By Jonathan Sim.
This paper was written for my Philosophy of Religion module in 2010.
In considering the problem of evil, a great difficulty arises. One may argue that God only permits evil for the sake of bringing about a greater good. However, in the face of tremendous evils – such as the terrible death of innocent children or of the masses in a natural disaster, but especially what seems like pointless sufferings, e.g. the death of a fawn in the middle of a forest – such arguments do not satisfy, but casts doubt on the goodness of God. It is argued that a good God would have brought about greater good in a more efficient and less painful manner. And even for the seemingly pointless evil, where suffering is so bad, how could any goodness come out of that? It appears that the very existence of evil seems to be proof in negating the benevolence of God.
In this paper, I argue that the existence of evil – even the seemingly pointless ones – do not negate the benevolence of God, but instead, are justifications of God’s goodness. Due to limited constraints in this paper, an assumption is made that God possesses the three properties of omniscience, omnipotence, and omni-benevolence. The argument shall be demonstrated by defining evil as a non-entity, and that wherever evil may be found, good is always present. Following which, an explanation as to how this world, where evil exists, is the only possible world that God could have created. Lastly, a consideration that all pointless evils have been prevented, and that deep beneath the mask of evil, one can discover the goodness and beauty of God.
Something is said to be evil in two ways: (1) absolutely, for it consists of something being deprived of a particular good required for its perfection, e.g. the massive loss of blood is evil as the creature is deprived of bodily fluids necessary for its own perfection, namely, to continue existing; and (2) in a particular respect for what is not evil as such, but what befalls something because it is deprived of a good required for the perfection of something else rather than for its own perfection, e.g. fire is evil for wood, not absolutely, but rather, for fire to attain its own perfection, wood must be deprived of its perfection by ceasing to exist.
God permits evil, “not because it is evil, but because it is good, absolutely speaking, and evil in a particular respect.” While we may encounter what seems to be evil, absolutely, they are in fact evil in a particular respect. From a deer’s perspective, to be hunted and mauled to death by a lion seems like an evil, absolutely. Yet, for us, who understand the bigger picture of things, i.e. the ecology and the necessity of the food chain, we accept this as part of nature for there is a recognition that the death of the deer is evil in a particular respect, but good, absolutely, for it not only contributes to the perfection of the lion, but also towards the preservation of the entire ecosystem. In like manner, even in the most intense suffering, or even apparently pointless evil, such evils, are evil in a particular respect, but contribute to the perfection of something else. (More to be explained later)
But what exactly is evil? Blindness is not an entity that exists on its own. Rather, the eye (an entity) can be said to have this blindness. Likewise, evil is not an entity but an entity that may be said to have it, since evil is only the privation of a good within that entity. According to St. Augustine, “there cannot be evil except in good.” Evil may be likened to a hole in the wall. Without the wall, there can be no hole. There must be something good for the privation of goodness (evil) to occur, just as how there must be a wall for a hole to be made in the first place. Evil lessens the good that a subject is made of, and of its proper functioning insofar as the perfection is removed, but the subject still remains. Furthermore, “evil can only originate from good”. Herbert McCabe elaborates:
You can’t have badness unless there is some goodness, whereas you can have goodness without any badness. The two are not symmetrical, so to say. I mean that if a washing machine is to be a bad one it must be at least good enough at being a washing machine for us to call it one. If I produce a cup and saucer and complain that is a useless washing machine because it never gets the clothes clean, you will gently correct me and explain that what I have is not a washing machine at all. So even the worst washing machine must be a little good, otherwise it is not even a washing machine and cannot therefore be a bad one.
The good of a wood is in its firmness and strength. This property is the reason why it is used as support beams in construction. Yet, the very same property is the reason for misuse, as the wooden beam may be used to clobber a person and injure him. For such evil to occur, the weapon of injury must be good enough to inflict it, while the person must be “good enough” to acquire the injury. Therefore, the person must be good enough to sustain an injury in order to be injured. Otherwise, the evil of incurring an injury will not happen in the first place. Though this may be odd, it serves to demonstrate an important point: Whenever there is evil, one may also find good. It is not as if there is some great evil that overwhelms and affects a being. But things have been made good by a benevolent God in such a way that the good of one acts with the good of another in such a way that the good of one being privates goodness from the other. This is what we would call evil.
