Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © 1997 CSS Publishing Co. All rights reserved. 
This page provides an abstract of my book The Many Faces of Evil: Reflections on the Sinful, the Tragic, the Demonic and the Ambiguous (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., 1997). The book analyzes in detail the concepts introduced in the abstract and is replete with illustrations from daily life, newspapers, history books, and my own personal experience. For information contact CSS Publishing Co. at their E-Mail Address. Or see the CSS Web Page.
People use the term "evil" in two different ways. For some evil means moral or spiritual perversity. Suffering caused by illness, tornadoes, accidents, and other phenomena associated with nature or finitude is bad, awful, and lamentable but not evil in the strictest sense. Others identify evil with suffering. Some pain and sorrow are caused by moral agents acting destructively. Other torments, tribulations, and frustrations are associated with our vulnerability as finite beings embedded in nature or with factors associated with the structure of reality. I employ the second definition.


Objectively, evil is the disruption or destruction of a potential for enjoyment. Enjoyment means the satisfaction felt as the accompaniment of the objective actualization of the good. Subjectively, evil is experienced as suffering. By suffering is meant the anguish accompanying the blockage or frustration of a potential for enjoyment. In human beings suffering may be physical, mental, or spiritual. The varieties of enjoyment are many and thus are the forms of misery. Physical pain, diseases that destroy body and mind, being unloved or unwanted, loneliness, not belonging, having no home, hunger, abject poverty and want, failure in the pursuit of desirable goals, meaninglessness, injustice, despair, premature death -- these indicate but do not exhaust the forms of torment to which we are heir in this sometimes terrible world. Suffering in the broad sense is not restricted to human beings but applies to animals as well, i. e., all sentient beings. Any organism capable of feeling and experiencing can suffer. While the focus here is on human suffering, let it be said plainly that animal pain is evil.

Evil, then, is the frustration or destruction of a potential for enjoyment in living beings. It is experienced as suffering. It arises when sentient actualities (1) fail to achieve or lose organized stability and/or maximum actualization of their potential for enjoyment for internal reasons or (2) undergo destructive conflicts with entities external to them. Evil, then, in the most comprehensive sense is the disruption or destruction of a potential for enjoyment in sentient beings, especially animals and humans. Hence, evil is not primordial but emergent and occurs when a possibility for good is frustrated or destroyed. Given the nature of finitude and the complexity of organization that enjoyment in organisms requires, evil can and will most probably occur. Sentient beings are vulnerable to destruction because of internal failure and external conflict.

Evil includes not only a strong aspect whereby some structured potential for good already in existence is frustrated, disrupted, or destroyed but also refers to a shadow side comprising the good that is missed. The latter is the joy, the success, the satisfactions, the happiness, the loving relationships that never came to pass because the requisite conditions were not present or because calamity struck. It is the absence of the good that might have been but was not, and we suffer from that. The shadow dimension of evil is the failure to achieve the finest that could have occurred within some appropriate frame of reference.

The strong dimension of evil is usually what we have in mind. Evil in the primary sense refers to the partial ruination or total annihilation of a given potential for healthy or just enjoyment. The evils that break our hearts are those real and present instances of misery and affliction that threaten or shatter the pleasure of living -- raging famine, ravaging illness, devastating accidents, uncaring cruelty to people and animals, natural disasters that waste life and property, senseless abduction and murder of children, brutal torture of political enemies, hatred and violence toward racial, sexual, and ethnic minorities, vicious subjugation of the helpless, and the like.

Two types of evil need to be distinguished, depending on whether it does or does not involve human irresponsibility.
1. Natural evil: We are complex organisms dependent on the healthy functioning of all the systems and subsystems that make up the body. Something can go wrong. We are vulnerable to accident, disease, and all kinds of malfunctioning. This suffering arises from the nature of things and involves no human irresponsibility.
2. Moral evil: Because we are free beings, we can do harm to each other by bad intent or through carelessness. This form of suffering involves human irrresponsibility.

Absolute evil is suffering that is pointless, unnecessary, purely destructive with no redeeming elements or outcomes for anyone ever. Relative evil is suffering that is partially, wholly, or more than compensated for in some larger context or in the long run. The connections of suffering and evil to some compensating or justifying good are complex.


