The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 50, No 5, Sept-Oct 1997

Theology for the Laity

The Providence of God and The Mystery of Evil

By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

We know from our faith that God is an all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful Father, an infinitely concerned provider for the needs of His children. We know, too, that everything that He created is good (Gen. 1:31). How, then, do we reconcile these statements with the existence of so much evil in the world?


If God is infinitely good, why does He allow so much evil and suffering in the world? For example: the evils of war, of famine, of pestilence, of sickness; and the natural disasters of earthquakes, floods, tornadoes - all of which can be devastating to thousands of persons. If God is all-powerful and concerned about his children, why does He allow shipwrecks, airplane crashes, and other such calamities that bring so much sorrow and suffering in their wake? Why does He allow children to be born who are deformed, mentally deficient, or handicapped in other ways, afflictions they must live with throughout their lives?

Unable to fathom such questions, there have been some who have cited the existence of these evils as their reason for not believing in God (Gaudium et Spes, 19). Others who believe in God have been so pained by the sorrows and tragedies they suffer or observe that they complain against God, and use the pain they experience as a pretext for not fulfilling His commandments.


As the New Catholic Encyclopedia explains, “God is not and cannot be in any way the cause of evil, because He is infinite goodness, desiring only to do good. Though the physical order as such involves pains and difficulties, these are nevertheless naturally ordained to the good and to the happiness of man (St. Aug. Lib. Arb.). Taken in this sense, they do not merit to be called evil, since they are not privations, but rather accidental negations” ordained to the spiritual good of man.

Although God does not cause evil, He does allow evil to be done by creatures who possess a free will. He created man in His own image free to choose between obedience to his commandments, or disobedience. And since God will not take away that freedom, he will not prevent man from sinning, even though sin is the root source of the ills of this world. So, as we will see, it was man who has brought upon himself the multitude of evils that abound throughout the world. In short, then, while God does not will or cause evil in itself, He does allow it, because in His infinite wisdom and mercy He can cause a greater good to come from it. And for this same reason he does justly inflict punishments.


Before we consider the kinds of evil, it will be well to see what we mean by the term “evil.” Theology relies on philosophy for the traditional understanding of evil. Philosophically, evil is a negation of good, a privation of a good that is due. Evil does not exist except in relation to some good. There is no such a thing as something that is evil in essence, wholly evil. Even the devil is not wholly evil, for he has an angelic nature which is good. The evil that he does comes from the privation of the grace which he and his followers forfeited by their free choice.

In general we can speak of two kinds of evil, physical and moral:

1) Physical evil is the privation of something in the thing itself that it ought to have, e.g. blindness, deafness, lameness, sickness - in the body. Each of these is the privation of something the body ought to have and normally possesses, namely: eyesight, hearing, sound limbs, and bodily health. Many of the natural disorders, accidents and calamities which happen independently of man’s free will, and which cause much pain and sorrow, are not strictly speaking called evil, for God can and does use such incidents as part of the order of divine Providence, not precisely as evil, but for the general good of man, e.g., by way of testing his virtue, or of being instrumental in his conversion, or by way of punishment. Speaking of this, Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P. explains:

2) Moral evil (sin) is the privation of due order in an act of the will, a wrong-doing against the law of God, or the omission of a good act commanded by the law of God. The New Catholic Catechism speaks of this:

And how often do we know from our own experience how a renewal of fervor in our spiritual life has been occasioned (under God’s grace) by the humbling experience of our own moral failures. Every sacramental confession rightly made bears this out.

Just as there is a physical order governing the mutual interaction of the forces of nature, so there is a moral order established by the Creator governing the conduct of beings endowed with intellect and will.

The moral order establishes norms of behavior which, if observed, will insure justice, mercy, truthfulness, obedience, fraternal charity, etc., all of which result in peace. Whereas, if those norms are not observed, the result is selfishness, injustice, strife, hatred, greed, etc. We see, then, the source of the world’s evils. We see, too, that the healing required for true peace will come more from spiritual means than from political or military means. That is why the Blessed Mother at Fatima asked six times for the daily rosary for world peace.


What is the source of this misuse of man’s freedom giving rise to so much misery and suffering in the world? There have been various answers to that questions over the centuries. One that was widespread in the early centuries of Christianity is Manicheism. The proponents of this belief held that there are two supreme beings, two uncreated principles, one of Light and Goodness (God), and one of Darkness and Evil (the devil). These two supreme beings are ever at war, and every human being is the battle ground. Man’s spirit is from the source of light and goodness, while his body is from the source of darkness and evil. Therefore, there is a constant struggle within man between the forces of good and the forces of evil. If the soul masters the body, good triumphs over evil; if the body masters the soul, evil triumphs over good. In practice, Manicheism denies human responsibility for the evil one does, according to the belief that it is not due to one’s own free will, but the dominance of the Evil One in one’s life. This heresy was condemned by the Council of Braga, Spain in 561.

