One of the most common arguments against the existence of God refers to the problem of evil. This can be phrased in many ways, but it all comes down to the same question: If God exists, and He is all-loving, then why is there so much evil and suffering in the world? The idea that an all-good and all-loving God should exist alongside a world with so much evil and suffering in it seems to be self-contradictory. However, while many of Jesus’ teachings seem to be contradictory, upon further contemplation, they make sense in a beautiful way that can only be attained when opposites are reconciled with each other. While it may sound strange, the fact that God permits evil actually proves that He is loving and merciful. We, as mere human beings, cannot possibly understand everything, for God’s ways are so much higher than our own. Only when we accept that everything God does and allows is for the best can we even begin to scratch the surface of the answer to the problem of evil.
First and foremost, it should be made clear immediately that “God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it” (CCC 311). Here we enter the mystery of God’s will. God has a perfect will and a permissive will; while He does not control everything that happens, His perfect plan is still accomplished nevertheless. He uses His perfect will when He directly wills something, and whatever He directly wills must be good because God is goodness itself. However, He also has a permissive will, and therefore allows certain things – which are contrary to His perfect will – to happen. The aforementioned quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that God permits evil because He respects our free will, and that He knows how to mysteriously derive good from evil.
To explore the reason why evil exists, we must begin by examining the fall of the angels. Of course, God did not directly will for the angels to sin; however, He allowed it to happen. The Church teaches that in the beginning, Satan – the devil – was created by God, and that he was a good angel. However, he and the other fallen angels became evil by their own doing. “It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgivable” (CCC 393). It is not right to say that God was responsible for this evil, and it also isn’t right to say that because God allowed this to happen, He is not loving and merciful. However, Scripture can give examples of the devil’s disastrous influence upon the earth. In spite of all this, divine providence allows this influence of diabolical activity. This is, of course, a mystery, but “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Romans 8:28).
God loved us so much that He gave us the gift of free will, which makes man different from other creatures in a certain way. Ever since the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, we all have inherited original sin, that is, all people apart from Jesus and Mary. “How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam ‘as one body of one man’ By this ‘unity of the human race’ all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ – a state and not an act” (CCC 404). Human nature, therefore, “is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence” (CCC 405). The Catechism continues by stating that, “by imparting the life of Christ’s grace,” baptism “erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.”
Much of the evil that we see in our world is caused by man’s sins and evil actions. Someone who decides to commit a mass murder – with full knowledge and full consent – has used his free will to turn away from both God and man. To reject God is to reject our neighbor; to love God is to love our neighbor. When terrible things happen, we may wonder why God chooses to respect our free will and allow suffering to happen. Why can’t He simply take away our free will? God knows that our free will is one of the greatest gifts He gave us. While it is true that free will can give us the opportunity to sin and reject God, it also allows us to repent and turn back to Him. We also use our free will to decide whether to love God or to reject Him. Love is a freely made decision. When love is coerced, it is no longer free, and therefore no longer authentic love.
Applying this same concept, would we ever really become “good” if God continuously forced us to do good? This also explains why God allows us to sin and make mistakes. Sometimes, that is the only way we’ll learn. Let’s use an analogy: let’s say you have a son who is in high school. One morning he comes to you and asks you to call the school and say that he is sick. The real reason, however, is that he has not completed a project that was due that very day, because he has been procrastinating for the past few weeks. In this situation, as a parent, you cannot simply let him get away with this action because he’ll learn his lesson if you allow him to fail occasionally. “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” (Proverbs 13:24). This is why God allows us to sin and face the consequences of that sin; through suffering, not only can we learn from our past mistakes, we can also expiate for those mistakes.
The Catechism teaches that “God would not permit an evil if he did not cause a good to come from that very evil, by ways that we shall fully know only in eternal life” (CCC 324). Therefore, we can be certain that the fact that there is evil in the world does not mean that God doesn’t care about us, is distant, or is dead. He doesn’t just stand by silently and watch us sin; He actively brings about a greater good from any evil in the world. Often times, we cannot immediately see that there is a greater good derived from an evil, but some examples are obvious. After a terrible tragedy, people can come closer together, and there is also an increase in prayer. These tragedies can serve to remind us of our own mortality, and that ultimately, we are not fully in control of our fate. They can also remind us that death doesn’t discriminate and can come at any moment, so that we must always be vigilant and guard our souls against sin.
Many examples of God’s providence – and that He can derive good from evil – can be found in Scripture. “It was not you,” said Joseph to his brothers, “who sent me here, but God… You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). The greatest example is found in the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Of course, God did not directly will for Jesus to die; he simply allowed it to happen by using His permissive will. However, the greatest good in the history of the world – our salvation – came about through the greatest evil – the death of God, caused by men.
The fact that there is evil in the world does not prove that God doesn’t exist, or that He is not all-good and all-loving. He is not the cause or creator of any evil. The evil in the world is often caused by the devil’s influence and by man’s sinful actions, but God permits this because He respects His creatures’ free will, and He knows that He can bring about a greater good from an evil act. However, in spite of the fact that God can derive good from evil, evil, in essence, never actually becomes a good. There is hope, however, because although free will leaves room for sin, sinners can still use their free will to turn back to God. Therefore, it is very important that we all pray for all the sinners of this world and ask for God’s forgiveness whenever we have sinned.