The Problems of Free Will, Evil, and Hell

Today, I want to talk about probably the three most important interrelated problems facing Christianity: the problem of free will, the problem of evil, and the problem of Hell. These are not only the issues which drive people away from Christianity, but they’re issues which have divided even Christians, with some Christians denying that free will even exists, while others deny the reality of Hell.

I. The “Problem of Free Will

At first brush, free will may not seem like much of a problem.  In fact, it’s one of the most vexing problems.  Why did God create us with free wills, instead of in a state of perfect obedience and love of Him?

The question has a deceptively simple answer: God created us with free will, because authentic freedom is itself a good.  That is, completely apart from what we choose to do with our free wills, the fact that we get to choose it is good.  Perhaps we can understand this in a political context: President Obama may be a good or bad president, but it’s objectively better that he was elected as president, rather than coming to power through a coup.  So regardless of the results, the process is itself good. 

As Fr. Jacques Philippe noted in his book Interior Freedom, “In the area of morality, freedom appears very nearly the only value about which people still agree unanimously at the beginning of the third millennium. Everyone more or less agrees that respect for other people’s freedom is more or less an ethical norm.”  So we generally agree with this idea of free will, except when we don’t like the outcome.

Someone unfamiliar with the idea of democracy might ask, “why does the US military allow free elections, instead of just forcibly installing the leader that they know will do a better job?  Why suffer the presidents which the masses elect?”  And the answer is that even if the outcome is worse (that is, a less-qualified person becomes president) the process is better.  Good ends don’t justify evil means.

II. Free Will Requires the Possibility of Hell

Free will requires the possibility of evil.  Otherwise, the freedom of the will is illusory.  Think of the ballot used by Saddam Hussein in what would be his last re-election.  As ABC News described at the time:

On Tuesday, voters were faced with a remarkably simple ballot: Should President Saddam Hussein be given another seven years in office? Yes or no. There were no alternative candidates on the ballot, and absolutely no campaigning against the entrenched Saddam. 

Not surprisingly, the result was was unanimous. 

We can look at that, and say, that’s not a free election.  There was no authentic choice.  Since God is all good, that is, since there is no good other than God, for Him to give us a more meaningful choice than the Saddam vote, He permits us to choose other than Him.  But since there is no good apart from God, “other than God” is another way of describing evil.

It’s also another way of describing Hell.  When non-Christians talk about Hell, they sometimes joke like it’s going to be a big party.  “I may be going to Hell, but at least all my friends are going to be there,” one Facebook group proclaims. We imagine we can take the graces of this life – including our ability to feel pleasure – and take it with us into the eternal abyss.  That’s tragically mistaken.

Imagine a woman being wooed by a romantically-interested man, who declines his overtures, but accepts his many gifts. One day, she eventually marries someone else, and the rejection is complete.  The would-be suitor, while still in love with her, respects her decision and stops sending gifts.  Given her choice, it’s the appropriate thing to do.  Now that she’s married to someone else, her chance to choose the suitor is over once and for all.

So it is when we live and die outside of God’s grace.  During this lifetime, we still enjoy the graces of God even while we’re rebuffing His attempts at a meaningful relationship.  But upon our death, when we’ve made it clear once and for all that we’re choosing someone or something other than Him, our rejection of God becomes final, and the gifts we’re reliant upon stop coming.  He loves us, but respects our decision.

III. The Answer in Genesis

This is the answer which seems to be given by Scripture.  God says in Genesis 1:26, “Let Us make man in Our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” The “image of God” isn’t a physical description, but a spiritual one.

What distinguishes us from animals is our ability to make moral choices.  For example, it’s meaningless to say that an animal is “evil,” since even the deadliest of animals simply obey blind instinct.   But because man has free will, we can refer to him as “good” or as “evil.”  It’s only because of free will that we can have a meaningful relationship with God.  But conversely, it’s only because of free will that Hell exists.
In Genesis 2:16-17, God says to Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” The serpent says to Eve (Gen. 3:4-5), “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” It turns out that God was telling the truth, while the serpent was telling a half-truth (Gen. 3:6-7):

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

So it was true that their eyes were opened. They came to know good and evil.  But in coming to know good from evil, they came to know shame.  Suddenly, Adam and Eve become morally responsible for their actions, because now they know better.  They’ve lost their ignorant innocence.  All of us go through this in our own lives, as we mature from small children.

