How the Lord Governs Evil
by D.W. Goodenough
If the Lord does not determine (cause) all things that happen in the natural world, the question arises, how does He govern evil and restrain it? One way He does not govern it is by simply never letting evil happen. What He permits is still evil. Permission of evil is only for the sake of good, but this does not mean that only good is permitted. Part of the Lord's governing of evil is allowing it to happen.
The question of how the Lord governs evil is one of the most difficult in theology, because good and evil are opposites and repel each other. Would not the Lord's governing presence with evil men torment and destroy their life? Their every effort is to flee from His good and truth. Yet we are taught frequently that the Lord's Providence is in every least singular, and somehow the Divine does govern evil men and the evils they do. "The Divine Providence, not only with the good but also with the evil, is universal in the veriest singulars; and yet it is not in men's evils." (DP 287)
"And yet it is not in men's evils." Of course it could not be in their evils, and perhaps this is the key to seeing how the Lord governs evil. He cannot be with evil men in their hearts because this would only torture them. Rather His Divine truth can be present with them through some degree of enforced order in the externals of life. Thus the Lord is present in the hells and rules them by the external restraints of punishment and fear of punishment. "It ought to be known that the sole means of restraining the violence and fury of those who are in the hells is the fear of punishment. There is no other way." (HH 543; see 581) Particularly malicious devils are set over the hells as governors, and sometimes angels look into the hells and moderate their insanities and disturbances. (HH 220,543; Coronis 15e) The methods of governing hell are external, since the Lord cannot bring the devils' wills into order.
In the world punishments and the fears thereof are not the only means of governing evil. There are fears also for reputation, honor and gain, which depend to some extent upon the external customs and traditions in society. There are also laws and formal civil punishments on earth. The Writings say a great deal about the use of these means, but the method is always external-to keep the worst evils from destroying society and the human race. The evil "are led by the Lord but only by means of external bonds, which are fears on account of the penalties of the law and loss of reputation, honor, gain, and consequently pleasures. He leads them also by means of worldly rewards." (AE 1189:4; see 1145:10,11,1164,1165)
But the Lord also operates interiorly into the evil-not into their evil hearts, but into their unpervertable inmost souls. This inflowing operation does not stop their evils, but it does so regulate them that they may be continually restored to equilibrium and freedom, and so that some use may be served by their evils. One of the most comforting passages in the Writings says that the Lord's Providence
"Nothing is permitted except for the end that some good may come out of it.... " (AC 6489) "In the universal spiritual world reigns the end which proceeds from the Lord, which is that nothing whatever, not even the least thing, shall arise, except that good may come from it." (AC 6574:3; see also 6663) When some evil occurs, it is useful to search out the good that sooner or later results from it. Appreciating this good should make the permission somewhat understandable, and demonstrate that the evil was not in fact the unmitigated tragedy that at first it may have appeared to be.
