Imagination and the Problem of Evil

Henri Rousseau painting Eve and the Serpent
“What if …”

When I was a little girl, Haley Mills was the designated Disney movie star of the day. I adored Hayley Mills. I saw every Hayley Mills movie ever made during those years in the 60s, and what I wanted more than anything was nothing less than to be Hayley Mills. In whatever movie I had last seen. To be that.

I only mention this because I think remembering that sometimes adoration generates in us the desire to merge with or become the object of our affection might help us realize that something other than “pride” might explain Eve’s susceptibility to the invitation to “be like God” in Genesis 3. With all due respect to Augustine, I question whether it was pride. I suspect it had more to do with love. I suspect Eve wanted to be God in much the same way I wanted to be Hayley Mills in Summer Magic back in 1963.

It hardly seems fair to criticize someone for responding to the compelling picture before her of what good is by wanting to be it.

The problem with wanting to be Hayley Mills in Summer Magic in 1963, of course, is that it was fundamentally impossible. I knew that. Even Hayley Mills wasn’t Hayley Mills in Summer Magic, she was acting. The reality I so longed to inhabit was not only imaginary, but unrealizable. And in retrospect, had I been able to transform my physical being to include really great hair, and to transport my temporal being to “ragtime,” I would probably have been dismayed and disappointed by all the ways – which I would naturally have failed to imagine – the early 1900s in New England were different from and not nearly as comfortable as the 1960s in Southern California. Hopefully I wouldn’t have been stuck there.

Unfortunately for Eve in Genesis 3, she is faced with the imaginary possibility of achieving what she desires. It’s not only imaginable, it’s represented as actually realizable.

I used to think that it would be inexplicably irrational for creatures in the kind of ideal initial condition depicted in Genesis, the best possible creaturely situation ever, to depart from it. How could anyone, in the actual presence of the greatest good, choose a lesser good? How does that make any sense at all? But it has now occurred to me that it may make some sense, and that the sense it makes may be explained by the way the imagination is, necessarily, unconstrained by reality. Imagination works precisely because it can generate representations of alternatives to experiential reality. Even in the best possible creaturely situation, then, the imagination can represent an otherwise reality, and can represent it as both realizable and as preferable. Mistakenly. But how would you know that?

You wouldn’t. It’s no solution to the problem to say “you’d have revelation,” even though you would, and even though the revelation you would have would provide you with warranted true belief about the lesser good of any alternative to your situation. It’s no solution, because you still have competing truth claims, and no clear, effective way of assessing their comparative validity. You wouldn’t know, you wouldn’t have any way to know, that this is one of those situations in which revelation will turn out to be more reliable than experience.

The most common conclusion I’ve heard about the archetypal Genesis 3 situation over the course of my religious life is that Eve should have “obeyed” God. No doubt that would have been the right course for Eve. But as a generalization for what we ourselves ought to do, in our less-than-perfect world, that advice seems to fail, unfortunately. It fails because there are times when “obeying God,” at least according to the version of what that means that is being urged on you, is exactly the wrong thing to do. There are times when doing what you’ve been told you have to do to “obey God” – like obey your priest, or your pastor, or your mom’s and dad’s interpretation of the Bible – is either going to victimize you, or make you an active collaborator with evil, or both.

It’s possible that a more adequate answer would be that Eve should have been “loyal” to God, the kind of loyalty you have when you love someone. Loyalty might have enabled her to reject the tempting suggestions that God might not have her best interest at heart, or that God might be keeping something from her. , Loyalty might also have enabled her to conclude that even if those suggestions were true, that might not matter to her as much as doing what God had asked her to do. It might have made the grounds of personal knowledge and commitment prevail over her imagined self-interested satisfaction of a completely intelligible but ultimately tragic desire. Whether that alternative escapes the problems with obedience requires more work.

In any event, the point is that the problem posed by the competing truth claims in the situation depicted in Genesis 3 can’t be solved by actually conducting a comparative assessment of the truth of the competing claims. And the problem arises in the first place because imagining an alternative to the situation, and presenting it as a better alternative, is completely possible. If “Evil is the Big Lie that is so destructive and terrible just because it convinces us that the truth about God, God’s world, and life in it is not the truth,”1 then it’s not hard to see how imagination could play a part in the genesis of that lie, even in an ideal initial condition.

We can hardly fault imagination for operating the way it does. In our manifestly imperfect world, the imagination’s freedom from the constraints of reality is exactly what permits us to entertain thoughts of justice in the face of injustice, of love in the face of indifference and coldness, and of the ultimate victory of good over evil. We would be doomed if we couldn’t imagine a reality other than one we now inhabit. Imagination is an ally of human liberation, including the human liberation called Christian faith.

So I can’t imagine we would really want God to have created a world without imagination. But it might also be, at the same time, that imagination is a critical point of vulnerability of that world to the distortion of evil.

1 Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 182.

5 responses to “Imagination and the Problem of Evil”

  1. You’re welcome, and thanks for the comment. One of those stories I have spent a LOT of time thinking about over the years …


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