The problem of evil remains the most potent attack on religion, especially on the existence of God. In philosophical discourse, this problem is understood as being a consequence of the contradictions involved in the infinite characteristics of God such as being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. The problem of evil, which presupposes that the co-existence of evil and God is unlikely or impossible, states that given the reality of evil in the world, it is either the case that God does not exist or there is an equally powerful force in charge of evil.
There is no doubt that the problem of evil has gained serious attention in Western philosophical and theological discourses. However, in the African philosophical context, the debate on the philosophical problem of evil is just emerging, despite some uniquely interesting trends and perspectives within the diverse cultural philosophies in Africa. For example, in Igbo philosophy, as well as in the Akan philosophical context, it is a given that the problem of evil is a substantive philosophical problem only within the Western conception of evil and that such a problem does not hold much weight when situated within the African notion of evil. Thus far in the literature on the African perspectives on the problem of evil, little is known on the real and possible similarities and dissimilarities on the notion of evil in African cultures and whether or not such an understanding allows for a solution of the philosophical problem of evil either in the popularly known sense or in a new form.
This writing is an attempt at such a comparative understanding of the problem of evil in African cultural contexts. Such a philosophical comparison is important for giving directions to cross-cultural comparison of thoughts in African philosophy, which is yet in the making. Beyond the immediate imports for the growth of African philosophy, such comparison would avoid the false suppositions about a general African viewpoint on a conceptual matter or belief, especially as it concerns the notion of evil and the philosophical problem of evil in bringing such philosophical comparison into focus, this text shall focus its discussion on the Igbo viewpoints.
The Igbo notion of evil
The metaphysical problem of evil, despite being a perennial problem in Western philosophy, can be meaningfully discussed within the Igbo cosmological thought. The Igbos have attempted to discuss how the presence of evil can be reconciled with the attributes of Chi-Ukwu (the ultimate spirit). Such an attempt has divided Igbo philosophers into three major camps, namely: the Igbo cosmological optimistic view; Personal God and destiny view; and middle course view. The first view states that man is solely accountable for the evil in the world; the second speaks of personal god and destiny, while the final camp combines the two views together and includes some spirits as responsible for the evil in the world. But it still begs the question how all these can be explained in the face of an almighty and benevolent God, Chi-Ukwu. We shall explain the three broad views briefly and the conclusions that could be drawn there from.
(a) Igbo cosmological optimistic view
According to this view, God as ‘Okike’ (creator) is essentially good in himself and that his creation is intrinsically good: evil is something external to it in the sense that evil is the consequences of some moral evil committed by man. The upholders of this view point to the myths of God’s withdrawal, proverbs and other cultural expressions as traditional grounds for insisting on this view. Nwala, for example, stated that:
There is a belief in a created universe which is controlled by creator, Chukwu-Okike. Man is in the centre of this creation. He is endowed with freedom and its attendant responsibility. There is belief in the unity among beings, belief in the original cosmic (universal) harmony and order which unfortunately the action of the human being upsets (in this case as in the Bible story the woman starts confusion).
For the likes of Igbo scholars such as Nwala, evil is the function of man himself, who is at the center of God’s creation. Man is therefore responsible for every evil that happens in this world because of his actions and mode of being in the Igbo world. This view consolidates the African notion of evil that God can never be the proximate cause of evil in the world. Although man is responsible for the evil in the world, remotely, God causes it, not as evil as such but in the sense that out of the good man causes, evil comes as part of it. However, it has been argued that this view dissociates God from the problem, clings to the assumptions of the goodness of God and keeps quiet about the supposed power of God, which He could have used to stop evil if he truly wanted it.
(b) Personal god and destiny view
According to this view, evil is not linked directly to man but with the personal god of each man. That personal god chooses man’s destiny package at the moment the individual is born into the world. This view states that each person’s personal god and destiny are responsible and accountable for both avoidable and unavoidable evils and mistakes in life. The belief here is that the Supreme being assigns a personal god (Chi) to an individual, whose Chi in turn brings to man all his good and sometimes bad fortunes as well as poverty and sickness by choosing the destiny on which one’s lot depends to such a degree that every good and bad thing are attributed to it and also blamed for individual’s mistakes in life. To buttress this view, they even point to names such as Nkechinyere (lot given by personal god); Chibueze (personal god makes and unmakes one); Chibuoke (personal makes one famous) etc. Some Igbo proverbs also support his view like “Ebe onye dalu ka Chi ya kwatulu ya” which means “where a person falls there his personal god pushed him down”.
Despite the criticism of the ambiguity or the equivocal nature of the concept of Chi, the traditional Igbo believe that God does not commit evil against his creation. They also believe that any misfortune or evil suffered by man is interpreted as punishment for the misbehavior of man or his kin in his present or previous life. This holds because the Igbos believe that the actions of men have consequences whether in this life or the next and also not only on those who commit them but on those who live after them. The importance of this view lies in the fact that it “sees evil in the world in such a way that it does not detract from the goodness and omnipotence of the Divinity.” God in this view transcends the moral and the ontological orders and understands Him as the ultimate source and guarantor without any of His essential characteristics being compromised.
(c) The middle course view
According to this view, personal god and destiny of humans together with some other known and unknown spirits, particularly some spirits who specialize in mischief making, are originators of evil in the world. Many modern Igbo scholars support this view and conceive evil in the world as being contingent upon the actions of man and the spirits, once again absolving God of any involvement or blame in the problem of evil. For Okafor, “the apparent evil in the world and imperfection in the world are not intrinsic. They are rather the negation of the perfect cosmic order usually caused by the actions of men and of the spirits.”
Edeh, on his own part, asserts that God cannot be the proximate cause of evil and blamed man and the spirits for the existence of evil. He said: “…..judging from our treatment of the causes of evil… the three proximate causes of evil are the evil spirits, the element gods and human beings.”
This view does not sacrifice or detract from the goodness and omnipotence of God. God is still considered as the Supreme Good, all-powerful and the cause of all things which are good in themselves. The point here is that even if God is spoken of to be the remote cause of evil in the sense that he created the proximate causes of evil, but it must not be in the sense that he caused evil as such. Rather it will be constructed in the sense that because of the good he created, evil comes as a necessary part of it.