In Christian theology evil is often seen as a necessary part of God’s plan of salvation. Most Christians accept as an article of faith that God permits evil for some greater good, beyond the comprehension of mere mortals (see Isaiah 55:8-9).¹
One school of thought, stemming from Irenaeus and popularized by John Hick, argues that evil is permitted but not caused by God.
Why, one might ask, would a benevolent and all-powerful God permit evil?
For the Irenaean school the answer lies within the idea of “soul making.” A soul freely choosing to abstain from evil is of greater value than one automatically avoiding evil. The free and virtuous soul better glorifies God than would a sinless automaton.
Although evil may ravage, test and torment good souls living on earth, the true goal of our finite, earthly life is to be made worthy of eternal heaven.
According to this view, evil acts as a crucible. Souls not succumbing to but ultimately resisting evil are purified and strengthened towards the good. Evil, then, is necessary. It acts as a kind of “hammer” that pounds out the soul’s impurities.
God permits some evils lest the good things should be obstructed.
Perhaps this means that God allows evil to grow with the good because trashing evil too soon could cause some collateral damage, which might be permitted in military ops but with God, must be kept to zero.
Another argument, influenced by Plato’s idea of the Forms, is given by St. Augustine. Augustine sees evil as a privatio boni—the absence of good. Because God is good, Augustine says, evil must be where God is not present. So God doesn’t create evil. It’s a choice.
Needless to say, not everyone is happy with this argument. Some, usually religious believers, see it as self-evident while others, often atheists, say it’s philosophically unsatisfying. And somewhere between these two extremes, Carl Jung believed that if God knew how we would choose, and created us in the first place, it’s a joke to say that we are responsible for evil.²
¹ Although in some Catholic homilies, I’ve heard variations of this belief. For example, one priest claimed, I think facilely, that God wants us to be happy all the time. In so doing, he seemed to overlook and trivialize another basic Christian belief—namely, that there is value in some forms of suffering. God may wish us to be happy all the time in heaven. But life on Earth is anything but heaven 24/7.
² I think a problem with Jung’s argument is that he’s viewing the issue from the perspective of linear time, which according to Einstein’s relativity theory, doesn’t really exist. This is a surprising error on the part of Jung, because he was aware of the latest scientific developments, well before the time of his death (1961). I think Jung also displays a dash of human arrogance. Perhaps with more humility he might have found more answers.
On the Web:
- A humorous video presenting the Irenaean theodicy: