One of the questions that gets asked and re-asked over the generations is "how can a good, all-powerful God exist if there is so much evil in the world?" There's even a specialized term that's been created for dealing with that question--theodicy. Needless to say, as many times as it has been asked, there have been answers given. For some, these answers are sufficient, but the fact that it keeps being asked indicates that for some the answers are not sufficient.
I'm not about to say I have found the answer to silence the question, and even if I had, very few people will ever read this. :) But I do think the correct answer is what has been offered by others, which is that evil exists so that greater good may come of it.
This answer is hard to swallow when we can't see the greater good, when we're being brought face to face with great suffering and the terrible things that people do to others or even just the suffering of the poor, those afflicted by natural disasters, and those who suffer as a result of accidents. I think some would argue even that "natural" death itself seems to be an evil. It can be very hard to see the greater good because these things stand out in stark, ringing, painful contrast to what we think of as the good life we want for ourselves and hope for others.
What is Evil and From Whence?
Tied up in this question is the deeper question of "just what is evil, anyways?" If I recall correctly, St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the great Christian philosophers and theologians, proposed that evil is the negation of good. Depending on how you take it, this may be a good definition. A friend of mine once suggested he thought that evil wasn't just the negation of good but that it was the twisting, or perversion, of good, but I can see that falling under St. Augustine's definition in that if you are twisting or perverting something, you are refusing it as it is and changing it into something it is not, which I think is essentially a negation.
On this question, I tend to hold with St. Augustine, as his definition seems to be a simple one that really does encompass the meaning of evil, and it reflects even our common understanding of evil--as inclusive of human suffering and death as well as the rejection of God, the ultimate good. I do think that human suffering and death are, taken solely in themselves, evil, though not absolute or unconquerable evil. I think that such evil can be overcome by good.
To reinforce that suffering and death are evil, apart from it seeming obvious common sense, we also see in divine revelation that we humans were not made for suffering and death. God made us and our world and said "it is good." Our sin, that is, our turning away from the God who is the source of our life and joy and our turning inwards on ourselves, introduced the possibility for death and suffering. I think the curse of Adam is not so much an external punishment inflicted by a seemingly vengeful God than it is an affirmation and explication of the natural consequence of our willful separation from the source of all being and happiness.
The Transcendent Good that Overcomes Evil
But God foresaw this and, from the foundations of the universe, planned to redeem us from our turning away from our natural end, which was and is eternal sharing in God's goodness, his love, his joy, and his peace. He planned to come down to us and become one of us, taking on our whole human nature, purifying it, restoring it, and further dignifying it by infusing his own complete divine perfection.
He thus empowered us to turn back to him and to receive from him again that which was our natural end to begin with--that complete human participation in the perfect divine goodness. By becoming human, taking on our whole humanity, he not only restored us to our status as "good" creatures of God, he adopted us as his children. Through Jesus, the only, eternal Son of God--through his incarnation and sacrifice--we can now truly become children of God.
The redemption of humanity through God's becoming man and atoning for our sin, in itself, is almost an infinite good. As far as we humans are concerned, I think it is the most perfect good, and its goodness overcomes (is greater than) pretty much all evil throughout all human history, including the supreme evil of our turning away from our source of life and happiness, which is what got us into this mess in the first place.
By joining ourselves to the incarnate Son of God, we can come to share in this unspeakable goodness. All suffering pales in consideration of this goodness, and in fact, we can take consolation in our own suffering by uniting it to the suffering of Christ. In offering our suffering in such a way, we make that suffering a loving act, a gift, for our own sake and for that of our fellow human beings.
Through his overcoming of death by his own resurrection, he enables the rest of us humans to do likewise. And that is why death, for a faithful Christian, is not an evil, but a good. We know that we have eternal life through Christ. We know that in death, we come to share more fully in the infinite perfect goodness of God. This is why the Psalmist can say "precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints."
Now this is not to say that suffering isn't real by any means. This is not to say that suffering and death are not evil. They are. Suffering and death is the natural state of humans separated from God; it is a consequence of our original turning away, which has created a real physical and spiritual corruption of the good human nature that we were created with. Suffering and death are very real, and they are very painful. When speaking of good overcoming them, we are not minimizing them; in fact, I'd say that the very reality of these is a stimulus to make us more aware of the incomparable goodness we receive from God through Christ.
Given all of this, the question remains, though, of why God would have allowed us to turn away from him in the first place. Why grant us such freedom in the first place? After all, we human parents restrict our children's freedom in order to protect them from hurting themselves. Why didn't God keep us from hurting ourselves by turning away from him and entering into a state of suffering and death?
It is a fair question. I think the answer is essentially the same--so that a greater good could come of it. In this, I see two greater goods. The first is the incarnation of God--God becoming human so that we humans could become more like God.1 This is why the original sin is known as the "happy fault" according to our ancient liturgy.2 Our original damaging of our nature occasioned God's joining himself to us and elevating our human nature, not just restoring us to our original state of human goodness but elevating us to be true children of God, more fully able to participate in his infinite goodness.
