Did God Create Evil?

anselm evil ontological argument philosophy

Greg Stearns received his PHB in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America and his Master's degree from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He teaches Rhetoric, Philosophy, and Logic at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County, NC.

This article is from the October 5th edition of the Exploration Society Journal.

St. Anselm of Canterbury famously posits in the ontological argument for God’s existence that anyone who knows what they mean when they say “God” must admit that God exists. Knowing philosophers have spilled ink over Anselm’s argument for hundreds of years, prudence would advise that I don’t too hastily weigh in on whether he was right or not when that is not even our topic today. We’ll save that for another time when there is more time. For now, I‘d like you to know that human logic and reasoning confirm what your faith tells you. God didn’t create evil in any way, and anyone who knows what the words “Did”, “God”, “Create”, and “Evil” mean already knows this. All we have to do is define the words.

God is not a “did”er, God is a “doer”. Consider this, God exists outside of time, and we don’t. You and I experience time linearly. As you read each word in this sentence, the time you took to read it is gone for you. You did it and you can reflect on it, but the past isn’t real anymore. This is not how a being that exists outside of time would experience things. Nothing God wills was willed at one moment and not another. God wills and does all things from all of eternity. I hate to so blatantly steal from recent cinema, but, being outside of time, God acts in such a way that what he does is everything, everywhere, and all at once…and for all time.

Gods seem to be making a comeback. Contemporary entertainment has placed a number of conceptions of gods in front of us ranging from edgy American gods to the sometimes loveable god of thunder himself. While these gods may be enjoyable to watch, they are far from what a true God would have to be like. To really conceive of what God is like is a thing that we can only estimate because, to echo Anselm’s prayer, “O Lord, you are not only that than which a greater cannot be conceived, but you are a being greater than can be conceived.” That is to say that God is not only a maximally great being, he is greater than us humans can even conceive. Not only could I imagine a more powerful version of Thor, but the fact I can imagine Thor at all is enough reason to see that the gods we are accustomed to would never live up to Anslem’s description of God. Thus, even Thor, let alone other portrayals of gods, fall wildly short of God.

So what would a maximally great being who is greater than what humans conceive be like? Obviously, no one could ever begin to adequately describe a being so perfect that he is perfectly beyond human capacity to rationally apprehend. However, philosophers tend to believe that we could know a few things about God. Let’s use another post to focus on how they arrive at these conclusions. For now the important thing to note is that through reason alone, we are capable of knowing that God exists, that he is immaterial, outside of time and space, all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, and personal. Further, God is fully actualized. He exists in potency to nothing. He is the fullness of being, or as he says of himself “I am who am”. Thus, the most appropriate way to describe God is that he “is”.

When we think about creation, we often think about creation in time and with previous material to work with. This makes sense because this is how we “create” things, and we tend to think of things in line with how we experience them. For example, I’m currently in my meat-smoking phase of life. It is a pretty awesome phase to be in. I am also in my fanny pack era which is sadly not as awesome of a phase. However, the fanny pack is necessary because how else would I effectively carry my delicious smoked treats? My smoked meat is pretty good. In fact, after letting my students try some, they all agreed that it “absolutely slaps”. When they tell me this, I feel a sense of pride partly because I like to think I am largely responsible for making this delicious meat. I am tempted to think that I created its goodness. The fact is that I did not “create” the smoked meat or even its goodness. I worked with materials that were already in existence and made them different from what it was in some ways. We might be tempted to think that God creates things the way we make things. This is flawed for a few reasons. Let’s consider two. First, God’s creation is creation from nothing. All matter is contingent by nature and consequently demands the existence of something outside of itself for it to exist. This is key to understanding that God’s existence is necessary, but let’s save that for another time. Second, we often think of creation as happening in time. Consider the meat that I smoked, I smoked it at a particular time, and when it was completed, when I was finished, it was done. Then, the meat continued to exist on its own until I (or some other lucky person) ate it. As opposed to how we do things, God’s creation is not simply a matter of creation in a moment, God’s creation is also one of dependency. That is to say that God’s creation is not just made by him. It is held in existence by him. God creates more like how fire makes light, heat, and smoke, than how I make meat.

Most people who I have chatted with about evil define evil as the opposite of good. To visualize, imagine a number line that extends from negative ten to ten. In their mind, ultimate evil would be a negative ten and ultimate good would be ten. Perhaps a more common conception of how people see evil is more in line with the Eastern notion of yin and yang. However, there are a number of very flawed notions with this perception. First, the implication is that good and evil are of equal power. They are two armies battling it out and at a standstill. When you add negative ten and ten, you get zero. Second, under this view of evil, either God definitely would have been the creator of evil or another god-level authority stronger than any notion of Satan would have to had coexisted with God for all of eternity, and this evil god would have to have made evil. Neither of these notions mesh well with Christianity, and yet most Christians I have talked to conceive of evil in this way.

