We know of evil, we suffer it to greater or lesser degree, and we tell stories about what evil means. Some of these stories are fanciful and comforting, others deeply meaningful, and certain others nonsensical.
Christians have very specific stories about evil, accounts which are accepted by the mainstream in the East and West. An Angelic revolt introduced evil into the cosmos. Evil was propagated to the human race by a primordial fall. And Christians have a specific account of what evil is. Evil is a privation of the good proper to a thing.
Yet it is remarkably common for Christians who have accepted this account of evil to immediately contradict it. Despite agreeing to the general narrative of a fall and the general account of evil as a privation, it is remarkably common to talk about evil in ways that quite straightforwardly contradict these principles. For example, we often hear that we see things as evil because we do not see the whole picture, thus denying the reality of evil, and thereby undermining the premise of the Fall. Or we hear that God permits evil to bring about a greater good, thereby attributing both a power of causation and a purpose to evil, making evil a positive reality.
Many questions subsumed under the title of “the problem of evil” do not yield to an easy answer. Here, I will focus on those that are easily answered; that is, on those things said about evil, specifically moral evil, which immediately and clearly contradict the Christian account of what evil is.
What is Evil?
Christians have a very specific notion of evil which prevails in both the Eastern and Western traditions. Evil is not a particular sort of thing, nor a positive quality possessed by things. We do not find Evil as an entity standing among other entities (behind a tree, perhaps, or lurking at the bottom of one of our oceans). Nor do we call things evil because they possess a quality called evil, as we call grass green because of the possession of a certain hue.
Evil is a privation of the good proper to a thing. To use a classical example, blindness is an evil that deprives the eye of its proper good. Sin, likewise, is the evil that deprives human beings of their proper end: natural and supernatural beatitude.
We also call things evil in a derivative sense. Being submerged under water for a long period of time is an evil to human beings, but it is called evil because it deprives human beings of certain goods proper to them (breathing, life). In this secondary sense, evil has a certain relativity. Being submerged is not an evil to fish. Being underwater, then, is not evil per se, but it sometimes evil in a secondary sense because it effects a privation in something else. (Aristotelians will recognize this secondary sense of evil as an example of analogy by focal reference.)
Christian theologians have so universally regarded evil as a privation of the good because of the theological consequences. God is the source of all that is. Evil, if it had being, would be God’s handiwork. Moreover, the qualitative perfections in things derive ultimately from the God not only in the order of efficient causality but also in the order of formal causality. The perfections of all things have their source in God, either eminently or virtually. If evil were some thing or quality, rather than a certain absence, then God would not only be the author of evil, evil would be predicable of God.
The account I’ve just given obviously rings of Thomist language, but an even purer account of evil’s non-subsistence (and purely negative place in the order of beings and of history) may be found in pseudo-Dionysius:
Evil cometh not of the Good; and if it cometh therefrom it is not evil. For even as fire cannot cool us, so Good cannot produce the things which are not good. And if all things that have being come from the Good (for it is natural to the Good to produce and preserve the creatures, and natural to evil to corrupt and to destroy them) then nothing in the world cometh of evil. Then evil cannot even in any wise exist, if it act as evil upon itself. And unless it do so act, evil is not wholly evil, but hath some portion of the Good whereby it can exist at all. And if the things that have being desire the Beautiful and Good and accomplish all their acts for the sake of that which seemeth good, and if all that they intend hath the Good as its Motive and its Aim (for nothing looks unto the nature of evil to guide it in its actions), what place is left for evil among things that have being, or how can it have any being at all bereft of such good purpose? And if all things that have being come of the Good and the Good is Beyond things that have being, then, whereas that which exists not yet hath being in the Good; evil contrariwise hath none (otherwise it were not wholly evil or Non-Ens; for that which is wholly Non-Ens can be but naught except this be spoken Super-Essentially of the Good). So the Good must have Its seat far above and before that which hath mere being and that which hath not; but evil hath no place either amongst things that have being or things that have not, yea it is farther removed than the Non-Existent from the Good and hath less being than it.
On the Divine Names, IV. 19.
The Areopagite proceeds to consider and reject the view that evil has causal powers and serves some positive role in either the natural or the historical order. His answer is decisive:
The true answer whereunto will be that evil (qua evil) causes no existence or birth, but only debases and corrupts, so far as its power extends, the substance of things that have being.
Not even Aquinas said it better.
Some Contradictions About Evil
When faced with the suffering in the world, it is surprisingly common for Christians to toss out the Christian account of evil (specifically moral evil) and begin to say things like:
- Evil is unpleasant, but it has a purpose;
- Evil is necessary to bring about something better;
- God allows evil because it makes possible an even greater destiny for mankind; or
- We only see things as evil because we cannot see the bigger picture.
Some of this is objectionable on purely theological grounds. If, for example, we are better off having sinned in some way, then we are committed to think that Adam, by his rebellion, secured for us a higher good than God alone could have brought about. The snake in the garden was right: God was holding out on us.
The “bigger picture” view likewise is theologically problematic. If it is the case that we only see things as evil because we cannot survey the whole sweep of history, the heights and depth of the cosmos, the subtlety of God’s providence, or whatever, then evil is an illusion, an artifact of our limited perspective. But if evil is an illusion, than the Fall involved no real evil. Sin, then, just appears to be evil. So sin away! You can think of it as just filling in the details of the grand portrait of the cosmos.
On a purely philosophical level, evil itself cannot be a cause of anything. Causes, after all, must have existence to act, and evil per se is a certain privation of existence. One who insists that evil as such brings anything about or possesses a purpose is simply saying that evil is not evil. One could not ask for a plainer analytic contradiction.
More nonsensical still is the notion that evil is ordered to the good. Evil per se, as we’ve seen, cannot possess finality, since it would then be a subject, and subjects must, after all, be. And when we call something evil analogically, we call it evil precisely insofar (and only insofar) as it is inimical to the good.
Yet we often talk about evil as if it creates for us a greater good than we would otherwise achieve, particularly when speculating on human redemption. The problem, of course, is that for anything that contributes to our flourishing or beatitude is, by definition, not evil. Evil per se cannot enable greater goods, and what we call evil derivatively is by definition not evil if it contributes to our flourishing.
Why is it so easy to slip into these straightforwardly incoherent ways of talking about evil? Much of the trouble is that we tend to conflate evil with either pain or frustration of our purposes. But while pain can be an evil, it is not necessarily evil; and when it is evil, it is evil in a derivative sense. If I break my collarbone, the pain that I feel is certainly not evil as such (it has a certain positive quality). The pain is even good in certain respects; if I was not alerted to the broken bone, I may exacerbate the damage.
There are, of course, more complex questions about evil. For instance, we might dispute whether natural evils are an inevitable part of a world such as ours. And I have excluded natural evils for other complications they raise. While these may be an interesting topic for the future, I have deliberately called attention only to the questions with easy answers.
One can hold to both the traditional doctrines of a real fall and to evil as a privation and at the same time claim that evil possesses a purpose or enhances the good only at the cost of direct self-contradiction. A bachelor is not a married man, bald men don’t have heads full of hair, and evil is not good.