Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

SECTION 2. -- The relation of Providence to existing evil.

Thesis XXXVIII. -- Neither from the evils which exist in this world, nor from those which, according to Divine revelation, await the wicked in the life to come, can any lawful inference derogatory to Divine Providence be drawn.

227. One of the most harassing questions which have ever wearied the brains of philosophers, and stimulated the zeal of Christian apologists, is as to the possibility of such an enormous amount of evil in a world created by an infinitely good God, and continually under the sway of His Providence.

Absolutely speaking, this difficulty against the moral attributes of the Creator is sufficiently solved by an appeal to the arguments by which we have proved to demonstration the existence of one personal, infinitely perfect, and infinitely wise God. These arguments are built on evident premisses, according to the rules of sound Logic. The opponent of the doctrine proved has first to show a want of internal soundness in our arguments before he can hope to destroy them by difficulties. No puzzling doubt, however great, can overthrow evident conclusions. A man charged with a crime, who has manifestly proved his alibi, cannot possibly be the perpetrator, although from accidental circumstances grave suspicions may have arisen against him. In a similar way, when once it has been evidently proved that God exists, and is infinitely good; the evils of this world cannot be attributed to the absence of a wise and benevolent Providence, even if the existence of those evils remain to a large extent a riddle to us. A man who waited to render homage to his Creator till he had solved all the problems, to the solution of which his curiosity might urge him, would act far more absurdly than a child who refused to honour and obey his parents till they had justified to his mind all the details of their housekeeping. The distance between a child's mental capacity and that of his parents is, after all, finite: but God's mind is infinitely above ours.

228. Yet this answer, though substantially adequate, it is clearly desirable to supplement by a detailed account of the relation in which evil stands to the infinitely good will of God. Such an account we must now endeavour to render, and before all things it is necessary to fix accurately the sense of the term evil. Some modern philosophers take evil to be any absence of good in a thing. They distinguish, consequently, three sorts of evils, metaphysical, physical, and moral. Metaphysical evil is understood by them to be the absence of a certain perfection in a being, the nature of which is incompatible with such a perfection. Thus, for instance, the absence of feeling in a stone, the absence of reason in a dumb animal, and the absence of learning in an infant, are in this view metaphysical evils. By physical evil they mean a defect which mars the natural integrity of a being, or interferes with a proper development of its activity. Thus, under the category of physical evil come, bodily diseases of whatever kind, mental imbecility, liability to great fits of passion preceding the use of free-will, want, destruction of property by drought or inundations, violent death, &c. Under the term of moral evil they comprise the deviation of the free-will from the moral law, and the actions proceeding from a will thus gone astray, as lying, theft, murder. In order that such volitions and actions may be considered as moral evils in the strict sense of the word, their source must be a will deliberately malicious. Otherwise, we have only what moralists call material sin, not formal.

In this explanation of evils nothing seems to be objectionable but that the term evil is taken in a wider sense than its usual application allows. Men commonly do not call every imperfection an evil, especially where the imperfection is the mere absence of a perfection not due to a thing. Everything is good, inasmuch as its state of existence harmonizes perfectly with its nature. A nature of a lower order is in itself less good than a nature of a higher order. Yet the essence of that lower nature does not involve what is properly called evil. The word evil signifies not the mere absence of a perfection, but its absence in a being to which under a certain aspect it is due. Therefore, only physical and moral evils are evils in the strict sense of the word.

229. What are called metaphysical evils cannot possibly militate against the infinite goodness of the Creator. To abolish them would mean to annihilate all creatures. A created being, either infinitely perfect, or at least so perfect that none more perfect could be created, is a contradiction in terms. The hypothesis of an infinitely perfect creature would involve the existence of two infinite beings, disproved in the First Book. The hypothesis of a creature so perfect that none more perfect could be, would amount to an implicit denial of the infinite power of the Creator. We have already shown in Book I. that an absolutely perfect world is impossible. The world of an infinitely good God can only be relatively perfect, that is to say, perfectly adapted to its end as intended by the Creator. In Section i of this Book, we have seen that God intends by creation the manifestation of His goodness, or His external glory, and the beatitude of rational creatures. Neither the one nor the other can be intended in an infinite degree. In other words, God can neither intend that any particular creature, or any multitude of creatures, should adequately represent His unbounded perfection; nor can He intend that any purely finite creature should enjoy a happiness of infinite intensity. He must, therefore, intend both the primary and the secondary end of creation to be realized within certain limits. Now, every finite degree of external glory of God falls infinitely short of an adequate expression of the infinite Divine goodness. Comparing, therefore, finite degrees of external manifestation with the adequate expression of the Divinity, we may say that the difference between, 1, 100, and 1,000,000 degrees vanishes. Which of these degrees shall God intend in creation? Surely, whichever He pleases. The selection depends entirely on His free-will. He does not need any creature. He may, therefore, choose among the indefinite multitude of possible beings without violating any of His perfections; yet so that He shall always attain His own glory, both objective and formal; subordinate the course of things perfectly to the end He has in view, and conduct to final happiness those rational creatures who obey the voice of their conscience. With these restrictions, we affirm that no amount of imperfection in created natures can be adduced as an exception against the statement of the monotheist: "An infinitely good and wise God rules this world."

