Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Why Evil?

Father John J. Lombardi 

Many people ask the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" We may think of Job-who in the Old Testament story suffered great tragedies (loss of his family and possessions), or we may think of a loved one who has cancer, or perhaps of a child who died…Suffering and evil seem to abound.

Here are some commonly asked questions and the most important points to remember, regarding evil…

  • Question 1: Why does evil exist? Evil exists because of sin. In Genesis 2:12, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the Tree of Good and Evil--they wanted to be like God without God's help-the result was sin, suffering and evil. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, (#398/399) says of this Original Sin-"man preferred himself to God.

    The harmony in which they (Adam and Eve) found themselves is now destroyed: the control of the soul's spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man woman becomes subject to tensions…Harmony with creation is broken…Death makes its entrance into human history…" Resolve: admit your sinfulness; trust Him to forgive and free you. "Sin is sovereign until sovereign grace dethrones it." (Charles Spurgeon)
  • Question 2: Then didn't God make a mistake in designing us this way? No! The first humans were created in original justice ("delight-full order"), but they refused God. Vatican Council II (1962-1965)-in the Document on the Modern World-- says: "He (mankind) has broken the right order, he is drawn to what is wrong and sunk in many evils.

    Therefore as 'sin came into the world thru one man…so death spread to all men because all men sinned.' (Rm. 5:12)." When we deny God's perfection, we hurt God and ourselves: "He who offers God second place offers Him no place." (J. Ruskin) Resolve: respect and love God's perfection.
  • Question 3: How is creation and human nature affected by evil? In three ways: people's relationships are now fractious; man's relationship to God is egregiously marred; and within each individual the intellect is darkened; passions are disordered; the will is stained with concupiscence (a sinful tendency). Evil has damaged human nature and creation but not devastated it… "There is nothing but grace. We walk upon it, we breathe it; we live and die by it; it makes the axels of the universe." (R L Stevenson) Resolve: Participate with divine grace, in all thoughts, words and deeds.
  • Question 4: What actually is evil? Evil is not a thing, or an entity or separate being (as in Manichean religion-a god) by itself. It is rather or a lack of being or good. The classic definition of this, from St. Augustine (+a.d.350), is privatio boni: evil is a privation of good. It is a gap, a separation from God's will and His order, a "spiritual handicap" of good. Whatever God created (as in Gen., ch. 1) He made good.

    Evil comes when we choose separation from God or not to be "on His team". Resolve and pray: "I came from God and am going back to God, and I won't have any gaps of death in the middle of my life." (G. Macdonald).
  • Question 5: What are some of the solutions to the problem of evil? Atheists deny God's existence and imply evil is inherent in creation, and that we simply become resigned to it; this may lead to fatalism and despair. Manicheanism is an ancient eastern religion, which teaches that of two existent gods, one is evil and another good.

    Thus, evil-from the bad god-- is inherent in creation; therefore we must somehow appease or defeat the evil god. Some eastern philosophies believe evil is an illusion, it is not objectively real or substantial. Evil is due partly to wrong, dualistic seeing and is overcome by personal enlightenment. Resolve: Seek assiduously the liberating, total truth-- "A half-truth is a dangerous thing, especially if you have got hold of the wrong half." ( Myron Boyd)
  • Question 6: What is the Catholic and Christian solution?: Let's first look at the following Three Propositions of Life 101, which, for many people, cannot be synthesized: 1.God is all good. 2. God is powerful. 3.Evil exists…Possible responses: Atheism subtracts God from the propositions and thus the "burden of goodness" becomes unnecessary. Some subtract God's power (implicitly or explicitly), implying He cannot totally manage or fix His creation, and therefore "downsize divinity"…Catholic Christians accept all three propositions above as in a paradoxical synthesis which we call "mystery."

    This means that the "answer" is not contrary to reason (irrational), but is ungraspable by reason alone (transrational). The response to evil is not totally "sayable" in a sentence, but must be learned and embraced so the "answer becomes engraved in the soul," which, designed by God, is more capable of accepting mysterious paradoxes than anything else. "The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows not." (Pascal) Resolve: Learn more about noble and loving responses to evil from the saints and Bible.
  • Question 7: If God is all powerful, then, how can I understand and accept the mystery of evil better? First, let us investigate God's Will, because it interfaces with the seeming contradiction between God's governance (will) and evident evil chaos. God's will means what He wants or intends, by either His active will (what He does directly), or by His passive will (what He allows but does not necessarily want).
    God, then, does a lot (active will) and puts up with a lot (in His passive will), and could overcome, with His almightiness, all evil, and so the question still begs:
  • Question 8: Why is evil permitted? Because God wants to bring about greater, though possibly invisible or unforeseen, good. God knows what we need more than we do ourselves-He can "see" everything all at once, without succession. His permissive will allows bad things to happen not because of weakness but because of His wisdom and love. And so he allows a baby girl to fall to get stronger; He allows sickness to inspire charity; He permits suffering to engender goodness.

    St. Thomas Aquinas says that God allows evil and suffering to exist to perfect the universe; otherwise some good, holy things would never happen. It is like going to the dentist: God will allow us to experience and even embrace pain in order to become healthier, holier….A classic spiritual formulation of this is found in Gen., ch's. 45 and 50: The son of Jacob, young Joseph, is sold into slavery by his brothers and then, after suffering in a cistern and undergoing captivity, is liberated by God's grace. The amazing words of Joseph to his brothers are gigantically instructive: "You meant this for evil but God meant it for good to bring about many people to be kept alive." Resolve to remember: God does not always give us what we want, but He always gives us what we need.

To combat evil, what are some principles to live by?

  1. Understand God is an omnipotent, loving, wise and providential Father, and allows evil to bring about good and so to preserve our free will. Everything else (all our own unique suffering or "story lines") must be accountable to these non-negotiables. When we have the right "spiritual carrot" (wisdom) in front of our proverbial seeking noses, we will be faithful and wise and not "keep God hostage" to any suffering or evil. Resolve: See God's providence (literally His fore-seeing) in your life and more willingly submit to Him.
  2. Redemption: We are told in I Jn. 3:8- "Christ came into the World to destroy works of devil. Jesus alone is the most intense and integral remedy to evil. St. Paul counsels: "The gift (Jesus' atonement) is greater than the offense," and, "As one man's transgression led to the condemnation of all, so one man's obedience leads to acquittal of the life for all" (see Rm. 5:18). Therefore, Christ-especially in His Sacred Blood, since that is the "life-force" of all of us and is infinite-- unbinds us from evil and divinizes us to become God's children. Attend Eucharist frequently and let the Sacrifice occur inside you, too.
  3. "Persevering evil"-Remind yourself of Joseph and Job, heroes who can help us undergo certain "weeds amidst the wheat".
  4. Conversion: by the free choice of Adam and Eve evil came into world. It was not "imposed" on us-evil and separation from God was freely embraced. Therefore we need, oppositely, to choose holiness rather than evil and sin.
  5. Do Good always-read Rm. 3:8. We should never do evil to bring about good, though we may sometimes be tempted, as in "white lies."-- "Of two evils, choose neither." (Charles Spurgeon)
  6. Purge evil from midst-The Bible and Lives of the Saints are filled with examples of holy people in evil situations and they can help us know our duty of where/how/when to challenge evil.
  7. St Michael prayer-memorize and pray: "St Michael, the archangel, defend us in battle against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into Hell, Satan and all the evil spirits who wander throughout the world, seeking the ruin of souls: Amen."

Briefly Noted

On Evangelization: Pope Paul VI's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975, says: "We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church… Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection."

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi