*Note: This is a fictional account written in the form of a socratic dialogue between St. Thomas Aquinas and an atheist concerning the so-called “problem of evil”. The dialogue draws largely from just Aquinas’s thoughts on evil in the First Part of the Summa Theologiae, with a little from his De Malo as well (references will be included throughout). In reality, there is no one “problem of evil”, there are instead a vast and diverse range of arguments and types of arguments which draw on the fact of evil/suffering to provide evidence against the existence of God. So it should not be thought that this simple dialogue is attempting to address all arguments from evil, or really any specific ones. Instead this should be taken as just general thoughts about what Aquinas might have to say regarding God and evil.
Question: Does the existence of evil provide evidence against the existence of God (theism)? Or, given theism, why does God allow evil?
Atheist: It seems that the existence of evil, and so much of it, is indeed evidence against the existence of God, and is simultaneously supporting evidence for naturalism.
St. Thomas Aquinas: How so?
Atheist: Well, if we assume that God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnibenevolent (all loving), it follows that He would be willing and able to create a world without evil, or at least with much less of it. For an all-good God would desire less evil, and an all-powerful God would be able to create a world without evil.
St. Thomas: Is this a deductive argument, or a probabilistic one?
Atheist: Well, as I intend it, it is probabilistic. I know how you would answer a deductive argument from evil: you would say it is not absolutely impossible for God and evil to co-exist, despite being contraries, because God can bring good out of evil, thus giving Him a reason to allow it (Summa Theologiae I, Q. 2, Art. 3). So God and evil are not absolutely incompatible. But the amount of evil still provides evidence for naturalism over theism (i.e. is better explained thereby) for the reasons given above. In other words, the existence of evil is better explained by naturalism than by theism, because on theism we would not expect so much evil [*].
St. Thomas: Even if you are correct that evil is evidence against the existence of God, this does not undermine theism, for the existence of God can be demonstrated/proved deductively (ST I, Q. 2, Arts. 2-3), such that even the strongest probabilistic arguments are overcome. So even if we find the presence of evil to be strange/problematic on theism, we can still know absolutely that God exists, and hence that there must be some explanation for evil.
Atheist: I am well aware of your arguments for the existence of God — the so called “Five Ways” — but I am not convinced. Furthermore, upon reflection, I’m also not so convinced that your initial response to an argument from evil is satisfactory. The fact that God could have some possible “reasons” to allow evil does not mean that an all-good God would be morally justified in allowing evil, especially if we do not know what those reasons happen to be.
St. Thomas: I think we ought to take a step back, before we get further into this, and explore which metaphysical system offers a better view/explanation of reality as a whole, not just on one specific point. In order to properly examine the problem of evil, we first need to have a good idea of what evil is, and how exactly it fits into the overall structure of reality. Until we do so, we will just be talking past one another [*******].
Atheist: Ok, that is fair.
St. Thomas: The first thing which we must notice is that reality is intrinsically and undeniably ordered. There is some seeming disorder, such as we observe in the process of change and in the generation and corruption of possible beings, but on closer examination even these facts are only explicable given the underlying order of nature which demands causal relationships. A fundamental aspect of this order is that all things are directed/ordained to their proper ends, with the result that there is a hierarchy of being, in which lower things are directed towards higher. Altogether, these facts necessitate that there is an ultimate First Cause and Final End of all things, and this is what we call God. Once we are certain of this, we can then work to discover how evil might fit into the metaphysical scheme of things. For, as I see it, the presence of evil presupposes the reality of an ordered universe, which, as I argue, necessitates the existence of God.
Atheist: Again, I’m aware of your natural theology and remain unconvinced. In fact, I think the existence of evil, far from presupposing order, is significant counter-evidence to your claim that the universe is so ordered. It makes the problem worse!
St. Thomas: How so?
Atheist: If an all good and all powerful God wanted an orderly universe, why is there so much disorder and chaos? Some of it is of course due to human moral evil, but on your own account even this is included under the providence of God (ST I, Q. 23, Art. 3)! And again, even if you might be able to come up with some reason why God would be willing to allow evil, it is still not clear that, on His goodness, doing so would be morally justified. Finally, an argument of my own: If God exists and is the cause or explanation of everything, as you insist, then if disorder exists, God Himself must be intrinsically disordered!
