Evil is not a created thing, but is instead the measure of the extent to which a particular thought or act deviates from “the good.” That was the point of a recent. Drawing on the work of Augustine and other early Christian thinkers, I concluded that God allows for evil – for human beings to think and act in a way that is contrary to his perfect will – because that is the only way “free will” could exist. He could make us robots or mere things, but he could not make us “free” without the capacity for “evil” to also exist.
The problem with short essays is that the work of giants such as Augustine or Aquinas cannot be encapsulated in 750 words. These posts are meant simply to convey a basic principle, or to generate interest in the ideas and some discussion. Sometimes the discussion that emerges reflects the misunderstanding that can result from a superficial treatment of a topic. One challenger commented:
“If people inevitably commit evil (as Christians believe), then we don’t have free will. A god who allowed a tendency to evil to be inherited doesn’t sound good to me.”
Making sense of this challenge requires first that we consider what is meant by “evil.” In my post, I used the term quite broadly, meaning any deviation from God’s will. Consequently, evil could mean something serious, like genocide, or it could mean something minor, like demeaning someone, or anything in between. While all acts of rebellion may be contrary to God’s will, it is self-evident that some acts of rebellion against God (eg. rape, murder, genocide) are more serious and more despicable than others. Consequently, while it is true that all people “inevitably commit evil,” it is not as if all people feel a compulsion to commit heinous acts of violence or depredation. The common element in all “evil” however is the exercise of the will directed at achieving one’s own ends whenever those ends do not coincide with God’s perfect will. Sometimes those ends might be laudable, and sometimes not. But the common feature is the desire for “control” – of one’s self, of others, of one’s environment. In the final analysis, it is the desire to throw off the yoke of God and to be one’s own master – the very essence of rebellion.
Does this feature of the human species negate free will, as the challenger asserts? Hardly. Because when we act in our own interest, and we pursue our own base ends, we nonetheless act in a volitional manner. We do what is pleasing to us, what we find to be desirable. The opposite of that would be to act on compulsion, or by instinct. Unlike the lesser animals, whose behavior appears largely programmed, human beings have the capacity to reflect upon their behavior. While they might experience temptations or urges, they retain the capacity to act in accordance with their will and not simply due to some biological imperative. To say, then, that our ability to choose to act in accordance with our pleasure is evidence of a lack of free will is incoherent. It is not as if we are forced, for example, to eat things that are disagreeable to us, or to do things we would rather not do. What we choose to do is most often simply an expression of our innermost desires.
Which leads then to the next question: why do we possess such desires? This is a much trickier question. Why does the lion devour its prey? Why does it look upon the jungle as a place to hunt, to exercise dominion, to kill? It is built into its nature, yes, but as a result of that nature, it derives pleasure or satisfaction from its actions. It operates according to its programming. But we are not lions. We have the capacity for thought, for reflection, for self-assessment, for insight. We can see the long term consequences of our actions. We can develop empathy for others. While we may derive pleasure from doing wrong, we also possess the capacity to see the law that urges us to do right. The lion can be tamed, given enough time and effort. But it must be done from outside. Its instinct must be overcome. Man, by contrast, has the capacity to transcend his programming – his nature – and to become something different, something better.
The question is how he does this. The secular humanist believes man is basically good and that with enough education and enlightenment, he can correct himself. Man – the center of all things – remains the center in this worldview. Christianity, by contrast, teaches that man’s fallen nature is like quick-sand. The temptations that we experience, while not instincts or compulsion, are nonetheless powerful and difficult to master. We can struggle to escape but in the end our efforts are not sufficient. We cannot tame ourselves – our natures – nor can we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
The good news of Christianity, of course, is that we need not. God does the work of redemption, including the initial overture in which he beckons us home. We need simply say yes. He can then perfect us, make us ready to stand in the presence of perfection. (More on this in my next post.)
Yes, God is responsible for allowing man to have this fallen nature – this tendency toward evil – and for giving man the free will to act on that desire. But he did not saddle us with instinct that takes away the volitional nature of our acts. Instead, he bestowed upon us his very image – the imago dei. He provided us the capacity that he gave to no other animal, for self awareness and self control. Most importantly he gave us the capacity for choice – to say yes to him, and to let him complete a work in us.
And that makes him very good indeed.
Posted by Al Serrato