God, Good, and Evil

Can Good and Evil Be Explained Without Reference to God?

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” [1] Many of us are familiar with this story. After having formed the Earth and everything in it, the Creator stooped from heaven, crafted from the dust a man, and breathed life into him. [2] This first man, Adam, and his spouse, Eve, the first woman, were the pinnacle of creation. It was God Himself who granted them dominion over all of earth. They were given much authority with few restrictions; being pure creatures, their desires lacked malicious tendencies, and so, they did not require the regulations that we do (do not kill, do not steal, etc.), despite having free will. They were, however, given one command by God: “You may surely 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 surely die.” [3] It was this one command that was broken. Man willingly made the decision to trust the serpent above God. This serpent deceived man into thinking that God’s intention was not to protect him but to keep him from becoming like God by eating of this fruit. [4] Man’s lack of faith in God which manifested itself in his consumption of the fruit had an effect analogous to that of Pandora’s Box: the release of evil upon the world.

Whether you accept Moses’ story as literal or symbolic, the sheer number of cultures with similar stories  (e.g. Pandora’s box, the Zoroastrian myth, the Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat) certainly points to a common trend in human thought; we, as humans, see apparent injustices and ask how this evil came to be and where Good (we will keep this use of the word “good” capitalized in order to distinguish the Good from its component goods, as will be made clear later in the article) exists in the midst of it all. [5]Historically, philosophers have gone even deeper by asking, “What is evil? What is Good?” For many without a religious inclination, the origins of Good and evil are uncertain, yet there is some idea of the definition of the two. A layman’s view is that Good is a force which preserves a certain order and protects the innocent, whereas evil is antagonistic to Good. We see these definitions portrayed in our books, our movies, our news, etc. However, these definitions leave many questions unanswered. Who is innocent? What is order? What is chaos? We seem to have an inherent understanding of these, yet we lack a firm foundation on which to ground our primal intuitions. We must seek a firmer foundation than intuition alone.

One foundation we may look to are our laws. Our societies are built upon laws which regulate the permissibility of various actions. This framework provides us with an approximation of what is Good and what is evil. However, the laws of our societies are insufficient in determining what is truly Good and evil. There are some instances in which societal laws are erroneous and do not reflect what we need: a grounding for objective morality. We require moral laws which are to be held regardless of the whims of the current power and to which we may appeal to in case of the passing of an unjust law. For example, it was not until the 19th century that slavery, something that is now seen as clearly immoral, was abolished from our nation, and it would be presumptuous to claim that we now live in a society with perfect laws. There are also many instances in which moral laws are not implemented as societal laws. In most states, cheating on your spouse no longer conflicts with any laws, yet the fact still remains that adultery is nearly universally condemned and is generally agreed to have negative affects on the life of the other spouse and the lives of any children involved. Our laws are thus much too unreliable to be considered as a basis for determining Good and evil. We must look for a foundation that incorporates within itself the moral laws we look for, not deriving itself from them as the societal laws do. We need a foundation comprised of objective moral laws.

​One may take issue with the notion that morality must be absolute, or objective. Why must there be a transcending law for morality instead of individual morality? The answer is this: for one to have true morals, they must be absolute, because otherwise they cease to be morals and become opinions. C.S. Lewis points out that even he who claims to lack a belief in morality, will protest if there is an injustice done to him. “He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining, ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”[6] Without objective moral laws to appeal to, every human decision would be determined not by what is fair but by who is the more powerful. If we take a relativistic stance regarding morality, we remove any basis we may have for trying to stop a given crime in order to promote justice.

​However, our societal structure (i.e. one of laws and regulations) and our inclination toward fairness, for ourselves if not for others and in practice if not in word, indicates that there is indeed an absolute morality, and the knowledge of this morality is embedded in us as moral compass, or conscience. This is not to say that there are not those who lack such a knowledge of morality, “just as you find a few people who are color-blind or have no ear for a tune. But taking the race as a whole… the idea of decent behavior [is] obvious to everyone.” [7] Some may point to societies in which their view of right and wrong is seemingly contrary to ours. However, with close examination it would become apparent that such a society does not exist. As C.S. Lewis illustrates: “Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might as well imagine a country where two and two make five.” [8] Having established that morality must be absolute, and therefore existing outside of the realm of human creation, we are left wondering where this morality comes from.

I propose that the only solution for the existence of Good and evil and the only way to root our intuition of morality is to acknowledge that there must be an external entity— a transcendent being that acts as the standard for moral actions, a law giver. It is this entity to which we ascribe the name of God. This leads us to a whole new problem, however. If God, our law giver, is benevolent, omniscient, and the Creator of all things as described by the Christian faith, where did evil originate? This is one of the obstacles that must be overcome in order to better show that God explains the Good and evil we see around us.

