Evil is the absence of Good

“As a corruption of the will, sin is, strictly speaking, a type of nonbeing…liberty is the capacity to choose among a variety of options without any extrinsic compulsion. It is sovereign choice and self-determination. But on a more classical and biblical reading, liberty is not so much free choice—though it involves this—as it is the disciplining of desire so as to make the achievement of the good first possible and then effortless. Thus, we speak of a person coming to play the piano freely or to speak a language freely. Such liberty has not a thing to do with radical self-determination, but rather is a function of internalizing the rules of the relevant discipline to such a degree that they become second nature. As John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” So God, the Supreme Good, nonviolently draws His rational creatures to His own purposes by proposing modes of the good to them, and prompting those creatures to internalize them. In this process, He makes them more—not less—free. To grasp this principle of God’s non-coercive providence is to understand the heart of Christian moral theology and spirituality.

Perhaps the most vexing theological issue of all—indeed what some consider the neuralgic point from which all of theology develops—is the question of evil, of why wickedness and suffering exist in a universe that the infinitely good God has made and that he continually directs. In one of the objections to the claim that God exists, articulated in the famous second question of the Summa theologiae, Aquinas writes, “If one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word ‘God’ means that he is infinite goodness. If therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.” In its very laconicism and concision, it is a very powerful argument indeed, and it gives precise expression to what many, many people today feel but cannot quite articulate.

In providing a response to this objection, the great tradition has made a few indispensable moves. The first—which constituted a major discovery for the young Augustine—is that evil is not a positive force opposing the good, but rather a sheer negativity, a privation of being, the lack of a good that ought to be present. It is crucial to grasp that one can think of good apart from evil, but not vice versa, for to consider evil is, necessarily, to consider the good which it corrupts or compromises…And this implies that God never “creates” or “produces” evil; it cannot be ascribed to Him as to a cause and it, in no sense, stands against God as an ontological rival. Since evil is always parasitic upon the good, all forms of Manichaeism and other metaphysical dualisms that posit coequal forces of good and evil are ruled out. We therefore should speak not of God causing evil but of God’s permission of evil within the confines of His creation.

But still the question remains, why would God do such a thing? Why would God permit the evil that assuredly plagues the world on a massive scale? The standard answer is that God does so in order to bring about some greater good, which could not have been accomplished otherwise. Even a superficial examination of our own experience reveals that there is something to this way of thinking. Without the painful and invasive surgery, the health of a person’s body would never have been restored; without failing in one area of life, [the motivation towards] success in another might never have occurred; without the excoriating speech from another one cares about, one might never have realized his/her full potential; etc.

Still, many people, though they might accept this explanation in principle, have a difficult time seeing its application in every case on the ground. How could we ever “justify” the horrific suffering of the innocent through appeal to some ultimate end? Anyone with a modicum of human feeling senses the brutal power of this great counter-argument to the existence of God. David Hume offered a somewhat more elaborated version of the pithy syllogism of Aquinas. The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher said that, if evil exists, God cannot be, simultaneously, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. For if he knew about evil, could do something to stop it, and would want to stop it, it would not exist. Anyone who, in the face of terrible suffering, has looked imploringly to God and wondered why He is not acting is feeling the press of this demonstration.

For this line of thought to be successful, one would have to assume a godlike grasp of practically all of space and all of time. The major premise of the proof is that there are types of evil and suffering that can never in principle be justified through appeal to a good that might come as a result. But in order definitively to say that a given state of affairs has no possible justification, one would have to see every conceivable implication and consequence and circumstance, stretching out indefinitely into the future. But no finite subject could ever claim such all-embracing consciousness. Demonstrating this was, of course, the principal burden of the book of Job. That God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind signals that the divine purposes are always, for the most part, obscure to us. How could it be otherwise? When speaking of the divine cause, we are referencing the unconditioned reality, Whose mind is without limit and whose providential scope is unrestricted. Claiming that we can prove a negative in regard to the ultimate meaningfulness of a conditioned state of affairs is as ludicrous as a child of four confidently asserting that his parents’ decisions are baseless or a neophyte in mathematics declaring that a page of trigonometric calculations is nothing but gibberish. Hence, God reduces Job to silence by reminding him of how much he cannot even in principle understand of the world that God has made and over which God presides.

