of making things happen which would not otherwise have happened, and preventing things from happening which otherwise would have happened. These interventions are either manifest or - much more often - discernable only to the eyes of faith. But it is believed that God does sometimes intervene in answer to prayer." This shows that either through Grace or prayer, God can intervene in a human beings 'free will.'
Overall, it is clear that the free will defence made by Plantinga, and the support by Hick, is a strong argument as to why evil exists. However it cannot be denied that God has the ability to intervene in human beings free will as part of Grace or answering prayers. In conclusion the Problem of Evil can be answered from a Christian perspective by saying that suffering is a part of 'soul-making,' human free will, and the fact that God suffered (which entails that human suffering is acceptable) is sufficient from a Christian perspective.
Sikhism is also a monotheistic religion. Guru Nanak, the first of the ten human Gurus, founded Sikhism in the 15th century. After the 10th living Guru the Guruship was conferred to the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS). There are also two other text, which over the years have become controversial, but nonetheless have an important place within Sikhism. These two texts are the Dasam Granth (DG) and also Sarbloh Granth (SG).
The Nature of God
Sikhism does agree with the posed concept by Christianity (Cole and Sambhi, p34) and believe that these are a few of Gods attributes, but not all. These qualities described by Christianity are all 'good' qualities and Christianity believes that God is nothing but good. Sikhs however believe otherwise. They do not necessarily believe that God is evil, but they do believe that God has qualities, which we humans would believe to be evil. Sikhs therefore take a Dualism view on Gods attributes. A good way to express this is by using the concept of Sargun and Nirgun. A passage from the Guru Granth Sahib, states "God is without qualities (Nirgun) but also with all qualities (Sargun)" (GGS 287).
Like Christianity, Sikhs believe that God cannot be comprehended because of the magnitude of Gods ability. For this reason, we are unable to understand why God has the quality of 'being evil.' Being evil does not necessarily have to be a negative quality. It can be a good quality that we humans see as a negative one because we cannot comprehend as to why God would hold such an attribute. Cole and Sambhi (1993, p 35) state that Sikhs believe that "God is loving and possesses many other attributes as a stern insistence upon social justice." Therefore it means that God carriers out 'evil' in order to enforce social justice. Whether or not the enforced punishment is deemed acceptable from a human perspective. We must remember that "God is just" (GGS 90) and that "Whatever God does is righteous and just" (GGS 541).
God's judgment is based around the idea of Reincarnation. The belief is that after death there is no heaven or hell, rather the soul entering another living form, animal or human depending on ones actions. Sikhs believe that the human form is the last of Chaurasi lakh (8.4 million) life forms. Depending on the way you live your human life, will make positive and negative karma (discussed later), which you take into your next life. You will then be judged and punished accordingly. If the agent does not live a Gurmukh (God centered life) then he lived a Manmukh (self-centered) and is put into the cycle of reincarnation.
The main point to distinguish here is the fact that Sikhs take a Dualist understanding on God. God is good and bad. He is kind and unkind. So when we are reincarnated and making karma we must remember that any punishment given to us is the right one. Regardless of how 'evil' it may seem to us. According to Sikhism, it is not logically incompatible for God to be loving yet evil because God is also righteous.
What is evil?
Sikhs do not believe in the devil, nor do they believe that man has fallen and evil came into the world because of Adam and Eve. Sikhs would rather argue that evil does not exist. Evil is rather the illusion of a much greater problem, which is called Haumai ('I am', implying egoism) (Puri, 1999, p48) and the 'five evils'; these are Kaam (lust), krodh (anger), Lobh (greed), Moh (attachment) and Ahankar (pride). Sikhism argues that these five evils or desires are the actual evils that we should be getting rid of and other evils (which commonly stem from these five desires) are an illusion. Controlling or getting rid of the five evils and Haumai will get rid of evil.
Dr. Gurbakhsh Singh (1999, p27) argues that evil does not exist but rather evil is the absence of goodness. For Sikhs, being 'good' is to live a Gurmukh life. If evil is the absence of goodness then you are living a Manmukh life which means you are prone to the five evils and Haumai. As I have already discussed, Maya causes the five evils and Haumai as the GGS states "The I-me (Haumai/five evils) is a nasty disease" (GGS, p466).
We should accept everything that God gives us either as a lesson or a blessing. Guru Arjun was the fifth Guru of Sikhism. The Mughal Empire tortured him. The punishment was that he was put on a burning iron plate and pour hot sand over his body. This is undoubtedly a very big evil, however his response was "Your [God] actions seem so sweet to me" (GGS, p394). This reinforces the idea that 'evil' does not actually exist; but what do exist are the five evils. An objection this ideology might face is that, "why would God make his own disciple suffer?" Fauja Singh and Joshi (2000, p56) state that suffering of saints or followers of God take place to serve a higher purpose. This could be to set an example or to reinforce a message.
