Theodicy and the question of Evil in the world


On the Question of Evil. - Evil as a privation of good.


By Fr. Raymond Taouk


Evil is certainly real, yet it is not itself a thing; it simply we can say affects a reality which, in all that it has of being, is positive and good[1].  Evil is then a privation of a due good which belongs to a thing according to its nature[2]. In short, to identify evil as such requires contrast, and evil is contrasted against good as chaos is contrasted against order. But for there to be order and good there must be also a principle of same, and an ultimate principle at that. Thus, evil not only is set off as by a picture frame against good, but evil, far then from being an argument in objection to the existence of God, evil is a telling argument for the existence and activity of God. The very fact that all evil is to some degree shocking and remarkable triggers an argument for God's real existence. St. Thomas Aquinas points this out when he affirms that : (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, chapter 71) "A certain philosopher ... asks: 'If God exists, whence comes evil?' But it could be argued to the contrary: 'If evil exists, God exists.' For, there would be no evil if the order of good were taken away, since its privation is evil. But this order would not exist if there were no God."


 Evil, we can say exits only in good things. The reality of evil is not that of what is; it is that of what is not (negation), or rather more exactly, of what is not when it ought to be (privation). Evil is not a being; it is a hole in being, a lack[3].


That is why there can be no absolute evil: evil can exist only in what is itself good.


A crime for example is morally and socially harmful only through some positive action, and this action, considered as an action (e.g. stabbing someone with a knife) is good; in certain circumstances it may be even praiseworthy (i.e. in legitimate self defence).  There is nothing even the devil himself, considered in his angelic nature which is not endowed with goodness and beauty.


God is not the cause of Evil  


Evil does not involve God’s causality like good does. Since good is something (being) it requires a first cause which is absolute Good and perfect being; to be realised it requires the positive causality of the creator. Evil as such, being limitation and lack, requires no causality of being, only a reason for non-being; all that is necessary to account for it is the natural limitedness and frailty of the creature. Fundamentally there could be only two ways of getting rid of evil altogether: either by things not existing at all or by their being positively infinite which is impossible. From the fact of their being creatures, they are bound to be finite (limited) and so carry in themselves – not evil, but a tendency to result in evil and an explanation of the evil by which they are liable to be affected.

The main point to be grasped then is that the ‘cause’ of evil (in sense in which it is discussed here) is not creative power.


Evil – Can be seen in two ways – Moral or physical.


Moral evil refers us to the consequent actions of free will. While physical evil (abstracted from the morality) looks purely the actions of one thing upon another or the state of a particular thing as being defective (in some aspect – such as dead man lacking life).


Now as regards physical evil, given what I have just stated, we can see that evil is not a substance or a form, but an “accidental privation” that moves toward that which is good. In this sense we can clearly see that Creation is not flawed, nor has God created anything that is not good, nor is there anything created by any other than He. The universe, as given, is perfect. God did not, we can say, create the best of all possible worlds. But rather the world He created is perfect for divine will is perfect - that it never fails to choose well. Divine willing, however, like divine being itself, is ineffable, but not opaque. This is precisely what makes it (analogously) meaningful to understand the existence of God. Divine willing, then, must not be construed as merely like human willing; if we so construe divine willing, it is anthropomorphized, which seems to me to be exactly what happens in a mistaken notion of God as author of the "best of all possible worlds." It is easy to think of God, even to picture God, as having laid out before Him the array of possible worlds, over which He deliberates, finally settling on one, which, at least from man's viewpoint, could have been better - could have been another. In other words, "possible worlds" on such a view, means "worlds that God could have made, but did not." But divine willing does not mean hesitant indeterminacy over multiple possibilities, for this is precisely an imperfection in human thinking and willing (Cf. Summa Theologian, I; 25, 6, ad 1 ).


It is evident all evil is essentially negative and not positive; i.e. it consists not in the acquisition of anything, but in the loss or deprivation of something necessary for perfection. Pain, which is the test or criterion of physical evil, has indeed a positive, though purely subjective existence as a sensation or emotion; but its evil quality lies in its disturbing effect of the sufferer. In like manner, the perverse action of the will, upon which moral evil depends, is more than a mere negation of right action, implying as it does the positive element of choice; but the morally evil character of wrong action is constituted not by the element of choice, but by its rejection of what right reason requires.


The problem of evil is strictly a metaphysical one; i.e. it cannot be solved by a mere experimental analysis of the actual conditions from which evil results.


Moral evil and the consequence. – Heaven ; Hell .


God has created man with the mysterious gift of free will[4]. God has created us free to choose the good and live according to his law but it is we who have misused that freedom to go against it. Hence the ultimate moral consequence is either heaven (for the just) or hell (for the wicked). 


God draws a greater good out of every evil  


Permitting evil, as He does, within a design (creation) that is essentially good, exerting his causality only in what is positive in this design, God applies himself, when evil occurs, to preserve and enhance the value of the good that still remains.


St. Augustine in dealing with the question of evil and free will pointed out that  “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist” (St. Aug., Enchirid., xxvii). Evil contributes to the perfection of the universe, as shadows to the perfection of a picture, or harmony to that of music (De Civ. Dei,xi). As darkness is nothing but the absence of light, and is not produced by creation, so evil is merely the defect of goodness. (St. Aug., In Gen. as lit.) Further St. Augustine, holding evil to be permitted for the punishment of the wicked and the trial of the good, shows that it has, under this aspect, the nature of good, and is pleasing to God, not because of what it is, but because of where it is; i.e. as the penal and just consequence of sin (De Civ. Dei, XI, xii, De Vera Relig. xliv).

