If a patient is suffering from cancer, a cancer researcher's journal article will neither comfort nor treat the patient’s condition. If one is dealing with evil and suffering, this article will do equally little in these regards; it, too, is meant to neither comfort nor treat. Instead, we will try to understand from a more distant perspective than our own why evil and suffering are here.
If, in searching for a solution to the evil and pain in the world, we run away from God, this is exactly the wrong direction. Resenting God because of evil is like resenting food because of hunger. Is the presence of evil in the world a strong emotional appeal towards disbelief in the goodness of God? Sure; but logically speaking, evil does not preclude the existence of God. Not even close. There are many good reasons explaining why God permits evil. As hard as it is to experience evil, pain, and suffering, the solution is neither to leave nor disbelieve God.
Objection: Are you kidding me? Look at the world. Things are awful and an all good and all powerful God would surely not let this happen. Therefore He doesn’t exist. If He did and this is how He wants His creation, He must be evil, or He is inept at creating universes.
Hold your horses, God is not done yet. If someone was baking a cake, would it be fair to look at the cake batter and begin criticizing? “That cake looks awful. A cake should be light, with a delicate sponge texture, but this looks like some gross soup!” Of course that is unfair, because you are judging something in progress by its final outcome.
God doesn’t do this. He evaluates His creation at each stage, by that stage. In reading Genesis 1, it is almost tiresome how often the writer repeats, “and God saw that it was good”. After every stage of creation God makes this pronouncement until mankind is made, and then it is “very good”.
If today were the final state of all creation, then sure. Criticize away and blame God. Go ahead. And yet, as tomorrow will prove, it isn’t the final state. If the batter of the cake was the final state of the cake, then yes, it is a poor attempt at cake baking and the baker is a failure. Since we have not yet seen what the future will hold, the best we could possibly do is ask the question, “Is this what the batter ought to look like at this point in the process?” Or rather, “Is this what God’s creation ought to look like at this point in history?” I would argue that even this is far beyond our epistemic vantage point. Nevertheless, we have two clues.
Our first clue is the skill with which the universe began and the next being the nature of our Creator. From what we have seen so far, God seems to be pretty good at beginning a universe. First He brings it into being from nothing. Pretty impressive. Then as it bursts into being, it self-assembles into all of the complexity and beauty all around us. Not bad. As this creation is streaming towards its end, it even generates us...and we are quite fond of ourselves.
Either God is a bad Creator and therefore we as His creations are no good as well, or He is a good Creator and we are good creations. In the first case, it seems ridiculous that a bad Creator would or could make creatures who are somehow better at morally perceiving the world than the one who brought them into being. Yet this would be the claim of those who turn on their Creator and criticize the moral implications of the evil God permits in His, as of yet, unfinished creation (of which the critic witnesses a pathetically small sample.).
In the second case where we assume a good Creator, then we return to the argument prior: if God started the universe, we would have good reason to think He will finish what He started with the same skill. After all, He is a good Creator.
By reason of our finite natures we will by necessity be neither prior to creation nor sitting at its end. Instead, we the creatures of God’s creation are among the soupy mess of the proverbial cake. We see in ourselves and others an unfinished work. We see from the inside of the process that evil is everywhere we look.
Such is the consequence of eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. We are plunged directly into the pain and horror of confrontation with non-being where being ought to be. Now yes, we are “like God”, just as the devil promised in the garden and are seeing both good and evil. Like God who brought His order out of the chaos and void of non-being and potentiality, we too are now employed in doing the same.
After the fall, Eve is told that in the great female act of creation her pain will be greatly increased. Adam is told that by the sweat of his brow he will eat his food; he will toil among thorns in his acts of co-creation. Yet, God always wanted us to watch creation and co-create with an easy burden and a light yoke. He intended from the beginning to confront the void and the chaos for us. In Christ, this returns. Under the crown of thorns His work is finished. Through the sweat of blood from His brow, our disobedience is undone. Jesus offers again the easy burden and light yoke we had in the garden because He throws Himself between us and the evil that can destroy us.
Is there a way that God could have had creatures in the process of creation with eyes unopened to the pain and suffering of being in-process? Yes; again, that was the original plan. We choose to end that plan and chose evil because it appeared good to us. Don’t think for a moment that you wouldn’t have done the same thing in the garden as our first parents. You, too, stretch out for the fruits of disobedience in your own life and for the same reasons.
The second reason we can conclude that creation will reach a perfected conclusion is from philosophical reflection on who God is. Reason tells us that God is in fact all good, all powerful, and benevolent to His creation. Look at the five ways of Aquinas. These show definitely that God does exist and holds all of the qualities of a good and perfect Creator. This is true by necessity and therefore, it follows that the evil we see in the world is not due to a God who is absent, maniacal, or inept. Instead evil is permitted for a greater good and we could not possibly be in a position to have the totalizing reasons for why, nor should we expect to.
To repeat, resenting God because of evil is like resenting food because of hunger. Evil is an absence of being where being ought to be. For instance, theft is an exchange with non-being in the place of consent or payment. Physical sickness or disability is non-being in the place of the ability or the non-being in the place of health. To hate God who is the maximum of all being and the source of all perfection is to hate the one thing that is both the cure for the evil in the world and represents its total and utter opposite. Why would one with a disease that is rightly hated also hate the cure? Why would one who hates evil not love the opposite who is God?
