The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
Theodicy is the branch of
theology dedicated to understanding the problem of evil, that is, why evil
exists in a world governed by a good, wise, and powerful god. Over the
centuries, Persian thought has addressed this question more thoroughly
than any other religious tradition. Several
of the understandings arrived at within the
greater Zoroastrian tradition will be discussed and compared with
the thoughts of other religious traditions.
I first became intrigued by Zoroastrianism when I read of its conception of a God, Ahura Mazda, whose goal was the eradication of evil from the world and who asked for human assistance in reaching this goal. I had always been troubled by the problem of evil, i.e., why an omnipotent and omni benevolent deity would allow evil to exist. The typical answers that I had encountered in Christianity, I found to be unsatisfying: they did not ring true to me. Most Christian theology worked hard to sidestep the issue, rather than to truly grapple with this dilemma. As I studied more Persian thought, not just orthodox Zoroastrianism, but variants such as Zarvanism and Mazdakism, I found that the ancient Persians had attacked this problem with more thoroughness and intellectual fearlessness than had the Abrahamic faiths.
The problem of evil boils down to attempting to reconcile three beliefs:
Any two of these statements can easily be held to be true, but it is difficult to see how all three can be true. Human who are good do their best to reduce evil when they can. An all-powerful deity should be able to entirely eliminate evil.
Christianity has never produced a satisfactory solution to this trilemma. The traditional answer has been to attribute the existence of evil to man’s free will. The argument goes as follows: God is not entirely omnipotent, not being able to do what is self-contradictory or logically impossible. Free will is a good thing. Allowing human free will permits humans to be evil. Thus, evil is an unfortunate consequence of man’s free will. Since it is man, not the God, who freely chooses to do wrong, the goodness of the God is not compromised.
There are numerous difficulties with this solution. The most striking is that the God has become a less competent moral agent than an individual human. I, a man, am able to actively prevent evils other than my own. I can restrain others who are bent on doing harm. I can work to reduce the damage done by pestilence, disease, and natural disasters. If such good deeds are good when I do them, how can it not be good for the God to do the same, only more competently?
One answer is to deny that the God is good. This belief was implicitly held by most of the ancient Jews who insisted that the God brings both good and evil. But why should an amoral deity be worthy of worship? It would seem that the standard of righteousness itself is more worthy of worship than is such a deity.
The other straightforward answer is to deny that the God is all-powerful. This was the answer of Sassanian Zoroastrianism. By the Sassanian period, Ahura Mazda and Spenta Mainyu had become regarded as the same entity, Ormuzd. Angra Mainya, the dark twin of Spenta Mainyu, now as Ahriman, became elevated to the same stature as the God, Ormuzd. Ahriman was nearly as powerful as Ormuzd. In time and with man’s help, Ormuzd would prevail, but here and now Ormuzd was not sufficiently powerful to eliminate evil.
Early Christianity, being greatly influenced by Zoroastrianism, frequently, though inconsistently, invoked this solution. Satan, an angel who was originally God’s attorney general, becomes seen as the God’s adversary. This belief is still held by most fundamentalist Protestant Christians, who generally avoid noting that allowing the free reign of such a rogue angel cannot be a good act on the part of the God.
Sassanian metaphysics easily solved the problem of evil, the forces of good and evil being on an equal footing; but in doing so it produced other theological problems. Being on an equal footing, good and evil become distinct, but logically similar standards. Thus in Sassanian Zoroastrian there are seen to be seven archdemons, the evil counterparts of each of the Amesha Spenta.
This doesn’t work, particularly for the case of Asha Vahishta. Asha Vahishta is the personification of truth and righteousness. There is no standard of falsehood; there is simply the failure to adhere to the standard of truth. Asha has no dark twin. Similarly, there is no reasonable counterpart to Vohu Mana. The opposite of mindfulness is similarly a vacancy, the failure to be mindful. Unless one accepts that Asha, the standard of righteousness, is logically prior to the dichotomy of good and evil, there is no basis for choosing the way of Asha over that of the equivalent shadow minister of Ahriman.
