Part I

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

God is the source of the good in all things, but not the evil.

An essential Christian belief about God’s goodness and the goodness of creation comes to us from the Book of Genesis. In the first two chapters we learn that all God creates is good in itself and human beings, by God’s design, share in this created good. Then, in Chapter 3, we learn of a disruption in creation. It comes about as the result of human disobedience. While at first harmony between human beings, God, and creation reigns, evil enters the human picture, bringing with it suffering and death. The original state of “holiness and justice” intended for human beings by God is disrupted (CCC 375). For all who come afterward, life is a mixture of good and evil.

Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine explains it in this way:

God created a perfect, though finite, world in the beginning. The common human sense that something is missing from the world is a kind of confirmation of the original integrity, harmony, and order of all things and the absence of evil and suffering at creation’s beginning. In order to experience a loss, one must first possess the thing that has been lost. Something cannot be missed that has not gone missing. The loss of original innocence and the freedom from suffering that accompanied it haunt the human spirit like a distant memory of that perfect world now gone wrong.3

Evil is commonly divided into two kinds: bad things that happen, which we call physical evil, and bad things that are done, which we call moral evil. There are many forms of physical evil that occur as a matter of course in nature, for example earthquakes and various diseases. God permits physical evil, but he is not the cause of such evil.

The good of God’s creation includes human freedom. God allows his human children the freedom to love. In fact, human beings are created in the image and likeness of God who himself is love (CCC 1604). Love requires freedom; it cannot be forced. Without the freedom to choose love, true freedom cannot exist. Therefore, the possibility to choose against love also exists. It is this gift of freedom that makes disobedience possible. Because God does not interfere with human freedom, human beings can choose to act badly, which often brings harm to themselves or others. This is moral evil.

However, God himself is all good. This means he is never at the root of evil, and he is never at the root of a temptation to commit an evil deed. He cannot be the direct cause of any evil. In his providential wisdom, God alone knows how to bring good out of evil, but “he is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil” (CCC 311). The Catechism tells us that after the first sin “all subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and a lack of trust in his goodness” (CCC 398).

Human suffering is an experience of evil. Rather than something put upon human persons, suffering actually signifies a lack of the good willed by God.

For this we will first turn to Salvifici Doloris and to what John Paul II has explained about the relationship between evil and suffering:

This question [of evil] seems, in a certain sense, inseparable from the theme of suffering. The Christian response to it is different, for example, from the one given by certain cultural and religious traditions which hold that existence is an evil from which one needs to be liberated. Christianity proclaims the essential good of existence and the good of that which exists, acknowledges the goodness of the Creator, and proclaims the good of creatures. Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation, or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he “ought” -- in the normal order of things -- to have a share in this good, and does not have it.4

What is this good that God wants human persons to have?

What is good for a person is that which perfects or builds up the person; what is bad is that which diminishes, what deprives him or her of something he or she could have or be. Therefore, the good intended for human beings by God’s design are those aspects of human existence that are perfective, that “actualize potentialities that belong to us as human beings; they are basic reasons for acting; they are intrinsic aspects of the ‘full-being’ of human persons.”5

Said another way, human beings are creatures of God, and are creatures of a certain kind, which means they have a definite nature. It is precisely because of the kind of creature human beings are and because of their particular nature that they are perfected by certain things and diminished by others. Consequently, there is an observable order called for by the Creator through which human beings are to achieve their greatest perfection as persons.

• Because human beings are living, bodily creatures, they are perfected by life and health. In fact, according to The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia, “Human life is the basis of all goods, and is the necessary source and condition of every human activity and of all society. Most people regard life as something sacred and hold that no one may dispose of it at will, but believers see in life something greater, namely, a gift of God's love, which they are called upon to preserve and make fruitful” (I. The Value of Human Life).

• In the point above, health is noted as a “good.” Health perfects, builds up, and actualizes the potentialities of a person, while sickness and disease diminish, or take away from, a person’s perfection or fulfillment.

• Since human beings have the capacity for intelligent, rational thought, they are greatly perfected by knowledge of truth and aesthetic experience.

• God has endowed human beings with the capacity for taking substances found naturally in the creation and transforming them into usable objects. Thus, it is particularly pleasurable and desirable for them to be creative, to skillfully perform certain tasks, and to perfect their talents and abilities.

• Because human beings are deeply complex creatures, they are enriched in their capacity to enjoy life when they experience what is known as self-integration, which is harmony of the different aspects of the self.

• In their unique complexity, human beings have various capacities to form relationships with others; therefore, they find fulfillment in friendship and society.

• Harmony between a person and God is a fundamental human good, as is maintaining harmony between actions and that which is morally true.

• Finally, since human beings are individuals created by God as masculine and feminine persons and are capable of forming communities that include aspects of all of the basic goods, there is the human good of marriage and family life.

Human beings “ought” to share fully in the human goods of God’s design. When the fullness of these goods is diminished, they “lack” the good God intends for them. They experience some form of suffering. “Thus, in the Christian view, the reality of suffering is explained through evil, which always, in some way, refers to a good.”6 Since evil, by definition, is the absence or lack of the good that should be present by God’s design, when John Paul II speaks of suffering as being explained through evil but pointing to a good, he is showing that suffering results because of the lack of a quality or state that should be present.

Go directly to Part II


Understanding and Accepting The "Redemptive" Value of Suffering

Based on John Paul II's Salvifici Doloris

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