Yes, evil and pain hurt. Yes, this is not the way it should be, but that is our fault. We wanted to and still want to eat of the fruit of good and evil. We wanted to know what evil was about from the inside and now we do. We reached into the fire and thought we would not get burned. We thought that God’s prohibition on knowing evil was to oppress us and to stifle us, but all along it was to channel us towards flourishing. This flourishing is still possible when we reject our selfish pride and respond to God in the obedience made possible through the sacramental graces Christ’s Church offers. If you don’t like this fruit of disobedience, then just give it up. The fruit of the tree of life is on offer today. That tree was replanted as a cross where Jesus gives us His body as our true food.
Objection: Okay, how do you explain natural evils that are clearly gratuitous? What about the classic case of the fawn with its broken leg stuck under a fallen tree during a forest fire? What possible reason would God want such a creature to suffer a painful and pointless death? Theists might be able to offer some free-will defense (flimsy as that might be) for moral evil, but you can’t explain natural evils.
Firstly, why does anything exist? Classical theism says that it can’t be for God’s benefit, because He is already maximally perfect and in no way can increase in happiness. Therefore, creation exists out of a generous act of love. All creation is loved into existence. This is not for God’s benefit but for the creation’s benefit.
One more piece of set up: creation is not a ‘good maximizing’ machine nor a ‘happiness of the creatures maximizing’ machine. Instead, it is an artistic act of self-revelation, of God to His creatures and through His creatures. If God’s one creative act is like pure white light, the various colors that break through the prism of His creation are like His creatures. Each faintly suggests something about the Creator.
With all of this in mind, let us look at the fawn, the leg, the tree, and the fire. Each are creatures. Each exist in a particular grouping of material at a given time. However, the essence or form of what they are exists also in the mind of God and existed there prior to the creation of anything, because God loves these natures and wished to pair them with existence.
God loves that particular fawn, but not more than He loves the nature of deer, and not more than He loves the nature of trees or fire either. To make the fawn in that instance not burned by the fire is to double back on what it is for fire to be fire, or deer to be deer. But why would He double back on what He created? After all, He loves these natures. In a way, since they reflect a sliver of Himself, He would be opposing Himself, or acting against His own nature to undo the nature of something that He loves and offers as a item of self-revelation.
Therefore, we would expect that God would prefer the natures of things He loves to remain truly as they are...and their concrete instantiations to come and go, as the base material which constitutes them takes one of His beloved forms followed by the next. God loves the fire and the fawn. But He also loves the ash that results and the grass that grows there and the deer that then eats that grass.
Could God have stopped the deer from feeling pain in the fire? Sure, and maybe He does. That is not impossible. Some might argue that “shock” does in fact shut down pain receptors and blunt the effect of trauma. Yet, I would suggest that He would prefer that all of the natures of all of the things that constitute the fawn, from its brain to its nerves to its now broken leg and even down to the nature of the calcium that makes up the bone and the protons and electrons that make the calcium atoms, retain their natures as God created them.
Some have suggested that in the end, all of creation will be restored in the new creation, including animals. It is possible in the future that the creatures that have suffered natural evils for the sake of other goods will be compensated according to the principle of justice. However, if we can admit that God could compensate creatures after their suffering, could He not also do so prior to the suffering as well? One could argue that being brought into existence is of absolute value to the creature, who now exists. If it bears pain in virtue of of being made according to a kind, this is only possible because it was first made to be.
As a thought experiment, what would be better, to destroy all life on earth so that no future animal pain would be experienced, or to allow for animal pain and other natural evils by letting nature continue as it does? If you think that the second choice would be better, then this affirms that the good of the whole system is in fact enough to outweigh the natural evils that are by-products of the system. If you choose the first option, then I have serious doubts about your moral calculus.
Maybe you want option three, where everything continues but with less pain. However, you have no idea if this is possible. If your idea for doing this entails a piecemeal undoing of natures as the need arises, I refer you back to the argument about the good of a whole nature versus that of a particular material instantiation. If you want other natures that work differently, I address that in a subsequent objection. To briefly answer, these creatures created from alternate natures would not be the ones currently in existence. God clearly loves the ones that actually exist more than the ones that only possibly exist, like the ones you are suggesting. If you go on to reject God’s existence, then I refer you to my talk on the five ways, or at very least my article on the 4th way.
In summary, God loves and preserves the nature of the thing more than any particular material instantiation of the thing. Why? Because that nature reflects a faint aspect of Himself and God loves Himself. Why does God love Himself? Because God is absolute goodness and perfection and is therefore the object of perfect love.
If an injustice was done to a creature, God would give to each creature what is due to it in justice because God is just. He can do this after the creature suffers, or the creature could have been compensated prior to the suffering for its future suffering. Existence is an enormous gift to a creature from God. Therefore much if not all, suffering could already be compensated by God’s gift of existence to that creature. To examine how kind God was to the fawn in the forest fire alone is to isolate and ignore the total kindness of God, not just to the fawn through its life, but also to all God’s other creatures in the context of His creative work. Further, to imagine that the care we as creatures have for other creatures ought to be identical to the way that God as Creator cares for the set of creatures is unfounded. He still exercises love and care, but only in an analogous way to the way we do, and yet in a way fully appropriate to a Creator.
