Summary: The Christian view of creation ex nihilo allows for the presence of evil in the universe. It is provides a rationale for believing that an all-good and all-powerful God is not the cause of evil. In fact, evil is not a created thing, so it lacks being in the truest sense. Evil is a privation of being, a wrong relationship, or a choice of a rational will that does not accord with reason, morality, or Holy Scripture.
Before the universe existed, God was the only existent being. God was the sum total of all there was, and there was nothing that was not God. God encompassed all of reality. Before creation, God was—and still is—absolutely perfect in all the attributes of His blest being. God had not the slightest lack in being. Nothing could have been added to His being—whether in essence or existence—to increase its perfection. He was the One who was infinite in the very perfection of being.
To bring about the creation of the universe, there were three basic possibilities. Either God could produce creation out of himself, out of nothing, or out of some other coexisting eternal principle. These three possibilities have been captured in three Latin phrases.
This is a pantheistic or neo-Platonic view whereby everything is out of (ex) the being of God (deo). Pantheists claim that creation and God are really one (monism). Monism teaches that the universe emerged or flowed from the divine One. This view holds strongly to the unity of all being. Evil does not make sense in a pantheistic system, because everything is an outflow from the center of God’s being. As a fountain only yields what it contains, so an outflow from God remains God. From a pantheistic perspective, what we see around us is God in one manifestation or another. God is the source of everything as well as everything itself. There can be no true evil in a pantheism system, since everything is God, and God is good. Evil, therefore, is non-existent and is merely an illusion of our minds.
This view believes that the Creator made the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo). Here, creation is radically distinct from its Creator. Since the universe is not out of the substance of the Creator, there is a potential for evil in the universe. If the creation were out of the substance of God itself, creatures would be perfect. Since creation is from nothing, its source—nothingness—does not have the perfection of God. In fact, nothingness is a complete privation of being, that is, it is a total lack of being. There is an infinite metaphysical or ontological distance between God and nothing, because being is infinitely distant from non-being. This infinite ontological distance provides ontological space for a hierarchical order of beings where the different classes of creatures are raised to different levels of being above nothingness. Angels are creatures who were elevated to the highest level of being above nothingness.
This is a materialistic view of the universe. It claims that matter is eternal and that the universe was formed out of this preexisting eternal matter. It is a form of dualism, because God and matter are eternal coexisting entities. In this view, God is the source of all good, while matter is the source of evil. However, an atheist would hold that that God does not exist, and that matter alone evolved into the universe we see today. Although atheists believe evil exists, it is difficult for them to justify rationally how matter gives rise to evil.
The ex deo view seems flawed, because evil does seem real. Evil does not seem to be merely an illusion of our minds. The ex materia view fails because 1) it does not account for the order or teleology of the universe. Also, since the universe seems to have had a beginning, 2) something has to account for matter’s initial creation (Kalam cosmological argument, universe expansion, and background radiation suggest the necessity of an initial creation event.). In itself, 3) matter has no sufficient reason in itself for its cause. The ex nihilo view remains a possibility, because infinite power can transverse the infinite distance between being and non-being and bring into existence finite creatures. In this view, God is the author of the various classes of beings.
The universe displays an hierarchical order which begins with quarks, atoms, molecules, minerals, viruses, bacteria, protozoans, plants, animals, humans, and ends with angels. Within this hierarchical structure, there are numerous beings at each level of complexity. Each thing displays some aspect of God’s creative wisdom and mighty power. However, some beings display more likeness to their Creator. Angels belong to the spirit world, and they are nearest to God. Human beings stand midway between the spirit world and the physical world. They have a material body, but their soul is spiritual. Because of their spiritual soul, humans are creatures in the image and likeness of God.
How was nothing (nihilo) able to yield such a glorious hierarchical order of beings in the universe? It was by the wisdom and power of God. Out of nothing came galaxies, plants, bears, angels, vast oceans, and electrons. Yet, none of these beings attain to the being of God. So, what is the difference between a creature’s being and God’s being? The being of God is complete, perfect, and self-sustaining. His being is the archetype of what a being should be to be perfect and complete. His being is the standard by which all other beings are measured. Anything less than Deity is imperfect, finite, temporal, spatial, non-self-sustaining, and incomplete being.
As a result, all the beings of creation lack the fullness of being. It is impossible for any ex nihilo being to attain the infinite being of Deity. The hierarchical order in creation results from creatures being elevated from nothingness by greater or lesser degrees. Matter is closer to nothing than living creatures, because living creatures reflect more the being of God. Angels are the highest creatures reflecting more perfectly the being of God. Compared to all other creatures, angels have been elevated the farthest out of nothing (ex nihilo).
