Ask a Franciscan

How Did Evil Begin?

Q: I fell away from the Catholic Church 26 years ago. I was raised in a loving, Catholic family with devout parents, grandparents and extended family. I find it disturbing to feel so far away from God. I would like to reconcile myself with God and with the Church.

What is the absolute root cause of evil? How can an absolute evil (the devil) come from an absolute good (God)? Didn’t Satan choose something that already existed? If paradise is real, how could evil enter into it? When people speak of “free will,” it sounds as though they mean “without God.” If so, isn’t free will a bad thing?

A: Thanks for writing. Before I get to your main question about the origin of evil, I would like to address your relationship with the Church. Can you fill in the sentence, “It was easy to believe in God until…”? I’ll bet you can and that doing so will help you understand what was happening as you moved from belief to your present situation—which still reflects belief!

According to Genesis 1:27, men and women are made in God’s image and likeness. That image and likeness are not based on gender, race, age or similar factors. Did God have to create anything? No. For that reason, freedom of some sort reflects our being made in God’s image.

Our freedom exists within physical limits. Neither you nor I can flap our arms and fly. We cannot choose to live now or in the time of Joan of Arc. But we are still free in important ways.

God’s revelation often uses terms such as repentforgivehatred or compassion. Each of these is a choice. Although people frequently do not use their freedom well, they have a significant amount of it.

“The worst comes from the corruption of the best,” wrote some medieval thinker, who was certainly correct. Before Adam and Eve had free will, Lucifer did. “I will not serve,” said Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Being a creature wasn’t good enough for Lucifer, and his empty promises managed to deceive Adam and Eve.

Why do you accept the existence of evil as a stronger argument against God than the existence of compassion and goodness? Human beings call on the same ability (freedom) to do evil or to do good. Why should their ability to do evil completely overshadow the compassionate deeds of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, your family members and other people you know?

You would clearly like to believe, but do you feel that doing so would be intellectually dishonest? Once you account for why anyone does anything good, I think you will have your answer about the origin of evil. Evil is not absolute; only God is. The Church affirms this constantly.

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