In the Christian tradition, evil has been perhaps best defined by St. Augustine. Before becoming a Christian, Augustine lived a famously sinful life, which he outlines in his Confessions. For a time he makes his way up the ranks in an ancient heretical group called the Manicheans. The Manicheans maintained a view of evil that basically resonates with the aforementioned view. Being thoughtful about his views, Augustine saw the implications of this view of evil and rejected it. Augustine came to conclude that Evil is not the opposite of good, rather it is the absence of good which ought to be in a thing. Consequently, evil is not some self-existing thing that stands in opposition to good, it is parasitic. Outside of the fact that a powerhouse of Christian thought like Augustine and most other serious Christian philosophers and theologians adopt Augustine’s view, there are a few good reasons to embrace his view. Let’s examine two. First, it is ontologically more coherent than what I will call the Manichean view. That is to say that philosophy will get you to a notion of an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful, and personal God, but it won’t get you to one that is evil. In fact, the notion of an “evil” God flies in the face of rationality altogether. Second, Augustine’s view is in line with our experience. Consider the number line analogy- I have never experienced a negative existence. I don’t know what that would even be. Imagine any piece of matter. I’m going to imagine a delicious piece of smoked meat. You can choose another object, but I’m going with this one. Imagine it slowly disappearing. Once it is gone, can it begin to have a negative existence? Not at all. Rather, once it is gone, that is it. A notion of evil that makes evil the opposite of good would require something like a negative existence, but that is not how things work. I hate to break it to you, but not even negative numbers are real. The closest thing to a negative existence is debt, but that is not to say that I have a negative amount of money. It is just a promise that when I get money I will give it to someone. Indeed, negative existence just isn't a thing. Rather, there are just things as they are in relation to what they ought to be. For example, humans are made to have arms. You might say that it is good that we have them. I can’t think of anything shy of trying to save myself or another that I would give up my arm for. If I lose my arm, it would be appropriate to say that an evil has befallen me. I would exist, but not as I ought to. Similarly, suppose I give some delicious smoked meat to someone in need, that would certainly be a good action, but if I give the meat only because I was forced to by my wife and not out of love, then my gift is lacking something which ought to be there. It would be tainted enough to where it would not be right to call what I did charity. We certainly couldn’t say I was being a generous person. The action was good, but there was a parasitic resentment attached to it.

“Did God create evil?”

If we consider the above question while taking into account each word in question, we might see that the question actually reads something like this, “From all of eternity, does a being greater than we can imagine who is perfectly good and loves us enough to hold us in existence constantly will into and hold in existence a lack of good which ought to be in existence?” If God and evil are what we understand them to be, then the answer is- “no”.

And yet there is evil. Undoubtedly, there is a lack of good which ought to be in things. We see it in disease, in death, in pain, and in sin. We see it in ourselves. In fact, we see it in ourselves so much that it is hard to seriously blame evil on God. In fact, while we might do a great bit of reasoning to demonstrate that God could not have created evil, we could have just easily arrived at a similar conclusion by listening to Taylor Swift’s Anti-hero, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.”

However, God did make us, and there is evil, so regardless of where it comes from, why does he allow it? There are two types of evil, moral and natural. That is to say that there is a lack of good that ought to be in human actions and that there is a lack of good that ought to be in the natural world. While the question of natural evil is deserving of its own write-up, for now, let it suffice to say that what bothers us about hurricanes, disease, and other natural “evils” is that they cause us pain. So the real question is “Is there any good reason that we experience pain?”

Look up a disease called Congenital insensitivity to pain and anhydrosis. The disease is extremely dangerous. Given we are capable of death, pain is a definite advantage. However, there is far more to be said here. Concerning the question of why God would allow us to perform actions that lack goodness which ought to be in them, this can be covered more quickly. God is love. He made all his creation out of love and for love, but among his earthly creation, he made only one species capable of loving him. That would be us. Love requires freedom. Anyone who has seen Spongebob knows that part of what makes Plankton laughable is that he has a robot wife. What could be faker and sadder than being in a “relationship” with a thing that has no freedom to choose to be in the relationship? God loves us enough to let us choose whether or not we will be in a relationship with him. Without freedom of choice, there can be no authentic love. If God did not allow us to be able to choose something other than him, then we would not freely choose him, and consequently would not really be able to love him. God could have made us not free to choose evil, but the result would be that we would not be able to freely choose love.

However, we are not made such that choosing God is no more desirable than not choosing God. In the words of Augustine, “our hearts are restless” until they rest in God. Our will is oriented toward good, not evil. Think about it, no one does bad for what they believe is bad. We are often wrong about what is good, but it is impossible to do evil simply for the sake of evil. Even those who do the most evil of acts do so believing that they will at least be given the good of pleasure.

As Anselm believed, it is totally possible to solve this problem simply by examining the meaning of the words. However, understanding the meaning is meaningless if we are only hearers of the word and not doers of the word. May we all not only know that God loves us all, and as a loving father would never do evil to us, and with this knowledge, let us all the more love him and act in accordance with that love.

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