But the rest of what the serpent said was false.  Unsurprisingly, God was telling the truth: acquiring knowledge of good and evil requires death.  Not simply the death of innocence, but the risk of eternal death — Hell.  Tiger Sharks kill one another in the womb.  But they’re not at risk of Hell for this fratricide, because they’re not morally responsible agents.  In contrast, when Cain kills Abel (Genesis 4:1-16), he is morally responsible.

That brings us, more or less, to the present day.  We have free will, which is good.  And we have the knowledge of good and evil, which helps us make informed moral choices.  But because we have knowledge of good and evil, we’re accountable for our actions.  That includes the risk of Hell.

IV. Why Create the Damned, Then?

The best challenge I’ve heard to Christianity is this one: why did God create the damned at all?  After all, God:

  • wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)
  • knows perfectly well who will choose and who will reject Him. (Romans 8:29; John 21:27)
  • knows that for the damned, it would be better not to have been born. (Mark 14:21)

God desires the best for everyone, including those who end up in Hell.  If that weren’t the case, we could imagine a higher good than God.  And He knows the terrible fate of the damned.  Yet in His Goodness, He’s not going to stop the free will of damned, just as the military doesn’t stop free elections, even when it becomes clear we’re going to make a terrible choice we’ll have to live with four years.

Having said all that, couldn’t God simply not create the damned?

If God foreknows that Adam, Betty, and Charles will accept the grace of salvation, but that David, Ellen, and Francis will reject it, ending up in eternal anguish, why create David, Ellen, and Francis at all?  Why not create a world with only Adam, Betty, and Charles in it?

I struggled with this issue for a long time, but having listened to some brighter minds than mine talk about it (like William Lane Craig), I’m satisfied that there’s a good answer.  God foreknows that in a world with Adam, Betty, Charles, David, Ellen, and Francis, the first three will go to Heaven and the last three to Hell.  But that doesn’t mean that things would look the same in a world with just Adam, Betty, and Charles.

Perhaps it was the bad example of Francis which turned Betty away from a life of sin; or perhaps Charles came to know Christ through caring for his father, David.  After all, there are plenty of priests and preachers whose own souls are in danger, yet these same people often lead others to Christ.

None of us go through life in isolation: we’re surrounded, and influenced, by countless numbers of those around us, sinners and Saints alike.  To imagine that we could change one variable — much less a million variables — without impacting the final outcome seems naïve.

Finally, consider the fate of Judas.  It’s of Judas that Jesus says,  “It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21).  Yet Judas is the one who betrays Christ, and his betrayal results in Christ’s Death on the Cross, which results in our Redemption.  Every Saint in history profited directly from Judas’ betrayal.  That doesn’t make that betrayal alright (obviously — it wasn’t as if Judas was being public-minded), but it does give us a hint into why God would permit someone like Judas to exist.  There’s no question that Jesus loves Judas, that He would have taken Him back in an instant if Judas had converted.  Yet God, knowing Judas’ stubbornness and sinfulness, was able to draw profit from that, too.  He’s always able to draw good out of evil (Romans 5:20).  Here, He drew the supreme good, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, out of the supreme betrayal.


  1. I find it useful to stress what is known as a “two world theodicy”.

    The perfect world the critics expect does exist. It only seemed good to God that only beings made perfect should enter it. And since God cannot be a slave to human caprice, there must be a time when his rejection of this kingdom and of Him who made it, becomes final and definite. This time must be known to all, and it is death. By any reasonable standard, that is a supremely fair criterion.

    Great article, btw.

  2. Thanks, Nishant!

    Craig suggests that in the “two-world theodicy” you’re describing, the existence of non-Heaven may be required in order to assure that (a) everyone in Heaven is completely sinless, and yet (b) their free will is totally intact.

