Critique of Herbert McCabe OP on evil


Probably the greatest modern theologian, McCabe said that to argue that evil is just the absence of good is not to diminish how bad it is or to imply we should look at the good in it and forget the defects.  “But we (or I anyway) do not mean this at all. If I have a hole in my sock, the badness of this consists in the absence of wool where there ought to be some. This does not mean that the badness is illusory or unreal. If I jump out of a plane and discover that I have not got a parachute, it is of no comfort at all to be told that the absence of the parachute is not a real thing at all.”

REPLY: Our minds see the absence of wool and the parachute as terrible.  But it is not if evil is a mere absence of good.  To say evil is not real is to say that the hole in the sock is good but in the wrong way.  So hatred of evil or getting upset about it would be irrational if this idea is true.  It would be wrong to fail to see the good in evil.  It would mean your anxiety is self-inflicted.  How compassionate!

The argument that evil is the absence of good and that good is the default is very important to believers in God.  The atheist can believe that evil is parasitic on good without believing in God.  The believer has to believe it because for her or him, God is goodness.  Goodness is a personal energy, a person.  The believer in God does not teach the argument for our sake but for God's - it is about saving God's reputation in the face of evil and suffering.

But the notion of God is full of evil though the Christian may call it necessary evil - evil that is unavoidable.

For example, it is a necessary evil how God does not have the free will to sin.  A God who can sin but won't would be better than one who cannot.

Also, God tolerates evil in the universe.  Tolerance is a necessary evil.

And belief in God is therefore full of evil too.  Belief in God cannot be great if human nature is so flawed because the belief must be marked by those flaws.

McCabe says that an evil act and a good one are often hard to tell apart because evil is good that is in the wrong place.  That is where the consequences come in.  You can think an act is good until you see what terrible things it results in.   But it means that you can experiment.  If only the consequences show if an act was wrong, then you can commit murder and see what good comes out of it and conclude the act was not bad after all.  Or you can do any evil act you wish as long as you look at the consequences and water it down as having been a mistake and not not an evil act.

You know you can do something in order to bring about certain bad consequences.  And sometimes the bad consequences do not happen.  You cannot be expected to identify that some deed is bad by predicting its bad results for you cannot predict that.


Reply: To say that there is no good at all in the evil I deliberately do contradicts McCabe's doctrine that evil is merely the absence of good meaning that the wrong kind of good is present.  And McCabe says God brings good out of acts in which there is no good.  That is nonsense.  The acts must have enough good in them to be productive of good.  If God brings good, he brings it in spite of our acts not because of them.

To say God brings good out of your evil deeds and then to say your deeds are useless for they are wholly evil is itself evil.  It is accusing you of doing something in which there is no good though you think there is.  It blasphemes God to say that he has a use for evil so that he can bring good out of if if that evil is useless.

To say as McCabe does that the evil we do has "no good aspect" because it is "self-inflicted" suggests that the only bad thing about sin is what it says about you.  "In evil done the harm is done to the agent which causes it."  This is very narcissistic.  It is unhelpful for many evil people think that being bad is fun and cannot see much harm coming them because of it.

McCabe contradicts himself by saying that suffering evil  is good but not good for you.  If good is misplaced evil then it is cannot be all-bad.


McCabe taught that we are free because of God and our free will does not compete with his will.  “The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature – a part of the world.”

“It is a fairly common and really quite understandable view that whereas inanimate and irrational creatures are determined by the will of God…human beings are to some extent free and to this extent independent of God’s causal action. God, it is thought, has endowed man with independence from him, so that a person may choose freely whether to serve or love God. This, it is thought, accounts for the possibility of moral evil, and indeed of moral good. God could not make man free, independent and loving, without allowing him the possibility of not loving and of sin; but it is a greater thing to have free people, even if they sometimes sin, than to have automata totally dependent on God.”

“…this whole position involves a false and idolatrous notion of God. The ‘God’ here is an inhabitant of the universe, existing alongside his creatures, interfering with some but not with others. If what I have been saying (in the previous lecture/essay) is true, then we must conclude (I) that since everything that exists owes its existence to God, since he is the source of anything being rather than nothing, he must also be the source of my free actions, since these are instead of not being: there can be no such thing as being independent of God, for whatever my freedom means it cannot mean not depending (in the creative sense) on God, but (II) this kind of dependence on God is not enough to make me an automaton.”

“We are free not because God is absent or leaves us alone; we are free because God is more present – not, of course, in the sense that there is more of God in the free being, but in the sense that there is nothing, so to say, to distract us. God is not acting here by causing other things to cause this act; he is directly and simply himself causing it. So God is not an alternative to freedom, he is the direct cause of freedom. We are not free in spite of God, but because of God.”

REPLY: Nobody has the right to accuse anybody of having deliberate evil in their heart.  You need to prove free will before you can point the finger.  Even if you merely suspect one another of being sinners that is still an accusation though a softer one.