But surely, if God is all powerful and good, it would be within His power to create a world where evils of any form, like in the above example, would not occur. One could conceive of a world made by God, whereby the same piece of wood, when used for violence would become as soft as a cushion, thereby not injuring anyone. While it may seem like a beautiful place to be in, such a world would mean that wrong actions would not be possible: the exercise of free will is thus not possible. Furthermore, there would be no stability in that world. “Fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any life is possible.” This is not the “best of all possible universes,” but perhaps “the only possible one.”
St. Therese of Lisieux, wrote about the unseen goodness of God:
The father, aware that a dangerous stone lies in his son’s path, is beforehand with the danger and removes it, unseen by anyone. The son, thus tenderly cared for, not knowing of the mishap from which his father’s hand has saved him, naturally will not show him any gratitude, and will love him less than if he had cured him of a grievous wound. But suppose he heard the whole truth, would he not in that case love him still more?
Considering the complexities of nature and of human society, there is already a very high chance of evil occurring just by accidental causes or by the misuse of free will to exercise evil. Yet, many rarely pause to consider just how many evils, trials, and sufferings could have actualised in our very lives, but did not. Just as how a loving parent would remove all harmful obstacles in the path of an infant learning how to walk, but would permit the child to fall as it plays an essential part in the process of learning, so too does a benevolent God remove all harmful and pointless evils from our paths, but allow only certain evils to befall on us for a greater good.
Kindness, according to C.S. Lewis, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, but only that it escapes suffering. Love is more than kindness whereby, while there may be rebukes or even condemnation, as would a parent to a naughty child, there is no contempt, but only a wish to make the child into the sort of human being God wants him to be, according to the superior divine wisdom. By understanding love in this light, the existence of evil, especially as suffering, and the benevolence of God can be reconciled.
Moreover, there is a special relationship between God and Man. Much like military training, or kung-fu training, the trainee allows himself to undergo evils – and sometimes even “pointless evils”, such as having to carry out training/exercises in the harshest of conditions without any seemingly rational reason for it – with the firm trust that these are provided for one’s own perfection. In such cases, the trainer/master puts the trainee through instances of evil, not because it is evil, but because it is good, absolutely, for it aids the trainee to attain the perfection required, despite evil in a particular respect, e.g. exhaustion and pain from the intensive training. Hence, it is through suffering that God seeks to aid Man in attaining his due perfection.
However, there is still one issue left to resolve. In the face of tremendous sufferings or seemingly pointless sufferings, the image of God as a compassionate and loving father evaporates away, leaving behind what seems to be an image of a cruel and wicked tyrant, who delights in the death and torture of many helpless victims. How can one still say that God is all-loving, all-compassionate, all-merciful, and all-good? The problem with having a hole in the wall is that the hole – even if it is just a very small one – draws much attention to itself. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and cannot be easily ignored. In looking at the wall, one cannot help but notice that hole. In the same way, all attention on the wall of goodness is drawn to the hole of evil. And yet, it is essential to remember that without the wall, there cannot be a hole. Without goodness, there can be no evil: no privation of good. Where evil exist, good may be found. Though difficult, one must try to recognise the wall around the hole – the good surrounding the bad. Only in contemplating the goodness that surrounds the evil can one then recognise the benevolence of God, and recognise that such evil occurred not because it is evil, but because it is good, absolutely speaking, but evil in a particular respect.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, Q1, A1. p.63
 St. Augustine, Enchiridion, 11, cited in St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, Q1, A1. p.57
 St. Augustine, Enchiridion, 14, cited in St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, Q1, A2. p.73
 St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, Q1, A2. p.67
 St. Augustine, Enchiridion, 14, cited in St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, Q1, A3. p.85
 Herbert McCabe, God Matters, p.30, cited in the Introduction by Brian Davies in St. Thomas Aquinas, De Malo, pp.24-25
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Chapter 2, p.24
 Ibid, p.25
 Ibid, p.26
 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of the Soul, p.63
 Ibid, Chapter 3, p.37
C.S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain”. (New York: HarperOne, 2001)
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “The Story of the Soul”, translated by Thomas N. Taylor. (New York: Cosimo Inc., 2007)
St. Thomas Aquinas, “De Malo”, translated by Richard Regan. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)