    He suggests that you can’t simply create everyone already in Heaven — that is, to not let it be a choice — or else there would be rebellion from Heaven itself. This is roughly what I was driving at with the idea of an empty Canada. It also seems to explain the rebellion of Lucifer and his minions.

    God bless!

  3. Yes, but a counterargument to this kind of molinist theodicy of the damned is that on molinism God could have created a world where the helpful damned aren’t real people, but only useful phantoms that appear real to us and help us out without the unfortunate side effect of having to go to hell. Wouldn’t that be better?

  4. HocCogitat,

    (1) It seems to me that, in that view, we’re dealing with an untrustworthy “trickster God” who intentionally deceives us. So I imagine that the reason that’s not what we deal with is because God’s not a liar.

    (2) Alternatively, ignore the moral problems of a trickster God. If this were an acceptable option for Him to employ, who’s to say He’s not already doing it? After all, if the phantom theory were correct, it would only be effective if we were unaware that it was true.

    So no matter which side you’re on, we should treat that theory as false, either (1) because it promotes a view of an immoral God, or (2) because it makes the phantom trick not work.

    In Christ,


  5. Fair enough. Do you really a better challenge than the hidden God argument? I mean if someone wants you to get to know them, they at least make it clear they’re around. Not so, apparently, with God, who is quite hard to sense. So either he doesn’t want us to get to know him or he isn’t there, right?

  6. HocCogitat,

    I think that’s an argument worth dealing with, but I also think it’s easy to over-argue it.

    In any healthy relationship, trust is important. Nowhere is this more true than in our relationship with God, because there are times we just don’t have a full enough picture to get what’s going on. Atheists seem to have a view where God, for some reason, needs to present Himself to us and explain His ways to us. I can see why that’d sound nice to us (who doesn’t love being the boss?), but I can’t see why God should have to do so.

    Let me make another dating analogy, because I really do think that romance is one of the things that lets us understand our relationship with God (Song of Songs seems to support this conclusion, too). I know that the dating scene can be frustrating because guys never knows exactly what a girl’s thinking. If she’s in love with him, why not just broadcast it unambiguously, right? Perhaps.

    But it seems to me that the more reserved approach has some distinct benefits. It clarifies things: for example, that he loves her, rather than just enjoys being loved by her. And in pursuing her, he must make a conscious act of the will to value her as someone worth pursuing.

    It’s no coincidence that women who are romantically or sexually aggressive are often romantically and sexually unhappy. They’re giving themselves away for cheap, and men treat them like they’re cheap. I’m not suggesting that the men are right to do so, only that it happens: just as a hard-earned victory is more satisfying than an easily-won victory.

    This is true in sports, in video games, in business, in relationships, and in religion. When we have to struggle for (or with) our faith, when we have to decide whether God or our most-favored sin means more to us, we slowly begin to understand the depth of God’s value.

    God wants us to know, love, and serve Him, and for the right reasons. Forcing Himself upon us doesn’t accomplish that. Instead, He’s left clear signals for those who want to pick up on them, without being particularly pushy about it.

    Obviously, the analogies above are imperfect, but do you see the crux of what I’m driving at?

    God bless,


  7. Joe,

    Nice work, again, on a tough subject. Pieces like this tend to remind me of what I’m reading and thinking of Thomism and Molinism and their effects upon the ever-blown-about Drewism to which I cling so firmly. With regards to election, I know that the Magisterium has not pronounced on Thomism and Molinism and counsels patience and cooperation between the parties because, in some sense, the issue has not been decided. I’m simply curious here of the definition of “decided.”

    Is it the case that the correct understanding of all of this business (which floats somewhere between the heresies of Jansenism and semi-Pelagianism) was a part of the original Deposit of Faith? If so, has the Magisterium not pronounced because it has not seen a need to do so? If not, is it the case that there are items of the faith like this one (and YEC et al. from a couple posts ago, maybe) that the Magisterium admits are mysteries not contained in the Deposit of Faith? And who says? Or, simpler still, were the truths (God foreknows and freely operates in sovereignty, predestining and whatnot; man has free will but requires prevenient grace [with or without merits foreseen] to come to faith) part of the original Deposit (I think yes) without the crafty philosophy for resolving the perceived conflicts (I’m not sure)?