Indeed one may argue that other deities can fill the law-giving capacity of the Christian God. But rather than dispute that sentiment head-on (due to the rigor that would be involved and because it would be beyond the scope of my point here), my goal will be to show that the Judeo-Christian God is an excellent fit. I will also assume that the Bible is inerrant. [9] While there are good reasons behind this claim, those too are beyond the scope of this article. By assuming biblical authority, we can properly explore the origins of Good and evil as explained by historical Christianity.

What is Good?

To learn about Good, we must know more about the God we are claiming to be the origin of this Good and the foundation of morality. The book of Malachi records the words of God as follows: “’For I the LORD do not change…’” [10] In other words, God does not modify who He is; His character is unchanging. Additionally, the book of Matthew transcribes the words of Christ as follows: “‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’” [11]These two verses, when combined, provide a useful insight into the nature of God; He is perfect, always has been perfect, and always will be perfect. Succinctly, He is incorruptible. He is the possessor of perfect Goodness. However, this statement, while still correct, is incomplete without an explanation of its implications.

In order to elaborate on God’s perfect Goodness, we must gain a better understanding of what the perfect Good is.  While the Bible, by being the very Word of God holds the most in-depth definition of what the perfect Good is, the description is scattered across the sixty-six books, making it difficult to provide a concise statement. Let us instead turn to another source for this definition. [12]

Perhaps the best concise description of the perfect Good comes from The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a member of a well-embedded, Roman aristocratic family, and being such, he received the best education available in the late fifth century. Boethius was considered by many to be a child prodigy and became a master of all the liberal arts. In his late thirties, he served as the head of all the government and court services for Theodoric the Great. Despite his great political success, Boethius always considered philosophy his chief solace in life and continuously pursued his scholarly ambitions. Due to his rapid rise to power, he soon gained enemies and was falsely accused of attempting to overthrow Theodoric and was imprisoned. During his imprisonment, awaiting his execution, he began to wonder why bad things happen to good people; from this thought was born The Consolation of Philosophy, one of the most popular and influential books of the Middle Ages. [13]

In his literary and philosophical masterpiece, Boethius explains the perfect Good, as “the perfection of all good things and contains in itself all that is good; and if anything were missing from it, it couldn’t be perfect, because something would remain outside it, which could still be wished for.” [14] Recall that we have discerned from Scripture that God is perfect, but Boethius tells that in order for God to be truly perfect, so that He is incorruptible, no perfection can exist outside of him. If He was not perfect in this sense, it would be illogical to call Him God. Therefore, we cannot say that God is the possessor of perfect Goodness, because this would imply that the Good exists outside of Him, making Him less than perfect. We must recognize that God is the Good. He is the perfect union of perfect love, justice, mercy, and every other perfect good (a lowercase “g” is used here to indicate a good that is a component of the Good, the union of all goods). That is why Christ, as the incarnation of God on earth, said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” [15] He did not say that he had the way, and the truth, and the life. So Boethius was not only describing the Good but God Himself.

​Notice also that Boethius says that the perfect Good is made up of goods. So, by a transitive property we can say that God Himself is made up of goods, the parts of God that we see in the world around us. Recall the story of Adam and Eve. Before they ate of the fruit and unleashed evil into the world, they lived in the lush Garden of Eden, a paradise created by God. In fact, Moses writes that at the end of each day of creation, God surveyed what He had made and called it good (when referring to creation, I use a lower case “g” to indicate that only a part of Good is contained in creation).

So how does the good contained in the created world align itself with the perfect Good of God? Imagine that God is the accumulation of all water. Creation is a vessel, or a cup. However, not being God Himself, creation is only suited to contain a portion of the Good (some goods). God has very high standards for goodness, so in order for creation to be called good, the vessel of creation has to be filled to the brim with water. The lack of an emptiness is what was being referred to when God called His creation good in Genesis. Even after evil plagued the earth, some good still remains in all things. So, since all things contains a part of the Good and the Good is synonymous with God, we can say that God literally sustains all things.

It is this part of God in us that acts as our intuition for morality. We can learn of the goods of God by using this intuition and looking at the goodness found in creation, including ourselves. However, because of the release of evil into the world which corrupted everything in it, we must be careful when making these observations. We must check every observation made against the observations made in Scripture. Ultimately, it is only through inerrant Scripture that we can assure ourselves of the goods. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
In summary, Good is the culmination of every good (power, love, justice, truth, etc.). God, being eternally perfect and incorruptible, the embodiment of Good, and existing outside of human creation, thus far matches the criteria we seek in morality; therefore He is our standard for morality. It is to Him and His Holy Scripture through which He reveals Himself that we must look to in order to perfect ourselves and find true satisfaction. However, when we look to creation to learn about the Good, we must be wary of the evil plaguing every vessel.

