[Origin of evil]

Dear Donagh,
I look forward to your gospel commentary every day and I really find them very helpful.  I have something I want to ask you, it may seem a strange one but it is something that keeps popping up in my mind, it’s how evil began?  God was in the beginning and the beginning was God.  Everything was good, so how did evil come in?  I know there could not be any human life without the struggle between good, evil, joy and sorrow, but I still keep wondering how this lesser than God came about.  Sorry if I may seem silly. 
I love to read question and answer on your website.


Far from being a silly question, this is one of the weightiest anyone could ask.  It engaged the minds of the greatest thinkers of antiquity, such as Plotinus (3rd century) and St Augustine (5th century) who agonised, “Where and whence is evil?  How did it creep in?  What is its root and what is its seed?”  Augustine’s eventual answer, after he became a Christian, has been the gold standard for all Christian approaches to this question ever since. 

In the fewest possible words, evil is nothing in itself; it is an absence, not a presence.  So it doesn’t have a source, it doesn't come from the Creator.   

But don’t tell that to anyone who is actually suffering!  It would probably send them into a rage because it appears to be designed only to let God off the hook, and it would seem to make little (in fact nothing) of their suffering.  These thoughts are only for times when we have the luxury of thinking coolly and calmly about these things. 

Augustine and all those others were not blind to the consequences of evil: all the pain and misery of the world.  In fact Augustine had a darker view of the world than a great many before and after him.  But the question remains: how can something that doesn't exist in itself have such real and terrifying consequences?  We know the answer from experience.  The absence of love – in a marriage, for example – has devastating consequences.  More graphically: though a hole in the road is an absence and not a thing in itself, it can be the cause of a fatal accident….  

Human beings, as we are painfully aware, are capable of extensive evil.  But, as the mediaeval theologians taught, the human will can choose only good; it is incapable of choosing evil as such.  This seems a naïve thing to say, until you read them closely.  What they meant is that the object of a human choice must appear to a person to be desirable and good.  All that money, for example, looks good to the bank-robber, the release of anger feels good to a violent person, the comfort of doing nothing seems better at the very moment when one should be leaping into action…. Then the person chooses to consider no other aspect of the situation – only the aspect of it that appeared good for him.   The end result is evil.  Where does the evil lie?  In the choice, which was ‘disordered’ (the word the mediaevals used).         

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).  Having seen everything else that he had made, the story says, “he saw that it was good,” but the human beings he called “very good.”  What do you think?  All the other creatures, it seems to me, are less violent than human beings are.  They don’t bomb schools and hospitals, they don’t wipe out the other members of their species (nor us) indiscriminately in mass shootings; they don’t invent weapons of mass destruction; they don’t poison the land, sea, and air for pure greed…. We don’t compare favourably with even the most vicious beasts.  How are we ‘very good’?

In our being we are ‘indeed very good’.  But… wasn’t that before the Fall?  Yes.  But in Catholic teaching we are not evil in our being even after the Fall.  We are badly damaged, and have an inclination to evil, which we frequently follow by making disordered choices, yes, but in our being we are not evil.  Nobody, however badly they behave, is pure evil.  You sometimes see newspaper headlines describing some criminal as ‘pure evil’.  That is not right.  The person who did a pure evil act today is capable of doing a good act tomorrow.  It is his choices and actions that are evil, not his being. 

Augustine came to the Christian faith from Manichaeism, a religion that dwelt on the struggle between a spiritual world of light and a dark world of evil.  This was one of many dualistic systems throughout history, one of the most famous being Catharism in 13th-century France.  This held for two Gods, one good and the other evil.  Augustine’s understanding of the origin of evil is the key to dissolving these dualisms.  Evil cannot come from a good God, yes, but it doesn't require an evil God as its source, since it is nothing in itself.   

There is much more to say, obviously, but I hope these few thoughts may be of some help to you, Catherine.

God bless,

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