How to Approach the Problem of Evil
by Dr. Dennis Bonnette
Filed under The Problem of Evil
The problem of evil in relation to God’s goodness is too vast a topic to treat fully in this short article. Therefore, I shall offer just a few relevant observations on this widely known objection to God’s goodness and existence.
In classical metaphysics, proving God’s goodness starts with defining what is meant by the good. The good is that which all things desire.1 But a thing is desirable because it is perfect, which implies that it is as actual as its nature permits. Since a thing has being as it has actuality, the good is equivalent to being.2 Since God is infinite being, he must also be infinite goodness.
Moreover, since the proofs for God’s existence argue from finite effects to God as the First Cause of all creatures, he must be the cause of the goodness found in all things. Since a cause cannot give what it does not have, God must possess goodness. But the divine simplicity entails that God is identical to any quality he possesses. Hence, God is pure goodness. Since moral goodness is a genuine form of goodness, God must possess and, in fact, be moral goodness itself.
Once it is demonstrated that God is morally good, the solution to the problem of evil requires only that one understand how evil can exist in spite of God’s goodness. In other words, since the problem of evil does not arise until we already know that God exists and is infinitely good, it is therefore a given that the problem of evil can be rationally resolved.
On the other hand, for atheists or agnostics who approach the problem of evil without knowing that God exists, it is the existence and goodness of God that are in jeopardy, since they are certain that evil exists and appears a vexing problem. So, they are in serious doubt that an all-good God can possibly exist.
Clearly, it makes enormous difference as to how one approaches the problem of evil. For the theist, it is merely a problem to be solved. For the atheist, it is a massive obstacle to belief in a good God. It all depends where one starts his enquiry.
Since classical metaphysics does demonstrate the existence of an all-good God – and since I have published defenses of such arguments, mine is the former task. It is merely a matter of seeing why the world’s evil is compatible with the all-good God already known to exist. From this perspective, atheists and agnostics simply approach the problem from the wrong end.
Since the good is equivalent to being and good and evil are diametrically opposed, it would appear that evil must be simply non-being. But, evil is not simply non-being. Rather, evil is the lack of being or perfection that should belong to a given nature.3
Physical evil is the privation of a natural physical good, as when a horse has a broken or missing leg. For many, evil is viewed as pain and suffering. These, too, represent a lack of well-being in sensation or feeling. Moral evil is the lack of rectitude in the acts of a free agent—a sin.
Why Does God Permit, Or Even Cause, Evil?
It is often argued that, if God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing, he has no excuse even for permitting evil to exist. It appears that either he is not all good, or he is powerless to prevent evil, or he does not know what is going on. None of this is compatible with the classical conception of God.
Nonetheless, it is morally licit to permit evil—when that permission allows a greater good to result. For instance, I might allow a youngster to smoke a cigar, knowing it will make him sick, but for the greater good of teaching him not to smoke at all. Now, this is not the immoral act of causing an evil means so as to attain a good end, since I am not making the youngster smoke the cigar. That is his act, not mine. So, too, since God gave us the perfection of a free will, he can allow us to misuse that will and sin, while knowing and willing that a greater good may be forthcoming.
Since God is infinitely good and powerful, it necessarily follows that any evil that God permits in this world must have a greater good that results from it. Being infinitely powerful and knowing all future events, God’s goodness could not permit that evil should occur unless greater good is foreseen to ensue from it.4 The fact that we cannot conceive of such a greater good in many cases does not demonstrate that God is evil, but rather that our finite minds cannot understand the inscrutable nature of God’s providential plans.5
Still, the question arises as to whether God, not only permits evil, but directly causes it in some instances. Clearly, when God exercises his divine prerogative over creatures, as in the matters of life and death and punishment, he acts in ways that entail physical evil for his creatures. How then does God remain free of moral evil when he directly causes such physical evils? Many argue that when God directly takes human life or administers other punishments, he is acting immorally—even manifesting brutality.
But God is the Creator and Sustainer of all life—life, which is given to us as a gratuitous gift. What is freely given may be freely withdrawn at any time—with no resulting injustice. Moreover, as the divine lawgiver and judge of natural law, God is perfectly right to punish directly its violators—so as to restore the balance of justice. No mere creature has that prerogative.
Now, no one would say that it is illicit to remove surgically a cancerous organ, even though the necessary first step is to cause the physical evil of making an incision, which can be painful and damages skin—for it is clear that the total act involved is that of removing a threat to human life. So, too, when God imposes licit sanctions on evil men that entail pain and suffering, the total act is that of imposing the sanction or punishment, while the good end or purpose of that act is the restoration of the balance of justice. Sanctions themselves are a social good needed for the upholding of laws. The pain and suffering (or even death) are simply an essential part of imposing the sanction, which cannot be separated from the act itself. The somewhat incidental nature of the form of the sanction is evinced by the fact that differing crimes receive differing penalties, whereas what is constant and common is the concept of the sanction itself.
In any case, it must be emphasized that God would never will physical evil (either directly or indirectly) for its own sake, that is, as an end in and of itself. He always wills it within the framework of the good of the whole of the created order. We must also remember that what is morally evil for man may not be morally evil for God, since he alone is the Creator of all things and the Legislator of natural law as well as the just Judge of those who violate its ordinances. For example, humans can never licitly take an innocent life, but God can do so—given his position as Creator and Sustainer of all finite living things.
It is self-evident that the infinitely-good God could never directly will moral evil for the sake of any end whatever—however good.
Because some, such as Luther, Ockham, and Descartes, embraced classical positivism with respect to God’s will, they thought he could make adultery licit—or even make two plus two equal five. Natural law never allows such absurdity, because God respects the nature of his own plan of creation. Thus, God could never make adultery or odium dei licit or, for that matter, make two plus two equal five.
