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Evil and Suffering in the World: Is God culpable?


The Genesis account of creation posits the principle of goodness for all things created: God looked at everything he had made and found it very good. (Gen 1:31). Goodness was the hallmark of creation. Evil and suffering popped up its ugly head with the sin of Adam and Eve which was progressively manifested by Cain in the slaying of his brother Abel…and concurrently the passage and spread of evil and suffering throughout the world.

The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to Christian faith. It is unquestionably true that there is no greater obstacle to faith than the reality of evil and suffering in the world. Indeed, even for the believing Christian there is no greater test of faith then this; that the God who loves him permits him to experience evil and to suffer, sometimes in excruciating ways. God is the creator of all things, and nothing came into being except by him; he is good and all powerful and he wills all things into being. He created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo), everything in existence comes from God. The experience of a world filled with evil and suffering challenges the goodness of all things created and traces its existence back to the creator through whom all things came into existence. The battering of evil and suffering and the damage it has effected on the world through hunger, pains, diseases, earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics and death have led to examining the cause of evil and suffering and tracing its existence to the Creator God. So, can we hold God culpable for the presence of evil and suffering in the world?

The basis for ascribing evil to God lies in the truth that God is the Being that brings all things into being. Being is that ‘which is’; being is ‘to be’. Whereas God inherently possesses being, creatures do not possess being but receive it derivatively. Outside God (the Being qua being) there is pure nothingness, the being of things is God. In bringing things into being, there is the natural fusion of good with things created, thus being is good. However it is pertinent to know that evil is neither being nor good. Evil is a privation, the absence of the good which is natural and due to a thing. We know an opposite through another. For example, darkness is known only through the absence of light; hence from the nature of good, we know evil.

Good however is to be understood in two senses: the absolute good and particular good. The distinguishing factor between them is potentiality. Absolute good does not concede to potentiality, it possesses perfections proper to its state, while particular good does not possess perfection but seeks to attain perfection. This capability to potentiality breeds the possibility of privation. Therefore a Man is good simply by being, as in creation (Gen 1:31); it does not follow from this that he is a good man; it is a fruitful exercise of his virtues, that is, a fulfilment of his potential that assures that he is a good man.. Thus, in talking about the levels of goodness in a man, we can talk about a good man (absolute good); a virtuous man (actualized potential); and a virtue seeking man (potential seeking perfection). Thus evil is the privation of due perfection, that is the prevention of the potential’s actualization. Privation can either be of the perfection of existence, a complete corruption of the thing or of the reduction of perfections, a partial corruption.

If all things were created good, and goodness is the natural tendency, how does evil as a privation occurs? Evil thus in some way has a cause. For a thing to lose its natural disposition, it must be acted on by a thing which is good and is a being for only a being can be a cause. To be able to act on something, there must be a motive power which is possessed by a being. Being or good causes evil in two ways: where good is deficient, and where good is accidental; both are a deficiency of the will. A man that engages in robbery seeks the good of the goods he steals; he fends for himself and sustains his family but that good is not proper to him. Good here is deficient. In one of his robberies, he may accidentally kill a family member or loved one. He doesn’t intend to, but his actions brought it about accidentally.

Evil is well understood in terms of potency and act, cause and effect, lack and perfection, in a teleological context where every form of existence has a meaning and purpose particular to its own good. Evil can be explained in metaphysical, natural or moral terms, but it always implies not just absence of some good but the absence of a good that properly belongs to a species. From a metaphysical perspective, evil contributes to the goodness of creation; it serves to maintain the order of the world and this evil serves a greater good. The evil of the Corona virus pandemic and the lockdown has greatly improved the ozone layer of the earth and brought about a better, friendly ecological system. From a natural perspective, evil can be unrealized potential (incomplete actuality), or the unintentional deprivation (deformed potential) of some potential that is proper to a species. A young girl’s inability to conceive is bad insofar as she is only potentially a fully developed female, but if she has some disability that prevents her from conceiving then that is bad because she lacks an ability that is proper to the female being. Moral evil comes from the actions of free creatures, resulting from an intentional action caused by a defect of the will, a lack of understanding of the good. A man who is a pedophile knowingly carries out the act to gain sexual pleasure which in itself is a good of marriage. His will however is not mature enough to seek the good of sex in the proper avenue, marriage.

God cannot be said to be the cause of evil because it is not in his being to tend to non-being which evil is, that is non-existence. God is pure act, and does not admit potentiality, there is no time that God ceases to be in being, or seeks for perfection, however man came into being and is a potential creature, but the contrary is with God; and so God has no connection with evil which is essentially non-being. What causes evil is the defect in an agent's action. But in God, there is no defect in him since perfection resides in his being in full and so God in this regard cannot take the blame for the cause and reality of evil. However it is argued that God is the cause of evil for he allows evil. As the omniscient, his fore-knowledge of things makes him aware of evil before its actualization, yet he does nothing to stop it. Yes, God’s foreknowledge implies an awareness of the many instances in which we will fall off virtue to vice. His foreknowledge also means that his awareness include knowledge as to those times in which his aid will prevent, or not prevent, the falling. As God’s action would not have changed the outcome, it cannot be said to have been caused by him. More so, based on human free-will, God cannot prevent a man from falling morally without doing violence to the man’s freedom to fall. It is part of the almost inscrutable nature of free-will that although God causes free-will in his creatures he is not thereby the cause of the choices which result from it. Sin in particular does not arise from the irascible and appetitive elements within us as created by God; but from our failure to comply with and master ourselves.

Nevertheless, God allows the corruption of some things. God allows this sort of evil so as to bring about the good of the universe and this good or order requires that certain things fall or corrupt while others will not. For example, death in us is evil and arises in the corruption of things. Yet death was not allowed for its own sake but for the sake of justice, for it orders belonging to the order of the universe as penalty for sins. God is not the cause of evil ensuring from fault, for it is from man's free will that he sins and embraces death. However, the great hope we have in the midst of suffering that in a way goes beyond our comprehension is that God is able to turn evil against itself. God can bring out good from evil. It is because of this truth that we can find joy even in the midst of sorrow and pain. Our salvation, the mystery of salvation is one great pointer to the fact of God's ability to save and change situations.

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