All creatures are limited (finite) beings while God is an unlimited (infinite) being. The beings of creatures are limited in various ways. These variations in limitations explain the hierarchical structure of creation. We might say that all creatures are partial beings. They have being, but their being is limited and restricted in many ways. Therefore, they never attain the complete and perfect being of God. However, the more being creatures possess, the more perfectly they reflect the being of God.
As to being itself, it is very good. To have being is to have it as a gift from God.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning– the sixth day. Genesis 1:31 (NIV)
Scripture notes that the God’s word spoke the worlds into existence. God said, ‘Be’ and creatures were called into existence from nothing by the all-mighty power and creative wisdom of the Word. Furthermore, the existence of these creatures must be continually sustained by the Word of God. Otherwise, they would vanish back to nothingness. This shows that their natural state is nothingness. So, the existence of a creature requires the continual sustaining and infinite power of the Word. The existence of all creatures is a continual moment-by-moment gift of God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. John 1:1-3 (NIV)
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. Hebrews 1:2-3 (NIV)
And he is before all, and all things subsist together by him. Collisions 1:17. (JND)
There is only one Being who exist naturally, so to speak, and whose being is complete and perfect and self-sustaining. By contrast, all creatures are from nothing (ex nihilo) and their being must be continually sustained by the power of God. If they were not sustained by God, they would return to their natural state of nothingness. The hierarchical order of creation is the result of creatures being drawn from nothingness by greater or lesser degrees. Angels participate to a greater degree in the likeness of God while rocks participate to a lesser degree. Creatures from nothing are contingent, limited, and lack perfection. Yet, the being that they have is good, being given and sustained by God.
All being is good
As argued above, all substantial being is good. No creature’s being is evil, per se. Because God created everything good, all creatures have good being. Even Satan has good being. He was created as an ontologically good being to be a guardian cherub. He was a model of perfection, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty. But, he fell from his original state by conceit and pride. The king of Tyre symbolized Satan original state and subsequent fall.
… ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: “‘You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: ruby, topaz and emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared.
You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones.
You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. Ezekiel 28:12-15 (NIV)
Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. 1 Timothy 3:6 (KJV)
So, even in the case of Satan, God created everything with good being.
So, if all being is good, “Whence evil?” It seems that we must conclude that evil does not exist, since every existing thing has being, and being itself is good. Apparently, Christians are on the horns of a dilemma, because evil seems very real in the world that God created. If Christians must accept that evil has real existence in the universe, then they must admit that God created the evil, because God created everything. On the other hand, if Christians deny that evil exists, then they must deny that Christ’s mission of salvation was not meaningful, because His mission entailed salvation from evil. In addition, Scripture must be in error, since it affirms evil.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21 (NIV)
Evil is real, but it is not a being, per se. For example, darkness is not a real being; it is the absence of the being of light. Light is a real being, because it consists of photons. Darkness lacks being, because it is the state of the absence of photons. Darkness is a real state-of-affairs, but it is not a substantial being like light is. This is why we say that darkness is the privation of light.
Again, for human beings, blindness is the lack of the ability to see. Or to say it more accurately, blindness is the privation of sight. Privation of sight would be a physical evil for a human being. Stones cannot see, but the lack of sight for stones is not a privation, because the nature state of a stone does not entail possessing sight. A privation only occurs when a being should possess a particular capability. So, again, a careful examination of evil shows that it lacks real substantial being. However, it is real in the sense that any privation can be real for a being that should possess a particular feature. Stones lack sight, but their lack of sight is not a privation for them. But, blindness is very much a privation for a human being.
A relationship is not a being, per se. It is an association or a connection between two beings. For example, an ax is a good instrument to chop wood. Likewise, a hand is good to have to grasp the ax to chop wood. The ax, hand, and wood are all good beings in themselves. However, if an ax were to strike a person’s hand, it would cause the person considerable pain and suffering. Evil results when there is an improper relationship between the ax and the hand, such as, when the ax cuts a person’s hand. Further, marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman who are committed to one another in love. Typically, the relationship is established in ceremony and documented in a marriage license. The marriage relationship is good. However, a man and woman would be in an evil relationship, if they were in an adulterous relationship. In both the marriage and the adulterous relationship, the male body and the female body are both good. The evil resides in the improper relationship between them.