The word Maya is also very important in this discussion. Maya refers to the falsity of the world and can be translated as 'materialism.' Maya is what encourages the five evils to have an affect on human beings and therefore causing evil in this world. So although Sikhs do not believe that 'evil' actually exists, we can see it in terms of Maya causing a real event but the effect is unreal. As discussed before, Maya encourages evil and therefore takes human beings away from God. GGS (p12) it states "In attachment to Maya, they have forgotten the Father, the Cherisher of the World."
Cole and Sambhi (1993, p42) argue that evil exists because of Maya. They argue the case that Sikhism believes that evil is caused by going directly after Maya. Maya is often translated as money or material objects. Sikhs therefore believe that being materialistic; you cause evil because this causes the five evils and Haumai to rise. GGS (p109) states that "Maya is false; detesting the truth."
So far, we can see that Sikhs do not see 'evil' in the same sense as Christianity does. As Christianity sees evil as a consequence of sin which is a real event and has a real effect. Whereas Sikhs see the event as real and the effect as unreal. This does not mean that Sikhs do not see the effect on a rape victim. Rather they believe that if Kaam (lust) were controlled then there would be no evil. The five evils are the key concept in Sikhism in regards to what evil is. While Christians see evil in terms of the action and not the deep seeded problem (the five evils in Sikhism).
Why is there evil?
There are three different takes on this from a Sikh perspective. The first is because of Karma and free will, secondly because of Maya and thirdly because of the five evils and Haumai. What I will be doing is combining the three responses to formulate one united response.
Sikhs believe in karma. This means that the person suffers the consequences of their past or present actions made in either this life or a previous one. The GGS states that "you shall harvest what you plant" (GGS, p4) which expresses the idea of karma and one suffering the consequences of his or her own actions. So Sikhs believe in self caused inevitability instead of predestination (Daljeet Singh, and Kharak Singh, 1997, p94).
Sikhs do not believe that an individuals whole life is dictated by their past life. Rather that you suffer for your negative actions. It is also important to know that Gods Hukam (Law) also plays a huge role. This 'Law' is absolute, some examples are: laws of nature (such as gravity) and also fixed consequences for actions (action 'x' has the consequence 'y'). You could have no karma from your previous life and therefore the only karma that effects you is the one you make in your present life. This does not mean that humans are not free (Fauja Singh, and Joshi, L., 2000, p76) but rather leads Sikhism towards the Philosophical perspective of Compatibilism. Compatibilist believe that an agent can have free will in a world in which causal determination is true (McKenna, M. and Coates, D, 2004). This means the consequences are determined (Hukam (Gods law) and Karma) yet you can still make free choices.
Free will leads to the ability of being able to chose what action an agent choses. As discussed for Christianity, there are many arguments both for and against this, which can be applied in this scenario. However Sikhs do not believe in complete free will, as they believe in Karma.
So to unify this argument it can be seen as: free will or Karma leads to temptation, temptation leads to Maya, Haumai, and the five evils. This then leads to the absence of leading a Gurmukh life (goodness), and instead you are living a Manmukh life and constantly building karma. GGS (p1219) states human beings forget the name of the lord and become attached to temptations. These temptations are Maya, Haumai, and the five evils. This is what causes evil.
There are some notable objections to this ideology. Firstly, some may argue that karma has not been proven and therefor is not real. However, karma is practically Newtonian. Newton stated that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus showing us that Karma is a scientific belief.
Another objection might be that free will and determinism (in the form of karma and Hukam) cannot coexist. Thus, taking part in the five evils Haumai or Maya is either determined or free (if free then there is no karma). Nonetheless, Strawson and Frankfurt argue that it is possible. Strawson (2001) argues that Reactive attitudes such as love, lust or anger are compatible with determinism. Frankfurt (2009, p2) argues that our first order desires (e.g. lust), and second order desires (desire to act upon first order desire) are compatible with determinism. These arguments can be used to strengthen the Sikh view as they support the idea of humans being free yet some of our actions or desires being determined.
In this essay, I set out to distinguish the ideology of a Western religion, Christianity, and an Eastern religion, Sikhism and to compare their views. To summarize, the first distinction is in the nature of God. Sikhs takes a dualist view on Gods nature, whereas the Christian view used is very much aimed at a God, which is only good, and does not contain evil. The second difference is in the concept of evil. Christianity perceives it as something that is done through sin or original sin. While Sikhs understand evil as a byproduct of the five evils, which is the real evil. Lastly, the distinction is between the ways human beings are allowed to behave, which causes evil. Christianity believes in free will but Sikhs believe in free will and karma.
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© 2017 Parminder Davgun