Furthermore, there is the practical matter of how God allows material things to exist. God uses the same material to bring about creature after creature. If He loves mankind, which we know He does as evidenced by our existence, then how would we have ever come about if all organic matter was locked up in the bodies of primitive organisms that God refused to let die and turn into the next form of creature that He wills? If death was impossible, then how would evolution have ever brought us about? If death didn’t happen, then dinosaurs would be plaguing mankind right now. If people didn’t die, then our earth would be packed shoulder to shoulder with generations of eternal people fighting for the scarcity of a mismanaged earth.
From a Creator’s standpoint, in order to have a series of flourishing material creatures, death must exist. Death will obviously be experienced as a natural evil to the one dying, but that does not mean that creation itself is evil. Concluding the latter is the fallacy of composition: what is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole. God rightly calls creation “very good”, even though very bad things happen to creatures by virtue of our finite natures. Let me give a practical example. When a bug is eaten by a chicken, this is bad of the bug but good for the chicken. This means that the bug got to exist for a time and now the chicken gets to exist. Afterward, you or I may eat that chicken and we then received the good of continued existence from the chicken who received it from the bug.
Objection: You said that God doesn’t want to violate natures, yet isn’t this exactly what He does with a miracle?
Even if He did violate that nature, this would only serve to further my earlier point that the universe is not a good-maximizing machine, but rather a self-revelation of God to His creatures. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the only time the normal created order is disrupted is precisely the moments that God is making a louder and more overt self-revelation. That is after all the point of miracles, to show us God’s power and presence. From the burning bush, to the parting of the Red Sea, to the raising of Lazarus, all of these are revelatory of God.
I don’t think that a miracle destroys the nature of a creature. Instead, it is actualizing a potentiality that can only be actualized by the Creator and not another creature. All of reality stands in a state of potentiality vis a vis its Creator, therefore no act God takes will be a destructive act as such. We believe that grace builds on nature, and a miracle is a grace that God gives to a created thing to participate in His self revelation. In short, God has built into creation a secret menu of potential states that His power alone can actualize.
Objection: God could have created a reality where all this was not necessary.
Sure, He could have, but that would be a totally different reality and the laws of that reality would preclude the creatures of this reality from existing. Yet God loved us more than those creatures, since He chose to give us existence and not them. So for His most loved beings to exist, they must exist in the reality that includes them. This reality includes evil acting in the way it does; therefore the creatures will witness evil in their reality as a mark of God’s love for them.
We could grant the possibility that God created that reality also and we just don’t know about it. Maybe He did, at which point God reveals Himself through more than one prism of reality and His creatures are loved into existence in two ways rather than one. What is the problem with that?
Question: What role does evil serve in a good creation?
It is a precondition for the exercise of certain goods. For instance, courage is impossible unless it is in the face of opposition. Further, if there is no possibility of suffering, then courage is not courage, for there is nothing at stake. Recall that the universe is not a ‘good maximizing’ or ‘pleasure maximizing’ machine. Not at all; the theist views it as an artistic act of self-revelation of God to His creatures. In this case, it is of the utmost importance that many of the goods that exist in unity in God can be teased out individually among His creatures. Virtues like courage or self sacrifice are part of who God is and we would not know that unless God allowed these virtues to exist in our reality. Evil is necessary for those virtues to exist. Therefore, it is necessary for God to allow evil in order for us to understand God, who is perfect goodness Himself.
A common analogy is made to a painting. The shadows in a painting are not the subject of the work. Instead they are used to draw out the beauty of the subject, to provide depth and vividness to what is presented. A movie can serve as a similar example. The villains and the evil in a movie are not why people watch it. The point is to use these evils to showcase what is good and true, to provide stakes in the game, and to make the story an adventure. These are the roles of evil.
Not only does God brings out of creation all of these great goods because evil is present, but for all those that suffer unjustly he can omnipotently undo or compensate all creatures according to His justice and mercy. In essence, He can bring out all of the goods from including evil while canceling out any injustice and harm.
Imagine a football fan is given the option of either playing a game with the local middle school team or playing in the Super Bowl. Which would he choose? The Super Bowl, of course! The opportunity to play with the best, against a formidable foe, and at the highest level of the sport would be thrilling. Yes, there is significant opportunity for injury and there will be pain. However, what if the fan was given the opportunity to train and become equipped for the game? That alone would be a great honor, and the training and equipment will in large part protect him from harm as he becomes stout enough to push back against a powerful opponent.
If you are a fan of goodness and truth, then you, too, should be excited to play the game at the highest level. You are part of the Super Bowl. Your opponents are ferocious and will not go down easily. Thankfully, God established a Church to train you and equip you for the task. Your team includes the greatest saints of all time and facing you is the devil himself. You are called to be courageous, you will get hurt, and there will be pain. Yet you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and you know that in the end ther