St. Thomas: There is a lot here. I will attempt to deal with each of your points. But I will do so by assuming the existence of God, and working on that basis to provide an account of evil that not only gives reasons why God might allow evil, but even more, gives reason that we might actually expect evil on theism.
Atheist: That is a bold claim, and I am curious to hear your thinking.
St. Thomas: I will approach your latter point first. You are correct that the perfections of all that exists must pre-exist “more eminently” in God (ST I, Q. 4, Art. 2), since all things exist through God who is Existence Itself, and hence is the whole perfection of all existence. But, obviously, evil is not a perfection, it is indeed a lack thereof! It is a deficiency, a non-being (ST I, Q. 20, Art. 3), a defect, corruption (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2), a privation of good, being, and perfection. So even if God allows evil in the sense of allowing certain defects/privations to persist in His creation, these could in no way “pre-exist” in Him. As one, absolutely simple (ST I, Q. 3, Art. 7), and fully perfect, there could not possibly be any disorder in God. Disorder arises either by some defect, by imbalanced parts (e.g. a part lower by nature is disorderly treated as superior to a part higher by nature, such as when a man obeys his body over his soul), or when the proper end of something is frustrated/unfulfilled. God could have no defect since He is Being Itself and the fullness of perfection. He could have no imbalanced multiplicity/parts since He is absolutely simple. And He could not fail to fulfill His proper end because He is His own good/end (ST I, Q. 20, Art. 1).
Atheist: But the problem remains: if God is omnipotent, as well as perfect, good, just, and loving, why is there so much disorder and evil?
St. Thomas: We will get there. But I think you have an incorrect/mistaken understanding of what it means to say that God is good, perfect, just and loving.
Atheist: How so?
St. Thomas: Well, allow me to proceed by way of interrogation, so as to ascertain what your view of these things actually is.
St. Thomas: When you say that God is good and perfect, what do you mean by this?
Atheist: Well, when I say that God is good I mean that He has extreme qualities of moral greatness. When I say that He is perfect, I mean that He has these moral qualities to such an extent that He never does anything contrary to absolute moral excellence — He has no moral defects, never fails to act in upmost accord with moral perfection, never does anything contrary to moral law, whatever its foundation might be.
St. Thomas: I see, and here precisely is a fundamental error. You are thinking primarily in moral terms, as if God’s interaction with His creation were similar to the interaction between two agents. This is categorically mistaken [*^9]. To say that God is “good” is not the same as saying that He is “virtuous” like a morally good person might be. We might attribute certain virtues to God analogically, but not in the same sense that we attribute them to men [**]. Men are ordained to a higher end, and thus are only “good” to the extent that they fulfill this higher end. But God could not possibly be ordained to any end other than Himself — He is “a law unto Himself” (ST I, Q. 21, Art. 1). And so God’s Goodness cannot be considered in the same way as man’s.
Atheist: Well then, what could it possibly mean to say that God is good? And also, are you not suggesting by this that God could just do whatever He wants, without any sort of standards or obligations, and we would have to say that it is by definition acceptable and justified for Him to do so?
St. Thomas: Again, you are thinking of goodness incorrectly. It seems that you conceive of goodness as something “externally imposed” upon an agent, to which his actions must submit and be upheld. This is not even primarily what the goodness of man is, either. To say that the good of man is an end to which he is ordained by One above him is not the same as saying that this end is externally imposed upon man, in a sense violent to his nature, as many now conceive of it. Since God is the cause of the being of all things, He ordains ends as intrinsic to each nature. Virtue is not a limit restrictively enforced upon man, it is rather his own highest good. But because man is not his own being, this end is still ordained by He who is man’s First Cause and Final End (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2). In other words, God creates the nature of man, and there are certain things which necessarily will be either good or bad for that nature. The “morality” of man consists in his ability to choose between what is intrinsically good or bad for his own nature [***].
Atheist: But how does this answer my question?
