Joseph F KELLY: The Problem of Evil in the Western Tradition. From the Book of Job to Modern Genetics Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002. ISBN: 0-8146-5104-6 (softcover; $19.95); 0-8146-5149-6 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Daniel LIDERBACH, 2001 Main St. Buffalo, NY 14208-1098

The topic of the book is an historical "survey of how evil has been understood in the West from the Biblical era until today." As the author acknowledges, that is a vast topic. Yet evil can be a critical problem for theists: belief in a good God appears to be in conflict with divine tolerance of evil in the world. Consequently the historian seeks to uncover the variety of manners in which humans have interpreted evil.

The ancient Hebrews acknowledged their God justly to punish them with evil occurrences. However in their effort to distance such evil from their God, they careated a personification of evil, a Satan, who followed the directives of God and acted as the agent who imposed evil upon humans. For example Satan needed divine permission to strike Job with physical afflictions.

The author then presents an exhaustive survey of the myriad shifts in the manner in which the Western world had interpreted the source of evil. There was among Westerners an extraordinary scope in the images and sources of evil. As an historian, Joseph Kelly manifests a breadth of knowledge of the data related to evil.

However some concrete images of evil deserve to be cited because of their pervasive influence upon the West's interpretation of evil. Augustine of Hippo interpreted evil to be a universally pervasive consequence of Original Sin. Consequently he taught and the West learned to perceive history through the spectacles of pessimism. Then, as Christianity spread into northern Europe, evil came to be interpreted in philosophical terms. Increasingly the West interpreted evil in theoretical, rather than mythical, language. However when the Muslims moved into Spain and Asia Minor, there was a return to the images of evil as matter, as Jews, as women, and, for Christians, as Muslims. The Renaissance introduced human motivations, e.g., ambition or revenge, as the sources of evil. However the attraction of philosophy for Westerners led very many to interpret evil philosophically. Nonetheless the nineteenth century shifted away from philosophies of evil to human corruption as sources of evil. On the other hand as empirical science grew in importance, the West began to interpret evil as empirically verified disruptions of social interactions. Consequently belief in a devil began to disappear. The historical trauma of the twentieth century led to reinterpreting evil more in terms of psychological interpretations of distorted motivations. Moreover as the century evolved, philosophical interpretations of evil returned to focal center.

One cannot but respect the author's breadth of research in the West's images and meanings of evil. On the other hand one becomes aware that the author necessarily had to be very selective in identifying "the West" with several dozen interpretations. Nevertheless, a survey of how evil is understood cannot but be most selective. This book would be most valuable for anyone who is interested in such as historical survey.

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