Freedom, good and evil


With the events in Paris still raw in all of our minds, I like all of us have been reflecting on the question atheists routinely ask of believers, “If God exists, why does he let this happen?” If God is good (1 John 1:5; Deuteronomy 32:4, etc) and powerful, why has he created a world where things such as this are allowed to happen?

There are several lines of argument which theists (those who believe in a personal and loving Creator) take, including the “free will”, “best of all possible worlds” and “value of soul-making” ones. Others have written great books on this question, of which I’d recommend especially Don Carson’s “How Long, O Lord?” and “God and Evil” edited by Chad Meister Jr and James K Dew.

I would like to put a word in here for the wisdom of someone whom Protestants have too long ignored or even regarded as “unsound”, yet who is widely regarded as one of THE great Christian thinkers of history to rank alongside Augustine, Anselm and (I’d add) Calvin: the “angelic doctor”, Thomas Aquinas. I’ve had the stimulating joy of reading a little of his mountainous, dense writing in recent months, and a couple of the multiple books about his philosophy and theology, and I’ve been humbled and helped.

He writes extensively about God, goodness and evil. He first of all distinguishes “natural evil” (such events as earthquakes and sickness) from “moral evil” (human acts which hurt others or created things). In other words, there is “evil suffered”, which comes to us because of the order of the world God has made, and “evil done”, whose cause (man, or God?) is the relevant and more difficult question for us now.

Turning then to “moral evil”, with remarkable clarity he notes that everything that has being has goodness (because being comes from God’s creation, and God’s creation is only good). We are made as human beings to be and do good. Every act is foreseen and created by God. Where does moral evil then come from – God, or free will? Aquinas, like Augustine before and Calvin after him, does not believe we have been granted a simple “free will” whereby God is, or chooses to be, powerless to stop us doing bad things, because God’s power and sovereignty are the final cause of everything, or God is not God. So how does Aquinas square the circle of God’s goodness and human evil?

Following Augustine before him, the move he makes which helped me better grasp the interaction of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is brilliant and, to me, compelling: evil, or suffering, such as we saw in Paris last week, is not a positive “thing” (in his language, a “substance”) but simply a lack or privation of good.

Evil consists entirely in not-being”1

Evil arises through some particular thing being lacking, but good arises only from a whole and integral cause [he means ultimately, God]”2.

When I shoot someone from an evil motive, it is not that evil is “present” (for evil has no positive being) but that I am doing (to put it mildly) less than the good I should be doing instead. So when I follow God’s created order in me and will for me, I do good.  But when I fall short of it (we call this “sin” along with Paul in Romans 3:23), the cause of that lies not in God’s will but mine. Evil is the lack of the good God intends in and for us, a tragic falling from perfection. Though we all have good in us as long as we exist (because however evil, we are created by God who is good) we all have it in us to fall into evil.

So Paris last week brought home the extreme consequences of humanity’s lack of goodness, but it did not bring into question God’s goodness.

As an aside here about freedom and evil, Carl Trueman has posted this helpful thought on the challenge facing Western liberal democracy not only from Islam but from those on the extreme right and left.

Ultimately, we need to remember that the Christian faith, unlike atheism, does have something positive to say about evil in the human race. God is able to bring good from evil (supremely in Christ’s willing but unjust crucifixion), to protect his people against it (Revelation 12:14), to turn evil people into good ones through the love of Christ, and in the end, when Christ’s kingdom comes, to turn evil out of creation forever (Revelation 20:10).

The Bible tells the story of men and women who grappled with evil they had done, and with evil done to them. It carries words such as those of Psalm 37:1, “Fret not because of evil people”, and of Job in his suffering,

“The fear of the LORD – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28).

1 Questiones disputatae de potentia Dei 3,16 ad3

2 Summa Theologica I-II 19, 17 ad 3


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Rector of Holy Trinity, Norwich, since Sept 2017, writing on pastoring, preaching, resourcing discipleship, and apologetics/philosophy.

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