McCabe denies that we create our choices - God creates them.  McCabe would assert that God would be a sinner himself if he was the source of our choices for an inadequate reason or no reason - the great good is making sure that we are free because of God.  God is more involved in our choice-making than we are.  McCabe is saying how God can be the source of our choices not us and still not be to blame for our sins is a mystery. 

McCabe like John Calvin says that God is the cause of our freedom but this freedom is not freedom to go against God.  Even when we do what he forbids, we do it because of him. If God with his sovereign power decrees all that happens, then there is no point in trusting him at all.  If God does what he does and controls all then if you do not trust God then not trusting him is his will too.  So much of what happens is bad.  Perhaps it is good for us to trust anyway?  But trust is not an end in itself.  We trust for the sake of being open to good things.  They cannot happen unless we trust.  We do not trust for the sake of trusting.

McCabe argues that we have free will and responsibility for God does not and should not create a puppet show. But in fact this presupposes that free will is possible. If it exists it is a mystery. And this leaves us unsure if free will makes sense or not. Why not argue, "Free will may be impossible or is impossible. Thus it is better for us that God made this puppet show. The alternative would be worse." Both free will and the puppet show scenarios seem to have their good and bad points. One of them is a necessary evil.  That would be the puppet show option.

McCabe admits however that whenever we act we are not totally free.  This contradicts the Catholic doctrine of mortal sin which requires that you freely and fully choose to reject God and accept the terrible destiny of eternal torment in Hell.  Also, it would mean that if you are going to punish murderers you might jail them for five years or so on the basis that even they cannot tell you how much free will they exercised when they killed. Perhaps some acts are not free at all though they feel free.  Perhaps you have 10% free will one day and 80% the next.   It is not right to say that human free will is not totally free and then to say that God is right to let suffering and evil happen in the world out of respect for our free will. 

McCabe thinks that our actions when free are free in the sense that they are not programmed into us.  Though they are caused by God, they are not programmed.  He says that having reasons and motives to act does not imply that reasons and motives programme us to act.  He says that without the reasons and motives we wouldn't have free will.  Be careful that you don't think that when you do something random McCabe is saying you are not free.  He is not talking about random acts that you have reasons and motives for doing.


We cannot control all our motives.  Thus God then could have given us better motives than we have.  Motives can be and often are programmed into us.  So God can be blamed when people do evil even though they do it freely.  He didn't give them better motives.  The argument below however seems to say that your motives show what kind of person you are.  So it seems God lets you develop bad motives because you have to make yourself the kind of person you will be.  This argument shows that loving the sinner and hating the sin is nonsense for sins are sinners.  Even bad motives in a sense are the person.



“Love begins and ends in equality“, says McCabe.

McCabe deals with the problem of how God being the source of all and being so different to us could really have a love relationship with us for we are nothing compared to him.  “In Christ’ we are taken up into the exchange of love between the Father and the incarnate and human son, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we become part of the divine life. We call this ‘grace’. By grace we ourselves share in the divine and that is how God can love us.”  So God shares his life with us which means he can treat us as if we are his equals.  God divinises us by getting us involved in his inner life of love.

REPLY: But we are still not equal.  If God has to give you some of himself so that he can think of you as an equal then it is really himself in you that he loves and not you. In yourself you are still not his equal.  Nietzsche remains unrefuted and we see why there has always been so much rebellion against God by believers and there is so much rebellion now.  People sense the truth of what Nietzsche wrote.


McCabe says that God does not interfere with the universe because he has too much power.  He is the source of all so he cannot interfere for interfering implies that he has lost control and has to regain it.  He says, "There is no feature of the universe which indicates it is God-made.  What God accounts for is that the universe is there instead of nothing."

REPLY: For McCabe, you connect with divine love and that is all you need. God doing miracles as signs to attract us to him is like the God of power who has to persuade us as if he were outside of us and not our source. McCabe believed nevertheless that God miraculously raised Christ from the dead. So why does God do miracles? McCabe denies that God interferes with creation because as he is its source, interference is not possible. There is no interfering when you are the source of all. So it follows that a plant flowering is as much a sign that God is at work as a man rising from the dead is. If you cannot see that love is the source of all things then a miracle is not going to help. You would expect McCabe to hold that when God as the source of all is to be found in the mundane and in the flesh that the ability to see him in those things would be BETTER than seeing him in miracles. Looking for miracles would imply you want to make a chum out of some God who you see as an item in the universe who is going to do magic for you. In fact miracles with their attempts to make you feel awe and wonder would only get in the way. It would be like noticing the clown only when he puts on a purple wig.

McCabe has done an excellent job at explaining what a real God would be like or not like. God ends up unappealing making atheism more natural. Too many believers are not believers at all but suffer from confused thinking or adore an idol. Despite himself, McCabe shows that belief in God has to go - when he teaches the real idea of what God would be a lot of terrible contradictions arise. The belief is incoherent and has sinister implications.

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