Philosophers have been intrigued by the problem of evil for centuries: How can God and evil coexist? This article tries to answer this question by using Kongolese religious thought from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I contend that the Kongolese view gleaned from historical sources and complemented by contemporary African philosophical scholarship contains sufficient resources to reply to this problem coherently. Particularly, I argue that, from the Kongolese viewpoint, evil in the world can be explained as follows. God and other morally good entities (e.g., the morally good living dead) are not morally perfect and may commit moral errors. Moreover, God does not have unlimited power over morally bad entities who may commit moral wrongs. This view, I contend, deserves consideration since, unlike the mainstream Western perspective, it does not imply the unacceptable view that horrendous evils are morally justified.
Philosophers have addressed the problem of evil for centuries. How can a morally perfect, omniscient, and all-powerful God allow evil to exist? In Western Christianity, there are, broadly speaking, two philosophical problems that have emerged regarding the problem of evil: the logical and the evidential. The logical problem of evil is that it is inconsistent to believe in a God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect while evil exists in the world. More particularly, the contention is that, if evil does exist (and it obviously does), there is no reason why God would let it exist. This is because he knows about it, has the power to stop it, and is morally good enough to want to stop it. Hence, the argument goes, theists must give up either one of these characteristics or the existence of God altogether (Mackie 1955; Tooley 2020). With respect to the evidential problem of evil, the question is a little different. The issue is not so much about logical consistency. Instead, it is that the existence of God may be logically compatible with the existence of evil. Nonetheless, the quantity of evil in the world makes the existence of God questionable. Particularly, even if God needs to have certain quantities of evil in the world, there is no reason why he would allow the significant amount of evil that is observable in the world (Rowe 1988, 2001).
As these questions largely emerge from the Western Christian tradition, it is no surprise that most philosophical enterprises take a Western point of view (Plantinga 1974; Swinburne 1998; van Inwagen 2008). Nonetheless, Christianity can be found worldwide, and it is unclear how a Christian from a non-Western tradition would attempt to address these questions. In this article, I wish to fill this gap in the literature and address the problem of evil from a African Christian philosophical point of view, with a focus on Kongolese thought from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The views of Kongolese Christians on this matter during this time period overlap in many ways with those of Western Christian philosophers, but there are elements derived from African traditional religions that make the Kongolese responses different from the Western ones. Particularly, the African panentheistic understanding of the world implies a different conception of God and a different solution to the problem of evil. In contrast to the Western theistic view, in the panentheistic view evil is embodied by God because God is in everything that exists. Moreover, from the African perspective, although evil is necessary for goodness, the African view put forward here is that some evils in the world can be excessive. In addition, Kongolese Christianity has social harmony as a guiding moral and social value, an idea that is not common in the Western theistic outlook. These differences, I will argue, are also what make the Kongolese perspective morally attractive. Horrendous evils such as slavery and the Holocaust are not morally justified as they are in some mainstream Western Christian views.1 Hence, I will argue that the Kongolese perspective is morally more convincing than its mainstream Western counterpart as defended by philosophers such as Richard Swinburne, Eleonore Stump, Alvin Plantinga, and Peter van Inwagen.
This article is divided into four sections. In the first section, I outline the Kongolese perspective on God as opposed to the Western theistic perspective. In the second section, I explain the concepts of harmony and the living dead in Kongolese Christianity and their relationship to the existence of evil. I argue that social harmony is key to understanding the typologies of the living dead and the different forms of evil within the Kongolese perspective. In these first two sections, I contextualize the Kongolese perspective by relating it to the views of certain contemporary African philosophers. In the third section, I underscore the Kongolese perspective on the existence and origin of excessive evils. In the final section, I respond to possible challenges to the metaphysical coherence and the Africanity of the view defended in this article.
