The problem of evil is well-known to most Christians today. In fact, you have likely heard some version of this problem from your non-believing friends. It proceeds from the premise that some evil has happened which an all-good God would not allow. Since this evil did occur, however, there are three choices open: either God is not all-good and did not wish to stop it, or He is not all-powerful and could not stop it, or He does not exist in the first place. Since the first two options seem illogical—if there were an eternal, perfect God, He would be all-good and all-powerful—the problem of evil seems to show that God does not exist.
There are also many responses to this problem. First, we are assuming that we can understand God’s reasons for doing or not doing something, which would only be true if we were also endowed with an infinite intellect. Second, the argument assumes that we can reason out, in principle, whether another world where x did or did not happen would be better than this world—and this, similarly, requires an infinite intellect to prove.
One could continue listing responses in this manner for some time. It is fascinating, however, that Aquinas’ version of the problem of evil in Question 2 of the Summa is markedly different. In article 3, where he seeks to prove the existence of God, Aquinas describes the problem of evil as concerning why, if God is infinite goodness, evil is still discernable. Since evil exists, the argument goes, God does not exist. The argument relies on the idea that if there are two contraries and one of them is infinite, the other would disappear. Think, for example, of an infinitely-bright lamp. When turned on, there could not possibly be any darkness. Well, why is this not the case with God and evil? In his response, Aquinas argues that God permits evil to exist so that He can bring about greater good from it.
This version of the problem, however, is rather displeasing to us. It seems that Aquinas is substituting what is a concrete problem for an abstract one. Most people who grapple with the problem of evil in their own spiritual lives are not worried about why the infinite contrary has not destroyed the finite contrary. They are questioning why a good God would allow their loved one to die, or why God did not rescue them from a terrible ordeal. Thus, one might wonder, was Aquinas looking to make his job easier in stating the problem in the way he did?
No, rather, Aquinas and other medieval philosophers realized that we have an instinctual understanding that evil is not the norm, that it is something to be fought against. We do not learn to fight against evil, we are born with that instinct. If you wish to see an immediate demonstration of this point, grab a toy out of a small child’s hands. You will see that it will immediately protest, whether by trying to get it back or by crying to alert its parents to the injustice.
This leads us to question why this is the case. Why is it that almost everyone realizes that evil is not the standard? Why are we immediately indignant at suffering some sort of evil? In other words, why do we assume that evil is evil? For the medievals, our experience of evil as something foreign is evidence of the fact that God exists. If God—the exemplary cause of goodness—did not exist, then we would have no knowledge of goodness, and if this were the case, we could not, by comparison, know what evil was. We would not be able to distinguish good from evil or know that good is to be accepted and evil to be rejected. The very fact that we instinctually perceive the world in such a way shows that we all act—even if we might not explicitly accept—as if everything were ordered to the Good. If everything is ordered to the Good, however, God must exist, because He is nothing other than the Supreme Good. To the medieval mind, therefore, the very fact that we struggle with the experience of evil is evidence for God’s existence, because if this were not the case, we would have no reason to make a distinction between good and evil.
The Christian story, however, does not end there. Perhaps the best statement of the modern problem of evil comes in The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Ivan confronts his brother about the fact that God allows so much evil to exist in the world, pointing to horrific accounts of child abuse and cruelty. Alyosha is eventually able to answer his brother by pointing to Christ. The Christian God is not merely a disinterested spectator who observes the evil of the world. He takes on human nature and suffers alongside us, so that “since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:18). Christ stands in solidarity with the suffering and takes on their pain.
When we suffer, we partake in His suffering and He in ours. This, then, is perhaps the best modern response to the problem of evil. If we combine the two, we see God both as He illumines our minds to see that evil is not the standard for His creation and as He strengthens our hearts by always being close to the sufferer.
As we prepare ourselves to once again commemorate Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, let us keep in mind that His suffering is not merely event that happened two thousand years ago, but truly present today among those who suffer. If, however, we share in His suffering, we will also share in His joy. If we are mystically buried together with Christ in baptism, we will also be raised with Him in His Resurrection (Rom. 6:4-7). When this happens, we will finally see the fulfillment of Aquinas’ vision of God bringing good out of evil, and the making of all things new (Rev. 21:5).