Rebellion and the Gods

"The Fall of the Titans" by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem


The Problem of Evil has been a central problem for monotheism for millennia. If God is Good how can it allow the innocent to suffer? If God is All-Powerful why can’t it stop this suffering? Therefore: either God isn’t Good, isn’t All-Powerful, or doesn’t exist at all. This challenge has never been presented as well as in Dostoevsky. There, the intellectual and highly educated Ivan presses his younger brother Alyosha, who is training to become a monk, on the point.

“It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”
“That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.
“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly, “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge you — answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.
“And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy forever?”
“No, I can’t admit it,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes…
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov,  Constance Garnett trans.)

Ivan’s approach to the problem is slightly unique, since he isn’t interested in arguing about the existence or non-existence of God. Rather, he uses the argument to reject the world and conclude that the only proper response to the problem of evil is to reject the unjust world God has made and “return the ticket” that is his life. Alyosha is quick to strike upon the answer appropriate to ‘true believers,’ to ask such questions is to challenge God. It is to engage in rebellion. Yet still, as a sensitive boy who cares about the world, Alyosha cannot help but be drawn into Ivan’s rebellion. 

“Fyodor Dostoevsky” by Vasily Perov

There is always something of rebellion about taking seriously the Problem of Evil. To ask such questions seriously is to question God’s plan, to say nothing of the divine goodness, power, and existence. When we are provoked by such concerns, the ‘true believer’ points out, it is a test of faith. We must acquiesce to the power, goodness, and wisdom of God despite all evidence to the contrary. It is a test of faith, a test of obedience. The question of evil, of the suffering of innocents, is indivisible from the possibility of rebellion against that entity from which such suffering ultimately comes–either because it is designed or because it is allowed.

The question of the Problem of Evil is mostly unknown to Pagan cultures. There are several fairly obvious reasons why this is so, and several more interesting less obvious reasons. On the surface there is no problem of evil in most Pagan cultures because the Gods are not understood to be perfectly good or all-powerful. What consists of blasphemy for most monotheists, i.e. admitting that God isn’t perfect, is fairly standard within Pagan cultures.

On a deeper level, however, the metaphysics and theology embedded in a Pagan worldview does not allow for an absolutist’s singular understanding of Goodness. There are goods, multiple and varied, and from the top to the bottom the cosmos is plural and irreducible to one standard of judgment. This means that many Gods can all be good and yet these forms of goodness can conflict or fail to overlap. This is one reason why Socrates’ questions as to the nature of virtue in general are so often met with confusion. The people with whom he spoke weren’t idiots, their metaphysics was just one in which distinct individual realities weren’t reducible to abstract entities such as “Goodness in-itself by-itself.” 

Socrates: Come then, let us examine what we mean. An action or a man dear to the gods is pious, but an action or a man hated by the gods is impious. They are not the same, but quite opposite, the pious and the impious. Is that not so?
Euthyphro: It is indeed.
Socrates: And that seems to be a good statement?
Euthyphro: I think so, Socrates.
Socrates: We have also stated that the gods are in a state of discord, that they are at odds with each other, Euthyphro, and that they are at enmity with each other. Has that, too, been said?
(Plato, “Euthyphro” Grube trans.)

Although not addressing the Problem of Evil, the Platonic dialogue the “Euthyphro” does explore the nature of goodness under the heading of “piety” and its relation to the Gods. Indirectly it raises the problematic question of whether or not the Gods are really good, or rather just powerful, which underlies one of the challenges embodied in the later Problem of Evil. If we are going to arrive at a unified understanding of the Good, or that version of it found in piety, we are going to have to reject the multiplicity of the Gods, Socrates insists. With multiple Gods there can be no singular definition of piety, or ultimately virtue and goodness. 

Plato is pushing his own agenda in the dialogues, one that consists of a rejection of the Gods of archaic poetry and myth in favor of eternal, perfect, inhuman, and unchanging divine principles. For this reason we should not be surprised to find Socrates’ debate partners so willing to give ground on the abstract unity of goodness. I must confess to wishing Euthyphro himself were just a bit smarter and, to put it bluntly, a bit more Greek. Then he might have asked “Why precisely should I be concerned to come up with a unifying general definition of piety or goodness? What makes this necessary? May not ‘good’ or ‘pious’ be meant in many senses — senses derived from many and different Gods?” Alas we do not get this dialogue.