The work presented here differs significantly from previous work in important ways. First, most scholarship on African philosophy of religion has focused on the Yoruba, the Zulu, the Igbo, and the Akan. Contrastingly, this article focuses on an underexplored group, the Bakongo of the Kingdom of Kongo. Second, most African philosophical work on the problem of evil has not compared African perspectives to Western perspectives in terms of merit (Berglund 1976/1989; Bewaji 1998; Gbadegesin 1996; Ibeabuchi 2013; Oladipo 2004; Schachter 2020; Wiredu 1998). This article, in contrast, goes further and tries to demonstrate that the African view (particularly its Kongolese version) is more attractive than the one advocated by mainstream Western Christian philosophers such as Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen, and Alvin Plantinga. Third, the work of Kongolese religious has been mostly approached from a historical viewpoint. I draw from historical material about the Kingdom of Kongo to develop a philosophical response to the problem of evil (Elnaiem 2019; Heywood 2019; Jordan 1999; Thornton 1998, 2020; Young 2011).
Afro-Christianity in the Kingdom of Kongo
The formation of the Kingdom of Kongo dates back to the thirteenth century. With the onset of the colonial enterprise, the Kingdom of Kongo suffered substantial change owing to the overwhelming presence of the Portuguese during the sixteenth and seventeen centuries. Precisely, it became Christianized. Christianization was initiated during the reign of King João I of Kongo (r. sixteenth century). It was, however, not until the reign of his son, King Afonso I (r. sixteenth century), that Christianity spread significantly in the kingdom (Young 2011). Broadly speaking, Christianity adapted to the local conditions and developed some characteristics influenced by traditional African religions. For example, the Kongolese did not usually use the Portuguese word Deus to refer to God. Instead, they referred to God in Kikongo, the language of the Kingdom of Kongo. Kimpa Vita, a prophet from the kingdom, for example, used Nzambi a Mpungu, the Kikongo word for God. For example, in her Salve, she affirms: “E sweet one! the perpetual Virgin Mary. Pray for us, Santa [Holy] Mother of Nzambi a Mpungu, so that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ” (Thornton 1998, 115).2 The use of the Kikongo language here is not an accident. Rather, it expresses a different set of beliefs about the properties of God. Although the Kongolese believed in a God who shared many of the characteristics of the Catholic God (overall creator, supreme being, necessary being), they also retained local beliefs about God. For example, it is unlikely that this God is morally perfect and omnipotent. When it comes to the attribute of omnipotence, African gods routinely have limited power to intervene in the world: they cannot reach everywhere even though they can reach farther than any other being. Moreover, it is routinely the case in African religions that gods are understood as morally superior—wise, virtuous, and morally better than all others—but not perfect (Bewaji 1998). In short, in traditional African religions, God is typically seen as the most powerful being but not omnipotent and as possessing the best moral character and the highest moral virtue but not morally perfect (Oladipo 2004). This is the case, for example, in the Yoruba religion. Indeed, as Olusegun Oladipo maintains, it is unlikely that Olόdùmarè is considered to be all-powerful (Oladipo 2004). Likewise, referring to the Akan conception of God, Kwasi Wiredu suggests that he is not infinite: “He together with the world constitutes the spatio-temporal ‘totality’ of existence. . . . The notion of creation out of nothing does not even make sense in the Akan language” (Wiredu 1998, 29). Certainly, some African scholars do not agree that God is imperfect and limited (Gyekye 1995), but I wish here to confine myself to the Kongolese version of Christianity.3
In the African context, and more specifically in the Kongolese context, there are several categories of beings that are believed to exist. In addition to God, traditional Kongolese believe in the morally good and the morally bad living dead (Jordan 1999). The prophet Kimpa Vita, for example, claimed to have been possessed by a morally good living dead (Saint Anthony).4 There is a clear hierarchy among these beings. God is above all in terms of moral status, and below him are, in descending order, the good living dead, humans, the bad living dead, nonhuman animals, and other things in nature. Note that ranking the various categories of beings in terms of power is not the same as ranking them in terms of moral importance. In terms of power, the evil living dead share the same rank as the good living dead (Cordeiro-Rodrigues 2021). In short, the living dead, good or evil, have strong powers and can intervene in the world and, thus, are more powerful than humans. But the evil living dead have a lower moral status than both the morally good living dead and humans because moral status depends on an entity’s capacity for social harmony (see the next section). One interesting difference between Kongolese Catholics and their Western counterparts is that Nzambi a Mpungu is not usually engaged with the world. It is, indeed, believed that, after he created the world, he let it take its course and rarely intervenes. He knows what is happening in the world, and he can change the course of events. Nonetheless, he is generally not interested in doing so (Jordan 1999).
