One of the most common challenges to the Christian worldview is the problem of evil. In its common syllogistic form, the challenge can be reduced to this:
- God created all things
- Evil is a thing
- Therefore God created evil.
This challenge is not new. In the 4th century, St. Augustine tackled it, as did St. Thomas Aquinas centuries later. What we call evil, they explained, is in fact a deprivation of the good and is therefore not really a “thing” at all. Like the hole in a donut, it describes what is not there, what is missing.
But this does not always satisfy the challenger. Often, they may counter: an all powerful, all loving God would not have allowed deprivations any more than he would have created evil. God still remains at fault, in their view, because he is the originator of the system that results in this “non-thing” -evil – which we rightly view as bad.
This response has superficial appeal. It seems to accept the difference between a deprivation and a thing, and confronts the believer with the same challenge: a good God would never have allowed such deprivations in the first place. But this challenge actually misses the point of the distinction that Augustine and Aquinas drew; through sloppy thinking, it continues to view evil as a thing, even though it pretends not to as it adopts the “deprivation” terminology.
Consider: what we see as evil, whether a thought or an act, can only be gauged if we first hold in our minds what the good would be. For example, using a knife to cut someone is evil when done by the assailant but not by the surgeon. Setting off an explosion is evil when used to harm others but not when used to carve out a tunnel. The knife and the cutting; the bomb and the blast – these may be “things’ in a manner of speaking, but any measure of evil in their use depends not on what they are, but on the extent to which their use deviated from God’s perfect will.
We know this intuitively. And because some of us are better at knowing God’s will than others, we may mistakenly call something evil when in truth it is not. For example, a law prohibiting abortions would be viewed as “evil” by those who believe that a woman has the right to choose; they would view the act of stopping a woman from aborting her unborn child to be a departure from the “good” of free choice. This of course would be wrong. It would not be evil at all, but instead good, because such a law would comport with, and not defy, God’s will.
Those who reject Augustine’s approach will insist that each of these examples – stopping the woman by force of law, setting off the explosive, cutting into a person – are things regardless of what label we choose to attach to them. They will insist that a good God would not have created the potential for such actions to occur, would not have allowed for evil to arise. But this misunderstands the point: what constitutes evil is not the action or the thing, but the use to which it is put. God, as the infinite expression and definition of good, is by necessity the ultimate standard of what is good. Consequently, what we describe as evil is in reality a rough gauge of the extent to which the thought or act in question deviates from God’s nature or will, or at least what we understand that nature or will to be.
So, why does God allow evil? Because when he gave us free will, he meant for us to have, well, free will. The opposite of free will would be directed will. Whatever actions we took would be controlled, the way a robot’s or computer’s would be. In such a world, there would be no abortions, no stabbings, no hidden minefields. But such a world would not know freedom. God allows evil, even though he never created it, because if He does not allow us to depart from His perfect will – if he does not allow us to “do evil” – then free will would be an illusion.
Why he felt creating such free will beings was important, or worth doing, is of course a different question. Many have concluded – perhaps without fully considering the issue – that God made a poor choice. But whatever his reasons, one thing is clear: a world in which evil was prevented might be preferable to some, but it would be a world stripped too of free will.
And that would be a very different world indeed.
Posted by Al Serrato