This general explanation dealing with God both permitting and causing evil completely resolves the problem of evil in all its many forms, since whatever evil occurs in the world can only happen because God foresees and wills a greater good coming from it.
This solution follows necessarily from the facts that God’s existence can be demonstrated, as can his infinite goodness, power, and knowledge.
But what of the atheist’s or agnostic’s perspective, since he does not accept these metaphysical conclusions about God and his goodness? Coming from a given starting point of the existence of massive evil in the world, it would seem that the hypothesis of an all-good God is a priori excluded.
Quite to the contrary, it is the atheist’s or agnostic’s burden of proof to show that such evil is incompatible with an all-good God. For, if God does exist as classically depicted, then it follows that the problem of evil dissolves as explained above. For the atheist or agnostic to prevail, he must show that such a good God does not exist. He argues from the existence of evil to his conclusion that an all-good God cannot exist. But that is begging the question, for he is assuming what he purports to prove. As we have already shown above, if the God of classical tradition does exist, then evil is no problem.
Thus, the problem of evil is resolved no matter which end of the question is addressed first—be it the existence of evil or the existence of an all-good God.
This means that in principle this analysis and solution of the classical problem of evil could end at this point with no further discussion. Nonetheless, I shall consider some further aspects.
The Problem of Pain
If the problem of evil were a purely rational objection to God, it would seem that every kind of evil should be concerning. Yet, I have never heard anyone proclaim his atheism because of the carnage taking place against lettuce when a chef prepares a salad. Still, there is concern about the pain and suffering that animals endure. Human animals are well aware of the agony that pain can cause. Even so, concern is selective. I have never heard anyone proclaim his atheism because of the treatment of bugs in a Raid commercial.
Animals naturally experience sense pain and pleasure. The sense appetites move them to seek the pleasurable good. They also move them to avoid sensible evil: displeasure or pain. Animals seek goods that keep the individual alive and the species reproducing. Animals need to experience and to fear pain in order to survive against threats to their lives and those of their offspring.
One might ask why God didn’t make animals so that they did not experience pain. The answer is that, in this natural world, pain plays so central a role in animal life that the only way to avoid the problem of pain for animals would be to eliminate the animals themselves. But this is absurd, since (1) it would limit God’s power to create life and (2) it would solve a problem by eliminating the very beings it seeks to benefit. Better for animals is that they live with some pain at times, rather than not live at all.
On the other hand, pain in human experience must be considered in the broader context of man’s intellectual and spiritual life and its role in helping him attain his last end.
Evil as Part of God's Plan for Man
The problem of physical evil and pain in human existence must be subordinated to a proper understanding of his last end and the role of free will in his attaining that end.
When we look at this world, so filled with evil and suffering, the question naturally arises, “How could a good God make such a world?” But this presumes that God is totally responsible for the world as it now exists. Perhaps, God made a world without evil, but he also created free beings who made evil choices that might have corrupted all creation. If evil’s existence before man’s coming be objected, one must then consider the possibility that God created other free beings, such as angels, prior to human creation, and those free beings introduced evil into the world.
Other possibilities include: (1) that the reward of heaven might not be justly given without man earning it. (2) that an earned reward is more perfect than an unearned one. (3) that pain and suffering are key elements in progress toward moral perfection.
God could have made his own existence so evident that no free creature would dare misuse his freedom, and thereby, fail to attain his last end: heaven. Instead, God created an evolving natural world that permits the possibility of naturalistic explanations for everything. In a word, God made a world perfect for atheists and agnostics – since they can argue plausibly (but, not correctly!) that God is a useless myth.
We live on a wonderful planet that rotates so that human life is possible, but whose resulting weather patterns cause death-dealing hurricanes. Humans thrive, but physical evils abound. Could God provide countless miracles to save endangered lives? Could God have made the cosmos differently? Perhaps. But, would the world still be best suited to allow maximum human freedom in reaching our last end?
While right reason can lead the human intellect to affirm God’s existence, man’s spiritual destiny, and the force of natural law, no one is virtually coerced into this awareness as he would be if God’s existence were undeniably evident. Unfortunately, this scenario also entails the possibility of man readily misusing his free will so as not to attain his last end. Why would God permit such a self-destructive use of human freedom?
We might prefer “forced” salvation, but God respects his creature’s freedom so much that he allows us meaningfully to freely earn our eternal reward—even at the price of possible deserved failure. A free agent’s greatest qualitative perfection is most perfectly achieved when he freely chooses a life of moral virtue, even when aan evil alternative deceptively beckons—as in the modern secular world, which seems to offer paradise on earth with no difficult moral constraints, such as sexual self-control.
This world, in which evolutionary naturalism appears to be a real alternative to God’s presence and plan, turns out to be the perfect world for the building of the greatest of saints.6 This world necessarily entails the presence of great evils—the worst of them being of human making. Still, the fact remains that God has good reason to create this world exactly as he has, since its evils exist only because God foresees far greater good forthcoming as a result, that is, a heaven filled with creatures who freely merited their eternal reward.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 1 (1094a 1). ↩
- Summa Theologiae, I, q. 5., a. 1, c. ↩
- Summa Contra Gentiles, III, ch. 6, para. 1. ↩
- Summa Theologiae, I, q. 2, a. 3, ad. 1. ↩
- Karlo Broussard, Preparing the Way (Catholic Answers Press, 2018, 79-82). ↩
- My final argument showing that a naturalistic world is best designed for maximum freedom is taken from my book, Origin of the Human Species – Third Edition (Sapientia Press, 2014), 211-213. ↩
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