By Fr. Michael van Heerden

All of us have encountered evil in one form or another. Faced with the problem of evil, humans have reacted in one of three ways.

First, some say there are two basic forces at the origin of the universe: good and evil, ying and yang – and the universe is the theatre in which the drama between these two equal forces is played out.

Second, some say that the presence of evil proves there is no ultimate force and that the universe happens by mere chance and has no ultimate purpose. Their argument goes something like this:

  • If God was almighty – God could conquer evil in the world;
  • If God was all-loving – God would want to conquer evil to save God’s creation;

Yet, there is evil in the world – so God cannot be all-powerful or all-loving and, therefore, cannot be God. So God is a figment of the imagination.

The third response to evil is to question the nature of evil itself and to interrogate whether, given the conviction that the universe does have an ultimate purpose, one might see evil as part of that purpose. This is the Christian response. For a Christian, if evil is equal to good, then the universe is doomed to meaningless repetition as the internecine conflict plays out in endless recurring cycles. The Christian response to the second position is that this position is premised on a misleading dilemma. One has to escape through the horns of this dilemma. So a summary of the Christian response could be formulated also in terms of a dilemma:

  • If God was almighty – God could hold together the universe and prevent it from slipping into chaos despite the presence of evil;
  • If God was all-loving – God would respect the freedom that God has given to God’s children so that they can freely respond in love – for there is no real love without freedom – but, freedom also enables the possibility of evil;

The universe has never collapsed into chaos and human freedom is the most immediate reality present to each person. Therefore, God is both all-powerful and all-loving.

The theological and philosophical interrogation of the nature of evil is called theodicy – no one can deny its presence, but how do we situate it in the plan of God? Firstly, I think we have to acknowledge that there are really three types of evil. The first is really not evil at all; but, it can have negative effects on humans. This is called natural, non-moral “evil”: natural disasters, epidemics and illnesses, conflicts with other creatures and so on. While they can have negative effects in our lives, these realities are actually good and allow the possibility of life.

As an example of the first, think of the tsunami that hit Asia a few years ago. This was caused by plate tectonics and without plate tectonics our planet would overheat and explode – also, plate tectonics creates the existence of the electromagnetic shield that protects the earth from fatal radiation from the sun and ensures that we have an atmosphere and the climate within it.

Epidemics and illnesses are examples of how nature restores the balance of life and prevents any one species from overrunning the planet and denuding its resources. Can you imagine what the population of Europe would be today if the bubonic plague had not restored the balance of population?

When we examine the creation account of Genesis, we hear that God’s creation is good – but not perfect. God cannot create another perfect being, another God – in fact, the Hebrew word for good is better translated as: “fitted for its purpose”. The way that Leibnitz describes it is that, of all the possible worlds, God has brought forth the best of all possible worlds. Our commission in Genesis is to be stewards of this world, which means that through the natural and supernatural gifts that God gives us, we have to grow in our knowledge of this world and its laws so that we can live in greater harmony with creation.

This means that we do not build our homes on flood plains – if we live on the edge of a plate on the earth’s crust, we make sure there are early warning mechanisms in place for the detection of earthquakes and tsunamis, and so on.

The second type of evil is what is called moral, unnatural evil. This is really what should be meant by evil in the world. God, in giving us freedom, allows the possibility of moral evil – but, it is not natural, not a creation of God.

Rather, as St Augustine said, all moral evil is parasitic as it is the absence of a good that should be in place and can only exist because of the good that should be there. I like to think of original sin not so much as a fall from a graced state at the beginning of our existence as humans – but, as the refusal to rise to the new level of freedom that God had given to us because of that state.

Tragically, moral evil is not only individual; our evil choices can become institutionalized and survive from one generation to the next. This is what is often called social evil: evidenced in realities such as slavery, genocide, abortion and corporate greed. These realities result often in conflict between groups and wars that scripture speaks about.

The final type of evil is really a mixture of the two: natural, moral evil. Here, the misuse of our freedom has consequences not only on the social level, but on the natural level as well. When land is overgrazed because of greed and results in flooding because there is not enough vegetation to absorb the rain – we have an example of this kind of evil. When one country emits so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to maintain its unnaturally high standard of living and effects the climate change of the planet – we have another example of this kind of evil. This third kind of evil should be on everyone’s agenda for reflection if we want to protect and ensure the survival of the planet. No wonder it is the core of the most recent encyclical of our Holy Father, Pope Francis!

Christ came to restore us to our true freedom so that we could live the image of God in each of us as a true likeness. Moral sin only enslaves and restricts freedom and results in tragic consequences for ourselves and others who could be completely innocent of that particular sin. As original sin resulted in our natural and social balances being disrupted – the restoration in Christ enables us to move back to the original freedom intended by God.


Encyclical Letter: Laudato Si’, of The Holy Father, Pope Francis:

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.


Father MichaelAbout the Author

Fr. Michael van Heerden

I have been ordained thirty years this December and I can only thank God for a wonderful life as a priest. I have been able to travel because of the academic posts I have held, study further at the Catholic University of Leuven, and minister in parishes as diverse as Wynberg, Atlantis, Malmesbury, Plumstead and Durbanville. What I particularly like is to have a mixture of academic work and pastoral experience – the former keeps the gray cells stimulated and the latter keeps one grounded and in touch with life. My bucket list includes learning Xhosa, travelling to southern Spain, Madeira and Vietnam, and hopefully reaching my 50 year anniversary of priesthood.



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