The Problem of Evil

By Jayson Brunelle, M.Ed., CAGS

The single most effective argument against theism was well articulated in The Brothers Karamazov – it is the problem of evil. The most basic form that this argument can take is as follows: If God is all-good, would it not seem logical to believe that He would desire to eradicate it?  Moreover, if, in addition to His divine attribute of being omnibenevolent, He is, as Christians claim, omnipotent, then would He not possess the “power” or “ability” to eradicate evil – both physical evil and moral evil?  Now, based on our personal, lived experience, we all know with certainty that evil, both physical and moral, is a reality.  This, then, begs the question, “How are we to reconcile the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God with the obvious reality of evil?  Since we cannot deny the reality of evil, a reality that each human person has, indeed, experienced to some greater or lesser extent, then it would seem that we must, therefore, conclude that God, or at least the Christian concept of a God Who possesses the attributes of omnibenevolence and/or omnipotence, must not exist.  It would seem, then, that our only remaining options are: (1) God is not all good; (2) God is not all-powerful.  In either case, God turns out not to be the sum of all perfections, as Christians claim Him to be.  Yet, even the non-believer would agree that an accurate definition of God would be “that which nothing greater than can be conceived of.”  This definition, however, implies that God is, necessarily, the sum of all perfections.  And yet, we have just shown that God cannot be, due to the reality of evil.  Thus, the inevitable conclusion that the reality of evil disproves the existence of God.

This argument seems to deal a deathblow to theism – but I underscore the word seems. To refute what seems to be the logical outcome of this argument, and drawing heavily on the writings and ideas of the great contemporary and refreshingly original apologist, Dr. Peter J. Kreeft, I submit that five questions must be answered in order to effectively refute this rather tricky argument against theism.  Kreeft, in his book, The Fundamentals of the Faith, provides the first four questions and their respective answers; to them, I add a fifth.  The questions, then, are: What is evil, essentially? From whence does it come? What is the philosophical solution to the problem? What is the practical solution to the problem? And finally, how does evil stand in relation to God’s will?

First, let us tackle the issue of the essence of evil. In order to understand what exactly evil is, we must first understand what it is not. Firstly, evil is no thing. It possesses no metaphysical, ontological existence. Evil is, however, real – very real, and to this, each and every person can attest. An example will prove helpful here. Let us consider blindness. Blindness is certainly real – ask anyone who suffers from it; but it is not a thing in and of itself. Instead, it is the lack of something that ought to be present – namely, sight. Thus, we can properly state that blindness is a privation – it is the lack of something that ought to be present. The same can be said of evil. Like blindness, evil is likewise a privation – the lack of something that ought to be present. In the case of physical evil, what’s lacking is harmony, integrity, health, wellbeing, order, etc. In the case of moral evil, it is virtue, specifically charity – or love – that is lacking. Why is it so important to understand evil, whether physical or moral, as a privation? Because Divine Revelation informs us that God is the author and creator of all that exists. If evil did possess some type of ontological existence, we would have to surmise that God created it. And we further know from revelation that just as God is the author of everything that exists, every single thing that he creates is intrinsically good. Thus, God cannot be the author of evil. Hence, our understanding of evil as a privation.

This logically leads to our next question. If God is not the author or creator of evil, then where exactly does it come from? Some might say that evil comes from personified evil – the devil or Satan – and they would not be wrong. Yet, for our purposes, we shall take a detour around demonology and focus rather on the freewill of man. It is precisely this latter, the freewill of man, that makes evil a possibility. Before I proceed, however, it should be made clear that authentic human freedom is teleological – that is to say that it is a gift that was given to us by God for a very specific purpose. We are created free, in God’s own image, specifically so that we can freely choose to love both God and neighbor. Many have a mistaken notion of freewill as simply the ability to choose one from among several different options or possibilities, be they good or bad. From a theological vantage point, this simply is not the case. To reiterate, we were created free so that we could freely choose for the sake of the good – to freely choose to love. After all, love would not be love if human persons couldn’t enter into love relationships freely. Put another way, love presupposes freedom. And yet, given our fallen human condition, it remains possible for human persons to choose not to love either God or neighbor. This unfortunate possibility is the reality that ultimately gives rise to moral evil. Thus, the human person is squarely to blame for the emergence of evil in this world and in man’s heart. This, then, is the true origin of evil.