St. Thomas: Because if morality is just an external imposition, and then that external imposition is removed, such that man suddenly had a radical freedom, then one might say that man could do whatever he wants, no matter how vile, and we could not judge that in so doing he was “wrong” or “bad”. But if morality is rather an intrinsic ordination, any objectively bad action which man commits will be intrinsically harmful to his being/nature. Hence, to say that God is a law unto Himself is not to say that God could commit absolutely any act, even a vile or wicked one, and it would still be “justified”. Even to use this term implies that there could be something higher than God to which He must give account of His actions, which is impossible [*^10]. Each created nature is ordained to certain ends, and its “good” or “bad” is in its fulfilling or failing to fulfill these ends. But being a “law unto Himself” means that God is His own End, because he is His own Good and Being. You are thinking of “good” in terms of externally imposed law. But we must think of good rather in terms of being. Good is being/perfection considered under the aspect of desirability (ST I, Q. 5, Art. 1; I, Q. 20, Art. 1). Everything “seeks” or “desires” its own perfection, which is its good (ibid). Thus sight is the good of the eye, because it is its perfection [****]. Now, as we’ve already seen, the perfections of all things are pre-eminently in God. God is “good” in the sense that He is Being Itself, and is the First Cause of all that exists, such that all things find their perfection, and hence their ultimate good, in God. As the cause of the nature and being of all things, He ordains all things to their own proper and specific ends, but all ends universally are directed towards God as their Ultimate End; because God is His own Being, Perfection, and End, so every act of God, which includes all creation, is directed towards God Himself as Goodness Itself (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2). So though God is a law unto Himself, He acts always in accordance with His own Goodness, Wisdom, and Justice (ST I, Q. 21, Art. 1).
Atheist: I am still somewhat confused as to what exactly you are suggesting.
St. Thomas: I am saying that the “goodness” of God must be understood not primarily as meaning that God is morally great, but that God is Being Itself, and as the First Cause of all existing things is also their Ultimate End, such that God is the Good of all things, what all things seek in their very nature and being. And the “perfection” of God is not primarily a statement about His moral excellence, but again means that God, as Being Itself, contains fully the whole perfection of existence.
Atheist: But what about God’s Wisdom and Justice, which you just alluded to?
St. Thomas: Yes, as I said, God acts always in accordance with His own Goodness, Wisdom, and Justice. He is His own Goodness. His Wisdom is His own knowledge of Himself and of His own Goodness [*^12], as the highest principle (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 6). But now I will again ask you, what do you think is meant by the “justice” of God?
Atheist: By this I think is meant that God always acts fairly and equally, giving to everything what it deserves. Thus it would be unjust for God to allow horrendous evils to His creatures, for they do not deserve this, and it is within His omnipotent power to prevent it.
St. Thomas: You are correct in a sense in saying that the Justice of God is to give to everything what is its due, primarily to Himself and then also to creatures. But this certainly does not mean that God treats everything “fairly” (in the sense which I take it that you intend), nor that He “must” or “is obligated” to prevent evils to creatures, on pain of injustice.
Atheist: I do not see how that could be so.
St. Thomas: God’s Justice is the fulfillment of due ordinations both to Himself and to His creatures (ST I, Q. 21, Art. 1). But He has “due” ordinations to His creatures, not because there is some higher standard of justice which imposes upon God the obligation to treat creatures in a certain way; rather He has due ordinations to creatures because He Himself ordained/entitled them, by creating their natures and giving them being. What is “due” to each creature is just what its proper end is ordained as being — and it is God who creates each creatures and gives to it its proper end, such that whatever God ordains for a creature is exactly what it “deserves”, and exactly what is “due” to it by God, not because it in itself could demand something from God, but because God Himself has so chosen to give it its being and ordination. Further, their very ordinations, which He gives to them, are themselves directed towards Him, and so all things serve/are ordained to God. They are ordained to God as to the Ultimate End, and so as to Goodness Itself. Hence God’s Justice ultimately means the fulfillment of His own Wisdom and Goodness — all of this considered in relation to being.
Atheist: I have several points in response: If God’s Goodness means the perfections of all things, should not the fact that many things are not perfected be evidence against the Goodness, and hence existence, of God? And if His Wisdom is the knowledge of His own Goodness, and if the providence of all things flows from His Wisdom, should He not know how to order the universe such that all things are perfected? And again, if God’s Justice means that all things serve God, could He not treat creatures however He likes, and say that it is in service of Himself? How is this not arbitrary? And what of His love?
