By Al Serrato
One of the most common challenges to the Christian worldview is the problem of evil. We see evil all around us; we need to do little more than pick up a newspaper or watch the nightly news to have our sensibilities assaulted with countless acts of senseless violence and suffering. Many are man-made and some a product of an indifferent Mother Nature; whatever the source, at times, it feels as if the world is awash in wickedness.
How, the challenger entreats, can your good and loving God create such things? Why did he imbue man with such capacity for wickedness? The Christian responds that God did not create evil. No, they claim, evil is the product of man’s twisted free will. How well does this claim hold up?
The challenger seems to have logic on their side. Reduced to a simple syllogism, the challenge goes something like this: 1) God created all things; 2) evil is a thing; 3) therefore, God created evil. Though raised anew in every generation, the challenge itself 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.
This response seems to accept the difference between deprivation and a thing and confronts the believer with the same challenge: a good God would never have allowed such deprivations, such departures, from the good. 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 adopts the language of deprivation.
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 these are examples of things – namely acts that are being done: stopping the woman by force of law, setting off the explosive, cutting into a person. They will insist that a good God would not have created them. 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 departs from God’s nature or will, or at least what we view 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, then free will would be an illusion.
Recommended resources related to the topic:
If God Why Evil. Why Natural Disasters (PowerPoint download) by Frank Turek
Free CrossExamined.org Resource
Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.