In Kenya there is a common call and response: “God is good” the speaker calls out and almost reflexively the room answers, “All the time, for that is his nature.” But if God is good, all the time, why is there evil? This is one of the oldest and most persistent human questions for Christian theology.
St. Augustine struggled with the problem of evil before and after his conversion to Christianity. He experimented with a philosophy called Manichaeism, which posited two forces—one good, one evil. This dualism between good and evil, light and dark, spirit and matter seduced many throughout Christian history. It is, however, as St. Augustine himself came to realize, incompatible with Christian doctrine. Christianity holds that there is only one God, that all that exists comes from God, and that God is all good.
For Augustine, the problem of evil ultimately is resolved by looking not at what exists but what is missing. This understanding of evil argues that evil is an absence of the good. Evil is not something God created but something missing, out of order. In the Confessions, Augustine describes his epiphany, “I saw that it was not a substance but a perversion of the will when it turns aside from you.” Evil is created because human beings have disordered wills, we turn away from God.
All of creation is good, but we are still supposed to love God above all else. Augustine calls this ordo amoris, or the order of loves. Love of God, love of neighbor, love of self, love of creation—all should be ordered with God at the top. When our loves are disordered and we choose wrongly, then evil emerges. Selfishness, pride, lust for power, and greed are all easy to imagine through the lens of disordered love, and grave evil has been done because of each.
St. Thomas Aquinas argued that persons choose something that is perceived as good, however, often our judgments are wrong. This is the seductiveness of evil; we are tempted because we perceive it as good. But where Augustine and Aquinas focus on the seductiveness of disordered goods, 20th-century philosophers point out evil is also mundane. We ignore or fail to see it emerging. Each small disordered choice makes the next easier, almost unnoticed.
In April 2013, I was teaching first year students during the Boston Marathon bombing manhunt. Throwing out the lesson plan, we discussed the problem of evil in an age of terrorism. My students found Augustine intellectually clear but emotionally unsatisfying. They accepted that God did not create evil, but still asked why God allowed evil to persist? Why would a good God allow the Holocaust, genocide, racism, terrorism, etc? Ultimately, I think the problem of evil is not about God but humanity. If we have freedom then we can choose wrongly. For me, as I look at the horrifying evils being done, I’m left with a deeper question: Is human freedom worth it?
This article also appears in the June 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 5, page 49).
Image: Unsplash via Kari Shea