In other words as Augustine seems to imply the question of evil can clearly be seen as another sign of God’s omnipotence as it shows that He is capable of allowing evil while Himself remaining independent from it; and in His infinite wisdom foreseeing the greater good which is to result from it. In elaborating on this issue St. Augustine points this out that the actions of wicked men, which are contrary to God's will, are, through the inscrutable divine wisdom and power; made to serve “those just and good ends and outcomes which He Himself has foreknown.” (De Civitate Dei. XXII.2.).


What is the greater good to come from evil?


For us mere mortals to be sometimes perplexed by what the greater good to be attained in each case for the various sufferings inflicted in this world is not always easy for us to understand here and now (not from this side of eternity). And this is precisely because our scope as human beings is limited in it’s vision of things. We live in time, God lives in eternity. He comprehends (in Himself) the bigger picture; we only see a small (very small indeed) part of it. For God nothing is in parts it is all one grand picture which He alone comprehends in it’s totality[5], while we  here below can only often see it in retrospect (by looking back – at least some times) but the answer to this question is not always clear for us here and now.


Much like taking a part/section from a puzzle, looking at it and concluding that the thing is pointless and then affirming the same of its maker because one has failed to see the part in context of the whole. The same is true of all things in creation since they must also be taken in totality since nothing was created purely for its own sake (not even man – we were created for the sake of God – To know, love and serve him). To understand evil in things we must try to look at its context in relation to its purpose in creation.


It is at times falsely asserted that all suffering and evil in this world are purely a consequence of sin and so logically all those that suffer must have sinned in some sense.  Now, while it is true that present conditions of man can be attributed to fact of original sin, this would not be sufficient to explain the sufferings of the just. Hence in this while their remains aspect of mystery, nevertheless Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, is work ‘Providence’ comments thus:  ‘It remains true, therefore, that, as Job says (chap. 7), “the life of man upon earth is a warfare and his days are like the days of a hireling.” But upon His servants the Lord bestows His grace; although, as St. Paul says (Rom. 8: 38), “to them that love God all things work together unto good, “ to the very end. All things—graces, natural qualities, contradictions, sickness, and, as St. Augustine says, even sin. For God permits sin in the lives of His servants, as He permitted Peter’s denial, that He may lead them to a deeper humility and thereby to a purer love.’ (chapt. 16).


And so we can understand how God sees evil only in the sovereign good, which compensates for it abundantly and also serves to redeem and repair it. In conclusion the words of Pope Pius XII seem apt here:


    "In God's eyes all men are merely children, even the profoundest thinkers, the most experienced leaders of nations. To judge events b the short view, that of time that passes, flees away never to return; but God regards them from the heights, from the immovable centre of his eternity. All they can see is the restricted panorama of a very few years; God has before him the whole panorama of all the ages. They weigh human events by their proximate causes and immediate effects: God sees them as in their remotest causes, measures them all by their farthest effects.

    They are content to unravel the particular responsibilities of this or that hand: God sees, as a single whole, a complex and mysterious collection of responsibilities, although his high Providence never deprives human choice, good or bad, of its freedom.

    They would have immediate justice; they are scandalised at the ephemeral power of God's enemies, at all the humiliations endured by the good. But the heavenly Father, who in the light of his eternity absorbs and penetrates and rules time's vicissitudes, as he does the serene peace of ages without end, God, the Blessed Trinity, full of compassion for the frailties of men, for all their ignorance and impatience, but loving them too much to allow even their wrongdoing to affect the course of his wisdom and love, continues, and will ever continue, to cause his sun to rise on the evil and equally on the unjust (Matt. 5:45), to guide their childish footsteps with firm tenderness, asking only that they let themselves be led by him and have confidence in his power and the wisdom of his love for them." - Message of 29 June 1941; Acta Apost. Sedis, 1941, p. 322. 


[1] A thing can be said to be good in as much as it is; that is in as much as it has existence. All creation as coming from the hands of God is good, participating in the goodness of it’s author.

[2] In fact when we speak of evil we tend to do so only in relation to the good. We know of evil, precisely because we know what is good. In looking at what a thing is and what it is not – in seeing the defectiveness we begin to speak of a thing being evil.

[3] On evil as a privation, cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, III, 7-9; compendium Theologiae, 115; Summa theological, Ia, q. 48. art. I; De Malo, q. I, art. I. .

[4] I don’t intend to define it here nor to give it’s scope but simply to say it has a mysterious aspect to it since our freedom is ultimately limited to what God chooses to allow us to do in as much as he can deprive us of life and power at His own choosing. What is more; our freedom is not absolute.

[5] The consideration of the whole as the key to understanding so many difficulties is a common theme with both pagan and Christian thinkers. Among the former see Plato’s Laws X, 903; among the latter, St. Irenaeus (Adversus Haeres, II, 25, St. Thomas Aquinas (in II Sentent., d. 32, q. I, a. I; Contra Gentiles, III, 71; De Potentia, q. 3. a. 6. ad. 4; Summa theological, Ia, q. 22, a. 2); etc.