Catholic theology sees as the source of man’s misuse of his freedom, and indirectly as the origin of evil in the world, the fall of our first parents. God created Adam and Eve endowed with the divine life of grace, and free of any kind of suffering and death. In them the whole human race was on trial. God imposed on them the duty of abstaining from eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But tricked by the devil into believing that by eating of that fruit they would become like God, and be able to determine for themselves what was good and what was evil, they ate the forbidden fruit.

As a consequence of their disobedience God condemned them and their descendants to suffering and death, depriving them not only of sanctifying grace, but of a harmony within their whole being, namely, the control of their lower nature (body and its inclinations) by their higher nature (intellect and will). As a consequence of their fall the intellect was obscured, the will weakened, and they were left with an inclination to evil.

Thus St. Paul says that it was through man that sin came into the world (Rom. 5:12), and that the sin of Adam was the origin of evil. While the sin of the devil was prior to that of Adam, it was Adam’s free choice that deprived human nature of special original gifts, and left it weakened and inclined to evil.

We have already answered why God does not prevent humans from sinning, and especially in the case of our first parents when the whole human race was on trial. The New Catholic Catechism further answers that question:

In those few words the New Catechism points out that as great as are the ills inflicted on human nature due to the fall of Adam, they are small compared to the blessings that have come to us from the redeeming mission of Christ. And for this reason the Church, in the Liturgy of Holy Week, refers to the sin of Adam as a fortunate mistake, that occasioned the coming of “so great a Redeemer.”


Because we are dealing with a mystery in the matter of evil, faith alone can give us the full answer. As the New Catholic Catechism explains, the “mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:7) is clarified only in the light of the “mystery of our religion” (1 Tim, 3:16). St. Paul makes it clear that as great as is the extent of evil, the abundance of grace is still greater (Rom. 5:20). “We must therefore approach the question of the origin of evil by fixing the eyes of our faith on Him who alone is its conqueror” (CCC 385).

The message of the Cross, coming from Christ’s passion and death, is, therefore, the only answer to human agonizing over evil. Our Savior reveals a loving Father who sent His only-begotten Son to pay the debt that the human race incurred by their sins. In His redemptive mission He came precisely to suffer and die. Suffering and death are the result of original sin, and His redeeming sacrifice not only nailed sin to the cross (Col. 2:14) and broke the strangle hold of Satan on humanity, but opened the gates of heaven and took the sting out of suffering and death.

He took the sting out of suffering by transforming it into a means of expiation. When the head of the Mystical Body freely accepted the sufferings of the Passion to atone for the sins of mankind, He won for us the capacity of transforming our suffering (physical or mental) into a means of atonement for our sins and those of the world, when accepted voluntarily in union with His sacrifice.

So while the justice of God demands that sin be punished, Christ conquered as well the evil of punishment. He transforms punishment inflicted because of sin into a means of expiation when accepted voluntarily in union with the mystery of the Cross.

Christ took the sting out of death, for with the resurrection of the body, death shall be defeated, and life will triumph in all its glory. In heaven there will be no more death or suffering of any kind. That is why St. Paul exclaims: “O death, where is your victory, where is your sting?” (I Cor. 15:55) Commenting on this text the Jerome Biblical commentary states: “Sin has been vanquished by Christ the Redeemer. Thus death, like a serpent deprived of its venomous sting, can no longer harm those who are in Christ.” The enemies which made man their slave - sin, death and Satan - have been conquered. Thus by dying on the Cross for the offenses of mankind Christ conquered sin and the devil, and by His resurrection (which insures our resurrection) he conquered death.

While sin is punished by suffering, it does not follow that those who suffer more have sinned more. On the contrary, those closest to Christ are given a greater share in His Cross. Aware of the redeeming value of suffering, they are able to say with St. Paul, “I rejoice in my suffering . . . in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s suffering for the sake of His Body, . . . the Church" (Col. 1:24). That is why Christ’s Mother, the Blessed Virgin, became the Queen of Martyrs and Coredemptrix.

We have a little better understanding, then, of the mystery of evil, and why God allows it. It brings out more clearly the mercy of God, who never fails to forgive the repentant sinner. It occasioned the coming of the Redeemer, whose coming brought far more blessings, than we were deprived of by the deceit and envy of Satan. We see why God permits pain and sorrow, financial or family problems, natural disasters, sickness and death. All of these are for the sake of something better. For the Christian all suffering and death is oriented towards the resurrection and glory. For as St. Paul says: “We are heirs of God, coheirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory” (Rom. 8:17)

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