The Nature of Evil


Magi38 asked this question on 12/5/2000:

I am attempting to define the nature of evil. Any recommended reading or just your personal beliefs about this would be helpful. Thank you.


Corinthians1_13_4to8 answered

If you go to and then type in the search field "St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica" you will find several different links - the first listed is the full text on line. There were so many links that I don’t have the time today to list them all individually and I thought this might be the easiest way to direct you! :-) Again, I am more than willing to type out those parts of the Tour of the Summa for you - I would have to do it by email and my email is:

Here are two parts of the Tour of the Summa:

(please pray very strongly before reading - it’s easy to misunderstand and this sort of reading is very deep and takes much meditation, contemplation, thought, and sincere pray and asking for Truth)

The Distinction of Good and Evil:

1. One opposite is known through the other, as, for instance, darkness is known through light. Evil is known through goodness, for evil itself is the privation of good. Evil is not a think, as essence, a nature in itself; it exists by way of defect or failure in natures. Being as such is good; it is where being breaks off, or fails to be, that evil appears.

2. Evil is found in things in the world, just as inequality is found there. Inequality means that more perfect things should not lose their existence and less perfect things should lose their existence, and loss of existence is an evil. In a world in which there are things that can be broken up and changed and things that can die, it is manifest that there is evil.

3. The SUBJECT of evil is the thing in which evil exists. Now, evil is found in things, and things as such are good. Hence, the subject of evil is good. Not every absence of good is evil, but only the absence of that good which the perfection of the thing demands. Thus the absence of life is not an evil in a stone, for the nature of a stone does not require life; absence of life is an evil for plant, animal, or man. Thus, also blindness, or absence of power to see, is an evil for man, but not for a plant.

4. Evil which is failure, defect, or absence in the structure or process of a thing, is called PHYSICAL EVIL. Hunger, death, blindness, are examples of physical evil, as are lameness, deformity, injured members. Evil which is defect and failure of a free will to measure up to the standard of what its conduct should be, is MORAL evil; moral evil is sin and such imperfection as approximates to sin. Evil destroys good in the precise point in which it negates good, or deprives the subject of good, but otherwise it does not destroy good. The evil of sickness destroys health, but not the possibility to recover by medical cure or by miracle. Mortal sin destroys the spiritual good of the soul, but does not destroy the aptitude of the soul for regaining grace.

5. In human experience evil takes the form of pain or fault. Evil is something that hampers and hurts, or it is a defection of the will by sin.

6. Man’s greatest natural good is found in the proper use of his free will. Failure here is fault. Fault is failure in the greatest good; therefore, fault has more of the nature of evil than has pain or penalty.


1. Only good can be a cause, for only good has the positive being which is necessary in a cause. Therefore, the cause of evil is good; not, indeed, by the essence of natural bend of good, but accidentally. When a cause itself tends to produce and effect, it is called the direct or the per se cause of that effect. And when a cause, acting per se to produce its effect, incidentally (or, in the old term, accidentally) produces another effect, this other effect is produced per accidens or accidentally, and the cause is called the per accidens or accidental cause of that effect. Thus a cow cropping grass is acting per se to nourish it own life; incidentally or per accidens it destroys the grass. Even sin is the defect, rather than the effect, of free will, which is good in itself, and which acts for apparent good even in sinning. The sinner is like a hungry person who bites into a piece of wax fruit; what he is after is GOOD, but he fails to find the good he is after. Unlike the man who bites wax fruit, the sinner is not merely the victim of a mistake, for the sinner knows better, if only he would consider; the sinner’s judgment is perverse, and hence he is guilty of fault. But the point is that what he wants PER SE is GOOD; he causes evil per accidens in his quest for good. Evil, therefore, has no direct or per se cause, but only accidental cause, a cause per accidens. And it is good, which, acting per accidens, is the cause of evil.

2. In willing the order of the universe, God wills the existence of some things that endure and of others that pass away. The evil of passing away, loosing existence, is accidental to the order of the universe, which is good. Thus God wills physical evils per accidens in as much as these are incidental to the working of good. But God wills no evil PER SE. And God does not will moral evil either PER SE or PER ACCIDENS.

3. There is no supreme evil principle which is the source of all evil things. The old oriental doctrine of two supreme principals, one good and the other evil, is absurd. For first of all, there cannot be more than one supreme being. Secondly, as we have seen, the subject of evil is good; we have also seen that the cause of evil is good in itself and only accidentally the producer of evil. Besides, as Aristotle says, if there were a supreme evil, it would destroy itself, for, having destroyed all good (which it must to to be supreme evil), it would have destroyed all being, including it’s own being.


