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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

To Define Evil: Nature and Origins

As mentioned briefly above, the non-theological approach conceives evil as that which one is averse to; since happiness is the highest good, anything that attempts to thwart the fulfillment of one's deepest desires is evil. Thus, pain is evil because it prevents me from feeling pleasure, and death is evil because it ends any chance to satisfy my wishes. Theologically, however, evil is that which goes against the grain of God's will. Theologically, the question of good and evil is concerned with the divine purposes for the world.3 Christianity asserts that God is wholly and perfectly good, and has asserted this claim from its 'conception.' Moreover, since God is good, what He has created must also in that case be good. We can see this from the Scriptures themselves: Genesis 1:31 says that God saw all that He had made and it is declared 'very good.' Indeed, after every act of creation God declared what He had made 'good' (Gen 1:10, 12, 17-18, 21, 25, 31). One might argue that by good, God may simply have meant that what He created has come into existence the exact way He had planned it to, so that good is nothing more than approval. However, this contention can only hold for so long. If God is to create an entire universe, what purpose would there be for it to be created disorderly and in chaos? The fact remains that God has created a universe, which is not only ordered but also good. Thus, good has in fact an ontological being. Or, as Thomas Aquinas has asserted, creation is good for the fact that it has being4 - that is, being itself is good.5

So, if the universe is deemed good because it was created good, where then is natural evil? If God has ordered the world by a particular structure, where then does evil fit? Karl Barth has argued that evil can be seen as Nothingness. This Nothingness has its origin in the divine No - a No implied by God's creative Yes.6 For when God creates, He wills and is therefore opposed to that which He does not will - 'He says Yes, and therefore says No to that to which He has not said Yes.'7 While the term Nothingness leads one to believe that it is in fact not anything, Barth argues that Nothingness is indeed a real force - that Nothingness is 'in a third way of its own' real,8 and '"is" because and so long as God is against it.'9 Barth derives this Nothingness from the creation story, where in Genesis 1:2 God creates the world out of the formless void and darkness - that is, out of the chaos.10 The existence of Nothingness is then seen as not planned and willed, like that of the human creature.11 Nothingness is an alien factor and cannot be attributed to the positive will and work of God, but neither can it exist independently of the will of God, for this would deny His Lordship.12 Barth's argument, while it does somewhat explain a natural evil, seems to limit God's power - and any Christian should be uneasy to do so. This notion of Nothingness creeping into creation through the chaos makes God out to be ignorant of the outcome of His creation project. Furthermore, it seems to make Nothingness coeternal with God, so that God simply created good out of and above this chaos. God must have known what effect His Yes and the implied No would have, otherwise God is powerless and not omniscient as we assert Him to be. That is, either God wills evil and gives rise to it, or God does not will evil and is powerless to prevent it.

God is the author of all nature. Thus, if God 'accommodates' evil by making it intrinsically good - that is, He makes an event good even when it seems contrary to the ordinary course of things and seems disorderly - then the 'evil' is not in fact evil.13 Such is not beyond God's power to do. To say that God cannot make good out of what we deem evil is to limit His power, and reduce Him as God. Indeed, evil cannot be independent of God, but must exist under His sovereign control.14 Thomas Aquinas asserts that there can be no highest evil that is opposed to the highest good and is the cause of all evils.15 Aquinas argues that evil cannot be the first cause, for the first principle is necessarily good - that is, it pre-contains within itself all goodness.16 Evil lessens good, but evil never wholly consumes it, and in fact cannot wholly consume good, for if good is removed than being is removed, as Aquinas argues that being is itself good.17 Thus, if being is removed there can be no evil. Moreover, above all things that exist, there is one first principle of being, and is the common cause for everything. This common cause is, of course, God Himself.18

  1. Ibid, p.15.
  2. Thomas Aquinas, 'Summa Theologica,' Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945), p.49-51.
  3. Thomas Aquinas, 'Summa Contra Gentiles,' Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 2, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945), p.13.
  4. Nigel Goring Wright, A Theology of the Dark Side: Putting the Power of Evil in its Place (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p.50.
  5. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 3 Pt. 3, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), p.351.
  6. Ibid, p.349.
  7. Ibid, p.353.
  8. Wright, Dark Side, p.50.
  9. Ibid, p.49.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Evans, Augustine, p.96.
  12. R. Scott Rodin, Evil and Theodicy in the Theology of Karl Barth, Vol. 3 (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997), p.80.
  13. Aquinas, 'Summa Theologica,' Basic Writings, Vol. 1, p.478.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid. See also pp.49-51.
  16. Ibid, p.479. See also pp.22-23.