    For me, the last is sweetest to swallow since I am pleased by speaking the truth about mystery and loving that it is mysterious. And, yet, I’d like to know it all. But I’m only human, after all, and that’s good.



  8. Drew,

    Good question. Complex truths (like the Trinity, transubstantiation, and the like) were deposited “once for all” with the Apostles (Jude 1:3). That doesn’t mean that the humans who make up the Church were always able to express those Truths in a completely illuminating way.

    For example, if I asked you to tell me about your house, you’d probably give a decent mental picture. But if I started asking you specific questions, your answers would make it increasingly clear what your house looks like (and what it doesn’t look like). In answering my questions honestly, you’re not changing your belief in your house. No new content or revelation is needed. You just more specifically describe the reality as more questions arise. So it is with all complex truths.

    Take the Trinity as an example. The early Christians were Trinitarian, but the word “Trinity” wasn’t in their vocabulary in the very beginning – it was developed as a philosophical term until c. 181 A.D. If you were to ask one of the earliest Christians to define the Nature of the Godhead, it’s not by any means certain that he’d be able to give you a clear answer.

    On the other hand, if you declared, “The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are Three Separate Gods,” he’d stop you. That’s definitely wrong. Monotheism is the defining mark of Judaism, and was affirmed by Christ in places like Luke 4:8.

    “Well then, perhaps the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are Three Separate Beings, but we’re only to worship the Father?” Nope, that’s not right, either. In Scripture, we see the faithful worship both the Father (John 4:23) and the Son (John 20:28).

    “Well then, if there’s only One God, and the Father and the Son are that God, those must be different names for the same Person. After all, Jesus has many titles, like ‘the Light to the Gentiles’ and the ‘King of the Jews.’ Perhaps ‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ and ‘Spirit’ are simply different titles for the different roles God fills?” Nope. Jesus says things like (John 8:18), “I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.” So the Father is somehow other than the Son.

    At this point, if you were to start sketching out the answers to these heresies, you’d end up with something very much like the Trinity Shield, and eventually, the Athanasian Creed.. It’s suddenly apparent that we have a quite coherent complex doctrine before us, in need of a name: “Trinity.” There was no new revelation, just a better distinguishing Truth from heresy.

    This refining continues on down through history, as more questions are raised and answered. There are some things we’ll not know about the Godhead on this side of eternity. But in combating heresy, the Church’s own view became increasingly obvious, until it was laid out positively in the Creeds.

    The same thing is true with the peculiar questions raised by about predestination. We know certain beliefs (e.g., Jansenism and Semi-Pelagianism) are wrong. In response, certain truths were positively articulated. Others views (like Thomism and Molinism) seem much stronger, but should still be compared with what we know with clarity. On this subject, I’m indebted to Fr. William Most, whose Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God does a fantastic job of showing what we can say with certainty, and what remains less clear, and he compiles Magsterial statements on the subject.

    It’s likely that certain aspects of the doctrine are simply unknowable this side of Eternity, but that certain excesses within both Thomism and Molinism will be rejected as going against what we believe. This process will decrease the room we have to “float” (to use your term) or to “graze” (to use a pastoral term).

    God bless,


  9. Hey Joe,

    Been following your blog for about six months and I really enjoy the topics you tackle. Thank you for the thought-provoking posts. I have just a couple things to throw out…

    Question 1: If we claim God is omniscient and omnipotent, then He didn’t just create the damned and “knew” they would fall- He created them to fall. This is a distinction that I have really wrestled with and I’m hoping you can maybe spread some light on it. I realize that the Church says there is free will and I believe that; you might call my faith blind faith though. So, if you have any thoughts I’d appreciate them.