See part II

Corinthians1_13_4to8 gave this follow-up answer on 12/8/2000:

Part II of II

In other words, when we sin - what caused us to sin was the seeking of a good. For example, it is good and wholesome that we eat food and God Wills it as a good - but then we take it out of its order - and say overeat - and it becomes evil - but what we sought as our motivator was a good itself - to eat. This good was deprived of its purpose and order - which is to nourish and sustain life -when that which was eaten had been beyond what was necessary to fulfill its purpose.

Another example is adultery. What the person seeks is sexual pleasure - something that God Himself created and that He ordained to be used within the order of marriage and between the two spouses only. However, when the purpose it is used for is misused - it becomes and evil - a sin. But at its core - the prompting was a seeking of a good itself - sexual pleasure - something that is ordained as Good is used as it was SUPPOSED to be - instead of taking it out of the context of its good order.

Do you see what He means by the subject and cause of evil is good? It’s a little hard to grasp - if you need help - let me know. This sort of writing takes a long time to grasp and even then, being of finite minds, we do not unveil all of the depths of God and His Nature and His Essence (two things you can also find on-line where St. Thomas talks about these things - and which might help you to understand as St. Thomas does use the word nature and essence - in defining the above - and that will also help in your understanding.

Probably what has amazed me the most about His writings is that as he lay dying, he was caught up in a heavenly vision and when he came out of his enrapture, he told his secretary that all of the things he had ever written were mere straw - MERE STRAW - and nothing in comparison to the glory and majesty and goodness of God, etc. It’s hard to imagine that as the depths of the Truths found in his writings are astounding and hard to absorb sometimes - but it would be consistent with how we view our omnipotent and endless God.

Hope this helps,




Magi38 asked this follow-up question on 12/8/2000:

What would I do with out you? I am printing your answer, very helpful. Mere straw, I like it. Exactly why I am not attempting to define the nature of God! (:

Thanks for all the great info. Will read it at my leisure and then undoubtedly will have some follow-up questions. Would you be a dear and look at cmiralooks answer and my response and tell me what you think? (It’s good to be back!)-Meg


Veritatis Splendor

2. No one can escape from the fundamental questions: "What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil?" The answer is only possible thanks to the splendor of the truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit, as the Psalmist bears witness: "There are many who say: ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord"’ (Ps 4:6).

The light of God’s face shines in all its beauty on the countenance of Jesus Christ, "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15), the "reflection of God’s glory" (Heb 1:3), "full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14). Christ is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6). Consequently the decisive answer to every one of man’s questions, his religious and moral questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself, as the Second Vatican Council recalls: "In fact, ‘it is only in the mystery of the Word incarnate that light is shed on the mystery of man.’ For Adam, the first man, was a figure of the future man, namely, of Christ the Lord. It is Christ, the last Adam, who fully discloses man to himself and unfolds his noble calling by revealing the mystery of the Father and the Father’s love". [

8b. "People today need to turn to Christ once again in order to receive from him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil." Christ is the Teacher, the Risen One who has life in himself and who is always present in his Church and in the world. It is he who opens up to the faithful the book of the Scriptures and, by fully revealing the Father’s will, teaches the truth about moral action. At the source and summit of the economy of salvation, as the Alpha and the Omega of human history (cf. Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), Christ sheds light on man’s condition and his integral vocation. Consequently, "the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly—and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being—must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter him with all his own self; he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deeper wonder at himself". [16]

29. The Church’s moral reflection, always conducted in the light of Christ, the "Good Teacher", has also developed in the specific form of the theological science called "moral theology", a science which accepts and examines Divine Revelation while at the same time responding to the demands of human reason. Moral theology is a reflection concerned with "morality", with the good and the evil of human acts and of the person who performs them; in this sense it is accessible to all people. But it is also "theology", inasmuch as it acknowledges that the origin and end of moral action are found in the One who "alone is good" and who, by giving himself to man in Christ, offers him the happiness of divine life.

32. Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to "exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values". This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and "being at peace with oneself", so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivist conception of moral judgment.



Generally I shy away from ‘academic’ questions. That is not to say that it is not important. In "Veritatis Splendor" the Pope suggests that this question is one of the fundamental ones:

"2. No one can escape from the fundamental questions: "What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil?" The answer is only possible thanks to the splendor of the truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit, as the Psalmist bears witness: "There are many who say: ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord"’ (Ps 4:6).