The common element in all evil is suffering, but we need four other major categories to deal with its manifold dimensions: the sinful, the tragic, the demonic, and the ambiguous. Briefly put, the sinful refers to a wrongful use of freedom that (1) distorts relationships with God and others and (2) has harmful consequences. Its social expression is injustice. The tragic characterizes suffering to the extent that it is unavoidable and/or irredeemable. The demonic is the destructive power of the past embodied presently in personality formation and social structures. The ambiguous indicates the mixture of good and evil in events and choices.

A full accounting of life would require the opposites of the categories. Not only are wrongdoing and injustice present in life, so are love and fairness. Not only is the demonic a troubler from the past, the angelic is blessing from the past, those humanly- created good influences woven into the structures of individual and social life that work themselves through the generations to enlighten and uplift. Not only is there tragedy, there is also the fortunate, grace, those fortuitous, propitious, and serendipitous occurrences that happen to us that enhance life beyond what we deserve. Not only must we wrestle with those ambiguous trade-offs in life, sometimes we enjoy unequivocal benefaction or suffer from an absolute curse.


Moral evil presupposes that we have the capacity to choose between good and evil. Freedom means creative self-determination. Choice is determined by the self in its totality as directed by its own goals, obligations, norms, attitudes, beliefs, and values. Any particular decision expresses the whole self as it has come to be what it is at that moment. From day to day our choices are governed by our formed character. By character I mean the total constellation of habits, motivations, values, aims, attitudes, beliefs, tastes, emotional patterns, moral commitments, genetic-biological make-up, and psychic cravings, and so on that constitute the predisposition to act in certain ways under given circumstances. Character is formed and reformed over a lifetime. Choice is a free act of the self as a whole with its acquired character. A decision is both a specific act of choice by the self as subject and at the same time an expression of a formed character structure. Decisions are free and determined, since freedom is nothing more or less than self-determination. Decisions have as much predictability and consistency as our character structure possesses over time. We cannot alter this pattern of priorities in any given moment by just deciding to do so. What we do expresses what we are, and we cannot fundamentally alter what we are in a moment by merely deciding to do so. We cannot choose to hate what we love or love what we hate by just doing it. Free choices are simply the total self expressing itself in action living out its own distinctive character with its distinctive set of aims, motives, beliefs, principles, and norms. The self in choosing is governed by character, while choice activates, confirms, and validates character.

Freedom also involves the capacity to reorient the self around a new ensemble of motives, values, aims, and norms. Character changes may occur when, for whatever reasons, the previously effective system becomes unsatisfactory, unworkable, or too full of anomalies to serve the larger and deeper ends, needs, and wants of the self. A creative transcendence of the dissatisfied self may take place by an imaginative construction of a fresh pattern around a novel organizing center of aims, preferences, and commitments

We are responsible for what we do in the sense that what we choose expresses what we are. This does not mean that in every circumstance we could have done differently from what we did in actual practice, though in principle and abstractly other possibilities were open to us. Since we are self-determining in our actions, we are accountable for them. A fine line may separate our being unable to choose better than we do and our being unwilling to do so.


I do not believe that God directly and immediately causes evil to occur. God is, of course, indirectly and ultimately responsible for what happens, since God created the world and determined how it would operate. God works in and through human freedom and through the law-abiding processes of nature. In every event involving suffering and evil, two things can be said about God's presence and activity. 1. God is present in sorrow and with a broken heart. 2. God is there seeking to use the occasion as an opportunity to bring the greatest good out of that situation. God has built into every living being an urge to fulfillment. God is present in that striving to bring the best out of the worst. In and through all events divine purpose redirects and remakes life. God wants whatever good is possible under changed circumstances to happen. God can use our tragedy and suffering as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of life and to strengthen our spiritual foundations. God creates life with a built-it resurrection potential.