What we do get in the Euthyphro dialogue is the clear connection of any discussion of goodness and the Gods to the topic of rebellion. From the beginning Euthyphro, an Athenian priest, is informed in his view of the Gods by their conflict, and highest in this list of conflicts is that between Zeus and his father Chronos, along with Chronos’ own overthrowing of his father Ouranus. Each of these conflicts is, by definition, a rebellion against previously legitimate authority. For Euthyphro and the Pagans of Ancient Greece, rebellion is a central characteristic of the cosmos. Socrates, in seeking a unified Good, rejects both rebellion amongst the Gods and any legitimacy for rebellion against the Gods.

This is far from the norm, however, as stories such as Heracles’ rescue of Prometheus from the official punishment of Zeus attest. In fact, Pagan cultures in general are full of stories of humans tricking Gods, bargaining with them, stealing from them, and defeating them. Of course, more often, the human fails in its rebellion. But it nonetheless remains a legitimate potential relationship between Gods and humanity. Beyond open rebellion there is the more nuanced conflict between human adherents of conflicting Gods identifying themselves as taking part in the larger divine conflict.

The political implications of these points should be clear. How we relate to what we might call the cosmic chain of command can’t help but have implications for our relationship to worldly political structures. This is why, despite obvious preferences for forms of monarchy in divine hierarchies, I have frequently argued that the heart of the Pagan understanding of cosmic and divine hierarchy is temporary, unstable authority open to challenge and built out of tentative compromises. Likewise, a similar point can be made for a Pagan attitude towards worldly authority. All authority is fleeting and open to contestation. 

We find brief echoes of this Pagan world of contested authority in elements of the Judaic worldview of the so-called Old Testament. We see it most strikingly in Abraham’s willingness to bargain and argue with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet this vision is all too brief. It is replaced in the memory of history by the more striking obedience of Abraham, an obedience willing to do what Alyosha could not and build a future world on the innocent blood of a child — Issac, Abraham’s own son. Whether or not the murder is required of him at the end, Abraham makes clear that he is willing to kill the child at God’s behest. He obediently endorses the suffering of the innocent.

Elie Wiesel

It is the vision of Abraham arguing with God, however, that the Nobel Laureate, writer, Holocaust survivor, and Judaic theologian Elie Wiesel turned to in making sense of the state of faith following the Holocaust.

Elie Wiesel used to give three public lectures in Boston every year, and for many years the first lecture was always about the “Book of Job.” I was fortunate enough to see Wiesel lecture on the “Book of Job” four times and his view largely informs my own engagement with the Problem of Evil. Wiesel found the “Book of Job” to be the most important book of the Bible for the post-Holocaust world. It is also, read a certain way, the darkest moment of the entire Bible. It is a book that raises the question of the Problem of Evil, of why innocents suffer, and it strikingly fails to provide any answer to the question.

Job, his family killed and everything but his own life taken from him because of a wager God made with Satan, asks for an explanation from his God. God answers, in an overpowering whirlwind, with a show of power but offers no answers. In the book itself, Job obediently humbles himself and asks for forgiveness for having questioned his God and is rewarded with a “new family” (how inadequate this is, Wiesel notes, in the face of the loss of the first).

Wiesel, however, frequently suggested that the real end of the book might have been removed, lost, or changed. What he wanted of Job was more in the spirit of Abraham when faced with God’s condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Job should refuse to accept God’s power as an adequate answer to the question of God’s righteousness. In short, in the face of the Holocaust, the appropriate answer of the believer should be to demand an explanation, to accuse God while remaining stalwart in belief. Whether intentionally or not, there is a strong echo of Ivan in this stance and it is indeed a type of rebellion. 

What allows for rebellion, whether potential or actual, in Heracles, Euthyphro, Abraham, and Wiesel is clearly not just a pluralistic understanding of divinity as could be found in Heracles and Euthyphro but not easily found in Abraham or Wiesel. Instead, something else is shared by each of these examples. You could call it a sense of divine personality.