Human beings make volitional choices numerous times each day. The human will is distinct from the will of an animal in that human choices are not controlled by an animal instinct. Human beings are rational animals who can choose to act according to an intellectual choice. An intellectual choice has been termed a free choice of the will. Animals make choices too. Hence, animals have wills, but their choices are not directed by a rational intellect. So, they are not capable of making a free choice. Their wills are in bondage to their instinctive natures.
Human beings are responsible to act according to reason, the moral law written on the human heart, and the instructions in God’s revealed scriptures. When a person wills contrary to any of these guides, the person is guilty of willing to do an evil act. The choice is not a being, per se. It is an intentional act of a free will. So, again evil is not a being. An evil volitional choice is a mental act of a human being who has chosen to act contrary to one of the three guides.
A free choice of the will is a choice for which human beings bear moral responsibility. If the choice accords with reason, morals, and holy scripture, the choice is praise worthy. However, if a person chooses to act in a disordered manner, it is an evil choice for which the person is blameworthy.
Human moral responsibility resides in the intentions of the will. An identical human act can have different moral dimensions, depending upon the intent of the will. Hence, the praise or blame for an action resides in the will, not in the act itself. To illustrate this point, in each of the following cases the same act occurs where Jim shoots and kills Ron.
- Case 1. Jim does not like to work and earn money. He knows that Ron has a large sum of money in his wallet. So, Jim shoots Ron and takes his money, leaving him dying on the pavement. Jim is blameworthy for shooting Ron.
- Case 2. Jim is a protective family man. Ron is an armed robber who has intruded in Jim’s house and threatens Jim’s family members with death. Jim reluctantly shoots the intruder to protect his family. In this case, Jim would not be blameworthy for shooting Ron.
- Case 3. Jim is a soldier in the army of a country being invaded by another country. Ron is a soldier in military of the invading country. In the course of the battle, Jim shoots Ron. Jim is not blameworthy for shooting Ron.
- Case 4. Jim and Ron are friends who hunt together for deer in the dense forest. When Jim trips over a branch, his gun fires and the bullet hits his friend Ron. Jim is not blameworthy for intentionally shooting Ron. However, he is blameworthy for not exercising adequate caution with a dangerous gun. The accident might have been avoided with an engaged trigger lock and/or not having a bullet in the gun’s chamber when walking in the dense underbrush. So, Jim is partially to blame for shooting Ron, because Jim did not take adequate precautions to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Cases 1-4 illustrate that moral responsibility cannot be determined by the act alone. Praise and blame are dependent upon the intention of the will in the particular circumstances.
In the book entitled, On Evil, Thomas Aquinas views the term, evil, as a term applying to all privations of form, order, or due measure in subject or in act. Evil is the most general category, and it includes all three types of evil listed above, namely, privation, relation, and volition. He views sin as more limited, since it just applies to any privation in an act. However, it is important to note that he clearly assigns moral fault to the subject’s voluntary will. He wrote,
But it must be noted that these three—evil, sin, and fault—are related to each other as more general and less general. For evil is more general: indeed any privation whatever of form or of order or of due measure either in the subject or in the act, has the nature of evil. But any act lacking due order or form or measure is called a sin (or defect). Hence it can be said that a crooked leg is an evil or a bad leg, but it cannot be said that it is a sin except perhaps in that manner of speaking in which the effect of sin is called a sin; but the limping itself is called a sin or defect: indeed any disordered act either in nature or in art or in morals can be called a sin. But sin has the nature of fault only from the fact that as it is voluntary: for no disordered act is imputed to anyone as a fault except in consequence of the fact that it is within his power. And so it is clear that sin is more general than fault, although according to the common usage among theologians, sin and fault are taken for the same thing.
Consequently those who considered in sin only the nature of evil said that the substance of the act is not a sin but the deformity of the act is; but those who considered in sin only that from which it has the nature of fault said that sin consists in the will alone. But in sin it is necessary to consider not only the deformity itself but also the act underlying the deformity, since sin is not he deformity but a deformed act. Now the deformity of the act is owning to this that it is discordant with the due rule of reason or the law of God, which deformity is found not only in the interior act, but also in the exterior act; but a fault is on account of the will. And so clearly if we wish to consider all that is in sin, sin consists not only in the privation (of the due rule of reason or the divine law) nor only in the interior act, but also in the exterior act. 1
Augustine spend several years in the religion of Manchaeism that had a solution to evil that attracted the young Augustine to its fold. The Manchaeians believed that good and evil were equally real beings who were in conflict. As Augustine matured, he came to realize that Manchaeism offered a false view of the nature of evil. After becoming a Christian, he wrote his classic work on the free choice of the human will entitled, De Libero Arbitrio. In this work, he places moral responsibility upon the human will.
