I recently wrestled with the question of how perfect moral agents (i.e. Adam and Eve) could sin. I have also taken a look at various theodicies as to why God may allow evil. But after a recent conversation with a friend, I realized that there is still a glaring aspect of the problem of evil which I haven't addressed. I may have thought through the moral motivations of Adam and Eve to sin or the motivations for God allowing evil, but how is evil philosophically possible in the first place? In this article I want to go beyond the exploration of the human and divine nature, and instead look at a proposed explanation for the metaphysical possibility of evil in a world whose source is morally perfect.
At this point, I want to break off into an extended analogy which I think will be helpful to continue our discussion.
Energy transformations occur constantly throughout our lives. The chemical energy of food turns into physical energy as we move our bodies, and then to thermal energy as our bodies move and heat up. The chemical energy of gasoline in our cars turns into mechanical and thermal energy as well. The mechanical energy of my hand on a doorknob transfers to more mechanical energy as the knob turns. However, in each of these energy transformations, some energy is lost, usually as heat. This is called "entropy."
The energy I put into a system will always be greater than the energy I get out of it. Some energy will always be lost as waste, which usually ends up being thermal energy or heat. Every machine has a particular function, but due to their parts contacting other parts, friction is created and energy is lost. This produces wear and tear on the machine as well as the creation of thermal energy. While a perfect machine would be one where there is no energy loss, as far as I know, there are no systems where 0 energy loss is possible. Perpetual motion machines are an impossibility because when you have a device which moves, it will always come in contact with other matter and create friction and thermal waste.
Because we recognize the impossibility of constructing a machine which has no friction, we do two things. First, we try to mitigate the negative impacts of friction on wear and tear and energy loss. We do this by using lubricants, introducing cooling systems and fans, etc. The second thing we do is try to capture and use the byproduct of friction - heat. A car heater is a perfect example of this. As your engine produces unwanted thermal energy, your car is able to use some of that energy to provide heat in the winter. Whereas you need a special system to provide air conditioning to make your car cooler, your car only needs a blower and a path for the heat which is naturally produced to make its way into the cabin.
The important thing to note here is that even though we speak of energy being "lost," it isn't at all lost in the grand scheme of things. We just mean that it escapes the system we have in view. Heat may escape from my tires as I drive down the road, but it only escapes from my car and becomes useless to me. It doesn't escape from the air on this planet or from this universe as a whole. So while my car is an open system from which heat can escape, the universe is a closed system from which heat will never escape.
Hopefully you were able to hang in through all that, because now I want to turn the analogy. Let's think about our moral universe.
Upon creation, a perfect creator made everything good. Just like matter is the instantiation of energy (E=mc2), so God's creations are instantiations, representations, or housings of his goodness. God could only create good things - and his creation running in perfect harmony was good functioning as good, with no moral waste/friction. Good is not an addition to God's creation, it is his creation. There is no such thing as supererogation or the adding of goodness, just like there is no subtraction of evil. The moral universe is a closed system.
Jesus shows us what this perfect goodness looks like. He tells us that he is the vine and we are the branches, and to have true life we are to abide in him. Jesus tells us many ways to reduce moral friction in our lives. If we abide in him, love God, and love others, that will show up in our lives in various ways, including, but not limited to, generosity, love, joy, peace, patience, enemy love, etc. It will also include an appropriate ordering of our loves, which places God and others above money and power. A life like Christ's would be a well-ordered, morally frictionless life.
However, when two instantiations of God's goodness come in contact with each other, moral friction may occur. When I, a moral mover, a decision maker, come in contact with money, I may inappropriately order my loves. I probably won't order it completely wrong. I'll give some money to God and to others. But almost certainly I will at least mismanage some of my love towards God and others through the use of money or through a growing idolatry of it. Likewise, when two moral agents come in contact with each other, a misordering of loves is almost inevitable. As two wills rub up against each other, there will be moral friction, and that friction will be greater to the degree that these agents are failing to abide in Christ. Evil, then, is like thermal energy - like heat. It is a byproduct of two goods coming in contact with each other, with at least one of those goods being a moral mover/agent.
Just like our physical universe, the moral universe is a closed universe. I can't add good to the system through supererogation, I can only comport with and preserve the good. Likewise, neither can I add evil. I can only misallocate my loves towards various goods. My inordinate love for money or sex doesn't make money or sex bad, neither does my objectification of another image bearer destroy the invaluable image of God which I or they bear. A misallocation of my loves creates a moral friction, the byproduct of which is what we call "evil." Evil is not, therefore, any sort of addition. It is the dissipation of love from its ideally directed goal.
But in this good world gone awry with misplaced loves, our God is a magnificent God. We see time and time again in the Bible that God is renowned for his ability to direct human evil for good. We see this with Joseph's slavery (Gen.50), Assyria's judgment (Is.10), and the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of sinful men (Lk. 3). Romans tells us that God works all things together for good to those who love him. There is absolutely no evil that occurs which God can't direct for good. And that's exactly what he does. God makes the heavens to declare his glory, and even in the rebellion of humanity, God brings about his glory. He uses the byproduct of moral friction to bring about good in the world. Just as the physical universe would one day end in full entropy and heat death were God not to form a new heavens and earth, so it will be with good and evil. While it appears that the world's evil is gratuitous and unsalvageable waste, God is able to and willing to accomplish the directing of all wasted love back towards its appropriately ordered object.
This is obviously a very simplistically formulated idea at the moment. It sheds little to no light on the emotional problem of evil or the natural problem of evil. However, I hope it at least offers up a working hypothesis for how evil is metaphysically possible in a world created perfect by a perfect God.