230. Supposing, then, that God creates a world filled with creatures of a nature under many aspects very imperfect -- an hypothesis doubtless verified in this world of ours, the possibility of moral evil, and the natural necessity of physical evil, is sufficiently explained. Man has a free-will. By his very nature he is such that he can commit sin. Again, both man and the rest of the living creatures of this world, in consequence of their imperfect nature, must be liable to many physical sufferings, unless God is continually to work miracles for their deliverance. Does, then, the infinite goodness of God require that by supernatural interference He should prevent all physical and moral evils? The answer is evidently to be given in the negative.

231. First, as regards physical evils, God cannot, indeed, intend them for their own sake. He cannot delight in the misery and sufferings of His creatures. But there is no reason whatever to prove that He may not allow these evils, with the intention to compensate them by some good occasioned thereby. Nay, He may even intend them as means to an end. It is not necessary that He should lay open to our view the particular final cause of every disease and every misfortune; it is enough for us to know that He is infinitely good, infinitely wise and just. Knowing thus much, we are certain of two truths which must satisfy every reasonable thinker. The first is, that an infinitely good, and wise, and just God must draw some good out of every evil He allows, and cannot allow any without a reason worthy of His infinite wisdom. The second may be formulated thus. A human mind, though able to get a true knowledge of God amply sufficient to guide the man on his way to his last end, is manifestly unfit to comprehend the eternal counsels of the Almighty. Add to this, that in many cases experience and history show to the faithful Christian distinctly, how in the hand of Providence physical evils become instruments of great boons in the moral order. Poverty and sickness teach man most forcibly his nothingness, and open his mind to the consolations of religion. The blood of the martyrs became the fertile seed of Christianity, whilst the ignominious death of Christ our Saviour enhanced the glory of His Resurrection, brought out the Divine origin of His Church, and opened to fallen mankind the road that leads to the Heavenly City, where "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more."{6}

None can understand this fully, unless he believes that God became Man, that as Man He died upon the Cross, and afterwards ascended glorious into Heaven. The belief in these truths makes it easily conceivable that through many tribulations we must enter into the Kingdom of God. An acquaintance with the life and doctrines of Christ and His Apostles goes far to reconcile the believer in Christianity with the hard lot of the poor, and the promiscuous distribution of temporal goods, and of merely natural mental gifts among just and unjust. A Christian knows that there is another life, in which both the unbridled sensuality and supercilious cruelty of Dives and the patient resignation and heroic suffering of Lazarus will be duly rewarded. And reflecting how vastly the natural endowments of Lucifer surpass the most splendid human genius, he no longer wonders at beholding at times among men the spectacle of great abilities thrown away in a bad cause.

232. But this reflection involves another difficulty far greater than that drawn from mere physical evils. God foresaw from eternity the fall of Lucifer and the evil angels. He foresaw all the sins of man. Why did He not hinder them?

Let us first see in what relation God stands to moral evil. Moral evil in the strict sense of the word consists in a free turning away of the created will from the law laid down by God. God necessarily loves His own goodness and everything else in relation to it. He can, therefore, never approve of a created free being deliberately ignoring its true position to Him. But sin manifestly involves a deliberate refusal of the creature to stand to God in that attitude of subject to ruler, which is the proper posture of a creature before its Creator. No sin, therefore, can be pleasing to God. He manifests His disapproval of it to every man who commits sin, and that in the very moment when he is about to commit it. For sin in the strict sense of the word is not committed without disobedience to the voice of conscience, which re-echoes the will of the Supreme Lawgiver. But it is one thing to disapprove of sin, and quite another thing not to impede it. God does not impede sin; although, absolutely speaking, this was possible for Him. Yet we must not forget that He is infinitely free as well as infinitely powerful. He can, therefore, tolerate sin, if this toleration is not opposed to His Divine perfections. But it is not opposed to any one of them; as will easily appear on comparing it with those perfections which at first sight it would seem to violate, namely, His wisdom, His holiness, His justice, and His mercy.

233. First, then, it may be argued as an objection, that God does not attain the end He intends by tolerating sin; for the sinner does not glorify God as he ought to do, and forfeits his own happiness, if he dies in the state of grievous sin. We reply that the end which God intends is His own glory, and that on such terms as to leave it to the choice of the free creature to become throughout eternity a living monument of His beatifying love or of His rigorous justice. As regards the happiness of the free creature, He intends that happiness only on condition that the creature prepares for the same before the time of probation expires with the close of this earthly life.

234. But is the toleration of sin compatible with the sanctity of God? No sin can be committed, unless God concurs to the sinful action. But in doing so He seems to approve of sin; for there is nothing which could necessitate Him to lend the sinner His aid. In answer to this difficulty, let us repeat briefly the solution already given in the chapter on Divine concurrence. (pp. 364 seq. and 370.) We there showed that God does not concur in the sin itself, nor does He encourage the sinner to abuse his free-will. The concurrence of God, which the sinner abuses, consists in this, that God grants him the use of the moral freedom that belongs to his nature. To do so He has reasons worthy of His infinite wisdom, although incomprehensible to human minds.

235. But scarcely is this answer given, when another difficulty arises: God puts one man in circumstances in which it is very easy to avoid sin, and He places another in positions which make sin, apparently, unavoidable. Is such an unequal treatment of two creatures of the same human nature not against Divine justice? Is it not acceptance of persons? Compare the case of a well trained child of good Christian parents with that of a youth who grows up in the surroundings of vice and impiety.

We answer in the first place that God's justice does not oblige Him to treat creatures of the same nature exactly in the same way. The justice of God is not commutative, but distributive. It is not manifested by paying to creatures what they have any right to ask of Him, but in granting them what He cannot refuse to their nature and their merits without denying His own goodness, wisdom, and benevolence. If then He grants thus much to all men, the objection against His justice ceases, although He may make the grant to one in a sufficient, to another in an abundant degree. Certainly nobody can prove that poor, ignorant, and badly educated people fall into or are punished by God for really grievous sins, the avoidance of which was not made morally possible for them, either naturally or supernaturally by special internal graces. Their acts often do not involve that malice which prompts better-endowed minds to similar excesses. Ignorance frequently excuses them from grievous guilt, when they do things objectively very serious. From reason and revelation we must conclude that no man is ever necessitated to violate the law of God culpably, and that every sin imputable to man is caused only by abuse of freedom against the voice of conscience. Add to this, that throughout the Old and New Testament God calls Himself with a sort of preference the protector of the poor; and indicates that their human frailties will be judged with great mercy. For what else is the meaning of these passages of Scripture: "He that despiseth the poor reproacheth his Maker; "{7} "He that hath mercy on the poor lendeth to the Lord;"{8} "He" (the Messiah) "shall judge the poor of the people and he shall save the children of the poor;" "He shall spare the poor and needy and He shall save the souls of the poor;"{9} "He" (the Messiah) "shall judge the poor with justice;"{10} "To him that is little, mercy shall be granted; but the mighty shall be mightily tormented," &c.;{11} "The prayer out of the mouth of the poor shall reach the ears of God;"{12} "The Lord will not accept any person against a poor man;"{13} and the poverty of the Word Incarnate, His perpetual companion during life, what else does it signify than that the poor are dear to God? If they are dear to Him, it is impossible that any one of them should perish finally unless by his own grievous fault. What we have said of poor and uninstructed men may be applied to all those who without their own fault are in great danger of sin. Experience proves that they are often protected in quite an astonishing way, if they use those precautions which Providence has placed within their reach.

236. But how is it consonant with the mercy of God, to grant the sinner moral freedom, when He foresees that the wretched man will abuse it and ruin himself? A father surely should not hand his son a loaded pistol, at a time when the latter shows himself overcome by disgust of life and ready to get rid of it at the first convenient opportunity. Really, however, there is an infinite disparity between the two cases. The father is bound by human and Divine law to follow another line of action. He is the head of a family and not the ruler of the universe. It is not with him to draw out the fundamental laws of his domestic government. Through the voice of his conscience he is informed of the will of his Maker. And his conscience tells him that he does grievous wrong by thus occasioning the death of his son without any sufficient reason. No motive can be made out for putting the temptation in his way but wanton cruelty and desire of the suicide of his charge. God, on the contrary, in granting moral freedom does not intend that the sinner shall abuse it. By warning him through the voice of conscience He manifests clearly that He wishes him to turn away from the temptation. His foreseeing that the free creature will go wrong could only obscure His mercy, if it were not easily understood that He has quite sufficient reason for allowing the use of freedom, although this use becomes mischievous through the fault of the creature.

