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It's apparently the death-knell for all theists: Parasites! Grotesque, painful, life-destroying Parasites!

Take this famous discussion of it by Stephen Fry. Parasites are  proof positive that a loving God does not exist.

I was part of a debate on Thursday discussing "Is God worthy of worship?"  One of our opponents, crowd-sourcing his material from eager Twitter followers, spent his talk listing some of nature's ugliest monstrosities.  Horrific diseases and deformities were rattled off in quick succession.  At points he played it for laughs, and he got them.

Which ought to make us think.  If this is really being raised as the "problem of evil" why are comfortable westerners, sipping red wine in an Oxford College, sniggering about such horrors?  Is this stuff really evil?  In which case let's treat it seriously as a challenge to belief in a good God, recognising that all of us face such wickedness.  Or is it not really evil?  Is it just a freak-show, an object of macabre fascination, or—God forbid—an exercise in apologetic points-scoring?  If it isn't actually evil, perhaps the lesson we should learn is 'Abandon all hope and adjust your expectations accordingly.'  Well, ok.  But a) drop the secret (or not so secret) glee regarding creation's monstrosities, b) realise you've solved the problem of evil but only by losing the right to call it "evil" and c) brace yourself for a much harder intellectual problem: the problem of good (of which, more shortly).

In all this, the greatest mis-step in the parasites conversation is to ignore (often times wilfully) the doctrine of the fall.  To imagine for a moment that we can simply read God from creation is to engage in the kind of paganism roundly condemned in Scripture.  As Francis Spufford says in Unapologetic: 

To anyone inclined to think that nature is God, nature replies: Have a cup of pus, Mystic Boy.

The world is fallen.  It is corrupted, cursed, 'knocked off its axis', disconnected from its true Life-source.  To speak of parasites in the world does not put the merest dint in the Christian world-view.  It only supports it.

Think about parasites.  We're dealing with creatures that are, well, parasitic. In fact 5 minutes' meditation on parasites will pretty much give you the Christian doctrine of creation and fall.

These things cause monstrous perversions, hellish corruptions, wicked deviations from what should be.  The disease and death they bring is not Right, it's wrong.  This is not Light, it's Darkness.  There is an original and ultimate life-giving source.  And there is a secondary distortion which takes life.

This is the Christian doctrine of creation and fall: an original good perverted into corruption and death.  Good is ultimate, Evil comes later to steal, kill and destroy. The Light is ultimate, the Darkness is a privation of the Light. First there is a straight line from which all crooked lines are corruptions.

But here’s the thing: to judge a line “crooked”, what exactly is “straight”?  And if you want to avoid the conclusion that there is an Original Straightness to things, you might say “Ok, these lines aren’t definitively crooked, it’s just that everything’s messy.” Well ok, fine, but at that point you’re not wrestling with the problem of evil any more.  You’re just saying “Things are messy.  Stuff happens.”

And then you have to face a much greater intellectual hurdle: the problem of good.  You see evil, as a secondary corruption of good, is not intellectually difficult to understand.  (It's horrifically unpleasant and evokes understandably emotive reactions, but intellectually it's origins are understandable).  On the other hand, Good—if it's not original and ultimate—becomes extremely difficult to explain.  This is because Good and Evil are not symmetrically opposite to each other. They are like light and darkness: Light can illuminate darkness, darkness cannot darken light.  Darkness is the absence or obscuring of Light in a way that is not true the other way around.

I'm speaking of light and darkness figuratively here, but they are powerful illustrations. When the Christian is asked "Where does the darkness come from?"  They answer: "From a turning away from the light."  When the atheist is asked "Where does the light come from?" the answer "From the darkness" seems absurdly improbable.  If light does exist then it needs to be there from the beginning.  But this is the Christian account of reality.

The atheists are right: parasites are powerful illustrations of the problem of evil.  But they're also a perfect analogy for how evil works.  It is derivative, privative, secondary.  But once you've said that, you've essentially told the Christian story of the world.  There's something Good and Life-giving and something came along to spoil it.

From Creation and Fall, the Christian can explain both good and evil.  But if our "creation story" is effectively: "slime + struggle + selfishness" with no injection of an original Good, it's quite a stretch to end up with "selves, sentience and symphonies."

Parasites are horrible.  As they work their way through the eye-ball of an 8 year old boy we are appalled. This is not simply painful, not simply ugly, not simply maladapted to life - it is wrong. 