    Question 2: The above viewpoint propagates some additional questions about the “fairness” of Hell. If some were created just to be thrown into hell, then is that not a little “unfair” of God? I believe some retort to this unfairness by asking who we are to question God. While that is a very nice platitude, I believe it avoids the question. Others have challenged this by redefining hell to mean a complete abolition of mankind. Not only is the body not resurrected, but the soul is utterly destroyed. Thus, there is not a punishment that has an infinite duration, but rather a punishment that cannot be undone. Thoughts?

    (These questions stem from my upbringing. I was apart of Tiber Swim Team 2010. It’s good to be home.)


    In my rumination on the topic, I came across a thought that I figured I would share. If God did not create the damned, then He isn’t truly creating choice. To clarify: If He knows which humans will choose Him, and only creates those, then He is not opening Himself completely in the way love does. Love requires a complete open choice, and in some senses, a complete embrace of possible future pain and struggle. Without this possibility, what is being risked? Hope that made sense…(Interestingly, whenever I thought about this, I remembered Minority Report….)

  10. Yea, ok. It still strikes me as a strange way of going about things. But, I guess, I shouldn’t be too surprised I don’t know what he is up to. I think you do a better job at this than Craig et al. who say things like God’s will is that the greatest number of people come freely to *know* him. Replacing *know* with *love* makes the problem of the Hidden God at least somewhat less of a problem. Because hiding, as you point out, may help us to love Him, but surely it is a hindrance if they only goal is that we acknowledge His existence.

  11. Hey, Joe.

    I’ve been thinking about your post a lot today, and I’m very thankful for it. That God prizes free choice is something to chew slowly.

    Thank you for the response to my weird question, too, and for saying it was a good one. I want to clarify and simplify a bit. Do you think I could go through a set of questions similar to your Trinitarian conversation regarding predestination and free will with the Apostle Peter and have him give me the right relationship between these ideas which grazes in the pastures bounded by the fences of Jansenism and Pelagianism, even if he couldn’t name it or describe it with terms akin to homoousias for the Trinity? If he could, would it be that the correct view was then nascent in the Deposit of Faith like the Trinity and only waits to be determined with more clarity? On the other hand, if he couldn’t, would that mean that the Magisterium will never pronounce a judgment on the issue?

    These questions aren’t so much related to the issues at hand but rather pertain to the relationship between the declarative power of the Magisterium and the original Deposit of Faith. Sorry for the diversion and confusion. Actually, I’m just trying to think of examples of important (to me) doctrines that the Magisterium has not pronounced on yet. The two I’ve come up with (probably because you’ve written on them lately) are the process of creation and predestination. Upon neither has the Magisterium pronounced definitively, and I’m curious why. I suppose it is possible that things like this weren’t a part of the original Deposit of Faith. That is, Peter and Paul didn’t know if the Earth was 4000 or 4.6 billion years old (or whatever it is these days). If not, that’s fine. I wouldn’t expect a pronouncement, but rather protection against heresies, as we’ve seen. If so, then I can accept that the doctrines are still developing, but does this mean that the Magisterium has the capacity to pronounce and hasn’t yet, in spite of numerous challenges to the faith with regards to these issues? Doctrinal development makes more sense with predestination in mind, but the sentences are easier to write using creation as the paradigm.

    That’s less clear and less simple than my original post, I’m afraid. I guess I am just still learning what Newman has already taught about development. You could say he planted the acorn, and the tree’s sprouting.



  12. Pergrino,

    I love your question, it immediately evoked in me the simple example of a robot. Let us say we created a robot that could simulate a mother’s love.

    It could feed the child, clothe the child, care for the child. It did everything it did because someone programed the software within the robot to do these loving things and to do them regardless of the child’s response.

    The predictability of the robot (no matter how many random subroutines or fuzzy logic programs were imbeded), would eventually dawn on the child as he matured such that he would know this robot’s care, while good and nurturing, was artificial and arbitrary.

    It could have been anyone, any child and the robot would have acted the same. The child could do anything and the robot would respond lovingly. The relationship because it was not personal or a freely given gift, would be inauthentic. Sacharine where there should be sugar; water where there should be wine.

