If God is all powerful and all good (omnipotent and omnibenevolent), why does evil exist? Or even more specifically, why do “natural evils” (hurricanes, cancer, etc.) exist?
It’s important to define what we mean by “evil.” Technically speaking, evil doesn’t really exist! That’s because evil is a deprivation of good, not a thing in and of itself. My high school science teacher told us that there really is no such thing as cold, there’s just lack of heat. Or, consider a hole in a shirt: the hole is really just an absence of integrity of the fabric.
The Church talks about two types of evil: moral evil and physical evil. Moral evil is the result of God’s gift of free will. God reveals the True, the Good and the Beautiful to us and we are free to accept or to reject them. In other words, love can’t be forced, or else it’s not love. If God forced us to live in accordance with the True, the Good and the Beautiful, then we would be puppets, not children, of God. Most of the world’s problems stem from a misuse of the gift of free will — when we seek to find meaning, purpose, fulfillment or love in broken ways, which we call sin.
That leaves the issue of natural or physical evils. What are we to think about tsunamis, landslides, natural fires, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes that wreak devastation? The Church responds with the answer that all of creation is in a state of journeying toward perfection and that these naturally occurring elements are both constructive and destructive. We live in a dynamic, not static, world that is constantly changing, bringing some things to life and others to death. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness, God freely willed to create a world ‘in a state of journeying’ toward its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection” (CCC 310).
While God never wills the destruction of a human life, he has placed us in a beautiful, dynamic and awesome world that reflects his power and majesty, not a padded room where no one gets hurt. We have to acknowledge that sometimes we are the ones who are intentionally placing ourselves in harm’s way. Living near a volcano or on the ocean’s shoreline might make for beautiful scenery, but eventually lava will flow and the sea will come in. That’s us hedging our bets; not God’s fault.
And even more difficult problem is the problem of human suffering. Why do innocent, healthy people sometimes come down with terrible diseases or afflictions? To this there is no satisfactory answer that makes suffering OK. We know we live in a fallen world, that we too, as humans are part of a creation that is journeying to perfection and that illness and death, while not part of the original plan, entered into our lives due to original sin. But even more importantly, we also believe that rather than being far from us in the midst of suffering, God draws ever nearer. For it was through the greatest suffering resulting from the greatest moral evil; the rejection and murder of God’s only Son, that eternal life has been given to us.
St. Paul writes in Romans that all of creation “groans in labor pains” in anticipation of being set free from slavery to corruption, and that we ourselves as believers also groan within ourselves as we await perfection in heaven (Romans 8:19-23).
Evil, sin and death are part of our world now because of our own disobedience, and there’s no avoiding it. But the good news is that they have been taken on and defeated by God Himself, in whom there is no lack (no evil) and who calls us to live with Him forever.
So the next time you stub your toe or encounter a hail storm remember, this too shall pass.