Journey Back to God

Origen on the Problem of Evil

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Mark S. M. Scott
AAR Academy Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     252 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mark S. M. Scott's Journey Back to God takes on questions of both theodicy and "the problem of evil" from Origen's stance as a practicing Christian and provides a refreshing change from the more traditional analytic approaches to such questions. Scott's work capitalizes on the lived aspect of "the problem of evil," and looks at what the practice of theodicy means for an individual who is situated within a faith context.

Scott has positioned his work at a very interesting juncture, and it is clear from the first chapter that his intended partners in dialogue are those who are working in the field of theodicy. Chapter 1 starts by laying out some contemporary approaches to theodicy, presenting Max Weber's belief that it is a search for meaning, Peter Berger's belief that theodicy is a search for order, and Clifford Geertz's belief that theodicy and religion are the construction of meaningful symbolic networks. Scott goes ahead and adds his own understanding to these theories by suggesting that theodicy is actually a navigation through life rather than simply an intellectual activity. Scott's theory of navigation, when put in the context of Origen's thought, is ultimately a navigation of the soul back to whence it descended; in other words, "the material world functions as a springboard–a cosmic trampoline–for the soul’s return to God, and suffering functions remedially to purge the soul of sin" (21).

Chapter 2 demonstrates that Origen's ontology of evil can be understood as a privatio boni argument, while simultaneously arguing that evil is a necessary by-product of creating a good world. Scott appeals to Contra Celsum 6.55, noting that evil accompanies creation just as "spiral shavings and sawdust are a consequence of the primary works of a carpenter" (26). Where this account of theodicy differs the most from most modern accounts is when it comes to the question of what theodicy is. Scott presents David Hume as a standard expression of theodicy by listing his propositions: “is (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? The he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil” (32)? Origen's primary concern is, in contrast, the "credibility of divine providence" (33).

The "credibility of divine providence" is ensured through the deployment of the freewill defence. Evil's existence, as chapter 3 lays out, comes about through a "creaturely misuse of freedom" (49). Scott's reading of Origen's theodicy places a great deal of weight on the descent of the soul, as all evil is a product of a "creaturely misuse of freedom" (49), including evils such as being born into an unfortunate situation, which come about as a result of the soul's poor choices before its descent.

Scott’s reading of Origen’s theodicy is, in many ways, simply an account of one’s salvation, a point made clear in chapter 4. The individual falls to his current situation as a result of a habitual turning away from God (64), but God, as the lover of humankind, has designed the world as "a schoolroom or hospital for the soul, not as a prison" (74) in order to reform the individual so that they might return to God. This framework renders “all suffering as either deserved or valuable” (162).

There are two images at the heart of Origen’s freewill defence of God: that of a tilled field and a comparison of both mud and wax. In the former, Scott points to Origen’s use of rain as an analogy for divine mercy. This rain, when falling on tilled or untilled soil, leads to different results: the same, too, can be said about mercy falling on tilled or untilled souls (82). While Scott prefers the former analogy, he also notes Origen’s depiction of the way in which the same sunlight can shine on mud or wax and produce different results (83).

It is in chapter 6 that Scott starts to bring nuance to his argument by suggesting a revised model of apokatastasis. By positioning himself between Henry Chadwick, who finds that Origen holds the belief that the devil will be saved, and Frank Norris, who argues to the contrary, Scott weaves together a stance that says hell and damnation are real, but transitory (146). His position contends “that the Devil qua Devil must be destroyed in Origen’s theodicy because of his incorrigible evil, but that the rational creature who became the Devil will be purged and restored at the apokatastasis” (139).

This work is very much an attempt to find the internal cohesion concerning theodicy within the work of Origen, but there are a couple of points that it would have been nice to see more on. The point is made clear that Origen relies on the free-will defence, but little is said about why this position is taken. The question that looms large is “why create creatures that can do evil?” In answer to such a question it would have been nice to see Scott expand on Origen’s polemic against fate, chance, and mechanism. Secondly, with the recent contestation of the fact that Origen holds a doctrine of the descent of the soul by scholars such as Mark Edwards and Panayiotis Tzamalikos, it would have been nice to see a bit more of a justification for retaining the doctrine, or, if nothing else, a disclaimer that recent scholars have called the doctrine into question.

Scott brings a refreshing take on theodicy to the table by suggesting that it is as much about a way of life as it is a logical formula. Consequently, this work highlights the often overlooked question of what theodicy means for one’s life and, as such, can properly be spoken of as guide to doing theodicy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel J. Tolan is writing his doctoral thesis on Origen at Clare College, Cambridge.

Date of Review: 
March 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark S. M. Scott is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Thorneloe University.


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