The Kongolese hold a panentheistic cosmology according to which God is a force that is present in everything. Nzambi a Mpungu animates the natural occurrences of the world by being present in everything that exists (Jordan 1999). God is a force that runs through all objects, giving them life. The force is a constant flux, making reality dynamic, and, if God withdraws it, everything disappears (Cordeiro-Rodrigues 2021). In a sense, because God is a conscious force, it is possible to affirm that the Kongolese view is pan-psychist, that is, that there is consciousness in all objects (Agada 2019). So another important difference between Western Christianity and Kongolese Christianity is that the latter embraces a form of panentheism according to which God and the world are distinct but highly interrelated: God is in the world, but not everything that exists is incorporated in the universe because God transcends it. The view is like pantheism, but it differs from it in that it does not hold that God is everything but only in everything, thereby maintaining that the identities of God and the world are distinct. Thus, for the Kongolese, there is a transcendent reality that is only God and not part of the world. For the Kongolese, God is not everything that exists but is in everything that exists as a force that gives vitality to all existence (Cordeiro-Rodrigues 2021). In the African context, panentheism is illustrated by the fact that God is sometimes characterized in anthropomorphic ways and usually described as having a body and that parts of the world are parts of this body. For example, the reason for lighting some incense would be that this is the best way to feel the smell of God—both metaphorically and literally. These are parts where God is present and can free his smell, and, thereby, his presence can be felt. Indeed, most rituals are carried out with the elements of nature precisely because to be in touch with these elements is to experience God in a more vivid and meaningful way (Mbiti 1990).
I can now summarize the major differences between Kongolese Christianity and the mainstream Western theistic view. First, according to Western theism, God is morally perfect and omnipotent. In contrast, for Kongolese Catholics, God is not morally perfect but only morally better than all others. Second, in anticipation of what will be spelled out in more detail below, it is possible to say that, in the mainstream Western theistic view, in which evil is outside God, God allows evil to take place. In contrast, the Kongolese God embodies evil; evil, being a part of God, is suffered by God. Third, in the Kongolese case, God generally abstains from intervening in the world even though he is in everything in the world, something that does not hold in the Western theistic case.
Kongolese Views on Harmony and the Living Dead
The last point—about God’s intervention in the world—raises the question, If God does not usually intervene in the world, are there any nonhuman entities that do? African cosmology also accords great importance to nonhuman entities other than God. It is often understood that, because God does not intervene much in the world, it is other nonhuman entities that usually interact with humans, namely, the living dead. The living dead are those individuals from previous generations who have passed away but continue living on the earth, usually in areas close to their communities like forests (Metz and Molefe 2021). These living dead are the actual beings who routinely interact with humans (Metz and Molefe 2021). Some of them are morally good and others morally bad. This is definitely the case among the Akan, the Yoruba, and the Igbo (Mbiti 1990). Indeed, this is also noticeable in the cosmology of the Bakongo, among whom the good living dead are often associated with Christian saints. For example, when describing Saint Anthony, a morally good living dead by whom she claimed to be possessed, the prophet Kimpa Vita affirms: “Saint Anthony came into my head to be able to preach in Kibangu, and has been well received with applause and happiness. This is why I have been teaching the Word of God and instructing the people, hurrying to go to court and confirming what the old woman said” (Thornton 1998, 123).
Clearly, in this passage, her approval of Saint Anthony’s actions as morally justified signals that Kimpa Vita recognizes the existence of a morally good nonhuman entity. She also refers to other morally good nonhuman entities. Indeed, when she claims that there are also Black saints and not just White saints, she is mostly referring to morally good ancestors who have passed away and still interact with humans. Contrastingly, when one of her followers is confronted with the purpose of his mission, he affirms the existence of powerful but morally bad nonhuman entities that engage in morally wrong acts when he claims: “In these lands there are diabolic and superstitious things, and I have come here to seize them and burn them” (Thornton 1998, 151).