Looking to Classical Greece (a penchant of mine that I fear may vex my readers from time to time) is useful because it allows us to see a culture in which the understanding of almost every major concept is in dramatic flux. In Greece we can witness the transition from an oral to a literate society, and in this transition we see a cognitive revolution the likes of which we can rarely capture with such clarity. In Greece around the time of Plato, for example, we can witness three wildly distinct ideas of divinity at full war with one another.

First, we see the oldest sense of divinity, in which the gods have bodies and fully individualized and distinct personalities in a theology free of abstract reductionism to impersonal universal principles. In such a cosmos personality is primary.

Next we see the revolution being staged by several Pr-Socratic philosophers in service of what we would today call naturalism. These thinkers propose, to risk putting it in our contemporary terms, that we understand the Gods in terms of basic laws and structures of natural material reality. Anaximenes, for example, suggests that everything is constituted out of air and that even the Gods can be understood as formed from air. The rules governing the condensation and dispersion of air will be the basic level to which we can reduce all other realities, even divine ones.

[Anaximenes] attributed all the causes of things to infinite air, and did not deny that there were gods, or pass them over in silence; yet he believed not that air was made by them, but that they arose from air.
(Augustinus on Anaximenes; Kirk, Raven, Schofield trans.)

Finally we have the complete abstraction of divinity carried out by Plato and the later Neo-Platonists in which the highest level of reality are divine principles as abstract as entities such as “The Good Itself” and “The Beautiful Itself.” Plato and later thinkers are consistent in insisting that these abstract perfections can’t accurately be considered in terms of any natural parallels, whether animal or human. These are divinities without personality.

It is from this revolution-through-abstraction that theology will draw its picture, filtered through Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in different ways, of what we could call the “God of the Philosophers.” This is a Perfect, Good, All-Powerful, All-Knowing, All-Seeing something that cannot possibly take on personality without engaging in a contradiction. How can the All-Powerful need anything from humanity, even love or obedience? How can it desire anything if it is Perfect and thus complete? How can it be influenced by our actions without being thus limited in its power? How can it change, since any change from Perfection can only constitute a fall? It is this God that births the Problem of Evil as we know it today.

The “Good” of this infinite, eternal, perfect something is undefined and undefinable, and so questions that would connect it to the worldly suffering we face can only be answered by gesturing towards mystery. In the same way, this perfection cannot be questioned or argued with. It does not and cannot speak and it cannot be opposed. 

It is in the persons of Plato and Aristotle that we get this view most honestly presented, where we have clear arguments that the Gods of personality must be false because they cannot be Perfect and Good in a unified and reductive sense. Most later religion, outside the boundaries of a strict practice of theology, will settle for an impossible marriage of personality and abstract perfection and goodness, one which more and more has to resort to “mystery” or symbolism anytime one attempts to make it consistent. 

In denying obedience and engaging in rebellion and contestation (whether intentionally or not), Wiesel and his imagined Job — along with Abraham when arguably at his best — side with the defenders of the Pagan Gods of personality against the naturalizing tendency on one hand and the abstracting tendency on the other. It is, similarly, the impossibility of Ivan imagining a non-abstract God that forces him away from a full-fledge rebellion against God and instead towards the self-defeating gesture of suicide. 

What can we learn from this exploration of key moments in the history of rebellion and the Gods? At the very least, I think, we can get a clearer image of what I would like to suggest is one of the noblest heritages of pagan cultures throughout the world — the tradition of rebelling against the Gods, of siding with some Gods over others, of demanding that the Gods give us an account and justify themselves to us. This same point is inevitably to be made in reference to all other claimants to positions of power and authority. We Pagans share this with what Elie Wiesel, at least, suggested was the most noble part of Judaism and also its most weighty responsibility. To contend with authority, divine and human alike, is a calling and responsibility. For this reason, I would claim that the only appropriate answer to a test of faith is to fail. 


“Jacob Wrestles with the Angel” by Gustave Dore


kadmusKadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at or look him up on Facebook or twitter at @starandsystem.

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