St. Thomas: I will treat the latter questions first. Love is a will for the good. If God creates something, necessarily He desires its good, since its very being is its primary good [*****] and His desire for its being is the very cause of its being (ST I, Q. 20, Art. 2). Now the good of a thing is its perfection, and its perfection exists pre-eminently in God. The good/perfection of a created thing is thus a finite reflection of God’s own Goodness, and God’s Goodness is the proper object of His will. Necessarily, then, how God “treats” a creature will be good and just. For by creating the creature He ordains it to being and to a certain end, which is its own good/perfection. Whatever God ordains for a creature is, by definition, its good, and is a mercy surpassing mere justice (ST I, Q. 21, Art. 4). Now if God were to create only a single object, His Wisdom, Goodness, Justice, and Love would oversee the absolute perfection of that object (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2). But creation is an act of God, and every act of God is directed towards the Divine Goodness as its End. The Divine Goodness is single and complete in its own simplicity. But created things are finite and composite and so cannot “attain” to the infinite simplicity of Divine Goodness (ST I, Q. 23, Art. 5). So when God creates, He creates a large multiplicity of beings which altogether, by their various finite perfections, reflect the infinite, simple, unlimited perfection of the Divine Goodness. Now many perfections which in God are one are in creatures divided and contrary (ST I, Q. 4, Art. 2), and hence can constitute evils to each other, as water is an evil to fire. Now the Goodness of God desires that many contraries exist, since all reflect in their own limited ways His unlimited Essence. God has thus not created only a single object, but a whole universe of objects, all of which are directed, by His Wisdom and providence, to the Divine Goodness. Thus the providence of God allows certain particular defects in individual beings, so that the good and perfection of the whole might be realized (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2). We must then look at the whole, and not the particulars, to see the glorious manifestation of the Divine Goodness in creation.
Atheist: You are calling the destruction of fire by water an “evil”, and perhaps your explanation works in relation thereto. But by “evil” I mean such things as immense suffering by sentient, living beings. Should not the Divine Goodness and providence prohibit this? Would not a loving God despise suffering and wish to prevent it?
St. Thomas: But such suffering is just one specific type of evil more generally [*^11]. The destruction of fire by water is truly an evil which God would not allow if, for instance, fire were the only object which He decided to create. The suffering of sentient beings is likewise such an evil, but an evil which takes place on a higher ontological level of being, since the subjects which undergo suffering are themselves ontologically higher than mere elements. But even this evil itself presupposes good, order, and perfection — for there could be no feeling of pain without sentience and life in the first place. God allows water to destroy fire, though it is a defect in creation and an evil, because it is the good of the water and is ordained to the perfection of the whole universe and thereby is ordained to the Divine Goodness Itself. Similarly, God allows a lion to slay its prey, though it means the pain and death of the prey, because it is the good of the lion. What the lion is in itself, including its hunting patterns and food habits, is a good which reflects the Divine Goodness and hence is desired by the Divine Wisdom. It is good for the universe that there exists a lion, even if this good implies the pain and death of other creatures (ST I, Q. 22, Art. 2) [******]. If God created only the prey, He would prevent its suffering at all costs. But the Divine Goodness is not captured sufficiently in the subject of a single prey without the existence of the lion; and so providence allows the defect/suffering of the prey, for the sake of the existence of the lion, and hence for the sake of the perfection of the whole universe. But this is no injustice to the prey, for its very existence is already a mercy to it, given to it by God.
Atheist: But could not God have created a universe with less suffering, and would not a loving God have desired to do so?