Likewise, in the Kingdom of Kongo, God was expected to be one who could, through his emissaries, bring harmony in the midst of an endless civil war. And the evils brought by the Portuguese missionaries were precisely understood as forms of disharmony. This perspective from Afro-Christianity is best expressed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “Harmony, friendliness, community are great goods. Social harmony is for us the summum bonum—the greatest good. Anything that subverts, that undermines this sought-after good, is to be avoided like the plague. . . . What dehumanises you inexorably dehumanises me” (Tutu 2000, 35).
Social harmony can, in turn, be understood as the combination of solidarity (behaving and feeling in ways that promote others’ well-being and personal development) and identification (behaving and feeling in ways that include others as members of the community). Thus, generally speaking, in African thought, the promotion of the good of the community is what provides a measure of one’s morality. The more harmony it promotes, the better the action; the more one promotes the good of the community, the morally better one is and, thereby, the higher one’s moral status (Metz 2012).
Contrastingly, if one promotes disharmony in the community, then one’s character is considered to be morally bad. In the case of the Kingdom of Kongo, the destiny of people after they pass away demonstrates precisely this engagement with harmony. Those who were good to others, who loved and took care of others, go to the world of the dead (Kalunga), while those who are evil cannot enter Kalunga and roam the earth as spirits (Jordan 1999).
It is important to note that, to be able to promote moral goodness, one must gain experience. This is so because it is through the acquisition of virtue over time that the moral goodness that promotes social harmony is acquired. Personhood, which is an acquired positive moral status, is achieved through the practice of virtue (Menkiti 2018). Part of the reason why God is morally better in African thought is due to his age. He has learned to be moral through repeated morally right actions. Nzambi a Mpungu is virtuous partly because he is the creator of the universe and, as such, has existed since the beginning of time (Jordan 1999). To a large extent, it is not possible for bad entities (like the bad living dead) to commit morally good acts. They are too steeped in vice to maintain the positive relations with their communities necessary to perform morally good actions (Mbiti 1990, 2015).
From an African perspective, both the evil living dead and the good living dead have the power to intervene in the human world. In fact, the world they live in is not strictly separate from the human world but rather a continuation of it (Mbiti 1990, 2015). The distinction between the supernatural and the natural worlds is not an idea often endorsed by Africans. Instead, everything is understood as natural because the earth and the world of the living dead are a continuation of one another (Mbiti 1990, 2015).
This African moral philosophy and typology of entities is what accounts for the difference between the African and the Western theistic concepts of evil. The Western theistic division between natural evils (those evils that result from a natural process) and moral evils (those evils that are caused by an agent) does not strictly apply in the African context. According to the African perspective as analyzed in this article, all evils are both natural and moral since they all result from actions of agents who are part of nature. The nonhuman world is understood as natural and as constantly interacting with the human world. Thus, what from the perspective of Western theism is usually considered a natural evil (e.g., an earthquake) is from the African perspective simply the result of actions by the living dead. An interesting distinction that is made in the African outlook is that some evils are morally justified and others are not. For example, an evil caused by a good living dead that promotes harmony is morally justified. In contrast, an evil that simply intends to cause disharmony is not morally justified. The key is whether the agent in question aims to and does promote social harmony, something the good living dead can do because they are virtuous but the bad living dead cannot because they are vicious.
