Tuesday, August 25, 2009
The Puritans and the Problem of Evil
If we want to understand William Bradford and the Puritans, we have to wrestle with the problem of evil. How do we reconcile the following facts?
1. God is omnipotent.
2. God is good.
3. Evil exists in the world.
The study of the problem of evil is called theodicy, and it goes back as far as human thought can be traced, so let's not expect too much of our own quick overview. In short, many modern theologians take the view that God has imposed limits on His own omnipotence in order to allow human beings to truly have free will. This means that people have the ability to make real choices, and those choices are not restricted by God in any way. Since this means that people can choose evil -- intentional, malevolent harm -- evil exists.
The Puritans weren't having any of this "God limits Himself" stuff, and they also did not believe in free will. Strict Calvinism means that people are following God's script to the letter and cannot deviate from it, even if they want to. That lead the Puritans to believe that the fourth part of the syllogism above must be:
4. God is responsible for evil as well as good.
Nevermind that this is a direct contradiction to scripture; it is the central tenet of Puritan religious thought. If evil happens, God caused it, NOT merely "allowed" it. If something evil happens to an individual -- let's say the savages murder a child -- it's because God is punishing that individual for something he or she did. This is why, when his wife is dying, Cotton Mather is downstairs in his study, asking God what he did wrong, instead of upstairs comforting her.
Other solutions for the problem of evil exist, and the thinking person has to sort it out for himself, or herself. The Puritan view is probably not your best option.