St. Thomas: Perhaps God “could” have created a universe with less suffering, but such a universe might also have less desired goodness as well. The Goodness of God does not mean that He necessarily would desire to create the universe with the least amount of suffering possible [*^13]; it means simply that God is Goodness Itself as the full perfection of Being Itself, and that He desires to create the universe which He discerns to reflect His Goodness as He Himself so desires. That God is loving just means that He desires good, and the good that He desires most properly is the Divine Goodness. God loves all things that exist, insofar as they exist, because they exist for the sake of the Divine Goodness (ST I, Q. 20, Art. 2). But this does not mean that God loves all things “equally” (ST I, Q. 20, Art. 3). The reason for the existence of all things is the Divine Goodness. The Divine Goodness thus chose to create the universe which He most desired to reflect Himself. If this includes much suffering, this is ultimately for good. For instance, God allows some men to be saved to demonstrate the good of His Mercy, and He allows others to be damned to demonstrate the good of His Justice (ST I, Q. 23, Art. 5). There is nothing which God “owes” to creatures except what He Himself has ordained; and what He has ordained He always brings to completion. We thus might actually expect God to create a universe with much evil, because by bringing it to perfection He demonstrates even more His own Power and Goodness.
Atheist: If this is what the “Goodness” of God means, why would I even want to believe in or worship Him?
St. Thomas: That is your choice, but at this point you must admit that the question has moved beyond the rationality of the existence of God, to emotional responses thereto. From our perspective, we might desire for God to have created a universe with much less evil, pain, and suffering. Nevertheless, until we see the whole of creation, and know the Divine Goodness in Itself, we cannot know why this universe, with all its defects, was created. It is simply naive and unfounded to expect to be able to discern the “why” of God’s actions. We know that the “why” is the Divine Goodness Itself, so until we know what the Divine Goodness is, we can never know fully the “why”. Nor, until we see the whole, could we know how the providence of God fits all things together. But we can know that God exists, and that in Him alone is our Highest Good, our Final End, our Ultimate Happiness, our Beatitude (ST I, Q. 2, Art. 1). By natural reason we catch a glimpse of the Divine Light; through revelation we come to know God more fully, as He knows Himself (ST I, Q. 1, Arts. 1, 4, 6); and then in Beatific Vision we shall behold the Divine Essence face to face, and we shall then know completely. But one thing is now clear: we know there is good through suffering, because the Divine Goodness shines forth most wondrously, most gloriously, from the cross.
Summa Theologiae references are all taken from this translation: Aquinas. Aquinas on Grace and Nature: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Translated and edited by A. M. Fairweather. The Library of Christian Classics Ichthus Edition. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press.
With one exception, the reference to I, Q. 5, Art. 1, which was taken from: St. Thomas Aquinas. The Summa Theologica. (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947). Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Accessed online: <http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/>.
This dialogue depends almost entirely on direct readings from the Summa, but many of its ideas were first presented to me, are inspired by, and are defended more rigorously and academically in: Davies, Brian. The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.
[*]. For the basic format of this type of argument, as well as its application to specific arguments, see: Lowder, Jeffery Jay. “25 Lines of Evidence Against Theism.” The Secular Outpost. Patheos, 26 Jun. 2016. Web. 12 Aug. 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2016/06/26/pererz1-25-evidences-against-theism/>.
[**]. See “God’s Moral Standing” in Davies, Brian. The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. Especially page 99.
[***]. See Feser, Edward. Aquinas. London: Oneworld Publications, 2009. Print, 174-180.
[****]. See Aquinas, Thomas. On Evil. Translated by Richard Regan, edited by Brian Davies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Q. 1, Art. 2, Answer.
[*****]. See Owens, Joseph. An Elementary Christian Metaphysics. 1963. Center for Thomistic Studies, 1985. 74.
[******]. See Davies. The Reality of God. 181, and the whole chapter entitled “Evil, Causation and God”.
[*******]. This method is used and suggested in Davies. The Reality of God. 2-3.
[*^9]. Davies points out this mistake in Davies. The Reality of God. 53-54, 58, 79, 91-93, and throughout.
[*^10]. Again, Davies makes this argument here: Davies. The Reality of God. 93.
[*^11]. See Feser, Edward. Aquinas. London: Oneworld Publications, 2009. Print, 176.
[*12]. For more on how God knows by knowing Himself, see Chastek, James. “Responding to Some Objections to Simplicity.” Just Thomism. 27 Dec. 2013. WordPress. <https://thomism.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/responding-to-some-objections-to-simplicity/>. Accessed 14 Aug. 2017.
[*^13]. See Magee, Joseph. “Aquinas and the Best of All Possible Worlds.” Thomistic Philosophy Page. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://www.aquinasonline.com/Topics/boapw.html>. Accessed 14 Aug. 2017.