    It’s an imperfect image but you get the idea.

    Love must be freely given to be love. Love must also be freely received. Put another way, we feel no affection or genuine intimacy with something that is automatic. God created us so we could have an authentic relationship with Him; a real untame relationship with Him.

    A relationship which is compelled (no free will) or which cannot be other than one way (not creating anyone who does not allow grace to deepen their relationships with God)is not real. God is truth and and as such, He would allow for all of His creation, the good, the bad, the ugly.

    I know, it’s long and I’m new here but your question just seized me.

  13. Joe,

    Thanks for this post. I think the “problem” of free will can be reduced to the problem of evil. Think about it. If there were no evil would we really see freedom as a “problem”? Of course not. We are confronted with the problem of freedom, particularly our freedom, in relationship to the evil we do or encounter in others. It is only then that we say, “Damn that free will!”

    Further, I am uncomfortable saying that freedom entails the possibility of evil. (the problem of freedom entails evil, but freedom isn’t a problem per se) Are we not free in heaven? The very short answer to this problem is to consider the priority of the intellect over the will. The “knowledge of good and evil” made the will susceptible to evil but they were given a choice to return God’s love in giving them that freedom by partaking only of the Tree of Life. The sanctification that culminates in the beatific vision doesn’t violate our free will but rather fully “renews our mind” allows the “law written on our hearts” to manifest for eternity. If there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the sense, then the beatific vision allows for the eternal gaze of God to prevent the possibility of evil while still respecting our freedom to be in heaven to begin with–and the temporal effects of sin are purged beforehand. (Eternal beatitude is the total and complete synergism of our will and God’s)

    (For these reasons–in their redacted versions–I agree with Scotus that Christ would have come even if Adam and Eve had not sinned since eternal beatitude is not the natural end of man; St. Paul says so much when he mentions that Christ was slain before the foundations of the earth)

    So I ask, what does evil violate and why is it repugnant to us? I argue that evil is the deprivation of proper relationship/orientation to an object/person. You can think of all evil in this category.

    The “problem” of evil as a problem for God is located in our inability to abstract to the level of God who is always in perfect relation to his creation. The problem of evil is our responsibility, and quite frankly that sucks to think about.

    Which pushes the question back to, “Why would God give us this responsibility?” If he were good couldn’t he have just not given us this responsibility?

    But he did! The Tree of life was there from the beginning. The movie keeps replaying and we keep failing and we keep doing exactly what Adam did, “She made me do it”, but instead we get more brave because our lack of relationship with God is even worse than Adam. So we cry, “You [God] made me do it!” We know better, but our incredulity only grows. We refuse to live in right relationship to each other: we take, we steal, we rape, we war and then we say, “Why God did you make me for this?” And so he points to the tree and then points to The Tree where he is hanging. He recognizes that in our relationship to Adam (original sin) and in our habit of sin we have both placed the cuffs upon our hands and placed the key in the lock. His solution is the same: The Tree of Life and the gift of eternal life incorporated into himself–the supernatural end of man. If we keep that view in mind and its possibility, evil gets properly located in us and insomuch allows us to take greater responsibility for the ways we rape and pillage the earth and each other.

    In sum, the problem of evil for God is a symptom of the way we fail to respond to God appropriately. Our view of evil as a “thing” and not as a deprivation points to our failure to take responsibility which is just one way of saying being in right relationship. Just because I am holding half a glass of water, doesn’t mean God isn’t always an immeasurable ocean of goodness. The problem of evil asks “how is it good that I am holding a glass of rocks”, and what I am saying is that the way the question is framed is symptomatic of the problem to begin with.

  14. I’m glad I stumbled on this thread. The problem of hell has always been difficult for me to come to terms with.
    I fail to grasp how an all good, all powerful, perfect God creates a universe wherein one of the outcomes is creatures that will only be happy by being with Him, instead choose eternal misery apart from Him.
    It seems to leave some unresolved aspect to His creation. Unspeakable misery will always exist, forever, even if the Blessed do not experience it. Evil isn’t defeated then is it? It’s agents merely locked away, in an unresolved state of loss forever. I appreciate your help.