What Is Evil?

To understand this evil, we must first understand ourselves in relation to Good. We were created perfect, in the sense that, continuing with the analogy, we were filled to the brim with water. We were not, however, perfect in the sense that God is perfect, the accumulation of all water. If we had been created containing Good, God would not have actually created anything because we would be God. With this in mind, we can say that the following is what Christ meant in Matthew 5:48 when he said that we are to be perfect as God is perfect: we are to seek to regain our state of being filled to the brim with goodness, but we cannot hope to be God, or in other words, contain Good. A cup cannot, nor should it, wish to hold the ocean.

Why is there a need for us to regain our perfect state? This is where evil appears. In the previous section, we mentioned that God is incorruptible because He is forever perfect. We, on the other hand, being mere vessels of goodness, are corruptible. Let us recall the story of Adam and Eve once again. Because man was given dominion over the earth, his error of eating of the forbidden fruit affected the whole of creation just as the actions of a nation’s leader affect that nation’s state. This was where evil began.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they willingly corrupted themselves. Despite God’s warning of punishment, they gave up some of the goods they contained. This corruption is evil. As Thomas Aquinas said in his Summa Theologica, “For evil is the absence of the good, which is natural and due to a thing.” [17] So, when mankind was corrupted when he ate of the fruit, he lost his state of being filled to the brim with goodness. The vessel became partially empty. We allowed evil on this earth.

In this sense then, evil is not a thing but an effect. Aquinas puts it this way: “But evil has no formal cause, rather it is a privation of form.” [18] For the absence of something does not make that absence something. So, there is nothing that is purely evil, because evil is the absence of good, and existence is a good. (The fact that existence is a good can be seen Exodus 3:14 where God tells Moses, “I Am Who I Am”. Here God declares that that He is pure existence, therefore making existence a good.) Therefore, something that is purely evil would not exist. And alternatively, everything that exists must have some good within it.

Once again, Aquinas provides us with more useful insight when he writes about the difference between a privative evil (corruption) and a negative evil:

But not every absence of good is evil. For the absence of good can be taken in a privative and in a negative sense. Absence of good, taken negatively, is not evil; otherwise, it would follow that what does not exist is evil, and also that everything would be evil, through not having the good belonging to something else; for instance, a man would be evil who had not the swiftness of the roe, or the strength of a lion. But the absence of good, taken in a privative sense, is an evil; as, for instance, the privation of sight is called blindness. [19]

In short, to be perfect we do not need to contain every good. We simply need to contain the goods which we were created to contain. Again, a vessel need not contain the ocean to be called full.
How then are we to act to be called good once more? An action can be deemed good or evil by the motivation and the manner through which that action is performed by an individual and whether it is in accordance with the Goodness that is God. For example, one who seeks after power, but does not also seek after compassion and kindness has wickedness in his heart. Power, although still a part of the Good, further corrupts the individual if sought after for its own sake. To make our actions truly righteous, we must seek not after individual goods but after the accumulation of them, the Good. We must seek after God.

How Can a Perfect God Allow Evil to Exist?

We now turn to one of the primary issues that arises by having God be Goodness and the basis for morality. The problem of evil is a very persistent issue for Christianity. While the discussion to be had is difficult and a perfectly satisfactory response can by no means be given in such a limited space, let us, nonetheless, attempt to find an answer. The problem as presented by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli goes as follows:

“[1] If God is all-good, he would will all good and no evil.
[2] And if God were all-powerful, he would accomplish everything he wills.
[3] But evil exists as well as good.
[4] Therefore either God is not all-powerful, or not all-good, or both.” [20]

How are reconcile that God exists, is all-good, is omnipotent, and that evil exists? It seems that one must be false in order for the others to coexist.

The first thing one must realize is that God did not cause evil. It was man who allowed evil when he chose to disobey God’s instruction despite being warned. This evil is present everywhere on this earth in two forms, moral evil (sin) which is actively committed by an individual and physical evil (pain) which is suffered by an individual.

Moral evil originated in our free will, as is seen in the story of Adam and Eve, and separates us from God. Some have qualms with the entire human race being punished for the actions of two people, but one must remember that while the entire world was condemned by the actions of one man, Adam, the world was also saved by one man, Jesus Christ. If God were to remove this moral evil, our free will would be removed because we would only have the option to do good. We would be nothing more than lifeless drones, something lesser than what was intended by God.

