We ourselves inflict evil

We should own up to the evil which we, as autonomous free persons, inflict upon others

As if catastrophes, accidents and diseases were not enough, much suffering befalls us on account of other people. It happens on a large scale, such as in the Nazi death camps that exterminated six million Jews, in the systematic genocide practised by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodja, and in the massacres of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda. It also happens on a small scale every day.

Sometimes we hurt others by our selfishness. Authoritarian parents leave deep scars on the consciousness of their children by refusing to affirm their growing need of adult autonomy. Sometimes there are traits of real cruelty and malice. Recently a college girl was humiliated and tortured by her `friends’, till she died of the sheer loss of blood.

This is the worst kind of evil, the kind of evil that causes us much more sorrow and pain than natural causes ever could.

Predictably, God has been blamed for this evil too. For God made people who perpetrate evil. God could have created human beings who would always act virtuously, we are told. But what about human freedom, we might object? God could have created free persons who would, all the same, have never done any wrong, we are assured.

“If there is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or on several occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion. God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and in beings who in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong: there was open to him the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.”

See about this: J.L.MACKIE, `Evil and Omnipotence’, Mind 64 (1955) pp. 200-212; A.FLEW, `Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom’, New Essays in Philosophical Theology, London 1965, here p.152.).

Well, if ever there was nonsense, it surely is this! What does freedom mean, if not the ability to choose between two alternatives. If God creates free persons, it implies they can do wrong as well as right. Perhaps, we might question God’s wisdom in granting human beings autonomy and freedom – but asserting that God could make us truly free in such a way that we would always be paragons of virtue is plain poppycock. `Evil presupposes freedom and there is no freedom without the freedom of evil, that is to say, there is no freedom in a state of compulsory good’ (see: N.BERDYAEV, The Divine and the Human, London 1948, p.92).

There can be no freedom without merit and guilt

Again, we have started from the wrong end. If we look at evolution, we discover how, gradually, human consciousness and human responsibility emerged. Human dignity, human freedom and human autonomy were new realities that were carried forward to ever greater heights by the underlying Life Force, by God. In freedom, growth comes by trial and error. Mistakes and excesses are unavoidable in the process, precisely because God, the Ultimate Reality, respected the true nature of real human freedom.

God created the human search for freedom from within. He/she allowed mind and intelligence to assert themselves so that human beings could themselves work out the `natural law’ that should guide them. In making human beings, God in a way created creators – creators who depend on a divine source for the exercise of their creative spontaneity, but not for its determination.


In spite of appearances, there is no contradiction in an overall responsible supporting Power creating smaller powers that have their own free responsibility. It is not unlike an army general leaving control of the details to commanding officers.

“Not everything that happens can be attributed directly to the detailed decision of God. Although he knows how many hairs I have on my head, he has not decided how many there shall be. He distances himself from the detailed control of the course of events in order, among other things, to give us the freedom of manoeuvre we need both to be moral agents and to go beyond morality into the realm of personal relations”.

See: J.LUCAS, The Future, Oxford 1989, p.229. The reference is to Matthew 10,30: `All the hairs on your head have been counted’.).

But if we cannot blame God for making us free, we should be honest enough to blame ourselves.

As a human race we can point at many impressive achievements. We have a right to be proud of them. If so, we should equally be ashamed of our miserable failings. Even in our present day, with so much improved communication and a growing sense of solidarity, the rich nations refuse to share the world’s resources equitably with the poorer nations. We in the West consume 15 times more per head of population, and pollute the earth 20 times more per head, than the developing nations. Our blindness, hardness and selfishness cause the inequality to continue virtually unchecked.

We should also be prepared to own up to our personal sins. We have a conscience and know what is right and wrong. Therefore, we do commit real sins. At times they may be small sins: like hurting people’s feelings out of spite, or destroying their reputation through irresponsible small talk. At other times they may be sins with a capital S: when we take part in serious fraud; when we connive in the abortion of an innocent life merely to avoid some inconvenience; when we knowingly violate another person’s integrity for our own selfish ends.

It is so easy to cover our true inner sense of shame with lies (see: M.SCOTT PECK, People of the Lie. The Hope for Healing Human Evil, London 1983). We justify our actions with elaborate rationalisations. We project the blame on to others. We pretend there is nothing to answer for by losing ourselves in distractions. The only course of action that can save us as an integral human being is to be honest with ourselves, to uncover the lie, to admit one’s wrong, to say `I am sorry’ and to seek forgiveness.

Breaking through evil

I do not suggest for a moment that we should be preoccupied with evil. Fundamentalist Christian preachers who describe modern society as a `cesspool of indulgence, greed, gluttony and sex’, suffer from a mistaken and dangerous fixation. Most people, in fact, live decent and responsible lives, or try to do so. Shortcomings happen more through ignorance and weakness than though malice. We do not please God by running ourselves (let alone others!) down, we only please God by admitting what is true and by responding to love.

The marvellous thing is, actually, that since God is pure creative energy always looking for new opportunities of being, our human evil can produce unexpected good. Wars, though bad in themselves, have called forth great acts of endurance, courage and heroism. Unjust persecutions have allowed victims to attain extraordinary levels of human dignity, kindness and generosity. It is a paradox that has not escaped the notice of William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

“Without contraries there is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence. Good is the passive that obeys reason; evil is the active springing from energy”.

The early chapters of the Bible also hint at this link between evil and progress. Adam and Eve lost their childlike innocence by eating the forbidden fruit; but it also opened their eyes and made them `a little like God, knowing good and evil’ (see: Genesis 3,5;3,22). Cain was the first murderer; he also built the first city. The warrior Lamech gave birth to a son who invented the skill of forging bronze and iron tools (see: Genesis 4,1-22.). The evil we have done, regrettable though it may be, often contains the potential of turning into something useful and beautiful.

`Who never makes mistakes, doesn’t make anything’, it is sometimes said. How true. Discovering our freedom and learning to be responsible involves trial and error. This applies to individuals, nations and the whole human race. But genuine progress requires that we acknowledge an error to be an error.

We can only face God and other people with dignity if we own up to our sins.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

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