One of my favorite toys when I was growing up was an Erector set, which came in a big red box with an astonishing variety of scaled-down girders, wheels and pulleys that could be fastened together with screws and nuts. Erector sets came with a step-by-step instruction manual for assembling all sorts of miniature cranes, derricks, trucks, Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds. Because I was fairly adept at following written directions, I may have overestimated my mechanical aptitude. I would occasionally take apart small household appliances thinking I could put them back together again. Invariably, there would be parts left over but no instruction manual to tell me where they fit. This is how I discovered that a windup alarm clock will stubbornly refuse to tick when the reassembled whole is less than the sum of the parts.
Theologians have encountered a similar problem trying to explain where evil fits in God's plan of creation. The closest thing we have to an instruction manual is the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, which doesn't mention evil at all. God divided light from darkness and earth from water, but there was no division of good from evil. The creation story states only that God beheld what he had made at the end of each day and judged it to be very good. So where did the evil come from? Read on and you discover knowledge of good and evil ripening on a tree. It is not long before the first man and woman have helped themselves, even though God warned them not to. They take the fall for this act of disobedience, along with the serpent who put them up to it. But that leaves begging the much larger question of how evil got there in the first place and who is ultimately to blame.
Theories abound, none entirely satisfactory. To say that mankind brought evil into the world through his sinful actions is a bit like blaming him for the object that he stumbles over. And what if the object were a foot? Those who make it their business to explain the ways of God to man may argue that evil is necessary to preserve free will or to punish sin. This is small consolation to the innocent victims. The philosopher David Hume wrote of God: “Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” Perhaps the tidiest explanation is that evil operates independently of God. But that would lead inexorably to the conclusion that God is not the sum of all the parts.
As I learned long ago, you have to put all the parts together to make the clock tick. Why is it that our efforts to rid the world of evil only seem to engender more evil? We imagine that our moral indignation will immunize us against the evil we see in others, but it merely shows we have been infected by the same contagion. Moral indignation is not the same thing as innocence. There is just no way to reclaim the innocence lost when we first gained knowledge of good and evil. Nor can we simply sidestep evil on the pathway to God, because we will certainly stumble at our own doorstep. Strange as it may sound, if our aim is to embrace God, we must first embrace the devil.