But let's also remember, parasites are parasites!  There can't be parasites "all the way down".  No, there is an ultimate and original Good by which to judge these things evil.  And the Christian can hate this evil with a holy and almighty antipathy for we are seeing the work of God's enemy —an enemy Christ opposes with every drop of His own blood.  We do not shrug our shoulders or snigger or adapt ourselves to the inevitable.  We call evil evil and we fight it.

14 thoughts on “Parasites!

  1. TheologyJohn

    Hi Glen,

    I was in the audience at the debate (one of a very small number of Christians, I think!) Was a fascinating evening.

    I left more or less as soon as the question-answer session ended, and then paused outside to sort out my stuff (I'm currently crippled so things like that take ages) - which meant I heard the conversations of several groups leaving. It sounded to me like you'd been a lot more successful at being heard by people than I'd realised in the question time - a few people reflected on how effectively you'd responded to effectively the whole room ganged up on you... (although one atheist commented that he'd enjoyed ganging up on some Christians... saying it in such a way that it made me really not wish to ever be friends with him!) I suspect that the kind of people who ask questions are unrepresentative.

    I do think you're right, though, that it's helpful to think through how to talk more about the fall. I wonder, though, whether a big part of that involves thinking through how to speak of judgement better - otherwise, I think it's hard to speak very effectively about the cross, or what exactly Jesus saved us from. I think something along those lines would have answered questions about "crucifixion isn't that bad, when compared to ...." (well, actually, at the cross Jesus bore the full weight of divine wrath), and although I suspect it might have alienated some people, it would have been a fairly John 3:20 alienation - alienating people who refuse to admit that they are sinners - the kind of thing the gospel is supposed to do.

    Not sure I have much to say on how to speak better about judgement - I went away thinking about that all evening and for most of the next day. e.g. It is, of course, complex to clearly spell out how judgement relates to the very relational framework of love which God the Trinity speaks of, but the Bible isn't ashamed of speaking of concepts like justice, anger, judgement, punishment, etc. without spelling out how they express God's love.

    Hope you're well,


  2. TheologyJohn

    I feel I've been overconfident about my opinions there... I feel like I should add that I acknowlegde that you're an actual evangelist and have much more experience of communicating this kind of thing, whereas I am a mere theologian (and a trainee one at that)!

  3. Glen

    That's very helpful feedback John, thank you. Yes I was thinking as I left that I needed to wheel out John 3:18 early on. Condemned already - not dangling over the precipice but sunk in a world of disconnection, death and damnation. Jesus enters That...

    Anyway, ducking into church now, but very helpful to have your reflections. God bless

  4. Louise

    The issue of the origin of evil is an old thorny one, Glen. Evil as the absence of good can feel a little "light" as an explanation. Especially when you factor in the person of Satan. Feels too medieval? Jesus encounters with demons would say we must take him seriously. So, given that, we still have to explain where evil came from. That's the sticking point!

    Freewill defence? "Its not my fault, God, you made me with freedom to choose, and humans make the wrong choices!"

    Problems/pain helps us become better people? Purged in the forge fires."Vale of tears"

    Still everything goes back to the original Trinity existing in a love relationship before anything else existed, including evil. Where did Lucifer get his sin/pride from?

    There really is no pat answer. Stephen Law (atheist philosopher) turns the issue upside down - and asks us to imagine God is evil (after all there is a lot of it around), and then to question where good came from. Seems like a neat atheist trick, designed to show us Christians up as incapable of thinking it through deeply. We're still left with at the moment of creation "God looked, and saw that it was good" as a response to that "trick".

    No easy answer - after all theologians have been questioning for years!

  5. Glen

    Hi Louise.

    It's asymmetry that's vital here - the asymmetry of Good and Evil (just like Light and Darkness). I certainly believe that there's a personal Devil (heading up a personal empire of evil) but, again, he's in no sense an equal and opposite force. And parasites themselves are not *nothing* - they pack a hell of a punch. But the point is that they aren't equal to their host - they depend on their host, their host doesn't depend on them.

    Once you say that, then I don't think Stephen Law's argument works. The reason why the "Evil God" hypothesis fails is not the absurdity of believing in an evil god (millions have down through history, Law should perhaps look into the history of religion a bit more). The reason the "Evil God" hypothesis doesn't work is because Evil isn't the kind of original, ultimate, life-giving power which might then allow for Good to develop (ex nihilo... or ex malo!).