In addition, the existence of two spirits, mirror images of one another, logically implies some common source. This source then becomes the more basic principle, logically prior to either Ormuzd or Ahriman. This was the point recognized by the Zervanists, who posited Zurvan (Time) as the parent of these twins. This corrected the logical flaw introduced when Ahura Mazda was reduced to the level of Angra Mainyu as a result of his identification with Spenta Mainyu. They also intuitively recognized a fact that modern scientific understanding would support: destruction and time are inherently intertwined.
The ancient Persians had another insight as well about the nature of evil: evil is not creative. This point was stressed most firmly by the Mazdakians who insisted that the actions of evil were not directed, but random.
I find this insight particularly instructive in understanding what is known in the philosophical community as “natural evil”. This term refers to bad things that happen that cannot be reasonably explained as a result of human misbehavior. Examples are misfortunes such as birth defects, epidemics, and natural disasters such as tornadoes. Such things are responsible for great human suffering. Unlike human evil, this evil acts blindly. One is in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffers.
Some insight can be gained by considering the case of a tornado. Suppose I were to show you a movie of a tornado bearing down upon a building and reducing it to rubble. This is a tragedy, but not a surprising one; this is what tornadoes do. One the other hand, suppose I show you a movie in which a tornado runs across a pile of rubble and erects it into a building. You would know that you had been tricked; the movie was being shown backwards.
The pile of rubble being erected into a building by the tornado would break no physical conservation laws. All the necessary material is there. Mass and energy conservation are not violated. But still, this kind of thing just doesn’t happen (or happens so rarely that it is effectively impossible). The reason is that entropy, the scientific measure of disorder, always increases. When items are arranged randomly, the chances of them creating an ordered structure, such as a building, are tiny. Anything that randomly rearranges items will tend to increase the disorder.
Natural evils are of the same character. They do damage by random disruption, not directed cruelty. For this reason, many people do not like to attach the term “evil” to such occurrences. But one must admit that they are unfortunate and cause much suffering. I tend to refer to them as evil, for if this is not the case, human attempts to reduce unfortunate natural occurrences cannot be seen as good; and I think that they are good.
Time’s direction, and even existence, implies the increase in entropy, and thus the existence of natural evil. Without time, good and evil have no meaning; and without natural evil, time cannot exist. Only in the temporal, getig, world can the spiritual, menog, conflict be played out.
Human evil is less problematic. Zarathushtra continually rails against the violence and cruelty he sees around him. He calls upon people to choose righteousness. But few people willfully choose to be evil. They simply fail to exercise their good minds to choose good. Human evil is also basically a disordered condition, a failure of the moral faculty, not an active seeking of the wrong. Zarathushtra recognizes this in Yasna 30.3, where he contrasts the natures of good and bad people. He does not say, “The good choose virtuously, the evil choose wickedly.” Instead he notes, “The good choose wisely, the evil do not.” The failure to make moral choice is the root problem. It remains to later Persian thought for this insight to be more fully developed.
Unlike many other religions, in Zoroastrianism, history has a purpose, the elimination of evil from the world. In orthodox Zoroastrianism, the origin of evil is somewhat vague, other than that good and evil are coeval, that they both were there in the beginning of things, and together they brought about the world we know. Zervanism carried this one step further, seeing the existence of the world, good, and evil as an act of divine purgation. The Godhead becomes perfect by purging itself of evil. In doing so It temporarily loses Its omnipotence but will regain it at the end of days. This divine purgation is the reason for the existence of the universe. This advanced metaphysical conception was not to be rediscovered until the time of the late medieval Jewish Kabbalists.
This is also in line with what is now known as Process Theology, the understanding of the Divine not as static perfection, but as a growing, active reality. All is not yet well, but all will be well in the fullness of time. Frasho-kereti is not yet here, but it will come. This, for me, has proven to be the most reasonable understanding of this age-old theological problem.
Albert Bailey, a physicist and computer programmer, was born and raised in the southern United States. He became interested in Zoroastrianism since childhood, and began studying the Zoroastrian scriptures with the Cambridge Gatha Study Group of Zarathushtrian Association of Greater Boston Area in 1995. He has composed musical renditions of two of Gathic hymns that the group studied (Y.28, Y.29). He currently resides in Redlands, California.
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