Philosophy of Religion Series: Zoroastrianism and The Problem of Evil

By R.N. Carmona

In the last entry in this series, we saw how Buddhism can handle the Problem of Evil. Traditionally, the problem exposed a contradiction between the idea of a perfectly good deity and the abundance of evil and suffering in the world. Buddhism solves this contradiction by eliminating the former variable from the equation, leaving only evil and suffering. With no deus ex machina to rescue us, the issue stands before us, waiting to be resolved by humanity, perhaps by way of adhering to principles similar to the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. What is notable about the Buddhist solution to the problem is that it makes it our problem and makes us responsible for doing something about the evil and suffering in our world; it places the burden on us to lift the world out of degeneracy.

Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, has a solution similar to the ones offered by Christians and Muslims. The key difference is that Zoroastrian theology better explains the origin and persistence of evil and suffering. On Christianity, God is perfect in every way. He is perfectly good and there is no evil in him. In addition to this, he is omniscient, omnipotent, and sovereign. Satan does not come close to matching God’s power and more importantly, he could not have produced degenerated conditions prior to the Fall of Adam. Plantinga argues, on the one hand, that Adam is to blame for why humans are capable of evil (Beebe, James R. “Logical Problem of Evil”Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web.). On the other hand, he blames cosmic and natural evils on the volition of evil, immaterial entities; he adds that God could not create a world with a better balance of good and evil, an allusion to Leibniz’s idea of a best possible world (Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.). The notion that something is not within God’s power contradicts the belief that he is omnipotent. Furthermore, that fallen angels, beings contingent not only on God’s creative power but also on his immutable and incorruptible nature, were even capable of falling into depravity is dubious. Plantinga’s solutions, like other solutions offered by Christian apologists, compounds the problem.

Where Christian theology fails, Zoroastrian theology succeeds. On Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd is perfect in every way: he is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly benevolent, immutable, incorruptible, and timeless. He created a material realm (getig) because he foresaw a future in where Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) would be defeated. Since life cannot coexist with non-life, light cannot coexist with darkness, and creation cannot coexist with privation, Ahura Mazda created the world for purposes of luring Angra Mainyu into it and defeating him. Angra Mainyu, unlike Satan, can corrupt creation. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the viruses, diseases, parasites, and predators we wonder about given the assumption that there exists a perfectly good god are explained by an equally powerful evil god that can corrupt the substances of creation. Clark explains:

As far as their own natures are concerned, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) and Angra Mainyu are completely opposite to the extent that whereas it is appropriate to say that the former has life, it is more correct to say that the latter has “non-life” and that his “creations” are in fact “anti-creations” or deprivative incursions into the Ahuric. Thus although we can characterize Zoroastrianism as a dualism of sorts, this must be qualified since we cannot say that the religion recognizes two gods in Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu precisely because of the radical distinction of their natures. This distinction is confirmed textually. The term for “Lord,” for example, is never applied to Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) in the Pahlavi books, and both the Avestan and Pahlavi languages have curious double vocabularies in which certain terms are inherently Ahuric and others inherently Ahrimanic. Even seemingly neutral terms like “leg” and “hand” have different words in Avestan, depending on whether they are used with reference to Ahuric or Ahrimanic entities.

Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Chicago: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. 85. Print

The longstanding Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion has inadvertently stumbled upon this solution already. While Buddhism removes God from the equation, Zoroastrianism adds an evil god to solve the problem of evil and suffering. It would be interesting to note the similarity between Zoroastrian theology and Aquinas’ explanation of evil. Aquinas was probably familiar with Zoroastrian theology and subsumed their explanation of evil into his philosophy because in light of Christian theology, Aquinas’ musings are incoherent. Floyd states that “evil has no actuality in its own right. It would be a mistake, then, to speak of evil as an actual “thing,” if by “thing” we mean an existing being or quality. For evil is a deprivation of what is actual, like blindness or sickness. For this reason, Aquinas says that something is evil “inasmuch as it is deprived of some particular good that pertains to its due or proper perfection” (QDM 1.1 ad 1; ST Ia 48.2 passim)” (Floyd, Shawn. “Aquinas: Moral Philosophy”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Alternatively, since Aquinas followed Augustine’s lead here, perhaps Augustine was familiar with Zoroastrian theology and incorporated their explanation of evil into his writings.

What’s more is that the evil god challenge has already been raised and though it was not Law’s intention to argue that this evil god explains evil ontologically, intending instead to pose a new challenge for Theism, Law’s evil god is not far from Angra Mainyu. Law states:

Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose the universe has a creator. Suppose also that this being is omnipotent and omniscient. But suppose he is not maximally good. Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis.