Job Chapter 38

1 Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm.
He said:
2 “Who is this that obscures My plans
with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer Me.

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell Me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?

8 “Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
9 when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
10 when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
11 when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?

12 “Have you ever given orders to the morning,
or shown the dawn its place,
13 that it might take the earth by the edges
and shake the wicked out of it?
14 The earth takes shape like clay under a seal;
its features stand out like those of a garment.
15 The wicked are denied their light,
and their upraised arm is broken.

16 “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been shown to you?
Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this.

19 “What is the way to the abode of light?
And where does darkness reside?
20 Can you take them to their places?
Do you know the paths to their dwellings?
21 Surely you know, for you were already born!
You have lived so many years!

22 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail,
23 which I reserve for times of trouble,
for days of war and battle?
24 What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed,
or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?
25 Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a path for the thunderstorm,
26 to water a land where no one lives,
an uninhabited desert,
27 to satisfy a desolate wasteland
and make it sprout with grass?
28 Does the rain have a father?
Who fathers the drops of dew?
29 From whose womb comes the ice?
Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens
30 when the waters become hard as stone,
when the surface of the deep is frozen?

31 “Can you bind the chains[b] of the Pleiades?
Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?

34 “Can you raise your voice to the clouds
and cover yourself with a flood of water?
35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who gives the ibis wisdom[f]
or gives the rooster understanding?[g]
37 Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?
Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens
38 when the dust becomes hard
and the clods of earth stick together?

39 “Do you hunt the prey for the lioness
and satisfy the hunger of the lions
40 when they crouch in their dens
or lie in wait in a thicket?
41 Who provides food for the raven
when its young cry out to God
and wander about for lack of food?

Job Chapter 39

1 “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?
2 Do you count the months till they bear?
Do you know the time they give birth?
3 They crouch down and bring forth their young;
their labor pains are ended.
4 Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds;
they leave and do not return.

5 “Who let the wild donkey go free?
Who untied its ropes?
6 I gave it the wasteland as its home,
the salt flats as its habitat.
7 It laughs at the commotion in the town;
it does not hear a driver’s shout.
8 It ranges the hills for its pasture
and searches for any green thing.

9 “Will the wild ox consent to serve you?
Will it stay by your manger at night?
10 Can you hold it to the furrow with a harness?
Will it till the valleys behind you?
11 Will you rely on it for its great strength?
Will you leave your heavy work to it?
12 Can you trust it to haul in your grain
and bring it to your threshing floor?

13 “The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully,
though they cannot compare
with the wings and feathers of the stork.
14 She lays her eggs on the ground
and lets them warm in the sand,
15 unmindful that a foot may crush them,
that some wild animal may trample them.
16 She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers;
she cares not that her labor was in vain,
17 for God did not endow her with wisdom
or give her a share of good sense.
18 Yet when she spreads her feathers to run,
she laughs at horse and rider.

19 “Do you give the horse its strength
or clothe its neck with a flowing mane?
20 Do you make it leap like a locust,
striking terror with its proud snorting?
21 It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength,
and charges into the fray.
22 It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing;
it does not shy away from the sword.
23 The quiver rattles against its side,
along with the flashing spear and lance.
24 In frenzied excitement it eats up the ground;
it cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.
25 At the blast of the trumpet it snorts, ‘Aha!’
It catches the scent of battle from afar,
the shout of commanders and the battle cry.

26 “Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom
and spread its wings toward the south?
27 Does the eagle soar at your command
and build its nest on high?
28 It dwells on a cliff and stays there at night;
a rocky crag is its stronghold.
29 From there it looks for food;
its eyes detect it from afar.
30 Its young ones feast on blood,
and where the slain are, there it is.”

Job Chapter 40

1 The Lord said to Job:

2 “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him?
Let him who accuses God answer Him!”

3 Then Job answered the Lord:

4 “I am unworthy—how can I reply to You?
I put my hand over my mouth.
5 I spoke once, but I have no answer—
twice, but I will say no more.”

