When faced with the problem of moral evil—the skeptic's claim that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with the existence of an all-good God—many Christian apologists often argue like this: since God willed to create creatures with free will, the possibility of evil must necessarily exist.
But some atheists, and even some theists, are quick to point out that this argument doesn’t take into account the blessed in heaven, who most theologians would say possess free will while being unable to sin. So this raises the question: why doesn’t God create us in a state like the saints to begin with, having the beatific vision, which would make us incapable of sin? Wouldn’t that take care of the problem of moral evil?
Yes, it would. But when you think it through, much good would be lost if he were to do it that way.
Consider that if God were to create us with the beatific vision and put us in a state where we couldn’t choose anything but the good, like the blessed in heaven, we wouldn’t have the great dignity of being real causes of our own good moral character. This line of reasoning is implicit in St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment on the dignity of secondary causes:
[T]here are certain intermediaries of God’s providence; for he governs things inferior by superior, not on account of any defect in his power, but by reason of the abundance of his goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to creatures (Summa Theologiae I:22:3; emphasis added).
Elsewhere in the Summa, Aquinas writes:
It is not on account of any defect in God’s power that he works by means of second causes, but it is for the perfection of the order of the universe, and the more manifold outpouring of his goodness on things, through his bestowing on them not only the goodness which is proper to them, but also the faculty of causing goodness in others (ST Suppl. 72:2, ad. 1; emphasis added).
For Aquinas, God’s providence consists of leading things to their ends, including human beings (ST I:22:1). But he wills to do so through “intermediaries,” or secondary causes. For humans, this involves us choosing good over evil because such moral choices constitute our good moral character, which belongs to our perfection. And as Aquinas says, that God has bestowed upon us the faculty to cause good in things, including ourselves, is a “more manifold outpouring of his goodness” (ST Suppl. 72:2, ad. 1).
So, if God were to miraculously fill us with the grace of the beatific vision from the moment of our creation so that we could never have the opportunity to choose between good or evil, then we would never have the dignity of being a cause of our own perfection (in cooperation with God). God’s goodness would be less manifest, and we would lose out on being created with such nobility.
One might object, “What about the blessed in heaven? They can’t choose evil. Does that mean they don’t have the dignity of being a real cause of their moral perfection?”
The answer is that they still were able to be a real cause of their own perfection (in cooperation with God’s grace) because they made good moral choices while here on earth without the benefit of the beatific vision. And the moral character they developed while here on earth remains with them in heaven. To borrow an analogy from philosopher Edward Feser, the saints “don’t lose [their] virtue any more than an eighty-year-old war veteran loses the courage he acquired in battle decades earlier.”
There is another good that would be lost if God were to create us without the possibility of choosing evil: namely, the glory of meriting our beatitude in heaven (for the Catholic understanding of merit see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2006-2011). What constitutes a higher destiny: receiving a reward with effort or without effort? The late philosopher George Joyce answers, and I think correctly, “[It’s a higher destiny] to receive our eternal beatitude as the fruit of our labors, and as the recompense of a hard-won victory. . . than to receive it without any effort on our part.”
This principle is manifest in life experiences. Consider athletic competition, for example. What is nobler and more rewarding: to be the number-one seed because your team is the only team in the league, or to be the number-one seed because your team has won the most games against opponents? I think we can agree it’s the latter.
We even recognize this principle as a guide for good parenting. When parents constantly shower their children with gifts and never require them to put forth effort to receive rewards, we say the children are being spoiled. (The behavior of the child often makes this pretty clear, too.) We recognize that it’s good character formation for a child to have to work for some rewards, and that to rob a child of those opportunities is to rob him of being noble in the pursuit of virtue.
The same line of reasoning can be applied to God and his will not to create us with the beatific vision. He willed for us the nobler calling to achieve our reward in heaven by our cooperative efforts. And since God has seen fit to create us in such a noble condition, which necessarily involves the possibility of moral evil, it’s inevitable that man also have the power to sin.
The glory of meriting our eternal reward is found not only in the higher and more noble destiny that we’re called to, but also in the deeper experience of beatitude that results from our having to commit one way or the other. Consider again the example of parenting children. We make our children work for some rewards because we know that they will appreciate the reward more when effort is put forth to obtain it.
This principle is also manifest in sports. Let’s say in a championship game a football player plays all four quarters without a break. The game has been a close and drawn-out battle. It comes down to the last few seconds, and he scores the final touchdown to win the game. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that player is going to experience a deeper sense of happiness than the player who sat the bench the whole game.
Similarly, having to put forth effort in making the choice for or against God, the choice to orient one’s will away from self and to God, will bring forth a greater depth of happiness in the beatific vision. And that’s a good that God doesn’t want us to miss. When you think it through, that God did not create us with the beatific vision and thus unable to commit moral evil doesn’t count against God’s goodness, but is actually evidence for it.