Why God permits evil

By Tom Quiner

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas

Did God create evil?

I discussed the nature of evil from St. Augustine’s perspective in my previous post, “A feeble attempt to understand evil.”

St. Augustine said no, God did NOT create evil. He explained:

“Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’  All which is corrupted is deprived of good.”

A Quiner’s Diner reader wondered, then, what the prophet Isaiah meant when he said:

“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)

To get the answer, let’s turn to another church doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest Christian philosopher ever (and my patron saint). He suggests that we need to distinguish between evils of fault and evils of penalty:

“In the former, culpability rested squarely in the lacking in both being and will of the secondary per accidens causes of evil, namely, finite human beings and their will, and the lacking of being found in other imperfect beings.

The latter evil of penalty was necessary evil in order to contribute to the perfecting of the cosmos in that it was just for such penalty to occur. Without it the cosmos would not strive toward perfection, which is the natural intention of a perfect being such as God.”

So Aquinas suggests that it is only the evil of penalty that God “creates” or permits, but that it is not His intention:

“As a result we found that it was not the intentions of God to have either kind of evil (privation), but nonetheless the evil of penalty is permitted in order for the cosmos to intend to a perfecting ordered and just cosmos. Hence, God is the efficient cause of evils only per accidens, i.e., only in the sense of God sustaining all being to progress toward an ordered and perfecting reality, hence God is not culpable. Second, we can conclude that all evils ultimately arose due to the secondary per accidens causes of finite and imperfect beings, as both fault and penalty. For if there were no imperfect beings there would be no need for penalty or fault.”

What we have learned throughout history is that great good can ultimately flow from great evil. That is our fervent prayer for Friday’s victims in Newtown, CT.


  1. Bob Vance on December 16, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    The common factor in all these shootings seems to be that the shooter had mental illness issues. It used to be there was a place for people like this – around here it was called the County Home. But then budget cuts closed that place down.

    It is hard to justify punishing the majority of gun owners in this country because of a few bad instances. It is written in out constitution. However, we can do more to keep assault rifles out of the hands of disturbed individuals and perhaps in educating the general public on signs of unbalanced behavior.

    There is no denying how much of a tragedy this was. My grandchildren are close in age of these children.

    • quinersdiner on December 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      I would like to build on what you’re saying, Bob. I think our culture is breeding mental illness. Regarding “County Homes,” the ACLU forced a change in our laws back in the 60s that changed society’s ability to institutionalize the mentally ill. Many of those released ended up on the streets which explained the surge in homelessness in recent decades. A disproportionate number of the incarcerated are society’s mentally ill. To me the larger question than guns is: what are we doing societally to breed more mental illness, and what is the compassionate approach to protect society from the dangerously mentally ill, and the dangerously mentally ill from themselves?

  2. rautakyy on March 19, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Does this mean your god causes evil only by accident? Like such evil as natural catastrophies? Like he really did not mean all those Japanese people die in the Tsunami? If we are honest, however, the accident like natural events are much more likely caused by the indifference of nature.

    Here in Finland we have even more guns per capita, than you guys in the US. Though we kill each other eagerly, it is more with a knife, axe and even by bare fists, than with our guns. And we have a lot lower rate of accidental shootings than you, because we have a mandatory military service where every able bodied man learns how to handle weapons. What I am saying is that how we percieve guns and how they are used is very much a cultural thing.

    What causes mental ilnesses? Is your god not responsible for not helping a poor sod who is so messed up, that he goes to shoot random little children? Why? This has nothing to do with free will. A lunatic is not weilding any sort of free will. He is driven by his twisted mind. He is not trying to gain some selfish interrests by shooting those kids. He is simply totally barmy. Why did god not heal him and what made your god to cause him to become so boggled in the first place?

    I agree with you, that society should take a bigger role and more responsibility of the mentally disturbed. Often enough they are people with terribly traumatic pasts and are unable to help themselves. And I hear a lot of homeless people with severe mental issues in the US are veterans, whom your many wars have scarred. Is that true?