6 Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm:

7 “Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer Me.

8 “Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
9 Do you have an arm like God’s,
and can your voice thunder like His?
10 Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
11 Unleash the fury of your wrath,
look at all who are proud and bring them low,
12 look at all who are proud and humble them,
crush the wicked where they stand.
13 Bury them all in the dust together;
shroud their faces in the grave.
14 Then I myself will admit to you
that your own right hand can save you.

15 “Look at Behemoth,
which I made along with you
and which feeds on grass like an ox.
16 What strength it has in its loins,
what power in the muscles of its belly!
17 Its tail sways like a cedar;
the sinews of its thighs are close-knit.
18 Its bones are tubes of bronze,
its limbs like rods of iron.
19 It ranks first among the works of God,
yet its Maker can approach it with his sword.
20 The hills bring it their produce,
and all the wild animals play nearby.
21 Under the lotus plants it lies,
hidden among the reeds in the marsh.
22 The lotuses conceal it in their shadow;
the poplars by the stream surround it.
23 A raging river does not alarm it;
it is secure, though the Jordan should surge against its mouth.
24 Can anyone capture it by the eyes,
or trap it and pierce its nose?

Job Chapter 41

1 “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
2 Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
3 Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
4 Will it make an agreement with you
for you to take it as your slave for life?
5 Can you make a pet of it like a bird
or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?
6 Will traders barter for it?
Will they divide it up among the merchants?
7 Can you fill its hide with harpoons
or its head with fishing spears?
8 If you lay a hand on it,
you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
9 Any hope of subduing it is false;
the mere sight of it is overpowering.
10 No one is fierce enough to rouse it.
Who then is able to stand against me?
11 Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
Everything under heaven belongs to me.

12 “I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs,
its strength and its graceful form.
13 Who can strip off its outer coat?
Who can penetrate its double coat of armor[b]?
14 Who dares open the doors of its mouth,
ringed about with fearsome teeth?
15 Its back has[c] rows of shields
tightly sealed together;
16 each is so close to the next
that no air can pass between.
17 They are joined fast to one another;
they cling together and cannot be parted.
18 Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
21 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth.
22 Strength resides in its neck;
dismay goes before it.
23 The folds of its flesh are tightly joined;
they are firm and immovable.
24 Its chest is hard as rock,
hard as a lower millstone.
25 When it rises up, the mighty are terrified;
they retreat before its thrashing.
26 The sword that reaches it has no effect,
nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
27 Iron it treats like straw
and bronze like rotten wood.
28 Arrows do not make it flee;
slingstones are like chaff to it.
29 A club seems to it but a piece of straw;
it laughs at the rattling of the lance.
30 Its undersides are jagged potsherds,
leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge.
31 It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron
and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.
32 It leaves a glistening wake behind it;
one would think the deep had white hair.
33 Nothing on earth is its equal—
a creature without fear.
34 It looks down on all that are haughty;
it is king over all that are proud.”

At the close of God’s speech in the book of Job, by far the longest oration of God in the Bible, the Lord invokes two of His greatest and most hidden of creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan. Hebrew experts tell us that the meaning of the underlying terms are ambiguous, but they probably refer to a hippopotamus or rhinoceros in the first case and a whale in the second, or perhaps some mythic combination of these. But despite their wonderful ferocity, they are utterly under God’s control, for one is on a leash and the other has a ring through its nose. The point is this: everything in God’s creation, even those powerful creatures that are largely hidden to us, operate according to God’s providence; and furthermore, the Lord loves these bizarre and frightening creatures just as He loves us human beings: “Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you.”

So why does God permit evil? We can answer the question correctly and adequately only at the most abstract level. “To bring about a greater good” is a legitimate response, but as to the details of that relationship, how precisely this particular evil conduces to a particular good or set of goods, we cannot possibly say. However, our incapacity to respond to that more exacting question should not tell against the divine providence; it should awaken in us a certain humility before the purposes of God.”

-Barron, Robert . Light from Light (p. 34-38). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition.

Love & blessings,
Matthew

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