Law, Stephen. The evil-god challenge. Religious Studies, 2010 46(3), 353-373. doi:10.1017/S0034412509990369

The key difference is that Law replaces the Judeo-Christian concept of god with a maximally evil being. His concept is more in keeping with monotheism rather than the henotheism present in Zoroastrian theology. Briefly, henotheism entails the worship of one god while not denying that there are other gods or the worship of one god that can manifest itself in other forms or as other gods, e.g., Hinduism. Though Zoroastrians do not address Angra Mainyu as a god, he is not a being created by Ahura Mazda. Furthermore, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu are recognized as “twin spirits,” co-eternal, and both existing outside of time. Spenta Mainyu, the holy spirit of Ahura Mazda, is hypostatically connected to Ahura Mazda. Clark elaborates:

Just as the good spirit of Ahura Mazda, Spenta Mainyu, and the hostile spirit, Angra Mainyu, are independent of each other, having no connection either conceptually or in any fundamental or primal sense (in that they share no common origin), so evil and good in this world are also completely separate to the degree that one is not only the ideological but also physical antithesis of the other. All that is good, that which we call Ahuric, is a positive quality emanating from the Wise Lord whereas all that is bad is the result of Ahriman’s intrusion into the Ahuric domain, and is in fact a deprivation of the good, a destructive incursion into the created order. That is why the Ahrimanic is sometimes referred to only by what it is not hence the term ajyati, “not-life” (Ibid., 126).

The maximally great being of Christian Theists and the maximally evil being posited by Law are already present in Zoroastrian theology. Humans are actors on a stage set from eternity; Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu have been at variance for all of eternity and we are either ashavans living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds or we are drugvants leading a life of hostility, deceit, violence, and so on. Any feature of the universe that we qualify as evil or, at the very least, irreconcilable with a perfectly good being, from asteroid impacts to malignant Narcissists, reduces to the Zoroastrian hostile spirit and his capacity to manipulate creative substance so that it succumbs to degeneracy. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the abundance of evil and suffering we experience in the world, including features of the animal kingdom that do not square with the existence of a perfectly benevolent being, stem from an intrusive, equally powerful evil god whose greatest weapon is death. From a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective, if the Ahuric design was simply for species to acquire adaptive traits enabling them to survive in perpetuity, Angra Mainyu manipulated evolutionary purposes to introduce death and extinction, or simply, “non-life.”

Interestingly, there is a way for a naturalist to subsume the Zoroastrian solution to the Problem of Evil. If we set aside all reification of evil and good, along with any ideas of omni-beings whether good or evil, what Zoroastrianism predicts is that people living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds will rid the physical realm of evil once and for all. Just as we learned through Buddhism, while we are ultimately not powerful enough to address all aspects of so-called degeneracy, in that we cannot, for instance, remove entropy from the universe or return it to its original state of perfect symmetry, we can rid the world of exploitation, corruption, deceit, and all manner of malice; with enough scientific and technological advancement, we may be able to achieve versions of functional immorality, thereby curbing death (see Reedy, Christiana. “An End to Aging: Can Science Allow Humans to To Become Immortal?”. Futurism. 3 Mar 2017. Web.). The naturalistic Zoroastrian prescription for a solution to the Problem of Evil is similar to the Buddhist’s: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds, which are similar in many respects to Buddhism’s Eightfold Path. What’s more is that according to Zoroastrian mythology, Ahura Mazda created us to be the impetus of his victory over Angra Mainyu. On a naturalistic reading, then, the eradication of evil and the regeneration of our civilization and planet requires us to become ashavans, following after asha (truth) and following an ethical code that would draw us to the incorruptible light of Ahura Mazda. Essentially, there is no distinction between how Ahura Mazda is described and an ashavan, once again implying that we are to reappropriate the moral powers we mistakenly surrendered to the prevailing idea of God.

Ultimately, Zoroastrianism offers a unique solution to the problem of evil, one that its theology was able to anticipate in today’s Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion, so to speak. For anyone looking to maintain belief in a perfectly good deity, it appears reasonable to recognize that there is an equally, or at least, comparably powerful evil deity through whom we can explain evil and suffering. Aquinas, following Augustine, appears to have been familiar enough with Zoroastrianism; otherwise, it will be hard to explain why his rationalizations of evil sound suspiciously similar. The problem is that I do not think Augustine and Aquinas’ ideas cohere with Christian theology; the notion of deprivation or “non-life” makes a lot more sense given the Zoroastrian belief in the “twin spirits.” Christians have long recognized the appeal of this solution, augmenting Satan’s power to the point of near-omnipotence. On some accounts, he can read minds or predict the future. Martin Luther King Jr., communicating a line of Christian thinking, conveyed the idea of “demonic imitation” in where religions like Zoroastrianism, along with its belief in saoshyants born of virgins, were meant to deceive people and lure them away from Christianity (Jr. King, Martin Luther. “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity”. Stanford University. 29 Nov 1949. Web.). Christianity does not bestow this level of power on its greatest evil. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, does acknowledge that Angra Mainyu is maximally evil. Zoroastrianism’s solution is provocative though it entails henotheism or even polytheism. Either way, it is a welcome retreat from the Christian monopoly, a viable way to get out from under Christianity’s long shadow in the philosophy of religion.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Religion and believers #5 Transition to Monotheism – Unmasking anti Jehovah sites and people

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