Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil

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22 Responses to Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Brian Davies is the author of Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil.

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  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Brian Davies talk was fascinating (if he is right) in that I assumed that God as a “being among beings” (or “magic sky fairy” to sarcastic atheists) was not a serious theological position, but it appears it is being propounded a lot.

    However, on the actual topic supposed to be being addressed, if I am following the arguments correctly, Brian Davies and Denys Turner seem to be answering a completely different question in addressing the “problem of evil” to that which it is usually understood to refer, and not the chief question that is problematic to the theistic position. They seem to think that the “problem of evil” is the philosophical one addressed in some of your previous articles as to whether God could be said to be morally culpable for sinful acts by people. However, the “problem of evil” as as far as I am aware it is commonly understood is in fact the one addressed only by Michael Kremer, which is that God appears to be the author of suffering in creatures he supposedly loves.

    According to Kremer, if I follow correctly, Aquinas’ answer is that God creating his creatures is enough to say he is good to them (if I follow correctly) and anything that happens to them subsequently they therefore cannot complain about. I am not sure I buy that, even ignoring the issue of “horrendous evil” where life was not worth living at all: it is a crabbed sort of love or goodness that does the bare minimum and defends it saying “well at least you got born”.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      What Davies and Turner address is the concept of God as a moral agent, and how we perceive of God’s mode of existence has bearing on this. I don’t think this ‘solves’ the problem of evil so much as it disabuses concepts of divine agency along anthropophatic lines.

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    • Young and Rested says:

      I followed Kremer’s part basically the same way that you did. It seems to me that he’s saying that, on Aquinas’ view, existence is a good that is good enough to give immunity to God against the charge of being less than perfectly good (or unloving) to his creatures, regardless of what horror such existence may seem to any given creature. That he made you proves he loves you, or rather IS his love for you. It certainly strikes me as a less than human (and thus less than Godly) construal of what it means to love or be good to someone.

      It always struck me as obvious that nonexistence was preferable to miserable existence. I remember Norman Geisler asserting in various places that the charge that it was better for the damned in hell to not exist was nothing but a category mistake. He said that it makes no sense to say that they could be better off not existing because you can’t compare the goodness of an actual thing to the goodness of nothing. This always seemed a bit muddled to me because the experience of existence for the damned consists in nothing but pain. This seems to imply that their very existence has become evil to them. It is nothing but the vehicle through which they suffer. This is a flawed analogy, but it almost seems to me like saying that it’s better to have a bank account with a negative balance than none at all because bank accounts are inherently good. I can’t exactly formulate a precise argument as to why painful existence is not good, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something of value in the intuition.

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        It’s near impossible I think to get your head round the “not having existed” of someone who plainly does in fact exist. It’s a nonsense comparison anyway: the fact that you can possibly conceive of a worse scenario doesn’t make their treatment “good” in any meaningful sense. You are just subjecting them to the second worst treatment they could conceivably suffer of all the ininfinite possible ways they could be treated, rather than the very worst.

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        • Young and Rested says:

          I guess what I’m having trouble wrapping my head around is the idea that any sort of existence is always superior to nonexistence. This seems to imply that it would be better for God to create a universe where everything is repugnant and all creatures do nothing but sin, than for God to not create such a universe.

          In the case of an individual creature, I’m imagining a story I could write where a character spends every moment in nothing but intense pain and never has a single positive experience. If I had the opportunity to take this fictional person and make them real, would it be good to do so? Or, more relevantly, would it be better to make them real than to not? If I were to go ahead and create this individual, would it be inappropriate to say that it would have been better for them to not have been born?

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            There’s no justification that can be made for evil. Any such attempts are futile and delusional in my opinion. One either ends up excusing, or else minimizing the reality of pain and suffering.

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          • Some theodicy attempts I find especially off-putting, approaching blasphemy in their arrogance regarding God’s ways and means, cruelly risking a callousness towards – and a trivialization of – the enormity of human pain and immensity of human suffering.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      That is truly, truly horrible. God creates a sentient creature evil purely for the sake of torturing it to show how “good” he is. Thoughts like that are the principle reason, in my view, for the rise and rise of atheism. Ugh.

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      • thanks for the response iain. on this view, it is still better even for the creature for it to exist (in its damned state – which i’m not necessarily conceding as one of eternal conscious torment) than not to exist at all. also, how would you view gods relation to the damned? do you think he created them knowing they would be damned? if so, what motive could he have for going on and making them (and would that motive be different than the one i laid down above)? if god didn’t know they would be damned at s some point god still positively chooses to damn some. why does he do this? (or what is his motive)?

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          I don’t think God damns anyone. I am a Christian Universalist for precisely the reason that the assertion of the existence of the irrevocably damned is, I would consider, an appalling slander against the love of God.

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          • i think universalism is a logically consistent position to hold, and i certainly hope that all people will be saved. but that is because i hope all people will repent. if there are in fact recalcitrant and implacably rebellious sinners, some form of damnation is also logically consistent. blessings to you lain.

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  3. Young and Rested says:

    Can someone shed some light on this for me? I don’t recall precisely where it was in the video (I think it was the third gentleman’s talk), but there was a part where someone spoke about how what was good for a lion was bad for a lamb. If I followed correctly, the point of view that he was addressing was one in which the evil suffered by the lamb’s being eaten was not a problem for God’s goodness because the same event was good for the lion. Essentially, so long as the suffering of one creature is simply the natural consequence of the thriving of another, every thing is hunky-dory. Is this a fair understanding of Aquinas’/Davies’ position?

    I’ll definitely have to do some more reflecting on this, but I must say that a system that makes one creature’s good achievable only by inhibiting another creatures ability to attain what’s good for them doesn’t strike me as one in which all is well.

