This section will take up most of our time and space because this is where the problem begins, and therefore this is where it must end. We need to understand at least five key terms: evil, omnipotence, good, happiness and free will. The most important one for the problem of evil, of course, is evil.
The two most common misunderstandings about evil that make the problem more difficult than it needs to be are (1) the tendency to see evil as a being and (2) the confusion between two very different kinds of evil, physical evil and moral evil.
1. Evil is not a being, thing, substance or entity. This was Augustine’s great breakthrough (Confessions) that liberated him from Manichaean dualism (the belief in two ultimate beings, one good, one evil). He realized that all being is good metaphysically, or ontologically, or in its being. For all being is either the Creator or his creature. He himself is good, and he declared everything he created good (Genesis 1). And that is all the being there is.
If evil were a being, the problem of evil would be insolvable, for then either God made it—and thus he is not all-good—or else God did not make it—and thus he is not the all-powerful creator of all things. But evil is not a thing. Things are not evil in themselves. For instance, a sword is not evil. Even the stroke of the sword that chops off your head is not evil in its being—in fact, unless it is a “good” stroke, it will not chop your head off. Where is the evil? It is in the will, the choice, the intent, the movement of the soul, which puts a wrong order into the physical world of things and acts: the order between the sword and an innocent’s neck rather than a murderer’s neck or an innocent’s bonds.
Even the devil is good in his being. He is a good thing gone bad—in fact, a very good thing gone very bad. If he had not had the greatest ontological goodness (goodness in his being) of a powerful mind and will, he could never have become as morally corrupt as he is. “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” Corruptio optimi pessima, “the corruption of the best things are the worst things.” To be morally bad, you must first be ontologically good.
Even physical evil is not a thing. The lack of power in a paralyzed limb is physical evil, but it is not a thing, like another limb. Blindness is a physical evil, but it is not a thing, like an eye. The cataract that causes the evil is not itself the evil.
Is evil then merely subjective? A fantasy, an illusion? No, for if it were a mere subjective illusion, then the fact that we fear this mere illusion would be really evil. As Augustine says, “thus either the evil that we fear is real, or the fact that we fear it is evil.”
Evil is real, but it is not a real thing. It is not subjective, but it is not a substance. Augustine defines evil as disordered love, disordered will. It is a wrong relationship, a nonconformity between our will and God’s will. God did not make it; we did. That is the obvious point of Genesis 1 and 3, the stories of God’s good creation and humanity’s evil fall.
The point, once seen, is so simple and obvious that we take it for granted. But without it, we would very likely embrace one of two popular heresies: either (1) the idea that we, not God, are the creators of good, the denial of Genesis 1, or (2) the idea that God, not we, is the creator of evil, the denial of Genesis 3. (New Age pantheistic idealism combines both of these heresies.)
2. The second major confusion about evil is to fail to distinguish between moral evil and physical evil, sin and suffering, the evil we actively do and the evil we passively suffer, the evil we freely will and the evil that is against our will, the evil we are directly responsible for and the evil we are not.
We need two different explanations for these two different kinds of evil, to explain both their causes and their cures. The origin of sin is human free will. The immediate origin of suffering is nature, or rather the relationship between ourselves and nature. We stub our toe, or get pneumonia, or drown.
Thus God is off the hook for sin, but not for suffering, it seems—unless the origin of suffering can also be traced to sin. This is what the story in Genesis 3 does. Without explaining how, it tells us that the thorns and thistles and the sweat of the brow and the pain of childbirth all are the result of our sin.