The other greater good is wrapped up in this: Our freedom enables us to truly love. Love, the free giving and sharing of ourselves with others, is the greatest act of good, and God desires for us to share in that goodness. Without freedom, we cannot love; we can only mimic the act of loving. We would be marionettes in God's great play. In granting us freedom, however, God enables us to experience this supreme act of goodness, which is love--love of him and of others.
Eventually, we parents must let our children strike out on their own. We must let them learn from their own mistakes and make their own decisions. Only in doing so will they fully become their own selves, more fully human, and not an extension of us. Loving parents will do what they can to protect their children, but they will also let their children develop into independent human beings. Loving parents will teach their children the best path for them to walk in life, but they will also be there when their children choose to stray from that path and hurt themselves.
So it is with God. In wanting us to be fully independent, to share fully in the goodness of love (that is, to become fully human), he grants us freedom, even freedom that we can use to harm ourselves. He teaches us the right path to go. First, in creating us, he imprinted upon our hearts a knowledge of the right path,3 then he reinforced and further illuminated this through his revelation of Himself--directly to Adam and Eve and later to Abraham, then through the Mosaic Law and the prophets, and finally in becoming human himself, teaching the Apostles, and through their writing and oral teaching, directing the Church with the Holy Spirit. So he gives us freedom and shows us the best way to use it, but he also foresaw that we would not use our freedom wisely, so he planned from the beginning to pick us up and heal us from our fall, much like a loving parent treats the scraped knee or helps us recover from other, larger mistakes.4
So we see that God can be truly all powerful, perfectly and infinitely good and loving, and yet still allow evil to exist. Evil exists both as a result of our freedom but also as an opportunity for good to abound, as a thing that spurs us on towards the good and to overcome with good.
The Ordinary Good That Overcomes Evil
Yet I realize that there are those who may be unable to perceive and appreciate the transcendent goodness of God in his creation, his giving us of our freedom, his revelation to us, and in his Incarnation and atonement that effects our redemption.5 Even so, for those, there is more to offer here. I would suggest that even the ordinariness of human love, especially familial love, from a strictly proportional perspective, far outweighs all the evils in human history. Think of it this way. Almost every human being that has ever existed has experienced some, probably a lot, of just ordinary human love--love of parent, love of sibling, love of children, love of friends, and (for many) love of God.
One could say that throughout our lives, the average human is surrounded by a swirling sea of human love that we never recognize because it is so ordinary and mundane. It is not heroic. It's just all those everyday experiences of kindness and sacrifice that are so small that, in themselves, they are not noticed. But taken as an aggregate, I would suggest that these far outweigh the more shocking instances of evil in our history.
I would further suggest that especially when we see evil, some notable and notorious evil, the everyday human reaction is sympathy. Think of 9/11, the tsunami, Katrina, earthquakes, floods, genocides, war. For every great human evil, there seems to be a corresponding outpouring of ordinary human love. In fact, it is often noted that such tragedies bring people together who would otherwise not be sharing with each other.
And so I think we should not wonder at the existence of evil. Even in a purely human perspective, it seems to me that there is far more love in this world than evil and hate. The fact that we seem to take more notice of evil strengthens this view because, as a rule, we humans tend to notice the out of the ordinary more than the ordinary.
When you add on to all of this ordinary love the transcendent, infinite love and goodness that God has wrought in human history, all the evil pales all the more and we become truly thankful and at peace while enduring and witnessing evil because we know that there truly and actually is a greater good all around us every day, often increased in response to such evil, and we Christians have the firm hope of sharing in the eternal infinite goodness of God, leaving behind the evils of this present world and realizing the fullness of our human potential for good. In light of all this, rather than wondering why evil exists, should we not be pondering why God created such a world in which love is so ordinary and yet so transcendent?
In pain, sorrow, and distress, suffering and death, let us not lose heart. Let us cry out in our humanity with the Psalmist "O Lord my God, deliver me!", but also "I love the Lord, for he has heard the cry of my appeal." For we know the trials of this life, however painful, are already answered through the work of Christ. Let us not forget the ordinary love that surrounds us each day, and most of all, let us put our trust and hope in Him for "those who put their trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, that cannot be shaken, that stands firm forever."6
Given on the Memorial of Blessed Andrew of Peschiera, O.P.
1. St. Athanasius put it this way: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God," which is to say that we might become partakers of the divine nature.
2. From the Exultet, an Easter Vigil hymn of praise.
3. This is what we call "natural law," which is essentially an inherent human capability to know from reason what is the best way to live.
4. Let's not presume, though, that God models his actions on ours; it is the opposite. We understand something about God's fatherhood through our limited understanding of what good fatherhood is here on earth. But that's part of the beauty of God's revelation--he meets us where we are, teaches us through humans, through words, actions, and the image of God that we have received from him that has been perfected in Jesus Christ. When we try to understand God's paternal love, we must keep in mind that we do not judge him by our understanding of paternal love but rather use paternal love as a means to better understand his actions in human history, including our own history.
5. It is worth noting, however, that given our presuppositions about God and his revelation and action in human history, we Christians can make a pretty good account of why evil exists. A person's inability to appreciate it, which is understandable for those without faith, does not change the fact that we can make an account for why God allows evil to exist.
6. From Psalm 116 and 125, respectively.