The existence of evil is a common objection to the existence of God, or at least to a personal God who is all-knowing and all-good. How is it possible to reconcile belief in God with the clear evidence of evil and its manifold manifestations? This is a good question, and one that people have been asking for thousands of years (just read through the book of Job in the Old Testament). To answer the question, two related, yet distinct ideas must be examined.

The meaning of evil

Firstly, it is necessary to establish what exactly is meant by “evil.” When speaking of evil, it is easy to see it as a force that drives nature or people toward destruction. However, evil does not exist per se, meaning in and of itself. It only exists in things as a lack of something that should be present. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “…every being, as such, is good; …evil can exist only in good as in its subject” (STh., Q. 49, a. 3). For example, blindness is not something added to the eye; it is the lack of a power that should be there. The eye suffers the deprivation of the good of sight, which is an evil. Sickness is not the addition of a new perfection; it is the lack of health in a body. Hence, a physician works precisely to restore someone to health, the good state the body should be in.

This understanding of evil is important because it immediately rules out the idea that the material world is evil and must be overcome in order for human persons to be happy. That dualistic perception of the world and its origins is at the heart of the Manichean heresy, which lies within the Gnostic tradition. Essentially, the two eternal principles of “good” and “evil” are at war, and all matter is seen as evil. This, of course, is in direct opposition to the biblical tradition which precedes it, in which all creation is declared “good,” even “very good,” in Genesis 1. Matter is definitely not evil in the biblical vision.

What about when bad things happen? Physical or natural evil that people experience is the playing out of the laws of the universe, like the earthquake that causes the tsunami that causes the destruction of an island and all the plants and creatures living on it. One the one hand, it is seen as a tragedy. On the other hand, however, how it happened is perfectly logical and can be traced back through the laws of nature. This type of evil can also be quite relative. For example, the lion eats the antelope. Good for the lion, evil for the antelope. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Now, the order of the universe requires…that there should be some things that can, and do sometimes, fail” (STh., Q. 49, a. 2).

The existence of evil

Secondly, once evil is understood as the privation of a good and not a principle of existence, the idea free will in rational creatures must be addressed. Moral evil is more nuanced than physical evil, and it is really at the heart of the above-stated question about God. Moral evil refers to the choice by a rational creature to do what he knows is not good, either for himself or for others. In this case, the privation of the good that ought to be there is caused by the choice of the creature. For example, the thief lacks the virtue of justice. The good that ought to be present, namely, the ready disposition to give to each what is due, is lacking. Instead, the thief has an inordinate desire to possessions and violates justice in order to satisfy that desire. A famous line from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn summarizes this perfectly: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes … right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” Man, each and every man, chooses to commit moral evil or not. God is not the cause of this type of evil, but he does allow it to exist.

If God is all good — why doesn’t He stop people from doing bad things? This is the conundrum, right? The answer lies in the great value and the goodness of freedom, even when it has gone wrong. Make no mistake — God has explained what freedom is for: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:5). Or, as St. Paul wrote: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rm 3:9-10).

Each person has an innate understanding that what St. Paul says is true, and freedom’s true purpose is clear. Yet, if someone makes a bad or a vicious choice, God still permits the choice. The power of goodness and love, latent within the human will, is so great and good, that God will not thwart man’s use of it. He wants humans to choose to love freely — to love him freely, to love the self freely, and to love others freely. He could have created puppets who automatically loved him and could not do otherwise. He did not. As such, there are adverse consequences to human freedom: sin and the effects of sin.

Sin and evil

That is really the crux of the problem. It can be explained metaphysically and in a satisfactory way that evil exists, but God’s seeming absence from the scene right when we need him fails to satisfy. But, is he absent? St. Augustine said: “For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil.”

St. Augustine’s argument here is actually the only solution. The existence of evil cannot disprove the existence of God, because evil exists only in something good as in a subject (blindness in the eye, illness in the body) or as part of the lawful order of the universe. Yet, God’s allowance of evil, especially evil freely chosen on the part of human persons, cannot but bring us to the question of why? To begin to understand this, the nature of human freedom must be appreciated and understood. Freedom is a power for good, not for evil, but it can be misused. God allows this because this is how he created rational human beings — for the good, capable of evil. He will not go back on his creation. At the same time, the evil that God permits, will, in his time and purposes, be an avenue from which he brings good.

Sister Anna Marie McGuan is with the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan.