Lately I’ve been struggling with questions of why God would even bother to create a world so thoroughly shot through with pain, suffering, sin and evil. This post, then, is a record of how I’ve been processing these thoughts. They are patterned after the style of the arguments in the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas not because I think I am thinking on that level, but rather because that particular form is one I find helpful for organizing my thoughts.
Does creation demonstrate that God is good?
Objection 1. God created humanity in their own image, as an overflowing of God’s fundamental goodness. (Genesis 1, Aquinas.) Sin and suffering entered the world through the actions of humans. (Genesis 3) Therefore, the image of God is responsible for the presence of evil in the world.
Objection 2. The new creation is claimed to be free of suffering. (Revelation 21:4) If such a creation is possible, there is no reason why the first creation should not have been omitted and the new creation should have been the first one. The second creation has a stronger claim to being good than the first one, which is itself called good. (Genesis 1) Therefore the existence of the first creation is evidence of an incompleteness of God’s goodness, since it is not the best example of what God could do.
Objection 3. Furthermore, it is clear that God is not principally concerned with quantitative matters, but with qualitative ones. God is not simple in terms of God’s own quantity; while God clearly asserts the unity of the Godhead (Deuteronomy 6:4), God is also referred to as plural (Genesis 1) and is understood by Christians to subsist of three persons (Nicene creed). Moreover, it is the qualitative characteristics of one’s actions, rather than their quantitative ones, which are generally indicative of their goodness (Acts 5:1-11). Therefore, even if one allows that souls must be formed in this creation in order to inhabit the next, permitting the passage of time to allow for the creation of a greater number of redeemable human souls is not any sort of reasonable grounds for God to allow creation to persist in its present, fallen form.
Objection 4. The Scriptures tend to abandon rational argument and instead appeal to authority when God’s goodness is questioned. (Job 38-41, Romans 9:19-24) A rational person might therefore conclude that in light of these problematic characteristics of God’s creation, the creation is not good in spite of God’s declarations to the contrary. (Genesis 1) And if creation is not intrinsically and thoroughly good, God may not be intrinsically and thoroughly good either, if it is appropriate to judge God by God’s own standard. (Ezekiel 24:14, 36:19; Matthew 7:2)
I answer that, if it is true that God is primarily concerned with qualitative characteristics rather than quantitative ones, then it is the qualitative nature of goodness and evil that is crucial to this problem. The relative quantities of goodness and evil are therefore not helpful distinctions in terms of what they say about God. If it is assumed that sin is privation, a distortion or deficiency in goodness without any independent being or ontological status, then the presence of evil does not in any way negate the presence of goodness. Moreover, if evil is a distortion or deficiency of goodness, its presence indicates the commensurate presence of goodness. (Romans 5:20) The existence of goodness, in any quantity or state of purity, is therefore sufficient grounds for divinely ordained existence.
Reply Objection 1. Since we bear the image of God, we therefore bear the qualities of God. However, as an image we do not necessarily bear these qualities without blemish or in all possible clarity. (1 Corinthians 13:12) This difference allows us to act in ways that are not aligned with the actions appropriate for God, and are consequently evil. Therefore, the implication of God’s image in the introduction of evil to the world does not require that God’s nature is itself responsible for evil.
Reply Objection 2. If God is not principally concerned with quantities, but rather with qualities, then the existence of any goodness whatsoever in a created work is sufficient reason for its creation. The existence of a creation with goodness x does not invalidate another creation with goodness x/2, because the mere presence of any quantity of goodness is adequate justification for its creation at the hands of a good God.
Reply Objection 3. The allowance of the passage of time to create more human souls is indeed irrelevant to whether the existence of this creation is justified. However, the mere existence of such humans in any quantity, bearers of the image of a good God, is sufficient reason for the existence of this creation, and for the continuing production of such images in human form. For even if the quantity of such images is unimportant, each one that exists is intrinsically valuable for the goodness borne within it.
Reply Objection 4. If the goodness of the Creator allows for less than total goodness in creation, particular instances of evil are not sufficient grounds to question the goodness of the Creator. Complaints about such particular instances, though they may be grounded in real evil, overreach if they claim that such evil is a sufficiently potent contagion as to justify denial of the goodness of the Creator. Evidence for or against the goodness of creation can be founded only in the presence of goodness, rather than its absence. The complaints of Job and the rhetorical interlocutor in Romans may therefore be genuine and valid complaints, but are not sufficient reason to impugn God’s goodness.
The line of argument in this post is by no means something I feel is firmly established. I certainly don’t hold to it dogmatically myself, at least not yet. Comments on whether this seems sound, or the presence of weaknesses or omissions, would be greatly appreciated.