    I'm not trying to give a comprehensive answer to a centuries old conundrum. But I do think the simple point of this asymmetry is commonly held among theologians and that this bears directly on the problem of evil as often raised by atheists in these discussions.

  6. Cal

    As someone who accepts the theory of evolution as having sufficient evidence and holding to Scripture as the infallible and authoritative, I've certainly thought about the existence of parasites as something odd.

    If they existed before men, and were attached to genes etc. why were they there? Maybe science can only read the past off as it seems in relation to the present. What if parasites were not quite what they are today and were symbiotes?

    Another thought a friend shared was if you look at a rabbit ruminating, he seems relatively content. That rabbit may have 4-5 tapeworms within him, but it doesn't bother him. How much of attributing yuckiness to natural things colors our problems of theodicy? The worm burrowing in a child's eye is tragic and horrible, but so is a man tripping and being killed by laws of gravity. Maybe the natural are things are neither good nor evil and instead man, who was supposed to live eternally in communion, has fallen and brought sin into creation and the reign of death, especially onto himself.

    Then there's always CS Lewis' thoughts on the Fall's complete covering of time, even re-writing what had originally been whole.

    Just some thoughts,
    Pax in Christo,

  7. Si Hollett

    Here's a good example of attributing yuckiness to something not that yucky - while ugly to look at, the parasite pictured does nothing worse than painlessly remove the fishes tongue and eat fish saliva.

    Glen - was there some sort of recording of this debate?

  8. Glen

    Si - not that I'm aware of. I think recording it would have changed the nature of the event. You'll have to make do with my triumphant mis-remembrances

  9. Theo K

    This comment from Louise is often raised when people are told the creation, fall, redemption, consumation story:

    "Still everything goes back to the original Trinity existing in a love relationship before anything else existed, including evil. Where did Lucifer get his sin/pride from?"

    Glen, what answer would you give to an unbeliever if pressed on this point? Or would you try to avoid it?
    I have come to the conclusion that Lucifer's fall was part of God's good design. Of course that's not something easily accepted by most...

  10. Glen

    Hi Theo,

    There are a number of thoughts, not sure how many I'd be able to articulate properly in a conversation but...

    * God is Light. In Him there is no darkness at all.
    * Creation is not-God.
    * God allows us the integrity to be ourselves and not mere extensions of Him. He grants us a concrete existence outside of Himself.
    * There is no good reason to choose darkness over Light. It's always insanity.
    * When we turned from the Light, God did not prevent us - He pursued us into the darkness.
    * This expresses His eternal, cruciform glory (The Lamb slain before the foundation of the world).
    * Like His delay with Lazarus, His glory means declining to prevent suffering in order to enter and transform it. He's not committed to health so much as to Resurrection.

    God certainly brings a greater good out of the fall than would have been the case otherwise. And (here I'm simply speculating) - I'm not sure there could ever have been creation without redemption. The fact that He grants creation an existence beyond Himself is bound up in His desire to have brothers and sisters for Jesus (Rom 8:29). To want *that* is to want creatures that are not-God that will need bringing *into* bonds of family love. That which is not-God needs to be reconciled.

    Again I don't want to put darkness in God or 'utility' into sin, nor do I want to turn the fall into a push. Conscious, responsible, moral agents turned from God. Their fall (which is ours) was both genuine (not forced) and it was complete madness. Not sure how to square that circle. But here's what I'd say to the unbeliever - we've ALL got to deal with this question of goodness and evil. There's no escaping these issues. But the Christian story seems to make most sense of our experience of Good and Evil - there is an original and ultimate Good and a secondary and parasitic Evil. Once we've accepted that, we're working within some pretty Christian parameters. And Christians disagree on how to sort through it all. But refusing *this* dilemma doesn't make such fundamental dilemmas (over the origins or good and evil) go away. *This* account (even with its inherent mystery) seems to be a mystery that makes sense of Jesus and of life.

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  13. Brian Midmore

    Is not judgement a vital element of the Gospel? Paul's message was that God would judge the world through Jesus Messiah.(Act 17.31, Rom 2.16) When this happens all evil will be destroyed and the world will be put to rights. This judgement is delayed to give people the chance to repent Acts 17.30. We need to understand evil within an eschatological framework. Parasites are allowed by God as he is yet to judge the world. The problem with people like Stephen Fry is that he wants to judge the world and do it now!

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