We may insist upon the natural harmony between a free creature and the use of freedom; we may call attention to the truth that God can and will elicit good from evil, that He is free to grant or not to grant those special privileges of grace by which He preserves saints at times, that sufficient grace to avoid formal sin is offered to every one. Considerations like these suffice to show that the argument raised against the mercy of God from the existence of moral evil is unsound, although they do not unveil the mystery of Divine wisdom that shrouds from our view the reasons for which, in particular cases, moral evils are not prevented. We are only allowed to see some of the Divine artifices by which our incomprehensible Creator raises upon the spiritual ruin caused by sin, the most splendid edifices of virtue and true greatness, or causes the malice of the wicked to be one of the many rungs in the ladder by which His faithful servants ascend to the height of Divine charity and intimate union with God. Thus the fallen Peter becomes the immoveable Rock of the Church, the strength of his brethren, the model of pastors, the undaunted hero whom nothing can separate from his crucified Master. On the other hand, the rage of unbelievers causes St. Stephen to practise heroic charity, makes St. Lawrence exult upon the gridiron, and peoples Heaven with an innumerable multitude of martyrs.

237. "Yet," continues our objector, "according to Christian belief, eternal punishment is the lot of him who dies in grievous sin. Why should this be? Why should those who refuse grace up to death lose for ever all chance of salvation?"

Before answering, let us formulate one principle. It is this: What Infinite Wisdom deems just must a priori be approved by a finite understanding. But we have proved the First Cause of all things to be infinitely perfect and wise, and may we not reasonably expect that among the arrangements of Infinite Wisdom there will be many beyond the grasp of our limited faculties? However, let us see what human reason makes of the arguments of our opponent.

First, then, it is alleged that according to justice there must be proportion between the magnitude of a crime and the punishment inflicted for it, and that this does not seem to be the case if a grievous sin committed in the twinkling of an eye is to be expiated by never-ending torments.

This reasoning rests manifestly on the wrong supposition that the magnitude of crime is to be measured by the time required for its perpetration. If this were the case, the boy who plays truant for half a day would be a far greater criminal than the ruffian who in half an hour commits a dozen murders. Common sense does not take this view of the matter. Whilst committing the boy to the cane, it delivers the murderer to the gallows. Every one agrees that by the crimes committed within the space of thirty minutes, the murderer has forfeited twelve times over all the benefits which he might have enjoyed in human society on earth for forty or fifty years. It is evident then that time cannot be the standard by which punishment is to be determined. Not the duration of a bad deed, but its internal wickedness, must be the measure of the expiation due to it. But its wickedness increases in proportion as the obligation is sacred which is deliberately violated. Now it is evident that no obligation of man towards man can stand comparison for a moment with the obligation of man to obey God. The right of God to the obedience of His reasonable creature is absolute and infinite. No right can be more strict; and every other right is based upon it. A wilful violation, therefore, of this right implies a malice which opposes itself to the foundation of all orders. It is, in comparison with social disorders, considered as violations of merely human rights, an infinite moral disorder. Hence it is justly punished with an infinite penalty But a finite creature cannot suffer a penalty infinite in intensity. The duration, therefore, of the penalty must be infinite. This must be insisted upon all the more emphatically, because the soul of a man who dies in mortal sin leaves this world in a state of opposition to its Creator. The distortion of the human understanding and will, caused by a deliberate refusal to acknowledge God as Supreme Master, cannot be repaired when the time of preparation for man's last end has passed. Death puts a term to that time. Consequently, the free-will of man remains for ever in the same relation to God in which it is in the moment of the separation of soul and body. The will of one, therefore, who dies impenitent, after having committed grievous sin, remains for ever averted from God, refusing to embrace lovingly the only Being in which the created spirit can find his beatitude. Happiness is incompatible with such a state. On the contrary, it must be a state of the deepest dissatisfaction and misery; for it is impossible that a rational and spiritual nature should ever find rest and peace unless it be united with God, the source of all goodness, and beauty, and truth. The misery of the dying, impenitent sinner lasts then as long as the perversity of his will. His will is incorrigible; hence his misery must be irremediable.

