We human beings are inclined to thinking categorically and absolutely. But not all (or even most) categories are absolute. Is there such a thing as absolute goodness, with no error admixed? Yes, most assuredly. God is so, as are the saints He has perfected in Heaven. But is there such a thing as absolute evil, in which there is no admixture of goodness? St. Thomas Aquinas and others say that there is not.
On one level, this is because evil is a privation, the absence of something that should be there. Hence if someone (or something) were wholly evil, he (it) would not exist at all. There would be no “there” there.
St. Thomas says,
Now in things it is impossible to find one that is wholly devoid of good. Wherefore it is also impossible for any knowledge to be wholly false, without some mixture of truth. Hence Bede says that “no teaching is so false that it never mingles truth with falsehood.” Hence even the teaching of demons, with which they instruct their prophets, contains some truths whereby it is rendered acceptable. For the intellect is led astray to falsehood by the semblance of truth, even as the will is seduced to evil by the semblance of goodness (Summa Theologica II, IIae, Q. 172, Art. 6).
Jesus warned us, Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits (Matt 7:15-16). The essence of temptation is including or alluding to something that is good or true. It is the good and the true that attract and serve as the lure. A fish would not be tempted by a rock attached to a hook. The bait is designed to attract the fish; it hides the hook. Similarly, we are not attracted by what is evil, ugly, and awful.
Scripture describes Eve’s temptation to partake of the forbidden fruit as follows: The woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom (Gen 3:6). Food, beauty, and wisdom are all good. Thus even in the archetypal temptation, good things were proffered. But these concealed and were admixed with terrible ingratitude, disobedience, pride, and lack of trust in God.
Though the good can be absolute and categorical, evil cannot. Why is this important?
1 – It helps to make our battle with temptation and evil more informed, more prudent. It helps us to recognize the sly tactics of those who tempt us to evil by way of something good (but it is only apparently—not actually—good for us, due to the evil wrapped up in it).
This helps us to discern more carefully. We learn to distinguish what seems good (or as St. Thomas says, has the semblance of good) from what is truly good. Because nothing is absolutely evil, we can note what is good within any proposal, but also look beyond it to grasp the evil lurking there.
2 – It teaches that evil has no good of its own. Whatever good it has is stolen from what is truly good. Evil steals the good by misappropriating, misapplying, exaggerating, or deforming it in some way. Evil in itself appeals to no one, so it must steal from the good and dress itself up, luring us with what is good and cloaking its true emptiness.
Evil in itself is unappealing and devoid of anything it can claim as its own. It lives like a parasite on the good and must take something good in order to be anything at all.
So, while evil may appear powerful and enticing, in itself it has nothing to offer. Though evil scoffs at the good, it ultimately depends upon it.
3 – It helps us to avoid hatred and disdain of human persons, even those deeply wounded by sin and marked by rebellion or arrogance. There remain in them things that are good. They still have existence (from God). They still have intelligence and will, and not everything they do or desire is evil. Thus good can still be found in them; we can hope to appeal to those still good qualities as a basis for conversion before it is too late.
4 – It helps us find what is true even in false doctrines and philosophies. Heresy and error usually involve some exaggeration of what is true, but they fail to regard other truths that balance and distinguish them. Hence it is usually imprudent to wholly dismiss erroneous teachings as lunacy or to ridicule their proponents. A time-tested method is to find what is true, meet the proponent there, and then disclose the error by showing how it fails to account for other truths meant to balance it. St. Thomas Aquinas was a master at this.
5 – It teaches us patience and fortitude. The Lord told the parable of the wheat and the tares. Having sown good wheat in his field, the owner (God) acknowledges that an enemy sowed the tares. What is interesting is that the wheat and the tares look very much alike until just before the harvest. Nevertheless, an impatient field hand proposes to the owner that all the tares be removed immediately. The owner (God) urges caution, saying, No, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may harm the wheat with them (Mat 13:29).
While it is true that wheat cannot become tares and tares cannot become wheat, the same is not so with us. Too easily can we who would be wheat become tares. Yet also we who are tares can become more and more like wheat.
Thus in our battle against evil we must show care not to destroy what is good in us or in others. Even in evil people, some good can be found and nourished. This does not mean that strong medicine is never required, but the goal is to preserve what is good and to expose clearly what is evil.
So there will be a day of judgment, but not yet. God permits time so that we and others may repent. He seeks to grow what is good from within otherwise bad situations.
This often requires patience, admixed with resolve to expose evil for what it is. To be patient is not necessarily to be quiet. The word patience is rooted in the concept of suffering (patior = I suffer, I endure). To be patient is to stay at the work of preaching and calling to repentance until the very day of the harvest. To be patient involves suffering and endurance, because evil is stubborn and hides, pretending to be good.
The virtue of fortitude helps us to be courageous and to persistently stay at this work in spite of obstacles, disappointments, and setbacks.
6 – It provides us with insight as we endure suffering. God permits evil so that something good and better can come from it. There are hidden and paradoxical gifts in suffering and enduring evil. We are taught patience and humility. We learn to thirst for justice and the paradise of Heaven. Error can help us to better understand truth and hone our skills in apologetics as we seek to refute error. Because evil is not absolute, God can draw good from it; in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).
7 – It teaches us a subtlety about God’s justice in relation to Hell and the damned. While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. St. Thomas teaches,
It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … [And even] those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7).
This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom due to that person’s rejection of God or the values of the Kingdom, the nature of suffering apart from God in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that excluded the person.
This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.”
In his Inferno, Dante wrote of levels within Hell and that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as a genocidal and atheistic head of state directly responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. But the degree of their sin and the consequences of that sin are very different.
So Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. But Hell, though a place of great evil, is not a place of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic persons in existence there (despite their final rejection of what He offers), and existence itself is good. He also judges them according to their deeds. Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings; this, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. And thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.
In summary, good can be perfect and whole, but evil can never be pure and total. The implications to this are many. Pray carefully over the insights presented above and apply them well, for the days are evil. Thanks be to God that total evil is not to be found. Our job is to find what is good and, by God’s grace, to grow it.