Our next question concerns locating a philosophical solution to the problem of evil. As was stated above, love cannot be love without authentic human freedom. God created us in His image in order that we might freely choose to enter into an eternal love relationship with Him. Some argue that if God wants us to love Him so badly, He should have created a world populated with human beings who could not help but to choose for the sake of the good at all times and in all circumstances. Now, God, in His omnipotence, certainly could have created just such a situation. He could have, as it were, programmed human beings to always and everywhere choose for the sake of the good, thereby rendering evil an impossibility. But, going back to the argument proposed earlier, human beings in such a state would not truly be created in God’s own image, as God is free, and authentic love presupposes freedom. Robotic, programmed humans would cease being able to love authentically. Moreover, behavior that is literally programmed is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. If humans could not help but to do the good, there would be no merit in their “good” actions. Famous philosopher Alvin Plantinga once said that a world populated by significantly free creatures who, more often than not, choose for the sake of the good, is better than a world populated by beings who could not help but to do the good. Specifically, he has stated the following: ”It is possible that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that God, even being omnibenevolent, would desire to create a world which contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures.” This, in my estimation, constitutes the philosophical solution to the problem of evil.

Having fleshed out a philosophical solution to the problem of evil, it would behoove us to present a practical solution to the same problem. And that practical solution is nothing short of the salvific action of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. In redeeming humanity, Christ merited infinite grace and mercy for the human race in general and for each individual in particular. It is this grace, merited by Christ on the wood of the cross, that enables us to overcome the evil in our own lives. Due to original sin and its consequences, each and every human person must contend with a proclivity to commit sin, to give in to our base, lower nature. Although the sacrament of Baptism liberates us from original sin, the effects of original sin remain. concupiscence is probably the most significant of the effects of original sin. The theological definition of this term is a lack of harmony between right reason and the emotions. You see, prior to the fall, man’s emotional life was ruled by his right reason. Unfortunately, with concupiscence, emotions often have the upper hand, and it can sometimes be quite difficult to act in a morally upright fashion due to the strong influence that the emotions exert on our decision-making processes. Grace, however, which is obtained chiefly through prayer and the reception of the Sacraments of the Church, helps to keep the emotions in check, thereby preventing them from unduly influencing our behavior and assisting us in living out the promises and vows of our baptism. Rather than eradicating evil, Christ entered into it, subjected Himself to it, and thereby redeemed the world, meriting grace for the entire human race. And it is precisely this grace, this free supernatural gift of God’s very own divine life, that enables sinful human persons to overcome the evil tendencies of their lower natures. This, then, is the practical solution to the problem of evil.

Finally, let us examine how God’s will stands in relation to evil. When it comes to moral evil, God never wills it either as an end in itself, nor as a means to some other end. Rather, He merely permits it. Moreover, in His providence, He is quite capable of bringing about a good through a moral evil. The quintessential example of this is the crucifixion of Christ. The crucifixion was simultaneously the greatest of evils and the greatest of goods. God was entirely capable of bringing the greatest good from the most heinous evil – deicide. This is the supreme model of God’s Divine Providence; His ability to bring good out of even the most evil of situations.

When it comes to natural, physical evil, or suffering, God never wills it as an end in itself (suffering for sufferings sake), but he does make use of it for greater purposes, thereby willing it as a means to an end of some greater purpose, usually the sanctity of the suffering individual, or in atonement for sin, as a participation in the redemption of humankind with Christ.

Copyright © 2012 by Marian Apostolate Ministries. All rights reserved.

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