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  4. God’s goodness, in this account, refers to a lack of improvability but not to a moral agent with obligations to create goodness, in the first place, much less a certain degree thereof. Once one stipulates to that metaphysical presupposition, which some bolster exegetically thru Scripture, it renders any so-called “problem of evil” the result of a god-talk category error. Furthermore, if evil refers to a kind of lack, it has no Source.

    Essentially, God is being defended — not on the grounds of being somehow ex/culpable after having been caught in this or that act, but, instead — via a claim of mistaken identity.

    Davies frames divine and creaturely causality in much the same way as others who’ve rejected the free will defense and who claim that any charge of theological determinism is a category error grounded in the univocal predication of divine and creaturely causes. Unlike McCann, who proffers a theodicy, Davies proceeds more like McCabe, who retreats into theological skepticism.

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    • What has puzzled me about McCann’s theodicy is this: Why did he bother?

      Since he stipulates to divine impeccability, by denying a divine moral agency and by affirming an analogical predication between creaturely and divine causations, avoiding the same category errors as Davies, McCabe et al, what exactly is he doing in explicating a divine economy of soul making?

      In McCann’s defense, he seems to take seriously the questions so many have raised, not wanting to burn all epistemic bridges with them regarding the problem of evil, even if, at bottom, to be logically consistent and internally coherent, he’d have to consider it a pseudo-problem metaphysically. What McCann does, then, essentially amounts to only a logical defense, which aspires only to show how a divine economy of soul making would be consistent with his Thomistic God-conception. In the end, however, when pressed evidentially on the plausibility of gratuitous evil, he’s deeply sympathetic to theological skepticism and, existentially and theologically prescribes Job’s response and that the sinner abandon any pretense to question the divine will. In other words, his theodicy is thin, perhaps moreso a logical defense, while his theological skepticism is thick-enough?

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        John, I appreciate you bringing McCann into conversation with McCabe and Davies (and presumably, therefore, with St Thomas). I also appreciate you raising the question why McCann feels it desirable to attempt a theodicy of sorts when Thomas (at least as interpreted by McCabe, Davies, and Turner) does not. I don’t have an answer to that question. I’m almost tempted to go back and reread McCann with that question in mind … but I must resist the temptation. 🙂

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        • Alas, I feel I might often be guilty of eisegesis in trying to interpret another’s approach in a manner more consonant with my own. There’s no getting around the notion, in my view, that McCann was telling an untellable story by arguing that “some” evil, even sin, are essential in the divine economy. Happily, he desisted from explicating “all” evil. I’ve even wondered if he at least restricted “necessary sin” to the venial variety and just how heterodox his stance might be or not, especially since so many celebrate felix culpas over against the Scotist view that the Incarnation was in the divine deck of cards from the cosmic get-go.

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        • By the way, I often instinctively place “?” marks as a rhetorical device to remind me to remain self-critical with a suitable degree of epistemic humility. I can see that others might interpret it as being pressed into service to solve puzzlements that are my own and not theirs. 🙂 So, I’ll find another way to telegraph my uncertainties. ha ha

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  5. John H says:

    Consider the following from the Summa Theologiae, Q2 Article 3:
    Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.
    Reply to Objection 1. As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.
    I cannot square the foregoing with Davies and Turner’s sweeping statement that the Problem of evil simply does not exist for Aquinas.

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I finally got around this morning to re-watching Turner’s and Kremer’s talks. I appreciate Kremer for bringing Marilyn Adam’s book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God into the conversation. What a shame the video did not include the Q&A session. I would imagine that both Davies and Turner would have addressed this powerful concern. I suppose I now have to save up my pennies to purchase Adam’s book.

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  7. John H says:

    The following excerpt from Adams’ recent book Christ and Horrors is pertinent to this discussion:

    Traditional doctrines of hell err again by supposing either that God does not get what God wants with every human being (“God wills all humans to be saved” by God’s antecedent will) or that God deliberately creates some for ruin. To be sure, many human beings have conducted their ante-mortem lives in such a way as to become anti-social persons. Almost none of us dies with all the virtues needed to be fit for heaven. Traditional doctrines of hell suppose that God lacks the will or the patience or the resourcefulness to civilize each and all of us, to rear each and all of us up into the household of God. They conclude that God is left with the option of merely human penal systems–viz., liquidation or quarantine!

    Traditional doctrines of hell go beyond failure to hatred and cruelty by imagining a God Who not only acquiesces in creaturely rebellion and dysfunction but either directly organizes or intentionally “outsources” a concentration camp (of which Auschwitz and Soviet gulags are pale imitations) to make sure some creatures’ lives are permanently deprived of positive meaning.

    My own view is that ante-mortem horror-participation is hell enough. Horrors constitute the prima facie destruction of the positive meaning of our lives; a destruction that we lack knowledge, power, or worth enough to defeat; a destruction that reasonably drives many to despair. For God to succeed, God has to defeat horrors for everyone. We have all been to hell by being tainted by horrors ante-mortem. We all meet the horror of death at the end. For some, life has been one horror after another between the dawn of personhood and the grave. In millions of cases, these horrors have been spawned by the systemic evils of human societies. To be good-to us, God will have to establish and fit us for wholesome society, not establish institutions to guarantee that horrors last forever in the world to come!

    Clearly, for Adams the greater good that God brings from the evils and horrors of human existence must be nothing less than universal salvation. For both Aquinas and Augustine, however, that greater divine good would itself include the horrors inflicted on the vast majority of human souls who are by divine fiat consigned to the flames of Tartarus forever. And, as David Bentley Hart pointed out, such a notion of goodness renders the entire notion of divine love utterly equivocal. The God of Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin cannot be the Good as such!!

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