This comforting doctrine does not mean, however, that evil that is permitted is basically a good. Though good come out of it, evil is still evil. Good resulting from evil may not negate the evil, even though it moderates and mitigates it to some extent. This is obvious from the fact that some people choose to go to hell. Thus Arcana Coelestia 6489, just quoted above, continues:
Much evil that is permitted results in eternal damnation, but still the Lord has kept the man free, and He has regulated the evil so that milder forms of evil and pain result than man would have chosen if left to himself. (For an example, see DP 310:3)
The Lord's secret inner regulation of man is not by itself sufficient to restrain evil, because external restraints are also said to be necessary. Interior regulation of man's states keeps the evil man in equilibrium and freedom, (See AC 10097; TCR 490,504:5) but the Writings put considerable emphasis upon the regulation of evils by external restraints. "The will and understanding of men function under this free choice; but the commission of evil in both worlds, the spiritual and the natural, is restrained by laws; otherwise society in both worlds would perish." (TCR 497; this teaching is frequently repeated in the Writings.) The commentary on this heading states that this truth is so evident that it does not require explanation. "Without external restraints" not only would society perish, but also the entire human race, because man is obsessed by the loves of self and the world. (TCR 498:2)
We should see what this important teaching says and what it does not say. It does not say that man has no freedom in natural actions. It implies rather that he has some such freedom, since if he did not, then external restraints would not be needed. They are needed because he is given freedom in action. The teaching does say that this freedom of action is and should be restrained by external means, to some degree at least. (See DP 129:2, 136:2) Yet evil in action is still possible. In hell it is a daily occurrence, in spite of restraints. That evil in action occurs also in this world despite restraints, is not only evident to common perception but is also taught in the passage just referred to:
Man's evils do sometimes break out. "When evil enters the will, then it does harm, for then it also goes forth into act whenever external bonds do not restrain." (AC 6204; see 6203)
In general the Lord rules the evil by an outermost plane of apparent conscience, which is really a sort of enlightened self-interest; "without this government these [the evil] would rush into all wicked and insane things, and do so rush when they are without the restraints of this plane. All those who do not allow themselves to be ruled by means of these planes are either insane, or punished according to the laws." (AC 4167:2) Evil can actually be removed only by the "true use of free will in spiritual things," (TCR 498e; see AE 1164, 1165) and when through misuse of free will evil is active, then the means of control are external-punishments and fears. When these external means for some reason fail, as in war and revolution, hell literally breaks loose. History, sadly, is abundant in examples. This is not a comforting realization when we observe the failure of society's customary external restraints and fears, but we should not evade the truth because of its discomfort.
There are other means also by which the Lord governs evil. Often selfish motivation is used for unintended good purposes, "The Lord provides for His ends through the evil equally as through the good; for the Lord moves the evil through their very loves to do what is good to the neighbor, to their country, and the church .... In order that they may perform such things as are conducive to the public good, successes are also given them in accordance with their projects, which successes are greater incitements to them from the fact that they ascribe them to themselves. " (AC 6481) Good external achievements often result from the loves of self and the world. (See AC 4493e)
No one studies history for long without realizing how frequently events intended by man for one purpose bring about something entirely different. Many historical movements, such as the French Revolution as it actually developed, resulted from no conscious intention by anyone. No one planned the Renaissance or the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Paul's egotism was used for the establishment of the first Christian Church. The Israelites were used as a representative of a church to maintain communication between the Divine and the human race; they thought they were a chosen people for reasons almost opposite to the truth. Pagan, idolatrous tribes were used to punish the Israelites, and wars that take place today serve similar hidden uses.(DP 251) It appears that pagan Rome's love of dominion and external order was used so that the first Christian Church could grow. Impatient Henry VIII's longing for a male heir (along with some fascinating contemporary political and military relationships) served for the establishment of religious freedom in England and so among English-speaking peoples. Worldly loves of conquest, gold and glory were used to spread the Word throughout the world. (See AC 9354) History and a man's own life are replete with examples of self-serving loves bringing about unintended good consequences.
It is also possible that the Lord uses the time of man's death in order to govern evil. (See SD 5002,5003; AC 4493) This is speculation, however, and some students of the Writings believe rather that the time of death is not determined by the Lord, but only foreseen by Him; and that from this foresight the Lord prepares man for his death. The role of the time of man's death in the government of evil needs further study.
Even more is further study needed on the subject of natural disasters-not those misfortunes which are the work of man, and which are therefore permissions, but physical disasters that happen apparently without human cause, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, serious storms, fires started by lightning. Are these in fact "acts of God," as insurance companies suggest? They are often closely connected with important historical events, not to mention death and suffering.
The weather plays a crucial role in history - particularly in its effect on military affairs and on the harvest, since hungry people frequently do things they would not otherwise do. Unusual growth of the fungus ergot on rye in France in 1789 was a major factor contributing to the mass delusion known as the "Great Fear," which in turn helped precipitate the French Revolution. The "Protestant Wind" in 1588 (which played an enormous part in destroying the Spanish fleet and so preserving religious freedom in England) was most unusual at that season. Did Divine Providence bring about the unusual winds for the sake of religious liberty, or foresee that the wind and storms would be there, and insinuate into the Spanish commanders when and where they should sail? (See DP 252) Or did Providence do none of these, or something else?