So it’s important. I read the posts with great interest. As a dyslexic writer I admire persons who can write pages and pages. I think that will be my purgatory.

If I understand rightly than you want proof that evil has power, isn’t it?

Like regarding the nature of grace theology has two schools. One says it’s a real entity and then they have the problem to explain how is it that God can create something that is contradictio in terminis. The other school, absence of light, doesn’t have that problem but philosophically they are short of an explanation regarding the possibility why God hasn’t created an world without evil.




The joy of the Lord be in your heart.

I read the interesting answers to your question. The core of your preoccupation is to find out if evil as such has power, isn’t it?

But before tackling that it is necessary to avoid a confusion regarding the definition of evil. Saint Augustine is the initiator of a great part of the respective doctrine. I suggest we let him guide us.

We have to define what we are talking about. It can be:

a) Evil in a neutral sense. That includes everything that to the perception and/or experience is detrimental, harmful, damaging, negative, injurious, and defective regarding measure, species or order. This kind of evil is kind of "wanting" in nature. Augustine defines this type of evil "privatio boni – privation of good" (C. advers. legis I, 5). This kind of evil is real only in connection with good (Augustine, De civ. Dei XI 9 22; XIII 3; XIX 12 f). The cause is the limitation of contingent beings (C. Secund. Man. 15).

b) Evil in the sense what man does and what he suffers. Augustine calls the first sin and the second consequences or punishment for sin (C. Adim. Man. 26).

c) Evil en a pure moral sense. This is the only real evil; all the other "evils" are just limitations (de civ. Dei XII, 3). The cause of the one and only real evil is the free will of angels and men (Ench. 23).

Then you have to answer a separate question: Why does God admit the possibility of evil?

(We talk now only about moral evil).

Because according to Augustine God has created man with a finite free spirit, one of mankind's foremost privileges: "The person that seeks good out of free will is better than the person who seeks good through necessity". To the question of why He admits the fact of a person seeking evil Augustine answers that it is convenient that there be not only good (Ench. 96). Because God "bene utens et malis – using well also the evil can - de malis bene facere – do good from bad" (Ench. 27 100; Cf. De civ. Dei XXII 1; Ep 166, 15).

Now we come to the difficult part but meseems that there is no real possible answer even if Saint Thomas trying to avoid philosophical clashes between God's omnipotence and His not willing moral evil defines God as being in act and man is contingent being. It's a different kind of existence. Combined with conceding free will there is space for God not coming near it.

Augustine says evil is not outside God's grasp even if He doesn't will the evil. There is an indirect will of admittance. Creating free will He has to accept the possibility of sin (Ench 95 f; De civ. Dei XI 17; XVIII 51; XXII, 2; De corr. et grat. 43; Sermo 301, 5). For those who love God evil leads even to growth in knowledge and humility as in the case of Peter's negation (De corr. et grat. 25; Sermo 285, 3) that otherwise would not be acquired.

Regarding this panorama painted by Augustine the power of moral evil is proportionate to the dimensions of evil admitted by free will. All other evil is vehicle of God's help, love and punishment/corrections.

More or less logic, isn't it? All the same there are some affirmations that makes the logic boggle.


God admits evil out of love.

The answer to evil is the cross.

The murder of the only innocent becomes salvation. Logic of love. Scandalum crucis.

Evil is the external cause of the cross (in ordine executionis), the cross is the inner cause for God admitting evil (in ordine intentionis).

O felix culpa – o happy guilt that brought about so great a Savior.

It's like the prophet marrying a prostitute.

It's like God taking the adulterous Israel into the desert to teach her real love.

It is like the Word coming into His possessions knowing that he would be dispossessed.

And don't let us become believers of superstitious magic that the more you talk about evil the more strength it acquires.

The devil is God's employee. He can't do anything without God's permission.

May I stickle a bit? Saint Ignatius says that de devil is like a woman. When you cower he becomes overpowering. If you resist he will become meek.

May I finish with an experience of a modern Christian? He was almost overwhelmed by temptations. It had been a long desperate fight, a long time without peace and spiritual rest. At last he cried out to the Lord: "Enough is enough! How can you permit such suffering? Why can't I have some quiet"? God did his will. At that precise moment all temptations ceased. God, what peace, what quiet! But after less than a minute he prayed: "Please, God, give me back the temptations!" What had happened? No temptations, no presence of God because the Christian didn't need Him any more.

People here in Peru have a proverb: "No hay mal que por bien no venga – there's no evil that doesn't come because of some good".



