Aquinas’ Theodicy and the Argument for Different Grades of Being

Since Aquinas believed in omnicausal theism, he believed all things are caused by God. He gets out of saying that God causes evil by holding that evil is a privation of good. I hope to do a more thorough post on this later to point out some of the problems with this theory. Briefly, though, here are my problems with it. For one, the theory is that evil exists when there “should be” a good present. But if God is causing all things, then anything that “should be” exists ultimately because he has intended it to. But how can God intend to create something other than what “should be”? Secondly, all the examples Aquinas gives of explaining how evil can be due entirely to the creature, and not to God, seem to be incoherent. He wants to maintain that God is neither “directly nor indirectly” the cause of evil. And his classic example is the crooked leg that causes the limp. The movement, he claims, is what is good in the movement of the walker, and it is from God. But the crookedness of the leg which causes the limp, is from the leg itself, and is what causes the defect. But the obvious retort to Aquinas in this case is: yes but God created the leg crooked rather than straight. The third problem I see with this theory of privation is that it makes inexplicable what exactly the damned are punished for. Yes, obviously Aquinas would say for their rebellion against God or their sin. But evil is not a positive act on Aquinas’ view. So the damned are punished for a non-act? Are they then punished for a non-entity – for nothing? What about them does God “hate”?  Aquinas says “God loves sinners insofar as they are existing natures; for they have existence and have it from Him. Insofar as they are sinners, they have no existence at all, but fall short of it; and this in them is not from God. Hence under this aspect they are hated by Him.” (ST q. 20 a. 3, r. 4) So then God hates something that doesn’t even exist?

Aquinas thought that God had it in his power to create a more perfect universe. It seems this would mean that he did not have to create ANY crooked legs. But he obviously did so, since there is evil in the world. Aquinas then gives, not a necessitating reason on God’s part for creating (for God need not have), but, what the medievals liked to call a “fitting” reason. It is very similar to the Calvinist notion of displaying all of God’s attributes.

Now I’m going to present three passages where Aquinas teaches his “multi-grades of being” theodicy most explicitly.

  1. “Now it is necessary that God’s goodness, which in itself is one and undivided, should be manifested in many ways in His creation; because creatures in themselves cannot attain to the simplicity of God. Thus it is that for the completion of the universe there are required different grades of being; some of which hold a high and some a low place in the universe. That this multiformity of grades may be preserved in things, God allows some evils, lest many good things should never happen, as was said above (Q[22], A[2]). Let us then consider the whole of the human race, as we consider the whole universe. God wills to manifest His goodness in men; in respect to those whom He predestines, by means of His mercy, as sparing them; and in respect of others, whom he reprobates, by means of His justice, in punishing them. This is the reason why God elects some and rejects others.” q. 23 a.  5 r. 3
  2. “the evil which consists in the corruption of some things is reduced to God as the cause. And this appears as regards both natural things and voluntary things. For it was said (Article 1) that some agent inasmuch as it produces by its power a form to which follows corruption and defect, causes by its power that corruption and defect. But it is manifest that the form which God chiefly intends in things created is the good of the order of the universe. Now, the order of the universe requires, as was said above (I:22:2 ad 2; I:48:2), that there should be some things that can, and do sometimes, fail. And thus God, by causing in things the good of the order of the universe, consequently and as it were by accident, causes the corruptions of things, according to 1 Samuel 2:6: “The Lord killeth and maketh alive.” But when we read that “God hath not made death” (Wisdom 1:13), the sense is that God does not will death for its own sake. Nevertheless the order of justice belongs to the order of the universe; and this requires that penalty should be dealt out to sinners.” q. 49 a. 2 I answer that.
  3. “Hence we must say that the distinction and multitude of things come from the intention of the first agent, who is God. For He brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.” q. 47 a. 2 I answer that…and a little further on in body of next article “Therefore, as the divine wisdom is the cause of the distinction of things for the sake of the perfection of the universe, so it is the cause of inequality. For the universe would not be perfect if only one grade of goodness were found in things.”

It seems to me from a straight reading of Aquinas he evidently thought that God created the damned in Hell because he willed to create a world with a variety of grades of being, some of which were sentient creatures who would be punished eternally. In his metaphors of this view he is driven to equate the rational beings in Hell as various “stones” in a house that are placed, say, at the houses’ base. This is done in order to give the house as a whole a certain form which, if it lacked it, would fail to have the perfect form of a house in general. Therefore, he concludes, God’s main goal in creating is not the good of each being in particular, but only the universe’s form “as a whole” which in its own way reflects the whole glory of God. As such, “It is part of the best agent to produce an effect which is best in its entirety; but this does not mean that He makes every part of the whole the best absolutely, but in proportion to the whole.” (For more on this see his commentary on Romans 9, where Aquinas compares the damnation of some to God’s building of a house:

Now, there is nothing wrong, logically, with this theory. An Aristotelian could believe it. But could a Christian, who believes in the universal salvific will of God? Sure Aquinas can say “metaphysically” that God loves every creature, since he wishes it “the good of existence.” But he cannot say that God wishes the ultimate good for every creature, for he positively wishes – before foreseen merits, by the way – that some be damned. And let’s not forget what “damned” means on Aquinas’ theology. It means eternal conscious bodily torment. And what is the reasoning behind his theory? That the “perfection of the universe requires (his word) the manifestation of many grades of being, and that some things sometimes can, and do, fail.” Could Aquinas really with a straight face tell me that a universe with millions of souls in Hell is a better universe than one in which all are joined to God in the beatific vision? Remember, God is omnipotent, and, on his own scheme, it is no more difficult for him to cause someone to be united to him in eternal bliss than to damn someone. In other words it is perfectly possible for God to save every soul. The reason he doesn’t save some is simply because he does not want to. He would rather display a variety of effects, some of which include sentient creatures who suffer eternally in a way worse than finite beings can possible imagine.

Now, I just have to ask, is he serious? Who is better off given the fact that God created this type of universe than one in which all souls are saved? The damned certainly aren’t. Neither is God, since on Aquinas’ view the creation cannot impact the impassible bliss of the purely actual God. What about the elect? Well he thinks so. He thinks that the saved will see the damned and rejoice that they didn’t suffer a similar fate. But do you really think this is likely? Would you like to become the type of person who can see his spouse, say, or his child, suffering eternally in Hell, and think “whew, I’m so glad that’s not me! Oh AND I am glad he is getting what he deserves! He’s actually LUCKY since God’s mercy is even now extending to him, insofar as he is punished less than he could be.”

Aquinas, my friend – really?


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