Life keeps coming back from defeat and rises up to try again. When one path is blocked, another is sought. This is what the cross and resurrection symbolize for human life on this earth. Life comes with a built-in resurrection potential that never ceases to look for a way to overcome and press on to success. That urge to live, that drive toward fulfillment of the potential for enjoyment, I believe, is present in all living things. It is displayed in the effort seeds make to sprout and grow into a plant with its leaves spread before the nourishing sun. In the face of adverse conditions, a seed takes advantage of every bit of moisture and food value in the soil and of every other circumstance and uses it for its own purpose to grow to healthy maturity. This opportunism that seeks a way around obstacles is characteristic of all life, including human beings. God is the source and basis of this indwelling impetus toward fulfillment (eros) that will not be quenched until every energy has been exhausted.

My belief, then, is that God takes advantage of every opportunity provided in every situation to increase happiness for all in accordance with the health of the individual soul and the requirements of social justice. God is opportunistic within the limits of the possibilities for good compatible with the facts in a given case. God does not supernaturally orchestrate events from beyond to carry out a secret divine scheme. Surprising, unexpected, unlikely things bordering on the incredible can occur. We should be circumspect about putting limits on what is possible. If someone wants to call these astounding events in which good beyond reasonable expectation blesses our lives miracles, I have no objection. I do not believe in supernatural occurrences, but we should be cautious about drawing the boundaries of the natural that demarcate the possible from the impossible.

I have problems with miracles defined as supernatural interference with the law-abiding character of nature and with human freedom on two grounds. (1) They have not happened in my experience, nor have I observed such happenings in the world around me or in the lives of other people. (2) Supernatural miracles pose for me an insuperable theological problem: How do you account for the relative rarity and seeming arbitrariness of such occurrences? Why don't they happen more often? Why does God interfere supernaturally to benefit some and not others? I have heard no satisfactory answers to the questions. The usual and appropriate response is that God has purposes not known to us, and we must simply trust in God's wisdom. The notion that God has secrets that we cannot be let in on is unsatisfactory to me. Equally unsuitable is the idea that God manipulates events from the outside to deliver some but to let others perish. Such beliefs attribute to God mysterious ways of acting that are unworthy of a God of pure boundless love, in my view. As the Creator, instills into every life an urge to make use of every opportunity to actualize the potential for good with which we are born. As the Redeemer, God continues to work to bring new good out of evil, new life out of death, hope out of despair, and resurrection from every cross. Such consolation does not remove the heartache and pain. It does provide us with the courage to keep on living and trying, knowing that we are not alone.


Christian tradition has taught that God controls all things right down to the specifics of individual events. God causes, permits, or otherwise arranges whatever happens so that in every event God is in full command of everything at all times. Much in the Bible supports the view of God as the Almighty Power, omnipotent and omniscient. Hence, I cannot claim that the Bible as a whole supports me in my view of a limited God. The dominant view is otherwise. Nevertheless, reflection on Scripture and experience has led me against my will to a doctrine of a finite, suffering, struggling God. There are limits to what God can accomplish on earth. Because God loves, God agonizes with the world and with every human being in their torment. The only God I can believe in is a God with a broken heart, a God who weeps, who is our companion and support. God is the Fellow-Sufferer who shares our grief, who feels the pain of our sorrows.


To those who object that a finite God does not offer a sufficient basis for hope, I reply that my limited Deity has accomplished as much in this world as the Omnipotent Lord of Christian tradition. No less good and no more evil is to be found in the world in which my Suffering, Struggling, Compassionate Companion lives out the divine adventure than in the world ruled over down to the last tiniest detail by Calvin's Almighty God. We all live in the same world. It is this very world with its promises and perils, its monstrous horrors and its delightful pleasures, that has to be accounted for.

If we ask what hope means specifically in our lives today, the answer can be put under three headings. A. We can triumph spiritually over suffering in the midst of suffering. B. We can change some things for the better here and now. C. We can live in the hope that life will be perfected in a realm beyond this world. To put the same points in different words, we can transcend the actual, transform the actual, and live in hope that the actual will be ultimately perfected.

I invite comments, questions, and refutations.
My E-Mail Address

This essay is one of a series of essays on theological and ethical topics. A complete list of topics can be found on my Home Page:
Theological Essays
For essays that say more about evil, see God, Theodicy: the Problem of Evil,
 and Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
Presently, the following  essays are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch

Created: Friday, March 14, 1997, 12:03 PM

Last Update: Tuesday, February 20, 2001,  10:00 AM