Aquinas: Does God Will Evil?

We’re still working towards the idea of predestination, having previously covered God’s freedom to act, God’s knowledge of sin, and the necessity of the things willed by God. Today, we’re looking at 1a.19.9, where Aquinas just straight-up asks the question: does God will evil? I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this previously, but it’s worth going to read these sections in your own time. I use this website as a reference point, but it’s not the version I’m reading – my university has the Summa spread across a shelf and a half, uh, and I’m gonna read it all, because fuck you I guess. 

So then: does God will evil? Aquinas starts big: “He does, it seems.” The impact is sort of undercut by the first argument though – usually they have at least a reasonable tone to them. This is just so far beyond belief that it’s unconscionable. “For evils to happen is good, for Augustine says ‘Although in so far as they are bad things are not good, all the same it is good that not only good things but also evil things should exist.'” I have no idea why Augustine said that, because it’s ridiculous. It’s from the Enchiridion (also titled Faith, Hope and Love), uh, and I guess I’ll go check out the context of it some time, because it’s sort of actually not good that evil things exist.

The second argument is pretty similar to the first argument – apparently evil makes the world a better place because goodness is quote-unquote thrown into relief. It would seem to me that you don’t have to be aware of suffering to be well off. You might not appreciate how well off you are without a strong awareness of how shit everything else is, but good situations are not conditional on your perception of them. For example, if you take the Garden of Eden, the idea is that Adam and Eve were ignorant of sin/evil before they ate from the tree – that is, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This is Genesis 2:16-17: You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” What’s clear is that knowledge of good and evil did not exist in the prelapsarian state, and in fact the gaining of that knowledge was the cause of the Fall. Normally I wouldn’t be this fired up about something, but the initial arguments are stupid and the responding arguments don’t touch on what, to me, is a pretty basic facet of Christian theology. 

That said, the response does actually have some reasonable material. Aquinas begins with the suggestion that nobody ever directly wants evil things. People always wants what’s good, he suggests, but possibly in ways that are forbidden or harmful. Thus “a fornicator seeks pleasure” by fucking someone who’s not his wife and now the wife’s pissed and he’s a cheater and – the initial desire for sex isn’t necessarily bad, but the whole ‘cheating on his wife’ thing is a bit shit. So it’s the circumstances of partaking that’re more of an issue than the thing itself. Thus “no one would desire evil, not even indirectly, unless the concomitant good were more desired than the good of which the evil is the deprivation.” 

From that perspective, it’s safe to argue that God doesn’t will evil, because nothing really ever wants evil things. What we can say, Aquinas suggests, is that in pursuit of this higher good there are differing degrees of specific goods that’re invoked. It’s like the example a couple weeks back of the judge: if you imagine a judge who wants everyone to live peacefully in harmony, she might condemn a murderer to death so that society can be safe and everyone can live peacefully. The main goal (world peace) requires a subordinate action (the death penalty) which might seem in conflict with the initial goal. So when we’re talking about God, Aquinas says, “in willing justice He wills penalty, and in willing to maintain the balance of nature He wills that some things should follow their constitutional course and die away.” 

Alright, well, that’s sounding sort of reasonable. But what about Augustine’s argument? Well, Aquinas says, there’s sometimes a confusion between direct and indirect goodness. Say somebody does something bad – say a robber steals your pants. That’s a bad thing, and we shouldn’t conceptualise it as good. We shouldn’t explain it away – it’s bad, it’s a bad thing, and it shouldn’t have happened. Now imagine that the community comes together to buy you a new pair of pants. Suddenly there’s this good thing sort of erupting out of this evil action – if your pants had never been stolen, the community would never have done this great thing and bought you some pants. But that’s a sort of bullshit argument. The theft itself is still a bad thing – as a direct action, it’s evil. There’s indirectly these good consequences, but in and of itself the theft is still bad. So Aquinas argues “evil is not ordered to good directly, but indirectly”, which basically means that no, you can’t argue that God creates evil to sort of make goodness just pop a little more. That’s dumb.

You can see how we’re edging towards the predestination thing here. Most of the recent theology posts have been interrogating evil: either evil is in God’s control, and He’s responsible for it, or it’s not in His control, and He’s not all powerful. This is the foundation for the argument about predestination – you can’t really argue that some people are just inherently fucked unless you’ve sorted out who’s responsible for them being fucked. If God creates or knows or wills evil, then the people who do evil are really just doing a thing that God invented – so why are they getting damned to hell for it? And why don’t they get a say in the matter? Alternately, if God doesn’t control evil, then is He really God? Or is there this weird dualism in the universe where evil is its own entity and God’s sort of saving the ones that He can? None of these are satisfying answers, uh, so we’ll press on in hope of an explanation.


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