After careful reasoning and debate, we concluded that the sole cause of evil lay in the free choice of the will; therefore, the three books which our discussion produced were entitled De Libero Arbitrio.2
You said you thought that free choice of the will ought not to have been given because through it man sins. To this opinion I replied that no righteous act could be performed except by free choice of the will, and I asserted that God gave it for this reason. …
If, therefore, we find among the goods of the body some that a man can use wrongly, but that we cannot say ought not to have been given to man, since we have agreed that they are goods, why should we wonder if there are in the spirit certain goods, of which we can make wrong use, but which, because they are goods, could not have been given by anyone but Him from whom all good things proceed?
Indeed, you see how great a good is wanting to any body that has no hands; yet he who works cruel or shameful deeds with his hands uses them for evil. Should you see someone without feet, you would acknowledge what an important good was lacking to make his body complete. Yet you would not deny that the man who made evil use of his fee, either for injuring another or for dishonoring himself, was using his feet wrongfully.
Just as you approve those goods of the body and, disregarding the people who make evil use of them, you praise Him who gave them, so you should admit that free will, without which no one can live rightly, is good and divinely given; and you should grant that those who make evil use of free will ought to be condemned, rather than saying that He who gave it ought not to have given it.3
Either the will is the first cause of sin, or else there is no first cause. Sin cannot rightly be imputed to anyone but the sinner, nor can it rightly be imputed to him unless he wills it.4
As Augustine argued, God does not will, author, or cause sin. Evil is a privation of good; it has no being, per se. Human responsibility for evil resides in the will.
Creation ex nihilo argues that God is the only perfect and self-supporting being in all of reality. By contrast, all created beings are not complete beings with their own self-supporting existence. If God had not brought them originally from nothingness, there would not have been any existent creatures. Furthermore, God must sustain them now, moment-by-moment, to keep them in existence. Therefore, everything that God has contributed to the universe and the existence of creatures is good.
Creatures are really partial beings at various states between complete being and nothingness. The more a creature participates in being the nearer it is ontologically to the being of God. The less it participates in being, the nearer it is to nothingness. This varying degrees of participation in being is the reason for a hierarchical order in creation. A hierarchy of creatures displays more fully God’s wondrous wisdom and mighty power than just one class of exalted beings. God is the sovereign Potter who has fashioned a wide varied of vessels to display his power and glory. The stars in the heavens declare His glory, and the energy in the atoms remind us of his mighty power. In His divine sovereignty, God has made human beings in different colors, heights, weights, sexes, personalities, and talents. No two human beings are exactly alike.
The existence of human beings and the diversity of human talents are good gifts from God. However, human beings are individually responsible to use their gift of existence and their individual talents for God’s glory. In other words, all being is a good gift from God. Evil arises when God’s good gifts are used for ignoble purposes, rather than for God’s eternal glory. The glory of the creature is to use his being in the service and praise of the Creator.
Each type of creature is defined by its normal class of being. If an individual creature within a particular class of creatures lacks a feature normal for its class, it suffers a privation or evil. Hence, the lack of sight is an evil for humans but not for a stone. Furthermore, the lack of sight is not a being, per se; it is the privation of being. Or, to put it another way, the individual participates less fully in being than other individuals within its class of beings. In a manner of speaking, this privated individual has more of nothing than others members within its class of being.
Since human beings are endowed with a rational mind, they have a rational will. This means that human beings ought to will actions according to reason, the moral law within, and divine scripture. These are the standards by which human choice is to be measured. They are the standards that God has ordained for human creatures. Sin occurs when the human choice misses the mark of these standards. Any missing the mark is evil. Since human choice resides in the will, the will is the source of human moral responsibility. If the choice accords to the standards, the person is praiseworthy. If the choice fall short of the standards, the person himself is blameworthy.
1 Aquinas, Thomas, On Evil [de Malo], Translated by J. Oesterle, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1995, ISBN: 0-268-03700-0, p. 50.
2 Saint Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, NY, 1964, Retractions, p. 151.
3 Ibid. Book II, Chap. XVIII, p. 78-79.
4 Ibid. Book III, Chap. XVII, p. 126.