The Evil Living Dead and Morally Unjustified Evil
From the African perspective, excessive evil in the world is evil that is simply disharmonious; that is, it holds no possibility of promoting harmony. Slavery, for example, was an evil that the Kongolese did not see as capable of promoting social harmony. Hence, they deemed it morally unjustified. In fact, the abolition of slavery and the expulsion of its main perpetrators (the Capuchin missionaries) from the Kingdom of Kongo was the Kongolese population’s main goal (Thornton 1998). So, unlike Western theists like Plantinga, van Inwagen, and Swinburne, who seem to see the quantity of evil in the world as just right, the Kongolese acknowledge the existence of excessive evils, of which slavery is a case in point. Good entities, like God, may occasionally cause evil unintentionally because they are not morally perfect. In the case of God, this is more of a theoretical hypothesis than a practical matter. God is so morally virtuous that he is unlikely to make a mistake. So, from the African perspective, the main source of morally unjustified evil is not God but the evil living dead and vicious humans. The evil living dead not only cause morally unjustified natural evils, like earthquakes; they also influence humans to cause evil. Hence, those humans who lack virtue are the other source of morally unjustified evils. These human and nonhuman entities share the feature of being disharmonious. Both are unwilling to give to the community as both are self-centered. The interaction between morally bad humans and nonhumans to cause evil is often explained in Kongolese thought by referring to nganga and ndoki, the two kinds of humans who can communicate with the living dead. A nganga (literally, an individual with knowledge) is someone who can communicate with the good parts of the spiritual world. As such, nganga can help individuals on earth talk to their ancestors, solve problems, heal diseases, and so forth. Though nganga are said to be born with this gift, it is also seen as an art to be cultivated. Nganga learn chants, dances, and rituals that allow them to communicate with the ancestors effectively. They are the exact opposite of ndoki (or witches), the individuals who communicate with spiritual entities through kindoki (witchcraft). What distinguished nganga from ndoki is not only those with whom they communicate but also the intentions with which they do so. The former communicate for good purposes, the latter for bad purposes (Jordan 1999). Ndoki and those humans who are associated with them account for some of the morally unjustified evils in the world. Kimpa Vita’s negative description of the Capuchins as envious individuals who enslave others, for example, implied that they were ndoki. It is these entities who are vicious and disharmonious and the main perpetrators of evils that bring no better good.
Western theists, in contrast, tend to deny the existence of excessive evil in the world. Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen, for example, claim that there is no evidence that the evil in the world is excessive. The problem with this view is that it renders morally justified all the evils that happen in the world. According to this view, every evil is to a certain extent justified owing to the fact that it is allowed by a morally perfect entity for the sake of promoting a greater good. This means that horrendous evils such as slavery and the Holocaust are morally permissible since they are allowed by a perfectly good God. Western Christian theists do not explicitly state this, but this is the implication of their view. They must accept the undesirable view that horrendous evils are morally justified. In fact, they must accept the repugnant view that these horrendous evils are morally justified on the grounds of saving a few as it is written in the Bible (Matt. 24:1–22) that only a few will be saved. The problem here is that Western Christian theists claim to ground their ideas in what they call Christian moral theory. As Eleonore Stump and Marilyn McCord Adams contend, theodicies and defenses need to be grounded in core Christian moral beliefs (Adams and Adams 1991; Stump 2012). From the perspective of these core beliefs, such horrendous evils as Nazism and slavery are not morally justified. Thus, the idea that all evils in the world are allowed by God for the sake of promoting a greater good unwittingly leads some Western Christians into a contradiction. My point is perhaps better expressed in the following two syllogisms:
1. God is morally perfect and omnipotent.
2. Decisions coming from a morally perfect and omnipotent being are morally justified.
3. Hence, all the decisions made by God are morally justified.
1. There are horrendous evils in the world.
2. These evils are allowed by God because he thinks they bring a greater good.
3. Things that are allowed by God for a greater good are morally justified.
4. Therefore, horrendous evils in the world are morally justified.
This, of course, creates tension in the outlook of some Western Christian theists. On the one hand, such horrendous evils as slavery and the Holocaust are considered morally unjustified. On the other hand, they are morally justified because they promote a greater good.
The end of promoting a greater good justifies the means of the horrendous evils according to philosophers like Stump, Swinburne, or Plantinga. The Kongolese view, in contrast, does not regard all evils as morally justified because it considers some evils excessive.