Physical evil, human suffering, is what most people refer to when speaking of the problem of evil. However, once again, this evil did not originate from God but from man’s sin (moral evil). Those who wish God to remove all evil, often forget that God, while still a loving God, is also a just God. The God Christians serve is the same God that flooded the whole earth because of man’s wickedness. How can we say that He was wrong in doing this? We do not condemn a judge for incarcerating a murderer. In fact, we would condemn the judge if he released this criminal. In the same way, God, in order to remain perfect and in accordance with his holy nature, had to carry out the consequences of man’s disobedience. Some may argue that innocent people suffer evil, but is there really anyone who is innocent. Every person who has ever lived, save one, Jesus, has committed at least one wrong that has made him less than perfect. As Romans 3:10 tells us, “None is righteous, no, not one.” Even if the physical evil is not directly related to the wrongdoings of an individual, there is still a reason behind it. Many times throughout the Bible, such as in the story of Job, physical evil is used to strengthen and further perfect an individual, just as an injection may be painful but serves an ultimate purpose for good.
Kreeft and Tacelli sum up what has been said as follows

“1. The nature of spiritual evil is sin, separating ourselves from God.
2. The origin of spiritual evil is human free will.
3. The end for which God allows spiritual evil is to preserve human free will, that is, human nature.
4. The nature of our physical evil is suffering.
5. The origin of physical evil is spiritual evil. We suffer because we sin.
6. The end or use of physical evil is spiritual discipline and training for our own ultimate perfection and eternal joy. (It also is just punishment for sin and a deterrence from sin.)” [21]

All these points indicate that only one is responsible for evil, mankind. It is man that brings upon himself the evil he complains about.

Furthermore, if God were to destroy all evil, everything and everyone on earth would have to be destroyed. We have already stated that, evil is an effect. It is the lack of good in a vessel. Therefore, for God to destroy the effect of evil, He would have to destroy all vessels that are not perfect. In other words, He would have to destroy everything in this world.

It is only by the grace, the undeserved love, of God, that we still exist. We should be thanking him instead of cursing Him. After all, He made an enormous sacrifice. He sacrificed His son, Jesus, to correct the disobedience of Adam and Eve. He died for us, an unworthy, wicked people. Christ bore upon Himself every evil. He paid our bail. It was His sacrifice that allows us to be free from the fear of death and the consequences of our wickedness. His sacrifice fills the cup to the brim of any who will only receive it with a repentant heart, so that he will be made perfect and wholly good once more. All these things, God’s mercy, His justice, and so much more, indicate that God is indeed the perfect Good. He is our perfect foundation for morality.


[1] Genesis 3:6
[2] Genesis 2:
[3] Genesis 2:16-17
[4] Genesis 3:4-5
[5] For evidence of Mosaic authorship see (Sailhamer, John H. “A Wisdom Composition of the Pentateuch.” Packer, J.I. and Sven K. Soderlund. The Way of Wisdom. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000. 15-35) and (Gaddala, Jacob. “Cultural Background of the Pentateuch in Defense of Mosaic Authorship.” Journal of Dispensational Theology (2011): 4-8.)
[6] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. (Lewis 6)
[7] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. (Lewis 5)
[8] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. (Lewis 6)
[9] For evidence of biblical inerrancy see (Geisler, Norman L. and William C. Roach. Defending Inerrancy: Affirming the Accuracy of Scripture for a New Generation. Baker Books, 2012.)
[10] Malachi 3:6
[11] Matthew 5:48
[12] For more information on the how the books of Holy Scripture are determined see (Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. IVP Academic, 1988.)
[13] Keenan, Brian. “Preface.” Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. London: The Folio Society, 2014. 9-34.
[14] Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. London: Folio Society, 1969. (Boethius 84)
[15] John 14:6
[16] Isaiah 40:8
[17] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Barnes and Noble, 2013.
[18] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Barnes and Noble, 2013.
[19] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Barnes and Noble, 2013. (Aquinas 491-492)
[20] Kreeft, Peter and Ronald K. Tacelli. “The Problem of Evil.” Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1994.
[21] Kreeft, Peter and Ronald K. Tacelli. “The Problem of Evil.” Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1994.


Samuel Cooper is a Freshman from Tacna, Peru. He moved from this wonderful temperate paradise to the climate roller coaster that is Illinois in 2009. The reason why still remains shrouded in mystery. He hopes to major in Neuroscience and Philosophy.

Image: Lydia Yamaguchi – The Brown & RISD Cornerstone, Spring 2014.

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