PS. Do you know Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters?" These are the purported letters of an experienced devil written to help a devil with less experience. You will find there a wonderful theology of evil. Poets are often better theologians because the have an intuition for the Mysterium.


Magi38 asked this follow-up question on 12/12/2000:

Sorry to be so long in replying, life is hectic! I love wormwood and the screwtape letters! It has been years since I've read it. Will read it again. Thank you so much for your well thought out reply. This is full of very useful information. My interest in defining the nature of evil is in ascertaining if evil exists only by the isolated actions of individuals or as a force in itself. I love the quote you included in your language, I speak a little Spanish albeit very badly. Thanks again-Meg



The joy of the Lord be in your heart.

Defining the nature of evil philosophically doesn't answer your question: is evil a (coordinated) force in itself?

The Christian philosophers agree that all beings are created by God and therefore are good. The non-believers have no other choice than accept the dictum of Epicure: "Si Dios no quiere suprimir el mal, es envidioso; si no puede suprimirlo, es débil" (n. 374). The expression "being a force in itself" suggests that it be en entity and that cannot be. It doesn't exist in itself. If you say the contrary you put yourself in "una camisa de once varas" because God must have created it.

If you look at the nature of evil (we are talking only about moral evil as the only real evil, don't we?) it is defined by the words "disorder" or "privation". So it must be leaning on or depend on an entity that at its core is good because it's God's creature. By itself it can't exist. We reach necessarily into the realm of free will. Isn't it scary to think that God sustains the existence of all beings and we use this gift of His upholding our being to think, speak and do evil!

Can moral evil willed by free agents combine into a coordinated force? Oh yes. The human history provides evidence enough for every generation has made the experience of combined evil.

The Lord being accused to be head devil implicitly suggests that the satanic reign is not divided (Luke 11): "17 But He knew their thoughts, and said to them, "Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and a house divided against itself falls. 18 "And if Satan also is divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebub. 19 "And if I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Consequently they shall be your judges. 20 "But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 21 "When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own homestead, his possessions are undisturbed; 22 but when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied, and distributes his plunder. 23 "He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me, scatters. 24 "When the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25 "And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. 26 "Then it goes and takes along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first."

27 And it came about while He said these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice, and said to Him, "Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts at which You nursed." 28 But He said, "On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God, and observe it."


Here you have in a nutshell the whole doctrine. If you are not with Him you accept the inhabitation of the devil's emissaries. How can we protect ourselves? Hearing and observing the word of God. There is no neutrality possible.

Receding conscious or unconsciously from Him "coordinates" you in proportion to your receding with the kingdom of the lord of flies. wormwood suggests that its unity is enforced by the superior power of ‘our father of darkness'. The title suggests a dynamic generational activity. Every evil act generates evil in combination with that horrible being. Well, Origene has compassion with this tragic figure. He suggests that at the end he will be saved.

Isn't it terrifying that there is no real joy or happy laughter in his reign? As wormwood informs all hell's laboratory tests couldn't produce anything resembling it. Do you know how the Fathers of the Church explain the rebellion of don Luci? God showed him the child in the manger and told him that this was His Son and he should adore him. The angel of light refused because he thought that poor little creature very much beneath his own glory and power.

So evil is not a force in itself. Its power stems from the combined will of all evildoing. There are today ongoing attempts to define evil as an entity. The theology of liberation for instance describes the unjust exploitational structures as evil in itself. John Paul II has corrected them. Unjust sociological structures are no separate entities but the produce of unjust habit and imposition made into human law coming from the heart of man (Mt 15:19). Change the heart of man and the structures will change. History proves that too, I think. Christianity is an example in case. So is every conversion. Life around the converted sinner changes dramatically.


Evil is not a force in itself. It's the produce of (billions of) free determinations of those who want to be like God and in that they are combining. The expression "solidarity of thieves" points in that direction. The upper hand have those who have more power and give more space to evil.

The Lord loves them all. So should we. How can you win against their power and ruthlessness? Offering the other cheek, not resisting, blessing those who insult you. Let them kill you if need be (Mt 5).

And regarding the understanding of the "mysterium iniquitatis" at the end there is no real explanation. Perhaps we should heed a medieval mystic, Angelus Silesius, who advises: "Marcha a donde no sabes; mira donde no ves; escucha donde nada resuena ni se oye, y estarás donde Dios habla" (Cherubinischer Wandersmann, I, 199) or San Juan de la Cruz: "Para ir adonde no sabes debes ir por donde no sabes".








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