Challenging Kongolese Panentheism
Christian theists may also contest the idea of a morally imperfect and nonomnipotent God because they regard God as perfect, contrary to the African view described in this article. The objection could continue that, if God is not perfect, then he is not necessary and that, if he is contingent, then he could not have existed in some possible worlds. From the Christian theist’s perspective, the God entailed in the African perspective may be seen as failing to qualify as God at all because he is not essentially necessary. This God, a Christian theist may continue, is at the very least not worth worshiping. In response, it is worth noting first that there is something ethnocentric about understanding God as perfect. In many traditional African religions, God is often not considered perfect (Bewaji 1998). For example, he is said to have a temper as part of his personality, a claim that makes him imperfect. In addition, the African idea that God has limited powers (that he is not strictly omnipotent) makes perfect sense because, even from the Western Christian perspective, his power is limited to performing only logically possible things. For example, he cannot make a stone he cannot lift as this would be self-contradictory. Likewise, he cannot enable some goods to be realized without their necessary evil correlates. For example, it is not possible to perform an act of solidarity and identification such as courage without the existence of some dangerous (hence, evil) situation requiring that courage be removed. Likewise, it is not possible to bring about identification and solidarity through generosity in the absence of the evil of scarcity.
A third possible objection might be that it is a mistake to consider the views advanced in this article African. After all, in the African context, God is often seen as morally perfect and omnipotent, something that also seems to be true in the case of Kimpa Vita. In response, I must make it clear that it was not my intention to embark on the impossible task of representing all African views in this article. Nevertheless, the views are African in the sense that they represent an understanding of the nature of God well entrenched in the minds of many African scholars. More precisely, there are two families of interpretations regarding the nature of God on the African continent. There are those who believe that God is morally perfect and omnipotent and those who believe that he is simply superior to all beings in terms of morality and power. Specifically in the case of Kimpa Vita, it is next to impossible to give a complete account of her views on all aspects of the philosophy of religion, given the fragmentary nature of the sources. But giving such a complete account is not necessary for realizing the goal of this article, which is to offer an African alternative to the view of Western Christians like Swinburne and Stump of the problem of evil. As I have argued, the African alternative—which is gleaned from the fragmentary sources on Kimpa Vita and complemented by contemporary African scholarship—is coherent and plausible. Moreover, as I have tried to argue, the alternative merits moral consideration since it avoids the pitfalls of the Western alternative.
In this article, I have tried to present the Kongolese view of the problem of evil, working from information gleaned from the fragmentary historical sources on Kimpa Vita complemented by contemporary scholarship on African philosophy of religion. On this view, believing in God and acknowledging the existence of evil does not get one caught up in a quagmire of contradictions, something many mainstream analytic Western Christian philosophers cannot claim. Because the African perspective advanced here is to some extent inspired by Christian thought, it shares some points with Western Christianity. There are, however, very important differences: the panentheistic outlook, belief in the moral imperfection of God and his nonomnipotence, and the existence of morally good and morally bad living dead. These differentiating beliefs allow the Kongolese view both to acknowledge and to explain the existence of excessive evil in the world. According to the Kongolese view, excessive evil is often caused by morally bad living dead and vicious humans, although it can also occasionally be caused by morally good but imperfect entities (such as God, good living dead, and good humans) when they make moral mistakes. As I have argued, the Kongolese view is morally superior to the mainstream Western Christian view. As we have seen, the only way the mainstream Western Christian can avoid being caught up in a quagmire of contradictions is by claiming that such horrendous evils as the Holocaust and slavery are not excessive. As we have seen, denying the excessiveness of these horrendous evils implies that God considers them morally justifiable as necessary means for the salvation of a chosen minority. The Kongolese view explicated here categorically rejects this repugnant moral implication.
This publication was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and the Global Philosophy of Religion Project at the University of Birmingham. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.
The idea that Western Christians believe that evil is morally justified may not be immediately intuitive, but, as I will demonstrate, this is an implication of the theory.
For the original text, see Cardoso (1624, chap. 5, no. 2).
It is important not to essentialize African thought. There are, indeed, African Christian philosophers who hold views similar to those of mainstream Western theists. But the goal of this article is precisely to offer an alternative view, one that I consider to be morally superior. Hence, I focus on this alternative view only.
I explain below in more detail how to understand these categories of beings.