Some other historical examples include the destruction of ancient Cretan civilization by an apparent earthquake and tidal wave; an eclipse during the Athenian invasion of Sicily which led to major developments in the Peloponnesian War, on account of the Greeks' superstition; the terrible earthquake in Lisbon in 1756; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the cyclones that periodically ravage peoples who live near oceans; the winter of 1941-1942 in Russia; and the weather and tidal conditions in the English Channel in 1940, and again in June, 1944.
Different students of the Writings see such events in different ways. Some believe the Lord directly controls natural ultimates like the weather and other purely physical forces. The basis for this interpretation lies in the doctrines of Providence operating in every least singular, and of government of mediates by means of ultimates. (AE 1086:5, etc.; see The Organic Unity of Man above) Consider also such passages as the following: "There is no such thing as chance, and ... apparent accident or fortune, is Providence in the ultimate of order ...... " (AC 6493; see SD 4562,4567) The truth Divine which flows into the third heaven nearest the Lord, also at the same time and without successive formation flows in down to the ultimates of order, and there from the First immediately also rules and provides each and all things . . . . " (AC 7270:4) The weather in the land of Canaan before the Lord's First Coming appears to have varied at least somewhat according to the spiritual states of the Israelites. (See Deut. 28:1-6,8,11,12,15-24,38-42; etc.; AC 3147:10)
Other students doubt that the Lord intervenes in the natural operation of the weather in any special way. They suggest rather that the Lord foresees purely natural events that occur in the fixed ultimate patterns of this world (produced by "non-living endeavors") and uses them by preparing men for their consequences and by secretly guiding men to be present or absent during their occurrence. (See DP 252; the fullest consideration of this subject that I am aware of is contained in the somewhat inconclusive study by Hugo Lj. Odhner, "The Doctrine of Ultimates and the Nature of Matter," published posthumously in New Philosophy LXXVII, pp. 127-163 (Oct.-Dec., 1974).)
The subject remains an open question. When a disastrous earthquake, storm or drought takes place, what are its causes - fixed, unchanging patterns in nature, or an immediate influx into physical ultimates that causes some unusual natural event? To what extent is nature alive? What is meant by non-living endeavor? (DLW 311 222) How does spiritual influx into dead elementary matter differ from influx into man, animal, and plant? Perhaps the alternatives are not very far apart, but further study is needed.
The foregoing surveys some of the general teachings about how the Lord governs the doing of evil. The universal to hold in mind is that no evil is permitted except for the sake of some good end. The Writings invite us to see these goods, (DP 187,189) but we should not think that such goods will always negate the evils. Man may resist every effort of the Lord and do his best to precipitate himself into evil and slavery. It may even be possible for man to live in such a way that he destroys his own freedom of choice. (The sin against the Holy Spirit, involving profanation and/or interior deceit, may involve such a loss of freedom; see AC 9013:6,7; 9818:27; AE 778.) Moreover, though permission results in some good, the evil that is permitted remains evil and is not a good. The Lord's permitting is good because He can do only good, but what He permits is evil, and, if man would allow, something better would be preferable. The degeneration of men before the Lord's First Coming was a permission, beautifully governed by the Lord so that the individual was still free to be saved, and so that even worse evils were avoided, until the Lord by His Coming could bring redemption. But this degeneration was still evil, not willed by God, but chosen by man.
It is an important question because if we try too hard to see universal human existence as good, we may come to see what is evil as good. Some even have come to feel that whatever they choose to do, the Lord will protect and care for them. Though in practical application the distinction between good and evil often seems fuzzy, spiritually the difference between them is the difference between heaven and hell.( See C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce) The need to see good in others should not make us so fearful of intolerance that we refuse to recognize disorder or to believe in the existence of evil.( See CL 444) Everyone wants to understand good, but it is his understanding of evil and ability to distinguish it from good that will set mans course, on earth and after death.
- from D.W. Goodenough, Providence and Free Will in Human Actions. Bryn Athyn, PA: Swedenborg Scientific Association 1986, pp. 71-82