Accordingly, there is perfect harmony between Divine justice and the most essential feature of eternal punishment as proposed by Catholic doctrine. Catholic theologians agree that Hell would cease to be Hell, if the damned could only enjoy the Beatific Vision of God. Whatever may be the nature of the fire of Hell and its effects upon the damned, it is certain that the pain which it causes is nothing in comparison with the distress and despair produced by the consciousness of having for ever forfeited access to the only true source of peace and happiness. It is, however, a connatural consequence of this greatest of all penalties, that the damned should suffer positively through the intervention of creatures. He who has refused to make use of creatures as instruments in the service of his Creator, is justly punished by experiencing pain through their influence. Hence our reason sees how congruous it is that, according to the law of God, rebellion against Him should be punished in the next world through the instrumentality of a real, material being, bearing some similarity to earthly fire. The "fire" of the sun has remotely a share in all the benefits God grants us through His creatures for our salvation. A contempt of those benefits is appropriately avenged by a substance similar to that by the aid of which the benefits were conferred, that is, by fire.

In what way this will be done is irrelevant to our discussion here. Readers may consult St. Thomas.{14}

238. Let us now turn to the objection against Divine mercy based upon the same doctrine of eternal punishment. "Whatever may be the demands of justice!" exclaims the unbeliever, "infinite mercy requires the final extinction of all punishment, all the more so because eternal punishment is useless, and consequently its infliction real cruelty!"

Let us judge of the relation between mercy and punishment, not according to blind sentiment, but in the light of reason. First as regards the infinity of Divine mercy. To place limitations to the Divine mercy as it is in itself, one must show that that mercy somehow falls short of the standard required by Infinite Wisdom. But how shall the infidel show this? Not certainly by pointing out that the effects of God's mercy are limited. In fact it seems intrinsically repugnant that creatures should act according to their nature, and yet evil be removed from them without any limit. To answer, however, more positively we may solve the difficulty thus. As Divine Mercy is infinitely perfect because it is in perfect harmony with Infinite Wisdom, so Divine Justice is infinitely perfect for the same reason. Consequently, a priori, there is no ground why, in the relation of God towards His reasonable creatures, either one or other of these two attributes should be manifested exclusively. It would appear more proper that both should shine forth in their effects. Of course, God owes it to His own goodness that the joint glorification of these two attributes should be in harmony with the final happiness of all reasonable creatures, on the supposition that none of them refuse to fulfil the conditions laid down for the attainment of that happiness. But if some submit to their Creator, and others rebel against Him, it behoves the dignity of God to make a final irrevocable distinction between loyal subjects and obstinate rebels. This distinction may be made in such a way that the everlasting punishment of the wicked shall itself be a manifestation both of justice and of mercy, -- of justice in point of duration, and of mercy in point of intensity. According to St. Thomas, this is what is actually done. He says: "In the damnation of the reprobate, mercy manifests itself, not by putting a stop to the penalty inflicted, but by alleviating it somewhat, so as to exact less than what is really due."{15}

239. From this discussion on Providence, in respect of the permission of evil and the infliction of eternal punishment, it is, we hope, evident that the Christian philosopher, after having proved on philosophical grounds the existence and attributes of God, may face boldly any difficulty by which adversaries try to undermine his conclusions. To do more than dispel the fallacies with which unbelief opposes the evidences of reason and the testimonies of Christianity in favour of an infinitely wise and good Providence, is a task neither necessary nor possible. It is not necessary; because after the truth of Divine Providence has been established, man knows enough for taking a proper view of life. Under such a Providence as Natural Theology discloses to our reason, and Christian revelation proposes to our faith, life is certainly worth living, in obedience to the voice of conscience and in opposition to the impulse of blind passion. All the duties imposed upon us by the voice of conscience can be fulfilled without investigation of the secret counsels and hidden ways of the Supreme Being. No need to lose time in such investigations. When once we clearly understand that we are essentially servants of an infinitely good Master, it behoves us to pay Him adoration, confidence, and love, and to be anxious rather about a complete knowledge of the duty of the creature to its Creator than about the ways by which the Creator guides His creature.

{6} Apoc. XXI. 4.

{7} Prov. xvii. 5.

{8} Prov. xix. 17.

{9} Psalm lxxi. 4, 13.

{10} Isaias xi. 4.

{11} Wisdom vi. 7.

{12} Ecclus. xxi. 6.

{13} Ecclus. xxxv. 16.

{14} St.Thomas, Sum. Theol. 3a; Suppl. q. 70. a. 3. § "Et ideo dicendum;" and Ibid. q. 97. art. 5.

{15} "In damnatione reproborum apparet misericordia non quidem totaliter relaxans sed aliqualiter allevians dum pout citra condignum." (St.Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 21. art. 4. ad 1.)

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