  15. @ Toenail,

    If this sounds harsh, I usually just write drily, I genuinely appreciate your questions and hope to shed some light on the topic if I can.

    In answer to your first question, knowledge does not strictly equate to cause. So God’s foreknowledge of the damned does not strictly mean he caused it. That is why he created free will. We call free will agency, so we are the ‘efficient causes’ of all of our sins and ultimately our own damnation. God is only the efficient cause of the grace we ever receive to repent and turn to Him. At every step of life, we are free to reject this grace. Having said that, as Joe mentioned (I believe) earlier in his post, God is the cause of what is called, the potential for evil, i.e. God by creating free will necessarily created the alternative to choosing grace. This alternative is precisely what makes the choice actual and why He cannot assume any role in the ’cause’ of actual evil. Because actual evil requires a ration creature to choose it. I know it makes a lot of people, me included when I first wrestled with the idea, uncomfortable to think that God created evil not in actuality, but only in potency. To put it another way, this is to say that God did not create any evil inasmuch as evil actual exists, but He did create the conditions for it in the system of the universe. Hopefully this helps. I’ll leave you with a few articles from the angelic Doctor:

    The first on the problems of evil:

    Ok, so the site I usually link to, seems to be down right now. I’ll post all of the relevant articles later if I don’t forget. But in these articles incidently it clarfies a concern you raised in your second point, and explains why Hell is of an ‘infinite’ duration.

  16. @Brent

    Great morning to you sir,

    I also, though not getting it from Scotus (about which after you pointed it out I am quite embarassed for never having read him), have pondered the question of the incarnation and arrived at the idea that the incarnation was God’s plan from the beginning of creation, even of the Angels. This explains a lot about the fall of the angels and their refusal to submit to a human nature (God the Son as well as Mary, queen of heaven and earth). However, as to the question of God creating the potential for evil, I don’t think we can avoid this conclusion. While the Beatific vision will exclude the possibility of evil, no creature was created with the fullness of the beatific vision, including the angels, and if I hopefully am not straying into heresy, neither was the Blessed Virgin. And it is precisely from this ignorance of full knowledge that the possibility of evil arises. Given full knowledge, it is impossible to choose, evil. This is, I believe, a point Aristotle makes which is later taken up by St. Thomas. And it is precisely this exclusion of ignorance that makes the Beatific vision irrevocable by our actual free will in heaven. Not that our will is not free anymore, but that our intellect, and that of any rational creature, is incapable of choosing less than good when it is full illuminated by grace. This is why the angels that remained in heaven are no longer capable of falling, because they were given full knowledge of the incarnation and hence their full and free choice to remain in heaven or to enter Hell and refuse to submit to God incarnate, and the blessed Queen. This pushes the question back, well is ignorance then a kind of evil God creates in creatures, and I would say no because it is an ignorance of the ‘intellect’ and whereas evil resides in the will as its most proper subject as I understand it.

    However, to your question of Hell, allow me to speculate further. Given what I’ve read from St. Thomas, it would appear that the flames of Hell are actual. If the flames of Hell are actual, it follows necessarily that Hell is an actual created place. Now anything created ex Nihilo is, I believe, necessarily created by God. If Hell is created by God, it follows also that Hell must be, in itself, a good thing. Now it seems to contradict the idea of a ‘good’ god, but this is where we must rely on the scholastics, even if they are antique in their ideas. There are two virtues at play in the idea of Hell, the first is mercy and the second is justice. Mercy is a theological virtue and justice is a moral virtue illuminated even in the natural law. While Hell does not immediately seem to us to be a place of mercy, which I’ll revisit in a little bit, it should immediately be clear to us that Hell is a place of Justice, of God’s Justice. Now God’s Justice is a great good and therefore, considered in this sense, it becomes further clear that as a manifestation of Justice, Hell must be a good thing. Being in Hell though, is for the subject who finds himself there, obviously not subjectively good.

