When beginning a conversation about the problem of evil, we do need to spend some time outlining certain types of evil. For some, hitting a red light at a traffic stop while in a rush seems like an evil. At other times, we label sin, injustice, political unrest, terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes, illness, and demons as evils. When speaking to suffering and pain, John Paul II describes these as evils (SC, 5) and even describes the experience of moral suffering as an evil. In the Old Testament no specific word for suffering was used, rather the terms denoted evil (SC, 7). When attempting a definition of evil, John Paul II states: “Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share” (SC, 7). This may seem overly academic, but the point helps clarify the discussion and deepen it. When we experience an evil, we experience some “lack, limitation or distortion of good,” such as the lack of health that sickness brings, the lack of harmony that political volatility brings, or the lack of shelter that a natural disaster might bring to our lives. Evil, from this perspective, in a certain way reveals our desire for goodness and justice, i.e. that we were made for goodness and justice. Whereas the beauty of creation turns our hearts to the divine, suffering/evil obscure that image of God (SC, 9). The unique place of humans in creation as ones capable of free choice, love, rationality and beauty means that the question of evil is a deeply human question. For this reason, the question of suffering in the human heart directs this pondering towards God. And, Scripture begins to unveil a response through the course of history.
We see in Scripture God’s response to evil. When moral evils cause suffering for the people of God, revelation thrusts them towards repentance. The sufferings Israel faced due to corruption, infidelity to the covenant, turning to other nations and false gods resulted from those transgressions. Think of it this way, if a nation builds itself up through vices, those vices will result in the evils of injustice, disharmony, and even slavery. A colloquial phrase captures this well: If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned. These evils visit such a nation as a consequence of actions contrary to God’s will and law. It is for this reason that God calls his chosen people time and again to turn away from sin and listen to Him. Sin is its own punishment, in many ways; and, when we face the moral issues of our own day, we see this all the more clearly. But, this moral evaluation of evil does not capture the full breadth of God’s response to evil nor the depth of the problem of evil.
Evil springs from a source other than God. Scripture attests to the goodness of creation. God desired humanity to dwell in a garden of paradise and live in mutual, free, total and faithful love with one another unto eternal life (Gn. 1 & 2). This order of creation became twisted by sin not introduced by God, but by personal beings that rejected God’s plan (Gn. 3). This foundational sin caused an earthquake across the fabric of history. We do enter here into the mystery of evil from a standpoint of revelation, with the most horrific evil then experienced being the loss of eternal life due to lack of faith and sin. Suffering springs not from God’s desire. God did not want pain, sickness and suffering in the world. God meant for creation to share – participate – in His presence of love forever. He created a world interconnected from the galactic to the infinitesimal to the spiritual. Nothing was untouched by God’s loving purpose and none stood independently from each other. This was a communion in that oneness of Communion we call the Trinity. Thus, when that communion was ruptured by sin, this ripple effect walloped not just that singular point in time, but travels still throughout human history through interwoven threads by the fact of creation. We can, from this perspective, see why sin is such an evil. Sin is not simply a deed that is over and done with, but its consequences run far and wide. Even the personal sin of our first ancestors continue to affect us to this day. The evils we face unjustly, the natural evils that strip people of home, security, and food, the pains of sickness and death were not willed or wanted or desired or even intended by God.
In this short article, I wanted to make two simple points: (1) evil is a lack of a good that when experienced we call suffering and (2) God is not the source of evil. This definition of evil helps us to articulate what we mean when we speak of evil. And, this theological point helps us see God aright when discussing the question of evil. God does not “give” suffering, pain or evil. Rather, God responds to evil throughout human history by calling His people to Himself. Through the Law and the Prophets, God called Israel to a fidelity that would begin the path of deliverance from evil. We see God working mighty deeds to defeat enemies (2 Kgs. 6), to deliver Israel from slavery (Ex.12), and even working healing through his prophets to upend even the evil of illness (2 Kgs. 5). God’s ultimate response to evil, however, is found in the person of Jesus Christ. As the Gospel of John attests: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
God bless you all in this time. Fr. Bline and I continue to keep all of you in our prayers.
Peace & Prayer,