    As to participating in God’s mercy, philosophers of old maintained that as a good, existence is better than nonexistence, even in a creation where evil actually exists at the agency of creatures. But God’s infinitely good Justice would destroy evil, were it not for His Mercy, which we know from the New Testament to be a greater good than Justice (I think). So out of His mercy, God allows creatures, who are, in there nature, always a created good, to continue to exist, rather than destroy them, having irrevocably chosen to reject Him. Further a Beatific vision including a perfected vision of God’s Justice, i.e. the punishment of the damned, belongs to the greater joy of the saints.

    Again, I am not a Doctor, so my words are those of ignorance, but if God can use them, I hope they help.



  17. Ryan,

    I think the actual/potential and causal distinctions you have made in your comments are spot on. Though I have a hard time understanding what it means to create something that is potential. Something that is potential is not actual. Anything that “is” is actual, and we can only know what is potential by what is actual. I argue that evil is a deprivation (see St. Augustine) of existence/being therefore it has no potential analog. We don’t know evil in esse but rather something less than being/goodness in esse that we call evil.

    Thus, the problem of evil is the problem of non-being in relation to the God who “is” (ipsum esse subsistens), and ultimately the tragic human tail of how we reject his gift of life.

  18. As far as the creation of potential evil, I would say the phrase can only be used as a ‘place holder’ and not really as anything signifying reality. God would create only the situation (nature) capable of actualizing corruption (evil) in it’s various subjects.

    Here are those articles from St. Thomas I mentioned earlier, hope they help:

  19. I really appreciated your post. You do clarify a good reason for there to be a hell. However, you started to lose me when you talked about why would God create the damned. You are touching on an issue that is worth another complete post. That is: How can our free-will and God’s omniscience co-exist? Doesn’t that take from our free-will just a little if God already knows who’s going to mess it up?

  20. I guess, like some have said, that God’s kindness and mercy to the human race is apparent when you compare us to the Angels. Their single sin was not only mortal but deprived them of grace to the point where I think it would be right to say they are incapable of repentance.

    But, in our weakness and ignorance, God offers us the possibility of grace and repentance even for innumerable mortal sins throughout our lives. Every second is a new opportunity, every breath another chance to return to the grace of God, which the demons do not have. We are highly blessed, more than the Angels!

  21. @ Hoccogitat’s ‘hiddenness of
    I used to stumble at this as well, until I realized that the apparent ‘hiddennes’ of God is best attributed to our blindness and deafness rather than his obscurity. We cannot imagine the gulf that these deficiencies create between us and perceiving His Eternal Goodness and Power

    At one time (the old testament) He only partly manifested himself in the physical dimension. The result was invariable one of fear and awe, not love.

    He’s had to cut back and go with more moderate means … baby talk if you will.

    And yet …
    >The Good God verily shouts to us through Creation of His Nature and Being.
    >He speaks within every spirit as to His eternal nature and power.
    >He has instituted a Church to make plain His communication to His world.

    He even has addressed our demand for a physical presence, even though He himself is not physical.(let me explain…) God is an infinite spirit who came to us in the person of Jesus. By the laws of physical personal existence, he could only be in one place at one time. But the Lord has even overcome this hurdle by instituting the Eucharist… physical ‘stuff’, but (when consecrated) becoming his very presence everywhere in the world!

    As Saint Paul says in Romans, what can be known about God is plain … the problem is our willingness to perceive.

  22. Ryan said: “Further a Beatific vision including a perfected vision of God’s Justice, i.e. the punishment of the damned, belongs to the greater joy of the saints”… I just can hope the ultimate reality won’t be like this… I just can speak for myself: if the slightest person would end up in hell that would be a tragedy to me (if I won’t be one of them, that is) as it will be, I’m sure, to God… does this mean that God will be less joyful? I do not know, but I do know that the wounds of Christ will be forever in God; they will be, obviously, glorified ones, but they’ll be wounds nonetheless…

  23. These comments have been great so far. I’ll probably do a follow-up post in the next couple days to answer some of the questions you all have raised (and some more which have come in by e-mail). Feel free to keep ’em coming!

    God bless,


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